Groundbreaking minimalist dance/visual art crossover by Matthias Sperling

Installation photograph of Loop Atlas by Matthias Sperling: copyright Pari Nadari

Minimalism is my preferred style in any art form and today at the Barbican I had much to get excited about as I experienced an artwork that broke new ground in this genre. Minimalism in music and the visual arts often relies on loops of repeated patterns. As Steve Reich realised with his tape loops in the 1960’s, once a copy is made of the original and the two channels played back out of phase a new world of creative possibilities emerges. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s 1982 seminal work  Fase  choreographed four of Reich’s Phase compositions and began the process of dance responding to minimalist ideas in music. Last seen live in the UK at the Tate Modern in 2012, many interesting filmed versions are viewable on Youtube.

Performance image of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s dance Fase

However, Matthias Sperling has taken the phasing technique to an entirely new  level in Loop Atlas which premiered at the Siobhan Davies Dance performance installation, material/rearranged/to/be, at the Barbican Curve this week. Using video capture and playback directly from his live performance, this remarkable “solo” artwork left me reeling with its originality and ingenuity.  I write “solo” advisedly as his work is a choreographed phasing of up to 30 video loops created in real time, each of approximately sixty seconds in length. So in the first iteration we see him live against a back projection of the opening minute of his performance. His creativity, expressed through his interaction with the previous loop, is facilitated because the basic movement “unit” is a rotation of the upper body focused on swinging arms with his feet relatively static. These movements change slowly with each repetition into a slowly evolving progression. As the piece builds up the previous video loop recedes into the background getting fainter but still visible as seen in the above photograph.

Towards the end of the performance the early loops are slowed down and degraded by the relatively clunky Raspberry Pi computer processor until the image transforms into an eerie blur of pulsating light. At this point I got a sense of a measured, tranquil life being played out against the gravitational pull of an incendiary vortex.  To emphasise this tension Sperling wears heavy welder style sunglasses as if to protect him from the glare like a Frink gogglehead  but this is contrasted by his graceful swinging arm movements which evoke nurturing actions (rocking a baby or sowing grain). It is only in the final loop that his hand gestures form devil horns.  Have we now entered Dante’s Inferno? The performance ends with the dancer squatting, watching his loops fade into darkness. He can now remove his shades.

Goggle Head 1969 by Dame Elisabeth Frink 1930-1993
Elizabeth Frink Gogglehead -copyright Frink estate

Although de Keersmaeker was responding to phased music, it seems to me that  Sperling’s application of video capture technology has allowed him to produce the true dance equivalent to Reich’s innovation. Because the phasing is manifest in the movement loops themselves the musical accompaniment need only provide a regular slow beat. This Sperling has achieved through a loop of his own overdubbed vocalisations that mimic the sound of waves rhythmically pounding a beach.

Interdisciplinary art like this is a pleasure to experience when sound, movement and visuals cohere in such a mutually supportive way. This exhibition/ performance installation features several other dance and visual artists all inspired by the Warburg image archive of gestures and runs until 28 January but is also touring the UK during the next six months.

Instagram Woes vs Kitchen Angst

Still from video, Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), copyright Martha Rosler, courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY

Two contrasting films made 40 years apart currently showing at the Photographers Gallery tell a salutary story of the changing media representation of women. The 1975 scuzzy monochrome performance video by Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen seems to come from a distant era to Joanne,  Simon Fujiwara’s  glossy film portrait of the self-styled social media “chameleon” who also happens to be his ex art teacher.

Rosler’s film is rightly a classic of feminist video art. In this parody of the TV domestic goddess still popular in Youtube cookery demos, Rosler alphabetically names and presents 26 kitchen accessories and mimes their use with varying degrees of violence and frustration. A carving knife is wielded with intent to kill. She plays this with a deadpan sincerity  which gives it a humorous edge while delivering a muted warning: a fightback against the prison of women’s gender assigned roles is nigh. Fancifully I imagine the title as an implied critique of the hollow theorising  of the feminist academics of the 1970s: “We want action not analysis”. But Rosler herself sees it simply as a “tongue-in-cheek” comment on the semiotic approach. Since then although the kitchen is more likely to be a shared space it is still a gendered one. A male cook has a different set of semiotics.

Still from Simon Fujiwara’s film Joanne (2016) courtesy of FVU and The Photographers’ Gallery

Spool forward 40 years and the dilemmas posed by female role representation becomes even more confused. Joanne Salley suffered her 15 minutes of ignominious fame through the prurient interest of the tabloids in her breasts gained through a leaked photoshoot she had thought private. The salacious newsworthiness of this story was ramped up by her role as a teacher at one of the UK’s most prestigious boy’s public schools, Harrow. Fujiwara’s film investigates the many contradictions inherent in the fall out from this exposure. It made her a name that she could exploit on the celebrity circuit but her social media profile now needed to show “not what I look like, but what I do.” The most telling moment in the film is an encounter between Joanne and an actor who she is briefing to play an improvised scene in which he will take on the role of a personal brand manager advising her on this process. Is this meant as a recreation of a real meeting in her life or a repudiation of the pressures on her to concoct an online persona? We get the strange feeling that Joanne’s Instagram account is as much a prison as Rosler’s kitchen.

The artworks are on show at the Photographers’ Gallery until the 29th January.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2016

Christopher D.A. Gray- still from Becoming Boxers, 2015 courtesy of the artist

Young talent fizzing with fresh ideas abounds at the ICA’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition where diverse moving image artworks engage with contentious issues including the downsides of social media, the complexities of gender roles and the marketisation of art.

Christopher D.A. Gray’s Becoming Boxers (2015) was the standout work for me because it conveyed the dismal truth about the vanity and desperation of male aggression as seen in the evolution of physical violence from the fist fight to the ritual of the boxing ring. Using his unadorned hands as a powerfully articulate “actors” they become realistic, expressive puppets parrying and striking blows accompanied by smacking wince-inducing sound effects. As the bout progresses the fighters transform from bare knuckle linen swaddled sluggers to boxers in full professional regalia with cunningly crafted heads and gloves. The simulated fury is uncanny and unsettling. Douglas Gordon has also portrayed his hands as sinister performers but Gray takes this specialised subgenre of performance art to a new level .

Still from  Zarina Muhammad video The English Beat courtesy of the artist

“Ultimately images are subject to the same fanaticism as bodies are” is a telling quote from Zarina Muhammad’s lively and revealing website.  Dancing with uninhibited larkiness to a translated version of the Punjabi rap megahit, The English Beat by Yo Yo Honey Singh slowed down to spooky growl, she draws attention to its rather creepy macho lyrics. Against a green screen background of internet clips of warfare and violence some of which are reminiscent of ISIS videos, she points to the close alliance between religious fundamentalism and  misogynistic sexual anxiety. This interplay is examined further in her amusingly flamboyant video, Digjihad, and I look forward to more of her MI works in this exciting vein.

Maryam Tafakor’s Iranian heritage as a Muslim women investigates similar issues in a different context. Absent wound is an engrossing lyrical film which contrasts the rituals of Persian warrior training with the recitations of a young girl coming to terms with her impending womanhood. This exploration of gender segregation is thoughtful and compelling.

Richie Moment’s three punchy, satirical films Green Scream, Up and Coming and PhoneCall are  90 seconds long  but each use a concentrated overload of colour saturated imagery and angry commentary to give cathartic relief to the artist’s frustration in attempting to launch his career in a shark infested art market.

Ruth Spencer Jolly’s We Can Work It Out is a clever, zeitgeisty and charming video installation displayed on two computer screens about the difficulties of forming harmonious bonds across the miasma of the internet. She and a male counterpart sing a close harmony version of the Beatles song with witty updated lyrics that show how far we have come since the simpler days of face to face mediation of relationships in the 1960’s.

Karolina Magnusson Murray and  Leon Platt are showing  three of their co-produced  films The Names, The Work and The Application which would suck up 90 minutes of your time if you could withstand the torture of watching the convoluted bickering of these two artists as they attempt to cooperate on the creation of an artwork. The artwork just happens to be the film you are watching. This reflexive mode is like looking for the two sides of a Möbius strip  or watching a snake consume its own tail.  I guess these uncomfortable and irritating films say something about collaboration being a painfully fraught business where jealousy lurks just under the surface threatening to sabotage the whole project.

Janina Lange-still from Shooting Clouds #2 courtesy of the artist

Janina Lange’s  Shooting Clouds #2 is such a peaceful and meditative work. Shot from an open helicopter  it slowly circumnavigates a  puffball cloud  drifting stately like a galleon over the landscape below. Its sculptural form is reinforced by the bronze replica she presents with it, created from 2D image capture and 3D printing, reminding us of the fragile boundaries between gas, liquid and solid. Although on first viewing this was primarily an aesthetic experience, it later brought the perils of melting icecaps to mind.

This is only a selection of the many promising and original ideas that are inspiring the artists at  this important annual ICA exhibition which runs until 22 January.