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

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.

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors (2012)

Hard not to like an artist who is unafraid to quote his dad in an interview (as you can see Kjartansson does in the footage above): “It’s sad and beautiful to be a human being”.

There’s also an honesty about his subject matter in The Visitors. It’s not about poverty, war or global pandemic. He’s Icelandic, after all. They are not supposed to have such things.

And lastly, he took the title for this nine-channel, 64-minute video installation from an album by Swedish popsters Abba. True, everyone likes Abba. But not everyone will admit it.

To put The Visitors in a nutshell, it’s an hour long promo video in which many musicians, in many rooms of a bohemian mansion, play a single piece of overwhelming music.

The song is minimal and repetitive and the most repeated line, “Once again I fall into my feminine ways”, is from a poem by the artist’s ex-wife Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir.

In Iceland they do at least have divorce and Kjartansson made this piece to reflect, as he says, a period of his life coming to an end. It is indeed a ‘sad and beautiful’ artwork.

A choir is gathered on the veranda and as the piece crescendoes one resident sets off an ornamental cannon. It’s the 1812 Overture rewritten for some protracted marital strife.

The cast of The Visitors are friends of the artist, whose background is in  the Reykjavík music scene. So it’s a heartwarming collaboration at odds with the desolate subject matter.

Music can hotwire the emotions, so you have to be wary with a piece like this. But tingling hairs on the back of the neck aside, this emotionally awkward installation gives you something portable.

In the exemplary way these musicians pull together The Visitors offers a slice of fragile utopia. It explores similar territory to a film by Johanna Billing, another Scandinavian music fan.

Her piece, You don’t love me yet (2003), borrows the look and feel of a charity record to present the performance of an overlooked Roky Erickson song by a Stockholm-based supergroup.

It’s worth a look. Both works demonstrate that optimism and pessimism are often hard to tease apart, and that this state of ambivalence might be something eternal in the human condition.

The Visitors can be seen at Ffotogallery in Penarth, Cardiff, until 22 February 2015, as part of artes mundi 6. It is also in Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao until 2 November 2014.

Those interested in this piece might also enjoy this review from Art in America, written in April last year.

Interview: Dominic from Luton

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Written for Bad At Sports.

It is more than 1,000 miles from Luton, England, to Reykjavik, Iceland. But Dominic from the UK town appears to love a good caper. Why else would he put together a group show on very little money in one of the most far flung and expensive cities in Europe?

“It was done on a wing and a prayer,” he tells me on the phone from his Luton studio. “The art was just really, really ambitious considering we didn’t have much money to play with. It’s amazing what you can do with a cardboard tube and a delivery van.”

Five artists took part. And the show has just run for a month at gallery Kling & Bang. Along with Dominic, the full bill included Gavin Turk, Mark Titchner, Laura White and Peter Lamb. The show went by the name London Utd. “It’s kind of doing what it says on the tin,” says Dominic, whose eponymous town is just a twenty minute train ride from the UK capital.

Not that he is the first to cross the Atlantic to the artist led space. He tells me that Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades have also shown at the dynamic and co-operative venue. And Dominic takes the opportunity to recount the tale of Kling & Bang’s legendary appearance at Frieze Art Fair.

“They did a Frieze Project in London in 2008 called Sirkus. It’s an incredible story,” says the artist, telling me that Sirkus was the name of a Reykyavik bar: “This place was the hub, the heartbeat of the arts community”. But after nine years of business, Sirkus closed down, leaving Kling & Bang free to turn the façade and fixtures into a temporary installation for the art fair.

Dominic warms to his tale: “They arrived at Heathrow in October 2008 and basically all their credit cards had been stopped because the [Icelandic] crash had suddenly happened overnight and so this bar, which was a mirror of good times and place to meet, became that again in London.” Word soon went round about the penniless Icelanders with the reconstructed bar.

Things are a bit better in Reykjavik now and in its way London Utd has become another bridge between the art scenes in both cities. Mark Titchner’s piece was a piece of text in Icelandic, which read The World Isn’t Working. (Perhaps the UK crash is yet to come.)

Gavin Turk meanwhile offered a twelve and a half metre diptych inspired by Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series and featuring the four wheeled emblem of working class Britain the Ford Transit. Laura White produced no less than 54 drawings of photos of sculptures which she herself had made. And Peter Lamb translated the shifting detritus on his studio floor into two large abstract canvases.

Asked about one of his own works in the show, Dominic is ready with another yarn. “That photo was done as a tribute to Paul Young,” he tells me. Like the artist, the singer came from Luton. “He used to work at Vauxhall [car plant] in the early 80s and he told someone I know in the canteen once that he was going to be a global pop star and then literally 18 months later he was, with Everytime You Go Away.”

The track resonates with many a Lutonian and inspired a Dominic from Luton performance at an event called Café Almanac organised by Bedford Creative Arts. This involved sourcing an 80s wig from Luton Indoor Market, posing for a portrait artist in the shopping centre and getting 5,000 badges made to cover a cheap suit. “I just stood up in front of about 50 people in this Working Men’s Club on a Saturday afternoon and sung my heart out,” recalls the artist.

This took place under a net filled with 200 balloons in the colours of the local soccer team, intended for release in the final verse. However “The net got caught in all of my badges so I had 200 balloons attached to me and I panicked and – it wasn’t scripted at all – I basically ended up having a fight with these balloons and stamping on them and stuff and it brought the house down actually.”

But despite the hazardous stagecraft, Dominic’s “biggest challenge” is a self-proclaimed inability to sing. So it comes as no surprise that the artist thinks most performance art is too earnest. “People would argue with this, but I think there’s a duty to entertain,” he says, “That’s just my take on it. That’s my little mantra.” Even the anecdotes which relate to each of his gigs are compelling experiences.

As a final aside, it’s worth pointing out that the artist formerly known as Dominic Allan comes from one of the most derided towns in the UK. His “from Luton” tag is a sticky piece of cultural baggage. Dominic tells me that the name just came about through being easy to remember when he ordered materials.

Now, he claims, “It’s just a very glorious vehicle for the idea of the underdog and also to shove it back in people’s faces now because Luton’s one of those towns which people laugh about . . . The more I go on, the more I realise that it is serious, and it is serious”.

So that’s Dominic, from Luton, easy to laugh with, hard to laugh at. Prepare to be entertained if he ever comes to your town.

Dominic from Luton website; Kling and Bang website; Bad at Sports homepage.

David Lamelas, Rock Star (character appropriation), 1974 (Detail)


One of the best opening paragraphs I know is found in Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo. The novel meditates on a certain type of fame distinct from that enjoyed by either statesmen or kings.

No, this type of fame, “a devouring neon”, involves: “Hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs.” Yes, it is a book about a rock star.

Artist David Lamelas would surely recognise this checklist. It is all there in this work in which he appropriated the spotlight from a field of endeavour completely different to the visual arts.

The Argentine sculptor has dressed down for his role, borrowed a guitar and stolen the stage from an act like the Doors or Creedence Clearwater Revival, certainly something rootsy or bluesy.

In other words he attempts something authentic, because rock is obsessed with this quality. Its stars are queuing up to prove their convictions with overdoses, dependency issues and disappearances.

Lamelas makes a series of these photos, which serve as a record of a performative frenzy that never was. He pulls it off without having to compose, to practice, to endure life on the road.

“If the purpose of the photographs was to explore an element of fantasy, they were a triumph. Although his rock star was a cliché, he was totally convincing,” writes Stuart Morgan in Frieze.

But the results work on the viewer in a strange kind of silence. They cast us as fans, and extrapolate us as if we were in the pit of an auditorium, shoulder to shoulder, with hundreds.

Cue difference between rock and art, between the sharing of a ritual and the private consumption of a thing of beauty. Rock Star harks back to a neolithic time when no distinction could be made.

There’s a big trade in photos like this of real musicians. They adorn the walls of well-to-do fans who have outgrown their student posters. Why not? It’s an aesthetic choice you can’t argue with.

Yet with sculptural rigour, Lamelas has distilled a whole genre of music to a partially seen figure in the darkness with two props and a glaring light. Like Brancusi, he gives us the essential.

The entire Rock Star series can be seen in Glam! Performance of Style at Tate Liverpool until 12 May 2013. See gallery website for more details and read the words of a completely inimitable rock star from the Glam era: Noddy Holder from Slade, interviewed by the Guardian.

David Blandy, From the Underground (2001)

This film by David Blandy is to my mind haunted by the suspicion culture changes nothing. You can sing all the songs in the world, but you may never be a different cast of singer.

From the Underground is nevertheless a well rehearsed feat, a perfect lip-synced rendition of one of the Wu Tang Clan’s most hectic and profane tracks.

And it is an act of daring. Most of us would shrink from the prospect of filming a journey into the depths of the underground, all the while performing an aggravated rap.

But Blandy is deep in character and maybe this is what carries him through the potential risk of humiliation which seems to come with all performance art.

Had he filmed this in his bedroom or with less conviction, it would not be half so interesting. You get instead a clash between its North London setting and its soundtrack from a US ghetto.

And of course, the artist is white, the music black. You might say Blandy is very white, in a nerdish sort of way. While gangsta rappers are, for better or worse, another racial stereotype.

But the artist’s youth is important too. This is a very early work by a performer and filmmaker whose latest work Anjin is a many layered and more deeply resounding piece of anime.

In the intervening years Blandy has fully assumed a wide range of personae. Yet the man who introduced his own show on Friday appeared to be neither rapper, nor samurai.

It brings us back to the suspicion that what we love leaves us just as we were. Our occupation of other people’s creative spaces is, sadly, temporary. I was reminded of this:

“You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything,” writes Italo Calvino in his remarkable book If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.

“There are plenty . . . who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store, But not you.”

From the Underground can be seen at Blandy’s solo show Odysseys, at Phoenix(as part of the Brighton Digital Festival) until 23 September 2012. See gallery website for more details.

Jeremy Deller, The Bruce Lacey Experience (2012)

This in-depth documentary about a great living artist premiered at Brighton Festival not so long after network TV screened an in-depth doc about its maker Jeremy Deller.

The results were two quite different films. But the subjects have more in common than both having worked together on The Bruce Lacey Experience.

Like Deller, Lacey has fingers in many pies. As this documentary shows he is a musician, a builder of robots, an unrepentant stager of happenings and a former star of the Goon Show.

But this is not the first time Lacey has captured the imagination of another creative spirit. A look at his Wikipedia page will tell you he is widely celebrated in music and film.

So the slightly contentious question is this: which of these two artists has incorporated the other into their own body of work…

Does Lacey join former miners, brass bands and wrestler Adrian Street in the parthenon of subjects pertaining to Jeremy Deller?

Or has Deller become yet another footnote in the life of octagenarian Bruce Lacey, who by 1962 was already the star of a celebratory Ken Russell film?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The Bruce Lacey Experience will surely bring the elder artist to a wider audience than Lacey can find in one of his regular appearances in the depths of Norfolk.

Besides, the results look as if Jem has fixed it for his subject to complete a boyhood dream and take a spin in an RAF jet, or at the very least given him an excuse.

Tracking shots of a model plane ‘flying’ around the Lacey home build to breathtaking footage from the cockpit of the real thing as it swoops over the English countryside.

Silver Machine by Hawkwind plays. You may not even like Hawkwind (I don’t (yet)), but I would defy anyone not to be uplifted by this trip through an illustrious career.

The Bruce Lacey Experience has its official premiere at the British Film Institute Southbank, London, on 5 July. Later in the month (from the 16th for three months) a show of Lacey’s work co-curated by Deller can be found at Camden Arts Centre, London.

Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, Performer. Audience. Fuck Off. (2012)

Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth at a post show talk at Lighthouse

Is Brighton too cosy for a performance piece with the f-word in the title. Certainly by the end of Jo Neary’s performance on Saturday 12th it appeared that way.

Most of the audience may have relieved that this local comedienne chose to say, mainly, nice things about us as she adlibbed her way through a 20 minute set.

But nevertheless things were tense, as if the four letter word hung in the basement air. Looking past Neary, we could see ourselves in a wall length mirror. It didn’t help.

Performer. Audience.  Fuck Off. is split into five minute segments in which a stand up comic talks first about physical sensations and second about the audience.

She then turns her back on us to address the same two concerns while facing the mirror. This allowed her to be slightly less polite about herself and us.

Forsyth and Pollard’s work is a playful spin on a performance-for-video by American artist Dan Graham. But Graham appears to have been a less threatening presence.

Here the artists appear to suggest that Graham’s performance needs updating. Perhaps it really does need snarking up for contemporary tastes.

Putting a comedian on the stage alerts us to the fact we may become targets of jokes. Neary‘s gentle jibes are only a taste of what might happen when this show tours.

Name stand-ups draw audiences unprepared for the conceptual structure of the show, the lack of script, the absence of gags. Don’t like it? You know what you can do.

More from these artists can be seen in the current show Audience/Performer at Lighthouse Brighton. See gallery website for details.

Eva and Franco Mattes aka 0100101110101101.ORG, Freedom (2011)

Freedom from Eva and Franco Mattes aka 01.ORG on Vimeo.

In the terms of the ongoing wars, there is really only one side you or I can be on in the infiinte struggle between freedom and tyranny.

But Eva and Franco Mattes have questioned the extent of that freedom, with a novel approach to playing networked console game Counter-Strike.

With Eva at the controls, the pair have found themselves in a virtual town somewhere in the arab world, dealing with an endless parade of heavily armed American gamers.

She too has the right to bear arms, as you would expect the genre of this game. And so we view the landscape from behind the barrel of her revolver.

Yet she looks for all the world like a terrorist (certainly not a freedom fighter), and she uses a real time messenger window to plea for clemency on the grounds of being an artist.

“Please don’t kill me,” she says time and again. “This is a performance art piece.” But she doesn’t survive long. There are limits to what you can get away with in a war zone.

“You don’t want to be in this game. Go and play in paint,” suggests one of the counter-insurgents. One other, sounding for all the world like half of Beavis and Butthead says “Shut up, Matisse.”

The title of the piece, “Freedom” is a rallying cry dropped by US soldiers running by in the distance, before he turns to gun down the immobile artist. It is too perfect.

But as Eva asks at one point in the game, “What are we doing here?” At time of writing 54,000 people are currently playing Counter-Strike.

That is only 14,000 less than the total number of real troops in Afghanistan. What can it mean that so many people are waged in an invisible war from the bedrooms and front rooms?

There is total moral freedom in these environments. Bullets are scattered left, right and centre. Compared with the gunshot in this earlier performance piece, the results are total bathos.

Freedom can be seen in Anonymous, untitled, dimensions variable at Carroll/Fletcher, London, until 18 May, see gallery website for more details. For my review of the whole show on Culture24, click here.

Sarah Maple and Beverley Knowles, It’s just like any other job really… (2012)

It turns out that despite ourselves, even the most urbane and politically correct audience can still love a beauty pageant.  The sequence of young women in swimsuits could not be more easy on the eye

It is obvious what heterosexual men might get from this. But women too were enjoying it. There were no shortage of volunteers to strip off, while their fully clothed sisters looked on with vicarious pleasure.

But context is everything. Each of us knew this was a performance by a feminist artist, Sarah Maple, and a feminist curator, Beverley Knowles. So that was okay.

Also, the swimsuit, sashes, and tiaras were balanced up by the fate of each Miss America. After parading past the extensive glass windows of La Scatola, they went to stand facing a wall.

Here they reminded the viewer of children in disgrace. It was as if they had blown their moment in the limelight by using their platform to make an off beam comment about the recession or the war.

About 20 women took part, only coming to life every five minutes when a burst of Sinatra or maybe Bert Parks cut through the silence and then cut out with just as much abruptness.

When the music played and the girls were up, it was all eyes in their direction. The rest of the time they were to be seen and not heard. The choreography was impersonal and brutal.

As the title of the piece and a corresponding handout suggests, to be crowned Miss America or Miss World entails a year of hard work. Just like artists, their levels of dilligence might surprise the public.

Gallery director Valentina Fois is not sure how this glass box of a space was used before. But last night it was not hard to imagine a car showroom, with bonnets for the girls to drape themselves over.

Clearly we have come a certain distance since the time men crooned about beauty queens and no car ad was complete without a dolly bird. But not so far we could not recognise our role in this piece.

It’s just like any other job really took place at La Scatola gallery on 30/03/12. For more on the players visit the websites of La Scatola, Sarah Maple and Beverley Knowles.

Plastique Fantastique, Impossible Diagrams

What to make of a flicker between a bandaged head and a face carved in a brieze block. Or an unshaven mouth which hi-jacks a news report. Or self-immolation illustrated as if for a kids’ book.

Quite a bit happens in the Plastique Fantastique show at Grey Area. Not all is easy to describe and even less is easy to interpret. The entertainment above is on a reel called PFTV.

On this channel a masked and spangly demon pops up, curses us, and with a voice garbled-by-vocoder intones: “There is not and never has been anything to understand.”

It transpires Plastique Fantastique are into the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari. The love of nonsense and invention of mad schemas with which to overlay reality may come from there.

So a nearby video installation breaks down PFTV content into idiot-proof diagrams. Captions such as “You taste the object/ The object tastes you,” are still stupefying.

Still, you should never dismiss the incomprensible. Two Plastique Fantastique performances, documented here, the ritual punishment of a victim by a band of futuristic savages.

Hanging the man from his feet may be aim at inverting the status quo. But if not, these scenes still feel urgent and deep in meaning. It’s a feeling; there may be no point understanding it.

Impossible Diagrams is at Grey Area, Brighton, until May 29. See gallery website for more details.