Humanity branded at RA Schools Show?

Sam Austen
Still from 16mm film True Mirror, 2017. Courtesy of the artist, Sam Austen

“Ensure your brand represents humanity”.  This slogan for wannabe artists appeared in Richie Moments’s coruscating video in his degree show at the RA Schools  exhibition last week. It neatly summarises the dilemma: to get noticed by the artworld you need a USP but if you aspire to art’s more noble aspirations you need to reflect something profound about the human condition. I speculated whether this year’s crop of graduates had succeeded in meeting both of these demands. Noticeably more moving image works featured in this year’s RA show often deployed to enhance works in other media.

Sam Austen’s visceral three channel installation, True Mirror, accompanied by an original musique concrete  soundtrack  with factory and railroad clatterings in lockstep with the visual edit was the standout work. Not many young artists have the patience to work within the constraints of celluloid but it confers a  ghost-like immediacy and glamour to the images that digital cannot achieve. Through painstaking editing and superimposition Austen has made a chilling work that transfixes the viewer with an eerie sense of mortality. The key motif is a series of disembodied plaster heads that evoke the Mexican Day of the Dead or classical death masks whirling through space like frenetic commuters or riders on a manic fairground roundabout. There are frequent changes in tempo and when they come to rest their staring eyes invite us to posit an interior life. Often paired, the heads have reflections that are chasing or shadowing the original. In the final sequence two heads circle each other like wary combatants. Exhilarating and unsettling representation of the human condition. Tick. USP =  “old school” medium + contemporary sound track. Tick.

Dmitri Galitzine and Thomas Bolwell. Still from dual screen HD video, Cowboys, 2015-2017. Courtesy of the artists.

Over two years of filming Dmitri Galitzine and Thomas Bolwell immersed themselves in the fantasy world of a Wild West cowboy re-enactment community. Their construction of a complete frontier settlement in Kent is the ideal narrative for exploring the contradictions of myth and reality. Hi-vis jackets among the stetsons, mechanical diggers among the horses. Their dual screen presentation juxtaposes Hollywood Western scenes with very similar ones from his footage. The contrast of the English mud with the Arizonan sand highlights the perceptual skew required to preserve a mythical world. They also slyly hint at the more worrying side of historical warfare obsessions by inserting a clip of a Third Reich memorabilia stand. We are reminded that America’s adulation of its gun slinging heritage underlies the appeal of Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip mind-set.  But this is not a hatchet job on the role players. Their attachment to the cultural heritage is represented by a grizzled re-enactment member singing a heartfelt rendition of a cowboy folk song accompanied by the mellow strumming of an autoharp.

Jesse Jetpack and Richie Moment have chosen monikers that declare their brand as a cutting edge artists. Both foreground themselves, Jetpacks as an angsty singer song-writer/ performance artist/computer animator and Moment playing the motley fool as a wild-eyed satirist of the art world.

In Jetpack’s Day of the Challenger I was beginning to weary of an extended sequence of her dancing over a clunky digital riverside landscape with portentous lyrics of survival amongst “the crashing of waves of blood” when a stunningly original visual metaphor unfolded. The next sequence dramatised the choreography of bilateral relationships  by starting with two digitally animated pendulums whose weights are the heads of the artist and her significant other. As they swing they leave a trace of intersections. It gets more complicated as the pendulums are transformed into jointed armatures sketching a delicate enmeshed Spirograph type pattern. 24 minutes was on the long side but you had to admire her emotional honesty and her versatility. The shorter videos on her website show a keen sense of humour.

As noted in an earlier blogpost on last years Bloomberg New Contemporaries, Moment’s manic portrayal of an artist’s attempts to become a bankable art world prospect is spot on. In Level Headed, Next level Video 001 (Gallery Version), 2017 he appears to be showcasing a minimalist work of a telephone mounted in the centre of a white gallery wall. After several minutes  it rings to be answered by Moment who responds ecstatically to the news that he has now moved to the “next level” which leads into a rush of slogans on art career strategy. This is mischievous and brutally perceptive fun that stands comparison to Hennessy Youngman’s and Louis Judkins’ cutting satirical videos.

Political commentary takes a back seat to aesthetic considerations in much of the RA School graduates work but this is certainly not the case at Goldsmiths MFA Show which I am off to see this evening to unearth some more talented video artists.


Bloomberg New Contemporaries

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 .

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.

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.