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

Simon, Numbers (2015)

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He doesn’t sound like an artist. Without a surname he sounds like a character from a child’s game. His paintings don’t look like paintings. They look like price tags.

But Numbers is a certainly a work of art. It undermines its own claim to genius, immateriality, aura and transcendence, so in this day and age it must be art.

The schtick is this. We the audience decide how much we may be willing to pay and then order one of Simon’s paintings. The result will come back, void of all extraneous detail but the price.

Of course, there are still decisions to be made. Should it be on canvas or board? Does a certain typeface lend itself to a certain amount? And what of a frame to enshrine your budget?

A comments box allows you to influence the specifications. In other words, Simon relinquishes all artistic control. He is subject to the hand of the market the way a shopkeeper might be.

The numbers have a twofold dimension. On the one hand they index your commission against all the other, more or less earnest examples of painting out there in the wider world.

On the other hand, they personalise the Numbers artwork. Perhaps a house number, a date of birth, even a phone number, each of these values becomes a portrait of the patron.

No single number can be ordered more than once, however. And just a word to the wise: £1 billion is already taken. Simon has bought that one for himself (although surely he’s open to offers).

Numbers is a neat critique of the market. It is not the first of its sort. But it may be one of the first to mash a crowdfunding dynamic together with an online auction.

Days ago I was reminded of Numbers when I saw this painting by Billy Apple at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In the museum context it leaves you a bit queasy.

You too can feel this way for the price of your choosing at the Numbers website.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece can be seen at Manchester Art Gallery.


Ryan Gander, Dad’s Halo Effect (2014)

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Let’s get a comparison out of the way. Art is like an infinite game of chess. An artwork will reorient all the pieces round it, and inevitably change the game.

But chess fans visiting Beswick in East Manchester may be frustrated by the inscrutable configuration of pieces in Ryan Gander’s third major artwork for the public.

It’s a checkmate, apparently. But with no board, no black or white, the three silver sculptures just gaze back at you and the scenes of local regeneration. An aerial view could help.

You might say art in the public realm should always be like this: a baffling win move played by a giant talent (or sometimes a giant ego), and something to bring a shine to its location.

The sawn off verticality of each figurine also draws your attention to the skies above and they seem to channel the elements. A glowering horizon rendered them ominous this week.

But it’s clear that when the sun shines, Dad’s Halo Effect (as the piece is called) will be dazzling. Gander has said he nicked the idea from his father, which is only partly true.

It was Gander Sr, who worked for General Motors, told his son about the aesthetic appeal of the steering mechanism in a Bedford Truck, which the artwork now echoes.

Beswick is a former industrial zone. You could say this piece reaches into the past, grabs some of the mechanical entrails, and repurposes them with a bit of spit and polish, plus a tall tale.

Unlike the pieces in a real chess game you are encouraged to get hands on with this community focal point. There’s a VI Form college nearby, so there could be no touchmove rule.

Though perhaps this post should have begun with the French phrase, J’adoube, as if a chess player was about to warn an opponent that s/he’s about to make contact with a piece.

This makes no pretence to tidy up the board. The work is conceptually neat. But writing about a piece or three of art is usually the only way you can pick it up and handle it, whatever the size.

Dad’s Halo Effect can be seen at Beswick Community Hub, a joint regeneration development between Manchester City Council and Manchester City Football Club. See below for more football art.


Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock, The Captive (2014)

Installation view (detail)

Installation view (detail)

JCHP are a two-man art ‘team’, who have been accused of ‘nigh-on psychotic self-analysis’ (in their own catalogue to boot*). So where to start and what to add?

First, it’s a relief that Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock are in fact hard grafting artists Dave Smith and Thom Winterburn. Thankfully, they’re not just one horrendously posh bloke.

One of their chief interests is artistic labour. They spend a lot of time making reproductions of historic prints which they have in the past given away or exhibited unfinished.

They have been opposed to conventional exhibiting. Yet both were gallerists before joining forces as art producers, albeit artists whose practice includes exhibition making.

But now they’ve opted for a suck-it-and-see approach with a single drawing on display in a small but critical Brighton space, Neuefroth Kunstallle.

And they’ve gone all out to put their work on a notional pedestal. It is triple mounted and beautifully framed beneath spotlights. That’s some self-conscious over egging.

It might all be just good fun, were not the focus of all this attention being an 18th century print of a desperate prisoner: Sterne’s Captive by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Thus a Laurence Sterne novel, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, offers another frame (of reference) for this lugubrious and slavish copy.

Although in Sterne’s narrative the prisoner is released when guards realise he is the jester Yorick, a literary personage who would have seen the funny side of JCHP’s complex new artefact.

The artists put the seal on this exquisite work with the signatures of both the original artist and his engraver. Their own name appears below this, crisply embossed. The mediation is rich.

But since the exhibition is to be considered as a whole, it’s worth mentioning the dense sheet of A3 text which accompanies the copy, of the print, of the satirical novel.

Here is where the psychotic self-analysis comes into play. The notes are as prevaricating as Sterne himself could be. The language is formal, florid, only occasionally funny.

But for a minute the recollection of JCHP as a some anachronistic dandy comes strutting back into mind. And we might be stuck with the posh bloke. That after all is the art world for you.

The show can be viewed by appointment until December 13 or during a public viewing on Saturday 29 November 2014. See Neuefroth Kunsthalle.

* See Richard Birkett’s essay in Critical Decor: A Short Organum for Exhibition


Simon Faithfull, REEF (2014)

Photo © Gavin Weber from fabric.org.uk

Photo © Gavin Weber from fabric.org.uk

The real underwater world has already exercised its independence from the work of Simon Faithfull. REEF was fully working for six days, after which he lost transmission.

But there is no going back. The artist did manage to burn and sink a 32-tonne ship. He did manage to salvage nearly a week’s video feed from five cameras. A partial success then.

If anyone dives, the ship is in Weymouth Bay. A supporting film reveals there’s already a conger eel living in the wheel house, so watch out. We won’t be seeing that any time soon in the gallery.

What we can experience is a cavernous darkness and a resonant tidal throb by which it seems the entire former fishing chapel of Fabrica in Brighton has been sunk for this.

A strange cargo of monitors glows with pre-recorded footage. And one has to look up, as if to the surface of the waves, to watch a film of the 32 tonne ship as smoke billows and waters flood in.

But despite the temptations of the deep (the temptations to read this piece as a comment on anything from the human condition to the eternal unknowable), we mightn’t go there.

REEF could simply be about itself: “The thing I came for:/the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” as poet Adrienne Rich once described a diving experience.*

So . . . Fabrica, Photoworks, Musée des Beaux Arts (Calais), and FRAC Basse Normandie (Caen) have joined forces to provide a possibly sunken institutional structure.

Wreck to Reef, Art AV, Field Broadcast, O’Three, Precision Energetics, Dorset County Council, Weber Industries, Ringstead Caravans and Quest Underwater Services provide the ecosystem.

To see so many bodies pulling together to produce an act of conservation, let alone an epic piece of public art, is as inspiring as any number of visits to an aquarium.

And there is a precedent for such a comparison. In his diaries, Paul Klee records a “refreshingly bizarre” visit to an aquarium, where an octopus reminded him of an attentive art dealer.**

*Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck, reproduced in Aquatopia, published by Nottingham Contemporary and Tate in 2013

**cited in Otherworldly, an essay by J Malcolm Shick, in Underwater, published by Towner Gallery in 2010. 

REEF can be seen at Fabrica, Brighton, until November 23 2014.


Danh Vo, Das Beste oder Nichts (2010)

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Where you might expect to find a detail such as ‘oil on canvas’, or ‘cast bronze’, or even ‘car engine’, Vo gives us the full scoop on his indecorous found object. A wall plaque opens the bonnet.

Indeed. This contemporary sculpture is comprised of “The engine of the artist’s father Phung Vo’s Mercedes Benz.” Provenance is all: from family car to museum collection.

And in the year this piece was made, Mercedes began using the German title as their advertising slogan. So there are two found objects working together like piston and cylinder in this work.

This is a family who fled their home and, after a dramatic rescue at sea, they settled in Denmark. A keen business sense spurred the artist’s father on to buy ‘the best or nothing at all’.

In a pristine gallery, this piece is monstrous. And there is something oedipal about its evisceration of his father’s achievements. Does Vo junior refer to das Beste with pride or with irony?

Dad made it as a businessman; this is his portrait. He must have once have dreamed about owning this car; he might not have dreamed about the extra mileage it would give his son.

In a white cube such as this, Phung Vo’s car becomes a bride stripped bare, a commodity divested of fetishism, a map of desire, and a deconstruction of a luxury brand. All thanks to the label.

This piece can be seen until 3 May 2015 in The Art of Our Time: Masterpieces of the Guggenheim Collection at the Museo Guggenheim in Bilbao.


Photostory: Ryan Gander at Manchester Art Gallery

Ryan Gander is an artist who embodies the dictum by Jasper Johns, which goes: ”Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”. His work is multi-faceted.

Consider this homemade calendar for example. Populated by jottings from Gander’s notebooks, it comes with an evocative and seeming arbitrary title: And what if no one believes the truth?

Gander D

More jottings, this time from a theoretical art world dinner party. The artist seemed to expect us to pick up and examine his power seating plan. The invigilators were not so keen.

Gander F

More discarded art could be found nearby. Though you could easily miss this ‘quarter centi-dollar’. Glueing coins to the floor was a prank much loved by Gander’s father.

But as with all works here, the object is layered with conceptual difference. We are invited to believe this is a coin from the future, 2032, when today’s quarters will be worth $25.

Gander H

As someone who’s worked on a few public sector ad campaigns before, I was very taken and taken in by Gander’s 30″ spot for a fictitious government department of the imagination.

It was put together by Kirke and Hodgson with Gander playing the role of client. Certainly it must have been the strangest brief this small agency has had the pleasure to work on.

Gander I

One of the frustrations of this show was a lack of unifying aesthetic. It leaves a disparate impression in the mind’s eye and, if anything, gazes back at you (through conceptual shades).

Really! Below you can see Magnus Opus. It consists of two animatronic eyes with which you can interact. Noisy, googly, broadly humorous, they look, but are no lookers.

Gander B

More cartoonery was to be found on an adjacent wall. Tintin fans will recognise these emotive dazed stars from any of the hero’s tales. Gander isolates them and puts in quote marks.

But in fact, this piece is incredibly complex, comparing reactions to Tintin’s abandoned final tale, from the point of view of creator, central character and the civilian identity of Hergé.

Gander C

Gander is to be applauded for not wanting to make the same work twice, but he rarely hits the same note twice. There are a few chords in this show, but is there a coherent tune?

How do you compare a knowing slice of cartoon history with the innocent response to his wife’s desire for a designer lamp. Gander made the light below from junk.

Gander L

So even this has a backstory. There’s not a piece here in Manchester which I didn’t like in one way or another; as a show not sure. But coherent tunes are probably old hat anyway.

Ryan Gander: Make every show like it’s your last is at Manchester Art Gallery until September 14 2014. My review for the Arts Desk can be found here.


Hannah Knox, Buff (2013)

courtesy of the artist and Ceri Hand Gallery, Photographer Anna Arca

courtesy of the artist and Ceri Hand Gallery, Photographer Anna Arca

Painting is an empty pocket. The content it once contained, the paint itself, has in many cases gone. In all cases now, a stretched canvas is a blank canvas. Put in it what you will.

So the unadorned white t-shirt you see here, the unifying image from a show which shares its name, is more than a sly joke. It is a comment on the nowness of its chosen medium.

It was made in 2013, but it echoes the 1980s which in turn echoed the 1950s. As Knox has said, it could make you think of Marlon Brando. It could even make you think of the band Bros.

Those of us on the wrong side of history, during that turbulent decade, may have shown a preference for a darker, or more fey, English look. But here is the triumph of a cotton icon.

It is as large and wide as any buddha and all the more potent for its facelessness. Buff is a strong word for it, suggesting the ripped muscles we cannot see. The muscles of thought.

Because this is a show fully engaged with the body and the world of fashion. No two works are much the same. And the artist has even named one after the season, Fall 13.

Fashion is a threat to anyone with artistic leanings. It implies that any success is temporal. It implies that your audience has the most superficial of relationships with your work.

But Knox is not afraid of catwalks and collections. She grew up in what you might call a fashion household. This could be her greatest strength, acceptance.

So again the Buddha smiles. And given that Knox has spoken about her mother’s death in relation to her show, is Buff not also a ghost of sorts? And if it be a ghost, might it not be the zeitgeist itself?

If so, it is still waiting for your input. You might not find a better receptacle for your own ideas about art than Buff in the show BUFF at Ceri Hand Gallery. At least not this season.

Hannah Knox: BUFF can be seen at Ceri Hand Gallery, London, until October 26 2013. See gallery website for more details.


Katie Paterson, Second Moon (2013-14)

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The moon is to be howled at. When it comes to our planet’s only satellite, we have been-there-done-that. If there was a concession selling t-shirts, we missed it.

Our arrival, let’s face it, was a disappointment. We struck neither oil nor gold. Bored astronauts batted around golf balls and American footballs in an inspirational void.

We dreamt about her for millennia and she turned out to be a cold, dead rock. Well, so be it. Now, however, artist Katie Paterson has got the revenge we all wanted.

The Berlin artist has got a fragment of said rock and is sending our moon on an accelerated orbit of shame. In one year it will travel freight-class around the earth 30 times.

Now that’s a moon we can get behind. In a crate marked fragile this lunar specimen will have to deal with customs, baggage handlers, hold ups and the inevitable potential of getting lost.

Twice as fast as the cheese-that-never-was, Second Moon will better reflect the pace of 21st century life. Especially, if you are following its progress on one of the accompanying apps.

As you can see from the accompanying press shot, anyone could get a (literal) handle on this project. And that is something we have consistently failed to do with the ‘real’ thing up there.

Sure, we have mapped it. We have painted it. We have taken stunning photos. But we have failed to exploit it, in the manner which offers daily proof to us that we exist here on earth.

But who knows? Perhaps this durational, labour-intensive and futile project may one day help us to finally understand the moon. As yet, she remains a cipher at the heart of a logistical nightmare.

‘Second Moon’ will launch from the British Science Festival in Newcastle upon Tyne on 8th September. For more on this artist, see her website.


Jochem Hendricks, Warlord, 2009-2010

You cannot see them, but you believe them to be there. Sewn into the lining of this greatcoat are hundreds of coins. They give it both physical and metaphorical weight.

But were it not art, the monetary value would still not amount to much. Gallery notes reveal the coinage to be nickels and dimes. Not even pounds. Not even dollars.

This is exactly the sort of small change you would pick up on a battlefield, or at least that is the take out from Hendricks’ sculpture. His warlord is a cheap customer.

But the sculpture has presence. It looms over the visitor from a gibbet placed high on the gallery wall, its darkness an implacable reminder of endless US-sponsored wars.

You cannot see the money with which this absent (dead?) warlord has lined his coat. As with much of the work by this German artist, you need to exercise faith.

Or should that be cynicism? People profit from wars every day in manners we cannot see. You might well find yourself on a bus or train with a warlord like this.

However, the sculpture competes for credibility with counted grains of sand, diamonds made from dead birds, and drawings done by the artist’s very eyeballs.

So as you can see, the current show in Southampton collects some pretty wild projects together. It stretches credibility in a way that, perhaps, art always should.

Earlier talents in earlier times might ask you to believe in a resurrection, an annunciation, or an assumption. All Hendricks insists upon is a lining of dirty coins.

But Warlord is no less powerful for all that. As a reminder of the shabby opportunism of our ongoing campaigns around the world, few other works come close.

So just what is this warlord’s jurisdiction? By the looks of it, he reigns over you and me and to do so costs him very little indeed. He may even get arts funding. The horror, the horror.

Warlord can be seen in Jochem Hendricks at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, until 20 December 2012. See gallery website for more details.