“Artists are so bizarre and come from such strange places”: Glenn Ligon interview below

George Barber, Fences Make Senses (2015)

Image: www.waterside-contemporary.com

Image: www.waterside-contemporary.com

It happened so fast. I heard a rip, saw a blur of yellow tarpaulin, and then saw the panicking youth. He dropped down onto City Road and began to sprint in the direction of Islington.

The lorry driver, who was already on the pavement and could have come from anywhere in Europe, had a few words of advice for our new arrival. “Run, motherfucker, run!” he cried above the traffic.

This little episode, which I witnessed today, on my way to waterside contemporary, has nothing and everything to do with the new video installation by George Barber, Fences Make Senses.

In one scene from the timely film, a yellow lorry sits on a dusty road in the near East. Without giving names or dates, or even location, the VO informs us the truck was used to smuggle people.

Fifteen would-be migrants got on board. Only two survived the journey. This truck is contrasted with a UK-based fleet of similar vehicles taking Kenyan green beans to British supermarkets.

Barber made his name by sampling video footage in the 1980s. And needless to say the film here is a deft montage of reportage, advertising footage and abstracted views of the sea.

What is perhaps less in character are the dramatic scenes, which offer Brechtian pause for thought; well-spoken British actors confront some of the problems facing those in the Mediterranean.

In the most toe-curling episode they attempt to buy a boat from a huckster. It is little more than a child’s dinghy and they think it has a puncture. But what else can they (we) do?

In fact, peril encroaches on all sides in the Hoxton space. Barber has installed the film in a no man’s land between land and sea. We sit on bales, amidst the flotsam and jetsam of steerage.

The film speculates that, if we are still around in 100 years’ time, borders will seem weird. For the 50 million displaced people on our planet, such a time clearly can’t come soon enough.

Fences Make Senses can be seen at waterside contemporary until December 12. See gallery website for directions and opening times.

Bob and Roberta Smith, Letter to George Osborne (2015)


You cannot help but wonder: did a 50-line letter painted onto the front and rear of a pair of white radiator units have any incidental effect on government policy? Did it really spark a heated debate?

Beyond the headlines about tax credits, the Autumn Statement revealed that the Arts Council can also breathe a sigh of relief and consider its budget protected for five more years.

This is not the beef raised by Smith, who talks tuition fees, the threat to art schools from property developers, and the culture of consumerism which now extends to the student experience.

None of this has changed. But the artist signs off with a message which may just be getting through: “I THINK THE ARTS ARE REALLY ABOUT SAVING HUMANITY”. What did Osborne think of that?

Certainly the arts are a cheap way to save humanity. Arts Council England cost £349 million in 2014; to save humanity with a replacement for Trident will cost, according to CND, some £100 billion.

There are dangers in cynicism, however. A positive and polite reaction to this news about the Arts Council could be more likely to encourage the Conservative government in this cultural direction.

But giving credit is not abject gratitude. As Smith says, in another set of emphatic capitals: “ART IS YOUR HUMAN RIGHT”. Just as education is a right, welfare is a right, and healthcare remains so.

As inhumane as austerity is proving to be, the left should remember we don’t have a monopoly on humanity. Again, appeals to this quality may prove more tractable than immediate class war.

That could be why Smith’s naivety, both in tone and execution of this open letter, strikes an effective chord. It treats the Chancellor as a reasonable human. It invites him to enjoy contemporary art.

But this is also is a bit of a joke. Smith is only an artist; he is not the head of a bank. The banker uses headed notepaper, and not beat-up used radiators. So to who does the future belong?

Mikhail Karikis, SeaWomen (2012)


The baddest gang on the planet don’t ride Harleys out into the California desert. They ride mopeds around a South Korean island and dive for octopus in the choppy North Pacific.

Bad-meaning-good is maybe not the word, but the sea-women are certainly tough cookies. Aged between 60 and 90, they explode all your preconceptions about gender and growing old.

From the age of eight they have been trained for a female only profession: collecting seafood and wild pearls from around the coast of the island of Jeju. Men, it should be said, need not apply.

That’s because the sea-women benefit from a) womanly fat distribution (useful in cold water) and b) a tax break under Confucian law. The law fails to recognise the labour of Korean women.

For a moment, let us set aside the problem of a Western artist conducting a study on yet another remote tribe. (Can someone explain if this film does the sea-women a disservice?)

It is surely in fact a great service to women from around the world. And dare it be said, not just women, but anyone with reservations about growing old. In this film, old women rule.

And when they peel off the wetsuits and masks, the hats and floral slippers come out and you realise they come from the same planet as the grandmothers you encounter riding the bus.

Karikis is as interested in sound as he is in film. His starting point for this 27 minute, two-channel tribute to the sea-women is the whale-like whistle they make while at work on the waves.

This siren song is part of the fabric of the installation, along with rolling thunder and a beautiful folk tune which the women would sing while rowing. All blend into the natural context of the island.

Jeju is now a tourist destination, and quick to see which way the wind blew, the sea-women sent their daughters (and, one can only hope, sons) to the university to study tourism.

That could be why they co-operated. Karikis may have been a tourist when he first visited and his film is great PR for an island which the children of the sea-women will one day inherit.

SeaWomen can be seen in the Founders’ Room, Brighton Dome until December 1. It is part of the 2015 Earsthetic Festival.

Morley Threads @ Backlit

Backlit's current premises Alfred House as a factory (1)

In the late 19th century, a wool factory in Alfred House, Nottingham, became an asset of the largest wool manufacturing company in the world. Now the premises are an artist-led studio space.

On the face of it, artists have plenty in common with textile workers. Low pay, hazardous conditions (albeit psychologically speaking) and, in the case of Backlit, here in Nottingham, a union.

The Morley Union is comprised of photographers, writers and historians who have gathered in retrospective support of one of the better employers these shores have ever seen: Samuel Morley.

It was Morley who owned the factory in Alfred House. And now Alfred House is set to be the venue for Backlit’s exhibition, and a programme of talks which seeks to celebrate the former boss.

It has really come to something, that we might hero a 19th century capitalist. Morley was also a media tycoon. He cut the cover price of the liberal Daily News and turned round its fortunes.

Backlit promises the chance to relive the noise and sweat of the industrial plant, which must still haunt their white-walled exhibition space and paint-splattered workshops.

The Union have pulled together an archive of artefacts, oral histories and even video interviews which will recall experience of workers from a time when Nottingham was a textiles capital.

But if you’re still wondering what conditions were like, if mere words won’t do, local digital design studio Hot Knife has developed a playable VR tour of the former factory.

Meanwhile a photographic exhibition will gather images from buildings and monuments related to Morley. And a youth oriented fashion show may inspire you about the future of textiles in Nottingham.

Morley was a genuine philanthropist: a decent, responsible boss, rather than a glittering habitué of the fundraising gala. He was also an abolitionist at a time when this was to stick your neck out.

In 1999 the UK saw an introduction of the minimum wage: £3.60 an hour. The current rate is £6.70. Small wonder there are campaigns for the living wage of £8.25 for 60 minutes of menial pain.

No matter how philanthropic company chairmen might feel themselves to be, most are answerable to a board of shareholders. Dutifully, they overlook their workers’ needs, in the name of profit.

But this is not a lesson in capitalism, but a postscript to the life of a man who combined his wealth with a healthy set of ideals. Any plutocrats reading criticismism, please take note.

Morley Threads runs weekends only (between 21st and 29th November) at Backlit Gallery, Nottingham. For directions, opening times, and a full programme of events see their site.

Corinna Spencer, Portrait of a Lady (2015)

corinna spencer

There is something maddening about Corinna Spencer’s installation. Her 1,000 portraits have a compulsive, destructive streak which would surely destroy the mental equilibrium of any sitter.

The lady in question is already disintegrating. Eyes look out from somewhere behind the face. The lipstick is smeared on quick, perhaps as if for a public appearance in Bedlam.

Each board is 21 by 15 cm, a modest size. But there is nothing modest about their cumulative effect. The artist has spoken about her interest in obsessive love. Well, here it is, grandly embodied.

It was Gertrude Stein who once claimed there was no such thing as repetition. And yet the pre-eminent American writer made a specialism of repetitive literary portraits. Why should this be?

Unlike landscape, the face generally contains half a dozen similar features in a similar arrangement. A spot of flâneurism will confirm that urban life is an endless procession of this essential pattern.

Spencer’s own brand of portraiture is somewhere between the impressionistic or visually fleeting and the expressionistic or psychological. We are possibly too late to use the relative ‘isms’.

Above all, it is monomaniacal. In an interview with Yvette Greslé, the artist claimed her four figure sum of portraits represented “a reasonable number of paintings”.  But no, 1,000 is a crazy number.

Really, it is “the madness of art”, to quote Henry James, whose own, Portrait of a Lady, another epic example of portraiture, appeared, much like these paintings, in serial form. So many quotes today…

As John Cage said of music: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

Spencer has never been boring. But it’s fair to say she is getting more and more interesting as she expands on monolithic series like this one, a fascinating, skewed take on traditional portraiture.

Portrait of a Lady can be seen at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery until 17 January 2016.

Theodore Price, COBRA RES 1.9 (2015)

david rosenberg

For those of you blissfully unaware, COBRA stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, and despite first appearances the acronym has nothing to do with James Bond.

COBRA meetings are convened by the Prime Minister in times of special crisis. And in the UK we tend to lurch from crisis to crisis; this in no way impedes COBRA’s evil-sounding mystique.

But since 2013, whenever the great minds in the Cabinet have got together for a COBRA sesh, an ad hoc group of artists and writers has got together to respond to the response.

This ongoing project, COBRA RES, is as shadowy than its inspiration, although artist Theo Price has curated seven editions. The latest is 1.9, a response to the refugee crisis in Calais.

It launched in East London last night, in the form of a book of flash fiction (ie; stories under 1,500 words). The prelude to this was a walking tour about the history of migration in East London.

Our guide was David Rosenberg (pictured), who knows all there is to know about radical politics in this part of town. He told us about the 1936 Battle of Cable Street as if it was yesterday.

In this part of town, former synagogues serve as mosques. Church of England schools observe Islamic holidays. And blue chip artists keep it real with townhouse mansions in Fournier Street.

He also filled us in on the Huguenots, French protestants who fled here in the 17th century to escape persecution and bring us the word, refugee, from the French refugié.

We got to Spitalfields with its faux bohemian bars and eateries. With names like vagabond and vintage, these throw into stark relief the historic trials of local Jews, Irish and Bangladeshis.

As David made clear: refugee and economic migrants are one and the same; incoming communities have brought us net gains; migrants in Calais have plenty to offer us here. So, why the crisis?

COBRA RES 1.9 contains 20 stories and the half dozen I have already perused are great. But perhaps I should declare an interest.  I was a contributor; still, you can buy the book here!

Man, the Dragon and Death @ MAC’s


The disappointing 1998 movie Godzilla was launched upon the public with the tagline, ‘Size does matter’. It was not a great film, so at least where monsters are concerned, big is not always better.

17 years on, the size debate may be re-ignited at Belgian gallery MAC’s. Here you’ll find a show given over to representations of an earlier lizard, the dragon killed by Saint George.

According to legend, George’s foe was 40 pieds in length. But medieval iconographers pegged him at not much bigger than a medium sized dog, easy pickings for a lance or a sword.

But this slithering creature is still worth comparing with daikaiju. Whereas the directors of B-movies set out to frighten us, most of the sculptors here have set out to reassure.

The dragon is of course an embodiment of evil. And there would be no place in a church for a 40ft, fire breathing, shadowy beast from Hell. Instead, it’s all about George.

In a catalogue essay, Julien Foucart suggests that in these altarpieces and statues, George is, “a sort of predecessor to the ‘star’ system created in the 20th century by the film industry”.

In the movie franchise, the king of monsters grew from 50m in the original Japanese version (1954) to 400ft (or 122m) for American audiences two years later. Godzilla got taller along with city.

However, the movies have no monopoly on special effects. Artists tend to depict the moment George skewers his foe (more often than not through the jaw) with relish.

In terms of violent action, it’s a rare occasion in which church goers are allowed to enjoy a gripping fight. It is certainly more pleasant to contemplate than his martyrdom.

At the behest of Roman emperor Diocletian, the saint was lacerated on a wheel of swords and resuscitated three times to appreciate just what was going on. Finally he was beheaded.

But as you know, decapitation is back in a big way, even if George got out of the middle east alive. The fictional battle with the dragon took place in 303 AD outside what is now Beruit.

Yes, George was a crusader. So ISIL’s infamous snuff movies may be thought of alongside these crusading knights and their modern counterparts. Except now it’s monster against monster.

Man, the Dragon and Death: the Glory of Saint George can be seen at MAC’S – Site du Grand Hornu, in the vicinity of Mons, Belgium, until 17 January 2015.

Duncan Poulton, No Body (2015)

Mimesis, which has been doing the rounds in art since ancient Egypt, reaches a terminal point in this 15-minute film by recent graduate Duncan Poulton (what you see above is just a cut down version).

They may not be artists. It is hard to imagine them with such pretensions. But out there on the web are a small army of visualisers, who are to the imagined body what the camera is to yours or mine.

Poulton says that these renderings circulate online, where their creators vie with one another for ever greater levels of realism. So now, like Dr Frankenstein, he has appropriated these to make a narrative.

And indeed, it’s a creation myth, as a generic male figure develops an armour of muscles, a dextrous pair of hands and finally a soul, or at least a pair of dilating windows onto one.

In the final shot here, you’ll notice he’s clothed. Until then, he’s sexless. So even in a digital realm where you might think anything goes, we still have the fall and the subsequent physical shame.

Gamers already use avatars like these. But dare we hope that most of us will retain what David Foster Wallace calls, “a kind of retrograde transcendence of sci-fi-ish high-tech for its own sake”?

That’s from his novel Infinite Jest, in which the first generation of video callers buy into polybutylene resin masks and Transmittable Tableaux in order to deal with “vanity-related stress”.

Now, as this film demonstrates, we have the prospect of perfect hair, teeth and bodies for all our dealings online. That could be another fall from grace. In the meantime, we have a warning.

No Body appeared at Sluice Art Fair 2015, as part of group show ooooooooooooooo representing the gallery Division of Labour.

Carsten Höller, Karussell (1999)


It’s just a working carousel in an art gallery, no big deal. We are not only used to such wholesale borrowings from the real world, we might expect as much from Carsten Hölller.

This Belgian, after all, is the artist responsible for turning Tate Modern and Hayward Gallery into theme parks (as if they weren’t already), with adrenalin-pumping slides up to 58 metres long.

But Karussell won’t increase your heartbeat. It moves slower than the second hand of a clock. And you can look, but for once I don’t think you can touch this piece or ride one of the tiny chairs.

What you get instead is a mental journey, from the post industrial city in which this piece is now on show, to perhaps a village green in some low country at the time of a summer fayre.

Duck ponds, picturesque copses, and church spires are painted all around the crown, while the central column of this aging machine features folksy still life arrangements of flowers.

Also, it should be mentioned that Karussell revolves in silence, bringing a pastoral mood of peace and quiet into what is an otherwise loud show at BPS22, visually and otherwise.

So, once you’ve dispensed with music and thrills, what does a carousel offer you? My guess is that were you to climb on board you’d feel safe, bored, and conspicuous.

You’d feel especially foolish if you tried to fit into one of the gold hovercars. Headlights blazing, these chariots of the air are completely at odds with their tame, nostalgic context.

The utopia from which they come is already out of date. It is so out of date, their quotation here, in a show about folk culture, is laughable. Are we to laugh at the rustic families who once enjoyed these?

Or is the joke on us, as we imagine ourselves boarding a round trip to a more idyllic time, when the local coal mines were still open and painting a church was a simple act of faith?

Karussell can be seen until 31 January 2016 in Les Mondes Inversés: Contemporary Art and Popular Cultures at BPS22: Musée d’Art de la Province de Hainault, Charleroi, Belgium.

Nicole Wermers, Untitled Chairs (2015)


Last night I dreamed about this, my least favourite piece of art from the 2015 Turner Prize exhibition in Glasgow. What you see, is what I thought I was getting: fur coats on chairs.

The coats are actually sewn around the chairs. So this is presented as a comment on claiming space in an urban environment. And about design. And about feminism. But I wasn’t dreaming about that.

And I don’t think I was dreaming about death, so I must have been dreaming about sex. Although until this point, Wermers’ furry chairs, with their parted fringes, had flown under the erotic radar.

Or was it plainly death, after all? How many creatures were bred for slaughter to make these coats and where are the coat owners? God knows you feel their absence.

The catalogue will draw your attention to the fact the chairs are a Marcel Breuer design classic. But in art sometimes, as in poetry, meaning is just the meat with which the burglar distracts the dog.

Let’s call it a poem, not only to paraphrase TS Eliot there*, but so we can allow it complete semantic ambiguity. (Another crazy aspect of my dream: Wermers was supposedly referencing a popular poet.)

It appears the artist has form with this kind of thing. Double Sand Table is a 2007 work which also plays with modern design. “I had to keep thinking of them”: so says critic and poet Barry Schwabsky.

That is from the catalogue too. Was I dreaming myself into the shoes of a far more eminent writer? Or does this sculptor really have a knack for tickling the unconscious mind and provoking REM?

She’s up against an archive, a choral piece and an assemblage of house fixtures & fittings, so by default Werners’ chairs are the strongest visual image in this year’s show. My eyes are opened.

Nicole Wermers can be seen in Turner Prize 2015 at Tramway, Glasgow, until 17 January 2016.

*T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism; Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England [London: Faber, 1933]