Category Archives: video

Preview: Star City – The Future Under Communism


Exhibition: Star City: The Future Under Communism, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham, February 13 – April 18 2010

With horizons sealed off by climate change and economic meltdown, it may be time to look backwards in order to start looking forwards again.

Star City at Nottingham Contemporary presents visions of the future from behind the Iron Curtain. They may be outdated, but some are at least optimistic.

The show takes its name from a secret Cosmonaut training camp oustide Moscow. In the Communist era, space exploration was shorthand for progress.

A few Western artists have filmed at the location. Jane and Louise Wilson offer a rare glimpse of the now ruined centre. The Otolith Group provide footage under weightless conditions.

But the majority of works on display are by artists from the former Eastern Bloc, who either figured as the avant garde of the 60s and 70s or emerged on the international scene in the last decade.

Many will be surprised at the influence of science fiction on people and places with a reputation for grim realism.

Polish artist Pawel Althamer stages an expedition to the alien setting of modernist city Brazilia, while Deimantas Narkevicius has remade the ending of Sci-fi classic Solaris.

There are also space toys from Poland, space posters from the USSR and a life-size replica of a Sputnik. Even realism, it seems, once held some excitement.

Written for Culture24.

Preview: Simon Whitehead – Afield & Louphole

Pings, Simon Whitehead, 2008. Photo courtesy the artist

Exhibition: Afield & Louphole by Simon Whitehead, Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown, Powys, February 6 – April 7 2010.

With a background in both geography and dance, Simon Whitehead has an unusual CV. But it does mean he is well placed to stage physical encounters with landscape.

Whitehead has been using ‘pedestrian practices’ to investigate the meaning of various locations for over a decade. These include dance, improvised movement and, one imagines, walking.

Video is used to document his geo-choreographic explorations and much of the artist’s work is collaborative. Sound art and artefacts also feature in the new show, entitled Afield.

When not responding to landscapes, Whitehead is responding to wolves. During a 2005 residency in Canada he became fascinated by their fearsome call.

“The wolf howls called up a physical sensation I had not experienced before, an excitement probably rendered by the folk tales of this legendary outlaw as well as some primal response to the proximity of another predator,” he has said.

“We never saw the wolves, they are rarely seen by humans, which made their evanescence even more compelling.”

Having returned to Wales, his artistic base, Whitehead began to consider the fate of local wolves, which were hunted to extinction in the 16th century. Now he has devised a long-overdue tribute, a participatory event called Louphole.

So visitors to Newtown should not be surprised by freak sightings or hearings of wolves. And on March 4 the Newtown Silver Band will play a wolf-inspired composition by sound artist Barnaby Oliver.

Louphole will culminate in the first ever public howl to be held in Wales and possibly the UK. It must be a far cry from geography lectures and dance lessons.

Written for Culture24.

Preview: Sanity Assassin by Amanda Beech

Amanda Beech, Sanity Assassin (2009), Installation view. Courtesy of Spike Island. Photo: Stuart Bunce.

Spike Island will hold the first major solo show in a public space for Amanda Beech. The West Country gallery promises a nightmarish trip to America’s West Coast.

Sanity Assassin is a three screen video installation with a sinister sculptural element, a series of chainsaws atop a mirrored plinth. This display, based on a real corporate showroom, was inspired by a visit to LA, where the piece was also filmed.

Footage centres around two very different city residents, a disillusioned European drifter and a spokesman for the new world order. As their stories synchronise to the beat of a noise soundtrack, they ultimately merge with psychotic results.

An interview with photographer Julius Shulman, who shot California architecture, and a text by Theodor Adorno have been worked into the narrative. Equally diverse influences on the film are provided by MTV montage, the title sequences of Saul Bass, film noir and 3D building fly-throughs.

Often thought of as a secluded playground for the rich and famous, Beech gives us a version of LA which is maddeningly claustrophrobic.

But while the work should be highly visceral, it also sets out to examine the theories of so-called ‘exile modernism’ as found in later writings by Adorno, Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht.

In 2009 Beech was awarded the main production residency at Spike Island. Sanity Assassin is a new work developed in her time there.

Written for Culture24

Fortress of Solitude by David Blandy at 176 / Zabludowicz Collection

Published on Culture24

David Blandy – Fortress of Solitude, 176 / Zabludowicz Collection, London, until Summer 2010

Strap on the artificial guitar and fire up the games console and you are ready to enter David Blandy’s world. It is indeed, as he demonstrates, a stage. We find our truth in the roles we play.

Guitar Hero is just part of it. Fortress of Solitude includes a library of games, books, comics, films and records which invite the viewer to load up, read, or put on different mass culture artefacts. Each carries a Soul Archive label as if a piece of Blandy’s very essence.

His influences, and the show is about nothing else, are eclectic. They include Kafka and Joyce, but also Marvin Gaye and EPMD. Martial Arts seem to tie the whole lot together as the sphere where hip hop, video games and of course film collide. Way of the Samurai is the subtitle of both a book (Mishima) and a movie (Jim Jarmusch).

It could also reference Blandy’s longest running video pieces. Soul of London, Soul of the Lakes and The Five Boroughs of the Soul all star the artist in an orange kung fu suit, with staff and portable record player. Each one documents a quest or in search of truth or the meaning of soul. On the subway in New York, a barefoot Blandy explains to a bemused local that he is doing a penance.

In the Bronx, he risks getting shot. In London, he risks mockery. In Cumbria, he risks cut and bruised feet. But each film is cut and spliced with clips from the music and the movies the film-maker loves. So they combine postmodern hyperreality with real endurance, an intriguing mix.

The artist also puts himself on the line with emotive lip-synced performances of hip-hop, reggae, funk and soul classics. In Hollow Bones he even mimes along to a Syl Johnson track called Is It Because I’m Black? Blandy by the way is, apparently, not.

That could mean his performances are as hollow as the bones in the film’s title. Or it could mean that they are still bones, still the structure of his existence.

Artists Anonymous at Riflemaker

Published on Culture 24

Artists Anonymous – Lucifer Over London, Riflemaker, London, until November 21 2009

David was apparently hewn from a 27-stone block of marble after which Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel single-handed. Would he not, by the end of it, have looked something like Arnold Schwarzenegger?

The question is asked on camera by a sock puppet in this London show by Berlin-based Artists Anonymous. The footwear not only has good comic timing, but also conceals the group’s identity. Art, they say, should matter more than ego.

Instead, consider their fresh approach to picture making, called the after image. Most works here feature twice: the first painted in negative, putting dark shades and new features where the eye sees light. The second  is a photograph in which colours have been inverted to produce a recognizable yet twice-removed scene.

So Pan Dreaming is a murky composition of a child in a push chair, a pensive adult form, the reflection of a figure on the floor and a collection of balloons. But one look at the after image, Pan’s Prison, confirms that all those elements are there and the whole thing is every bit as nightmarish as you expected.

The technique produces a highly distinctive palette. The colours are either sickly, muddy or bleached out. They call to mind another non-realist school of German painting, Expressionism, and blur into one another, bringing a surreal vagueness to the subject matter.

The paintings are augmented by some found sculpture and a basement screening room straight from one of the neighbourhood’s sleazier establishments (we are, after all, in Soho). On screen a very blonde woman in a gimp costume harangues the audience from behind a Punch and Judy stand.

The sock puppets describe the after image as a world of pure imagination, a retinal memory containing an infinity of possibilities when presented with any given scene. And to view the world this way, they argue, is to enter the sock dimension, which incidentally is where all those missing socks actually go.

Who said the Germans don’t have a sense of humour?

Hannah Rickards at the Whitechapel Gallery

Published on Culture 24

MaxMara Art Prize for Women: Hannah Rickards, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until September 23 2009

If Hannah Rickards’ latest work tells us one thing, then personal accounts are not to be trusted. So perhaps don’t believe all you’re about to read.

It centres on a phenomenon which takes place on Lake Michigan, where an inversion of temperatures causes a mirage of an inverted city. Nowhere in the show do we see photographic or video evidence for this – instead, the viewer must rely on a group of eyewitnesses.
The witnesses are all reliably dull locals, late-middle aged pillars of the community. Rickards has got them together in a non-descript institutional space. A projection screen on the back wall suggests we are in for a lesson of some sort as, indeed, we are.

Three chairs face the middle of the room, making the viewer feel they occupy a fourth. Sometimes we see empty chairs, at others Rickards blacks out the screen. She lets voice-overs speak out of the darkness or over the empty room. Competing testimonies are dubbed over each other.

One man says he can’t recall there being any colour. Another has a vivid recollection of red lights. A woman listening begins to shake her head, the shake eventually becoming a nod. Two men who are dressed identically cannot agree. The hallucinatory event is compared to a movie, a black and white photo, an Etch-a-sketch design. “I don’t think anything I actually saw actually had dimensions,” as one speaker puts it.

The 10-minute film is deliberately short on action and visual appeal. Nothing distracts from the divergence of subjective accounts. It’s a good point and well made, but the piece is so dry and economical that boredom is the occasional result, and this is not helped by poor sound quality.

Rickards herself takes an ironic standpoint on the debate. The film is called No, There was no Red. Whether you agree or not is up to you.

Johanna Billing – I'm Lost Without Your Rhythm

Published on Culture 24

I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm – Johanna Billing, Camden Arts Centre, London, until September 13 2009.

Most conceptual art has a tendency to sharpen up the critical faculties. Johanna Billing’s video pieces, on the other hand, charm them into agreement. Be warned that this show could make you want to sing along or even dance.

Her latest film is called I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm. It has an infectious soundtrack by a Swedish band, which the artist has rerecorded with her own guest vocals. And it features a group of teenagers improvising dance routines. The footage is well-produced and some clips are played backwards to emphasize the beat.

This alone would make a perfectly watchable film, but then there’s the conceptual bit. The video was made with students in Romania and their school is on a grim East European housing estate. They begin their class by typing on obsolete machines from the GDR. It’s an unlikely milieu for contemporary dance, but the estate proves as expressive as any in the more MTV-friendly lands to the West.

An earlier film called Magical World explores similar themes. Here the setting is a run-down cultural centre in Zagreb and the activity is a music rehearsal for kids. A teacher plays piano. A girl plays the flute. Almost everyone plays maracas. And they struggle through a song in English. This melancholy number, which gives its name to the piece, was written about changing times in 1968. Here in Croatia in 2006 the times are changing again, but the young singers can’t quite seem to grasp the meaning of their song.

The most catchy work in this show is a collection of films called You Don’t Love Me Yet. Billing has chosen a little-known song by sixties psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson and staged a tour of cover performances by local bands at art fairs and galleries around the world. In Stockholm, for example, the camera lingers on the audience where expressions range from laughter, to sadness, to boredom. Our own reaction becomes just one of many possibilities.

The first film of the series takes place in a beautifully lit recording studio. The song is given an epic seven and a half minute treatment, complete with small choir. Erickson’s original track was full of anguish but this is a lush, anthemic version. Contextual play and historical comment have rarely sounded so good.

Johanna Billing – interview

Published on Art and Music

Take a Sad Song and Make it Better

You Don’t Love Me Yet is a woeful, mixed-up song by a troubled singer from a trippy 60s rock band. But artist Johanna Billing is puzzled by Roky Erickson’s little known classic. “It’s quite a hopeful song,” she suggests, “Because it’s ‘You Don’t Love Me Yet’ so it’s not really so sad”.

Billing is a filmmaker who often works with music. Most of her chosen tracks could be described as melancholic, but her video pieces are strangely life affirming. So when she re-records You Don’t Love Me Yet in a Stockholm studio, with a brass section and a choir, the result is as euphoric as an all-star charity appeal. “I thought it was very interesting to make a kind of spectacular, which resembles Band Aid. Normally with such a group, you have a clear message, and I thought it was really important to have something ambiguous and slippery, and searching.”

Her engagement with the record is indeed searching. Billing has been touring the song since 2003 and inviting bands in cities all around the world to do a cover version. So far they have filmed over 200 different performances. It begs the question, are these pop promos? She says: “It could always be that the videos are close to other fields but it’s this kind of confusion I quite like. On the surface it’s similar to something you recognise, but there’s something a bit different also.”

The footage can be enjoyed at the Camden Arts Centre until 13 September, along with the filmmaker’s latest work, I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm. Once again, she has found a haunting track (My Heart by Swedish band Wild Birds and Peace Drums) and recorded a new version to accompany an upbeat film, featuring improvised dance. It may come as a surprise to find an artist arranging her own soundtrack and adding vocals, but Billing explains that she used to play piano and misses performance: “I love working with film but it’s been such a pleasure to arrange these versions and it’s the closest I’ve got to making music myself at the same time.” Not content with recording one piece of music to go with this most recent film, she tells me she is currently working on a new backing track featuring improvised drums and marimba (a type of xylophone).

Billing’s search for new artistic/musical effects began when she was a teenager: “Ever since I started working, I was thinking if only I could make some kind of art that would make me have the same feeling that I have when I listen to this specific song, because for me that has always been more powerful or physical.”

It soon becomes clear Billing knows her music. When asked what type of band she would like to have joined, the artist lists a few of the more obscure names from rock history. Then ten minutes after the phone interview she sends through an email with more names and helpful weblinks. (For the record she would have been Judee Sill, Biff Rose, or a member of The Roches, Os Mutantes, Galaxie 500 or Yo La Tengo. “There’s something so great about trios,” she observes, “It’s something about the dynamics, about getting the most out of things.”)

Her passion for music led to two years spent working as a music journalist, and this experience gave her an interest in pop songs as artifacts. “Pop music is never treated as seriously as art. You think of it as some kind of entertainment,” she points out, “I think that is why I find it interesting to work also with the background stories of these songs.”

And in many cases that means giving the tale a happier twist. What’s not to like?

Mauritania via Shoreditch

Published on Culture 24

Currents of Time: New work by Zineb Sedira, Iniva at Rivington Place, until 25 July 2009

From the window of Rivington Place, three photos offer a mirthless reproach to a comedy café opposite. Boats sink into a menacing sea. Time and the elements blacken what remains. The camera freezes each vessel in a watery grave, just off the coast of Mauritania. It’s part of the world we would rather forget about.

Inside the gallery are more photographs of dereliction. Oil tankers sit stranded, leaking toxic waste onto the beach. Heaps of scrap are left to warp and rust in the desert sun. Boats have become environmental hazards with a lyrical, haunting quality.

The focus of this show by Zineb Sedira is a fragmented video installation called Floating Coffins. Some 14 screens display scenes from this inhospitable stretch of coastline in North Africa. There are more deserted boats, as well as crumbling buildings, lonely salvage workers and, lo and behold, flamingos.

Mauritania appears to be more than a dumping ground for ships. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise. Which gives us the sad spectacle of gulls flocking in front of a decommissioned tanker and pelicans hopping around an oil-stained beach. With so much sun, sea and sand, it’s almost idyllic.

But what really darkens the mood is the astonishing soundtrack by Mikhail Karikis who, in collaboration with Sedira, collected sounds over a period of time spent on location. Eight spherical speakers hang from the ceiling and together they make the darkened auditorium shudder like a vast ship pulling into its final berth.

It’s a sound that hints at the deadliest side of life here. The coast is a treacherous departure point for many who leave Africa in search of work in Europe. Mobility, migration and displacement are key themes for Sedira, who grew up in Paris as a second generation Algerian.

Floating Coffins is her most complex work to date, but it should have broad appeal. “We expect people to come who’ve never heard of the artist,” says curator Tessa Jackson. “and for them to be able to engage with the work.” It’s recommended, even if you’ve never heard of Mauritania.