“Sometimes lo-fi stuff is more immediate": Corinna Spencer interview below.

Photo diary: Marrakech Biennale 5

Posted: March 7th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: biennials, contemporary art | Tags: , , | No Comments »

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.

mb5 poster

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(!)

mb5 asm waqif 2

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.

mb5 max boufathal

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.

mb5 erci van hove

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.

mb5 gabriel lester

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.

mb5 fabbers

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.

mb5 hicham benohoud

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.

mb5 saadane afif

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.

mb5 freq-out

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.

mb5 ponomarev

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.

mb5 tortoise

John Skoog: Redoubt (2014)

Posted: February 12th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: contemporary art, film installation | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »


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)

Posted: January 28th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: contemporary art, painting, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »


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.

Chris Watson and Iain Pate, HRAFN; Conversations with Odin (2013)

Posted: January 23rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: contemporary art, sound art | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Two myths converge in an evocative piece by a sound recordist and a producer. The first myth concerns the most powerful Norse god and the second myth could concern you.

HRAFN will be staged in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, with support from the Forestry Commission. The artists reveal that Odin owned two pet ravens: Huginn and Muninn.

These two tame harbingers would sally forth at daybreak and observe goings on in the wider world, much like a pair of spy drones would do in this day and age.

Upon their return they would sit on Odin’s shoulders and tell him all that they had seen and heard. It intrigues me that such a major god was not already omniscient.

The ravens were web-like prosthetics. Huginn related to thought; Muninn to memory. Odin once said: “For Huginn I fear lest he return not home, but I am more anxious for Muninn”.

Chris Watson and Iain Pate have also been waiting for ravens. They’ve been waiting for the birds to return to roost on the site of a forest in the North East. The birds predate the trees.

The duo will take a group of art and nature lovers away from the car park, over a stone bridge portal and into the heart of the forest where they promise 2,000 of the birds.

But this is myth number two. Inspired perhaps by Loki, the god of mischief, the team are to engineer a 21st c. raven-based hack to achieve their desired effect.

And so, hidden speakers will pipe the birds’ cawing down from a canopy, from the vault of abundant conifers which have been compared to columns in the hall of Valhalla.

The birds will arrive with the darkness, a situation which has been restaged to disorienting effect at Jerwood Space, when the film comprising their proposal blacks out.

Now you wait, blind and anxious, until you hear the ravens arrive. There is a mood of conversation between these birds, both palpable and comforting.

You can even imagine, in the polyphonic soundscape, that you have a bird on either shoulder: one of them helping you think; one of them helping you remember.

For your benefit, I made the sound recording below. If you’re interested in the amazing work of Chris Watson, try this documentary about his work with David Attenborough.

This work together with pieces by Semiconductor, Amanda Loomes, Adam James and Juan Delgado can be seen in Jerwood Open Forest, Jerwood Space, London, until February 23.

BREAKING: Since writing, I’ve been told that the film was just a proposal. So congratulations to Chris and Ian who, along with Semiconductor, have won a commission from the Jerwood Open Forest initiative. Their project will now take place in September 2014.

Sam Ayres, Work Programme 28

Posted: January 20th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: contemporary art, site specific art | No Comments »


When even the pawnbrokers are strapped for cash, you know we are in trouble. This sign, using poor materials, was a focal point in Sam Ayres’ recent show at CAC.

Other exhibits included a local church made from cardboard boxes and thatched with the pages of homeless-vendor magazine Big Issue. The slates had apparently been stolen.

Then there was the small matter of a masonic bib gaffer taped to the wall. Thus Ayres drew together a strange trinity of usury, protestantism and clandestine power.

The avowed influence here is Max Weber, whose protestant ethic thesis ties the rise in capitalism to the increase in private enterprise in 16th century Calvinist societies in Northern Europe.

Perhaps there is an ironic dimension to the church in question. It is only five or six years since the French Protestant Church of Brighton was sold to a property developer.

Even if, before the church was consecrated in 1888, the local mayor laid a foundation stone with a special trowel. One imagines special trowels are pretty rich in masonic symbolism.

Yet, it was never plain sailing for the early protestants of Brighton. In the 16th century a refugee from Liège, Deryck Carver, was burned at the stake for holding bible readings.

And whereas more than £1500 was drummed up for an eventual church, the Rev J. Gregory warned that this was “stirring the Lord’s fire with the devil’s poker”.

With the announcement today that just 85 people are as wealthy as the poorer half of the globe, we can see that the devil’s poker continues to be hard at work.

Of course, pawnbrokers are pretty non-denominational. Indeed, they’ve been around for longer than Christianity. So the inclusion of golden balls in this show is tantalising.

But the practice is said to have come to these shores with the Norman invasion. So like the church, they offer another French spin (Hastings is nearby) on a fine site-specific display.

Work Programme 28 opened (and closed) at Community Arts Centre, Brighton, on Saturday 18 January. Sorry if you missed it.

Charlie Billingham, Port Tack (2013)

Posted: January 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: contemporary art, installation art | No Comments »


A market in ancient Greece is distinguishable from the art market, but by less than you might think. In both you find the free circulation of ideas along with goods and services.

Like any auction house, the agora was a place of assembly. It had a political role as much as a commercial one and the etym contains the verbs for both “shop” and “speak in public”.

But the marketplace in late capitalism is nothing if not competitive. Perhaps that is why Charlie Billingham has staged a boat race in his bright and cheerful solo show at Ceri Hand.

The boat in shot is one of three. It is in the lead. And if the title is to be heeded, it is taking a left turn. Thus while you shop, Billingham can’t help speaking in public.

And the Greek connection is surely relevant. The sea where this boat sails is a limpid tapestry of a watercolour, made by Billingham during a stay in the Greek Islands.

It was machine stitched in Belgium. Trust a more Northern country to bring in a mercantile context. These are the waters which surround us in the current global economy.

This might be a good time to note the title of the show, Tender. Gentle, yes, but also with a sense of currency. Art can be tender in both senses.

Yet there is something jolly and bracing about this tacking and jibing, etc. The installations take their shape and dimensions from Laser Pico sailing dinghies. Ie; vessels of pleasure.

This motif suggests the optimism of a upcoming artist who enjoys his vocation, also a race of sorts. It results in a vibrant, sunny show in a grey month.

So is it fair to read a political intention into this riot of colour and marine sports? Given the situation in Greece these days, it is hard to get away from that bias.

Fans of austerity, keep heading right. Those who would rather stimulate the arts with funding, or even patronage of any kind, get on board.

Charlie Billingham: Tender is at Ceri Hand, London, until Jaunary 18 2013. Read a profile of the artist here; he has moved on quite a bit from his work in the Saatchi Gallery.

Work Programme at CAC

Posted: January 13th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Brighton, contemporary art, residencies, Uncategorized | No Comments »

work programme

“Unfortunately, this being East Germany/Gert patriotically volunteered to be sent on a labour/Beautification course of the countryside north-west of Dresden/And never seen again.” *

There is something punitive about Work Programme at the gallery known as CAC. At time of writing we’re on edition 28, and more than 27 souls have already pitched in and given us shows. Work is on the tin; artists are expected to labour. And this is a Programme, a temporal and spatial structure which must be followed: fill a Brighton gallery in just six days and make it good.

But what results! Each one has been a triumph of the impossible. Rarely have so many, produced so much, in so little time and with so little cash. Hard graft has led to, I would say, miracles. And to arrive at a launch is always to see a familiar place rendered strange. Yet the next conscript moves in on the very next day. A Francis Alÿs piece comes to mind: Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing.

This important film, also called Paradox of Praxis, follows the Belgian artist as he pushes a block of ice around the streets of Mexico City. It takes an entire day for the sliding block of H2O to melt. So he is left with nothing (although of course he has a film). Work Programme also leads to nothing. But in both cases, nothing is not a failure but a good outcome.

Needless to say, in these austere times, Work Programme doesn’t pay. In this respect it is worse than sewing mail bags. But, if only for one week, free labour does allow artists to opt out from the dominant economy, with its hedge funds and its property ladders. It gives participants and audience, alike, access to another non-monetary system, that of the gift.

Anthropologists are not the only ones to have an interest in the gift-giving feast of potlatch. Found in North West Canada and some parts of the States, this competitive event is a non-lethal act of war. It asks which indigenous tribe can give away the most. Things get out of hand, buildings are burnt and possessions thrown in rivers.

Meanwhile back at CAC, shows open on saturday evening; on sunday they close. The spotlight lasts less than 24 hours. Work is removed, and often destroyed, before the weekend is out. This moves us away from the commodification of art and, in the subterranean space at CAC, we find a community of artists and friends surely tapping into something a little more primal.

And just as cells (correctional and/or monastic) are the most ambient of spaces. The architecture at 31 Queens Road are by now well charged with hard work, anxiety and at times, clearly, wild flights of inspiration. CAC might be the engine room of the Brighton art scene, making other gallery models look cumbersome.

But are they cumbersome, or merely humane? As demonstrated, this is a punishing model for art production. If it suggests a gulag or a camp, that would suit our provincial setting at the end of the A23. And by the way, a certain Mark E Smith (singer with The Fall) once described Brighton as a “cultural prison”**. To the best of my knowledge he has never been to Work Programme, but he would recognize it for what it is.

The first Work Programme of 2014 opens (and closes) on Saturday 18/01 at 7pm at Community Arts Centre, 31 Queens Road. The artist in residence is Sam Ayres.

*The Fall, Athlete Cured (from the 1988 album, The Frenz Experiment).

**Mark E Smith, Renegade (Penguin 2008), p.150

criticismism’s top posts of 2013

Posted: December 31st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: aggregation, contemporary art | No Comments »


Tis (still, just) the season to be jolly and certainly the time of year for lazy reviews of the past 12 months. And should that review be in the form of a listicle, well all the merrier.

So here, in case you were wondering, are the most popular posts on criticismism in 2013:

  • Number 5: this was a cross post with Culture24 so chances are it got more views than the 288 who hit this page on my blog: an interview with Martin Creed
  • 4th place: 319 of you read, or gazed upon, my photodiary from Derry-Londonderry. I guess I should have pushed this some more during the Tuner Prize, but oh well.
  • In 3: Having enjoyed his work in Brighton’s House Festival, it was a pleasure to visit the studio of David Wightman for an interview (373 hits)
  • Second: was it a T-shirt? Was it a painting? Buff by Hannah Knox certainly pulled in some traffic. And so 463 visitors pondered similar questions
  • Top, by a country mile: 1,160 art lovers and/or hip hop fans joined me for a critical appraisal of the lyrics of Picasso Baby by Jay Z.

Most strangely, there’s a wealth of content dating back to 2009 which is still performing well. My all time top post is something short I wrote about Remedios Varo in 2010.

What might I learn from this? How might I improve? Answers on the back of a used Xmas card please.

Found Objects 24/12/13

Posted: December 24th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: aggregation, contemporary art | No Comments »

Is it the 24th already? In that case it’s time for some festive Found Objects. Many many thanks to anyone and everyone who has ever read this blog and season’s greetings/happy new year. I ramble.

  • We kick off with a wintry art quiz by Jonathan Jones at the Guardian. I only got seven out of ten which, while not quite shameful, is enough to have already spoiled my Christmas.
  • Also from the Guardian, ghost stories. Well, not the actually stories as such but a sociological account of their popularity. Meta xmas, everyone.
  • This is the most festive link of all, even if it dates back three years. Tyler Green’s 2010 advent calendar is a cornucopia of delights.
  • Many of you may well be in transit to friends and family in far flung places. But spare a thought for Pussy Riot, getting back from Siberia, and not a hint they’ve mellowed.
  • Prosthetic Knowledge pick their technology of the year on Rhizome.org. It’s the Oculus Rift and it’s frankly a bit scary if compared with two dimensional blogs like this one.
  • Christmas is a fine time for blazing rows, on the soaps at least. So those thoughtful folk at the Telegraph have put together a compilation of cultural spats from the last 12 months.
  • A white Christmas is guaranteed in the Alps and to get the most of it you must try this Skywalk, preferably with the slippers which prevent you from plunging a kilometre to your death.
  • FAD invite Kimberley Brown to bring her critical theory chops to selected works in the National Gallery. The results are tantalising if brief. Thanks to Ben Street for the link.
  • Just when you thought the Cariou v. Prince trial was done and dusted along comes a friends of the court brief and 45,000 petitioners to reopen proceedings. Hyperallergic unpicks the story
  • Finally, a bit late, but this was the highlight of the Mandela coverage for me. Comedian Mark Steel sends up the hypocrisy of some of those who, no doubt, are still deep in mourning.

The finite charms of the Chapman brothers

Posted: December 17th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: 20th century, contemporary art, installation art | No Comments »
Jake and Dinos Chapman, Installation view, Come and See, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, © 2013 Hugo Glendinning

Jake and Dinos Chapman,
Installation view, Come and See, Serpentine Sackler Gallery,
© 2013 Hugo Glendinning

In a book you can be fairly sure the Chapmans have read, A Thirst for Annihilation, philosopher Nick Land reports on the encounter between American GIs and the mass graves of the Nazi death camps.

If memory serves me right, many of the liberators, upon encountering piles of unburied bodies, said they experienced a rush-like death wish, a desire to be just so many more nameless bodies.

Such transgressive feelings are, apparently, impossible to recreate in a gallery. But the two enfants terrible have surely tried, having peopled several dioramas with thousands of tiny model corpses.

These museum-like cases, which also feature Nazi soldiers and the cast of a McDonalds Happy Meal, are, rather than annihilating, just plain fun. They are fun in the way Bosch or Breugel are fun.

Which is to say they combine a picture book pleasure with a wealth of comic detail. But the power of these pieces is contained by the glass behind which they sit. There is no leakage.

Humour is everywhere in the current retrospective at Serpentine. You will have heard about the KKK, no doubt. Expect your visit to be joined by a score of Klansmen in rainbow socks and sandals.

It’s the socks which really annoy, as if there were no other viewpoints in art rather than fascist or woolly new age-ism. This blogger is guilty of a bit of that. But it’s not the full story, surely.

Compare the Chapmans’ dioramas to a serious piece of political art and they lose their impact. Alfredo Jaar, for example, has made a devastating film about Rwanda with not a snigger in sight.

Wherever the power lies these days, these pillaging Nazis and totemic fast food clowns are the straw men of contemporary art; they are panto villians rather than an immediate threat.

But, in keeping with the metaphor of seasonal theatre, the Chapman brothers themselves are always “behind you”. Half the works in the retrospective are scruffy cardboard send ups of modernism.

And what can you say about a world in which a stuffed fox is shagging a stuffed hare, which mounts a stuffed rabbit, which is having it away with a rat, who in turn screws an unfortunate mouse.

To suggest the mouse will inherit the earth would be to no doubt invite peals of laughter. There is no getting away from the law of the jungle, the reign of capital or kings.

But what can you do with this art? The closest it gets to transcendence is a grim money shot in an explicit film which is coupled with a children’s choir singing Morning is Broken.

In a several rapid strokes, innuendo intended, the Chapmans reduce religion to the side effect of an onanistic handjob. It is, once again, hard to argue against. The show is a closed circle.

Starting with the holocaust and the ravages of capitalism, here are their glib conclusions. But imagine how limited he might appear had Picasso spent his whole career riffing off Guernica.

Forgive me if I shelter behind a monumental piece of 20th century art to round off my criticisms of Jake and Dinos. But what gets them out of bed in the morning and why not make art about that?

Jake and Dinos Chapman: Come and See is on view at Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9 Feburary 2014.

Leave a Reply