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

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.


Cathedrals of Culture (2014)

Of course, buildings cannot have souls. We are cannot even install them in computers. But a new 3D film by six directors, which began life as a TV series, sets out to demonstrate the improbable.

You have to admit these are personable buildings. The roving cameras are accompanied by first person voiceovers which bring us into the action as effectively as our stereoscopic specs.

It should be noted, this film got a really bad review in the Guardian, where architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright found it “sickly sweet . . . syrupy schmaltz”.

And while it is true that some of these buildings come off better than others, and that the results are an immersive advertisement for each given destination, there’s plenty of visual jouissance.

The star of the show, the leading architectural cast member, is Halden Prison in Norway. Here the film captures all the humanity you could ever hope for from one of these institutions.

Sun shines on the basketball court, marital quarters are tastefully decked out, the prison shop is well stocked, even the isolation cells look cool and, despite the dirty protest, somewhat inviting.

Wenders himself films the Berlin Philharmonic, a crazy structure based on overlapping pentagons. Yes, the praise is gushing. But this is a real life sonic cathedral, so what’s not to love?

Perhaps for those already familiar with, say, the National Library of Russia or the Salk Institute, this film is a bit of a yawn. Director Robert Redford maybe overdoes the time lapse photography.

Indeed, the thirty or so minutes spent in the company of the Centre Pompidou in Paris were none too interesting. Having spent a few days riding those escalators, something more was hoped for.

And yet the film which gave the least info was also the most dynamic. Director Margreth Olin chose to focus on the performers who use the Oslo Opera House, allowing the building itself to also dance.

At 165 minutes, this cathedral service is a lengthy one. It drags at times. But why should action movies have the monopoly on 3D? Architecture, no matter how sugar coated, is surely as exciting.

Cathedrals of Culture was screened at the Duke of York’s Picturehouse, Brighton, on 30 December 2014.


Agnes Meyer-Brandis, The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Bird Migration (2011)

The ideal place to relate this piece of art might be in a pub. You could try a dinner party, but you may not get the requisite howls of disbelief.

“There’s this German artist, see, who wants to fly to the moon. No she’s not in a space training programme. She’s going to let herself be towed there by geese. Bear with me.

“So she’s got these eleven geese in a specially built lunar landscape in a place called Pollinaria. That’s Italy. She reckons it will get them used to the idea.

“She’s also been educating them. Teaching them about flying in a V, about space junk, orbits, etc. They’re all named after astronauts and the like. Like Yuri, etc.”

Such is the way with urban myths. Agnes Meyer-Brandis has taken a 17th century story by English bishop Francis Godwin, and turned it into a 21st century anecdote.

The original text is called The Man in the Moone and features the world’s first, goose-powered, spaceman. You could call it early sci-fi, and continue thus:

“Cut a long story short, she is their mum now. She imprinted herself on them by hanging out with the eggs and then 24/7 when they hatched.

“She even read Kurt Schwitters to them, some performance poem without words. No don’t ask me who he is. I don’t know either. Same again?

“Anyway my mate told me about it, knows someone who saw it in a gallery. They’ve built a sort of mission control. You can switch views of the geese on six screens.

“Swear by God, it’s true. You can watch them waddle in and out of the craters. It’s like they’ve already made it. Just imagine, hitching a lift with some geese.”

If you want a less bibulous experience of this work, make your way to FACT. There you will find the control room and a 20-minute film about the ’journey’.

Watching this reel in a sort of decompression chamber, it is hard to say where the art is located. Is it in Italy? Is it in FACT? Or is it simply in the mind, or in conversation?

Brandis-Meyer’s work can be seen at FACT until 26 February. See gallery website for more details. And read an interview with the artist on the Liverpool Echo website.


Marcus Coates, The Trip (2011)

Marcus Coates, The Trip, 2010. Documentary photograph, Courtesy of the artist

Towards the end of this 35 minute film, a horrible thought occurred to me. Maybe Marcus Coates is making the whole thing up and playing an unethical trick on a terminally ill man.

In voiceover, with a view from a hospice room, he describes a trip up the Amazon in vivid detail. It is lush, green, benign, too good to be true, almost like a meditation tape.

This is reminiscent of earlier films where Coates goes on imaginary journeys to commune with the natural world. Having put questions to animals, he now claims to put them to the Huaorani tribe.

But despite the inclusion of ten inch wide dragonflies, this is no drug trip. It is a real life adventure-to-order for the pleasure of bed-bound Alex H. Intelligent, realistic, yet game, he is a good foil.

Still unable to be sure this trip happened, I even wonder if Alex is in on the joke. Both he and Coates sound close to laughter as the trip gets recounted off camera. Is he even dying?

This, however, may be what joy sounds like. Artist and subject have shared an amazing journey. And one person has gone well out of their way for another, evidently a good thing.

Not a million miles from shamanism. But Coates here finds a less equivocal way that artists can be socially useful. This trip ends with a blackout and a song. Let us hope that is the way for all of us.

Click here to read my interview with Marcus Coates from last year.

The Trip can be seen at Serpentine Gallery, London, as part of their project Skills Exchange: Urban Transformation and the Politics of Care. See gallery website for more details.


Liverpool Biennial/Manchester Weekender

Two long-ish previews written this week for Culture24 and I’m looking forward to both:


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.


Oliver Beer, Deep and Meaningful (2009)

Three locations are evoked by the film Deep and Meaningful by Oliver Beer: the sewer in which the original choral performance was filmed; the type of church where you might expect to hear such a thing; and the gallery environment in which it might end up.

The correspondence between church and art gallery is self-evident. To many both are sacred spaces. Both offer a place to reflect. Visitors to either may hope for revelations or the appearance of truths.

But the links between church and sewer are less clear. There could be straightforward blasphemy in the work. Or perhaps it is that both perform perform civilising roles and both absolve the user.

Finally this piece brings the sewer into the gallery. In a more polite way, it is a similar gesture to that of Duchamp and his urinal. It could suggest art is a functional and dirty business.

Seven well-trained voices join in harmony for the performance. Their song is pitched to vibrate with the sewer and echo around the gallery. It elevates the former, and raises questions in the latter.

The church is conspicuous by its absence. ‘Amen’ is sung without an obvious referent. It could be affirming Victorian architecture or possibly contemporary art. But you can find religion in both.

Oliver Beer, Deep and Meaningful, is currently on show upstairs at 20 Hoxton Square Projects until 24 July 2010.


Review: Mark Leckey and Martin McGeown – The Life and Times of Milton Keynes Gallery

Image courtesy Milton Keynes Gallery

Exhibition: Mark Leckey and Martin McGeown: Life and Times of Milton Keynes Gallery, Milton Keynes Gallery, Milton Keynes, until June 27 2010

900 Midsummer Boulevard does not sound like an address for a provincial English gallery. But then again, Milton Keynes is not just any other provincial English town.

Conceived as a utopia, it is often perceived as the very opposite. The twists and turns of a more organic settlement have all been ironed out by a super-rational grid system.

Town planners have considered the needs of their citizens and their citizens’ cars in almost every respect. Here is the office. Here is the shopping mall. And there is the cultural quarter, in which sits a purpose built white cube gallery.

Milton Keynes Gallery is now ten years old and the current show is a trip down memory lane, which is most certainly not the name of a nearby street.

Mark Leckey and Martin McGeown, Turner Prize-winning artist and Director of Cabinet Gallery, London, have sifted through the archives to present an impersonal portrait of “a classic British institution”, as the voiceover on one of their films has it.

These films, compiled of found materials, consist largely of still photographs with occasional flourishes of animation. The scripts are plundered from gallery literature, cut up and repasted together, then voiced by a computer.

“The machine is a programme and it makes all the decisions,” it intones, as the text veers between sense and nonsense. Despite the layers of mediation, the bleak voice that emerges has all the gravity of TS Eliot’s modernist classic The Wasteland.

Elsewhere the curatorial team have put another layer between them and the work by commissioning cartoonist Lee Healey to illustrate the history of the gallery according to a set of their prompts. The results are darkly funny.

Green screen technology is used to project a rotating model of the gallery onto a slideshow of photographs from the archives. Artworks and architectural plans convey a wealth of associations accumulated in ten short years.

The pink model shimmers at the edges with a holographic quality, as if a mirage. But the full workings of this trick are exposed as we can also see the green plinth, camera, spotlights and projector which makes the entire institution float in mid air before us.

So two galleries spin side by side, one real, and one a projected image. In the making of this show Leckey and McGeown have been careful to let you see both.

Written for Culture24.


House Festival 2010 offers city-wide gallery in Brighton and Hove

Cities without an established home for contemporary art might well look with interest at a solution found by artists in Brighton and Hove this May.

House Festival 2010 is a temporary gallery with nine rooms spread around the twin coastal resorts, in venues as diverse as a Regency townhouse, a day centre and a garden shed.

Organisers Judy Stevens and Chris Lord have drafted in a handful of the region’s best known curators to support the project, which was piloted last year.

“There are a lot of artists here with national or international reputations who never show in Brighton, because there’s no gallery,” said printmaker Stevens.

And yet the South Coast is not short of spaces for art. Eastbourne, Chichester and Bexhill-on-Sea all boast newly developed, restored or redeveloped spaces for art.

“This is really our response to that,” adds Stevens. “I think that is because they received a lot of regeneration money, whereas Brighton isn’t seen as needing it.”

Room one of this virtual gallery will be The Regency Townhouse in Hove. First time visitors to 13 Brunswick Square should be impressed by the Grade I Listed terrace.

Painstaking work is underway to recreate the fashionable look and feel of the 1820s, and this will be the context for a group exhibition on the theme of regeneration.

Refired ceramics, collage and found objects all figure in the show of 21 artists, chosen by a team which includes Nicola Coleby from Brighton and Hove Museums, Simon Martin from Pallant House in Chichester and Woodrow Kernohan from Brighton Photo Fringe.

Across town at Preston Manor, three more curators have commissioned 12 artists and designer-makers to respond to the furnishings and history of an Edwardian home.

60 moulded bulldogs explore issues of nationalism, a peacock feather dress hints at the barriers of class, and a pair of glass pipes question the utility of stately homes.

This time it is Polly Harknett, craft curator at Hove Museum, Matt Smith, independent curator and ceramicist, and Caitlin Heffernan, artist, who pull together the show, with Smith and Heffernan both contributing pieces.

Grand surroundings then give way to a smaller setting for a third room of House, as a garden shed at 46 Buller Road plays host to a mini cinema.

Highlight of the horticultural themed bill promises to be extracts from a 1903 version of Alice in Wonderland, the first movie adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s enduringly popular tale.

At the time Britain’s longest film, this version of Alice was almost lost for good. It survives thanks to an incomplete print found in Hove, now restored by the BFI.

Meanwhile, Brighton’s answer to the white cube spaces found in neighbouring South Coast towns has, for the duration of the Festival, been given a domestic makeover.

Dream Home at Phoenix Gallery constructs a warren of lived-in rooms within the gallery, and showcases sculpture, installations and photography from local talents such as Ben Thomson, Gary Barber and Kim L. Pace.

But lesser known, marginalised artists are on show at Wellington House, a day centre for adults with learning disabilities. Curation is by award-winning outsider artist Carlo Keshishian, with support from Pallant House Gallery.

The remaining locations for House include smaller, local, independent galleries Permanent, Grey Area and Blank, together with a residential address in the city centre.

Brighton and Hove may be lacking in the funds to create a purpose built art gallery, but as can be seen from this festival alone, the area has no shortage of alternatives. It is just a shame alternatives are needed.