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

Where culture sinks in: a look at Hull 2017

© Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

At time of visit, the city of culture franchise was barely a month old and already the statistics were out in force. In the run up to 2017, Hull attracted £1 billion in terms of investment, with £100 million spent on cultural infrastructure. Job creation is up 12 percent since 2012. Those are just the measurables.

For each statistic there are countless moments in which locals encounter something new and feel better about the place they call home. Such experiences are largely invisible, but head to Victoria Square on any day of the week and you will see the culture-effect in effect. The audience for Hull 2017 can be found posing for photos with a 75-metre long fibre glass wind turbine blade.

Blade (2017) is an artwork by Nayan Kulkarni, which dissects the town centre at a height of some six or seven foot. With the shade of a white whale and the shape of a near-weightless wing, this piece cannot be ignored by even the most casual visitor. And, as a readymade B75 rotor blade, made here by the Humber Estuary, the installation sets the stage for renewable cultural energy.

Ferens Art Gallery is already seeing the audience figures go spinning round. Reopening after a £5.2 million refurbishment, 50,000 art lovers came through the doors in just two weeks. By comparison, January 2016, in its entirety, saw Ferens welcome just 10,000 to its dozen grandiose galleries. The new draw is a pair of contrasting exhibits: one which centres on an altarpiece from the early 14th century; the other which lines up five of Francis Bacon’s notorious screaming popes.

Neither showing would have been possible were it not for the refit, which has brought the humidity, heating, lighting and condensation up to acceptable standards. The altarpiece is an exquisite gold-ground panel painting by Pietro Lorenzetti which Ferens acquired for over £1 million. The gallery has put it on show together with loan works by Cimabue, Giotto and Duccio. Find yourself in this hallowed space and you are reminded that culture is a serious, non-mercantile business at heart.

Meanwhile, with his reputation for nihilism, the paintings by Bacon are also unlikely advertisements for economic regeneration. But this is a rare chance to see a number side by side, and a curatorial coup for a city of just a quarter of a million people. Whatever his views about cultural tourism, here is another serious artist. He threatened to destroy at least one of these portraits, and it was all his friends and patrons (Sir Robert and Lisa Sainsbury) could do to persuade him to save it.

In some ways he would be more at home in Humber Street Gallery alongside the scurrilous shows by Sarah Lucas and COUM Transmissions. This new contemporary space opened on February 3rd and converts an old fruit warehouse into a three storey visual arts hub that would be a fine addition to any of the UK’s larger cities. The designers have left the floors and fixtures in a rough and ready state, which befits the idea of culture as a commodity for import and export here on the dockside.

COUM were a performance art collective founded by Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti, who employed music, hallucinogens, participation, obscenity and street theatre to liven up Hull (and also further afield) in the late 1960s. COUM were so good at what they did that, on several occasions, police intervened, and a conservative MP stood up in Parliament to brand the group, “wreckers of civilisation”. So once pariahs, they are now famous locals. This is one of the most edgy shows you are likely to see in a publicly-funded art festival, so make the most of it.

In the ground floor space, walls are bright yellow for three sculptures by former yBa Lucas. The work was previously seen in the British Pavilion at Venice in 2013, so it’s a great opportunity for less travelled Brits to actually see it. Worth the wait, it is also worth the chance to compare and contrast with the show upstairs as it also features nudity and crude wit. Lucas has made plaster sculptures of women from the waist down, given the provocative poses upon unwanted pieces of furniture, and stuck unlit cigarettes into various orifices.

The bar at Humber Street Gallery also features a reclaimed and much loved local landmark. Dead Bod was a piece of graffiti which sprung up on a coal shed in the 1960s on the dockside. With the outline of an eponymous dead bird in paint over corrugated iron, it is not the prettiest example of early street art, but for several decades seafarers have relished the sight of it as they returned to the shore. When the coal shed was removed to make way for a Siemens factory, Dead Bod was much missed. So locals from all walks of life, will now have a familiar introduction to the often challenging waters of contemporary art.

Hull has also offered a show that unites lovers of contemporary and traditional art. At the University of Hull, Michelangelo was hung alongside Michael Landy, and visitors had the opportunity to get close to many of the great masters of classical and modern art, closer than paintings will usually allow. Lines of Thought was a show dedicated to drawing and, as drawing is an intimate medium, this wonderful exhibition offered instant familiarity with many greats who have never been shown in East Yorkshire before.

There is more to come. Before the end of 2017, Hull will host more public art and more exhibitions: these include Offshore, a major show about visual art and the sea, and, from September, the much talked-about Turner Prize. There will, of course, be many more visitors through these gallery doors, many more selfies next to monumental sculptures, and many more pounds rung through the tills of coffers of local hotels and restaurants. From the earliest of signs, the event is a success.

But let us offer some balance, in the words of poet Philip Larkin, who worked as a librarian at the University here for 30 years. In an early letter from his new home, he wrote: “I’m settling down in Hull all right. Each day I sink a little further.” It’s a nice bon mot, but Hull 2017 should attract both visitors and settlers. If you come here and sink a little, it’s only because the city has depth.

Hull is UK City of Culture 2017. For full listings and event details please see the festival website


Jean Tinguely, Study for an End of the World No.2 (1962)

In these end times, it is worth remembering we have been here before. We have had more than 70 years to get used to the idea of nuclear weapons. In 1962 the psychic shock was fairly raw.

As in rock music, fast food and situation comedies, the USA led the rest of the world, the deserts in its Southern states serving as a blank canvas for numerous spectacular tests.

In the interests of public entertainment, if not safety, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce saw fit to publish a calendar of detonations and a list of the best viewing sites.

And in that sense they beat this artist to the punch. Tinguely’s first staging of the end of the world was brought about in the early sixties; his earlier Study, No.1, took place in 1960.

How do you follow a mushroom cloud with a piece of fine art? Tinguely’s answer was to step up his interest in kinetic and self-destructive mechanical junk sculpture.

Together with his partner (French artist Niki de Saint Phalle must get some credit) he scoured a remote junk yard for components. It seems anything was fair game: toys, a toilet bowl, a trolley.

In metal hardhat and goggles, Tinguely was arguably as keen to control his own image as that of his soon-to-be explosive artwork. Now both artist and creation were ready for broadcast on NBC.

Were it not for the televisual audience there would have been few witnesses. There were shelters for camera crew and press; the sculpture was too dangerous for the public.

It was also dangerous for TV execs. The sight of a configuration of functionless objects, which spring into pointless life for an 18 minute performance must have had serious commercial fallout.

And then the fuses were lit. The sketchy YouTube footage is linked above. Better footage can be seen in Tinguely’s largest ever retrospective right now. And yet we fail to get a sense of it.

The camera lingers on a burning armchair. But safe in their all-American homes, we may never know how many viewers felt the heat of this detail, as noted in the catalogue.

It was just a study, mind you. As the end of the world continues to unfold in a way that looks quite different to that of 1962, we are reminded of Tinguely’s words.

“You can’t expect the world to end the way you want it to,” said the anarchic sculptor. We can only speculate about the piece of avant garde software code that could form Study No.3.

Jean Tinguely, Machine Spectacle, can be seen at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam until March 5 2017. My visit was at the invite of the museum and the airline KLM, whose informative new art history page can be found here.


Diary: a flying visit to Amsterdam

Since Amsterdam is most famous for narco-tourism and legal sex work, it is the perfect city to get high on art and get in bed with a famous airline in return for a 24-hour trip there.

KLM had got in touch to publicise a new art history primer which sits quite comfortably on the pages of their website, devoted to the charms of a destination which they call a “cultural giant”.

Fourteen painters are featured here together with a readable introduction to the Golden Age and a gentle canal ride, which brings a Google streetview-like experience to the waterways.

My trip was at a higher pace. I flew one morning from Heathrow and back the following afternoon. My hotel was in the Canal District and my smartphone led me to the museum district.

Trams in Amsterdam are pretty straightforward and many locals will be only too happy to break out their fantastic English language skills and direct you around this manageable city.

But with only three hours until closing time I faced a tough choice, as readers may no doubt imagine: the Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh Museum or the Stedelijk? Each worth a day or more.

But since I had a free ticket to the latter, I went with this modern art space and was thrilled by a pair of exhibitions of Jean Tinguely and Jordan Wolfson. Review of the former to follow soon.

There was too, too much to see at the Stedelijk and their permanent collection is notably well curated, in a series of just-so rooms according to style, or school, or reputation.

Stedelijk has a wealth of paintings by Malevich and, since we are in the land of De Stijl, allows you to draw the obvious comparisons between the Russian painter and Piet Mondrian.

The Netherlands also have a stake in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Also on show at the Stedelijk are some fine De Koonings, one getting lots of attention from a giggling/stoned couple.

Since alcohol is my drug of choice, it was nice to get to the bar in my hotel. But slightly alarming that the bottle I ordered was eight percent proof. To be mopped up with a meal at a nearby cafe.

Checking out early the next day offered the chance for some more culture. On a recommendation from @hindmezaina, my first stop was photo museum Foam. Hiroshi Sugimoto has a show there.

By shooting waxworks of historical personages and dioramas of stuffed animals, Sugimoto plays with photography’s truth claims. And everyone must see his interiors of art deco cinemas.

Perhaps it was a planning failure, but I left the Rijksmuseum until last. My schedule gave me just an hour here. But given the calibre of painting from the Dutch Golden Age, a little goes a long way.

Naturally the Night Watch by Rembrandt was a spectacle. Naturally the Vermeers were luminous. But newish to me was Jan Steen who paints with a Hogarth-like sense of narrative and comedy.

So that’s where my own Amsterdam narrative ends. The trip home was uneventful and the art memories will stay with me. So, thanks KLM. I have no criticismisms of this trip.


What’s left for art in 2017?

Credit: Notions Capital (Flickr/CC 2.0)

Credit: Notions Capital (Flickr/CC 2.0)

The vital importance of visual art, in this emerging plutocracy, is without doubt. Even though, for most politically engaged artists, it can seem like swimming against the popular tide.

But the cultural reversals of 2016 are, in fact, just a reaction against the false promise of aesthetics. They are anti-art, anti-intellectual, anti-fashion, and opposed to all forms of sophistication.

What went wrong? We enjoyed eight years of the most presentable US President in history. And no matter how little you liked Cameron and/or Blair, their smooth brands offered a certain surety.

Well, I don’t believe that BrexTrump had much to do with political realities. Nothing does, when you live in a corporate owned mediascape. It was rather a rejection of a certain bad look.

Please don’t ascribe authenticity to these populist politicians. Their deceptions are numerous and notorious. They have done away with political craft, the actual honesty of rhetoric and oratory.

In short, they have killed statesmanship or statespersonship. They have killed the gravity which art, via countless portraits and busts, has so often ascribed to the powerful: to popes, kings, gentry.

Who can maintain gravity, as the world spins faster and faster? Who can pretend to pre-eminence when already several billion are a click away? What matters if the context for any action is chaos?

It would be ridiculous to think that art could restore politics, on either side of the Atlantic, to former glories. Since the glorious few have led us to this, it would be neither possible nor desirable.

But the shallow figures who dominate world politics now have ushered in real 21st century fascists. Wherever they were all hiding, there is certainly a role for art in the fight against this.

They may have their baseball hats and their double breasted blazers, but underneath the trappings of normality, Trump, Farage, and their ilk are naked. They do not yet have their Leni Riefenstahl.

So in a world where perception is everything (and hasn’t it always been everything?) visual art is the most potent creative endeavour in which we can engage. Artists can dress power up, or down.

And when you throw in ceremonial drama (performance), when you throw in a few flags (pop), and some party political ads (video) you realise that in fact there can be no power without art.

This must be why an event such as the Turner Prize will always fuel tabloid ire. The political relations bodied forth by a quiet Helen Marten installation are surely antipathetic to shitty gold elevators.

In short, contemporary art has never had a clearer challenge. It is time to accede to the visual realm, to make it new, to make it more powerful than the guys writing the cheques for it.

Because seriously, plutocrats will always be the like the uninteresting patrons who paid to appear on their knees in renaissance altarpieces. Let art ensure history pities our new leaders, rather than fears them.


Interview: Suzanne Treister

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The time tested way of introducing a story (“Once upon a time…”) is little help when writing a blog about art. And so faced with the most narrative-driven work in this year’s Liverpool Biennial, I don’t know where to begin.

HFT The Gardener is a multi-faceted piece display which comprises of some 174 works on paper and a (roughly) 10-minute film. There’s a fiction in the film, made concrete by the drawings. So the drawings, although quite loopy, fall into a non-fiction category; it’s complex.

In short, Treister tells the story of a high frequency trader who undergoes a breakdown and looks to psycho-active plants to generate algorithms to plug into the banking system. He is fired, as you might expect. But then he becomes an outsider artist and the drawings in this show are his colourful plant diagrams, which he sells to rich bankers.

The artist was good enough to speak with me at the launch of this show and I asked her how it came about. “I was interested in high frequency trading. I was interested in these ideas of the holographic universe. I was interested in psycho-active drugs,” she tells me.

Following that, “through thinking about them all and wondering where it might go,” Treister made the connections which rounded out her show. As for the film script, it remains a trip to compare with one of the hallucinogenic plants which star here.

It took a lot of “fine-tuning” says the visionary artist. “The plot expanded, contracted, then needed to come back around and reference itself in certain ways. So I was constantly working on it, to form it.”

But however much Treister worked on this voiceover, it pales beside the maniacal energy which must have been needed to research more than 90 narcotic plants and translate their biological and chemical properties into intense and detail rich diagrams.

“Work ethic,” says the artist in response to this. “But you know novelists are the same. They have an idea. They gradually develop the plot. Then they’ve got to spend about two years sitting there every morning. They’ve got to get up and get a certain amount done”.

But if the show really is a novel, it is Moby Dick rather than Pride and Prejudice, the sort of novel which freights in a wealth of technical detail. Each plant has its Latin name, its medical effect, its equivalent as abstract pattern and its correspondence to a stock on the FTSE index.

HFT The Gardener is not, however, an instruction manual for drug use. “I’m not suggesting a mass free for all,” says Treister of her 92 psychoactive plants. “These are plants that have been carefully used for centuries in many parts of the world for ritual purposes. They need to be taken seriously and there could be an enormous amount to learn from them if research was able to continue unrestricted.”

Unlike South America, we don’t have a culture which facilitates drug-induced vision quests. We do, however, have a crazy financial system where a dose of peyote could hardly make things any worse; you could happily leave reality behind for an hour spent at this show.

For more information about this work, head to the artist’s website. The show runs until October 16 2016 as part of Liverpool Biennial, and can be found in the Exhibition Research Lab at The John Lennon Art & Design Building, Liverpool John Moores University.


Our City, How Do We Look? @ BPB2016

Brighton Photo Biennial 2016 will look at the way photography fosters our understanding of style, the body, gender and subcultures. It is arguably the biggest visual art event on the city’s calendar, and this year the month-long festival issued a call out to BA students on Brighton Uni’s acclaimed photography course.

Four chosen artists, who appear to come from all walks of life, will feature in one of the busiest exhibition spaces in town. So if you’re passing Jubilee Square, do take some time to take in Our City, How Do We look? I spoke with the talented group at local music festival Together the People.


© Chynna Guyat, 'Eva Petulengro', 2016

© Chynna Guyat, ‘Eva Petulengro’, 2016

Interview: Chynna Guyate

It is at once a comfort and occasional source of alarm that Brighton’s sartorial flair extends to residents of all ages. So in putting together her show, Guyate has looked for “the elderly who defy age and disability and dress how they want to express themselves”.

Brighton may be thought of as a city for young people to see and be seen in, but Guyate is drawn to those who have seen it all before . “These people need a voice,” she says of her subjects, “Because they’re just as great. That’s why I picked up on the older generation”

While aware that it might sound like a cliché, the second year student was inspired by her own 91-year-old grandma, who was living with dementia. “Despite that she loved dressing up, styling; she had all these crazy clothes. I just thought, Good on you!”

Her show came together over three sun-drenched weeks this summer and Guyate recalls “going around and seeing who’s about, clicking away”. She staked out her subjects from cafes and soon learned how to get up the nerve to approach strangers in the street.

“These people were fairly rare,” she points out. “So when you see them it was, Right, just got to go and do it.” The result is a portfolio of straightforward portraits and glimpses such as you or I might catch of these older denizens one hesitates to call eccentric.

All the same, Guyate does report an encounter with a man festooned with keyrings, who was pushing his own wheelchair, and a woman on the beach playing a tambourine to the seagulls. “That was pretty interesting,” she tells me with wry understatement.

Old people clearly have to work hard to achieve visibility. But Guyate finds in their “crazy colourful clothes”, an intriguing reflection of our “crazy colourful city”. Expect a crazy and colourful display during BPB16.


© Jennifer Jackson, Kelly, 2016

© Jennifer Jackson, Kelly, 2016

Interview: Jennifer Jackson

After several moments talking with Jackson, it seems there’s more to gender than male, female, and trans-one-way-or-another. The third year photographer introduces me to the term non binary to describe a group of people who subscribe to neither gender norm.

“I use ‘them’ and ‘they’ pronouns rather than he or she,” they advise me and their portrait-based show is about making visible a diverse non binary community which was a lot larger than Jackson at first expected it to be, even in a city with a vibrant LGTB scene like Brighton.

Not that one can make assumptions about the sexuality of people who might simply be gender queer: “There’s a lot of people who identify very differently within it and express their non binary very differently,” says Jackson.

Although on the boyish side of feminine, this photographer looks fairly conventional. “A lot of people who are more openly non binary might present in a more radical way,” they say. So, the show is not short of telling details in clothing, modifications, tattoos, and hairstyle.

“But there are a lot of people who are non binary who are exactly like everyone else on the street,” Jackson tells me. “Maybe very feminine, or very masculine. Other people are androgynous. So I think it’s impossible to tell. It’s just a feeling really.”

Whatever the case, it is a feeling which is safer to express here in Brighton, as compared with the far flung northerly region where the photographer originates. “In Cumbria there are still difficulties in being accepted,” they tell me. “I can’t imagine anywhere being as accepting as Brighton is.”


© Sophia Wöhleke, 2016

© Sophia Wöhleke, 2016

Interview: Sophia Wöhleke

Although Brighton has its share of fashion chainstores, it does more than most cities to redress the ecological and ethical balance. Look no further than the North Laine and London Road, where second hand shops encapsulate something of the spirit of this city.

Now in her third year, Wöhleke came from Marseille to join the BA in Photography and having done so she brings an outsider’s eye to what seems to be a growing proliferation of thrift stores, upcycling workshops, leather workers and cobblers.

With an avowed interest in “sustainable fashion”, Wöhleke makes clear: “We live in a consumerist society where little emphasis is placed on the durability of items. Brighton is a city where there is a trend of people going against that”.

So the well-travelled photographer turned her lens on the retailers hitting back and stalked the city’s most bohemian streets to find alternatives to Top Shop etc: “I wanted to look at it from a grassroots perspective while focusing mostly on little shops in order to gain an understanding of how people make a living without succumbing to the consumerist culture that exists elsewhere in Brighton”.

Most businesses were open to participation in a student project. “The first place I photographed was an alterations place. The owner only opened the shop last year and she sometimes has to work nights to finish her orders on time,” says Wöhleke. “She was open about how she works and didn’t mind me photographing anywhere, she helped me out quite a lot.”

Her industrious subjects were also open about their working environments; “I wanted to bring the different layers of the shop into the pictures because I wanted to get a sense of the amount of manual work and time that go into running small businesses like these”.

Wöhleke uses a medium format camera to capture all that rich detail. Her only remaining challenge: finding room for a tripod.


© Judith Ricketts 'Basil Chap' 2016

© Judith Ricketts ‘Basil Chap’ 2016

Interview: Judith Ricketts

A show that combines fashion with the realities of Brexit may sound unlikely; the Leave campaign was marred by many things, not least the double-breasted blazers of its chief protagonist Nigel Farage. But third year Judith Ricketts is interested in both all the same.

Ricketts has responded to the referendum by finding EU nationals living in Brighton and taking their portraits in the city they have thus far called home. Subjects were invited to choose a location that had personal meaning and dress to represent themselves to the world.

The concerned photographer reports a general reaction of shock to the outcome. “People were saying they felt very much under the microscope,” she tells me. “Because the vote was most focussed on immigration and before that they were part of the landscape”.

Ricketts’ interests in home and displacement may stem from her African-Caribbean parentage: “I was wondering how that moment in time changes peoples sense of belonging in a city, because one of the things about this city is, I think, it’s always very, very multi-cultural.”

The resulting show brings documentary up flush against a conventonal fashion shoot. But the photographer in question sees fashion as political. “It’s a complete identity statement,” she tells me, before adding: “Our identities are fluid. They change depending on who we are, who we are with, and where we live”.

In the case of this show, subjects were persuaded to meet in town at seven or eight in the morning and talk about their experiences of the disaster known as Brexit. (“You have to make that connection really quickly!” Ricketts tells me.)

“Most people I photograph become my friends,” she adds. “They become part of my own identity, because I use it as an opportunity to get to know different kinds of culture.” This attitude, which realises we are in fact lucky to mix with different nationalities, is refreshing, even in Brighton.

Our City, How Do We Look? is a Photoworks/Together the People co-comission for Brighton Photo Biennial 2016. Work by all four photographers can be seen in Jubilee Square, Brighton, between 1-30 October 2016.


Drawing the line somewhere: writing for free about art

untitled blog

Art Rules was a shortlived online experiment from the ICA and in 2013 I was one of many people asked for some wisdom. “Don’t plan on getting paid or laid,” I wrote. “The work is its own reward.”

Well, Lucky pdf, an arts collective who are much cooler than me, wrote “Don’t work for free”.  But I would contend we both have a point. The work is its own reward, yet has monetary value.

That is in essence the beauty of both writing and art. Surely nothing worthwhile is ever made with a price tag in mind. And so the art world is as full of freebies as it is full of art fairs and auctions.

We need hardly enumerate the perks of engaging with this system: free admission to galleries, free wine at openings, free press releases, free selfie opportunities and free reviews online.

Then a middle tier: blockbuster shows cost up to £20; catalogues can cost even more; editions will set you back three figures. But all of the above augment a pleasant middle class lifestyle.

The gateway comes next: work by ‘name’ artists costs between the price of a car and a house; at auction, you could spend millions; if accepted as a collector you’ll become an art world VIP.

At this point you may want to loan one of your works to a museum, thus increasing its value. Or you may want to bequeath all your art to a provincial gallery, ensuring immortality: a good trade.

Artists themselves meanwhile have to speculate to accumulate. At the very least they will need to buy materials. At worst, for their pockets, they’ll manage to rent a studio or hire assistants.

Journos can get by with a laptop, a pad and a pen, and a voice recorder. Utilised to our advantage these will gain enviable invitations to press launches and press trips.

After that point, whether visual artist or art writer, you will want to sell work. This is as difficult as it sounds. We are legion and there are always pre-validated colleagues out there with more talent.

So I found myself coming back to that pearl of wisdom from Lucky pdf. It struck me as quite an important principle. Giving away art or giving away writing does no one any favours, surely.

And yet we have social practice, a genre of art which thrives off what is freely given. And yet we have blogs like this one, which never make a bean.  And on social media, every darn thing is free.

I guess that moving forward, the approach should be: don’t give away more than you earn. Be you an artist, writer or curator, you should try and come out of your professional activities in the black.

With that in mind, it’s worth considering a new phenomenon: the crowdsourced gallery guide. Back in August I was invited by one of these to volunteer some commentary for a current London show.

The email, from a Michael Bouhanna from Untitled, captured my imagination because the featured artist was Jeff Koons and the gallery was Damien Hirst’s. I have written on both, but who hasn’t?

It can’t even be said that the request came from either of the two great men. This untitled gallery guide was positioning itself as a public service, as a kind of digital intervention.

This was supposedly in response to the lack of clear interpretation which goes along with some of the work in Hirst’s personal £100 million collection of art shown in his purpose built gallery.

But no matter how frequently I have worked for free, to promote myself or support an artist, I would never for a moment think that the Murderme collection or Newport Street Gallery needed my help.

In return Bouhanna offered the chance to join  a community of ‘passionate’ art enthusiasts who may or may not attain VIP status at future shows or art fairs. That doesn’t really appeal.

Indeed I found more community belonging on my Facebook wall where, being a blogger of the passive aggressive variety, I eventually cropped up to share my dismay at this cheeky request.

Writer Ben Street and artist Paul Brandford, who are both already VIPs to me, soon reported having similar experiences with Untitled. Bouhanna clearly spread his net far and wide.

The guide itself later arrived. One wonders if he paid the designer. Punters might be better off reading a broadsheet review and/or Mr Koons’ Wikipedia page.

The episode just threw into relief a truth about the market in which art finds itself. The rich get richer and sometimes it gets rich off studio assistants, interns and on occasion art bloggers.

But the wonderful thing about blogging is this: you can pick or choose what you write about. I hope Michael if you are reading, you will understand why I chose not to write for you.


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.