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.

The holiday video subverted: Blandy and Conroy

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Emotional Supply Chains at the Zabludowicz Collection until 17 July

When an artist turns the camera on themselves there is the risk of a narcissistic selfie. Gilbert and George assume that their personas are intrinsically interesting as human artworks and as a result their performance videos appear self-absorbed, cloying and flat. Self portraits can generate universal insights but this usually requires the artist to have a certain modesty and to locate themselves in a compelling context. David Blandy has managed to pull off this trick many times over the past twenty years and his refreshingly honest video Child of the Atom (2010) now showing as part of the exhibition Emotional Supply Chains at the Zabludowicz Collection is an example for other budding MI artists to follow.

Blandy’s starting point is a family holiday video with ultra high production values capturing beautiful views, a peaceful park, a homely cafe and a cute toddler clambering around. The normality of this scenario is in dissonant counterpoint to the horrific context of the film – the atomic destruction of Hiroshima. Blandy and his daughter  wander around the reconstructed city encountering newly built memorials and the poignant husks of buildings that remain from that fatal day in August 1945. The role of narrator is generously handed over to Blandy junior looking back on the trip. Her tentative musings on the morality of the military choices and their personal impact create a meditative mood. This is helped by the video’s installation on a raised platform with a traditional rush tatami mat to sit on which adds to the sense of intimacy. She tells us that her grandfather was a Japanese POW and by ending the war the bomb is said to have saved his own life and permitted her own arrival into the world:a puzzling and heartfelt moral dilemma.

Blandy  does not avoid the brutal truths of the attack but instead of using archive material which we all know too well he chooses to switch to home-grown anime clips. This serves to leaven the atmosphere with an absurdity that any consideration of nuclear warfare demands. The bomb personified as a superhero diving headfirst to ground zero is reminiscent of the iconic scene of a war crazed US major riding on a nuclear missile in Kubricks’s  dark satire, Doctor Strangelove illustrated above. Interleaving  animation with live film has been  a key feature of MI art in recent decades and has been developed by Blandy in many of his films. It reminds us of the fantasy/reality confusion that we are all emeshed in (including the nuclear Cold war strategists).  It has also been exploited to great effect in both this year’s Jerwood/ FVU Award films so its popularity is not waning.

Similarly gripping is David Raymond Conroy’s You (People) Are All The Same.  Also set in a city with a dark alterego, it also plays on holiday video tropes, opening with a blurry meander around his Las Vegas hotel bedroom.  The washed out footage undermines the stereotyped garishness we anticipate from the cityscape as we hear the artist’s gloomy prognosis of what sort of film he will eventually be able to concoct. Bravely, the lo-fi production values are maintained throughout but this is consonant with his mission to reveal the bleak underbelly of Las Vegas life.  The film is a mini thriller with dramatic turns as the artist desperately attempts to reconcile his twin goals of doing good to others while making an artwork. His altruism is pitted against the fear that he may be exploiting the homeless people he is trying to help. By alternating between his own story and that of his potential subjects he avoids charges of egotism and by handing over much of the commentary to others we get different takes on his struggle.

All the potential scenarios discussed involve divesting himself of the grant that he has been awarded but none of them get filmed. We assume that this is because of the artist’s moral squemishness but it may also be the result of his failure to identify or recruit genuine homeless subjects. Conroy has given us an original portrait of Las Vegas while interrogating the ambivalent relationship of the artist filmmaker to his subject. As with Blandy, the personal and the political are subtly entwined to give a powerful sense of artist’s convictions without descending into an egotistical diatribe.

Coincidentally Maria Eichhorn is exploring a similar issue in her latest work at the Chisenhale Gallery. She has closed the gallery and partly used her sponsorship money to pay the staff  to take a prolonged vacation.  Her subjects have no say in their involvement as without their cooperation there would be no artwork. Conroy’s film provokes some uncomfortable thoughts about this power imbalance. Jayson Musson has also produced a scabrously funny critique of this style of artwork, relational aesthetics,  which was one of the standout works at the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition Electronic Superhighway and  can be found on his Youtube channel presented by his alter-ego rapper art critic Hennessey Youngman. This is not to say that the audience cannot fruitfully be brought into the production of an artwork as the self-effacing Jeremy Deller has so elegantly demonstrated.