Rachael Champion, Naturally Occurring  Brutalist Structure (2013)

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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.

Alan Magee, Return to glory (2014)

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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.

This work was in Trade at pop up gallery Castor Projects between 29/08 and 10/09. See more by the artist on his website.

Simon Lewandowski, 100 Things With Handles (2008)


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.

100 Things with Handles could be seen at APT Gallery, Deptford, London as part of group show Morphisisation (7th -17th August 2014). Lewandowski’s website can be found here.

Photodiary: Whitstable Biennale 2014

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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.

mark aerial waller

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.

rachel ruepke

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.

john walter

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.

laura wilson

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.

jeremy millar

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.

rosa ainley

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.

das hund

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.

fish and chips

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.

Mark Wallinger, Heaven (1988)


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

Jakob Dahlgren, Peinture abstraite (2001 – present)


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.

Peinture Abstraite can be seen at Fabrica, Brighton, until 26 May 2014. Check out Dahlgren’s Instagram site for more images and see the artist’s website for more info on the project.

David Blandy, Adam Rutherford and Daniel Locke, Helix (2014)


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.

Photo diary: Marrakech Biennale 5

I lucked out with this: a press trip to the fifth Marrakech Biennale. Having never before visited North Africa, culture shock kicked in before we had even checked in at the (palatial) hotel.

As you see from this piece of guerilla marketing, the event asks ‘Where are we now?’. On my first night I was advised by some more experienced local hands to have adventures and ‘get lost’ here.

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Asim Waqif’s sound sculpture, The Pavilion of Debris, jockeys for attention with a number of nesting storks. The locals revere these migratory birds and the city was once home to a stork hospital(!)

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My understanding of nomadic war machines is limited, but I imagine they would look something like this super-charged crossbow. Max Boufathal reportedly has popular culture in his sights.

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This is perhaps the most talked about exhibit on opening week, an F1 engine made locally using craft materials. 50 different craftsmen and women were apparently used to construct this sculptural beast.

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Possibly one of the strangest gigs this musician has ever been booked for. Gabriel Lester walled up a gnawa band inside a performative sculpture. I’m still not quite sure why, but it was compelling.

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Here you see an offline, open source, 3D printer engaged in crafting the model of a star shaped clay dwelling. Operators, Urban Fab Lab, aim to one day work on life-size scale in rural Africa.

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This was Hicham Benohoud’s iconic signage on the Bank Al Maghrib. Whether or not the Biennale has flipped this city on it’s head, there were plenty of sights to flip out this foreign visitor.

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My favourite work, a geometry lecture at twilight in the city sqaure. As you can just about see, Saâdane Afif is here discussing the circle with an audience of everyday Moroccans, who were rapt.

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Of all the venues, this unfinished opera house was the most impressive. The Theatre Royal now houses a sound installation by freq_out, in which 12 composers work in 12 stirring frequencies.

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Finally, a proper showstopper by Alexander Ponomarev. Take one desert, one helicopter, one monumental installation of a ship and mix up with a set of letters in the sand to breathtaking effect.

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And finally, a tortoise, attempting in vain to climb a step at the festival hub El Fenn. So long little guy! I get the feeling he’ll still be here in 2016; let’s hope this cosmopolitan Biennale is as well.

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John Skoog: Redoubt (2014)


As if they know what awaits them in adult life, children are drawn to castles, fortresses and hideaways. This was also perhaps the case for John Skoog.

The Swedish artist tells me he grew up 40 minutes from the mother of all imaginary dens: a bunker, made in response to WWII, which took one man some 30 years to build.

“I kept going back there and photographing it and trying to come up with, what kind of work? Since I was drawn to make a work about it, work with it,” says Skoog.

Now the giant concrete panic room stars in a 14 minute film at Towner in Eastbourne, also once the site of fortifications against a feared invasion by Napoleon.

As the camera tracks around the scarred facade, you can meditate on the post-war fears which drove farmhand Karl Göran to construct such a thing.

“It looks like some kind of weird, post-minimal macho american sculpture,” observes the artist. Indeed, it has a rugged and inhospitable texture. It menaces.

Göran was poor and reinforced the concrete with whatever came to hand. “He didn’t have any money so he took whatever he could get and put it into the drying cement.”

So now the film reveals a bike frame, various buckets and cans, even the springs from a bedstead. This is outsider architecture of the highest order.

Voiceovers to the brooding film relate anecdotes about Göran. Skoog discovered that his muse used a bicycle to bring all the material to the site. Facts like this “charge” the work.

These disembodied voiceovers drift in and out or the silence which emanates from the so-called house. So I ask why the artist opted not to anchor the piece with a narrator.

“For me, it is a very, very straight documentary,” he says with a laugh. “I think I am excited by films which perform what they are interested in or what they work with.”

Skoog complains about the voiceovers used to state the visibly obvious in documentaries made for TV: “I always think that’s kind of rude to the people watching”.

The location is animated with four long tracking shots, which feel like a single take. “In the last image you see where you started so it is really circling the house,” says the artist.

As a result it is a disorienting film. “With Göran’s house it is very hard to know what’s a wall and what’s a ceiling, what’s a floor. That’s maybe what gives this very physical presence.”

Remote and ominous as this Redoubt may be, Skoog finds something “really beautiful” about the fortress, which was never called into use to to shelter rural locals.

“It’s clear he had another effect,” says the artist. “He kind of questioned something of how one lives, how you live your life . . . how do your deal with fear?” How indeed.

This film can be seen at Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, until 6 April 2014. You can read a longer interview with this artist and a collaborator at Bad at Sports.

Tala Madani, Reading Light (2013)


At the risk of over analysing a good joke, it’s worth considering this painting by Tala Madani. It’s as funny as anything in her scurrilous UK survey in Nottingham.

The dude with the erect torch, well, in his mind he’s a sex god. He appears to think that red shaft is a part of his body. Or at least he’s happy for us to think so.

But what most amuses me are the two eager boffins. They come to him with an unfolded map, as if they realise they’re lost, or a blueprint, as if big plans are afoot.

There is nothing sexual about their enquiry at all, but they rely on a diffuse glow from a bigger man’s trousers. And don’t we all? Perhaps men are simply more prone to hero worship.

His actual sex remains a mystery. The torch is also a searchlight. But we cannot see what it has found. (Even if Madani is not averse to painting a cock or two when the occasion calls for it.)

Both the alpha type and the boffins are characters who crop up in other works here.  And as has been pointed out before, the Iranian artist tends to focus on masculinity.

I wanted to link this to her cultural background. If it be difficult to paint like this in present day Iran, be assured that Madani has enjoyed the relative safety of LA since a young age.

But see how this blogger has also bustled up close to the light with a mental map. Like the boffins in this piece, I want to orientate myself and to fix a position for the artist.

Perhaps, and this is a long shot, the paunchy one is not a man at all. Perhaps she is a fleshy stand in for the female artist complete with fetish (torch) and disguise (beard).

Yet the work remains as unknowable as the contents of those tented trousers. The phallus is at once presence and absence at the heart of a biting satire, a drama of gendered darkness and light.

Tala Madani: Rear Projection can be seen at Nottingham Contemporary until 23rd March 2014.