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.

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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.

 

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“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.

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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

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

As 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 wear 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.

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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?

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.

 

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.