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

Douglas Gordon, 24 Hour Psycho (1993)

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How can one comment on a work of art based on an experience of no more than 10 minutes with it, when the entirety lasts an entire day? Well, the elevator pitch for Gordon’s film tells you enough.

This is the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho (1960) slowed down from 24 frames a second to just two. It runs in slow mo, in silence, in glacial indifference to the fate of Marion Crane or Janet Leigh.

So Gordon’s film is somewhat more sadistic than the original. I caught up with it as Crane drives along Highway 99, nervously looking ahead, nervously checking the rear view, in a seeming loop.

We know she is speeding to her death, but she does so with minimal, staccato movements that let us study the appearance and behaviour of an archetype: the victim marked out by fate for a grisly end.

But she is herself a criminal, and so perhaps the film also does her a service, stretching the period of time between her theft of a client’s money and her demise at the hand of Norman Bates.

24 Hour Psycho is both generous and cruel. It torments the viewer with its impossible duration and at the same time promises us saturation with one of the most analysed movies of all time.

“It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at,” so writes Don Delillo, whose 2010 novel Point Omega opens with a character who visits and revisits this piece, when it is at MoMA.

If encountered in the cinema, movies take very little pious effort. But Hitchcock manipulates his own creation to an even greater extent than this black and white monolith of video art.

IMDb is a goldmine where Psycho is concerned and we learn that the director used a 50mm lens to give his footage a voyeuristic immediacy. The 45 second shower scene uses 78 pieces of film.

So much has been written about Psycho and so much has been written about 24 Hour Psycho. But perhaps that is the ultimate comment from this slow procession of scenes. It is a kind of autopsy.

24 Hour Psycho can be seen in The Indivisible Present at Modern Art Oxford until at least March 22 and perhaps beyond, depending on how the year-long Kaleidoscope programme pans out.


Mikhail Karikis, SeaWomen (2012)

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The baddest gang on the planet don’t ride Harleys out into the California desert. They ride mopeds around a South Korean island and dive for octopus in the choppy North Pacific.

Bad-meaning-good is maybe not the word, but the sea-women are certainly tough cookies. Aged between 60 and 90, they explode all your preconceptions about gender and growing old.

From the age of eight they have been trained for a female only profession: collecting seafood and wild pearls from around the coast of the island of Jeju. Men, it should be said, need not apply.

That’s because the sea-women benefit from a) womanly fat distribution (useful in cold water) and b) a tax break under Confucian law. The law fails to recognise the labour of Korean women.

For a moment, let us set aside the problem of a Western artist conducting a study on yet another remote tribe. (Can someone explain if this film does the sea-women a disservice?)

It is surely in fact a great service to women from around the world. And dare it be said, not just women, but anyone with reservations about growing old. In this film, old women rule.

And when they peel off the wetsuits and masks, the hats and floral slippers come out and you realise they come from the same planet as the grandmothers you encounter riding the bus.

Karikis is as interested in sound as he is in film. His starting point for this 27 minute, two-channel tribute to the sea-women is the whale-like whistle they make while at work on the waves.

This siren song is part of the fabric of the installation, along with rolling thunder and a beautiful folk tune which the women would sing while rowing. All blend into the natural context of the island.

Jeju is now a tourist destination, and quick to see which way the wind blew, the sea-women sent their daughters (and, one can only hope, sons) to the university to study tourism.

That could be why they co-operated. Karikis may have been a tourist when he first visited and his film is great PR for an island which the children of the sea-women will one day inherit.

SeaWomen can be seen in the Founders’ Room, Brighton Dome until December 1. It is part of the 2015 Earsthetic Festival.


Shona Illingworth, Lesions in the Landscape (2015)

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In a rare moment of colour footage, this film by Shona Illingworth features figures with torches who work their way around a green twilight landscape, riddled with stony ruins.

The searching orange beams bring to mind the point of our consciousness, while the vastness of the terrain stands for all we know and remember but cannot directly access.

But like the lonely figures in this three screen panorama, we get by. The same can hardly be said for another personage in this unsettling film, the amnesiac Claire, who cannot feel her past.

The injury to Claire’s brain is paralleled by the injury to this landscape. St Kilda is the most North Westerly part of the British Isles, evacuated under controversial circumstances in the 1930s.

We see the islanders in archive footage captured by an ornithologist on the eve of their departure. They hide from the lens, as if from witchcraft, and resist attempts to know them through film.

A later piece of sound in the installation is more revealing of the inner life of these island dwellers. Illingworth includes the call and response of a religious service comprised of Gaelic psalm.

So you can live on a godforsaken rock in the Atlantic, but that, apparently, is no reason to forsake your god in turn. And there is a beauty in the oceanic pitch and roll of communal song.

All that remains of these peoples here now are the seabirds that for four millennia formed their main diet. Thousands of these fill the screens which fill the dark screening room. You are among them.

This is the sad and inhospitable place where, along with Claire, we hear from Martin Conway. The highly respected neuropsychologist is philosophical about the condition of both subjects.

Without a sense of the lived past, we cannot know the present, we cannot imagine a future. The same could be said for both subjects of Illingworth’s film; it is bleak at times.

That’s maybe why the viewer welcomes the burst of colour and the dogged progress of the figures with the torches. If our own memory works like this, it is at least working fine.

Lesions in the Landscape can be seen at FACT, Liverpool until 22 November 2015, before travelling to UNSW Galleries, Sydney, Australia, then Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art Gallery, Outer Hebrides, and then Dilston Grove & CGP Gallery in London.


Yto Barrada, Faux départ (2015)

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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.


Marcus Coates, Dawn Chorus (2007)

Dawn Chorus

Slow down birdsong. Imitate it with human vocal chords. Record that and bring it back up to speed. And what you have is an uncannily accurate impersonation of any given feathered friend.

If you didn’t know this, and few will at first, the 2007 film installation Dawn Chorus looks like a well-executed one-liner. It looks like a comic parallel between the way we and birds emote.

The fourteen screens, high and low, in the darkened gallery each feature an amateur singer, filmed alone at dawn. These unrelated individuals can apparently hear (but not see) one another.

Coates would also have us consider the joy we project onto birdsong: both the joy it gives us and the joy it appears to express. So there is more to this piece than an echo chamber of mating calls.

And it’s interesting that the year before it’s premiere was also the year in which tech wizards in New York developed the micro-blogging platform we know and love as Twitter.

It’s said when they went to the dictionary they found a definition which offered two alternatives: along with ‘chirps from birds’, a twitter was found to be ‘a short burst of inconsequential information’.

Anyone who doubts the lack of consequence which rides upon a tweet or indeed an entire twitter-feed need only look at the results of the recent UK election. The people I follow surely lost that.

But as Beckett would have it, at the end of The Unameable: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”. Tweets, status updates, Instagrams and rambling blog posts show little sign of letting up.

Coates has sped up the movements of his singers along with their voices. And so, we remain like his subjects: solitary, atomised, and even twitching compulsively in the gloom; that’s Twitter.

But social media does at least let us get away from our homes and offices. In a loose sense, it lets us take flight. Okay, that’s stretching a point, but it gave me some joy to type.

Dawn Chorus can be seen at Fabrica, Brighton, until 25 May 2015. Read my 2010 interview with Marcus Coates here. Last week I finally started Instagramming – follow me here.


Amanda Loomes, Relict Material (2015)

(C) Nigel Green. Taken from http://photoworks.org.uk/

(C) Nigel Green. Taken from http://photoworks.org.uk/

In the servant quarters of a Regency Townhouse in Brighton, you can now see a film about one of the harshest jobs on the South Coast. Namely, dredging and processing aggregate for cement.

And as if to stop the metropolitan art crowd from getting too cosy, civil engineer turned artist Loomes has projected her film onto a 16 x 9 wall of cubed concrete bricks.

This arrangement represents the aspect ratio (16:9) for most televisions and laptop screens. It’s a bit ironic that, because aggregate must be one of the least visible industries around.

Indeed, the raw material has lain hidden on the sea floor for some 150 million years. The fine sand and small stone, for which the building industry hungers, comes from Ice Age river beds.

This is the relict of the work’s title. Like the words relic and derelict, the term for raw aggregate comes from a Latin root. Relinquere means, of course, to leave behind.

But in the 15th century a relict was a widow.  One might suppose that if you marry a shiftworker who works eight hours on/eight hours off for up to a fortnight at a time, you might feel that way.

So whether working on a hoover ship just outside the harbour or at the noisy plant which can process 600 tonnes of relict material per hour, you have what one worker calls a “good secure job”.

Loomes captures the voices of the men who work here and the moments of mechanical violence and occasional peace which fill each working day. There’s almost a romance about this industry.

Relict Material is a co-commission by Photoworks and HOUSE Festival and can be seen at The Regency Townhouse, Brighton, until May 24 2015.


Simon Faithfull, REEF (2014)

Photo © Gavin Weber from fabric.org.uk

Photo © Gavin Weber from fabric.org.uk

The real underwater world has already exercised its independence from the work of Simon Faithfull. REEF was fully working for six days, after which he lost transmission.

But there is no going back. The artist did manage to burn and sink a 32-tonne ship. He did manage to salvage nearly a week’s video feed from five cameras. A partial success then.

If anyone dives, the ship is in Weymouth Bay. A supporting film reveals there’s already a conger eel living in the wheel house, so watch out. We won’t be seeing that any time soon in the gallery.

What we can experience is a cavernous darkness and a resonant tidal throb by which it seems the entire former fishing chapel of Fabrica in Brighton has been sunk for this.

A strange cargo of monitors glows with pre-recorded footage. And one has to look up, as if to the surface of the waves, to watch a film of the 32 tonne ship as smoke billows and waters flood in.

But despite the temptations of the deep (the temptations to read this piece as a comment on anything from the human condition to the eternal unknowable), we mightn’t go there.

REEF could simply be about itself: “The thing I came for:/the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” as poet Adrienne Rich once described a diving experience.*

So . . . Fabrica, Photoworks, Musée des Beaux Arts (Calais), and FRAC Basse Normandie (Caen) have joined forces to provide a possibly sunken institutional structure.

Wreck to Reef, Art AV, Field Broadcast, O’Three, Precision Energetics, Dorset County Council, Weber Industries, Ringstead Caravans and Quest Underwater Services provide the ecosystem.

To see so many bodies pulling together to produce an act of conservation, let alone an epic piece of public art, is as inspiring as any number of visits to an aquarium.

And there is a precedent for such a comparison. In his diaries, Paul Klee records a “refreshingly bizarre” visit to an aquarium, where an octopus reminded him of an attentive art dealer.**

*Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck, reproduced in Aquatopia, published by Nottingham Contemporary and Tate in 2013

**cited in Otherworldly, an essay by J Malcolm Shick, in Underwater, published by Towner Gallery in 2010. 

REEF can be seen at Fabrica, Brighton, until November 23 2014.


John Skoog: Redoubt (2014)

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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.


Jordan Baseman, A Cold Hand on a Cold Day (2013)

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It is all very well writing with a skull on your desk (I don’t). But you might still wonder how much thought the saints of old gave to the more practical aspects of death.

Now, however, American artist Baseman brings you right into that seldom-explored margin between death and burial/cremation, via an interview with funeral director Cara Mair.

Mair is a disillusioned embalmer who now runs a holistic service in Brighton. This means she and her team take a greener approach to the presentation and disposal of your loved one.

As might be expected, she is quite at ease talking about decomposition, leakage, physical trauma and sealing eyes and mouths to suggest her own deceased subjects appear to be at peace.

But one thing she cannot do is warm bodies up. Hence the shock many relatives feel when touch a lost family member and feel them as cold as the title of the piece suggests.

So much for the soundtrack. The footage here, running over Mair’s narration, might best be described as a time lapse cloudscape with plenty of visual noise on the film itself.

At times it looks to feature breaking waves. And both clouds and waves pass swiftly; their inexorable motion offers the chance to dream about death as abstraction.

It glows yellow and ends with an abrupt cut at the end of the narration, at which point Mair states in a manner of fact way that death is a termination; there is no afterlife.

The piece is site specific for deconsecrated fishing chapel Fabrica. And yet Mair says religion plays little or no part in her own life, but often plenty in the lives of people she deals with.

You might want her to tell you the opposite, to proffer a ghost story or two, to explain why she sounds so upbeat. But no, she is a realist. Perhaps such a thing is what death should make us all.

Jordan Baseman, A Cold Hand on a Cold Day, can be seen at Fabrica, Brighton, until 24 November 2013.


Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, Portrait of a River (2013)

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When the tide is going out and a wind is blowing from the East, crossing the Thames in a ferry is a skilled and hazardous affair. It is tempting to say Larsen charts a similar path.

Work by this Danish artist rocks back and forth between beautifully composed segments of art film and fascinating clips of fly on-the-wall documentary. Sans voiceover, he lets editing tell his tale.

Talking heads, who would not be out of place on BBC4, fill his ‘Portrait’ with personality. He might be the first contemporary artist some of his cast have ever met, but this one sets them at ease.

Little do they know just how atmospheric it will seem. Most voices here are off camera, allowing Larsen to focus on environmental details. River folk are heard but not always seen.

Elsewhere he depicts silent figures who seem almost unaware of his presence. With some degree of intimacy we watch a shiphand splice a rope; we watch an old boy settle down to fish.

In keeping with the quotidian mood, Larsen offers panoramic landscapes from time to time. An oil barrel is caught in the wash outside Dartford. The sun is setting over a pinky, orange 02 Arena.

From another elevation we look out over Tower Bridge as a fleet of no less than eight helicopters float into view and travel out downstream. They speak for the river’s mystery.

The most compelling chapter in the series, finds the camera is trained on a navigational chart. It is a history lesson accompanied by a pointing finger, the closest we come to the facts of the matter.

But perhaps there is no reason a film should not convey information and deal with impressions. It can be both factual and expressive, realist and dare one say even romantic.

Somehow we know we are in safe hands with Larsen’s ferrymen and master bargemen. They know that not everyone is “boat-oriented”. For the length of this digital film, however, we totally are.

Portrait of a River can be seen in Estuary at the Museum of London Docklands until 27 October 2013.