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

The Fervent Arts Company, Ictus (2015)

As you may be aware, cinema therapy is a thing. For those with mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, a well-chosen movie is, some will argue, the perfect prescription.

But if you suffer from epilepsy, watching Ictus could be the worst ten minutes you ever spend. No spoilers here, but it’s clear from the get go that Doctor Khan has forgotten his Hippocratic oath.

Worse still, we are all cast as patient to this renegade, whose consulting room is lit by spooky candle, papered with vintage text books on the brain, and emblazoned with the flag of a rogue (?) nation.

The gist of it is this: we have come round from a seizure to find ourselves in the unlucky presence of a man whose sinister mask is enough to foreshadow the eventual end of our treatment.

Director Asheq Akhtar has pulled off two technical feats to bring us Dr Khan’s verbose diagnosis: candles provide the only lighting and it is filmed in just one take. Akhtar also plays the doctor.

Unwillingly, we play the patient. But do patients ever have a choice? And in allegorical terms, did the genocide victims in the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence volunteer for their fates? No.

Khan’s namesake is Lieutenant-General Tikka Khan, also known as the Butcher of Bengal. So the script, which aligns this historic figure with the doctor from hell, is a further achievement.

The partition of India and Pakistan and subsequent division of Pakistan represent a too complicated narrative. But the mystical doctor in this piece demonstrates that simplicity can be brutal.

There is much in this complex film which eludes me: much conflict, much politics and many hatreds. But the flickering obscurity of this evil interlude is surely a theme unto itself.

In a coda, we view a massacre at Dhaka Uni through the grainy footage of a Western news outlet. the tiny figures a stark contrast to the larger than life Khan. He is closer to home, wherever that is for you.

Shane Finan, ADA (2015)

shane finan

There’s the painting you can see and the work of art you can only grasp in the mind: 96 panels that will soon make their way through the world’s postal networks and scatter the material object.

Shane Finan’s painting is a landscape jigsaw, where interiors and exteriors interrelate and a bridge connects the artist’s studio to the wider world and to the eventual destination of the piece.

Already the monumental work is travelling the global networks. You may come across it on blogs like this, tweets like this, and status updates like this. But I’m not the only one expressing interest.

Some 25 percent of the panels are sold. The sale ends Friday, at which point the artist will know how much his project has raised for peripatetic, non profit gallery Wandelbar Art International.

Never mind the transience of this art work, it is also pragmatic. In crowdfunding, it has a clear role, which is more than you can say for most art. We know contemporary art struggles with utility.

ADA stands for A Distributed Archipelago and, in Turkish, ada means island. Finan is interested in insularity, which, as he points out, has more to do with digital networking than you might think.

We are more connected than ever, but the quality of our online relations remains in question. Art, which generally requires your physical presence, might be the apotheosis of connection.

Perhaps that is why austerity governments value it so little. That makes archipelagoes a timely and potent image: a cluster of discrete entities joined up more closely than it seems at first.

Though we might only break the surface here and there, via text and telecommunications, we form a chain of continuous being to which we’ll only return once buried or scattered ourselves.

More information can be found on the artist’s website. To invest in an island, visit the gallery site.

Simon, Numbers (2015)


He doesn’t sound like an artist. Without a surname he sounds like a character from a child’s game. His paintings don’t look like paintings. They look like price tags.

But Numbers is a certainly a work of art. It undermines its own claim to genius, immateriality, aura and transcendence, so in this day and age it must be art.

The schtick is this. We the audience decide how much we may be willing to pay and then order one of Simon’s paintings. The result will come back, void of all extraneous detail but the price.

Of course, there are still decisions to be made. Should it be on canvas or board? Does a certain typeface lend itself to a certain amount? And what of a frame to enshrine your budget?

A comments box allows you to influence the specifications. In other words, Simon relinquishes all artistic control. He is subject to the hand of the market the way a shopkeeper might be.

The numbers have a twofold dimension. On the one hand they index your commission against all the other, more or less earnest examples of painting out there in the wider world.

On the other hand, they personalise the Numbers artwork. Perhaps a house number, a date of birth, even a phone number, each of these values becomes a portrait of the patron.

No single number can be ordered more than once, however. And just a word to the wise: £1 billion is already taken. Simon has bought that one for himself (although surely he’s open to offers).

Numbers is a neat critique of the market. It is not the first of its sort. But it may be one of the first to mash a crowdfunding dynamic together with an online auction.

Days ago I was reminded of Numbers when I saw this painting by Billy Apple at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In the museum context it leaves you a bit queasy.

You too can feel this way for the price of your choosing at the Numbers website.

Interview: Karelle Ménine

la phrase

The technical challenges of poetry have usually to do with meter, rhyme and form. In Mons this year, the greatest poetic achievements have all been around measuring buildings and tracking down their owners. By the end of December, the results will be 10km of verse painted onto the city’s stony grey facades.

This single, sinuous line, by multiple authors, began to snake through the streets at the beginning of 2015, just as Mons began its stretch as European Capital of Culture 2015. It comes and goes from all four corners of the scenic Grand Place and runs a ring around the city’s imposing prison. And, as it begins and ends at the station, it is the first and last of the attractions that visitors see.

Locals, meanwhile, will live with the well-chosen words and find they change meaning along with the individual’s mood and the weather. During my visit, there was a drizzle in the air and the poetry took on an air of rainproof defiance. It may not be a good idea to read a book in the rain, but stopping for a poem of hope on the damp walls of a prison is recommended.

The instigator of this project is author, artistic director and journalist Karelle Ménine; she told me a bit more when we spoke on the phone. “I deeply believe we have to rediscover our own literature. We have to try to rebuild the link between literature and the people,” she says, with a passion that must have been needed to plan and execute the world’s longest line of poetry.

Ménine and her team, which includes graphic designer Ruedi Baur, were faced with contacting 400 landlords with varying fondness for the business of verse. “Maybe it would be impossible to create this kind of project in any other place than in the Capital of Culture,” she muses. Meanwhile Baur was faced with typesetting 250,000 characters for some 77 streets.

Gritty, urban typeface Garaje was chosen for the project and letters have been stretched to grab the attention of passersby. “If you want to read it, you absolutely have to slow down. You can’t rush, as usual. You have to walk. Walking pace is the right speed to catch this poetry and memorise the line”, says Ménine. Much of this verse was composed before cars were the dominant mode of transport.

So who are the poets now lining the streets of Mons? Well, they all have connections with the city. Best known is Paul Verlaine, who spent two years in Mons prison after he shot Arthur Rimbaud, in Brussels. “When he was in jail, he wrote so many beautiful poems which changed French Literature really,” says Ménine. “It was an important movement for poetry, the presence of him in this jail”.

Then there are the poets of surrealist group Rupture who were writing between the wars. Poet and resistance fighter Marguerite Bervoets. plus Flemish poet and local resident Emile Verhaeren can also be rediscovered on the walls here. During WWII, Bervoets and prominent surrealist Fernand Dumont were also detained in the prison, which was for them both, sadly, just a stay of execution.

“It’s not two worlds. It’s the same world, in or out,” says Ménine of the prison. “Literature maybe can be a kind of common thread.” She tells me that as part of this unifying project, which goes by the singular name La Phrase, the team has organised workshops to re-introduce prisoners to the comforts of reading and, “also to give them the ability to realise that they really need literature”.

So the literary pedigree of Mons, which will come as a surprise to many, could this year earn the Belgian city comparisons with Prague (with the 19th century prison as Kafka’s nightmarish Castle). Ménine, however, thinks that visitors to the Czech capital often fail to go to the texts which have made the city famous, happy just to visit cafés where Kafka is said to have frequented.

“The thing which we tried to do is to open the book and to offer you the opportunity to read these poems, these writers, this movement, and because we are here for one year we offer you also the possibility to read it every day,” the project director explains, offering the wide Belgian skies as the changing context for her chosen authors.

Put that way, the setting is indeed more favourable to poetry than advertising or municipal signage. “Public space is a fabulous blank canvas, a fabulous opportunity to show something very important,” says Ménine. At the moment this space is invaded by advertisers, a fact which the director bemoans, before adding: “If you want to take a pen and write the word freedom on the wall it’s forbidden. It’s called graffiti”. 

“I don’t think that literature is superior to anything else,” she insists. “I just think that literature is really in danger.” Her energy for the project appears to stem from this awareness. La Phrase is a mission to restore books to an audience which doesn’t even know what it’s missing. “Putting literature into the city is giving people the chance to feel the necessity of literature,” she says.

But whereas a billboard might occupy a site for many years, most of these lines of poetry are due to be erased in January. The programme director tells me this has been a political decision rather than an artistic one, but she remains positive. She hopes locals will miss the verse, and respond by visiting libraries and bookshops: “to take the further step,” as she puts it.

If a single poem can change a life, the work of 40 poets can surely change a city. In one voice, this year, they speak of a love for Mons and the vitality of the written word.

Mons remains European Capital of Culture for less than a month. Plan your visit soon!

George Barber, Fences Make Senses (2015)

Image: www.waterside-contemporary.com

Image: www.waterside-contemporary.com

It happened so fast. I heard a rip, saw a blur of yellow tarpaulin, and then saw the panicking youth. He dropped down onto City Road and began to sprint in the direction of Islington.

The lorry driver, who was already on the pavement and could have come from anywhere in Europe, had a few words of advice for our new arrival. “Run, motherfucker, run!” he cried above the traffic.

This little episode, which I witnessed today, on my way to waterside contemporary, has nothing and everything to do with the new video installation by George Barber, Fences Make Senses.

In one scene from the timely film, a yellow lorry sits on a dusty road in the near East. Without giving names or dates, or even location, the VO informs us the truck was used to smuggle people.

Fifteen would-be migrants got on board. Only two survived the journey. This truck is contrasted with a UK-based fleet of similar vehicles taking Kenyan green beans to British supermarkets.

Barber made his name by sampling video footage in the 1980s. And needless to say the film here is a deft montage of reportage, advertising footage and abstracted views of the sea.

What is perhaps less in character are the dramatic scenes, which offer Brechtian pause for thought; well-spoken British actors confront some of the problems facing those in the Mediterranean.

In the most toe-curling episode they attempt to buy a boat from a huckster. It is little more than a child’s dinghy and they think it has a puncture. But what else can they (we) do?

In fact, peril encroaches on all sides in the Hoxton space. Barber has installed the film in a no man’s land between land and sea. We sit on bales, amidst the flotsam and jetsam of steerage.

The film speculates that, if we are still around in 100 years’ time, borders will seem weird. For the 50 million displaced people on our planet, such a time clearly can’t come soon enough.

Fences Make Senses can be seen at waterside contemporary until December 12. See gallery website for directions and opening times.

Bob and Roberta Smith, Letter to George Osborne (2015)


You cannot help but wonder: did a 50-line letter painted onto the front and rear of a pair of white radiator units have any incidental effect on government policy? Did it really spark a heated debate?

Beyond the headlines about tax credits, the Autumn Statement revealed that the Arts Council can also breathe a sigh of relief and consider its budget protected for five more years.

This is not the beef raised by Smith, who talks tuition fees, the threat to art schools from property developers, and the culture of consumerism which now extends to the student experience.

None of this has changed. But the artist signs off with a message which may just be getting through: “I THINK THE ARTS ARE REALLY ABOUT SAVING HUMANITY”. What did Osborne think of that?

Certainly the arts are a cheap way to save humanity. Arts Council England cost £349 million in 2014; to save humanity with a replacement for Trident will cost, according to CND, some £100 billion.

There are dangers in cynicism, however. A positive and polite reaction to this news about the Arts Council could be more likely to encourage the Conservative government in this cultural direction.

But giving credit is not abject gratitude. As Smith says, in another set of emphatic capitals: “ART IS YOUR HUMAN RIGHT”. Just as education is a right, welfare is a right, and healthcare remains so.

As inhumane as austerity is proving to be, the left should remember we don’t have a monopoly on humanity. Again, appeals to this quality may prove more tractable than immediate class war.

That could be why Smith’s naivety, both in tone and execution of this open letter, strikes an effective chord. It treats the Chancellor as a reasonable human. It invites him to enjoy contemporary art.

But this is also is a bit of a joke. Smith is only an artist; he is not the head of a bank. The banker uses headed notepaper, and not beat-up used radiators. So to who does the future belong?

Mikhail Karikis, SeaWomen (2012)


The baddest gang on the planet don’t ride Harleys out into the California desert. They ride mopeds around a South Korean island and dive for octopus in the choppy North Pacific.

Bad-meaning-good is maybe not the word, but the sea-women are certainly tough cookies. Aged between 60 and 90, they explode all your preconceptions about gender and growing old.

From the age of eight they have been trained for a female only profession: collecting seafood and wild pearls from around the coast of the island of Jeju. Men, it should be said, need not apply.

That’s because the sea-women benefit from a) womanly fat distribution (useful in cold water) and b) a tax break under Confucian law. The law fails to recognise the labour of Korean women.

For a moment, let us set aside the problem of a Western artist conducting a study on yet another remote tribe. (Can someone explain if this film does the sea-women a disservice?)

It is surely in fact a great service to women from around the world. And dare it be said, not just women, but anyone with reservations about growing old. In this film, old women rule.

And when they peel off the wetsuits and masks, the hats and floral slippers come out and you realise they come from the same planet as the grandmothers you encounter riding the bus.

Karikis is as interested in sound as he is in film. His starting point for this 27 minute, two-channel tribute to the sea-women is the whale-like whistle they make while at work on the waves.

This siren song is part of the fabric of the installation, along with rolling thunder and a beautiful folk tune which the women would sing while rowing. All blend into the natural context of the island.

Jeju is now a tourist destination, and quick to see which way the wind blew, the sea-women sent their daughters (and, one can only hope, sons) to the university to study tourism.

That could be why they co-operated. Karikis may have been a tourist when he first visited and his film is great PR for an island which the children of the sea-women will one day inherit.

SeaWomen can be seen in the Founders’ Room, Brighton Dome until December 1. It is part of the 2015 Earsthetic Festival.

Morley Threads @ Backlit

Backlit's current premises Alfred House as a factory (1)

In the late 19th century, a wool factory in Alfred House, Nottingham, became an asset of the largest wool manufacturing company in the world. Now the premises are an artist-led studio space.

On the face of it, artists have plenty in common with textile workers. Low pay, hazardous conditions (albeit psychologically speaking) and, in the case of Backlit, here in Nottingham, a union.

The Morley Union is comprised of photographers, writers and historians who have gathered in retrospective support of one of the better employers these shores have ever seen: Samuel Morley.

It was Morley who owned the factory in Alfred House. And now Alfred House is set to be the venue for Backlit’s exhibition, and a programme of talks which seeks to celebrate the former boss.

It has really come to something, that we might hero a 19th century capitalist. Morley was also a media tycoon. He cut the cover price of the liberal Daily News and turned round its fortunes.

Backlit promises the chance to relive the noise and sweat of the industrial plant, which must still haunt their white-walled exhibition space and paint-splattered workshops.

The Union have pulled together an archive of artefacts, oral histories and even video interviews which will recall experience of workers from a time when Nottingham was a textiles capital.

But if you’re still wondering what conditions were like, if mere words won’t do, local digital design studio Hot Knife has developed a playable VR tour of the former factory.

Meanwhile a photographic exhibition will gather images from buildings and monuments related to Morley. And a youth oriented fashion show may inspire you about the future of textiles in Nottingham.

Morley was a genuine philanthropist: a decent, responsible boss, rather than a glittering habitué of the fundraising gala. He was also an abolitionist at a time when this was to stick your neck out.

In 1999 the UK saw an introduction of the minimum wage: £3.60 an hour. The current rate is £6.70. Small wonder there are campaigns for the living wage of £8.25 for 60 minutes of menial pain.

No matter how philanthropic company chairmen might feel themselves to be, most are answerable to a board of shareholders. Dutifully, they overlook their workers’ needs, in the name of profit.

But this is not a lesson in capitalism, but a postscript to the life of a man who combined his wealth with a healthy set of ideals. Any plutocrats reading criticismism, please take note.

Morley Threads runs weekends only (between 21st and 29th November) at Backlit Gallery, Nottingham. For directions, opening times, and a full programme of events see their site.

Corinna Spencer, Portrait of a Lady (2015)

corinna spencer

There is something maddening about Corinna Spencer’s installation. Her 1,000 portraits have a compulsive, destructive streak which would surely destroy the mental equilibrium of any sitter.

The lady in question is already disintegrating. Eyes look out from somewhere behind the face. The lipstick is smeared on quick, perhaps as if for a public appearance in Bedlam.

Each board is 21 by 15 cm, a modest size. But there is nothing modest about their cumulative effect. The artist has spoken about her interest in obsessive love. Well, here it is, grandly embodied.

It was Gertrude Stein who once claimed there was no such thing as repetition. And yet the pre-eminent American writer made a specialism of repetitive literary portraits. Why should this be?

Unlike landscape, the face generally contains half a dozen similar features in a similar arrangement. A spot of flâneurism will confirm that urban life is an endless procession of this essential pattern.

Spencer’s own brand of portraiture is somewhere between the impressionistic or visually fleeting and the expressionistic or psychological. We are possibly too late to use the relative ‘isms’.

Above all, it is monomaniacal. In an interview with Yvette Greslé, the artist claimed her four figure sum of portraits represented “a reasonable number of paintings”.  But no, 1,000 is a crazy number.

Really, it is “the madness of art”, to quote Henry James, whose own, Portrait of a Lady, another epic example of portraiture, appeared, much like these paintings, in serial form. So many quotes today…

As John Cage said of music: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

Spencer has never been boring. But it’s fair to say she is getting more and more interesting as she expands on monolithic series like this one, a fascinating, skewed take on traditional portraiture.

Portrait of a Lady can be seen at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery until 17 January 2016.

Theodore Price, COBRA RES 1.9 (2015)

david rosenberg

For those of you blissfully unaware, COBRA stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, and despite first appearances the acronym has nothing to do with James Bond.

COBRA meetings are convened by the Prime Minister in times of special crisis. And in the UK we tend to lurch from crisis to crisis; this in no way impedes COBRA’s evil-sounding mystique.

But since 2013, whenever the great minds in the Cabinet have got together for a COBRA sesh, an ad hoc group of artists and writers has got together to respond to the response.

This ongoing project, COBRA RES, is as shadowy than its inspiration, although artist Theo Price has curated seven editions. The latest is 1.9, a response to the refugee crisis in Calais.

It launched in East London last night, in the form of a book of flash fiction (ie; stories under 1,500 words). The prelude to this was a walking tour about the history of migration in East London.

Our guide was David Rosenberg (pictured), who knows all there is to know about radical politics in this part of town. He told us about the 1936 Battle of Cable Street as if it was yesterday.

In this part of town, former synagogues serve as mosques. Church of England schools observe Islamic holidays. And blue chip artists keep it real with townhouse mansions in Fournier Street.

He also filled us in on the Huguenots, French protestants who fled here in the 17th century to escape persecution and bring us the word, refugee, from the French refugié.

We got to Spitalfields with its faux bohemian bars and eateries. With names like vagabond and vintage, these throw into stark relief the historic trials of local Jews, Irish and Bangladeshis.

As David made clear: refugee and economic migrants are one and the same; incoming communities have brought us net gains; migrants in Calais have plenty to offer us here. So, why the crisis?

COBRA RES 1.9 contains 20 stories and the half dozen I have already perused are great. But perhaps I should declare an interest.  I was a contributor; still, you can buy the book here!