Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2019

Copyright Cyrus Hung. Still from single channel video Why Not Study in the UK? (2019) courtesy of the artist

Talent spotting at the New Contemporaries show at South London Gallery this year was frustrating. “The germ of a rewarding artwork that needs some tweaking” was my most common response. As discussed in my last post, the most engaging work was Roland Carline’s outward facing film. The popularity of this approach is growing but most of the Bloomberg selected artists this year seem to be looking inward for inspiration.

One exception to this was Cyrus Hung who is making a name for himself by taking the text from PR releases and documentaries of established artists such as Anthony Gormley and setting them to his own rap compositions. In George Baselitz A Focus on the 1980’s MV, 2019 we get to see much of his painting but ambiguity is laced through it: is it a tribute or is he gently mocking the pomposity of artists and critics? Hennessy Youngman’s satirical videos of the art establishment are an earlier example of rap culture used to hilarious effect. Another of Hungs’s videos on his website is a comic take on a UK universities recruitment fair in Hong Kong using rewritten lyrics to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. This is both cutting and funny suggesting a more profitable direction he might take.

Copyright Umi Ishihara. Still from film UMMMI’s Lonely Girl, 2016 courtesy of the artist

Umi Ishihara’s UMMMI’s Lonely Girl, 2016 exploits the photogenic features of Japan’s night-time streets. The cliches of such films are largely avoided by giving prominence to the roadwork lights and cones and to the more scuzzier locations. A woman initially comes across a semi conscious girl alone on a nightclub doorway. Over 20 long minutes we follow her heaving and sometimes giving a piggyback to a listless girl though the streets. It is the kind of art film where your mind is struggling to fill the gaps to give the narrative some meaning. The payoff for your patience is an ending that reveals the forlorn girl left abandoned on a pavement as she was found at the start of the night.

I also related to the desperate teeth grinding of the cartoon grotesque in Taylor Jack Smith’s Dentin which reminded me of Philip Guston and the Soviet-era statues of national political heroes that featured in the nightmarish digital animation YONAK by Bulgarian based George Stamenov.

The rest of the moving image art was rather underwhelming : humour falling flat, meditative work crushed by weighty seriousness and a scene remake from the feature film, Crash. The last Bloomberg New Contemporaries show I saw at the ICA in 2016 seemed to have more innovative artists. They included Zarina Muhammad who then went on to launch her own art review website The White Pube with Gabrielle de la Puente which I have enjoyed seeing make quite a splash even though it has been set up to counter the ubiquity of “old white men” like myself!

Dance off: Bruce Conner vs Roland Carline

Roland carline
Still from film, Adelaide Celeste, Lauren, Lucy, Maddie, Niha, (2017) copyright Roland Carline with Rachel Gildea

Serendipitous juxtapositions crop up frequently as I trawl around London’s diverse galleries. Yesterday I chanced upon two films showcasing dance performances from 1966 and 2018. This triggered thoughts on how MI artists from different generations treat this source material, a more contentious issue than it initially appears. At Thomas Dane Gallery, Bruce Conner’s (1933-2008)  seminal film BREAKAWAY (1966) focuses on a solo dance by Toni Basil. At South London Gallery, Roland Carline’s film in collaboration with the choreographer, Rachel Gildea, Adelaide, Celeste, Lauren, Lucy, Maddie, Niha, (2017) showcases six exuberant teenage dancers on a pop up stage created on a Folkestone backstreet. For me, this film was the standout moving image artwork among the many 2019 Bloomberg New Contemporary Artists working in this medium.

Bruce Conner. BREAKAWAY, (still), 1966. Courtesy The Conner Family Trust and Thomas Dane Gallery. © The Conner Family Trust.

Both films rely on the talents of their respective performers. Toni Basil, best known as the singer of the iconic 80’s hit Hey Mickey, was already a respected choreographer and dancer in the 1960’s. Carline has recruited talented unknowns whose anonymity is pointedly transformed by their names forming the film’s title. Both films feature a disguised male presence. In Carline’s film a dancer in a cardboard Spongebob costume is subjected to a kind of symbolic castration as his nose is ripped off by the other girls. I discover that that he has an association with misogyny through his appearance in a reputedly dodgy music video so this defiant gesture is well targeted. In contrast, Conner’s all encompassing (misogynistic?) male gaze is hidden behind his 16mm lens.

The solo female dancer performing for the camera against a blank background is open to a range of interpretations: is she the seductive Salome or a free-spirited Isadora Duncan? Like Salome, Basil divests herself of her clothes as the film progresses. Like Isadora Duncan she appears to be dancing with wild abandon in a diaphanous dress. But it is the rhythm of the quick-cut edits that syncopates with the music, not her own movements. In BREAKAWAY the imagery oscillates between these stereotypes. The antithesis of this form of female representation is Gillian Wearing’s captivating performance video, Dancing in Peckham, (1994). Apparently oblivious to the curious bystanders, Wearing dances alone in the middle of a shopping mall in her everyday clothes to a memorised 25 minute soundtrack that includes I Will Survive and Staying Alive. She is dancing for herself and the static camera recording the complete and unadorned performance is entirely within her control.

Still from video Dancing in Peckham (1994) copyright Gillian Wearing

Artists like Roland Carline are highly sensitised to the issue of their subject’s control. I first encountered him at the 2016 RA schools Show which included his performance work, Bossy, devised collaboratively with Francis Majekodunmi, the neurodiverse leader of the dance group BLINK.  Carline, like Jeremy Deller and Mikhail Karikis, offers a platform for the expression of children and teenagers, an inherently political stance. What also impressed me in his latest film is the skilled five minute edit of both the much longer dance performance and the varied pop tunes soundtrack. He does this without jarring discontinuities while preserving the key dramatic highpoints.

Leo Dixon in the Royal Opera production of Death in Venice ©ROH/Catherine Ashmore

A solo male dancer is regarded very differently from a female. In the recent moving production of Britten’s opera Death in Venice at ROH, the teenage boy, Tadzio, who becomes the obsessive love interest of an older man is portrayed by the dancer, Leo Dixon. This non-speaking role is as articulate as the singers. The choreography emphasises youthful muscular athleticism rather than eroticism and ramps up the poignancy of the unrequited love narrative. In a group, female dancers seem to get the chance to highlight their athleticism avoiding the deleterious impact of the male gaze. For a fortuitous example, checkout the cheerleaders in the music video of Hey Mickey on Youtube.

Still from the music video, Hey Mickey

Conner’s film, shot in black and white projects a ghostly and fragmentary image of female identity as if the dancer’s attempts to “breakaway” are futile. The second half of the film consist of the sequence you have just viewed in reverse. The resultant eerie soundtrack adds to the nightmarish desperation but we end on the opening image of Basil smiling to camera in a bodysuit so reminiscent of that quintessential 60’s phenomenon, the caged go-go dancer of the discotheque. By exploring the complexities of the representations of women through dance and by foregrounding the combative song lyrics, Conner and Basil’s collaborative work challenges the the latent misogyny of the film

“I got a 20 pound ball hanging by a chain around my neck
I got to get away run before I become a wreck
I got to break these chains before I go insane”

are the devastating opening lines.

Whether the film enslaves or liberates her is the intriguing question…

Hetain Patel: making sense of the weird in the 2019 Jarman Award

Still from HD video The Jump (2016). Copyright Hetain Patel , courtesy of the artist

I am chuffed to see that three of the nominated artists for the Jarman Award 2019 have already been highlighted for praise in previous mialondonblog posts, accessible through the tags Imran Perretta, Rehana Zaman and Mikhail Karikis below. The other three MI artists are new to me so I was delighted to make the final day of screening at the Whitechapel to see what had impressed the selection panel.

Hetain Patel’s admirably concise film, The Jump (2016) is funny, gripping and unsettling. It is weird yet ultimately satisfying because its elements are few but highly concentrated. We seem to be in a homely sitting room faced with a group of relatives arranged in rows just before the shutter clicks. It is the classic pose of the Victorian photographic portrait. The range of facial expressions among this varied bunch is immediately captivating. We can see that some are uneasy about the experience while others are delighted. I fancy I would be in the former category, wishing I was somewhere else. If only I possessed a superpower to teleport me out of there! Is this what the artist is thinking?

We are observing a slo-mo film, not a still. The initial giveaway is the toddler fidgeting in his mother’s lap. Over the next six minutes we gradually pan left to reveal a lean crouching figure in a Spiderman outfit whose anonymity, unlike the others, is guaranteed by his spidermask. (Shouldn’t it be the toddler in costume?) His prolonged graceful, athletic leap in front of the group is met with interest but not shock. As a Hollywood style climax our comic book hero might be expected to shoot out through the window but instead comes to rest on the carpet.

I really rated this film. Some may be asking, why did he win? Not so obviously political or as personal as others on the shortlist, it has the advantage of a brave restriction of imagery which expands the options for our own responses and interpretations. The simplicity of the surreal image of an ur-Spiderman interrupting a family photo-session gives room for the art to penetrate our unconscious. Like all superhero representations, it triggers atavistic impulses of disguise, flight, escape and invincibility. But within the claustrophobic domestic setting we have to cope with a figure that is either a dangerous interloper or a madcap member of the group itself. Is he hoping to break out of the group to assert his individuality or to swoop in to help them? Patel’s film make so much sense of the tensions of family and group dynamics that we are all prone to.

Mikhail Karikis. Still from HD video, No Ordinary Protest (2018) courtesy of the artist

The Mikhail Karikis film, No Ordinary Protest (2018) highlights the place of children in the environmental debate and his signature collaborative method allows his subjects to control the form of the film. Hearing these seven year olds cogent views and seeing them transform their fears into a colourful and chilling masked mime is a real treat. Giving a voice to the unheard without patronising them is both an artistic and interpersonal skill which Karikis applies with great subtlety.

The two other nominated artists are represented by films that are packed with weird and striking images but whose significance seemed hazy. Both are inspired by other artworks, the ballet Giselle (Cecile.B. Evans) and a Gertrude Stein play (Beatrice Gibson). These had less resonance for me than Spiderman (a polite way of saying I have nil knowledge of either of the source artworks!) so that partly explains why they failed to connect in the same way.

Neither had a clear narrative which some excuse by describing them as dream-like. This seems to me to be a misnomer as dreams are not really that fragmentary; one image seems to morph with pretzel logic into the next. Dream symbolism is highly personal so its use in art seals meanings behind an impenetrable screen (unless like Freud you have the arrogance to attempt to interpret them for the patient). However, Beatrice Gibson’s Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs (2019)  had some memorable features including a torch singer accompanied by a haunting accordion. Why we saw so much of a poodle in an open-top car being dishevelled by the slipstream, I am still trying to fathom.

The Jarman Award has a great track record for talent spotting although I do not always agree with their decisions. However I cannot quibble with their choice of Hetain Patel as this year’s winner.

Doug Aitken: losing touch in a digital world

Doug Aitken – All doors open (2018). Copyright Doug Aitken. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York; Victoria Miro Gallery, London/Venice; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich

Over the course of the last three decades, Doug Aitken has effortlessly crisscrossed genres boundaries but I first encountered him in 2001 as a moving image artist. I was blown away by his elaborate video installation of reverse waterfalls on multiple screens and mirrors that covered the interior of the Serpentine Gallery. His latest work at the Victoria Miro Gallery in Wharf Road is equally engrossing.

Artists whose age grants them first hand experience of pre- and post-internet eras are in a privileged position and this is the intriguing aspect of his recent work. In the ground floor gallery you are confronted by All doors open, 2018, an alabaster-like tableau which includes an iphone poised on a table between a sleeping woman’s outstretched hand and that staple of classical art practice, a bowl of fruit. This electrifying metaphor of the links between modernity and the past prompts speculation on the impact of new technology on our collective psyche.

The “apple’ like the “friend” has been co-opted by Silicon Valley, their meanings remoulded to reassure us that the bright new world is no different from the old. The familiar fruit still-life reinforces our continuity to cultural tradition. We need to gather foodstuffs even if now the transaction is mediated over a device manufactured by a conglomerate deploying natural imagery as cover. We are encouraged to see this object as part of the natural world like the tempting apple of the Genesis myth. Aitken references the eternal question of how far we are drifting away from our natural selves. Whether this is damaging or liberating hangs in the air.

A narrative arc is created by the carefully choreographed lighting effects illuminating the sculpture from within. We begin with the clinically fashionable white iphone highlighted on the tabletop which spreads its luminosity to the surrounding figure and fruit bowl. The colours become brighter culminating in a frenzied red rippling through the tableau. This subsides and the phone is the last to fade into darkness. Are we reliant on being energised by the indestructible technology that is set to outlive us? The musical soundtrack of plainchant and bells hinting at a disappearing culture is a subtle counterpoint to the lighting and a refreshing relief from the ubiquitous electronic music that so many moving image artists default to.

Copyright Doug Aitken. Installation view of New Era, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

I also enjoyed Aitken’s spectacular 360 degree multi-screen installation at the recent group exhibition hosted by The Store X, The Vinyl Factory at 180, The Strand. New Era, 2018 also pitches mobile phone technology against nature. Microelectronic circuit boards mesmerise in kaleidoscopic sequences which give way to hypnotic seascapes much like the Victorian painters set steam trains in wooded landscapes. The loosening of human bonds with nature as technological innovation accelerates is a time-honoured theme for artists. Understanding its ramifications is a complex but vital endeavour for all of us.

The Sirens of the Deep: Leah Clements

Still from To Not Follow Under, 2019 copyright Leah Clements

Anxiety is a defining feature of our age according to current orthodoxy and the King’s University Science Gallery’s current exhibition, On Edge – Living in an Age of Anxiety, reflects this stance. But I am not sure whether the anxiety induced by 21st century social media is any worse than that created by the malicious gossip of medieval villagers gathering around the water pump. There may be millions gossiping about you but at least you will not have to face them in person everyday. As a species we have always felt threatened with social annihilation by the judgements of our peers. The impact is a multiple of their numbers and their degree of intimacy with you. In a village the numbers may be small but their level of intimacy with you will be high. On social media the reverse is true. The type and duration of the social anxiety induced may be different but it is debatable whether the impact on the individual is any greater.

Bodily annihilation by death, disease or injury is a constant anxiety throughout history and it is often conflated with social annihilation through shaming, bullying or ostracisation. This insight is captured succinctly in Leah Clements’ film, To Not Follow Under, which for me was the standout work of the exhibition. It parallels the phenomena of anxiety and deep sea diving by referencing the siren call that they can both snare us with. What the current mental health debate skates over is that we are often ambivalent about the sensations associated with anxiety. Paradoxically the source of our anxiety may be attractive or even addictive. It can also be the path to peace and solace.

These ambiguities are perfectly captured in the film. Its commentary and imagery features a deep sea diver who describes the siren call they experience in the depths of the ocean. The anxiety they feel is translated into a seductive call to go deeper into the danger zone where the risks of annihilation escalate. Peacefully drifting into death becomes attractive.

In another of the film’s sections a decompression chamber is the setting for a distressed psychiatric patient being reassured by a counsellor. The mental and physical depths both have their dangers. We observe the counsellor offering wordless but eloquent non verbal support but the accompanying voice-over allows the counsellor to express their reticence about “getting in too deep” with those in the grip of suicidal feelings. The siren call of empathy is a danger anyone offering psychological support can recognise.

Leah Clement’s film focuses on the carers rather than the sufferers and is highly sensitive to the paradoxes that exist in tackling anxiety. Yet again simplicity in artistic expression pays dividends. This is an important and original contribution to the often confused public debate on anxiety.