Exuberance and elan at Chelsea Fine Art Degree show

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Still from a 1980s BBC chatshow featuring John Cleese, Bishop Stockwood and Malcolm Muggeridge discussing The Life of Brian. 

I spent three hours last Tuesday picking my way through the warren of studios that house the final degree show for the Chelsea College Fine Art students in the fine building that housed the Royal Army Medical College until 1999. At one point I found myself in a grand wood panelled hall, an incongruous contrast to the mini-white cubes I had been passing through. A crack in time opened and it was a summer’s evening in 1978. I’m feeling absurdly “grown up” because I’m being offered a whisky by a Major in the similarly pukka officers mess at the Medical  College. In my first week in my  job as an HR trainee, I was nervously negotiating the use of their squash courts for the Esso HQ employees whose perks were part of my remit. I wonder if the squash courts  are still there and what they are being used for now?

Final year degree shows must be similarly nerve-wracking, the students’ artistic visions and aspirations exposed to public scrutiny after prolonged incubation with their potential careers tentatively poised on the launchpad. My overall impression was of technical ingenuity, flashes of fearless experimentation and the marshalling of a considerable range of media. As to be expected, many revealed a gawky inwardness that failed to engage the viewer. Among the video artists there were three exceptions that intrigued and amused me: Elizabeth Langton, Fred LeSueur and Louis Judkins.

Elizabeth Langton is a conceptual/performance artist with the gait and physiognomy of a budding stand up comedian. The title of her video John Cleese, Malcolm Muggeridge and a Bishop walk into a Bar (viewable at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9-DqortG_Q&t=60s) references the notorious chatshow confrontation from the 1980s where the Pythons defend their film The Life of Brian against celebrity Christian critics (the still above is taken from the Youtube version which has had over 4 million views). On first sight she seems to be good humouredly grimacing with the effort of stifling a gale of laughter but you gradually realise that she is holding a mouthful of water in her cheeks that she is attempting not to swallow. This tension between her hilarity at the absurdity of this self-imposed torture and the effort required to carry it off is what makes this video so compelling. Eventually she succumbs and a fountain of water erupts from her mouth. This image is an homage to the 1970 photograph Self portrait as a fountain by Bruce Nauman who was himself appropriating the image from Renaissance sculpture. Is this witty, too clever by half or is it a profound reflection that comedy and art are both condemned to an endless recycling of the same archetypes?

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Copyright Elizabeth Langton – still from HD video John Cleese, Malcolm Muggeridge and a Bishop walk into a Bar, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Chelsea College of Art, UAL

Fred LeSueur’s Strange Stranger  stood out for its simplicity and offbeat charm. His spare but effective installation consisted of a digital animation, two complementary sculptures and a print out of a Mail online webpage which inspired the work.  The news story reveals the unearthing of a 5000 year old yew tree whose mystical antiquity contrasts ironically with the attention grabbing clickbait typical of the Mail online sidebar. In his digital animation we see a convincingly rendered hollow tree alongside a lifelike besuited figure who through his sliced off pate is also shown to be hollow. They float around a grassy plot that is suspended in a sunlit skyscape.  T.S Eliot comes to mind. The tree and the figure might represent the eternal and the quotidian and how digital representations produce a facile continuity between them. His sculptures also comment on the aridity of digital deconstuctions.

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Copyright Fred LeSueur-  still image from HD digital video Strange Stranger, 2017 courtesy of the artist and Chelsea College of Art, UAL

Like a proto Rowan Atkinson, Louis Judkins takes huge relish in his delivery to camera. Standup could be a feasible career move for him as his jokes have a brutal edge to them. His film, Concrete Dildo: Season 1, Episode 1-3 (Episode 1 viewable at https://vimeo.com/224071618 ) is full of deadpan humour including his reading of phone sex adverts with slides of cute cats behind him.  He is interested in moral sensibilities under threat from the empathy-deadening effect of shock images so prevalent on the internet. At one point he juxtaposes a slaughterhouse scene featuring a carcass being dumped into a mechanical flaying machine with a graphic porn video over commentary questioning whether morality can survive exposure to these images. Much thought was given to the film’s installation with its quality boomy sound design and a claustrophobic environmental ambiance. You enter a darkened viewing room and realise you are stepping onto freshly laid turf!

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Copyright Louis Judkins. Still from HD video Concrete Dildo; Season 1, Episode 1-3, 2017 courtesy of the artist

Special mention for Horcelai Sinda. I guess her future will be in a political arena rather than artistic one. Her short video The Gift of Time is Suffering  is a cry from the heart that was painful to watch. She addresses the camera directly venting her anguish in coming to terms with the nature of her personal suffering over a sentimental French waltz tune. The intensity of this performance was initially baffling but made sense when I later googled her and found that she is an HIV positive AIDS campaigner from the Congo where she intends to continue this vital mission.

I was heartened by the exuberance and elan apparent in these students’ videos and  I ‘m looking forward to talent spotting at the RA Schools  and Goldsmiths MFA shows in the coming weeks.

 

“What’s left of the loony left?” asks Alice May Williams

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Installation view of wall text Grants for Irish Lesbians, 2017, copyright Alice May Williams and Tintype Gallery

For those of us involved in north London grass roots politics in the 1980s, the “loony left” tag was an irritating and pervasive insult that we had to tolerate.  Since then “identity politics”  has become the popular buzzword to berate political activists protecting the rights of oppressed groups. For many commentators the backlash to this trend is the reason for Trump’s electoral success.  Ironically Trump himself exploited identity politics by galvanising a range of special interest groups and by conflating all “Us vs. Them” conflicts to the overarching battle of “The U.S vs The World”. This was evident in the Trump rally so tellingly filmed in Cornelia Parker’s recent video installation American Gothic.  I find it rather depressing that the “personal is the political” battle cry from the 1960’s that should have transformed politics has become so devalued.

Art is an important force to push back against this trend and this blog has championed many contemporary moving image artists that are successfully pursuing this goal. Among them Alice May Williams has the key quality that they all share- an acute sense of history- and this has greatly enhanced her recently opened exhibition, And Now… Grants for Irish Lesbians! It is showing at Tintype until July 15 and is inspired by the outraged Evening Standard reporting of the Islington council funding decision in 1983. It includes her punchy and engaging video, On the 73, which creates a heartfelt  and amusing narrative of a doomed lesbian flirtation from a sequence of iconic still media images compiled from the last 25 years. I gave a rave review to it in December  when it was shown as part of Tintype’s Xmas window screening. She has also applied her facility with language to compose a typically rye and poignant “text work”, Grants for Irish Lesbians, 2017, painted onto the gallery wall from which I have quoted in the title to this blogpost:

What’s left? what’s left? of the loony left?/ Where’s Islington now, that was here, was then?/ We dream of grants for lesbians.

Well, part of the answer is that the “loony left” and “identity politics” have been painted into a corner by a prevailing orthodoxy that tries to link them with ideas of victimhood and bleeding heart liberalism. It is heartwarming to see the term “loony left” treated with such nostalgia. The Corbyn surge may yet breathe life into this 1980’s idealism and restore the idea that politics is all about finding our group identities and resolving conflicts of interest by working out how we can all rub along. The lightness of touch that Williams brings to these heavy political issues gives the lie to the dour, po-faced stereotype of the “loony left”. I look forward to her next film at Knole House in Kent next year in a group show that includes Lindsay Seers.

Also included in the Tintype show are a number of  her delicately executed paintings.

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The Lesbian Kiss Episode#1, 2017 , copyright Alice May Williams

 

 

 

 

 

The contradictions of public identity projection – Cornelia Parker

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Installation view of War Machine, 2017 courtesy of Cornelia Parker and Frith Street Gallery

Cornelia Parker has generated many profound ideas by displaying objects damaged by stress and fragmentation. An exploded shed, scorched maps, smashed lightbulbs and squashed silverware all evoke the transitory nature of material existence and the destructive forces that fascinate and appal us. Her latest videos showing at Frith Street Gallery until the 21st June, are highly nuanced works that highlight human frailty and further enhance her reputation as a subtle political commentator, an excellent choice for the UK Election Artist.

War Machine, 2015 takes a hackneyed trope of video art, a mechanised production line, and imbues it with an intense emotional weight. Filmed at the factory that brings the paper and plastic material together to form the red poppies that we wear to commemorate the war dead, the absence of human life focuses our attention on the metaphorical load of the processing plant. The poppies become avatars for the fallen dead. Ejected down chutes into boxes they form piles as in a mass grave. Her master stroke is to stop the machinery and splice in the two-minute silence at the Cenotaph heralded by a muted cannon. We stare into a well of black plastic buttons that will form the poppy’s central motif and are impelled to consider our mortality. A gentle shift of sunlight and the black buttons glint back at us. Powerful stuff. It ends with shots of the cavernous warehouse where thousands of boxes of poppies are stored until November. The image forces us to confront the scale of warfare’s slaughter, the banality of our response and our desperate attempts to contain the enormity of war’s moral failure. This short film bears comparison to a much more famous conceptual artwork. Huge crowds flocked to the Tower of London in 2014 to see an installation of a vast blanket of ceramic poppies one for each dead UK combatant. My objection to this piece was the implicit nationalism of only counting UK fallen as worthy of commemoration. Parker’s film elevates the red poppy  to a more universal archetype and warns of its simplistic overuse as a symbol of national identity.

American Gothic, 2017 a four channel looped  video installation shot on iPhone focusses on  a Trump campaign rally and the street Halloween celebrations in New York in October 2016. There is much anxiety and anger on display and her forensic eye exposes the ambivalent feelings inherent in public demonstrations of group identity. Both enthusiastic role play and aversion to attention were both evident to me. To the Guardian critic, Jonathan Jones, who only gave this exhibition a miserable two stars it was a simplistic portrayal of Americans as “morons”. What did he miss?

Well, he clearly did not notice Parker astutely foregrounding the contradictions in the identity politics of the American election through the placards identifying the different group affiliation of the supporters. Although the Blacks for Trump, Women for Trump, and Hispanics for Trump groups all appeared vociferous, the lonely guy holding the Jews for Trump placard looked relatively shy and uneasy in the public arena.  This contrasting response was also seen in her extended tracking shot as she walked along the line of Halloween revellers waiting to enter a clubnight. Some acted up to the camera, others ignored it. Some had costumed up, others wore sweatshirts. Some were behaving outrageously, others looked on in embarrassment.

 

Made in Bethlehem, 2012 is shot in the cramped workshop where thorny spiked twigs are fashioned by hand into the Jerusalem tourist staple of a “crown of thorns.”  Muhammed Hussein Ba-our and his son are interviewed as they deftly work the unwieldy raw material. The lack of space means that the finished articles are amassed in a vertiginous pile that dwarfs them. The irony of a Muslim craftsman’s life long vocation to the manufacture of Christian icons goes unremarked. His comments that the thorns do not hurt him as his hands have hardened over time seem like a  grim metaphor for the long Palestinian struggle for nationhood.

 

Jaki Irvine takes on the macho bankers and other MI artworks of 2017

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David Ferrando Giraut, The Accursed Stare, video still, 2017, courtesy of the artist

I  aim to keep a fairly complete record of the moving image art that is worth a comment. Here is a summary of some of the works I’ve seen in 2017 that have not been covered elsewhere on mialondonblog.

David Fernando Giraut, The Accursed Stare, 2017 Digital animation film at Tenderpixel Gallery 

I am finding the fashion for films analysing art history is starting to a wearing a bit thin. The artworld incestousness feels rather claustrophobic. However this added one interesting insight – that paleolithic art remained unchanged in style and content for thousands of years. So what is driving the present pace of change? The time scale covered, from cave paintings through the Renaissance to today, was impressive but perhaps too ambitious in its scope to be digestible.

Jaki Irvine, If the Ground Should Open… , 2016, at Frith Street Gallery, Golden Square 

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Jaki Irvine, still from video installation, If the Ground Should Open.., 2016, courtesy of the artist

Eight channel black and white video installation on standard sized monitors. This was my kind of music video with echos of Reichian style use of the spoken word as musical content. Samples of spoken audio from a notorious leaked Anglo-Irish bankers phone conversation in which they talk cynically about how they conned the government are edited in staccato repetition to highlight their nervous complicity. Irvine’s own lyrics celebrate the female activists in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising and she uses Irish folk instrumentation played by an all female ten-piece band (bagpipes, fiddle, cello etc) to provide a surreal counterpoint to the macho posturing of the bankers.

Anna Bunting-Branch The Labours of Barren House-The Linguists at Jerwood Space 

Helpful exposure of the  idea that language is literally manmade and excludes the female construction of meaning.  Laadan is a constructed language by the feminist linguist Suzette Haden Elgin that aims to remedy this with its own vocabulary and grammar that was used in her speculative fiction trilogy Native Tongue. Unfortunately the video did no more than publicise this innovation and shed no light onto why it has failed to catch on.

John Latham at Serpentine Gallery

I feel he was the U.K’s Robert Rauschenberg. The sixties encouraged artists with eclectic interests to roam widely, so they dabbled in various styles and media which led the way for others to develop. Lathham’s video work was just one element of his experimentation including a quirky take on public school types strutting  in the London stock exchange before the invasion of the 80’s Romford market wideboys. I prefer his sculptural work with scorched and paint-spattered books and his destructive performance artworks. His theory on Flat Time was a bit unnecessary and a distraction from his art. He should have left it to the cosmologists.

Wael Shawkey, Telemach Crusades, 2009, at Lisson Gallery

A two-minute film featuring Bedouin children riding donkeys along a beach approaching a North African fort. Colourful, atmospheric and slightly unsettling but with no coherent narrative.

Christian Jankowski, Director Poodle, 1998, at Lisson Gallery

A ten minute black and white video that sees the magician transform a German gallery director into a poodle who then wanders around the gallery with a kind of skittish curiosity. A great parody of gallery pseuds.