Exhibition: Lu Chunsheng and Jia Aili – Counterpoints, Rivington Place, London, March 31 – May 15 2010
With the commission of work by Ai Weiwei for the turbine hall of Tate Modern later this year, contemporary art from China is very much on the capital’s cultural agenda.
So this new exhibition at Rivington Place can only add to the interest. Londoners can be the first in Europe to see a film by Lu Chunsheng and a solo show by Jia Aili. If the two artists share a common theme, it could be technological bewilderment.
The First Man Who Bought a Juicer Bought it Not For Drinking Juice is the clunky name of Lu Chunsheng’s 27-minute film, which features a grain reaper in place of a kitchen appliance.
By combining documentary and fantasy, he demonstrates how a machine can come to wield a terrifying alien power over its creator, in this case a mechanic.
Emerging artsist Jia Aili shares his compatriot’s intensity of vision, and his large-scale paintings deal with the emotional impact of a rapidly modernising society.
Exhibition organisers Iniva have also commissioned a site specific work from Jia Aili for the window of Rivington Place. His response has been to recreate a masterpiece of Western renaissance art.
But this version of Carravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas is a disorientating mix of hurried brushstrokes and muted colours. If anyone still needs convincing about Chinese art, this may be the show to see.
Exhibition: Artes Mundi 4: Wales International Visual Art Exhibition and Prize, National Museum Cardiff, until June 6 2010
Olga Chernysheva’s photos of a natural history museum in Moscow can now, by a strange quirk of fate, be seen in a natural history museum in Wales. But the scenes captured by the Russian artist are a world away from those encountered by visitors to National Museum Cardiff.
The Welsh museum and gallery is a vibrant, welcoming, and forward-looking venue. While Muscovites can apparently expect empty lobbies, cluttered displays and sleepy attendants.
Chernysheva’s scenes are static, monochrome and quietly amusing. Like all the shortlisted artists in the fourth Artes Mundi prize, she reminds us that the world has four corners, rather than one, and art can come from any of them.
Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, from Kyrgyzstan, bring to light another alien environment: the barren trails which criss-cross their little known homeland to the West of China and the North of Afghanistan, otherwise known as the Silk Road.
Their photographic subjects include a clothes stall, which makes Romford market look like Selfridges, and a one-room hotel shack with a horse parked in the cab rank. A multi-channel film shows local scrap metal dealers driving groaning trucks back and forth along the rocky roads in a relentless quest to make a living.
International trade is also given attention by Fernando Bryce, with a focus on the very origins of global capitalism. The Peruvian artist is technically impressive, taking news articles and advertising materials from the turn of the 20th century and reworking them as illustrated pages from a comic book history of the world.
His painstaking images and texts fill a sizeable gallery and render long-past events as fresh as his ubiquitous Indian ink, which also gives his grand narrative a fictional look and feel. Our current state of affairs seems all at once precarious, or at least arbitrary.
Yael Bartana, Ergin Çavusoglu, Chen Chieh-jen and Adrian Paci are the four other artists in the show. So perspectives come from Israel, Bulgaria, Taiwan and Albania respectively.
Such work from outside Britain and the US may not have the panache of, say, a cast aluminium lobster by Jeff Koons, but its concerns may be more pressing. It demands no less of your attention.
The UK’s biggest art prize, Artes Mundi, is vying to become the most talked about. At £40,000 it is worth twice as much as the Turner, which should provide twice as much scope for controversy.
While installing work by shortlisted artists at National Museum Cardiff, the organisers make clear their intent. “We’ve taken down a Madonna and Child from the 1600s and put in an LCD screen – we are very pleased with that,” says Director Tessa Jackson.
It now shows the work of film maker, photographer and painter Olga Chernysheva, one of eight international artists contending for the prize. Chernysheva is from Russia, her competition from Peru, Israel, Albania, Bulgaria, Taiwan and Kyrgyzstan.
Jackson points to this worldwide range as the main difference between the fourth Artes Mundi and the annual hoopla of the Turner award. “The Turner prize is very focused because it’s British. It’s every year. It’s a constant search,” she says.
Artes Mundi, by contrast, is held every two years, and the shortlist is chosen by a team of curators who sit apart from the judging panel, which she calls a “different architecture”.
“Each Artes Mundi will set up a different discussion and we have cultural commonalities and cultural differences,” she says of the Turner comparisons. “But we do quite a lot of work, as they do, around familiarising people with contemporary art.”
Indeed, during eight years Artes Mundi has brought 32 international artists to Cardiff. The 2008 show broke records with 70,000 visitors. Last year’s Turner Prize, although a paid exhibition, drew only 7,000 more to Tate Britain.
To convert that interest into lively nationwide debate, Artes Mundi are pulling out the stops in terms of visitor engagement and interactive technology.
Head of Administration Carl Grainger is clearly excited about the virtual comments board. “The idea is you can write or type comments on the exhibition,” he explains. “It appears on the LCD screen in the reception area and selected comments get transferred to our blog. I have never seen anything else quite like that.”
Each proudly wears a t-shirt proclaiming, in English and Welsh, “I’ve met the artists, ask me.” Artes Mundi education co-ordinator Ffion Rhys corroborates this fact.
“The guides all have met the artists, so they all know them first hand,” she declares. “They have all researched a lot of their past work, not just the work included here, and will be able to tell the audience more about other pieces they might have done.”
Live Guide Ruth McLees was clearly enthused by her encounter with the finalists.
“It was amazing speaking to someone, rather than reading about it, and also being able to ask background questions and meet people as a person rather than just an artist,” she says. “They are just a person like us. And they have all these experiences as people which feed into the work.”
Given the geographical range of artists included in the show, the viewer might need these points of reference. Curators Viktor Misiano, from Russia, and Levent Çalikoglu, from Turkey, have chosen an uncompromisingly serious selection in which film and photography predominate.
The results will make demands on your time and offer unfamiliar viewpoints from across the globe. There are no quick hits like those you might find at Brit Art’s biggest prize.
But popularism has never been the only benchmark of success, as Lucy Stout, Head of Development at Artes Mundi, points out: “Of course we all know that some people loathe something so much other people have to see if they loathe it as well,” she concedes. “It’s all good. It’s all talk.”
So whether or not you think the best art should deal with international politics, head for Cardiff and have your say.
Marcus Coates, The Plover’s Wing, 2009. Courtesy the Artist and Workplace Gallery.
Marcus Coates arrives wearing neither badger fur nor stag antlers. He drinks tea, not peyote, and does not bark, yelp or fall into a trance. In fact there is no evidence at all this man has a hotline to the animal kingdom.
His genial conversation is a far cry from the spooky rituals which have made the artist’s name. In order to tackle social issues, Coates has after all consulted with plover, moorhen, sparrowhawk and deer.
The resulting performances might suggest he has a true gift and you could speculate there were years living with some remote tribe, learning their ways, but no.
Of his shamanic training, he says, “I haven’t really had any.” Although he does have a weekend course under his belt. “I think what I possibly take is an idea called core shamanism. The idea that the fundamentals of the shamanistic technique are open to everyone.”
Instead of magic, Coates uses meditation in what he describes as a “watered-down” version of indigenous tribal practices. The sceptics among you were right all along.
“I think firstly I should say that I am deeply skeptical myself, particularly about new age culture,” he says. Disappointment soon gives way to relief.
“Usually I kind of expect people to walk out,” he says of his rituals, “and I’m quite open to people calling me a charlatan and laughing. I quite like people not to be so reverential.”
But those who stick around until Coates snaps out of his trance may be surprised at the vivid descriptions he brings back and even benefit from the advice he dispenses.
“When I went to Israel I did a series of rituals in a shopping centre and people would come and ask me questions which were very serious,” he recalls. “One woman came up to ask me about her anorexic daughter and that’s when I realised I had an enormous responsibility.”
The same day Coates was besieged with long queues, despite the deeply held religious beliefs of people from that part of the world. It was enough to make him consider giving up shamanic work. “Maybe religion isn’t extreme enough,” he muses.
Faced with real problems of any scale, Coates looks to his imagination for a solution. The possession-like trance is in fact a creative process
“It’s really just an elaborate and extended form of meditation where I conjure up an imaginative world where I don’t control it. I don’t run it. I’m just very separate to my imagination. I’m guided by it,” he explains.
His art background is what he claims has given him “some fundamental skills” to do shamanic work.
“It wasn’t like one day I thought I’d be a shaman. For years I had this strategy as an artist to become animal. I suppose that was to reconcile the gap between myself and another being.”
In doing so, Coates was influenced by a 1974 enquiry by philosopher Thomas Nagel: What is it Like to Be a Bat? “There are degrees to which we can know each other and know of each other,” says the artist.
Which prompts the questions of what our native fauna might make of contemporary art: “I think the fact about wildlife is its indifference to us. It reacts to us. It responds to us, but in terms of caring, that doesn’t really come into it.”
Art in turn is not just cut off from the natural world, according to Coates: “I see it as cut off from the world generally. I think lots of artists are very interested in art itself. I’m not particularly interested in art. I see art as a by-product of what I do.”
What primarily he does is explore the present day resonance of indigenous belief systems, the power of ritual, and the leaps of faith needed to create and enjoy art.
It needs pointing out that humour is another strong by-product of his endeavours. But, says Coates,”That is totally undeliberate. The attempts are very serious, but I think the incongruities that are formed create the humour.”
But the strength of his performances lies somewhere between mischief and make believe. Indeed, he says, “Most of the work comes from the idea of being an 8 year old.”
Here are my visual arts picks from around the UK for March. Written for Culture24.
Richard Hamilton – Modern Moral Matters, Serpentine Gallery, London
60 years after his first solo show, Richard Hamilton is still making loaded images. His show at Serpentine is a mixed media commentary on conflict in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and Vietnam. It’s not a retrospective so much as a political demo.
Jordan Baseman – The Most Powerful Weapon in this World, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
Taking candid interviews as his starting point, Jordan Baseman makes video art sound as compelling as it looks. Three pieces comprise this show by the American-born artist with themes ranging from gangsterism to gay rights via herb collecting.
Nicholas Hedges – Mine the Mountain, Surface Gallery, Nottingham
This show may serve as an introduction to the term ‘dark tourist’, as Nicholas Hedges visits sites of genocide and massacre. His search for a personal connections leads him to the Welsh mines, where he pays tribute to the fallen of the First World War.
Sonia Boyce: Like Love – Parts One & Two, the Bluecoat, Liverpool
Making work around the theme of care has meant working with those most in need of it for artist Sonia Boyce. A residency with young parents and a collaboration with adults who have learning disabilities both result in an inspirational show.
But what of Frances Stark, standing by itself, a naked name, bare as a ghost to whom one would like to lend a sheet?, CCA: Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow
Here’s a first chance for artlovers in Scotland to check out LA-based artist Frances Stark. White collages, which often take performance as a theme, also feature text by writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson and Mark E. Smith from the Fall. Be intrigued.
Imogen Stidworthy, Arnolfini, Bristol
These four recent works by Imogen Stidworthy have one thing in common, the human voice. Language is a social space in her multimedia show which listens to accent (scouse) speech therapy and a blackmarket slang known as backslang.
Exhibition: Jordan Baseman – The Most Powerful Weapon in this World, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, until May 9 2010
Jordan Baseman knows a thing or two about juxtaposition, as you might expect from an artist with roots in the US who now lives and works in the UK
At Baltic he uses unlikely images to give three documentary type films a poetic twist. Sound and vision collide.
The soundtrack really carries the story. Each video is put together around an often candid interview in which Baseman explores themes of identity with his subject.
Inside Man listens to a career criminal talk about his CV with particular reference to his past sexual conquests against a backdrop of original music. But the woman seen dancing with friends is taken from archival footage shot in 1977.
On another film we hear the voice of a gay activist talk about the difficulties he faced coming of age in the 1960s. He sounds calm, but the16mm footage of Soho in more recent times is frantic.
The show is rounded off with something more sedate. An octagenarian recounts her experiences collecting herbarium specimens for the British Museum, Kew Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens. But the clash of words and picture are still unsettling.
Like the others, she has been displaced by the films she appears in. Her identity is in question as surely as if she was crossing a border.
Exhibition: Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Parasol Unit, London, until April 25 2010
“Human dramas” may bring to mind the worst sort of sunday evening TV, but don’t be put off by Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s description of her own work.
It’s true the Finnish video artist deals with universal themes, such as love and death. Her primal emotions and strong characters will appeal to any primetime audience.
But unless you have found a channel simulcasting contemporary art reels and have a few large screens installed in your living room, there ends the comparison.
Ahtila’s films are multi-layered, her installations are immersive, and her narratives unfold in a complex, haunting way.
And although her scripts are well-crafted, they would challenge most commissioning editors with backdrops like the Algerian War, hardship on the coast of West Africa and, in one film, a house of mourning for a dog .
Indeed narrative conventions are pushed to their limit in The Hour of Prayer, as Ahtila disrupts the space, structure and causal logic of the unfolding tale.
All three video pieces are being shown for the first time in England. As important works by an artist with worldwide critical acclaim, they are recommended viewing.
The end of the world is nigh in the art of Richard Grayson. But we might just be saved by work like this. It has a light touch, which never gives way to despair.
There is irony even in the title of Ways The World Ends. Competing prophecies are ranged against one another in acid-coloured prints which spiral their way in and out of comprehension. Bright and trippy, these texts from the outer reaches of the internet are rendered harmless, yet dizzying.
Close by are more angst filled texts in a piece called Hadron Collider. These come from the blogs of individuals working on the science of the Big Bang theory. These are black and white, accompanied by dull photographs, quite boring. Yet they warn scientists could create a black hole here on earth.
Cosmic forces are also evoked by another text-based work called Intelligence. This compares the star charts of six protagonists in the recent politics of the middle east. It offers a fatalistic twist on all the rhetoric of spreading democracy or resisting imperialism.
The backdrop to all this work is the twang of Country and Western music, which echoes out from a gallery filled with bales of hay. You can make yourself at home on one of these barnyard seats and get down to the folksiness of the band on one of the giant projections. Another screen reveals their lyrics to come straight from Handel’s Messiah. The choral work now seems like enjoyable hokum.
In another video piece a choir take their places to sing an alternative to Handel’s choral work. This time the libretto comes from, again, the internet, namely the site of a US cult whose vision is part book of revelations, part pure sci-fi. From the look on their faces, it is just another piece of music. The high seriousness of the genre now appears empty and foolish.
Music figures indirectly in a third video piece, The Magpie Index. This 80 minute film features a monologue by singer-songwriter Roy Harper. Whether talking about New Labour or intergalactic space travel, the result is compelling. Like many voices in this show, his comes from outside the mainstream. Harper keeps a sense of humour. But if the truth is out there, we are in trouble.
Picking up his gong in the Breakthrough category at The Times/South Bank Show 2010 Awards, artist David Blandy might have thanked the man who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. During WWII, his grandfather was a prisoner of war and Japan’s surrender is said to have saved his life.
“How do I reconcile my life and the life of most of my family with the 200,000 dead in Hiroshima?” he wonders aloud in his East London studio. “It can never make sense really.”
Blandy now looks East for inspiration. Martial arts, manga and video game culture all feature in his work. As a performance artist, he has long posed as a Zen-like wanderer, making countless films as The Barefoot Lone Pilgrim, armed with record bag, staff and portable turntable.
His latest alter-ego, The Child of the Atom, is a response to the atrocity which saved his grandfather. This time he has styled himself as a manga action figure with legions of fans.
“I thought it would be interesting if they were already fan made things, about this character who was already existing, so it’s like a fan homage,” he says of the film, shot in Japan in December.
Blandy himself is the consummate fan. When we meet, he is quick to show off his current favourite graphic novel, his vintage arcade machine cartridges and just a few of his many vinyl records. He may be up on art history, together with Freud, Lacan and Žižek, but this serious artist is a pop kid at heart and well aware of the absurdity.
“Art’s been very important to me in my life,” he insists, “But at the same time has it really changed me? Has it been as profound an influence as . . . Karate Kid?”
He laughs, just as the viewer might at footage of a tall, bespectacled Blandy, dressed in his orange Kung Fu suit, wandering the streets of New York in search of soul. Humour is everywhere in his work, or more seriously, “the joy of acknowledging the truth that maybe identity itself is a fiction”.
“Once you embrace that idea you realise that anything is possible,” he explains. “Rather than feeling completely constrained within your boundaries of – I don’t know? White middle-class male from North London – why can’t I be a superhero anime action figure?”
Or for that matter a black soul singer. Another film finds Blandy made up like a minstrel in reverse as he mimes along to Syl Johnson’s classic, Is It Because I’m Black? The track lasts eight minutes and in psychological terms is something of an endurance piece.
“I may have put on clown make up, but I perform the song with total . . .” he is lost for words. “I’m just inside it and in a way it’s inside me now because I’ve learnt it for the last eight years. It’s just become such an intrinsic way of how my brain is”.
It is this depth of engagement which makes the work so interesting and Blandy compares it to an experiment: “I guess I’m not scared of making a fool of myself in the aid of art, in the aid of trying to understand a bit more of who I am.”
But this serious question about identity leads the artist back to the video game Street Fighter, which he says is also hard-wired into his nervous system.
“Where do we get our ideas if we don’t read philosophy or if we don’t deal with religion?” he asks. “That desire to believe in something or have rules to live your life by is still there, so you end up relating to [game character] Ryu, wandering the world looking for the perfect fight.”
This in turn, he argues, might lead you to an interest in reading actual Zen philosophy. Just as going to a show by David Blandy could lead you to Syl Johnson, Street Fighter or manga epic Gundam. “I guess I see that almost as my role as an artist,” he adds, “To be the finger pointing at the moon, as Bruce Lee would say”.
Exhibition: Richard Grayson – An Exhibition, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea, until March 14 2010
The show is simply called An Exhibition, but music and words feature as heavily as visual art in this five-year retrospective of works by Richard Grayson.
A Country & Western band, from Australia, play tunes that occasionally borrow from the score of Handel’s Messiah. Hay bales are provided to sit on.
Another gallery, decked out like a chapel, shows footage of a 26-piece choir who sing about the end of the world. Their lyrics are adapted from a cultish religious website.
Then there is Roy Harper, the English singer-songwriter, who appears on video as a talking head in The Magpie Index.
This new commission looks at the philosophies and attitudes that have ensured Harper remains outside the mainstream, where you’ll also find aussie C&W and apocalyptical cults.
Grayson is fascinated by the narratives and texts used to stake out these positions. The show includes several works on paper which take blogs, star charts and Internet-based prophecies as a starting point.
Indeed the web is the place where outsiders can remake the world using language and image. Various sites theorise about the location of the tomb of Jesus Christ. Grayson downloads the results and draws pictures from the jpegs.
He takes wayward voices seriously or at least plays with the possibility of doing so.