“I like art to mean something, even if it only means something to me": Jasmine Surreal interview below.

Renzo Martens, Episode III (2009)

Posted: November 8th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: film art | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

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Shot with minimal and remote means, Episode III is an uncinematic film in which the most stunning aspect of the production is the artist’s radical cynicism.

Martens oscillates between western messiah and unsentimental doom-monger as he gives advice, hope and (it seems) no assistance to villagers and plantation workers in Congo.

And yet his apparent cruelty has a critical function; he doesn’t flinch from demonstrating to his subjects, and to us, the pitiless reality of the global system in which they’re caught.

In one scene, he trains up a group of village photographers to shoot malnourished kids. But inevitably, they have no access to the market and fail to land the $50 per shot he promised.

This Dutch artist never flinches: not from showing children eating mice; nor from showing a flyblown corpse; nor from showing the anal sores of a young malnourished girl.

News commissioners would find this in very bad taste. But we know that the real bad taste is shown by the plantation owners buying arty black and white shots of their poor employees.

Martens uses neon – in invisible and knowing quote marks – to create a vast hoarding for his sub Saharan adventure: ‘Enjoy poverty,’ it reads, the word ‘please’ winking on and off.

After firing this up with a generator, we at least enjoy the least unhappy scene in the 90 minute film, as a host of children cheer and a party breaks out among local villagers.

The author of this film is unsparing of his subjects, sticking to the line they will always be poor so they may as well enjoy it; but he is equally hard on himself.

Towards the end of the film he meditates on the vanity which has brought him all the way to the war torn jungle to make a film which, as he must know, will further his career.

Nevertheless, he proves his case that poverty is a resource. “Experiencing your poverty makes me a better person,” he tells a group of prematurely aging paupers. They actually applaud him.

So there exists spiritual capital as well as economic capital. But this is something we have run short of in the West. Big Issue sellers, dare one say, just don’t have the requisite soulfulness.

Episode III can be seen in Chapter, Cardiff, as part of Artes Mundi 6.


Omer Fast, Continuity (2012)

Posted: November 5th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: film art | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

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It would be difficult to deliver a spoiler for Continuity. Omer Fast’s looping 40 minute film has no clear narrative arc and offers few clues about the mystery at its core.

All we know is that the same middle-aged German couple pick up three different servicemen from a rural rail station, and take him home for a spot of psychodrama.

It could be they are call boys. It could be a case of sliding doors. It could be Brechtian exposition. Or it could be that the entire episode is the product of a bereaved mother’s fevered mind.

What’s really compelling about the film is that, despite the uniforms, there is difference within this repetition. Youth is one of the only things these soldiers have in common.

Their reunions are pretty intense affairs. The couple have license to touch, chide and even climb into bed with these young men (the mother). In fact the whole set up is uncomfortably oedipal.

You could write it off as kinky middle class role play, were it not that the ‘returning soldiers’ bring genuine trauma and a cast of unwanted ghosts back to this bourgeois home.

The couple cannot escape the realities of war. It seems they try to drive away from the conflict. But they find a camel, and worse, in the middle of their local forest.

Fast’s film is full of hallucinations, along with the doubling effect which comes from an actors playing actors. The war for this artist appears to be an enduring source of strangeness. With no resolution.

Continuity can be seen at Artes Mundi 6 until 22 February 2015.


Simon Faithfull, REEF (2014)

Posted: November 3rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: conceptual art, film installation | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »
Photo © Gavin Weber from fabric.org.uk

Photo © Gavin Weber from fabric.org.uk

The real underwater world has already exercised its independence from the work of Simon Faithfull. REEF was fully working for six days, after which he lost transmission.

But there is no going back. The artist did manage to burn and sink a 32-tonne ship. He did manage to salvage nearly a week’s video feed from five cameras. A partial success then.

If anyone dives, the ship is in Weymouth Bay. A supporting film reveals there’s already a conger eel living in the wheel house, so watch out. We won’t be seeing that any time soon in the gallery.

What we can experience is a cavernous darkness and a resonant tidal throb by which it seems the entire former fishing chapel of Fabrica in Brighton has been sunk for this.

A strange cargo of monitors glows with pre-recorded footage. And one has to look up, as if to the surface of the waves, to watch a film of the 32 tonne ship as smoke billows and waters flood in.

But despite the temptations of the deep (the temptations to read this piece as a comment on anything from the human condition to the eternal unknowable), we mightn’t go there.

REEF could simply be about itself: “The thing I came for:/the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” as poet Adrienne Rich once described a diving experience.*

So . . . Fabrica, Photoworks, Musée des Beaux Arts (Calais), and FRAC Basse Normandie (Caen) have joined forces to provide a possibly sunken institutional structure.

Wreck to Reef, Art AV, Field Broadcast, O’Three, Precision Energetics, Dorset County Council, Weber Industries, Ringstead Caravans and Quest Underwater Services provide the ecosystem.

To see so many bodies pulling together to produce an act of conservation, let alone an epic piece of public art, is as inspiring as any number of visits to an aquarium.

And there is a precedent for such a comparison. In his diaries, Paul Klee records a “refreshingly bizarre” visit to an aquarium, where an octopus reminded him of an attentive art dealer.**

*Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck, reproduced in Aquatopia, published by Nottingham Contemporary and Tate in 2013

**cited in Otherworldly, an essay by J Malcolm Shick, in Underwater, published by Towner Gallery in 2010. 

REEF can be seen at Fabrica, Brighton, until November 23 2014.


Amore e Piombo @ Brighton Photo Biennial 2014

Posted: October 31st, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: conflict, photography | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

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The years of lead (or anni di piombo for you Italian speakers) lasted from the late 60s to the early 80s. Thanks to festivals in Venice and the anni di amore are still in full effect.

As a result this is one of the only exhibitions where you can reasonably expect to find photos of the Hollywood A-list alongside those of victims of social unrest. Dead victims, that is.

1976 may be some time ago. But the fate of Vittorio Occorsio still provokes dismay. You can see his last photo, a body falling from a car, blood making rivulets on the asphalt.

The deceased was a magistrate, and since his day job entailed chasing up links between a black Masonic Lodge and Italian neofascists, it’s not hard to guess where to lay the blame.

Suffice to say, whatever your leanings, the press photos of the aftermath will appall you. The blood is still wet and the covert struggle between political extremes is still fresh.

Nearby are press photos of the unfortunate Aldo Moro. The Red Brigade killed five bodyguards in order to kidnap this former prime minister, head of the Italian Christian Democrats.

After 55 days imprisonment, he too was killed. But the evidence is not as graphic. The facts of his death are not as alarming as those of the brave magistrate. And this is an interesting problem.

Since the Terrorism Act of 2006, even the attempt to justify the way of the gun is a criminal act. So far be it from me to explore the strange nostalgia which so many of these agency snaps provoke.

But Italy in the 1970s really was a land of extremes. Of the many photographed demonstrations in this show, there are various mobs agitating for divorce, the monarchy and a ban on French wine.

The situation appears volatile. There may be as many demonstrations in our day and age, but the many millions who in February 2003 marched against war in Iraq barely caused a ripple.

If we can draw a conclusion from that, we might say there is no hope and no alternative. And yet in the years of lead, you had more factions running about left and right than in a Pynchon novel.

But the presentation of terrorists alongside filmstars here in a museum library is tantalising. The path of armed resistance is not so far from the stuff of movies. Can we even get away with seeing that?

Amore e Piombo: The Photography of Extremes in 1970s Italy is at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until 2 November 2014.


Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors (2012)

Posted: October 29th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: music, performance art, video installation | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Hard not to like an artist who is unafraid to quote his dad in an interview (as you can see Kjartansson does in the footage above): “It’s sad and beautiful to be a human being”.

There’s also an honesty about his subject matter in The Visitors. It’s not about poverty, war or global pandemic. He’s Icelandic, after all. They are not supposed to have such things.

And lastly, he took the title for this nine-channel, 64-minute video installation from an album by Swedish popsters Abba. True, everyone likes Abba. But not everyone will admit it.

To put The Visitors in a nutshell, it’s an hour long promo video in which many musicians, in many rooms of a bohemian mansion, play a single piece of overwhelming music.

The song is minimal and repetitive and the most repeated line, “Once again I fall into my feminine ways”, is from a poem by the artist’s ex-wife Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir.

In Iceland they do at least have divorce and Kjartansson made this piece to reflect, as he says, a period of his life coming to an end. It is indeed a ‘sad and beautiful’ artwork.

A choir is gathered on the veranda and as the piece crescendoes one resident sets off an ornamental cannon. It’s the 1812 Overture rewritten for some protracted marital strife.

The cast of The Visitors are friends of the artist, whose background is in  the Reykjavík music scene. So it’s a heartwarming collaboration at odds with the desolate subject matter.

Music can hotwire the emotions, so you have to be wary with a piece like this. But tingling hairs on the back of the neck aside, this emotionally awkward installation gives you something portable.

In the exemplary way these musicians pull together The Visitors offers a slice of fragile utopia. It explores similar territory to a film by Johanna Billing, another Scandinavian music fan.

Her piece, You don’t love me yet (2003), borrows the look and feel of a charity record to present the performance of an overlooked Roky Erickson song by a Stockholm-based supergroup.

It’s worth a look. Both works demonstrate that optimism and pessimism are often hard to tease apart, and that this state of ambivalence might be something eternal in the human condition.

The Visitors can be seen at Ffotogallery in Penarth, Cardiff, until 22 February 2015, as part of artes mundi 6. It is also in Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao until 2 November 2014.

Those interested in this piece might also enjoy this review from Art in America, written in April last year.


Sanja Iveković, The Disobedient (The Revolutionaries) (2012)

Posted: October 28th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: contemporary art, installation | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

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The fifty donkeys were cute and the labels were amusing. But it was the third element in this piece which packed a real punch. A photo of a real donkey behind barbed wire in a town square.

It was a scene was staged by Nazi authorities in 1933 as a warning not to be stubborn and buy from Jewish shopkeepers. Or you too might end up in a concentration camp.

This shot was printed in a German newspaper in 1933, but for the purposes of this show it’s been blown up and displayed as forensic evidence on a lightbox.

Suddenly the donkey becomes the most noble of beasts. And the talent of these stuffed revolutionaries, the best examples of humanity, from Benjamin to Biko, becomes intransigence.

In the catalogue to artes mundi 6, essayist Natasa Ilic reveals that Bertold Brecht worked with a small wooden donkey on his desk to remind him of a critical section of his audience.

Hardworking donkeys are the salt of the earth. Which may be why, in the US political system, donkeys are democratic. It takes a tough hide, rather than a sharp mind, to make revolution.

The burden of so many of these cuddly toys, or the figures whose name they share, is to have had endured persecution, torture and in many cases execution.

As Manca Bajec points out on culture magazine B-turn, to see this piece is to realise that donkeys are unlikely heroes. Move aside Winnie, Eeyore’s in town.

Once again Ilic highlights something interesting. At least one philosopher has linked the spirit of revolution in the early 21st century to depression, withdrawal and exhaustion.

In the absence of any horizon of positive change, we must all learn from the donkey how to endure. Our only comfort, in the austerity age, might be a soft toy and a memory.

Just by way of an interesting aside: the German authorities may have overlooked the story of Balaam and the ass when they staged their 1930s photo op.

Balaam was of course a prophet on his way to curse the Israelites when the Angel of the Lord came down to turn him back and indeed destroy him.

His equine steed, a donkey as you will know, was granted sight of the Angel. And cut a long story short, Balaam ended up blessing the Jewish homeland. Spooky or what?

Iveković is one of nine shortlisted artists in artes mundi 6. The exhibition runs in various venues in Cardiff until 22 February 2015.


Miquel Navarro, Wall City (1995-2000)

Posted: October 27th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: installation art | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

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It is a quirk of perception that we read this as a city. On the face of it, most of Navarro’s work is comprised of regimented obelisks.

So it’s not like any city you or I might live in. There’s no chaos, no movement and no colour. The columns are as grave as tombstones in a city of the dead.

Yet in its rational structure and the zones we can read as neighbourhoods, we recognise this as a place which the human race might yet spirit into existence.

If architects have, from the renaissance onwards, conceived of buildings in relation to the human form, Navarro throws all that out of a 100th floor window.

There is nothing humanist about this anthill. It is as heavily planned as a city conceived by some ancient people (or perhaps a child). And yet the high rise technology is 21st century.

Something ominous haunts the viewer. In this respect it is like one of de Chirico’s urban dreams. (Navarro has paid tribute to the surreal classicist.)

But no matter how sinister, this vast settlement has pull. The lighting is promising and the canyons of aluminium and zinc impress with their mystery.

There is even a bullring. And with so little else of discernible function, tauromachia assumes a huge importance in the life of this civilization to come.

One imagines it at the heart of an arcane religion. Or as a social device like the lottery in The Lottery in Babylon by Jorge Luis Borges who for some reason comes to mind.

All we know for sure is that this dystopia, which took five years to build, is a piece of timeless bad news. Navarro tells us, in great detail, the worst is still out there, somewhere.

Wall City can be seen in Art of Our Time: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collections, now showing at the Guggenheim Bilbao until 3 May 2015.


Danh Vo, Das Beste oder Nichts (2010)

Posted: October 26th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: conceptual art, contemporary installation | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

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Where you might expect to find a detail such as ‘oil on canvas’, or ‘cast bronze’, or even ‘car engine’, Vo gives us the full scoop on his indecorous found object. A wall plaque opens the bonnet.

Indeed. This contemporary sculpture is comprised of “The engine of the artist’s father Phung Vo’s Mercedes Benz.” Provenance is all: from family car to museum collection.

And in the year this piece was made, Mercedes began using the German title as their advertising slogan. So there are two found objects working together like piston and cylinder in this work.

This is a family who fled their home and, after a dramatic rescue at sea, they settled in Denmark. A keen business sense spurred the artist’s father on to buy ‘the best or nothing at all’.

In a pristine gallery, this piece is monstrous. And there is something oedipal about its evisceration of his father’s achievements. Does Vo junior refer to das Beste with pride or with irony?

Dad made it as a businessman; this is his portrait. He must have once have dreamed about owning this car; he might not have dreamed about the extra mileage it would give his son.

In a white cube such as this, Phung Vo’s car becomes a bride stripped bare, a commodity divested of fetishism, a map of desire, and a deconstruction of a luxury brand. All thanks to the label.

This piece can be seen until 3 May 2015 in The Art of Our Time: Masterpieces of the Guggenheim Collection at the Museo Guggenheim in Bilbao.


Eduardo Chillida, From Within (1953)

Posted: October 24th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: 20th century, sculpture | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

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It hangs like a chandelier designed to throw shade. You cannot walk beneath it without speculating on your own death. And it’s made of iron, technology of another age.

The view’s not so great from this angle, but the form echoes a swastika. And that would be a treacherous swastika with a half yard long stake attached. It threatens like the Sword of Damocles.

This too hung by a thread. In legend, it was a single hair from a horse’s tail. But Chillida has used a near invisible length of what looks like fishing line. It sure hooks you.

And since the Iron Cross was a teutonic symbol and a military decoration during the Third Reich, Chillida might be reflecting on the inherent danger of usurping power.

At the time of making the Basque sculptor was living in his native region and Spain was a dictatorship. There would have been many who would have liked to cut that slender wire.

Or course, this might as usual be reading too much into a formal exercise. From Within is a piece that can also be enjoyed as a spatial conundrum and a source of abstract tension.

But formalism is political too and the title of this piece makes me think of a German painter like Franz Marc, on show nearby. He too is said to have found inspriation ‘within’.

Marc wrote: “The great shapers do not search for their form in the fogs of the past. They plumb for the innermost true centre of gravity of their own times.”

And Chillida has surely created a complex form which not only defies gravity but, in its emptiness and angularity, draws the eye away from the earth. It does so even as we flinch from its latent threat.

From Within can be found in a gallery devoted to Chillida as part of the current show: The Art of Our Time: Masterpieces of the Guggenheim Collection at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.

The third floor of the exhibition, featuring both Chillida and Marc, runs until 23 January 2015. The quote comes from one of the expressionist painter’s 1914-15 Aphorisms (#32).


Carlos Cruz-Diez, Dazzle Ship (2014)

Posted: October 19th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: public art | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

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In the event of a submarine attack, the safest place to be in Liverpool right now is on board the Dazzle Ship by Carlos Cruz-Diez. It presents a ‘moving’ target even when moored up.

Clashing colours and disruptive patterns were hit upon during World War One as a way of confusing German U-Boats who, after all, were visually handicapped by periscopes.

Dazzle paint was the invention of Norman Wilkinson who could therefore add the job title camoufleur to his CV along with marine painter, poster artist and illustrator.

The Navy bought into his theories in a big way and this dock in Liverpool, called Canning Graving, was during 1917-18 busy with Dazzle designs and painting crews.

Another artist employed with this war effort was Edward Wadsworth, a Vorticist, who was to make a number of Dazzle woodcuts and stick with maritime themes.

Venezuelan artist Cruz-Diez has found a new use for Dazzle camo: the appointment of a literal flagship for the Liverpool Biennial. It will delight as much as it will confuse.

But the full name of the piece is another obsfucation: Dazzle Ship: Induction Chromatique à Double Fréquence pour l’Edmund Gardner Ship.

Incidentally, the Edmund Gardner is a pilot ship built in 1953. Its peacetime role has been to provide a base for those who safely guide ships in and out of Liverpool.

But did I say ‘peacetime’? That’s an easy mistake to make. After all, dazzle is everywhere these days. It is the human cost of ongoing conflict we now strive to camouflage.

Cruz-Diez may be making a formal statement with his Induction Chromatique. But Dazzle Ship harks back to the moment abstraction and pure form got pressed into service by the real world.

Dazzle Ship can be seen at the Liverpool Biennial, until 26 October, and beyond until the end of 2015.



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