Jerwood/FVU Awards 2017

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Lawrence Lek, still from Geomancer, 2017, 40 minute HD video courtesy of the artist

These annual awards are always a good indicator of the direction of moving image art. As the two winners have to work to the same theme, this year it was “Neither One Thing or Another”, the contrast is often illuminating. Narrative is a bit unfashionable but here its value seemed incontestable.  The two films are currently touring the country, having opened at the Jerwood Space.

Lawrence Lek, Geomancer, 2017 

This was a gripping 40 minutes.  Set in a version of Singapore in 2065, the visual world is straight out of videogames and as we recline in luxurious gaming style padded chairs we are transported in graceful swoops through a glossily rendered futureworld of natural landscapes, exotic cityscapes and cavernous  interiors. The structured narrative is given chapter headings and the text is delivered in Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese with subtitles so we get a clear map of Lek’s ideas even when they are at their wackiest.

We are required to accept that artificial intelligence will develop a human level of consciousness and free will which places this scenario firmly in the sci-fi realm. Following Helen Knowles’ recent thorough investigation of this issue in Superdebthunterbot for some this may be a bit of a stretch but let’s suspend our disbelief. Lek achieves the seemingly impossible goal of eliciting our empathy for a form of artificial intelligence, embodied in an orbiting surveillance satellite, the Geomancer of the title. He anthropomorphises the satellite giving it solar panel “arms” and a goldfish bowl “head”. It also helps that the narration is largely from Geomancers first “person” perspective and so we are able to identify with his/her/its problems. Lek posits that advanced AI would have to cope with the boredom of access to total knowledge and if they were inclined to create art as an escape from this information overload they would be frustrated by the art establishment’s resistance to granting AI art the same status as human art. The debate on the “artistic creativity” of computers has been controversial since the 1960’s and by reviving it at a time when AI is becoming more pervasive, Lek is asking the same kind of  pressing questions against a vividly realised and convincing futuristic backdrop.

Patrick Hough, And If In A Thousand Years, 2017

This has less appeal. It is less structured and has too many disparate ideas arriving scattergun without an engaging narrative. Hough’s initial inspiration is the bizarre 2014 archaeological dig in the South California desert which disinterred the remnants of the 21 full size plaster sphinxes built for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent epic The Ten Commandments that were left to be covered by the windblown dunes. This story could be neatly encapsulated in a 2 minute clip but extending it to a 20 minute video artwork requires some crafting. As in Lek’ s Geomancer we are asked to identify with an invented character, in this case the resurrected sphinx. Its portentous narration delivered through philosophising artspeak aims for poetic profoundity but only manages to be vaguely mystical. Real poets can do so much better. Quality text is crucial in this style of video art so when it is irritatingly obtuse it can mar your enjoyment as happened in last year’s FVU award-winning film by Karen Kramer. In the second half of the film LiDAR technology transforms the world into a moving pointillist artwork. Fun to watch but not really adding significantly to the work’s ideas. Coordinating the huge number of people involved in making the film (30+) may have resulted in the lack of artistic focus?

No plain live action footage in either of these films. Expect more of this in the coming year. Digital rules O.K.

 

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The dissonant beauty of boy’s toys: Mosse and Banner

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Copyright Richard Mosse- still from  three screen film installation Incoming (2017) courtesy of the artist

In the early seventies, when Cold War rhetoric cast its all-pervasive gloom over our teenage angst, we all reacted in different ways to the existential nuclear threat.  I remember a rather intense fellow student, middle-aged before his time, who had stockpiled a forensic knowledge of the missile technology acquired by the opposing sides. After regaling me with arcane differences in missile range, payload and propulsion mode, he got me thinking.  What did he find so absorbing about the technical  details of these murderous weapons?  Was it glorification of war or a fear of it? Did focussing on the machines rather than the potential victims provide a means of controlling the terror we all felt? Are the “boy’s toys” collected by adult males such as weaponry, games consoles, cameras and cars a defense reaction to the uncontrollability of their destinies?

I wondered the same during Richard Mosse’s current spectacular three screen video installation at the Barbican Curve, Incoming (2017), the title itself hinting at the parallel between missiles and human traffic. He has not ignored the victims of war but much of its unsettling visual impact derives from the dramatic and poetic “boy’s toys” imagery: missiles being loaded, fighterjets launching from aircraft carriers, ships ploughing through the ocean, trucks rumbling through the desert, firefighters hosing blazing refugee encampments. They have been captured using the latest hi-tech supergadget for the video artist, a thermal imaging camera sensitive to objects 20 miles away usually deployed for military surveillance. Mosse is clear about the irony of using a camera that in borderforce hands might be deployed to locate and eliminate incoming migrants. However we cannot ignore the strategic motivation that underlies an artist’s desire to create work that will stand out from the welter of art films vying for our attention. The shock value of novel technology to represent the  visual world is a great help. But when refugees are the focus there is a danger that such an approach converts them into lost souls wandering in a netherworld constructed by the artist.

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Copyright Richard Mosse – still from  film installation Incoming (2017)

To be fair to Mosse his edit ensures that this is far from an arms dealers promo. A truck carrying refugees is comically overloaded but we fear it might topple. The movement of a man bowing in prayer mirrors a later shot of a man stooping to load a missile. A blur in the sky that might be a plane turns out to be a bird. In this way Mosse firmly locates the technology in a human context. He  carefully rejects sentimentality or sensationalism in representing the refugee crisis. Life goes on as usual even in a refugee centre with a cheerful exchange between women about the size of their respective broods using hand gestures  while the children are transfixed by their handheld screens. Two refugee boys are seen wrestling in a desperate tussle that seems to express a  frustrated need for resolution. Among its many breathtaking images is a sunset where the clouds and sun appeared to be tacked to the sky like fabric cutouts. Some of the more brutal footage was excluded from the final version, but it is still a harrowing experience. It runs until 23 April.

Another artist who has contributed to the beauty of weaponry debate in her deliciously understated work is Fiona Banner. The Harrier jet fighter suspended from the roof of the Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain in 2010 with its nose cone inches from the floor will not be quickly forgotten by those lucky enough to have seen it. This absurd installation reduces the war machine to a helpless puppet or trussed bird that we can toy with at will. Like Mosse, Banner does not shy away from the unsettling, functional beauty of these killing machines.

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Installation view of Fiona Banner’s Harrier and Jaguar (2010). Photo credit: angelgil.co

Her exhibition Buoys Boys, at the Bexhill De la Warr last December explored this unreality of warfare through the story of the Red Baron, the infamous WWI  German fighter pilot who kept a meticulous tally of the pilots he downed in his dogfights.  He entered popular culture as the sworn enemy of the much-loved cartoon beagle Snoopy. In her film black balloons in the form of five large inflatable full stops, each in a different font, float ominously on the skyline like a parody of a fighter plane formation with the sea below and only the seagulls as absurd spectators. On the soundtrack a schoolboy’s choir sweetly sing the 1960s hit  Snoopy vs the Red Baron  with the ridiculously chirpy chorus:

Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more, the Bloody Red Baron was rollin’ up the score.

Eighty men died tryin’ to end that spree of the Bloody Red Baron of Germany.

Art can convey the absurdity of war far better than any other creative form and for me Banner has nailed it in the most original way. Mosse  has focused on the tragedy of war but ironically its impact is more aesthetic than thought-provoking.

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Image copyright SabellaMai 2012-17

Can art do philosophy?

 

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Helen Knowles’ The Trial of Superdebthunterbot is a video and performance art project that directly poses a philosophical question: can an artificial intelligence algorithm be held legally and morally responsible for the consequences of its actions? She has actualised this idea in an imaginary algorithm that has “learnt” that student loan debt recovery is optimised by offering defaulters high risk job opportunities. This has led to the deaths of two of them in an unregulated medical trial. Some sceptics might ask: is this an artwork or an educational  discussion trigger or can it be both?  Whatever the answer, it is a welcome counter to the decline in public engagement with philosophical debate. Philosophy’s media profile has become more muted and we lack the present day equivalents of Bertrand Russel or Jean Paul Sartre to inspire us.

In the current climate an understanding of what philosophy can contribute is confused or nonexistent but there is still a hunger to get some clarity on the big, intractable problems we face. A teenage applicant for A level Philosophy I interviewed once told me he thought it could answer the big mysteries of life. “Like what?” I asked. Unsure he suggested “Why dinosaurs became extinct?” Rather than plough through some Nietzsche or Debord, maybe exposure to this kind of art project would have clarified his understanding of philosophical debate.

Like many of this year’s Goldsmith MFA graduates I have lauded in earlier blogposts, Knowles takes it for granted that art can be defined without preconceived boundaries and is determined to focus on her political concerns . This was not so obvious a route for earlier generations of budding artists, even those born long after the innovations of the Dadaists and Situationists. Jeremy Deller remarks on his epiphany in New York meeting Andy Warhol amid the happenings in The Factory in 1986 when he realised that the artist is permitted to do anything and call it art.  All artists must have a narcissistic streak, after all they are given permission and money to hone and pursue a single-minded, personal vision and realise this in whatever fashion they desire.  What is so life affirming about Deller is that he uses this artistic freedom to relinquish control to the disempowered. Among his many democratically inspired art projects I was particularly struck by his decision to delegate to a group of Spanish teenagers the filming of his organised street processions for minority groups in Santander which he then exhibited at his Turner Prize winning show.

Knowles has carried off a similar trick by stepping aside and involving a wide range of people in the questions she is pursuing through her art. A mixture of actors and law experts took roles in the mock trial held in Southwark Crown court to promote its authenticity.  Many groups including law students have seen either the performance or the 45 minute video record of the trial and been stimulated to discuss the issues it raises. A fellow student Daniel Dressel constructed a computer which is wheeled into the witness-box giving the performance a 1960’s Situationist-style absurdity. At an event at the Zabludovicz Collection last month a “jury” that included legal and AI experts as well as laypeople deliberated on the case for 90 minutes. They were surrounded by an invited audience who also contributed to the debate. This commitment to involving others is a perfect fit with the wider educational aims of the project. I learnt from one expert that we might build in a process whereby the algorithm learns from its fatal mistakes and corrects its “immoral” behaviour.

This scenario is so far removed from current legal practice that I would guess that academic law researchers would have failed to attract funding for such a project. So if only artists like Knowles can achieve this, by default we are dependent on them to advance the crucial public debate. In this sense, art not only can do, it must do, philosophy. Debord would say we must see the world without boundaries as a totality otherwise we will get suckered by the illusion of the Spectacle.

Can art do documentary?

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Statues Also Die (1953)-  still from film by Alain Resnais and  Chris Marker

When art functions primarily as a documentary either conveying information or  explicitly taking a stand it has an imperative to do so with an aesthetic twist. I find political diatribe unpalatable unless it can positively answer my sceptical question: “What added value can art bring that text cannot?” Art that derives from colonial politics can sometimes seem like a dutiful trudge through a well-meaning argument.  The iconic moving image artwork that showed par excellence how to avoid this is the masterful dissection of African art’s distortion by colonialism, Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die) by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker made in 1953 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzFeuiZKHcg. While the commentary is polemical it uses heartfelt poetical language and the rhythmically edited images dramatically syncopate with the carefully orchestrated soundtrack composed by Guy Barnard using African and Western instrumentation. This inspiring work was referenced by the long-winded, overly academic Duncan Campbell film It for Others that won the Turner Prize in 2014. The comparison did not do him any favours.

 

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Still from The Mapping Project  2008-11 courtesy of the artist

The Moroccan-French artist Bouchra Khalili is working in a similar vein.  Her film Foreign Office (2015) at Lisson Gallery until 18 March movingly presents two young Algerians questioning the history of African liberation movements. They sit expressionless, poring over a set of photographs of past heroes of colonial conflicts and articulate a narrative of loss. Where has all the idealism in the early days gone? How do we decipher the “truth” of our shared history? How do we build on the struggles of our predecessors? The format is simple and the issues she raises are poignant and engaging but the film is compromised as it is neither a visually arresting artwork or a detailed analytical documentary. The lessons of Resnais and Marker seem doomed to fall into neglect.

However this exhibition is worth a visit for Khalili’s original take on telling migrant tales in her multiscreen installation The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11) which allow migrants to recount their journey from their homeland to Europe while tracing it in thick marker pen on a map. The circuitous route so many of them take contrasts with the military mapping trope of the sweeping arcs of arrows as popularised in the  Dad’s Army opening titles (see below). I expect UKIP has a similar graphic somewhere in their publications to illustrate their view on immigration. The reversals and dead ends of the real migrant paths is an apposite metaphor for the confusion and rootless anxiety many of them must feel.  I was left wanting to know far more about their individual plights and wondering about the possible artistic justification for the exploitation of suffering.

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Still from title sequence of the 1970’s comedy series Dad’s Army courtesy of the BBC

 

Hallucinogens, nature and corporate culture: Prouvost and Treister

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Copyright Suzanne Treister. Digital print, HFT The Gardener/ Botanical Prints/ Rank 1: Apple-US-Technology hardware &  equipment, courtesy of the artist, Annely Juda Fine Art, London and P.P.O.W., New York

Tropical  Hangover at Tenderpixel suggests an ambivalent attitude to the intoxication that nature can induce. Cleverly drawn together, the five artists take diverse approaches on the nature/culture clash and there are several gems to be uncovered, not least Suzanne Treister’s surreal take on the hallucinogenic aspects of global capitalism.

Laure Prouvost is her usual quirky self with her short film, Swallow (2013), while not reaching the glorious, wonky heights of absurdity experienced in her 2013 Turner Prize winning installation, Wantee.  Its luxuriant visuals of sunlight, foliage, waterfalls, pools and wildlife (non-tropical!) are not that original but they are complemented by an unsettling whispered commentary spoken in the French-accented English of the artist. She sensuously entreats you to submit yourself to her images:  I heard: “This image needs you”, but it might have been: “This image eats you”. Both seem to work.

The potential erotic symbolism of fruit is explored like the visual equivalent of Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market but this is undermined by some dissonant footage of raspberries being eaten by a fish and strawberries being discovered under a rock. These cultivated soft fruits are now more closely associated with plastic punnets rather than the natural environment. This dissonance is further amplified by glimpses of a USB  lead nestled in the grass and a bright green and purple trainer surrounded by similarly coloured butterflies.

Prouvost’s inclination to give nature the upper hand to culture is hinted at in her slogan on an adjacent painted board  Ideally everything here would be covered in mussels. This appealing image is developed by Rowena Harris’s online video After Attenborough (2017) which makes sense of both floors of the gallery being painted sky blue. This acts as a digital blue-screen for her to flood the gallery with images of flora appropriated from the TV documentary Life of Plants. This entrancing  film, viewable on the Tenderpixel website, is a triumph of ingenuity.

In  HFT (High Frequency Trading) The Gardener, Suzanne Treister takes a sideswipe at the creepiness of multinationals trying to sanitise their operations with tasteful artwork that references the natural world, Apple perhaps being one of the worst culprits. Her cunning deadpan elision of corporate publicity styling, Victorian botanical illustration and a narrative tracing a city trader’s meltdown, hits the bull’s-eye on so many targets. Plant based hallucinogens seem to infiltrate his bank’s investment algorithms and we get a sense of his nightmare existence in the hyperactive global corporate culture. Treister’s collected plant prints are the putative product of the city trader’s new career as an outsider artist obsessionally linking plant hallucinogens with the FTSE top 500 companies. An atmospheric video giving her alter ego’s backstory and a collection of “his” extensive drawings both perfectly capture his manic and freewheeling conjecturing and can be viewed on her website: http://www.suzannetreister.net/HFT_TheGardener/HFT_menu.html

Salvatore Arancio shows some interesting biomorphic ceramics and a video and Zuzanna Czebatul has a couple of striking wall sculptures evoking giant ferns  but neither of them add much to the culture/nature clash theme.

Prouvost’s take on nature has hints of cultural contamination but these ideas are pursued with gusto by Treister. The exhibition runs until 4 March and is mainly worth seeing for the multifaceted, subversive anarchy of Treister’s work contrasting with the sensuous appeal of Prouvost’s video.

Cage and Thoreau: chaos, nature and language

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John Cage and Henry David Thoreau

Sometimes boredom can stimulate thought processes that eventually lead to profound insights. The American avant-garde composer John Cage’s most notorious  composition is a full orchestra “playing” 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence.  The audience for this piece is brought to the perception that “silence” is unattainable because in a silent concert hall our attention will be refocused on the ambient sounds we automatically filter out during a performance. In a wider sense he alerts us to the continuous unconscious process that essentially protects us from information overload that might make conscious thought impossible. Perhaps at a deeper level we sense that our perceptions are not a reflection of “reality” but a constructed truth that is formed from our own idiosyncratic fears and desires.

Experiencing  Cage’s sound installation Lecture on the Weather (1976) last December at Frith Street Gallery,  I was initially irritated by its banality but over a period of 50 minutes boredom was counteracted by a whirring of mental cogs  and eventually its (a?) meaning seemed to take shape.

On the sound track we get a contrast of Nature and  Civilisation: a cacophony of up to four speakers simultaneously reading extracts from the writings of the nineteenth century philosopher and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau and the recording of an approaching storm starting from gentle rainfall culminating in a shattering thunderstorm before subsiding. In a competition for which best exemplifies chaos most people would plump for Nature but Cage has bowled us a googly. His life long exploration of chance is expressed here in the random selection and overlaying of the Thoreau excerpts thus reducing its meaning to snatches of phrases that seem to float by on the wind. I felt that he was saying that we should accept that our much vaunted language ability is as much a part of nature as the weather. Natural forces have an inevitability about them that we try to contain with our thin veneer of human language and civilisation. That this is a futile  task is somehow comforting.

 

Rehana Zaman: subtle scrutiny of Muslim stereotypes

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Rehana Zaman- Still from video work Tell me the story Of all these things (2016) courtesy of the artist and Tenderpixel

Icebergs, cooking and gendered creation myths; three tracks I was led down watching Tell me a story Of all these things, Rehana Zaman’s lively fifteen minute video work in what must be the tiniest gallery in London, Tenderpixel, last week. In this visually and conceptually cohesive work it was fun to experience the clever connections she forged between her three very different media: found footage from the government’s Prevent e-learning package on radicalisation, interview footage of an engaging and self-aware Muslim woman, Farah, reflecting unself-consciously on her life while she cooks and a digitally animated Eve archetype with no need for Adam, alone but vibrant in a burnt and scarred anti-Paradisial landscape.

Icebergs are scary not just because of the sinking of the Titanic. Many government campaigns have exploited the underwater cross-section  view of the treacherous unseen 90% of the iceberg to symbolise an amorphous menace. I remember scoffing at their appearance in the 1985 public health campaign when AIDS was seen as an obscure disease that might decimate the population unless they were terrified into taking appropriate precautions. How an iceberg was meant to protect you against HIV infection I never worked out. In charge of sex education in a sixth form college at the time, I was struck by the irony that sex and death were being so closely aligned in teenagers’ mindsets. More recently icebergs have illustrated campaigns to highlight unreported domestic abuse. Particularly crass then that Prevent graphic designers use the iceberg trope in the online training to convey the difficulties of identifying the dangerous radicals in the population of ordinary people. Zaman selects a very memorable sequence which starts with a cartoon graphic of the bus with its roof ripped off like a tin can lid, a vivid image from the 2005 London jihadi bombings. A shard of wreckage in the foreground transforms into the iceberg of hidden threats that the teachers must be alert to. The term “Muslim” is never mentioned in the training as the avowed intention is to widely define potential terrorists to include far right groups. This striking transformation allows  a confused subtext to leak out.

Zaman’s employer, Goldsmiths University of London, like all educational institutions, has a statutory duty to identify students at risk of being drawn into “extremist ideologies”. Regardless of the controversy of the role this places her in, it becomes clear that as an artist she feels a duty to scrutinise this approach to subdividing cultural groups. For the government the key divide is between those Muslims vulnerable to radicalization and those safe from it. But Farah points out the divisions  important to her: Bangladeshi as opposed to Pakistani, dark-skinned compared to light-skinned. This colour contrast is reflected in the amalgam of different black and brown shades in the skin tones and landscape of Zaman’s digital world perhaps suggesting that a melting pot ideology is what we need.

God’s forming of the first Man from the soil of the earth is common to the creation myths from nearly every culture anthropologists have studied. Christianity and Islam simply adopted a much earlier widespread belief system. Zaman’s reimagined digital Garden of Eden contains a lone woman who blends and re-emerges from the arid ground. As well as commenting on this almost universal justification for patriarchy, perhaps her heroine’s mottled skin tone critiques the Islamic teaching that different races were created from different coloured clays.

The closest I get to this kind of pottery is cooking and the relaxation and creativity it engenders is invaluable. Zaman employs it as context for allowing Farah’s frank testimony to flow. Whether this is scripted or not is irrelevant as it is conveyed with an authenticity that keeps you gripped. The gist of her thoughts is that stereotypes are damaging but she will not allow herself to be boxed in; she has a younger boyfriend and demands space to pursue her interests including skiing.

Earlier blogposts have highlighted the high esteem I hold Goldsmiths for their ability  to produce visually innovative moving image artists with a sharp and subtle political edge like Zaman.  So it is good to know that as a tutor there she is inspiring the next generation.

Groundbreaking minimalist dance/visual art crossover by Matthias Sperling

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Installation photograph of Loop Atlas by Matthias Sperling: copyright Pari Nadari

Minimalism is my preferred style in any art form and today at the Barbican I had much to get excited about as I experienced an artwork that broke new ground in this genre. Minimalism in music and the visual arts often relies on loops of repeated patterns. As Steve Reich realised with his tape loops in the 1960’s, once a copy is made of the original and the two channels played back out of phase a new world of creative possibilities emerges. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s 1982 seminal work  Fase  choreographed four of Reich’s Phase compositions and began the process of dance responding to minimalist ideas in music. Last seen live in the UK at the Tate Modern in 2012, many interesting filmed versions are viewable on Youtube.

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Performance image of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s dance Fase

However, Matthias Sperling has taken the phasing technique to an entirely new  level in Loop Atlas which premiered at the Siobhan Davies Dance performance installation, material/rearranged/to/be, at the Barbican Curve this week. Using video capture and playback directly from his live performance, this remarkable “solo” artwork left me reeling with its originality and ingenuity.  I write “solo” advisedly as his work is a choreographed phasing of up to 30 video loops created in real time, each of approximately sixty seconds in length. So in the first iteration we see him live against a back projection of the opening minute of his performance. His creativity, expressed through his interaction with the previous loop, is facilitated because the basic movement “unit” is a rotation of the upper body focused on swinging arms with his feet relatively static. These movements change slowly with each repetition into a slowly evolving progression. As the piece builds up the previous video loop recedes into the background getting fainter but still visible as seen in the above photograph.

Towards the end of the performance the early loops are slowed down and degraded by the relatively clunky Raspberry Pi computer processor until the image transforms into an eerie blur of pulsating light. At this point I got a sense of a measured, tranquil life being played out against the gravitational pull of an incendiary vortex.  To emphasise this tension Sperling wears heavy welder style sunglasses as if to protect him from the glare like a Frink gogglehead  but this is contrasted by his graceful swinging arm movements which evoke nurturing actions (rocking a baby or sowing grain). It is only in the final loop that his hand gestures form devil horns.  Have we now entered Dante’s Inferno? The performance ends with the dancer squatting, watching his loops fade into darkness. He can now remove his shades.

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Elizabeth Frink Gogglehead -copyright Frink estate

Although de Keersmaeker was responding to phased music, it seems to me that  Sperling’s application of video capture technology has allowed him to produce the true dance equivalent to Reich’s innovation. Because the phasing is manifest in the movement loops themselves the musical accompaniment need only provide a regular slow beat. This Sperling has achieved through a loop of his own overdubbed vocalisations that mimic the sound of waves rhythmically pounding a beach.

Interdisciplinary art like this is a pleasure to experience when sound, movement and visuals cohere in such a mutually supportive way. This exhibition/ performance installation features several other dance and visual artists all inspired by the Warburg image archive of gestures and runs until 28 January but is also touring the UK during the next six months.

Instagram Woes vs Kitchen Angst

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Still from video, Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), copyright Martha Rosler, courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY

Two contrasting films made 40 years apart currently showing at the Photographers Gallery tell a salutary story of the changing media representation of women. The 1975 scuzzy monochrome performance video by Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen seems to come from a distant era to Joanne,  Simon Fujiwara’s  glossy film portrait of the self-styled social media “chameleon” who also happens to be his ex art teacher.

Rosler’s film is rightly a classic of feminist video art. In this parody of the TV domestic goddess still popular in Youtube cookery demos, Rosler alphabetically names and presents 26 kitchen accessories and mimes their use with varying degrees of violence and frustration. A carving knife is wielded with intent to kill. She plays this with a deadpan sincerity  which gives it a humorous edge while delivering a muted warning: a fightback against the prison of women’s gender assigned roles is nigh. Fancifully I imagine the title as an implied critique of the hollow theorising  of the feminist academics of the 1970s: “We want action not analysis”. But Rosler herself sees it simply as a “tongue-in-cheek” comment on the semiotic approach. Since then although the kitchen is more likely to be a shared space it is still a gendered one. A male cook has a different set of semiotics.

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Still from Simon Fujiwara’s film Joanne (2016) courtesy of FVU and The Photographers’ Gallery

Spool forward 40 years and the dilemmas posed by female role representation becomes even more confused. Joanne Salley suffered her 15 minutes of ignominious fame through the prurient interest of the tabloids in her breasts gained through a leaked photoshoot she had thought private. The salacious newsworthiness of this story was ramped up by her role as a teacher at one of the UK’s most prestigious boy’s public schools, Harrow. Fujiwara’s film investigates the many contradictions inherent in the fall out from this exposure. It made her a name that she could exploit on the celebrity circuit but her social media profile now needed to show “not what I look like, but what I do.” The most telling moment in the film is an encounter between Joanne and an actor who she is briefing to play an improvised scene in which he will take on the role of a personal brand manager advising her on this process. Is this meant as a recreation of a real meeting in her life or a repudiation of the pressures on her to concoct an online persona? We get the strange feeling that Joanne’s Instagram account is as much a prison as Rosler’s kitchen.

The artworks are on show at the Photographers’ Gallery until the 29th January.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries

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Christopher D.A. Gray- still from Becoming Boxers, 2015 courtesy of the artist

Young talent fizzing with fresh ideas abounds at the ICA’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition where diverse moving image artworks engage with contentious issues including the downsides of social media, the complexities of gender roles and the marketisation of art.

Christopher D.A. Gray’s Becoming Boxers (2015) was the standout work for me because it conveyed the dismal truth about the vanity and desperation of male aggression as seen in the evolution of physical violence from the fist fight to the ritual of the boxing ring. Using his unadorned hands as a powerfully articulate “actors” they become realistic, expressive puppets parrying and striking blows accompanied by smacking wince-inducing sound effects. As the bout progresses the fighters transform from bare knuckle linen swaddled sluggers to boxers in full professional regalia with cunningly crafted heads and gloves. The simulated fury is uncanny and unsettling. Douglas Gordon has also portrayed his hands as sinister performers but Gray takes this specialised subgenre of performance art to a new level .

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Still from  Zarina Muhammad video The English Beat courtesy of the artist

“Ultimately images are subject to the same fanaticism as bodies are” is a telling quote from Zarina Muhammad’s lively and revealing website.  Dancing with uninhibited larkiness to a translated version of the Punjabi rap megahit, The English Beat by Yo Yo Honey Singh slowed down to spooky growl, she draws attention to its rather creepy macho lyrics. Against a green screen background of internet clips of warfare and violence some of which are reminiscent of ISIS videos, she points to the close alliance between religious fundamentalism and  misogynistic sexual anxiety. This interplay is examined further in her amusingly flamboyant video, Digjihad, and I look forward to more of her MI works in this exciting vein.

Maryam Tafakor’s Iranian heritage as a Muslim women investigates similar issues in a different context. Absent wound is an engrossing lyrical film which contrasts the rituals of Persian warrior training with the recitations of a young girl coming to terms with her impending womanhood. This exploration of gender segregation is thoughtful and compelling.

Richie Moment’s three punchy, satirical films Green Scream, Up and Coming and PhoneCall are  90 seconds long  but each use a concentrated overload of colour saturated imagery and angry commentary to give cathartic relief to the artist’s frustration in attempting to launch his career in a shark infested art market.

Ruth Spencer Jolly’s We Can Work It Out is a clever, zeitgeisty and charming video installation displayed on two computer screens about the difficulties of forming harmonious bonds across the miasma of the internet. She and a male counterpart sing a close harmony version of the Beatles song with witty updated lyrics that show how far we have come since the simpler days of face to face mediation of relationships in the 1960’s.

Karolina Magnusson Murray and  Leon Platt are showing  three of their co-produced  films The Names, The Work and The Application which would suck up 90 minutes of your time if you could withstand the torture of watching the convoluted bickering of these two artists as they attempt to cooperate on the creation of an artwork. The artwork just happens to be the film you are watching. This reflexive mode is like looking for the two sides of a Möbius strip  or watching a snake consume its own tail.  I guess these uncomfortable and irritating films say something about collaboration being a painfully fraught business where jealousy lurks just under the surface threatening to sabotage the whole project.

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Janina Lange-still from Shooting Clouds #2 courtesy of the artist

Janina Lange’s  Shooting Clouds #2 is such a peaceful and meditative work. Shot from an open helicopter  it slowly circumnavigates a  puffball cloud  drifting stately like a galleon over the landscape below. Its sculptural form is reinforced by the bronze replica she presents with it, created from 2D image capture and 3D printing, reminding us of the fragile boundaries between gas, liquid and solid. Although on first viewing this was primarily an aesthetic experience, it later brought the perils of melting icecaps to mind.

 

This is only a selection of the many promising and original ideas that are inspiring the artists at  this important annual ICA exhibition which runs until 22 January.