In these end times, it is worth remembering we have been here before. We have had more than 70 years to get used to the idea of nuclear weapons. In 1962 the psychic shock was fairly raw.
As in rock music, fast food and situation comedies, the USA led the rest of the world, the deserts in its Southern states serving as a blank canvas for numerous spectacular tests.
In the interests of public entertainment, if not safety, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce saw fit to publish a calendar of detonations and a list of the best viewing sites.
And in that sense they beat this artist to the punch. Tinguely’s first staging of the end of the world was brought about in the early sixties; his earlier Study, No.1, took place in 1960.
How do you follow a mushroom cloud with a piece of fine art? Tinguely’s answer was to step up his interest in kinetic and self-destructive mechanical junk sculpture.
Together with his partner (French artist Niki de Saint Phalle must get some credit) he scoured a remote junk yard for components. It seems anything was fair game: toys, a toilet bowl, a trolley.
In metal hardhat and goggles, Tinguely was arguably as keen to control his own image as that of his soon-to-be explosive artwork. Now both artist and creation were ready for broadcast on NBC.
Were it not for the televisual audience there would have been few witnesses. There were shelters for camera crew and press; the sculpture was too dangerous for the public.
It was also dangerous for TV execs. The sight of a configuration of functionless objects, which spring into pointless life for an 18 minute performance must have had serious commercial fallout.
And then the fuses were lit. The sketchy YouTube footage is linked above. Better footage can be seen in Tinguely’s largest ever retrospective right now. And yet we fail to get a sense of it.
The camera lingers on a burning armchair. But safe in their all-American homes, we may never know how many viewers felt the heat of this detail, as noted in the catalogue.
It was just a study, mind you. As the end of the world continues to unfold in a way that looks quite different to that of 1962, we are reminded of Tinguely’s words.
“You can’t expect the world to end the way you want it to,” said the anarchic sculptor. We can only speculate about the piece of avant garde software code that could form Study No.3.
Jean Tinguely, Machine Spectacle, can be seen at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam until March 5 2017. My visit was at the invite of the museum and the airline KLM, whose informative new art history page can be found here.
The vital importance of visual art, in this emerging plutocracy, is without doubt. Even though, for most politically engaged artists, it can seem like swimming against the popular tide.
But the cultural reversals of 2016 are, in fact, just a reaction against the false promise of aesthetics. They are anti-art, anti-intellectual, anti-fashion, and opposed to all forms of sophistication.
What went wrong? We enjoyed eight years of the most presentable US President in history. And no matter how little you liked Cameron and/or Blair, their smooth brands offered a certain surety.
Well, I don’t believe that BrexTrump had much to do with political realities. Nothing does, when you live in a corporate owned mediascape. It was rather a rejection of a certain bad look.
Please don’t ascribe authenticity to these populist politicians. Their deceptions are numerous and notorious. They have done away with political craft, the actual honesty of rhetoric and oratory.
In short, they have killed statesmanship or statespersonship. They have killed the gravity which art, via countless portraits and busts, has so often ascribed to the powerful: to popes, kings, gentry.
Who can maintain gravity, as the world spins faster and faster? Who can pretend to pre-eminence when already several billion are a click away? What matters if the context for any action is chaos?
It would be ridiculous to think that art could restore politics, on either side of the Atlantic, to former glories. Since the glorious few have led us to this, it would be neither possible nor desirable.
But the shallow figures who dominate world politics now have ushered in real 21st century fascists. Wherever they were all hiding, there is certainly a role for art in the fight against this.
They may have their baseball hats and their double breasted blazers, but underneath the trappings of normality, Trump, Farage, and their ilk are naked. They do not yet have their Leni Riefenstahl.
So in a world where perception is everything (and hasn’t it always been everything?) visual art is the most potent creative endeavour in which we can engage. Artists can dress power up, or down.
And when you throw in ceremonial drama (performance), when you throw in a few flags (pop), and some party political ads (video) you realise that in fact there can be no power without art.
This must be why an event such as the Turner Prize will always fuel tabloid ire. The political relations bodied forth by a quiet Helen Marten installation are surely antipathetic to shitty gold elevators.
In short, contemporary art has never had a clearer challenge. It is time to accede to the visual realm, to make it new, to make it more powerful than the guys writing the cheques for it.
Because seriously, plutocrats will always be the like the uninteresting patrons who paid to appear on their knees in renaissance altarpieces. Let art ensure history pities our new leaders, rather than fears them.
The time tested way of introducing a story (“Once upon a time…”) is little help when writing a blog about art. And so faced with the most narrative-driven work in this year’s Liverpool Biennial, I don’t know where to begin.
HFT The Gardener is a multi-faceted piece display which comprises of some 174 works on paper and a (roughly) 10-minute film. There’s a fiction in the film, made concrete by the drawings. So the drawings, although quite loopy, fall into a non-fiction category; it’s complex.
In short, Treister tells the story of a high frequency trader who undergoes a breakdown and looks to psycho-active plants to generate algorithms to plug into the banking system. He is fired, as you might expect. But then he becomes an outsider artist and the drawings in this show are his colourful plant diagrams, which he sells to rich bankers.
The artist was good enough to speak with me at the launch of this show and I asked her how it came about. “I was interested in high frequency trading. I was interested in these ideas of the holographic universe. I was interested in psycho-active drugs,” she tells me.
Following that, “through thinking about them all and wondering where it might go,” Treister made the connections which rounded out her show. As for the film script, it remains a trip to compare with one of the hallucinogenic plants which star here.
It took a lot of “fine-tuning” says the visionary artist. “The plot expanded, contracted, then needed to come back around and reference itself in certain ways. So I was constantly working on it, to form it.”
But however much Treister worked on this voiceover, it pales beside the maniacal energy which must have been needed to research more than 90 narcotic plants and translate their biological and chemical properties into intense and detail rich diagrams.
“Work ethic,” says the artist in response to this. “But you know novelists are the same. They have an idea. They gradually develop the plot. Then they’ve got to spend about two years sitting there every morning. They’ve got to get up and get a certain amount done”.
But if the show really is a novel, it is Moby Dick rather than Pride and Prejudice, the sort of novel which freights in a wealth of technical detail. Each plant has its Latin name, its medical effect, its equivalent as abstract pattern and its correspondence to a stock on the FTSE index.
HFT The Gardener is not, however, an instruction manual for drug use. “I’m not suggesting a mass free for all,” says Treister of her 92 psychoactive plants. “These are plants that have been carefully used for centuries in many parts of the world for ritual purposes. They need to be taken seriously and there could be an enormous amount to learn from them if research was able to continue unrestricted.”
Unlike South America, we don’t have a culture which facilitates drug-induced vision quests. We do, however, have a crazy financial system where a dose of peyote could hardly make things any worse; you could happily leave reality behind for an hour spent at this show.
For more information about this work, head to the artist’s website. The show runs until October 16 2016 as part of Liverpool Biennial, and can be found in the Exhibition Research Lab at The John Lennon Art & Design Building, Liverpool John Moores University.
Brighton Photo Biennial 2016 will look at the way photography fosters our understanding of style, the body, gender and subcultures. It is arguably the biggest visual art event on the city’s calendar, and this year the month-long festival issued a call out to BA students on Brighton Uni’s acclaimed photography course.
Four chosen artists, who appear to come from all walks of life, will feature in one of the busiest exhibition spaces in town. So if you’re passing Jubilee Square, do take some time to take in Our City, How Do We look? I spoke with the talented group at local music festival Together the People.
Interview: Chynna Guyate
It is at once a comfort and occasional source of alarm that Brighton’s sartorial flair extends to residents of all ages. So in putting together her show, Guyate has looked for “the elderly who defy age and disability and dress how they want to express themselves”.
Brighton may be thought of as a city for young people to see and be seen in, but Guyate is drawn to those who have seen it all before . “These people need a voice,” she says of her subjects, “Because they’re just as great. That’s why I picked up on the older generation”
While aware that it might sound like a cliché, the second year student was inspired by her own 91-year-old grandma, who was living with dementia. “Despite that she loved dressing up, styling; she had all these crazy clothes. I just thought, Good on you!”
Her show came together over three sun-drenched weeks this summer and Guyate recalls “going around and seeing who’s about, clicking away”. She staked out her subjects from cafes and soon learned how to get up the nerve to approach strangers in the street.
“These people were fairly rare,” she points out. “So when you see them it was, Right, just got to go and do it.” The result is a portfolio of straightforward portraits and glimpses such as you or I might catch of these older denizens one hesitates to call eccentric.
All the same, Guyate does report an encounter with a man festooned with keyrings, who was pushing his own wheelchair, and a woman on the beach playing a tambourine to the seagulls. “That was pretty interesting,” she tells me with wry understatement.
Old people clearly have to work hard to achieve visibility. But Guyate finds in their “crazy colourful clothes”, an intriguing reflection of our “crazy colourful city”. Expect a crazy and colourful display during BPB16.
Interview: Jennifer Jackson
After several moments talking with Jackson, it seems there’s more to gender than male, female, and trans-one-way-or-another. The third year photographer introduces me to the term non binary to describe a group of people who subscribe to neither gender norm.
“I use ‘them’ and ‘they’ pronouns rather than he or she,” they advise me and their portrait-based show is about making visible a diverse non binary community which was a lot larger than Jackson at first expected it to be, even in a city with a vibrant LGTB scene like Brighton.
Not that one can make assumptions about the sexuality of people who might simply be gender queer: “There’s a lot of people who identify very differently within it and express their non binary very differently,” says Jackson.
Although on the boyish side of feminine, this photographer looks fairly conventional. “A lot of people who are more openly non binary might present in a more radical way,” they say. So, the show is not short of telling details in clothing, modifications, tattoos, and hairstyle.
“But there are a lot of people who are non binary who are exactly like everyone else on the street,” Jackson tells me. “Maybe very feminine, or very masculine. Other people are androgynous. So I think it’s impossible to tell. It’s just a feeling really.”
Whatever the case, it is a feeling which is safer to express here in Brighton, as compared with the far flung northerly region where the photographer originates. “In Cumbria there are still difficulties in being accepted,” they tell me. “I can’t imagine anywhere being as accepting as Brighton is.”
Interview: Sophia Wöhleke
Although Brighton has its share of fashion chainstores, it does more than most cities to redress the ecological and ethical balance. Look no further than the North Laine and London Road, where second hand shops encapsulate something of the spirit of this city.
Now in her third year, Wöhleke came from Marseille to join the BA in Photography and having done so she brings an outsider’s eye to what seems to be a growing proliferation of thrift stores, upcycling workshops, leather workers and cobblers.
With an avowed interest in “sustainable fashion”, Wöhleke makes clear: “We live in a consumerist society where little emphasis is placed on the durability of items. Brighton is a city where there is a trend of people going against that”.
So the well-travelled photographer turned her lens on the retailers hitting back and stalked the city’s most bohemian streets to find alternatives to Top Shop etc: “I wanted to look at it from a grassroots perspective while focusing mostly on little shops in order to gain an understanding of how people make a living without succumbing to the consumerist culture that exists elsewhere in Brighton”.
Most businesses were open to participation in a student project. “The first place I photographed was an alterations place. The owner only opened the shop last year and she sometimes has to work nights to finish her orders on time,” says Wöhleke. “She was open about how she works and didn’t mind me photographing anywhere, she helped me out quite a lot.”
Her industrious subjects were also open about their working environments; “I wanted to bring the different layers of the shop into the pictures because I wanted to get a sense of the amount of manual work and time that go into running small businesses like these”.
Wöhleke uses a medium format camera to capture all that rich detail. Her only remaining challenge: finding room for a tripod.
Interview: Judith Ricketts
A show that combines fashion with the realities of Brexit may sound unlikely; the Leave campaign was marred by many things, not least the double-breasted blazers of its chief protagonist Nigel Farage. But third year Judith Ricketts is interested in both all the same.
Ricketts has responded to the referendum by finding EU nationals living in Brighton and taking their portraits in the city they have thus far called home. Subjects were invited to choose a location that had personal meaning and dress to represent themselves to the world.
The concerned photographer reports a general reaction of shock to the outcome. “People were saying they felt very much under the microscope,” she tells me. “Because the vote was most focussed on immigration and before that they were part of the landscape”.
Ricketts’ interests in home and displacement may stem from her African-Caribbean parentage: “I was wondering how that moment in time changes peoples sense of belonging in a city, because one of the things about this city is, I think, it’s always very, very multi-cultural.”
The resulting show brings documentary up flush against a conventonal fashion shoot. But the photographer in question sees fashion as political. “It’s a complete identity statement,” she tells me, before adding: “Our identities are fluid. They change depending on who we are, who we are with, and where we live”.
In the case of this show, subjects were persuaded to meet in town at seven or eight in the morning and talk about their experiences of the disaster known as Brexit. (“You have to make that connection really quickly!” Ricketts tells me.)
“Most people I photograph become my friends,” she adds. “They become part of my own identity, because I use it as an opportunity to get to know different kinds of culture.” This attitude, which realises we are in fact lucky to mix with different nationalities, is refreshing, even in Brighton.
Our City, How Do We Look? is a Photoworks/Together the People co-comission for Brighton Photo Biennial 2016. Work by all four photographers can be seen in Jubilee Square, Brighton, between 1-30 October 2016.
Art Rules was a shortlived online experimentfrom the ICA and in 2013 I was one of many people asked for some wisdom. “Don’t plan on getting paid or laid,” I wrote. “The work is its own reward.”
Well, Lucky pdf, an arts collective who are much cooler than me, wrote “Don’t work for free”.But I would contend we both have a point. The work is its own reward, yet has monetary value.
That is in essence the beauty of both writing and art. Surely nothing worthwhile is ever made with a price tag in mind. And so the art world is as full of freebies as it is full of art fairs and auctions.
We need hardly enumerate the perks of engaging with this system: free admission to galleries, free wine at openings, free press releases, free selfie opportunities and free reviews online.
Then a middle tier: blockbuster shows cost up to £20; catalogues can cost even more; editions will set you back three figures. But all of the above augment a pleasant middle class lifestyle.
The gateway comes next: work by ‘name’artists costs between the price of a car and a house; at auction, you could spend millions; if accepted as a collector you’ll become an art world VIP.
At this point you may want to loan one of your works to a museum, thus increasing its value. Or you may want to bequeath all your art to a provincial gallery, ensuring immortality: a good trade.
Artists themselves meanwhile have to speculate to accumulate. At the very least they will need to buy materials. At worst, for their pockets, they’ll manage to rent a studio or hire assistants.
Journoscan get by with a laptop, a pad and a pen, and a voice recorder. Utilised to our advantage these will gain enviable invitations to press launches and press trips.
After that point, whether visual artist or art writer, you will want to sell work. This is as difficult as it sounds. We are legion and there are always pre-validated colleagues out there with more talent.
So I found myself coming back to that pearl of wisdom from Lucky pdf. It struck me as quite an important principle. Giving away art or giving away writing does no one any favours, surely.
And yet we have social practice, a genre of art which thrives off what is freely given. And yet we have blogs like this one, which never make a bean.And on social media, every darn thing is free.
I guess that moving forward, the approach should be: don’t give away more than you earn. Be you an artist, writer or curator, you should try and come out of your professional activities in the black.
With that in mind, it’s worth considering a new phenomenon: the crowdsourced gallery guide. Back in August I was invited by one of these to volunteer some commentary for a current London show.
The email, from a Michael Bouhanna from Untitled, captured my imagination because the featured artist was Jeff Koons and the gallery was Damien Hirst’s. I have written on both, but who hasn’t?
It can’t even be said that the request came from either of the two great men. This untitled gallery guide was positioning itself as a public service, as a kind of digital intervention.
This was supposedly in response to the lack of clear interpretation which goes along with some of the work in Hirst’s personal £100 million collection of art shown in his purpose built gallery.
But no matter how frequently I have worked for free, to promote myself or support an artist, I would never for a moment think that the Murderme collection or Newport Street Gallery needed my help.
In return Bouhanna offered the chance to joina community of ‘passionate’ art enthusiasts who may or may not attain VIP status at future shows or art fairs. That doesn’t really appeal.
Indeed I found more community belonging on my Facebook wall where, being a blogger of the passive aggressive variety, I eventually cropped up to share my dismay at this cheeky request.
Writer Ben Street and artist Paul Brandford, who are both already VIPs to me, soon reported having similar experiences with Untitled. Bouhanna clearly spread his net far and wide.
The artist appears to have a simple and urgent proposition: to render the past absurd is to neutralise the rhetoric of the political right.
Without a golden age to hark about, no one can promise to make America, the UK, or India ‘great again’. And we can instead progress to a state of internationalism, equal rights, economic parity and perpetual peace.
Rahal lives in Mumbai, but he points out that the whole planet is “kind of a scary place to be working, globally”. He is, however, welcome in the North West, where for the duration of the 2016 Liverpool Biennial, his sculpture and film is being shown across three sites.
We met at Cains Brewery, a cavernous space for art enjoying a good year. It is however scruffy, and Rahal’s work looks in keeping with the general state of repair. It is the first thing a visitor sees: nuggets of clay arranged on trestle-like tables; bits of scaffold, locally sourced, covered in clay; and black-box monitors which appear to emerge from the mess on which figurines breathe or practice with lightsabers.
“I’m a huge nerd and I obviously have all these Star Wars references”, the artist cheerfully informs me. But like many contemporary sculptors, he aims both high and low, looking to Jorge Luis Borges for ”vast metaphysical narratives”, and for that writer’s concern with “creating this itinerary of our culture”.
In short, this itinerary is dystopian. The artefacts presented appear fresh from some archaeological dig. But what kind of half-formed world do they conjure up? A: it is a world run by idiots in which technology has failed us and we have forgotten basic craft skills. And that seems to me the worst of all possible worlds.
“I like the fact that these characters, or these objects of clay could somehow become like harbingers of something, you know?” Rahul tells me as we contemplate his pottery-based triage stations which all appear to somehow breathe in the light of the moving image work.
He also says: “I’m more interested in putting them together to form meaning… from these absurd things, which are beyond reason in a certain way. In that meaning-making ritual that people perform, how do we create allegiances? How do we create bonds across space-time?”
An interest in travel and time travel chimes in well with the 2016 Biennial, which is a nebulous animal in which Monuments from the Future is one of six official themes. You may find, as I did, that as you come across Rahal’s work more than once, you build a picture of what might be becoming.
It is a picture of a primitive time around the corner. Rahal expresses concern about right winggovernments that have followed the Arab Spring, the rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump, and the hate-filled effect of Brexit here in the UK.
If politics is performative, the artist has another highly political aspect to his practice. Rahul stages improvised, ritualistic performances which offer only “fleeting, fragmented glimpses” of a narrative, and which change gear according to pop cultural requests from his viewers.
“Even I don’t have a bead on [these],” he tells me. “Essentially, what’s interesting for me is that I’m also a viewer as well.” One supposes that in these powerless times, we are all to a degree little more than viewers, even as we march, occupy, tweet or blog.
But perhaps in the light of our political horizons, we’ll do well to maintain any civilisation at all.
Despite everything, Rahal is making the most of circumstances: “Earthenware has so much meaning to our origins so I’m drawn to that, but saying that it’s also so much fun to just dive into clay and get mud all over me.”
As well he might, since in Summer 2016 we are all up to the neck in it.
“Strafing is the military practice of attacking ground targets from low-flying aircraft using aircraft-mounted automatic weapons ranging from machine guns to auto cannons or rotary cannons.”
Armed with this knowledge, if not this hardware, we can safely say that Williams’ picnic suite appears to be the worse for an encounter with an airborne machine gun. In an English garden.
This piece can now be seen in the garage of a semi detached house on the fringes of Luton. Were it not for the swiss cheese look, this table and chairs would invite you to sit down for a lemonade.
But your aspirations have been punctured 1001 times with a drill bit (I would guess 8mm). A pair of cheerful sunseekers here would have been riddled with lead and each sprung a hundred leaks.
Such violence is out of proportion to a harmless pretension: the Great British pursuit of fresh air, conspicuous ownership of a small lawn, and proximity to the prize begonias. Or is the strike justified?
How many wars have been fought on behalf of people in suburban gardens, who enjoy peace and quiet, even as young combatants fall and families much like theirs become collateral damage?
Something about these stackable white chairs enrages artists. In 1990, it was Damien Hirst who called down a plague upon our twee seasonal dining arrangements, and I wrote about it here.
Of course, the 90s were innocent times. No one could foresee the creeping outbreak of a long war in which our guns, our planes, and even our sanctions would bring so much death to the Gulf.
That said, this mise-en-scène reads like friendly fire, a trigger happy over-reaction by a Spitfire ace. The destruction wrought in Strafed is out of time, out of place, out of hand.
You might ask: how could the neighbours have been so unlucky? And you might reflect: I could be next. After all, we are living through the ultimate SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fucked Up).
Strafed could be seen in Sunridge Avenue Projects, Luton, as one of 11 works on show in the parental home of artist Dominic from Luton. It runs until June 4, by appointment.