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

Interview: Sahej Rahal

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The artist appears to have a simple and urgent proposition: to render the past absurd is to neutralise the rhetoric of the political right.

Without a golden age to hark about, no one can promise to make America, the UK, or India ‘great again’. And we can instead progress to a state of internationalism, equal rights, economic parity and perpetual peace.

Rahal lives in Mumbai, but he points out that the whole planet is “kind of a scary place to be working, globally”. He is, however, welcome in the North West, where for the duration of the 2016 Liverpool Biennial, his sculpture and film is being shown across three sites.

We met at Cains Brewery, a cavernous space for art enjoying a good year. It is however scruffy, and Rahal’s work looks in keeping with the general state of repair. It is the first thing a visitor sees: nuggets of clay arranged on trestle-like tables; bits of scaffold, locally sourced, covered in clay; and black-box monitors which appear to emerge from the mess on which figurines breathe or practice with lightsabers.

“I’m a huge nerd and I obviously have all these Star Wars references”, the artist cheerfully informs me. But like many contemporary sculptors, he aims both high and low, looking to Jorge Luis Borges for ”vast metaphysical narratives”, and for that writer’s concern with “creating this itinerary of our culture”.

In short, this itinerary is dystopian. The artefacts presented appear fresh from some archaeological dig. But what kind of half-formed world do they conjure up? A: it is a world run by idiots in which technology has failed us and we have forgotten basic craft skills. And that seems to me the worst of all possible worlds.

“I like the fact that these characters, or these objects of clay could somehow become like harbingers of something, you know?” Rahul tells me as we contemplate his pottery-based triage stations which all appear to somehow breathe in the light of the moving image work.

He also says: “I’m more interested in putting them together to form meaning… from these absurd things, which are beyond reason in a certain way. In that meaning-making ritual that people perform, how do we create allegiances? How do we create bonds across space-time?”

An interest in travel and time travel chimes in well with the 2016 Biennial, which is a nebulous animal in which Monuments from the Future is one of six official themes. You may find, as I did, that as you come across Rahal’s work more than once, you build a picture of what might be becoming. 

It is a picture of a primitive time around the corner. Rahal expresses concern about right wing  governments that have followed the Arab Spring, the rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump, and the hate-filled effect of Brexit here in the UK.

If politics is performative, the artist has another highly political aspect to his practice. Rahul stages improvised, ritualistic performances which offer only “fleeting, fragmented glimpses” of a narrative, and which change gear according to pop cultural requests from his viewers.

“Even I don’t have a bead on [these],” he tells me. “Essentially, what’s interesting for me is that I’m also a viewer as well.” One supposes that in these powerless times, we are all to a degree little more than viewers, even as we march, occupy, tweet or blog.

But perhaps in the light of our political horizons, we’ll do well to maintain any civilisation at all.

Despite everything, Rahal is making the most of circumstances: “Earthenware has so much meaning to our origins so I’m drawn to that, but saying that it’s also so much fun to just dive into clay and get mud all over me.”

As well he might, since in Summer 2016 we are all up to the neck in it.

Liverpool Biennial runs until October 16 2016. I reviewed it for Culture24 here. See artist’s website for more images.


Mark Leckey, Dream English Kid, 1964-1999 AD (2015)

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We can tell a number of things about Mark Leckey from this autobiographical film. So, the Merseysider grew up in the shadow of the Beatles, the A-bomb and the 1999 solar eclipse.

Dream English Kid is a life story made with footage found online. So we also pick up on memories of motorways, pylons, football crowds, nightclubs, London squats and sex shops.

One presumes, the national grid has found its way here through the phenomenon of nomative determinism. ‘Lecky’, a homonym for the artist’s name, is of course slang for electricity.

To underline this, he compiles shots of MANWEB stores (the Merseyside And North Wales Electricity Board). Plus a sheet of paper with ‘lekke’ scrawled in childish hand.

As any Freudian will tell you it is precisely this type of slippery play which characterises the dream. And so the artist relates to YouTube as any good analysand would relate to his/her unconscious.

Both dreamer and fetishist, Leckey offers us several moments with a Hitchcockesque blonde in a corset; she teases out her hair as we focus on the mechanics of her stockings.

What is Leckey telling us here? Or when the camera pans across several shelves of blue movies in Soho? And was he aware of the traditional dangers of auto erotic dreaming?

From Saint Augustine to Alex Portnoy, sexual fantasy has been a central part of mental life. Though for a visual artist, blindness would be catastrophic, ‘watching’ the eclipse doubly dangerous.

Light and shade provide an equally dangerous contrast in a sequence of footage captured in Eric’s nightclub in Liverpool in 1979, on a night legendary band Joy Division came to town.

Epileptic singer Ian Curtis can be seen risking a fit as he winds his arms up and down in the midst of a frenzy of strobe and cacophonous post punk rumble. Leckey was at the gig.

So the 23-minute film is as much a bildungsroman as a therapeutic confessional. Stark images of a sleeping bag on a lonely mattress in a bare room have the quality of a cocoon.

The artist pupates. Some more professional nightclub footage (1980s, big hair, with Cinzano Rosso as tipple of choice) pre-echoes his 1999 film Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (another autobiography).

For me the most intriguing shot was the hands flicking through a record rack at Black Market Records in Soho. An album by The Shadows plays with the notion of chiaroscuro.

We also find Joy Division (Eric’s!), Kraftwerk (motorways!), and the Beatles (hometown!). I seem to remember it was A Hard Day’s Night, whose famous opening chord is sampled elsewhere twice.

Most spooky is a comedy LP by Kenneth Williams called On Pleasure Bent. It was the title Leckey borrowed for his first monograph and a 2013 film which may have been a prototype for this one.

Of all the racks in all the lands, the artist came across this one. This is dream logic at someone else’s fingertips, as the unconscious works through the dark, vinyl-like grooves of the mind.

Dream English Kid can be seen at Camp & Furnace throughout the 2016 Liverpool Biennial (July 9 – October 16).


James Coleman, Untitled (2011-15)

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It surprises me that the artist filmed this himself. It looks like a degraded home movie, out of focus, a bit over exposed. But no, it’s an afternoon of fieldwork into a four second loop.

Indeed, it is a loop within a circular loop. The carousel offers what Nietzsche might have recognised as an eternal return, a moment worth affirming from now until the end of time.

Funfair rides do slow down, eventually. But this glitchy slice of the merry-going-round, which plays back over and over, suggests infinite repetition and a Dionysiac commitment to pleasure.

The soundtrack is an insistent techno throb, far removed from the cries of fear and joy one associated with a fair. It is an echo of the generator rather than the barker and the disco truck.

So there appears to be nothing humanist about the delivery of this experience. The film deals in machinery and a cosmic pulse, rather than happy memories and domestic home movies.

But for all that, the forms lack definition. The expressions of fear and joy are masks rather than faces to whom we might relate. The masks takes us all the way back to Greek drama.

Maybe this blog post is spinning out of control, but might we not see the riders as a masked chorus who can only comment on the conflicting forces of gravity and centrifugal pull.

There is really something frightening here, something that scares me about funfairs in general. And it has nothing to do with rusting bolts and prejudiced feelings about travellers.

The funfair is a factory for inducing hedonistic thrills by the relentless burning of diesel; it is a crude apparatus for moving bodies in all directions through space. Weird, or what?

James Coleman was at Marion Goodman, London, between the 4th March to 16 April 2016.


Bedwyr Williams, Strafed (2012)

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Strafing is the military practice of attacking ground targets from low-flying aircraft using aircraft-mounted automatic weapons ranging from machine guns to auto cannons or rotary cannons.”

Armed with this knowledge, if not this hardware, we can safely say that Williams’ picnic suite appears to be the worse for an encounter with an airborne machine gun. In an English garden.

This piece can now be seen in the garage of a semi detached house on the fringes of Luton. Were it not for the swiss cheese look, this table and chairs would invite you to sit down for a lemonade.

But your aspirations have been punctured 1001 times with a drill bit (I would guess 8mm). A pair of cheerful sunseekers here would have been riddled with lead and each sprung a hundred leaks.

Such violence is out of proportion to a harmless pretension: the Great British pursuit of fresh air, conspicuous ownership of a small lawn, and proximity to the prize begonias. Or is the strike justified?

How many wars have been fought on behalf of people in suburban gardens, who enjoy peace and quiet, even as young combatants fall and families much like theirs become collateral damage?

Something about these stackable white chairs enrages artists. In 1990, it was Damien Hirst who called down a plague upon our twee seasonal dining arrangements, and I wrote about it here.

Of course, the 90s were innocent times. No one could foresee the creeping outbreak of a long war in which our guns, our planes, and even our sanctions would bring so much death to the Gulf.

That said, this mise-en-scène reads like friendly fire, a trigger happy over-reaction by a Spitfire ace. The destruction wrought in Strafed is out of time, out of place, out of hand.

You might ask: how could the neighbours have been so unlucky? And you might reflect: I could be next. After all, we are living through the ultimate SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fucked Up).

Strafed could be seen in Sunridge Avenue Projects, Luton, as one of 11 works on show in the parental home of artist Dominic from Luton. It runs until June 4, by appointment.


Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed Drones (2016)

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Saint Mark’s chapel in Kemptown has been throbbing for five days straight. That is what you get from this piece, a relentless pulse of skuzzy, kilowatt-heavy hum which envelops you.

Where’s the band? You might ask, if you are keen on music of this persuasion. Well, they’ve left behind some eight unmanned guitars leaning on a similar number of vintage amps.

Rather than a performer, we have a soundman, who is putting in these marathon stretches in which he orchestrates the oscillations. ‘Here come the waves,’ as Lou Reed himself once sang.

Yes, this is the much anticipated installation piece by artist and musician Laurie Anderson in which several of her late husband’s guitars are set to feedback in deafening harmony.

It’s a warm bath, which may explain why the crowd in here are dwelling for long minutes at a time. They sit on risers. They lie on the stone floor. One guy in shades has hands clasped in prayer.

But the stained glass cannot compete with the lighting rig and the spots of light which flit around the room like a murmuration of fireflies. Yes, there is a glitter ball. It hangs in the air like a quoted lyric.

This attempt to raise the dead, within the safe confines of an Anglican chapel, feels like a partial success. Lou Reed is surely working his caustic, sonic way into the heart of the assembled crowd.

We have dry ice instead of incense, to remind us that rock rituals have frequently been about the mysteries of faith and the incarnation of rebel angels.

To complain that this gig-like event is not Art, would be churlishness turned up to eleven on the volume dial. The categories hardly matter, because Reed deserves this encore.

Lou Reed Drones had its UK premier between May 13 and 17 as part of the Brighton Festival 2016, guest curated by Laurie Anderson.


Jac Leirner, The End (2016)

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The drug addict and the contemporary artist share a certain flair for rebellion. And so the sight of a high tensile steel cable threaded with roaches from spliffs makes perfect sense here.

We are told that Leirner is/was an addict and that the work here in her blue-chip show at White Cube was originally put together in a three-day cocaine binge in 2010.

More paraphernalia is threaded onto further cables which cut across the upper ground floor space like an infra red beam alarm system. Like an addict we must transgress with care.

Suspended in line with the drug taking gear are pocket spirit levels, which no gallery technician can ever be without. Just as Lerner must depend on a certain equilibrium to remain an ‘artist’.

But it has been said: “Those who have taken a powder with quasi-magical effects and consider themselves quite unfettered, entirely liberated, out of this world perhaps, are still running on tracks.”*

So although this installation benefits from some of the outsiderish drama, the evidence here of years of drug use have thrown up very little new or imaginative. There is no Kubla Khan.

Instead the topic here is a gruelling relationship with repetition as months and years pass in which the artist skins up, chops out and perhaps shoots up to very little transcendental benefit.

Instead Leirner is marking time and perhaps archiving an impoverished personal history. So her resinated rolling papers could become like Plato’s pharmakon: a tool for remembering.

Of course, the pharmakon is a drug of two halves. As a repository for our past, it frees us to stop carrying around the baggage of memory, perhaps also here the baggage of sober reason.

The roaches also criss cross the room like lines of text to become a written diary. And, thanks in part to Derrida**, we know that in the opinion of Plato the written word was also a pharmakon.

Whether remedy or poison, this show called Junkie offers a meditation on the monotonous reality of drug addiction. That drug addiction possesses a ‘reality’ of its own should not surprise us.

Jac Leirner: Junkie can be seen at White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, until May 14 2016.

*Henri Michaud, quoted by David Boothroyd (Deconstructions, A User’s Guide; edited by Nicholas Royle, Palsgrave 2000). 

** Jacques Derrida, The Rhetoric of Drugs (Points, Interviews 1974-1994) Stanford University Press 1995


Ambrosine Allen @ DOLPH Projects

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One (the?) aim of art writing is to interpret with words. But the imagery of so much art is so strong, that verbal language can only play an ernest second fiddle, happy just to be at the gig.

(Works of literature isolate themselves on shelves and in libraries. Aware they fail to represent the visible world, they content themselves with creating numerous new worlds unto themselves.)

But twas not ever thus. In the beginning there was indeed the word. Religious art was famously for the illiterate. And centuries later the illustrative arts were pressed into the service of science.

You can see how uneasy the relationship between knowledge and image remains. Wikipedia, the world’s favourite source of germane facts, will limit itself to marginal and no-cost imagery.

Allen’s show harks back to a time before the deluge. Less was once more. A miniature black and white illustration, along with columns of academic text, would give the imagination plenty to go on.

The authority of bygone encyclopaedias was such that even the most casual reader could learn to see the world through a prism of classification, sober order and, yet, no small degree of wonder.

Nothing like this can be imposed on the world wide web. Pixels are hazy compared with the rigours of print. Digital photography, in its ubiquity, lacks the intensity and intention of the diagram.

And some of the mystery too. Allen’s show collects antique imagery which ranges around a much larger planet when the ends of the world were visited in books rather than google Earth.

But as can be seen from the careless photograph at the head of this piece, the repositories of info are now bursting at the seams. The history of knowledge has exploded on us.

Ambrosine Allen: The Art of the Small can be seen at DOLPH, London, until 19 March 2016. See web for opening times and directions.


Clue: Cold, Stefano Amoretti and Mino Tristovskij (2014-present)

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Long after his death, forensic photographer Luigi Tomellini has become an ‘artist’. Producer Stefano Amoretti and photographer Mino Tristovskij have put him in a book and a show.

This could not have happened had not his analogue photography lost its value as evidence gathering. The very obsolescence of the medium gives these documents a certain poetry.

No one could question the purpose of his vision, of the vision of a hardworking forensic snapper. Tomellini’s work has put criminals behind bars and served justice to the victims of crime. One hopes.

If poets are still the unacknowledged legislators of the world (unlikely), police photographers, CCTV directors and (at times) courtroom artists are the acknowledged prosecution.

But none of the prints in the show will make it to the situation room or the courthouse. It is Amoretti and Tristovskij who have latterly developed his vast collection of negatives.

Nearly 30 years ago, these negs were found in a rubbish bin in Genoa. But one man’s trash is often another man’s meat (especially if the other party in question are artistically inclined).

The duo behind Clue: Cold developed Tomellini’s output using a traditional emulsion technique, implicating themselves in the investigation of early 20th century crimes.

By way of an important footnote, the forces or law and order were using photography only a few years after the technique was invented. This began as far back as the 1840s.

One remembers that photography perhaps only has a minor history as an artform. Aesthetics comes in second to pragmatics. But this show turns that worldly fact of life on its head.

Clue: Cold can be seen at Gallery 71a, London, on 24 March 2016, before travelling to Treviso and Genoa in Italy.


The Village Table @ The Hat Factory

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To begin again by stating the obvious: you can’t eat art but artists have to eat. And so from early times, the hunters and gatherers of this world have shown a great degree of largesse towards artists.

But in recent decades, that same largesse has become a focus for the visual arts. Since Rirkrit Tiravanija cooked up Thai curry at 303 gallery in New York, it is no longer uncommon to be fed.

And one imagines that within the field of social practice, there is more need to be useful than to startle the world with a brand new idea. There are few new ideas in basic survival.

There is a basic element in The Village Table: good food, locally sourced, together with water from a stream. Given the amount of wine that sloshes around PVs, the stream water seemed important.

But beyond that functional appearance, the five-course menu in Luton was exotic with Japanese dishes mixed with English pickles and mitteleuropean Sauerkraut. Cabbages are in season.

And in terms of table dressing, the Village Table also deviated from pure function: black clay pickle jars made by Bedwyr Williams, a table set by Laure Provost, plates by Mark Essen.

An immense amount of work, in both studio and kitchen, comes together for these events. And since they travel from the Lake District home of Grizedale Arts, they are a movable feast (sorry).

It seemed important we were in Luton. Invitations came via Dominic from Luton, the artist who, along with 33 Arts, instigated the event and gathered the fortunate attendees.

And, in an unplanned gesture that took us from the sublime to the absurd, after the Kimchee soup and the Damson Membrillo, Dominic passed out a few Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

This brand, which became a byword for aspirational luxury in the 1990s, must have represented one of the few ingredients at this banquet, actually sourced in our post-industrial setting.

One could say more about this, because it was an evening where the North met the far East in the most maligned of small UK towns. The Village Table is a great leveller that way.

The Village Table is conceived and run by Grizedale Arts in Coniston, Cumbria. An event at The Hat Factory in Luton took place on 19 February 2016, organised by Dominic from Luton, aka Sunridge Avenue Projects, and local arts organisation 33 Arts.


Ruth Angel Edwards, Trace Programme (2016)

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Skate parks are paradoxical places: social enterprises often supported by local councils which still manage to attract, engage and win over even the most disaffected kids on two to four wheels.

Contemporary art can be this way. Projects with an ‘edge’ can still attract funding. You might even say that funders like a soupçon of youthful dissent along with their community minded fare.

Now artist and curator Ruth Angel Edwards is bringing together more than 20 fellow artists for a show at Flo skatepark, Nottingham. Whoever might fund Flo, this rad weekend will be lottery funded.

Can we say with any certainty that skateboarding is harmless? No, because it’s an activity in the vanguard of the debate about public and private space. If skating is banned, that’s private space.

It is hoped that some of the artists in Trace Programme already recognise the political challenge posed by skaters and will come to Nottingham ready to celebrate their anarchic energy.

But here’s another activity which struggles to find a legal place in the world: dance parties. Raves are even less popular than skating and are frowned upon from the East Midlands to the East Coast. 

In 2015, creative think tank Communitas staged a rave in a domestic setting in NYC with a respectable dinner party as its legal front, with repetitive eats as an alibi for repetitive beats.

For another strand of this subcultural weekend, artist Frank J. Miles, is recreating his New York event at Nottingham’s artist-led studios Backlit. You bring the booze. Mixmag will bring the soundtrack.

Rave dinner parties bring enough baggage to qualify as compelling pieces of art. They bring in social practice, performance art, dance culture, drug culture, and even (techno) shamanism.

Art historical reference points include Judy Chicago’s all-female Dinner Party and, just perhaps, The Last Supper by Leonardo. Neither turned into a rave, but both had an agenda just as strong.

Trace Programme runs from 19 – 21 February 2016, with a launch party this evening. Exhibtion can then be seen at Flo Skatepark, with rave/dinner at Backlit.