War is a game for boys of all ages. So if that’s your violent gender you might especially enjoy this montage of vintage film in which helicopter gunships rain deafening misery on the Vietnamese.
Dinh Q Lê’s film begins gently with innocuous footage of dragonflies and some peasant wisdom about determining the weather from their flight patterns. So far, so bucolic.
But then come the invasion force, in footage we have seen all too often, along with the reports from the ground, from the Vietnamese from whom we have heard all too rarely.
As said by one of the farmers in the film, young at the time, you could watch these helicopters for hours. To some degree he found their ominous presence a pleasant spectacle. Strange indeed.
Or is it? JG Ballard can be relied upon to explain a paradox like this. His landmark book The Atrocity Exhibition, which first appeared toward the end of the Vietnam war, is full of helicopters
“The Vietnam war,” he writes, “has offered a focus for a wide range of polymorphic sexual impulses”. In other words, the first televised war arrived in our living rooms bearing an erotic charge.
It was, he adds, “also a means by which the United States has re-established a positive psychosexual relationship with the rest of the world.” That has a ring of mad truth, doesn’t it?
Certainly anything that defies gravity carries, if a male partner is involved, some sexual promise. And asymmetric warfare can in this way be seen as a sado-masochistic hook up between whole nations.
Sadly, at its climax, this film offers a terrible thrill as, midway through, we undergo a fusillade of bombs, rockets and bullets on all three channels. It’s a troubling, visceral pleasure.
You would think that Vietnam had seen enough of these mechanical dragonflies to last a lifetime. But in a coda to this film, we discover that the rural helicopter fan is now an amateur engineer.
His grown up passion is for building the very vehicles which waged war on his people is something an analyst could probably explain. They pale, of course, compared with industrial US models.
And we never see them fly. They may as well be sculpture. The may as well be pieces of kinetic art about making or keeping peace, no matter how anti-climatic that grown-up impulse might be.
This film can be found in The Sensory War 1914-2014 at Manchester Art Galery until 22 Februrary 2015. The Ballard quote can be found in Chapter 11: Love and Napalm: Export USA.
“I like the traditional Chinese philosophy,” says Wang Yuyang, “Because it talks about the relationship between 1 and 0, on and off, black and white, something and nothing…”
You have to imagine that the thirtysomething artist would also like the branch of post-structuralist theory known, confusingly, as deconstruction.
If deconstruction itself has been sparked into life by any one opposition, that might well have to be the porous distinction between speech and writing. The former present, the latter absent.
Wang Yuyang shakes up this distinction by animating the a selection of Chinese books from the neo-gothic university-linked library in Manchester, John Rylands.
The books have been flawlessly recreated in silicon rubber and thank to a regular pulse of air, they now appear to whisper or breath. They are more ‘here’ than ever.
But as anyone who has ever loved a book can testifty, your personal copy can take on a charge after you’ve worked your way through it page by static page. It lives for you.
As such, Wang Yuyang has revealed a truth about the written word. And in another move you might call deconstructive, he has privileged East over West in his choice of volumes.
Theoretical babble aside, only the most casual passerby will not be stopped in their tracks by this installation. See how ghostly those old books are. Even the chairs breathe.
They might remind you that the entire building is a memorial, built for Mr Rylands after his passing by wife Enriqueta. The historical context here is a 19th century death.
Not that we should dwell on that. Rather more pertinent are the loving couples’ respective fortunes. His came from the cotton mills, hers from the sugar plantations.
One could argue that books, certainly written ideas, hastened the end of those particular positions. Down the road in Chetham’s Library Karl Marx would meet with Friedrich Engels.
So it only appears to be a supernatural manifestation or the effect of a cool hallucinogen. Those books you’ve read and believed every word: they’ll still be breathing long after you stop.
Breathing Books can be seen at The John Rylands Library as part of Harmonious Society, the UK’s largest ever exhibition of contemporary Chinese art.
Show runs for the duration of Asia Triennial Manchester which is on until 23 November 2014.
The perversity on display here is not the a tergo position adopted by the blonde mistress or the rake so drunk he has fallen out of the large double bed.
No the perversity is that Wächtler uses a medium as gentle as watercolour to incriminate the bad behaviour of this fornicating sot and his willing accomplice.
Not that getting drunk and having sex is always reprehensible, it’s not. Not unless you do so in the presence of a subordinate, in this case a servant, with no choice but to watch.
These days, in the wake of the Starr Report, it’s hard not to watch. Only just the other week, we had to hear about one of our social betters in the political class, caught up in a sexting scandal.
And while his employer may be half naked and sprawled across the floor, the butler comes out of it little better. To say he’s overdressed for the occasion is putting it mildly.
But his poise, which says, Sir, You Called?, manifests an English class trope in which servile dignity might just give you the upper hand in such situations: an X-rated Jeeves and Wooster.
All the moral authority in this painting is on the butler’s side. The Lord has none of it, and neither does the German artist, who appears to laugh at all concerned.
In fact, he may be more concerned with that sinuous line which snakes down the picture from the raised behind of the mystery blonde through to her paramour’s flailing leg.
There is surely some overlap between the ‘one percent’ (those to blame for all the world’s ills) and those who have the wherewithal and the self-importance to employ a butler.
That could make Wächtler’s watercolours into a political statement in which the laughter cloaks despair. But just remember, that’s a room service trolley and not a barricade.
This painting, along with some equally compelling film and sculpture by the artist, can be seen in A Needle Walks into a Haystack The Old Blind School, Liverpool, until October 26 2014.
It is part of Liverpool Biennial 2014. There’s a good discussion of the event’s politics with regard to Peter Wächtler on the The Double Negative.
An observation: spheres of Perspex and pea shingle have gravity in the same way that planets do. This piece by Rachael Champion has neither colour nor much visual stimuli, yet it has pull.
Taken in isolation, gravel, pebbledash, and industrial tiling are unlovely things. And no one could argue this sculpture has much conventional beauty. But, along with presence, it has something else.
Perhaps what it has is, despite the title, is a tangle with nature. In a tiled surround like this you might expect to find a tree, a shrub, even a piece of topiary. But here we have a man-made boulder.
Were you taking a cigarette break outside the glass atrium of your office block, you would not even know this was a sculpture. Even if you noticed it, my guess is it would non-plus most people.
You wouldn’t even think to vandalise it, let alone steal it. And for this reason if for no other, Champion has solved a couple of perennial issues with public art, if art it really be.
Mind you, the title also suggests we consider this a piece of architecture, a brutalist structure no less. And indeed this piece overwhelms in the same way as, say, the Brighton Centre.
That’s no mean feat for something about 4ft cubed. Champion’s piece threatened to dominate the recent show in which she was included, like a bull in a china shop, or a noisy piece of construction.
And there’s a kind of righteousness about the work of a builder. He or she (usually he) feels no need to justify what they do, not even when they wake you at 8am on a Saturday.
Every project completed, no matter how ugly or beautiful, has a clear use and a value agreed upon in advance. If artists like Champion want some of that, who can blame them?
Naturally Occurring Brutalist Structure was in Trade at pop up gallery Castor Projects between 29/08 and 10/09. See more by the artist on her website.
Two disks grace the gallery. One sits on the floor. One hangs on the wall. Looking closer, their outer rims can be identified as hula hoops. But there will be no gyrating here today.
Both hoops have been measured up for a plasterboard inner, and worked over with filler to produce an artwork. So that carpentry and plastering skills more in evidence than chiselling or moulding.
So the productive status of Return to glory is ambiguous. Is it really a work, resulting in a useful end product? Or is it a piece of menial labour? Possibly, only the market decides.
Irish artist Magee is much concerned with these distinctions and points me in the direction of Hannah Arendt for a discussion of work, labour and action.
Returning to the source of distinctions like this, Arendt recalls Aristotle. The Greek would have given citizenship to shepherds and painters, but not peasants or sculptors.
In the ancient world they had contempt for the slave class, and Magee seems to play up to this, as a provocation, with his use of poor materials and trade skills.
If his two hoops are a really a return to glory, it is therefore because one adorns the wall and might be called a painting. Whether or not it would have pleased Aristotle is a moot point.
Unlike the wall-mounted piece, hula hoops are not usually a perfect circle. Where the hoop joins, you can usually find a stiffened flatter piece of tubing, the artist tells me.
So the work on the floor (therefore a scupture) rests on this straight edge. The work on the wall (a painting of sorts) has been filled out with plasterboard to make a perfect circle.
Arendt also notes that in ancient Greece, there was a feeling of arrogance among the painters. She recalls that even as late as the renaissance, sculptors were considered to be servile.
For this reason Magee’s piece is a bold act of resistance. It is both sculpture, painting and, in stepping back from one example of each, a radical piece of curating. Nothing menial about that.
When confronted with a work of contemporary art, it is common to look for a handle. But it is not always easy to get to grips with an abstract sculpture or an assemblage.
You could go to the press release. After all, that’s what a reviewer will do. But then every so often a piece comes along which nullifies the various texts surrounding it.
Such is the case with Lewandowski’s work. It has 100 handles, and so offers 100 points of theoretical contact. They give his assorted items of bric-a-brac an unruly personality.
None of the handles seem to fit. Many clasp objects with no clear function, many are superfluous, and they are all incongruous in some way. Too big, too small, too weird.
For example, he’s screwed a plastic briefcase handle onto a copy of history’s most enduring piece of art criticism: The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari.
It gives the seminal book a workmanlike appearance. Rather than a dusty tome, it is here an industrious tool. But at the same time, this is absurd. It looks like satire.
There’s also a handle on a colourful globe. This looks like it once belonged to a plastic bucket, as if you might take planet Earth with you to the beach. That’s pretty escapist.
Elsewhere there’s a handle on a giant letter K, which reads to these eyes like a reference to Kafka, who also encourages yet defies the grasp of critics and onlookers.
So the handles hold you, rather than the other way round. They draw you in and sustain your interest as you look around the many curious items in this corner at APT Gallery.
This is a complex installation. You could write a crit about each of the 100 items. They might fill a book, onto which you might propose the artist graft a further handle.
It would be a handle on 100 written handles on 100 actual handles. There is something already quite all-consuming about this series which seems like it could go on forever.
Last Saturday I spent eight or so intense hours hot footing it around a coastal town in South East England in search of the many artworks which make up Whitstable Biennale.
The coach dropped us at the Horsebridge Arts Centre, in which could be seen a wry excavation of 35-year-old television drama ,Sapphire and Steel, in a diverting film by Mark Aerial Waller.
Not so far away, in a sea cadet hall, Rachel Reupke had dramatised the power dynamics in a set of complaint letters. It was a mysterious if not completely opaque bit of performance art.
In a psychedelic beach hut on a westerly beach, John Walter was entertaining guest after guest with G&T plus gypsy tarts. I had no idea if the sun was past the yard arm, but oh well.
On the South Quay I found this sculpture by local stevedores working on behalf of Laura Wilson. Her accompanying film was a poetic slice of everyday life in an industrial zone.
This may look like a scene from Abu Ghraib but in fact it’s a church hall and these hooded figures are art lovers taking in bit of cosmic sound art from The Arka Group. It was hot under there.
In the nearby postal delivery office, Jeremy Millar had built a screening room from fire blankets. The film itself followed a day in the life of a troubled man alone in a stunning marsh landscape.
A community centre called Umbrella Hall was the location for a piece of sound art by Rosa Ainley. It treated the rise and fall of a local Pfizer building and was described, not by me, as a Greek chorus.
Seven pm and the sun was still up. Das Hund played a gig in a boat shed. I guess any old singer can carry a tune, so Samuel Levack’s atonal delivery was all the more impressive.
Forgive the gastroporn but, not having eaten since breakfast, fish and chips on Whitstable beach was just the ticket. It’s a fantastic event and if you can go next weekend, do.
Whitstable Biennale 2014 runs until June 15.
This sunday calls for a religious artwork, a blasphemous one even. What you see is a bird cage, a fishing lure and two pairs of mean looking hooks.
It looks like a remake of Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy?, a birdcage which in 1921 Marcel Duchamp filled with sugar cubes. But we live in vicious times.
Nothing appears to support the fish. Two fine strands of cat gut allow it to hover, as if on a cloud. Let’s call that an Easter miracle.
It really is a fish out of water. The base of the cage is lined with the candy coloured gravel you would usually find in an aquarium. That much is easy on the eye.
Heaven appears to be a cage with no exit and a dangerous incentive to break in. The hooks are man-size. Your way in might be through pain and coercion.
But Jesus liked fishermen. He asked Simon and Andrew to become fishers of men. An artist must be a fisher of collectors, curators, critics and the public at large.
So what can he or she do to grow an audience? Wallinger leaves one spellbound by a visual conundrum, a piece of heaven you can puzzle over.
His heaven is quite an empty place, mind you, the only occupant a trap for big game. And that’s damning in all senses of the word.
Jorge Luis Borges said: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library”. If you also love art, you might just as well substitute library for gallery.
Be warned however, if an artist snags you by the tongue, they will reel you in. You will find yourself talking about them whether you like it or not.
This piece can be seen in Somewhat Abstract at Nottingham Contemporary until June 29 2014
Artists often go too far. Sometimes it can seem that any art worth its salt has to do just that, to show some form of excess, to do something inordinately repetitive, or of course skilled.
Jakob Dahlgren’s thirteen year-long durational project will have many scratching their heads, asking what is the point? But to provoke that very question seems to be the point.
The Swedish artist has worn a striped t-shirt every day since 2001. There’s not much more to it than that. Although, apparently, he invites people to ‘curate’ the wardrobe for him.
It might not sound too impressive. He has an archive of 1000s of numbered shirts. He has as many photos on an Instagram site. But the work’s very lack of gravity could indeed be his point.
Dahlgren calls the work Peinture Abstraite and that smattering of French is not putting on airs. It is rather puncturing the work of those who have been historically content to paint coloured stripes.
People are still painting stripes. In austerity Britain they are probably at it right now. And Dahlgren compares this no doubt serious endeavour with just so many sartorial decisions.
He wouldn’t name names, but the artist said he drew inspiration from a range of artists whose work he didn’t very much like. He doesn’t like them, but they engage him.
In turn, you might not like his t-shirt project. But if you are reading this, it is hoped that Peinture abstraite has engaged you in some way too. It fights fire with fire, decoration with decoration.
And the fact he has just gone too far with the t-shirt idea, sporting them at weddings and funerals alike, just makes me warm to this deceptively simple piece.
For the stripe painters out there, fear not. Dahlgren is not above picking up a brush, dusting off a worn t-shirt and painting what he sees. There’s no getting away from it.
The first human to live for 500 years has already been born. So suggests a digital graphic novel by artist David Blandy, illustrator Daniel Locke and writer Adam Rutherford.
Helix launches next month and promises users the chance to interact with spider goats, DJ Kool Herc, Crick and Watson and the Great God Pan. But let me expand on that.
Spider goats are one of the finest achievements of the burgeoning field synthetic biology. They can spin web from their udders and this, apparently, has commercial applications.
DJ Kool Herc, a predecessor of this natural history mash up, features here as the inventor of hip hop. Professional fan Blandy has dropped him into the convoluted story of DNA.
As you may know, Francis Crick and James Watson also feature in that tale. But before uncovering the structure of genetics they worked on the Manhattan Project, another twist.
(Blandy and Locke also quick to give props to Rosalind Franklin who, despite her contributions to her colleagues’ discovery, missed out on the Nobel Prize.)
Pan comes into it as a foreshadowing of the goat story. He makes for a great illustration, in homage to Goya, holding court with worshippers complete with evil horns.
Locke drew inspiration from 1950s text books and and has worked up the four chapters of history and narrative in a flat, approachable and lucid style.
And what with the A-bomb, the hip hop, and the barefooted wanderer, who here lives to be 500, the project enfolds much of Blandy’s previous work as thoroughly as a double helix.
The pair were speaking at Lighthouse in Brighton on Thursday evening, along with a rep or two from Storythings, the digital agency which has brought the project to life.
But the two visual artists are keen to see a print version of their saga and hinted that the story could grow and grow, getting progressively more cosmic as it goes.
Graphic novels get a hard time in mainstream culture. Neither fine art nor works of literature they are often viewed with suspicion by traditional artists and writers.
But I found that after tapping through Helix on an iPad, just once, it really sunk in. This is surely a medium, given our web-fried memories, whose time has come.
Helix is a commission by Lighthouse and launches on April 8 2014. For more info on David Blandy visit his site, and watch a few of his films. Daniel Locke, meanwhile, is awaiting the publication of another graphic novel, 311 Ditchling Road, from Nobrow Press.