Patrick Goddard at Tintype: dubious prank or vital critique?

Patrick Goddard in preparation for his film Black Valuation (2020). Courtesy of Tintype Gallery

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.

Egos and slogans confound the collective triumph at the 2019 Turner Prize

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.

Helen Cammock. Still from The Long Note (2019). Courtesy of he artist

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.

Tai Shani. Installation view of DC Semiramis 2018. Courtesy of the artist 

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?

Horn vs Abramovic: grandmother of performance art, part two

Rebecca Horn. Still from 16mm film Berlin Exercises in 9 Parts: Dreaming under Water,1974–5. Courtesy of the artist

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.

Rebecca Horn. Still from 16mm film Berlin Exercises in 9 Parts: Dreaming under Water,1974–5. Courtesy of the artist

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.

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 was a real treat.

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 all counsellors 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.

The ties that bind…a lesson from Ballpark Collective

Interdependence is the theme for this year’s Art Licks Weekend programme and we could certainly do with more of that in our divided world. Before she was assassinated by a man raving “Britain First!”, the M.P Jo Cox voiced the opposing slogan: “What we have in common is greater than that which divides us.” So it is heartening to see the five artists in Ballpark Collective living this unifying ideal by carefully attending and responding to each others work to create a unique and absorbing film.

Short Straw is the moving image art equivalent of ‘Chinese Whispers’ a game which teaches us, at an early age, some of the key principles of communication. When the person at the end of line speaks out loud what they think they heard everyone can compare it to the phrase started at the other end. We learn about the fallibility of perception and that the cause of this failure is more to do with our personal biases than faulty hearing. It is fascinating to see this process at work in a visual dimension.

Aimee Neat pulled the short straw and kicked off the series of five sections with a performance piece recasting gender relationships as a competitive sport. We spectate a furious domestic as a couple hurl wads of wet J-clothes at each other. The woman is angry, her male opponent mildly amused. (How relevant to the exchanges in the current gender role debate!) They are confined like aggressive squash players in blue walled space. We winch at the amplified squeaks and slaps of the action. A tranquil soundtrack provides an ironic contrast. What is uncanny is that reverberations of this piece lasts through to Sarah Lewis’s fifth film which gives another take on the same theme. This is despite the fact that each artist is responding to the previous work filtered through their own conceptual and perceptual screens with no discussion between them outside the ritual of passing their work on.

Sarah Lewis offers some wry juxtapositions: archive clips of womans’ relay races and footage of a woman fondling her pet snake. This subtle undermining of the phallic symbolism of snakes and batons returns them to the hands of women. The hilarious clip of a child relay runner taking the baton and setting off in the opposite direction of her opponents to the consternation of the adult coach says something about the absurdity of a competitive worldview.

The three segments linking these two neatly reference the futility of conflict and competition. In her thoughtful and beautifully paced section, Sun Park introduces us to the Korean adage that pointless conflict is like trying to “cut water with a knife.” Susanne Dietz, in a section paralleling human culture with the physical earth, references the Goya painting, Fight with Cudgels which portrays two men bludgeoning each other oblivious to the quicksand into which they are sinking. Max Leach in his continued exploration of machismo digitally manipulates an image of the Frederic Leighton sculpture, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, highlighting its frenzied melodrama.

When an artist submerges their ego in a collaborative work the result can often lack focus. Yet the format of this film allows individual visions to shine through while creating a unity of shared meanings. Surely a lesson in there for us all.

Can art engage with industry?

Copyright- David Hall (1937-2014) Still from Tap Piece ( 1971) courtesy of artist estate

It was fascinating to to sift through the written and video archives of David Hall (1937-2014) , one of the unsung pioneers of British video art, at an open session held earlier this month at the Tate Archive. The terrifying onward march of inflation was evidenced by Hall’s carefully conserved £6.60 bill for six diners from an Edinburgh Indian restaurant in 1971. He was there filming as part of an inspired project to insert unannounced 60 second art videos into the BBC Scotland output. These ten works, known as T.V Interruptions (1971), are little gems each one a masterclass in economy and punchiness. One of them, the conceptually intriguing and mesmerising Tap piece, viewable on Youtube looks achingly innocent to our eyes. The project was so controversial that it was never repeated.

Also redolent of an innocent radicalism are the written materials documenting the group meetings of the Artist Placement Group (APG.) which was founded in 1966 by John Latham to get artists out of the studio into the “real world” and onto the payroll of business organisations like British Steel and Esso Petroleum. The group worked on the premise that “art could help resolve problems inherent in industrial societies”. An archive document revealed to my surprise that my first boss, Tom Batho, the Head of Employee Relations at Esso was a director at the APG. He states:

” artists…are not asking for patronage …they are asking Industry to allow the artist to make a contribution”

Artists in the current era who favour oil industry boycotts would not countenance such engagement. Mark Rylance broke his links with the RSC saying that Shakespeare would not have taken money from BP ( I am not so sure. He was always desperate for finance for his productions). I would argue that as consumers we should rein in our reliance on oil and BP would have to stop supplying it. It is two sides of the same equation. Overturning our current expectations of a reasonable living standard is the only way forward. Closing the opportunities for debate by separating us into artificially generated, insulated echo chambers is what both the xenophobic Brexiteers and the boycotting environmentalists have in common.

Is the transition from analogue to digital distorting our humanity?

© Alexa Phillips- Installation view of Bedroom, London 2025 (2018)

We are at risk of becoming “ghosts of our technology” suggests Sam Austen whose analogue celluloid-based work bestows a materiality to his moving image art practice that is an implicit critique of the encoded digital image. How has this transition impacted on our humanity? Have the screens that cloak us shrouded our authenticity? Is our identity now projected entirely through our interaction with the digital world? Can we only place meaning on our perceptions when they are screen mediated? Has our imagination become so atrophied  that we can only feel empathy if representations of suffering are visual? 

Austen’s recent film, Hologram Burnt onto the Retina (2018), suggests that our screens are in danger of replacing our eyes, distorting our perception and memory. Lived experience only acquires meaning through its screen representation. This was taken to its logical conclusion by the optical neuro-engineering surgery envisioned in the recent TV drama, Years and Years scripted by the Doctor Who writer, Russel T. Davies. He portrays a digital native ecstatic at the prospect of a bionic eye implant. Her digitised visual input is diverted to a screen with a direct feed to Instagram, though perhaps she has a bespoke filter to present her take on reality to her social media followers.

Installation view of The Wall and The Incongruous (2018) courtesy of Larry Achiampong and David Blandy and Seventeen Gallery

This blurring of the real and the represented is an inescapable axiom of  visual arts. But the modern thirst for image manipulation has pushed at its boundaries. The popularisation of facadism in modern architecture, botoxing in facial aesthetics and the potential abuse of deepfake footage to discredit politicians are just three examples. CGI has infiltrated film so insidiously that we cannot know whether those batallions of soldiers or historic buildings are real or CGI. Video gaming has been a key driving force behind the advanced photorealism attained by CGI and the use of VR headsets point to a dystopian future envisioned so chillingly by a “performance installation”, Bedroom, London, 2025 exhibited by Alexa Phillips at the 2018 Goldsmiths MFA degree show.

Still image from FF Gaiden:Delete (2018) courtesy of Larry Achiampong and David Blandy

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s FF Gaiden series is a spinoff from their outstanding Finding Fanon trilogy and seeks to undermine and appropriate video game aesthetics for their own purposes. In FF Gaiden: Delete currently showing at Copperfield Gallery a young woman tells her story of flight from poverty and oppression in a digitally flattened voice against the persistent whistling of the wind. She is trecking across continents in search of asylum but the landscape she is passing through is the pristine ur-California of the groundbreaking and notorious videogame Grand Theft Auto v5. Untroubled by interactions with other would-be occupants of this gaming reality, she paces steadily along the sleepers of a single railtrack, a split second away from potential death. It is a story we have become inured to in the countless retellings but in this version the grim reality of her account is mediated by CGI and a voice synthesiser. Does her avatar proxy diminish or increase our empathy for her plight? The animation drives out any sentimentality that live film might incur and the narrative gains a surreal edge from its hyper-real context leaving us to grapple with the contrast between “first world problems” (how to mitigate the downside of videogames) and real global problems (how to tackle the poverty and oppression that drives migration.)

Building a wall to repel invaders/migrants is the time honoured approach of the rich. Trump’s wall (now seemingly more of a mirage than reality) and gated housing developments are just the most recent manifestations of this strategy. Hadrian’s Wall is the focus of LA and DB’s two channel video The Wall and The Incongruous (2018) now showing at Seventeen Gallery. An animated story set in a bleak mountainous landscape commandeered from the fantasy roleplay videogame, Skyrim, is dovetailed in the parallel screen with live drone footage of Hadrian’s Wall. A walled city state that isolates itself from the surrounding countryside and consequently succumbs to a self inflicted famine is a parable for our fractured times. At the climax the landscape appears to shear away in clouds of smoke, a fitting metaphor for the implosion of the digital world that might be an early casualty of our increasingly dysfunctional era.

Multimedia anthropology: an interdisciplinary art genre

Mal
© Raffaella Fryer-Moreira and Erick Marques Polidoro – still from 360 video Thick Forest of the South showing monoculture replacing forest in Brazil

The Anthropocene is an ecological buzzword with a polemical edge referring to the geological era of serious human despoilment of the earth. Academics hotly contest whether this began 15,000 years ago with rudimentary monoculture economies or at anytime up to the 1960s with mass consumption economies. I’m not convinced it really matters. What does matter is convincing the climate change deniers that global warming is not a liberal conspiracy.

The few remaining non-industrial cultures all have an embedded sense of stewardship of their natural habitat so they cannot be held responsible. An environmental historian, Jason Moore, in the grand tradition of inventing a neologism to achieve academic longevity, suggests we should rename this era the Capitalocene.  In his view, the environmental crisis is a result of the unequal accumulation of capital with its attendant power imbalance and that a different global socio-economic order is our only salvation. It might mean reducing the living standards of the richer countries or limiting the growth in living standards of the poorer countries or a bit of both.  I would love it if we could all return to the type of utopian small scale economies so vividly imagined in Marge Piercy’s 1976  novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, but I suspect that this would only be possible with a much reduced world population. 

I have been an unwavering advocate of interdisciplinary study since the 1970’s when I had to fight to be allowed to study a combination of humanities and science A levels. I had to move sixth form to study Maths, Biology and Eng. Lit and eventually combined biological and social science in Human Sciences at uni). It was with huge anticipation therefore that I visited UCL’s Multimedia Anthropology Lab exhibition Speculative Immersion last Friday. The research group’s aim is to develop innovative approaches to anthropology through the use of multi media technologies. Many of the works are joint projects involving artists and anthropologists investigating the loss of cultural diversity and/or environmental degradation. Ten interdisciplinary projects were on show, many at an “experimental” stage, including olfactory art, photomontage, VR animations and interactive audio art.

Sender-chaldecut-Padcal's garden
Still image from VR animation Pascal’s Garden (2019) courtesy of the artists Pascal Sender and Maya Hope Chaldecott

Two moving image works appealed to me. A short 360 degree VR animation, Pascal’s Garden is a cheerfully impressionistic and colourful reimagination of a lush surburban garden with occasional sombre flashes. In the headset the vertical span covered is sufficient to give you vertigo before you plunge down below the surface of a garden pond. The palette and mood remind me of Hockney’s iPad landscapes. I had an interesting exchange with one of its creators, the RA student Pascal Sender, on the potential and limitations of VR /AR art. He apologised for its low resolution but I thought that this was an apt way to represent environmental dissolution and degradation.  The work was created in a single afternoon taking turns on the VR software with his collaborator, the digital anthropologist and XR producer Maya Hope Chaldecott. 

Spriggs Hermione - Gee,Ulaanbaatar

Video still from Gee, Ulaanbaatar (2017)  Image credit: Hermione Spriggs

Hermione Spriggs is an artist-researcher and curator of the project, Five Heads (Tavan Tolgoi), consisting of five artists/collectives and five anthropologists exploring the dramatic rise and fall of the Mongolian mineral industry and its impact on the indigenous culture. Her punchy and concise video, Gee, Ulaanbaatar (2018) produced in collaboration with Alice Armstrong and Curtis Tamm is a fascinating showcase for the Mongolian rapper Big Gee whose lyrics link the loss of traditional values with the environmental degradation of his native land. He emphasises that the solution lies with his fellow Mongolians joining him in resisting the demands of globalisation. Mongolia was until recently a non-monetary culture in balance with nature so Big Gee’s activism can tap into this ethos. “You cannot eat money”  he raps resonating with the cry of the dead primitive gift economies bulldozed by capitalism. The “power of the gift” in such economies has much to teach us. If we could recover the fundamental human value of pro-social reciprocity and scotch the idea that inequality is “natural” we might have a chance of saving the planet.

The fusion of multimedia art with social anthroplogy, a discipline that offers the most profound insights into the human condition, is an interdisciplinary genre with huge potential. Given this blogsite’s mission, its development will be avidly covered. 

Sam Austen: the real horror story

Sam Austen (2)

© Sam Austen – still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

Eyes featured prominently in the films of the four artists I saw today: a Syrian boy whose eyes had seen too much (Erkan Özgen), an evil eye belonging to a capriciously tyrannical and omniscient shapeshifter (William Kentridge) and the dead eyes of computer animated females (Kate Cooper). But it was Sam Austen’s poetic exploration of the relationship  between the eye and consciousness that gave me the most profound aesthetic pleasure and intellectual stimulation. The others will get due consideration in a future post.

Sam Austen’s enjoyably eerie video installation, Real Mirror (2017), at the RA Schools two years ago demonstrated a distinctive combination of imagination and technical ingenuity so I am chuffed, but not surprised, to see growing recognition for his work since then. A group show at LG London gallery, curated under the ambiguous title, Out of Eye, features his latest film, an intense 11 minute meditation on the eye’s slippery, multifaceted metaphorical power, touching on its relationship with love, desire, death, the mind and memory.

Its title, Hologram Burnt On To The Retina, spelt out in a script suggestive of a horror film poses the question: is this the horror of trying to excise an image we would rather not have seen? A devastating scene directly outside the gallery was still freshly minted on my mind’s eye: a group of a dozen junkies living on the street with their drug paraphenalia spread out around them on the pavement.

Sam Austen, still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina, 2018
© Sam Austen – still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

The apparent physicality of our visual memory has encouraged much material imagery  such as branding, burning, etching and tracing to describe the process, but this is an analogy that misses out the non-material complexities of repression. The film  constantly references the mysterious physicality of vision by describing images as material objects as if located in a topology of the mind. I have no quibble with this as visual memories must be encoded by our brain neurons in some way. Austen’s caption “Images travel out from the eye” evokes the Greek theory of vision accepted until the seventeeth century which assumed that the eye emitted rays to capture images of the “real world”. The idea that we are receivers rather than emitters of light gives a completely different concept of the mind’s role in perception and paved the way for the Freudian take on imagery. For me this is summed up beautifully by another of Austen’s powerful coinages: “the cauldron of glances”, a vivid evocation of the mayhem inherent in the storing, sorting and retrieving of snippets of memory from the conscious and unconscious mind. 

Art - various

Austen’s text appears pinned to the screen in the form of pithy slogans crudely painted on fragile banners. The language is not the heavy pseudo-mystical style which seems to attract (and trip up) so many artists; it is snappy and vivid, expressing ideas that although enigmatic are capable of poetic decoding. We are drawn in immediately at the start as the text suggests that the film is addressing a loved and/or desired  person who is the subject of the artist’s gaze and anxious thoughts. “What are you carrying in there? Mountains, Sea, Death? All Dark Now. ” This personalises the narrative giving added poignancy. 

Sam Austen
© Sam Austen – installation view of Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

The film has carefully controlled pace and structure building to a ferocious climax, the electronic whine and growl of the soundtrack matching the accelerating rotation of a plaster “eyeball”  its pitted surface reminding me of the white fatty covering of the cow’s eyes I would source from the abbatoir to dissect for GCSE biology classes. The black “pupil” is evoked by a static blurred dot in the centre of the screen while the eyeball whirls in the background like a lonely hyperactive planet, just one example of the value of his trademark use of physical casting, celluloid film and superimposition.

Sam Austen, still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina, 2018.
© Sam Austen – still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

A stunning sequence which introduces a blast of colour for the first time right at the end of the film sets up the kind of visual ambiguity made famous by the face/vase illusion illustrated below. We are either inside the eye looking out or outside looking in at the back of the retina with our interpretation constantly switching, the background matrix of red dots either representing the retinal cells or the visual field.  Yet again we are forced into acceptance of an uncanny truth: the “real world”  is only a physical construction in the brain’s  visual cortex. Perhaps this is the real horror story.

face vase ilusion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2019: life inside Fortress UK

Richard_Whitby_Jerwood_FVU_Awards_2019_1.2_460_300_c1
Still from film The Lost Ones (2019) copyright Richard Whitby

My most memorable encounter with bureaucracy was in 1976 when a British Rail official embargoed the loading of my moped onto a train at Penzance station after a holiday in Cornwall. This was possible back then, when trains had a guard’s van. The realisation hit me how your life could be held hostage by a zealous stranger brandishing a rulebook. The tank had petrol in it, an apparent fire risk. I was so grateful to his colleagues who helped me to persuade him to let it on. 

State officials all have rulebooks to work to. By imposing these rules they can consign people to poverty, detention or deportation. Those with a cruel edge to their personality will revel in their work. More humane officials will take some comfort from bending the rules. But the real culprits are the people who make the rules. This is a consolation for the official enforcing them and a frustration for those having to conform to them. When tempers flare in such encounters the simple way to mollify the subject is to politely refer to the rules. I was once advised by a boss to counter every complaint from clients by saying: “It is the organisation’s policy”. This may appear robotic but it provides a carapace against the complainant’s anger. These bland, stonewalling guardians of state control were termed “soft cops” by Caryl Churchill in her play of the same name and included  teachers and social workers as well as law enforcers and immigration officers.  She drew on Foucault’s idea of “gentle punishment” and Bentham’s utopian omniscient prison design, the Panopticon, to warn that the threat of state surveillance is enough to maintain a controlled society.

Panoptican
Modern visualisation of Bentham’s design for the Panopticon

The latest edition of this approach is the nudge theory of state intervention where  non-punitive measures are used to influence the climate of opinion and ultimately people’s behaviour. Banning smoking in offices led to pariah status for smokers and a rapid decline in tobacco consumption. The “hostile environment” approach to immigration and repatriation uses the same strategy. The “Go Home” billboards in suspected London hot spots were intended to nudge illegal immigrants into jumping before they were pushed. A soft survelliance operation, co-opting landlords, employers and health workers as immigration officers stoked a climate of fear and suspicion. How ironic that Amber Rudd, the politician responsible for the policy, resigned as Home Secretary blaming her officials for its over-enthusiastic implementation. 

The threatening, gratuitously offensive interviewer whose disembodied voice is a constant presence in Richard Whitby’s gripping film, The Lost Ones (2019), might represent one such official. This script decision by Whitby and his co-writer Alistair Beaton has two consequences. Firstly, the cruelty of the interrogator becomes conflated with the cruelty of the interrogation policy. This puts the focus on the official rather than the politician as the bogeyman.  Secondly, it downplays the unfazed rationality that is often the scariest aspect of any confrontation with a state official, their blank emotional expression leaving you seething. In contrast the hectoring official in Whitby’s film is a necessary device to shock the interviewees into retaliation. The actors playing them had no script so their improvised responses to the provocation of the often absurd questions are genuine and idiosyncratic. 

The Brexit mindset is herding us into a corral of shared national pride. By using questions from the citizenship test and benefit screening, Whitby’s film demonstrates that the barriers built by Border Control and the DWP are symptomatic of the state’s wider goals: the creation of pariah groupings and the enforcement of patriotic conformity. His choice of actors of diverse age and ethnicity reinforces that we can all be threatened with scapegoating. The minimalist setting in an anonymous waiting room with bucket chairs and a credit card reader to accept payments is the contemporary equivalent of the Circumlocution Office from Dickens’ Bleak House where you might spent a lifetime trapped in a bureaucratic circle of hell. The grating soundtrack, the intermittent views of the room shot from behind a ventilation grille and the looped screening generate an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. I felt relieved when the familiarity of the on-screen confrontation indicated my entry point in the loop and I could make my escape. The film’s interviewees were not so lucky, condemned to replay their imprisonment ad infimtum.

The most worrying Panopticon-style use of the internet comes from China where your status as a citizen can be downgraded by your online expressed views. Whitby’s film is adding to the body of art warning that it is not only in authoritarian states that bad things can happen. Good things, like the happy ending to my moped story, need more of us to challenge the surveillance-enforced rulebook that threatens to turn the country into an embattled fortress like the one pictured on the back wall of the The Lost Ones’  interrogation room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2019: has narrative gone?

Jerwood_FVU_Awards_2019_Going__Gone_installed_at_Jerwood_Space_April_2019_Hydar_Dewachi_2_870_490_c1
Installation view of For the First Baby born in Space courtesy of Jerwood/FVU

Since its launch six years ago, the Jerwood/FVU Award has highlighted many talented emerging artists of whom I unashamedly single out Alice May Williams selected in 2016, whose riviting film, Dream City was an intelligent fusion of  text, image and music with a symphonic, three movement structure (slow, fast,slow) .

This year’s award winning films on the theme of Going, Gone produce some memorable moments but the overarching sense of a narrative structure is (perhaps intentionally) missing. They have both opted for videos playing on a continuous loop which is a tricky structure to get right. Any narrative that emerges will be non-linear. A circular narrative with no start or finish point means you can dip in and out.  The images you experience will be ordered but it’s up to you to impose a structure (or not, if that is your choice). The danger is that the film loses coherence and it provides an series of unrelated images that are left unresolved. The potential benefit is that the viewer is engaged to fill in the gaps and make some sense of what they are seeing.

For The First Baby Born in Space (2019)  is a two channel observational documentary of Whitby teenagers devised by the artist-duo, Webb-Ellis. For them it is a “political” act of the artist to resist offering a meaning to their work, a view I thoroughly endorse. An artist who insists that the meaning imposed by others on their work has less validity than their own has really missed the point of art. Looking at art makes us more aware of the delicate process of constructing meaning that we are all engaged in. Our unconscious is devoted to filtering the booming, buzzing confusion of our environment. An artwork is however a pre-filtered sample of the world. Simply by choosing what to present to the viewer the potential meanings we can construct have been narrowed down considerably. The knowledge that the work was commissioned in response to a set theme will also direct our response. This year’s theme references Brexit but also alerts us to alternative meanings about boundaries and transitions filtered through our own cognitive and affective biases.  

Jerwood FVU Awards 2019_For The First Baby Born in Space by Webb-Ellis_3
© Webb-Ellis – still from the film For the First Baby born in Space (2019) courtesy of  the artists

Teenagers are interesting subjects for documentary film-makers because of their wobbly, reticent perch on the threshold of adulthood.  Images of the funfair, beach, sea, bonfires, music, dance, flirtation all shout “our last teenage summer” as they bid farewell to childhood. The most striking images for me were the nightmarish, gaudy reflection of the funfair lights in the waves at night and a dying fish flopping around next to the flowered, flip-flopped foot of the girl angler who hooked it. Death is ever present in this film as teenagers often drift towards it with an attitude of nihlistic bravado. “I’d rather die than be a failure” is one boy’s comment. Given the rise in young male suicides this is either tasteless or requiring immediate intervention. A sense of fragmentation pervades this gentle, non-judgmental  film in which its many subjects are glimpsed so briefly, their narratives so sketchily portrayed that they seem to float untethered from the everyday concerns of living. The source of this fragmentation remains obscured and unexamined so ultimately the artists have achieved their aim of leaving space for our reflections. 

Something has gone. It might be the creative confidence of the artist reluctant to present a definitive line or narrative. It might be absence of development and structure as required elements of post-modern artforms. It might be the rejection of objective truth and the acceptance of subjectivity as the only reality. Whatever has gone, there is a clear alibi available : “iyou find this work incoherent …well that’s intentional… it’s not a sign of our inability to create a coherent narrative. Remember we live in the post-modern era where narratives dissolve into nothingness”  

The other selected artist, Richard Whitby, also uses a looped narrative in his film The Lost Ones but in this case it confers a claustrophobic and absurd atmosphere ideally suited to this satire on citizenship and its control by officers of the state which will be the subject of my next blogpost.

 

 

 

Christian Marclay’s appreciation of asphalt

christian-marclay-mason-s-yard-2019-7
Christian Marclay- installation view of Subtitled (2019) courtesy of White Cube Gallery

Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag (2000), featuring a wailing, distintegrating guitar towed behind a truck and Video Quartet (2002) where the fragments of sounds from selected movie clips are transformed into a musical composition both hold standout places in my top moving image artworks of all time. I had a blast at his awe-inspiring White Cube Bermondsey show in March 2015 which featured his hypercharged, onomatopeic animation, Surround Sounds (2014), projected onto four walls of one of their largest galleries. As this was before mialondonblog was launched I have yet to write about his work so I am delighted to rectify this omission, having just been blown away by his latest exhibition.

Some commentators emphasise the chance element in Marclay’s work but the end result is far from random and the patterns he constructs are totally engaging. His starting point is often to amass a potentially overwhelming volume of source material  but he seems to revel in the obsessive attention to detail required to render it down into a finely tuned architectural structure.  Despite (or maybe because of) the intensity of his working practice he is an artist who has his eye constantly fixed on how his work might impact on the viewer and his own presence is always veiled behind the images he is manipulating so meticulously. 

Close-ups of the asphalt road surface have been a longstanding interest for me whenever they crop up in art and in life. Waiting to cross the road I often look down at the litter strewn gutter where abstract urban art sits waiting to be appreciated. Painted road markings add to the melancholy air of the scene and their deterioration somehow reflects the transitory nature of our physical environment and indeed our own lives in the face of nature’s implacable momentum. The LOOK LEFT and LOOK RIGHT warnings by the kerbside are barely registered by pedestrians yet they are crucial to avoid jaywalking into a passing vehicle.

At White Cube Mason’s Yard, Marclay’s hypnotic animation,  Look (2016-19), prompts us to look beyond these surface marks to the stories they can tell. Thousands of photographs of these painted road signs presented in a rapid fire avalanche create an entrancing thrill ride of banality. The OO’s become interrogatory eyes that dilate and constrict and eventually suffer ignominous decay from maintainance oversights by austerity-blitzed councils. The variable quality of the roadpainters’ craft and how they have been superceded by clunky stencils presents a similar story of cost-cutting and deskilling. 

christian-marclay-mason-s-yard-2019-3
Christian Marclay.  Installation view of Look (2016-19) courtesy of White Cube Gallery

In Marclay’s most celebrated work, The Clock (2000), years of hard labour mining the movie archives yielded thousands of clips documenting the passing of time through its 24 hour cycle. In Subtitled (2019) we get another type of movie archive sampling. Strips of up to a fifth of the frame height, sometimes showing subtitles, are stacked in a 22 layered 10 metre high column. The relationship between the layers can be decoded either through the text or the images as we have no sound to distract us. After acclimatising to the frustration of the fragmented nature of the experience, you are drawn into the intelligent thought processes underlying the editing decisions. Humour and drama fight for precedence. At times aesthetic considerations prevail to produce sumptous and dizzying effects. Marclay’s artistic vision is so distinctive – a dedicated master of the moving image. 

 

Bill Viola: escape from global turmoil?

Viola web
© Bill Viola Studio. Still from Five Angels of the Millenium (2001) courtesy of he artist

Peace and exhilaration have often been my visceral responses to Bill Viola’s meditative and sensuous video installations. But his recent show at the RA, while conferring a certain classic status to his work, only foregrounds the distance that video art has travelled in the thirty years since his emergence as one of its pioneers. Viola stands for an insistence on the value of a traditional spiritual aesthetic over contemporary political relevance which accounts for the RA pairing his videos with works by Michaelangelo in their recent exhibition. Nevertheless it is perhaps indicative of the lip service being paid to video art that not a single book on the genre is available in their bookshop!

Looking back over 25 years of viewing his work, my one abiding niggle is his quasi-religious mysticism but it is precisely this quality that has led to his affirmation by the art establishment, first by the National Gallery and now the RA. The scale, ambition and technical sophistication of Viola’s work is unquestionable but the cloying portentousness can sometimes weigh it down. (I  do not say pretention as this would imply bad faith and I feel that Viola is entirely genuine.) Although humour or at least irony is not essential to an MI artwork it is invaluable in cutting through the po-faced seriousness.  The Reflecting Pool (1976) is the one work here that can raise a smile. Viola’s playful edit creates an intriguing  account of a man jumping into a mysterious pool in a leafy glade his presence manipulated out leaving us to follow the traces of his actions in the water’s rippled surface.  It reminded me of the joy of the early special effects in the silent film era.

Viola discarded this low tech approach as his value soared in the 1990s and he gained the resources to create more spectacular installations. When I first viewed his stunning five screen installation Five Angels of the Millennium in the confined space of the Anthony d’Offay gallery in 2001 I stayed there for a least two hours. I was entranced by its meditative quality and felt that I was tapping into something very profound. Expectation, rebirth, escape and hope is conveyed by the gradual coalesing of the visual effects of slowed down underwater turbulence as a body hits a large pool of water. These images were so unexpected that they could hold your attention for extended periods. Each screen had a simple narrative of the long wait for the climax of the figure’s appearance in the water. A sense of resolution is a valued balm in times of crisis but it can also deflect us from confronting the inherent confusion and absurdity of life.

Adrian Searle in the Guardian was a little unfair to describe Viola’s work as “empty spectacle”. It is not his theatricality but the voyeurism, seen particularly in his Nantes Triptiych, which intrudes on his mother’s death throes, that I find most off-putting. Escapism is an important function of art but perhaps in times of global turmoil it seems a cowardly route for the artist to take. So therefore I salute the current wave of  MI artists who are bravely confronting the grim reality of our lives in the new millenium.

Olivia Hernaïz and Ruth Waters: takedown of the caring corporates

Emotion Over Raisin (Still) Ruth Waters
© Ruth Waters -still from film Emotion over Raisin (2019) 

There is an apocalyptic aura emanating from late capitalism. As a descriptive term it simply defines the transformation of capitalism in the modern era. Perhaps more depressingly it implies that corporate culture, as framed by Marx, has adapted to survive into a post modern world despite the threat of implosion from its inherent absurdities. Marx did not predict that Thatcher-Blairism would dissolve the public/private sector divide. He would be horrified that social media now has the potential to transform us all into entrepreneurs, desperate to promote ourselves as brands. He would perhaps not be surprised by the emergence of the gig economy, led by missionary enterprises like Uber masquerading as liberators while tethering its freelancers to a precarious treadmill.  

This infiltration of capitalist values into the interpersonal realm was foreseen by French Marxist philosopher Guy Debord in the 1960s and this trend has accelerated as our lives have migrated to the internet. To remedy these injustices we have mostly rejected collective insurrection in favour of alternative routes to salvation including individualised “self-care”. At Koppel Project Hive’s exhibition All About You,  two MI artworks from Ruth Waters and Olivia Hernaiz are refreshingly direct and timely reminders of the way that the interpersonal values have been hijacked by our newborn capitalist masters. These artists consider how “care” has entered the corporate lexicon either through stress relieving programmes for their employees (Waters) or through romanticising their relationship with consumers (Hernaiz).    

Ruth Waters is her usual incisive self, gently mocking the mindfulness industry through a subtle and cleverly crafted film that alternates between the anodyne spiel of the trainer and the vividly realised thoughts of the participants as they fail to “live in the moment.” As so often in these types of session they have to follow bizarre instructions, in this case requiring them to relate in various ways to a raisin they have been handed. The impact of the film is ramped up by its rather spooky immersive installation. You sit in a semi-circle of padded office chairs with other carefully chosen props (a vase of flowers on an office cabinet, a functional wall clock) mirroring the film’s setting in the kind of hermetically sealed training room that I mercifully no longer have to experience since my escape from the corporate life.  After enduring such sessions someone tends to vent with the well-worn cliché:

“Well… that’s an hour/an afternoon/ a day of my life that I am never going to get back”

This sense of time spooling away pervades the film. A steady tick-tock marks time on the film’s soundtrack. Death is slyly referenced though a participant’s thoughts that the passing of her cat would at least give her “something to post on instagram”. The vase of flowers seems an anomaly. In this setting it might indicate the mindfulness of sensory focussing. But it also reeks of decay and loss. I’m left with the uneasy sense that mindfulness is an inadequate antidote offered by corporate culture to anaesthetise us, a post-Marxist version of “opium of the people”. Waters’ film is spiced liberally with her signature dry humour – even the title Emotion over Raisin seems to play on the Romantic poets’ valuing of Emotion over Reason, an idea also at the heart of mindfulness culture.

In her video installation All About You (2017) Olivia Hernaïz has allowed corporate advertising culture enough rope to hang itself with only minimal intervention from herself. As the major banks close local branches and move online they have become more impersonal yet with unconscious irony their slogans continue to convey the opposite by evoking a personal caring relationship of mutual respect. The Bank of America’s “Think  what we can do for you” sounds like it is a branch of social work. They might as well be promoting the lie: “It’s you we care about, not your money”.

Hernaiz has composed a romantic swoon of a song with a charming violin and piano accompaniment and deeply ironic lyrics patched together from the taglines of international banks. My favourite is “The more we know about you, the more we can give you”  which seems like a good summary of late capitalism and a frank admission that exploitation of your personal data is integral to their business model. Her video slide show of the banks’ logos and taglines is projected onto the gallery ceiling as we lounge back in the care of a fluffy beanbag. We feel like willing suckers in this sentimental, romantic quest for a financial saviour. Amusing, hard-hitting and thought-provoking take on the insidious nature of personalised marketing strategies.

The exhibition continues until 3 May 2019 at the The Koppel Project Hive at 26 Holborn Viaduct.

 

The strangled shriek

26071629_1550564254999403_387766415035203584_n
© Aimee Neat – still from 104 Million (2018) courtesy of the artist

Immolation, self harm, masochism: these are all behaviours that have been ascribed to Brexit. One Brexit supporter declared:

“I don’t think we’ll be poorer out, but if you told me my family would have to eat grass, I’d still have voted to leave.”

Why are we all so hell-bent on self-destruction? Are we all screaming inside but trying to hold it together so what emerges is a strangled shriek?

As you enter Ballpark Collective’s inaugural show that strangled shriek intermittently pierces the air. It is emanating from Aimee Neat’s looped 4 minute video 104 million (referencing Justin Bieber’s instagram followers). Is the shriek coming from a besotted Belieber or is it from Bieber himself, strangled by his meteoric ascension. Perhaps its origin doesn’t really matter as he is just an avatar for the feted YouTube influencer that any one of them or us can become. But do we really  crave that poisoned chalice?

So many seem to crash and burn after their  time in the sun. The desperate hunt for likes and followers eventually consumes their identity leaving an exhausted, burnt out shell. Neat gives an alarmingly accurate Cindy Shermanesque recreation of the Bieber shell in a succession of subtly different static poses complete with a goofy cat face baseball cap and hoodie. This outfit comically undermines the James Dean scowl and we cannot help wondering if Bieber is fated to be yet another celebrity Icarus. His pursed lips trademark is telling us something – maybe he rejects smiling as a signifier of falsity? The manufactured inscrutability must be hiding something – disdain or despair maybe?  Or do we just project those emotions to protect us from our own repressed shrieks of envy? Fellow Goldsmiths alumna Ruth Waters has pastiched the facial tropes of female Youtube influencers in an equally hilarious video, Outtakes and Bloopers ♥Again,  viewable at https://vimeo.com/255754921. It is no coincidence this video climaxes in suppressed shrieks of giggling.

Ruth Waters Outtakes and Bloopers
Ruth Waters -still from video Outtakes and Bloopers ♥Again courtesy of the artist

Physical immolation features in two of the other videos on show and we start asking- why do we beat ourselves up? Why are we heading for a self harming Brexit? Why do artists debase and immolate themselves? Is gender relevant?  From Yoko Ono to Marina Abramovic and Mona Hatoum to Marianna Simnett, displaying, cutting, probing, contorting, injecting, even asphyxiating the female body have become performance art tropes so it is interesting to see the male take on this.  In Max Leach’s Flesh and Glass, a murky and unsettling 8 minute video with an intense and spooky binaural soundtrack, we see a Hatoumesque sequence of bodily penetration filling the screen with saturated pinky red tissue but with few clues as to what we are viewing. The remaining footage hints it might form part of a macho initiation cult that demands lonely, late-night vigils in vulnerable motors and bloody, self-harming rituals involving blunt pencils. For men, is immolation and masochism a validation of their masculinity?

max leach 2
Max Leach – still from looped video Flesh and Glass courtesy of the artist

In Sarah Lewis’s Death by Blonde a female body appears trapped and cocooned inside a giant nest woven from straw-like blonde hair. With only her splayed thighs visible her sexual vulnerability is heightened by the superimposition of a clip from Lewis’s family video archive showing a child jumping on a trampoline.  The much debated controversial lyric from Paul Simon’s Graceland – “the girl  from New York City who called herself the human trampoline” – comes to mind. Blonde and yellow tones appear throughout so the film glows with sensuous warmth. But the double-edged impact of the stereotype is highlighted by the home movie footage of blonde female children who are bashful and confused as well as cheerful and bouncy.

51128844_2200763156907374_1648039420718515804_n
Sarah Lewis – Installation view of looped video Death by Blonde (2018) courtesy of the artist

Susanne Dietz’s What’s Yours is Mine provides some kind of resolution to the disturbing images in the rest of the show. Her 13 minute film investigates the conflict of self-doubt with self-love through the fictional biographical fragments of a woman who is in constant conversation with her alter-ego. She is not afraid to ask difficult questions. What happens when, not only God is dead, but the hippies and disco as well?  How to feel better? How to be in the World? What to do about an ex-lover’s name tattooed on her neck? Images of  beauty (blue sky seen from a train), comfort (pillows being plumped) and contentment (sleeping  babies)  give some hope. But hope is fragile and temporary. The babies are wax candles that slowly melt from the flame, the sky is fleeting and lacerated by powerlines, the pillows remain unslept on. The carefully edited ambient electronic soundtrack is alternately soothing and alarming.  The  film is gripping, concise, sometimes lighthearted and never portentous which is a triumph considering the weightiness of the questions it tackles. 

52531092_2288007761486974_5894873430791433546_n
Susanne Dietz -Installation view of looped video What’s Yours is Mine (2018) courtesy of the artist

Sun Park’s two short gem-like videos loop on tiny screens.  Looking up will only make you fall distorts a common trope of video art, the shopping mall, by shooting into reflective architectural surfaces. The camera is always moving and the shimmering, crazed, fragmented effect is original and disorienting. It is viewable at https://vimeo.com/manage/329739672/general

Sun Park Looking up... Still_3
Sun Park – still from  video installation Looking up will only make you fall (2019) courtesy of the artist

Sympathetic Magic is a playful comment on the trick photo beloved of tourists where the human figure appears to interact with a famous landmark. Here a finger appears to ping the Shard which resonates like a tuning fork before rotating by a quarter turn.  If only the global financial institutions  it houses were so easy to control! Viewable at https://vimeo.com/329739541

Sun Park Sympathetic Magic Still_2
Sun Park- still from Sympathetic magic (2019) courtesy of the artist

Reality Sandwiches showcases the work of a group of moving image artists who graduated from Goldsmiths University in 2018 and is a model for the effective installation of several video artworks in a relatively confined space, in this case a disused warehouse in Bermondsey funded by the art organisation, SET Alscot Road. Remarkably, there is no sound leakage between the works with each granted sufficient territory to own. The electronic soundtrack from Dietz’s speakers creates a suitably ambiguous aural atmosphere in the gallery.

Like all worthwhile exhibitions this generated much thought. I now have a deeper sense of the psychological processes that underlie Brexit. If we are living in a failed world does that mean we are failures? If hipster London has turned its back, our failed lives will not improve whatever we do. If this means we are fundamentally worthless we deserve to be beaten up. But we prefer to immolate ourselves rather give the opportunity to someone else. Anger against ourselves is often turned outwards to the inchoate Other but in reality we are punishing our own failure to fulfil our uniquely human, conscious prosociality. All these contradictory emotions fighting for expression leave the body politic no choice but to emit a strangled shriek.  

 

Children vs. Brexit: sweet lessons from 1973

 

Sweet Treat Ulla-von-Brandenburg_WG_web-crop-1170x655
Still from film Sweet Feast (2018) courtesy of Ulla von Brandenburg and Whitechapel Gallery

Can the next generation pick up the pieces of our broken world and work together to repair it? There are grounds for optimism with the disappearance of the Brexit majority as the predominantly anti-European elderly demographic shuffle off this mortal coil. Their replacement by optimistic and idealistic young voters could mean an inexorable growth in pro-Europe sentiment, assuming that a corrosive nationalism is not a default mechanism that comes with living through the inevitable instabilties of adulthood. This could not be better represented than in Ulla von Brandenburg’s Sweet Feast currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery until the end of the month.

The centrepiece of  this magnificent installation is her moving and hilarious film  featuring children from a local primary school  who reenact the bizarre events  inspired by the exhibition held at the Whitechapel in January 1973.  Its purpose was to celebrate the diversity of the confectionary cultures of the European countries we were about to join hands with by displaying a vast collection of exotic sweets on nationally badged stands. There was a party atmosphere heralding our new future in the Common Market and a jumbled message from the Whitechapel Gallery PR led to a rumour that on the exhibition’s closing day all sweets would be given away to local children. Five hundred of them turned up and stormed the exhibits in a frenzy of sugar intoxication.  

Extensive press coverage from the archives including a cutting headlined EXHIBITION EATEN AS KIDS RUN AMOK is reproduced in the evocative broadsheet newspaper issued to gallery visitors. The prevailing positive attitudes to our new partners are revealed in all the coverage with one exception. Redolent with Farage and Rees-Mogg bigotry is a condescending and bitter article printed in the January 1973 edition of Arts Review. It is worth going just to get hold of this!

DNA, faces, race and Michael Jackson

Genetic automata Blandy
Installation view of David Blandy and Larry Achiampong film component of Genetic Automata at Arts Catalyst courtesy of readsreads.info

David Blandy’s and Larry Achiampong’s most recent moving image artwork, Genetic Automata at Arts Catalyst, Adam Rutherford’s exposition on the confusion caused by DNA ancestry analysis at the same venue, Edith Wharton’s 1905 best-selling novel exposing the darker side of fashionable New York society, The House of Mirth and Anna Washburn’s dissection of the ongoing US political crisis in her play Shipwrecked at the Almeida Theatre, have stirred up a heady brew of thoughts about race which this post will attempt to boil down.

In The House of Mirth, Wharton attributes a Jewish character’s attraction to the beautiful heroine Lily Bart to “that mixture of artistic sensibility and business astuteness that characterises his race”. But she also uses “race” when refering to the stereotyped behaviour of both women and the “lower classes” suggesting that in the early 20th Century the term is a catch-all for any group that is thought to possess an inherent or innate character. Even today the conflation of race with nationality, ethnicity, genetic variability and/or religion  demonstrates that it remains a powerful metaphor for human difference that clearly has an attraction for us. Unless we can separate out these conflicting categories, race will continue to be misused in political discourse and lead the human species into all manner of dangerous dead-ends.

Inexpensive DNA tests have now become immensely popular allowing individuals to tease out the different “races”  hidden in their genetic ancestry.  Although the results are based on scientifically invalid assumptions about human evolution and racial identity, they seem to provide a personal narrative for some people who then try to integrate it into their existing identity. The reason the ethnic breakdown is invalid is because it takes no account of the massive migratory movements around the world that are a distinguishing feature of our species and that make us all mongrels. As Rutherford explained in his Arts Catalyst presentation it means nothing to say you are 20% German when we cannot define what the German gene pool looks like. Genes flow with little regard for arbitrary human borders. The striking visual counterpoint to this in Genetic Automata is a screen displaying a world map animation digitally representing the current global flow of migrants to and from the UK.

img_20190226_202737529
Installation view of Genetic Automata-showing monitor of migration animation map

Another screen presents Youtube footage from a promotional gimmick dreamed up by the internet travel company, monmodo, who filmed selected consumers responding to the ethnic breakdown of their DNA test results. Muted and slightly slowed down, the facial expressions are our only clue: shock, surprise, incredulity, scepticism and delight compete for dominance as long-held assumptions about their identity are thrown into the air.  I remember a similar sequence on a TV documentary that showed a rabid English nationalist seriously discombobulated by his discovery of unsuspected Turkish and Romany ancestors.

img_20190226_202811295
Installation view of Genetic Automata- monitor showing still taken from Youtube clip of reactions to DNA ancestry results

When I put it to Rutherford that alt-right racists faced with DNA evidence of their own diverse origins might change their rigid perception of race, he countered with a nostrum of Voltaire’s paraphrased as: “Rational argument cannot challenge the beliefs of a man whose believes them to be founded on rational argument”. He says the phrase “If you were offered a solution of 80% water and 20% cyanide would you drink it?” is the standard response of the racist community to DNA results demonstrating a mixed racial origin. Rutherford’s response is probably not that far from the truth but as an ex-teacher I cannot help feeling that minds can be opened if we get them early enough. Pessimists would argue that the insidious influence of media and popular culture is more powerful than education.

Michael Jackson’s demise was partly attributable to the crushing of his personal identity between the forces of an avaricious music industry and the adulation of his fans. His legacy as a case study in celebrity disintegration is bound up with the blurring of his own racial identity through skin whiteners, depigmentation due to vitiligo and cosmetic surgery to de-Africanise his face.  Massive irony then that this image is reinforced by John Landis’s  groundbreaking music video for “Black or White”, shown muted as part of the Genetic Automata installation, released 30 years ago and accruing 270M Youtube views. It can be read either as an appeal for universal love or a whitewash of US post-colonial colour-blindness or a cynical globally targeted marketing  stunt. For me it comes into the category of a hugely sentimental clarion call that one is suckered into unwillingly. Yet again we focus on the diversity of  human faces. They lip-synch the song morphing between races and genders, foreshadowing the current epidemic of body image enhancement that Instagram and apps like Facetune are promoting. Perhaps body fascism needs to be located in the wider historical context of the growth of racism, anti-semitism and authoritarian politics. The Third Reich was not the only society that idolised the “body beautiful”. In Wharton’s Gilded Age New York the elevated purchasing power of female beauty was symptomatic of a deeper social malaise.

An update of the digitally manipulated face features prominently in the 12 minute film included in the installation. An array of faces do not morph but stand alone as fully realised idiosyncratic personalities with indeterminate racial origin. Unlike the Landis version we get no clear codification of racial archetypes and we left pondering where they might have come from. Close ups of human skin and feathers from Darwin’s stuffed finches reinforce the feeling that our perceptions are always literally superficial.

Akinade almeida
Fisayo Akinade -publicity still for Anna Washburn’s Shipwrecked  © Almeida Theatre

The complexities of racial stereotyping are neatly highlighted by one of the characters in the play Shipwrecked, played movingly by the brilliant Fisayo Akinade. He is a young African orphaned in Kenya and adopted by evangelical Christians and Trump supporters living in redneck country. His main complaint is that his blackness is used by his classmates to place him in the indigenous African-American category whose heritage of slavery and civil rights abuse he does not share. “But I’m African, it is not the same!”

In one sense the human face could be a route out of our current mess. The universality of human non-verbal facial expressions means that we can look beyond the surface when interacting with each other, connecting to a common ancestry and consciousness. Once the glamour of online interaction starts to pall, perhaps we will realise that face to face communication and direct eye contact has evolved to bring the human species together rather than to divide it.

Three hours, three Turner Prize nominees; three more hours to see

Forensic architecture
© Forensic Architecture, video still from Killing in Umm al–Hiran 18 January 2017 (2018)

The Turner Prize is the contemporary art world’s annual opportunity to widen its customer base. However asking the punters to devote six hours to take in the artworks of all four nominees is not going to help popularise contemporary art. I managed three nominees in three hours so Naeem Mohaimen’s intriguing sounding films will have to wait for another time.  Last year I was bemoaning the total lack of MI art among the nominees. This year I should be celebrating, given all four are using this form. I was delighted that Forensic Architecture had been nominated as their campaigning work is admirable. They are giving renewed hope to what art can achieve and they deserve to win although they have said they would prefer to win a case than a prize. Unfortunately Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thomson’s films look passé in comparison suggesting the judges’ ignorance of current trends in MI art.

In court, forensic scientists are routinely called as expert witnesses.  Can artworks also take on this role? This is one of the many questions that have been asked of Forensic Architecture. The group’s purpose is tell the stories of the unheard voices in the unbalanced media war against state and military oppression. Their clinical investigations which have included a drone strike in Afghanistan and a possible racist murder in Germany, uncover the obfuscation that often clouds the “official” accounts.  They have then actively sought to present their findings in a wide range of forums including courts, tribunals and art galleries.  So does this mean that they are a political rather than an artistic organisation? It can be argued that as their case studies are communicated with such stunning visual clarity and persuasiveness, they can be appreciated both as aesthetic works as well as political advocacy.

At the Tate they have chosen to focus on two ongoing investigations from the Middle East conflict that relate to the appropriation of traditional Bedouin settlements in the Negev Desert by the Israeli government. In the first we are introduced to the drama of an Israeli dawn raid on a Bedouin village intended to drive out the inhabitants through  footage shot by a campaigning video journalist. This is totally gripping. The erratically filmed sequences are then analysed through synchronising them with thermal imaging police helicopter footage of the same events. A realistic reenactment of the events neatly demonstrates how the physical laws of motion undermine the security forces version of their shooting of one of the villagers in his car.

Inevitably Forensic Architecture will face the charge of fetishising suffering for artistic ends. The group’s founder, Eyal Weizman, has explored this issue in his treatise The Least of all Possible Evils. There he examines the long history of fetishising objects, in the sense of granting them agency, as in the common phrase: “the evidence will speak for itself”. In reality, the interpretation of what the evidence is saying comes down to those like himself who act as rhetoricians, using theatricality, narrative and the technologies of demonstration in a practice he describes as “forensic aesthetics”. If they were just artworks it would be worrying but as they also have a political function they exist in a different moral universe. The audience are not required to sit in judgement, we can simply admire the clarity of the analysis. It is up to those in power to absorb the detail and arrive at just decisions concerning the protagonists.

Watching the famous three channel video work 77sqm_9:26min when I first saw this group’s work at the ICA in March 2018, I was struck by the compassion and empathy they display while still remaining detached. The work presents a detailed analysis of the events surrounding the murder of a young Muslim in a German internet cafe including the tracking of the movements of all those present. Listening to the Turkish narrator on headphones, I was immediately struck by the dignity that this confers on the community. They are no longer victims. We the audience are outside their grief. In the closing minutes of the video the English translation came on through a loudspeaker but if this was a technical glitch it only reinforced the sense that the work was tied in intimately to those directed affected. The Forensic Architecture team act as scientists but allow the evidence to move us. So in this work, the movements of the protagonists in the internet cafe are tracked and displayed as timelines of different colours. In the final frame of the video we are jolted as the red timeline of the murdered man comes to an abrupt halt while the onlookers’ timelines continue.

The New Zealand artist, Luke Willis Thompson has also been accused of fetishising suffering for artistic gain. His work shown here includes two short black and white silent 16mm minimalist films, autoportrait and Cemetery for Uniforms and Liveries identical in format to the Andy Warhol Screen Tests from the early 1960s. Because they are portraits of the relatives of black victims of police killings, he has inspired protests that he (and the complicit galleries) are part of the white media establishment exploiting black pain for personal gain. Some of the debate has focused on the whether he can claim black heritage being descended from an indigenous Fijian. I am left pondering what would be gained from stopping white artists like David Blandy from exposing the destructive legacy of colonialism as in the brilliant Finding Fanon trilogy?

Charlotte Prodger’s selected work, BRIDGIT, inhabits the densely populated genre of moving image art that I tend to dub “Who am I?”  a question commonly used as an induction assignment for A level Art students. This can get dangerously close to self-indulgence if we cannot discern the wider implications of the autobiographical incidents recorded. I came away with no new insights into the gender/queer identity issues she explores. Although she does not feature on-screen (apart from her feet!) her narration puts us inside her head, looking out for much of the time at some admittedly beautiful, but in MI art terms, commonplace landscapes.

Seeing this exhibition I am of course reminded of all the brilliant MI work I have seen recently and wonder why my judgement seems so out of kilter with the judges of the Turner Prize. However if Forensic Architecture win I will be happy: the most impressive work I have seen all year.

 

Abu Hamdan explores “truth” through earwitness testimony

abuhamden
Still of a spectrogram from video Rubber Coated Steel (2016). © Lawrence Abu Hamdan

“There are different types of truth: scientific truth, legal truth and artistic truth amongst them”

This was Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s response when I questioned whether his film might contribute to our increasingly insecure grasp on the “truth” engendered by Trump-era “fake news”. He was addressing an audience at a Whitechapel Gallery event I attended a year ago showcasing the Jarman Award 2017 nominees. His response seemed entirely cogent to me. His nominated film, Rubber Coated Bullets (2016), an artistic extrapolation of his work as an acoustic analyst for the human rights research group, Forensic Architecture, navigates a route between these three “truths” using material from their investigation into the shooting of two Palestinian youths by Israeli soldiers in 2014. He makes it clear that his work has a different aim, a less explicitly advocatory one than the original investigation, which is to raise the problems of defining reality when indistinct perceptual inputs have been filtered through our inbuilt unconscious prejudices.

Much of the film is set in a concrete shooting gallery where ominous streaks mark the walls. We are put in the position of the shooter with the spectrograms (visual representations of the frequency and duration of gunshots recorded by Abu Hamdan) replacing the silhouettes of bodies that are the marksman’s usual targets. An unseen, unheard but gripping courtroom drama unfolds through subtitled text. The spectrograms provide convincing evidence that the boys were shot by live ammunition, not rubber bullets as originally claimed by the authorities. The text of the legal and forensic arguments are fictionalised as the hearing that investigated the killing did not admit the forensic evidence which suggested that the replacement of rubber bullets with live rounds was intentional. The police officer who fired the fatal shot entered a manslaughter plea and was sentenced to nine months for  “causing death by negligence.” Abu Hamdan’s text neatly exposes the conflicts between political pressures and scientific evidence playing out in a legal setting.

Abu Hamdan’s originality and flair has already been recognised by winning a number of international art prizes. Although he did not win the Jarman Award I felt he was robbed: he was the strongest nominee by miles. His groundbreaking work has recently been recognised by a showcase performance at the Tate Modern and at a solo exhibition, Ear Witness Theatre at Chisenhale Gallery. I am delighted to see he has been nominated for the 2019 Turner Prize.This is a really exciting time for art as he has invented a fascinating new sub-genre that combines acoustic science, aesthetics, cognitive psychology and politics.

Walled  Unwalled (2018) shown at Tate Modern in early October is a film inspired by Abu Hamdan’s interviews with ex-political prisoners as part of an Amnesty International investigation. They had endured incarceration in the notorious Saydnaya torture/interrogation centre of the Syrian regime in which an estimated 13,000 people have been executed since 2011.  He found that since they were held in almost complete darkness their memories were encoded entirely in auditory form. As with the blind, their sense of hearing became markedly more acute and they were able to build up an accurate auditory map of the prison. As Abu Hamdan explains ” Hearing things meant making images in the mind…it really is cross-sensory”  The starvation diet they suffered led to distorted memories so their acute hunger massively attenuated the relevant sounds such as the thud of bread hitting the floor outside their cell doors. In the 20 minute film a wide range of examples illustrate the symbolic nature of walls  and the unreliable nature of auditory testimony collected through them. He also reaches the astonishing conclusion that the latest sub-atomic detection technology means that all walls are penetrable so now there is literally nowhere to hide.

The performance that followed was build around 95 objects that were associated with sounds generated by his investigation.  So for example a punch does not sound like we expect it to because the cinema foley artist substitutes a simulation for the real thing. These objects were named but unseen at the Tate. At Chisenhale the same text is used but here all the objects are on show as an installation, Earwitness Inventory (2018).

At Chisenhale his audio work, Saydnaya (the missing 19db)  is a powerful and moving experience. You listen in a darkened chamber recalling a prison cell with two narrow slits to allow us to see out into the gallery. It is filled with tense periods of silence highlighting the gruesome testimony of the prisoners whispered reenactments and their interview statements. Whispering was the only way to communicate with fellow prisoners. The 19 decibels refers to the drop in the typical whispering volume recalled by those prisoners who were detained after 2011 compared to the ordinary prison regime prior to his time.  It is a chilling physical manifestation of the degree of terror imposed.

abu hamden
Still from video Walled Unwalled (2018) © Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Forensic Architecture’s investigations and the spin-off work by artists like Abu Hamdan give hope to those of us who are keen to see the dissolution of the art/science divide and the blurring  of the boundary between art and advocacy.

Pilvi Takala, “The Stroker”: resolving intimacy and control?

Stroker-still2-1024x576
© Pilvi Takala – still from two channel video, The Stroker (2017), courtesy of the artist

I once had a boss who, like the protagonist in Pilvi Takala’s film, The Stroker, would invariably touch you on the upper arm whenever he encountered you. Initially this signifier of his “touchy-feely” management style was comforting. Here was someone trying to develop  a different kind of boss/worker relationship while conferring a sense of fellow-feeling with his subordinates. Simultaneously I and my colleagues experienced an uneasy dissonance of the blurred lines between intimacy and control.

It is no surprise that such an intelligent and subversive artist as Takala would be drawn to this messy social quagmire, where the mantras of “breaking down the boundaries between life and work” and “fermenting interactions that will boost creativity” are gospel. This has to be one of the most gripping and thought-provoking works I have seen in a while. Thanks to DJB for the tip-off! I urge you to get down to Carlos/Ishikawa at 88 Mile End Road before the show closes on 18 August.

Takala’s 14 minute two-channel video installation derives from her ten-day undercover placement in the futuristic offices of Second Home in Spitalfields, now a hipster East London neighbourhood. This gargantuan workspace venture is in essence a scaled-up, luxury version of the internet cafe. Instead of coffee and cake you get a well-being programme including high spec restaurants and cultural events. But you just can’t just roll up and book a slot. You can hire a desk for £375 a month but expect to be vetted for your entrepreneurialism and creativity. Second Home companies or “members” have been “curated” by its owners to create the optimum vibe by including cool creative start-ups as well as multinationals like the management consultants Ernst and Young looking for some street cred.

Thanks to a fruitful chat with Regina Lazarenko, the gallery’s Assistant Director and an email exchange with the artist, I gained valuable insight into the artwork’s genesis.  Takala planned what, on first sight, is a standard social psychology experiment – a covert observational study into non verbal communication.  With the consent of the Second Home management, she adopted the role of a well-being consultant. She walked through the workplace greeting her co-workers with a touch on the shoulder and a “how is it  going?” greeting.   Inevitably the responses to this approach from a stranger varied widely from hostility and anxiety to avoidance and wary appreciation. A hidden camera and sound recorder helped to capture her interventions.

However in a move reminiscent of Jeremy Deller, another leading artist who places major importance on respect for  participants in his artworks, she transformed her observations into re-enactments of the interactions. The result is a compelling micro-analysis of our ambivalence to touch. She carefully exposes the way our feelings of discomfort visibly leak through our non-verbal gestures. But more fundamentally Takala is opening up a debate on the business ethics of conflating workplace and personal relationship modes.  In a memo to all the Second Home members she partly reveals her subterfuge by announcing that “the stroker”  is the founder of the well-being organisation, Personnel Touch, a company title that is a masterful linguistic melding of the commercial and the intimate. The ultimate irony is that Takala’s work as a performance artist is now showcased on the cultural events page of the Second Home website as an example of their tagline: “More than just a workspace, almost a way of living.” Among the many telling moments in her film is a scene which reveals the “co-worker” with the most positive reaction to the stranger’s touch of recognition – the office cleaner.

Takala combines the chutzpah and bravery of the prankster with the compassion and acute eye of the social critic. Her takedown of Disney’s hegonomy of the manufactured image in Real Snow White (2006) – https://vimeo.com/11757111 – is another brilliant exposé of the absurd world we now live in. Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967) is again proven to be so prescient: the commodity has sucessfully colonised all social life.

Real-snow-white-1-1920x1255
© Pilvi Takala – still from video, Real Snow White (2009), courtesy of the artist

Moved and startled by Goldsmiths’ postgraduate artists

 

Anna-Mikkola---Dont-They-Ever-Stop-Migrating-screenshot (1)
Still from VR video Don’t they ever stop migrating (2018) ©Anna Mikkola

This is the third of my annual encounters with the artists at the Goldsmiths’ Degree Show and the impact they have on me is still startling. This year there was less of the controlled anger on display but many of the works seemed to get to me at an emotional level rather than an intellectual one. I started with the artists graduating from the new MFA in Artist’s Film and Moving Image.

PARK_NTHT_Still 1
Still from video Now and There, Here and Then (2018) ©Sun Park

For me, Now and There, Here and Then (2018)  was one of the most moving works on show. It is a sensitive, intelligent, concise and sharply observed work seemingly inspired by the Korean artist Sun Park’s sense of alienation at being so far from her home and family. It is presented as an enlarged phone screen projected into the centre of a phoneshaped screen set on the floor at an angle. We are immediately confronted with the ubiquity of video recording  and how it mediates and distances our experience of the world. We hear a conversation  between a mother who lives in Korea and her daughter who is a student artist in the UK relaying their experience of their environment to each other by video footage (a neat reversal of the face-focussed video call!) Their own video clips, mostly of the sky, create a sense of intimacy and the topics they discuss include  the daughter’s insecurities as an artist, the mother’s disillusionment with her life choices,  the nature of art and the limitations of the video image. Among the highlights was the comment when a vapour trail  is recorded and the mother says: “Look, the aeroplane has made you an artwork.” At one point we hear the comment about a shot of the dawn: “You can only see the half of it through the camera” –  a vital warning to all moving image artists. This was a highly original work that had much to say on the emotional side-effects of globalisation and technology.

02_DIETZ_BunkerKummerstr_PLAYSPACE
Still from Bunker on Kummerstraße (Grief Street) 2018, two-channel video installation           © Susanne Dietz

Susanne Dietz, originally from Germany, also uses mother-daughter relationships as a springboard in her films. One film comprises handheld footage as she follows her mother around a graveyard incidentally passing by the distinctive and beautiful grave stones. (Maybe stonemasons in Germany are given a freer hand in designing exotic monuments for the dead.)  Her mother is looking for her chosen plot and final resting place but she is stymied by her failing memory. Dietz’s complementary film Bunker on Kummerstrasse (Grief Street), 2018 is a carefully controlled and gripping meditation on a disused building, home to memories we might wish to let go.  The stately progress of the camera as it ascends and descends through the seven stories of an aboveground bunker still standing from the Nazi era gives a sense that a home can be conjured even out of concrete bleakness. The drum solo that accompanies much of the film adds an urgency to the atmosphere but also homeliness when we eventually reach the floor where we fleetingly view the drummer himself. Fluffy bedpillows also get star billing. As Dietz explains: “We just want something soft to fit between our heads and the earth”. On reflection, this is as significant as Anselm Keifer’s work on Germany’s past.

ducks don't drown
Still from video Ducks Don’t drown (2018) ©Max Leach

Max Leach’s single channel film Ducks Don’t Drown (2018) has an unsettling aura magnified by being projected on a large linen sheet that gives a subtle and almost imperceptible wobble to the image as it is ruffled by drafts. The hyper-real CGI  of a homely interior contrasts with the disturbing, murky sound track derived from a series of interviews with male Dark Web users relishing their freedom to choose from a long shopping list of recreational drugs. It gives a rather bleak window onto the otherwise opaque landscape of the Dark Web. Leach’s short soundpiece that captures the violent energy of laddish banter provides an enjoyable counterpoint to his film. He has much to say on masculinity so I look forward to more in the same vein.

Ukrit Sa-nguanhai’s Enduring Body (2018) is a captivating and visually sumptuous exploration of the metaphorical power of cancer. It is inspired by a childhood memory of her rural Thai hometown when a number of her teachers died mysteriously one after another from the disease.  The film begins with a teacher’s funeral and ends with a death mask digitally reconstructed by 3D printer. In between she has created touching vignettes to illustrate the dark, anxious humour of our fears.  A writhing massed tangle of crocodiles emerges from the gloom like invading tumor cells. By superimposition of microscopic cell images the walls of a patient’s bedroom seem to undulate.  A cancer patient coyly begins a romance that leads to game of strip poker. I was gripped by the 25 minute film and would have happily stayed to view it again. It was a pleasure to be immersed in the quirky and beautiful world that Sa-nganhai has so carefully crafted. But I was determined to see as much MI art as possible so I moved on to the Fine Art MFA Show.

Many of the Fine Art graduates incorporated MI into their work including VR. I nearly toppled over inside the VR world constructed by Anna Mikkola.  You float above a vertiginous mountain landscape in the midst of a flock of black birds wheeling around you. Hitchcock would have loved VR. As part of her eclectic installation, Life is Necessarily Complex (2018) Mikkola is highlighting the increasingly synthetic and simplified versions of the natural world we are becoming inured to as technology begins to mould life processes and living organisms.

Alexa London 2025
Installation view of Bedroom, London 2025 (2018) © Alexa Phillips

VR is also the bogyman in the startling live scenario designed by Alexa Phillips. In Bedroom, London 2025 she illustrates the dystopian end point of isolation, withdrawal and listlessness that our self focussed screen based life might lead to with a seven level bunk bed where the occupants are held in stasis by their 1984-style utilitarian tin VR headsets.

Johanne Bunkertown
Still from video installation Bunkertown (2018) © Johanne Wort

I was determined to see Johanne Wort’s intriguingly titled Bunkertown (2018) so it was my last stop as the frenetic Preview came to a close. Appropriately sited in the gabled loft space of the converted church which is the latest addition to the Goldsmiths’ art buildings,  the two channel video installation did not disappoint. Here at last was the cutting satirical work I had been waiting for. We sit in an estate agent’s office with water cooler at hand to view a glossy CGI promo for their latest offer to the paranoid home seeker. Building on the current fashion for gated housing developments, she has skillfully envisioned a hermetically sealed  life/work/play “seven star luxury” bunker that owes something to the Eden Project. This type of fantasy world prevalent during the Cold War now seems uncomfortably close to reality as climate change threatens to wreck our environment and the rich head for the hills.

Aimee Neat
Video still from installation A Sculpture of your Grief (2018) © Aimee Neat

With sixty artists to survey in one evening I am sure I missed some excellent work. I also enjoyed Aimee Neat’s observation of media performers being reduced to “happy” or “sad” emoticons in her installation A Sculpture of your Grief (2018) where she takes a satirical sideswipe at the rictus grin that hides the pain of living life on the revolving circus of the internet. Sheila Buckley’s Peepers (2018) was a disturbing and thrilling mash-up of explicit Celtic stone carvings with a vortical CGI and laser installation – a visceral and thought-provoking blast.

img_20180712_203720559_ll
Installation view of Peepers (2018) Sheila Buckley  Photo image ©Dave Andrews

For controlled anger I need only turn to the Goldsmiths academic and activist, Ayal Weisman. His Turner Prize nominated Forensic Architecture research group will be the focus of a future blogpost.

Unearthing the talent at Chelsea College Degree Shows

 

Molly Burdett
Still from Love Birds (2018) Copyright Molly Burdett

I open a door and enter a darkened room. A screen across the room fills my visual field. I am standing on a thin carpet of soil. The mustiness of damp earth fills the darkness. I am looking at six sets of glazed earthenware bowls and plates perched on the  rim of  circular earth mound surrounding a bonfire that exudes a friendly warmth. But they do not need the heat as they are already fired. This anomalous narrative continues. The pots are buried carefully in the clayey soil and then disinterred and washed by hand in a stream and returned to the mound to dry.  This simple film, Chiara Gilmore’s From…to (2018) has the feel of a strange ritual and packs a sensual and intellectual punch. I am transfixed by the visual delights of flame reflecting on glaze and water dissolving earth. We feel the proximity of the natural material to the human artefact and are reminded that moulding and firing clay is an archetypal example of primordial human material culture. This meditation on the natural cycles that we are all subject to was one of the highlights of the Chelsea Fine Art Degree show this year.

I enter a small alcove with three TV screens on the walls. The atmospheric installation of polished wooden steps so reminiscent of school prizegiving and the type of  industrial carpet tiles and shuttered blinds that homogenise office life  captures the uneasy dissonance inherent in a traditional school  environment seeking to emulate  the corporate world. We feel the claustrophobic school ethos of testing, competition and rewards as it is played out through three dramatic narratives of the different ways to cheat the test. What is impressive is Rosie Abbey’s tight interlocking of the sound and visuals from the parallel  narratives so we feel caught up the midst of the pupil’s anxiety acted with conviction by young adults. The most improved (2018) is thoughtful and incisive. It nails the absurd and damaging  impact of testing on our education system.

Two films from the Graphic Design Communication Degree Show particularly impressed me. Molly Burdett’s accomplished film, Love Birds (2018), is a concise and moving portrait of the dying sport of pigeon racing, showing empathy and respect to all involved. Its emotional significance for the pigeon owners is referenced throughout by visual allusions to the quasi-parental bonds with their birds. Her apposite choice of interview clips highlighted women’s unsung roles in the sport, one woman commenting that pigeons need caring during the day while husbands are out at work.  Burdett’s mini documentary was a carefully crafted masterclass in economy and impact – a talent to watch.

Not many laughs were on offer but La Rupture (2018), Léna le Rigoleur’s hilarious, whipsmart riposte to the etiquette failures in digitally mediated relationships made up for that. It opens with a quickfire satirising of the panoply of romcom break up tropes following the heroine’s receipt of the annoying justification from her boyfriend: “It’s over. Sorry it’s not u, it’s me  xx” As this is a text rather than direct speech the dumpees only recourse is to fire back digitally, directly addressing the dumper in the form of a video tutorial dissecting the gross rudeness of his breakup method. This coolly delivered “revenge art” is a welcome antidote to the self-indulgent art of despair so often provoked by this situation. You can have a chortle as it is posted online at  https://player.vimeo.com/video/274659168.

Many other neat ideas popped up in the shows including Reece Higham’s film being shown simultaneously on multiple screens of different vintages going back to cathode ray tubes to demonstrate the way advances in technology change our perception of narrative.

Overall a really worthwhile day at Chelsea even though much digging was required to unearth these gems. I will be back next summer as the ongoing search is addictive.

How weird is the RA Schools Show 2018?

 

34078490_477997852703080_6770066595457794048_n
Model of Karel Vogel’s Draped Woman with bunch of dahlias and Ribena Mini (2018). Courtesy of the artist, Charlie Fegan

“It’s all a bit weird” said a middle-aged man as he hurried past me at the RA Schools show last week. As a fellow middle-aged male he might have expected me to agree but he did not wait for my reply. Having thought about it since, the overall weirdness quotient of this show was in fact quite low but the two artists that struck me as the most and the least weird were my particular favourites. British-Chinese/Vietnamese artist Will Pham’s film An Viet (Well Settled) was a touching insight into a staple subject of mainstream documentary TV: the fate of migrant communities in the UK. The weird ambiance of Charlie Fegan’s video installation matched the weirdness of his sources: an obscure political/mystical tract on unemployment by the notorious artist, Eric Gill, better known for his erotic art was allied with an unloved, deteriorating public sculpture, Draped Woman, cast in concrete by an obscure Czech artist, Karel Vogel. It languishes on the verge of the A4 Great West Road in West London but is now listed.

08-RA-Schools-Show-2018---Will-Pham---Photo-by-Andy-Keate
Installation view of An Viet (Well Settled), 2018 – video by Will Pham. Photo credit Andy Keate

Will Pham evidently possesses the key gift required by documentary makers: he can get his interviewees to be uninhibited under the scrutiny of his camera. The highlight of his 20 minute film are two people talking to camera who seem to be relaxed by Will’s reassuring off-camera presence. One is the son of the Vietnamese exile, Vu Thanh Khanh, the founder of the An Viet community centre in Hackney serving refugees from the aftermath of the Vietnam War. He reads passages from his father’s autobiography occasionally choking with the emotion and eventually leaving the room in distress. Another is a young woman who describes her work with the centre and her feelings about culture and personhood. As a Scandinavian who reads French, working with the UK Vietnamese community she has come to realise that being a person is more significant than being a member of a cultural group. Pham takes the deliberate decision not edit out an interrupting mobile call  but allows us to see her all too human flash of excitement at the received message.

In the closing sequence a young Vietnamese couple make hesitant moves as they attempt ballroom dance steps together. As their movements become more fluent we are implicitly asked to ponder the balance between the migrant’s competing need to assimilate into the host culture while honouring their own cultural hinterland.

Inevitably your appreciation of an artwork is enhanced if you have some personal connection to its content. I own a copy of the obscure 1933 Eric Gill pamphlet Unemployment quoted at length in Fegan’s three minute video NO BLACK MAGIC? so I was probably a step ahead of most visitors to this workGill’s diatribe against the advent of a future dominated by “machinery” highlights the idea, now commonplace, that the leisure time it generates might be available for life enhancing cultural pursuits (HIGHER THINGS  according to Gill’s emphasis). As if to illustrate the location of the sublime in the everyday grind, Fegan’s video is a reverse tracking shot through an A4 pedestrian underpass. In the closing frame we emerge onto the opposite side of the dual carriageway with the erotically charged Draped Woman sculpture just visible in the dusk as the rush hour traffic roars past her. We are given a better impression of the sculpture as Fegan has produced a scale replica adorned with discarded flowers and a drink carton. Gill’s  grooming of his teenage daughters by using them as life models and his subsequent sexual abuse is well-known and both his misogyny as well as his anti capitalism is apparent in Unemployment.

So many questions are thrown up by this atmospheric and unsettling artwork. What is the legacy of an artist with such a disturbing biograph? Can an artist be both enlightening and antedeluvian? How should we treat his work? Would we be right to censor it? Do we value public art? Can concrete be a sensuous medium? Why are some public sculptures valued and others left to languish?

Hopefully more people will read Unemployment and visit the Draped Woman as a result of the exposure they have gained through Fegan’s work.

 

Scything semantics at Knole: Alice May Williams dissects primogeniture

download (3)
Still from film installation, By the Accident of Your Birth, 2018 .  Courtesy of the artist Alice May Williams

The much anticipated new film by one of my favourite moving-image artists, Alice May Williams, made my journey out to Knole House in Sevenoaks last week very worthwhile. Five artists present their artworks in the house and grounds including the Turner Prize winner, Lubaina Himid, as part of A Woman’s Place, a project curated by Lucy Day and Eliza Gluckman. Williams dual-screen 23 minute film installation, By the Accident of Your Birth, is the work that most successfully captures the contemporary significance of Knole and its murky family history. Taking the contrasting figures of Vita Sackville-West and her cousin Eddy as her starting point, she comprehensively rolls up a vast range of boundary-challenging issues including division by spatial, gender, botanical, linguistic and national categories. There is even an intimation of the Windrush and Brexit controversies by slotting in a sly aside on the vagaries of defining citizenship and nostalgia for the blue UK passport. Williams instills in the viewer the urgent imperative to address the complexities of identity fluidity in all its forms in this bigoted era of ours.

Williams’ signature strengths, first spotted by the Jerwood Award panel, are applied in creating a compelling multilayered experience that conveys a coherent argument. The film is concisely edited and the carefully synchronised narration and footage incorporate a vast array of historical examples including the third androgynous sex posited by Greek mythology and Vita’s anomalous position of failing to inherit Knole because she lacked a penis. The role of lawyers and doctors in policing gender is contrasted with the naturalist’s obsession with categorising species. The concepts of hybridisation and continuuum infiltrate the film’s imagery which gives a panoramic exposition on how distinct boundaries are required to appease our unconscious insecurities.

There is rich seam of irony to be mined in the Knole disinheritance debacle. Williams is highly sensitive to this and delicate witty touches highlighting the absurdity of gender categorisation pop up throughout the film.  Vita, a pioneering garden designer, had many lesbian affairs and was barred from inheriting her beloved childhood home but produced heirs through her devoted lifelong marriage to the diplomat Harold Nicholson. Her cousin, Eddy Sackville West, a music critic who championed Benjamin Britten, inherited Knole and the barony but as a largely closeted gay man never married and left no heirs. Eddy was drawn to Berlin as more conducive to his lifestyle and eventually left Knole to live in Ireland.

Gender confusion is given a subtle twist by noting that androgynous bisexual plant species can be given masculine names. Just one example, as Williams aptly describes it, of how semantics “scythe” through our conception of the world and divide it into rigid arbitrary categories. A visual counterpart to these binary oppositions is worked out through line drawing portraits that appear superimposed on the filmed footage illustrating the androgynous physiognomy of the Sackville-West dynasty.

Installing contemporary art in a stately home has its problems and the compromises reached highlight the power imbalance between art and the heritage industry. Williams’ film is being shown in a tiny side room that only two people can view at one time. I can see the logic of its location as it is accessed through Eddy’s atmospheric music room high in the Gatehouse Tower. But even under optimal conditions that means that maybe 20 people a day can view the film in its entirety, a fraction of the 500+ daily visitors to Knole. Releasing it online, as Lindsay Seers has done with her film, would be one option. A more radical one would have been to display it on larger screens in the music room itself granting this work the wider audience that it surely deserves. But of course this would jeopardise the National Trust’s sumptuous permanent display. This theme is played out elsewhere on the site through the difficulties in viewing Lubaina Himid’s tiny paintings installed metres above the eyeline in the Stone Court and the restricted access to CJ Mahoney’s installation of stained glass and shuttered screens cordoned off at the far end of the Great Hall. This link between power and spatial relationships has been clinically dissected by Turner Prize nominated research group, Forensic Architecture, led by Eyal Weizman, to be further explored in my next blogpost.

Nevertheless, By the Accident of Your Birth exposes a fascinating story, provoking debate on our current woes. Inheritance is under scrutiny within identity politics as an iniquitous example of gender discrimination. But it has wider economic relevance as the squeezed middle class worry that, as they reach their dotage, their highly valued homes will need to be sold off to finance their expensive nursing home fees. Not a worry for the Sackville-West’s or the rest of the aristocracy. However they are still burdened by the archaic male primogeniture laws that as recently as 2017 deprived Amanda Murray of her baronet father’s title and estate. Although legislation passed in 2013 made succession to the throne gender neutral, if Prince William had been born Princess Wilhelmina, Harry would now be the heir to the throne instead of his elder sister!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Species survival in an era of conflict: Maeve Brennan and Imran Perretta

15days_(still)_Imran Perretta, 2018_Courtesy of JerwoodFVU Awards_05_preview
Still from 15 days. Courtesy of Jerwood / FVU Awards 2018

Over the past five years the annual Jerwood/FVU Awards have been a sensitive weathervane for assessing the prevailing currents in moving image art and for demonstrating the new approaches and concerns of the next generation of MI artists (when supported with generous funding!) The £20,000 award allows the fortunate artist the time and resources to generate complex and carefully crafted films often involving extensive research and the coordination of a diverse team.  In the last few years it has launched the careers of some of my favourite artists including Alice May Williams and Marianna Simnett. This year the quality is as high as ever with stunning films from Imran Perretta and Maeve Brennan. They have chosen universal, politically charged themes and integrated the expertise and personal accounts of a wide range of sources while paying homage to specific communities. The judicious use of dramatic archive inserts (Brennan) and mixing live footage with CGI (Perreta) are highly effective and indicative of MI art’s current strengths.

Responding to the set theme of Unintended Consequences, the two artists have illuminated a more profound question: how to respond to the struggles that threaten our species survival – the  conflicts within the human environment in Perretta’s 15 Days, and our perilous relationship with the natural environment in Brennan’s Listening in the Dark. Perretta’s film highlights the challenge that mass migration poses to the tired notion of the nation state, now past its sell-by date and in need of radical rethinking. If we cannot fix this, national rivalries will bring us all down. Through an investigation of the impact of wind turbines on bats, Brennan’s film scrutinises technological progress and the need to restructure the way we perceive our relationship with our fragile ecology.  If we cannot listen to our planet’s distress it may finish us off even sooner.

Listeninin the dark2
Still from Listening in the Dark.Courtesy of Jerwood / FVU Awards 2018

Both films exemplify the merits of collaboration with experts from other fields so the credit listings are revealing. As noted in previous blogposts on the Jerwood/FVU Award this can lead to an unsatisfying incoherence but this is not the case in these works.  In Brennan’s film even the ten species of bats she features are name checked in the closing credits (their magnified chirrups are a key element of the sound design which is always a strength of her films). The input of bat researchers and geologists has been carefully marshalled and her decision to hand over the narration to the scientist,  J. David Pye, the pioneering inventor of the ultrasonic bat detector is in keeping with her Jeremy Delleresque modus operandi. His measured and committed tone of voice conveys a lifelong dedication to the scientific community and enhances the film’s modest integrity.

Brennan explores the blowback effects that all technological advances generate. Although averting climate change, renewable energy structures have their own deleterious impacts here symbolised in the destruction of wildlife by wind turbines. The chirrups of bats against the sonorous roar of the wind turbines point to the power of technology to overwhelm delicate ecosystems. Bat lungs explode when flying downstream of the rotor blades yet the concrete bases of offshore wind farms form artifical reefs which provide novel food sources for seal populations, neatly encapsulating the double-edged nature of scientific advance. Many MI art landscape tropes appear including caves, windfarms and rocky shorelines but they are all given a fresh treatment that draws us in to the film’s elegiac atmosphere.

15days_Still_10_460_259
Still from 15 days. Courtesy of Jerwood / FVU Awards 2018

Perretta has mixed Italian / Bangladeshi heritage and his global perspective has fuelled his anger over the failings  of nation states as they desperately attempt to shore up their relevance. He relies on the combined insights gleaned from his encounters with migrants and refugees and gives a writing credit to “15 days”. This is the self-styled moniker of one his sources who has lived in the makeshift encampment in the woods on the outskirts of Calais following the bulldozing of the notorious “Jungle” camp in 2017. The writer and actor Elham Ehsas, himself an Afghan asylum seeker who I saw on stage in the inspirational play The Jungle at the Young Vic, has also had a key input. His personal experience is embodied in the poetic text and the emotional intensity of his narration in his native Pashto. It includes many stark and memorable images refering to the sense of  burial and dissolution into the soil as a metaphor for the weight of white oppression. As the Calais migrants complained, the term “Jungle” had, in crude Daily Mail fashion, reduced them to the level of animals.

The most significant innovation is the way the CGI foreground, like the chorus in an Ancient Greek tragedy, acts as a both as a framing device and a commentary on the live action footage.  The tent suffers unseen physical insults, with accompanying sound effects,  gradually deflating until it is flattened by the film’s end, a poignant proxy more powerful than the actual violent scenes that might have been used.

For the first time in the last four years of the Awards I cannot choose between the two. I was engrossed by both of them and their insights into the problems we face gave me much to chew on. I have often wondered, if we are facing an apocalypse, will it be conflict with each other or conflict with our natural environment that will finish us? Lets hope that our species soon realises the imperative to reconcile our differences and unite against the environmental catastrophe that threatens all of us.

Next year’s Jerwood Award theme is Going, Gone to mark the divorce from our European partners. So more sombre reflection then.

 

Snowscapes in moving image art

pfn-sawa-2018-14
Copyright Hiraki Sawa. Still from video, ulo.ulo.ulo (2017) courtesy of  Parafin, London

It is not the blanket of snow settling outside my window that has triggered this post. It was Hiraki Sawa’s new show at Parafin which started my longterm memory stores pinging with past MI artworks featuring scenes of snow and ice. This often blank landscape acts as a ready-made canvas on which the filmmaker can draw and has been the backdrop for many of my favorite MI works. For me, its superficially charming ambiance always carries an aura of bleakness and tragedy instilled in childhood by encountering the story of Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition and Hans Christian Anderson’s heart-rending tale of lost love, The Snow Queen. The unsettling otherworldliness of snowbound landscapes was fully exploited in Sawa’s 38 minute, two channel  video installation, ulo.ulo.ulo (2017).

Sawa had found a perfect location. On an iced up lake shot in darkness he created a circular stage lit by a movable lightsource recording the digging and probing of a small team of performers whose shadows seem as important as their own figures.  We follow a close-up of a lamp and its filament as it drops into the depths beneath the ice. In one memorable sequence the lamp is twirled like a lasso around a performers head producing shadow effects similar to a timelapse sequence of the sun traversing the sky. Without a narrative we a looking at a work of abstraction with images of threat and comfort competing for dominance. At the Parafin Gallery preview show Sawa had brought his young family. The noise of Sawa’s excitable infant children broke through the eerie tinkly sound track but then I realised that they were chiming with the recorded sound of children that Sawa had used to accompany a homely, poetic sequence featuring enormous black balloons floating through the snowscape.

pfn-sawa-2018-11
Copyright Hiraki Sawa. Still from video, ulo.ulo.ulo (2017) courtesy of  Parafin, London

In 2003 Darren Almond brought back footage from the Arctic and Antarctica and created a stunning two channel video installation 11 miles… from Safety at the White Cube. I remember to this day the visceral impact this had on me.  On one screen we dimly follow the back of the artist as he trudges through the Arctic night drawing a sledge on which an infra red camera is mounted. His anxious face is spotlighted when he turns to the camera at intervals and with the ambient sound of his heavy breathing we are drawn back to Scott’s doomed trek.

darrenalmond
Copyright Darren Almond. Still from film Artic Pull (2003) courtesy of the artist

On the opposite wall we contemplate the peaceful passage of the ice strewn ocean shot from a boat gliding sedately across an Antarctic seascape. Like Sawa he distills the fear and grace of this forbidding landscape but with a simpler, less cluttered approach. Much of Almond’s work has been shot in polar regions and his video interview, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opXvILcy2vs,  gives an engrossing insight into the attraction of this landscape for the artist.

089f1_aug30_tw_img2
Copyright Pierre Huyghe. Still from video, A Journey that Wasn’t (2005) courtesy of the artist

In 2005 Pierre Huyghe also made a trek to Antarctica and the ambitious video that emerged from this trip, A Journey That Wasn’t shown at Tate Modern in his Celebration Park  exhibition in 2006 has etched itself in my visual memory. Interesting how artificial  light sources and disembodied spheres crop in up in both the Sawa and Huyghe films.

van de werve
Copyright Guido van de Werve. Still from the film Everything is going to be Alright (2007) courtesy of the artist

Guido van de Werve’s  film Everything is going to be Alright shot on location in the Gulf of Bothnia, just south of the Arctic Circle, shows the artist striding  just ahead of a giant icebreaker. The peril he is in dissipates the longer you watch it and the ludicrous scene somehow sums up the absurdity of human hubris.