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

Preview: Jordan Baseman – The Most Powerful Weapon in this World

Jordan Baseman, Nasty Piece of Stuff 2009 (film still), Courtesy of the artist and Matt’s Gallery, London, Co-commissioned by ArtSway and The Photographers’ Gallery, London

Exhibition: Jordan Baseman – The Most Powerful Weapon in this World, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, until May 9 2010

Jordan Baseman knows a thing or two about juxtaposition, as you might expect from an artist with roots in the US who now lives and works in the UK

At Baltic he uses unlikely images to give three documentary type films a poetic twist. Sound and vision collide.

The soundtrack really carries the story. Each video is put together around an often candid interview in which Baseman explores themes of identity with his subject.

Inside Man listens to a career criminal talk about his CV with particular reference to his past sexual conquests against a backdrop of original music. But the woman seen dancing with friends is taken from archival footage shot in 1977.

On another film we hear the voice of a gay activist talk about the difficulties he faced coming of age in the 1960s. He sounds calm, but the16mm footage of Soho in more recent times is frantic.

The show is rounded off with something more sedate. An octagenarian recounts her experiences collecting herbarium specimens for the British Museum, Kew Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens. But the clash of words and picture are still unsettling.

Like the others, she has been displaced by the films she appears in. Her identity is in question as surely as if she was crossing a border.


Preview: Eija-Liisa Ahtila at Parasol Unit

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Where is Where?, 2008, 53 min 43 sec, 6-channel projected high definition installation with 8-channel sound. Photographed by Marja-Leena Hukkanen. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris. © 2008 Crystal Eye – Kristallisilmä Oy

Exhibition: Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Parasol Unit, London, until April 25 2010

“Human dramas” may bring to mind the worst sort of sunday evening TV, but don’t be put off by Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s description of her own work.

It’s true the Finnish video artist deals with universal themes, such as love and death. Her primal emotions and strong characters will appeal to any primetime audience.

But unless you have found a channel simulcasting contemporary art reels and have a few large screens installed in your living room, there ends the comparison.

Ahtila’s films are multi-layered, her installations are immersive, and her narratives unfold in a complex, haunting way.

And although her scripts are well-crafted, they would challenge most commissioning editors with backdrops like the Algerian War, hardship on the coast of West Africa and, in one film, a house of mourning for a dog .

Indeed narrative conventions are pushed to their limit in The Hour of Prayer, as Ahtila disrupts the space, structure and causal logic of the unfolding tale.

All three video pieces are being shown for the first time in England. As important works by an artist with worldwide critical acclaim, they are recommended viewing.


Preview: Tom Pope – The Escapades of the Higher Man

Tom Pope, The Escapades of the Higher Man, 2009. Courtesy Glynn Vivian Art Gallery

Exhibition: Tom Pope – The Escapades of the Higher Man, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, until April 18 2010

Having foreseen the coming of the Higher Man, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had, surely, grand deeds in mind. He could not have predicted a photographer from Bristol would come along and try to catch a bucket of water.

Tim Pope has also leapt from stupid heights and disguised himself beneath a pile of rubbish in the street. It seems that now God is dead, the Higher Man is free from the shackles of reason.

Photographs provide the evidence. Pope has set up some real events with reactions from real passersby. And yet these deeds are also staged, a comment on photography as much as the writings of Nietzsche.

“Employing performative strategies within my photography sees the record of an event and the event itself form a creative dialogue,” the artist has said.

“The resulting performative photograph encourages the viewer to invent meaning resulting from a blurring of fact and fiction.”

In other words, any response to these shots will be subjective. So this may indeed be the Higher Man. The rest of us just might not recognise as much.

The zany self-portraits were taken in Marseille in 2009 and now provide emerging talent Pope with a first major solo show in the city where he first studied art.


Review: Richard Grayson at De La Warr Pavilion

The end of the world is nigh in the art of Richard Grayson. But we might just be saved by work like this. It has a light touch, which never gives way to despair.

There is irony even in the title of Ways The World Ends. Competing prophecies are ranged against one another in acid-coloured prints which spiral their way in and out of comprehension. Bright and trippy, these texts from the outer reaches of the internet are rendered harmless, yet dizzying.

Close by are more angst filled texts in a piece called Hadron Collider. These come from the blogs of individuals working on the science of the Big Bang theory. These are black and white, accompanied by dull photographs, quite boring. Yet they warn scientists could create a black hole here on earth.

Cosmic forces are also evoked by another text-based work called Intelligence. This compares the star charts of six protagonists in the recent politics of the middle east. It offers a fatalistic twist on all the rhetoric of spreading democracy or resisting imperialism.

The backdrop to all this work is the twang of Country and Western music, which echoes out from a gallery filled with bales of hay. You can make yourself at home on one of these barnyard seats and get down to the folksiness of the band on one of the giant projections. Another screen reveals their lyrics to come straight from Handel’s Messiah. The choral work now seems like enjoyable hokum.

In another video piece a choir take their places to sing an alternative to Handel’s choral work. This time the libretto comes from, again, the internet, namely the site of a US cult whose vision is part book of revelations, part pure sci-fi. From the look on their faces, it is just another piece of music. The high seriousness of the genre now appears empty and foolish.

Music figures indirectly in a third video piece, The Magpie Index. This 80 minute film features a monologue by singer-songwriter Roy Harper. Whether talking about New Labour or intergalactic space travel, the result is compelling. Like many voices in this show, his comes from outside the mainstream. Harper keeps a sense of humour. But if the truth is out there, we are in trouble.


Preview: Tatton Park Biennial 2010

Breda Beban, I'll Take It! (2010). Photo courtesy Tatton Park Biennial

Exhibition: Tatton Park Biennial 2010 – Framing Identity, Tatton Park, Knutsford, May 8 – September 26 2010

Stately homes and historic properties may often throw open their doors, but they don’t usually open themselves up to critical interrogation.

For the 2010 Tatton Park Biennial, 21 contemporary artists were invited to respond to the mansion and 1000-acre estate. Details of their work have just been released.

Climate change, pollution and social division are among issues which will soon be closer to home at the Cheshire stately home.

The Park’s second biennial is subtitled Framing Identity, and curators Danielle Arnaud and Jordan Kaplan asked artists to explore the estate’s history and context.

The pair have said that throughout the Summer, Tatton will become “a creative laboratory, where artists’ experiments can bemuse, confuse and provoke visitors”.

A two-tonne block of arctic ice by Neville Gabie and a collection of leaking oil barrels by Jimmie Durham will surely do the trick, as will Clara Ursitti’s chauffeur driven taxi, which looks like an Austin Allegro but smells distinctly like a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud.

Austin Houldsworth, meanwhile, has built a 4m tall machine which will fossilise a pineapple from one of the estate’s greenhouses. It is hardly business as usual.

A catalogue to accompany the work has been written by sci-fi guru Brian Aldiss and contemporary art critic Rebecca Geldard.

The National Trust recently announced a focus on contemporary art. Stately homes will be watching Tatton, possibly with some nervousness.

Written for Culture24.


Preview: Anthony Schrag – Wrasslin'

Photo courtesy the artist

Exhibition: Anthony Schrag – Wrasslin’, The Punch and Judy Gazebo, Margate Beach, February 20 2010

Scrapping on Margate beach sounds like the antithesis of art, but this Saturday artist Anthony Schrag will be on hand to wrestle with the public.

Advance publicity offers the chance to use him as a “human punchbag”. It claims that Schrag, who is no Giant Haystacks, is tired of culture which plays it safe.

“There is certainly a sense of danger in letting strangers do what they will with my skinny little body,” the artist has said. “That is what makes the project interesting”.

All bouts will take place in a giant striped tent designed as a homage to – who else? – Mr Punch. For Schrag, the puppet is “a symbol of joyful disorder”.

Violence, he explains, holds an important place within history and mythology and is undeserving of its bad reputation.

“We sometimes forget about its cathartic ability as a great unifier and a mirror to the common and raw beast inside us all,” he opines.

The Glasgow-based provocateur has previousy dressed up as a human piñata and strapped himself into a human catapult. Cerebral, it ain’t.

If you fancy your chances against Schrag, you can book your bout with the organisers or simply turn up and fight.

Written for Culture24.


Programme of events to explore diversity issues at Iniva

Photo: www.iniva.org

In coming weeks the Youth Advisory Board from the Institute of International Visual Arts (aka the Inivators from Iniva) have planned three events to focus on diversity in the arts.

Teaming up with artist Yara El-Sherbini, they have produced an alternative version of popular board game Guess Who? Visitors to the Education Space at Rivington Place, home of Iniva, can now play around with cultural difference and public perception.

Things get heavy on February 27 when the capital’s major art institutions go on trial in a Pop-Up Court. With the help of artist and former litigator Jack Tann, the Inivators will seek to enforce their 10 laws of diversity.

On March 4 they borrow a format from BBC’s Question Time to stage Questionnable Times. Yara El-Sherbini will be joined on the panel by artist and writer Sonya Dyer, Tony Panayiotou from the Arts Council and Prof. Sarat Maharaj, Director at Iniva.

Despite globalisation, the arts are still more homogenous than you might think. Between 2007-2009, US artists were twice as likely to crop up in London galleries than artists from India. Meanwhile only 22% of work shown at the Tate was by women.

All three events tie in with the Institute’s current exhibition. Progress Reports: Art in an Era of Diversity celebrates 15 years since Iniva was founded.

Written for Culture24.


Review: Marcus Coates – Psychopomp

Marcus Coates, ‘Vision quest, Ernie’ 2009. Photo by Nick David. Produced by Nomad: www.mk-g.org

Exhibition: Marcus Coates – Psychopomp, Milton Keynes Gallery, until April 4 2010

It is amazing what Marcus Coates gets away with. A film called Journey to the Lower World shows him inform tower block residents that he has been to the spirit kingdom to consult animals about their fate. To get there, he reveals, he made a psychic descent of more than 21 floors using the lifts in their building.

The Liverpool audience are by this point all ears. They have already seen the artist strap himself into a stag skin, complete with antlers that threaten to spear the light shade, and emit an alarming series of wildlife calls, to the accompaniment of a CD of tribal drums.

There is, of course, much laughter, but after a certain point that stops. Belief appears to take over, as if Coates’ performance has tapped into a primal credulity which goes deeper than rationalism.

And yet the advice he brings back from the lower world is straightforward. It defies his audience’s expectations that a spirit or person will come to watch over them.

Coates is a trained shaman who makes art from his encounters with the animal kingdom. On the evidence gathered by the Milton Keynes Gallery, each performance is a mix of humour, mysticism and plain speaking.

One can’t help but laugh at his outfits, for example, many of which are on display. He explores the Israel/Palestine conflict dressed in a blue shell suit and a Newcastle United shirt. In Tokyo he looks into bike parking restrictions dressed in a white Marilyn dress.

Yet on both occasions, footage shows him enter a trance-like state and provide a soundtrack of non-human grunts, yelps, shrills and barks. Something other-worldly definitely takes place.

And then there is the fauna-received wisdom. Much of it is pinned to the walls of the gallery and it all makes perfect sense. “Nothing in itself is artificial,” he explains to one perhaps sceptical questioner. “This is the gap between understanding the appearance and the purpose.”

If Coates is simply making it up on the spot, it is remarkable. No wonder he gets away with it.

Written for Culture24.


Review: Here and Now at University of Brighton

Exhibition: Here and Now – 2nd Year Fine Art BA (Hons), University of Brighton, until February 23 2010

It will typically take an art student three years to hone their technique, but to give a piece a great title can be the work of seconds.

Here and Now is a group show by second year students at Brighton University. And if one painting by Peter Barwick is anything to go by, studying here is a blast.

I Totally Just Painted This is a large scale oil on canvas work featuring cartoony square dogs. The joy of using bright colours is emphasised by the ring of those five words on the plaque.

Another painting opposite is named with equal boldness. I Loved You may not have as much attitude, but the neon Chinatown landscape by Elisha Enfield is as lush as a film by Wong Kar-wai.

A good title can open up a work to interpretation. You Can Never Be Too Sure by Vicky Pattemore is a small but resonant ink drawing of a rib cage suspended behind a finely wrought birdcage.

Elsewhere, a title expands on an idea. A row of tiny sculpted washing machines in shades of off white and dyed pink is arresting and amusing to a point, which Charisia Chatzitsoli goes beyond with a single word: Shrunk.

Not all works need the convention of a name. 10 ft up on the gallery wall is a brass emergency bell. A steel and glass staircase leads to it, so fragile that Sarah Ross’s work will make you wince before you’ve even glanced at the plaque.

Caroline Bugby is another student who lets her piece do the talking. A waxy Ordnance Survey map hangs like a dishcloth from a jauntily angled DIY store hook. The result is cheery. If she had called it I Totally Just Sculpted This, the effect would be the same.

Meanwhile Lucinda Turner-Brown has had as much fun as anyone here. In an apparent tribute to Joseph Beuys she has built a twin tower of packets of Asda Smart Price lard. The piece is called, Life. Well, you can’t fault that for ambition.


Interview: David Blandy – Work of Fiction

©David Blandy, courtesy 176/Zabludowicz Collection, photo Thierry Bal

Picking up his gong in the Breakthrough category at The Times/South Bank Show 2010 Awards, artist David Blandy might have thanked the man who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. During WWII, his grandfather was a prisoner of war and Japan’s surrender is said to have saved his life.

“How do I reconcile my life and the life of most of my family with the 200,000 dead in Hiroshima?” he wonders aloud in his East London studio. “It can never make sense really.”

Blandy now looks East for inspiration. Martial arts, manga and video game culture all feature in his work. As a performance artist, he has long posed as a Zen-like wanderer, making countless films as The Barefoot Lone Pilgrim, armed with record bag, staff and portable turntable.

His latest alter-ego, The Child of the Atom, is a response to the atrocity which saved his grandfather. This time he has styled himself as a manga action figure with legions of fans.

“I thought it would be interesting if they were already fan made things, about this character who was already existing, so it’s like a fan homage,” he says of the film, shot in Japan in December.

Blandy himself is the consummate fan. When we meet, he is quick to show off his current favourite graphic novel, his vintage arcade machine cartridges and just a few of his many vinyl records. He may be up on art history, together with Freud, Lacan and Žižek, but this serious artist is a pop kid at heart and well aware of the absurdity.

“Art’s been very important to me in my life,” he insists, “But at the same time has it really changed me? Has it been as profound an influence as . . . Karate Kid?”

He laughs, just as the viewer might at footage of a tall, bespectacled Blandy, dressed in his orange Kung Fu suit, wandering the streets of New York in search of soul. Humour is everywhere in his work, or more seriously, “the joy of acknowledging the truth that maybe identity itself is a fiction”.

“Once you embrace that idea you realise that anything is possible,” he explains. “Rather than feeling completely constrained within your boundaries of – I don’t know? White middle-class male from North London – why can’t I be a superhero anime action figure?”

Or for that matter a black soul singer. Another film finds Blandy made up like a minstrel in reverse as he mimes along to Syl Johnson’s classic, Is It Because I’m Black? The track lasts eight minutes and in psychological terms is something of an endurance piece.

“I may have put on clown make up, but I perform the song with total . . .” he is lost for words. “I’m just inside it and in a way it’s inside me now because I’ve learnt it for the last eight years. It’s just become such an intrinsic way of how my brain is”.

It is this depth of engagement which makes the work so interesting and Blandy compares it to an experiment: “I guess I’m not scared of making a fool of myself in the aid of art, in the aid of trying to understand a bit more of who I am.”

But this serious question about identity leads the artist back to the video game Street Fighter, which he says is also hard-wired into his nervous system.

“Where do we get our ideas if we don’t read philosophy or if we don’t deal with religion?” he asks. “That desire to believe in something or have rules to live your life by is still there, so you end up relating to [game character] Ryu, wandering the world looking for the perfect fight.”

This in turn, he argues, might lead you to an interest in reading actual Zen philosophy. Just as going to a show by David Blandy could lead you to Syl Johnson, Street Fighter or manga epic Gundam. “I guess I see that almost as my role as an artist,” he adds, “To be the finger pointing at the moon, as Bruce Lee would say”.

Written for Art & Music.