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

Želimir Žilnik, Black Film (1971)

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Some say, “From each according to their means to each according to their needs”. Some say, “Do as you would be done by”. But very few live up to either of those incontrovertible principles.

And though I have witnessed several decent people buy sandwiches for homeless individuals in Brighton where I live, I have never heard of anyone going so far to help as Želimir Žilnik.

In 1971 the Yugoslav filmmaker found a group of rough sleepers and invited them home to the one-bedroom flat he already shared with his wife and young child. This he also filmed.

In a sense they were an artistic project. But film becomes a means to an end here. That end becomes the rehousing of half a dozen fellow human beings who have fallen on hard times.

Their arrival comes as an apparent surprise to his wife. Together they move the couple’s double mattress into the child’s room as the tramps collapse into recumbent forms in the front room.

In the second part of this pragmatic experiment, Žilnik hits the streets again in search of public support for his new flatmates, or at least some good advice about what he should do with them.

The lasting impression is one of irresolution. These six characters in search of an author seem to have been left to once again fend for themselves. None of them remember their housetraining.

Black Film is a valuable social document. For starters, it asks the What If? question that must be asked every time you cross the road to evade the needs of a vagrant in abject poverty.

It also alerts you to the fact that even socialists can fail the most needful in society. Even socialist states can fail to provide a safety net for those whose needs are greatest.

In the UK, homelessness is the most visible of the troubles of the world. It has got worse in recent years. It’s a major problem, but since I’m not a Black Wave filmmaker, it’s not a personal problem.

Because really, Žilnik stages the unthinkable: an act of Christian charity or, more likely, Marxist direct action, which remains for most of us as impossible as it is imperative.

Black Film can be seen in Monuments Should Not Be Trusted at Nottingham Contemporary until 04 March 2016.


Douglas Gordon, 24 Hour Psycho (1993)

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How can one comment on a work of art based on an experience of no more than 10 minutes with it, when the entirety lasts an entire day? Well, the elevator pitch for Gordon’s film tells you enough.

This is the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho (1960) slowed down from 24 frames a second to just two. It runs in slow mo, in silence, in glacial indifference to the fate of Marion Crane or Janet Leigh.

So Gordon’s film is somewhat more sadistic than the original. I caught up with it as Crane drives along Highway 99, nervously looking ahead, nervously checking the rear view, in a seeming loop.

We know she is speeding to her death, but she does so with minimal, staccato movements that let us study the appearance and behaviour of an archetype: the victim marked out by fate for a grisly end.

But she is herself a criminal, and so perhaps the film also does her a service, stretching the period of time between her theft of a client’s money and her demise at the hand of Norman Bates.

24 Hour Psycho is both generous and cruel. It torments the viewer with its impossible duration and at the same time promises us saturation with one of the most analysed movies of all time.

“It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at,” so writes Don Delillo, whose 2010 novel Point Omega opens with a character who visits and revisits this piece, when it is at MoMA.

If encountered in the cinema, movies take very little pious effort. But Hitchcock manipulates his own creation to an even greater extent than this black and white monolith of video art.

IMDb is a goldmine where Psycho is concerned and we learn that the director used a 50mm lens to give his footage a voyeuristic immediacy. The 45 second shower scene uses 78 pieces of film.

So much has been written about Psycho and so much has been written about 24 Hour Psycho. But perhaps that is the ultimate comment from this slow procession of scenes. It is a kind of autopsy.

24 Hour Psycho can be seen in The Indivisible Present at Modern Art Oxford until at least March 22 and perhaps beyond, depending on how the year-long Kaleidoscope programme pans out.


Michael Craig-Martin, Untitled (travel adaptor), 2014

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The Instruction Manual by John Ashbery is a poem of some 74 lines, which mentions more than 30 colours. And these colours evoke Guadalajara, Mexico, a place the speaker hasn’t even seen.

But having said that, he pictures it well. His senses appear to have been sharpened by the deadline for a technical writing gig, and they soon take flight through an imaginary window.

Michael Craig-Martin is, in his turn, something of a technical illustrator who makes a lively escape into colour. Here you see a sherwood green adaptor with sunny yellow tines and a blood-red interior.

There is nothing naturalistic about this; it is as oneiric as the journey to Mexico in the poem we’ve already seen. But the pleasure is anchored in the familiar form of a travel appliance.

What is it about precision, in writing or draftsmanship, that sets off the imagination? Is it the fact that in both these disciplines, colour is proscribed, a banned and hallucinatory substance.

What with the smoke alarm. the memory stick and the hotel door handle (all of which feature alongside this adaptor), Craig-Martin never makes it out of his room. No en plein air for him.

And so, much of the show suggests the paraphernalia of travel, and this survey reads a little like the difficult third album of a rock band who only write about life on the road. I jest.

There is a case to call this pop art. And I think a more difficult case to compare it with photorealism. Certainly it shares some of the powers of observation, some of the decision making.

Craig-Martin talks about this with artist Liam Gillick. He plays down the role of invention in art, in favour of observation. Gillick meanwhile downgrades inspiration in favour of visual choices.

It is a fascinating discussion and well worth a look if you pick up the catalogue. If nothing else the beautiful 120 page book will give you something to cling to. Like a plug socket in Guadalajara.

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience can be seen at Serpentine Gallery, London, until February 14 2016.


Annette Messager, Les interdictions (2014)

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As 1968 begins to pass out of living memory, the date begins to lose its power. Sadly. We are by now a long way from barricades and a long way from a revolutionary tipping point. It seems.

Perhaps to keep the memory alive and honour the students who could have brought down a Western government, this artwork by 72-year old Messager comprises 68 prohibition signs. (’68!)

We can only assume the artist had some fun redesigning these interdictions. How else could we actually enjoy the sight of a wall plastered with the evidence of the human bent for authority?

As things stand you might well relish the comedy value. It has been decreed from on high that in the gallery today, we we cannot feed monkeys, have sex in spas, or drive wearing a burqa.

Says Museum director Barbara Forest in the catalogue: “The absence of context renders the signposting more derisory, more absurd, more ridiculous, more grotesque and more serious”.

Of course the rules here don’t apply. Artists are traditionally people who break rules, rather than people who enshrine them. So these handmade prohibitions are fairly dripping with irony.

All but one of the signs is based on a real world referent. The exception, which proves the rest of the rules, is top right: no prostitution. Another tradition of artists is that you don’t sell out.

But since this work is a roundabout celebration of freedom, that must include the freedom to capitalise on your artistic talents and, in one way or another join the establishment. 

There is a figurative element to this installation. It features more than a dozen mannequins, more than a dozen child-sized snowsuits. None of us chafe against rules more than children do.

Yet do we not make a good many rules for the good of our young? Messager may evoke 1968 in this major work, but that’s not to say she might not be very ambivalent about the laws of man.

Les interdictions can be seen in Annette Messager: Dessus Dessous at the Musée des beaux-arts Calais until 15 May 2016.


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)

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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)

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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

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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)

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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?