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

Jac Leirner, The End (2016)

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The drug addict and the contemporary artist share a certain flair for rebellion. And so the sight of a high tensile steel cable threaded with roaches from spliffs makes perfect sense here.

We are told that Leirner is/was an addict and that the work here in her blue-chip show at White Cube was originally put together in a three-day cocaine binge in 2010.

More paraphernalia is threaded onto further cables which cut across the upper ground floor space like an infra red beam alarm system. Like an addict we must transgress with care.

Suspended in line with the drug taking gear are pocket spirit levels, which no gallery technician can ever be without. Just as Lerner must depend on a certain equilibrium to remain an ‘artist’.

But it has been said: “Those who have taken a powder with quasi-magical effects and consider themselves quite unfettered, entirely liberated, out of this world perhaps, are still running on tracks.”*

So although this installation benefits from some of the outsiderish drama, the evidence here of years of drug use have thrown up very little new or imaginative. There is no Kubla Khan.

Instead the topic here is a gruelling relationship with repetition as months and years pass in which the artist skins up, chops out and perhaps shoots up to very little transcendental benefit.

Instead Leirner is marking time and perhaps archiving an impoverished personal history. So her resinated rolling papers could become like Plato’s pharmakon: a tool for remembering.

Of course, the pharmakon is a drug of two halves. As a repository for our past, it frees us to stop carrying around the baggage of memory, perhaps also here the baggage of sober reason.

The roaches also criss cross the room like lines of text to become a written diary. And, thanks in part to Derrida**, we know that in the opinion of Plato the written word was also a pharmakon.

Whether remedy or poison, this show called Junkie offers a meditation on the monotonous reality of drug addiction. That drug addiction possesses a ‘reality’ of its own should not surprise us.

Jac Leirner: Junkie can be seen at White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, until May 14 2016.

*Henri Michaud, quoted by David Boothroyd (Deconstructions, A User’s Guide; edited by Nicholas Royle, Palsgrave 2000). 

** Jacques Derrida, The Rhetoric of Drugs (Points, Interviews 1974-1994) Stanford University Press 1995


Annette Messager, Les interdictions (2014)

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As 1968 begins to pass out of living memory, the date begins to lose its power. Sadly. We are by now a long way from barricades and a long way from a revolutionary tipping point. It seems.

Perhaps to keep the memory alive and honour the students who could have brought down a Western government, this artwork by 72-year old Messager comprises 68 prohibition signs. (’68!)

We can only assume the artist had some fun redesigning these interdictions. How else could we actually enjoy the sight of a wall plastered with the evidence of the human bent for authority?

As things stand you might well relish the comedy value. It has been decreed from on high that in the gallery today, we we cannot feed monkeys, have sex in spas, or drive wearing a burqa.

Says Museum director Barbara Forest in the catalogue: “The absence of context renders the signposting more derisory, more absurd, more ridiculous, more grotesque and more serious”.

Of course the rules here don’t apply. Artists are traditionally people who break rules, rather than people who enshrine them. So these handmade prohibitions are fairly dripping with irony.

All but one of the signs is based on a real world referent. The exception, which proves the rest of the rules, is top right: no prostitution. Another tradition of artists is that you don’t sell out.

But since this work is a roundabout celebration of freedom, that must include the freedom to capitalise on your artistic talents and, in one way or another join the establishment. 

There is a figurative element to this installation. It features more than a dozen mannequins, more than a dozen child-sized snowsuits. None of us chafe against rules more than children do.

Yet do we not make a good many rules for the good of our young? Messager may evoke 1968 in this major work, but that’s not to say she might not be very ambivalent about the laws of man.

Les interdictions can be seen in Annette Messager: Dessus Dessous at the Musée des beaux-arts Calais until 15 May 2016.


Nicholas Mangan, Ancient Lights (2015)

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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


Ben Woodeson, Rat Trap Neon (2013)

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There are plenty of ways into this show-stopping piece by UK artist Ben Woodeson. But explore just a little and you may find no way out. One or more of those rat traps will hold you fast.

Of course, that’s not an invitation to touch. The art itself would come off as badly as you. Spring the traps and you smash the neon. If all breakages must be paid for you’d be well out of pocket.

Still, it would make a good anecdote. And like most works by this artist there’s an implied narrative here in which something goes terribly wrong. In some ways, an accident would consummate them.

Due care was taken on my visit, but I still found myself pinned by the spectacle and then by thoughts about the short history of neon in art and the seductions of this element in urban spaces.

Woodeson’s piece throws off a surprising amount of heat. All artworks aspire to be a focal point, but this has shades of a campfire, at once the beginnings of civilisation and heart of its dangers.

To toast a reindeer chop or even a metaphorical marshmallow, as we are surely doing now, is to be consumed by whatever society comes together on these occasions. Again, no exit.

Woodeson sets the bait with an arrangement of abstract forms, in a material which is surely the best metonym for contemporary art. The piece is cynical in that way. He knows his vermin well.

But these loose forms suggest offcuts of neon, as if left over from the work of another, less risky artist. Of course all serious artists take risks; just not all of them would break your finger.

Rat Trap Neon was on show in Ben Woodeson: Obstacle at Berloni, London, between 29 May and 1 August 2015. You can read my 2014 interview with the artist on The Learned Pig.


Nathan Coley, You Imagine What You Desire (2014)

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What a difference a new occasion makes. The last installation of You Imagine What You Desire was over 17,000 km away at a Biennial in Sydney. Now it appears in a festival in Brighton.

But geography is the least of it. In Sydney it was on a gallery facade; in Brighton it is in an ancient church. It’s from the streets of a big, young city to a reflective space in a small, old world one.

So what gets imagined in a church and what gets desired? Well, heaven obviously, but also hell. It is the go-to place for imagining the outcomes of our actions, for guidance in the way we live our lives.

You might ask why anyone would desire a burning pit. But perhaps we like to be kept in line, on some level. And a sense of justice is useful to both society and the individual. So why not.

The builder’s scaffold which holds these letters is blunt about this. It too is utilitarian. And here it tells us that imagination and desire are the pole and grip structure of our morality.

But a scaffold is temporary and the fairground lights remind us there are plenty more things and people to desire in this seaside town of ours. Out there, on the pier, desire is still a thrill ride.

There are lots of risks, but few spiritual consequences on the pier. It is a very modern institution in that way. So Coley brings the amusement park into the last place you might expect to find it.

After all, Saint Nicholas’ is the oldest church in town. The pier may be one of our best known landmarks but, until now, the twain have never met. They have to turn off the lights during worship.

So, apologies to Sydney, and all future venues. But this really belongs in Brighton, and you can’t say that about too much art. More is to be desired, even if it be hard to imagine.

You Imagine What You Desire is a HOUSE/Brighton Festival co-production and can be seen at Saint Nicholas’s, Brighton, until May 24 2015.

Read my review of Nathan Coley at Brighton Festival on The Arts Desk.


Ruth Ewan, Back to the Fields (2015)

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While this show must have been a logistical headache, the extensive catalogue of objects in Back to the Fields points to an impossible dream. And it’s the most beautiful and sad dream: revolution.

This is not the first time Ewan has visited post-revolutionary France. You can read about her doomed experiment at Folkestone in 2011. That was to do with hours in the day; this, with days of the year.

So the current exhibition at Camden Arts Centre fills a single gallery space with 365 objects, each of which represents an annual date. My visit (31/01) was in the rainy month on the day of hellebore.

Hellebore, as one discovers, is a flower and occasional poison. In French it is Ellébore, so you learn something new every day. And that cliché is very much the case at this show.

Why name a day after a plant and why name a month after a meteorological phenomenon? Well, January, in the Gregorian calendar, happens to be named after Roman god Janus.

But the Jacobins wanted to get away from all that ol’ time religion. And so working in the shadow of the guillotine, the new regime abolished the twelve month year and brought in a rational ten.

The new calendar lasted for 13 years or 130 months. During which time the populous were able to meditate daily on everything from otters to grapes, from honey to mercury, via, say, an axe.

Trout and crayfish also feature in this uncompromising display. Yes, the otter den may be empty for the time being but on March 28 visitors can meet revolutionary animals in the gallery garden.

Republican time may have been intended to overthrow religion. But there is a sense of both zeal and observance about Ewan’s collection of objets, which devout onlookers will relate to.

The result is an installation with a touch of the epic. In a 21st century Britain run by Etonians, it points to an epic failure. But even epic failures have more potential than moderate degrees of success.

Back to the Fields can be seen at Camden Arts Centre until 29 March 2015


Roberts, Selmes & Bartlett, Work Programme 71 (2014)

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For those who don’t already know, Aston Villa FC are an underperforming English football team from the West Midlands. It might not be common knowledge in the wider art world.

Three artists staged a gallery event last Saturday: Bartlett, Selmes and Roberts. We’ll drop the first names, in the spirit of football. Because all support ‘the Villa’.

And all three wore the team’s claret and blue shirts and in doing so took on a radical (or alarming) non-art look. They didn’t even look like performance artists. It was perhaps anti-anti art.

The terrace vibe was helped along by an atmospheric loop of crowd noise: grown men professing their loyalty to this historic club and its players through the medium of chant.

Meanwhile, the ‘art’ was a collection of doctored pages ripped from matchday programmes and merchandise catalogues. A 90-minute projection showed AVFC demolish Birmingham City 5-1.

All of the above was fiendishly parochial. Players who had been gods in their time, were reduced to the status of an in joke. Was this about the idiocy of football or the selective ignorance of art?

There were also beers. There always are at openings. But these were an assortment of different brews, with each one themed around a first team star. This blogger opted for a Darren Bent lager.

Another attraction was the Lambert Out campaign, by which Bartlett attempted to drum out the club’s under fire manager by handing samizdat posters to bemused gallery folk.

If you like football, the whole thing was a total hoot. But what many overlook, and which you could have learned at this show, is that the most interesting things happen off the pitch.

What to make of the current prime minister David Cameron and heir to the throne Prince William? Both claim to be lifelong Villa fans, to Bartlett’s horror. It’s a surreal carnival.

Art’s perspective on football may be as narrow as football’s perspective on art, but both worlds could surely learn from one another. You will, for example, find art at football grounds.

Portman Road is the stadium for my team de choix; on a plinth outside is a statue of former manager Bobby Robson. It is made by Ipswich fan and sculptor Sean Hedges-Quinn.

Home fans arrange to meet by this artwork. They pose for photos here, and roundly approve of this tribute to a local legend. One presumes they even admire the likeness. No soul searching here.

Just be warned. Football art cuts both ways. This blogger once got a text from a friend who saw fans from another club urinating on the likeness of our hero; Robson died of cancer five years ago.

That’s a pretty direct critique, which this blogger could only dream of emulating. Art people might still piss all over your latest show, only with the ambivalent gift of metaphor.

Work Programme 71 took place on Saturday November 15 2014 at Community Arts Centre, Brighton. See gallery Facebook page for future events.


Sophie Dickson, Shooting Range (pt 2) (2014)

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At a point of maximal chaos, the objects in this sculpture hang together and you feel you could take your finger off the pause button and return this scene to order.

The tableau is composed of ‘junk’, but white paint gives it a wintry appearance, akin to a seasonal shop window, and perhaps one dressed by an anarchist.

Look closer and you will see a cash till, caught mid air, cash drawer gaping, empty. As a nation of shopkeepers, this is an attack on all we hold dear.

But look it’s okay. The whole thing is kept within a theatrical frame. Despite a lack of glass or limits, there is a notional vitrine, nodding to blue chip art-mongers like Hirst and Koons.

Perhaps following in the footsteps of the former organiser of Freeze, Dickson has taken on a vast space in Circus Street, and for a solo show no less.

Hence she demonstrates a youthful talent for wrangling planning applications and funding bids. She has overcome a mountain of paperwork along with a mountain of junk.

Most of the found objects used here are obsolete, a landline phone, a cassette player. They are perhaps fossilised. But fossils don’t get airborne like this.

I want to say it is rare for explosions to turn rooms like this upside down here in Brighton. Yet in 1984, the whole country was rocked by a bomb in the Brighton Grand Hotel.

But this was six years before Dickson was even born. So one can only guess at whatever ash-covered interiors might have inspired this work. Strangely beautiful, there are plenty of them.

Junk is Beautiful can be found in Circus Street, Brighton, until November 21. See Facebook page for opening times.


Miquel Navarro, Wall City (1995-2000)

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It is a quirk of perception that we read this as a city. On the face of it, most of Navarro’s work is comprised of regimented obelisks.

So it’s not like any city you or I might live in. There’s no chaos, no movement and no colour. The columns are as grave as tombstones in a city of the dead.

Yet in its rational structure and the zones we can read as neighbourhoods, we recognise this as a place which the human race might yet spirit into existence.

If architects have, from the renaissance onwards, conceived of buildings in relation to the human form, Navarro throws all that out of a 100th floor window.

There is nothing humanist about this anthill. It is as heavily planned as a city conceived by some ancient people (or perhaps a child). And yet the high rise technology is 21st century.

Something ominous haunts the viewer. In this respect it is like one of de Chirico’s urban dreams. (Navarro has paid tribute to the surreal classicist.)

But no matter how sinister, this vast settlement has pull. The lighting is promising and the canyons of aluminium and zinc impress with their mystery.

There is even a bullring. And with so little else of discernible function, tauromachia assumes a huge importance in the life of this civilization to come.

One imagines it at the heart of an arcane religion. Or as a social device like the lottery in The Lottery in Babylon by Jorge Luis Borges who for some reason comes to mind.

All we know for sure is that this dystopia, which took five years to build, is a piece of timeless bad news. Navarro tells us, in great detail, the worst is still out there, somewhere.

Wall City can be seen in Art of Our Time: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collections, now showing at the Guggenheim Bilbao until 3 May 2015.


Wang Yuyang, Breathing Books (2014)

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“I like the traditional Chinese philosophy,” says Wang Yuyang, “Because it talks about the relationship between 1 and 0, on and off, black and white, something and nothing…”

You have to imagine that the thirtysomething artist would also like the branch of post-structuralist theory known, confusingly, as deconstruction.

If deconstruction itself has been sparked into life by any one opposition, that might well have to be the porous distinction between speech and writing. The former present, the latter absent.

Wang Yuyang shakes up this distinction by animating the a selection of Chinese books from the neo-gothic university-linked library in Manchester, John Rylands.

The books have been flawlessly recreated in silicon rubber and thank to a regular pulse of air, they now appear to whisper or breath. They are more ‘here’ than ever.

But as anyone who has ever loved a book can testifty, your personal copy can take on a charge after you’ve worked your way through it page by static page. It lives for you.

As such, Wang Yuyang has revealed a truth about the written word. And in another move you might call deconstructive, he has privileged East over West in his choice of volumes.

Theoretical babble aside, only the most casual passerby will not be stopped in their tracks by this installation. See how ghostly those old books are. Even the chairs breathe.

They might remind you that the entire building is a memorial, built for Mr Rylands after his passing by wife Enriqueta. The historical context here is a 19th century death.

Not that we should dwell on that. Rather more pertinent are the loving couples’ respective fortunes. His came from the cotton mills, hers from the sugar plantations.

One could argue that books, certainly written ideas, hastened the end of those particular positions. Down the road in Chetham’s Library Karl Marx would meet with Friedrich Engels.

So it only appears to be a supernatural manifestation or the effect of a cool hallucinogen. Those books you’ve read and believed every word: they’ll still be breathing long after you stop.

Breathing Books can be seen at The John Rylands Library as part of Harmonious Society, the UK’s largest ever exhibition of contemporary Chinese art.

Show runs for the duration of Asia Triennial Manchester which is on until 23 November 2014.