Category Archives: conceptual

Turner Prize Exhibition 2009 at Tate Britain

Published on Culture 24

Turner Prize 2009 Exhibition, Tate Britain, until January 3 2010

Turner Prize art rarely speaks for itself. A deformed lump of cream-coloured plastic is fixed to the wall. It is an exhibit by candidate Roger Hiorns.

“What do you see?” a mother enquires. “I see a man on horseback.”

“I see someone galloping along,” agrees her young daughter.

This would be a fine interpretation were it not for the blurb on the wall, which kindly informs the viewer that said sculptures are laced with bovine brains. A nearby pile of grey dust turns out to be an atomised passenger jet engine. The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

Painter Richard Wright also benefits from a few words of explanation. His exhibit is a gold leaf mural of considerable size and complexity. The abstract design looks like wallpaper and is at first about as interesting.

Then you read that come January the gallery plans to paint over the work, which must have taken ages to execute, and it soon becomes a breathtaking feat of futile endeavour. It has quite a lot to say, for a piece of interior design.

Even more reliant on their short text is Lucy Skaer. Her wow factor comes from exhibiting a sperm whale skull, partially hidden with a screen. She has also drawn a whale skeleton with painstaking magic marker swirls. Twenty-six Brancusi replicas made from coal dust are poised nearby. It is arty, yet puzzling.

Her work is designed to slow down the act of looking. Which just gives time to wonder why you are looking at a dead cetacean. There is no doubt a good reason.

But most baffling of all is Enrico David. His installation includes two large papier-mâché eggmen on rockers. These make you want to punch them and that is quite an odd reaction to a piece of art.

He also brings us an emaciated, cloth diplodocus creature with a wooden face. It stretches the length of the room and, be warned, into the furthest reaches of the viewer’s mind. It is both ghastly and brilliant.

David’s work is just too weird for words, but it stands on its own dubious merits. If this was a prize for work requiring no background knowledge, he would surely win.

Stephen Cornford interview

Published on Art & Music

The dense reverb is always there. Artist Stephen Cornford has to speak up to be heard. In the room are eight customized turntables on plinths with speakers. None are switched on, but all are plugged in. And that is enough to make the air throb in Brighton’s tiny Permanent Gallery.

“This show sounds so different from how it did a month ago,” he tells me. “Some are quieter. Some are louder. These are things which I deliberately don’t want to control, for instance that noise which you hear now, and it does different things.”


It’s worth pointing out that the units do not play records. They play ball bearings, marbles, springs, gravel and empty bells. They have slipmats made from metal or stone. Each one produces three or so minutes of chaotic noise when activated.


The turntables are a new departure for the Devon-based sculptor, who more often puts instruments to such strange uses. He uses motors to swing an electric guitar and powered-up amp around in an “aeolian loop”. Or spins guitars and a bass round the gallery to create an “aleatory song”. Or vibrates the necks of a row of wired up guitars. 


Cornford says his interest lies in the iconography of the object: “The electric guitar is if you like a symbol of rock culture, of youth culture, of this kind of rite of passage of young people to make music, not only young people I guess. And throughout its history it’s been reinvented as music has moved forward, as rock and roll music has moved forward.”


On a more classical note, he has also done unusual things with a piano. This has included putting contact mics inside the casing to play with the tone of different strings. Electromagnetic pick-ups have turned the tinkling ivories into a drone instrument. He’s even clamped firebell motors to the bass notes.


“The piano I kind of see as the icon of classical composition,” Cornford explains. “It’s what a composer uses. Most classical composers would sit down at a piano. They wouldn’t have all the other instruments available to them when they’re writing their concerto or whatever, so it kind of sits as, yes, as the icon of that field.”


The sculptor defies each instrument’s traditional function by exploring their shape, size, weight and resonance. He claims to be more concerned with physical characteristics than musical properties: “I don’t really have an interest in music as notes, as bars, as melody. I’ve just got an interest in the sound phenomena that these things are capable of creating.”


Inevitably though, things get musical. Cornford has begun to perform improvised gigs and comes to the interview fresh from a set of feedback in which a snare drum became a string instrument. He has produced a 7” single to accompany the Works for Turntables show. And his slightly wild curly hair certainly puts one in mind of a musician.


But the term “anti-music” still brings forth a pleased chuckle: “I guess I try not to draw any lines around what is music and what isn’t music, which is a very old Cagean idea, but I really try to look at all sound as potential music. All noise is potential music, just depending on the ear of the beholder.” Indeed John Cage was one of the first composers to work with a phonograph turntable.


Cornford admits he has friends who don’t like his automated and improvised pieces: “They’ll say  ‘Oh, it’s just horrible sounds!’ and I sometimes think that’s almost like a moral objection to unpleasant sounds.” Instead, he argues that music, like art, need not be beautiful.


After pondering the differences between those two worlds, he suggests: “Maybe music just kind of plugs so straight into you. You can’t close your ears to ignore it and it resonates with you in ways we don’t entirely understand.


“And because of that,” he adds with a grin, “People don’t really like it when it makes them feel kind of nervous or awkward.” At this point his record players, which have us surrounded, seem to hum in agreement. Cornford’s non-musical music has been misunderstood for too long.

Artists Anonymous at Riflemaker

Published on Culture 24

Artists Anonymous – Lucifer Over London, Riflemaker, London, until November 21 2009

David was apparently hewn from a 27-stone block of marble after which Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel single-handed. Would he not, by the end of it, have looked something like Arnold Schwarzenegger?

The question is asked on camera by a sock puppet in this London show by Berlin-based Artists Anonymous. The footwear not only has good comic timing, but also conceals the group’s identity. Art, they say, should matter more than ego.

Instead, consider their fresh approach to picture making, called the after image. Most works here feature twice: the first painted in negative, putting dark shades and new features where the eye sees light. The second  is a photograph in which colours have been inverted to produce a recognizable yet twice-removed scene.

So Pan Dreaming is a murky composition of a child in a push chair, a pensive adult form, the reflection of a figure on the floor and a collection of balloons. But one look at the after image, Pan’s Prison, confirms that all those elements are there and the whole thing is every bit as nightmarish as you expected.

The technique produces a highly distinctive palette. The colours are either sickly, muddy or bleached out. They call to mind another non-realist school of German painting, Expressionism, and blur into one another, bringing a surreal vagueness to the subject matter.

The paintings are augmented by some found sculpture and a basement screening room straight from one of the neighbourhood’s sleazier establishments (we are, after all, in Soho). On screen a very blonde woman in a gimp costume harangues the audience from behind a Punch and Judy stand.

The sock puppets describe the after image as a world of pure imagination, a retinal memory containing an infinity of possibilities when presented with any given scene. And to view the world this way, they argue, is to enter the sock dimension, which incidentally is where all those missing socks actually go.

Who said the Germans don’t have a sense of humour?

Made in Brighton at Ink_D

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Exhibition: Made in Brighton, Ink_D Gallery, Brighton, until October 4 2009

For a small gallery, this is a big group show. Seventeen artists have been squeezed onto the wall of Ink_D in the North Laine. All are Brighton based and much of the work is Brighton inspired. So just how much talent can one seaside town accommodate? Each has been given 30 square cm to demonstrate what they can do.

James Cauty, who once set fire to £1 million of profits from his band KLF, is still causing controversy, just on a smaller scale.

Stamps Are So Gay is a page of perforated covers showing two cowboys engaged in a lewd act. As with a photo stand from the pier, there are oval holes where the faces should be, and a young straight couple peers through.

Imbue has also made a statement. Taking cues from the logo of Brighton and Hove City Council, he has made an emblem which looks more like DisneyLand. Perhaps life here is too much fun.

Another comment on the city’s reputation for hedonism comes from satirical cartoonists Modern Toss. Come To Brighton shows a couple of daytrippers on the train, taking a stroll, dancing and finally throwing up into a dustbin.

Andy Doig designed the neon sign above the gallery door and his medium is light. He has responded well to the brief with a fairground bulb mounted on a section of painted wood from a pier.

A gaudy cable joins it to the mains. Ride Relic is a simple, well-executed slice of city life.

Another sculpture provides another highlight. Sean Madden has taken inspiration from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock to produce a cut-throat razor with the words “I Love You” engraved in the blade.

It is a brilliant evocation of both old style gangsterism and also the dark side of a dirty weekend.

There are 25 pieces by every artist and all the works cost just £75. Whether you’re coming to Brighton for the day or you’ve lived here all your life, it would be hard to find a better souvenir.

Hannah Rickards at the Whitechapel Gallery

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MaxMara Art Prize for Women: Hannah Rickards, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until September 23 2009

If Hannah Rickards’ latest work tells us one thing, then personal accounts are not to be trusted. So perhaps don’t believe all you’re about to read.

It centres on a phenomenon which takes place on Lake Michigan, where an inversion of temperatures causes a mirage of an inverted city. Nowhere in the show do we see photographic or video evidence for this – instead, the viewer must rely on a group of eyewitnesses.
The witnesses are all reliably dull locals, late-middle aged pillars of the community. Rickards has got them together in a non-descript institutional space. A projection screen on the back wall suggests we are in for a lesson of some sort as, indeed, we are.

Three chairs face the middle of the room, making the viewer feel they occupy a fourth. Sometimes we see empty chairs, at others Rickards blacks out the screen. She lets voice-overs speak out of the darkness or over the empty room. Competing testimonies are dubbed over each other.

One man says he can’t recall there being any colour. Another has a vivid recollection of red lights. A woman listening begins to shake her head, the shake eventually becoming a nod. Two men who are dressed identically cannot agree. The hallucinatory event is compared to a movie, a black and white photo, an Etch-a-sketch design. “I don’t think anything I actually saw actually had dimensions,” as one speaker puts it.

The 10-minute film is deliberately short on action and visual appeal. Nothing distracts from the divergence of subjective accounts. It’s a good point and well made, but the piece is so dry and economical that boredom is the occasional result, and this is not helped by poor sound quality.

Rickards herself takes an ironic standpoint on the debate. The film is called No, There was no Red. Whether you agree or not is up to you.

Beyond These Walls – South London Gallery

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Beyond These Walls, South London Gallery, until September 20 2009

Beyond These Walls opened on July 24, three weeks after a fire killed six people in a neighbouring tower block. It was a grim coincidence: this is a show about the gallery’s local context, and the disaster has highlighted the contrast between the Sceaux Gardens Estate and the rarefied space next door for contemporary art.

Tue Greenfort has tackled the problem head on by turning the gallery round to face the estate and creating a new entrance in the former protective fence. The rear courtyard now welcomes residents with an elaborate community notice board, the hub for the gallery’s outreach programme. Part classroom wall, part climbing frame, this is another artistic intervention by a group called public works.

Esther Stocker has made a genuinely accessible installation, transforming the SLG’s education space into a walk-in Op Art sculpture. Foamboard is used to make dozens of rectangles and dashes, which run along all three axes of the 3D space. So the piece appears to stretch out beyond the gallery walls.

Those walls also come under pressure from Pieter Vermeersch who has painted the entirety of the main exhibition space. His mural shows two graded spectrums of colour, from red to black along one side and from green to white along the other. Depending which way you look, the whole building gets lighter or darker.

Meanwhile Leon Vranken has cut through the flooring to remove geometric shapes. It seems like an act of destructive mischief until you read, or perhaps work out, that the missing parts have been used to build a crude wooden chair and shelf on the other side of the hall. It’s an amusing gesture, but what the locals will make of it is unclear.

The seven international artists on display here do succeed in unpicking the physical structure of the gallery. But given recent events in the area, they leave questions about the venue’s social context unanswered.

Gilbert and George at White Cube

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Jack Freak Pictures, Gilbert and George, White Cube, London, until August 22 2009

Two years ago Gilbert and George were accorded the ultimate mark of respect from the art establishment in Britain. The highlights from their lifetime’s work were put on display in the most extensive retrospective show ever to be staged at Tate Modern.

You might expect to find the pair sipping champagne and scanning the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, but instead their response has been to make their largest and possibly most subversive series of pictures to date.

So in new work Prize the two artists have their tongues out. There are shields and crests painfully stuck on their flesh. Another piece called Bleeding Medals shows them festooned with Union Jacks surrounded by sporting medals for the most piffling of achievements.

The national flag features heavily in the show, often violently treated with image manipulation software. No less violent is the way that technology has been used to twist and fracture the self-portraits for which Gilbert and George have become famous.

At times they smash two icons with one stone. In Jackanapes they morph themselves into red, white and blue cartoon shapes with monochrome nipples. Nettle Dance has the flag emblazoned across their trademark suits. The pair hop around in front of a nettle bush, clearly stung by something.

Elsewhere they attack the religious aspects of patriotism. Christian England features a crucifixion in which Christ sports a Union Jack loincloth and halo. In Stuff Religion the two raise their limbs like puppets. It’s as if they’ve been pressed into the service of church and state.

Meanwhile Gilbert and George continue to make work that shares many features with ecclesiastical stained glass. Bright colours predominate. Each new work has been printed on a series of panels framed with dark metal “leading”. Digital trickery has allowed them make kaleidoscopic rose windows out of pieces such as Homey and Sap.

Other diverse themes are worked into the exhibition, including sexuality, Islam and London’s East End. But despite spanning two venues on opposite sides of the city it all hangs together very nicely – in fact few shows will offer the viewer such a coherent political statement as the Jack Freak Pictures.

Fabric of War at Phoenix

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Fabric of War, Phoenix Gallery, Brighton, until August 16 2009

Ex-serviceman Mike Blake has ripped up several US flags, shredded a handful of dollar bills and even gone so far as to cut up and pulp his military uniform. The reconstituted garments now form the canvas for his anti-war picture Vortex. Green flecks of currency swirl amidst tattered stars and stripes in an explosion of outrage at the role he was made to play in Iraq.

Blake is a member of the Combat Paper Project, an American organisation which helps war veterans come to terms with their experiences by making art from their uniforms. Camo gear is cooked and macerated to make sheets of paper which are used for artworks, journals and papier-mâché.

Judging by the works on display at the Phoenix, this is a process filled with catharsis. Eli Wright has made a piece called Broken Soldiers in which sheets of grey paper are stitched together like the edges of a wound. Across them is printed a declaration to destroy the symbols of war and “make them beautiful.”

Another example is Ecology, where Drew Cameron has blended soft grey army issue cloth with the remnants of his country’s flag. The result could be a peaceful landscape, a battlefield reclaimed by nature. Or more likely it is abstract, like Cameron’s Flak Jackets, in which the uniform dissolves, losing meaning.

Many of the soldiers-turned-artists suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. An entry in a recycled journal  vows over and over again that the author, a man called Robyn, will never use a gun again. In just six lines it brings home the horror of armed conflict and something of the redemptive nature of the Project’s work.

Also on display are works from the Monument series by Marshall Weber. These are colourful rubbings and collages taken from war memorials all around the world. Much like the uniforms, these sombre engravings have here been chopped up and reconfigured. The effect is of a confusion, an inability to make sense of war.

It’s a show that as many people as possible should see.

Mens Suits by Charles LeDray

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Mens Suits by Charles LeDray, The Fire Station, London, until September 20 2009

First, note the missing apostrophe from the title of this show, in which attention to detail is everything. It’s an intentional flaw which reads like a warning to expect something from the lower end of fashion.

The typo seems to tell you a lot about Charles LeDray. This is his first major show in Europe and his work is little known. He’s not someone with traditional artistic training, indeed he’s largely self taught. And he began his career as a security guard at Seattle Art Museum

But whether the mistake is defiant, self-deprecating or merely ironic is hard to say. From a technical point of view, LeDray is a highly accomplished sculptor. Mens Suits took three years to make, all by hand.

Three pieces are on display at the Fire Station, each one a miniature retail environment. One is a posh Men’s Outfitters complete with a short tailor’s dummy and a 360-degree fan of diminutive ties. One is a thrift shop, with circular racks for jackets and shirts plus a table groaning with piles of folded t-shirts. The third is a laundry area, furnished with more clothes, racks, laundry bags, pallets and a scaled down ironing board.

There are hundreds of garments, all expertly sewn, and hundreds of miniature hangers. Up to four little buttons have been fixed on well-cut jacket cuffs, and there’s a row of tiny gloves – but no one could ever wear these clothes. They wouldn’t even fit a child.

It represents a bewildering amount of work, which calls into question why an artist should go to so much trouble. All we are left with is an effect, albeit a powerful one. The inevitable absence of customers or even sales staff fills these scenes with pathos. Despite the meticulous care taken in production, an air of neglect hangs over the dusty rails of the store and the disorder of the back room.

Suspended ceilings hang low over each installation, limiting full-sized visitor’s views. What this show means is never made clear: it’s quite possible we are not meant to know.

Cold Corners by Eva Rothschild

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Cold Corners by Eva Rothschild, Duveens’ Commission, Tate Britain, London, until November 29 2009

Sometimes less space can be more. Tate Britain’s Duveens Galleries aren’t quite as large as the Turbine Hall just down the river at Tate Modern, but the neo-classical surroundings offer quite different possibilities.

When commissioned to fill the area in 2007, Mark Wallinger reconstructed Brian Haw’s peace camp from Parliament Square. A year later, Martin Creed orchestrated sprinters to complete 70m dashes in the name of art.

Now it’s the turn of Eva Rothschild, and the first sculpture stretches the length of these two imposing halls. It’s black, just 76mm wide and minimalist. Chances are it would have got lost within the cavernous belly of London’s other Tate building.

The late 19th century galleries also offer more to play with. Rothschild’s installation wraps itself round pillars and climbs through the gaps left by architrave and arch. It’s all jagged edges and gloss finish, so the contrast with the smooth, sandy stone walls could hardly be more pronounced.

These 26 interconnected triangles of aluminum box tubing are the Dublin-born artist’s first large scale work. She describes the feat of engineering as “a confused and anxious alternate architecture within the galleries.”

The result is a structure which can hardly be taken in at a single glance. It requires you to walk the length of the building, and in places invites you to cross through to the other side. The piece clangs when an unsuspecting visitor trips over it, which happens from time to time. You only wonder how anyone could miss it.