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

Morley Threads @ Backlit

Backlit's current premises Alfred House as a factory (1)

In the late 19th century, a wool factory in Alfred House, Nottingham, became an asset of the largest wool manufacturing company in the world. Now the premises are an artist-led studio space.

On the face of it, artists have plenty in common with textile workers. Low pay, hazardous conditions (albeit psychologically speaking) and, in the case of Backlit, here in Nottingham, a union.

The Morley Union is comprised of photographers, writers and historians who have gathered in retrospective support of one of the better employers these shores have ever seen: Samuel Morley.

It was Morley who owned the factory in Alfred House. And now Alfred House is set to be the venue for Backlit’s exhibition, and a programme of talks which seeks to celebrate the former boss.

It has really come to something, that we might hero a 19th century capitalist. Morley was also a media tycoon. He cut the cover price of the liberal Daily News and turned round its fortunes.

Backlit promises the chance to relive the noise and sweat of the industrial plant, which must still haunt their white-walled exhibition space and paint-splattered workshops.

The Union have pulled together an archive of artefacts, oral histories and even video interviews which will recall experience of workers from a time when Nottingham was a textiles capital.

But if you’re still wondering what conditions were like, if mere words won’t do, local digital design studio Hot Knife has developed a playable VR tour of the former factory.

Meanwhile a photographic exhibition will gather images from buildings and monuments related to Morley. And a youth oriented fashion show may inspire you about the future of textiles in Nottingham.

Morley was a genuine philanthropist: a decent, responsible boss, rather than a glittering habitué of the fundraising gala. He was also an abolitionist at a time when this was to stick your neck out.

In 1999 the UK saw an introduction of the minimum wage: £3.60 an hour. The current rate is £6.70. Small wonder there are campaigns for the living wage of £8.25 for 60 minutes of menial pain.

No matter how philanthropic company chairmen might feel themselves to be, most are answerable to a board of shareholders. Dutifully, they overlook their workers’ needs, in the name of profit.

But this is not a lesson in capitalism, but a postscript to the life of a man who combined his wealth with a healthy set of ideals. Any plutocrats reading criticismism, please take note.

Morley Threads runs weekends only (between 21st and 29th November) at Backlit Gallery, Nottingham. For directions, opening times, and a full programme of events see their site.

Corinna Spencer, Portrait of a Lady (2015)

corinna spencer

There is something maddening about Corinna Spencer’s installation. Her 1,000 portraits have a compulsive, destructive streak which would surely destroy the mental equilibrium of any sitter.

The lady in question is already disintegrating. Eyes look out from somewhere behind the face. The lipstick is smeared on quick, perhaps as if for a public appearance in Bedlam.

Each board is 21 by 15 cm, a modest size. But there is nothing modest about their cumulative effect. The artist has spoken about her interest in obsessive love. Well, here it is, grandly embodied.

It was Gertrude Stein who once claimed there was no such thing as repetition. And yet the pre-eminent American writer made a specialism of repetitive literary portraits. Why should this be?

Unlike landscape, the face generally contains half a dozen similar features in a similar arrangement. A spot of flâneurism will confirm that urban life is an endless procession of this essential pattern.

Spencer’s own brand of portraiture is somewhere between the impressionistic or visually fleeting and the expressionistic or psychological. We are possibly too late to use the relative ‘isms’.

Above all, it is monomaniacal. In an interview with Yvette Greslé, the artist claimed her four figure sum of portraits represented “a reasonable number of paintings”.  But no, 1,000 is a crazy number.

Really, it is “the madness of art”, to quote Henry James, whose own, Portrait of a Lady, another epic example of portraiture, appeared, much like these paintings, in serial form. So many quotes today…

As John Cage said of music: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

Spencer has never been boring. But it’s fair to say she is getting more and more interesting as she expands on monolithic series like this one, a fascinating, skewed take on traditional portraiture.

Portrait of a Lady can be seen at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery until 17 January 2016.

Theodore Price, COBRA RES 1.9 (2015)

david rosenberg

For those of you blissfully unaware, COBRA stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, and despite first appearances the acronym has nothing to do with James Bond.

COBRA meetings are convened by the Prime Minister in times of special crisis. And in the UK we tend to lurch from crisis to crisis; this in no way impedes COBRA’s evil-sounding mystique.

But since 2013, whenever the great minds in the Cabinet have got together for a COBRA sesh, an ad hoc group of artists and writers has got together to respond to the response.

This ongoing project, COBRA RES, is as shadowy than its inspiration, although artist Theo Price has curated seven editions. The latest is 1.9, a response to the refugee crisis in Calais.

It launched in East London last night, in the form of a book of flash fiction (ie; stories under 1,500 words). The prelude to this was a walking tour about the history of migration in East London.

Our guide was David Rosenberg (pictured), who knows all there is to know about radical politics in this part of town. He told us about the 1936 Battle of Cable Street as if it was yesterday.

In this part of town, former synagogues serve as mosques. Church of England schools observe Islamic holidays. And blue chip artists keep it real with townhouse mansions in Fournier Street.

He also filled us in on the Huguenots, French protestants who fled here in the 17th century to escape persecution and bring us the word, refugee, from the French refugié.

We got to Spitalfields with its faux bohemian bars and eateries. With names like vagabond and vintage, these throw into stark relief the historic trials of local Jews, Irish and Bangladeshis.

As David made clear: refugee and economic migrants are one and the same; incoming communities have brought us net gains; migrants in Calais have plenty to offer us here. So, why the crisis?

COBRA RES 1.9 contains 20 stories and the half dozen I have already perused are great. But perhaps I should declare an interest.  I was a contributor; still, you can buy the book here!

Man, the Dragon and Death @ MAC’s


The disappointing 1998 movie Godzilla was launched upon the public with the tagline, ‘Size does matter’. It was not a great film, so at least where monsters are concerned, big is not always better.

17 years on, the size debate may be re-ignited at Belgian gallery MAC’s. Here you’ll find a show given over to representations of an earlier lizard, the dragon killed by Saint George.

According to legend, George’s foe was 40 pieds in length. But medieval iconographers pegged him at not much bigger than a medium sized dog, easy pickings for a lance or a sword.

But this slithering creature is still worth comparing with daikaiju. Whereas the directors of B-movies set out to frighten us, most of the sculptors here have set out to reassure.

The dragon is of course an embodiment of evil. And there would be no place in a church for a 40ft, fire breathing, shadowy beast from Hell. Instead, it’s all about George.

In a catalogue essay, Julien Foucart suggests that in these altarpieces and statues, George is, “a sort of predecessor to the ‘star’ system created in the 20th century by the film industry”.

In the movie franchise, the king of monsters grew from 50m in the original Japanese version (1954) to 400ft (or 122m) for American audiences two years later. Godzilla got taller along with city.

However, the movies have no monopoly on special effects. Artists tend to depict the moment George skewers his foe (more often than not through the jaw) with relish.

In terms of violent action, it’s a rare occasion in which church goers are allowed to enjoy a gripping fight. It is certainly more pleasant to contemplate than his martyrdom.

At the behest of Roman emperor Diocletian, the saint was lacerated on a wheel of swords and resuscitated three times to appreciate just what was going on. Finally he was beheaded.

But as you know, decapitation is back in a big way, even if George got out of the middle east alive. The fictional battle with the dragon took place in 303 AD outside what is now Beruit.

Yes, George was a crusader. So ISIL’s infamous snuff movies may be thought of alongside these crusading knights and their modern counterparts. Except now it’s monster against monster.

Man, the Dragon and Death: the Glory of Saint George can be seen at MAC’S – Site du Grand Hornu, in the vicinity of Mons, Belgium, until 17 January 2015.

Duncan Poulton, No Body (2015)

Mimesis, which has been doing the rounds in art since ancient Egypt, reaches a terminal point in this 15-minute film by recent graduate Duncan Poulton (what you see above is just a cut down version).

They may not be artists. It is hard to imagine them with such pretensions. But out there on the web are a small army of visualisers, who are to the imagined body what the camera is to yours or mine.

Poulton says that these renderings circulate online, where their creators vie with one another for ever greater levels of realism. So now, like Dr Frankenstein, he has appropriated these to make a narrative.

And indeed, it’s a creation myth, as a generic male figure develops an armour of muscles, a dextrous pair of hands and finally a soul, or at least a pair of dilating windows onto one.

In the final shot here, you’ll notice he’s clothed. Until then, he’s sexless. So even in a digital realm where you might think anything goes, we still have the fall and the subsequent physical shame.

Gamers already use avatars like these. But dare we hope that most of us will retain what David Foster Wallace calls, “a kind of retrograde transcendence of sci-fi-ish high-tech for its own sake”?

That’s from his novel Infinite Jest, in which the first generation of video callers buy into polybutylene resin masks and Transmittable Tableaux in order to deal with “vanity-related stress”.

Now, as this film demonstrates, we have the prospect of perfect hair, teeth and bodies for all our dealings online. That could be another fall from grace. In the meantime, we have a warning.

No Body appeared at Sluice Art Fair 2015, as part of group show ooooooooooooooo representing the gallery Division of Labour.

Carsten Höller, Karussell (1999)


It’s just a working carousel in an art gallery, no big deal. We are not only used to such wholesale borrowings from the real world, we might expect as much from Carsten Hölller.

This Belgian, after all, is the artist responsible for turning Tate Modern and Hayward Gallery into theme parks (as if they weren’t already), with adrenalin-pumping slides up to 58 metres long.

But Karussell won’t increase your heartbeat. It moves slower than the second hand of a clock. And you can look, but for once I don’t think you can touch this piece or ride one of the tiny chairs.

What you get instead is a mental journey, from the post industrial city in which this piece is now on show, to perhaps a village green in some low country at the time of a summer fayre.

Duck ponds, picturesque copses, and church spires are painted all around the crown, while the central column of this aging machine features folksy still life arrangements of flowers.

Also, it should be mentioned that Karussell revolves in silence, bringing a pastoral mood of peace and quiet into what is an otherwise loud show at BPS22, visually and otherwise.

So, once you’ve dispensed with music and thrills, what does a carousel offer you? My guess is that were you to climb on board you’d feel safe, bored, and conspicuous.

You’d feel especially foolish if you tried to fit into one of the gold hovercars. Headlights blazing, these chariots of the air are completely at odds with their tame, nostalgic context.

The utopia from which they come is already out of date. It is so out of date, their quotation here, in a show about folk culture, is laughable. Are we to laugh at the rustic families who once enjoyed these?

Or is the joke on us, as we imagine ourselves boarding a round trip to a more idyllic time, when the local coal mines were still open and painting a church was a simple act of faith?

Karussell can be seen until 31 January 2016 in Les Mondes Inversés: Contemporary Art and Popular Cultures at BPS22: Musée d’Art de la Province de Hainault, Charleroi, Belgium.

Nicole Wermers, Untitled Chairs (2015)


Last night I dreamed about this, my least favourite piece of art from the 2015 Turner Prize exhibition in Glasgow. What you see, is what I thought I was getting: fur coats on chairs.

The coats are actually sewn around the chairs. So this is presented as a comment on claiming space in an urban environment. And about design. And about feminism. But I wasn’t dreaming about that.

And I don’t think I was dreaming about death, so I must have been dreaming about sex. Although until this point, Wermers’ furry chairs, with their parted fringes, had flown under the erotic radar.

Or was it plainly death, after all? How many creatures were bred for slaughter to make these coats and where are the coat owners? God knows you feel their absence.

The catalogue will draw your attention to the fact the chairs are a Marcel Breuer design classic. But in art sometimes, as in poetry, meaning is just the meat with which the burglar distracts the dog.

Let’s call it a poem, not only to paraphrase TS Eliot there*, but so we can allow it complete semantic ambiguity. (Another crazy aspect of my dream: Wermers was supposedly referencing a popular poet.)

It appears the artist has form with this kind of thing. Double Sand Table is a 2007 work which also plays with modern design. “I had to keep thinking of them”: so says critic and poet Barry Schwabsky.

That is from the catalogue too. Was I dreaming myself into the shoes of a far more eminent writer? Or does this sculptor really have a knack for tickling the unconscious mind and provoking REM?

She’s up against an archive, a choral piece and an assemblage of house fixtures & fittings, so by default Werners’ chairs are the strongest visual image in this year’s show. My eyes are opened.

Nicole Wermers can be seen in Turner Prize 2015 at Tramway, Glasgow, until 17 January 2016.

*T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism; Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England [London: Faber, 1933]

Brent Wadden, Alignment #53 (2015)


There’s a great warmth that comes from the ragged, woolly presence of Brent Wadden’s large (two by two and a half metres) woven work. You might even say its tactile qualities are cosy.

But the design is less comfortable: irregular, patched together in haste, an austere black and white. He doesn’t use much technology, but Wadden has borrowed the look of a glitchy piece of software.

Software and soft furnishings; weaving and, as has been often pointed out, coding. There is a correspondence between this ancient form of craft and the digital times we live in.

In the critical theory of weaving* we find this: “Freud believed weaving and plaiting to be the only technique ever invented by women (no small invention if it leads to computers).”

(Had Freud lived to see the arrival of abstract expressionism, he might have been agog to find, in thirtysomething Wadden, a male artist with such a feminine take on a macho genre.)

But as anyone could tell you, having seen the Viennese psychologist’s famous couch, Freud was not averse to making you comfy with a rug or two, a cushion or three.

There’s something about the welcome in his consulting room which finds an echo in the work under discussion. This dense piece of stitching allows the viewer to unravel a little.

Or at least to grow absorbed in the varying yarns and shades of the panels which make up the whole. This was at least as absorbing as a neurotic monologue about my mother might have been.

But unlikely as it seems, weaving is also widely political. Caroline Rooney’s theoretical essay on weaving also mentions The Statesman by Plato, where weaving is a metaphor for good government.

And so as s/he, “weaves the good and serviceable threads together to produce the unified, harmonious social fabric”, the ideal head of state is, of course, closer to a mill worker than a banker.

Brent Wadden: How Long is Now? can be seen at Pace, London, until 31 October 2015.

*Deconstruction and Weaving, Caroline Rooney, from Deconstructions: A User’s Guide, ed. Nicholas Royle

Bonnie Camplin, Patterns (2015)


There are certain areas of human experience which don’t get on the news, don’t get written into soap opera plotlines and evade the attention of reality TV. They are pretty much off the menu.

But testimony does survive around, say, mind control, belief in ESP, perception of extra-dimensional beings, witchcraft, fringe religious beliefs and a general susceptibility to the occult.

Books have been written. And many of them comprise Bonnie Camplin’s display for the Turner Prize 2015. Wikipedia pages have been compiled, and these too have their place in her show.

The archive is laid out on tables all around the gallery walls. Chairs invite you to sit down and read; a photocopier lets you copy what you need. The artist intends her work is a “research tool”.

Meanwhile, a cluster of five monitors invite you to watch documentary films with a quite different tone to that of BBC4. Taken from YouTube, these deal with secret military programmes, and so on.

Yet all of this information is suppressed or presented with a heavy pinch of salt in favour of a governable consensus. You won’t get on Question Time with a question about SS-controlled UFOs.

It is not even as if Camplin’s authors and witnesses are mad. Madness, according to Foucault, is the absence of a work. But these people are minor video stars and scholars.

But what the French philosopher also tells us is that, “Madness is the punishment of a disorderly and useless science”. Spend too much time with this work, you’ll deserve a sense of derangement.

“Learning becomes madness through the very excess of false learning,”* he also says. And so Patterns, and the SLG show from which it has evolved, can be seen as schizogenic machines.

It’s hard to recall a more dangerous exhibition. Perhaps a monumental installation by Richard Serra could fall on you, but Camplin threatens you with psychological collapse.

That’s not her plan. It appears she prefers, by giving exposure to hidden bodies of knowledge, to expand our bounds of reality. Nevertheless, this piece should have a health warning.

Bonnie Camplin is one of four shortlisted artists in a show for the Turner Prize 2015 at Tramway in Glasgow. This can be seen until 17 January 2016.

*p.25, Madness and Civilisation, Routledge, 1997.

Marcus Coates & Henry Montes, A Question of Movement (2011)

coates movement2

The less seriously he takes himself, the more his audience appear willing to suspend disbelief. This – it seems to me – is the peculiar genius of artist, and sometime shaman, Marcus Coates.

His East London gallery is currently showing a four-year-old film in which he visits ‘ordinary’ people in their homes or workplaces and, prompted by a question they’ve prepared, dances for them.

No music comes between the artist and his private audience. Coates will remove his glasses, as if to put a check on his intellect. But this is his only concession to costume.

He takes the locations as he finds them. There are unwashed dishes in the kitchen and discarded beer cans in the bedroom. There is an everyday drabness about the office.

And no matter how comic you might find in the notion of answering questions through the medium of contemporary dance, Coates plays these performances quite straight.

The only comedy comes within the terms of the dance, as he flings himself on the floor, stampedes on the bed, convulses on the carpet, headstands against the kitchen counter.

His audience don’t laugh and neither do we laugh at them. It is to their unending credit that they take this project seriously and express their reactions and insights with great respect.

And so Coates and collaborator Henry Montes (a dancer who has presumably coached the artist) bring out the best in their audience and demonstrate how open minded people can be.

There is a sense that this experience has been at worst merely interesting and at best genuinely useful to the three participants, who face problems ranging from distractibility to indecision.

Coates reminds us that dance is a primal activity. But there is a quietness to the way he presents it here, which implies that putting on a wild improvisation is the most natural thing in the world.

(Whether your scene is a nightclub or a wedding disco, maybe take along one or two live issues to your next dancefloor. The first problem can no longer be, Do I look stupid right now?)

A Question of Movement was commissioned by Siobhan Davies Dance and can be seen at Kate MacGarry, London, until 24 October 2015.