“I’m not able to make it up. It just would not work”: John Virtue interview below

Charlie Billingham, Port Tack (2013)


A market in ancient Greece is distinguishable from the art market, but by less than you might think. In both you find the free circulation of ideas along with goods and services.

Like any auction house, the agora was a place of assembly. It had a political role as much as a commercial one and the etym contains the verbs for both “shop” and “speak in public”.

But the marketplace in late capitalism is nothing if not competitive. Perhaps that is why Charlie Billingham has staged a boat race in his bright and cheerful solo show at Ceri Hand.

The boat in shot is one of three. It is in the lead. And if the title is to be heeded, it is taking a left turn. Thus while you shop, Billingham can’t help speaking in public.

And the Greek connection is surely relevant. The sea where this boat sails is a limpid tapestry of a watercolour, made by Billingham during a stay in the Greek Islands.

It was machine stitched in Belgium. Trust a more Northern country to bring in a mercantile context. These are the waters which surround us in the current global economy.

This might be a good time to note the title of the show, Tender. Gentle, yes, but also with a sense of currency. Art can be tender in both senses.

Yet there is something jolly and bracing about this tacking and jibing, etc. The installations take their shape and dimensions from Laser Pico sailing dinghies. Ie; vessels of pleasure.

This motif suggests the optimism of a upcoming artist who enjoys his vocation, also a race of sorts. It results in a vibrant, sunny show in a grey month.

So is it fair to read a political intention into this riot of colour and marine sports? Given the situation in Greece these days, it is hard to get away from that bias.

Fans of austerity, keep heading right. Those who would rather stimulate the arts with funding, or even patronage of any kind, get on board.

Charlie Billingham: Tender is at Ceri Hand, London, until Jaunary 18 2013. Read a profile of the artist here; he has moved on quite a bit from his work in the Saatchi Gallery.

The finite charms of the Chapman brothers

Jake and Dinos Chapman, Installation view, Come and See, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, © 2013 Hugo Glendinning

Jake and Dinos Chapman,
Installation view, Come and See, Serpentine Sackler Gallery,
© 2013 Hugo Glendinning

In a book you can be fairly sure the Chapmans have read, A Thirst for Annihilation, philosopher Nick Land reports on the encounter between American GIs and the mass graves of the Nazi death camps.

If memory serves me right, many of the liberators, upon encountering piles of unburied bodies, said they experienced a rush-like death wish, a desire to be just so many more nameless bodies.

Such transgressive feelings are, apparently, impossible to recreate in a gallery. But the two enfants terrible have surely tried, having peopled several dioramas with thousands of tiny model corpses.

These museum-like cases, which also feature Nazi soldiers and the cast of a McDonalds Happy Meal, are, rather than annihilating, just plain fun. They are fun in the way Bosch or Breugel are fun.

Which is to say they combine a picture book pleasure with a wealth of comic detail. But the power of these pieces is contained by the glass behind which they sit. There is no leakage.

Humour is everywhere in the current retrospective at Serpentine. You will have heard about the KKK, no doubt. Expect your visit to be joined by a score of Klansmen in rainbow socks and sandals.

It’s the socks which really annoy, as if there were no other viewpoints in art rather than fascist or woolly new age-ism. This blogger is guilty of a bit of that. But it’s not the full story, surely.

Compare the Chapmans’ dioramas to a serious piece of political art and they lose their impact. Alfredo Jaar, for example, has made a devastating film about Rwanda with not a snigger in sight.

Wherever the power lies these days, these pillaging Nazis and totemic fast food clowns are the straw men of contemporary art; they are panto villians rather than an immediate threat.

But, in keeping with the metaphor of seasonal theatre, the Chapman brothers themselves are always “behind you”. Half the works in the retrospective are scruffy cardboard send ups of modernism.

And what can you say about a world in which a stuffed fox is shagging a stuffed hare, which mounts a stuffed rabbit, which is having it away with a rat, who in turn screws an unfortunate mouse.

To suggest the mouse will inherit the earth would be to no doubt invite peals of laughter. There is no getting away from the law of the jungle, the reign of capital or kings.

But what can you do with this art? The closest it gets to transcendence is a grim money shot in an explicit film which is coupled with a children’s choir singing Morning is Broken.

In a several rapid strokes, innuendo intended, the Chapmans reduce religion to the side effect of an onanistic handjob. It is, once again, hard to argue against. The show is a closed circle.

Starting with the holocaust and the ravages of capitalism, here are their glib conclusions. But imagine how limited he might appear had Picasso spent his whole career riffing off Guernica.

Forgive me if I shelter behind a monumental piece of 20th century art to round off my criticisms of Jake and Dinos. But what gets them out of bed in the morning and why not make art about that?

Jake and Dinos Chapman: Come and See is on view at Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9 Feburary 2014.

Tom Dale, Department of the Interior (2012)

dept of interior

While there may be plenty of government departments in castles all around the world, we are lucky in Britain to broadly avoid that particular Kafkaesque motif.

And yet the darkness of a homegrown bouncy castle made of leather, with its many turrets, and its relentless air pump, is every bit as oppressive as the Czech writer’s elevated seat of bureaucracy.

Dale’s work pushes and it pulls. The only way to confront your fears would be to kick off shoes and leap aboard, but kids of all ages will need restraining. This is only for show.

Indeed, it is one of contemporary sculpture’s great jokes. He presents authority as a funhouse. He brings adult play into the public realm. The UK Parliament, with its green leather, is forever changed.

So what sado-masochistic fantasies do we all work through in our relationships with power? There is little doubt that our bondage to jobs, and to mortgages, etc. must satisfy something in the Id.

That’s why Department… is such a quick get. The words ‘leather bouncy castle’ render it mythic. It feels to have been around forever. It shows a paranoid humour of limitless appeal.

Note also that Cambridge shares some topography with Prague. The highest point in town is Castle Hill, although the Normans failed to build as extensively as the Bohemians and their forebears.

The fenland city is nevertheless dominated by a network of colleges. And one is inclined to observe that most of the machinations which govern life here take place in a cloistered realm.

But to look on the bright side, Dale’s forbidden piece is also a monument to emptiness. There are no lawmakers jumping on that thing, no dons in black gowns flying back and forth like bats.

We should fight paranoia, clearly, so as not to manifest our worst fears. So anything which pulls back the veil or delivers a punchline is to be welcomed. Dale does both. Roll up and laugh out loud.

This work can be seen in Tom Dale: Zero is Immense at Aid & Abet in Cambridge, UK, until Saturday 16th.

Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Celebration? Realife, 1972-2000

celebration blog

Throwing a party, like making art, is one of those activities we can attend to when all of our most basic needs have been satisfied. Food, shelter, art – that is surely the order.

But if we are to suppose that ancient people ever let their hair down, who would decorate the cave? With a bit of help from the shamans, you could say those private views got out of hand.

In latter times, say the last 500 years, art has sobered up but celebration has never fallen out of fashion. It could apply to, say, the reading of a mass in church.

By the by, the first recorded use of the word in English is in a 1580 in love poem, Arcadia by Sir Philip Sydney: “He laboured…to hasten the celebration of their marriage.”

Central to this piece is indeed a plastic bride and groom such as you would find atop a cake. They pose for a strobe flash surrounded by the residue of their bash.

If it is theirs… Other cues lead elsewhere.Pierrot hats and animal masks feature in few weddings. The discarded beach ball suggests that even the honeymoon is already over.

But the party is kept going by a revolving glitter ball and changing filters on a spot light. Strings of fairy lights animate the scene long after the guests have left. It is a lonely sort of installation.

What sets the defining tone for this celebration is a psychedelic and glammy rock soundtrack which beckons you into the party from the moment you step into the gallery.

Most poignant is when Bowie’s Five Years comes across the speakers. This now sounds like a party for the end of the world, or at the very least, glancing at a portrait of Lenin, the end of history.

What can it mean to go home after a party like that, the very last of its kind. In 2013 it looks like Chaimowicz’s empty piece is the celebration of a celebration. Realife (sic) has caught up.

Celebration? Realife can be seen in Glam: The Performance of Style, at Tate Liverpool until 12 May 2013. See gallery website for more details.

Joana Vasconcelos, Valkyrie Crown (2012)

Is it fair to say that a monarchist in Britain has an easier life? Certainly, they have a less paranoid one. They have got behind the head of church and state and can accept all that is bidden.

It is, strangely, as easy for a contemporary artist. Your collectors are rich. The Queen is rich. And neither should have any problem with you celebrating Her Majesty.

The occasional blogger calling suchwork into question is not even a fly in the ointment. As Warhol said, just measure the length of the text. Don’t worry about the content.

QEII has been captured in many portraits, but she would surely be most hard pushed to see herself in the centrepiece of a current show at Haunch of Venison.

Because this Valkyrie Crown, this metonym for the state, is really something monstrous and anarchic. A wealth of colour fabrics have been knitted, stuffed, stitched and patched.

The Valkyrie series glorifies a Norse goddess who dishes out fates on the battlefield. And so the most shadowy conspiracy theories about earthly power have an origin in myth. This reassures.

But hard to say whether this Portuguese artist would ascribe similar powers to our monarch; just note her tentacles trail the height and breadth of the two storey gallery.

In a short time here (it is stressful to be this end of the Great Chain of Being) I noticed visitors make their way into the heart of the piece and ‘wear’ the outsize crown.

Two staged positions were possible: loyal subject or omnipotent queen. The sprawling work leaves little room for citizens, republicans and other condemned beings. You have to watch your step.

But on the way out, I check on the status another piece in the show: a flowerhead of steam irons. The gallery assistant confirms it is out of order that day. Not even royal decree could get it working.

Valkyrie Crown can be seen at Haunch of Venison, New Bond Street, until 17 November 2012. See gallery website for more details.

Richard Serra, The Matter of Time (1994-2005)

Photo: Elliot Levitt

To some degree this is art for the feet. Serra’s eight sculptures invite you to walk them in sequence. In fact they demand it. How else will you get to see them?

Thus it takes half an hour to simply cover the ground of this semi-permanent show in the Arcelor-Mittal Gallery here at the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

It is a large space and the sculptures make it even larger. You trace a path through spirals which appear larger inside than out. You encounter barriers dividing the room.

All the while, at some atavistic level, you experience fear that one of these forged steel slabs will lean too far in and crush you. Or you experience this as thrill.

Rusty steel may not be the most eye-catching of materials. But it is hard to imagine more of a spectacle in any gallery than this biggest-ever group of Serra works.

Those who believe artists must work hard at feats beyond the range of “my three year old,” should be well pleased with this piece of monumental maze-making.

It weighs about 1,000 tons. Individual pieces have been engineered to the nearest tenth of a millimetre. Their journey from a German forge to the Basque region was epic.

It is fitting that this gravity-deying consignment came by boat. Serra recounts how as a boy he was taken to witness the launch of a tanker ship in Brooklyn.

After it slipped down the launch, the watching crowd held its breath as this vessel first sank and then rose to a state of sea-worthy floatation.

“All the raw material that I needed is contained in that memory,” the artist has said. It is a great story and indeed floating ships and flying planes should fascinate sculptors.

Visitors to The Matter of Time have two ways of approach this work. They can lose themselves on ground level or take an aerial view from a balcony on level one.

If anything, the balcony makes Serra’s gallery look even more precarious. To enjoy this takes a measure of faith. And so the material gives rise to the immaterial.

Perhaps that is the real effect of time on matter: some manner of transcendence, as the 25-year exhibition slowly turns amber with rust and we ourselves go grey.

These works can be seen at the Guggenheim, Bilbao. Check gallery website for more details.

Matthew Stone, Propaganda (2012)

This piece floats on a perilous sea of style mags; they buoy up a marble-effect plinth. Matthew Stone is not cool, he is stone cold.

But these publications have more gravity than usual. Their covers are stuck to blocks of wood, giving each more permanence than a sheaf of glossy pages.

A muted printing technique fades and dates the titles (i-D and Dazed), so what they gain in cultural validation they lose in terms of timeliness.

This is always a trade off. One surely cannot be both hip and profound. The typography and styling which threaten to swallow this plinth have been frozen mid trend.

And yet those headlines  (“Love changes everything” and “Everything is possible”) may be deep. But they mean next to nothing when packaged up as content.

Fashion magazines are detached affairs, the last place to go in search of wisdom. But new trainers change everything; everything is possible to those with cash. Too true.

Stone is said to be a favourite of the titles presented here. So his reification of the hands that feed is brave and yet, oblique; it is hard to say where he stands.

Some of the magazines are sawn in two up and fixed with hinges. This is surely an act of love as much as destruction. It is as if everything hinges on fashion here, it seems, even art.

Matthew Stone: Everything is Possible can be seen at La Scatola until October 5 2012. See gallery website for more details.

Alex Bowen, This is How I Roll 24/7 (2012)

To give this work it’s full title: This is how I roll 24/7…Not Just On A Satrday Night in a Shit Basemnt (sic). And the shit basement in question was Brighton’s Grey Area.

It was indeed Saturday night when this work both previewed and closed. The artist was nowhere to be seen. We still cannot be sure how he rolls.

Yet Bowen did leave us with a few clues as to his style of comportment. Ropes bolted to the wall turned the space into a fight ring. In the centre were a crateload of beers. No nonsense.

With varying degrees of daring or innebration, visitors were lounging off the ropes. The DJ explained that the structure was inspired by a detail taken from George Orwell.

Down and Out in Paris and London reveals that ropes like this were once employed as beds or minimal hammocks for the hobo classes in the French capital.

Although the beers were gratis, the want of money hemmed us in on all sides. Grey Area, which in reality is a fantastic basement, is going through a phase of transition. It too might be on the ropes.

This is not the first time Bowen has cried off from a private view. He was notable by his absence from the launch of the most recent show at his nearby gallery, Mingles Calypso (sic).

On that occasion visitors turned up to find the space occupied by an unmanned bar. You get the feeling he is goading us with our thirst for alcohol rather than art.

But those arty drinks won’t pay for themselves, so if any philanthropists are reading this (and according to prevailing wisdom there are plenty of you out there), please step in the ring.

This work was at Grey Area, Brighton, on August 11. See gallery website for future events.

circa69, What was wood will be glass (2012)

This is not a simple work but it is easy to enjoy. It is easy to enjoy if your idea of fun is lying back in bed listening to breakbeats and watching a movie on the ceiling.

The footage shows scrambled data on a VDU, followed by a delapidated caravan in a clearing with a burning wheelchair alongside. Hard to make sense of, but visceral.

And when the bass drops, you feel yourself coming up as if on drugs. With speakers on the bed posts the vibrations shake the whole bed. I did this twice for another legal hit.

But circa69’s installation does funny things to your guts before you even follow the printed instructions to lie back on the squalid looking mattress.

A wall is covered in children’s drawings and somehow these are not sweet, but owing to their repetitive quality also somewhat creepy. They have run amok.

Then there is the wheelchair, present here as a sculpture too, destroyed by fire and sitting redundant amidst clods of earth. It is hard not to believe something terrible has happened here.

The brain struggles to construct a narrative around these elements: who occupied the chair?; did the children start the fire?; who lives in the caravan?

Half of the sense of danger here comes from the unknowability of these things. But thanks to the visual, aural and tactile impact, you really feel the backstory matters.

So you are left with radical doubt. It is tempting to say if David Lynch made art it would be art like this. But of course the film director does make art and it looks like this.

This work is part of the show Invisible Bridges at Phoenix, Brighton. Run ends Sunday 12 August. See gallery website for opening times and directions and check out more work by circa69 here.

Tom Dale, Banquet of Sound (2012)

Democracy has, one assumes, been going downhill since the time of ancient Greece. And here are the ruins of the principle: twelve abandoned, jumbled and toppled lecterns.

In the midst of their cluster is a nod to the classical world that spawned public speaking. But the statue which has long sat in the gardens here is the most troublesome of gods, Bacchus.

This lover of wine and experimentation is the last man standing in the in the verbal jousting matches which have led to the pile up of these metonyms of free speech.

So Dale appears to suggest we may be intoxicated by the notion of democracy. We go to war for it. We dare not speak out against it. We brand our enemies with a disregard for it.

But just what does our democracy add up to? The artist makes the point that lecterns are not only for politicians, but also celebrities, captains of industry, perhaps even bingo callers.

Their proliferation (and it must have been fairly straightforward to knock up these hollow jesmonite replicas) can be seen as a media frenzy, or a point-of-view piss up.

But cracks are already beginning to appear on the installation. In one sense this can be seen as a groundclearing exercise for something which could follow on from democracy.

That’s not to say totalitarianism, but a preferable form of democracy. A world to come, rather than a future held in place by monolithic discourses such are represented here.

Happily enough in the gardens of Ham House, they cancel out one another. Despite the title of this piece it is the quietest work on display. The only voice it waits for is your own.

Banquet of Sound can be found in Garden of Reason at Ham House until September 23. See project website for more details. And read what Dale himself said about this work in an interview for Culture24.