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

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12)

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There are two epicentres under consideration in this monumental installation at the Royal Academy right now. One was in Wenchuan County in Sechuan; the other is the government in Beijing.

The first meant a quake that destroyed 20 schools. The second has monitored the ongoing work of China’s best known artist and kept him at arm’s length with bureaucracy and doublespeak.

Ai contends that given their location on a seismic faultline, the schools should have been better built. This piece is a memorial, which lays square blame with corrupt officials and construction firms.

There is even something unpatriotic about substandard architecture. This, after all, is a nation most famed for a wall stretching more than 20,000km. It inspires a memorable short story by Kafka.

For the Great Wall, says the Czech writer (although how would he know?): “An unremitting sense of personal responsibility in the builders were indispensable prerequisites for the work”.

But you can see, from 200 tonnes of straightened rebar, the materials in Sechuan were not equal to the task. And as you can see from the accompanying film, the steel bars failed as a structure.

Now another wall was put up to protect the guilty. Ai’s team struggled to get information on the missing and the dead. “What if you’re an American spy?” asks a drudge on the end of the phone.

Until the major earthquake, Ai appears to have been something of a favoured son and a successful architect in his own right. As you know, he collaborated on the main stadium for the Beijing Olympics.

But it’s commonly thought that it is his unambiguous art of protest, and not his tax affairs, which led to his detention without trial for 80 days in 2011. The authorities have said little.

Kafka again, in character as a native of the old empire, “We Chinese possess certain folk and political institutions that are unique in their clarity, others again unique in their obscurity.”

Clarity: Ai has crossed the line. Obscurity: we cannot tell you what line or where. Both qualities pursued the artist even to the point of his visa complications in getting to London for his show.

It is of course counterproductive. The repression gives additional power to the work. As if the walls filled with a list of 5,000 victims’ names, a list of serene despair, were not power enough.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy can be seen until 13 December 2015. You can find my review for Culture24 here. The Kafka story mentioned is of course The Great Wall of China, to be found in the Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka, Vintage, 1999.


Sanja Iveković, The Disobedient (The Revolutionaries) (2012)

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The fifty donkeys were cute and the labels were amusing. But it was the third element in this piece which packed a real punch. A photo of a real donkey behind barbed wire in a town square.

It was a scene was staged by Nazi authorities in 1933 as a warning not to be stubborn and buy from Jewish shopkeepers. Or you too might end up in a concentration camp.

This shot was printed in a German newspaper in 1933, but for the purposes of this show it’s been blown up and displayed as forensic evidence on a lightbox.

Suddenly the donkey becomes the most noble of beasts. And the talent of these stuffed revolutionaries, the best examples of humanity, from Benjamin to Biko, becomes intransigence.

In the catalogue to artes mundi 6, essayist Natasa Ilic reveals that Bertold Brecht worked with a small wooden donkey on his desk to remind him of a critical section of his audience.

Hardworking donkeys are the salt of the earth. Which may be why, in the US political system, donkeys are democratic. It takes a tough hide, rather than a sharp mind, to make revolution.

The burden of so many of these cuddly toys, or the figures whose name they share, is to have had endured persecution, torture and in many cases execution.

As Manca Bajec points out on culture magazine B-turn, to see this piece is to realise that donkeys are unlikely heroes. Move aside Winnie, Eeyore’s in town.

Once again Ilic highlights something interesting. At least one philosopher has linked the spirit of revolution in the early 21st century to depression, withdrawal and exhaustion.

In the absence of any horizon of positive change, we must all learn from the donkey how to endure. Our only comfort, in the austerity age, might be a soft toy and a memory.

Just by way of an interesting aside: the German authorities may have overlooked the story of Balaam and the ass when they staged their 1930s photo op.

Balaam was of course a prophet on his way to curse the Israelites when the Angel of the Lord came down to turn him back and indeed destroy him.

His equine steed, a donkey as you will know, was granted sight of the Angel. And cut a long story short, Balaam ended up blessing the Jewish homeland. Spooky or what?

Iveković is one of nine shortlisted artists in artes mundi 6. The exhibition runs in various venues in Cardiff until 22 February 2015.


The The Thing Is (For 3)/Harry Hammond/Luna Park/August must-sees/Top 10 art attractions for kids

Here’s a round up of work for Culture24 in the last week or so. Feel free to peruse:


Tamoko Takahashi, Clockwork at De La Warr Pavilion (1998-2010)

This installation is an open invitation to skeptics. The materials are literally rubbish. There is no apparent order to the display. If this work was collected up and put in a skip we would walk past without a second glance.

So Takahashi’s work can seem a byword for mischief. She takes the world’s least valuable things, waste paper, damaged clocks, unwanted tools, and turns them into ingredients of the world’s most valuable commodity, art.

But she works at it. We know the items have been selected with care because recurring themes emerge. Care has also been taken to spread them around in a balanced way. Some objects are fixed together or stood on end and the scene is not as chaotic as it first appears. It has aesthetic appeal.

Takahashi snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, or art from the realms of oblivion. We need a way to deal with rubbish, on an emotional level. Clockwork suggests we can indeed process it, along with death, decay and disorder. It should give rise to courage, not skepticism.

Why not read what other people had to say about Tamoko Takahashi? Here is a good profile of the artist by Andrew Graham-Dixon. Here is an intelligent review of a show from 1998 in Frieze. And here is a scathing attack on her 2005 show at Serpentine by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian.

Introspective Retrospective by Tomoko Takahashi is at De La Warr Pavilion until 12 September.


Frederic Geurts – A Fine Line, at Fabrica

The work invites you to walk around it, to weave a path between its fragile legs. The viewer cannot grasp it until having gazed from both ends and upwards at points between. A Fine Line by Frederic Geurts is another work about space and the human form. It there any other subject?

We take spatial thinking for granted but without it we could not eat, open doors, or wield tools. It is a fundamental skill, celebrated by art since its very beginnings. Awareness of the body in space has clear utility for war and procreation. And if environments determine us then surely seeing space for what it is can shape our very destinies.

Geurts has cited the Lascaux cave paintings as a direct influence, and such hunting as is depicted there would not have been possible without a clear sense of space. It could be seen as a plan of attack. Human eyes face forward. We have the gaze of a predator. So the history of visual art is almost a history of predation: the sacrifice of gods, the attainment of nudes, the bounty of still lives, etc.

In these capitalistic times, art itself has become the prize, hunted by collectors, museums and art lovers worldwide. That is something to think about next time you find yourself in a white walled space, eyeing up something of great value, trying to get closer, as we all do.


Diane Arbus/Chicks on Speed/Arabicity/July must-sees

Here’s another round up of stories written in the past week for Culture24:


Howard Hodgkin/Ice Traffic/Fiona Banner/Nothing is Forever/Profusion/The Papered Parlour/Prop

Here’s a belated round up of last week’s stories for Culture24. Click below on any that interest…


Fiona Banner – Harrier and Jaguar (The 2010 Duveens Commission at Tate Britain)

Fiona Banner, Harrier and Jaguar, 2010 (Jaguar detail) © Fiona Banner Photo: Tate

Perhaps all art has ever done is provide visual enjoyment, depsite the questionable values inherent in traditional, modern or contemporary subject matter. Fiona Banner’s latest commission at Tate Britain is indeed problematic, but without question it is still enjoyable.

The London-based artist has installed two decommissioned fighter planes in the neoclassical Duveens Gallery. One, upside down, has been stripped of paint and now has a mirror-like finish. The other hangs from its tail fin and has been painted with feathers.

Some will complain you can get a comparable thrill at an air show, which may be true. Does that mean Banner’s work is not art at all, or could it mean that art can be found at air shows, or even at arms fairs, should they stimulate the sight in a pleasurable way?

The artist herself insists these two planes are objects of beauty, but the same could be said for any number of industrial products. But of paramount importance here is the gallery context or the role of the artist. (Banner after all has a track record of looking at fighter jets from an aesthetic point of view, in a way most air show directors probably do not.)

So given the wider picture, art does more than give pleasure. It also offers the chance to reflect upon the experience. That may be the greatest thrill of all.

Fiona Banner, Harrier and Jaguar, is on show in the Duveens Gallery at Tate Britain until 3 January 2011


Whitstable Biennale/Persistence of Vision/Wolfgang Tillmans

Here’s another round up of my week’s output for Culture24. Happy reading…


Preview: Cage Mix – Sound and Sculpture at BALTIC

Exhibition: Cage Mix – Sound and Sculpture, BALTIC, Gateshead, until September 19 2010

If ever a course sounded challenging, it was this one: Experimental Composition at the New School for Social Research; tutor: John Cage.

Cage taught the classes towards the end of the 1950s and his students were by and not musicians, but artists. So few memorable tunes resulted.

Nevertheless it was here that the 60s craze for ‘happenings’ was born and also where the Fluxus movement got going. And 60 years on artists are still drawing inspiration from the avant garde composer’s life and work.

Indeed, the current show at BALTIC features a response from eight contemporary artists to a piece of work developed while Cage was at the New School, Fontana Mix.

This piece was scored on transparent sheets which, when overlapped, would result in random compositions and new pieces of work.

These must have inspired the 165 sheets of paper which make up Paper Moon by Paul Ramirez Jonas. Repeating the phrase “I create as I speak” he builds a map of our lunar satellite which viewers are invited to read aloud or to themselves from a loose sheet presented with a microphone.

Fontana Mix also finds an echo in the composition of loose musical instrument parts arranged on the gallery’s slate floor. But Katja Strunz’s astral-type arrangement reflects that ultimate chance event, the big bang.

Meanwhile local artist Richard Rigg suspends a brass bell in a vacuum sealed bell jar which when rung can be seen and not heard. Surely, an echo of Cage’s famous 4’33” piece.

Clearly, Cage’s impact on art has been massive. Has there ever been an artist who has done as much for music?

Written for Culture24.