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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Happy New Year to readers everywhere. Here’s the first of a monthly round up of shows in (usually) public sector spaces around the UK. So, if you’re in Britain in January 2015, you won’t want to miss…
Grace Schwindt: Only a Free Individual Can Create a Free Society, Site Gallery, Sheffield, 10 Jan – 28 Feb. If your experience of taxi drivers is all Magic FM and reactionary politics, you’ll be pleasantly surprised here. Schwindt interviews a German taxi driver, and former 60s/70s radical, for a filmic 90 minute trip.
Rights of Nature: Art and Ecology in the Americas, Nottingham Contemporary, 24 Jan to 15 Mar. Twenty pan-American artists bear witness to an environmental crisis with displays themed around the Amazon, the Andes, the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico. If Bolivia and Ecuador can give legal rights to Mother Nature, can we hope a wave of the future is building across the Atlantic?
Isabelle Cornaro: Paysage Avec Poussin/Témoins Oculaires, South London Gallery and Spike Island, Bristol, 24 Jan – 05 Apr/29 Mar. With training in the academic study of mannerism, Cornaro promises to demonstrate the way that art affects our perception. Resonant objects abound in a major installation at SLG and new works in the West Country. It’s a double header.
Self: Image and Identity, Turner Contemporary, Margate, 24 Jan – 10 May. As the gallery is already hinting, this exhibition could put the selfie phenomena in art historical perspective. Visitors can expect over 100 self-centred works, many from the National Portrait Gallery, from Sir Anthony van Dyck to Louise Bourgeois.
Ruth Ewan: Back to the Fields, Camden Arts Centre, London, 30 Jan – 29 Mar. In post-revolutionary France they enjoyed post-revolutionary time. London-based artist Ewan returns to her interest in the decimal clock and calendar with a major installation which brings together 365 seasonal objects with republican leanings.
Agree? Disagree? Seen something which criticismism has missed. Please feel free, as ever, to leave a comment.
The LED blinks on and off. We could be here a while. As deep history has shown, a rock like this can take its own sweet time to breathe forth life, or yawn and swallow us all.
Just whose hand might go to the remote to activate a 80kg lump of sandstone? Would it be a god, or an artist, or an artist who thinks they might be a god? Or even a reviewer.
A classical sculptor could make something of this proposition. From Michelangelo to Brancusi, the chisel and hammer have been switching on stones in the name of art.
But this is a digital rock, so that wouldn’t appear to work. We have enough animate objects in our homes. We no longer need figurines, no longer need expressive miracles.
The red glow of the pilot light is miracle enough. It appears to take its power from deep inside its core. No one plugged in this boulder; it is pure potential.
Mind you, Rock on Standby is already activated to some degree by a plinth, a photo, a blog post. Are not all inert works of art on standby in this familiar sense? A collector would certainly trigger it.
As possessors of eyes, etc., we come ready to push buttons. Until then, we might be on standby too. In fact, we are the ones who really come to life around this piece.
We cannot look away from this collision between two speeds: geological time and recent speeds like broadband and 4G. We can hardly get faster. This rock reminds us how far we’ve come.
It also hints at the speed of the rock on which we live: about 30km per second. The Earth too is on standby, primed for natural disaster, a likelihood we are also accelerating.
So nice to know the artist hasn’t lost his sense of humour. If you could ROFL in a gallery without being ejected, you just might. This heavy piece of work has the lightest of touches.
It’s a curious thing. It is hoped that not many typos find their way from this keyboard onto your screen. But a recent blog post for Bad at Sports had at least three. My very bad.
What made it strange was that the subject of my review, Nick Davies, has been doing fantastic things with Tipp-Ex and hence capitalising on mistakes like mine, but those made in another age.
Here you see a sculpture made from Mistake Out, as it was first called. Note the petri dish; it looks to have been grown here like a stunted GM tree and not painstakingly painted into existence.
But of all the forms which dried Tipp-Ex could take, this tree is the most appropriate, as if Liquid Paper emanated from a liquid forest. (Without wood pulp we’d not have needed it.)
And this petrified grove, for there are a group of these sculptures, bring together the lab, the office and the gallery. All of which are implicated with the desolate whiteness of the plantlife.
True, we have made some mistakes. We have signed away logging rights for far too many real trees. We have polluted seas and killed off coral reefs, which also come to mind.
It’s a major oversight. If only we could go back in time and erase a few thousand pen strokes. But Tipp-Ex was only about ameliorating office life, not life on the planet in general.
Now we have the delete button. Thanks to which, and to cut and paste, writing has become a kind of collage. And so it moves closer to art or at least to artfulness, and to the covering of tracks.
But mistakes just don’t seem to go away. There are social media users who post as quick as they can think and comment leavers oblivious to their crimes against grammar. Bloggers make howlers.
We’re really getting sloppy, and it’s a growing problem, like one of Davies’ spectral trees. Which just brings up the title of the artist’s handmade book, The Principal [sic] of Limited Sloppiness.
He borrows the maxim from scientist Max Delbruck: “One should be sloppy enough so that the unexpected happens, but not so sloppy that one can’t figure out what has happened afterwards.”
This holds true for conceptual artists as much as scientists. So proceeding with a Tipp-Ex mindset might now be the best way forward. The book, by the way, is immaculate.
Nothing like the Turner Prize to deliver half an hour of overwrought excitement. Not that the writer of this blog was there. He was wound like a spring on the sofa, as the reportage photo above implies.
But how close can you get to this Prize? Like the man in a Kafka parable, you wait and wait all year in the knowledge there are doorkeepers beyond the doorkeepers. You are Before the Law.
On the one occasion this writer did make it to the ceremony, at BALTIC in 2011, he somehow took a wrong turn and ended up in a bar at the venue, still watching the whole thing on TV.
British television’s engagement with contemporary art is so minimal that Channel 4’s coverage of the Turner is the equivalent of watching an entire football season in one short burst.
Sorry to those offended by the sports analogy, but that’s just of what sofas and televisions put one in mind. Blame Tate for establishing the art world’s annual moment as a lucrative competition.
Duncan Campbell won. And for many in the room surely Gore Vidal’s cynical comment on envy surely rang true: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” Still, a worthy winner.
Looking back at a piece written for Culture24 in early September, your sofa correspondent appears to have predicted the result. But only in the most throwaway of fashions, almost by accident.
It could still be maintained that Ciara Phillips would have made a more interesting winner. Thanks to her use of collaboration, she might also have made a more approachable one.
In Kafka’s brief fable, the supplicant for admittance to the law is a “countryman” but not necessarily a regional blogger. He spends the rest of his life waiting for the doorkeeper to let him through.
Before he dies, he goes blind: “Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the law.” Just the television crew lights, perhaps.
For those who don’t already know, Aston Villa FC are an underperforming English football team from the West Midlands. It might not be common knowledge in the wider art world.
Three artists staged a gallery event last Saturday: Bartlett, Selmes and Roberts. We’ll drop the first names, in the spirit of football. Because all support ‘the Villa’.
And all three wore the team’s claret and blue shirts and in doing so took on a radical (or alarming) non-art look. They didn’t even look like performance artists. It was perhaps anti-anti art.
The terrace vibe was helped along by an atmospheric loop of crowd noise: grown men professing their loyalty to this historic club and its players through the medium of chant.
Meanwhile, the ‘art’ was a collection of doctored pages ripped from matchday programmes and merchandise catalogues. A 90-minute projection showed AVFC demolish Birmingham City 5-1.
All of the above was fiendishly parochial. Players who had been gods in their time, were reduced to the status of an in joke. Was this about the idiocy of football or the selective ignorance of art?
There were also beers. There always are at openings. But these were an assortment of different brews, with each one themed around a first team star. This blogger opted for a Darren Bent lager.
Another attraction was the Lambert Out campaign, by which Bartlett attempted to drum out the club’s under fire manager by handing samizdat posters to bemused gallery folk.
If you like football, the whole thing was a total hoot. But what many overlook, and which you could have learned at this show, is that the most interesting things happen off the pitch.
What to make of the current prime minister David Cameron and heir to the throne Prince William? Both claim to be lifelong Villa fans, to Bartlett’s horror. It’s a surreal carnival.
Art’s perspective on football may be as narrow as football’s perspective on art, but both worlds could surely learn from one another. You will, for example, find art at football grounds.
Portman Road is the stadium for my team de choix; on a plinth outside is a statue of former manager Bobby Robson. It is made by Ipswich fan and sculptor Sean Hedges-Quinn.
Home fans arrange to meet by this artwork. They pose for photos here, and roundly approve of this tribute to a local legend. One presumes they even admire the likeness. No soul searching here.
Just be warned. Football art cuts both ways. This blogger once got a text from a friend who saw fans from another club urinating on the likeness of our hero; Robson died of cancer five years ago.
That’s a pretty direct critique, which this blogger could only dream of emulating. Art people might still piss all over your latest show, only with the ambivalent gift of metaphor.
Work Programme 71 took place on Saturday November 15 2014 at Community Arts Centre, Brighton. See gallery Facebook page for future events.