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

Nicholas Mangan, Ancient Lights (2015)

Mangan

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)

woodeson

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)

barrada

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)

west adaptive

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)

2015-05-29 12.18.44

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.


Interview: Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon, Malcolm X #1 (small version #2), 2003, © Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon, Malcolm X #1 (small version #2), 2003, © Glenn Ligon

As if to demonstrate the centre cannot hold, debates around canonical art have shaken down to the East Midlands from a point of origin in New York’s Bronx. Nottingham Contemporary hosts a curatorial project by US artist Glenn Ligon. Thanks to a creative hang, the regional gallery has set up dialogues between some of the masters of international art along with a range of forgotten voices.

Ligon agrees to meet me in the gallery café. He is a patient interviewee who sees the funny side of every other line he utters. He uses the verbal tic ‘you know’ with greater frequency than anyone I have ever met.

And with a chunky metal ring and equally bold cardigan buttons, he cuts a dandyish figure who might have got lost on his way to the capital. All the same, he soon tells me he is pleased to be here.

“I think Nottingham’s an interesting city,” says the artist. “It has this strong regional museum with adventurous programming. It’s not dumbed down programming for some imagined audience that needs to see certain things. So that was the draw.” Ligon also appreciates the local quota of 60,000 students and was pleased to see a youthful crowd at the opening of his show on April 3rd.

That exhibition continues to prove popular, thanks to a mix of big names from the world of abstract expressionism, a strong showing by African American artists, and edgy works that explore sexuality and gender along with race.

Sometimes, as in the nude wrestling on show in Steve McQueen’s film Bear, these works look at all three themes. Of his first encounter with Bear (1993), Ligon says: “I thought it was the most amazing thing ever. I thought it was incredible.”

His comment is a reminder that Encounters and Collisions is a show about the artist’s influences. Yet it is also a show about the universal appeal of art. With some of his choices, such as Kline, Pollock or Beuys and Boetti, Ligon couldn’t have gone far wrong.

But the dead white males have been dusted down and put into a vital dialogue with, say, the macabre animations of Kara Walker, or the knowing voyeurism of a group of Zoe Leonard photos.

Asked if he sees his many influences as reference points or rivals, the artist responds with one of his amused observations: “I think there’s a bit of both. I think you always want to kill the fathers, or the mothers, so there’s part of that.

“But for me it’s looking at an inquiry that was made by a certain artist and seeing where one can go with that, you know, seeing how it intersects with the things one is interested in”.

The show will travel to Tate Liverpool and an association with the UK’s biggest art museum franchise has proved handy for securing loans. But a show of this sort remains a feat of organisation.

“I’m not a curator, so a lot of heavy lifting around these things, I didn’t have to do,” says Ligon. Nevertheless, the exhibition grew out of a list of names which he supplied. The artist was also able to contact several of his peers directly and several of his letters appear in the gallery handout.

It is no surprise to find that Ligon has a way with words, although he doesn’t always choose his own. His most famous works are his text paintings, which employ quotations from literature and stand-up comedy.

The starting point for this show was a collection of his essays and interviews called Yourself in the World. And his facility for language has even survived a stint spent as a legal proof reader. “If that didn’t kill off an interest in language nothing would,” he jokes.

One of his own works in the show, of which there are several, contains a quote from writer and activist James Baldwin. But the text is buried in a monolithic black painted work with coal dust.

Abstract expressionism meets conceptualism, in a space shared with a portrait of Baldwin in oils, by the writer’s friend Beauford Delaney, plus a piece of black and white abstraction by Franz Kline. The show veers between abstraction and figuration throughout and, as Ligon says of this grouping: “I kind of forced those things together”.

An artist like Delaney can now be more visible than at any time since the 1950s: “I think the interesting thing that has happened now is a lot more work is available to be seen, because of the internet, because museums have realised that artists they’ve overlooked are important and those works come out of the storeroom.”

Ligon cites the reappearance of African American painter Benny Andrews at MoMA as an example. “It takes a younger generation of curators to come in and kind of revise the canon.”

But, as the artist points out, this needs to filter through. He tells me only three African Americans have had solo shows at the New York gallery, and only “a dozen, maybe two dozen” women.

Ligon claims the artworld only “feels” like an inclusive place, “because artists are so bizarre and come from such strange places, but it’s still part of our society and employs the same kind of mechanisms that keep people out of spaces in larger society separate to the art world”.

But when asked about the contemporary art landscape today, the New Yorker sees a resurgence of interest in these older forms.

“I think there has been a kind of a real interest in, particularly, abstract expressionism. But filtered through technology, filtered through the social ,” he says, before adding: “We have enough distance, I think, from that era to find abstraction vital again, but also do it in a different way, bring different things into it”.

Although Ligon remains a fan of ‘Ab Ex’, he has reservations about the monolithic status of the form and its practitioners.

“I love the Met in New York, but for years and years and years – probably decades – their selection of modern art never changed. The Pollock was always next to the de Kooning, which was round the corner from the Rothko.” As a Met fan, he still considers this a problem: “You never hear about the dialogues these artists were having with artists who were not the masters, or considered to be the masters”.

So it’s no surprise that the show in Nottingham is a playful, fresh arena and also a crowded one. Ligon jokes about this: “My ideal show would be one where all the pieces are touching, because that’s how they feel in my head. There are impossible combinations of things.”

He adds a rhetorical “You know?” to this observation. Visit this somewhat irreverent show and you can only agree.

Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions can be seen at Nottingham Contemporary until 14 June 2015, then at Tate Liverpool between 20 June and 18 October 2015. Interview written for Culture24.


Amanda Loomes, Relict Material (2015)

(C) Nigel Green. Taken from http://photoworks.org.uk/

(C) Nigel Green. Taken from http://photoworks.org.uk/

In the servant quarters of a Regency Townhouse in Brighton, you can now see a film about one of the harshest jobs on the South Coast. Namely, dredging and processing aggregate for cement.

And as if to stop the metropolitan art crowd from getting too cosy, civil engineer turned artist Loomes has projected her film onto a 16 x 9 wall of cubed concrete bricks.

This arrangement represents the aspect ratio (16:9) for most televisions and laptop screens. It’s a bit ironic that, because aggregate must be one of the least visible industries around.

Indeed, the raw material has lain hidden on the sea floor for some 150 million years. The fine sand and small stone, for which the building industry hungers, comes from Ice Age river beds.

This is the relict of the work’s title. Like the words relic and derelict, the term for raw aggregate comes from a Latin root. Relinquere means, of course, to leave behind.

But in the 15th century a relict was a widow.  One might suppose that if you marry a shiftworker who works eight hours on/eight hours off for up to a fortnight at a time, you might feel that way.

So whether working on a hoover ship just outside the harbour or at the noisy plant which can process 600 tonnes of relict material per hour, you have what one worker calls a “good secure job”.

Loomes captures the voices of the men who work here and the moments of mechanical violence and occasional peace which fill each working day. There’s almost a romance about this industry.

Relict Material is a co-commission by Photoworks and HOUSE Festival and can be seen at The Regency Townhouse, Brighton, until May 24 2015.


Nathan Coley, You Imagine What You Desire (2014)

nathan coley

What a difference a new occasion makes. The last installation of You Imagine What You Desire was over 17,000 km away at a Biennial in Sydney. Now it appears in a festival in Brighton.

But geography is the least of it. In Sydney it was on a gallery facade; in Brighton it is in an ancient church. It’s from the streets of a big, young city to a reflective space in a small, old world one.

So what gets imagined in a church and what gets desired? Well, heaven obviously, but also hell. It is the go-to place for imagining the outcomes of our actions, for guidance in the way we live our lives.

You might ask why anyone would desire a burning pit. But perhaps we like to be kept in line, on some level. And a sense of justice is useful to both society and the individual. So why not.

The builder’s scaffold which holds these letters is blunt about this. It too is utilitarian. And here it tells us that imagination and desire are the pole and grip structure of our morality.

But a scaffold is temporary and the fairground lights remind us there are plenty more things and people to desire in this seaside town of ours. Out there, on the pier, desire is still a thrill ride.

There are lots of risks, but few spiritual consequences on the pier. It is a very modern institution in that way. So Coley brings the amusement park into the last place you might expect to find it.

After all, Saint Nicholas’ is the oldest church in town. The pier may be one of our best known landmarks but, until now, the twain have never met. They have to turn off the lights during worship.

So, apologies to Sydney, and all future venues. But this really belongs in Brighton, and you can’t say that about too much art. More is to be desired, even if it be hard to imagine.

You Imagine What You Desire is a HOUSE/Brighton Festival co-production and can be seen at Saint Nicholas’s, Brighton, until May 24 2015.

Read my review of Nathan Coley at Brighton Festival on The Arts Desk.