One million Tate visitors wowed by international performance art?

Joan Jonas -still from Songdelay 1973 courtesy of the artist

The London Evening Standard ran a a piece on July 22 on the success of the “revamped Tate Modern drawing one million visitors in its first month” highlighting the decision to include more “international and performance art”.

Here is another piece of news. Investigation has revealed this tidal wave of aspiring art fans crashing through the Tate doors  and powering straight past a seminal film by the American doyenne of performance art, Joan Jonas, with an apparent total lack of interest. My video clip of the gallery visitors – captures the degree of apathy that this work appears to create

The 18 minute film Songdelay (1973) was shot in New York in 16mm black and white with Jonas’s buddies taking on choreographed roles in a variety of locations. The work’s main focus is to play with human movement within the constraints of straight lines and circles. In many respects it is an amateurish parody of a circus performance. An extended section follows the antics of a performer with two poles inserted like a cross through the arms and legs of their costume. (see above)  There is no attempt at a narrative and its fragmented editing demands the viewer’s concentration.   As I sat there on the beautifully upholstered leather banquette on the opposite side of the gallery it was obvious that this work  was not holding the attention of visitors for longer than it took them to walk from one side to the other. Like a static performer in a Susan Hefuna Crossroads film (see my previous post on her work)  I was an oddity among a sea of pedestrians.

I began to speculate on the curatorial decisions. Why this work? Why this location? Any ideas?


Wallinger and Dean meditative masterpieces heighten our perception

Mark Wallinger – still from single channel video When Parallel Lines meet at Infinity (2001)

Two of my top MI artworks of all time have also been the longest and potentially the most boring. Yet I was gripped for over an hour by Tacita Dean’s Fernsehturm (2001) and Mark Wallinger’s When  Parallel  Lines Meet  At  Infinity (1998­-2001). Although both films are perverse in their apparently arid visual content and are restricted to a single take from a static fixed camera, their pace and rhythm create an almost hypnotic state that transfixes the viewer. In Wallinger’s film we get a driver’s eye view of the Circle Line tube as it completes its full circumnavigation. We are lulled into a state of mindfulness by the train journey’s rhythm of starts and stops. In Dean’s work we see the view from the revolving restaurant of the iconic TV tower in East Berlin. As it makes its barely perceptible rotation, dusk falls and the glowering light gives the cityscape below an eerie fascination. In both instances the exposure to narratives so slow and lacking in incident produced a strange effect on me. I might have chosen to leave after a few minutes thinking that I had got the drift of the artist’s intention. But in these works the focus and curiosity of the viewer is captured and you enter a dimension of uncanny, Zen-like timelessness. It is as if our brain’s defensive reaction to the numbing boredom is to heighten the acuity of our perception and we enter a hyper vigilant state of consciousness where the search for subtle distinctions is totally absorbing. Ragnar Kjartansson’s nine channel film installation The Visitors at the Barbican Gallery this week was a similarly enthralling experience

One of the many manifestations of Kjartansson’s perversity is in making an hour long live music video that consists of eight musicians that remain isolated from each other in separate rooms whose only communication is through headphones. A drummer, a cellist, an accordion player, several guitarists and two pianists each have their dedicated screen and loudspeaker. The disconnect which Kjartansson has exploited in his direction of the piece has some electrifying effects. At times it feels that the music is about to fall apart under its own fragility. At other times the beauty of singers fighting blindly against each others harmonies creates a crazed surface to the sound. The eight bar chorus in waltz time seems to give the musicians the freedom to extemporise and although repeated hundreds of time over it never flags.

The vistors

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

When I saw this work last year at the Brewer Street Car Park under the auspices of the Vinyl Factory the lyrics, “Once again I fall into my feminine ways” seemed a  joyful assertion of gender fluidity. Some critics have described it as a melancholy dirge as its lyrics were written by Kjartansson’s ex-wife following their break up. But for me, the underlying message of the work  is the sense of community and reassurance that music can instill in both performers and audience. We get visual confirmation of this as one by one the musicians leave their individual “sound booths” and their instruments and make their way outside still singing and dancing across the countryside. In parallel, as the rooms empty, the audience follows the musicians. Eventually we all gather in front of a single screen watching the rag tag ensemble disappearing into the distance. No one seems to want to leave as long as the barely audible singers are in earshot. This level of audience solidarity is unique in my many years experience of video art .

Razor sharp insights from Goldsmiths MFA video artists

Goldsmiths  have a reputation for producing quality video art and I was not disappointed by their MFA show this week. Political awareness in an artwork is a big plus for me, as long I do not feel preached at. All of these managed that and more.

Ruth Waters
Installation view of J.A Generalised Anxiety Relaxation, 2016, Ruth Waters, courtesy of the artist

Ruth Waters is a coolly subversive satirist. She covers so many bases and spices her work with wry humour, social commentary and visual appeal. In her installation J.A Generalised Anxiety Relaxation she has created a simulation of a relaxation class complete with yoga mats. She starts with an original image: immaculately  groomed, pencil sharp, straight hair blowing seductively in the wind filling the screen like a curtain. A laid back narrator soothes us with a standard relaxation tape visualisation mantra: the lapping of waves, the warmth of a sandy beach. Gradually less calming images intrude. We are asked to imagine we are Jennifer Aniston and to meditate on “weddings”. We begin to feel uneasy. The mention of the personification of coiffured perfection and a nerve-wracking life event make us giggle uncomfortably. We have been subtly drawn into the pervasiveness of social comparison anxiety for which mindfulness can only act as a sticking-plaster. Aniston’s recent complaints about media intrusion reinforce the ambivalence caught so aptly in this work.

king of the Kats
Still from the video King of the Kats,  2016, David John Beesley, courtesy of the artist

David John Beesley’s film King of the Kats has him as an ur-cowboy, an alter-ego wandering the empty streets of the City of London on a kid’s toy horse.  The bankers have left, their eerie ghosts remembered for their childish games. Beesley create a timeless environment by exploiting the weird contrast of the medieval and the modern in the City streetscape and manages to blend a critique of our current crisis through multiple personal, political and religious lenses.

Daniel Dressel
Still from  Polygon, 2016, Daniel Dressel – courtesy of the artist

Daniel Dressel’s four screen installation, Polygon, is a skillfully edited video montage where sounds and images flip  around the viewer like a boxer prancing around the ring. He uses documentary archive material and his own footage to explore the history of the East End and draws parallels between the estate agents and boxers fighting for the glittering prizes. I loved the sense of time collapsing as the different eras slide across each other. Another single channel video, Sensation, neatly shows how Damien Hirst’s public sculpture guarded by CCTV provides the opportunity for our surveillance society to enforce its grip over the kids who just want to clamber over it.

m dignam jpeg
Still  from  video, Precarity, 2016, Michael Dignam -courtesy of the artist

Michael Dignam’s short video Precarity,  viewable on his website, - – creates maximum impact with minimal material. His black and white film is constructed from three takes all focusing on a rapidly moving shadow sweeping over bends in  a rutted countryside track. My first thought is that these are formed from the rotor vanes of a wind generator. Through digital manipulation the shadows become more frenzied and stuttering and threaten to blackout the sun before eventually settling down into their original steady beat. This almost musical piece is in fact more powerful as there is no sound track. Sometimes less is more.

Katie hare
Katie Hare. Still from video,  Wrong then, wrong today (2016) -courtesy of the artist

Katie Hare’s short single channel video Wrong then, wrong today is again so simple, yet it packs a huge punch. Over a loop of a 1950’s MGM Tex Avery cartoon clip her narrator points out the parallel between the botched attempts to both politically and visually “clean-up” the original. The politically incorrect assumptions of the cartoon are whitewashed by the distributor of the newly released version with a disclaimer referring to its historical context, hence this works title. We observe that the digital filtering of the analogue noise of the original  results in the erasure of some outlines, indicating perhaps that updating such “corrupt” material is doomed to failure. This apposite melding of the conceptual and the visual was for me one of the most exciting experiences of the Goldsmith’s show.   Hare’s interest in the analogue /digital  transition will surely  prove fertile material for the  future.

Still from the 7 channel video installation Voices of our Mothers: Transcending Time and Distance (2016), Frances Almendarez – courtesy of the artist

I was able to meet the artist Francis Almendarez who exploits nostalgia for his South American heritage to moving effect in  a 7 channel video installation, Voices of our Mothers: Transcending Time and Distance.  His grandmothers’s tales of adventure and the rich oranges and greens of El Salvador’s rural landscape contrasts with the downbeat contemplation of a murky grey riverscape as global sea-traffic ploughs by. The time slippage of the same footage on the seven screens is deployed to great effect. We need more of this style of visual analysis of globalisation.

I could not get round to all the MI artworks at this show but the trend for artists to disseminate through their websites means I can catch up at my leisure. Andy Nizinskyj’s work Everything is Bright, is a three channel video  ideal to view on a computer screen as it uses videogame tropes to raise the hot topic of what is missing from the pin sharp CGI and HD world we increasingly inhabit. His poetic commentary over a dreamlike and entrancing, digitally rendered desert landscape uses the metaphor of thirst to describe that missing element.  Even the arrival of a water torrent tacked on to the landscape does nothing to relieve this. It is only when we get a smeared image of a tree canopy as if “shot” through a plastic sheet passing in front in of the “camera” that we get a glimpse of what is really missing. His two subsidiary screens provide a mute chorus from the lo-fi analogue world. This type of implied critique of digital imagery has great appeal. It is a shame that the expense of celluloid film is restricting access to analogue creativity at the moment although Tacita Dean is doing a sterling job in preserving the processing infrastructure.

Still from three channel HD video Everything is Bright (2016),  Andy Nizinskyj courtesy of the artist

I found many of the Goldsmiths MI artists invigorating. The efficiency of their razor sharp skewering of current issues had a freshness about them that in some ways puts them streets ahead of the more established video artists I’ve seen in the commercial galleries this year.

Blandy and the Brexit apocalypse

Still from How to make a short video about Extinction (2014) courtesy of David Blandy

The disturbing hum of duplicity is the subliminal sound track of our lives. When politicians play games with our destinies while claiming to be our protectors and assert that saving the world entails the threat to destroy it in a nuclear holocaust, we feel like spectators trapped in poker game with no cards to play. When a politician fights for a cause he does not believe in and then runs away from the consequences we are left with an uneasy feeling that we live in a world of artifice. With the Brexit vote leaving us with a bitter sense of the end of the world as we know it,  David Blandy’s 2014 video  How to make a Short  Video about Extinction could not be more current. But like all profound artworks it has universal significance much wider than the political. It reminds us of the dishonesty we are all prone to in our social media world.

There are truly shocking moments of realisation in this video. The seemingly off-the-cuff conversational tone that opens the video is revealed as carefully scripted. We feel cheated, like Dorothy discovering the Wizard of  Oz is a little old man or the UK electorate realising that Brexit is not the nirvana that Boris promised. We reflect that political and media images that appear authentic are craftily confected. And then we have to sadly admit that it is our collusion with these representations that  preserves this deception.

Thinking about this I realised that a deeper layer of irony is being exposed. Maybe the “script” we see in the video is in fact a transcript of Blandy’s improvised chat. This sense of disequilibrium, our lack of traction on reality and the feeling of “wheels within wheels” is what many of us are experiencing in the current national crisis.

After the introductory tutorial there is a hilarious and telling moment when Blandy switches from his relaxed teacherly voice to the portentous tones of the documentary narrator as the apocalyptic video he has constructed begins. The experience of finding digital images of the apocalypse so pleasurable is not so shocking. Art has often relied on this rubbernecking tendency. Bosch always painted the damned being tortured in hell with more relish than the saved floating heavenwards. We seem to have an atavistic need to have our fears represented. At present the fear of the unknown, the fear of foreigners and the fear of  death all seem to be conflated. I’m reminded of Hamlet’s description of death as “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns” and Farage’s notorious Brexit poster referencing an apocalyptic vision of being drowned in a river of migrants.

The text  is derived  entirely from TED talks.  The standard apocalyptic threats – asteroids, plagues and global warning – are illustrated with glorious found footage from Youtube animations. Then we get a more outlandish possibility. Could a global depression epidemic be the cause of our extinction…what a depressing thought.

The sequel to this video, Tutorial: how to make a short video about ideas has just been screened as part of the Random Acts series on Channel 4. As if to rescue us from our anxieties about our impending doom, Blandy now explores an intriguing form of digital immortality where the artist and his audience can form connections long after their physical demise. He also links the artist/audience connection with Bertolt Brecht’s  idea of breaching the “fourth wall” of the theatre’s stage. John Smith cites him as having a crucial influence on his films (see my earlier blogpost). If the audience is directly addressed by the performer they are confronted with the artificial nature of the artistic experience and so their engagement with the ideas it presents is more complex and thought through.

Two thoughts were illuminated by these video. Firstly, let’s forget about originality because that is just a mirage in the digital world. Anyway the Greeks probably got there first. There are so many great ideas and images already out there.  The artist’s craft is to select, edit and juxtapose them in a way that gives us something new to reflect on. Secondly, and more important, given that we are living under a a dark cloud of doom and division, let’s focus on  forming authentic connections with each another.

RA Schools students spoilt for choice

Moving image artworks at the Royal Academy Schools Show until 3  July

The RA Schools final year show is always worth a visit because the student’s enviable three year, fee-free postgraduate course offers the time and resources to allow full reign to their creativity. I imagine this could have a downside if the plethora of choice becomes overwhelming and difficult to navigate. The variety of the students’ responses to this dilemma is the appeal of this show. I was fortunate to be given a guided group tour of the show by two of them, Tom Worsfold and Gery Georgieva.

Tom’s powerful, gritty and absurdist figurative paintings of urban scenes immediately recalled Philip Guston’s later works. The four artists that featured moving image work are the focus of this review although the 13 others are well worth your attention.

Claire Undy, quoted in the RA magazine, saying:  “It is best that you know you do not want to do something because you have tried it, rather than speculating” has also arrived  at a distinctive signature style.  Her two performance art videos demonstrate her confidence in taking an apparently straightforward image and squeezing out the maximum visual interest. Shoes features the artist’s feet clad in glorious mustard coloured trainers. Did she dye them herself?  They are a perfect foil for the pine wooden floor. As they slide and tiptoe around we get an impression of weightlessness and we gradually realise that a hidden harness is suspending her. At times her feet mimic those of a helpless puppet. I was transfixed for all the 7 minutes.  Mime is a similarly minimal work which parodies the stereotyped grimaces of the traditional mime artist. She gives it a conceptual twist by converting the video into 10,000 uniquely numbered poster images neatly stacked in a two metre high sculptural version which is slowly diminishing in size as a Deller style offer of a freebie is taken up by gallery visitors.

Installation view of performance video,  Shoes  (2014) courtesy of Claire Undy and Andy Keate

At the opposite end of the scale, Gery  Georgieva is the magpie of the group. Her room is an immersive aural, tactile and visual experience akin to a fairground at night  where she presents work in an astonishingly diverse range of media including videos from wildly differing genres: documentary footage of a car wash, a digitally manipulated scene of  her colour spotted face against a seascape backdrop and an abstract video, Tingle Continuum, that uses multiple screens of cacti to create an entrancing, wavelike caterpillar pattern,  (see below). This work  is forging a similar path to abstract realist photographers but using the moving image, a highly fertile development.

Installation view of Tingle Continuum, 2016, courtesy of Gery Georgieva

Molly Palmer’s visceral two screen installation is similarly gripping. Consisting of four separate videos that form an interlinked whole we are alternately soothed with luscious a cappella harmonies and vibrant colour and then startled with flashbulb images that seem to bounce from one screen to another. Again, as an artist who has mastered a diverse range of media she combines them all, textile printing, digital animation, performance art, installation and sound sculpture. It is great to see how an interdisciplinary approach can produce such a tightly focused  and powerful work.

TV_GLOWS_RED_TV_INFINITY_noflash_print (1)

Still from Heart Song, 2016, two channel HD video with surround sound – courtesy of the artist, Molly Palmer

Elliott Dodd has an interesting take on gender. His digital  video work (see below)  is a mash up of the innocent Jane Eyre’s frank interchange with Rochester about his previous “petty ribaldry” and the glossy macho fiction of modern car advertising. Its title, “Limpid and Salubrious” is a quote from Rochester and sounds vaguely obscene but actually means “clean and healthy”. Contradictions like this are peppered through the video which contribute to its disturbing atmosphere. This  is further heightened by having the Bronte dialogue voiced through grossly distorted heads set on otherwise naturalistic figures with huge lolling tongues first seen as a representation of lasciviousness in Ally McBeal. This groundbreaking 1990s drama series was, I think, the first TV programme to blend digital manipulation with live action. Check out the dancing baby  on Youtube.  Dodd also creates sculptural images on metal fenders which could be a successor to Grayson Perry’s pots.

Still from  4K digital film Limpid and Salubrious (2016) courtesy of Elliot Dodd

Overall then, a show where the moving image artworks avoid the pitfalls that often mar this form. I particularly appreciate the way the performance videos on show here are succinct, economical and lacking in narcissism. The inventiveness, sly humour and visual luxuriance that underlies many of the works is refreshing and bodes well for the future.