Infantalised by social media: Rachel Maclean’s dystopian vision

rachel mclean
Copyright Rachel Maclean, We want Data!, 2017. Courtesy of the artist

In Rachel Maclean’s recent film, we enter a frenetic and eye-scorching visual world, a 30 minute riotous mash-up of Disney and Hammer horror, that neatly distils the child-like anxiety and exuberance exhibited in much social media activity. It’s What’s Inside That Counts, 2016, first exhibited in London as part of Tate Britain’s Art Now programme in the Spring, is a tour de force from an artist with a disturbing and singular vision. As a performance artist/computer animator she is keen to explore the “dark and depressing” aspects of social media and her unashamed gross-out style conveys the sometimes grotesque distortions inherent in living an online life. She describes her work as “digital collage” inspired by trawling through T.V. and web sourced material. Scavenging visual images and found audio clips she creates a script and a cast of self performed characters realised with sophisticated prosthetics and costumes. Green screen editing and CGI allow her to produce a digital backdrop  for multiples of her own performances. Hidden behind such heavy disguise she is unrecognisable and in a strange way by dressing up and lip synching she is simply exaggerating the standard strategies used to project a social media identity. Despite casting herself in every role, narcissism is entirely absent as her own physiognomy is submerged beneath the transformations she so carefully crafts.

Social media values and internet marketing tropes are clinically and cheerfully parodied. We follow the rise and fall of a social media celebrity named “Data” (see above) whose absent nose I took to be a cutting comment on surgical enhancement. As her adoring onesie-suited followers chant “We want data” we reflect that the torrent of information we demand from the internet is exactly mirrored by the flow in the opposite direction from us to the corporate internet giants. With their sleep shades emblazoned with dilated pupils her crowd of internet data addicts are portrayed as deluded clones in thrall to the dominant messages that fill their social media feeds.

Maclean splices in a found audio file of the irritating childish refrain “Again and again and again” sung by a chorus of rat/human hybrids in nursery rhyme dresses. The contradictory pressures of online existence are neatly exposed. On the one hand it points to the self-improvement mantra “If you fail to be liked, try again and you are sure to achieve success ”  but also  “If you want to stay happy and avoid upsetting yourself, here is more of what you liked before”. Ironically Maclean’s career is in danger of being caught in this trap. Her work is so successful and distinctive she must be tempted to mine this rich seam with her self-made purpose designed tools for the foreseeable future. Having said that, Hogarth had the same acerbic vision and artistic elan as Maclean and he did not do too badly. In the US Paul McCarthy has similarly built his reputation through testing our squeamishness to the Stygian underbelly of consumer culture.

In some of McCarthy’s filmed performances he becomes too self indulgent and the length detracts from their impact. Maclean is usually admirably concise as many of her short films testify but with this one there is a digression into caffeine addiction which features a contrasting gloomy palette. This was amusing but could have been cut to give the film a more watchable length. MI artists need to attract an audience beyond their devotees so unless there is a compelling narrative 15-20 minutes is probably the optimum.

As with any artist appropriating consumerist iconography Maclean is in danger of fetishising rather than critiquing the visual tropes and their attendant values.  I think it might be interesting if she moved away from found audio and used her own text to narrate her films.  Her future trajectory will be intriguing to track.

 

 

 

Ferocity tempered by ice-cold analysis at Goldsmiths MFA

Goldsmiths’ art students are ferociously angry, rightly so given the state of the world. But they use this furnace to temper their material into stark blocks of steel  that coolly reflect the idiocies surrounding them. Among the targets skewered by the moving image artists this year are crass gender stereotypes, corporate gobbledygook, medical arrogance and psychological vacuity.

Puck Verkade, Breeder

Puck Verkade

For her inventive marshalling of diverse sources and ideas into a cohesive whole, Verkade for me was the standout MI artist of the show. The three video episodes totalling 20 minutes are a playful but hard-hitting exploration of the politics of female reproduction with digressions into related issues. It integrates her own animations, archive clips (including Shirley Bassey, Boy George and moon shoots)  and features a stunning sequence as a baby chameleon emerges from its leathery egg. Directing three teenage girls to demonstrate the relevance of chickens and Cleopatra to gender and racial politics was handled with a confident sensitivity. At one point in a nod to post-modernism, Verkade steps out of the director’s omnipotent role during shooting to query with a black teenager whether a shot of her eating fried chicken would be seen as offensive stereotyping. She is acutely aware of language betraying cultural assumptions and her bold use of (covert?) sound recordings of women undergoing encounters with medical professionals is particularly startling for their honesty.  One of the video episodes is viewable at https://vimeo.com/224480565

Ian Gouldstone, Wanton Boys

Ian gouldstone

The title of this work is an attempt to invest it with profundity. I thought the dancing crosses  projected onto simple blocks evoking animal gravestones were quite amusing. So perhaps I am a “wanton boy” heartlessly looking down on the misfortunes of others. The idea of using software to generate random interaction between geometric figures is fun but also gives a new perspective on the meaningless absurdity of life.

Laura Yuile, Contactless Family #4

Laura Yuile

I was taken by Yuile’s background commentary, sourced I assume from found audio featuring  smooth corporate sales pitches that ratchet up the paranoia of environmental contamination and disruption of the home environment: “Do not allow two mirrors to reflect each other,” the feng shui advisor smugly urges. This is extended to an exploration of the idea that the smarthome has a consciousness and its ill health will act on the family that resides there. Her digital processing, scrambling and fuzzing the images, arrestingly conveys that the boundary between the environment and the self is becoming blurred, a disconcerting but prescient idea. More info at http://www.laurayuile.com/

Tom Varley, The Personality Test

Tom Varley

This was absolutely thrilling and very funny. Initially I read it as a parody of a dire counselling session with the counsellor mirroring verbatim the depressed self-statements of the client according to Rogerian non-judgemental orthodoxy which only leads to him sinking more deeply into his depression. But it becomes apparent that the entire script is taken from the statements that feature in the woeful personality tests that we are all subjected to in the cause of refining the recruitment filter for whatever organisation we are seeking to join. As scenes progress the mood fluctuates wildly from delight to anger to sarcasm as the actors do a sterling job giving alternative interpretations of the banal profiling statements such as “I enjoy meeting other people.” Introducing melodramatic classical themes like Mahler’s 5th Symphony at dramatic points provides a humorous counterpoint to the turbulent emotions. This film is a devastating practical debunking of scientific psychology’s futile attempt to grasp the complexity of the human  condition. Brilliant.

Michal Plata, Bodies and Dark-metal

michal plataAs an ex-BMW designer, Plata has an interesting background for an artist. His two videos take muscular strength as a signifier of masculinity as their starting point. Interview clips reveal competitors for the “World’s Strongest Man” are also filled with self doubt. This is contrasted with a young boy testing his mental strength by confronting pedestrians with his attempts to walk between couples holding hands. That this is set in the least macho London suburb of Hampstead I took to be significant! His website is http://www.michalplata.com/

Tomasz Kobialka, Pearl Diving for Wyrms

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Kobialka’s installation of this digital video in a carpeted room only four-foot high and his narrator’s sub basso profundo growl add to the undertow of menace.  The alpha male elements of video game culture are presented as an inescapable rule. But this contrasts with the benign innovation – a virtual worm (or wyrm) with a simple genotype which is seen as the holy grail in that it mimics a living organism contrasting with the typical mythical scaly monster that otherwise prowls around this video. Is he suggesting that we will soon be satiated by online fantasy and seek instead to fashion a virtual reality indistinguishable from the “real” world?

Robbie Howells, ACG in practice

ACG

A perfect example of channeling controlled anger is seen in Robbie Howells’ hilarious parody of a corporate animation promo which supposedly launches a collaborative venture between artists and business while giving a chilling commentary on freemasonry, viewable at http://acginpractice.co.uk/.  Along with the accompanying video by his artist alter ego “Katie South” on the “architecture of ritual spaces,” his satire encompasses the troubling, darker question of the rigged world we are all in thrall to. His experience at Millwall F.C. recorded succinctly in a text piece is a crushing indictment of the exploitation of young artists by business.

So, overall an abundance of  MI treats. You have until 7.00 pm Monday 17th July to experience them.

 

 

 

Humanity branded at RA Schools Show?

Sam Austen
Still from 16mm film True Mirror, 2017. Courtesy of the artist, Sam Austen

“Ensure your brand represents humanity”.  This slogan for wannabe artists appeared in Richie Moments’s coruscating video in his degree show at the RA Schools  exhibition last week. It neatly summarises the dilemma: to get noticed by the artworld you need a USP but if you aspire to art’s more noble aspirations you need to reflect something profound about the human condition. I speculated whether this year’s crop of graduates had succeeded in meeting both of these demands. Noticeably more moving image works featured in this year’s RA show often deployed to enhance works in other media.

Sam Austen’s visceral three channel installation, True Mirror, accompanied by an original musique concrete  soundtrack  with factory and railroad clatterings in lockstep with the visual edit was the standout work. Not many young artists have the patience to work within the constraints of celluloid but it confers a  ghost-like immediacy and glamour to the images that digital cannot achieve. Through painstaking editing and superimposition Austen has made a chilling work that transfixes the viewer with an eerie sense of mortality. The key motif is a series of disembodied plaster heads that evoke the Mexican Day of the Dead or classical death masks whirling through space like frenetic commuters or riders on a manic fairground roundabout. There are frequent changes in tempo and when they come to rest their staring eyes invite us to posit an interior life. Often paired, the heads have reflections that are chasing or shadowing the original. In the final sequence two heads circle each other like wary combatants. Exhilarating and unsettling representation of the human condition. Tick. USP =  “old school” medium + contemporary sound track. Tick.

Cowboy
Dmitri Galitzine and Thomas Bolwell. Still from dual screen HD video, Cowboys, 2015-2017. Courtesy of the artists.

Over two years of filming Dmitri Galitzine and Thomas Bolwell immersed themselves in the fantasy world of a Wild West cowboy re-enactment community. Their construction of a complete frontier settlement in Kent is the ideal narrative for exploring the contradictions of myth and reality. Hi-vis jackets among the stetsons, mechanical diggers among the horses. Their dual screen presentation juxtaposes Hollywood Western scenes with very similar ones from his footage. The contrast of the English mud with the Arizonan sand highlights the perceptual skew required to preserve a mythical world. They also slyly hint at the more worrying side of historical warfare obsessions by inserting a clip of a Third Reich memorabilia stand. We are reminded that America’s adulation of its gun slinging heritage underlies the appeal of Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip mind-set.  But this is not a hatchet job on the role players. Their attachment to the cultural heritage is represented by a grizzled re-enactment member singing a heartfelt rendition of a cowboy folk song accompanied by the mellow strumming of an autoharp.

Jesse Jetpack and Richie Moment have chosen monikers that declare their brand as a cutting edge artists. Both foreground themselves, Jetpacks as an angsty singer song-writer/ performance artist/computer animator and Moment playing the motley fool as a wild-eyed satirist of the art world.

In Jetpack’s Day of the Challenger I was beginning to weary of an extended sequence of her dancing over a clunky digital riverside landscape with portentous lyrics of survival amongst “the crashing of waves of blood” when a stunningly original visual metaphor unfolded. The next sequence dramatised the choreography of bilateral relationships  by starting with two digitally animated pendulums whose weights are the heads of the artist and her significant other. As they swing they leave a trace of intersections. It gets more complicated as the pendulums are transformed into jointed armatures sketching a delicate enmeshed Spirograph type pattern. 24 minutes was on the long side but you had to admire her emotional honesty and her versatility. The shorter videos on her website show a keen sense of humour.

As noted in an earlier blogpost on last years Bloomberg New Contemporaries, Moment’s manic portrayal of an artist’s attempts to become a bankable art world prospect is spot on. In Level Headed, Next level Video 001 (Gallery Version), 2017 he appears to be showcasing a minimalist work of a telephone mounted in the centre of a white gallery wall. After several minutes  it rings to be answered by Moment who responds ecstatically to the news that he has now moved to the “next level” which leads into a rush of slogans on art career strategy. This is mischievous and brutally perceptive fun that stands comparison to Hennessy Youngman’s and Louis Judkins’ cutting satirical videos.

Political commentary takes a back seat to aesthetic considerations in much of the RA School graduates work but this is certainly not the case at Goldsmiths MFA Show which I am off to see this evening to unearth some more talented video artists.

Exuberance and elan at Chelsea Fine Art Degree show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judkin3
Copyright Louis Judkins. Still from HD video Concrete Dildo; Season 1, Episode 1-3, 2017 courtesy of the artist

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The contradictions of public identity projection – Cornelia Parker

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Latham at Serpentine Gallery

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

Wael Shawkey, Telemach Crusades, 2009, at Lisson Gallery

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

Christian Jankowski, Director Poodle, 1998, at Lisson Gallery

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

Artistic collaboration across cultural and gender divides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Artist at work. Warning: possible boredom ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

The exhibition continues until June 11th.

Identity and performance

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

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

Ferhat Ozgur, Metamorphosis Chat, 2009

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

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

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

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

Amalia Ulman’s Excellences & Perfections, 2014

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

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