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

Interview: Suzanne Treister

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The time tested way of introducing a story (“Once upon a time…”) is little help when writing a blog about art. And so faced with the most narrative-driven work in this year’s Liverpool Biennial, I don’t know where to begin.

HFT The Gardener is a multi-faceted piece display which comprises of some 174 works on paper and a (roughly) 10-minute film. There’s a fiction in the film, made concrete by the drawings. So the drawings, although quite loopy, fall into a non-fiction category; it’s complex.

In short, Treister tells the story of a high frequency trader who undergoes a breakdown and looks to psycho-active plants to generate algorithms to plug into the banking system. He is fired, as you might expect. But then he becomes an outsider artist and the drawings in this show are his colourful plant diagrams, which he sells to rich bankers.

The artist was good enough to speak with me at the launch of this show and I asked her how it came about. “I was interested in high frequency trading. I was interested in these ideas of the holographic universe. I was interested in psycho-active drugs,” she tells me.

Following that, “through thinking about them all and wondering where it might go,” Treister made the connections which rounded out her show. As for the film script, it remains a trip to compare with one of the hallucinogenic plants which star here.

It took a lot of “fine-tuning” says the visionary artist. “The plot expanded, contracted, then needed to come back around and reference itself in certain ways. So I was constantly working on it, to form it.”

But however much Treister worked on this voiceover, it pales beside the maniacal energy which must have been needed to research more than 90 narcotic plants and translate their biological and chemical properties into intense and detail rich diagrams.

“Work ethic,” says the artist in response to this. “But you know novelists are the same. They have an idea. They gradually develop the plot. Then they’ve got to spend about two years sitting there every morning. They’ve got to get up and get a certain amount done”.

But if the show really is a novel, it is Moby Dick rather than Pride and Prejudice, the sort of novel which freights in a wealth of technical detail. Each plant has its Latin name, its medical effect, its equivalent as abstract pattern and its correspondence to a stock on the FTSE index.

HFT The Gardener is not, however, an instruction manual for drug use. “I’m not suggesting a mass free for all,” says Treister of her 92 psychoactive plants. “These are plants that have been carefully used for centuries in many parts of the world for ritual purposes. They need to be taken seriously and there could be an enormous amount to learn from them if research was able to continue unrestricted.”

Unlike South America, we don’t have a culture which facilitates drug-induced vision quests. We do, however, have a crazy financial system where a dose of peyote could hardly make things any worse; you could happily leave reality behind for an hour spent at this show.

For more information about this work, head to the artist’s website. The show runs until October 16 2016 as part of Liverpool Biennial, and can be found in the Exhibition Research Lab at The John Lennon Art & Design Building, Liverpool John Moores University.


Interview: Sahej Rahal

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The artist appears to have a simple and urgent proposition: to render the past absurd is to neutralise the rhetoric of the political right.

Without a golden age to hark about, no one can promise to make America, the UK, or India ‘great again’. And we can instead progress to a state of internationalism, equal rights, economic parity and perpetual peace.

Rahal lives in Mumbai, but he points out that the whole planet is “kind of a scary place to be working, globally”. He is, however, welcome in the North West, where for the duration of the 2016 Liverpool Biennial, his sculpture and film is being shown across three sites.

We met at Cains Brewery, a cavernous space for art enjoying a good year. It is however scruffy, and Rahal’s work looks in keeping with the general state of repair. It is the first thing a visitor sees: nuggets of clay arranged on trestle-like tables; bits of scaffold, locally sourced, covered in clay; and black-box monitors which appear to emerge from the mess on which figurines breathe or practice with lightsabers.

“I’m a huge nerd and I obviously have all these Star Wars references”, the artist cheerfully informs me. But like many contemporary sculptors, he aims both high and low, looking to Jorge Luis Borges for ”vast metaphysical narratives”, and for that writer’s concern with “creating this itinerary of our culture”.

In short, this itinerary is dystopian. The artefacts presented appear fresh from some archaeological dig. But what kind of half-formed world do they conjure up? A: it is a world run by idiots in which technology has failed us and we have forgotten basic craft skills. And that seems to me the worst of all possible worlds.

“I like the fact that these characters, or these objects of clay could somehow become like harbingers of something, you know?” Rahul tells me as we contemplate his pottery-based triage stations which all appear to somehow breathe in the light of the moving image work.

He also says: “I’m more interested in putting them together to form meaning… from these absurd things, which are beyond reason in a certain way. In that meaning-making ritual that people perform, how do we create allegiances? How do we create bonds across space-time?”

An interest in travel and time travel chimes in well with the 2016 Biennial, which is a nebulous animal in which Monuments from the Future is one of six official themes. You may find, as I did, that as you come across Rahal’s work more than once, you build a picture of what might be becoming. 

It is a picture of a primitive time around the corner. Rahal expresses concern about right wing  governments that have followed the Arab Spring, the rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump, and the hate-filled effect of Brexit here in the UK.

If politics is performative, the artist has another highly political aspect to his practice. Rahul stages improvised, ritualistic performances which offer only “fleeting, fragmented glimpses” of a narrative, and which change gear according to pop cultural requests from his viewers.

“Even I don’t have a bead on [these],” he tells me. “Essentially, what’s interesting for me is that I’m also a viewer as well.” One supposes that in these powerless times, we are all to a degree little more than viewers, even as we march, occupy, tweet or blog.

But perhaps in the light of our political horizons, we’ll do well to maintain any civilisation at all.

Despite everything, Rahal is making the most of circumstances: “Earthenware has so much meaning to our origins so I’m drawn to that, but saying that it’s also so much fun to just dive into clay and get mud all over me.”

As well he might, since in Summer 2016 we are all up to the neck in it.

Liverpool Biennial runs until October 16 2016. I reviewed it for Culture24 here. See artist’s website for more images.


Bob and Roberta Smith, Letter to George Osborne (2015)

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You cannot help but wonder: did a 50-line letter painted onto the front and rear of a pair of white radiator units have any incidental effect on government policy? Did it really spark a heated debate?

Beyond the headlines about tax credits, the Autumn Statement revealed that the Arts Council can also breathe a sigh of relief and consider its budget protected for five more years.

This is not the beef raised by Smith, who talks tuition fees, the threat to art schools from property developers, and the culture of consumerism which now extends to the student experience.

None of this has changed. But the artist signs off with a message which may just be getting through: “I THINK THE ARTS ARE REALLY ABOUT SAVING HUMANITY”. What did Osborne think of that?

Certainly the arts are a cheap way to save humanity. Arts Council England cost £349 million in 2014; to save humanity with a replacement for Trident will cost, according to CND, some £100 billion.

There are dangers in cynicism, however. A positive and polite reaction to this news about the Arts Council could be more likely to encourage the Conservative government in this cultural direction.

But giving credit is not abject gratitude. As Smith says, in another set of emphatic capitals: “ART IS YOUR HUMAN RIGHT”. Just as education is a right, welfare is a right, and healthcare remains so.

As inhumane as austerity is proving to be, the left should remember we don’t have a monopoly on humanity. Again, appeals to this quality may prove more tractable than immediate class war.

That could be why Smith’s naivety, both in tone and execution of this open letter, strikes an effective chord. It treats the Chancellor as a reasonable human. It invites him to enjoy contemporary art.

But this is also is a bit of a joke. Smith is only an artist; he is not the head of a bank. The banker uses headed notepaper, and not beat-up used radiators. So to who does the future belong?


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.


Carsten Höller, Karussell (1999)

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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.


Bonnie Camplin, Patterns (2015)

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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.


Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12)

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There are two epicentres under consideration in this monumental installation at the Royal Academy right now. One was in Wenchuan County in Sechuan; the other is the government in Beijing.

The first meant a quake that destroyed 20 schools. The second has monitored the ongoing work of China’s best known artist and kept him at arm’s length with bureaucracy and doublespeak.

Ai contends that given their location on a seismic faultline, the schools should have been better built. This piece is a memorial, which lays square blame with corrupt officials and construction firms.

There is even something unpatriotic about substandard architecture. This, after all, is a nation most famed for a wall stretching more than 20,000km. It inspires a memorable short story by Kafka.

For the Great Wall, says the Czech writer (although how would he know?): “An unremitting sense of personal responsibility in the builders were indispensable prerequisites for the work”.

But you can see, from 200 tonnes of straightened rebar, the materials in Sechuan were not equal to the task. And as you can see from the accompanying film, the steel bars failed as a structure.

Now another wall was put up to protect the guilty. Ai’s team struggled to get information on the missing and the dead. “What if you’re an American spy?” asks a drudge on the end of the phone.

Until the major earthquake, Ai appears to have been something of a favoured son and a successful architect in his own right. As you know, he collaborated on the main stadium for the Beijing Olympics.

But it’s commonly thought that it is his unambiguous art of protest, and not his tax affairs, which led to his detention without trial for 80 days in 2011. The authorities have said little.

Kafka again, in character as a native of the old empire, “We Chinese possess certain folk and political institutions that are unique in their clarity, others again unique in their obscurity.”

Clarity: Ai has crossed the line. Obscurity: we cannot tell you what line or where. Both qualities pursued the artist even to the point of his visa complications in getting to London for his show.

It is of course counterproductive. The repression gives additional power to the work. As if the walls filled with a list of 5,000 victims’ names, a list of serene despair, were not power enough.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy can be seen until 13 December 2015. You can find my review for Culture24 here. The Kafka story mentioned is of course The Great Wall of China, to be found in the Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka, Vintage, 1999.


Franz West, 6 Adaptives for Rolls Royce Silver Shadow (2007)

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On some level you may already be offended. You don’t need to be a total petrolhead to find the addition to this prestigious bonnet to be something of a defacement.

Let’s be honest, it lacks the easy romance of the flying woman usually found on the prow of a Rolls: The Spirit of Ecstasy by Charles Robinson Sykes.

Sometimes called Emily, this stainless steel form (with 24-carat gold plating optional) has a really great backstory: a clandestine love affair and a disaster at sea are both involved.

Austrian sculptor West has pretty much dumped on that. He made six of these turd-like accessories for the luxury car market: one for every day of the working week.

Irony alert: if you are a Rolls Royce customer you probably don’t need to pull a full week’s shift. And yet, this work feels only indirectly political. It is too playful for that.

What’s more, given that it is one of the Austrian artist’s adaptive pieces, we can perhaps only grasp the work by getting behind the wheel joining in with the consumption of luxury.

But it should be noted the car belongs to Norwegian collector Erling Kagge; it is unlikely he lets just anyone test drive one of the jewels of his personal collection.

In his book about buying art, Kagge relates how, when he bought this piece, he was surprised to find the car thrown in with the deal. It was itemised merely as a plinth.

But a weird thing happens when the three dimensional graffiti above the grille throws the viewer’s attention back onto the aesthetics of said plinth, four wheels and all.

Good taste can take a holiday. West once called his adaptives, “a potential attempt to give form to neurotic symptoms (according to Freud the foundation of culture)”.

We think we know what neurosis leads to the acquisition of a big, powerful car. Let’s just say that the pictured adaptive is the least phallic in the range.

The rest come in a range of colours, including flesh, and cruising round town with your insecurities in full view, rather than simply your wealth, must be quite therapeutic.

West’s piece can be seen in Love Story: Works from Erling Kagge’s Collection, at the Astrup Fearnley Museum for Modern Art in Olso, until 27 September 2015.


Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades (2010-2015)

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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.


UK Exhibitions: March 2015

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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.