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

UK Exhibitions: February 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.

UK exhibitions: January 2015

Ruth Ewan takes us back to the fields at CAC...

Ruth Ewan takes us back to the fields at CAC…

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.

Tom Dale, Rock on Standby (2014)

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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.

Tom Dale: Terminal Blue can be seen at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, until 7 February 2015. For more on this artist see my previous posts here, here, and here.

Nick Davies, From Tippex Forms (i-iv) (2014)

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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.

The full show, Intention Invention Convention by Nick Davies, can be seen at exeter phoenix until January 10 2015. Here’s my (soon amended) post for Bad at Sports.

Turner Prize 2014

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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.

Roberts, Selmes & Bartlett, Work Programme 71 (2014)

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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.

Sophie Dickson, Shooting Range (pt 2) (2014)

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At a point of maximal chaos, the objects in this sculpture hang together and you feel you could take your finger off the pause button and return this scene to order.

The tableau is composed of ‘junk’, but white paint gives it a wintry appearance, akin to a seasonal shop window, and perhaps one dressed by an anarchist.

Look closer and you will see a cash till, caught mid air, cash drawer gaping, empty. As a nation of shopkeepers, this is an attack on all we hold dear.

But look it’s okay. The whole thing is kept within a theatrical frame. Despite a lack of glass or limits, there is a notional vitrine, nodding to blue chip art-mongers like Hirst and Koons.

Perhaps following in the footsteps of the former organiser of Freeze, Dickson has taken on a vast space in Circus Street, and for a solo show no less.

Hence she demonstrates a youthful talent for wrangling planning applications and funding bids. She has overcome a mountain of paperwork along with a mountain of junk.

Most of the found objects used here are obsolete, a landline phone, a cassette player. They are perhaps fossilised. But fossils don’t get airborne like this.

I want to say it is rare for explosions to turn rooms like this upside down here in Brighton. Yet in 1984, the whole country was rocked by a bomb in the Brighton Grand Hotel.

But this was six years before Dickson was even born. So one can only guess at whatever ash-covered interiors might have inspired this work. Strangely beautiful, there are plenty of them.

Junk is Beautiful can be found in Circus Street, Brighton, until November 21. See Facebook page for opening times.

Sanja Iveković, The Disobedient (The Revolutionaries) (2012)

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The fifty donkeys were cute and the labels were amusing. But it was the third element in this piece which packed a real punch. A photo of a real donkey behind barbed wire in a town square.

It was a scene was staged by Nazi authorities in 1933 as a warning not to be stubborn and buy from Jewish shopkeepers. Or you too might end up in a concentration camp.

This shot was printed in a German newspaper in 1933, but for the purposes of this show it’s been blown up and displayed as forensic evidence on a lightbox.

Suddenly the donkey becomes the most noble of beasts. And the talent of these stuffed revolutionaries, the best examples of humanity, from Benjamin to Biko, becomes intransigence.

In the catalogue to artes mundi 6, essayist Natasa Ilic reveals that Bertold Brecht worked with a small wooden donkey on his desk to remind him of a critical section of his audience.

Hardworking donkeys are the salt of the earth. Which may be why, in the US political system, donkeys are democratic. It takes a tough hide, rather than a sharp mind, to make revolution.

The burden of so many of these cuddly toys, or the figures whose name they share, is to have had endured persecution, torture and in many cases execution.

As Manca Bajec points out on culture magazine B-turn, to see this piece is to realise that donkeys are unlikely heroes. Move aside Winnie, Eeyore’s in town.

Once again Ilic highlights something interesting. At least one philosopher has linked the spirit of revolution in the early 21st century to depression, withdrawal and exhaustion.

In the absence of any horizon of positive change, we must all learn from the donkey how to endure. Our only comfort, in the austerity age, might be a soft toy and a memory.

Just by way of an interesting aside: the German authorities may have overlooked the story of Balaam and the ass when they staged their 1930s photo op.

Balaam was of course a prophet on his way to curse the Israelites when the Angel of the Lord came down to turn him back and indeed destroy him.

His equine steed, a donkey as you will know, was granted sight of the Angel. And cut a long story short, Balaam ended up blessing the Jewish homeland. Spooky or what?

Iveković is one of nine shortlisted artists in artes mundi 6. The exhibition runs in various venues in Cardiff until 22 February 2015.

Dinh Q Lê, The Farmers and the Helicopters (2006)

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.

Wang Yuyang, Breathing Books (2014)

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“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.