Artistic collaboration across cultural and gender divides

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Maeve Brennan, The Drift (2017) Produced by Chisenhale gallery, Londonand Spike Island, Bristol. Courtesy of the srtist

Understanding  artistic collaboration means gingerly navigating a minefield of arcane terminology.  Following a screening of their brilliant film trilogy, Finding Fanon at Tate Modern last week, reviewed in an earlier blog, the culture-busting partners Larry Achiampong and David Blandy were quizzed about how this worked for them. The discussion moderator referred to the “mannikin” nature of their collaboration, at least this is what I thought she said. I was building on an earlier association with the “avatars” they adopt in the film’s CGI sequences. I was still a bit puzzled when it kept cropping up like a mantra but then realised she was in fact using the term “Manichean”. This exemplifies the kind of opaque academic artspeak that is alienating the “uneducated” public from contemporary art. How much of the audience were bamboozled by this usage? Although it was familiar I had to check after the talk. It simply means “contrasting pairs” .

Well that is something I am interested in: black /white, East /West, male/ female, rich/ poor. Where could that lead? Finding Fanon involved collaboration across genders as women take the roles of the artistic director and the narrator. I feel this balance adds to this work’s humane sensitivity. Maeve Brennan, an emerging talent in moving image art, also works across cultural and gender divides. Her latest film, The Drift (2017) is a meditative study of masculinity in the Lebanon. As a woman film-maker she found that she could use the “gender dynamic” to create “generous encounters” where men are more open with their expertise. She collaborated with several Lebanese men whose occupations all require the care and restoration of different types of broken material: car wrecks, ruined archaeological sites and ancient pottery fragments.

Underlying this reconstruction, but only refered to tangentially,  is the repair of both their war ravaged county and the psychological damage that it has caused. Their generosity extends to an emotional honesty that reveals a deep identification with their work. At one point the gatekeeper of one of the Roman temples in the Beqaar Valley had tears in his eyes describing how the ruins he guards have become part of him. Others in the region have lost their lives doing the same.

Mohammed Zaytoun is part of the salvage economy rebuilding car crash remnants and selling them on, a magpie whose loot is plentiful in  this war-torn country. Brennan’s shot of his wreckers yard has the same presentiment of death evoked by Paul Nash’s graveyard of World War Two fighter aircraft casualties in Totes Meer (Dead Sea), 1941. A lone detached dashboard fascia has the poignancy of  a severed limb.  The armed conflict is not directly mentioned until the closing scenes when we are shown the BMW once owned by a Hezbollah commander killed by a car bomb. This shell is now a monument or a temple of remembrance but to Mohammed’s eagle eyes it is a potential source of spares. The car has brand new alloy wheels.

Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1 by Paul Nash 1889-1946
Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead sea) 1941

There is a stunning array of eloquent images in this film. The “drift” is a boyracer stunt worthy of any macho Essex petrolhead involving the raising of a dust storm by a frantic, angry, circular manoeuvre like a cat chasing its tail. The visual and aural mayhem seems to sum up the desperation and frustration many young males feel about making a mark on the world. At intervals we look over the shoulder of a conservator painstakingly reconstructing a shattered vase. We share the satisfaction of two shards aligning neatly but finally we face the poignancy of a piece that does not seem to fit no matter which angle it is presented at. We reflect on what this might signify in terms of our own desire for psychological completeness. I’m reminded of William Kentridge’s similar sequence involving the tearing and repairing of a self-portrait.

The world of ruins and car wrecks are kept separate for most of the film until Mohammed parks up his BMW alongside one and proceeds to replace the pristine car door with a dusty salvaged one he has brought in the boot. The amplified clinks of his tools in this sequence are typical of the care taken with the film’s sound design. The reversal of his usual mind-set this absurd procedure represents might be seen as a comment on the restoration of the Roman ruins he is surrounded by.

I was gripped for all 51 minutes thanks to Brennan’s sensitive and humane approach to her subjects. This film gives an insight into the real Lebanon that counters the stereotyped nightmarish media portayal of a failed Middle East state and is showing at Chisenhale Gallery until 4 June before touring the country.

 

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Artist at work. Warning: possible boredom ahead

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Erik van Lieshout, installation view of The Basement, 2014, photograph  courtesy of Andy Stagg

Last month I ventured south of the river to brave the badlands of Peckham to spend two hours at the South London Gallery and in their cafe I was treated with one of the best Welsh Rarebits I have ever eaten. The chef revealed her secret when asked: three teaspoons of mustard powder. It was a pity the exhibition did not reach such heights.

Erik van Lieshout is a Dutch artist fascinated by the trials and tribulations he faces in pursuing his artistic mission. There is an implicit and unwarranted assumption that we will be equally fascinated. The exhibition is titled Three Social Works but although van Lieshout’s social relationships are featured, it has a more self focussed theme than this implies. In Ego (2013) a film about his family relationships, he worries over the risk of being criticised for self-indulgence and attempts to let himself off the hook by discussing this concern with his relatives. Unfortunately his conclusion is “so what.” It was also telling that his own growing fame was referenced more than once!  I dutifully sat through all three films totalling 90 minutes in the hope that some visual originality or wider significance would emerge.

The most successful of the three is the shortest, The Basement (2014) at 18 minutes which follows his redesign and construction of a “hotel” for the colony of cats living in the basement of the St Petersburg Hermitage Museum, tolerated for their rat-catching usefulness. We do see an unusual image, the  stripping away of decades of material that had accumulated since the 1917 revolution but there is only so much wielding of power tools and cat cute behaviour that one can reasonably tolerate. The film is atmospherically screened at the end of  a long tunnel that the gallery have constructed for this work.

Janus (2012), a 50 minute documentary following the fate of a reclusive artist’s collection of vintage collectables and artworks after his death included some heartwarming tributes from his grieving family members and their stunned reaction to van Leishout’s failure to secure its archiving in a museum due to cuts in government sponsorship. This film’s major flaw is the inclusion of many unconnected digressions. This fragmentation may be intentional but the lack of focus undermines the dramatic impact of the central narrative. A filmmaker throwing in comments like “I dislike filming people” may be aspiring to a controversial and thought-provoking trickster role. Unfortunately it can also convey the self-pitying angst of an artist using his art as self-therapy. It amuses me that the SLG’s website exhibition page refers to this blurring of sincerity and ambiguity which begs the question how can we tell the difference. In the era of fake news this confusion has an uncomfortable resonance.

I am not averse to artists seizing the post modern opportunity to explore the problems of constructing the artwork you are viewing but this needs careful handling. David Raymond Conroy’s You (People) Are All The Same reviewed in an earlier post is perhaps the best example of how to do it without descending into an amorphous, value-free, mind-numbing narcissism.

The exhibition continues until June 11th.

Identity and performance

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Copyright Ferhat Ozgur, still from video Metamorphosis Chat, 2009 courtesy of the artist

Previous blogposts  have alluded to the complex relationship between performance and identity. The idea that projected identity is distinct from the persons’ real identity has been boosted by the rise of social media which requires the careful selection of images to represent the self to others. This binary opposition was the starting point for the exhibition One and Other at the Zabludovic Collection back in February 2017 astutely curated by a team of students from MA Curating  courses at London art schools. Much of this selection was moving image art and included one of my all time favourite MI artworks, David Blandy’s The White and Black Minstrel Show, 2007 which blurs the cultural identity of soul music with a humorous light touch. Others worthy of comment were:

Ferhat Ozgur, Metamorphosis Chat, 2009

This benefits from an engaging narrative and Ozgur’s respectful and sensitive rapport with his Turkish subjects. Two women in their sixties are seen discussing their contrasting life histories and the way this is reflected in their personal clothing and grooming styles which culminates in them swapping their outfits and makeup amid much giggling. Their lives have taken very different directions, one more westernised, the other traditional who says at one point  ” I will neither wear tights or remarry”. This is a very compassionate and insightful work on cultural change.

Ed Atkins, No one is more WORK than me, 2014

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Copyright Ed Atkins. still from video, No one is more WORK than me, 2014

Atkins metamorphoses into a brutal alter ego through video capture animation. I was hypnotised  by the constant outpourings of this disembodied head expressing a  range of emotions alternately sneering, aggressive, ingratiating and self-pitying through a set of songs, insults (“who are you lookin’ at”) and pithy asides.  There is a limited set of clips which replay over eight hours in a randomised sequence but the repetition is compelling. It was difficult to tear myself away from this visceral expression of the insecurity that fuels performative masculinity.

Amalia Ulman’s Excellences & Perfections, 2014

This performance art project, conned thousands who followed her concocted social media journey from innocence to debauchery to redemption. Its ethical implications make me rather queasy. Is she adding unwittingly to the paranoia of “fake news” or satirising it?

“The idea was to experiment with fiction online using the language of the internet,” she explains, “rather than trying to adapt old media to the internet, as has been done with mini-series on Youtube.” Her innovation is not the documentation of female representation in a new format but the co-opting of her duped social media followers whose responses form an integral part of the completed artwork. We can see this as a democratisation of art but it also raises the sticky problem of exploitation. But I guess no one trusts the reality of Instagram feeds, do they?

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2017

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Lawrence Lek, still from Geomancer, 2017, 40 minute HD video courtesy of the artist

These annual awards are always a good indicator of the direction of moving image art. As the two winners have to work to the same theme, this year it was “Neither One Thing or Another”, the contrast is often illuminating. Narrative is a bit unfashionable but here its value seemed incontestable.  The two films are currently touring the country, having opened at the Jerwood Space.

Lawrence Lek, Geomancer, 2017 

This was a gripping 40 minutes.  Set in a version of Singapore in 2065, the visual world is straight out of videogames and as we recline in luxurious gaming style padded chairs we are transported in graceful swoops through a glossily rendered futureworld of natural landscapes, exotic cityscapes and cavernous  interiors. The structured narrative is given chapter headings and the text is delivered in Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese with subtitles so we get a clear map of Lek’s ideas even when they are at their wackiest.

We are required to accept that artificial intelligence will develop a human level of consciousness and free will which places this scenario firmly in the sci-fi realm. Following Helen Knowles’ recent thorough investigation of this issue in Superdebthunterbot for some this may be a bit of a stretch but let’s suspend our disbelief. Lek achieves the seemingly impossible goal of eliciting our empathy for a form of artificial intelligence, embodied in an orbiting surveillance satellite, the Geomancer of the title. He anthropomorphises the satellite giving it solar panel “arms” and a goldfish bowl “head”. It also helps that the narration is largely from Geomancers first “person” perspective and so we are able to identify with his/her/its problems. Lek posits that advanced AI would have to cope with the boredom of access to total knowledge and if they were inclined to create art as an escape from this information overload they would be frustrated by the art establishment’s resistance to granting AI art the same status as human art. The debate on the “artistic creativity” of computers has been controversial since the 1960’s and by reviving it at a time when AI is becoming more pervasive, Lek is asking the same kind of  pressing questions against a vividly realised and convincing futuristic backdrop.

Patrick Hough, And If In A Thousand Years, 2017

This has less appeal. It is less structured and has too many disparate ideas arriving scattergun without an engaging narrative. Hough’s initial inspiration is the bizarre 2014 archaeological dig in the South California desert which disinterred the remnants of the 21 full size plaster sphinxes built for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent epic The Ten Commandments that were left to be covered by the windblown dunes. This story could be neatly encapsulated in a 2 minute clip but extending it to a 20 minute video artwork requires some crafting. As in Lek’ s Geomancer we are asked to identify with an invented character, in this case the resurrected sphinx. Its portentous narration delivered through philosophising artspeak aims for poetic profoundity but only manages to be vaguely mystical. Real poets can do so much better. Quality text is crucial in this style of video art so when it is irritatingly obtuse it can mar your enjoyment as happened in last year’s FVU award-winning film by Karen Kramer. In the second half of the film LiDAR technology transforms the world into a moving pointillist artwork. Fun to watch but not really adding significantly to the work’s ideas. Coordinating the huge number of people involved in making the film (30+) may have resulted in the lack of artistic focus?

No plain live action footage in either of these films. Expect more of this in the coming year. Digital rules O.K.