Teresa Grimes, the director of Tintype, has a winning formula for commissioning short films so I always look forward to her annual selection screened in the gallery window in Essex Road which is now in its sixth year. By setting the theme as Essex Road itself, it is always part of the fun to see the range of interpretations of the brief and the five minute maximum length mitigates the risk of bagginess.
Patrick Goddard’s Black Valuation is prank art in the tradition of covert recordings of practical jokes which launched the TV careers of Jeremy Beadle and Dom Joly on the backs of unsuspecting members of the public. They all owe a debt to the original Candid Camera, an American series that first aired in 1948, which came to ITV in the 1960s. I recall its slightly dubious low rent and embarrassing vibe which seemed to exemplify the channel’s appeal. It ran out of steam when reality TV such as Big Brother gave viewers a more intense voyeuristic hit without the uncomfortable issues of informed consent. An estate agent is the unwitting participant in Goddard’s hilarious take on the evils of property speculation but the reveal of “You’re on Candid Camera” is missing. Perhaps we are all thinking that as accessories to the housing crisis, estate agents are fair game.
In ghoulish facepaint ready for a Halloween party, Goddard roleplays the rapacious owner of the Tintype gallery building discussing his plans with the estate agent. He intends to evict the gallery director (“these artists are just social parasites”) so he can make a killing from a development project. Filmed using the gallery’s CCTV cameras, the estate agent is perceived as complicit in this scandalous behaviour.
Goddard’s brilliantly executed modus operandi is a fruitful tool for critiquing the absurdities of the times we live in. It reminded me of the Finnish artist Pilvi Takala who has used hidden cameras to capture the responses to her transgressive behaviour in a range of environments that have included Disneyland and a Shoreditch office space. As with any covert social experiment, a debrief is desirable but with surveillance cameras so ubiquitous we seem to have lost sight of this necessity. Perhaps a film of the estate agent’s debrief would reveal his feelings about the power imbalance implicit in the deception.
The moving image artist working in this mode is caught between a desire to manipulate social encounters as a conduit for their art and the ethical reservations about deceiving their participants. Ruth Waters has, in my view, cracked this dilemma most successfully in her gripping work, REDSKY66 (2017), as described in a previous post. She is having a skype conversation with a man who feels tortured by a twitter tirade against him and its indelible online record stretching into infinity. The man’s performance is so convincing I felt I was watching a real twitterstorm victim. In fact he is an actor, thus allowing the artist to craft dialogue with the illusion of spontaneity.
Lucy Harris’s Reading Room, a tribute to the visual allure of illustrated books and the tranquil setting of Islington South Library and Melanie Smith’s 5 MINS, a hypnotic mediation on orange dot matrix bus-stop indicators, were the two other films that stood out for me but the quality of the complete set of eight films is well worth 36 minutes of your time.
Here is a dilemma for a financially struggling artist with principles. You are nominated for a prize that could win you £25,000. Your three fellow nominees want to make a political gesture of solidarity that would require you to evenly split the £40,000 prize pot. Being risk averse you wonder whether a guaranteed £10,000 would be better than your chances of winning the top prize outright. Your friends and supporters all tell you your work is so much better than the others. Several betting websites and art experts place you as the favourite to win. When you meet your fellow artists you feel a subtle unspoken pressure to succumb to the emerging group consensus. If you stand alone the plan cannot succeed and you will risk the ire of your fellow nominees. With a heavy heart and an unsettling sense of suppressed resentment you sacrifice your ego for the wider good. Yes it feels right to laud the collective over the individual. I imagine the four nominees for the 2019 Turner Prize may all have felt something like this.
However as they approach the televised prize giving event, an individualist imperative is bubbling under. Some kind of distinctive gesture is needed. One wears a pendant with a highly visible partisan political slogan. Another sports a badge that is less easy to discern but social media confirms it is a Vote Labour message. One by virtue of her age gets to read out their joint statement decrying the political divisiveness that prompted their decision to form a collective. The last gets an opportunity to raise the profile of the Tory hostile environment policy that is barring his wife’s entry to the UK.
The solidarity of the oppressed against the oppressors is the common motivation behind their art. Unfortunately nine days later the oppressed electorate use their democratic rights to give a thumping majority to the party that stands for everything these artists abhor. Such is the power of art. Is there a dawning realisation that art motivated by political aims is incapable of achieving political change? After all, the visitors to the Turner Prize exhibition are already on-board. If they were not, they would regard the hijacking of the event for overt political messaging as damning evidence of the entitlement of the media-savvy, metropolitan elite.
Art is never politically neutral. It will always (but usually implicitly) embody some kind of political ideology. As noted in earlier posts, I particularly admire Forensic Architecture and Lawrence abu Hamden who are effective campaigners as well as artists. However the takeaway message from an artwork is as much in the viewers’ hands as the artists’. Take the Tories Out pendant. Although I share the sentiment, it chimes with other angry invocations like Demons Out and Immigrants Out, classic examples of othering. This is the political and psychological bear-trap that got us into this mess in the first place. Interesting that three-word slogans like Get Brexit Done sound more rational than the brutal two-word Britain First of the ultraright shouted by the Jo Cox murderer. If the Tories go for a two-word slogan at the next election then we will really have something to worry about.
Moving image art featured less prominently than in the 2018 Turner Prize. Helen Cammock’s documentary on women’s role in the Northern Ireland Troubles was more engaging than last year’s winning autobiographical film from Charlotte Prodger. Unfortunately like most art that represents armed struggle it risks aesthetisising violence. My post on the representation of military hardware in the work of Richard Mosse and Fiona Banner examines this question in more detail. Archive footage of the flames of exploding petrol bombs and the illuminated spray of water cannons are eye-catching. But this undermines the horror of violent conflict as does the cheery nostalgia expressed by a Republican woman who proudly recalls that the efficiency of their petrol bomb factories vastly improved when the women took over from the men. This show of sentimentality is arresting as it is more typically associated with male veterans. However it also demonstrates the contradictions behind the film’s argument that the feminist cause was furthered by women’s involvement in the Republican campaign.
Perhaps the most worrying deployment of moving image was in Raj Shani’s work. A screen hanging above her sculptural installation plays a seven and a half hour video of a talking head reading Shani’s very personal response to the writers of utopian matriarchies which inspired her work. The length alone gives ammunition to the sceptics. To compound this, the audio track is only accessible if you request headphones from the gallery assistant. Art fans under 18 are banned because of its “sexually explicit content”. The section I heard was riffing on the link between eroticism and the heat death of the universe. Are Shani’s attempts to explain the symbols in her sculptural installation cheating the viewer of their own right to interpret her art? As it happens, when I was there very few people were listening in.
I would have given the top prize to Lawrence abu Hamden whose recent work is explored in earlier posts but it seems that highlighting one artist is out of fashion and that the future of the Turner Prize is in question. When next year’s four nominees meet up their first decision will be whether to bury their egos and split the prizemoney. Would you not love to be in on that meeting?
Marina Abramovic’s claim to be the “grandmother of performance art” is discussed in the most read blogpost on this site. At the same time as her seminal work Rhythm O was created in 1975, Rebecca Horn recorded Berlin Exercises in 9 Parts: Dreaming under Water (1974–5), a work that gives an informative window into the emerging performance arts movement and, for me, suggests that Horn is equally worthy of the title. It is an engaging 16mm colour film recording nine inventive and visually alluring performance works shot in a bare apartment room with the Berlin rooftops visible through a rear window. The film is showing in the Tate Tanks until Feb 2nd.
Many of Horn’s films I had previously encountered struck me as over extended but in this one she moves swiftly onto the next scenario before overstaying its welcome and weaves in an undertow of deadpan humour. For example, one performance features a crouching woman letting out occasional birdlike cries. Also in the room is an uncaged white cockatoo who looks rather disconcerted by the mimicry. Another work can best be described as a sensuous mating ritual involving magnetic discs alternately attaching and detaching the legs of the male and female participants. These references to our evolutionary solidarity with the animal world give her work a subtle poetic charge. In another piece, which only slowly reveals itself, tight close-ups of a body hidden in luxuriant foliage create a dizzying sensation of union with the planet.
Horn’s performance artworks are well known for her wearable sculptures which she described as ‘body extensions’. In 1964 at the start of her career she was confined to a sanatorium for a year after contracting a lung illness from the materials she was using. Seen in this context her work is a quest for the body’s liberation. The strange “Heath Robinson” outfits she designs often employ intricate mechanical mechanisms featuring feathers, magnets, levers and mirrors. Although they may now appear bit hokey, they embody a handmade aesthetic and a pre-digital innocence that allies her to the Dadaists rather than the narcissistic performance artists that followed her.
In a memorable and tense piece a redheaded woman hacks at her own long, thick tresses with blunt pinking shears that reduce them to a irregular thatch. As she tries to cut a fringe the scissors’ sharp points threaten to take out one of her eyes. The female self-immolation of this work relates both to Ono’s quietly unsettling Cutpiece and to Abramovic’s overly sensational Rhythm O. Placing a woman in danger is a standard trope of the male gaze but these works of second wave feminism are ambiguous: are they undermining or exploiting our lurid fascination with this image of female subjection?
I have yet to succumb to the narcissistic cult of Abramovic. Horn has taken a different route. She does not give herself a starring role in front of the camera. In truth Abramovic is a performer co-opting art as her stage while Horn is an artist using performance to stage her ideas.