Johanna Billing – interview

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Take a Sad Song and Make it Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond These Walls – South London Gallery

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Beyond These Walls, South London Gallery, until September 20 2009

Beyond These Walls opened on July 24, three weeks after a fire killed six people in a neighbouring tower block. It was a grim coincidence: this is a show about the gallery’s local context, and the disaster has highlighted the contrast between the Sceaux Gardens Estate and the rarefied space next door for contemporary art.

Tue Greenfort has tackled the problem head on by turning the gallery round to face the estate and creating a new entrance in the former protective fence. The rear courtyard now welcomes residents with an elaborate community notice board, the hub for the gallery’s outreach programme. Part classroom wall, part climbing frame, this is another artistic intervention by a group called public works.

Esther Stocker has made a genuinely accessible installation, transforming the SLG’s education space into a walk-in Op Art sculpture. Foamboard is used to make dozens of rectangles and dashes, which run along all three axes of the 3D space. So the piece appears to stretch out beyond the gallery walls.

Those walls also come under pressure from Pieter Vermeersch who has painted the entirety of the main exhibition space. His mural shows two graded spectrums of colour, from red to black along one side and from green to white along the other. Depending which way you look, the whole building gets lighter or darker.

Meanwhile Leon Vranken has cut through the flooring to remove geometric shapes. It seems like an act of destructive mischief until you read, or perhaps work out, that the missing parts have been used to build a crude wooden chair and shelf on the other side of the hall. It’s an amusing gesture, but what the locals will make of it is unclear.

The seven international artists on display here do succeed in unpicking the physical structure of the gallery. But given recent events in the area, they leave questions about the venue’s social context unanswered.

Serpentine Pavilion 2009 by SANAA

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SANAA – 2009 Serpentine Pavilion, Hyde Park, London, until October 18 2009

The slim steel pillars of the 2009 Serpentine Pavilion don’t so much hold the structure up as keep it tied down. The roof looks weightless and amorphous. At one point it is anchored just a metre above ground; elsewhere it floats up to the sky as its mirrored surface shimmers through the trees like a breeze.

It is doubtless a hi-tech engineering feat, but one that foregrounds the natural elements of the surrounding park, welcoming in the lawns and reflecting both greenery and the sometimes blue sky. 

On hot summer days this would be an oasis of cool. On rainy days the space provides shelter and a way to remain outdoors and yet dry, which is just as well. There is hardly an interior. Partial glass screens enclose a coffee kiosk and a seating area, and in one place overlap with another see-through shield. The demarcation of space is vague and there are trees both inside and outside.

In places grass gives way to beds of white gravel, an unsurprising Japanese touch. Designers Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who lead the firm SANAA, compare their pavilion to smoke, drifting in and out of the trees, “expanding the park and sky.” Their spec includes colourful, minimal chairs resembling cartoon rabbit heads.

Other SANAA projects include the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and an annexe for the Louvre Museum in Lens, France, due to open in 2012. This is the ninth year in which leading architects have been invited to design a temporary pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery.

The annual commission has previously given London a first chance to see work by the world’s most exciting practitioners. Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Olafur Eliasson have all been involved before. In October, each building gets dismantled. This year there will be less to remove, and the shape of the gap it leaves in the city will be strange.

Our Band Could BBQ Your Life

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Not the New Grunge, then

Judging by his taste in alcohol, Dan Ormsby is a man who appreciates innovation yet can also laugh at the notion. While on stage with band 4 or 5 Magicians he breaks off mid-set to raise a bottle of his new favourite tipple and announce with cheerful irony: “It’s Magners Pear Cider. 100% pure pear.”

That said, the band launch into some old fashioned US pop rock. But if they sound like something from the 80s, that’s well intended because this is a high concept weekend which mixes the old with the happening now. Ormsby has picked 11 other UK bands to play alongside his on condition they take on one of the bands that features in Our Band Could Be Your Life, a classic book that chronicles the pre-grunge era. He’s added grilled snacks and called his weekend Our Band Could BBQ Your Life.

“It’s about 30 years since the SST label was formed and I guess I see alternative music coming in waves,” says the singer, guitarist and promoter. “We are getting a lot of 80s electro, I think maybe guitars are due a revival.” SST is the groundbreaking California record company who gave you Black Flag, Minutemen, Hűsker Dű, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, all bands represented here.

The Jelas, from Bristol, set the tone early on. They play three faithfully rendered tracks by Mission of Burma, and a handful of their own dadaesque jazz rock numbers. Singer Colin is passionate about the band he’s been chosen to cover: “They were pretty awesome,” he says and, 26 years after their break up, adds, “They’re definitely my favourite band.”

Elsewhere there is less reverence, but no less commitment. The Muscle Club play their own melodic punk for fifteen minutes before stripping to the waist for some classic tracks by heroes of hardcore Fugazi. Simon from Amy Blue wears an evil-looking mask and goes wild covering the Butthole Surfers. And Winnebago Deal perform no less than 20 Black Flag songs with such intensity it provokes nervous grinning all round.

Most sets include original material, but the lines blur between the sound of 2009 and that of a quarter century ago. Although it’s three taut three-piece bands who provide the most excitement. Not Cool (who take on Minutemen) play bass-driven punk with very strong vocals. Everyone To The Anderson (Big Black) are inventing prog hardcore. And The Xcerts (very modest as Hűsker Dű) play with a fury that will never go out of style.

Bands like this demonstrate that raw energy and abrasiveness still have a place in music, if not in the current mainstream. DJ Rachel from the Silver Rocket Club says: “People talk about a new grunge, but this type of music has never gone away.” She also warns: “The peril of making a scene is that the moment it becomes popular then the clock is ticking. Once you are in a scene you are counting down the hours until you become unfashionable.”

For the time being at least, this group of UK bands who share a love for a certain group of US bands are a safe distance from the beaten track. The Windmill in Brixton is a pub with a missing sign and it looks like a squatted community centre. But when Ormsby’s band take the chipboard stage to play a stunning cover of SludgeFeast by Dinosaur Jr, we could be in Amherst, Massachusetts, circa 1987.

Except for that bottle of pear cider. That’s definitely new.

Millie Burton – Home Improvements

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Home Improvements by Millie Burton, The Space, Hove, until September 25 2009

It’s not many galleries where you might turn up to find a business meeting in progress among the exhibits. But this very scene turns out not to be performance art. An exhibition really is taking place in a boardroom.

A second visit proves to be much more conducive to a viewing. The room is unoccupied. Six impressive framed photographs adorn the white walls and an executive sponsor is only too happy to set up the short accompanying film.

Home Improvements by Millie Burton is a show about junk. Her subjects include unhinged doors, disused TV sets and ripped out sink units. There’s nothing substantially wrong with any of the items. It’s just their owners were looking for something a little more in fashion.

Burton’s pictures were taken at a recycling centre. Her scenes appear to be chosen with an eye for formal beauty. The colours are muted, the lighting natural. Devoid of the gloss of showroom catalogue, the goods exude durability rather than desirability.

A small crowd of sink pedestals waits in vain to be reclaimed, but their candy colours mark them out as 80s rejects. The word champagne on a peeling sticker reminds you of a long forgotten house-warming bash. Like many of the shots here, this one is both matter-of-fact and wry.

More vacant images fade in and out of view on the five minute film. A slight breeze moves the surrounding trees but a chintzy pink lampshade and unwanted boot remain stubborn, static and conspicuous. They may well have come from one of Brighton’s many renovated homes.

To put such an anti-consumerist statement into a corporate setting is a bold move, but the show is reportedly liked by the business folk who use the building. Darren Connolly, from sponsors Mentor, says the photography “seems to work well in a business environment.” And the alternative, he added, was getting something in from Ikea.

Trouble Tune Tonic at the South Bank Centre

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Kier Vine/Charlie Dark/Gold Future Joy Machine/Dels/Speech Debelle/Sebastian Rochford and Leafcutter John

He doesn’t quite hammer nails through his piano, but shortly after beginning to play Kier Vine does get to his feet and walk away. His instrument carries on playing, thanks to the magic of electronica and the recital takes a turn for the weird. So does the whole evening.

Trouble Tune Tonic is a night of adventurous entertainment at the South Bank Centre. It’s free of charge and, in style terms, a bit of a free for all. Along with modern classical, the line up on Friday included spoken word, rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop, rap, jazz, electronica and video installations. But was it a tasty musical bouillabaisse or did more prove to be less?

The piano piece that kicks it off is called Equal Temperance. It too is a bit of a collage as all of the music was collected from 29 pianos which have been strategically left around the city. So the first musicians we hear are members of the public, who sound better than our Saturday night talent shows would lead you to expect. Vine and producer James Bulley have spent three weeks reworking the material so the result is both ghostly and hypnotic. Despite the empty stage, it leaves an early evening audience spellbound.

From classical with a twist we moved to poetry with a bassline. Now some would say that what with metaphor, meter, onomatopoeia, etc., the poet already has enough tricks up his sleeve. Why bother adding beats? Charlie Dark replied: “I think music just pushes it forward, in some ways, and engages more audiences. It’s an art form that hasn’t necessarily moved forward with other technological advances.” True, the lyre and lute are long forgotten, but what can music gain from poetry? “Maybe some substance in this day and age,” Dark said. “And something to think about while you’re dancing.”

Not many people dance, but he is indeed engaging. Dark spins atmospheric narratives about London life that take us from the comfort of the Queen Elizabeth Hall Front Room to the mean streets of Croydon and across town to the Notting Hill Carnival. It’s still quite a minimal performance: one man and a drum machine with a bit of echo and reverb. The special effects mix in well, like sonic spice.

By now we had a taste for the unusual. But the least usual thing about next act, Gold Future Joy Machine, was their name. “We heard you haven’t had a rock and roll band in this room for quite some time,” announces Johnny Kenton, frontman, “You’ve got one now.” There are seven on stage and they know how to tear things up. But perhaps good-time punk rock is a dish best served with plenty of booze and the bar was only doing steady trade. Given what we’d seen so far GFJM came across as a little bit trad.

The same could be said for Dels, an MC who rocks the mic at high volume and bounces his rhymes off the beat of a live drummer. There’s a largely seated audience who leave a polite chasm between themselves and the low stage, as if waiting for Jools Holland to direct his studio cameras at the next act. Dels doesn’t look to enjoy his set much and admits to having toothache. Perhaps he should have had the thing extracted live on stage to keep up the interest levels.

There’s more than a little interest in the next act, because Speech Debelle has just been nominated for the 2009 Barclaycard Mercury Prize, as it’s now called. The room fills out with likely Barclaycard owners and there’s a ripple of excitement as a small woman in an outsize t-shirt takes the stage with a three-piece acoustic jazz band. Speech is here to mix angry rap with a backing of cocktail-hour music and the unlikely combination works. The band hold back enough to showcase the lyrics and whether rapping about Facebook or the morning tube, this MC does so with drama, an added ingredient.

“The boundaries are definitely blurring between rap, spoken word and song,” she later said. “I’m an artist that uses my voice as an instrument and working with live musicians has opened new ways of understanding my instrument. You could call it neo rap.” At one point she brings saxophonist Soweto Kinch on stage and there’s a jazz/neo rap fusion in full effect. “Hip hop is a young music,” she explained. “So it has the ability to draw in other music and go in different directions.”

But there’s some music that even hip-hop can’t absorb. Sebastian Rochford and Leafcutter John perform some challenging electronica in nearby bar Concrete. It’s every bit as jagged and brutal as the prevailing architecture of the Hayward Gallery venue and the surrounding arts complex. If tonight has so far been a fairly palatable melange, this seems designed to stick in your throat. Indeed the piece is called Nails, which brings to mind all over again the thought of Fluxus Piece 13, in which George Maciunas did hammer nails into a keyboard.

Nothing that sensational happens, but Trouble Tune Tonic does almost boil over. The venue is a dark, industrial shoebox. The alcohol is suddenly flowing. The late night set by Soweto Kinch is some 40 minutes late. Sweat drips from the ceiling. A crowd blocks out the visuals up on screen. Shouted conversations drown out the music. It’s no time or place for art, you think. Bring back the loud and dirty rock ‘n’ roll.

Zachary Walsh – Greek Street

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Zachary Walsh – Greek Street, Ink_d Gallery, Brighton, until August 23 2009

Zeus has you fixed with a hard stare. It’s a surprise to meet him in the flesh like this and he looks avuncular, somewhat amused, yet quizzical. It’s definitely him because stretching out behind are eagle wings and to his side is an old-fashioned dial telephone marked with the word God.

The father of Olympus could look alive and well for two reasons. First, he’s painted in a contemporary style with a bold graphic background. Second, the sitter really is alive; the subject is also father of the partner of artist Zachary Walsh.
A picture of a painting of a woman in a white gown with a telephone in front of a cross

His wife, naturally, is painted as Hera. She too looks very much like someone you could meet in the street tomorrow. Walsh gives us a sense of her (slightly world-weary) personality, so that her realism comes as a shock. It’s not what we expect from our gods.

In fact all the models for this show are friends or relatives of the artist. It first took two to three hours to photograph each before working out their immortal counterpart. Needless to say the results are flattering. They also breathe new life into Greek myth.

Hades is cast as perhaps a louche, aging rock star. Persephone is a woman just past her prime. Hades and the Abduction of Persephone, as painted here, looks tender, touching and and entirely consensual.

Most of the settings in this show are flat plains of colour. Walsh also uses photographs to build on his interpretations. Hades is flanked with dinosaur skulls. Orpheus poses with a double bass. Of all the birds sacred to Aphrodite, she is here shown with the swan.

Walsh says his interest in Greek myth comes from the way each story offers psychological clues about every living human. “Even after millennia this insight is ever relevant, but really I just love the magic,” he adds.

The magic continues upstairs with some eleven pictures of Cyclops along with Medusa, a sparrow-like siren and Argus, the giant with a hundred eyes. These monster paintings are smaller, uglier and appear not to be portraits of friends and relatives. But if only they were.

Gilbert and George at White Cube

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Jack Freak Pictures, Gilbert and George, White Cube, London, until August 22 2009

Two years ago Gilbert and George were accorded the ultimate mark of respect from the art establishment in Britain. The highlights from their lifetime’s work were put on display in the most extensive retrospective show ever to be staged at Tate Modern.

You might expect to find the pair sipping champagne and scanning the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, but instead their response has been to make their largest and possibly most subversive series of pictures to date.

So in new work Prize the two artists have their tongues out. There are shields and crests painfully stuck on their flesh. Another piece called Bleeding Medals shows them festooned with Union Jacks surrounded by sporting medals for the most piffling of achievements.

The national flag features heavily in the show, often violently treated with image manipulation software. No less violent is the way that technology has been used to twist and fracture the self-portraits for which Gilbert and George have become famous.

At times they smash two icons with one stone. In Jackanapes they morph themselves into red, white and blue cartoon shapes with monochrome nipples. Nettle Dance has the flag emblazoned across their trademark suits. The pair hop around in front of a nettle bush, clearly stung by something.

Elsewhere they attack the religious aspects of patriotism. Christian England features a crucifixion in which Christ sports a Union Jack loincloth and halo. In Stuff Religion the two raise their limbs like puppets. It’s as if they’ve been pressed into the service of church and state.

Meanwhile Gilbert and George continue to make work that shares many features with ecclesiastical stained glass. Bright colours predominate. Each new work has been printed on a series of panels framed with dark metal “leading”. Digital trickery has allowed them make kaleidoscopic rose windows out of pieces such as Homey and Sap.

Other diverse themes are worked into the exhibition, including sexuality, Islam and London’s East End. But despite spanning two venues on opposite sides of the city it all hangs together very nicely – in fact few shows will offer the viewer such a coherent political statement as the Jack Freak Pictures.

Fabric of War at Phoenix

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Fabric of War, Phoenix Gallery, Brighton, until August 16 2009

Ex-serviceman Mike Blake has ripped up several US flags, shredded a handful of dollar bills and even gone so far as to cut up and pulp his military uniform. The reconstituted garments now form the canvas for his anti-war picture Vortex. Green flecks of currency swirl amidst tattered stars and stripes in an explosion of outrage at the role he was made to play in Iraq.

Blake is a member of the Combat Paper Project, an American organisation which helps war veterans come to terms with their experiences by making art from their uniforms. Camo gear is cooked and macerated to make sheets of paper which are used for artworks, journals and papier-mâché.

Judging by the works on display at the Phoenix, this is a process filled with catharsis. Eli Wright has made a piece called Broken Soldiers in which sheets of grey paper are stitched together like the edges of a wound. Across them is printed a declaration to destroy the symbols of war and “make them beautiful.”

Another example is Ecology, where Drew Cameron has blended soft grey army issue cloth with the remnants of his country’s flag. The result could be a peaceful landscape, a battlefield reclaimed by nature. Or more likely it is abstract, like Cameron’s Flak Jackets, in which the uniform dissolves, losing meaning.

Many of the soldiers-turned-artists suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. An entry in a recycled journal  vows over and over again that the author, a man called Robyn, will never use a gun again. In just six lines it brings home the horror of armed conflict and something of the redemptive nature of the Project’s work.

Also on display are works from the Monument series by Marshall Weber. These are colourful rubbings and collages taken from war memorials all around the world. Much like the uniforms, these sombre engravings have here been chopped up and reconfigured. The effect is of a confusion, an inability to make sense of war.

It’s a show that as many people as possible should see.

The Scottish Colourists at Pallant House

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The Scottish Colourists – Paintings from the Fleming Collection, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until November 1 2009

Between 1909 and 1912, Edinburgh was closer to Paris than London. The French capital was awash with new artistic ideas and two Scottish painters were already making a name for themselves as Fauvists.

Samuel Peploe and John Fergusson were among the first British artists to get to grips with the radical new trends in painting which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, sharing their place at the cutting edge with compatriots Francis Cadell and George Hunter.

The Scottish Colourists were never a movement, and their work shows a wide range of styles and influences. What brought them together was a passion for travel and paint. It’s through their efforts that modern art first reached our shores.

As a result, much of this show is experimental. In Jonquils and Silver by Fergusson, light dances as if from  the brush of Manet. His Jean Maconochie is a dark, bold portrait with echoes of Frans Hals.

Cadell, inspired by a trip to Venice, produced highly limpid brushwork in Carnations, but later in his career we find him painting The White Villa, Cassis, with Cézanne-like solidity.

Peploe even declares his own “white period.” Lady in a White Dress is an impressionistic study of a very natural-looking Edinburgh model called Peggy Macrae. Yet within five years he is using bright greens, yellows, reds and blues to paint Luxembourg Gardens, taking on the palette of the Fauves.

It is Peploe who first appears to hit upon a style of his own. Vase of Pink Roses and Roses are two similar works from 1925. Strong colours are still in evidence, but they’ve been flattened, and a new interest in geometry would seem to dictate the composition.

After soaking up the sun in rural France, it must have been a wrench to bring their easels back to Scotland. Yet all four of the Colourists did so, and the resulting landscapes are perhaps their most impressive works.

In Ceres, Fife (Fifeshire Village) by Hunter it could rain at any moment. Yet the rooftops are bathed in a warm orange glow. This, one feels, is a Highland scene from a Southern point of view, and all the more interesting for it.