THIS IS A VOICE: WELLCOME COLLECTION LONDON 14 APRIL - 31 JULY 2016
ZOO NO.49 INTERVIEW KOHEI NAWA
Alinka Echeverría: South Searching was at the Gazelli Art House, London, 22 May-27 June 2015 & the Johannesburg Art Gallery, 9 August – 26 October 2015
Alinka Echeverria: ‘As soon as you lift up the camera, you make the other person vulnerable’
The photographer talks about her work looking at political and religious beliefs, including a visit to South Sudan following its independence and meeting Nelson Mandela’s prison warder from Robben Island
by KATE TIERNAN
Alinka Echeverría, who was born in 1981 in Mexico City, is a Mexican-British artist working primarily in photography and video. In 2012, she was named International Photographer of the Year by the Lucie Awards, and in 2011, she won the HSBC Prize for Photography. She has also been selected as the 2015 BMW Photographer in Residence at the Nicéphore Niépce Museum in France. Her work has been widely exhibited at international venues, including the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Moscow Photo Biennale.
Her recent exhibition at the Gazelli Art House in London, Alinka Echeverría: South Searching, included four bodies of work seen together for the first time. They were: her most recent project, M-Theory, an interpretation of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid; Becoming South Sudan, portraits of people taken in 2011 as their nation finally became independent; The Road to Tepeyac, which captures pilgrims in Mexico City; and Deep Blindness, which explores the connection between seeing and knowing.
Kate Tiernan: What has your journey been in making this body of work for the exhibition at Gazelli Art House, and what discipline did you begin with?
Alinka Echeverría: I studied social anthropology [she did an MA at Edinburgh University] and my interest was in social development, so, after university, I went to Uganda and Malawi for a year to work on several projects for HIV prevention. It was an amazing experience but, at the same time, one of the hardest times of my life. The ethics of what we were doing were questionable: we were going to places and then moving away again.
I don’t photograph randomly. I decide on the aspect I would like to engage in of the place I am working in, and keep to those boundaries. Almost always, there’s a gatekeeper I have to get past. In general, I work with very tight, specific parameters with limited access. I was commissioned by World Press Photo in 2010 to work on the theme of respect over the summer of 2011. I chose to work on the independence of South Sudan [In 2011, it gained independence from Sudan after a peace deal in 2005 ended Africa’s longest-running civil war]. In Mexico, we are hugely romantic about independence and revolution; for us as a nation, it is still a very formative time. The Cuban revolution and my time in Africa also feed into the mythologies around glorious revolutions and how they form nationhood. It’s a constructed nostalgia and visual history. There was a domino effect in the 1960s when a large number of African nations became independent, and it is so recent – people have photographs, rather like wedding photographs. I have been very inspired by those, and thought I would witness a similar euphoria.
A referendum took place in South Sudan in January 2011, with nearly 99% of the population voting for separation from the north. When I got there, I thought the country would be euphoric and full of celebration, but, in fact, there was a lot of uncertainty about what awaited them. One of the conditions for UN support was that the country be demilitarised. People had to transition from being guerrilla soldiers to police officers or students or prison officers. I realised that euphoria is an invented memory, a picture-perfect idea that doesn’t really exist when you’re coming out of a war. A transition is still so painful and uncertain.
I met many people, and their attitude was: “You can photograph me, but I’m in control.” I hate exploitative work so, for me, it was really nice to have the balance reversed and make it a collaborative exercise and gaze. It was hard to access the places I wanted to, so I had to really want to be there. As I had arrived before Independence Day, I was able to photograph the rehearsals for the parade, to be on the street and get really close. The project, Becoming South Sudan, is divided into three chapters, the first of which consists of seven portraits, mainly of people who work in these institutions, such as the chief prison officer of Juba women’s prison. The tableau series (photographs from inside a church in South Sudan) are daily scenes of life in the transition of the country as I saw it. Religion is a big divider, with the northern area of Sudan mainly Muslim; but in Juba there are many Catholic and Christian Pentecostal churches.
KT: The relationship between belief and knowledge seems to be heightened by the obstacles you talk about in reaching these people.
AE: I’m interested in cultural constructions of belief and religion, and, specifically, the image. When you see an image, it’s just stimuli to your visual cortex, and then it’s translated and understood. This is directly dependent on what you’ve seen before and what you know from other stimuli. How things have been put together and the codes you receive – even the micro gestures – are cultural constructions. The way we have evolved as a visual species is strong and powerful. The eye is constantly searching for stimuli. As a consequence, the mechanism by which we filter out things is so refined that we turn a blind eye to many things, refusing to try to interpret things differently. It happens a lot in contemporary art, and life in general.
I’m interested in the connection between image and belief – not specifically iconography, but how we see, and the codes behind our understanding of things. If you think of visual stimuli as codes, we can also relate this idea to language, sound, braille, sign language, etc. I think my relationship at the moment to text and sound is that which you can’t understand; I render it meaningless with no translation. For example [in Ixiptla, a sculpture describing the apparition of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, part of her project Deep Blindness], I photograph braille, then flatten and render it to remove its tactile function. The sound work is a piece in the indigenous, Mexican language of Nahuatl, intentionally untranslated so that it is rendered meaningless, questioning the idea of transcultural communication and longevity of oral traditions.
KT: It strikes me that, in a lot of your work, there are themes of separation, division or freedom, or a coming together or being pulled apart. How did you choose to depict particular struggles or political moments?
AE: That’s super-perceptive of you, as I think that is something that’s very relevant to me personally, although I never think my biography is in my work. I definitely feel I was separated from the community I belonged to. As a child, I lived in Mexico and we had a huge extended family, with many cousins of all ages to whom we were very close. Then, when I was five, I was suddenly brought to Lancaster in northern England, so my dad could do a PhD. It was cold and grey and really traumatic. We started to speak English very quickly, but it took us a long time to adapt. The only non-white people in town were the Pakistani community. As a five-year-old, I was working out all these cliques: the boys play football and hate girls, the girls are super-girlie, and the Pakistani boys don’t want to talk to me, or any other girls. It was like building myself up again while being acutely aware of these codes. However, school was a very safe place for me as I loved learning.
In the case of South Africa, I was interested in delving beyond the official history. I met many of the men who were behind the anti-Apartheid movement. Nelson Mandela is included in my project M-Theory, but I was interested, too, in the people who weren’t well known. Mandela became such a massive icon, and leader of the African National Congress, that he emerged as the image of the anti-apartheid struggle, whereas those underneath didn’t. I’m interested in the lesser-known stories that maybe aren’t in the official histories. How things are represented and then remembered is what interests me.
KT: M-Theory is a little like anti-documentary, in that you’re not seeking the main story or image, but what’s behind it.
AE: That’s a good word, I love it. Does “anti” make it sound as if I’m against documentary, though?
KT: Maybe post-documentary? We could create a new word.
AE: Yes, I like it.
KT: The fingerprint works – which include that of Mandela and other prominent figures in the anti-apartheid struggle – seem like aerial shots of landscapes, and the show is a geography of these different movements, lives and beliefs. For you, what is the relationship between scale and identity, and where did the fingerprint works stem from?
AE: Every project and work is different in style, with its own unique creative process, but a consistent line of enquiry with previous works – one is born from the other. The story with South Africa is that I went to photograph Mandela’s funeral on impulse, but also because it was very close to my heart and mind for professional and personal reasons. I flew to South Africa as soon as I heard the news. At the funeral of Madiba [the affectionate name for Mandela], I met Christo Brand, his warder at Robben Island, and later visited the prison. It’s an amazing place to photograph, with horrible, oppressive architecture. Christo took me through it and told me about things the warders would do. They used to take the letters that arrived from prisoners’ loved ones and scalpel out all the words of endearment, or anything that would provoke an emotional response. They just did it as a matter of fact – they didn’t feel any shame about doing it. Then the prisoners would be given this thing full of blanks. That made a huge impression on me. After I saw this, I knew I wanted to make a work about absence, with presence.
I knew I wanted to meet the men who had been prisoners with Madiba, but I didn’t want to do straightforward portraits. As I was looking through the archives, I saw fingerprints on prison ID cards that looked like mountain topographies. I was taken aback and thought that they were a beautiful metaphor for the journey of these men – the incredible element of destiny on their story. Our “print” is in ourselves: it’s right there and we never see it. The subtitle for M-Theory is Topographies of Resistance, on balance I felt it was too prescriptive. I like that some people see maps, space, the galaxies, or a labyrinth. The personal is always a mirror for someone else, so it is a very personal project for the viewer as well as the participants.
Through a process of access to various foundations and individuals, I met many of the men who had been in section B of Robben Island (the highest security section of the highest security prison reserved for the intellectuals of struggle) in their homes, apart from the deputy chief justice of South Africa, Dikgang Moseneke [who was imprisoned in Robben Island at the same time as Mandela], whom I met in the constitutional court.
KT: How do you engage with the gaze in taking your photographs and directing?
AE: Nothing is directed. Humans respond to body gestures, so if I look at someone straight on, they will tend to mirror that. I would guess that no one in the South Sudan series has ever been photographed before. It was a really tough trip, during a particularly difficult time. I met some nuns who took me into their convent and I went with them to church on the Sunday. I breathed out here, so the photographs are more relaxed. In the rest of Juba, everything was really tense: to get into anywhere, you had to pass armed guards. The question of intimacy is quite interesting and I try to create that. I really like the confrontational portraits; as soon as you lift up the camera, you make the other person vulnerable.
The temporality of images is really interesting too – what the works mean now and how that will change in 20 years is something we cannot imagine. I often feel that my work will resonate in the future more than it does now. And that gives me a sense of purpose in a temporal and ephemeral medium.
What Do I Need to do to Make It OK?
Curator Liz Cooper discusses this exhibition at London’s Pumphouse Gallery, which investigates repair through the language of thread and textiles and explores the frustrations and liberations of contemporary artists challenging the conventions of craft
‘Illnesses, diseases [and] viruses damage us. We cut ourselves and then there is a sense of repair, but we don’t always repair in the same way’ – Liz Cooper
What Do I Need to Do to Make It OK?, now at the Pump House Gallery in Battersea Park, London, is a touring exhibition involving five artists, Dorothy Caldwell, Saidhbhín Gibson, Celia Pym, Freddie Robbins and Karina Thompson, each of whom brings their own approach to an investigation into damage and repair, disease and medicine, and the healing and restoration of landscapes, bodies, minds and objects through stitch and other media.
Liz Cooper is a contemporary craft curator and project manager with a background in art textiles and a strong grounding in contemporary visual arts. Her practice centres on the valuing and placement of craft practice within a wider visual arts context; and building audiences for this through work with a wide range of venues and organisations, not all of which are art-specific.
The exhibition is supported by Arts Council England and the International Textile Research Centre of the University for the Creative Arts.
Interview by KATE TIERNAN
Filmed MARTIN KENNEDY
ALAN CRISTEA GALLERY
5 JUNE TO 18 JULY
Julian Opie: ‘I’ve always used movement as much as colour or imagery’
The artist talks about his current exhibition at the Alan Cristea Gallery, playing with the way we interact, see and deal emotionally with the world through vision, light and the brain – and making rude drawings of his tutors as a student
Julian Opie was born in 1958. He graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London in 1982, where he studied under Michael Craig-Martin, later working for him for a brief period. A sculptor, painter, printmaker and installation artist, Opie is now one of the UK’s best-known contemporary artists, exhibiting nationally and internationally. His current show, Julian Opie: Editions 2012-2015,is his seventhat the Alan Cristea Gallery.
Kate Tiernan: Previously, you have extended some of your works beyond the framed surface and on to the wall. Here though, we have a room of wall-mounted works.
Julian Opie: Ever since my big show at Hayward gallery in 1993, I’ve been grappling with how to work with such large spaces, and with ways to use the wall. I don’t like projecting my work on to it, as the result always seems very flimsy and thin. Instead, I use vinyl or paint, or – as here – computer-cut metal. The works in this room are as close as you can get to wall drawings that are editions. You’ll see throughout the show a project of black-and-white works of boats, sheep, fish, and so on. We’re [his studio] working on seagulls at the moment, but these were picked out as they work with me and for me. Most of the images come from Cornwall, as I spend a lot of time there, but if I came from somewhere else, they would be from there. The smaller fish are from the Ardèche river in France and the carp are from the pond in the Barbican. The boats themselves, in a way, are unimportant – it is what they do in forcing the wall into being a surface of water that matters. The sheep force it into being the surface of a hill and then the pebbles force it into being a beach.
KT: Can you talk a bit about the lenticular series?
JO: The project started from the point of view of movement, as my wife and I walked through a pine forest and I took a film of the trees. I love the way that it’s a very simple thing, but the trees furthest away from you move more slowly than the ones closer to you. It’s delightful, but it makes you very aware of your own position in the forest: it’s how you locate yourself through the difference of movement. Lenticular lenses came about in the 19th century as a system of creating the illusion of movement. You are used to seeing movement and your body says, “Yes, I’m moving through a forest” when, of course, you’re not. Using lenticular gives you 15 frames – the speed depends on how fast you yourself move – which is not a lot, but enough.
KT: The works you have made that are in the public realm are often seen from a moving bus or while walking down the street. A gallery is quite a different environment, perhaps a more static experience?
JO: I’ve always used movement as much as colour or imagery, or the way that things are made: whether you depict movement or suggest it, it seems to me to be essential, and I can often use real movement. You’ll notice in the gallery that most people wander, and lenticular is great for playing that back to the viewer.
KT: How important are optics and visual perception of the work, and would you describe them as playing with ideas of retinal art?
JO: The driving force and motivation in all this work is to investigate, and play with, the way in which we interact, understand, see, navigate and deal emotionally with the world through vision, light and the brain. It’s a question of what they do. Retinal discussion is not the most amusing on the face of it, but in the same way that the words of a song take you through the music, the subject matter of an artwork takes you through the process of looking at it.Having looked at the work, figured it out, processed it and, I hope, enjoyed it, then you’ve done what I think is necessary for me to play around with how you think about yourself in relation to the work and your body in the world.
KT: Do you think there is something different about the way we look in the city and the way we look in the country, in terms of survival?
JO: When you’re in the countryside, it’s not like there are any lions or tigers or dangers out there for us, and, in Europe, you are unlikely to get lost for some time. If anything, you’re in much more danger in the city: you are using your ability to look when you’re crossing a road in a very interesting way, you are judging speeds and distances in order to survive.
What I think is the case in a post-industrial world in the countryside, is that you are able to relax, take in your surroundings and be bored. I often find that it’s when I’m driving, or on a train, or going for a country walk and not doing anything that I’m able to experience what happens to your brain and your eye as you hear the wave and watch the shadow move up and down the beach. Those are the things you don’t normally have time to register and think about when you are crossing the road or at work. I can transfer all of that to Old Street [in east London], where my studio is, and imagine that the people are wildebeest and the traffic islands are actually islands with palm trees on. For some time, I have used the “idyll” of the countryside, not a farmer’s view – I’m looking at the sheep as abstract forms on a green background.
KT: You give this invitation to come in off the streets and look at the familiar in a different way through your work. In particular, there are themes from art historyjuxtaposed with new technologies and a more contemporary visual language.
JO: I’m playing about with the traditions of the picture postcard view of the countryside: I’m fully aware of it in these works and in the rather lovely St Ives School of painting I grew up with. What I tend to do, for example, is to counteract the pleasure, mobility and naturalism of a real horse with a betting shop sign. I have built the work using the technology of shop signs in laser-cut acrylic, which is very shiny and, in a certain sense, off putting – if you are in that mode of thinking of the countryside as natural and beautiful. In balancing those two things, it allows people to discuss what could be cloying if one was to do that in pencil on very rough, handmade paper. You can’t have one without the other: you’re on the beach and there are plastic bottles everywhere; you know about the ocean levels rising, but it’s nature and it’s all we’ve got.
KT: In the exhibition, we see works presented as a series. Can you talk about why you work in this way?
JO: I think about it quite a lot. How does one navigate an area where you don’t even know what to make next, or what you want to make, or what it would make sense to make? I suppose what I tend to do is plunge in – and that’s always been my ethos – when something occurs to me, or comes up out of observation of the world or a natural logic of what I’m making. So if I’m drawing people walking, then I think about children walking in a particular way and then I think – well, what about babies? Just a set of logical steps, no reason to do it, but I think, why not? And having done the baby, it becomes a project and my life for a bit.
In relation to the horses, what I really wanted to do was make a public statue of a galloping horse because, as public statues, they are classic. So I set about a long process of finding and filming horses and, having done it, I ended up with a lot of material. I make unique works, painted images and films, but there is something about editions that allows for a different way of working, and I’ve grown to really love it. Something like the lenticulars take a lot of setting up technically and to do all of that and just make one seems off. The small figurines in the Walking in the City series are based somewhat on Greek Tanagras, elegant but very small pottery figurines that were made in their hundreds ascasts, which people used to leave in temples in the Ancient Greek world.
KT: You talk about experimentation and the on going process of merging commissioned works and new works. How do you navigate that?
JO: There is a constant circling and I have a slight tendency to reject things after about six months: I want to get away from them – either they are too colourful, too abstract, too complicated ortoo simple, too black and white, too figurative. At the moment, I’m reinjecting colour. Last year’s work was largely black and white, and at the moment, I’m doing coloured landscapes, and fairly brightly coloured works of people jogging that you’ll see in the next show I do.
I feel that, generally, it’s an additive process. I remember starting when I was in my 20s, during the 80s, and it felt very single-tracked. Every few weeks, the whole thing would collapse and I’d need to go and see double-bill movies and I’d feel really low. I’d have these collapses and rebuilds and it was quite emotional and difficult, whereas now I feel at ease with working on many tracks, sometimes five, six or seven, and I really enjoy that process. I think there is a tendency in the art world to think that artists make work and it goes into a museum, as if that’s the optimum. Slightly secondary might be that artists make work and it goes into a really great gallery that looks similar to a museum but actually isn’t one, and so on. Actually, there are lots of things you can do, from just scribbling things in public lavatories to making big works to making CD covers, T-shirts, vases, mugs, invitation cards or posters. At any one time, I have a number of these options.
KT: Can you talk about the series of figures Walking in London?
JO: I’d been filming people walking for some time in my studio, but I was in my car, waiting for one of my children to come out of school, and looking at the people passing back and forth, and thinking: “They’re actually better than my people.” Partly, it is the sense of capturing something real; if I have someone in my studio and tell them what to do, it’s technically very good and I can get the lighting right, but in the street, everything about them is real and purposeful and that rings true in the drawing.
This set was a large project of two or three years, where I began filming people on the streets. These are random faces – at the studio, we call them “wild walkers”, as opposed to the tame walkers filmed in the studio.
KT: These editions seem like a truthful translation of your work.
JO: I hope so. As long as it’s open and it’s what you actually wanted, it can be just as interesting. I’ve set up a web shop where it’s possible to go all the way in that direction and have un-editioned multiples. It often seems to me that if you can only make one work out of an idea, then you are doing something wrong. Anything that sets up a work, should work a number of times.
Some of the work is inspired by Roy Lichtenstein’s giant wood-block prints. By taking prints up to a certain scale, it breaks through the expectation of what a print is and can be. Maybe it’s a bit of an English kitchen sink thing, but I do think if you can find something that resonates or feels as if it touches something normal, something that you’ve really felt, perhaps it has more strength than when you find it in something extraordinary. I’ve been watching Peter Kay’s [TV show] Car Share and, in a very quiet, subtle way, it takes you through the most suburban and uninteresting areas of England, but it makes such a brilliant touching opera of life.
I’ve also been hand-painting quite a few things recently – such as the Tourist series – and it’s allowed me to get away from silk-screen colours, to use more vibrant colours and to give the work a very slight suggestion of activity. I like to think the way in which everything is made, and even framed, is purposeful and part of the meaning of the work.
KT: What, for you, is the difference between the anonymity of not knowing who the people in your work are as opposed to using more iconic figures, characters or moments?
JO: I’ve never actually set out to capture anyone iconic. I did once ask Alison Goldfrapp if I could draw her, and she said no. That was the only person. Generally, I take what comes at me, like the old-fashioned sense of a girl at a disco, who just sits and waits until someone comes and asks her to dance. I don’t go out and look for public projects or museum shows, I just get on with my projects and people come to me.
For a series like the lenticulars, based on people filmed walking in London, we work with these images for up to a year in the studio and if they don’t have a title it becomes very confusing, so I called them the Musician, Waitress, Detective, Architect. I just picked the titles randomly.
KT: How would you describe the quality of London’s picture postcard light?
JO: To me, it would seem rather erudite to seek out what I wanted. I think I feel more passive. Whatever comes, it’s a question of what can I make of that. I’m working on a project at the moment that’s about driving on the motorway at night where there’s not a lot of light. They are all sodium motorway lights or car lights coming at you: it’s a question of what can you do with that, that you can’t do with the glistening gorgeous light of the south of France. Setting out to have great light seems antiquated for me: the world’s not something that you can pick and choose and get very eruditely epicurean about – that doesn’t seem appropriate any more, but it’s more a case of dealing with what we’ve got and what we’ve been left with. If that is plastic bottles on the beach, then my way of managing that might be pictures of pebbles, but the works aremade of plastic – in that way it’s possible to somehow discuss what the reality actually is.
KT: Your work is often saying a very particular thing, yet with the space to delve behind the surface and question who the characters are and what their journey is.
JO: I’ve always enjoyed an element of teasing. When I was at Goldsmiths, I used to make artworks that were just pen drawings and stick them up around the college because I really wanted to exhibit and for people to react to the work. Often, they were a bit rude or a bit insulting to some of the tutors, though not in a mean way. I’d draw Richard Wentworth’s glasses and put “Richard Bloody Wentworth”. I knew he would be all right with that and it was a shared thing among the students: we all knew how great Richard Wentworth was as a tutor, yet he was so British with his glasses. I think I was extending that sense of interacting and expecting them to be looked at. It’s about offering some things, but at the same time refusing some things; being ugly as well as being attractive.
• Julian Opie: Editions 2012-2015 is at the Alan Cristea Gallery in London from 5 June – 18 July 2015.
LYNETTE YIADOM - BOAKYE: VERSES AFTER DUSK
2 Jun to 13 Sep
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: ‘Maybe I’m not as interested in people as I thought I was’
The artist, whose latest exhibition, Verses After Dusk, is on at the Serpentine Gallery, London, talks about how she makes her paintings timeless and placeless, and her interest in the nature of painting itself and what that does to the subject of her work
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who was born in London in 1977, studied at the Royal Academy Schools, London, Falmouth College of Art, Cornwall, and Central St Martins, London. She is a figurative painter who works in oils. She has had solo exhibitions at the Chisenhale Gallery, London (2012), and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2011). Her work has featured extensively in group exhibitions, including MIRRORCITY at the Hayward Gallery, London in 2014. She was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2013. She talked to Studio International from her studio in east London.
Kate Tiernan: When did you first become fascinated by people and the observation of human nature, and did the fact that your parents were both nurses have an influence on that?
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Maybe I’m not as interested in people as I thought I was. I used to spend a lot of time staring, but I don’t think it was an interest in people so much as the stories that might be around them. I don’t consider the paintings portraits, particularly. I wasn’t really about depicting real people, but one thing I do remember was looking at people and trying to work out what their story might be, or where they were going, what they did. I don’t think I can blame my parents. What they did was quite a different interest in people.
KT: Going around the show at The Serpentine, I found myself thinking of Peter Doig, Chris Ofili and Per Kirkeby, not because of the figures, but because of the depiction of space and painterly quality. When you are making the works, do you have any sense of place and the figures’ relationship to where they are?
LY-B: In the landscapes?
KT: Yes, and the interiors that have a generic sense about them and a suggestion of interior spaces, depending on what the figures are doing. I wondered how important place was, and which came first in the process of doing them?
LY-B: I didn’t want to suggest too much about the time. Any type of furniture is suggestive of something. If, for example, it’s a Louis XV chair, or something that was very much of the 1960s or 70s, or set in a particular time, that would be a problem. So the interiors tend to be this blank, dark background, which suggests something interior but is not really specific. There is one in the show of a man walking through a doorway, but it could be anywhere. Or there is a series with a cream background that meant the figure had to shift. It’s a lot about how the painting has been constructed: there is a very particular way to build up the dark background that affects what the figure is and how it sits or stands. The cream background feels as if the figures are encased, and sometimes there is a bowl of flowers or a bunch of flowers sitting within that as well. So there are all these specific things to do with that type of interior space that aren’t really describing anything, and with a particular kind of light that could be anywhere and isn’t really suggesting anything. Then there are ones that are quite clearly a landscape, or an expanse of outdoor space. Again, the landscape is timeless, without buildings in it, a bucolic rural scene, the green of a field, or a forest or a seascape even, and nothing in it suggests a particular time in history.
KT: What kind of outdoor space do you feel most informed by?
LY-B: There’s something quite general about them. Maybe they are all quite English somehow. The greenery is English. Some people have said they look quite American, and maybe there is a touch of that, but it’s more likely just what I’ve seen of an English landscape – they could be anywhere.
KT: What’s your process for painting? How do you begin?
LY-B: I work from scrapbooks, photographic sources, drawings and other works – just bits and pieces. A lot of it involves improvising what’s there. On the canvas, it always changes, and it wouldn’t work to map it out.
KT: How do you arrive at the titles? Do they come before the painting or out of it?
LY-B: It’s like a parallel thing, so sometimes it is after the work is done, occasionally it’s before, but it’s never direct. For me, the titles are an extension of the work not an explanation of it.
KT: In the show there are some clear visual dialogues between works. How involved were you in the curation of the show?
LY-B: I was really involved. Amira Gad [exhibitions curator at the Serpentine] and I hung the show together. We worked out what we wanted in it beforehand because we had to borrow the work. We did it with a model, but, of course, that all changed as soon as the work arrived. There were certain things that stayed the same; the first thing you see as you walk in the back room pretty much stayed the same. What was really enjoyable was that we had all these options and possibilities. There were definite relationships between the works that I had thought about beforehand, but, until it’s all there, it’s quite hard to describe that to someone. We did have to think about every sightline within the space – when you’re looking at one thing, what you’re seeing out the corner of your eye, or if you are standing in the doorway, the view through that doorway was important. Amira knows that space and had great ideas about how to make that happen. It is how I work generally in groupings or series. With this it was all unknown, but it was possible to make relationships between things that had either been made at the same time or followed a similar pattern or body of work.
KT: How was the shift in gear for you when you moved to the recent etchings, which I imagine demand a very different pace of work?
LY-B: It’s good and completely different. It is such a massive shift in gear – it’s that thing of having to go back and edit. You etch the plate one time, then you print it and see that it’s all wrong, so you take it away again and have to go through the whole process of putting the wax back on and preparing it so you can work on it and then etch it again, and the whole thing starts again. It’s slower but I got round that by working in a series. Some were discarded, but it was about producing several of something and editing some out. I managed to speed it up in my own way, though it was still a much slower process, and I like that. There’s something so satisfying about the pace and the process itself, which is very rewarding. I love the mark, it’s so fine; I was working on copper this time. It’s more delicate, and you have to be a lot more careful handling it, which isn’t very good for me!
KT: How important is the history of painting in your work?
LY-B: Part of my training and the training I imposed on myself was to do with the European tradition, but then, branching off from that, it became something else. As I started to think of the works less and less as portraits, other questions started to come up and other things started to interest me more about the actual nature of the painting itself and what that did to the subject rather than what the subject did to the painting.
KT: Could you tell me a little bit about the work 4am Friday?
LY-B: It is part of a series of men in striped tops, all with the same background, and they are always looking forward with the exception of one. Another one was on view in Encounters and Collisions, Glenn Ligon’s show at Nottingham Contemporary. The title for each of the men was always the time and day of the week, and it was something I used to return to at the beginning of every work. This one came towards the end of producing new work for this show, and this time he is seated. I’ve spoken quite a lot about these in the past, as they recur, and it was something to do with reminding myself of something that seemed to be the essence of everything that I did. For some reason, it was embodied in him and the other guys wearing striped tops.
KT: Do you know when you’re working whether you want to make the figure looking away from you or at you?
LY-B: That’s one of the first things I think about when I’m starting something. It is handled so differently one way or the other. It brings a different energy to what the hands are doing: the background and the overall pose is really important. The man’s face in 4am Friday took a while. Setting the eyes in the right position took time to fix. I wanted his eyes to do something particular and I wasn’t happy with the first incarnation of him. The area around his head darkened and there was something about having the shape of his head very clearly defined that changed the whole feel of the painting, that he somehow lost control.
KT: I was struck by the incredible depth of colour in the plumage of Verses After Dusk.
LY-B: It was something about taking it away from the real. Sometimes my own sense of fantasy takes over and I love that freedom that means they can be anything and become anyone. That was one of the first birds to be in colour. All of the birds in the other paintings that belong to that series have worn plumage, but it has been black.
KT: What kind of fiction do you read?
LY-B: I read anything, but recently I finished Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and I am halfway through her second novel, The Little Friend, which is wonderful. I love southern gothic and this is a very contemporary version, but authors such as Flannery O’Connor don’t get much darker than that. I love James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Percival Everett, a writer from LA whose book Erasure is just a genius piece of writing; it encapsulates so much of what I think at times.
KT: Is reading an important place for you?
LY-B: It feels more and more like a luxury, and it shouldn’t be, but I don’t have much time to do it; unlike when I was a child and I always had my nose in a book. I read so much as a child, including some things that weren’t really appropriate for children. One of the authors I read when I was really, really young was Howard Jacobson, and I absolutely loved him.
• Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Verses After Dusk is at the Serpentine Gallery, London, from 2 June – 13 September 2015.
An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition
Wellcome Collection, London
24 June – 12 October 2014
This whimsical interactive exhibition from the Wellcome Collection, with its weird and wonderful objects, guides us through an alphabetical history of medicine, says Kate Tiernan
The Wellcome Collection’s An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition is a fascinating look at some of Henry Wellcome’s more unusual objects. Medical artefacts, paintings, photographs, sculptures and some contemporary artworks take you on a humorous and interactive journey through medical history, where you can be both contributor and contemplator. Curator Danielle Olsen has put together a playful exhibition of curiosities, a real joy in a small space.
As you arrive, you are encouraged to place a green dot on a map to show where you are visiting from. Each letter of the alphabet is themed: B is for Birthdays, S is for Skin art, Y is for Yawning, and so on. H is for Heredity, where visitors have recorded their heights with an array of coloured pencil marks on the wall, and a large bookshelf contains more than 100 volumes into which have been transcribed 3.4 billion units of DNA code.
When you get to M, there is a vitrine entitled Mental Faculties containing a large book from 1621 by Robert Fludd, an English physician, author and mystical philosopher. He drew his ideas from many sources including the Old Testament, the Jewish Kabbalah, alchemy and astrology, and describes four realms of perception – sensual, intellectual, imaginable and sensible.
O is for Obsolete knowledge, with an array of 18th-century objects including Inuit snow goggles, a peg leg, an artificial nose and a false eye. Here I was fortunate enough to catch the trolley of curiosities: an expert explaining phantom-limb syndrome.
On the opposite wall Philosophy is demonstrated with food for thought, an invitation to take a fortune cookie to open on leaving the exhibition. R is for Resourcefulness, where visitors scribble down what they think it means, pinning their definitions to a board for all to read. Soundbites of wisdom include: “insight, research, intelligent”, “knowing who to call”, “doing what you can with what you’ve got” and “sharing”.
As you near the end of the alphabet, U for UrbanLiving includes rows and rows of photographs of packed trains and pavements. Visitors can post their own examples on Twitter at #HumanSardines.
This exhibition engages with our head, heart, and hands. Contribute and track this allegorical alphabet at #HumanCondition.
Maureen Paley Gallery, London
19 July – 24 August 2014
by KATE TIERNAN
Portraiture has changed radically over the past decade, with what we reveal of ourselves shifting in response to an ever-connected world. A photograph is eternally present in a digital world grown out of analogue archives, at once both a celebration and a shadow of a life once lived. Death is an ever-present theme in current media coverage – we can’t opt out of seeing suffering.
The 14 portraits by the American photographer Peter Hujar (1934-87) currently on show at Maureen Paley Gallery depict those who are stoically defiant about death, such as the 1979 Ethyl Eichelberger as Nefertiti (III) – Eichelberger, who had Aids, killed himself at the age of 45 in 1990 –alongside the 1985 Jackie Curtis Dead, the print of Curtis, who was dead of a heroin overdose, aged 38.
Hujar was gifted at entertaining his subjects, with a charisma that made them feel comfortable in front of the lens. These black-and-white photographs feel like an intimate extended family. Hujar’s subjects do not appear sombre, but radiate ease, as the photographer lays bare their vulnerability, seeking to capture a sense of their mortality. Delicately dignified with grace and pose, they are absent of visible suffering.
Unlike conflict photography with its frequent depiction of horror, these photographs deploy a subtly and sensibility, evoking the character above their circumstances. Hujar appears to pay little attention to placing them in a domestic environment. We can imagine that, perhaps, littered around some of them, out of frame, is medical detritus. Composed with authenticity and tonally pure, they have a delicate balance; we also sense the poetry of pervasive, silent panic.
Hujar’s documentary approach drew attention to the overlooked detail in society, while in some of these portraits he also confronts the stigmatisation of Aids, and his work influenced artists such as Nan Goldin, Larry Clark and William Eggleston to capture New York street life. Ambient meditation is composed, the present moment an exhalation of love. The mutual attraction between the photographer and the subject is strongly visible in the work, as the last words spoken before the shot is taken, hang in the air.
Fiona Banner: interview
Mistah Kurtz – He Not Dead
Fiona Banner in collaboration with Paolo Pellegrin in association with the Archive of Modern Conflict
5 June – 26 July 2014
by KATE TIERNAN
This new body of work at PEER is a collaboration between the artist Fiona Banner and the Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin, whom Banner commissioned to explore the City of London through the lens of conflict. She spoke to Kate Tiernan about the exhibition, which includes moving image, photographs, text and large graphite drawings.
The following is an edited extract of a longer interview.
Kate Tiernan: When did you first get inspired by conflict and, specifically, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad?
Fiona Banner: I think it’s to do with how we absorb history, and history now is something virtually immediate, everything is being translated so quickly. It began with how we receive information, how history is told, through what images and photo reportage, and what narratives we build in order to describe conflict to ourselves. I got interested, in that I understood things a lot through movies, but movies were very propagandist, particularised and polarised. What interested me was the desire we have to believe that – a mismatch between what you want to know and what you think you want to know: how we create mythologies, how we then submit to those mythologies, and then how we deceive ourselves into the fictionalisation of truth, I guess.
KT: In 2012, with David Kohn Architects, you designed a boat that won a competition hosted by Living Architecture, and that subsequently sat on top of theQueen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre in London. The boat was based on the riverboat Conrad captained while travelling up the Congo, the journey that is echoed in Heart of Darkness. How do you see the boat you designed in relation to this exhibition at Peer?
FB: So, it was based on the boat Conrad went up the Congo in, that then informed his novel. It was already a kind of fact and a kind of fiction. When I was working on that project, I became really aware of the roof space of the Queen Elizabeth Hall as being between Westminster and East-minster: the Houses of Parliament to the left, and, to the right, St Paul’s and the City of London. I became aware of that, really, because of the film and live performance I made in that space: of Orson Welles’s Heart of Darkness, which had never been performed before. It took on significance within that context, as it is a parody of trade and corruption and colonialism. Our major trade is the financial industry, so it then became a lens for looking at the space of the City, the power structures. The show at Peer touches on all those things, but from the other side, so you do see the City of London, but from the low rise of Hoxton Street [where Peer is situated] and the majestic bright spires of corporate competitors. I’ve lived on the edge of the City for so long and never really been in any way involved. It’s always been this place I haven’t understood, the culture, rules and industry of it. There’s very little space in which, visually, the creative and corporate cultures crossover, although they do in some ways through the big corporate art collections. It was an opportunity to look and exploit my position as a total outsider, but with an intimate relationship to the boundaries of the City.
KT: How did the collaboration come about with the Archive of Modern Conflict?
FB: Peer introduced me to the Archive of Modern Conflict. The more time I spent there, the less I found what I was looking for. I kept trying to get a purchase on what I was looking at by finding things from around here, a world I knew and understood. The archive is defined by a fascination with the “other”. Most of the photographs are from very “other” places, and the traditional conflict zone is very different from London. Also, there is not a lot of stuff from now. I got involved in the idea and power of collecting; there is something very imperial about the act of collecting, particularly when it relates to owning the images of conflict.
I really honed my focus on looking for photographs of the City, and its costumes. There were lots of military costumes and ethnic costumes and I was thinking what is the costume of the “other” to me here and now, the costume of the City, of financial trade? Though the assumption was that I would select things from the archive, I realised I wanted to put something into the archive. I wanted to go into a space I was equally uncomfortable with, which is photography and, most significantly, conflict photography. I was clear that I wanted to work with a Magnum photographer – it’s shorthand for a certain kind of image-making in history. I then got in touch with Paolo Pellegrin, who was doing some really great work in the Congo, which fitted, so I worked very closely with him to take on various passages of Heart of Darkness. Asking him to shoot the City of London as a conflict zone, which it is visually the complete opposite of: the rupture, or the alarming loss of normality that would define a conflict image. A vast amount of money and planning is put into disallowing anything that might suggest breakdown. Giles Fraser, AKA The Loose Canon, also seemed like a great person to bring in, with his involvement with St Paul’s [Fraser is a former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. He resigned his post in protest at St Paul’s treatment of Occupy movement protesters; see below].
KT: Did you work with Pellegrin to edit the images down?
FB: He spent loads of time creating images and then totally left them with me, which was great, but with 60,000 photographs – and I am an anti-editor – so a very challenging process. I thought the excess of imagery was the most interesting aspect. The photos I selected for print are the ones I’m going to give to the archive. They will be archived under the title Heart of Darkness.
KT: Within the text that Fraser wrote for the exhibition, there is a section “Power is private … the uniform of pinstripe …” Swathes of pinstripe fabric drawings on the wall of the exhibition become tribal in a symbolism of power. What happens for you by placing the drawings on the wall as the stripes become like writing paper?
FB: All of those things, really. I was interested in the lines, as I spend so much time writing, and image-making is a complex area for me, but one I sometimes find my self investigating. I thought: “What’s a way of deploying something formally that you might associate with text, but is also an image?” They are a stand-in for a verbal investigation, if you like. The straight lines of trust are associated with the establishment that has been flipped, as we don’t trust bankers anymore. Examining the joins and folds of pinstripes I saw that they clash, merge and contradict, with a strange, optical dazzling effect. It interested me formally and notionally as a metaphor. Ceremony, costume, adornment and sexuality are very present in the City – the bollards are based on a cannon with the cannonball stuck in the snout [the shaft of the bollard]. The reason all the strip bars are outside the City is that they service it, but are not sanctioned by the Corporation of London.
KT: Do you feel the financial crisis of 2008 revealed or reinforced the anonymity of power in the City?
FB: I think it shone a light on it. We are living in a city, in a time, country and culture, of extreme contrast in wealth. Perhaps that has polarised in London. The outdoor art you mentioned [public artwork owned by banks and corporations on display in foyers] is for anyone to see, but the art is emasculated to the extent that the incredible and vast Fulcrum by Richard Serra in Liverpool Street station has been so densely built around by un-giving corporate development that men now use it as a public urinal. Such huge public artworks become like territorial bollard art.
KT: How did you experience the Occupy London Stock Exchange (LSX) camp, which was a protest against the banking system and the government’s response to the financial crisis in 2011-12?
FB: The symbolism of Occupy being in front of St Paul’s was genius and very powerful. I wasn’t involved directly, but I spent a lot of time passing through the City at that time so I was very aware of it. What struck me was how Occupy itself ended up fracturing into power struggles and how the message drifted and became more convoluted. I think it got misunderstood as being a diatribe against the wealthy, but what the movement really had, in the best moment, was an opportunity to talk about the politics and power of the City.
KT: Do you think the heart of political darkness being represented through Occupy was intentionally or accidentally situated outside the heart of light and hope, which the church seeks to embody?
FB: The City has all these churches – there is a covenant so they’re protected – but that’s an old power base. I think it happened quite intuitively, it’s a great iconic site. There was this question over whether the church could offer sanctuary, being exempt from the laws of the Corporation of London, but the Corporation of London overpowered the church. I think there probably was some understanding of the symbolism of that. A building such as St Paul’s does speak of great power, the church used to be hugely powerful in this country, and the relationship between the church and the City of London is probably deeply complex because the church is meant to preach sharing and democracy. It could have been so much greater: the church wasted that opportunity.
KT: In Paternoster Square, there is Elisabeth Frink’s bronze sculpture Shepherd and Sheep, where they have a falconer scaring the pigeons away early in the morning. We see the hawk photographed in your film sitting on top of No 1 Poultry, which houses the Coq d’Argent restaurant.
FB: It added to the reading of a predatory hierarchical scenario controlling the environment, as simple savagery. Maybe we’re stuck with this primitive model.
KT: It doesn’t happen all across London, but only in power bases such as the City. It’s similar to the recent attempt to drive out homeless sleepers around new residential developments in the City by putting metal spikes in the floor, controlling the environment like the hawk.
FB: It’s unbelievable!
KT: When I look at Congo and London, I’m struck by the conceptual correlation between gentrification and genocide. I wonder if this is a contemporary form of displacement, obviously on a far different scale of brutality?
FB: My take on it was not so much that, but that we seem so, so far way from, let’s say, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, yet the City of London is completely implicated in the entire rare-mineral plundering. The wealth and trade of the City is disregarding yet exploitative of global politics in that way. Our requirements as a society obviously have a major impact; it’s relevant to look at that. Heart of Darkness is a way of doing that.
I don’t understand gentrification, it’s happening so rapidly, the constant replication of information has changed the way things happen and what people desire, need and expect. What I find interesting is that we try to talk about it and can’t – as artists we are part of it, whether willingly or wantingly, so we have been some sort of courier for gentrification. You have, in a way, ploughed that field and it’s an incredibly complicated thing to reflect on.
KT: In the text where Kurtz is saying, “The Horror, the Horror”, I wondered what your interpretation was of that moment within the body of the text and the exhibition?
FB: Everyone picks up on that moment and in a way made big by Marlon Brando [who played Colonel Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now, and whose last words echo those of Kurtz in Conrad’s novel]. Why I like it is because it is sort of a moment beyond words, he crocks it out and repeats the word. It’s not even a sentence: it’s an inability to encapsulate everything in what we commonly understand as language. It’s to do with power and the total loss of it, his misuse of it. The horror of the whole colonial misuse of power, and our duality and our inability to be whole and our contradictions. It’s such an expression from within, an expression of failure and disappointment, and yet it has seeped into the vernacular and is a much-celebrated, much-impersonated phrase.
The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture
Hayward Gallery, London
17 June – 7 September 2014
by KATE TIERNAN
The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture brings together major works by 25 leading international artists who have fashioned new ways of using the human form.
Curated by the Hayward Gallery’s director, Ralph Rugoff, and spanning the past 25 years, The Human Factor focuses on artists who use the figure as a means of exploring far-ranging concerns. Compelling and thought-provoking, their work brings into play ideas about history, voyeurism, sexuality and violence, while reflecting on how we represent the “human” today.
From the exhibition at The Hayward Gallery, Rugoff spoke to Kate Tiernan. The following is an edited excerpt of that conversation.
Kate Tiernan: Past exhibitions here, such as Move, Light Show, and Jeremy Deller, had a buoyant optimism and a particular engagement with the audience. What is The Human Factor asking of the audience, and does it mark a departure?
Ralph Rugoff: I think it’s different from those three shows. Probably this show harks back to a show I did here in 2007, called The Painting of Modern Life, [which considered how] how painters worked from looking at photographic sources and how that enabled them to suddenly start using subject matter from basically anything. It was also a show that brought up political and social subject matter, which some people might find challenging. I think it’s a mix; there is some work that is disturbing and other work that is entertaining and thought-provoking.
KT: Why sculpture?
RR: It was seen that this development had happened, yet it hadn’t really been reported on by a major museum, and I think it’s really important to look at it. A lot of people will think of figurative sculpture as really retro and yet, clearly, there’s something strong going on here. Every show will ask different things of an audience and how they relate to it. People love to look at light and you’re looking at a phenomenon: here, it’s a lot of different details about how it’s made. That’s the first experience for me: all the work addresses people [with] a very basic visual experience. Without that, art isn’t really doing its job.
KT: Is there an uncomfortable self-reflection you are seeking to evoke in people – a departure from themselves into another world? I sense a meeting of the self physically, but also metaphorically. The disregard for human life and our reaction to it is ever present through the media, to which we have become increasingly numb.
RR: There is, and I’ll be very curious to see how the public responds to it. I was hoping to achieve enough of a balance of pleasure and discomfort. You’re willing to go for the ride: as you go through the rough gallery upstairs and into the room of dancers, it’s a moment of respite, and then you begin again. So there is also a lot of work upstairs that’s very humorous and, actually, some of Rachel Harrison’s sculptures are quite humorous, and sometimes it’s dark humour, which I think is an important part of the show.
KT: Those moments of stillness and reverie are interesting. How did you find the process of positioning different postures of the male and female form, as you have said, on the “same stage”?
RR: A lot of this work is treating the body as an object. There was a moment in modernism where the impulse was to try to make the form seem spatially dynamic, and you get these figures from Rodin where they are really moving. The Cook [Katharina Fritsch] is an exception to this: most of the body is represented as an object. It’s very still, frozen, and I can’t help but think some of this is the artist responding to all the images in society that objectify the body in one way or another.
KT: You spoke about the specificity of sculptural language and history. Is this something people need to be fluent in to engage with the show?
RR: There are two artists in the show who are both referencing the sculpture by Degas of a young dancer. Whether or not you know that particular work, you know the picture of the ballerina from a visit to the National Gallery, or from postcards. Most of the things we’re referencing are already things we see, such as public statues, monuments, the Victoria and Albert or the British Museum. Anyone who has been past a shop window will know the mannequin reference points. It’s never anything that’s packed into a particular reference.
KT: I know all the shows you have here are packed with a huge and eager audience. How do you feel this will impact on The Human Factor and our relationship to the work? I’m thinking about the current Marina Abramović show at the Serpentine Gallery, which is limited to 160 visitors.
RR: We will limit the number of people who can be in here because, with a show like this, you can’t experience it with a packed gallery.
KT: Picking up on what you said during the talk you gave earlier about the resurrection of the figure, where do you see this show as a departure point, and where do you see the future of sculpture?
RR: I can never predict what artists are going to do next and I don’t think anyone in 1988 when Jeff Koons made Bear and Policeman could ever have predicted what would follow. The fact that he was making polychrome wood sculpture using this technique from the baroque period was a shock: it just seemed mind boggling at that point, incredibly disarming.
KT: The first room, for me, is very powerfully postured, with Thomas Schütte’s wooden warriors and Paloma Varga Weisz’s Lying Man (2014), a carving in charred wood, holding centre court, and Weisz’s Falling Womanhanging from the ceiling, along with Fritsch’s solitary figure and backdrop. Did you know early on that they were going to be the opening works?
RR: At a certain point I did, and some of these things are dictated by scale. Schütte’s works are the biggest in the show and that’s our gallery with the highest ceiling. Fritsch’s things look great with a high ceiling. Someone once said the first sculpture was a corpse, that it was the first object to which an aura of life clung. I recall that history and link it with contemporary ideas about how we represent violence or commemorate war. I think Schütte’s sculpture is this pseudo-monument to this imbecilic aggression. It is a hard-hitting opening in some ways – you come in and it’s not the guy on the poster right away. But I think all the work is so great and interesting to look at. Each one offers you so much in terms of how it has been made. Even for people who don’t look at sculpture, the surface of Schütte’s work and Fritsch’s flawless, amazing carved figure on the ground, and the strange two-headed figure hanging are works that give you a lot of ways in. To me, it doesn’t seem like a slap in the face. The work invites you in, it gives you something.
KT: There are nine different nationalities represented here, and, for me, the works evoke themes of hopelessness, decay, defeat, self-destruction and conflict. Is this reflective of global contemporary art practice responding to what’s going on in the world, and that being an ever-present thing? Or is this a specific curatorial decision to be politically charged?
RR: I have to say it’s a bit of both. Obviously, you can’t have one without the other, and you can’t make that curatorial choice unless there are lots of artists addressing that. It’s not exclusive. There is no real political content to Ugo Rondinone’s dancers. I thought it was a really important part of that shift, and for artists to make work around those issues.
KT: How do you see the role of the gallery in asking the audience to think and look in a different way, such as Fritsch asking: “Why are we here”, “Where am I?”
RR: We’ve done some big installation shows here where we really immersed the audience in the work – they enter an environment. Light Show had some works like this and we had Walking in My Mind and Psycho Buildings. Such works do seem to be quite popular. People are surrounded by an environment, and they automatically start responding to it: they don’t feel they have to try to decipher what a particular meaning is, and their special orientation changes. A lot of this work does do similar things, but using a totally different approach. If you go up and look at those Paul McCarthy figures, I think a lot of this work does it through the use of the uncanny.
KT: Within the show, what is the relationship between spectatorship and voyeurism? Perhaps there is an uncomfortable feeling about being caught in that?
RR: That’s a key sub-theme. When we have figures on display, it’s bringing up that issue of voyeurism and how it relates to our aesthetic looking and, maybe, they’re not completely separate. When they’re entangled, it starts to bring issues of moral behaviour into conflict with curiosity and the desire to look, and those are things I think we wrestle with all the time. But I think if you’re in a room with 10 other people looking at the McCarthy sculptures, how you look at them becomes a public act. This gets back to the question of the theatrical, the staging, where you become someone reading from a script, where you start to think: “Why do I feel embarrassed looking at this, like I’m invading someone’s privacy, when this is a pile of silicone and hair?” Yet we have those feelings.
Jeanine Oleson: Hear, Here
New Museum, New York
23 April – 6 July 2014
by KATE TIERNAN
In conjunction with Jeanine Oleson’s exhibition Hear, Here, guest music curator Cori Ellison (dramaturg at Glyndebourne Festival Opera and previously at New York City Opera, 1997-2010) organised a series of musical events exploring the possibilities of the operatic voice by placing it in non-traditional contexts.
In early March, before the exhibition opening, Oleson staged The Rocky Horror Opera Show with a quartet of opera singers performing while an audience of die-hard opera fans were encouraged to dress up, sing along and dance – not something opera buffs would normally do. During her residency at the New Museum, Oleson will develop an additional group of interrelated new works, an exhibition and final experimental opera on 13 and 14 June, public programmes, workshops and a printed fold-out accompanying the show.
From her studio at the New Museum, Oleson spoke to Kate Tiernan. The following is an edited excerpt from that conversation.
Kate Tiernan: Do you feel that the residency programme at the New Museum is unique, being integrated across departments and disciplines, with the opera, workshops, publication and exhibition?
Jeanine Oleson: Yes, maybe that’s why it’s happening within the Learning Programme and it’s seen as research and development. I think education programmes elsewhere are probably in a bit of a panic about what to do. Ten or 15 years ago, they had the money to work with lots of schools. The New Museum does still have that programme, but a lot of places don’t do that any more. We have also been doing a reading group with a mix of people – art historians, artists, singers, composers and writers. It’s cool. It’s within an institutional context, but it feels parasitic and not academic, so it’s really nice. What Johanna Burton [director and curator of education and public engagement] does here is really cool.
KT: You have talked about reactive spaces. What does that mean for you?
JO: I was thinking about objects as catalysts within the opera: that’s something I’ve done a lot in my work. I thought about all the things I couldn’t possibly talk about, or the things that matter to me that I wanted also to have in the space, and in some way make room for. That’s why I decided to do the programme, including the gallery sessions, and not to think about them as one kind of thing. For example, I commissioned someone to come in and play the horn. Then on 1 May, as it was International Workers’ Day, we had protest karaoke [Another Protest Song: Karaoke with a Message, which looks to the karaoke songbook as a potential source of political enunciation]. It’s like, how do we make this place a part of what’s happening in the world today?
KT: How did your collaboration with Laurie Jo Reynolds [an artist and campaigner for change in prisons] come about through Tamms Year Ten [a coalition, set up by Reynolds, of prisoners, ex-prisoners, families, artists and other concerned citizens who came together to protest about the Tamms supermax prison in Illinois where men were kept in permanent solitary confinement]? I was at the Creative Time Summit, where she won the Creative Capital grant [for her video about prison life].
JO: I’ve known Laurie Jo for years. The Tamms Project was huge. She was working on it for eight years and now she’s working on the campaign for the re-election of Illinois governor Pat Quinn [who closed Tamms in January 2013]. I used to go and help with Tamms. I also did Photo Requests from Solitary [a project initiated by Tamms Year Ten in which people held in supermax prisons and solitary confinement were invited to request an image and promised that an artist on the outside would fulfil that request]. She would always be here for Creative Time stuff and, as I teach at Parsons [Oleson is assistant professor of photography in the department of art, media and technology at Parsons the New School for Design, New York], we started to talk about making it part of an academic project so that possibly we can get some funding.
KT: Did you view the Tamms project separately from your other work?
JO: Yeah. We decided to do it specifically in New York State and in California to support all the hunger strikers in California. Also Photo Requests from Solitary is Laurie Jo, me and Jean Casella, who is a journalist and one of the co-directors of Solitary Watch, a watchdog organisation [aimed at highlighting the widespread use of solitary confinement]. For us, it became a way to use our resources. We now have an advisory board that is asking artists to fulfill the requests. We are doing exhibitions and pumping up the programme to do it again. It is a way for me to be an advocate from a creative position; it is also an administrative position.
KT: What is your process like as an artist when you are making new work?
JO: It’s somewhere between crazy ideas and then doing a lot of research and thinking my way through how I want to do it. I usually come up with ideas for a topic that I know I want to deal with somehow, or I put myself in a position where I’ll have to start dealing with it. Sometimes one thing leads to another and it’s accidental.
KT: The work almost feels intuitive, as if there is an immediacy about it combined with a depth of research.
JO: I wouldn’t say I have a classic research practice, which I’m OK about.
KT: I was interested in the ritualistic aspect in some of your work. Do you practise vocal rituals, or have any rituals in the way you live or make art?
JO: It’s funny, I don’t really believe in belief. I have a real problem with belief systems, but at the same time I feel highly superstitious. I also believe that giving time to rituals is important, hence my public art project The Greater New York Smudge Cleanse, which wafted through the streets of New York City. The world’s largest sage smudge stick ritualistically cleansed negativity at four different sites of the city in October and November 2008. I loved making this ridiculous, supersized act to point to something in a particular place. It meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I support that, but I feel a little conflicted about spirituality in some way. I don’t buy it completely, but I also find it important. The act of singing is so important and it’s something I love to do: it makes my body feel good. It’s like letting something out into the world that’s a little scary or embarrassing, which, for me, is like making artwork.
KT: I found myself thinking of In a World, a recent film by Lake Bell, about the journey of a Hollywood female voiceover artist with a vast archive of voice recordings she has gathered over years. As your show is titled Hear, Here, I wondered whether you have an interest in accents in the way someone might capture a moment with a photograph? Do you do the same with voices?
JO: I’m a really good mimic and my dad is an incredible one, too. I grew up with it. It’s something I’ve always done. I love people’s accents, but sometimes I really hate people’s voices.
KT: How can audiences attune themselves to your work?
JO: I was thinking about that a lot in the context of connoisseurship, or how audiences can be highly engaged with someone’s work or field of work. I had done some interviews with opera buffs, aficionados. It’s the act of someone looking and caring about what they are seeing: caring about it is a kind of attunement – taking themselves as an instrument of knowledge and clicking into the register I’m engaging with, whatever it is. In some ways, it’s using a musical term to describe an engagement: people playing along. If you only play along for professional reasons, capitalism has eaten you alive. How do you latch on to people to make them care in some way about things that don’t affect them directly?
KT: What do you see as alternative models for language and voice?
JO: How important is a creative element in visual culture to an audience? It’s pretty important, since visual culture is through the roof right now. But, at the same time, it’s asking for something more than images to do that. Artists should be asking visually to do something beyond what image cultures are asking them to do. That’s a part of that ask: if you want to be here, what is it you want from this? It’s not just saying: “These are the issues this work is about.” That’s why I don’t think I make research-based work.
KT: Looking at The Mountain Cave, I was reminded of Alison Wilding’s work and, in particular, Assembly. Her use of materials, like yours, is very emotive. Also, Spartacus Chetwynd’s performance and installation work, where often you navigate through the space anticipating the performance. Here, the audience are behind the scenes, having the licence to see these objects, to pick them up and engage with them before the performance has happened.
JO: This show is a trip in that way because it’s like the future and the past all in one; here I am in the present, and what do I do with those two things? It puts a lot of pressure on these future objects; they’re not artefacts yet. I love Spartacus’s work.
KT: Several of your works use the language of nature in the titles and content. How important is nature to you? Was nature a part of your life when you were growing up?
JO: I think nature is a kind of language – it means something beyond meaning. That’s why I was thinking a lot about caves in this show, where it’s the unknown, submerged or interior without contact, like another world. I grew up in the country. I’m not afraid of nature or animals: I’m afraid of people. I think about those things as having allegorical and symbolic meaning and that’s very alive for me.
KT: What can we expect from the opera?
JO: The opera is about to go into pre-production and it’s in two acts. The first act is almost like agitprop. It’s really fast. It’s a lot of language that’s been acquired from elsewhere and has been pushed through. For the second act, I was thinking a lot about paradox in those works and political life. The second act is where touch scores come in, and it goes from the mountain to the cave. I described it as getting on the mothership and going away: that act of something unknown and musical while not concretely based in language – so the stretching of language or the meaning of the word, or the sonic quality of pulling it apart in some way.
KT: The instrument you designed for the show – is that something you’ve done before?
JO: When I was younger I used to make instruments, but really impromptu ones. This was a whole other thing. I decided I was going to make a horn, and then I found a horn-repair person, a great guy and a really amazing fabricator too. I would bring in a design and we’d talk it through because there is such a science to instruments. In no way is it conventional, but it works.
KT: Has music and singing always been a big part of your life?
JO: Yes, I’ve never been in bands or traditionally involved in music, but I love music. It does something really different to the experience of time, and I love that. The horn I was thinking of as an inversion of listening to the most bombastic instrument, and then it has all those vocal tracks, 3D-printed vocal tracks with the vowel. So the idea that sound and the human voice go from utterance to language with the use of vowels and those get inserted into the horn in different ways.
KT: How do you experience the more traditional formats that you might be borrowing from, such as Broadway theatre or a gig?
JO: Theatre freaks me out: sometimes I like it, but it’s hard for me. I’m in a research and development writing group all year with a theatre group called The Affiliates and they make really great work. It includes screenwriters and playwrights and directors, too. It’s so fascinating for me to see their craft. Thinking about performance art and then theatre, sometimes it’s as if performance art could use a little craft. I go to a lot of opera. I sit there and criticise the sets, the staging and the stories, but at some point I’m like, wow, because the voices hit a place at some point that I just let it go.
KT: Your work is about questioning and uncertainty for the audience. How do you feel about immersive theatre where it also provokes what theatre is?
JO: I’m interested in what they’re doing. I do like immersive theatre. It has its relevance and there’s still an expectation of what’s going to happen. There are distinct fields still, even though we’re in a multidisciplinary world. Theatre has its form even when it is immersive theatre, and I respect that completely. There is such a craft to how that is put together as a collaborative act. It’s so funny that people talk about collaboration in visual art when in other fields they’re always collaborating.
KT: Do you see the scale of some of your work growing? The Rocky Horror Opera Show you did in March was ambitious in scale.
JO: It’s never that I think, I want it to look like this, but more that I have an idea and wonder how I’m going to get there and then just start. The Rocky Horror Opera Show came about because at first I wanted Diamanda Galás to do it, with an audience of avid fans to be there to choreograph a concert. I was talking with my good friend Maria about wanting to do a traditional concert that goes wrong and she said: “We could do that.” I was adamant that the singers needed to be really good, as it has to be about virtuosity and some sort of relationship to that. That’s how that occurred. Like Rocky Horror but with opera where people can do what they want and all the costumes come from different arias. In that audience, there were people who knew those arias so could sing along, then some who thought it was the Rocky Horror Picture Show and seemed to have a good time anyway. We thought this was a project we could set up to see what happens, while not controlling it. It was a really fun night.
Meschac Gaba: Exchange Market
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
26 April – 7 June 2014
by KATE TIERNAN
This exhibition of new work by Meschac Gaba marks his first solo show in the US. Exchange is central both physically and metaphorically within the show: trading between Africa and the western world with cultural exchange is a core theme of Gaba’s work. He lived between the Netherlands and Benin, experiencing conflicts directly. Codes of these identities are seen in how value is playfully presented, reassembling relationships between what we see as “first” and “third” worlds, or the local and the global.
Entering the ground floor gallery is reminiscent of being in a bustling market place with 10 stands selling various goods underneath brightly coloured salvaged parasols. Titled Bureau d’échange (Exchange Office), it addresses cultural and economic value. Symbolic objects and tactile raw materials are meticulously laid out: gold-covered stones, cotton-wool buds, hand tools, devalued African notes and smart phones, among others. The inefficient covering from the broken parasols seems a metaphor for Africa’s struggling economies, lacking in protection and framework.
Gaba is always dismantling recognised systems and hierarchies by constructing facades and structures that ask for a new level of engagement. The chosen objects have an inherent value because of where he is placing them in relationship to currency. The redundant paper currency of various African nations is used to decorate, or hung like leaves from the parasol.
Gaba’s installation The Museum of Contemporary African Art,which is not on display here but was shown at Tate Modern in London in 2013, encouraged participation – to play the piano and purchase things from the shop – and active trading. Here, we are not asked to participate, but to be challenged outside the gallery with how to engage in systems perpetuating this separation of worlds, interdependent on one another. Within New York, the first and third worlds live side by side, but how is that negotiated, what practices of adaption enable this distorted cohabitation?
Gaba critiques the underlying values and principles of art and its potential to be renegotiated through a new series of wall-mounted and freestanding coin banks, known as bankivi in a mixed French-Mina dialect. Similar to the donation boxes found in shopping centres and airports, they take the shape of figures and animals, and reference the logos of African and western banks and emblems for causes and charities.
Upstairs, four coin-operated football tables made in Benin are at second glance unconventional; teams are of mixed race, religion and nationality, driven by a shared goal with mutual values and interests. The adjacent gallery hosts a playful billiard game titledIran, both rooms reminiscent of the games room in The Museum of Contemporary African Art where a huge chessboard was politicised with a facade of euros and dollars. The concourse area holds wooden pallets covered with newspaper to form a display like an impromptu market or gift shop with decorated penholders, markers of identity and global politics.
Gaba is also known for Sweetness, a vast city sculpted from white sugar cubes in 2006, a timely comparison with the much larger recent work by artist Kara Walker highlighting similar issues of trade, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an homage to the unpaid and overworked artisans who have refined our sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchens of the New World on the occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”, at the Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn until 6 July. While the controversially coloured building in Harlem’s Sugar Hill by architect David Adjaye is to house a temporary exhibition, If You Build It, curated by arts collective No Longer Empty from 25 June to 10 August 2014.
Seth Cluett: The Persistence of Traces
Audio Visual Arts, New York
13 April – 11 May 2014
by KATE TIERNAN
Seth Cluett: The Persistence of Traces includes stand-alone pieces, projection, sound and drawing, and, although the work is fixed in place, a sense of the ephemeral fills the space. Cluett’s work is fleeting yet satisfying. The stripped-back audio is like catching a passing scent of blossom in the park, while the visuals are reminiscent of walking past the same tree time and time again.
Repetition features heavily in the work, leading the viewer to question whether we see more of something from a place of pausing or pacing. Machine-like order and circular pattern is fractured with visuals of nature, while accompanying sounds stream like running water from the corner of the space.
The single-channel video Semblance positions the viewer between observer and the subject being observed, turning the viewer into a voyeur after a few minutes of looking into the trees – with awkwardness at what we could be witnessing behind the branches. The passing fog or steam in the film sweeps through the frame: is it coming from a machine exhaust, a fire, a lake, or a cigarette? Three trees stand strong and static in the midst of everything else that is moving and swaying in the wind, and sounds of trickling water drift from the left of the room along with the smoke. The work is both meditative and enchanting, with a persistent fragility.
Cluett says: “The show is an attempt to reconcile a taxonomy of memory types/ways of memory – I’m trying to understand the role of mediation in human memory and documentary recording technology (photography/drawing/video/sound) as a metaphor/devices for collecting/gathering/capturing. The works look at/listen to the distance between lived-experience and the inaccurate, mis-remembered, faulty, and hyperbolic attempts to think about the effect of time on the actions of the present. These are individual works but are placed in the space in such a way as to create an environment that rewards time and attention and changes when viewed/heard from different positions.”
A series of small delicate drawings on cotton rag paper detail what look like coffee cup rings, but in fact stem from a performance piece where Cluett repeated a circle 100 times. A natural form through a manmade act becomes mechanical – a metaphor for the water cycle, the life cycle, the eye – repeating and retracing itself. It is reminiscent of Sol LeWitt’s instructional patterning or Richard Long’s looped walks and stone circles, which seek to bring structure to the unstructured natural landscape. Cluett here presents the same themes through pared-down technology and aesthetics with audio and film.
This show is a chamber of sounds and silences, retreating from the bustle of the street to a seclusion of subtle undertones, tracking and tracing invisible movements and the unrelenting ephemeral momentum of nature.
Meg Hitchcock: interview
Brooklyn, New York
by KATE TIERNAN
Meg Hitchcock, a Brooklyn-based artist, celebrates the human need to reach outside ourselves, through sacred language honouring Christianity, Judaism and Islam with a cross-pollination of text from the Bible, the Torah and the Qur’an. Dismantling the texts a letter at a time, she transforms them into intricate threads of text. The visual dissection of the word of God runs off the page and provokes us to question our own belief structure.
Hitchcock spoke about her work to Kate Tiernan from her studio in Brooklyn. The following is an excerpt from a longer conversation.
Kate Tiernan: The Bible is frequently used as the content for your work, and I was curious about your first experience of it growing up.
Meg Hitchcock: I was raised in a Methodist family in New England. It was pretty traditional – there was nothing extraordinary. When I got a little older, my dad became a born again Christian, pretty fundamentalist, so it really influenced me. I became a born again Christian when I was 12, out of fear, and continued on that path until I was 30. When I was 20, I moved to Southern California where there’s a huge, very Republican, fundamentalist, born again Christian movement, including Calvary Chapel. And that’s what I did in my 20s: for the most part, my whole social life was around the church.
Finally, when I was 30, I was able to say to my therapist: “I’m not longer a Christian.” Then I started looking at some of the books that I had always thought were evil, such as the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, all these sacred texts from the east. They were incredibly beautiful.
I’m not a theologian by any means, but it’s really in my heart that I experience this knowledge; the sensation that God is something, but that no one knows what God is. There is no one answer and every path is legitimate, including the Christian path. I weave them in and out of each other conceptually – that’s pretty much the point behind my work, in that God is found speaking poetically in the threads, not in the overall picture or the overall tapestry.
KT: How did your early years influence the way you saw religion?
MH: Very biased and intense, very fundamentalist – which means a lot of things, but to me it’s: “I’m right and they’re wrong.” Like the fundamentalist Muslims, the jihadists – even though I find it reprehensible, I understand how they believe they are right and everybody else is wrong. They believe they are saving people’s souls. I know how they feel because I have been there, on the inside of it, and it’s very hard to get out of that belief system once you’re in it.
KT: Is the work, in a sense, a search for truth, dissecting the word and searching through the text seeking to discover a truth within it?
MH: Not so much within the texts, but within myself, it’s definitely a personal journey that I conduct through my art, and I did when I was a painter, too. But this is a little more specific, because it is language, and language is more specific than paint. But, yes, the conclusion I’ve come to is that, basically, all these religions are related back to oneself. If you pick any religious path and take it to its logical conclusion you are going to end up right back with yourself, and you realise that everything you are searching for, you are. But that’s a long path. The journey is everything.
KT: What is the journey for you in making the work?
MH: Sometimes it’s really agonising and pretty dull: it’s just the same thing over and over, but where I get my jollies is in varying it. Sometimes I’ll do pieces that are very geometric and plotted out. Other times, I just start and wind the text around, or I pile the text up so you can’t read it. I have to keep finding new ways to put the text down.
KT: Is there something meditative about the process?
MH: Sometimes if you meditate it can be blissful; other times it can be agonising, hell. Sometimes it is neither. Most of the time it’s neither. I do have my moments of bliss; they are way too far apart.
KT: How do you experience bliss?
MH: I don’t experience bliss very often, but when I do, it’s a sort of inflammation of the soul; an immense love that operates independently of me, and overrides any obstacles I may have put in its path.
KT: Obsession: The Book of Revelation that you wove on to the walls of theFamous Accountants Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn, how did that work differ?
MH: I cut the letters from the Qur’an. It was 22 chapters, so that was really tedious, but I loved the way it turned out. But if I were ever to do that again, it would be with a lot of assistance!
KT: How important to you is the labour and the craft, the amount of time that goes into a piece – do you identify and differentiate the works by the quantity of time?
MH: It’s funny, the first question people ask me is: “How long did that take?” Usually, for the big ones, two to three months, but those aren’t necessarily my best pieces although they are my most laboured ones. Ten Hell Marys took me a few weeks and is one of my favourite pieces. I’m not attached to the time element.
KT: The combination of design, typography and layout in your work seems a central element balanced against the very physical, laboured craft and time?
MH: The composition is really important to me: it’s what makes or breaks the piece. I think that’s equally as important as the process. The material I’m using is sacred texts that a lot of people have gone to and touched with their hopes and dreams – pouring out their hearts and souls or seeking answers in these texts – and now I’m just cutting them up, as the word of God. I feel that has a huge contribution to what makes the work special. It carries a certain energy with it. I guess I’m a magical thinker.
KT: It’s also very scientific thinking, as it has been proven that objects carry and contain sounds for decades. In a sense, the books have absorbed the prayers that have been spoken over them.
MH: People whose hearts are broken and who have turned to the book for consolation while their hearts are bleeding and their fingers are touching the pages.
KT: What do you consider the word of God?
MH: Anyone who claims they are a prophet of God, I believe they are. I mean, I do and I don’t.
KT: Have you ever used your own books?
MH: I have this special Bible, which was my grandmother’s, which is in tiny type, and I’m saving it for something special. Nothing is sacred as far as me cutting it up is concerned. I’m even thinking about cutting up my grandmother’s diaries, which are sacred to me. I’m not sure. I have a ton of journals, which I was thinking of turning into a sacred text. When I was a little girl, I read Nancy Drew mysteries over and over. I might do something with them.
KT: Do you feel the work is sacrificial in any way?
MH: The deconstructing of the text is essential to make something new, and I think the reason I haven’t dissected my grandmother’s Bible is that it’s a really special book to me, so there is some pain involved. But I think that’s good, the fact that it’s going to be painful to do because I’ll never have it again.
KT: Have you ever thought of introducing imagery into the work?
MH: I miss painting – I am a painter. I just didn’t feel it was a medium communicating anything for me, but I’m going to be exploring an overlay with the text.
KT: When you moved to New York, did this mark a departure for you from painting; was it the pace of life and the environment that influenced the shift in your practice?
MH: I suspect it was the energy of the city and I just didn’t feel that with paint I had that much to say. What I was feeling and what was coming through on the canvas was a total disconnect and that really bothered me.
KT: Are you looking to explore more current political themes in your work, such as the Guantánamo Bay piece – or do you see them as quite separate from the other scriptural works using the word of God taken from the Bible?
MH: I’m not someone who is super involved in politics. I listen to the news: I don’t delve into it a lot, but I have my feelings about it and the different situations in the world. The fact that I’m cutting up the Qur’an inevitably brings me more into the political scene than I would prefer to go. But I’m not doing the piece such as Gitmo about the Guantánamo detainees to be political, I’m doing it because I have strong feelings about the situation there. I think it’s really wrong, these men who have been imprisoned, so I’m doing a piece on that. I don’t, therefore, think my work is political, but I do have some political pieces. It’s just inevitable.
KT: How has this been received so far?
MH: So far so good, but this is New York City – it’s very liberal. If I were to have a show in Texas, I’m not sure how that would go, or in the Middle East. I think I would consider not doing that. I am going to be showing my work at a fair in Houston.
KT: What were your thoughts at the time when the Florida pastor Terry Jones burned a copy of the Qur’ran?
MH: He was an idiot: it was so ridiculous that he did that. What people don’t understand is that it’s not as if the Qur’an and the Bible are on an equal footing. Muslims think of the Qur’an in the way Christians think of Jesus and, for them, to do something so ridiculous and, worse, what’s been done in Guantánamo to the Muslim men there is a complete abomination.
KT: How do you respond to reactions of horror that you are cutting up and re-authoring the word of God?
MH: I’m very respectful of a person’s faith, and would never intentionally insult anyone. If my work is seen as an affront, it’s only because that person hasn’t heard the meaning behind the work. In short, I don’t see it as a desecration, but a celebration of the word of God.
KT: Where would you see the Gitmo work exhibited?
MH: I’m going to be having a solo show in Washington DC in September, at a gallery called Randall Scott Projects. I don’t imagine any politicians will go, but it would be good for it to be seen in a more political sense.
KT: The curving text demands that the audience would have to look in a very different way if they were to try to read it, and obviously the extraction of punctuation and grammar also makes it difficult to follow.
MH: They are not meant to be read. It is great if someone wants to read the first sentence or two, but I don’t see anyone sticking with it. That’s really not the point; there are other things that I figuratively weave in, sometimes my own thoughts or some erotica. If anyone’s really trying to find it, they could. I think the idea of a sacred text extends beyond what we think of. Taking it to an extreme, everything is sacred. So by weaving in some erotica, it points beyond just the obvious sacred text.
KT: Do you see the Song of Solomon in the Bible as being an erotic text?
MH: I did do a passage from that. It was a pretty erotic passage or could be construed that way. I think I cut the letters from a book by Jung called Mysterium Coniunctionis. Another one I’m doing is The Story of O, a 1950’s S&M novel from France. I’m cutting the letters from there and turning it into a beautiful poem about the Virgin Mary.
KT: When people see your work, what sort of encounter do you want them to have or take from it?
MH: I really like them to be touched by it, to linger a little while. Ultimately, what I really would love to happen – I was so entrenched in a belief system and for me there was no other way except that way – is for people who have a belief system to be exposed to something else and consider that isn’t the only way. I’m not trying to talk a Christian into not being a Christian because I think they should be a Christian, but for them to acknowledge that the Muslim path is a beautiful path or atheism is a beautiful path. For people to let go of the death grip on how they see the world, I think that’s an amazing thing. If my work can contribute to that letting go process, then I would be really happy about that.
KT: How do you think the word of God is relevant today in New York?
MH: The word of God is relevant insofar as it offers hope to those who have none. There’s a huge need for that in a large city such as New York. It’s interesting to me that when you go to the outer boroughs, where the neighbourhoods get pretty rough, there is a sharp increase in two things: churches and liquor stores. One way or another, people need to connect with spirit. I believe what people really need is a deep connection with something larger than themselves. Some call that God, some call it consciousness, and some just call it humanity.
Ai Weiwei: According to What?
The Brooklyn Museum, New York
18 April – 10 August 2014
by KATE TIERNAN
The Brooklyn Museum marks the final stop on this North American touring exhibition by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, titled According to What? Covering 13,000 sq ft (1,200 sq metres) and spanning 20 years, it is vast. Anyone who has seen previous renditions in Washington, Indianapolis, Ontario or Miami will discover new work here in Brooklyn, not least the striking addition of six huge dioramas made from iron boxes, titled S.A.C.R.E.D., in the entrance of the museum. The boxes are mini-prisons that show scenes from Ai’s 81-day detainment in a Chinese jail during 2008.
Also new is Ye Haiyan’s Belongings. A feminist activist who was kidnapped by the secret police on 6 July 2013, Ye was forced to hastily pack her family’s belongings when she was subsequently evicted from her home. She was then dumped with her bags and boxes at the side of a road, and told never to return. After hearing her story, Ai photographed everything Ye owned. These photographs form wallpaper depicting everything from schoolbooks to slippers to sex toys, a personal archive and history embedded in politics. The adjacent room shows a film, Stay Home,intimately documenting a woman named Liu Ximei, who contracted HIV after having a blood transfusion. If Liu were to protest about the treatment she received leading to her infection, her access to medication would be blocked.
This is a show of material wealth and emotional poverty articulated with tactile abundance: piles of pearls, salvaged steel rods, porcelain crabs, bike wheels, backpacks and intricately carved rosewood. Underneath this visual feast, however, is a bitter taste of the toxic political and social structures within China. Construction site images of Beijing’s Olympic Stadium 2008(2005-8) cover the walls of one gallery, a project Ai collaborated on, but now describes openly as propaganda. A small hand-carved box belonged to Ai’s father is displayed open, alongside a largesealed Cube in Ebony that was carved using traditional methods in 2009. Ai’s father was also captured, in 1958, held by police, interrogated for being a famous poet, then banished from the city to the countryside.
It is impossible to tell whether the political provocations by Ai serve the art, or the art serves the provocations. It is reminiscent of the recent media attention given to Russian band Pussy Riot, whose music is a vehicle for political expression and activism. Similarly, Ai is bound by the laws and limitations within his own country, widely known within western society yet muted to the very audience he is wanting to reach. The artwork is charged with social critique while it probes and reveals political structures in the hopeful pursuit of change.“Art is about change, unpredictable and danger[ous],” says Ai.
Straight, salvaged steel bars from the Sichuan earthquake on 12 May 2008, in which a school collapsed, cover the floor. Lining the walls of the same room are 70,000 names, mostly those of the schoolchildren killed in the earthquake. Ai and his team met with the parents who refused to stay silent, listening to them and creating a combination of database, artwork and memorial. This artwork is morally symbolic of corruption, one of the main reasons his team were arrested more than 40 times while gathering names. Perhaps this was an influencing factor on Ai’s incarceration and subsequent surveillance. “Never trade freedom with any other kind of leisure or property, the freedom is in my mind,” says Ai.
Nick Relph: Tomorrow There Is No Recording
Chisenhale Gallery, London
20 September – 10 November 2013
By KATE TIERNAN
This solo exhibition marks a departure from Nick Relph’s 10-year collaboration with Oliver Payne. Relph is already known for his interest in the material and social effects of textiles: his film Thre Stryppis Quhite Upon ane Blak Field (2010), for example – presented at the Venice Biennial 2011 and recently on display at Tate St Ives – connected the meandering history of tartan with the Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons and the artist Ellsworth Kelly.
Stepping into this installation of new work at the Chisenhale Gallery, we see the fabric of this idea extended and reimagined. Using a four-harness floor loom, Relph has fabricated a series of weaves using polyester, rayon, silk, monofilament, latex and paper. Here, surface and its woven construction manifest themselves through laborious handmade craft rather than the digital assistance and precision of film. The intentionality of Ralph’s investigations into surface are similarly seen with Kelly, challenging us to consider the voluminous sculptural qualities of canvas and its surface.
In the entrance lobby for Tomorrow There Is No Recording, large framed photographs are hung so that they overlay the wall text with bullish confidence, suggesting a playful disregard for convention, prankish rebellion. Depicting cracked windows and close-up abstractions of domestic objects, these works originated as slide and 35mm film taken by Relph 10 years ago. Resurrected as reworked digital reincarnations, the strangely beautiful degraded quality exposes the same exploration of analogue processes seen in the weaving. He uses traditional methods with hi-tech fabrics, although it is not the status or value of the materials that he is interested in, but rather he wants us to examine the surface created.
Relph confidently moves from the certainty of film to the uncertainty of the floor loom, which took over his studio for the summer. He began not knowing what he was going to create, and this led him to experiment with different materials such as wig hair and coated cottons, high-fashion fabrics up against traditional organic ones. There is no history to the material used in these works, they are not anthropological or veils of beauty referencing a time gone past. Instead, we encounter neat rectangular shapes stretched and flattened out on frames that conceal the frayed edges of the fabric. Every moment of the process is starkly visible, nothing on the surface can be concealed from scrutiny.
Densely intricate weavings are each given generous breathing space in the large industrial space of the Chisenhale Gallery. The installation of woven works and photographs are modest in scale but intense with detail, refusing reflection with a stubborn confidence, like a buttoned-up suit and tails flaunting stature, no creases or fraying or protruding loose ends. We can’t see past the textured flatness of surface, void of representation, rather like experiencing one of Gerhard Richter’s Grey Paintings.
Relph is concerned with how we look at image and projection: he can’t think about projection without thinking about the material it is projected on to, the two intimately connected. The photographs are rather like paintings, a composition of abstracted digital prints, sourced using Google archives, of flattened 19th-century weave books, scanned swatches of textile. The action of clipping, scanning, downloading and printing are for Relph the same as the forward and backward movement, the push and pull, of weaving. Collating and dismantling archive content is reminiscent of Elizabeth Price’s 2012 Turner-prize winning THE WOOLWORTHS CHOIR OF 1979,composed to question the format, function and amalgamation of film and sound.
These weaves are defiantly images rather than woven objects, as if they are freshly pressed and dressed up, ready to go out for a party with the top button done up. The heavily laboured content of this show offers a delicate aesthetic and rather majestic quality to be encountered by all who visit.
All I Have Learned and Forgotten Again
Camden Arts Centre, London
26 July – 29 September 2013
by KATE TIERNAN
This major exhibition of works by the Swedish artist Jockum Nordström [born 1963] explores the breadth of his work in collage, graphite drawing and architectural sculptures from the 1990s until now. The title of the show, All I have Learned and Forgotten Again,evokes memories of school days and exams, cramming information that is never used, then lost. The work is heroic rather than defeatist, with teetering sculptures and intricate drawings. Nostalgia is not left at the door, as the exhibition unfolds like the pages of a mysterious fairy tale.
Last year, in collaboration with Joakim Åhlund, Nordström released an album, Paddan och Hunden, which translates as Toad and Dog. The album’s cover, a coloured pencil drawing, illustrates a jungle scene: a roaring lion surrounded by naked tribal women wielding spears. The drawing, I’m a Failure(2011), shares its title with one of the tracks, a pleasant hypnotic piece with the dulcet tones of the xylophone.
Surreal scenarios have a dream-like quality in Nordström’s work, with an instinctive naivety depicting folklore and fairy tales. Nineteenth-century upper-middle-class families are recurrent characters in his drawings and collages, examples of probity and restraint. Period costumes, top hats and tails, knee-breeches and frills adorn mysterious characters in ambiguous settings. There are suggestions of tall ships, horses and carriages, tweeting birds, sailing clippers and villas. Figures are active: playing guitar, walking a dog, dancing, conducting an orchestra, displaying overt sexual behaviour. These scenes are not dissimilar to the epic intricacies of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights(central panel of the triptych,1490).
As in Paul Noble’s Villa Joe, Front View (2005–6), once we scratch the surface of the densely intricate episodes, we see a far more sinister graphic narrative played out. Similarly, they share in building vast architectural structures: with Nordström, this is most clearly demonstrated in models made from cardboard and old matchboxes. Shredded notebooks form the background inLoppspel/Tiddlywinks (2004), as figures pose on top of a cityscape; office buildings as rigidly ordered houses stretch into the distance.
Outside the gallery a vast glass vitrine contains the sweepings of Nordström’s studio floor; rejected watercolour figures and fragments displayed like historical artefacts. This exhibition is like stumbling into a captivating lost archive of crumpled papers and stories from a time gone past.
Nordström, who currently lives and works in Stockholm, became known in Sweden for his series of children’s books about the character Sailorand his dog Pekkaand his illustrations for the newspaper Dagens Nyheter, for which he worked from 1997–9. He first exhibited in the United States at the Jack Hanley Gallery in San Francisco in 1999, and his reputation grew rapidly after his drawings were exhibited at Liste in Basel in 2000, selling out instantly to collectors including the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. He joined the David Zwirner Gallery in New York shortly after.
Emma Hart: Dirty Looks
Camden Arts Centre, London
26 July – 29 September 2013
by KATE TIERNAN
Dirty Looks by the British artist Emma Hart (born 1974) came out of a residency at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridge in 2012, and is a series of new sculptural works combining ceramics, photography and video.
As you enter the chaos of cascading papers and flung-open drawers, a cacophony of ceramic coughing fills the room. Grey office carpet is laid out in the space, with bare chipboard furniture: drawers, cupboards and cabinets. Mobile phones ring and beep among blushing speckled ceramic tongues, standing phallic or drooping as if extracted from the body. Images of squashed strawberries line a drawer, a metaphor for the blushing and shame that would arise if desk drawers at work were made public.
Hart draws on her own embarrassments while working in a call centre in her 20s. With authenticity and truthfulness, the disorder is contained mostly within the furniture; peeking through the open doors and into the drawers reveals a mess of scribbled papers and to-do lists – tasks left unaccomplished during the frantic working day, contained but spilling over, spoiling the illusion of professional order.
A large white X marks the spot to stand on: here, you look up at a cloud-shaped mirror mouth on the end of a serpent-like tongue rising out of an orange ceramic bucket. Sounds of tapping on a keyboard accompanies moving images reflected in the mirror. The recorded mechanical voice of Hart selecting an image of a toothless gargoyle is interspersed with gnashing teeth narrating instructions. “I’m at your service … quick blind spot … take a break … I don’t understand what it is you’re saying …”It has a similar quality to the automated human voice that calls you up at inopportune moments, asking for feedback, seeking to rate the quality of your experience on a recent visit to the bank, supermarket, mobile phone shop or cosmetic counter.
Hart’s lightly slapdash, crudely made ceramics echo the childlike urgency of blurting things out, echoing the fractured, chaotic nature of the audio content and context. Tongues hang over a handmade water cooler filled with yet more tongues – the heart of all office gossip.
Hart’s desire to disrupt our appetite for visual imagery is reminiscent of 2012 Turner Prize-winner Elizabeth Price, seeking to dismantle film by re-presenting a fractured yet deeply choreographed visceral experience.
Among other papers in the drawers lay A4 plasma screens displaying trees – perhaps surrounding the office – a man-made, fake garden situated in an industrial estate. On a long unravelled roll of printed paper that hangs down inside a cupboard, lists are scrawled, hinting at what’s missed off, and the stress of completing everyday chores outside work within a finite time. The lens is anaesthetising reality, the world around us as, it edits and represents constant bite-size chunks which we passively consume every day.
Leafing through papers, you might lick a finger to turn a page, but here the limb-like tongues lick the corner of ceramic A4 sheets. Sticking your tongue out is deemed rude or a childlike act of defiance railing against etiquette and politeness. The tongue may be a very small body part, but it has status, powerful influence and control: witness 1 Corinthians 14 … for anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God.
Dirty Looks invites us to question the currency of the spoken word and human encounters in a digital world. Office folklore is a contemporary of the oral traditions tribes used to pass down history. These days, the office water cooler is the trading ground of information, transformed through multiple translations and reappropriations, constantly in flux. This is a thought-provoking and visually stimulating observation of modern working life. Make time in your own busy schedule to see it.
Emma Hart lives and works in London and has presented solo exhibitions and performances in galleries both in the UK and internationally. These include: Whitstable Biennale, Whitstable; Matt’s Gallery, London; Performa, New York; and the ICA, London. Hart was also a member of the art collective The Work In Progress, which worked on the Reclaim the Mural, an offsite commission and publication for the Whitechapel Gallery (2011–13).
Sturtevant: Leaps, Jumps and Bumps
Serpentine Gallery, London
28 June – 26 August 2013
by KATE TIERNAN
Strangely absent from most histories of Pop and Conceptualism, Elaine Sturtevant’s work is significant for the understanding of both movements. Born in Lakewood, Ohio, and based in Paris since the 1990s, Sturtevant has been remaking the works of other artists since the 60s, including that of Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp and Roy Lichtenstein, and it is this multiple appropriation for which she is known. Her first exhibitions in New York in 1965 included replicas of Andy Warhol’s flower paintings. Sturtevant asked to borrow the screens, Warhol consented. In a game of chase, Warhol, when asked about his work, would reply: “Ask Elaine.” Sturtevant, if asked about hers, would say: “Ask Warhol.”
Owls crop up throughout this latest show, and it is hard not to think that, rather like Daido Moriyama’s Stray Dog (1971), the wise bird symbolises a self-portrait of Sturtevant, who is now in her 80s. An amusing, beady-eyed owl wallpaper is printed with the word iStock. Titling and text play a crucial role in her work; transparency of authorship is one of necessity rather than generosity. Perhaps this is predictable given her consistent deflections when any personal scrutiny is involved.
Themes of looping and endless repetition are central to her work: examining the rapid growth over the past four decades of replication, revival, recycling and appropriation; asking us to unpick, question and reassess the machinery of this cultural phenomenon.
In a remake of the late Félix González-Torres's Untitled (America)(1994), lights cascade from the Serpentine's circular skylight. The original was exhibited at the Serpentine in 2000 for the Felix Gonzalez-Torres exhibition. Sturtevant wants us to think about the meaning art carries in today’s climate. How do artists mediate unwanted collaborations and appropriations of their work? Can we function with an open network/flow of references and still protect the profession of art, and how could subjectivity help?
The new works are different, not “copies” or homages. “The work is done predominantly from memory, using the same techniques, making the same errors,” says Sturtevant. In a society saturated with images, she is posing the questions inherited from Warhol’s famous Marilyn Diptych (1962), which she reworked as Warhol Diptych, 1973/2004. Other reworks includeDuchamp Fresh Window (1992), Beuys Fat Chair (1974) and Lichtenstein Happy Tears (1966-67). These iconic works beckon us to reconsider our position through this process of borrowed authorship; how does meaning change when a work is appropriated; does it have more or less influence?
Multi-screen videos show Elastic Tango (2011), grotesque at first sight, but playfully absurd. It borrows the violently provocative language of artist Paul McCarthy, most overtly in the way it flicks between documentary, commercials and cartoons: a running dog, explosions, Betty Boop, the American Flag, when suddenly the screen becomes brutally censored as it is dissected into thirds.
Rock & Rap Simulacra Act 3 (2013), another video installation, borrows its content from BBC wildlife and nature documentaries with playfully edited sequences: frog, diver, butterfly, runner, running water, gymnast, frog, owl. In the central gallery, Dillinger Running Series(2000) references Beuys’s 1974 film in which he dressed as the American mobster John Dillinger. The projector mounted on a turntable throws the walking image on to the walls, endlessly encircling the viewer; Sturtevant dressed as Beuys, dressed as Dillinger, a copy of a copy.
In the Serpentine’s East wing, in Finite Infinite 2010, another looped projection with an invisible turntable, a dog runs across the wall, frantic to escape – only to return.Looking outside through the small circular holes cut into the window blinds, one can imagine glimpsing the passing dog before it reappears as a projection on the gallery wall.
The questions Sturtevant raises are valid, worthy of interrogation. Yet the exhibition paints a rather bleak, pessimistic picture: the assumption that we are all treading the same hamster wheel of life, ceaselessly consuming without pausing to question. Perhaps we are disappointed with such overt appropriation and more at ease with it slipping past in disguise.
David Whitaker Retrospective Part II: Waters of the Nile
Rebecca Hossack Gallery, London
1 July – 31 August 2013
by KATE TIERNAN
David Whitaker (1938 – 2007) was one of the first artists to have a solo show at the Serpentine Gallery when it opened in 1970. His work was also included in the Hayward Gallery’s British Painting 74, and he had more than 30 solo shows during his career. He won many awards and accolades. In 1973, on the recommendation of Bridget Riley, he won the Mark Rothko Memorial Award, he was one of the first abstract painters to win a Hunting Art Prize, and became a Fellow of the Royal Watercolour Society in 2004. Although highly acclaimed and collected privately, his work is represented in surprisingly few national collections.
Whitaker, who was born in Blackpool, studied initially at Blackpool School of Art, later becoming a mature student at the Royal Academy, where he gained a distinction. Here, his work was predominantly figurative until a pivotal collaboration with fellow student David Inshaw shifted his practice towards abstraction, in particular Op Art – examining the potential within painting to manipulate the viewer’s perspective, playing with optical illusion. Always passionate about a career as a painter, he turned his back on the natural world he had previously depicted, venturing instead into the world within. He had a forensic approach and intellect for investigating the optical potential in colour.
This is the second retrospective of Whitaker’s work at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery and includes paintings from across his life, from the 1960s to work produced shortly before his death. Early in his career, he worked as milkman which allowed him time to paint, but the job did not support his growing family so he left to become a graphic designer. In the 1980s, he worked at Wimbledon School of Art becoming a senior lecturer until he retired in 2002.
“Collecting” atmospheric conditions and natural phenomenon that he had witnessed was integral when conceiving a work. Whitaker described this as a highly conceptual process, with the hope of capturing optimism. Fascinated by a real and multiple perspective, the influence of both Pablo Picasso and Peter Lanyon are evident in Whitaker’s output: conceptual cubism – conceiving works with pauses to consider the act of painting, the delineation of the horizontal and vertical line. The only sculpture in the show is a wooden tower reaching for the ceiling, reminiscent of a skyscraper, and painted in lollypop pastels. The delicately assembled structure is striped, revealing what looks like stairwells or escalators encircling it.
Each mark carries intentionality, gestures to demarcate and sometimes devour the surface underneath as Gerhard Richter did, dragging colour across the whole canvas. Music has a history of influencing artists and, as Richter listened to John Cage, Whitaker listened to Beethoven while composing to echo the orchestra’s rich depth and beauty: a concerto of colour. Whitaker’s inspiration was ignited by shafts of light in cathedrals, waterfalls, forests, memories of Egypt, coastlines, rainbows, sunrises, sunsets, cloud formation, metamorphosis and hypnotic motion.
The paintings appear to pulse with light, radiating a symphony of colours that are joyfully uplifting, dazzling the eyes and comforting the soul. Whitaker was a master at creating emotive depth and meaning with colour, inspired by Leonardo, Goethe and Ruskin. As one stands between Pyramids of Light (2002/2003), Blue Pacific(1975) and In Search of Moby Dick No. 3, Fata Morgana in Search of Moby Dick (1976), the gallery has a striking similarity to Dan Flavin and James Turrell’s light installations at the recent Light Show at the Hayward Gallery.
Whitaker was a prolific painter of awe-inspiring accuracy and dedication to craft and skill, a sculptor of intricate and complex geometry. The colour of each band that covers the canvas can imperceptibly shift, unlike the aggressive disorientation experienced when looking at Bridget Riley’s work. These carry ease, drawing you into his world; its reassuring calm gentleness flows like a good conversation. The colour palette is reminiscent of Peter Doig’s later works, such as Pelican (2004), and Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (1916). The warm summer breeze coming in through the window as I stand in front of Blue to Yellow on Pink(1976) it evokes a sense that I am there at the rippling water’s edge.
Where Were You?
Lisson Gallery, London
19 July – 23 August 2014
Lisson Gallery continues its minimalist aesthetic with the work of nine artists, five of whom have never shown before in the UK. Kate Tiernan went to view it.
This group show, by nine artists, of paintings, prints, relief objects and works on canvas takes its title, Where Were You?, from a 1978 song by British punk band The Mekons. These works appear to have involved minimal intervention but the complex ideas they articulate belie this, demonstrating the time and labour put in by the artists. The minimalist aesthetic is something of a tradition at Lisson Gallery and this exhibition involves a dismantling of painting and minimalism in the 21st century.
Where Were You? leads with the work of São Paulo-based artist Paulo Monteiro, who is exhibiting 24 objects and paintings. These often miniature sculptural pieces cling to the wall, protruding playfully like tiny cotton telescopes or small canvases in which a line is used to divide the surface in two or highlight a corner with neon colour. A tiny piece of folded aluminium forms a clip, griping a narrow strip of cobalt-blue felt that hangs from the wall inUntitled (2014).
As we move through the monotone gallery space, an injection of colour radiates from one of Cory Arcangel’s Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations, in which he issues instructions to Photoshop: Photoshop CS: 84 by 50 inches, 300 DPI, RGB, square pixels, “Blue, Red, Yellow”, mousedown y=5750 x=8250 and so on .Conceived by mind and made by machine, the acid yellows, vivid red and midnight blue in this graphic rainbow intersect. Nearby isTBC (2014) by Michael Rey, a large circular green panel with five peepholes. As you draw closer to look inside, you find the surface isn’t smooth but pitted with tiny irregularities from a covering of painted Plasticine.
The edges of the frames also draw attention in both Julia Rommel’s Whale Watcher (2014) , where there are glimpses of coloured stripes, and in Untitled (2014) by N Dash where they have been cut into with a nip and a tuck. The minimalist aesthetic of these works is undercut by the bold physicality of their presence, couriers of labour and craft. The visibly visceral Shape Shifter(2013) by Allora and Calzadilla was formed with layers of sandpaper that has been used by carpenters on building sites in Detroit.
Layering and erasing is a process that features repeatedly. An economy of gesture and lucid transparency is shown in Robert Janitz’s painting Love is an Object (2014), where wax creates layers of luminosity. Among the bluntness of these butting blank surfaces, a multitude of erased moments exists, resonating with one another. The absence of answers in the work is mirrored in the absence evident in the exhibition’s title: Where Were You?