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

Accessory to the fact: art in American Psycho

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Next year it will be 25 years since American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis; in that time various crimes have been exposed in the banking industry. So it seemed timely to reread.

But it’s not just about greed and Wall Street. It’s about fashion, food, designer goods and popular music. It’s hardly about art at all, but what little there is will amuse you. It’s a blackly funny yarn.

Patrick Bateman has a dubious gift for recognising labels and brands. The running joke of this 400 page book is that every last outfit is broken down, itemised and noted.

So here, art is just another commodity. In a friend’s house, he spots “spooky” photos by Cindy Sherman and a painting by Eric Fischl, which he doesn’t even bother describing. (pp.279-80)

And while running from police he recognises a Julian Schnabel painting in a lobby. (You were just waiting for one to appear). It’s how he realises he’s in the “wrong fucking building”. (p. 351)

But the artist who most speaks to or for Bateman is David Onica. He owns a painting which sounds to be the original version of Sunrise with Broken Plates. He discreetly boasts about its cost.

The painting is mentioned a number of times. A crack appears in the ceiling overhead. And before she meets her fate, a murder victim points out the work is hung upside down. A loopy sign.

After dispatching this girlfriend, Bateman sells one Onica painting and buys another. This time it is “a huge portrait of a graphic equaliser done in chrome and pastels”. A portrait of a thing? Right.

As if in response to its literary fame, the artist remade his Sunrise painting in 2004 and now sells a range of merchandise from mugs to iPhone cases. One wonders what became of the original.

It is chastening that the most evil and soulless of characters also owns a Frank Stella print and, in his office at Pierce & Pierce, a painting by George Stubbs, the location of which he muses about.

Just where does one place a sign of ‘old money’, amidst state of the art stereo equipment and a 1980s twilight blue colour scheme? It is just this conflict which has spawned a Bateman.

By the time the murder count is in double figures, the killer finds himself out with, among others, a one John Constable (p. 347). So much for pastoral romance. This book kills it stone dead.

Page numbers refer to Picador edition of American Pscyho (c) 1991. David Onica merchandise can be found here.


Something for the wall: cave art on general sale

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While some consider we are now post-postmodern, it cannot be denied that we still live with many features of the condition identified by Jean-François Lyotard. My theory might be rusty, but it seems the internet has only heightened matters, and the age of simulacra is still very much with us. There’s no getting away from it, but if you still want to get beyond hyperrealities, you might well find yourself drawn to the art of the past. And if you develop a taste for this you might want to get right back to paleolithic art. What could be more authentic than the cave painting of a cave man?

But rather than get back to life as it was perceived in the Pyrenees, say, 40,000 years ago, this piece will argue that we are locked out from raw and therefore real contact with cave art; though perhaps we always were. And we’ll see that, taking Altamira in Spain as our example, simulacra and fakery are of a holistic piece with the history of the caves both recent and in the deep past. There was nothing authentic about the world’s first recorded artists and this structure has found echoes in the reception of their work today.

In his fascinating book, The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis-Williams lays out a number of theories about prehistoric art. And what comes across strongly is that whatever thoughts went through the modern brains of the artists, the original audiences at Lascaux, Chauvet, and indeed Altamira, must have experienced cave art in a way so different from gallery art today, we might not recognise it. Cave walls represented a gesamtskunstwerk and the pictures themselves were to be seen with flickering torchlight and possibly with music and dance. Art was a bona fide trip, but as we know from our own religion (modern science) altered states no longer offer privileged access to information about the world.

So cave art and make believe evolved hand in hand. During the tens of millennia of its first hand reception it required a suspension of disbelief from both the artist and the rest of his or her clan. Now, it could be argued, there’s no faith without doubt, a fact just as true for even the most fundamental of our 21st century believers. Perhaps it is even doubt which provokes fundamentalism, but that is a digression. Lewis-Williams makes clear that the art of the caves of Western Europe was the result of vision questing. In short it was, via drugs, sensory deprivation or lack of oxygen, the result of self-induced hallucination. The shamen knew what they were doing and their status depended on it.

Quite why and how cave art came to be characterised, across Europe, by many hundreds of recurring motifs, by the same species, by entopic marks, by hand prints, is a discussion for another time. It’s not a question that even Lewis-Williams clears up to the reader’s satsifaction. And the most likely theory, hunting magic, cannot account for the lack of Reindeer on the walls, especially at Lascaux where that prey’s bones are to be found in plentiful numbers. The most intriguing idea, to me, is that different species represent different clans and as a result cave art is not a confused rush of bovine and equine imagery but an epic art form, a history painting.   

But surely that’s just another expression of the longing for an authentic, and in this case materialistic explanation. There never was, and never will be, an art of pure and partisan representation. That’s for the realm of propaganda and no one who has been touched by cave art could possibly allow for the possibility that the caves were some form of lecture. Just ask the archaeologist who spent some 20 minutes in tears when he first saw Lascaux. And just consider Picasso, who said of that cave: “We have learned nothing in 12,000 years”.

We have, however, learned plenty. We have learned how to tease the cave experience out of the ground and into a wealth of picture books, cinema, postcards and posters. We have dematerialised the cave and allowed it to float through our daily lives in the form of jpeg galleries, mobile news stories and tourism sites. We have learned how to market the cave experience to a 21st century audience and how to generate revenue undreamt of by the men or women whose handiwork we have come to celebrate in this way.

The caves have become portable, which is somewhat counter-intuitive when you consider them as the ultimate parietal art form. (It makes as little sense as that piece of street art soaked off the side of a pub wall and sold to a millionaire.) In Altamira, for example, you can even buy a chunk of the cave to take home and fix on your living room wall. Okay, it’s not actual rock taken from the original site. It is instead ceramic. And one of the bison has been scaled down and reproduced on a souvenir retailing for close to €100; somebody should notify the artist’s estate.

A wall mounting like this has various advantages over a poster. Not only does it carry more literal and hence metaphorical weight, it is also in low relief which, as you may well know, is a key factor in the art of paleolithic man. Cave walls were not a blank canvas. Instead, they gave the artist a topology of dips and bumps, and the creative interpretation of these was the very beginnings of representation. The ceramic bison demonstrates how a ridge of rock can suggest the backbone of a 1000kg bison.

We can verify this with a trip to Altamira itself. The lasting impression of this author was of an array of these bulls suspended low overhead and undulating like orange clouds. But there was nothing in the least bit authentic about this close contact with artistic origins. Two years ago, at the time I visited, the original cave at Altamira was closed. Tourists like myself were shepherded instead through Cueva II, a large partial replica to what we might otherwise have found underground.

There are pros and cons for building replica caves, as indeed they have also done at Lascaux and Chauvet. Their chief function is to preserve the invaluable art found in the darkened chambers of a genuine cave. One supposes that replica caves are also more accessible, better lit, easier to provide interpretation. The cons are pretty self-evident too. You won’t get much atmosphere from a fibreglass ceiling. You won’t get the play of light and shade or the echo of subterranean water dripping, as Lewis Wiliams points out. And you won’t get that clammy cold feeling which can surely facilitate goosebumps and hair standing on the nape of your neck.

So overall, replica caves are a necessary evil. But they structure the experience of primal art as a theme park visit rather than the real thing. If they do their job properly they are quintessential fakes. And the €100 tile which you pick up in the gift shop is therefore a fake of a fake. Hence we are totally cut adrift from just that strain of art which might have brought us closest to the essential role of art on this planet. The gift shop at Altamira says as much in its way as all the scholarly literature combined. It is the noisy rebuke to first hand research and understanding.

But these layers of fakery go back in time themselves. At the time of its discovery, 1879, the whole of Altamira was considered a forgery. It was only the word of amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, against those of two French experts, Gabriel de Mortillet and Emile Cartailhac. The experts alleged that a contemporary artist was responsible. It seems that even face to face with the authentic and the real, we cannot always see it for what it is.

So we vacillate between the moving, direct experience of those with access to the real caves and the gawping enjoyment of a tour round one of their replicas. We are moved because we expect to be and we love the replicas* because we love all make believe. In that sense we are not a million miles from the twin mindsets of the shamen and his public. And despite the lack of drumming and smoking lamps, this two speed model of reception might even hold true for the art with which we surround ourselves today. The simulacra and the simulacra makers have been around forever and show no sign of going away.

*Unless we are Jonathan Jones, who by a wild coincidence has written about cave art today as well.


Ian Hamilton Finlay, In Revolution Politics Become Nature (1980)

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A slogan is etched into a block of stone and the stone laid on a piece of red felt. There is something somewhat reverent about this inscription; the words carry weight and are to be handled with care.

You read the title off the block. And then you read it in a different way off the plaque on the wall. Just as you would read it in a different way again, if sprayed on brickwork. It’s unstable stone.

We all have our own reading. It’s the word nature which divides the audience. Is it human nature, as the Latinate letters imply? Or is it nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ as suggested by the crimson felt?

Perhaps it is even ‘second’ nature. It is as if, after the revolution, it will become habitual to think in political terms. It is as if it would take a revolution, not an election, to wake us all up in that way.

Finlay was a poet before he was an artist. Hence the gift for ambiguity. But the plastic elements in this work only add to the secrecy of his meaning. The poet is washing his hands of your response.

But the classical lettering must tell us something. At the very least it tells us that Finlay intends for his words to be around for millennia. To a blogger such as myself, that’s frankly scary.

The five terse words have been cut by his frequent collaborator Nicholas Sloan. A classical typeface suggests classical values. Social revolution was surely never among the values of Rome.

But the line is broken in three places. The tablet can barely contain the message. And so the artist’s sentiment, be it warning or promise, threatens to break free. As do we all from time to time.

Felt is a curious choice of material, more associated with the Asiatic barbarians at the gate. Or with Jospeh Beuys, another sloganeer. Beuys made a great deal of the healing properties of felt.

So as to revolution? You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, or even stones. But perhaps you can mop up the blood. And to say as much is as natural as it is political.

This piece can be seen at Manchester Art Gallery.


Johanna Billing, Pulheim Jam Session (2015)

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To be fair, all years have some groundbreaking music to recommend them. But 1975 was a good year for both jazz and urban planning in Germany. Who knew the two could go together?

In Köln, Keith Jarrett played an improvised concert, the recording of which was to become the best-selling solo piano album of all time. Note the quibbling over genre, which can be found elsewhere.

Meanwhile to the North West of the city, a communal reform pronounced 12 nearby villages to have become a single municipal entity. Pulheim was born and in 1981 became a city.

Now, thanks to a new 23 minute film by Swedish artist Billing, improvisation and infrastructure have been married up again: a pianist plays in a barn, while 50 cars stage a tailback on a one-lane road.

Applying herself to the baby grand is artist and musician Edda Magnason. She offers a soundtrack to the traffic situation which begins with some tentative vamping and builds to an insistent riff.

The camera loves her instrument, the workings of which are juxtaposed with the engines of the cars, as, when the queue gets moving again, one driver helps another with a jump start.

But this is one jam you might not want to end, even if it takes place in a landscape as monotonous as it is continental, with fields of sleeping corn and power lines hung like staves from pylons.

It is only once the cars grind to a halt that their occupants come to life. Passengers play with dice. A father reads to his children. Dogs are let out to chase sticks. It’s all action in a major key.

Back in the barn, we encounter film crew, lighting rig and the impossible sight of men loading the Bechstein onto a removal truck belonging to ‘Piano Express’. Easy on the ears, the music plays on.

Plenty more sounds find their way in; the road users provide ambient noise. And Magnason takes regular breaks, allowing you to think about what you see just as much as what you hear.

But ultimately, if you give it time, this film will sweep you away. It is at once totally mundane and yet life-affirming. Billing finds music in every visual detail, from smokestacks to litter in the kerb.

Pulheim Jam Session enjoys its premiere at Hollybush Gardens, London, until 25 April. Read my 2009 interview with the artist here.


Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades (2010-2015)

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4000 years after their first use in Egypt, Wael Shawky has made marionettes a central part of his art practice, spooking the viewer with what some say is the oldest form of theatre.

These puppets are not found objects. The artist has them made using glass and ceramic to render a cast of plenty, in period dress, who range from ethnic caricature to alien xenomorph.

As destructible as a truce, these include more than 100 hand-blown glass marionettes made by the maestros in Venice, a city with its own minor role in the crusades.

Shawky’s theme here is the millennium-old strife between Christianity and Islam or, more accurately, between Islam and Christianity. After all, those of Islamic faith were on home turf.

But the drama is inspired by Arab accounts of the 11th and 12th centuries, when invading knights from Northern Europe waged a war – of varying degrees of holiness – in the Levant.

Take for instance this account by Ralph of Caen: “In Ma’arra [today in Syria], our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.”

Whether or not this grim moment appears in Cabaret Crusades, I can’t say. The new show in Doha is beyond my usual patch. But even on film, you sense these puppets are capable of anything.

And this. As the 9th century rolled around, Baghdad was the most powerful and civilised place on earth with 1,000 physicians, free healthcare, regular post, working sewers and good water supply.

The early Iraqis even had global banking, with several overseas bank branches in China. That’s kind of mindblowing, whereas what the invaders had was apparently chainmail and brutality.

Such factoids are on almost every page of the book mentioned by Shawky in generous interviews: The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. It’s highly recommended.

Art also figures in this reprehensible past. Upon witnessing the siege of Acre in 1189, historian Ibn al-Athir reports the use of a painting of Muhammad beating Jesus: “to incite people to vengeance”.

Cabaret Crusades is unlikely to inspire fanaticism on either side. But what the puppets may well tell you clearly that history is full of treachery, intrigue and reversals of fate.

So if in recent years you’ve been surprised or indeed exasperated by inconsistencies in US and UK foreign policy, look upon these fragile, mutually dependent figures and realise it was every thus.

Wael Shawky: Cabaret Crusades and Other Stories can be seen at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, until 16 August.

This interview with Shawky and clips of the action is well worth a look.


UK Exhibitions: March 2015

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I’ve been picking a monthly round up of art for a few years now, first on Culture24 and now on criticismism. If it’s not my imagination, this is getting more difficult. Cuts coming home to roost?

It’s my unscientific impression galleries have got less likely to list forthcoming shows. It could be a sign they’re having trouble planning, or that they’re at least lacking web resource.

That’s to say nothing of the quality of what’s on offer. But fortunately, it remains a tricky operation to choose a shortlist from the wealth of UK exhibitions. Anyhow, FWIW, as ever, here goes:

Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age, FACT, Liverpool, 5 Mar – 17 May. New group show connects the technology which structures our lives with the mental illness which sometimes blights them. 15 artists provide a chance to reflect on the new psychological landscape.

Leonora Carrington, Tate Liverpool, 6 Mar – 31 May. Too much to say about Carrington in this narrow window, but unfamiliar visitors may thrill to her surreal work, her remarkable life story, and her diversification into poetry, scultpure, tapestry and theatre design.

Gerald Scarfe: Milk Snatcher, The Thatcher Drawings, The Bowes Museum, Co. Durham, 14 Mar – 31 May. With a general election on May 7, this is a brave moment for a museum to remind us of the evils of Thatcherism. And, with recent events in Paris, the power of political cartoons.

Richard Diebenkorn, The Royal Academy, London, 14 Mar – 7 Jun 2015. Heralded by US papers as a painter of superlative gifts, the forthcoming show – Dieberkorn’s first in the UK for 20 years – is an opportunity to be seized. The RA promises a career long survey.

Matt Stokes:  Cantata Profana, Dilston Grove, Southwark Park, London 27 Mar – 26 Apr. Grindcore metal meets choral composition in an offsite six-channel installation for Matt’s Gallery. Find yourself immersed as the volume goes up to (a no doubt cathartic) eleven.


Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Unreliable Narrator (2014)

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Seeing this film, you’d want to allow a certain innocence to the terrorist gunmen who haunt our dreams here in the West. They too, it seems, are only doing their job.

In found audio, we hear onesuch maniacal footsoldier entertain doubts before taking a pair of lives. We watch another confess that he was on the mission to raise money for his dad.

The event under narration here is the 2008 siege of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. And so our unreliable account splices YouTube clips, CCTV, and fast turnaround Bollywood drama.

What came across in a recent panel discussion with the artists is that, during this operation, as in all of our own, there are Higher Ups calling the deadly shots. More than 30 were killed here.

The horror calls to mind a famous axiom from the pages of a Pynchon novel: “The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master”. Quite.

But if you accept that terror is a military strategy, however asymmetric, then we can no more blame a radicalised gunman than we can censure a freedom loving drone pilot.

With the support of that CCTV footage and a big budget feature film about the mass killing, few works of contemporary art will bring you as close to mass killers. It was called “intimate”.

Mirza/Butler also bleach the screen with primary colour tints. The basic palette recalls night vision, heat capture, satellite view: a spectrum of surveillance, but also a flag of resistance.

Question: how can you unfold a narrative when the details proliferate so deep and wide through old and new media? You’d need the whale-wrestling gifts of a Great American Novelist.

Simple stories, on the other hand, mislead. And as we ignore the latest snuff movie from IS, we should remember this: the chances it could happen to us are just a 1 in 35 million.

That vital statistic came up in a discussion which left this yellow-bellied civilian with a lasting and surely accurate impression of “global civil war” and “almost ambient emnity”.

Well, the first casualty of war is truth, as we all know. So where are the stories you can really believe? They’re back on the fiction shelves, where it’s safe to live through them.

Karen Mirza & Brad Butler held a screening and a talk at Whitechapel Gallery on 19 Feb 2015. The show can be seen at the Gallery until 6 April 2015.


Christian Marclay and The Vinyl Factory

Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy White Cube

Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy White Cube

Do vast spaces bring forth big art, or does big art call for vast spaces? I ask because the current production at the South London outpost of White Cube is a monster of wholesale appropriation.

Artist Christian Marclay occupies all five galleries and includes a performance space, a screen-printing operation by Coriander Studios, along with the mobile vinyl press named and pictured.

These are not found objects, so much as found means of production. In fact it’s a found production line, with records pressed into unique sleeves available for a very egalitarian £25 each.

David Toop performed on the day criticismism visited. It was standing room only. Sight lines were at a premium. I can only imagine it was even busier for Thurston Moore and John Butcher.

But production was already underway to immortalise an earlier performance by Laurent Estoppey. As the first of 500 slabs of contemporary art acetate were racked up for sale. They were busy.

And never mind, that Marclay could have pressed up CDs or offered downloads. The Vinyl Factory has in recent years done a good trade in limited edition records for artists and artistes alike.

As a result, with all the engineering, and mixing, and ink on public display, the show at White Cube had the feeling of a utopian blueprint, or at least a utopian blue-chip space.

There was more to the show than this circular groove. Elsewhere were bold paintings and prints of the onomatopoeic sounds made by, among other things, gestural movements with paint.

These splatterings are not under discussion here. Nor is the collection of empty pint glasses, nor the drunk-looking sheet music framed behind bullseye glass. These were ‘just’ the works for sale.

Instead, non-collectors can leave this show with the music industry demystified. For a moment in time, we can all imagine how foolish we were to spend all those years pandering to The Man.

Very much by the by, Sir Nicholas Serota was spotted in Bermondsey at the opening weekend. But of course the art industry, no matter who buys or sponsors, is still squeaky clean.

Christian Marclay is at White Cube Bermondsey until 12 April 2015. More about The Vinyl Factory can be found here.


João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva, Glossolalia [Good Morning] (2014)

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“There’s a metaphor in there somewhere,” says Guardian critic Adrian Searle, as he contemplates this film. criticismism would like to pick up on those words: parrot fashion, naturally.

But that is what Glossolalia makes me think of: art criticism, mimicry and even plagiarism. To look at reviews for this pair of Portuguese artists certain phrases do the rounds.

Pataphysics, haunting, the limits of reason, the uncanny, slow-mo; the observations loop in and out of various publications. They make this show appear like a dazzling macaw stuck in a cage.

And yet precise words might not matter. Perhaps the babble alone should hold our attention.  Glossolalia does after all cite the religious phenomena of speaking in tongues.

In which case, it is the rhythm to which we should attend. Searle has a rhythm in which adjectives pile up and sentences spill over, which is of course fine. It’s nothing if not distinctive.

However, the rhythm of this film Gusmão + Paiva is a magisterial throb, with a silent pounding effect as the caged bird takes flight. No, there is no sound. We take on trust, this parrot’s gift of speech.

There is always something out of control about the tongue of a psittacine. Whether overwhelmed or underwhelmed the same could be said of an art writer. We feel compelled to speak.

In many cases, what comes out is a reconfigured press release, or a half remembered curator’s talk, or even that notorious form of glossolalia known as International Art Speak.

One might also parrot other critics. Interview magazine reveals that the artists film at 3,000 frames per second to give a weirdly crisp result when slowed down to 24. Now I’ve revealed it too.

Seeing is believing, even if hearing cannot be. Our title suggests that if we could hear this pretty boy, he would bid us Good Morning. The bright feathers speak. The image is a vocal one.

João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva: Papagaia can be seen at Camden Arts Centre until 29 March 2015. Meanwhile, here’s a topical story about a parrot.


Ruth Ewan, Back to the Fields (2015)

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While this show must have been a logistical headache, the extensive catalogue of objects in Back to the Fields points to an impossible dream. And it’s the most beautiful and sad dream: revolution.

This is not the first time Ewan has visited post-revolutionary France. You can read about her doomed experiment at Folkestone in 2011. That was to do with hours in the day; this, with days of the year.

So the current exhibition at Camden Arts Centre fills a single gallery space with 365 objects, each of which represents an annual date. My visit (31/01) was in the rainy month on the day of hellebore.

Hellebore, as one discovers, is a flower and occasional poison. In French it is Ellébore, so you learn something new every day. And that cliché is very much the case at this show.

Why name a day after a plant and why name a month after a meteorological phenomenon? Well, January, in the Gregorian calendar, happens to be named after Roman god Janus.

But the Jacobins wanted to get away from all that ol’ time religion. And so working in the shadow of the guillotine, the new regime abolished the twelve month year and brought in a rational ten.

The new calendar lasted for 13 years or 130 months. During which time the populous were able to meditate daily on everything from otters to grapes, from honey to mercury, via, say, an axe.

Trout and crayfish also feature in this uncompromising display. Yes, the otter den may be empty for the time being but on March 28 visitors can meet revolutionary animals in the gallery garden.

Republican time may have been intended to overthrow religion. But there is a sense of both zeal and observance about Ewan’s collection of objets, which devout onlookers will relate to.

The result is an installation with a touch of the epic. In a 21st century Britain run by Etonians, it points to an epic failure. But even epic failures have more potential than moderate degrees of success.

Back to the Fields can be seen at Camden Arts Centre until 29 March 2015