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?

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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!

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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.

 

One million Tate visitors wowed by international performance art?

Joan-Jonas-Songdelay-1973.-Courtesy-lartista
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 – 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?