Resolving racial conflict with kid power


Still from Finding Fanon, Part Three, Prologue (2016) a film by David Blandy and Larry Achiampong.  Image courtesy of Claire Barrett

Amid all the current journalistic talk of whitelash and the attempt to discredit identity politics following Trump’s election success, the ideas of Frantz Fanon, the black Martinque post-colonial thinker and psychiatrist who died in 1961, could not be more urgent or prescient. His insights into the link between colonial oppression and psychopathology provides the springboard for the Finding Fanon trilogy.  These fine films are carefully crafted meditations produced over the last two years by the “culture-busting” partnership of David Blandy and Larry Achiampong.  The interim version of Finding Fanon Part Three (which in fact looked highly polished) premiered on December 6 at Tate Modern as a live performance with a hypnotic musical accompaniment on cello, synth and percussion. Rich in powerful images and with a gently delivered but hardhitting text, it kindles hope that though our malaise is deeply rooted, our children may point the way towards a more tolerant and cooperative world.

The problems they try to grapple with are huge and difficult but crucial. They point out that the world has shrunk and social media can reduce us to icons and totems.  Essentially they are probing the dilemma of how a personal identity can be forged in a world where the internet has transformed our view of the world and our past.  Are we going to allow the internet to reduce us to data networks which either perpetuate or ignore our colonial legacy? The two artists appear as a dapper, besuited, somewhat querulous duo, reminiscent of the notorious Gilbert and George or the absurd Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But the thrust of the text is encouraging us to see them as avatars diminishing their individuality but acting as coathangers for the film’s ideas. Their worsted wool three piece suits and their steam punk goggles are subtly different as if to say : “We strive for commonality but the colonial legacy still sets us up as unequal associates”

Still from Finding Fanon-  Part Three Prologue (2016) courtesy of artistic director, Claire Barrett

Iconic images are beautifully captured in HD – the sea, the sky, a forest canopy, flaming sticks – but the commentary is pushing us to examine what new meanings they might have acquired in our current political and environmental crisis. Are the oceans now seen as a threatening no-man’s-land  claiming migrant lives rather than in the Windrush days when it provided safe passage to the  mother country? Will our landscape be degraded by climate change? The Blandy and Achiampong broods feature as signs of hope. When the children work together to build a shelter from discarded branches is their ability to cooperate a model that the world can follow in its mission to stop global warming? But could their wooden teepee just as easily be a bonfire? Social psychology research on US children in the 1970’s confirmed that we will always create outgroups unless there is a bigger problem that requires collaboration to resolve. Will it take the threat of extinction for us to recognise our common humanity?

Sumptous abstract digital animation simulating a vortical maelstrom is inserted to dramatise thoughts of black holes and the loss of identity. A strange fantasy sequence of the digitally rendered artists swimming gracefully in the ocean depths undercuts the usual Mediterranean migrant narrative of the sea as a potential killer. They have begun to develop the use of gaming tropes and graphics software to generate stories from the struggles of other oppressed groups such as ex-prisoners under the banner of Finding Fanon Gaiden.

The problem with the current  permanent Tate Modern collection is that it is not nimble enough to be truly reflective of our current concerns. They need to show works like this that are immediate responses to our rollercoaster world. There is no better illustration of this than Finding Fanon’s commentary comparing the racist imagery of Enoch Powell and Donald Trump:

“They were wrong. There were no rivers of blood.  Instead there are walls in people’s minds wishing for boundaries from “the other”… trying to contain something that does not exist”

The mere fact of two artists from different sides of the post-colonial divide coming together to explore the personal and historical implications of that troubled relationship and the image of their offspring forming a harmonious group to pursue a common purpose is what makes this such a moving and thought-provoking artwork.

Performance credits. Camera and artistic director: Claire Barrett. Cellist: Yoanna Prodanova. Synthesiser: James A. Holland. Percussion: Shepherd Manyika. Speakers: Ima-Abasi Okon and Nicola Thomas

Grandmother of performance art: Yoko Ono or Marina Abramovic?

Copyright Yoko Ono -still from Cutpiece, 1964, courtesy of the artist


Baby boomers born in the 1950s are well positioned to assess the seismic change in values that occurred during the 1960s and 70s. Observing the cultural trends in art and music, it is possible to discern the transition from the  post-war idealistic collectivism that spawned the welfare state to the materialistic individualism exemplified by Thatcherism. John Lennon’s creative partnership with Yoko Ono, then a relatively obscure, but pioneering performance artist illustrates this trend.

As the Beatles broke up in the late 60’s, Ono’s and Lennon’s self regarding stunts were the signs of a shift in values. During their  “Bed-in for peace” they stayed in bed for several days to promote peace at the height of the Vietnam War and record their anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance”. This was perhaps the most widely reported performance artwork of the 1960s. Lennon then documented the media flack they took for this in “The Ballad of John and Yoko”.  The chorus “They’re gonna crucify me” sets a high bar for the level of self aggrandisement and self-pity that artists might aspire to. This gave the green light to a cavalcade of performance artists in the 1970’s for whom careful manipulation of their personal image became the raison d’etre of their art.

In contrast, Ono’s influential performance work, Cut piece first staged in 1964 before she met Lennon, had been less about her and more about the audience.  As they took it in turns to cut at her clothes with a pair of tailor’s shears, the audience members placed themselves in a morally unedifying position. Essentially they were participants in the wilful and public demeaning of a young woman in a kind of strip poker where she always loses. What she exposes so simply is the suppressed aggression and even sadism that is released when “permission” is granted to attack a vulnerable woman. Marina Abramovic essentially replayed this idea in her performance work Rhythm O ten years later where she sat behind a table set with a range of 74 objects including scissors, a gun, a scalpel, a rose and a whip inviting the audience to use them as they wished. This table is displayed in blank accusatory fashion at the Tate Modern. The humiliation she suffered was similarly disturbing but from our present day perspective it appears that Abramovic’s work is hampered by an egotistical and comical overkill compared to the subtle minimalism of the original Ono piece.

Abramovic has since been at the forefront of intimate personal exposure as a valid art genre, once claiming for herself the moniker the “grandmother of performance art” an accolade that surely Ono deserves. She now disowns the “grandmother” tag preferring the label “pioneer” (an interesting comment on her attitude to aging).  A recording of her seminal  performance work,  Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful was screened at the Lisson Gallery’s Performer/Audience/Mirror exhibition in August 2016 and is also accessible on Youtube in a variety of versions.

Copyright Marina Abramovic -still from Art must be beautiful, artist must be be beautiful, 1974 courtesy of the artist

Her manifesto for her art is stated quite starkly. She faces the camera and over a period of 15-20 minutes violently brushes her long dark tresses repeating with various degrees of desperation and resignation the injunction that gives the work its title. If the artist is the art object and if art is judged by its beauty this is the inescapable conclusion. In the closing frames of one version her agitation appears spent and she stares calmly into the camera. You are struck by her underlying confidence in her beauty which is manifested, like many other beautiful women, in the asymmetry of her face. The irony is that the artist appears for most of the performance to be tortured by the thought that she is not. The poignancy of this piece is that it purports to be a protest against the unrealistic pressures society places on the physical appearance of women.  As Abramovic reached her sixties rather than resist this pressure it is sad but perhaps inevitable that her confidence could only be maintained by extensive plastic surgery that sliced thirty years off her physical age. To maintain her market value the artist who is an artwork has to undergo restoration like any other art object.

Copyright Dan Graham – still from Performer /Artist/Mirror 1977 courtesy of the artist

In Performer/Audience/Mirror Dan Graham  documents his 1977 performance in which he describes himself and his audience seated in front of a mirrored wall.  He moves around in front of a mirror as in a dance class with his audience behind him sitting facing the mirror. He comments on the situation, his own movements and those of the audience interpreting the meaning and significance of the non-verbal signals that they are transmitting.  NVC was a new “science ” in the 1970s and it generated much of the popular interest in psychology and his approach was similar to a teacher’s introductory experiential lesson on the topic. However as a teacher he comes over as plodding and patronising.

Copyright Christian Jankowski -still from Telemista, 1999 courtesy of the artist

The German artist (sometimes dubbed an art prankster), Christian Jankowski, for my money had the standout piece in this show, Telemistica (1999). Its success derives from his careful balance of egotism and self-deprecation while he gently prods at some significant social issues. His theme is the artist’s insecurity and need for reassurance which acts as a more generalised case study for our own neediness. In Italy there was a vogue for TV phone-ins hosted by clairvoyants who would give you a  live Tarot card reading. Jankowski, who was preparing an artwork for the Venice Biennale, videoed his conversations with these officially sanctioned charlatans as they confidently reassured him on his questions about his future success. Would he finish the work? Would he be satisfied with it? Would other people like it? Would he make money or enhance his reputation from it? What was brilliant about this is that the smug TV stars thought they were in the powerful position whereas in fact they were pawns in the artist’s game. They played their role to a tee by exposing their own vanity and their crude application of pop psychology. What raised this piece above a “gotcha” stunt was that the edit of these encounters was the eventual artwork exhibited at the Biennale. Unlike many other performance artists he is content to be anonymous, giving centre stage to others.

The other works in this show were a mixed bag – from the dire, arid academic exercise produced by Art and Language to the sardonic take on brand fandom on internet forums in a work by self-confessed computer nerd Cory Arcangel who will get a proper review in my next post on art using the internet as its subject.


One million Tate visitors wowed by international performance art?

Joan Jonas -still from Songdelay 1973 courtesy of the artist

The London Evening Standard ran a a piece on July 22 on the success of the “revamped Tate Modern drawing one million visitors in its first month” highlighting the decision to include more “international and performance art”.

Here is another piece of news. Investigation has revealed this tidal wave of aspiring art fans crashing through the Tate doors  and powering straight past a seminal film by the American doyenne of performance art, Joan Jonas, with an apparent total lack of interest. My video clip of the gallery visitors – captures the degree of apathy that this work appears to create

The 18 minute film Songdelay (1973) was shot in New York in 16mm black and white with Jonas’s buddies taking on choreographed roles in a variety of locations. The work’s main focus is to play with human movement within the constraints of straight lines and circles. In many respects it is an amateurish parody of a circus performance. An extended section follows the antics of a performer with two poles inserted like a cross through the arms and legs of their costume. (see above)  There is no attempt at a narrative and its fragmented editing demands the viewer’s concentration.   As I sat there on the beautifully upholstered leather banquette on the opposite side of the gallery it was obvious that this work  was not holding the attention of visitors for longer than it took them to walk from one side to the other. Like a static performer in a Susan Hefuna Crossroads film (see my previous post on her work)  I was an oddity among a sea of pedestrians.

I began to speculate on the curatorial decisions. Why this work? Why this location? Any ideas?


Urban authenticity: Susan Hefuna

Susan Hefuna- still from 150 minute film, London Crossroads, courtesy of Pi Artworks Istanbul/London and the artist
Susan Hefuna – Pi Artworks until 14th May.

As I emerge from the restyled Tottenham Court Road underground station the out-sized pop-art squares on the escalator atrium walls strike me as a desperate bid to be cool and contemporary. They might be a crude, overblown tribute to the subtly designed Paolozzi mosaics in the tunnels below. Mondrian or Matisse might also be referenced? Heritage design rather than cutting edge.

I join the pedestrian throng and realise that my bearings are completely lost. The Crossrail redevelopment has changed the psychogeography so I have to return to the booking hall below to get an exit onto familiar Oxford Street where I head towards the gallery in Eastcastle Street. As usual I pick up the exhibition notes from the reception desk but a recent experience of the strangulated style they are often written in means I only give them a cursory glance. However I do learn that the film London Crossroads I have come to see is 150 minutes long.

When an artist’s film lasts for two and half hours I would not rule out watching all of it. But when a gallery screens it in a space with no seating you are getting mixed messages. Either:

“This work is totally engaging and you will be so transfixed for the duration you won’t notice your aching legs.”

-or –

“This work does not require a full viewing – stay for as long or short a time as you wish.”

The tension between the two possibilities makes this visit to Pi Artworks a little disconcerting. A large screen fills the far wall with the image of an intersection somewhere in the West End on a miserable grey day filmed from a second floor office window. Pedestrians dribble by. Traffic consisting  mainly of delivery vans career into the intersection from only one direction on a one way system unimpeded by traffic lights. They must exit at 90 degrees out of the bottom of the screen as all other roads are no entry.  I am viewing a corner bend of a racetrack that the pedestrians must navigate. Once this intriguing traffic conundrum has been decoded I settle down to appreciate the “art”. After five minutes of people watching I begin to think how much longer should I stay to give the artwork its due. Another thought occurs to me. This is the kind of experience that makes people ask: “Is modern art bankrupt?” The artist sets up the camera, disappears for two and half hours and then returns to collect their finished work.

I am about to leave when the closing credits come up which include a list of dancers from a contemporary dance school. Checking the curator’s notes (I should have known!) I read that the main artistic input to this film is the choreography of these actors in pedestrian moves that are almost indistinguishable from the real ones.  This gives me an incentive to keep viewing. It becomes a question of  trying to spot the interlopers and the significance of their behaviour.

The bright colours of hats, umbrellas and suitcases suggest an artistic intervention as do the people who exchange bags as they pass each other. The bearded guy blowing bubbles must be a set up. Only once do I spot a static balletic pose held for a few seconds. I am tempted to wait longer in case something really dramatic is imminent. I guess the main thrust of the work  is the pro-social behaviour of the actors as a critique of urban alienation. Eventually I leave and find that fifty metres from the gallery I enter the crossroads that is the precise location of the filming. I have a strange feeling that I am under surveillance.

Anyone familiar with manic states of mind will recognise a common symptom: a heightened sense of the significance of events sometimes expressed as a conviction that the afflicted person themselves and those around them are not authentic autonomous beings but actors playing out roles. Mania may also be manifested as a fear that hidden cameras are recording the person’s every move, a combination of grandstanding and paranoia that is both exhilarating and unsettling. In the early stages of a manic episode it may be possible to dismiss these thoughts and feelings as delusional but lurking quietly in the shadows is the question: who are the real people around me and who are the actors?  A simulation of this mental confusion is what this film offers to the viewer.

As conceptual art this work was an undoubted success. I have reflected on its significance for weeks: the low level  ubiquitous CCTV paranoia, our need for human contact in crowds and the tendency for public role-playing on the urban stage. An initial visually impoverished and  intensely irritating experience eventually paid dividends. Perhaps the more pared back the image the  harder we have to think to invest meaning in the work.