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Strange emanations

19 Aug

Mining the radioactive rocks of Cornwall

Mining the radioactive rocks of Cornwall

A few months ago I was at an art conference in Penzance, Cornwall. The first full day of the three-day event consisted of a field trip to some local mines, where a barrel-chested ex-miner told us about radioactivity. The rocks here were mined for tin for thousands of years, but in amongst the ore were strange black lumps.

This was radium, the substance discovered by Marie Curie in 1898, and whose deathly – poisonous – properties it took decades to uncover. Ignorant of its side effects, radium was added to everything from drinking water to toothpaste and hair creams. One advert for radium toothpaste produced as late as World War II claimed that radium “gently polishes the dental enamel and turns it white and shiny.”

Uranium, a potentially more deadly substance that ultimately gave us the atomic bomb, has been used for decorative glass for hundreds of years – long before its explosive properties were discovered. Uranium use took off in the 19th century as an additive that could make glassware glow green.

The attractive green glow of uranium glass.

The attractive green glow of uranium glass.

Louis Thompson’s glassware ‘Reap What You Sow’ is similarly made of uranium glass – or at least, uranium is present in a harmless, trace quantity. The presence of the substance recalls a history of processes and discovery, of the confluence of craft and science.

Louis Thompson, Reap What You Sow, 2012. Exhibited at the Jerwood Makers Exhibition

Louis Thomson, Hive, 2011. Exhibited at the Jerwood Makers Exhibition, 2012

Louis Thompson, Hive, 2011. Exhibited at the Jerwood Makers Exhibition, 2012

Thompson’s Hive consists of a series of seemingly unusable glass vessels. They are sealed like barrels of contaminated waste. Hive is a field of alien-looking forms reaching out towards one another like sentient beings. They look like they emanated from the rocks – as forms, they are as strange and otherworldly as the isotope they contain.

 

 

 

William Shannon’s Kiln House

6 Aug

William Shannon's Kiln House

William Shannon's Kiln House

William Shannon’s Kiln House is a visual story that unfolds as you encounter it. Walking towards it, you are aware that this is a building that a craftsperson might inhabit, albeit in some otherworldy folksy realm. It has folksy tiles on its roof and outer walls. Inside is a workbench.

You would probably stumbled upon it in a clearing in the Black Forest, not far from a village filled with axe-wielding woodsmen and buxom Fräulein. The owner would probably be sat at the workbench. He may be a goblin. Look closer and you see his task. He is making the tiles that cover the building he inhabits.

But look even closer and this construction does not belong to the fairy tale realm at all. The craftsman is creating the roof tiles for his own workshop. It is a model of modernism’s fantasy of self-reliance – a craft-based comment on the obsession with hermeneutical cities and structures dreamt of (and sometimes built) by architects from Le Corbusier to Oscar Niemeyer.

It is also very contemporary. It is not of the folksy past or far-flung future. You can see its urbanity in its metallic hulk. It looks like it could be put on the back of a truck at a moment’s notice. Its reality is that of pop-up shops and short-tenancy agreements of contemporary London.

Shannon’s construction plays with these motifs of fantasy and escapism. It also riffs on ideas inherent in craft. The ‘authentic’ is easy to call up in such practices. It is traditionally connected to an individual’s story and life, and his (usually not her) fecund creativity.

This narrative of authenticity is an old cliché with deep roots: the creative genius is akin to deus faber, the god who creates the world like the potter creates his pots. It is notable that many originatory myths place the potter as the godhead, from ancient Egypt to China, the people emerged from the loam and were shaped and baked by potters.

Shannon’s construction leads us back and forward between narratives and theories of industrial, craft, original and copy. The roof tiles on the Kiln House are certainly local, authentic and handmade. But their look of authenticity is a comic book version of the ‘authenticity’ beloved of Heidegger. The craftiness of this construction is more Dalston than Dasein.

Jerwood Makers Open

22 Jul

The Hare With The Amber Eyes

The netsuke that features in Edmund de Waal's 'The Hare With The Amber Eyes'

In Edmund de Waal’s magisterial The Hare with The Amber Eyes, the author and potter suggests a possible history that has yet to be written: a history of touch.

De Waal’s book is a family history told through the prism of an inherited set of Japanese netsuke — small toggles traditionally threaded onto the sash of a kimono, and carved into intricate vignettes of daily life. These small objects of hard wood or ivory depicted scenes that might once have been both familiar and strange — coopers emerging from barrels, tigers curled into fearsome balls, a bundle or rats spilling over each other in a tightly knotted clump.

Craft objects are, in general, ones we might hold in our hands, to feel their weight, hardness and to trace with our fingers their maker’s mastery. Netsuke, as an emblem of the tactile and transportable, are ideal objets. They can be caressed and lost in a pocket, and are tough enough to outlast their owners by several generations.

Exhibitions of craft objects are different. They are not designed for touch. Display etiquette precludes physical intimacy.

But at this year’s Jerwood Makers Open, on view now at JVA at Jerwood Space, five craftspeople have put works on display that seem to toy with the viewer’s desire to press finger to surface, to feel the heft and density of things.

Nao Matsunaga, James Rigler, William Shannon, Louis Thompson and Silvia Weidenbach were each awarded £7,500 to create the works on display at the JVA Space in London (the show will also tour to other venues.)

I’ll look at each maker’s individual more closely over the next few weeks and post more entries. But I shall use de Waal’s notions of touch as a pivotal one, for it seem to me that craft is, and will always remain to some degree ¬¬– no matter the impacts of norms of display from the other art world as well as the massive impact of digital technologies — a process and experience that is rooted in a personal encounter that is physical, experiential, tactile.

More soon!…

 

 

 

 

The Dance Hut

24 Jun

The Hut Project, The Look of Performance, 2012

 

The Hut Project. A name evocative of tinkerers down in the garden shed. But what’s being tinkered with? The grammar of art. The way we look at and receive exhibitions and the objects and typologies involved. The Hut Project scavenges the titbits of before and after the show, acting in the role the jester in order to unveil the absurdities of courtly life.

For ‘Assembly’ The Hut Project have made the video The Look of Performance (2012). A large rehearsal space gradually fills with dancers, each executing moves derived from the warm-up actions each undertakes before a performance. Each routine is individual, idiosyncratic. And each dancer exists in their own world – like Gillian Wearing in that shopping mall video.

The Hut Project’s work sits in a broad historical spectrum of performed institutional critique, from Andrea Fraser giving ‘subversive’ guided tours (Museum Highlights, 1989), to Tino Sehgal with his impromptu choral performers ‘upsetting’ the routines of contemplative gallery silence (his work This Variation, 2012, for this year’s Documenta 13 was performed in a darkened room so you couldn’t spot the performers).

The Look of Performance also links to a history of crossovers between art, dance and film. In the 1970s, performance for camera took off as a genre of its own, with Trisha Brown’s urban-intervention performances and Yvonne Rainer’s film-performances being exemplary. A massive archive of such footage was recently on view at the ‘Move: Choreographing You’ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London (2010-11).

Evidently, the best dance is already self critical. Jerome Bel, step forward:

 

 

And dance has firmly entered the gallery. Here’s Boris Charmatz, a man who knows how to pace the White Cube:

The question is — do these practices of self-critical dance and self-aware art practices share a common purpose? Or are they simply talking to their own crowd? Does the Hut Project’s new work deliver to a dance audience? And how might a dance project be part of the dialogue of art, beyond simply sharing its floor space?

 

Documenta 13, from Outer Space

17 Jun

Documenta 13, view of the Fridericianum

Documenta 13, view of the Fridericianum

 

Last week I went to the opening of Documenta 13, the vast exhibition in Kassel that bears down on the art world like a massive lump of rock from outer space, rattling us as it passes along its cosmic trajectory every five years.

In fact, a real meteorite was supposed to also attend the exhibition. Buenos Aires-based artists Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolás Goldberg had planned to move a 37-ton-meteorite named El Chaco from Argentina to Kassel, for an installation titled A Guide to Campo del Cielo. The controversy started when Moqoit First Nation peoples started a campaign for aboriginal rights – claiming that the displacement of the rock was a form of colonial appropriation.

 

The El Chaco meteorite is sacred to Moqoit First Nation people

The El Chaco meteorite is sacred to Moqoit First Nation people

 

Documenta was a fantastic experience. As you’d hope, it was full of some of the best art around today. And the art generally seemed more important than the theory.

Which was refreshing, because art usually messes up ethics – as was the case with the El Chaco meteorite incident. For example, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev focussed on was ‘the knowledge of animate and inanimate makers of the world’, as well as a recurrent motif of what she calls dis-placedness. Which leads her to ask of the meteorite ‘does it have any rights…?’ If she was serious about human rights issues – and even the ethics of animal rights – the question would not even be asked.

One work that I couldn’t stop looking at captured a dilemma of rights – the human and animal (rather than ‘animate and inanimate’). The Disobedient (The Revolutionaries) (2012) by Sanja Iveković, was a display of stuffed toy donkeys in a cabinet and a photograph from 1933. In the latter we see a donkey in a barbed wire enclosure, and a Nazi officer standing guard. Bizarre and disturbing, the image was taken on the streets of Kassel 80 years ago, and records a public demonstration of what would befall ‘stubborn citizens’ if they refused to work. A couple of days later I was on the other side of German in Berlin, and stumbled across the image again – this time in the impressive new Topogrophy of Terror Museum. Dis-placedness indeed. Here’s the image from the latter museum:

Photograph of the donkey 'concentration camp' from 1933, in Kassel

Photograph of the donkey 'concentration camp' from 1933, Kassel; image taken in Topography of Terror Museum, Berlin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chinese whispers

29 May

Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth’s work for Assembly is essentially an expanded version of their blog (http://kimcolemanjennyhogarth.co.uk/blog/). On their blog they’ve posted a number of video clips capturing expanded notions of avant-garde and cinematic movement for the Youtube/Vimeo generation. They’ve done so as a sort of Chinese whispers conversation, responding to each other’s themes in order to generate content full of interesting slippages.

Watching them, I think of the sense of journeying in William Raban’s films and all those other experimental filmmakers who have focussed on chance and incidence, abstraction and urban and pastoral naturalism. These are separated into categories (advance, aeroplane, bridge, car, down, escalators, fan, fire, fountain, glare, grass) with the repeated motif of the camera scanning surfaces from pavements to skylines, service pipes in architectural settings, and incidental sounds. I guess the genesis of these sounds – Kim chatting to taxi driver in New York, Kim falling over in Paris (“ça va? Oi, oi…”), and the sound of wind buffeting in the microphone.

The encounter with the work offline – in the Jerwood Space in London – is rather different. It recalls interactive art works from the late 1980s and ’90s – think of Gary Hill’s Tall Ships (1992) or Jeffrey Shaw’s earlier geek-fest bike trips into cyberspace. The difference, in many ways is to do with absence – in Coleman and Hogarth’s work, we are always removed from the original, always seem to arrive after the event.

Here’s Jeffrey Shaw in the late ’80s:

 

 

And here’s an image of someone using the touch-pad mouse in Hogarth and Coleman’s installation (the differences are what’s interesting):

Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth at the Jerwood Space

Kim Coleman & Jenny Hogarth, kimcolemanjennyhogarth.com/blog (installation view), Mixed media installation, 2012. Photo: Madeleine Botet de Lacaze. Courtesy the artists

Radical bean bags

17 May

Sacco beanbags at the 'Information' exhibition, the Museum of Modern Art, 1970

Sacco beanbags at the 'Information' exhibition, the Museum of Modern Art, 1970

 

Charlie Woolley’s installation at the JVA includes long sausage-shaped bean bags that visitors can sit on while supping on cappuccinos and lemony water from the bar. They are coloured, improbably, like Dalmations, lending the show a Cruella de Vil vibe.

But who invented the bean bag? And more importantly how have they been used in art installations over the past few decades? The first bean bag, the Sacco, was an invention of a bunch of Italian designers in the revolutionary year of 1968 – a suitable historical point for Woolley’s own interests in resistance politics.

It became a regular feature in art installations with the ‘Information’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Sacco beanbags were used in order to make the rather austere surroundings feel participatory – this was the show at which Hans Haacke installed his MoMA Poll (a classic work in the participatory canon). Maybe there’s a history of radical bean bags, waiting to be told?

Sacco bean bag advertisement image from the 1970s

Sacco bean bag advertisement image from the 1970s

 

Angella Bulloch's 'Flexible' at Art Club Berlin, 1997. Three beanbags, CD-player, headphones, acrylic table.

Angella Bulloch's 'Flexible' at Art Club Berlin, 1997. Three beanbags, CD-player, headphones, acrylic table.

 

Dan Graham "New Space For Showing Videos", 1996, at the Walker Art Centre in 2000

Dan Graham "New Space For Showing Videos", 1996, at the Walker Art Centre in 2000

On Assembly (Part 1)

12 May

‘Assembly’ is an exhibition that includes works by Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth, The Hut Project and Charlie Woolley. Mining the art historical veins of collaborative practice, we can say that ‘Assembly’ is very much of its time, at times zappingly new, and also thoroughly old-fashioned. It is sometimes startlingly clear, and sometimes a riddle of contradictions.

For example, while ‘Assembly’ is in one sense a show about artists working together, the most obvious thing to point out is that they are not in fact doing so collectively. Each artist/group is a separate entity: there is Woolley (who works with radical protest groups, and me and you, the general public), Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth (who collaborate with each other), and The Hut Project (who collaborate with each but are rather more prickly about collaborating with the audience).

This is a contradiction full of potential. I think that artists like to bang on about collaborating, but in the grand old history of art, most have singularly failed to do so. There’s an honour in trying though. For example, back in 1968 a bunch of very interesting and then-radical young artists hung out together in Amalfi, Italy, to make works together for ‘Arte Povera + Azioni Povere’. They installed works in the sea and on mountains. They performed on the streets. And then they went back to the real world and made works that now gets shown at Tate Modern and innumerable commercial art galleries.

Or how about Colab, whose very name invokes ‘collaboration’? This new York band of punkish upstarts kicked a revolution in the dust of Downtown degeneracy and promptly cleared the way for a great property boom that priced them out of the area.

The point is clearly not whether people collaborate, it is why?

More information on the ‘Assembly’ exhibition here.