“It’s all a bit weird” said a middle-aged man as he hurried past me at the RA Schools show last week. As a fellow middle-aged male he might have expected me to agree but he did not wait for my reply. Having thought about it since, the overall weirdness quotient of this show was in fact quite low but the two artists that struck me as the most and the least weird were my particular favourites. British-Chinese/Vietnamese artist Will Pham’s film An Viet (Well Settled) was a touching insight into a staple subject of mainstream documentary TV: the fate of migrant communities in the UK. The weird ambiance of Charlie Fegan’s video installation matched the weirdness of his sources: an obscure political/mystical tract on unemployment by the notorious artist, Eric Gill, better known for his erotic art was allied with an unloved, deteriorating public sculpture, Draped Woman, cast in concrete by an obscure Czech artist, Karel Vogel. It languishes on the verge of the A4 Great West Road in West London but is now listed.
Will Pham evidently possesses the key gift required by documentary makers: he can get his interviewees to be uninhibited under the scrutiny of his camera. The highlight of his 20 minute film are two people talking to camera who seem to be relaxed by Will’s reassuring off-camera presence. One is the son of the Vietnamese exile, Vu Thanh Khanh, the founder of the An Viet community centre in Hackney serving refugees from the aftermath of the Vietnam War. He reads passages from his father’s autobiography occasionally choking with the emotion and eventually leaving the room in distress. Another is a young woman who describes her work with the centre and her feelings about culture and personhood. As a Scandinavian who reads French, working with the UK Vietnamese community she has come to realise that being a person is more significant than being a member of a cultural group. Pham takes the deliberate decision not edit out an interrupting mobile call but allows us to see her all too human flash of excitement at the received message.
In the closing sequence a young Vietnamese couple make hesitant moves as they attempt ballroom dance steps together. As their movements become more fluent we are implicitly asked to ponder the balance between the migrant’s competing need to assimilate into the host culture while honouring their own cultural hinterland.
Inevitably your appreciation of an artwork is enhanced if you have some personal connection to its content. I own a copy of the obscure 1933 Eric Gill pamphlet Unemployment quoted at length inFegan’s three minute video NO BLACK MAGIC? so I was probably a step ahead of most visitors to this work. Gill’sdiatribe against the advent of a future dominated by “machinery” highlights the idea, now commonplace, that the leisure time it generates might be available for life enhancing cultural pursuits (HIGHER THINGS according to Gill’s emphasis). As if to illustrate the location of the sublime in the everyday grind, Fegan’s video is a reverse tracking shot through an A4 pedestrian underpass. In the closing frame we emerge onto the opposite side of the dual carriageway with the erotically charged Draped Woman sculpture just visible in the dusk as the rush hour traffic roars past her. We are given a better impression of the sculpture as Fegan has produced a scale replica adorned with discarded flowers and a drink carton. Gill’s grooming of his teenage daughters by using them as life models and his subsequent sexual abuse is well-known and both his misogyny as well as his anti capitalism is apparent in Unemployment.
So many questions are thrown up by this atmospheric and unsettling artwork. What is the legacy of an artist with such a disturbing biograph? Can an artist be both enlightening and antedeluvian? How should we treat his work? Would we be right to censor it? Do we value public art? Can concrete be a sensuous medium? Why are some public sculptures valued and others left to languish?
Hopefully more people will read Unemployment and visit the Draped Woman as a result of the exposure they have gained through Fegan’s work.
“Ensure your brand represents humanity”. This slogan for wannabe artists appeared in Richie Moments’ 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. Compared to 2016, noticeably more moving image works featured in this year’s exhibition, often deployed by the artist to enhance their work in other media.
Sam Austen’s visceral three channel installation, True Mirror (2017), 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. A USP melding of “old school” media (casting and celluloid) with contemporary technology (sound track): tick. With these criteria met, this is the definition of a totally successful moving image artwork.
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. The dual-screen presentation juxtaposes Hollywood Western scenes with very similar ones from thier own 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. Twenty four minutes was on the long side but you had to admire both 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 year’s 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.