Category Archives: contemporary

Weiwei-isms by Ai Weiwei


Books come in all shapes and sizes, but perhaps the most potent format is both small and black. The collected quotes of Ai Weiwei should have come in nothing less.

Editor Larry Warsh has trawled through some 74 interviews with the Chinese artist to bring readers in the West a meditation on his life and situation in soundbites.

Then again, his countrymen have always liked to keep things short and snappy. Ai tells us that the quotations of Chairman Mao were rarely more than a tweet-length.

Admittedly, China’s pictographic use of Twitter allows them 140 words rather than 140 characters, but still. Confucius can be quoted just four words at a time, says Ai.

Since these are verbal epithets, Weiwei-isms contains a degree of repetition and odd moments of banality. A modern day Shakespeare, “might be writing on Twitter.” Really!?

But if that obvious statement were to come true, the bard could not do better than this from Ai’s twitter feed (@aiww): “The world is a sphere, there is no East or West.”

The ultimate power of this book lies not in the words, however, but in the free-wheeling attitude they represent in one of the most restrictive societies on the planet.

“Expressing oneself is like a drug. I’m so addicted to it,” says Ai, who has indeed found the most dangerous and least legal narcotic in China.

As has been much publicised, in 2011 he was busted and spent 81 days behind bars. “During the days in detention I thought most about the moon,” he says, incorrigibly.

Ai’s belief in free speech makes interview-giving an important part of his role in the art world. Along with the social media usage, one wants to call it a practice, but that word sounds too academic.

Which this tweet certainly isn’t: “Overturning police cars is a super-intense workout. It’s probably the only sport I enjoy.” This allies him with rebel artists Voina in Russia, who did just that.

Artists in the West have always taken risks, be that earning the displeasure of the church, rejection by the Paris Salon or simply the derision of the gallery going public.

But on the whole making art is a legitimate enough business. Ai meanwhile is risking his neck and this gives his art another dimension. Call it a sort of realism.

Despite our relative freedoms, his little black book really is a manifesto. Ai may be kicking against the pricks, but he makes it look easy, irrestistible, even enjoyable. So join him.

Weiwei-isms (pp125) is edited by Larry Warsh and published by Princeton University Press. Available in all good bookshops, and this bad one.

12 pieces of conceptual art that would probably work as tweets

From the 20th century onwards, the beauty of much art is it has no need for the eye of a beholder. Conceptual works, in theory, place as much importance on the idea as the finished visual object. And while lots can be said about the dozen pieces below, the kernel of each is a thought of no more than 140 characters.

This is not to assume that simple ideas are the best. But it is possible that in a time of information overload, and web-based attention spans, they are the ones that travel best. If these artworks translate into tweets, it is only a sign of their power.

  1. Benjamin Peret, Insulting a Priest (1926):
    “A black and white photo of a surrealist poet harranguing a man of the cloth, as featured in a 1926 manifesto for the liberation of desire”
  2. Robert Rauschenberg, Erased De Kooning Drawing (1953):
    “After six weeks of careful erasing a heavily worked drawing by Willem de Kooning becomes a gold-framed piece of near blank paper”
  3. Marcel Broodthaers, Femur of a Belgian Man and Femur of a French Woman (1964-5):
    “Two human bones, one from Belgian man, one from a French woman, each painted in the colours of the flags of their respective nations”
  4. Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs (1965):
    “A folding wooden chair, a photo of the same (not by the artist) and a blown up definition of the word chair to be displayed as one piece”
  5. Jannis Kounellis, Untitled (1969):
    “A white-walled Rome gallery became a temporary stable for 12 quite mucky and fairly noisy live horses”
  6. John Baldessari, The Commissioned Paintings (1969-70):
    “Out on a walk, the artist took close up pics of a friend pointing at interesting things, then asked 14 sunday painters to paint the photos”
  7. Adrian Piper, Untitled Performance for Max’s Kansas City (1970):
    “The artist wears blindfold and gloves and pays a visit to a New York bar where the art world generally go to see and be seen”
  8. Jørgen Nash, Decapitated Little Mermaid (1972):
    “The head of Copenhagen’s most famous statue is cut off by (it is said) the Second Situationist International. The artist is a member”
  9. Hans Haacke, Manet-PROJEKT 74 (1974):
    “A proposal that a Manet painting be displayed next to panels giving details of all the work’s previous owners and their business activities”
  10. Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting (1974):
    “A suburban house is cut down the middle and undermined causing it to split and thereby open a rift in the social fabric”
  11. Gavin Turk, Cave, 1991:
    “For his degree show, the artist leaves nothing in his studio but a blue plaque with the words: Gavin Turk, Sculptor, worked here 1989-1991”
  12. Sherrie Levine, Fountain (1991):
    “Marcel Duchamp’s infamous urinal readymade has been recast in bronze to give it, at last, some respectability”

By now you should be convinced, some of the most important works of modern and contemporary art lose little from a lot of distillation. They might even work as tweets, albeit ones with plenty more to say.

More details on the 12 artworks can be found in Conceptual Art, by Tony Godfrey (published by Phaidon), which contains hundreds more like them all discussed in considerably more depth.

Giorgio Sadotti, Went To America Didn’t Say A Word (1999)

A 24-hour recording of ambient city noise is, on the face of it, boring. Few people will ever sit through all of the 1999 Giorgio Sadotti piece currently on show at Milton Keynes Gallery.

Behind the soundtrack, however, is an amazing story. Sadotti flew from London to New York, stayed overnight, and came home the next day without speaking to anyone. And that has the makings of an urban legend.

Now simply by hearing about the artwork, you can experience it. It can be easily shared, at no cost, between friends, over a drink. Never mind the lengthy audio documentation. The anecdote, surely, is just as much the artwork, as the tapes from across the Atlantic.

You may wonder how it was possible, logistically, to do such a thing. In its invisible way, the piece is as remarkable as a tromp l’oeil ceiling or an ornate manuscript. It must have been solitary, dogged work to produce.

The next question is what he might have said. The title implies withheld judgement or perhaps a kept secret. It draws attention to what Sadotti was thinking and the recording offers no clue. This gives the piece an essential and age old mystique.

In an attempt to demystify Went To America Didn’t Say A Word, I went to my local shop for a pint of milk and maintained a strict silence. Here is the documentation. You won’t find it in a gallery: Went To The Cornershop Didn’t Say A Word.wma

The The Things Is (For 3) is at Milton Keynes Gallery until 12 September

Interview: John Gerrard

John Gerrard, Oil Stick Work, (Angelo Martinez / Richfield, Kansas), 2008, Realtime 3. © the artist and Art on the Underground. Production: Werner Poetzelberger. Modelling: Daniel Fellsner. Programming: Helmut Bressler. Additional programming: Matthias Strohmaier. Model: Angelo Martinez

Canary Wharf underground station offers the best and the worst opportunity an artist could hope for.

“There are 45 million people who will travel through that station per annum, which is extraordinary. There’s no gallery in the world which could even boast a fraction of that kind of potential audience,” says John Gerrard.

“But of course, it’s not a receptive audience. It’s a hurrying, blind audience in a way.”

Gerrard is responsible for a vast projection on the far wall of atrium, which requires nothing if not patience. The computer generated simulation unfolds in real time, day by day, with a narrative scheduled to last for 30 years.

Oil Stick Work (Angelo Martinez/Richfield, Kansas) is set in a Kansas landscape dominated by a grain silo. Dawn breaks about noon British Summer Time and the scene fades to darkness at around 2am.

Between those times, a lone figure sets to work painting the building black. He paints one square metre each day with an artist’s crayon. By the time he completes his task, in 2038, US oil supplies are projected to run dry.

Art on the Underground will be showing the astonishing time based work for 12 months, and Gerrard hopes that in that time a “fraction” of the audience will notice the work’s progression.

The tempo of his art is a far cry from the pace of nearby life. The Jubilee Line station serves some of the world’s busiest banks. “I think the banking context is a very good foil for the work, for the slow build of the work,” says the Irish artist.

He also expresses amazement at the latest forms of (high frequency and algorithmic) trading. “It’s almost become quite anarchic what’s happening in those environments,” he says.

“You’ve got people basically spending billions to gain in microseconds on somebody else in terms of speculation.”

The central theme in Oil Stick Work, intensive farming, is clearly not unrelated. In the 1930s, oil-powered agriculture caused catastrophe when the prairies succumbed to the worst dust storms ever seen in America.

Today the same landscapes are dominated by ominous and anonymous buildings such as the grain silo above or the grow finish units used to farm and slaughter pigs. People are few and far between, but with one notable exception.

Angelo Martinez is the name of a New York builder who auditioned as a stand-in for a worker who told Gerrard to stop taking photos of one of the installations in Kansas. Now with virtually remodelled features, the artist says it “really is a portrait of him.”

The unreal localities which inspired Oil Stick Work are well suited to 3D simulations. “I’m slightly on my own with the medium which is curious,” notes the artist.

“There is an established arena of game art which is in existence, but this particular kind of static approach, which I think has a lot of potential, I don’t think there’s anybody working like this at the moment.”

That medium, according to Gerrard, “was effectively born in a military context,” and for his next work his is taking the form back to its roots.

“The new work I’m doing at the moment is actually remaking a historical scene which is from the Iran-Iraq war, the first Iraq war from the 1980s, and in it there is a soldier figure…who is enacting a kind of impossible performance.”

This will be the first time the artist has used military training technology to recreate a military training exercise. “I’ll see how that goes. I mean, it’s a bit of a risk,” he says.

But despite the outward calm of a piece like Oil Stick Work, organised aggression is already very much a theme.

“Those grow finish units on the American landscape are in and of themselves a type of horror story of gargantuan proportions,” he suggests. “I don’t think there are many games that would reach that level of…what is it? You know, the implicit violence in those scenes.”

From Kansas to Canary Wharf, what you cannot see is what can shock the most.

Written for Culture24.

The The Thing Is (For 3)/Harry Hammond/Luna Park/August must-sees/Top 10 art attractions for kids

Here’s a round up of work for Culture24 in the last week or so. Feel free to peruse:

Tamoko Takahashi, Clockwork at De La Warr Pavilion (1998-2010)

This installation is an open invitation to skeptics. The materials are literally rubbish. There is no apparent order to the display. If this work was collected up and put in a skip we would walk past without a second glance.

So Takahashi’s work can seem a byword for mischief. She takes the world’s least valuable things, waste paper, damaged clocks, unwanted tools, and turns them into ingredients of the world’s most valuable commodity, art.

But she works at it. We know the items have been selected with care because recurring themes emerge. Care has also been taken to spread them around in a balanced way. Some objects are fixed together or stood on end and the scene is not as chaotic as it first appears. It has aesthetic appeal.

Takahashi snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, or art from the realms of oblivion. We need a way to deal with rubbish, on an emotional level. Clockwork suggests we can indeed process it, along with death, decay and disorder. It should give rise to courage, not skepticism.

Why not read what other people had to say about Tamoko Takahashi? Here is a good profile of the artist by Andrew Graham-Dixon. Here is an intelligent review of a show from 1998 in Frieze. And here is a scathing attack on her 2005 show at Serpentine by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian.

Introspective Retrospective by Tomoko Takahashi is at De La Warr Pavilion until 12 September.

Antony Gormley, Critical Mass (1995-2010)

Fifteen years after its inception, Antony Gormley has revived the piece Critical Mass for the roof of De La Warr Pavilion. Since then his life-size casts of the human form have conquered London, New York and even Crosby Beach near Liverpool. They are contemporary icons.

An inestimable number of people have seen these works first hand. So it must be said Gormley has created the most immediate, visible art of the age. The Angel of the North, his vast monumental sculpture outside Newcastle, surely puts that beyond doubt.

Now 60 of his trademark figures are scattered on a modernist rooftop by the sea in Bexhill. And their message is surely a vital one. These bodies, arranged in 12 different positions, none which look comfortable, are after all a sign of the times.

If they tell us anything then, it seems humankind is, whatever the pose, all the same. They are solid, gloomy replicas of each other and indeed of Gormley himself. They are featureless and archetypal, by implication any one of them could be any one of us.

But this vision of bland conformity to be resisted. “Tout autre est tout autre,” as Jacques Derrida once put it: every other is completely other. In the visitor notes, Gormley describes his work as a deconstruction of the body, so it seemed worth quoting the man who coined the term.

And the one person modelled again, and again, happens to be a fit, adult, caucasian male. The artist has missed a chance to create a new Vetruvian man (or woman). That really would be deconstructive.

Critical Mass is at De La Warr Pavilion until the end of August.

Ignacio Uriarte, The History of the Typewriter Recited by Michael Winslow (2009)

Skill and accomplishment are at the forefront of this unusual work. But instead of technique with a brush or a chisel, we are treated to the novel and maybe useless vocal imitation of 32 typewriters.

This is representational art of the highest order. Each sequence of hammer strikes does sound, it must be said, just like a typewriter and a different one each time. With no immediate sources to refer to, the performance is taken on trust. As with Mona Lisa or Dora Maar, there is little point in questioning resemblances.

But while Da Vinci or Picasso went all out to capture beauty or its opposite, Ignacio Uriarte has gone in for precise realism in an area which, unlike a model or a landscape, has marginal interest. The 21 minute film, in which we hear the same phrase typed over and over, is mono-manic.

But that 56-character phrase, The History of the Typewriter Recited by Michael Winslow, is also the title of the film. So in a sense, the sounds you hear refer to nothing more than the sounds you hear. The virtuoso performance with all of its mimetic skill is little more than a sideshow. It is fitting that Winslow is a comic actor and he cannot resist a good many gestural asides throughout the film.

Be dazzled by all means, but rather by the force of its creation. not the means of its execution.

Artist's Statement: Oliver Beer on Deep and Meaningful

Here’s the first of a series of new features in which artists talk about their own work. This is what Oliver Beer had to say about his film Deep and Meaningful:

“For some time I had been quite fascinated by the structure of hidden architectural spaces, but also I read about these urban explorers. They break into sewers in London or all over the world and explore underground. I think considering all the ends of the earth have been explored, there’s actually quite a lot to explore under your feet. Then I found out that on occasions Southern Water let people into Brighton sewers and it’s an incredible space…”

Read more on Culture24.

Frederic Geurts – A Fine Line, at Fabrica

The work invites you to walk around it, to weave a path between its fragile legs. The viewer cannot grasp it until having gazed from both ends and upwards at points between. A Fine Line by Frederic Geurts is another work about space and the human form. It there any other subject?

We take spatial thinking for granted but without it we could not eat, open doors, or wield tools. It is a fundamental skill, celebrated by art since its very beginnings. Awareness of the body in space has clear utility for war and procreation. And if environments determine us then surely seeing space for what it is can shape our very destinies.

Geurts has cited the Lascaux cave paintings as a direct influence, and such hunting as is depicted there would not have been possible without a clear sense of space. It could be seen as a plan of attack. Human eyes face forward. We have the gaze of a predator. So the history of visual art is almost a history of predation: the sacrifice of gods, the attainment of nudes, the bounty of still lives, etc.

In these capitalistic times, art itself has become the prize, hunted by collectors, museums and art lovers worldwide. That is something to think about next time you find yourself in a white walled space, eyeing up something of great value, trying to get closer, as we all do.