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

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


UK Exhibitions: February 2015

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Welcome back to the new monthly survey of great shows from public institutions who’ve got their act together online. Cold outside, but it’s quite warm in the UK’s galleries.

James Bridle: Seamless Transitions, The Photographers’ Gallery, London, 6 Feb – 15 Apr. Using planning apps and first hand accounts, tech artist Bridle has visualised some of the buildings which unlucky immigrants see on their way out of the UK. The results appear cold, insidious and seductive.

Lynda Benglis, The Hepworth Wakefield, 6 Feb – 1 Jul. A major new retrospective, which can draw on a career of five decades. See why Benglis held her own in a famous century of American art dominated by men. This major show includes some 50 works.

Florian & Michael Quistrebert: Visions of Void, Dundee Contemporary Arts, 7 Feb – 22 Mar. Fire, shadows, hypnosis and intensity are all promised in Dundee. Immersive work like this won the French brothers a nomination for the 2014 Prix Marcel Duchamp and far out Genesis P. Orridge is a fan.

Cornelia Parker, The Whitworth, Manchester, 14 Feb – 31 May. A major show by Cornelia Parker coincides with a major gallery re-opening. A career retrospective, were it not for new and somewhat convoluted things going on with Blake drawings and local discovery graphene.

Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album, Courtauld Gallery, London, 26 Feb – 25 May. Thanks to his many prints, Goya crops up frequently in survey exhibitions. But here is a fairly novel chance to enjoy his presence centre stage, as a series of occult women power his dark imagination.


Interview: John Virtue

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Since the days of King Cnut, few public figures can have had such an impossible relation with the sea. In the paintings of John Virtue the viewer finds themselves lost in the surf. But each work represents the most fleeting of moments, as waves break quicker than the hand can sketch.

And this artist’s hand makes hundreds of sketches. One of the focal points of his new exhibition at Towner is a cabinet some four metres long in which the drawings pile up, open book upon open book upon open book. In many cases you can see the blots made by incoming rain clouds.

That said, most of the works in the show are just as scaled-up as the cabinet. Three of the paintings here are almost six and a half metres long. All of the paintings are in black, white and a sparing grey. So many monumental works add up to a pretty overwhelming visual experience.

Virtue cuts a neat and compact figure, quite far removed from the wild man you might imagine was behind these epic nature paintings. Over a mineral water in the Eastbourne gallery he tells me more about his Sisyphean process and paradoxical practice.

The fleeting source material comes from the coast by his North Norfolk home. The artist lives near Blakeney Point, which, he tells me, is “very isolated, very bleak, very stormy in winter”. Once a week he walks the four and a quarter miles to and from the Point and will make hundreds of sketches.

But no matter how fast an experienced hand can draw, the sea is strangely cruel to artists. Virtue points out: “It changes faster than you speak. It changes all the time, not just from day to day but from second to second.” But the philosophical painter is quite content with this.

“It’s that quality of nothing and everything that’s so enthralling. It’s mesmeric,” he says. The elusive forms he calls a “perfect armature for developing all kinds of ideas, abstract ideas”. And indeed, if a hypothetical focus group saw these works out of the blue, they might conclude them to be abstract.

So, these wave studies are at the limits of figuration. “How can you do something topographical when you have people like Turner and Constable? That is a tradition that you have to work against,” he says. Landscape appears to be an alibi for Virtue rather than a rigid category.

At the same time he rejects the label of abstraction. “I’m not able to make it up,” he insists. “It just would not work, if I don’t have the compost, if I don’t have the drawings.” When asked about those heroic Ab Ex painters from the 20th century, Virtue points out they were often inspired by real world forms.

“I admire Pollock very much” says the artist, suggesting that between 1948 and 1950 the maverick US painter was working in a tradition of nature paintings. De Kooning, likewise, had a period during which he painted the landscapes near his Long Island home. But subject matter apart, Virtue is also very drawn to the physicality of painters like these, and Franz Kline.

“They seemed to be using the whole of their bodies on a great big scale, twice their body size,” he says, “And that can be used in what I’m doing because I work on a pretty big scale”.

Another influence on these monochromatic paintings is, perhaps unsurprisingly, zen calligraphy. Virtue has been drawn to this art form since early childhood, and remains fascinated by the difference between the tradition of the Western gaze and that of the Eastern glance.

“It’s about mobility,” he explains. “So I’m walking and drawing in a very high speed way. And yet I’m trying to make concrete the utterly ethereal, and I sense that in Zen calligraphy that’s exactly what they’re doing. Virtue marvels at the ability to make a single mark with up to nine changes of tone.

He sweeps a hand across the table to illustrate this and it becomes clear why gesture remains much more important to Virtue than verisimilitude. “There’s something about…making something with your hands,” he tells me. “I don’t respond to photography.”

Photography and film might appear the more effective vehicles for capturing the sea. But Virtue is emphatic in his rejection of the camera: “It’s a mechanical device that prints on a two dimensional surface and the abstract marks – if you blow them up – signify what!?”

So perhaps walking long distances and making hundreds of rapid sketches demand more from one than simply choosing a shutter speed. Virtue is trying to capture a peripatetic event just as much as those individual waves.

”The ideas that are thrown up are extremely difficult to grasp,” he says, “Let alone convey them to an imaginary audience”. And yet you have to say, as you plunge into this roiling show on the South Coast, John Virtue has got control of the waters and could, you imagine, if he wanted, turn back that tide.

John Virtue: The Sea is at Towner Gallery, Eastbourne until April 11 2015. Interview written for Culture24.


Quentin Bell, May Day Procession with Banner (1937)

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For many on the Left, the Spanish Civil War may have been a somewhat romantic affair. But it soon turned into an epic disappointment. It was a disappointment on the scale of WWII.

Pallant House in Chichester is currently showing the first exhibition devoted to British artists during the Iberian conflict. It makes a good case that 1936-1939 was a dry run for 1939-1945.

Had the Republicans prevailed it would at least have given the two other European Axis powers something to chew on. As things stood, it merely gave them aerial bombing practice.

It is well documented that the losing side, that of the Last Great Cause, found themselves in a three-way struggle for power between communists, anarchists and Trotskyites.

But that for me is what gives this painting by Quentin Bell a moving sense of the ideal. The May Day banners are red, and that for now is all you need to know.

They move in a tidal swell. They move away from the artist and his audience. It is as if their progress is towards something that no one can yet see. It could be a new dawn. It could be a disaster.

You can count less than 20 demonstrators, but the effect is of many more. This atmospheric painting throbs with crowd appeal. It appeals to our sense of strength in numbers.

Yet as in so many grand ventures, not everyone makes it out alive. Quentin’s brother Julian joined up as an ambulance driver and was killed just days after this painting was made.

And so a promising young poet, a son of a painter and a critic (Vanessa and Clive Bell) was killed mending potholes near Madrid. The horror of it gave his mother a breakdown.

So in that sense May Day Procession augur’s badly. Indeed the whole war augured ill. And yet the power of this image – and of the many banners and posters in the show – is undiminished.

There must be something about a crowd like this that Power and/or Money finds less and less able to tolerate. Look back at the future in 1937; there’s not a riot squad in sight.

Conscience and Conflict can be seen at Pallant House, Chichester, until 15 February 2015, then from 7 March to 7 June at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle.