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 athttps://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 byBruce 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?
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.
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!
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.
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 – https://vimeo.com/176335362 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?
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.”
“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.