ESSAY: Shoot the Works (2013)

Essay to accompany the group exhibition

Shoot the Works: unwelcome participation in non-participatory art

at Blip Blip Blip, Leeds, March 2013

 

 

FESSING UP

 

LIBERAL democracy functions on a balance of assumptions and assurances. Out on the street, it is assumed that we, the public, will behave decently to one-another and within the rule of law. In return, we are assured that certain measures are in place so as to safeguard us from the wayward actions of others, and punish the perpetrators of such actions should these safeguards fail. Transparency and accountability are central to this operation, the former being a prerequisite for the successful enacting of the latter. Democratic life is public life, and vice versa. If too many things go unsaid, and if people are not held accountable for their actions, then we have bad democracy. Putting on an exhibition is no different. 

SHOOT THE WORKS is not an exhaustive or comprehensive study of its subject: the vandalism and intentional damage of works of art by independent citizens, be they artists or civilians. It does not include actions by governments or mainstream political and religious bodies, such as the Protestant iconoclasts of the mid-16th century, or the destruction of public monuments in the former Soviet Union (a subject interestingly explored by Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis in the film Disgraced Monuments, 1993); to cover these events would take a much larger exhibition. It also does not include damage to artworks that seem calculatedly provocative and, therefore, engender outrage and the possibility of violent reaction almost as part of their design (Marcus Harvey’s Myra, 1995, for example). I chose instead to include damage done to works that the majority of people seem to have little or no issue with, where the motive for the attack feels less a reflection of public consensus or a flexing of ideological power, and more the expression of an acute, intimate compulsion. The artists were chosen because I feel their works reflect the different aspects of this issue, each work offering a distinct and important take. The historical examples were chosen for the same reason, and because they looked right. That is to say: one, an image relating to the incident was available; and two, the available image works – that, in lieu of the original object, it successfully documents the result of the action, and conveys the visceral and physical reality of the act. These images, I think, still carry some of the power, potency, and vigour of the deed; stabbing a knife through a painting is not like stabbing a person, but it’s not like spreading butter either. 

FOR the sake of ease, I will cover the unaffiliated actions of this motley gang of strays under the umbrella term participation – a word both consistent with art-speak parlance and imbued with suitable euphemistic blur; it allows us to talk about multiple things at once. SHOOT THE WORKS is a record of personal responses to art works, responses deemed improper and, on occasion, immoral by the institutional powers-that-be. SHOOT THE WORKS is not an attempt to somehow legitimize or validate the actions and events that it records – they don’t need validation, they need airtime. All these events occurred in the public realm, so there is a democratic responsibility to open them to public scrutiny or, at least, scrutinize them in public. Exposure is not absolution, and a little creeping daylight does not promise the perpetual glare of publicity and promotion. With evidence comes examination and critical evaluation, private readings and public hearings, disagreement or accord. We shouldn’t talk about things we know nothing about – that’s bad democracy.  

 

 

CASE NOTES

 

ABOUT violence against artworks I have three questions. First, what actions constitute as violence, as in: how far does physical participation need to go for it to be deemed violent? Second, in what ways can we think about the perpetrators of such participation, given that we’re talking about violence against objects and materials, not people, but things? And third, is there a pre-existing lexicon that can be appropriated in order to discus these matters, without resorting to moral judgements and while avoiding the calculatedly amoral language of aesthetics, or can a new specialised vocabulary be fashioned so as to operate ethically between the consensus of the masses and the impulsive needs of the individual? In short: what’s happening, who’s doing it, and how can we talk about it? Like any good crime story, it’s the what, the who, and the how.

THERE is a great book out there called ‘The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution.’ Its author, Dario Gamboni, attempts to answer these questions and more, examining with what he calls the “heuristic value” of “aggression directed against art”: “If one considers the autonomy of art not as an atemporal essence but as a historical and historiographical construct . . . Then it follows that attacks represent a break in the intended communication or a departure from the ‘normal’ attitude shown towards them.” It almost goes without saying that I am with Gamboni on this. ‘Almost’ because what he’s suggesting isn’t easy to acknowledge, and to agree means to denounce completely the idea of the innate sanctity of art, that its (non-monetary) value is intrinsic, and its contribution to culture and society irrefutable. Even in a time when the public seem quick to accuse the artworld of shysterism, seeing it as the refuge of greedy, elitist, self-involved frauds, even then the animosity is seldom aimed at a universal target. If one person hates contemporary art, they may find value in Renaissance art. If Johnny hates ‘fine’ art, he may find value in fashion or design. If Susanne hates painting, she might like the movies. And so on and so on. Rarely is it a blanket condemnation of all visual practises, there is perceived to be some value, somewhere, always. This is one reason – an important one – why you hear people say they don’t ‘get’ art. Because regardless of the quality of the art work in front of them, and regardless of whether they actually like it or not, the perceived value is such that it can only be their fault as ‘uneducated’ or ‘ignorant’ viewers. Art’s value is fact; an audience’s intelligence is not. (Some people just don’t give a shit, and, well, that’s just cool.) So if Susanne or Johnny want to express their frustrations, of course they’re going to do it in an ignorant, uneducated manner. And if they’re extraordinarily troglodyte, this might mean walking into a museum and literally attacking the art, their insufficient intellect causing them to resort to blunt brute force. Shocking and ultimately meaningless, such things are the actions of criminals and madmen. Well, that’s how the theory goes. 

MOSCOW, 1913: Abram Balashov enters the Tretyakov Gallery and uses a knife to attack Ilya Repin’s painting Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan, cutting three deep scars down the face of the elder Tsar. Balashov is immediately declared insane and so does not stand trial. A year later, Mary Richardson attacks Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery in London, again with a knife. The Times prints the headline, ‘Deranged Suffragette Attacks the Rokeby Venus’; the story runs across two whole pages. Richardson gets six months jail time, the maximum sentence for an offence of its kind. Beyond the portico outside the Cleveland Museum of Art, stands the last Thinker statue cast by Rodin himself. In 1970, it’s bombed with dynamite by the left-wing militant group The Weathermen. Due to Rodin’s involvement in the making, the work is not fully restored and still bears the damage from the attack to this day. No-one is arrested or questioned about the bombing. New York, 1974: a young Iranian artist called Tony Shafrazi spray paints the phrase ‘KILL LIES ALL’ directly onto Pablo Picasso’s painting Geurnica, then on show at the Museum of Modern Art. The painting is heavily varnished and thus easily resorted. Shafrazi is arrested and charged with criminal mischief. Despite witness reports to the contrary, the New York Times describes him as “enraged.” This whistle-stop historical tour visits some of the main cultural centres of the 20th century, and maps, albeit very loosely, an interesting route through the complex convergence of private intention, public action, legal consequence, and social reaction. Although the actions were varied in design and approach, a cursory look at the targeted art works reveals some interesting commonalities: all were well known and more-or-less popular; all depict human figures; and all were on display at state-funded institutions when the attacks took place. These three details are important.

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BALASHOV was an icon painter and an Old Believer, a Christian denomination founded after the Russian Orthodox Church made several major reforms between 1652-66. Ivan the Terrible, Balashov’s pictorial victim, had died in 1584, and there is no connection between the infamous Tsar and the church reforms that so angered the Old Believers. Religious fervour seems an unlikely motive. Repin’s painting depicts a distraught Ivan having just brutally, but accidentally, beaten his eldest son to death. He cradles the young man’s body and stares hauntingly out of frame, his eyes as blank as they are mad, his son’s blood pouring over his hands. The palette is rich and heavy, using mostly varying shades of red. Witnesses to Balashov’s crime say he screamed, “Too much blood!” as he began to slash the painting. (Was this a clear sign of insanity? Or was the whole thing one painter’s scathing critique of another?) As Balashov never saw a courtroom, there is little written about him or the events surrounding his participatory action. A black and white photograph is all that survives, showing the three cut marks in severe close-up. The ripped canvas gapes like deeply torn skin, powerfully foregrounding the surface of the painting. The original narrative of the work is irrevocably disrupted; the characters remain, but the illusion is lost. The photograph recalls and pre-empts certain contemporary works: Miro’s burnt canvases from the 1970s; the cut and bunt photographs of celebrities in Douglas Gordon’s Self Portrait of You + Me series; and the punctured paintings of Lucio Fontana. The image of Balashov’s attack seems to somehow foretell these works and many others that followed. 

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RICHARDSON’S Rokeby… has a similar effect; the viewer jolted by the deep scars hacked into the back of this quintessential reclining nude. Unlike Balashov, her action was undoubtedly premeditated, fitting into a wider programme of suffragette civil disobedience. In advance of the attack, she drafted an explanatory statement outlining her intentions with great clarity and intelligence. “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history,” she writes, “as a protest against the Government for destroying [Emmeline] Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history . . . If there is an outcry against my deed, let everyone remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women.” Pankhurst was the founder of the Suffrage movement and was on hunger and thirst strike in Holloway Prison at the time. As her imprisonment and maltreatment continued, so the suffragette campaign escalated, becoming wider in scope and more ferocious in method, but always avoiding what Pankhurst described as “men’s blood-shedding militancy.” Property became the main focus of attack, and the Rokeby Venus was an exceptional target. The National Gallery had acquired the painting in 1906, for forty-five thousand pounds, making headlines across the country. Newspapers ran several reports on the work and its perceived cultural, social, and, of course, monetary value. The coverage became a kind of hubristic clamour, entirely disproportionate to the artwork itself, and leaning uncomfortably toward pervy fascination. In this light, Richardson’s wrath seems warranted, and her choice of target inspired. The “outcry” she predicted did indeed follow and some of the more upset journalists christened her with nicknames like ‘the Ripper’ and ‘Slasher Mary,’ in crude, exaggerated reference to murderers and serial killers. Significantly, it proved the suffragettes right: in certain circumstances, against the right target, attacks on property can create the same reaction as attacks on people; violent protest needn’t cause blood-shed or cost lives; and a campaign of aggressive action can be conducted without giving up one’s morals. This was an important lesson, but perhaps not a new one – the Suffragette campaign forming a kind of sectarian iconoclasm.

ANOTHER great book out there is ‘Crowds and Power’ by Elias Canetti. This quote comes from it: “The destruction of representational images is the destruction of a hierarchy which is no longer recognized. It is the violation of generally established and universally visible and valid distances.” Canetti’s ‘distances’ are physical and metaphorical, and mutually contingent; action in one realm has consequences in the other. So when a physical boundary is crossed, a mental boundary is weakened; and repeated transgressions may wear down all resistance entirely. Museums cite this as the main reason so many acts of vandalism go unreported. They don’t want to encourage copycat attacks, so keep things in-house as often as possible. (This argument remains questionable, as museums are primarily trying to save face. As custodians of cultural property – owned by the public or on loan from wealthy donors – any attack on property under their care severely damages their all-important prestige.) But some participatory actions are too remarkable, and some targets too important, for the successful application of these strategies of containment

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AFTER Tony Shafrazi spray-painted Geurnica, MoMA had hoped to keep the event quiet, away from the press and out of the public eye. Shafrazi saw his action in political terms, turning to one of the greatest anti-war paintings in order to protest against the then-current war in Vietnam. As he said in 1980, “I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life . . . encourage the individual viewer to challenge it, deal with it and thus see it in its dynamic raw state as it was being made, not as a piece of history.” (This probably isn’t what Picasso had in mind when he said, “an image is the sum of its destructions.”) Of course, this attempt to “retrieve” Picasso’s work “from art history” made the New York papers the next day. Conversation then shifted from the sheets to the studios, with various factions and figures chiming in. The Guerrilla Art Action Group commended Shafrazi for “freeing” the painting “from the chains of property,” and returning it to its “true revolutionary nature.” While an anonymous group of ‘art workers’ argued Shafrazi had “attempted to supress the artistic freedom of Picasso by infringing on the artist’s inviolate right to make a statement without censorship or parasitic ‘joining.’” MoMA kept its collective mouth shut and restored the painting – a simple job thanks to several layers of protective varnish. Shafrazi’s apparent naivety is disarming (and somewhat dubious), but he’s kept to the same story in all the years since, recently telling Interview Magazine, “The critical factor is to realize that [in 1974] the burning, the rage, the inhumanity, and the hatred that is rampant in American culture was really coming to the surface. In a climate like that, nobody pays attention to pretty paintings. The role of art was, I felt, very important and being neglected.” Shafrazi’s was a conscious attempt to contemporize a pre-existing work of art, which implies two things: one, that a work of art can lose its contemporary relevance, its ‘now-ness’; and two, that such ‘now-ness’ can be intentionally re-inscribed by contemporary figures. Both points are slippery and subjective (like all the best things are), as the first point neglects the fact that ‘contemporary relevance’ is, by definition, an ever-changing condition, and the latter point certainly sets a potentially dangerous precedent. But perhaps there is some validity to the idea of a contemporized artwork. 

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“BUT is it not even a more significant work, damaged as it is? No one can pass the shattered green man without asking himself what it tells us about the violent climate of the U.S.A. in the year 1970. It is more than just a work of art now.” These are the words of Sherman Lee, then-director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. He was talking about one of the museum’s sculptures, an original cast of Rodin’s Thinker, which had just been heavily damaged by a bomb attributed to the radical left-wing group The Weathermen. Immediately after the event, Lee and other senior museum staff had hoped to restore the stature to its former state, perhaps shipping it Paris so the Musée Rodin could attend to it, or producing an entirely new version from the original casts. The Thinker exists as a multiple; there are thought to be around twenty-eight original castings, with many more unofficial, posthumous, or physically-variant versions around. The one at Cleveland was the last casting overseen by the artist, and Rodin’s direct presence in the object’s history made Lee’s situation much more problematic – either option would result in an irrevocable loss of aura, and did he want to be the man who essentially destroyed Rodin’s final Thinker? The decision was made to accept the damage as constitutive to the sculpture’s contemporary reality, and concede that art cannot always exist protected from, or impervious to, the violence of the culture in which it is kept. David Franklin, a subsequent director of the museum, goes as far as to take conceptual ownership of the action, claiming it as “part of the piece, part of its history, part of the history of Cleveland.” And he’s right to do so. Unlike its brothers, the Cleveland Thinker bears the scares of its age, its dismembered form a troublesome image. The things that once made the body look strong – the powerful musculature of the torso and arms, the swelled veins and oversized hands – now make the figure look fleshy, grotesque, helpless. There is an additional darkness to the figure’s contemplations, a newer, more modern sense of dread. Built in 1902 and bombed in 1970, it has become a powerful representation of those turbulent years in-between. It’s hard to think what the bombing meant, what the perpetrators had hoped to achieve, and why the Thinker was targeted. It was high profile, sure, but hardly a symbol of autocratic or imperialist repression, and, unlike Guernica, a seemingly apolitical piece of art. Maybe that was the reason: its apparent apathy, its lack of commitment, its quiet contemplation in the face of rampant social injustice; was this the motivating factor or was it more mindless or impulsive or simply a good-idea-at-the-time? We don’t and won’t know. Whether intentional or not, the Cleveland bomb has written a new narrative into the history of the Thinker, adding further complexity to the original proposition. This can be appreciated guilt-free, because there are still Thinkers that remain intact. 

THESE various participatory actions can be labelled as what Michel de Certeau calls tactics – small, individual actions, which occur in opposition to large-scale, bureaucratic and corporate strategies. As de Certeau sees it, strategies create institutional space – which are ideological and social, as well as physical – while tactics respond to such space: “Strategies are able to produce, tabulate, and impose these spaces . . . whereas tactics can only use, manipulate, and divert these spaces.” The individual, incapable of constructing his or her own space, must improvise, developing and employing short-term alternatives and counter-measures. The small, unaffiliated group of perpetrators in this essay are not the wild human herds Canetti writes of in ‘Crowds and Power’, maddened by a group lust for destruction, intoxicated by a moment where “the individual feels that he is transcending the limits of his own person.” No-one I’ve written about here is transcending or trying to, and if there is madness, then it only appears as madness because it is driven by a strong, deeply personal logic, not a sense of agentic solidarity. This is the opposite motion to the one Canetti outlines: these actions isolate and marginalize the perpetrator, furthering the distance between him- or herself and society at large. There will always be those who do not consent with common norms and social conventions. And there will always be rogue constituencies that despise parts of society with an intense, sometimes pathological, hatred. If art is worth anything, then in art they’ll find what they despise.

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REVIEW: Manfred Mohr: Playing the Machine (2012)

*** First appeared on the creators project, December 2012 ***

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Manfred Mohr’s first solo exhibition in the UK, one and zero gathers together works from over forty years of the German-born, New York-based artist’s practice. Influenced early in his career by the philosopher Max Bense and his call for a “rational aesthetic”, Mohr abandoned the AbEx mania of the time, turning to an algorithmic painting process, using set rules and restrictions to make abstract geometries in stark black and white. These works from the late 1960s offer the appearance of rationality, but Mohr knew it was still his own subjectivity driving the aesthetic decisions. Rather than rational art, he says, he was painting “romantic geometry.” To satisfy Bense’s philosophy there had to be rationality in all areas of the artistic activity, from conception to reception, through production and execution, logic imbued in each part of the process.

Mohr began using early-computers and plotting machines to create intricate drawings, again based upon algorithms of his own devising. This technology was highly specialist at the time, expensive, unwieldy, and not available to the public, so Mohr struck a deal with the Meteorological Institute in Paris, allowing him to moonlight with their hardware outside of office hours. On these long nights a lifetime’s professional relationship began, and Manfred Mohr had found his medium.

The plotting machine, or plotter, interprets the algorithmic script as simple operating commands – place pen on paper, lift pen from paper, move pen from here to there – turning a mathematical proposition into a drawing, what Mohr calls a “visual result”; setting the machine in motion is the only way to test the proof and see the work. Sometimes he’ll tweak an algorithm to get a different outcome, applying an aesthete’s eye. Sometimes he’ll add a cadenza of sorts, freeing the procedure from deterministic predictability, giving space to chance within the limits of the proposition. What’s important is the visual result; the math and the machine are the means to that end. He invokes techno-sage Marshall McLuhan and the idea that machines are in our service, offering humanity a prosthetic extension of body and mind, making possible that which we cannot think or execute: “The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye; clothing an extension of the skin, electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.” Computer processing is an extension of mind function, and allows Mohr to explore somewhat virgin conceptual territory for a visual artist: in his words, that which is “inconceivable, but computable.”

The machine also produces a distinct visual quality, the plotter providing a character of line unlike print or human hand. There’s a regularity to the distribution of ink, a severe flatness to the finished plane; the lines are evidently drawn, but such is the precision and purpose of the mark, with no clear beginning or end, point of entry or departure, that it appears as a trick of instant becoming. This completeness within each work acts in harmony with the mathematical process behind their making: a set of finite functions with a fixed eventual end, by definition an algorithm is always complete within itself. Despite there being a visual similarity between many of the plotter drawings – and later pieces also – the works don’t allude to, or suggest, each other; it’s a relationship, not a dependence. At the heart of this relationship is the cube, the familiar geometric shape that has been the artist’s muse for the majority of his career.   

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A sax man in his youth, Mohr now refers to the cube as his “instrument”, the algorithm his means by which to “play” it, and the result “visual music”. Like a composer or player extemporizing upon a musical theme, he has expanded the materiality of his work, going back to painted canvas, using lacquered and painted laser cut steel, digital monitors and customized computers. While all the time, sculpting the script, finessing the code, adding aleatoric passages, making it meet his needs. One thinks of Steve Reich or Terry Riley, using tape loops and primitive electronics to explore rhythm and repetition, re-adopting traditional instruments when required, following the thought through the form. Over time, Manfred Mohr has followed the cube into six and eleven dimensions – what are termed hypercubes – interrogating their structures and systems, the resulting works two-dimensional expressions of these multi-dimensional objects.

To spend time in one and zero is really to spend time with the cube and its manifold aesthetic possibilities; to spend time with a philosophy that says art and expression can be converted into numerals and statistics – a philosophy Mohr has in many ways critiqued; and with the complex calculations that tie the two together. If anything, he has challenged the limits of objectivity, restoring some humanity to Bense’s original mandate, while avoiding the creator-genius-man-myth so rampant across art history. And beyond the rationalist philosophy and esoteric mathematics, are striking and seductive art objects, abstract geometric images on paper, canvas, metal, and monitor, warmer than LeWitt, more rigorous than Riley, distinct visions of discipline and delight.

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ESSAY: Double Vision (2012)

Text to accompany the Leeds United, L Foundation, MOMA exhibition BRINK, at

The Institute of Jamais Vu, London

INSTITUTIONS

People react in extreme ways when contained and restrained by forces outside of their own control. Agitated captives throw themselves hard against the walls. Political prisoners effect demeaning dirty protests. Ingenious inmates burrow with rusty cutlery, a soiled spoon becoming an agent of freedom. All want a way out, to be past the walls, past the containment, through to some other life. To paraphrase and pervert Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punishment, the purpose of prison is “the isolation of the subject from the external world, from everything that motivated the offence, from the complicities that facilitated it.” He goes on, “Lastly, and perhaps above all, the isolation of the subjects guarantees that it is possible to exercise over them, with maximum intensity, a power that will not be overthrown by any other influence; solitude is the condition of total submission.” Let’s allow ‘subject’ to define both the artwork and the viewer, and by some abstraction the artist too. All three are in some way present between the gallery walls, all move inside then out, outside then in, the idea of all three fluctuates, flutters, and flitters from seeing to sightless, unseen to seen. The walls fight to contain such motion, control it and put it in position; “the condition of total submission.” Foucault’s ‘submission’ comes alive here, in this context, realizing the word’s multitude of meanings: surrender and compliance, but also to present and propose, to suggest and make argument. Gallery walls are not prison walls, but the things they contain do lack some control. Walls figure in much of what LU have done and continue to do: they’ve sanded and drilled them (during more conventional moments) revealing the history of hangings hidden beneath blankets of paint; they’ve cut and hacked into them, a structural disturbance both physical and metaphorical; they’ve pissed on them, quoting art history and re-interpreting institutional critique; and they’ve carried one around with them, the ‘MOMA window’ (Delay, 2001) being a wall-substitute, see-through, but a partition all the same. The gallery walls symbolize the confines of the art world, a microcosmic world, separate yet entirely within. To use the walls so often is to draw attention to such blatant artifice. To attack them is to wish the whole enterprise tumble down; that world of assimilation, which blots up one’s woes and puts them back out on display.

RECENT ACQUISITIONS

Art can offer the viewer a re-framing of the world. Images and objects can become art by being re-framed through art, within an art context. Art, to quote Charles Avery, “is a qualitative attribute, assigned to particular objects and actions at a particular moment in time.” Not every painting is art; some are merely paintings, reduced to their objective objecthood. Some things lose their art status, vigour decayed via time. Other things are rehabilitated through the same processes, reincarnated as objects of authority and import. What makes one thing not the other, what makes the other thing not the one, is the idea of art. It’s an area of high dispute, where perception is key and whatever adds influence over perception – namely context, be it physical, social, ideological, or financial – can bear as much strength as the thing itself being perceived. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City (MoMA) is one of the largest of the contemporary influences over perception; its power is colossal in all four of the aforementioned contextual categories. Recent Acquisitions (2001–present) pushes MoMA’s immense strength into metaphor: power-absolute becoming absolution-through-power. Seen through the glass, everyday views are reclaimed, preserved, made art, made sacred; LU’s two men Crusading out in the world, righteous behavior sans religious sanction. Is a child’s playground art? Sure, ask Carsten Höller. And those plants? Those too, right Broodthaers. That agricultural pasture? Richard Long. And on it goes. Each picture in Recent Acquisitions recalls another artwork, possibly more than just one, possibly some that don’t yet exist. Even the installation evokes other works, diagrammatic photo-studies and meticulous conceptualist stratagems. Sol Lewitt’s On the Walls of the Lower East Side (1979), itself a study of art and authority, comes to mind. Lewitt took hundreds of photographs documenting the nascent graffiti appearing in Manhattan’s LES. Graffiti was about staking a claim, rising above political, social, and financial disenfranchisement to assert one’s right to art and expression, property and prominence. City walls become prison walls become gallery walls, while all the time staying all things at all times. LU’s is guerrilla cultural action, both protest and parade.

Look what art does!

Look what art can do

WORLD OF WORK

‘There’s a piece of work in that’ – a phrase familiar to many art makers in our everything-as-art, art-as-everything time period; scrawled onto napkins in cafés and restaurants; blotted onto beermats in pubs, clubs, and drinking dens; ink leaking through the weave of whichever material is close enough to hand. A spreading of ink, but a fixing of inspiration; semi-permeable paper-substitute better than the untrustworthy transience of ideas in sodden synapses; spit-and-sawdust dreamcatchers for clasping at abstractions. Here, in the work Through and Through (2012), the words themselves are given gravitas, cut in-to and out-of the gallery’s typically white wooden walls. The wall, which like blank paper to the pen’s play of language, acts to host art and artistic gesture. Ostensibly neutral and allegedly free of association, the walls are mute scaffold, not really seen and certainly not heard, an absence, present only by necessity, keeping one world away from the other, an architectural prophylactic guarding against adulteration. The work hacks away at both forms of fabrication: this established pretense scored and splintered, thrown out with the shavings of wood. Geographically, the Institute of Jamais Vu makes this demystification even more abrupt; the gallery having been built in what is essentially a communal living space, looking through (and through) the holes in the wall one instantly sees not art, but life, domestic life, everyday life, ‘real life’ (whatever that may mean). As with Recent Acquisitions, Angle of Incidence (1997), and Trite and Vulgar (1998), the artists claim the work is not the object, or the excavated object in this case, but what can be seen through it and seen within it. Angle of Incidence is a mirror installed in a Leeds pub, engraved with the legend, “Lifelike”, then underneath “100% proof.” Also a mirror, Trite and Vulgar is engraved eponymously, in elegant swirling serif typeface. If the work isn’t these objects – the mirrors, the windows, the punctures in the wall – but what can be seen in them, then what, exactly, is the work? What are we seeing. Who can be seen. Where is this place that exists within and beyond these limits. These concentric mental movements are all part of the work, chasing an image, an image chasing you; intricate helices built into its physically metaphysical structure. Through and Through: thoroughly tiring, tirelessly thorough.

UNSTEADY SIGHTS

LU works have appeared, smuggled in with cunning chicanery and the misuse of relative financial excess, in the international art press. With Review (1998), the artists took out a full page of advertising space in Art Monthly magazine, using it as a means to display and distribute their work far and wide. Less an intervention, more an insertion, Review didn’t intend to obstruct or disrupt the accommodating periodical, but exist within it, as part of it, inoperable shrapnel still irritant to the host’s body. ‘Insertions’ comes from the artist Cildo Miereles, whose Insertions into Ideological Circuits saw him inscribing political messages onto banknotes and recycled Coke-a-Cola bottles, which would then be washed, re-filled, and put back into the commercial system, this new disfigurement well disguised. Review presents itself as both a review of a work and as the work also, operating in constant oscillation between the two. Dualisms are diluted within one-another and a complex critical concoction poured forth. Here, the disfigurement is the disguise, and the disguise the disfigurement; one thing is disguised as another thing disguised as the original thing, and so on; the disfigurement is mutual, the movement unending. Perpetually circular and judiciously disobedient, the piece generates such a haze of hypotheses that, against LU’s wishes, the editors of Art Monthly were compelled to provided the viewer with an anchor of blatant reference: the word ADVERTISEMENT, alone and emboldened, capitalized in the bottom left corner of the page.

SITE UNSEEN

LU works have not appeared in Frieze magazine, some insertions didn’t make it to print. Mid-Atlantic (1999) is an ad for a fictional exhibition at the exact geographical point between New York City and Leeds. It depicts three significant New York art dealers – Marian Goodman, Barbara Gladstone, and Mary Boone – who are involved with the show. Only it’s not that Goodman, Gladstone, and Boone, but their apparent namesakes: three Northern broads, each throwing a get-together in their home, each awaiting guests, well-stocked with glasses of red wine. You can imagine the parley, in the studio one overcast day –

Barbara Gladstone. That’s a nice Northern name.

Don’t she live cross road?

Nah mate, that’s Mary.

Mary?

Aye, y’know, Mary Boone.

[cue laughter]

‘Mary’ and her baggy polo shirt, her too-tungstenized kitchen; ‘Marian’ and the upcoming loft-conversion, Velux already fitted, halfway there; salutary ‘Barbara’ with kid’s toys strewn askew and her homely redbrick frontage; so unglamorous, so not New York, so sodding British. So-sodding-something in fact, that Frieze didn’t run the ad, finding it too bellicose or risqué, and instead censoring it at the last minute. LU have responded with Adrift, an exact replica of that issue of Frieze, with everything save their original ad censored out. The white pages flicker by and by, full of nothing, a heavy nothing; it’s strange. The paper feels right, each sheet between the fingers; strange and uncanny. Then the shipwreck lurches out of the depths one’s daze, and Mid-Atlantic appears, at last, a forgotten image suddenly the only thing in sight. It’s there, in front of you. Three faces and three places, or six of both if you really think about it (they are what they’re not, and also what they are). Disguise becomes demystification, creating an anti-mythology of mimicry, resemblance, and dissemblance. Then it’s gone again, the ad that is, and all we’re left with is the white between our fingers, ever bright inside our eyes.

THE MODERNIST FAMILY

Men in disguise, two men, disguised as more men, disguised as an institution, disguised as parents and progenitors, mummy and daddy dressed up in drag. A counter-cultural art movement and corporate art institution re-interpreted as down-and-dirty prison tattoos, marks of manhood, identity as injury; keep it in the family, even if you’ve long been disowned. Family Values (2003); I’m reminded of an old playground chant, less a song, more an invocation of juvenescent trauma – “Yer dad’s yer mum. Yer mum’s yer dad.” Repeated without end, until tears, teacher, or the appearance of said parents. Dada (the movement) and MoMA (the museum), limbs of the same unknowable body (art), extremities punched out of darkness. Art witticisms played out as prison tat’. Fists are for brawling and bruising, making marks on other human beings; Art is for . . . (don’t go there), and making marks on other human beings. Art and fists; form and force; ideas and the body: tumorous thoughts that need removing, handling, taking away to be looked at. There’s a brawl in the brig, big boys causing a ruckus.

FEATURE: James Richards: Not Blacking Out… (2011)

*** First appeared in The White Review (online), December 2011 ***

Artist James Richards appropriates audio-visual material gathered from a range of sources, which he then edits into elaborate, fragmented collages. But whereas his art-historical forefathers favoured a conceptually-driven, emotionally-distanced approach – in the case of materialist film artists like Hollis Frampton and those of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op – or followed an overtly political agenda – like the ‘Scratch’ filmmakers of the 1980s – Richards’ video works are more personal endeavours, seemingly steered by feeling rather than theoretical argument or point-proving. Intentionally insular, his works disrupt narrative conventions, offering little that can be straightforwardly understood. The disparity of his sources betrays an aggressively curious mind – obscure TV clips, scenes from famous films, advertising segments, internet memes and CGI animations are accumulated and redeployed with great precision. The content seesaws relentlessly from the oblique to the clichéd, the mystifying to the mundane. Meaning is generated through abundance, by way of allusion, ellipsis and unity of tone; the lack of legibility counterbalanced by a strong sense of mood.

His recent work at London’s Chisenhale Gallery, Not Blacking Out, Just Turning the Lights Off, sees him add his own material to this characteristic medley of found-footage. In these passages, Richards’ camerawork is deliberately amateur, the camera handled with a lustful belligerence. Whether using cheap in-camera effects or shoving the lens hysterically close to the subject of his regard, the result is a fevered fanaticism, Richards’ desire to capture becoming an assault on the image, the camera akin to a crude prosthetic extension of his body. Sound is used in a similar way, with songs, poems, and spoken segments seeming to verbalise on the artist’s behalf. The volume is shockingly loud in parts, climaxing with the poem ‘Slowly: a plainsong from an older woman to a younger woman’ by American writer and activist Judy Grahn. A curdled lament conducted by the same women at different ages, unable to understand one another across the generations, it is a deeply moving rendition.

A two-channel projection shown on opposing screens and separated by rows of backless benches, Not Blacking Out… shows an astute sensitivity to the sculptural concerns of displaying video works in a gallery. As the video switches from one screen to the other and back again in hypnotic sequence, viewers are forced to turn an awkward one-hundred-and-eighty degrees. This gesture seems confrontational at first, demanding that the audience feel self-conscious and unsettled. But the embarrassment leads to laughter and then camaraderie. The about-turn becomes a communal activity, disturbing the familiar intimacy between a viewer and a film, replacing it with audience rapport.

The gesture is typical of Richards, who uses shared anxiety as a means to stimulate empathy, offering a moment of emotional convergence and exorcising collective fears through vulnerable disclosure. There is a sense of earnest self-discovery in the works, as though he his trying to situate himself, and to some extent his body, within the ceaseless succession of images that overwhelm modern living. They are mantras made public, private petitions to an ever-loudening world. Rather than raise his voice, Richards speaks his mind through the mouths and actions of others; a suitably mediated approach to twenty-first century art making.

ESSAY: Moiré (strange bedfellows) (2011)

Text to accompany Josh Whitaker’s exhibition Moiré (Stages/Taxed) at +44 141 Gallery, Glasgow

07/05/2011 – 28/05/2011

Art and politics make, to borrow a neat phrase from political commentary, strange bedfellows. There is certainly a version of politics – emphatically with a lowercase ‘p’ – at work in all art: the manipulation of material and concept; the management of visual presentation with audience perception; and, perhaps most importantly, the conflict of results against intention, of the limitations of production against the desire for an ideal. But overtly political art, that is, by my own indistinct definition, art actively attempting to deal with political issues rather than merely expose or display them, often suffers from a severe case of academic anaemia, becoming studious, dry, bureaucratic, and civil; becoming, in other words, too much like politics and not enough like art. Josh Whitaker draws from political source material but does not make overtly political art. The apparent subjects of his work operate on a different level to the means and material by which they are presented. Out of dead imagery and dead ideologies he has built an architecture alive with immediacy. Vibrant and curious, the works co-exist without co-dependence, they add colour to one another, and nudge and prompt like actors on a stage.

William Morris, the 19th Century socialist, poet, author, editor, painter, translator, textile designer, and sometime architect, is a key player on Whitaker’s conceptual stage. Useful Work vs. Useless Toil (banner for the exterior of an institution) takes the unbracketed part of its title, as well as its immediate message, from a speech Morris gave to a group of London workers; the phrase later becoming the header for one of his many agrarian left-leaning political essays. He was, by all accounts, an engaging and eloquent public speaker and was known to give impromptu lectures on street corners and toured working men’s clubs across the country, pamphlets and a soapbox as his only marketing tools. Whitaker freely quotes the makeshift aesthetics of civil disobedience and industrial action, of the strike and the sit-in. His constructions – the sawdust, the scaffold, the cheap carpet tiles, the banners, the found segments of peeling billboard – seem well suited to such fugitive agitprop ventures. One imagines them quickly disassembled and thrown into hiding should they garner unwanted attention from the law. As a gesture of protest – especially a distanced, adopted stance of protest – the works generate a feedback loop of sorts, questioning their own questions, their own right to question.

The feedback becomes most evident in the titles, particularly: Hotel D-D-D-Diagram versions (1…) to (1…2…3…4); and Stage, Re-Stage, Stage (Evo) and (Yukio). The brackets, prevalent in all the titles, show these works as indefinite articles, parts of an on-going series, where other versions, could, should, and do exist, with more, perhaps, still on the way. With Stage, Re-Stage… the feedback is an echo – an action absorbed into the surrounding landscape, but one losing quality each time it is repeated. Evo Morales and Yukio Hatoyama – respectively the President of Bolivia and the Prime Minister of Japan – are at the forefront of an unforeseen extension of meritocratic democracy. These World Leaders, fully absorbed into the celebrity media apparatus, have moved significant places in political polls thanks to their dress-sense, or lack-of. Neither statesman follows the current International Style – smart designer suits in black, blue, or charcoal. But, whereas Morales’ casual threads – his jumpers in particular – have won him support at home in Bolivia, Hatoyama became an object of great derision in Japan, due, in no small part, to his penchant for loud and somewhat effeminate shirts. Whitaker, channelling Morris the textile designer this time, has made faux-fabric wallpaper from these items of accidental political potency, turning fashion into décor, and individual style into mass-market availability; a melodrama of dress is swapped for an apathetic ambience, a message for a mood. Their clothing has come to symbolise their strengths and weaknesses as leaders. Evo is seen as a man of the people, not a distant aristocrat who bought his way into office. Yukio, on the other hand, is seen to be losing it, lacking the strength of character that Japan so needs. I’m reminded of a Max Ernst collage from 1920, a jaunty number that has morphed into prophecy over time, its title: The Hat Makes The Man.

In A Strange Place I Know So Well (portable document format), the flight of time’s arrow has, this time, caused the death of a prophecy. One sees that the symbols of past-political and military power have become details of design – a curved wooden shelter for picnicers looking to avoid the rain or the sun or who just like to sit and eat at a table. And even that – that quasi-poetic use of symbol as shelter – even that has been killed, becoming aestheticized so an image is all that remains. Computer files in Portable Document Format – PDFs – have been ‘flattened’ and ‘fixed’ so that their content cannot be easily altered. The format was designed for the easy exchange of documents over the internet. PDFs are
usually complete documents – finished, so in some ways already obsolete. Whitaker cloaks a stark, powerful image – the Soviet Hammer and Sickle – in nostalgia and humorous flippancy. The work offers the viewer a sweet idyll, a place away from one’s present concerns. But this, like much present in the show, could only ever be a backdrop, a prop, a temporary solution, and, at best, a faint fading dream.

In closing, I offer a partial cast for Whitaker’s stage, a scrambled script, and an almost-narrative:

SETH PRICE. Something new, and something else, and something something. Here come a lot different varieties of strategies and arrangements, all interesting, all interlocking, mutatis mutandis.

GUY DEBORD. First of all we think the world must be changed. We want the most liberating change of the society and life in which we find ourselves confined. We know that this change is possible through appropriate actions.

ED RUSHCA. The idea of Hollywood has lots of meanings, and one – to me – is this image of something fake up here being held up with sticks. That, to me, had more in meaning with the term ‘Hollywood’ than any other usual associations. I looked outside my window and saw the sign ‘Hollywood’ and it became the subject matter for me. It only lasted for a while so the actual remnants of the sign are not not even important to me. I don’t even think it should stay; it doesn’t even mean ‘landmark’ to me. It might as well fall down. That’s more Hollywood – to have it fall down or be removed. But in the end it’s Hollywood to put it back up, see?

DON DELILLO. He saw billboards of Hertz and Avis and Chevy Blazer, for Marlboro, Continental and Goodyear, and he realized that all the things around him, the planes taking off and landing, the streaking cars, the tires on the cars, the cigarettes that the drivers we dousing in their ashtrays – all these were on the billboards around him, systematically linked in some selfrefering relationship that a kind of neurotic tightness, an inescapability, as if the billboards were generating reality.

ALISON LANDSBERG. Memory is not commonly imagined as a site of possibility for progressive politics. More often, memory, particularly in the form of nostalgia, is condemned for it solipsistic nature, for its tendency to draw people into the past instead of the present. Private memory is an obstacle to collective politics.

MARGARET ATWOOD. We wish to be as the careless gods, lying around on Olympus, eternally beautiful, having sex and being entertained by the anguish of others. And at the same time we want to be those anguished others, because we believe that life has meaning beyond the play of the senses, and that immediate gratification will never be enough. Thanks to our uniquely structured languages, human beings can imagine such enhanced states for themselves, though they can also question their own grandiose constructions.

ASGER JORN. All the elements of the cultural past must be ‘reinvested’ or disappear.

PHILIP DRAKE. What we call the past is accessible only through private and publicly articulated memories, narrated through the perspective of the present. David Lowenthal has termed this memorial knowledge, knowledge of the past based upon selective and strategic remembering in the present, and suggests that this is made up of a mixture of personal memory and public memories that over time become fused and indistinguishable.

GERTRUDE STEIN. The trouble with looking was that in regard to human beings looking inevitably carried in its train realizing movements and expression and as such forced me into recognizing resemblances, and so forced remembering and in forcing remembering caused confusion of present with past and future time!

ROLAND BARTHES. All of a sudden it didn’t bother me not being modern.

MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ. The world has need of many things, bar more information.

PIERO MANZONI. There is no question of forming, articulating; one cannot have recourse to complicated, parascientific solutions, to graphic compositions, to ethnographic fantasies, etc. Each discipline possesses in itself elements of solution. Expression, imagination, abstraction, are they not in themselves empty inventions? There is nothing to explain: just be, and live.

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Download the orginal poster

NOTE: A passage from this text was republished by South London Gallery as part of their events series ‘The Conch: A Froum For Critical Discussion’

REVIEW: a random dispersal of dust (mutely understood) (2011)

*** First appeared in The Blue Notebook: Issue 10. April 2011 ***

In his 1941 short story The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges creates a universe that is one vast sprawling library “composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” Within each of these galleries are an exact number of bookshelves (20) holding an exact number of identically formatted books (32), themselves containing 410 pages with 40 lines per page and “approximately 80 black letters” per line. The Library and the books held within it contain every single possible combination of 25 orthographic symbols (the 22 letters of the alphabet, the comma and the period). In short, everything that has ever, or ever will, exist, happen or be thought, is held within the Library; written in every language known, unknown or unknowable, in obscure code, or as “formless and chaotic” gibberish. “For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency.” Also, the Library contains
everything false, everything that never has existed, happened, or been thought, and everything that never will. “In order for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible.”

The detailed schematic that Borges draws betrays the scientific leaning ingrained in his writing. Despite envisaging a universe whose power is held in literature (and that wonderfully unscientific folly: nonsense), it is literature limited by numbers and systems, by whatever mathematical equation it is which produces the finite number of books possible as its solution. Borges’ library is what cosmologists would call ‘finite but unbounded’ (that is: of a certain size, but without borders or end): “The Library is unlimited but periodic. If an eternal traveller should journey in any direction, he would find after centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder – which repeated becomes order.” It is this scientific, often cosmic, quantity that comes to fore in Sean Kaye & Jenny West’s new work: a random dispersal of dust (mutely understood); a book printed in an edition of 500, which acts as a translation of the Borges tale.

I have chosen the word translation as that seems most fitting, but many others are needed to fully explain the artistic gesture of the work. Kaye & West have re-written The Library of Babel as its inversion, as an indirect opposite. So the disciplined order of the Library is replaced by A Random Dispersal of Dust, and the librarians, regulators, custodians of this order, have become vacuum cleaners. The books are now specks, and the letters molecules. Most tellingly perhaps, writing is turned to sculpture. What was certain in the original is now variable, shifting or removed: “A Random Dispersal of Dust is a restless configuration whose approximate outer edge is every absent amorphous form and whose centre is attainable.” The clarity of voice in Borges’ prose is replaced by a buzz of narrative activity and a complex medley of tenses. a random dispersal of dust is not fully intelligible for the whole of its length and while it is never unreadable, some sections are confoundingly cryptic and suitably Babelian. The overall effect is one of a reverse movement: Borges’ library zooming continually outward while Kaye & West’s dust is almost falling in on itself: all numbers have become minus numbers at this subatomic level. Dust is an appropriate inversion of the Library; the universal and the molecular offer a visual and conceptual likeness and quantum mechanics is, after all, a branch of astrophysics. If The Library of Babel is unfathomable in its magnitude, a random dispersal of dust is equally unfathomable in its minutiae. Continuing this line, it can be said Kaye & West have produced the Library’s antiparticle: “a rare form of subatomic matter that is a mirror image of normal matter. The antiparticle corresponding to an elementary particle has the same mass as the particle but is opposite in all other properties.”

William Burroughs, the half-eaten laureate of the nomadic imagination, once made claim that the ‘cut-up’ novel was the writing art-form’s attempt to compete with the aesthetic dynamism of collage painting. The cut-up technique sees a traditionally coherent and formal text, chopped into pieces of different size and then reconfigured aleatorically to form a new text, often more nonsensical than the original but still constructed from the exact same parts; any intentional meaning now warped and secluded. Kaye & West have not left so much up to chance, but the results of their labour resemble collage and abstraction: layers of shapes, places, histories, facts and agendas, personalities and turns of phrase, appear scattered and then reformed into coherent coagulations. Where the language and grammar may fluctuate and occasionally test the reader’s logic, the mood of the piece remains steady throughout. Perhaps because there is a source text to provide a prominent structure, Kaye & West’s work never loses its way, never ambles too far into obscurity.

It helps that the conclusions the artists have reached in regard to what amounts to the ‘opposite’ or ‘reverse’ of the original story are, at the very least, reasonably logical: men changes to women; Man to God; solitude to fellowship; the future to the past. Sometimes the opposite phrase results in a meaning strangely adjacent to its original: an increasing number of suicides is turned into a fewer number of births; the writing of the word ‘infinite’ is instead the crossing out of the word ‘finite’. As a double negative becomes a positive, these actions and their reverse are conceptually, but not physically, alike. In this way, the new text flits between direct opposition and elaborate distortion of the original, weaving itself like a vine through trellis, sometimes snapping the support, sometimes mimicking its shape.

Kaye & West originally hoped to print the Borges story in the same volume as their own, with the two texts running concurrently on opposite pages. This would certainly have highlighted their interrelationship and made referring between the two far easier. Greater attention would be given to the numerous ingenious and genuinely poetic twists of language that occur throughout the piece: the Anatomy of Melancholy becomes the “Architecture of Euphoria”; pilgrimages become “strolls in the park that may evolve into summer fetes”; epidemics become “slow courtships”; mirrors – “minute casts which faithfully duplicate the debris”. Having the two texts side by side might also have made reading the work more fluid and given context to some of its more obfuscate sections. But the Borges estate did not agree to license the original and seeing how the work is now, with Juan Cruz’s well-written preface still mooring it to the Library, that format would have been needlessly prescriptive, cornering the work as a linguistic exercise rather than a text in its own right.

The printing of the book was set by hand and the formatting is somewhat unusual. It is about the size of a school exercise book, but the margins of the text are smaller, more the size of an average pulp paperback, and it is set toward the lower right hand corner of the page. The text becomes a block, framed above and to its left by an inch or two of empty white space. This not only parades a craftsmanship that digital printing does not (the work
is a lovely object), but also suggests another book within this one, one of significance but unseen and in hiding. There is a dust cover also (pun perhaps intended), of semi-transparent paper, coloured a rich vibrant orange. It recalls, to this viewer at least, the orange of a vagrant sun, the sun that brokers day and seals night, the temporal referential sun without which the passage of time would not be so clear. It is too, the orange of campfire confluence and lamplit perusals: a colour with such multiplicity of apt metaphorical purpose that it could, perhaps, cover all the books inside Borges’ Library of Babel. Indeed, as the artists themselves point out and Cruz acknowledges in the preface, a random dispersal of dust must already be sat, quiescent on a bookshelf someplace inside the Library; and what a startlingly articulate and stimulating discovery it would be in that setting, as it is in any.

a random dispersal of dust (mutely understood) is available from Wild Pansy Press

ESSAY: EX as CROSS as X as TIMES (2010)

Text to accompany the group exhibition ex at Leeds College of Art, Spetember 2010

A turtle on its back, legs wagging in the air. Trapped by nature and further trapped by technology, the turtle lives upside down in a world of slow-motion. I’m never sure where to begin, but slowly is a start.

This is the first time all of these works have been seen together. Most were made with the intention of being seen in some kind of isolation. Or at least they were created in some kind of isolation and without thought to any of the specific works they are now accompanied by. None were made for this show in particular, though their presentation may have been adapted. ex is an exhibition without a linear conceptual programme. This essay, therefore, must follow such a lead, winding with the turns so as to ride the thing out. I have clumsily divided the works into three vague sections: SURFACE, INTERIOR, and, most clumsily vague of all, ETHER. There are no claims to truth here, nothing is properly correct. I aim only to nab a needle from the patchwork and thread a narrative through the exhibition as a whole.

SURFACE

The turtle video, The Tortoise is on its Back, is by Arron Sands. And depending on your constitution, it is either funny, sad, agonising, or annoying. The point, I think, is to try generate all four, leaving the viewer dazed, perplexed and perhaps even angry. As he says on his website, “What is going on here? My practice is one of plastic ideology . . . The drawings, sculptures, videos, poems etc. hold a straightforwardly backwards mirror to the world, proclaiming ‘What the fuck’ in an attempt to situate myself among the domestic abominations that taunt me . . . Through dysfunctional family ensembles of intentionally confrontational one-liners, I hope to create work that creates an abiding sentiment, be it a sore head in the morning, a physical revolt on my person or a dialogue through which sub rosa can be excavated. ” If you couldn’t already tell, Sands writes also, and with wild temperament too. His Bad Poetry reads like a dissected dictionary. I hear the acid victim photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, emphatically played by the late Dennis Hopper. I hear Roberto Benigni caffeined to the extreme (as if he needed it) in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and CigarettesPuddle Fuck recalls a blasé Kerouac, or a drug-addled Dr. Seuss (as if he needed it.) Weihnachten Baum (Christmas Tree) is Dan Graham’s Scheme reimagined in viral form; systematic, but apparently nonsensical, thoroughness driven by whimsy. The words fall from elsewhere, a multitude of voices proliferate. The text feels snatched and stolen, then resold on the cheap.

Josh Whitaker‘s Useful Work vs. Useless Toil (Banner For The Outside Of An Institution) takes its title and immediate message from the 19th Century socialist William Morris. Morris used the phrase in a speech to some London workers, and then again, later, as the title of an essay. It sits somewhat uncomfortably within an art context. ‘Useful’ is an obsolete word in art. Usefulness is never questioned, never expected or anticipated. As a condition it is irrelevant. But ‘Useless Toil’ fits the other hand like a glove. In The Unknown Masterpiece Balzac has the lead character Frenhofer – a painter, the greatest of his time, now old and seemingly of little output – toil for ten years in the production of a single portrait. When the portrait is revealed to his young protégées, they recoil at seeing “nothing but colours piled one upon another in confusion, and held in restraint by a multitude of curious lines which form a wall of a painting.” They presume his madness and taunt him, laughing as they leave while he weeps and threatens them. The morning after, feeling somewhat anxious, they return to Frenhofer’s studio only to find he has “died during the night after burning his pictures.” Picasso claimed to have been haunted by Frenhofer’s fate, and in order to wrestle that particular demon, moved his own studio to the same Paris street where much of the story takes place. More recently, on the BBC’s The Culture Show, Martin Creed joyously declared his entire practice as a “collection of failures”. In da Vinci’s words, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Morris was himself an artist, a craftsman working with textiles and also a painter and poet. Where he saw art in “Useful Work” remains unclear, though he lists “works of art – the beauty which man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful” amongst things “which serve the pleasures of people, free, manly, and uncorrupted”, things which he sees as important and good. But those words and sentiments have long since drifted into obscurity. Much contemporary art rejoices in corruption. And beauty is as redundant a concept as usefulness. Whitaker is more than aware of this redundancy, stating his interest in “what could be viewed as failed or historicised ideologies.” The key gesture of the work is its banner form, the disguise which reinserts the Morris phrase into modern life via, in Whitaker’s words, ” the aesthetics of the Situationists in Paris 1968 and industrial action of the 1970s and 80s” and even, I should say, of today. He continues, “The piece is intended to go on the outside of buildings where people meet . . . galleries, schools etc.” and he even specifies as much in the title of the work. Attached to an “institution”, the ambiguity of the phrase remains, but the subjects it is ambiguous toward have shifted. Who decides for us what is useful and what is not? And who decides on who decides? Whitaker seizes on these conjectures and sends them out to do battle in public space; to battle, in fact, over public space.

Eleanor Hutchinson‘s sculptures also confront the public through a stance of disguise; though here the veil is slipping and the terrain, at first, appears more familiar. Initially, Back-to-back chair for two people looks like two separate chairs welded together, but Hutchinson designed the work herself and used a variety of technical methods in its construction. As she explains, “Lengths of ash wood were steam bended to create the armrests. The frame was made by cutting, bending and welding metal piping to the shape I wanted. It was then sanded, polished, cleaned and sprayed with a clear varnish. The seats are a wooden base, foam, and then material, cut and sewn into the right shape and stretched over each base.” This thoroughness in regards to material and design are what make Back-to-back… such an intriguing sight. It looks legitimate, like a design prototype or a showroom model. And it looks fun too, like a party game or perverted speed-dating prop; and with two people sat upon it, like a feat of domestic engineering, spurning gravity, social convention, and easy artistic classification. “The planning and execution of my work draws on methods used in design, yet it firmly remains as a dialogue with it,” she asserts. “I feel the ‘designed’ appearance of some of my work can give the viewer a route into it, yet its form and context as artwork stops it directly mimicking everyday products.” The gallery environment is essential then, in defining this object as art. “I made it as a piece of art, not a piece of design, and want it to be seen in that context, yet I’m also aware that it will be seen as other things as well. ” In that context, as art, Back-to-back… continues interventionist lines of inquiry, with interest on subversive anthropological, rather than outright political, issues. “I am interested in how the arrangement and manipulation of different components within space can influence behaviour . . . The encounter between the two people that sit on it is crucial. Their forced physical contact and the exclusion of eye contact is an important part of the work.” For Hutchinson the mutation of design results in the mutation of experience. The mutation is what signifies the art, and only art could offer such a beast sweet asylum.

All the works in Rachel Westerman‘s Replacement series, as well as a table is a table is a table, are too in search of such asylum, but outside of art, out in the everyday. Westerman’s sculptures are created to be identical in appearance to pre-existing objects; they are clones rather than mutants. Disguised as such, she intends her works to, in her words, “induce in the viewer a reflexive moment of realisation and, ultimately, reconsideration . . . to alter the viewer’s perception of the object in question.” This is most successfully achieved in a table is a table is a table, where Westerman matches not only the dimensions and materials of an apparently average table, but also the marks of misuse and decay, which are local to just one table in particular. “What makes this table a table?” she writes on her website, “Is it the method of production that is undertaken in the name of art and its label as a sculpture of a table as opposed to a real table? Or is it merely its ability to carry out the same functions as a ‘real’ table, which it is undoubtedly able to do.” We are almost one hundred years post-Duchamp and his first readymade. So it is almost without question that the original table, the table on which Westerman’s sculptural table is based, could, through various processes of acquisition and redeployment, attain some kind of art status. What Westerman wants to know is, can this transformation go in the other direction, can an art object ever be emptied of whatever makes it art, and exist only as the object it most resembles? This operation does happen, and it happens remarkably often. Think of the paintings found in secondhand shops around the country, few of these could or would be classified as art, despite their resemblance to it. These objects have lost their art status over time; although some, it must be said, have always been without it. Now, leant against the wall or piled high amongst bric-a-brac, they seem so removed from what we think art is, what art should be, that they are transformed back into paintings as paintings only: “A picture or design executed with paint” as the dictionary has it. Westerman explains that “the work is predominantly site specific and I choose to replicate and repeat objects within a given space . . . [then place the objects] back within the original environment.” This method of creation and deployment – unfortunately unrealisable for ex – allows her cloned objects to become indeterminable from their authentic predecessors, providing an easier route for her works as they seek to defect from their art state.

“I’m interested in the value of materials and how they can bestow value onto the worthless, or lose their value if they are disguised as something worthless.” Not Westerman’s words, but those of Tom Cookson. Cookson sculpts, what he terms, “throwaway objects” out of traditionally high-value materials, like gold or silver. These are often then positioned in a space to resemble the debris they descend from. So a sterling silver staple is forced into a wall – as in Staple Practice – and a 9ct gold match is left casually askew upon a plinth – as in Reclining Alchemist. Cookson sees the latter work anthropomorphically, “as a portrait of an alchemist burnt out in the pursuit of gold.” The gold match, denied its function as a match, brought to life already in a state of death, is a memorial to that human pursuit and endeavour, where science could lead to riches, but came with a potentially high price. Cookson’s minute monument burns only in the mind, and therefore forever. Cookson continues, “Giving value to a throwaway object questions why we put value on materials at all, especially when they have no function . . . Also, by carving away at the gold and silver, it is diminishing their weight and therefore their material worth. Yet,” and here the paradox is laid bare, “another value is being invested through making.” Cookson attempts to question which value is the most important, the most true, if such a thing can be said – Use value? Material value? Labour? History? – reigniting the disorientation at the heart of much political thought.

INTERIOR

“An unfocused gaze takes in a passing landscape, unfolding in a slow impression of land, sea and sky. Greys and blues are punctuated by intense, jewel like, kaleidoscopic greens and yellows. A low drone accompanies these images, placing the viewer within the private space of the car.” That description, by Alice Brook, of her own work, passengering, is as good as any I would want to write. Brook’s notion of ‘passengering’ has come from her reading of Feminist writers such as Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray. As she says, “A passenger is submissive and has little or no control over their own destiny, which appeared to resonate with the perceptions of women that Irigaray and Cixous were keen to counter.” Indeed, the viewer, who sees with eyes from behind the camera, has no control over their destiny and is forced through the images that appear on screen; beautiful images, “kaleidoscopic” the ideal word. But the engine drone creates menace, as most drones do. It recalls the work of Angelo Badalamenti, David Lynch’s go-to composer. Badalamenti has become known for his use of harmonic suspension, whereby a series of unfinished cadences are used to create musical tension, the listener left searching for resolution. In passengering, the drone is both expectant and claustrophobic, a reminder that one is being driven, that the destination is another’s will. As viewers we must adhere to someone else’s idea of freedom, follow their desires, with the lights and colours out of reach, though only a mere window’s width away. We long for freedom but also enjoy the ride, aware of the pressures that come with being a driver. Often in fiction, the pressure of freedom leads to oblivion. Or perhaps freedom, the freedom to drive, to pursue one’s desires, arrives only when “destiny” has become pure oblivion. Through coercion and perversion, the lead in David Peace’s novel 1974, Eddie Dunford, is led into a torrid and terrible conspiracy. When all is lost and almost everyone is dead, Dunford is finally in the driving seat, the police not far behind. The book ends with the single line, “Ninety miles an hour.” Going back to David Lynch, the film Lost Highway sees Bill Pullman as a passenger in his own life. Constantly submitting to the needs of others, his fears consume him, driving him into darkness. He kills his own wife and is then put on death row. Only after killing the darkness inside him can he sit in the driver’s seat. Only when death can be his sole destination, his sole destiny, is he allowed to take the wheel and tear out into the night. The fate of the passenger in Brook’s video may not be so grand, or so undeniably male, it remains in the unknown. Watching the water droplets on the window makes me think of fresh falling rains, cleansing waters straight from the skies.

From there to here – And as Ruth Campbell‘s wonderfully Gothic title tells us, Filthy water can’t be washed. “I wanted to highlight qualities such as flatness of plane, flatness of colour, the geometric layout of objects, and scale,” she says about her photographs. Taken with a medium format camera, edited, and then printed onto high grain matte paper, the resulting images, of the London Regent’s Canal, are painterly and rich. The water seems to stretch out much further than it should, more like a celestial sky than the muddied inland waterway that stretches across North London. The colours swill and change, the water seems alive. The occasional floating debris brings one back down, makes one aware of the water’s surface, aware that there is a top, and, therefore, a below. For the artist too, the water is almost alive, “Our society throws and dumps anything into the waters, and assumes our rubbish, troubles, and sins, will disappear or wash away. However the water will retain these stories forever.” Campbell reimagines these public waterways as a holding place for shared memories, a landfill for bad thoughts and unwanted dreams. The water holds them in abstract and replays them as a projection onto its surface. To return to David Lynch for the last time, and again to Lost Highway, the writer Greil Marcus has said that, “The key to Lost Highway is not to look beneath its surface for any kind of secret, but to find its surface, which is almost impossible to do.” A photograph can grab at a surface, seeming to provide everything that we need. Then the more one looks, the surface going in and out of focus, disappearing then reappearing in perpetual tide, the less familiar it all begins to seem.

“The advertising images of hotels and resorts that we see in holiday brochures propagate an aesthetically heightened image of the ideal leisure time experience. The space that the hotel inhabits in cinema, however, more often than not projects a less innocent side to the fantasy of release in escape. It is the scene of the crime; of sex and drugs and death,” writes Eleanor Purseglove. Purseglove’s Hotel paintings – (Hotel) At the Door, (Hotel) Windows and Swimmers - are doused in cinematic deja-vu. They evoke memories that feel close but are never quite within reach, scenes from films that might never have actually been made. They match the images inside one’s head – the ones lacking full form, lacking a geography or a history – the images that flicker, agitate, and ultimately haunt; not because they are now dead, but because they were never alive to begin with. “Film is death, because it is a shadow, and a mock version-of the truth of light,” as one character says in Richard Foreman’s 1987 play Film is Evil: Radio is Good. Shadows play tricks with the eye, presenting shapes that morph and move and become other things and of other times. And intense light can play much the same tricks. Purseglove’s starched-Earth policy with Swimmers has left tangible reality beyond repair. It is, in the artist’s term, “aesthetically heightened” to the point where Foreman’s “a mock version-of the truth of light” has been literalised, smothering the canvas in a realness of paint and presence that does not allow the scene to form with any fullness. The landscape depicted in Swimmers is a dead weight dipped into the ether, then tossed into the sun to burn.

ETHER

Lucy Crouch and Katherine Payne grab that sun and let it burn and burn and burn. It Is Always Now, Somewhere sees them stretch, as they call it, “a period of becoming” until becoming is all that is there. To see the work as a whole one must stand back and between and for hours, letting the work happen around us. The sun sets and rises perpetually, but imperceptibly, in front of our eyes; time’s arrow having been harnessed and slowed through technology. “We are interested in marking moments in space and time, with a wish to embody distance and duration,” say Crouch and Payne. “Through simple gestures we look to explore the potential of the in-between moment, to exist within and make visible this liminal interface . . . We utilize film, photography and other means, to deal with such distance and proximity.” In his book The Eyes of the Skin, architect and writer Juhani Pallasma states, “Architecture is our primary tool in relating us with space and time . . . It domesticates limitless space and endless time to be tolerated, inhabited and understood by humankind.” Film and video, I would say, can do much the same. Crouch and Payne have physicalised time’s awesome circulatory movement by presenting a video that is simultaneously of somewhere, a particular place – look at that boat in the distance! – and of everywhere also. It flits from local to national to international and then cosmic. One goes up, the other comes down, the movement repeated so as to never remain still. The action is similar to the Graham Gussin video Beginning and Ending at the Same Time (Horizontal Movie). But where the push and pull of that work relates to the act of looking and the reflexes which accompany it, It Is Always Now, Somewhere lingers on a more conceptual plane, exploring the passage of time as an idea over an event.

Timothy Pulleyn performs momentary events that are discarded and thrown out into time; as in Unit 12 – 43m. He gathers his material, short wooden beams of various size, all painted red, into a self-made hod, and then walks from his studio to a predetermined location, with the hod on his back. Upon arrival, he uses the wood to make a sculptural form, which again, was predetermined prior to the event. After a time, the work is then removed. As he says, “The work only exists for the one or two hours I set myself as a limit. Once the two hours are up the wood is put back in the hod and taken back to my studio.” He continues, “I am interested in the strict, the continuous, and the improvised developments of rhythm. My work derives from music in its simplest and most primitive form.” Visually, the sculptures are true to this musical interest. The wooden beams are often set in repetitive linear patterns, denoting forms of time and measure, rhythm and beat. The process of the making mirrors that of a musical performance also: take your equipment to the venue, set-up, perform, and then leave. All that physically remains of Pulleyn’s sculptures are photographs, which are typically posted on his blog, like a travelogue or diary. But the work really exists in the mind of those few who, by chance, saw him strolling through the city – Glasgow usually, but now Leeds for the first time – hod on back, red wood protruding. Those people were ‘there’, as audience and as witnesses of the work. The sculptures allow Pulleyn the means to perform, but it is the performance, the activity, that lies at the heart of his practice. The work is the working, all else is else.

When asked by Willoughby Sharp, “What is your art for?” the American artist Bruce Nauman replied simply, “To keep me busy.” That has been, and always will be, plenty reason enough.