Here’s the finished podcast, featuring the voices of Dan Coombs, Alfred Hitchcock, Tippi Hedren, and others.
What happens when a film behaves like a painting?
Can still images contain narratives?
Who is ‘the girl’?
Here’s the finished podcast, featuring the voices of Dan Coombs, Alfred Hitchcock, Tippi Hedren, and others.
What happens when a film behaves like a painting?
Can still images contain narratives?
Who is ‘the girl’?
I’ve been very quiet recently – in fact I haven’t said a word – about Suspicion, the current show at Jerwood Space. That’s not because I don’t have anything to say about it, am shirking responsibilities, or am more sinisterly indisposed (have been poisoned, for example…). I’ve decided to respond to the show with a podcast, and, in my experience, it takes a surprising amount of time to put a podcast together.
But a response to the exhibition is in the works, and is partly an attempt to capture, through sound, the foreboding atmosphere that many of the paintings share. The spine of the podcast will be an interview with the painter Dan Coombs, the curator of the show. I recently met Dan in the gallery, where we talked about painting, suspense, and Alfred Hitchcock, among many other things. As Dan explained to me, his idea for the show derived from a ten-second section of Hitchcock’s 1941 psychological thriller, in which the dashing playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (played by Cary Grant) ascends a mansion staircase carrying a glass of milk for his wife Linda McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine). Hitchcock had his special effects department light the glass from within, which lends the object an otherworldly quality. It’s unclear whether or not the milk has been poisoned – we never find out, but the possibility is there – and this ambiguity charges this short sequence with the intensity, visual and symbolic, of a painting.
The podcast should be online in the next few days. In the meantime, here are a few screenshots from the scene in question:
Thanks to @matthewjmclean and @LizzieHom for (inadvertently, I’m sure) embroiling themselves in a mercifully brief but entertainingly awkward Twitter exchange with the author of these blog posts several days ago. I’m glad it happened, though: Matthew kindly recommended a number of recent articles that might otherwise have escaped my (inattentive, at times) attention. I’ll be drawing on some of those texts and images in the following post. And continuing in the open, generous spirit of ‘stealing other people’s research’, I’ll also be discussing a wonderful, and wonderfully understated, short film by Yvonne Rainer suggested to me by Kate Morrell following our recent email exchange.
I was excited (and a little humbled) to encounter Kerry Doran and Lizzie Homersham’s excellent piece ’Digital Handwork‘ in Rhizome, published several months prior my post, unbeknownst to myself, in which the authors explore the various manifestations of hands in digital art: labouring hands, sensory hands, human connections. Although my ignorance of their text no doubt demonstrates the fact that it’s always good practice to Google your subject prior to going public with an article, I consider this blog an unfolding project – I think I said so at the start – and, actually, it’s as cogent and wide-ranging an essay as one could hope for: ‘In all cases,’ the authors argue, ‘hands act upon viewers, detached from bodies yet still enacting desire.’ The piece demonstrates how the advent of digital networks, augmented realities and technological bodies (engaged in labour or leisure, performance or play) have not rendered biological hands – already a familiar art-historical motif – an anachronism. These appendages have, in fact, permeated the ‘framing of human life by digital technologies, as well as the shaping and subversion of these technologies by humans.’ Humans, yes… But also, for our purposes, bears.
Peter Ole Rasmussen’s work in the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014 is the self-explanatorily titled ’4 Bears, 3 Standing, One Bending Down’. The ambiguity of the image – the slightly sinister aura of a clandestine congregation of muscular animal-men; the eyeless, inscrutable faces, one of which appears to have just this moment apprehended the viewer; the suggestion of stalled movement, of creatures paused in a journey east; the quivering outlines, the sketchily drawn and re-drawn lines – make the piece, for me, among the most intriguing in the exhibition. Some of the other drawings in the show – the works by Gary Edwards and Jonathan Huxley in particular – emphasise the gravity of carbon; the paper’s receptive surface warped beneath repeated applications of lead, the steady pressure of the artist’s hand. Rasmussen’s work in oil, by contrast, offers a more provisional vocabulary of gestures and marks, one which naturally extends to his depictions of (four-fingered) hands.
It would be hard to imagine these cartoonish hands fondling smart-screens to upload selfies or fling revengeful birds across cartoon terrains. Yet the ‘inaccuracy’ of Rasmussen’s bears’ hands, their protruding, balloonish chubbiness, points towards an obvious rift between the physical hand and the surface image, the digit and the digital. Fundamental to the development of Apple’s first ‘multi-touch glass display’ – the tactile screen that to a large extent defines the operation of iPhones and iPads – during the early 2000s was an acceptance of the fact that fingers are, by computational standards, massively inaccurate, and that any technology premised upon the encounter of fingertip and computer chip would need to be built from scratch (partly, one assumes, to secure a new patent on any such technology, and thus greater market share). Who wanted a stylus? Not Steve Jobs, for one – he could not countenance that fiddly mini-pen. Retiring the stylus was an elegant and necessary design choice, to be sure, but it presented Apple with a problem. Rather than modify an existing hard- and software, a whole new operating system had to be written; one built around the fact that fingers, in relation to pixels, are fat. On this point Jobs may have been inspired, but probably wasn’t, by the episode of The Simpsons in which Homer gains weight in order to work from home.
Homer Simpson’s fatness, like his low IQ, is a running joke. By conventional Western liberal standards, he is a ‘bad father’ – stupid, capricious, lazy, self-involved; a neglectful protector and scatterbrained disciplinarian – and therein lies his satiric potential. The fact that he’s a cartoon and not a real person means that his excessive corpulence to be exaggerated for grotesque effect, milked for parody: the ‘inaccuracy’ of his representation (yellow skin, bulging eyes) makes him, counterintuitively, a perfect vehicle for exacting observation.
I first saw Rasmussen’s drawing at the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014 private view, a matter of days after attending the private view for Paul McCarthy’s current show at Hauser and Wirth. McCarthy himself was there – haggard of beard, wicked of grin, but sporting a beautiful pair of spectacles, he resembled a gin-swigging uncle made good – in a hot room thronged with the requisite quota of perma-tanned millionaires, chatting with the (immaculately attired, to my mind) curator H.U.O., and although I was not close enough to eavesdrop it was clear from his (Obrist’s) genuflecting body language that the work was being lavishly praised. Among the lurid paintings on display was one memorable piece in which a skinny nude woman with vivid, wound-red nipples and oversized head could be observed squirting a long brown streak of liquid faeces onto the eyeless, open-mouthed supplicant below, while, elsewhere in the image, yet more pink and eyeless creatures gave and received fellatio – for all its apparent dynamism, it was a strangely numb-seeming debauch.
McCarthy’s new works were vaguely fun in a deviant, Johnny Ryan-ish way, but they were not shocking; and without the shock, there was little interest. And so, as we finished the final millilitres of our complimentary beers (Becks, the labels loosening off the bottle with condensation), we moved into the final room, which was filled with drawings.
If McCarthy’s paintings presented the ‘headline act’ in all its predictable fullness – an excess that you predicted prior to seeing the works on show; an excess that fails because it fails to exceed your anticipation of it – then the drawings possessed a virtual quality inherent to the medium of the sketch: a form which by its nature is unable to produce a ‘finished’ work. Instead of the paintings’ wisecracks and punchlines, these drawings – messy, gestural, seemingly the product of a minutes-long tantrum – were less resolved, and thus more openly suggestive. The best of these works did not present pornography as pornography (McCarthy-the-painter’s modus operandi, it would appear) but hinted towards the grim rituals by which the body is rendered object, and abject, without asserting such contexts blatantly. Hands and other body parts were caught in tangled webs of scrawling lines, carbon swirls of malignant energy.
McCarthy’s pencil-drawn hands, like Rasmussen’s pencil-and-oil ones, have a sketchy quality that invites multiple readings. The subjects and subtexts that these artists explore are clearly worlds apart, but share a resemblance in terms of technique. Indeed, the best drawing in the McCarthy show – a drawing which I did not take a photo of, have been unable to track down online, and therefore cannot present here – contains a number of bear-like creatures huddled, if I remember, in a sinister group. In the absence of that particular piece, here (and above) is ‘Mad House Drawing 3′, a work from 2011 that wasn’t actually in the show. But it gives a general idea.
Conceptually and visually, sketches have an open texture that leaves them open to dismissal – vulnerable to those who disregard ‘incomplete’ work; who like to see the labour on the page. It is equally possible to fetishise the sketch, its perpetual deferral of finality, its teasing refusal to close the circle. It’s only once you get up close to Rasmussen’s work that you notice that the darker, more immediate lines, rendered in black oil, are secondary to the delicate underlying pencil. The ‘double vision’ effect draws attention to the relative importance of pencil and oil in the hierarchy of artists’ materials. The pencil marks are swifter, lighter, less consequential. The ink retains a sense of quickness, but is certainly more considered, more final. Artists’ hands always speak through prosthetic extensions, tools which have social histories; tools which in turn create a sense of motion in the hand, the foot –
– and the head.
(I never got round to the Rainer film. I’ll save it for next time.)
Hands are not neutral appendages. They shape and alter what they touch, leaving residues of sweat, salt and DNA; expose the fragility of protected things; surround static objects with choreographies of encounter and display; reveal the continuity of material culture through time (in touching an ancient artefact, you are, in a sense, ‘touching the past’); suggest the presence, and absence, of gendered authority; and portray the human body in ambiguous relation to the things it seeks to possess and protect.
All of these resonances are at play in the work of Kate Morrell, a multi-disciplinary artist who produces books, sculptures, installations – and drawings. Throughout her work there is an emphasis on tactility, from the uncoated paper stock and risograph ink of ‘Alpine Spoilers‘, which emphasise the textural pleasures of handling books, to her ‘Stone Axes (Group II)‘, which with their scalloped ridges and handy sizes suggest an ancient ergonomics translated into contemporary materials.
Her piece selected for the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014, ‘A.V.M, 1954, Screenshot 2013-12-10′, is one of the reasons I’ve chosen to pursue the theme of hands. The deep ambiguity of the image – this ghostly, black-clad figure emerging from the right of the frame to put down (or pick up?) what appears to be a fairly plain, unremarkable chunk of rock – invites multiple readings. This complexity or uncertainty of perception is underscored by the pointillistic technique the artist has used. Seen from across the room, the picture has a soft and hazy, almost underwater appearance; up close, however, the image resolves into billows and gusts of tiny black marks of extraordinary precision. These marks enhance the Giclée-printed image across which they move, but also suggest a newly mediated encounter with the source material, distorting what is brought to light. The nested histories the drawing contains – the ancient world of the artefact itself; the TV programme in which the object is displayed; and finally Kate’s present-day (for the time being) drawing – are connected by the presence of hands: hands that sculpt, handle and draw.
I spoke to Kate via email.
Firstly, I’d be interested in hearing how the A.V.M. drawing sequence came about. What drew you to the subject? Did it emerge from ongoing research, or a chance encounter?
The work is part of a series of four drawings which were made for the solo exhibition ‘Pots Before Words’ at Gallery II, University of Bradford. The project was the result of my research within the Jacquetta Hawkes Archive, which is held at Special Collections, University of Bradford. Hawkes (1910-1996) was a writer and archaeologist who played an important role in popularising archaeology through her writings and radio and TV appearances. Much of the work produced for my show focussed on Hawkes’ interest in prehistory, and her humanist approach to archaeology. There are images of the show on my website.
The screenshots are selected from early episodes of a BBC panel show produced around the 1950s. It was one of the first examples of archaeology within popular media and Hawkes was one of the few women to appear on the programme as an expert in her field. The programme featured a panel of male ‘experts’ and a female assistant, or object handler. Objects were displayed on a slow-turning circular display wheel. Through the process of logical thought, experts identified the objects for the audience. Other than her hands and wrists, the female assistant is never shown.
I was interested in the different ‘handlers’ within the show and their role in the production of object-meanings. I found the handling by the silent assistant quite compelling – particularly these performative (but un-choreographed) gestures for display and interpretation that were created.
In the series, three of the drawings feature the (female) assistant, and one drawing shows the (male) archaeologist reaching into shot, to remove the object from the display wheel for inspection. Only the male hand features in the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014 exhibition. It’s a shame all four drawings were not able to be shown.
It would be good to hear a little about the experience of making the drawing. How long does each drawing take, for example? What is it about this specific way of working that appeals to you?
The drawings are roughly A2 size. They are made with drawing ink and paintbrushes used for miniature painting. Each drawing took around 20 hours to complete. I used 7 paintbrushes to make the series – each one was eventually discarded once it begun to disrupt the uniformity of the lines. I might have achieved greater precision with a technical drawing pen, but I like the fact that brush and ink reveals evidence of the hand, and tools, used in the process.
I’m quite conscious of the time invested in drawings. In the previous blog post you talk about ‘the work of art as a vessel of invested time, the lasting relic of ephemeral gestures’, which I think resonates with this series too.
Are you interested in this relationship between tactility implied by the image of hands, and the tactility of drawing?
A few (fragmented) thoughts:
I think this tension between protection and possession, implied by object handlers in the drawings, is also reflected in the archaeological approach to excavation and collecting. Archaeologists aim to protect and preserve, but the act of excavation itself can be destructive. It’s interesting that people who care for archives are often called the ‘keepers’ of a collection.
In handling, objects become free from their fixed interpretations assigned within static museum displays. In the process of scientific interpretation, the knowledge of the past is undergoing continuous reconstruction. The repetitive drawing technique has a transformative quality. I wanted it to depict these object-meanings to be in a state of flux.
The brushes used to make the drawing indicates the microscopic, scientific lens and a transformation of matter under close scrutiny. Lithic drawing is used by archaeologists as a process for recording finds. When illustrating stone tools, the structure of the rock, including its tactile ripples and fractures, are documented using finely-drawn black lines. It’s thought to be one of the best ways to understand the method of its production (other than through flint knapping). I think it’s an interesting use of drawing within a scientific discipline – one that relies upon direct handling and re-interpreting.
Alongside this idea of drawing as a kind of science, I wonder if you would consider your drawing sequence as a form of ‘interpretation’, another ‘layer’ in the histories of these objects?
Yes, drawing is used to add another layer to the interpretation of objects, although I didn’t want the new layer to feel fixed or definitive. Much of the original image remains under the shadow.
Is there a connection between the A.V.M. drawings and your earlier sculptural work ‘Flint’? The markings on the surface of this work are quite similar.
I began the ‘Flint’ series in 2010. The markings are quite similar, but they are applied to the surface of large pieces of flint stone. They both demonstrate the transforming quality of this repetitive drawing method. This additional layer of interpretation both overwhelms and enhances the original surface markings.
Do hands appear in your work more widely?
I’m planning to make a new piece of work using a stone turntable I produced: ‘Lazy Susan: Portable Toolkit’. It’s a stone apparatus which functions as a portable, table-top display. I’m going to approach various archives and collections with the sculpture, in order to play host to a series of female archivists and archaeologists and the chosen artefacts of their profession. Objects will be re-animated by the hands of archaeologists, geologists and archivists and the object presentations will be filmed.
In this context, the Lazy Susan device is a counterpart to the potters wheel – on both surfaces, matter is re-modelled, displayed and performed.
Are you also drawn to more recent non-archaeological examples of ‘handling’ and display? I’m thinking in particular of infomercials and game shows, which often feature (silent) female assistants.
The (mostly unintentional) humour of these outdated formats appeals to me. The lo-tech lazy susan device still makes appearances on these game shows too.
I also look out for instances within printed matter, although I don’t see many contemporary examples in print. Below is an image that I picked up at a car boot sale. It was part of a portfolio of advertising images by an unnamed photographer.
Maybe it’s an obvious thing to say, but when I think about drawing, I think about hands – hands as ‘authentic’ appendages, contraptions of tactility and communication, brutality and sensuality, through which we shape the world. Drawing suggests a progenitive link between maker and art object; a link embraced by some proponents of a conservative, craft-conscious art that stands in opposition to the realities of the contemporary art market, with its armies of underpaid interns and fetish for high-spec industrial sheens. But we could see it another way. In the mid-60s Allan Kaprow articulated the idea that painting might be considered as a record of a performance, rather than the eschatological terminus towards which all art-making must tend. In shifting emphasis from materiality to temporality – by figuring the work of art as a vessel of invested time, the lasting relic of ephemeral gestures – he suggested a different model of engagement with pictorial representation, in which all marks are unavoidably the record of their maker.
We like to watch Picasso draw because Picasso was ‘a genius’. Witnessing his body at work, his guiding hand, confirms the authorship of the mark, his mark, on the page. This romantic view of artistic production is reminiscent of divine paternity: the hand that reaches out to Adam, shaping him from dirt; the male maker’s hand as an echo of God’s. Picasso’s fluid and instinctual use of the charcoal (he doesn’t appear to be deciding which marks to make; they simply happen) also illustrates Heidegger’s notion of the ‘ready-to-hand’, which, to oversimplify, describes our practical relation to things that are ‘handy’ or useful.
And then there’s Matthew Barney, who twists the idea of drawing as an expression of bodily skill into a bizarre and self-regarding display in which the drawing (as in the noun, the art object) is the tortured product of an athletic overcoming of obstacles he built himself. Barney’s Drawing Restraint works are fundamentally silly, but their will to mastery illustrates an important etymological point. ‘Hand’, from the Old English ‘hond’: power, control, possession.
It would follow, then, that the loss of the hands means the loss of control. There’s a scene in the film version of Akira (1988) when we enter the mind of Tetsuo, the traumatised orphan struggling to deal with the onset of psychic powers. The world around him begins to crack and shatter, fissures shooting through the concrete like Lichtenberg Figures, but this is no ordinary earthquake. When the cracks invade Tetuso’s body (and by extension, his mind), the first things to go are his fingers, his hands, his wrists. Dissolving hands prefigure the dissolving self.
Dissolution isn’t always bad. Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04 contains a passage in which the author compares two depictions of disappearing hands, and extrapolates from them a mediation on possible futures. He analyses Joan of Arc (1879), by the French naturalist painter Jules Bastien-Lepage, in which the future saint is shown haunted by angels, gazing towards her destiny as a martyr. (Lerner also wrote about the painting for frieze.) Bastien-Lepage was criticised at the time for his failure to reconcile the spiritual and concrete dimensions within the painting – the floating figures of transparent saints and the rural realism of the world in which they appear – but for Lerner this creates a ‘glitch in the pictorial matrix’: Joan’s searching fingers become transparent at the tips, intimating her future transformation, through death, into a saint. Lerner contrasts this with the scene in Back to the Future (1985) in which Marty disrupts the prehistory of his family, making his siblings fade from a family snapshot. Lerner deploys these images as symbols for the presence and absence of certain futures, and the hands motif neatly echoes the language of clocks: hands are how we measure time.
And there are hands that persist after the death, the collapse of an individual’s futures: uncannily active body parts, like Thing from the Addam’s Family, say, or the twitching, seemingly reanimated CGI hand that features in Heads May Roll (2014) by Benedict Drew, recently on show in Matt’s Gallery. HD technology allows us to extend the human image into screen-space, creating ambiguous forms of imagined embodiment that thrive in the ‘uncanny valley‘. Drew’s work harnesses fragmentation – bodily, but also formal – to make a point about the strange abjection/empowerment (virtual) images produce in relatation to (actual) bodies.
If hands suggest tactility between bodies and objects; they also symbolise wider forms of apprehension and communication. Drew’s hand is evocative of ancient, ghoulish tropes of Horror fiction, Frankenstein in particular (note the eerie green background of the image above, reminiscent of Hammer Horror lighting effects); they also suggest forms of embodiment beyond the cyberpunk dream of the human corpus infiltrated and enhanced by gadgets, nanotechnology, wires and nodes. At the end of Terminator II, the cyborg’s complete moral conversion, from murderous machine to surrogate father, is communicated his final, dying gesture as he is consumed by molten metal. The universal hand-signal of approval, affirmation, positivity and friendship constitutes the ludicrously poignant crux of the film, its non-verbal emotional payoff.
If hands can communicate the inner emotional truths we (or Arnold Schwarzenegger) can’t quite put into words, in the context of crime and punishment they more straightforwardly confirm our identity, and, by extension, guilt. Towards the end of Seven (1995), Kevin Spacey’s character John Doe walks into the police station of the unnamed city in a Christ-like pose of surrender, in broad daylight, wearing a white shirt splattered with blood. His arms are ribboned with red streaks; his fingertips are swaddled in surgical tape. Detectives Mills and Somerset have been hunting Doe for months, but have thus far been bamboozled by their failure to identify him by his fingerprints (Doe leaves plenty at the scene, but they aren’t on any databases). This is because he doesn’t have any: John Doe slices the skin off his fingers between every murder, and the skin grows back in different patterns each time. This small if brutal act of self-mutilation effectively renders him invisible in the eyes of the law.
These preliminary thoughts – most of which aren’t actually related to drawing at all – will frame later investigations into the works in this year’s Drawing Prize. In a few days I’ll be posting an interview with Kate Morell, whose drawing A.V.M. 1954 screenshot 2013-12-10 (3) confronts the politics of touching and display in relation to archaeological objects.
In the meantime, here’s the customary cringe-inducing, mildly funny, tangentially related YouTube clip. (This is the internet, after all.)
The 20th annual Jerwood Drawing Prize opens later tonight. It’s the first exhibition I’ll be covering as Writer in Residence and I’m looking forward to looking at, and writing about, the work. But before we begin, a confession. I’m not a big fan of drawing.
Perhaps I should clarify. I don’t have anything against individual artists who draw, much less against drawings themselves, but the idea of drawing as a discipline – Drawing with a capital D, an institutionalised medium – makes me slightly suspicious. Traditionally the qualitative judgements in drawing are premised on verisimilitude, on the level of accuracy attained by visual facsimiles of real-world things. There’s an attendant perception of drawing as an authentic craft, something that sorts the wheat from the chaff, a litmus test of artistic skill. But skill is a boring concept. Its relevance evaporates at the horizon of capability: some people have it, others simply don’t. I also feel uneasy about reinforcing the idea of drawing as a politically ignorant medium, a species of formal purism that tends to overlook its own commodity status while producing highly desirable, decorative objects. Drawings are small and transportable; they are easy to frame and sell. Commercial gallerists love them. So does the general public: the Drawing Prize is Jerwood’s best-attended annual exhibition.
I do not air these prejudices in order to mount a pre-emptive critique of the exhibition I’ll be writing about over the coming weeks, but merely to assert a position I can’t really defend in the first place and which I hope will grow and alter over that time. It is apparent to me, though, that drawing qua drawing – a medium ring-fenced from the myriad of interchangeable genres and modes contemporary artists operate through, from sculpture to film to tumblr feeds – has an anachronistic flavour in the context of contemporary art, at odds with the post-discipline, post-internet, post-everything zeitgeist. But this may be precisely where the strength of drawing lies: its outsiderness to current forms, construed as a form of freedom. And judging from a brief glimpse at the work on display from this evening onwards, ‘drawing’ comprises a great variety of mediums, subjects approaches and tones.
You can find out a little about myself and my work at my website. Over the coming weeks I’ll talk to various artists, attempt to decipher out the narratives encoded in individual works, and think about the show as a whole, as a collective entity. I’ll also consider what place drawing has, or might have, in the wider framework of artistic and economic conditions that currently surround the Prize. Hopefully, I can lay some unexamined assumptions to rest by doing so.
One final thing: the image above. I haven’t yet worked out how to caption jpegs on this blog yet, so I’ll have to include a credit here. Plan B by Lexi Strauss. Acrylic on paper. Photography: Benjamin Cosmo Westoby
Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s work sits between art and design; advanced technology and engineering. Their ongoing investigation into materials, and the political systems in which they exist, result in works that question use, value, and our increasingly symbiotic interdependence with the world of technology. In their studio, we discussed their new commission for Jerwood Visual Arts, ‘Giving More to Gain More‘ (2014), a series of LED sculptures that emit words and phrases taken from email conversations with the manufacturers of the lights, based in China. The result is a manufacturing ‘pidgin’ language; odd, a little eerie, crossing cultural and geographical divides, but linked by a strange specificity.
Basia: This piece seems quite different to your previous works.
Revital: For us it’s always a natural progression from the other works – I’m interested to hear why you think it’s different?
Revital: This language came out of a previous work, called ‘75 Watt‘ (2013), and another, a wolf in a forest – ‘Nowhere a Shadow‘ (2013). We ordered all these LED lights for those projects, but there was something peculiar about the language of manufacturing, which we increasingly found fascinating.
Tuur: Our main focus is on materials and production. And that’s very broad. We made a piece with a pigeon – ‘Pigeon D’or‘ (2011) [a bacteria that makes pigeons defecate soap] – which was very much about biology as a material, but also the cultural, political and ethical consequences of using biology as such, in the context of mass manufacturing, but also in terms of synthetic biology.
In this instance, it was the language of production that intrigued us, and when we as artists think about these processes, we don’t think of them as purely technical. We consider them as cultural and political processes too. In ’75 Watt’, we were intrigued by the product being made, but as much by the bodies on the assembly line, too. It goes back to Frederick Winslow Taylor and the ‘efficient movement’, and time-motion studies by the Gilbreths.
At the time, we were doing a lot of work in China, and often via platforms like Alibaba.com, which are very much contemporary platforms for global mass manufacture. It struck us that this language that emerges is a pidgin language. We saw this piece as a way of reflecting on the ideas of what ‘making’ might still mean as an artist where outsourcing has become a process of making art.
Revital: It’s a reality of our work, because we use so many technological materials – they all come from China. I mean, you can get anything there. So many things are impossible to find here, but one email through Alibaba.com and 20 people want to talk to you about LEDs. There were also so many conversations around the materials themselves, which have such a specific nature. Descriptions of light, specifications, colours, letters and numbers and specs – super technical things. The only way to get these materials is to go through these conversations. That’s our manufacturing reality at this moment.
Basia: Is it related to a language (if you can call it that) like spam? A pragmatic language that occurs at the intersection between people and technology? Standing in front of your installation, the words and terms change according to where you position yourself, your body mediates the communicative element of the technology.
Tuur: It’s a nice analogy. It definitely has many parallels. These words do go through a natural process of filtering – the people optimise their way of talking to you, in trying to get you to buy something.
Revital: Although with spam you have the sense you are just 1 in a million of copy-and-pastes, whereas here it so quickly it becomes a personal conversation.
Tuur: Yes, spam in its algorithmic nature is not like this. All the words displayed in Jerwood Visual Arts are taken from conversations we’ve had with the manufacturers of the LED lights they are displayed in. These were from April, that was her name. Obviously these are just snippets of longer emails, which we were considering to display in the gallery, but we chose not to.
Basia: They feel abstract, in a way in a word game can be – there’s a playfulness to them. Where language is usually clear to those fluent in it, words immediately recognisable, here there are long periods of not-knowing, as the words shift and reassemble. Is this also significant in the context of the cross-cultural conversations being had, typical of many manufacturing exchanges between China and elsewhere?
Tuur: Another thing I was thinking of, when you mentioned technology and spam, is that it might well be that some of these conversations have been automatically translated, through Google or something else. A few years ago we made a work inspired by Turing, and how he defined artificial intelligence, and how central language is to our definition of humanness and human intelligence as opposed to a machinic knowledge. We made something like a music video, where we took lyrics from ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles, and passed it multiple times through online translators, eventually back to English. In the end, we got this strange, new, poetic computer understanding of language.
‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Beatles?’ (2007)
Video, sound , 04 minutes 54 seconds
Revital: With this work, we were really interested in Alibaba.com, and this marketplace. Before the website entered our lives, we always wanted to see materials. The ideal is to go to a shop, to see and touch, and think with the material in your hand. But if you want to work with more technological materials, then it’s just not possible. So, you have to put your trust in Alibaba.com. You are never quite sure if it’s reliable, but once it becomes a part of your life, it’s like an Aladdin’s cave of materials. Everything, everything.
Basia: So it’s a portal into an infinite market place, and I wonder about the ethical dimensions of this. What is the consequence of this unfettered, unlimited access to materials? And I think this relates to a wider question about the consequence of China’s position as exporter to the world.
Tuur: If you go to Guangzhou or Shenzhen, to these electronic markets, they’re so vast. Physically having been there, it helps to understand how it is possible that there are thousands of companies manufacturing every little thing, producing masses and masses of it.
Revital: It’s probably not going to last there. It’s already moving towards Vietnam and Cambodia, and the ethical implications of that are very interesting. I wouldn’t say we have a direct answer, but that’s why we are so fascinated in working there, and working in that context.
Tuur: I think in terms of the ethics, the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that however much we think that something is ethically complex, we will always be implicated within it. What we’re trying to do with the work is partly to explore this ethical dimension, but always to start with the acknowledgement that we’re part of the process. In the piece we’re presenting at Jerwood Visual Arts, there’s an interesting reversal. We did a crazy amount of hand-work on the pieces, welding them all together, and then soldering them. In some ways, it’s the opposite: the instructions came from China, and we did all the manual labour.
Revital: But we also put work into illuminating these sentences from a young Chinese girl working in a factory, we wanted to giver her presence. She’s not just an anonymous service provider.
Tuur: When it comes to these ethical questions, and especially biology as a material, in the context of industrial production, I think these ethical implications are very profound. For example, in ’75 Watt’ we wanted to represent contemporary factories in China, in which actually labour conditions are very reasonable (although of course it’s very difficult for me to comment on that). But we didn’t want to find a sweatshop, where people sit on the floor. Although they exist. Because that would have made the work very different, and perhaps less interesting. It’s important to keep the ambiguity at an ethical level, because it’s there that we as artists keep on working and looking, walking that path.
Basia: Could you talk about how this work fits into the broader trajectory of your practice?
Revital: It feels like each project gives birth to the other (with many links). And they come together in a few different routes, which for us make perfect sense. With this commission, we wanted to pursue this language because of our earlier work with the translations of ‘Yesterday’. It’s been cooking for a while. But it is also relevant to the work we made where we assembled various technological objects and removed all the minerals from them, casting them back into a mineral form. It’s about taking apart an industrial, electronic product and exploding it, exploring the people who assemble it, the minerals that allow it to be, the places through which it comes.
Tuur: It’s about seeing the systems that underly these modes of production as political. ’75 Watt’ came out of a quote from a handbook of mechanical engineering, which says that an average labourer on an average day can produce 75 watts, average. What we liked about that was the tension between biology and technology, a tension between the biological body on the assembly line, that can not be quantified and characterised, and cannot be understood by the same logic of engineering which it’s really relying on, the quantification, characterisation, standardisation. It cannot fit within this larger system of production. The pigeons are similar – synthetic biology is a branch of technology and science, and the people we were working with had the same sort of ideals – to standardise and characterise biology to form part of a more reliable system. That, somewhere down the line, is a capitalist system. So, these political systems are underlying modes of production, with regards to biology and technology, whether at the scale of the human body or the assembly line, or bacterial production, or urban ecologies.
Revital: It’s about exploring the system of manufacturing when the engineering logic is removed. When there isn’t a clear use value or end point.
Let no one ignorant of Mathematics enter here.
Let no one destitute of geometry enter my doors.
(Variations of the sign that hung above Plato’s academy)
In August, I met with Shelley James and, in the prismatic glow of her contribution to the Jerwood Makers Open 2014, we talked about her ongoing exploration into Platonic solids, Euclidian geometry, quasicrystalline structures and visual perception.
Physical forms, for James, are dense, layered, complex things suspended within a wider, less visible or knowable world. Linking philosophies of form and spirit via intensive technical processes, her shapes, installed in Jerwood Visual Arts, are deeply contemplative and beguiling. What follows is an edited transcript of our exchange, with additional links, images, footnotes and further materials for thought.
How did these shapes evolve?
My research at the RCA was on visual perception, and the ways in which the brain processes information from the eyes in order to understand space. This led to my exploration of how to suspend structures within glass. I wanted to create a special trick with the eyes, because with this medium you can find patterns and structures that are apparently floating, or you can replicate one set of patterns to appear as if their facets are multiplying – the optical and material qualities of the glass can be manipulated to create a confusion in the brain. And so I developed various techniques for doing this.
I realised that in order for this to operate really strongly, the patterns needed to be perfectly regular. Otherwise you shortcut that illusion and simply make a narrative. I developed a technique for layering very precise patterns within the glass, which involved working with a glass blower, but I also used classic printmaking tools, for example an Intaglio technique – where you cut away at a material. Together we worked out how to build up layers with these pocketed parts of air inside each one.
If you look at the forms closely, you can see there’s an embryo, then another layer, and then the next layer has some printed effects on it, so it’s mixing additive and subtractive techniques together.
In the past, I’ve mostly worked with curved surfaces, and I’ve spent a lot of time observing how they create a ripple and magnification effect. Here, I wanted to deal with patterns and archetypal forms but also the metaphysical, metaphorical, philosophical side of such forms. It’s about the essential, about our experience of the world. I developed another technique to cut them in to perfect shapes – slicing them from a cylinder into something else. I worked from an old book on geometry, which gave me the angles between the Platonic solids. They are sort of the ideal sculpture, because they look so beautiful from all ends.
So their combinations with themselves and with each other give rise to endless complexities, which anyone who is to give a likely account of reality must survey.
—The Timaeus, Plato
Using a milling machine and a CAD programme, I ensured that all the forms were facially regular, and then I used the same technique they’ve used since Egyptian times to smooth each piece of glass using grit. You rub the glass over the grit and it slowly wears away, gradually using a finer and finer grit until you graduate to a pumice wheel, to perfectly smooth the surfaces.
How do you see them?
I suppose what was paradoxical about making them was that although they are very technical and time-intensive, each one actually relates to one of the elements, and so I spent a great deal of time thinking about that, too.
This one, the dodecahedron is aether, the divine; this one is an icosahedron, and these are water, fire, air, earth [pointing to each shape]. I found as I made each one, I kept thinking about these elemental qualities as well. They started to have a strong emotional resonance, more than just a technical quality. My hope is that they transcend their material, technical presence to offer some way of thinking about other dimensions of our experience. That’s why I like working with print and materials, because at worst, they need to be well made. But if they transcend to something else, then that’s fantastic.
The knowledge of which geometry aims is the knowledge of the eternal.
—Republic, VII, 52.
And why is a dodecahedron aether? What is the relationship between the geometry and metaphysics?
Plato and some of the other Greek philosophers were trying to work out the distinction between what they could see, and what lies behind or beneath the visible. They understood that there must be more than what we can visually obtain in the world. They were trying to get to the essence of what we were seeing and perceiving, and they felt that by looking closer at forms, and phenomena around them, they could identify particular shapes which had a philosophical and material resonance with what they were observing.
Plato’s idea was that our view of what we see is like a sheet, thrown over some divine reality which is just beyond our gross mortal ability to see things. A sheet thrown over a rich, fabulous, extraordinary world, and all you see are these shapes poking out. These Platonic solids are as close we can be to seeing behind that sheet. They described the elements via different shapes: a cube is solid, it has an up and a down, cardinal points. An octahedron is air, and it has a kind of forward motion, it has a movement to it. Fire is pointy, fire creates prismatic effects, it’s sharp. Others are mobile.
[Plato wrote most about the solids in Timaeus (c.360 BC). Earth, a cube. Air, an octahedron. Fire, a tetrahedron and water, an icosahedron. According to various sources, these related to the sensations or visual phenomena of the matter itself. For example: the burning heat of fire is sharp, like tetrahedra. Or, the flowing form of an icosahedron, which pours and tumbles, fluid-like.
Of the fifth solid, aether, Plato wrote:
that ..the god used for arranging the constellations on the whole heaven.]
They began to question: why is it that the stars stay up there? Or, where do we go when we die? What is beyond this realm? They looked at starfish, hands, and deduced a five-fold logic from these forms. It’s related to a five-fold symmetry – celestial. I was reading about those metaphysical, poetic qualities, and so I found myself investing some of these qualities in the work as I developed them.
The way that they play and manipulate the light makes them appear form-less. It’s not that they are visual tricks, but our understanding of the space inside the shape is unsure and full of doubt. They are malleable, according to where you stand in relation to them. And that’s perhaps the essence of these metaphysical elements: you’re never quite sure of what is in front of you, and your position to these things is always changing and mutating.
Precisely. It’s about trying to express that fragile equilibrium. I used microscope lamps to display them, and I wanted to think about how the presentation reflects this wider chain of fragility.
Is this part of a wider series?
The Jerwood Visual Arts commission allowed me to delve into this properly for the first time. I had been working with a crystallographer on symmetry, but inside curved forms, because they give all sorts of rippling uncertainties, depending on scale and position. This funding allowed me to explore new territory. This was the first time I’d made anything like this.
How might you develop this way of working in the future?
I’m hoping to depart from Euclidian geometry, where the forms are confined in the world of fractions and angles from Greek geometry. I’d like to explore the next generation of math and crystals, quasi-crystollography. They’ve just discovered it thanks to new technology, and there’s a subtle variation of the five-fold shape called a quasi-crystal, for which Dan Schechtman received the Nobel Prize for his discovery in 2011. It’s looking at irrational numbers, which never repeat again in infinity. They have a whole mystery and mythology about them.
[The notion of an 'aperiodic crystal' – a form that is irregular, or without translational symmetry, was first explored by Schrödinger in What is Life? (1944).]
What I’ve been surprised by is that expressing geometry like this triggers a poetic response. I am wondering – and its never been done before – what happens when we put this new kind of geometry into optical forms. We don’t know what we’re going to get yet.
I met up to talk to Heather Phillipson whose work Zero-Point Garbage Matte (2012) featured in the exhibition ‘TTTT’ at Jerwood Space to ask her about her practice.
Shama Khanna: Where to start? As I said in my email I feel there are a lot of questions I don’t know how to ask about yet, before we start a conversation.
Heather Phillipson: I liked it when you said you didn’t know how to ask your questions. I often feel like I don’t know how to ask something until it’s underway – especially with making – and then it’s too late and you’re midway through a conversation you didn’t anticipate.
S: I think I meant that there are threads that run through all your works and I don’t know whether to start with those, or with one work in particular …
H: I think it’s good to start with something specific, but either one of those approaches could be specific – a specific thread, or a specific work – working through the links. It’s something that I find challenging myself, and sometimes generative too – what are the specificities? How can I articulate them? It’s something you’re often required to do as an artist – to put a frame around your practice, to put names on bits of it – to translate it into words, to tie it down in some way. And, actually, on any given day, I feel I could speak about my practice differently – there are forking paths all over it. Maybe you could say that for all practices to some extent, but it’s definitely something I’m aware of with my own work. I could talk about it in terms of video, say, or music, rhythm, collage, language, the voice, the body, sculpture, architecture, physical and digital navigation of space, colour, line-breaks, metaphors… and that’s just the obvious, concrete stuff. And I have talked about it in relation to all of these things, which is sometimes the useful aspect of framing – having the opportunity to re-confront the practice, or to transpose it, or to change my mind, or to locate it differently. So that element of not knowing what something is, or where to start, or re-asking it what it’s doing, is the same for me – and that’s actually a big part of what I’m addressing.
S: Can you tell me about your decision to put most of your videos online?
H: There are different reasons. Probably the clearest one is that the internet’s a context to which the work is referring and, moreover, using. I take material from the internet, so by re-locating the videos there it feels that there’s an exchange – the videos return to (one of the) place(s) that birthed them. But the videos also take from and refer to multiple other real and imagined places, so why not push them back out into the world in multiple forms and places too? Maybe this also relates to the question of framing – I’m preoccupied by the possibilities of context, and what might be added, or lost, by, say, watching the video at home on your laptop as opposed to inside a highly controlled gallery installation. Maybe a small screen and crappy speakers is not, for me, the optimum experience of the work, but I’m interested that it can be an experience of the work and certainly a very different one. I think of it as the work having separate but related lives.
S: It’s a bit like the difference between the performance of poetry and reading it in a book, in a way, two such different formats.
H: That’s a good comparison. Maybe it has something to do with live-ness? There’s the intimate relationship that you might have with something when you’re reading it in a book or watching it on a laptop, when it’s just you and the thing – being ‘alone’ together. And then there’s the experience of encountering it in a space where you have to engage with it physically, and with other people too. I think both involve a kind of ‘live-ness’, a mix of private and public in different proportions, but that ‘live-ness’ is qualitatively different .
A poetry reading has an obvious public live-ness, but there can be a brilliant intimacy to it too. The potency of just a body speaking in space, to other bodies – there’s something really physically intense about that. Speaking about it now, it imakes me think of when I saw Robert Ashley read live, with no musical accompaniment – it was mind-blowingly intense, and long too – and that seemed to the be the point, the drifting in and out – that it becomes about something else – not understanding necessarily, but the flow between the ‘notes’. In contemporary poetry, there’s a tendency to opt for brevity in readings, in order to hold attention – almost like an acknowledgment that you can’t take in that level of intensity (and intimacy) and really attend to it at the same time. Whereas artists often work with that intensity, and rhythms of distraction, in a different way – pushing it.
S: I’d imagine you’d need to be brief if you want people to pay attention to the construction of a sentence, for example.
H: Yes, if you want people to hear what’s been packed into it… poetry’s so dense – you’re not really meant to ‘get it’ on a single hearing, or maybe not even on several hearings (or readings). Because it’s so dense you need space around it and, later, repetition. You need space around the words because they need to resonate in your head. And then you need to re-encounter them. Perhaps that’s like the different versions of the video installations too – what happens, or changes, with repeated exposure.
S: One of the hallmarks of your work is there isn’t enough time to reflect – you’re immersed in this barrage, almost, not barrage but a seamless flow of words … and you’re looking down, your body’s forming part of something that’s outside of you.
H: I think it goes back to this issue of multiplicity, and some idea of stuffing or snapping time, treating it spatially – making available different routes or perspectives or moments. Almost simultaneously, for example, you might become hyper-conscious of your body in relation to the video, and in the (public) space, and then a bit of music will kick in, or stop, and you’ll notice something beside you, and then the rhythm changes, and that might pull you into the video. But, again, all this is something you can come back to – there’s probably no desire, on either part, to give it all away, or to have it all given away.
S: Do you edit your videos to a score?
H: No, I edit relatively spontaneously, like composing, which is how I write as well – it’s really about rhythm. It all happens in the editing, in that process of banging things together, trying to find the electricity.
S: Do you think about an audience?
H: Not really – at least, not when I’m inside the making. Bonnie Camplin once said to me that she thinks about art as a ‘private epistemological adventure’. I love this expression. It’s about going on an adventure with the material. Once the work’s made it finds its audience and I don’t really mind who that audience is. It doesn’t need to be for everyone, but it can be for anyone.
S: Is there anything you’d like to talk about in your work that doesn’t get spoken about?
H: People often ask about the structure of the videos – how words are used, or music, or collage or sculpture, but one thing that’s important, that doesn’t come up that much, is emotion – love, terror, anger, joy. Maybe it’s not that fashionable to talk about emotion in relation to art – that thing we can’t control, and then try to.
Somebody asked me recently why I like irony so much. This threw me a little, the assumption that I’m aiming for irony because, for me, it’s not irony – my work isn’t ironic. In that way, at least, it’s really quite straightforward – despairing or celebratory, resolute or terrified, or all of them at once…But I found it interesting that the work was being interpreted like that. Maybe because it holds what appear to be conflicting positions simultaneously…
S: Maybe because the humour is quite deadpan.
H: Yes, maybe because the tone isn’t easily read, it resembles irony? It doesn’t for me, but I see how the tonal shifts are confusing – how one tone comes to a sudden halt, and just as you’re getting into the fun, it becomes anxiety – it flips. But, for what it’s worth, the emotions are what they are. Often the starting points for the videos are things that I feel deeply troubled by, or ecstatic about. The work frequently begins with an emotion. Or mixed emotions. So it’s less about irony and more about contrariness and complexity, not knowing whether to be in love with the world or to smash its face in – the difficulty of sustaining.
S: I felt that from the Splashy Phasings (2013), that it was really moving, even though it was just 3 minutes long, like a commercial.
H: I’m glad. Superficially, you wouldn’t necessarily read it that way – there’s a veneer of absurdity, which is comedic…but then the tragedy is rammed in, or is riding along beneath it all along, or floods in when it stops.
Oliver ‘Laric Mansudae Overseas Project’, 2014
The exhibition title ‘TTTT’ originally referred to the acronym for ‘These Things Take Time’ but the phrase has since been replaced by the internet shorthand for ‘Too Tired To Type’. The change may be indicative of a changing conception of time since 1984 when the pop band The Smiths produced an album entitled These Things Take Time (15 years before CDs became commercially available) up to the present moment where the internet is the dominant medium used for work, play and procrastination. Boredom means something completely different now our smart phones are here to accompany us while we wait for the bus. Waiting for a letter to arrive, and reply sent by snail mail is a distant memory – such an inefficient speed of communication is remembered almost like a fiction. These things are no longer expected to take up our time.
Cécile B. Evans ‘How happy a Thing can be’, 2014
Cécile B. Evans has spoken about how September 11th marked a sea change for her, from which point on she could no longer distinguish images documenting the event from her subjective experience of being in New York and witnessing the planes fly overhead towards the World Trade Centre. The proliferation of image culture has the effect of conditioning our awareness and our memories in exactly this way. Oliver Laric’s Mansudae Overseas Project (2014) cleverly reverses the normal flow of images, rethinking what it means to be part of a globally networked society. Mansudae Overseas Projects is a construction company in North Korea which makes monuments and memorial statues for a Western audience. Laric’s project was the first commission the company accepted from an individual client. Instead of an heroic sculpture of some recognisable public figure, the sculpture is of an anonymous Asian man in non-professional workers clothing – possibly putting a face to the anonymous North Korean sculptor himself. This one-off gesture suggests the limits of the internet perceived as universally accessible and democratic – pointing to somewhere where the conception of time and production are purposefully different from our own.
Johann Arens Marte e Venere – A Hand Held Monument (video still), 2013
In his recent video Marte e Venere – A Hand Held Monument (2013) Johann Arens presents an imagined continuity between the surface of a touch screen and the smooth, strokable surfaces of classical monuments, in particular the Venus and Mars from the Museum of Roman History in Rome. In his installation The Nest of the Wild Stones (2014) Nicolas Brooks also considers the ‘not quite real’ materiality of digitally printed objects putting together a landscape of exceptionally flawless surfaces and textures framing a video showing a series of 3D printing mishaps.
Nicholas Brooks The Nest of the Wild Stones, 2014
In the moment the printing process is interrupted, the difference between the perfect image of the model on the screen and the physical impossibility of that image is made clear. The delicate infrastructure supporting the surface planes relates to natural structures such as honey combs and webbing, making the installation, otherwise devoid of the natural world, in fact very natural by introducing ideas of entropy and fallibility. Although we are ever closer to mechanising many human processes and products of nature these things still take a lot longer than the ceaseless rhetoric driving technological progress within capitalist economies.
Nicholas Brooks Applications (excerpt), 2014