“I’m not able to make it up. It just would not work”: John Virtue interview below

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12)


There are two epicentres under consideration in this monumental installation at the Royal Academy right now. One was in Wenchuan County in Sechuan; the other is the government in Beijing.

The first meant a quake that destroyed 20 schools. The second has monitored the ongoing work of China’s best known artist and kept him at arm’s length with bureaucracy and doublespeak.

Ai contends that given their location on a seismic faultline, the schools should have been better built. This piece is a memorial, which lays square blame with corrupt officials and construction firms.

There is even something unpatriotic about substandard architecture. This, after all, is a nation most famed for a wall stretching more than 20,000km. It inspires a memorable short story by Kafka.

For the Great Wall, says the Czech writer (although how would he know?): “An unremitting sense of personal responsibility in the builders were indispensable prerequisites for the work”.

But you can see, from 200 tonnes of straightened rebar, the materials in Sechuan were not equal to the task. And as you can see from the accompanying film, the steel bars failed as a structure.

Now another wall was put up to protect the guilty. Ai’s team struggled to get information on the missing and the dead. “What if you’re an American spy?” asks a drudge on the end of the phone.

Until the major earthquake, Ai appears to have been something of a favoured son and a successful architect in his own right. As you know, he collaborated on the main stadium for the Beijing Olympics.

But it’s commonly thought that it is his unambiguous art of protest, and not his tax affairs, which led to his detention without trial for 80 days in 2011. The authorities have said little.

Kafka again, in character as a native of the old empire, “We Chinese possess certain folk and political institutions that are unique in their clarity, others again unique in their obscurity.”

Clarity: Ai has crossed the line. Obscurity: we cannot tell you what line or where. Both qualities pursued the artist even to the point of his visa complications in getting to London for his show.

It is of course counterproductive. The repression gives additional power to the work. As if the walls filled with a list of 5,000 victims’ names, a list of serene despair, were not power enough.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy can be seen until 13 December 2015. You can find my review for Culture24 here. The Kafka story mentioned is of course The Great Wall of China, to be found in the Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka, Vintage, 1999.

Shona Illingworth, Lesions in the Landscape (2015)

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In a rare moment of colour footage, this film by Shona Illingworth features figures with torches who work their way around a green twilight landscape, riddled with stony ruins.

The searching orange beams bring to mind the point of our consciousness, while the vastness of the terrain stands for all we know and remember but cannot directly access.

But like the lonely figures in this three screen panorama, we get by. The same can hardly be said for another personage in this unsettling film, the amnesiac Claire, who cannot feel her past.

The injury to Claire’s brain is paralleled by the injury to this landscape. St Kilda is the most North Westerly part of the British Isles, evacuated under controversial circumstances in the 1930s.

We see the islanders in archive footage captured by an ornithologist on the eve of their departure. They hide from the lens, as if from witchcraft, and resist attempts to know them through film.

A later piece of sound in the installation is more revealing of the inner life of these island dwellers. Illingworth includes the call and response of a religious service comprised of Gaelic psalm.

So you can live on a godforsaken rock in the Atlantic, but that, apparently, is no reason to forsake your god in turn. And there is a beauty in the oceanic pitch and roll of communal song.

All that remains of these peoples here now are the seabirds that for four millennia formed their main diet. Thousands of these fill the screens which fill the dark screening room. You are among them.

This is the sad and inhospitable place where, along with Claire, we hear from Martin Conway. The highly respected neuropsychologist is philosophical about the condition of both subjects.

Without a sense of the lived past, we cannot know the present, we cannot imagine a future. The same could be said for both subjects of Illingworth’s film; it is bleak at times.

That’s maybe why the viewer welcomes the burst of colour and the dogged progress of the figures with the torches. If our own memory works like this, it is at least working fine.

Lesions in the Landscape can be seen at FACT, Liverpool until 22 November 2015, before travelling to UNSW Galleries, Sydney, Australia, then Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art Gallery, Outer Hebrides, and then Dilston Grove & CGP Gallery in London.

Eduardo Terrazas, Possibilities of a Structure: Cosmos 1.1.13’, (1976-2015)


Abstract and irregular it might be, but this geometric artwork is as comforting as a picnic blanket. On first glance at the reproduction, you may not realise why. But get closer…

This sharp, monochrome composition, which promises so little on screen, is in fact rendered in a dense yarn weave of yarn. Black/grey/white may be tonally cool, but the medium is warm.

But to call it a pattern, would be misleading. Patterns tend towards symmetry and Terrazas tends to resist the lure of simple elements which balance one another.

Yarn is glued to a waxed board in a technique borrowed from the indigenous Huichol people of the West of Central Mexico. It makes the challenging design appear organic, inevitable.

Although you will want to, you need not touch the surface to appreciate the intensity delivered by thousands of woollen strands pulling at the centre of this fragmented target from all directions.

The result is almost too much to get your head around. Like a piece of improvised music, Terrazas gives us just enough order to keep us on the room, just enough disorder to keep us on our toes.

It reflects this Mexican artist’varied background in architecture, in graphic design and in museology. But surely none of these disciplines offer the freedom of contemporary art.

Terrazas offers the freedom of the blank surface with the satisfaction of a provisional structure in which everything locks into place. Like the elements of a building or a logo.

Incidentally, he co-created the design for the Olympic Games of Mexico 68. This too has echoes of native central-American craft. You could say it reverberates, as does each work in the current show.

Eduardo Terrazas can be seen at Timothy Taylor, London, until October 3 2015.

Nicholas Mangan, Ancient Lights (2015)


The greenest show in London right now is at Chisenhale, where Nicholas Mangan powers two films with solar panels on the gallery roof. In terms of power, it’s a closed circuit.

But this isn’t so much concern for the environment. The Australian artist’s air miles might have scotched that. It’s about the economy of sunlight on this troubled planet of ours.

Needless to say, we take the sun for granted. But we may still have a primal association between sacrifice and power. The Aztecs cut loose hearts; we invade and destabilise oil rich nations.

We don’t have to list all the other murderous things we do in the name of energy. And Mangan makes no reference to them. Unless you count that looped video of a spinning Mexican ten-peso coin.

Like the sun, it’s in perpetual motion. And it tees up a second channel which includes footage from a Thermosolar plant in Southern Spain, and from a Tree Ring Research unit in Arizona.

This main film moves at a glacial pace. It’s as slow as our progress from day to night, but with interruptions like electromagnetic storms, which charge the room with excitement.

Knowing that the entire show was powered by the sun, this exhibition feels close to the centre of things. Looping around the sun along with the wide world beyond the gallery doors.

Mangan offers a glimpse of the effects that sun spots and solar flares could have on our behaviour, our crops and our markets. Could solar radiation trigger recession? Could it bring revolution?

Soviet-era biophysicist Alexander Chizhevsky thought so. His ideas about the dominion of the sun gained widespread acceptance in Russia, even if he got on the wrong side of the dominion of Stalin.

But how potent to think that past, present and future are written, not in our stars, but in just one celestial body: our nearest, and one at which we cannot look directly with the naked eye.

Ancient Lights is at Chisenhale Gallery until 30 August 2015

Ben Woodeson, Rat Trap Neon (2013)


There are plenty of ways into this show-stopping piece by UK artist Ben Woodeson. But explore just a little and you may find no way out. One or more of those rat traps will hold you fast.

Of course, that’s not an invitation to touch. The art itself would come off as badly as you. Spring the traps and you smash the neon. If all breakages must be paid for you’d be well out of pocket.

Still, it would make a good anecdote. And like most works by this artist there’s an implied narrative here in which something goes terribly wrong. In some ways, an accident would consummate them.

Due care was taken on my visit, but I still found myself pinned by the spectacle and then by thoughts about the short history of neon in art and the seductions of this element in urban spaces.

Woodeson’s piece throws off a surprising amount of heat. All artworks aspire to be a focal point, but this has shades of a campfire, at once the beginnings of civilisation and heart of its dangers.

To toast a reindeer chop or even a metaphorical marshmallow, as we are surely doing now, is to be consumed by whatever society comes together on these occasions. Again, no exit.

Woodeson sets the bait with an arrangement of abstract forms, in a material which is surely the best metonym for contemporary art. The piece is cynical in that way. He knows his vermin well.

But these loose forms suggest offcuts of neon, as if left over from the work of another, less risky artist. Of course all serious artists take risks; just not all of them would break your finger.

Rat Trap Neon was on show in Ben Woodeson: Obstacle at Berloni, London, between 29 May and 1 August 2015. You can read my 2014 interview with the artist on The Learned Pig.

Yto Barrada, Faux départ (2015)


Both artworks and fossils can be forged. That’s the alliance revealed in a new film by Barrada which takes an artistic look at the forgery of prehistoric life forms.

The forgery takes place in eastern Morocco between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert. This region was once the bed of a pre-Cambrian ocean, so real fossils do exist here.

But some have realised it might be easier to fake a trilobite or two, to fabricate rather than excavate. Most of the tour parties who come this way won’t know any better.

Not even the viewer of this slow moving film can be sure what unfolds before the innocent eye. Rough hands, dental instruments, craft skills, strange unctions; all is seen in mystifying close up.

Sometimes the fossil is merely pimped up and polished. Other times it appears moulded or cut out from scratch, with disregard for the hopes and dreams of the passing tourists.

The scenario reminds me of the souk in Marrakech, stuffed with all those craft objects one would hope to find in such a far flung mall. Rumour has it that most of the goods come from China.

In both cases, money or rather economic necessity has undermined the so-called real. Just at the point where authenticity is most desired, it is subverted and traded on in bad faith.

There is an art to this. And Barrada implies that we can barely pick apart the true from the false; so that goes for geological artefacts; craft objects; and, yes of course, art.

In 2013 the Swiss Fine Art Expert Insitute (FAEI) claimed that between 70 and 90 percent of the art which it comes to assess, is misattributed or false. Or faux, to borrow from the title of this film.

But when the very roots of our existence; the beginnings of life on earth; the organisms from which we descend; when these are also faux, we are faced with a very unsettling scenario.

The desert is beyond the reach of the forces of order and the fossils themselves predate laws of trade. So there is something eternal about these dusty workshops of deception.

Faux départ formed part of show Faux Guide at PACE London between 26 June and 8 August 2015.

Franz West, 6 Adaptives for Rolls Royce Silver Shadow (2007)

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On some level you may already be offended. You don’t need to be a total petrolhead to find the addition to this prestigious bonnet to be something of a defacement.

Let’s be honest, it lacks the easy romance of the flying woman usually found on the prow of a Rolls: The Spirit of Ecstasy by Charles Robinson Sykes.

Sometimes called Emily, this stainless steel form (with 24-carat gold plating optional) has a really great backstory: a clandestine love affair and a disaster at sea are both involved.

Austrian sculptor West has pretty much dumped on that. He made six of these turd-like accessories for the luxury car market: one for every day of the working week.

Irony alert: if you are a Rolls Royce customer you probably don’t need to pull a full week’s shift. And yet, this work feels only indirectly political. It is too playful for that.

What’s more, given that it is one of the Austrian artist’s adaptive pieces, we can perhaps only grasp the work by getting behind the wheel joining in with the consumption of luxury.

But it should be noted the car belongs to Norwegian collector Erling Kagge; it is unlikely he lets just anyone test drive one of the jewels of his personal collection.

In his book about buying art, Kagge relates how, when he bought this piece, he was surprised to find the car thrown in with the deal. It was itemised merely as a plinth.

But a weird thing happens when the three dimensional graffiti above the grille throws the viewer’s attention back onto the aesthetics of said plinth, four wheels and all.

Good taste can take a holiday. West once called his adaptives, “a potential attempt to give form to neurotic symptoms (according to Freud the foundation of culture)”.

We think we know what neurosis leads to the acquisition of a big, powerful car. Let’s just say that the pictured adaptive is the least phallic in the range.

The rest come in a range of colours, including flesh, and cruising round town with your insecurities in full view, rather than simply your wealth, must be quite therapeutic.

West’s piece can be seen in Love Story: Works from Erling Kagge’s Collection, at the Astrup Fearnley Museum for Modern Art in Olso, until 27 September 2015.

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988)

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It’s the hair on the chimp. It’s as tousled as that of a Greek god. It’s as gilded as that of a Catholic saint. But it renders Bubbles more human than even Michael himself could have hoped for.

Growing up in the 1980s, the name and existence of this pet monkey was household knowledge. It boosted the pop star’s brand, but he might not have wanted the relation reified quite like this.

If the ape looks wiser than his years, M.J. looks dumber and more vacant. This is based on a photo in which he actually holds the gaze of the camera. Here, he looks away and dreams.

With the benefit of hindsight, those were nightmares, and we should have seen the dangers coming. What kind of a grown man dresses up a chimpanzee as his boon companion?

Bubbles has been anthopomorphed twice, once by his tailor, then once again by this courtly portrait. That is doubly funny. And the financial value of the finished work is a triple punchline.

Koons often talks about the removal of judgement, the acceptance of self. He is either the world’s greatest cynic or the world’s richest naif. Perhaps he has been both, one after another.

At Monday’s press preview at the Guggeheim in Bilbao, he came across like a holy man, advising assembled hacks to journey within themselves and allow his work to affirm our presence.

Collectors love this schtick; official religions condemn them as camels faced with eyes of needles. And yet art allows even the most worldly among us to transcend our earthly realities.

It says something that even if you own a yacht and a blue chip art collection, you still want to rise above it all, to buy back your soul. Perhaps Michael Jackson and Bubbles should move us to pity.

But this is an artist with a midas touch, rendering a young performer who was once just as bankable. So in this case money is as frivolous as gold petals, happiness is as fragile as porcelain.

There are four editions of this work and by fortunate coincidence I saw two of them with a week or so. One is at Astrup Fearnley in Oslo and the other is on show at the Jeff Koons retrospective in Bilbao. That exhibition runs until 27 September 2015.

The Chapman Brothers, Sturm und Drang (2015)

sturm und drang

To hear this described, you might imagine something on a more imposing scale: a blasted tree hung with bodies of soldiering age, the reconstruction of a Goya etching.

But the truth is, Sturm und Drang looks a bit like a toy. This wicked bronze plays out in the shadow of the viewer, as if these dead were sent into battle in our name.

And that’s not a million miles from the way in which wars operate. How many are to be killed on our behalf in our comfortable lifetimes? If we consider ourselves moral, the joke is on us.

Or if we consider ourselves rational, these grinning corpses might say otherwise. From the 1760s to the 1780s, Sturm und Drang was a German movement which celebrated passion and nature.

But the artists don’t seem like Romantic (or even proto-Romantic) types. This piece is ironic about Goya, ironic about German literature, and ironic about anyone who takes the above seriously.

Cadavers are not the stuff of enlightenment statuary. This piece presents you with skeletal forms which you could play like a xylophone and entrails they are yet to relinquish to dogs.

Since the entirety is in monochromatic bronze, the forms emerge slowly. The faces come to you as goblin masks; maggots are having a time of it. The Chapmans have been to the joke shop.

That’s one place I would love to be a (plastic) fly on the wall. It says something that two of our most fêted artists source their materials from a realm of cheap costumes and tricks.

A pity that’s where we’ve ended up, and nowhere could be further from the culture wars of the 18th century. That’s the Chapmans for you: nihilists who must only get out of bed to laugh standing up.

Sturm und Drang is now on permanent view at Ekeberg Sculpture Park, Oslo.

Marcus Coates, Dawn Chorus (2007)

Dawn Chorus

Slow down birdsong. Imitate it with human vocal chords. Record that and bring it back up to speed. And what you have is an uncannily accurate impersonation of any given feathered friend.

If you didn’t know this, and few will at first, the 2007 film installation Dawn Chorus looks like a well-executed one-liner. It looks like a comic parallel between the way we and birds emote.

The fourteen screens, high and low, in the darkened gallery each feature an amateur singer, filmed alone at dawn. These unrelated individuals can apparently hear (but not see) one another.

Coates would also have us consider the joy we project onto birdsong: both the joy it gives us and the joy it appears to express. So there is more to this piece than an echo chamber of mating calls.

And it’s interesting that the year before it’s premiere was also the year in which tech wizards in New York developed the micro-blogging platform we know and love as Twitter.

It’s said when they went to the dictionary they found a definition which offered two alternatives: along with ‘chirps from birds’, a twitter was found to be ‘a short burst of inconsequential information’.

Anyone who doubts the lack of consequence which rides upon a tweet or indeed an entire twitter-feed need only look at the results of the recent UK election. The people I follow surely lost that.

But as Beckett would have it, at the end of The Unameable: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”. Tweets, status updates, Instagrams and rambling blog posts show little sign of letting up.

Coates has sped up the movements of his singers along with their voices. And so, we remain like his subjects: solitary, atomised, and even twitching compulsively in the gloom; that’s Twitter.

But social media does at least let us get away from our homes and offices. In a loose sense, it lets us take flight. Okay, that’s stretching a point, but it gave me some joy to type.

Dawn Chorus can be seen at Fabrica, Brighton, until 25 May 2015. Read my 2010 interview with Marcus Coates here. Last week I finally started Instagramming – follow me here.