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

Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed Drones (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jac Leirner, The End (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ambrosine Allen @ DOLPH Projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Village Table @ The Hat Factory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ruth Angel Edwards, Trace Programme (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Želimir Žilnik, Black Film (1971)

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Some say, “From each according to their means to each according to their needs”. Some say, “Do as you would be done by”. But very few live up to either of those incontrovertible principles.

And though I have witnessed several decent people buy sandwiches for homeless individuals in Brighton where I live, I have never heard of anyone going so far to help as Želimir Žilnik.

In 1971 the Yugoslav filmmaker found a group of rough sleepers and invited them home to the one-bedroom flat he already shared with his wife and young child. This he also filmed.

In a sense they were an artistic project. But film becomes a means to an end here. That end becomes the rehousing of half a dozen fellow human beings who have fallen on hard times.

Their arrival comes as an apparent surprise to his wife. Together they move the couple’s double mattress into the child’s room as the tramps collapse into recumbent forms in the front room.

In the second part of this pragmatic experiment, Žilnik hits the streets again in search of public support for his new flatmates, or at least some good advice about what he should do with them.

The lasting impression is one of irresolution. These six characters in search of an author seem to have been left to once again fend for themselves. None of them remember their housetraining.

Black Film is a valuable social document. For starters, it asks the What If? question that must be asked every time you cross the road to evade the needs of a vagrant in abject poverty.

It also alerts you to the fact that even socialists can fail the most needful in society. Even socialist states can fail to provide a safety net for those whose needs are greatest.

In the UK, homelessness is the most visible of the troubles of the world. It has got worse in recent years. It’s a major problem, but since I’m not a Black Wave filmmaker, it’s not a personal problem.

Because really, Žilnik stages the unthinkable: an act of Christian charity or, more likely, Marxist direct action, which remains for most of us as impossible as it is imperative.

Black Film can be seen in Monuments Should Not Be Trusted at Nottingham Contemporary until 04 March 2016.


Douglas Gordon, 24 Hour Psycho (1993)

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How can one comment on a work of art based on an experience of no more than 10 minutes with it, when the entirety lasts an entire day? Well, the elevator pitch for Gordon’s film tells you enough.

This is the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho (1960) slowed down from 24 frames a second to just two. It runs in slow mo, in silence, in glacial indifference to the fate of Marion Crane or Janet Leigh.

So Gordon’s film is somewhat more sadistic than the original. I caught up with it as Crane drives along Highway 99, nervously looking ahead, nervously checking the rear view, in a seeming loop.

We know she is speeding to her death, but she does so with minimal, staccato movements that let us study the appearance and behaviour of an archetype: the victim marked out by fate for a grisly end.

But she is herself a criminal, and so perhaps the film also does her a service, stretching the period of time between her theft of a client’s money and her demise at the hand of Norman Bates.

24 Hour Psycho is both generous and cruel. It torments the viewer with its impossible duration and at the same time promises us saturation with one of the most analysed movies of all time.

“It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at,” so writes Don Delillo, whose 2010 novel Point Omega opens with a character who visits and revisits this piece, when it is at MoMA.

If encountered in the cinema, movies take very little pious effort. But Hitchcock manipulates his own creation to an even greater extent than this black and white monolith of video art.

IMDb is a goldmine where Psycho is concerned and we learn that the director used a 50mm lens to give his footage a voyeuristic immediacy. The 45 second shower scene uses 78 pieces of film.

So much has been written about Psycho and so much has been written about 24 Hour Psycho. But perhaps that is the ultimate comment from this slow procession of scenes. It is a kind of autopsy.

24 Hour Psycho can be seen in The Indivisible Present at Modern Art Oxford until at least March 22 and perhaps beyond, depending on how the year-long Kaleidoscope programme pans out.


Michael Craig-Martin, Untitled (travel adaptor), 2014

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The Instruction Manual by John Ashbery is a poem of some 74 lines, which mentions more than 30 colours. And these colours evoke Guadalajara, Mexico, a place the speaker hasn’t even seen.

But having said that, he pictures it well. His senses appear to have been sharpened by the deadline for a technical writing gig, and they soon take flight through an imaginary window.

Michael Craig-Martin is, in his turn, something of a technical illustrator who makes a lively escape into colour. Here you see a sherwood green adaptor with sunny yellow tines and a blood-red interior.

There is nothing naturalistic about this; it is as oneiric as the journey to Mexico in the poem we’ve already seen. But the pleasure is anchored in the familiar form of a travel appliance.

What is it about precision, in writing or draftsmanship, that sets off the imagination? Is it the fact that in both these disciplines, colour is proscribed, a banned and hallucinatory substance.

What with the smoke alarm. the memory stick and the hotel door handle (all of which feature alongside this adaptor), Craig-Martin never makes it out of his room. No en plein air for him.

And so, much of the show suggests the paraphernalia of travel, and this survey reads a little like the difficult third album of a rock band who only write about life on the road. I jest.

There is a case to call this pop art. And I think a more difficult case to compare it with photorealism. Certainly it shares some of the powers of observation, some of the decision making.

Craig-Martin talks about this with artist Liam Gillick. He plays down the role of invention in art, in favour of observation. Gillick meanwhile downgrades inspiration in favour of visual choices.

It is a fascinating discussion and well worth a look if you pick up the catalogue. If nothing else the beautiful 120 page book will give you something to cling to. Like a plug socket in Guadalajara.

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience can be seen at Serpentine Gallery, London, until February 14 2016.


Annette Messager, Les interdictions (2014)

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As 1968 begins to pass out of living memory, the date begins to lose its power. Sadly. We are by now a long way from barricades and a long way from a revolutionary tipping point. It seems.

Perhaps to keep the memory alive and honour the students who could have brought down a Western government, this artwork by 72-year old Messager comprises 68 prohibition signs. (’68!)

We can only assume the artist had some fun redesigning these interdictions. How else could we actually enjoy the sight of a wall plastered with the evidence of the human bent for authority?

As things stand you might well relish the comedy value. It has been decreed from on high that in the gallery today, we we cannot feed monkeys, have sex in spas, or drive wearing a burqa.

Says Museum director Barbara Forest in the catalogue: “The absence of context renders the signposting more derisory, more absurd, more ridiculous, more grotesque and more serious”.

Of course the rules here don’t apply. Artists are traditionally people who break rules, rather than people who enshrine them. So these handmade prohibitions are fairly dripping with irony.

All but one of the signs is based on a real world referent. The exception, which proves the rest of the rules, is top right: no prostitution. Another tradition of artists is that you don’t sell out.

But since this work is a roundabout celebration of freedom, that must include the freedom to capitalise on your artistic talents and, in one way or another join the establishment. 

There is a figurative element to this installation. It features more than a dozen mannequins, more than a dozen child-sized snowsuits. None of us chafe against rules more than children do.

Yet do we not make a good many rules for the good of our young? Messager may evoke 1968 in this major work, but that’s not to say she might not be very ambivalent about the laws of man.

Les interdictions can be seen in Annette Messager: Dessus Dessous at the Musée des beaux-arts Calais until 15 May 2016.