Category Archives: Uncategorized

Back to the future in Liverpool

present-tense-shop-edited-web

Liverpool doesn’t have a prehistoric cave, but it does have a historic Cavern. So it might prove not too much of a distraction from writing on paleolithic art. Beyond the Beatles heritage trail and the football, it had become a centre for visual arts in the UK.

It is also, one might argue, a marker for the benefits of remaining in Europe. The EU has invested more than £1.6 billion into this city, constructing and reconstructing an airport, a cruise terminal, two cathedrals and the Bluecoat gallery, etc. In 2008, Liverpool won its bid to become the European Capital of Culture. The city was filled with excitement, with spectacle, and with international art, thanks to an expanded role for the city’s Biennial, which began life in 1999.

My first visit to Liverpool was in 2010, for a Biennial with the theme ‘Touched”. And I was duly moved, maddened and changed by the things I saw there. Touched remains a personal touchstone 10 years on, an example of how art can inhabit an entire city.

At artist-led studio and gallery space The Royal Standard, I spoke to an artist and critic who already had plenty to say about art in Liverpool: Laura Robertson. Together with writer Mike Pinnington, she now runs The Double Negative, a visual arts blog oriented around the North West. Their new crowd-funded publication, Present Tense, forms the occasion for this post.

Together with Laura and Mike, six writers have explored aspects of the City of Culture’s legacy: in the form of public sculpture, digital culture, zines and even gardening. it also features an interview with John Walter, whose personal slice of cultural legacy includes the purchase of recent works by the venerable Walker Gallery.

Unlike some art writing, Present Tense is accessible in tone and digestible in format. A pocket-sized paperback with judicious black and white photography, it will sit well on the shelf next to the compact catalogue for the 2010 Biennial and act as a beacon for my own writing, thanks to its clear understanding of what is at stake in discussions on art.

But we cannot ignore the fact that this is a very tense present, and the prospect of sailing away on a small austere island with disaster capitalists at the helm is alarming.

Yet in Liverpool we find a city which has survived dark days and periods of so-called ‘managed decline’.  Whatever its legacy now, we must remember years like 2008 (or 2010!)  if we’re ever to see their like again.

Present Tense is available from The Double Negative for £14.99. See here for more details.

Visiting Lascaux II

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[author’s photo]

In my last post I promised to note the lighting arrangements in Lascaux II. Well, I went to inspect them today, and, as it happens, I was not disappointed.

The tour began with a couple of gloomy exhibition spaces. But already it was clear that the cave’s original replica (indeed, ‘original replica’) was to be a more earthy, some might say chthonic, experience. And whereas the guide at Lascaux IV was armed with a slick laser pointer, our guide at Lascaux II used a battered flashlight. This says plenty about the difference between the two experiences. And yet, there was more.

Before we entered the artificial painted grotto, our guide disappeared on some pretext. We were left alone for maybe three, four minutes. He returned with an actual flaming torch. This delighted young, old, and me, alike. So we ventured onwards.

Once inside the Hall of the Bulls, the flame was all we had to go on, as our guide stoked up the air of mystery and illuminated bovine form after bovine form.

But having established we were ‘not afraid of the dark’, he extinguished the torch, and brought up the house lights. It was still not as bright as Lascaux IV. The ochre yellows were not as cheerful. The rock appeared more abrasive. The art somehow looked more monumental. Were we at closer quarters with the art? It seemed that way. The passage through the Diverticule axial was certainly more narrow, more dramatic.

To compare Lascaux II and Lascaux IV will prove interesting. I’m glad I made the hike, (one mile uphill in 37 degree heat). I climbed a bit further to take a peek at the entrance to the real Lascaux. You can just about make out the steps. Barbed wire, sight-blocking hedges, and private property notices, seem like a strange afterlife for the most famous cave in the world.

How authentic is cave painting?

coke

I have been reading a correspondence between Spanish academic José Díaz Cuyás and Dean MacCannell. MacCannell is a former soixante-huitard who lost faith in a 1960s style Revolution. But as he observes, some fifty years later: “‘The revolution’ and especially the romantic figure of the revolutionary is a myth that effectively disables the left today.”

The public are not totally alienated consumers, as Marx suggests, but more like ‘readers’ (Cuyás) faced with supermarket shelves rather than books. There will be no uprising of organised workers, as in Russia in 1917. But there are still ways to fight climate change, to accommodate migrants and to one day depose the right wing populists who govern us.

In 1976 MacGannell published The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. In doing so he instituted an entire field of academic research, tourism studies. This too is a book about revolution. In a response to Cuyás, its author quotes a passage in which he imagines a totalizing revolution in which every habit of mind is rethought, every book rewritten, every city rebuilt. The end of capitalism is only half of this unthinkable scenario.

“And yet,” writes MacGannell, “our laws have undergone total change and our cities have been rebuilt block by block. Our masterpieces are remade in each new genre.” So might I also add, our paleolithic  art has been thoroughly replicated, and  reinterpreted. In this light my history of the caves and their mediation could be a history of revolutions.

And while we may bemoan our lost access to the caves, our passive alienation under capitalism, and our confinement within hyperreal simulacra, MacGannell argues it was ever thus: “No human group, not even the most primitive, has ever lived in anything resembling objective reality.” So if prehistoric art marks the very emergence of the symbolic order, access for its original audience was in a sense as indirect as ours.

Perhaps MacGannell believes it naïve to want authenticity. He writes: “Without the symbolic, society does not exist”. It underpins science as well as art. It gives us language, law, face to face interaction with other subjective beings. And ironically, one presumes, without it we would be too primitive to ascribe any value to authenticity.

The author of the tourist even refers to cave painting in his prescription for art: “When it is framed as a vital organ of the symbolic, from the first outline of an animal on the wall of a cave, down to the present day, for better and for worse, all art must engage its audience and continuously demand that its audience complete it.”

Whether or not it be ‘art’, I intend to demonstrate that 20thand 21stcentury audiences have completed the works found in Franco-Cantabrian caves in a number of ways.

How French is Lascaux?

cheese and salami

In a hypothetical word association game, I predict that food, the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa would all get a mention long before Lascaux. The cave at Montignac seems French only insofar as a specimen of moon rock appears to be American.

Today I was reading about the heritage industry and wondering just who might be the heirs to Lascaux. Surely it was once recognisably ‘French’. Indeed it is said to have been a prop in the post-war rebuilding of the nation. See Douglas Smith (2004) on the New Primitivism of the 1940s and the 1950s and the reconciliations of Lascaux, modern art and tradition.

But now, sealed off, and replicated several times, the 17,000 year old cavern resides on a UNESCO list of Sites of Outstanding Universal Value. It belongs to us all, in theory. But this ‘world heritage’ status is ironic given that only a handful of scientists see Lascaux first hand.

If we are heirs to the world’s first art, we have to put up with the idea that it is held in trust for us in perpetuity. Easier to inherit the intangible pleasures of French gastronomy, be you French or not, than the mysterious paintings of Lascaux, so hard to domesticate.

Entangled: Threads and Making

Anna Ray, Knot (2007)

There are two major subsets of the art world which have grown in visibility in recent years: ‘women in art’ and ‘contemporary crafts’. For reasons below, a venn diagram of their relation would be heavy on the overlap. Add another circle labelled ‘domestic production’ and you might find textiles in the central corral. Given that women-making-textile-based artwork is the subject of a current show, Turner Contemporary in Margate has hit a timely, thematic sweetspot.

If nothing else, textiles are the thread that binds together a group of artists whose previous point of comparison has been merely making art of any kind in a man’s world. Louise Bourgeois and Anni Albers both used textiles, as have Annette Messager and Susan Hiller. And then, as this show also demonstrates, there are the many many talented women who have been overlooked for making art that was just too homespun for contemporaeneous tastes.

Sidsel Paaske is a jewellery maker, for example, and never before shown in the UK. Working from an enamel kiln which she built in her kitchen, she got serious about beads, and the belief that one of her statement necklaces could have occult, protective powers. She collected materials from the natural world, both in her native Norway and from her travels all around the world. The results, be they made with bone, feathers, or even lizard skin, have a look that is at once primitive and sci-fi.

There is also something macabre about the sculpture of Christiane Löhr. The German artist made her Horse Hair Column on site after several visits to local stables in search of source material. The installation is breathtaking in a literal sense – you feel as if a sigh could tear it down. And yet it spans floor to ceiling becoming invisible as it goes. When you think of the bold statements of male minimalists, you realise that a whisper can be as powerful as a shout.

But this talk of whispers and of magic is liable to entangle this review in some of the stereotypes around women’s art, stereotypes which may be responsible for the way in which the art system has overlooked so many of the forty five artists on currently on show at Margate. “Excellence has no Sex,” as the post-minimalist Eva Hesse famously said. Her abject cheesecloth and masking tape sculptures sit around on their raised dias and, despite hinting at body forms, defy you to ascribe them a fixed gender.

Susan Hiller, meanwhile, has worked with canvas and likewise has no interest in being either cosy or pretty. In the 1970s the American-born artist made an attack on painting, by cutting up canvases to make sculptural blocks, or by stitching them back together to make grids. Too messy to be considered minimal, Hiller waded into the world of conceptual art where there is hardly any sex, and as little desire. Her painting blocks are among the driest works in the show.

There is more pain than pleasure in the work of Louise Bourgeois. HAND is an oversized red glove with coarse stitching that resembles the suture of a wound. The materials may be fabric and wool, but the presentation (within a vitrine on four steel legs) is as grave as a museum exhibit. The work has an uncanny power and, if you consider the hand in question to belong to any given artist, the evident dismemberment is a bleak comment on the power of the creator.

In 1930s Germany, for example, was no place to be an artist and when the Bauhaus school was shut down in 1933, Anni Albers went through her own symbolic castration. But a consoling thought about fascistic regimes is this: one of Albers tapestry designs from 1926 gave rise to a fresh piece of work in 1967 (by German artist) Gunta Stölzl and still has the power to seduce in a show in 2017. This particular example of women’s work long outlived several dictatorships, and may yet continue to thrive.

National Socialism spurred Hannah Ryggen to make a tapestry with an enduring sense of agony. ‘6. oktober 1942’ is a monumental piece which narrates with the execution of a theatre director the day after the dress rehearsal of his pollitically charged production of The Wild Duck by Ibsen. This is the first time this memorial has been seen outside of the UK, but you get the feeling that if Ryggen had had a Y chromosome, this cri de coeur could have been another Guernica.

“Oil paintings were initially poor man’s tapestries, so it has a long and distinguished history,” says Kiki Smith of this medium, as interviewed by show curator Karen Wright in the catalogue. But it is peace rather than war which Smith depicts in her soulful tapestry, Sky. A female nude reaches from the earth to the heavens as a sextet of doves flutter past and moths crawl towards the starlight. This image has the power of a pleasant dream to impart a good mood that stays with you for the visit.

Costume is another aspect of women, threads and making. Along with the jewellery here by Sidsel Paaske, we find a tapestry jacket by Arna Óttarsdóttir, a ballet costume by Sonia Delaunay and a tutu by Annette Messager. The latter is suspended from the ceiling and buffeted by a fan. So it spins and pirouettes in a way that Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, by Edgar Degas fails to. One is reminded of the oft quoted proviso of another celebrated feminist, and anarchist, Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” The 21st century has seen something of a revolution in attitudes to women in art, and this show partakes in it, and binds the visitor fast to its progressive agenda.

Entangled: Threads and Making can be seen at Turner Contemporary until May 7 2017.

Where culture sinks in: a look at Hull 2017

© Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

At time of visit, the city of culture franchise was barely a month old and already the statistics were out in force. In the run up to 2017, Hull attracted £1 billion in terms of investment, with £100 million spent on cultural infrastructure. Job creation is up 12 percent since 2012. Those are just the measurables.

For each statistic there are countless moments in which locals encounter something new and feel better about the place they call home. Such experiences are largely invisible, but head to Victoria Square on any day of the week and you will see the culture-effect in effect. The audience for Hull 2017 can be found posing for photos with a 75-metre long fibre glass wind turbine blade.

Blade (2017) is an artwork by Nayan Kulkarni, which dissects the town centre at a height of some six or seven foot. With the shade of a white whale and the shape of a near-weightless wing, this piece cannot be ignored by even the most casual visitor. And, as a readymade B75 rotor blade, made here by the Humber Estuary, the installation sets the stage for renewable cultural energy.

Ferens Art Gallery is already seeing the audience figures go spinning round. Reopening after a £5.2 million refurbishment, 50,000 art lovers came through the doors in just two weeks. By comparison, January 2016, in its entirety, saw Ferens welcome just 10,000 to its dozen grandiose galleries. The new draw is a pair of contrasting exhibits: one which centres on an altarpiece from the early 14th century; the other which lines up five of Francis Bacon’s notorious screaming popes.

Neither showing would have been possible were it not for the refit, which has brought the humidity, heating, lighting and condensation up to acceptable standards. The altarpiece is an exquisite gold-ground panel painting by Pietro Lorenzetti which Ferens acquired for over £1 million. The gallery has put it on show together with loan works by Cimabue, Giotto and Duccio. Find yourself in this hallowed space and you are reminded that culture is a serious, non-mercantile business at heart.

Meanwhile, with his reputation for nihilism, the paintings by Bacon are also unlikely advertisements for economic regeneration. But this is a rare chance to see a number side by side, and a curatorial coup for a city of just a quarter of a million people. Whatever his views about cultural tourism, here is another serious artist. He threatened to destroy at least one of these portraits, and it was all his friends and patrons (Sir Robert and Lisa Sainsbury) could do to persuade him to save it.

In some ways he would be more at home in Humber Street Gallery alongside the scurrilous shows by Sarah Lucas and COUM Transmissions. This new contemporary space opened on February 3rd and converts an old fruit warehouse into a three storey visual arts hub that would be a fine addition to any of the UK’s larger cities. The designers have left the floors and fixtures in a rough and ready state, which befits the idea of culture as a commodity for import and export here on the dockside.

COUM were a performance art collective founded by Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti, who employed music, hallucinogens, participation, obscenity and street theatre to liven up Hull (and also further afield) in the late 1960s. COUM were so good at what they did that, on several occasions, police intervened, and a conservative MP stood up in Parliament to brand the group, “wreckers of civilisation”. So once pariahs, they are now famous locals. This is one of the most edgy shows you are likely to see in a publicly-funded art festival, so make the most of it.

In the ground floor space, walls are bright yellow for three sculptures by former yBa Lucas. The work was previously seen in the British Pavilion at Venice in 2013, so it’s a great opportunity for less travelled Brits to actually see it. Worth the wait, it is also worth the chance to compare and contrast with the show upstairs as it also features nudity and crude wit. Lucas has made plaster sculptures of women from the waist down, given the provocative poses upon unwanted pieces of furniture, and stuck unlit cigarettes into various orifices.

The bar at Humber Street Gallery also features a reclaimed and much loved local landmark. Dead Bod was a piece of graffiti which sprung up on a coal shed in the 1960s on the dockside. With the outline of an eponymous dead bird in paint over corrugated iron, it is not the prettiest example of early street art, but for several decades seafarers have relished the sight of it as they returned to the shore. When the coal shed was removed to make way for a Siemens factory, Dead Bod was much missed. So locals from all walks of life, will now have a familiar introduction to the often challenging waters of contemporary art.

Hull has also offered a show that unites lovers of contemporary and traditional art. At the University of Hull, Michelangelo was hung alongside Michael Landy, and visitors had the opportunity to get close to many of the great masters of classical and modern art, closer than paintings will usually allow. Lines of Thought was a show dedicated to drawing and, as drawing is an intimate medium, this wonderful exhibition offered instant familiarity with many greats who have never been shown in East Yorkshire before.

There is more to come. Before the end of 2017, Hull will host more public art and more exhibitions: these include Offshore, a major show about visual art and the sea, and, from September, the much talked-about Turner Prize. There will, of course, be many more visitors through these gallery doors, many more selfies next to monumental sculptures, and many more pounds rung through the tills of coffers of local hotels and restaurants. From the earliest of signs, the event is a success.

But let us offer some balance, in the words of poet Philip Larkin, who worked as a librarian at the University here for 30 years. In an early letter from his new home, he wrote: “I’m settling down in Hull all right. Each day I sink a little further.” It’s a nice bon mot, but Hull 2017 should attract both visitors and settlers. If you come here and sink a little, it’s only because the city has depth.

Hull is UK City of Culture 2017. For full listings and event details please see the festival website

Jean Tinguely, Study for an End of the World No.2 (1962)

In these end times, it is worth remembering we have been here before. We have had more than 70 years to get used to the idea of nuclear weapons. In 1962 the psychic shock was fairly raw.

As in rock music, fast food and situation comedies, the USA led the rest of the world, the deserts in its Southern states serving as a blank canvas for numerous spectacular tests.

In the interests of public entertainment, if not safety, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce saw fit to publish a calendar of detonations and a list of the best viewing sites.

And in that sense they beat this artist to the punch. Tinguely’s first staging of the end of the world was brought about in the early sixties; his earlier Study, No.1, took place in 1960.

How do you follow a mushroom cloud with a piece of fine art? Tinguely’s answer was to step up his interest in kinetic and self-destructive mechanical junk sculpture.

Together with his partner (French artist Niki de Saint Phalle must get some credit) he scoured a remote junk yard for components. It seems anything was fair game: toys, a toilet bowl, a trolley.

In metal hardhat and goggles, Tinguely was arguably as keen to control his own image as that of his soon-to-be explosive artwork. Now both artist and creation were ready for broadcast on NBC.

Were it not for the televisual audience there would have been few witnesses. There were shelters for camera crew and press; the sculpture was too dangerous for the public.

It was also dangerous for TV execs. The sight of a configuration of functionless objects, which spring into pointless life for an 18 minute performance must have had serious commercial fallout.

And then the fuses were lit. The sketchy YouTube footage is linked above. Better footage can be seen in Tinguely’s largest ever retrospective right now. And yet we fail to get a sense of it.

The camera lingers on a burning armchair. But safe in their all-American homes, we may never know how many viewers felt the heat of this detail, as noted in the catalogue.

It was just a study, mind you. As the end of the world continues to unfold in a way that looks quite different to that of 1962, we are reminded of Tinguely’s words.

“You can’t expect the world to end the way you want it to,” said the anarchic sculptor. We can only speculate about the piece of avant garde software code that could form Study No.3.

Jean Tinguely, Machine Spectacle, can be seen at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam until March 5 2017. My visit was at the invite of the museum and the airline KLM, whose informative new art history page can be found here.

Diary: a flying visit to Amsterdam

Since Amsterdam is most famous for narco-tourism and legal sex work, it is the perfect city to get high on art and get in bed with a famous airline in return for a 24-hour trip there.

KLM had got in touch to publicise a new art history primer which sits quite comfortably on the pages of their website, devoted to the charms of a destination which they call a “cultural giant”.

Fourteen painters are featured here together with a readable introduction to the Golden Age and a gentle canal ride, which brings a Google streetview-like experience to the waterways.

My trip was at a higher pace. I flew one morning from Heathrow and back the following afternoon. My hotel was in the Canal District and my smartphone led me to the museum district.

Trams in Amsterdam are pretty straightforward and many locals will be only too happy to break out their fantastic English language skills and direct you around this manageable city.

But with only three hours until closing time I faced a tough choice, as readers may no doubt imagine: the Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh Museum or the Stedelijk? Each worth a day or more.

But since I had a free ticket to the latter, I went with this modern art space and was thrilled by a pair of exhibitions of Jean Tinguely and Jordan Wolfson. Review of the former to follow soon.

There was too, too much to see at the Stedelijk and their permanent collection is notably well curated, in a series of just-so rooms according to style, or school, or reputation.

Stedelijk has a wealth of paintings by Malevich and, since we are in the land of De Stijl, allows you to draw the obvious comparisons between the Russian painter and Piet Mondrian.

The Netherlands also have a stake in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Also on show at the Stedelijk are some fine De Koonings, one getting lots of attention from a giggling/stoned couple.

Since alcohol is my drug of choice, it was nice to get to the bar in my hotel. But slightly alarming that the bottle I ordered was eight percent proof. To be mopped up with a meal at a nearby cafe.

Checking out early the next day offered the chance for some more culture. On a recommendation from @hindmezaina, my first stop was photo museum Foam. Hiroshi Sugimoto has a show there.

By shooting waxworks of historical personages and dioramas of stuffed animals, Sugimoto plays with photography’s truth claims. And everyone must see his interiors of art deco cinemas.

Perhaps it was a planning failure, but I left the Rijksmuseum until last. My schedule gave me just an hour here. But given the calibre of painting from the Dutch Golden Age, a little goes a long way.

Naturally the Night Watch by Rembrandt was a spectacle. Naturally the Vermeers were luminous. But newish to me was Jan Steen who paints with a Hogarth-like sense of narrative and comedy.

So that’s where my own Amsterdam narrative ends. The trip home was uneventful and the art memories will stay with me. So, thanks KLM. I have no criticismisms of this trip.

What’s left for art in 2017?

Credit: Notions Capital (Flickr/CC 2.0)
Credit: Notions Capital (Flickr/CC 2.0)

The vital importance of visual art, in this emerging plutocracy, is without doubt. Even though, for most politically engaged artists, it can seem like swimming against the popular tide.

But the cultural reversals of 2016 are, in fact, just a reaction against the false promise of aesthetics. They are anti-art, anti-intellectual, anti-fashion, and opposed to all forms of sophistication.

What went wrong? We enjoyed eight years of the most presentable US President in history. And no matter how little you liked Cameron and/or Blair, their smooth brands offered a certain surety.

Well, I don’t believe that BrexTrump had much to do with political realities. Nothing does, when you live in a corporate owned mediascape. It was rather a rejection of a certain bad look.

Please don’t ascribe authenticity to these populist politicians. Their deceptions are numerous and notorious. They have done away with political craft, the actual honesty of rhetoric and oratory.

In short, they have killed statesmanship or statespersonship. They have killed the gravity which art, via countless portraits and busts, has so often ascribed to the powerful: to popes, kings, gentry.

Who can maintain gravity, as the world spins faster and faster? Who can pretend to pre-eminence when already several billion are a click away? What matters if the context for any action is chaos?

It would be ridiculous to think that art could restore politics, on either side of the Atlantic, to former glories. Since the glorious few have led us to this, it would be neither possible nor desirable.

But the shallow figures who dominate world politics now have ushered in real 21st century fascists. Wherever they were all hiding, there is certainly a role for art in the fight against this.

They may have their baseball hats and their double breasted blazers, but underneath the trappings of normality, Trump, Farage, and their ilk are naked. They do not yet have their Leni Riefenstahl.

So in a world where perception is everything (and hasn’t it always been everything?) visual art is the most potent creative endeavour in which we can engage. Artists can dress power up, or down.

And when you throw in ceremonial drama (performance), when you throw in a few flags (pop), and some party political ads (video) you realise that in fact there can be no power without art.

This must be why an event such as the Turner Prize will always fuel tabloid ire. The political relations bodied forth by a quiet Helen Marten installation are surely antipathetic to shitty gold elevators.

In short, contemporary art has never had a clearer challenge. It is time to accede to the visual realm, to make it new, to make it more powerful than the guys writing the cheques for it.

Because seriously, plutocrats will always be the like the uninteresting patrons who paid to appear on their knees in renaissance altarpieces. Let art ensure history pities our new leaders, rather than fears them.