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

James Coleman, Untitled (2011-15)

17889Coleman1 LR

It surprises me that the artist filmed this himself. It looks like a degraded home movie, out of focus, a bit over exposed. But no, it’s an afternoon of fieldwork into a four second loop.

Indeed, it is a loop within a circular loop. The carousel offers what Nietzsche might have recognised as an eternal return, a moment worth affirming from now until the end of time.

Funfair rides do slow down, eventually. But this glitchy slice of the merry-going-round, which plays back over and over, suggests infinite repetition and a Dionysiac commitment to pleasure.

The soundtrack is an insistent techno throb, far removed from the cries of fear and joy one associated with a fair. It is an echo of the generator rather than the barker and the disco truck.

So there appears to be nothing humanist about the delivery of this experience. The film deals in machinery and a cosmic pulse, rather than happy memories and domestic home movies.

But for all that, the forms lack definition. The expressions of fear and joy are masks rather than faces to whom we might relate. The masks takes us all the way back to Greek drama.

Maybe this blog post is spinning out of control, but might we not see the riders as a masked chorus who can only comment on the conflicting forces of gravity and centrifugal pull.

There is really something frightening here, something that scares me about funfairs in general. And it has nothing to do with rusting bolts and prejudiced feelings about travellers.

The funfair is a factory for inducing hedonistic thrills by the relentless burning of diesel; it is a crude apparatus for moving bodies in all directions through space. Weird, or what?

James Coleman was at Marion Goodman, London, between the 4th March to 16 April 2016.


Želimir Žilnik, Black Film (1971)

Crni film - photo 2

Some say, “From each according to their means to each according to their needs”. Some say, “Do as you would be done by”. But very few live up to either of those incontrovertible principles.

And though I have witnessed several decent people buy sandwiches for homeless individuals in Brighton where I live, I have never heard of anyone going so far to help as Želimir Žilnik.

In 1971 the Yugoslav filmmaker found a group of rough sleepers and invited them home to the one-bedroom flat he already shared with his wife and young child. This he also filmed.

In a sense they were an artistic project. But film becomes a means to an end here. That end becomes the rehousing of half a dozen fellow human beings who have fallen on hard times.

Their arrival comes as an apparent surprise to his wife. Together they move the couple’s double mattress into the child’s room as the tramps collapse into recumbent forms in the front room.

In the second part of this pragmatic experiment, Žilnik hits the streets again in search of public support for his new flatmates, or at least some good advice about what he should do with them.

The lasting impression is one of irresolution. These six characters in search of an author seem to have been left to once again fend for themselves. None of them remember their housetraining.

Black Film is a valuable social document. For starters, it asks the What If? question that must be asked every time you cross the road to evade the needs of a vagrant in abject poverty.

It also alerts you to the fact that even socialists can fail the most needful in society. Even socialist states can fail to provide a safety net for those whose needs are greatest.

In the UK, homelessness is the most visible of the troubles of the world. It has got worse in recent years. It’s a major problem, but since I’m not a Black Wave filmmaker, it’s not a personal problem.

Because really, Žilnik stages the unthinkable: an act of Christian charity or, more likely, Marxist direct action, which remains for most of us as impossible as it is imperative.

Black Film can be seen in Monuments Should Not Be Trusted at Nottingham Contemporary until 04 March 2016.


The Fervent Arts Company, Ictus (2015)

As you may be aware, cinema therapy is a thing. For those with mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, a well-chosen movie is, some will argue, the perfect prescription.

But if you suffer from epilepsy, watching Ictus could be the worst ten minutes you ever spend. No spoilers here, but it’s clear from the get go that Doctor Khan has forgotten his Hippocratic oath.

Worse still, we are all cast as patient to this renegade, whose consulting room is lit by spooky candle, papered with vintage text books on the brain, and emblazoned with the flag of a rogue (?) nation.

The gist of it is this: we have come round from a seizure to find ourselves in the unlucky presence of a man whose sinister mask is enough to foreshadow the eventual end of our treatment.

Director Asheq Akhtar has pulled off two technical feats to bring us Dr Khan’s verbose diagnosis: candles provide the only lighting and it is filmed in just one take. Akhtar also plays the doctor.

Unwillingly, we play the patient. But do patients ever have a choice? And in allegorical terms, did the genocide victims in the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence volunteer for their fates? No.

Khan’s namesake is Lieutenant-General Tikka Khan, also known as the Butcher of Bengal. So the script, which aligns this historic figure with the doctor from hell, is a further achievement.

The partition of India and Pakistan and subsequent division of Pakistan represent a too complicated narrative. But the mystical doctor in this piece demonstrates that simplicity can be brutal.

There is much in this complex film which eludes me: much conflict, much politics and many hatreds. But the flickering obscurity of this evil interlude is surely a theme unto itself.

In a coda, we view a massacre at Dhaka Uni through the grainy footage of a Western news outlet. the tiny figures a stark contrast to the larger than life Khan. He is closer to home, wherever that is for you.


Nicholas Mangan, Ancient Lights (2015)

Mangan

The greenest show in London right now is at Chisenhale, where Nicholas Mangan powers two films with solar panels on the gallery roof. In terms of power, it’s a closed circuit.

But this isn’t so much concern for the environment. The Australian artist’s air miles might have scotched that. It’s about the economy of sunlight on this troubled planet of ours.

Needless to say, we take the sun for granted. But we may still have a primal association between sacrifice and power. The Aztecs cut loose hearts; we invade and destabilise oil rich nations.

We don’t have to list all the other murderous things we do in the name of energy. And Mangan makes no reference to them. Unless you count that looped video of a spinning Mexican ten-peso coin.

Like the sun, it’s in perpetual motion. And it tees up a second channel which includes footage from a Thermosolar plant in Southern Spain, and from a Tree Ring Research unit in Arizona.

This main film moves at a glacial pace. It’s as slow as our progress from day to night, but with interruptions like electromagnetic storms, which charge the room with excitement.

Knowing that the entire show was powered by the sun, this exhibition feels close to the centre of things. Looping around the sun along with the wide world beyond the gallery doors.

Mangan offers a glimpse of the effects that sun spots and solar flares could have on our behaviour, our crops and our markets. Could solar radiation trigger recession? Could it bring revolution?

Soviet-era biophysicist Alexander Chizhevsky thought so. His ideas about the dominion of the sun gained widespread acceptance in Russia, even if he got on the wrong side of the dominion of Stalin.

But how potent to think that past, present and future are written, not in our stars, but in just one celestial body: our nearest, and one at which we cannot look directly with the naked eye.

Ancient Lights is at Chisenhale Gallery until 30 August 2015


Yto Barrada, Faux départ (2015)

barrada

Both artworks and fossils can be forged. That’s the alliance revealed in a new film by Barrada which takes an artistic look at the forgery of prehistoric life forms.

The forgery takes place in eastern Morocco between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert. This region was once the bed of a pre-Cambrian ocean, so real fossils do exist here.

But some have realised it might be easier to fake a trilobite or two, to fabricate rather than excavate. Most of the tour parties who come this way won’t know any better.

Not even the viewer of this slow moving film can be sure what unfolds before the innocent eye. Rough hands, dental instruments, craft skills, strange unctions; all is seen in mystifying close up.

Sometimes the fossil is merely pimped up and polished. Other times it appears moulded or cut out from scratch, with disregard for the hopes and dreams of the passing tourists.

The scenario reminds me of the souk in Marrakech, stuffed with all those craft objects one would hope to find in such a far flung mall. Rumour has it that most of the goods come from China.

In both cases, money or rather economic necessity has undermined the so-called real. Just at the point where authenticity is most desired, it is subverted and traded on in bad faith.

There is an art to this. And Barrada implies that we can barely pick apart the true from the false; so that goes for geological artefacts; craft objects; and, yes of course, art.

In 2013 the Swiss Fine Art Expert Insitute (FAEI) claimed that between 70 and 90 percent of the art which it comes to assess, is misattributed or false. Or faux, to borrow from the title of this film.

But when the very roots of our existence; the beginnings of life on earth; the organisms from which we descend; when these are also faux, we are faced with a very unsettling scenario.

The desert is beyond the reach of the forces of order and the fossils themselves predate laws of trade. So there is something eternal about these dusty workshops of deception.

Faux départ formed part of show Faux Guide at PACE London between 26 June and 8 August 2015.


Johanna Billing, Pulheim Jam Session (2015)

billing2

To be fair, all years have some groundbreaking music to recommend them. But 1975 was a good year for both jazz and urban planning in Germany. Who knew the two could go together?

In Köln, Keith Jarrett played an improvised concert, the recording of which was to become the best-selling solo piano album of all time. Note the quibbling over genre, which can be found elsewhere.

Meanwhile to the North West of the city, a communal reform pronounced 12 nearby villages to have become a single municipal entity. Pulheim was born and in 1981 became a city.

Now, thanks to a new 23 minute film by Swedish artist Billing, improvisation and infrastructure have been married up again: a pianist plays in a barn, while 50 cars stage a tailback on a one-lane road.

Applying herself to the baby grand is artist and musician Edda Magnason. She offers a soundtrack to the traffic situation which begins with some tentative vamping and builds to an insistent riff.

The camera loves her instrument, the workings of which are juxtaposed with the engines of the cars, as, when the queue gets moving again, one driver helps another with a jump start.

But this is one jam you might not want to end, even if it takes place in a landscape as monotonous as it is continental, with fields of sleeping corn and power lines hung like staves from pylons.

It is only once the cars grind to a halt that their occupants come to life. Passengers play with dice. A father reads to his children. Dogs are let out to chase sticks. It’s all action in a major key.

Back in the barn, we encounter film crew, lighting rig and the impossible sight of men loading the Bechstein onto a removal truck belonging to ‘Piano Express’. Easy on the ears, the music plays on.

Plenty more sounds find their way in; the road users provide ambient noise. And Magnason takes regular breaks, allowing you to think about what you see just as much as what you hear.

But ultimately, if you give it time, this film will sweep you away. It is at once totally mundane and yet life-affirming. Billing finds music in every visual detail, from smokestacks to litter in the kerb.

Pulheim Jam Session enjoys its premiere at Hollybush Gardens, London, until 25 April. Read my 2009 interview with the artist here.


Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Unreliable Narrator (2014)

Karen-Mirza-and-Brad-Butler-Unreliable-Narrator-2013-1170x655

Seeing this film, you’d want to allow a certain innocence to the terrorist gunmen who haunt our dreams here in the West. They too, it seems, are only doing their job.

In found audio, we hear onesuch maniacal footsoldier entertain doubts before taking a pair of lives. We watch another confess that he was on the mission to raise money for his dad.

The event under narration here is the 2008 siege of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. And so our unreliable account splices YouTube clips, CCTV, and fast turnaround Bollywood drama.

What came across in a recent panel discussion with the artists is that, during this operation, as in all of our own, there are Higher Ups calling the deadly shots. More than 30 were killed here.

The horror calls to mind a famous axiom from the pages of a Pynchon novel: “The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master”. Quite.

But if you accept that terror is a military strategy, however asymmetric, then we can no more blame a radicalised gunman than we can censure a freedom loving drone pilot.

With the support of that CCTV footage and a big budget feature film about the mass killing, few works of contemporary art will bring you as close to mass killers. It was called “intimate”.

Mirza/Butler also bleach the screen with primary colour tints. The basic palette recalls night vision, heat capture, satellite view: a spectrum of surveillance, but also a flag of resistance.

Question: how can you unfold a narrative when the details proliferate so deep and wide through old and new media? You’d need the whale-wrestling gifts of a Great American Novelist.

Simple stories, on the other hand, mislead. And as we ignore the latest snuff movie from IS, we should remember this: the chances it could happen to us are just a 1 in 35 million.

That vital statistic came up in a discussion which left this yellow-bellied civilian with a lasting and surely accurate impression of “global civil war” and “almost ambient emnity”.

Well, the first casualty of war is truth, as we all know. So where are the stories you can really believe? They’re back on the fiction shelves, where it’s safe to live through them.

Karen Mirza & Brad Butler held a screening and a talk at Whitechapel Gallery on 19 Feb 2015. The show can be seen at the Gallery until 6 April 2015.


João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva, Glossolalia [Good Morning] (2014)

GP-Parrot-8_500_327_80_s_c1

“There’s a metaphor in there somewhere,” says Guardian critic Adrian Searle, as he contemplates this film. criticismism would like to pick up on those words: parrot fashion, naturally.

But that is what Glossolalia makes me think of: art criticism, mimicry and even plagiarism. To look at reviews for this pair of Portuguese artists certain phrases do the rounds.

Pataphysics, haunting, the limits of reason, the uncanny, slow-mo; the observations loop in and out of various publications. They make this show appear like a dazzling macaw stuck in a cage.

And yet precise words might not matter. Perhaps the babble alone should hold our attention.  Glossolalia does after all cite the religious phenomena of speaking in tongues.

In which case, it is the rhythm to which we should attend. Searle has a rhythm in which adjectives pile up and sentences spill over, which is of course fine. It’s nothing if not distinctive.

However, the rhythm of this film Gusmão + Paiva is a magisterial throb, with a silent pounding effect as the caged bird takes flight. No, there is no sound. We take on trust, this parrot’s gift of speech.

There is always something out of control about the tongue of a psittacine. Whether overwhelmed or underwhelmed the same could be said of an art writer. We feel compelled to speak.

In many cases, what comes out is a reconfigured press release, or a half remembered curator’s talk, or even that notorious form of glossolalia known as International Art Speak.

One might also parrot other critics. Interview magazine reveals that the artists film at 3,000 frames per second to give a weirdly crisp result when slowed down to 24. Now I’ve revealed it too.

Seeing is believing, even if hearing cannot be. Our title suggests that if we could hear this pretty boy, he would bid us Good Morning. The bright feathers speak. The image is a vocal one.

João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva: Papagaia can be seen at Camden Arts Centre until 29 March 2015. Meanwhile, here’s a topical story about a parrot.


Renzo Martens, Episode III (2009)

Renzo Martens_Still from Episode 3_01_Fotor

Shot with minimal and remote means, Episode III is an uncinematic film in which the most stunning aspect of the production is the artist’s radical cynicism.

Martens oscillates between western messiah and unsentimental doom-monger as he gives advice, hope and (it seems) no assistance to villagers and plantation workers in Congo.

And yet his apparent cruelty has a critical function; he doesn’t flinch from demonstrating to his subjects, and to us, the pitiless reality of the global system in which they’re caught.

In one scene, he trains up a group of village photographers to shoot malnourished kids. But inevitably, they have no access to the market and fail to land the $50 per shot he promised.

This Dutch artist never flinches: not from showing children eating mice; nor from showing a flyblown corpse; nor from showing the anal sores of a young malnourished girl.

News commissioners would find this in very bad taste. But we know that the real bad taste is shown by the plantation owners buying arty black and white shots of their poor employees.

Martens uses neon – in invisible and knowing quote marks – to create a vast hoarding for his sub Saharan adventure: ‘Enjoy poverty,’ it reads, the word ‘please’ winking on and off.

After firing this up with a generator, we at least enjoy the least unhappy scene in the 90 minute film, as a host of children cheer and a party breaks out among local villagers.

The author of this film is unsparing of his subjects, sticking to the line they will always be poor so they may as well enjoy it; but he is equally hard on himself.

Towards the end of the film he meditates on the vanity which has brought him all the way to the war torn jungle to make a film which, as he must know, will further his career.

Nevertheless, he proves his case that poverty is a resource. “Experiencing your poverty makes me a better person,” he tells a group of prematurely aging paupers. They actually applaud him.

So there exists spiritual capital as well as economic capital. But this is something we have run short of in the West. Big Issue sellers, dare one say, just don’t have the requisite soulfulness.

Episode III can be seen in Chapter, Cardiff, as part of Artes Mundi 6.


Omer Fast, Continuity (2012)

B002

It would be difficult to deliver a spoiler for Continuity. Omer Fast’s looping 40 minute film has no clear narrative arc and offers few clues about the mystery at its core.

All we know is that the same middle-aged German couple pick up three different servicemen from a rural rail station, and take him home for a spot of psychodrama.

It could be they are call boys. It could be a case of sliding doors. It could be Brechtian exposition. Or it could be that the entire episode is the product of a bereaved mother’s fevered mind.

What’s really compelling about the film is that, despite the uniforms, there is difference within this repetition. Youth is one of the only things these soldiers have in common.

Their reunions are pretty intense affairs. The couple have license to touch, chide and even climb into bed with these young men (the mother). In fact the whole set up is uncomfortably oedipal.

You could write it off as kinky middle class role play, were it not that the ‘returning soldiers’ bring genuine trauma and a cast of unwanted ghosts back to this bourgeois home.

The couple cannot escape the realities of war. It seems they try to drive away from the conflict. But they find a camel, and worse, in the middle of their local forest.

Fast’s film is full of hallucinations, along with the doubling effect which comes from an actors playing actors. The war for this artist appears to be an enduring source of strangeness. With no resolution.

Continuity can be seen at Artes Mundi 6 until 22 February 2015.