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

Susan Hiller, Lucidity and Intuition: Homage to Gertrude Stein, 2011

What could be more uncanny than neat piles of books actually underneath a desk, if not neat piles of books on a decidedly uncanny subject? In this case, automatic writing.

For Gertrude Stein, to whom this sculpture is intended as a homage, the books represent a return of the repressed. The writer went from experimenting with the technique to denying it existed

The binder on the work surface contains her postgraduate work on the topic, with an introduction by Susan Hiller. This is the dry, public facing side of the work, the writer and perhaps the artist too.

But the subterranean library is where you’ll find the action. Suddenly we have colour. Those books give the sculpture a transgressive energy. They fly in the face of reason.

For me, the most unheimlich thing of all was to notice who gave Hiller her first books about Stein. According to her introduction it was Tom Verlaine. I assume that’s the singer and guitarist.

His former band Television looms much larger in my imagination than the towering figure of 20th century art and letters to whom this piece is dedicated. Although I probably feel they shouldn’t.

Ironic that one of my earliest influences should have found its way into this piece about suppressed artistic sources. Not that I would ever disown my love of that whole New York punk scene.

I wouldn’t want to come home to find a poltergeist had bricked up my desk with records, after all.

This piece can be seen as part of Susan Hiller: An Ongoing Investigation at Timothy Taylor Gallery until 5 March. See gallery website for more details.

You might also read an interview with the artist by Rachel Cooke in the Guardian and this piece about the show at Tate Britain in the same paper by Rachel Withers.

Rory Macbeth, The Wanderer by Franz Kafka, 2011

Looking at art and reading can seem poles apart. Galleries are public spaces in which we move from one room to another. Reading is usually sedentary and usually in some way private.

But The Wanderer by Franz Kafka, by Rory Macbeth, suggests otherwise. The title promises a mobile activity, while the reading which took place held many gallery goers in one spot.

In case you were wondering, this does not represent the discovery of a lost masterpiece by Kafka.That is a home-made book, a translation, and Macbeth claims not to speak German.

Gregor Samsa crops up, so we may take this to be a version of Metamorphosis. And we may also take it that in every act of reading some translation, or metamorphosis, takes place.

Of course, reading does get done in galleries. We read plaques, interpretation boards, even the works themselves. But this work suggests it may all stray from the path of intended meaning.

The modernism of Kafka et al may be to blame. And this may be a warning, given the outcome for his best known protagonists. Wanderings can only go so far, after all.

NB: That’s not the artist in the photo, but someone he delegated to perform The Wanderer at the launch of Display Copy at Kunstfreund Gallery, Leeds (29/01/11). The show features work by Rory Macbeth and Ross Downes and runs until 12 February. See gallery blog for more details.

Urs Fischer, Untitled (2000)

These two mismatched halves, screwed together and suspended out of reach, bring to mind both the promise and the pitfalls of romantic love.

First there is the seedy, fruitful aspect of these two fruits pushed together. But then there are the unavoidable differences as they find themselves hung out to dry in a marriage from hell.

Half this story comes from a Greek myth. It is said human beings once existed in pairs, joined back to back, and that jealous god Zeus cleaved them in two “like a sorb-apple”. Aristophanes tells the tale in Plato’s Symposium.

The playwright goes on to ask what might happen if, “with all his instruments,” Hephaestus offered to re-attach any two lovers in search of their missing wholeness.

He concludes: “There is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need.”

So no one can resist the invitation of the god of sculpture. This might explain why life is full of odd couples and why we invest so much in a perishable union.

But we might yet say that this symbol of youth (apple) and symbol of immortality (pear) were made for each other. They hang in perfect balance and it is reported that as both halves decay they really do appear to melt into another.

This piece is one of the overseas contributions to Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy. It can be seen there, in varying stages of decay, until7 April 2011.

Read more about Swiss artist Urs Fischer from Calvin Tompkins in The New Yorker or from Adrian Searle in the Guardian.

Sean Lynch, DeLorean Progress Report, 2009-10

DeLorean Progress Report, installation view

Tooling presses once used to manufacture a dream sports car of the 1980s are now to be found 18m below sea level, a habitation for crabs, sea cucumbers and a lobster. This is not a metaphor.

A metaphor would be the 1981 commercial for the DeLorean DMC-12 which showed the car by the ocean with both gull-wing doors open. This image dissolved into a shot of an actual gull in flight.

We have long been familiar with happenings in life which get called stranger than fiction. But this installation is comprised of real world objects which appear more wondrous than art.

There are photos of submerged cast iron presses, together with crabs, taken by industrial divers. And the stainless steel body parts from a DMC-12 were made by a vintage car restorer.

Admittedly, both forms of evidence were commissioned by artist Sean Lynch. So the first becomes a conceptual photograph and the second a contemporary sculpture.

And yet biomarine surveys are conducted in Kilkieran Bay and there are many DeLorean owners who lovingly maintain their vehicles. So the works also display what might be called the poetry of fact.

You may be wondering why part of a car factory is submerged off the coast of Galway. The fact is, after DeLorean went bankrupt, fishermen were among those who brought up the scrap.

The presses became anchors for fish farms, which themselves are no longer economically viable. So as you can see from its Progress Report, the DeLorean is going nowhere fast.

Sean Lynch’s installation can be seen as a possible future in Simon Starling: Never The Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts) at Camden Arts Centre, until 20 February 2011.

You can download a .pdf of the car’s Progress Report from the artist’s website, here. And read an indepth feature on the project written by Kevin Barry in the Dublin Review.

Damien Hirst, Let’s Eat Outdoors Today (1990-91)

One way to define contemporary art may be to include anything which provokes the reaction: “That’s not art!” And Damien Hirst is certainly no stranger to this reaction.

But the genius of this previously unseen work is that when it asks, ‘Why can’t this be art?’ as it surely does, the immediate response is it contains things-we-do-not-want-to-look-at.

There’s a severed bovine head on the floor of the tank and no doubt tens of thousands of fat black flies. There’s a half eaten barbecue. But people do look at it. They stare for ages.

Retinal art is back with a vengeance, and it bears consideration that even the first readymade was selected by Duchamp on account of the fact he found the movement ‘pleasant.’

Hirst demonstrates here that visually appealing art need not even be pleasant. However, the grandeur of the work cannot be denied and even his detractors will be drawn in by the flies.

Let’s Eat Outdoors Today is a feast for the eyes and this needs to be addressed. It throws into question how we look at art, and the wider world, and what we might be looking for.

PS: Taking the artist at his word and judging by this interview (with Alistair Sooke in The Telegraph), you might also say this work celebrates the “beauty” of decay and death.

You can see Let’s Eat Outdoors Today in Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy until 7 April 2011.

Read Adrian Searle’s review in the Guardian here and Jonathan Brown in The Independent here. Also check out The Daily Mail coverage of Hirst’s piece, always interesting(!)

Ben Washington, I Will Eat This Sleepy Town (installation detail), 2011

For all the world you expect this image to move. It is a back lit screen with a casing as substantial as a cathode ray tube. We have come to expect computerised tablets to sing and dance, why not this?

But no matter how long you watch, the piece is static. The TVs in the image remain switched off. It suggests multi-channel entertainment, but delivers nothing.

You cannot adjust this homemade set. The photo is highly cropped, the image is blurred, and the colours are dated. The fact it glows is the best that can be said for it.

Yet light is a powerful draw. It is still the basic element of film, television, gaming and the screen in your computer and/or phone. That must be why this work holds so much promise.

And when you think of all the technology which 21st century minds could fit into that cumbersome wooden surround, it seems like a miracle that Ben Washington’s gogglebox simply does nothing.

Stranger still, it does not need to. This product of a single artist can still hold the gaze, just as well as the latest 3D model. And it still hangs in the air, despite the weight of expectation.

This work is part of a I Will Eat This Sleepy Town, a joint installation by Ben Washington and Marcin Dudek at Waterside Project Space, London. See gallery website for opening times and directions.

Rostan Tavasiev, Ghost (2008)

There is a highlight of the current show at Grey Area. That word is used because the rest of the works are in darkness. Visitors are provided with torches. A lightbulb forms part of Tavasiev’s sculpture.

So what it seems to illuminate is the arbitrary way we give a personality to the spirit of the dead and not yet buried. It would be shapeless white smoke were it not for those two cartoon eyes.

These eyes are comic and two dimensional, as if beneath the glare of enlightenment thinking, we cannot allow our ghosts to have any depth of character.

Likewise, any memory of the departed may now just be a thing to clutch in the night like a soft toy. The overhanging bulb is a discouragement to too much grief or pathos.

This was just a toy bear, so his granite monument is absurd. But he would have more dignity, surely, if the cloud of his being was allowed to dissolve into the shadows which consume all the other works in the show.

Ghost can be seen in Their Wonderlands at Grey Area, Brighton, until December 19. Visit gallery website for directions and opening times.

You can also read more about the context of this piece in a blog post by the curator of Their Wonderlands, Harun Morrison. And/or check out the artist’s uncanny yet colourful website.

Tessa Farmer, Swarm (2004)

No, your eyes do not deceive you. Those really are tiny winged skeletons riding on the back of a dragonfly. And there are a hundred or more spectacles like this in Swarm by Tessa Farmer.

They give the impression of an airborne war, as if the skeletons are fighting for control of their glass cabinet. Which makes the artwork a theatre of conflict. Perhaps those fragile, hideous creatures are critics.

But in fact, the gallery guide suggests they are fairies. Each one is a dessicated tinkerbell. The hope you might have cherished in secret, for a more magical world, is here turned inside out.

And the wonder you might feel at such painstaking work soon turns to horror when you consider the results. No one wants to see dead insects, and bony fairies with fly wings attached, surely?

Except of course, many people really do. This piece seems to fascinate visitors to the gallery. If art is a mirror, this example of it shows a spectral, parasitic species fighting over thin air.

It is not a million miles from a battle in a desert, a debate in parliament, a war of words conducted online, or any struggle between ideas first dreamed up by those already passed away.

Swarm can be seen in Newspeak: British Art Now Part Two at Saatchi Gallery until 17 April 2011.

Anna Parkina, Cockleshell Garage ‘Raskushka’ (2010)

Interlocking plywood is not the stuff of classical sculpture. It is too rough and ready. It puts one in mind of model making kits or, here, a model of a stage set. You might use it to build a mock up or something provisional.

But Anna Parkina confounds this expectation. Her components are cut, punched out and assembled with insistent craft, and yet the chilly arabesques point towards nothing. This is a model without an apparent referent, a mock up without a purpose.

The title of the work is also opaque. According to Google, this sculpture is the only Cockleshell Garage out there. Of all architectural forms, the garage the least evocative. ‘Raskushka’ offers little more clues, to a non Russian speaker at least.

Although this does resemble is an abstract collage, and there is plenty of that by the same artist on the walls of this current show. Perhaps then it is a model of a medium. It sets the stage for simply putting one layer on top of another.

And if there is one thing all models represent it is labour and the business of their own construction. That is where you might start taking Parkina’s work apart.

Anna Parkina can be seen at Wilkinson, London, until November 21. For more details see gallery website or read a review of a previous show by the artist by Frieze magazine.

Simon Morse: The Butler’s Cough, Grey Area

In a week artists have rallied round a David Shrigley animation and a petition against cuts to public funding, a show which seems to offer its own discreet protest opened at Grey Area.

The Butler’s Cough by Simon Morse draws polite attention to a series of 12 customised control panels, such as you might find in an otherwise out of bounds area of a hospital, school or office.

In real life these mysterious boxes control heating, lighting, power, etc. Well, that is a guess. The fact is few know exactly what they do and how they operate.

Nevertheless, we understand they form an essential part of the infrastructure and we know they are not to be tampered with. So too with the arts.

Even at the best of times, arts organisations are called upon to justify their expenditure and explain what they do. There is a certain type of person only convinced by economic arguments.

And yet the real work of art is as invisible as these machines. It makes adjustments to settings in our consciousness, and in our hearts and souls, if you want to speak in those terms.

This may be a digression from such witty and suggestive sculptures as the one in the photo above, which like a good butler has coughed and then faded once more into the background.

The Butler’s Cough by Simon Morse is at Grey Area, Brighton, until26 September 2010. Visit the gallery website for opening times and check out the artist’s website for more images.