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

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.


Barbican Estate, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (1965-76)

(c) Claire Masset

(c) Claire Masset

There are two Barbicans, we soon learn on a tour of the East London council estate: the multi-purpose arts centre; and the mysterious residential units which sell for seven figure sums.

Most visits to the former involve passing beneath the latter. But there is so much more to this brutalist landmark and unlikely home than the short journey from tube stop to gallery.

But if you feel the towers and apartments remain distant and inaccessible, this is no doubt part of the masterplan. Barbican, as etym fans will know, comes from old French and means outer fort.

In practice what this means is vertiginous high rises, playful arrow slit apertures on some of the streets in the sky, and endless vistas of concrete much of it with an hallmark distressed finish.

Our knowledgeable guide surrprises us by revealing that this extensive finish was achieved by hand, as a team of brave workers with pneumatic drills hung from the sides of the 42-storey building.

In a 90-minute circuit of the complex, there are plenty more revelations. The Barbican has plentiful green space, tennis courts and a five-a-side pitch. The water features proliferate.

So the famous concrete appears balanced by greenery and a sense of play. It is pointed out that a semi-circular motif ties fountains to benches to penthouse duplexes and all points in between.

This is just one of a few subtle details which make the whole site cohere. The eye takes them in, but they can fly under the radar, so it is a real joy to have them pointed out.

As you might have guessed, the approach to function and form is not entirely modernist. A tower built to house RSC stage sets above the stage of the theatre is disguised by a conservatory full of plants.

Meanwhile the tower blocks appear to rotate as you move around. The sharp triangular footprints turn their four bedroom apartments to face in different directions.

Upon their first appearance, not so long after WWII, they would have been dominant features of the London skyline. But from down here they still seem impossibly high and dynamic.

Other weird components to this island of unreality in the City include a medieval church, namely St Giles-without-Cripplegate and a police station which keeps office hours.

A tour lasts 90 minutes; it flies by; and it is recommended for anyone with rampant curiosity about the lifestyles of Britain’s best-heeled council tenants. If only they needed a blogger in residence.

There are daily tours of Barbican Estate between now and February 26. See the arts centre website for booking details.


Eduardo Chillida, From Within (1953)

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It hangs like a chandelier designed to throw shade. You cannot walk beneath it without speculating on your own death. And it’s made of iron, technology of another age.

The view’s not so great from this angle, but the form echoes a swastika. And that would be a treacherous swastika with a half yard long stake attached. It threatens like the Sword of Damocles.

This too hung by a thread. In legend, it was a single hair from a horse’s tail. But Chillida has used a near invisible length of what looks like fishing line. It sure hooks you.

And since the Iron Cross was a teutonic symbol and a military decoration during the Third Reich, Chillida might be reflecting on the inherent danger of usurping power.

At the time of making the Basque sculptor was living in his native region and Spain was a dictatorship. There would have been many who would have liked to cut that slender wire.

Or course, this might as usual be reading too much into a formal exercise. From Within is a piece that can also be enjoyed as a spatial conundrum and a source of abstract tension.

But formalism is political too and the title of this piece makes me think of a German painter like Franz Marc, on show nearby. He too is said to have found inspriation ‘within’.

Marc wrote: “The great shapers do not search for their form in the fogs of the past. They plumb for the innermost true centre of gravity of their own times.”

And Chillida has surely created a complex form which not only defies gravity but, in its emptiness and angularity, draws the eye away from the earth. It does so even as we flinch from its latent threat.

From Within can be found in a gallery devoted to Chillida as part of the current show: The Art of Our Time: Masterpieces of the Guggenheim Collection at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.

The third floor of the exhibition, featuring both Chillida and Marc, runs until 23 January 2015. The quote comes from one of the expressionist painter’s 1914-15 Aphorisms (#32).


Jef Cornelis @ Liverpool Biennial

Martial Raysse talks to camera

Martial Raysse talks to camera

Don’t get me wrong. BBC4 presenters do their jobs well. As they pace their way through churches and galleries. As they strike up instant rapports with curators. You’ve got to love ’em.

But there’s little doubt that things ain’t what they used to be. If you look at an Alastair Sooke, next to a Kenneth Clark or a Robert Hughes, there’s an unmistakeable sense of devolution.

One of the strongest exhibitions in the Liverpool Biennial also harks back to the golden age of art on TV. But it takes us to Europe, where Belgian Jef Cornelis was filming in black and white with VRT.

Cornelis might well be shocked by the degeneracy of British presenters, past and present, as they find themselves in shot after shot, as they drag us along in their adventurous wake.

By contrast his films are modest, self-aware, and gifted with a feel for his subject. His film on Richard Hamilton, say, could give you back the works themselves with fresh eyes.

Cornelis achieves this with the startled zoom, the telling crop, the dramatic pan. If you thought you knew ‘just what made today’s homes so different’ [paraphrase] in 1956, maybe think again.

There is no formula. Cornelis is no slave to the broadcasting guidelines which appear to homogenize presenters on serious BBC shows, as they shout and whisper on cue.

Cornelis did his own direction, his own production, and his own scripts. His films commune with each subject and run for as long or as short as they need to. Many here run for just five minutes.

But that’s enough to give us the livewire charm of Martial Raysse, the mystery and mischief of Marcel Broodthaers, and the spaced out intellect of Andy Warhol.

Those were among the few films time permitted this blogger to sit through. But one could gladly watch Cornelis all day long. This is art TV to send you back to the gallery rather than the sofa.

A library of Jef Cornelis films (many newly translated into English) can be found at St Andrew’s Gardens, Liverpool, until 26 October 2014. See LIverpool Biennial for more details.

Alternatively you can find a filmography and press archive for the presenter at jefcornelis.be, or watch a recent interview with him on Vimeo.


Ernö Goldfinger, Balfron Tower (1968)

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It’s been a sheltered low-rise sort of upbringing for this blogger. So the chance to ride a steel elevator up 24 floors to flat 130 of the Balfron Tower was not to be missed.

This masterpiece of social housing is Grade II listed, and the flat in question is a pop up showpiece of 1960s living brought to you for 10 days only by the National Trust.

The Tower is one of those once-seen, never-forgotten, but still out-of-the-way landmarks. Tell someone you’ve visited and you may have to qualify that with a description.

In other words, mention the concrete, the height, the service tower, the streets in the sky. It may trigger the recall of an Oasis video, a Danny Boyle film, a JG Ballard novel.

But you don’t need to be an artiste to recognise the appeal of the building. You just have to love a certain rationalism. The architect loved columns and beams, and to simply show those off.

It seems totally unfair that Ernö Goldfinger had his good name swiped by Ian Fleming for the seventh novel in the James Bond series. The man was a hero not a villain.

Shortly after the completion of his visionary tower block in Poplar, Goldfinger moved in to Flat 130 and, floor by floor, invited round residents for Champagne and consultation.

He moved out circa 1968, at which point the incoming family might well have tricked out the interior in the style you can now find it in thanks to the National Trust.

The 75-minute tour culminates in a fifteen minute opportunity to poke around, with something like envy, among the Beatles records and vintage cereal packets.

Although the inhabitants’ prized posession was the view. Floor to ceiling windows at every available point afforded stunning views across what is now 21st century London.

The balcony is a spot to make inhabitants feel kingly or queenly. And the balustrade doubles as a trough of earth in which they could grow flowers or even vegetables.

Naturally it is made out of concrete, as is most of the building, and yet it makes one feel safe. You wonder how this material got such a bad rap, along with the corresponding Utopian dreams.

If you’re not already booked on to a tour between the 8 and 12 October, bad luck. They are sold out. But Balfron tower and the nearby Lansbury Estate are still worth a look round.


The finite charms of the Chapman brothers

Jake and Dinos Chapman, Installation view, Come and See, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, © 2013 Hugo Glendinning

Jake and Dinos Chapman,
Installation view, Come and See, Serpentine Sackler Gallery,
© 2013 Hugo Glendinning

In a book you can be fairly sure the Chapmans have read, A Thirst for Annihilation, philosopher Nick Land reports on the encounter between American GIs and the mass graves of the Nazi death camps.

If memory serves me right, many of the liberators, upon encountering piles of unburied bodies, said they experienced a rush-like death wish, a desire to be just so many more nameless bodies.

Such transgressive feelings are, apparently, impossible to recreate in a gallery. But the two enfants terrible have surely tried, having peopled several dioramas with thousands of tiny model corpses.

These museum-like cases, which also feature Nazi soldiers and the cast of a McDonalds Happy Meal, are, rather than annihilating, just plain fun. They are fun in the way Bosch or Breugel are fun.

Which is to say they combine a picture book pleasure with a wealth of comic detail. But the power of these pieces is contained by the glass behind which they sit. There is no leakage.

Humour is everywhere in the current retrospective at Serpentine. You will have heard about the KKK, no doubt. Expect your visit to be joined by a score of Klansmen in rainbow socks and sandals.

It’s the socks which really annoy, as if there were no other viewpoints in art rather than fascist or woolly new age-ism. This blogger is guilty of a bit of that. But it’s not the full story, surely.

Compare the Chapmans’ dioramas to a serious piece of political art and they lose their impact. Alfredo Jaar, for example, has made a devastating film about Rwanda with not a snigger in sight.

Wherever the power lies these days, these pillaging Nazis and totemic fast food clowns are the straw men of contemporary art; they are panto villians rather than an immediate threat.

But, in keeping with the metaphor of seasonal theatre, the Chapman brothers themselves are always “behind you”. Half the works in the retrospective are scruffy cardboard send ups of modernism.

And what can you say about a world in which a stuffed fox is shagging a stuffed hare, which mounts a stuffed rabbit, which is having it away with a rat, who in turn screws an unfortunate mouse.

To suggest the mouse will inherit the earth would be to no doubt invite peals of laughter. There is no getting away from the law of the jungle, the reign of capital or kings.

But what can you do with this art? The closest it gets to transcendence is a grim money shot in an explicit film which is coupled with a children’s choir singing Morning is Broken.

In a several rapid strokes, innuendo intended, the Chapmans reduce religion to the side effect of an onanistic handjob. It is, once again, hard to argue against. The show is a closed circle.

Starting with the holocaust and the ravages of capitalism, here are their glib conclusions. But imagine how limited he might appear had Picasso spent his whole career riffing off Guernica.

Forgive me if I shelter behind a monumental piece of 20th century art to round off my criticisms of Jake and Dinos. But what gets them out of bed in the morning and why not make art about that?

Jake and Dinos Chapman: Come and See is on view at Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9 Feburary 2014.


Photo diary: murals in Derry and Belfast

This weekend, I was on assignment in Derry-Londonderry, UK City of Culture 2013. I’ll write about the gallery going elsewhere, and for the time being post a few photos of politically charged street art.

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Above is a mural on the wall of the Museum of Free Derry. Behind the subject and the illustrated bullet holes you can see a real rifle shot taken by the wall at the time of Bloody Sunday.

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It’s not a strand of history they taught at my secondary school, but between 1969 and 1972 the Catholic inhabitants of Bogside established themselves as a state within a state.

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This was Ireland’s taste of the times that were a-changing, a militant civil rights movement which drew inspiration from the Prague Spring and the steps made towards racial equality by Martin Luther King.

 

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But on 30 January1972, British paratroopers opened fire on a civil rights March killing 13 people. This mural is based on the iconic photo of Father Edward Daly waving a blood stained white handkerchief.

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Ultimately, the Bogside residents’ rent strike, rates strike and general insurrection proved too much for the government. Tanks were sent to clear the barricades and this mural depicts that operation.

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To the local community and with varying degrees of optimism, Free Derry was a place in time on a par with Cuba after the revolution or Palestine as is today. (Che could have played football for Eire.)

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Here you can see a rendering of Guernica on the wall of the Museum of Free Derry. Staffed by relatives of victims of the conflict, this great little museum is soon to be expanded.

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Pictured above, and 60 miles away in Belfast, Picasso’s masterpiece gets a more faithful tribute, except this time with the inclusion of an inset featuring Hugo Chavez.

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This was also on the Falls Road, an image of Ciaran Nugent, first political prisoner to go on a blanket protest against the implications of a prison uniform.

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You can see Belfast is a bit more confrontational than Derry. The mural on the right carries an ad for the West Belfast Taxi Association, which has roots in the Catholic community.

But the cab which took me round the mean streets of Belfast was not WBTA. This may or may not have provoked our snowball attacks by local kids. No harm done.

I don’t want to give the impression that Nationalist murals are the only show in town. There are plenty of blogworthy paintings by Unionists. I just didn’t get the pictures.

It was a fantastic weekend, and I can only end on a positive note. Below is a mural of Belfast pub life in a courtyard across from the Duke of York. Do raise a glass to the future of both cities.

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Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Celebration? Realife, 1972-2000

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Throwing a party, like making art, is one of those activities we can attend to when all of our most basic needs have been satisfied. Food, shelter, art – that is surely the order.

But if we are to suppose that ancient people ever let their hair down, who would decorate the cave? With a bit of help from the shamans, you could say those private views got out of hand.

In latter times, say the last 500 years, art has sobered up but celebration has never fallen out of fashion. It could apply to, say, the reading of a mass in church.

By the by, the first recorded use of the word in English is in a 1580 in love poem, Arcadia by Sir Philip Sydney: “He laboured…to hasten the celebration of their marriage.”

Central to this piece is indeed a plastic bride and groom such as you would find atop a cake. They pose for a strobe flash surrounded by the residue of their bash.

If it is theirs… Other cues lead elsewhere.Pierrot hats and animal masks feature in few weddings. The discarded beach ball suggests that even the honeymoon is already over.

But the party is kept going by a revolving glitter ball and changing filters on a spot light. Strings of fairy lights animate the scene long after the guests have left. It is a lonely sort of installation.

What sets the defining tone for this celebration is a psychedelic and glammy rock soundtrack which beckons you into the party from the moment you step into the gallery.

Most poignant is when Bowie’s Five Years comes across the speakers. This now sounds like a party for the end of the world, or at the very least, glancing at a portrait of Lenin, the end of history.

What can it mean to go home after a party like that, the very last of its kind. In 2013 it looks like Chaimowicz’s empty piece is the celebration of a celebration. Realife (sic) has caught up.

Celebration? Realife can be seen in Glam: The Performance of Style, at Tate Liverpool until 12 May 2013. See gallery website for more details.


Bill Henderson, Funky Black and Catch Me, 1978

This painting reaches back through the years to a teenage in the 80s. This spiky pattern would have bowled me over and indeed still does. Perhaps I once had a duvet cover like it.

What makes Henderson’s painting, dare it be said, boyish are the preponderance of dynamic angles and bold colours, complete with moody blacks and cool greys.

But while its colour scheme is striking, its composition is absorbing. There’s a picture-book level of detail, with fifty discrete banded painted studies within this one large scale canvas.

Talking about another of his paintings, Henderson describes the way he builds an extensive series of ‘activities’ into a single all-consuming work.

“The ‘activities’ within the paintings can be seen as a constantly shifting series of events, each one a more or less separate entity, but perhaps sometimes related,” he has said.

The blurred edges give his plentiful bands a near holographic presence and together they hold the same fascination as an encyclopaedia page full of, say, flags (Pre-Wikipedia.)

On the left they create effortless depth, and assemble into three dimensions. This is a psychedelic take on what could be a form by Caro or a trippy, possibly illegal, bit of constructivism.

But the right is a repository of materials, a supply of colours and combinations which appears inexhaustible. If you read the painting from left to right, there’s no way out of this jam.

To be sure, regression leads you nowhere, and indeed this probably wasn’t Henderson’s intention in making the work. But if in 1978 he was just predicting the decade to come, he got it fairly spot on.

This painting can be seen in New Possibilities: Abstract Paintings from the Seventies at The Piper
Gallery, London, until December 21 2012.


Linda Remahl, Mien (2012)

Peeping through holes at ladies dancing is not the main prospect which comes to mind when you plan a gallery visit. And to see Remahl’s work, men will have to stoop.

But your sense of decorum is just about preserved when you realise that this peephole only features some arty, black and white, jump cut choreography: fully clothed.

The headphones are a lot more comfortable (and fill your head with some reassuring gypsy folk rather than, thankfully, a wakka chikka porno groove).

Mien is a response to the poetry of Galician writer Xelis de Toro, whose book in translation, Invisible Bridges, has inspired an entire exhibition here in Brighton.

So Remahl’s work reminds us that good writing may be seen as dancing with the pen. And the pen is surely not merely a pen, anymore than a cigar is just a cigar.

But the apparent frivolity of dance is a stumbling block for serious poetry or prose, like the stance of anarchist Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

And what if there is an element of sleaze about all dance, ergo about all writing? That might explain why the famous 1913 performance of Rites of Spring degenerated into a riot.

No one likes to be confronted with their voyeurism, least of all the grand bourgeois of pre-War Paris. They would recognise Remahl’s work for what it is, a gentle scandal of sorts.

The Book of Invisible Bridges can be seen at Phoenix, Brighton, until August 14 2012. See gallery website for opening times, directions and full programme of supporting activity.