Unhappy Families
Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932
RA, London

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

Remake everything. Organise it so as to make everything new, so that our false, dirty, boring, ugly life becomes just, clean, happy and beautiful.
Alexander Blok, The Intelligentsia and the Revolution, 1918

One hundred years after the Russian Revolution, with insurgency stirring across the contemporary world from the USA to the Middle East, the Royal Academy’s exhibition, Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 could not be timelier. It is almost impossible not to look at it through the lens of con- temporary events. But what, if anything, can we learn from the past? Does culture produced a century ago teach us anything about propaganda, lies and the use of art as a coercive tool to hoodwink the masses? Or do we have to muddle through history, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each generation in our own particular way?

The Russian Revolution was one of the most turbulent periods in modern history. Centuries of autocratic rule, along with the grip of the Orthodox Church, were swept away in October 1917 when Vladimir Lenin and the socialist Bolshevik Party came to power, leading to a civil war between the Communist Reds and the Tsarist White Russians. Initially there seemed to be a sense of euphoria that promised a sunlit proletarian future. But, with the rise of Stalin after Lenin’s death, the early elation and creativity were crushed under his repressive dictatorship. Avant-garde artists origi- nally embraced the revolution and, with it, the potential to create new art forms for a new world order. But by the late 1920s many of them were con- demned by the Soviet authorities—who favoured propagandist forms of Social Realism to avant-garde innovation—to the gulag. Others were shot.

The Royal Academy exhibition is an enormously ambitious show with works borrowed from Russia that many of us have never seen before and are unlikely to see in this country again. It takes as its starting point the major exhibition of 1932 at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad curated by the art critic Nikolai Punin that showcased art from the rst fteen years of the Revolution. Arranged in thematic sections it explores the complex and often shifting relationship between art and politics. The Bolshevik government urgently needed to create new myths and stories in order to reach the largely illiterate population previously ruled by an absolute Tsar. ‘Cultural legacy’ became the Bolsheviks’ priority. By April 1918 Lenin had mounted his Plan for Monumental Propaganda. Brightly painted trains covered with populist slogans travelled the vast swathes of the USSR spreading radical ideas. Sculptures, banners, slogans, textiles, photographs and even Grayson Perry-style ceramic pots, decorated with revolutionary scenes and portraits of Lenin, were used to propagate Com- munist ideas. Vera Mukina’s Valkyrie-like bronze female gure, Flame of the Revolution, 1922-3, a monument designed for Yakov Sverdkiv, Chair- man of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, not only fetishizes the revolutionary ideal also illustrates the importance of women during this landmark moment in history.

With the start of the Revolution the existing cultural frameworks collapsed. Many artists saw this as an opportunity to create a Brave New World where they could construct an entirely new culture. In the early years there was an extraordinary exchange of ideas between East and West. Cubism can be seen in Lyubov Popova’s Braque-like constructions, while the speed, excitement and bravura of Futurism in ltrates throughout. This momentary freedom and the euphoria it produced spawned some of the most innovative talents in theatre, the visual arts, music, literature and architecture. Talents such as the architect and artist El Lissitzky, painters like Kandinsky, the theatre director Vsevolad Myerhold and poets Akhmatova and Mayakosky, as well as Shostakovich and Proko ev, whose portraits are shown here in a stunning array of gelatin silver prints.

Russia was a profoundly religious (and superstitious) country. When the Orthodox Church was banned religious icons were replaced by images of Lenin who, on his death, was enshrined like a saint in a mausoleum in Red Square. The many portraits of him shown here range from the intimate but academic by Isaak Brodsky, to those printed on kerchiefs, presumably for the masses.

Kazimir Malevich, Peasants, c. 1930. Oil on canvas, 53 x 70 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg 

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Fantasy, 1925. Oil on canvas, 50 x 64.5 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Marc Chagall, Promenade, 1917-1918. Oil on canvas, 175..2 s 168.4 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Alexander Deineka, Textile Workers, 1927. Oil on canvas, 161.5 x 185 cm. State Russian Museam, St. Petersburg

By the time Stalin rose to supremacy his principal goal was to make the Soviet Union a powerhouse of industrial production and in 1928 he intro- duced his rst Five-Year Plan. The section ‘Man and Machine’ presents some of the exhibition’s most fascinating images and insights. Black and white photographs of fresh-faced young workers–both male and female– are set dramatically against cranes, crankshafts and power cables–all that was, then, new and modern. Photography, unlike painting, could be easily reproduced and widely distributed and technology was presented as the sal- vation of the masses. Komsomal at the Wheel 1929 depicts a young worker in a singlet standing astride a mass of impressive pistons. Both anonymous and god-like, he clasps a great iron wheel in his hands conjuring both Leon- ardo’s Vitruvian Man and an idealised Greek sculpture.

One of the most poignant sections of the exhibition is dedicated to Kazimir Malevich, who had a fraught relationship with the regime, precariously caught between success and failure. In the late 1920s his abstract paintings were denounced. A mystic and innovator of geometric abstraction Mal- evich was wedded to notions of spirituality, which he expressed through Suprematism, epitomised by his iconic work Black Square that represented ‘zero form’. The RA has reproduced the original room from the 1932 ex- hibition where Supremastist works are shown alongside his later gurative paintings that attempted to conform to the representation demanded by So- viet dogma. Nevertheless the blank faces subversively suggest the loss of personal identity under Communism. Hung above an altar-like table where he assembled his arkhitektoniki–prototypes for buildings without windows and doors, the tallest of which is topped by a tiny model of Soviet man–he created a complex installation that attempted to meld his internal creative world with what was acceptable to the regime.

When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 they promised the peasants their own land. A pledge they had no intention of keeping. (It’s hard not to see parallels between those betrayed peasants and Donald Trump’s deceived rust-belt voters assured fantasy jobs.) The Soviet emblem of a ham- mer and a sickle promoted the notion of equality between industrial and agricultural workers. But the industrialisation of agriculture couldn’t easily be achieved with old farming methods. Crops failed and millions starved. Idealised paintings such as Alexei Pakhomov’s Harvest, 1928, showing a woman reaping golden sheaves of corn, belied the truth that famine was stalking the land.

A number of artists retained a nostalgia for the pre-Revolutionary Russia of the Tsars with its landscape of birch trees and onion-domed churches. Those such as Vasily Baksheev and Igor Gravar expressed a longing to return to this romanticised idyll and lost way of life. Such images stood in stark contrast to the modernist prototype of Vladimir Tatlin’s 1932 ying machine, which in the RA has its own ante-room. Letalin evokes not only Leonardo’s bird studies but stands as a metaphor for both political and imaginative freedom and all that was deemed possible after the Revolution.

As did the Nazis, the Communist party regarded sporting prowess and physical tness as a way of developing healthy minds and bodies. As early as 1922 Gustavas Klucis and El Lissitzky, two artists associated with con- structivism, produced work that celebrated sport. Alexander Samakhva- lav’s paintings Sportswoman with a Shot-put and Girl in a Football Jersey from the early 1930s demonstrate not only the democratisation and sexual levelling inherent in sport but also re ect, following a 1932 resolution, that all art would, henceforth, be in the approved style of Social Realism and directed to ‘the service of building socialism.’

Perhaps no other art form was better suited to the times than lm. As Lenin said: ‘of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important’. While the Oc- tober Revolution was triumphantly proclaimed to the west through Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, lms such as Days of Struggle and Sickle and Hammer were shown on the agit-trains and river ships that carried the Bolshevik message to far ung corners of the continent and became inte- gral to the Soviet cinema’s romanticised founding mythology.

After the 1932 exhibition, ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’, when Stalin’s leadership became absolute, avant-garde art van- ished, to be locked away in basements and storerooms. In the early years ,Constructivists had decried painting as bourgeois but, now, only Social Realism was tolerated. Any artist who deviated from the Party line was deemed a formalist and could be sent to the Gulag.

The exhibition ends with a chilling lm made up of mugshots of victims of the purges. There are engineers, teachers, railway workers, writers and actors. No information is given as to their so-called offences. Only the stark facts are noted. The date of their arrest, the length of time they were held and when they were shot or, in very rare cases, released. Any one of them might have been Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s model for Ivan Denisovich. Begun in a blaze of fervour and utopian idealism the Russian Revolution produced some of the most innovative art of the twentieth century. But it was not long before that avant-garde, like many of the dissonant voices that exposed the reality and brutality of the Soviet regime, was crushed. The grand utopian visions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century are now out of fashion. What is spreading today is repressive autocracy led by rulers motivated by greed and pro t. Such leaders rely less on terror than Stalin and more on rule bending. But ‘alternative facts’, lies and propaganda are common to both. That Donald Trump has started to cut the National En- dowment for the Arts should, perhaps, be a timely warning.

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Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s
Photographer’s Gallery, London

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

Karin Mack /DACS, London, 2016 / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

The day after the American election that put Donald J. Trump in the White House and the morning I heard of Leonard Cohen’s death, I went to the exhibition of 1970s feminist avant-garde photography at the Photographers’ Gallery. What a difference forty-odd years makes. In the 1970s issues concerning gender equality, female sexuality and civil rights became part of the mainstream public discourse. We believed that with education and the breakdown of patriarchy the future would be equal and free. That women would be able to reach for the stars. Now more than forty years on we are to have an American president who boasts of grabbing women by the ‘pussy’ and surrounds himself with advisors intent on refusing abortion rights and dictating, once again, what women can and can’t do with their bodies And there’s to be a new FLOTUS in the White House; not the gracious first lady who fought for civil rights and encouraged poor communities to grow vegetables in order to beat childhood obesity, but a former glamour model more used to the accomplishments of the courtesan than to burning her bra in political protest over women’s civil liberties. History, it seems, is not always linear.

The ground-breaking work in this exhibition by artists such as Cindy Sherman, Judy Chicago and Martha Rosler (who found a platform alongside the writing of Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and other second- wave feminists) illustrates how they extended the late twentieth century debate beyond issues raised by the first wave of feminists around voting and property rights, to focus on matters of identity, domestic violence and rape. The photographs, collages, videos and performances produced during the 1970s show female artists galvanised into political engagement. A 1961 report from the American Presidential Commission on the Status of Women had found discrimination against women in every aspect of American life.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Lucy), 1975/2001 / © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of Metro Pictures, New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

The exhibition starts with a series of photographs by Helena Almeida, born in Portugal in 1934. Hands, many decked with  wedding  rings,  reach from behind metal railings and locked gates, through grills and half-open windows, emphasising the sense of isolation felt, particularly, by creative women, during Salazar’s political dictatorship but, also, by many women trapped in suffocating or unhappy marriages. Over and over again the same questions are raised though out the exhibition: what does  it mean to be a woman, what are the limits of that role within society?   Are these roles dictated by nature or nurture? Can a woman be an artist and a mother and have a sex life without being a sex object? Many artists such as Cindy Sherman and the Italian, Marcella Campagnano, play with multiple identities, swapping from bride to prostitute, from cleaning lady to professional, from pregnant mother to female geek like children trying out various disguises from the dressing up box. The overriding question at the time seemed to be: could women have it ‘all’ and what, in fact, did that ‘all’ actually mean? And were these perceived freedoms just for white college- educated women and if not, how would they be achieved by women of colour and those living in poverty in the developing world?

Many of the artists included, here, such as Teresa  Burga, born in 1935,  are themselves from developing countries (in her case Peru). Her practice revolves around themes of representation and mass culture that explore  the construction of a superimposed feminine ideal. Her drawing Sin Titulo (Untitled 1979) borrows from an advertisement for Cotelga toothpaste that features an attractive model and critiques the flawless beauty unobtainable by so many women (particularly those with very little money) that is being promoted. A sense of not being heard, of not having a voice, of being repressed – something that Tillie Oulson so graphically expressed in her wonderful collage of voices Silences, published in 1978 – is given visual form by the German artist Renate Eisenegger in her eight-part photo series Isolamento (1972). Here she’s seen sticking cotton wool and tape over her mouth, her nose, her ears and eyes before covering her head completely.

Housework is shown to be a vexed political arena. In 1957 Betty Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of her former Smith College classmates for their fifteenth anniversary reunion. What she found was, that despite comfortable financial circumstances, many were deeply unhappy, a situation she would describe in The Feminine Mystic, as ‘the problem   that has no name.’ Freidan described the typical 1950s suburban family   as a ‘comfortable concentration camp’ in which suburban housewives were encouraged to become ‘dependent, passive, [and] childlike’. One of her solutions was that women should be paid for housework. In Martha Rosler’s celebrated grainy grey video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) the artist challenges the prevailing attitude that a woman’s place was primarily in the home. Wearing an apron in front of a table full of kitchen utensils, the artist stands like a primary school teacher before her class re-defining each object in alphabetical order – from apron to tenderiser – though a lexicon  of feminist anger and despair. Elsewhere Letícia Parente, born in 1930 in Salvador, introduces a racial as well as gender perspective in her 1982 video Tarefa (Task) where the black hands of a faceless maid iron the body of a white woman lying passively in a cotton dress on an ironing board. While Karin Mack, an Austrian artist born in 1940, presents Destruction of an illusion (1977), a series of photos that underline the drudgery of domestic work. In the first image we are shown a neatly coiffed woman cradling a jar of bottled fruit next to her face, against a backdrop of floral wall paper – the perfect homemaker. Yet as the series progresses her image is stabbed with an array of roasting skewers and is gradually destroyed, so that by the last one she’s been completely obliterated and there is nothing left except torn paper and bent needles.

Renate Eisenegger, Hochhaus (Nr.1), 1974, Renate Eisenegger / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

Perhaps the most important site of debate during the Seventies was the body as exemplified by the publication in 1973 of Our Bodies Ourselves. Originally put together before mainstream publication by the Boston Women’s Health Collective, it went on to become a bestseller and a how- to manual for women trying to understand the mechanics of their bodies and emotions. Judy Chicago’s Red Flag (1971), a close up of a bloody tampon protruding from a luxuriant bush of pubic hair (hair was a political statement, no self-respecting feminist would go for a Brazilian, let alone shave their legs) seems to align feminism and self-determinism with the red  flag  of  Marxism. While  the  Cuban Ana  Mendieta  and  the Serbian artist Katalin Ladi both broke with traditional modes of representation by pressing rectangular panes of glass against their faces in order to distort them. Not only did these performances question ideals of western female beauty but they suggested – by their use of the frame – a critique of the normal presentations of the feminine within western painting. Aging is tackled in the work of Ewa Partum. In Change (1974), which took place in front of a gallery audience, she had a makeup artist transform one half of her body into her older alter ego, declaring that her body was now an art work. This prefigured the more extreme surgical interventions on her own body in the 1980s by the French artist Orlan.

Francesca Woodman, Self-deceit #1, Rome, Italy, 1978/1979 / © Courtesy George and Betty Woodman, New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

‘One is not born but rather becomes a woman’, Simone de Beauvoir  wrote in The Second Sex, but the questions remain: are women physically autonomous or constrained by the rules laid down by religion and patriarchy? Masquerade, parody, and many forms of self-representation are employed, here, to deconstruct preconceived notions about identity, to discuss whether it is constructed by social convention or imbibed with our mother’s milk. What so many of these artists illustrate is that identity is multi-faceted and multi-layered and that the roles assigned by society do not have to leave us in a state of conflict. Their work shows that we have choices, that we can be what we want to be. Yet looking back, now, over forty years, what seems to have been lost is a sense of common cause. That collective spirit has dissolved. Individualism has become more blatant and identity just as likely to be constructed through surgical intervention and Botox as sought through shared political goals.

So will Clinton’s failure to shatter that glass ceiling, despite the hopes and expectations of many, be the end of the feminist dream? Will we be forced back into the role of Hausfrau, mindful only of the demands of Kinder, Kuche, Kircher? Now Trump is to be president there’s a danger that his misogyny will give permission for a more general abuse and hatred of women. Suddenly this exhibition looks very pertinent indeed.

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Down On The Farm
with Martin Creed

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Art Criticism

Martin Creed, Work No. 2656, Understanding 2016, Digital Film
TRT 3:11, © Martin Creed, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Hauser & Wirth have galleries in Zurich, London, New York and now Los Angeles, but in rural Somerset, England, Iwan and Manuela Wirth have created a mini-Eden in which they bring all their interests together: art and architecture, conservation and food, community and family. They’ve already had some notable exhibitions by the likes of Phyllida Barlow and Jenny Holzer. A love affair rather than a purely commercial venture, Durslade Farm in Bruton, Somerset, restored by Argentinean-born architect Luis Laplace, has had over 130,000 visitors from July 2014 to July 2015. Durslade Farm may yet turn out to be to the west of England what the Guggenheim is to Bilbao.

Martin Creed, Work No. 2661, 2016, © Martin Creed. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Hugo Glendinning

It’s a bucolic scene among the green fields, hedgerows and lovingly renovated stone barns. Invited guests gather in a marquee to listen to Martin Creed’s band promote his new album, Thoughts Lined Up, as rain lashes down in a cliché of an English summer. The great and the good of the London art world have decamped to the country for the day and are bringing a touch of razzamatazz to rural England for the opening of his new show. With his man-bun and ’70s gaucho moustache, Creed has a lugubrious air: a cross between an encyclopedia salesman and a small-town American preacher. In the video for his new single, “Understanding,” he dresses in various retro getups: a garish Hawaiian beach shirt, a patterned geometric jersey, and a woman’s skirt and jacket, all worn with his afro-frizz arranged in a variety of styles from pigtails and braids to chignons. It’s funny, doleful, silly and quirky, like observing an adult child playing at dressing up and dancing around without realizing he’s being watched.

Installation view, “Martin Creed: What You Find,” Hauser & Wirth Somerset, 2016, © Martin Creed, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo by Jamie Woodley; Opposite: Martin Creed, Work No. 2661, 2016, © Martin Creed, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo by Hugo Glendinning

For Creed there’s no real distinction between his art and his music or, indeed, between life and art. An heir to Duchamp, his work relies on context and the viewer’s desire to engage. He’s concerned with minute interventions rather than large gestures. Either you get them or you don’t. Since 1987 he’s numbered each piece, such as Work No. 79: some Blu-tack kneaded, rolled into a ball and depressed against a wall, or Work No. 88, a sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball. In 2001 he registered in the public consciousness with his Turner Prize–winning Work No. 227: The lights going on and off. This consisted of lights being switched on and off at 5-second intervals in an empty room. Whether you thought it poetic or absurd depended largely on your frame of reference. Many questioned whether something so minimalist could be considered art at all.

Work No. 2693, 2016, Fiat camper van, Fiat Dino, Fiat Panda, acrylic on canvas

Only recently back from New York where he was installing a huge rotating red neon sculpture, commissioned specifically for Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6, Creed was making much of the work for the Somerset exhibition until the 11th hour. Even at the private view there’s still no press release, and many of the works remain unnamed. In the first gallery is a neon sign that simply reads CHEESE. Creed, apparently, has a phobia about the stuff. Elsewhere there are piles of detritus—bits of plastic and cardboard—and the windows of one gallery are covered in drippy paint à la Jackson Pollock. There are sculptures “constructed” from cardboard boxes and “minimalist paintings” made from striped cloth, which hang alongside actual— surprisingly good—geometric paintings. And there are some “naïve” figurative paintings, including a portrait of Antonio Banderas, taken from a second-hand description of a photograph, rather than from the photograph itself. As Creed says: “I feel like I’m then free of comparing my work to the reality.” There’s also an array of sound pieces and a collection of old Fiat cars, plus a green camper van. Outside in the courtyard a tree flaps with plastic bags. There are, also, two rather serious videos: one about borders and the other about refugees and, in a showcase, a solitary wig or pile of hair.

Martin Creed, Work No. 2683, 2016, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Hugo Glendinning

For the last year Creed has been making garments from long pieces of cloth. These have lots of buttons and are displayed on tailors’ dummies. He wanted, he says “to make clothes because I wear clothes and clothes are good examples of something which you have to live with, and I don’t think these paintings are. To me paintings and sculptures are basically the same as clothes, you know. You have to live with them and hopefully they can help you a little bit, cover you up.” What you make of these gnomic utterances is largely up to you. It’s easy for the “call-that-art?” brigade to dismiss Creed. He may not be Rembrandt but his work is playful and full of dismissive wit with which he flags up the invisible structures that underpin and shape our lives.

Martin Creed: What You Find
at Hauser & Wirth, Bruton, Somerset, through September 11, 2016

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Dexter Dalwood:
London Paintings
at Simon Lee Gallery

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Art Criticism

“To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it the way it really was,” wrote Walter Benjamin. “It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Dexter Dalwood, a previous nominee for the Turner Prize, examines in this new exhibition how history is constructed, interpreted and remembered through the making of paintings and how it might continue to be painted. London provides a topos for this exercise in representation. It has long been a setting and subject matter for the artist but here he gives an idiosyncratic take on the city as specific sites and locations are reconstructed from a collage of personal, as well as cultural memories, and political history.

Dexter Dalwood, Thames below Waterloo Bridge, 2014

Born in Bristol, UK, in 1960, he was a member of the Cortinas, a punk band, before studying at Central St. Martins and the Royal College of Art. Many of his past images have been culled from popular culture, including Kurt Cobain’s greenhouse and Lord Lucan’s hideout. The “London Paintings” signal something of a shift from a rather formal stance to one that is more fluid and interpretive. From the first there are interwoven quotes from art history; from Picasso, Walter Sickert and the Camden Town painters, as well as Patrick Caufield. The Thames below Waterloo (all works mentioned are 2014) not only nods at Monet’s paintings of London but, with the inclusion of the area of bright swimming-pool-blue at the bottom of the canvas, to David Hockney’s California paintings. To walk around Dalwood’s exhibition is a bit like a game of painterly charades or guess the artist. There are hints, references and seductive clues that make demands of the viewer in an unstable and slightly inchoate world. Interpretation is never quite within reach. In Half Moon Street, a bunch of flowers in a vase on a small round table in a predominantly blue room seems to suggest late Picasso, while the seedy Interior at Paddington, with its cheap brocade-red glow from a lamp, might be a brothel as well as a reference to the Camden Town painters and a bow to Patrick Caufield. One of the most beautiful paintings (if that’s a word that Dalwood would accept about work that remains in its fluidity and eclecticism relentlessly postmodern) is Old Thames. The outline of a black barge against the gray river suggests not only Whistler in its unassuming intensity but, in the repetition of the small waves, something of the mark-making of a Japanese woodcut.

Dexter Dalwood, Half Moon Street, 2014 

Typically Dalwood’s works depict imagined or fabricated interiors devoid of the human figure. His canvas of the Old Bailey shows the high court emptied of both the accused and the judiciary. Suggested by the recent Murdoch phone-hacking scandal, its fiery hell-furnace reds and seat like a biblical throne of judgment, seem all the more potent. Another version of the court is depicted at night in black and white. Not only does this appear to make reference to newsprint and something rather filmic and Hitchcockian but suggests, with its flat areas of impenetrable darkness, the hidden shenanigans that go on in high places. There is humor too—as in 1989—Dalwood is not afraid to take on big and controversial subjects. Here the tail-end of a statue of a horse on a stone plinth is set against a pale London sky.

The date is the clue, for it refers to the Poll Tax riots, when miners and anarchists climbed on scaffolding and sculptures during the protests that affected British towns and cities during dissent against the poll tax (a local tax officially known as the “Community Charge”) introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. There’s a certain wit and irony that the backend of a horse, a conventional 19th-century statue of a General or member of the establishment set on a pedestal high above a London street, depicts the rump of the ruling class in retreat.

Dexter Dalwood, 1989, 2014

There is a persistent loneliness and sense of alienation at the heart of Dalwood’s work in these atmospheric, silent interiors devoid of human presence. They are dreamscapes; romantic, melancholic and enigmatic. Poetic intensity is continually undercut with the work’s postmodern rawness and insouciance of assembly, the flat, often scruffy and casual-looking surfaces and areas of color.

Dalwood is concerned about finding meaning in lived and shared experience, a sort of social realism that creates mythical narratives though the appropriation of different viewpoints and sources of knowledge. Unusually for an artist influenced by and steeped in our transient consumerist society, he has said that “by making connections between all areas of visual culture I find that there is the possibility of presenting a worldview which prioritizes what is important, while at the same time including, or making space for the insignificant.” To return to Walter Benjamin, he “seize(s) hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Past and present coalesce in transformative scenarios that not only question the processes of memory and our relationship to the past but continually scrutinize the power of painting to examine these themes.

All images courtesy of the Simon Lee Gallery and the artist.

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London Calling:
Cerith Wyn Evans

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Art Criticism

In a brick-arched space of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery—a Grade 1-listed 19th-century building in the middle of Hyde Park, originally designed to store gunpowder during the Napoleonic wars—a strange noise is being emitted. It comes from a pair of transparent cast-acrylic flutes that hang suspended from the ceiling, calling and responding one to another. The sounds from Interlude (A=D-R=I=F=T) (2014) suggest wind and dripping water, with the odd clack of what might be bamboo knocking against bamboo. The effect is Zen-like and rather ethereal. It infiltrates the whole gallery space, drawing together disparate elements—rather as a melody might draw together the different sections of an orchestra. While the ear is seduced by this strangely hypnotic music, the eye is drawn by a long strip of arcane poetic/philosophical text in neon tubing that runs round the upper walls of the gallery like a glittery postmodern version of a classical frieze. Spare and cold, it has a stylish elegance. Some of the works on show have been created especially for this site-specific installation by the Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans; others have been shown before at White Cube in London and Bergen Kunsthall, Norway.

Among the latter is S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill …) (2010) the first work encountered on entering the gallery. Its references are classical and architectural. The pillar-shaped “drums” are made from light bulb filaments bound together to suggest Doric columns that emit both light and heat. Beside this is H=0=S=T ‘Backstage at Bunraku by Barbara C. Adachini’ (1985) (2014)—which, apparently, is a text on a behind-the-scenes look at Japan’s traditional puppet theater. (Why the endless equal signs in the titles? Not sure what they’re supposed to add, other than a spurious gravitas.)  Here sputnik-style chandeliers direct a Morse code program that stutters and stops on a nearby computer screen. Wyn Evans claims his inspiration came one night while looking down from a hotel window at the lights of Tokyo, which he says “was like an enormous matrix of signs and circuits that was somehow alive, a body in a sense … communicating with itself.” Among his accumulated newspaper clippings was one announcing that the military would no longer use Morse code. In effect, it would become a decommissioned language, an obsolete linguistic ghost. The implication seems to be that communication is complex and difficult. Otherworldly contact and parallel narratives are suggested, meanings are not fixed but slippery and elusive.

Elsewhere there’s an installation of amethyst geodes set among a bunch of somewhat sickly looking plants, and a number of chandeliers that dim and then flare, as if inhaling and exhaling breath. One is made of exotic Venetian glass and has an equally exotic title: We are in Yucatan and every unpredicted thing (2014), another, Taraxacum (2014) is constructed like a bubble from large light bulbs. Across the space images flicker on silk screens. One appears to come from an old photograph of a Victorian prostitute sitting naked on her client’s lap as he paws her, money strewn around their feet. Make of that what you will.

In the 1980s Wyn Evans was a filmmaker, part of the countercultural generation that included filmmaker, Derek Jarman for whom he worked as an assistant, before moving on to make his own short experimental films. By the 1990s, he had recast himself as a shimmering Young British Artist. His work is characterized by a focus on language and a conceptual approach that grows out of his relationship to the exhibition space. In his own words, “the site of the gallery, the perception of sight, the citation of references are multiple and swarming.” His references range from John Cage, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Gilles Deleuze, Marcel Proust and Andy Warhol.

A collection of previously unpublished black-and-white photographs—atmospheric, minimal and rather beautiful, full of light and shadows—has been produced to accompany the exhibition. This elegant catalog is introduced with a rather obtuse text entitled “Neveralreadyseen” by the French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous. Oh those French, how they do love to obfuscate!

Poetry is increasingly important to Wyn Evans; not Romantic lyrical poetry but that of experimental poets who break down language—David Antin, John Cage, e. e. cummings and James Merrill, who takes words from an Ouija board. It’s been suggested that Wyn Evans installations function as catalysts: reservoirs of possible meaning that unravel in a number of interpretations on different discursive journeys. Elegant and evocative, they nevertheless sometimes seem to try too hard. Still, the haunting flute music did stay with me as I walked out of the gallery into the mellow autumn afternoon in Hyde Park.

Published in Artillery Magazine

Jake and Dinos Chapman: Come and See

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

ScreenHunter_462 Dec. 16 09.50

In their last White Cube show it was nasty Nazis doing rude things in public. This time, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in Kensington Gardens, elegantly revamped by Zaha Hadid, it’s the Klu Klax Klan. Larger than life figures wearing hand-knitted hippy rainbow socks and Birkenstocks, watching us from behind their pointy hoods, watching them. The fact that the Princess Diana Memorial is just down the road might, for those of an ironic disposition, raise a wry smile. It seems that the professional bad boys of Hoxton, Jake and Dinos Chapman, are working their way through the list of clichéd baddies. What next? Members of Al-Qaeda in polka-dot bikinis?

They are very clever. Clever in the sense that they anticipate all criticism of their work and incorporate it into what they do. The whole point is to fart loudly in the drawing room, to épater le bourgeois, as if the bourgeoisie actually care very much, for we’ve seen it all before. Their comic book imagery looks tired and passé: the appropriation of and drawing on older art work, the sexualised manikins of children, the Boy’s Own Air Fix models of Waffen-SS killing fields – the piles of maimed bodies, the severed heads, the disembowellings and Nazi symbols ironized by the McDonalds logo – like some Disney version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. That the self-appointed naughty boy of literature, Will Self, (forgive the pun) was asked to write their catalogue essay is no surprise. Boys like gangs.

When interviewed they are extremely articulate. They use all the right jargon. The bronze sculptures at the beginning of the exhibition play with modernist notions of the body as machine and bronze as the ultimate fine art material. Their Little Death Machine (Castrated) is a Heath Robinson contraption of hammers, circular saws, castrated penises and sliced brains.  It’s as if Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had collaborated with Goya. Of course the whole point of these school-boy doodlings – as if under the desk, away from the teacher’s gaze, they’ve drawn the rudest and naughtiest things they could think of – is that they’ve been cast in bronze and are now ‘art’. You can almost hear the Chapmans guffaw in the wings as they watch visitors peer at each piece in deep concentration as though some arcane truth might be revealed. But the titles: I want to be popular, Striptease, I laughed in the face of adversity but it laughed back louder show their hard-wired cynicism. The Chapman brothers don’t do ‘meaningful’, though they do do irritating particularly well.

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But for all the fucking stuffed animals, the multi-headed infant manikins with their anal orifices, their real subject is not horror or shock but art. Don’t be fooled into thinking that they’re making sociological comments on violence, ecology, or cooperate business. They’re simply having fun at art’s expense, enjoying biting the hand that feeds them like teenage boys that piss off their parents who, all the while, are paying off their student loans.

Their position towards art is made clear in their Kino Klub (2013) film. I have to admit that it’s quite funny (even though very annoying). Particularly when Jake and Dinos’s adult heads graphically emerge from the vagina of their agonised mother, (Samantha Morton), and the scenes where the lives of Van Gogh, Warhol and Pollock are choreographed with paint-filled Marigolds. One of the funniest episodes is a sex orgy played out with inflated rubber gloves. But despite the laughs the real target is art itself and the romantic notion of the lone artist.  ‘Serious’ artists are seen as losers. In pseudo-documentary style their apparent former art teacher, played by David Thewlis – all bohemian black-rimmed glasses and polo neck jumper – gives an intense analysis of the ‘line’ straight to camera, as a class of life students do feeble drawings of the model in the background. Later he’s shown breaking down in his shabby bedsit as he destroys a painting that’s not turned out to be a ‘masterpiece’, unable to get to grips with Beckett’s mantra of modernism and expressionism ‘fail again fail better’ where art is taken to be a spiritual journey into the deep void of the self. Among the new stuff is a series of huge wooden knocked-together sculptures that mock the work of the less than successful (in his time) Kurt Schwitters and notions of isolated, hard-won creativity.

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It’s the angst of creativity, its lonely failings, its uncertainties and wrong turns that is the Chapmans’ target. Failure and self-expression are the subjects about which they are most vituperative. Like bullies in the playground they can sniff it out and they don’t like the smell. Art for them is not a way of examining the world, of making social comment or deciding our place within the nature of things. They may want us to think so; though, frankly, as Scarlet O’Hara once said, they probably don’t give a damn. For them art has one function. It’s the path to fame, notoriety and riches and it’s probably a lot more fun than being a banker. They make their cynicism very plain. And if we’re foolish enough to be taken in by their work, to search for meaning or gravitas – well, then, that’s our fault for being duped and, presumably, they couldn’t be happier.

Jake and Dinos Chapman
Installation view, Come and See
Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London
(29 November 2013 – 9 February 2014)
© 2013 Hugo Glendinning

Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9th February 2014

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Alternative Guide to the Universe
Hayward Gallery

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else,” wrote Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities. In an “Alternative Guide to the Universe” there are many fabulous cities; creations somewhere between Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and William Blake’s Jerusalem. What unites these fictional spaces, which include Marcel Storr’s elaborate Megalopolis drawings with their sky-scrapping ziggurats and minarets in jewel-like washes of color, William Scott’s utopian, gospel-driven re-imagings of San Francisco and Bodys Isek Kingelez’s visionary Congolese cities, is the artists’ desire to understand the universe in ways that will not only unlock its secrets but propose new and more meaningful ways of organizing how we live.

William Scott
SFOs The Skyline People of Wholesome Encounters Of A New Science Fiction Future (2013)
© Creative Growth Art Center
Courtesy of Creative Growth Art Center


Most of the artists are outsiders in some form or another—autodidacts, fringe physicists, poetic engineers and dreamers—who have developed their “practices” and obsessions outside official institutions and beyond established disciplines. Breaking free from the strictures of conventional thought they have created the sort of parallel universe experienced by children or scientists working on the very edge of what is know.

What they have in common is a desire to make sense of the seemingly random and unknowable. Number systems abound. George Widener predicts that someday his work will be understood by super-intelligent machines. While Alfred Jensen’s grids, with their interplay of Mayan number systems, Pythagorean thinking, and ideas borrowed from Ancient Chinese and Egyptian culture, make arcane connections between number theories, color principles, philosophy, astronomy, the I Ching and religion. The complexity of his colored numerical grids seems quite arbitrary and mad until one remembers the endless pages and ribbons of numbers of the recently decoded Human Genome Project, which identifies all the 20,000-25,000 genes in human DN and determines the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that go to make it up. To a non- scientist these dense lists look just as impenetrable as Jensen’s grids, though one is defined as outsider thinking, while the other is now mainstream science.

Installation view of works by ALFRED JENSEN at ‘Alternative Guide to the Universe’ exhibition, Hayward Gallery 2013
©ARS, NY and DACS, London 2013, Photo: Linda Nylind


Here we are constantly reminded that the ideas of savants, the autistic, the visionary and the genius all sit along a moveable scale. As Paul Laffoley wrote in his 1991 publication The Bauharoque: “Religions, morality, mysticism and technology converge…” His Thanaton III is more than just a painting. After an apparent series of encounters with an extraterrestrial named Quazgaa Klaatu, the alien showed him how to make the painting into a phsyochtronic or mind-matter interactive devise for “balancing the forces of life and spirit; human and alien.” Mad? Who is to say? But Laffoley, grew up in Cambridge, Mass, and had a conventional enough education studying art history, philosophy and classics at Brown University, before a brief spell pursuing architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Canadian Richard Greaves, who lives in Quebec, studied theology and hotel management (is there a clue in this eclectic educational pairing with his chosen path’?) Now he lives in the remote Beauce forest creating vertiginous Babel-like structures from found materials held together with knotted string. As opposed to the right angel, which is based on reason, Greaves architecture is one of the instincts and emotions. His constructs might be the remains of a lost civilization, an apocalyptic vision or simply a series of eccentric playhouses for children.  As he says, “It is my own story. Each house is a child I have made.”

Installation view of works by GUO FENGYI at ‘Alternative Guide to the Universe’ exhibition, Hayward Gallery 2013 © the artist
Photo: Linda Nylind


Within this alternative universe are a number of maverick photographers. The homeless Lee Godie’s poignant, yet somehow triumphant, photo-booth self-portraits stand out in their assurance and pre-figure the work of Cindy Sherman. While there are a number of woman artists, including Guo Fengyi, with her schematic drawings that chart the flow of energies, the majority are men. Given that aspergers, autism and OCD are more prevalent among males, this is perhaps not surprising.

Yulu Wu
Remote Controlled Cart with Clothing (Yao Kong Chuan Yi Xiao La Che) (2013)
© the artist

But to dismiss these brilliant mavericks as simply insane would be a mistake. Farfetched, outlandish and eccentric as their work may seem much of their thinking rivals that of scientists working on the wildest shore of science. We are invited to see the imagination as the jewel in the human crown. Art, mysticism and reason come together to create a visionary space beyond normal experience. For some of these artists their work may be a sane way of dealing with their demons but who are we to say that their visions are so different to those of Albert Einstein or Leonardo Da Vinci?

Published in Artillery Magazine

Gerard Byrne

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

A country road. A tree. Evening. Somewhere between Tonygarrow and Cloon Wood, below Prince William’s Seat, Glencree, Co. Wicklow, 2007, Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London, © Gerard Byrne

Gerard Byrne works from the premise that what constitutes the historic is constantly shifting and that there are a series of presents. In his artistic practice the interview and conversation become scripts to be performed in order to open up a number of critical possibilities. The texts he employs are found rather than, to use his word, “authored” and, therefore, considered devoid of baggage. He makes films and videos, working with actors, as a way of engaging in a critical debate around notions of representation. His subjects range from a conversation with Jean-Paul Sartre, to science fiction writers Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov discussing the future. For Byrne art is discourse rather than being the subject of discourse.

Over the last 10 years he’s made a number of works using text appropriated from magazines. These have allowed him to question how the mechanics of our collective now are constructed. Magazines are a barometer of a certain cultural moment. They encapsulate the zeitgeist, yet are transient and easily discarded. Using articles from the recent past he attempts to unlock ideas about the present. A piece from a 1973 issue of Playboy becomes both material and motif in the restaging of a discussion on the sexual mores of the day. But there are odd disjunctions. The cast speaks with Irish as opposed to American accents as the original participants would have done and the conversation about swinging and group sex now seems both anachronistic and naïve.

The installation “1984 and beyond” (2005) takes another discussion from Playboy. Here a group of famous science fiction writers muse about the future. It’s not only their rosy view of what lies ahead that seems outmoded but that watching ourselves mirrored through recent decades allows us new insights into the present. These re-examinations from our recent history illustrate that the past is palpable and that things might well have taken a different course. Time is presented not as linear but as palimpsest, something complex that can be manipulated.

Born in Ireland in 1969, Byrne graduated from the National College of Art & Design in Dublin before attending The New School for Social Research in New York and becoming a participant in the Whitney Independent Study Program there. In 2007 he represented Ireland at the 52nd Venice Biennale.

Now the Whitechapel Gallery has mounted the first major U.K. survey of his work from 2003 to today. This includes seven major film installations, a series of photographs and the U.K. premiere of his multi-screen installation, “A man and a woman make love” (2012), recently shown at Documenta 13. This is a reenactment of one of only two of the Surrealist group’s published roundtable discussions. The emphasis is on the masculine and misogynistic nature of the group in this restaging of the first of 12 conversations about sex and eroticism initiated by André Breton in 1928. Not a single woman takes part despite the discussion revolving around questions of sexual reciprocity. Men wave pipes in smoke-filled rooms and discuss the female orgasm, while musing on sex with nuns. Surrealist notions of masculinity have largely gone unchallenged but, here, Byrne reverses John Berger and Laura Mulvey’s articulation about the supremacy of the male gaze so that these men become central to the viewer’s attention. In his recreation Byrne uses humor and irony to deconstruct idealized notions of early 20th-century bohemianism, illustrating how we construct fantasies of the past. What the piece suggests is that, despite their perceived radicalism, the Surrealists were very much products of their time.

In A thing is a hole in a thing it is not (2010) Byrne’s five films trace Minimalism’s emergence and impact. The narratives often appear fragmented. Screens suddenly go dark and there is a sense that one is missing something crucial. There’s no clear structure, so you need to spend a while building up a sense of what you see. The work suggests that it was in the ’50s and ’60s, when criticism took on a newly influential role, that a new codependency was established between artist and critic.

Photographs of French tabacs or newsstands suggest their encyclopedic nature by catering for all tastes and interests. Yet their provisional nature is suggested by the constantly changing nature of their stock of publications. This transience is emphasized in that the title of the work is changed each time it is shown, leaving the problem of naming to the institution in which it appears. Byrne’s interest in theatricality is emphasized in the series of photographs that take their inspiration from the famous stage direction that sets the scene at the opening of that most famous of Irish plays, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Though there is a paradox here, for Byrne seems to be trying to suggest specific geographical locations in his brightly lit photographs, whereas Beckett was using these minimalist elements as universal symbols. And this is the problem with much of Byrne’s work. Informed, clever and witty though it often is, it does seem to strive very, very hard to insist that it is being intelligent and serious

Published in Artillery Magazine

Rosemary Trockel
Serpentine Gallery

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

Rosemarie Trockel, Less Sauvage than others, Contribution for a children’s house, 2012, Bronze, © Rosemarie Trockel, DACS 2013, Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London

The contemporary German artist Rosemarie Trockel, calls her current exhibition: “A Cosmos.” It’s a bold claim to announce that you have created a universe (though the title does take the indefinite article as opposed to the definite). Pre-Socratic thinkers used the word kosmos to signify “order,” though for us moderns it has come to mean the universe or outer space—”the set of all things that exist.”

This show at the Serpentine, which has just come from the New Museum, New York, is a veritable Wonderland of objects that would do Alice proud. Born in Schwerte, Germany, in 1952, Trockel is part of a generation of pioneering women artists who were concerned with developing a feminist language that was democratic and non-hierarchical. She came to prominence in the ’80s with her knitted paintings—produced by stretching threads of wool across canvas or wood in monochrome and patterned abstractions. Here she reconfigures relationships with the selected art works within that now-familiar 20th-century trope, whereby the viewer becomes a part of the artwork, and the artist the subject rather than object.

“A Cosmos” reflects her interest in creating a dialogue between different discourses. Her own work is placed in the company of other artists—both historic and contemporary— who have largely been ignored. Many of the pieces create an arena for inquiry within disciplines such as natural history, natural science and geography. Watercolors painted by the pioneering botanist Maria Sibylla Merian sit alongside intricate models of marine invertebrates crafted by Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, initially created as research tools for naturalists who had no access to living specimens. Among the most intriguing of these “found” objects are a series of tiny notebooks from the Spanish artist, Manuel Montalvo. Full of microscopic OCD drawings of birds, fish, pigs, maps and people; they cover the pages of these Lilliputian volumes with an obsessive calligraphic language. Worn and leather-bound they look as if they might emanate from some 16th-century monastery. In fact, Montalvo, who was something of a recluse, only died in 2010. Works by self-taught artists, such as Judith Scott and James Castle, sit alongside Wladyslaw Starewicz’s pioneering 1912 animation, The Cameraman’s Revenge.

Juxtaposed with all these strange and exotic artifacts are Trockel’s own artistic contributions that defy any signature style. There is collage, video, photography, ceramics and a whole array of minimalist striped “paintings” made of bright lines of wool. Given that this tradition of abstract art was largely a male domain, and its language intellectual and heroic, Trockel has subverted these iconic works by creating objects of surprising beauty that are craft-based and relatively easy to make. The exhibition constantly reframes questions of classification and hierarchy, theories and bodies of knowledge, as well as issues of self-definition, to ask what art is and what constitutes an artist. What Trockel has attempted to create is a sort of map of associations that mimics memory and thought processes.

Walking beneath the rotunda of the darkened central gallery is like entering the Victorian Pitt Rivers ethnographic museum in Oxford. Strange objects abound in glass vitrines: a tacky Barbie-Doll style ballerina reminiscent of Degas’ little dancer, an array of roughly constructed paper birds, a prosthetic leg. On the wall are a series of “expressionist” paintings, entitled “Less Sauvages than Others,” that turn out to have been “painted” by the orangutan, Tilda. Presumably these have been included to question the nature of creativity, an action that we consider something unique to humans.

Trockel has produced a sort of psycho/art/geography, returning us to a kind of Kunstgeographie shaped by the German explorer and naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, who created a wunderkammer for the 19th century American polymath Charles Willson Peale that is recorded in The Artist in His Museum, 1822, to be found in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia. This highlights the 19th passion for the categorization and understanding of the natural world. Eschewing a linear retrospective, Trockel’s concerns range from the insatiable curiosity of the Enlightenment to the readymades of Marcel Duchamp. This is an exhibition full of juxtapositions and allusions.

But it will not be to everyone’s taste; it will annoy some who’ll see it as pretentious and ticksy but delight others who will enjoy its surreal and surprising relationships. As single artworks what Trockel produces is not that interesting. But the sum of the whole is a real challenge. It speaks of inquiries into the very processes of human thinking, and asks questions about what it is that forms the body of knowledge that defines the western world.

Published in Artillery Magazine

Kiev Biennial

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

Phyllida Barlow, “Rift,” a site specific installation in three parts, 2012: Untitled: hoardings, 2012, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, London, photo by Maksim Belousov, Mykhailo Chornyy.

DO WE NEED ANOTHER BIENNALE? CERTAINLY UKRAINE SEEMS to think so, with Kiev staking its claim on the international art scene.

From Liverpool to Venice, from Istanbul to São Paulo the world is awash with contemporary art. Is there really enough good work to go round, or, like nature, does art abhor a vacuum, growing to fill the ever increasing number of biennale-shaped holes? An attractive and sophisticated city, Kiev very much wants to be part of the international scene. “If we wait for the good times, we never start,” claims the immaculately coiffed Nataliia Zabolotna, director of Kiev’s Mystetskyi Arsenal, the 18th-century arms store which will become one of Europe’s largest art centers when completed in 2014. The Kiev Biennale’s English artistic director, David Elliott, said earlier this year that “Most exhibitions today are Eurocentric in their assumptions.” While not rejecting this, the Biennale tried to present another picture, one that also took into account the political and aesthetic developments that have shaped so much art of the present. “The international art community’s perception of Ukraine as some kind of a post-Soviet hinterland has changed,” said Elliott. That’s as may be, but E.U. leaders, led by the German chancellor Angela Merkel, threatened to boycott the Euro 2012 football championships held during the Biennale and co-hosted with Poland, in protest at the treatment of Kiev’s former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was reputedly beaten up after her arrest in October. No doubt there was a touch of British irony in Elliott’s choice of theme taken from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “The best of times, the worst of times: Rebirth and Apocalypse in Contemporary Art.”

On my quick 24-hour visit, the city was busy sprucing itself up for the football. Grass was being laid and flowers planted. The organizers obviously hoped that these dual sporting and cultural events would raise the profile of the country—though it didn’t bode well that during our first tour to the National Art Museum of Ukraine, we found the installation Pipeline “Druzha,” a golden-foil spiral wrapped around the classical pillars of the building’s façade by the artist Olga Milentyi, being removed by the authorities. As one young translator muttered, “We have some problems here with democracy.”

Since the opening of the George Soros-funded Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA) in Kiev, which had its funding withdrawn after the Orange Revolution, it’s Ukranian steel magnate and former politician Victor Pinchuk— who is married to the daughter of the former president of Ukraine and whose estimated fortune exceeds $3 billion—who has become the backbone of contemporary art in Kiev, reminding anyone who was ever in any doubt that art and money often share the same bed. The Pinchuk Art Centre, the first private museum in the former Soviet Union, with its ubiquitous glass, concrete and steel, is every bit the stylish modern gallery. During the Biennale, it is showing work by Olafur Eliasson, Andreas Gursky, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, though more interesting for a western viewer overfamiliar with these artists were the intense figurative paintings by the winner of the PinchukArtCentre Prize, Artem Volokytin.

But back to the Biennale. The opening was chaotic, the speeches long, the work not all installed, and we were severely delayed getting in. Explaining the lack of organization, Elliott said, “There are things that you can’t plan for, like having to install for 36 hours with minimal electricity and no light.” Inside paintings were languishing in their bubble-wrap, and wall markers were non-existent or left lying around haphazardly, while technicians drilled holes in the walls, ran out electric cables, and tinkered with the videos.

Despite the distractions, there was much that impressed. A new series of photographs, by Ukrainian Boris Mikhailov, of rusting factory plants that still scar vast swathes of the Ukraine landscape spoke of the collapse of the Soviet dream, while nearby Louise Bourgeois’ “cells” made reference to the repressed feelings of fear and pain underlining Elliott’s belief that “you have to understand the past to understand the present.” British artist Phyllida Barlow had specially created “Rift,” an impressive three-part site-specific installation of wooden scaffolding that stands like some dystopian cityscape responding to the massive columns and vaults of the imposing Arsenal building. Other new pieces included Yayoi Kusama’s site-specific walkthrough tunnel—studded with pink nodules, decorated with black polka dots, and titled Footprints of Eternity—and a vast projection of a letter written in 1939 by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, in which he urged the Führer to avoid war “for the sake of humanity.”

There were works from China (Liu Jianhua and the MadeIn Company), Korea (Choi Jeong-Hwa) and Turkey (Canan Tolon), as well as 20 artists total from Ukraine, including Vasily Tsgolov, Nikita Kadan, Hamlet Zinkovsky and the U.S.-based couple Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, whose trenchant pieceMonument to a Lost Civilisation (1999) reflects the false utopian dreams of those living under communism. The American painter Fred Tomaselli created two large new apocalyptic works, while British artist, Yinka Shonibare contributed paintings that continue his exploration of colonialism and post-colonialism. First shown at the 53rd Venice Biennale, Miwa Yanagi’s macabre 4-meter-high photographs of “goddesses” stood in a windswept landscape. The conjunction of old and youthful bodies—aging breasts on a young torso, with sagging legs beneath a taut frame—spoke of collapse, putrefaction and renewal.

Song Dong is known for his innovative conceptual videos and photography that reveal the changes in modern China and express his response to the country’s rapid development while retaining a spiritual connection to the past. The centerpiece of Song Dong: Dad and Mom, Don’t Worry About Us, We Are All Well was the large-scale installation “Waste Not,” comprising thousands of everyday items collected by the artist’s mother over the course of more than five decades. The project evolved out of his mother’s grief after the death of her husband and follows the Chinese concept of wu jin qi yong(“waste not”) as a prerequisite for survival. Vitrines full of dried soap and stuffed with cabbages created a powerful metaphor for the effects of radical change and social transformation on individual members of a family.

In part, the chaos of the Kiev Biennale was the result of the Ukrainian government’s failure to provide its half of the funding on time. (The other half was provided by corporate sponsors and private individuals.) The government seemed to hope that their involvement would fortify their claim to join the E.U., but the country’s problems with human rights make that far from certain. Catching David Elliott in the bar after the opening, I asked if he thought there’d be another such event—after all, there needs to be at least two to warrant the use of the term “biennale.” “Who can say?” was his enigmatic response.

The First Kiev International Biennale ARSENALE 2012 ran from May 24 to July 31

Published in Artillery Magazine

Damien Hirst
Tate Modern

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

Damien Hirst The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991

In 1966 John Lennon announced that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Damien Hirst may not yet have achieved this near divine status but ask the average person in the British high street to name two contemporary artists and they’ll come up with Hirst and “that” shark, and Tracy Emin and “that” bed. As Hirst says: “Art’s popular. That’s my generation. It wasn’t before… isn’t that an awesome thing?” But just what is it that’s popular and what does he mean by art? A recent article denouncing him as a con man set the cat among the critical pigeons. Critic wins, Hirst wins. There is, after all, no such thing as bad publicity. So what should we to make of this enormous retrospective at Tate Modern, with its pills and medicine cabinets, its spin and spot paintings, its live butterflies, stuffed sharks and outrageously valuable diamond skull?

Column inches have been spent arguing whether Hirst is a good artist. But that is to miss the point. It’s not even the right question. Hirst is a showman, a phenomenon of our times thrown up by a zeitgeist that values celebrity and glitz over intellectual depth and craft. He is a genius at spectacle. It is no coincidence that that other artistic barometer, Andy Warhol, was also a lapsed Catholic. Death, theater and the object as icon are common themes to both. Like Warhol, Hirst has not only permeated the cultural consciousness of our times, he mirrors, manipulates and is a product of it.

Born in 1965, he grew up in Leeds. Unemployed after school he decided to give art school a whirl. He wanted to be a painter but couldn’t hack it. Then he started collecting objects and making collage. Seeing Saatchi’s advertising campaigns on TV he decided: “I want to make art that does what that does.” Many have complained he is only in it for the money. “Money is important,” he says, “and money can sometimes obscure the art but ultimately the art has got to be more important than the money or I wouldn’t do it.” Yet in the shop, which has virtually been incorporated into the exhibition, you can buy rolls of wallpaper at £250 a throw, a £310 butterfly deckchair or a set of 12 bone china butterfly plates; yours at a snip for £10,500. And those with £36,800 to burn can go for a limited-edition plastic skull in “household gloss.” Art and money have always been bedfellows. The Medicis sponsored Brunelleschi and Michelangelo. So what’s the difference? Well the Medicis employed artists because of their extraordinary vision and skill, because they were the best; but without money Hirst’s work would simply not exist.

Damien Hirst A Thousand Years 1990
A Thousand Years, 1990

Yet he’s always wanted to make serious work. With A Thousand Years he momentarily succeeded. I remember seeing it for the first time in 1990. The vitrine with cow’s head, teeming with propagating flies, stank. Here was a living art object that embodied the cycle of life and death. It was disgusting, raw and shocking and still is. There is a directness, a repulsion and attraction that whether Hirst knew it or not plays with notions of the Kantian sublime. It is as iconic a piece as Duchamp’s 1917 urinal. But Duchamp had the wit to give up making art and take up chess, while Hirst has gone on making art that has become ever more vacuous. Having made one medicine cabinet why make so many more?

Less would definitely be more. Fragments of Paradise (2008) and Judgment Day (2009) with their heavy steel and gold plated frames and rows of cubic zirconia flashing like diamonds are simply crass and vulgar and that is not even to mention his zillion-pound diamond skull, For the Love of God (2007). Though that, of course, is the point. As Tom Wolfe wrote in his infamous The Painted Word, the rich who bought Jackson Pollock’s paintings were trading money for a little of his boho-spirit. The hedge-fund managers and corporate moguls who hang Hirst’s sparkly works on their walls want to be seen not only as achingly hip but to show the world how much money they have. Notions of the sublime have nothing to do with it. This is just money in a visual form.

At the end of the exhibition a single white dove hangs suspended in a glass vitrine of blue formaldehyde. It might be a metaphor for the Holy Ghost or the fugitive artistic imagination. It is called The Incomplete Truth (2006). It seems a fitting title for an artist who once dared look at what was important but who turned away, swapping the difficulties and emotional complexities of real art for the seduction of celebrity and money.

Damien Hirst through 2 September 2012 at Tate Modern, London,

18 June/July 2012 artillery

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012

Images © Damien Hirst

Published in Artillery Magazine

David Hockney
A Bigger Picture
The The Royal Academy of Arts

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

David Hockney Woldgate Woods 21 23 and 29 November 2006
Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 and 29 November 2006

A path disappears beneath the arched boughs of tall beech into a distant tunnel of light. A farm track runs off into infinity between two fields. Paths in woods and forks in roads are ancient metaphors for the lifeline, its crises and decisions. Identical forks symbolize the complex interplay of free will and fate. We have free will, but we don’t really know what we are choosing between. In his essays On Late Style, the critic Edward Said explores the idea that late artistic works are not always serene and transcendent but sometimes unresolved and contradictory.

As in Robert Frost’s famous poem roads and tracks provide the central metaphor within David Hockney’s landscapes in this major new exhibition, which sees a return to his native Yorkshire. The soft greens, the woods and undulating hills show that we are in the heart of England. This is a love affair with the land of his birth: as tender in its Englishness as Elgar’s Enigma Variations or Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. There is not a blue splash of a Los Angeles swimming pool in sight. This huge exhibition is an engagement not with the self or the ego or with ironic modes of deconstruction but with the cycles of nature and how they can be translated into paint through a commitment to looking. These poignant and, at times, melancholy, yet also joyful paintings, are potent intimations of mortality. Hawthorn blooms in its fragile white glory for a few days beside a small country lane, felled logs lie in a wood like fallen soldiers. Death, decay and renewal are Hockney’s subjects. This is an artist who knows he is approaching his last decades.

In the first gallery the viewer is confronted by the Thixendale Trees. This quartet of paintings sets up many of the themes of the exhibition. The trees stand in a landscape devoid of human presence. Only the straight lines of the ploughed fields show that it has been cultivated. The upturned branches of the winter trees slowly become weighed down through the late spring to hang heavily beneath their summer green foliage before, again, shedding their leaves. Like Monet’s Haystacks these works explore the same location in different conditions of light and weather, observing the subtle seasonal shifts.

Hockney was born in Bradford in 1937 and his stellar reputation was established while still a student at The Royal College of Art when his work became synonymous with the birth of British Pop Art. Visiting Los Angeles in 1964, he was attracted by the life style and strong light and, escaping what he perceived to be an English greyness, decided to settle there. Now the enfant terrible of the gay lifestyle has, spurred like some lost prodigal son by friendship and devotion to family, returned to embrace a remote corner of the Yorkshire Wolds. Until his 60th birthday England had remained largely untouched as a subject.

It was in 2002 that he took up the unfashionable medium of watercolor. This allowed him to work fast outside and provided a different vehicle for looking to that of the ubiquitous gaze of the camera. Hockney spent nearly three years working in this difficult medium before returning to the “luxury” of oil paint. His work abounds in paradoxes, embracing references to art history, whilst remaining full of restless innovation. There are nods in the direction of Turner, Van Gogh and Paul Nash, and a series of playful works based on Claude’s The Sermon on the Mount in styles that draw on Philip Guston and Picasso. Whilst he embraces the Romanticism of the likes of Thomas Moran, he also uses the Paintbox software on an iPad in an update of the artist’s traditional practice of recording the natural world. Drawing with his finger on a digital screen is no more than an extension of his preoccupation with all forms of draftsmanship. Also included in the exhibition are many fine charcoal drawings that might have come from Constable’s sketchbook.

Since the death of Lucien Freud, Hockney has been labelled the ‘greatest living British painter’, a difficult mantle to take on. Both a traditionalist and an innovator he moves through the landscape looking, absorbing and drawing before returning to the studio to create monumental works of Fauvist colour that sing out with the verve of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

David Hockney A Bigger Picture at the The Royal Academy of Arts from 21 January to 9 April 2012

18 April/May 2012 artillery

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012

Image © David Hockney
Photo credit: Richard Schmidt

Published in Artillery Magazine

Monumenta 2011
Anish Kapoor
Le Grand Palais Paris

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

This column might be called London Calling, but this time around it’s more a case of Paris m’appelle. Recently I jumped onto the Eurostar at St. Pancras International for a lunchtime press trip to view Anish Kapoor’s extraordinarily ambitious new work, Leviathan, which has just been installed at Le Grand Palais. Le Grand Palais is a symphony of light, glass and soaring fin-desiècle architecture built in 1900 following the success of the Universal Exhibition held in Paris every 11 years from 1867. The 19th century saw the rise of the Great Exhibition — a showcase for all things modern — the first of which was held in London’s Crystal Palace in 1851.

Anish Kapoor Monumenta 2011 Installation

To work in such a space as Le Grand Palais, with its vast dimensions, translucent light and unique architecture, takes nerve. Kapoor has already proved that he can do big. In 2002 his Tate Turbine Hall installation Marsyas, which evoked the satyr flayed alive by the god Apollo in Greek mythology, was a feat of cutting-edge engineering. His installation at Le Grand Palais is the fourth in the series of MONUMENTA exhibitions that have introduced the French public to artworks by Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra and Christian Boltanksi. Leviathan certainly has the wow factor, as if, somehow, it has been generated as a result of its own energy, produced not by an artist but by some force of nature. The scale is such that the viewer feels dwarfed and inconsequential, rather like those tiny figures beloved by Caspar David Friedrich, who tremble in the face of awesome nature. Romanticism and the sublime are never far away in Kapoor’s work.

Leviathan is vast; it took seven days to erect. Both its bulk and name remind us of the great biblical sea monster and, of course, of Hobbes’ famous metaphor for the all-powerful kind of state that he thought “necessary to solve the problem of social order.” From the outside it is impossible to see the entire thing. The dark skin resembles that of a peeled black grape though, on closer inspection, the carefully joined strips of PVC strain with tension, for the thing is actually inflatable, rather like those kids’ bouncy castles. But enter its roseate maw and suddenly you understand what it must have felt like to be Jonah in the stomach of that infamous whale. The space opens into three apertures or naves drenched in a visceral pink glow, and from the inside the skin appears semi-transparent so that the girders of the building create rib-like shadows. It is like entering a cathedral; or, alternatively, returning to the womb, that prelapsarian space to which both philosophers and psychoanalysts would have us believe we all long to return.

Anish Kapoor Monumenta 2011 Installation

This is art as theater, as total immersion. We are no longer “viewers” but participants in an osmotic relationship that shifts between the artist and the work, the site and us and which alters our psychological interpretation of reality to create a new emotional and philosophical drama. In many ways Leviathan is the physical embodiment of Merleau-Ponty’s argument about the “primacy of perception”. The body, he argued, had, within philosophical traditions, all too often been considered merely an object that a transcendent mind ordered to perform varying functions. Rather than rejecting scientific and analytic ways of knowing the world, he suggested that such knowledge is always derivative in relation to the more practical exigencies of the body’s exposure to the actual physical world. Kapoor’s work also deals with perception and the body, blurring boundaries between object and non-object as the piece merges with the environment and disappears, just as the viewer blends with and is absorbed by the work. Trapped inside, we establish a physical relationship with both its mass and its emptiness as we stand looking into the vast internal space that surrounds us.

There may be those who criticise the size and scope of work such as James Turrell’s or Anish Kapoor’s, bewailing the fact that it is impossible, now, for art to make a “statement” unless it is humungous. But Kapoor’s ambition is to create a spiritual work for a secular age, one in which the body is the intermediary between the sense of what exists inside and what outside. This universal body is the site where the transcendent mingles with the physical, where body and dreaming merge. Leviathan attempts the ultimate challenge open to contemporary art — to give form to that which is formless and impossible to articulate. The void functions as a call to another, non-material space. In a non-believing world this is as close as we are likely to get to the face of God.

Monumenta 2011: Anish Kapoor is at Le Grand Palais, Paris from 10 May to 23 June 2011

18 July/August 2011 artillery

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Anish Kapoor

Published in Artillery Magazine

Yayoi Kusama
Tate Modern

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

Yayoi Kusama Tate Modern

A “ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE,” wrote Gertrude Stein in her poem “Sacred Emily” in 1913. Could the same be said of a dot? When is a polka dot not just a dot? When used in the hands of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama to form the signature style of her distinctive paintings, sculptures and installations. Central to Kasuma’s work since the late 1950s has been the circular motif—either a polka dot or the negative space within a looped mark. First experienced during childhood hallucinations, they have been her obsessions ever since. This has led her to create psychedelic works that include fantastic biomorphic forms and a dazzling array of optical effects. Like many other women artists of her generation—Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois and Nancy Spiro—Kasuma, now in her 80s, has had to wait a while for full recognition. This exhibition at Tate Modern establishes her importance not only as an artistic conduit between Orient and Occident but also throws up a multitude of questions about the relationship between mental health and the production of art.

Kasuma left her native Japan—and the mental health hospital where she resides—for the first time in 12 years to attend the opening of this show. Unlike her last retrospective in Los Angeles which focused solely on her production during her time in the U.S., this one encompasses her entire oeuvre as a painter, sculptor, filmmaker and writer. Confined to a wheelchair and dressed in a red wig, with matching lipstick and a polka-dot dress, she obviously relishes the attention. As well as her signature dots, her soft Oldenburg-like sculptures incorporating umpteen phalli, her naked interventions and a spectacular new mirrored installation with colored lights conceived especially for this show, the Tate exhibition also includes early watercolors such as the surreal and visceral Lingering Dream (1949).

Yayoi Kusama Lingering Dream 1949
Lingering Dream 1949

But Kusama’s work cannot be disentangled from her mental health problems and early childhood trauma. Admitting herself to a psychiatric hospital on her return to Tokyo from America in the early 1970s, she has lived voluntarily on an open ward since 1977, commuting back and forth on a daily basis to the studio she has built across the street. Her doctors have suggested that it’s by channelling her “illness” in this way she has kept it in check. As psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell suggests in her catalog essay: “To become a beautiful flower (an experience Kusama had when young) instead of a miserable child involves psychically eradicating the child.” Kusama’s work abounds in images of unconscious eradication; her white Ryman-like “Infinity Nets” imply not just a void but a protection from that void, and her mirrors reflect both a sense of otherness and emptiness. Highly original and idiosyncratic, her paintings and objects follow in the tradition of other outsider artists such as Adolf Wölfli and the work of patients collected by German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn, which had a significant effect on the language of the Surrealists. For Kasuma the very act of making art is an emancipation from her hallucinations; her compulsive repetitions transform the psychotic into the abundant and the wondrous.

Despite her apparent interest in the body (expressed in her naked hippie happenings of the 1960s and her Self-Obliteration, an orgiastic film of the same period that depicts her dabbing a naked male torso with polka dots), her “accumulations”—sofas, chairs and other objects covered with hundreds of handmade and white-painted phallic protuberances— don’t only speak of a fear of sexuality but, with their turd-like forms, imply an obsession with the abject. More recently she has produced a large body of acrylic paintings on canvas in a limited range of brilliantly unmixed hues that incorporate iconographic motifs and tap into the sort of archetypal images more often found in aboriginal art. All the work is done herself without the aid of assistants, which is why, she says, she is in a wheelchair. “I’ve been doing it physically—it’s hard labor—throughout my life.”

Perhaps the fact that she’s not better known in
the West says a good deal about how artists
here achieve recognition. As an outsider,
she has never embedded herself in the
necessary artistic hierarchies, never
hung out in one place long enough
to become a superstar. Instead
she has used her obsessions to
create an art that-while rooted
in various traditions from
minimal cool to manga kitsch-is
authentic and original, as well
as proving a salvation through
her own personal Calvary.

This show ended on June 5 at the Tate Modern, but 

travels to New York at the Whitney Museum
of American Art, 12 July to 30 Sept 2012

14 Summer 2012 artillery

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012

Images © Yayoi Kusama
© Yayoi Kusama Studios Inc.

Published in Artillery Magazine

Anthony McCall
Vertical Works
Ambika P3 / Sprüth Magers

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

As you enter Ambika P3, the subterranean 14,000 square-foot space in central London converted from the vast former concrete construction hall of the University of Westminster’s School of Engineering, it’s so dark that it’s like entering Hades. Erected in the 1960s, the building’s impressive scale and brute industrialism provides a spacious venue for innovative art and architecture. Blundering through the blackness is, however, well worth the effort to encounter Anthony McCall’s poetic, ghostly and technically audacious cones of light. These four works, You and I (II), 2005-11, Breath III, 2005, Skirt I, 2010 and Meeting You Halfway, 2009 are presented as a single work on show in the UK for the first time.

Anthony McCall Installation of vertical works at Ambika P3, 2011
Installation of Vertical Works at Ambika P3, 2011

To mingle with these shapeshifting columns is like walking through drawings made by the finger of God. Projected downwards from the ceiling to form 10-metre tall, conical tents of light, the beams form line drawings on the floor that move and shift like slow dancers, while the three-dimensional body rises up narrowing to a point at the lens of the projector, set high above the viewer’s head.

These ephemeral planes extending through space suggest not only 19th-century spiritualist miasmas and ghostly apparitions but also contemporary explorations into quantum physics and the architecture of space. A key figure in the avant-garde London Film-Makers’ Cooperative in the 1970s, the British born McCall’s cross-disciplinary work has drawn on film, sculpture, drawing and performance. His “solid-light” installations began in 1973 with his seminal Line Describing a Cone in which a volumetric form composed of projected light slowly emerged in three-dimensional space.

As with Olafur Eliasson’s “The Weather Project“, the highly successful intervention that formed part of The Unilever Series in the massive Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, where hoards of visitors lay on the floor basking in its solar glow, or James Turrell’s recent celestial light works shown at Gagosian, King’s Cross, McCall has created an environment where the viewer becomes part of the work. This is art as total immersion, art that arrests both body and soul.

Some of his earliest films documented outdoor performances such as his 1972 Landscape for Fire 11 – where groups of geometrically aligned fires were lit according to a strict temporal progression following a series of diagrams that functioned both as instructions and a score. After a move to New York in 1973 he withdrew, at the end of the ’70s, from making art for 20 years. His newer work has now moved from ostensibly filmic concerns (with time and duration) to an interest in sculptural space where forms move continuously through a cycle of changes. Despite their apparently abstract nature, the titles of his light cones suggest a relationship to the body and with mortality.

Anthony McCall Installation of vertical works at Ambika P3, 2011
Installation of Vertical Works at Ambika P3, 2011

Since October 2009, McCall has been working on the logistics of an ambitious installation Column that combines both art and science. A spinning twister of cloud will rise from Wirral Waters in Merseyside, across from Liverpool’s landmark Liver Building — one of 12 public art commissions commissioned by the Arts Council of England’s Artists Taking the Lead for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The £500,000 artwork is planned to appear first on New Year’s Eve, and then remain in place throughout 2012 as a focal point for the North West’s Olympic involvement. Column beat four other short-listed entries, which in turn had been whittled down from 172 contenders to take the award. It may look magical but its movement is based on the principal of convection, where warm moist air is displaced by denser air, a phenomenon that occurs in nature as thermals and dust devils. The rotating warm, moist streams, combined with extra heat will cause it to lift off the water’s surface to ascend, if not quite like an angel, then in a miraculous spinning column. Responsive to natural light and weather Column will appear as a slender white line against blue skies, or a darker line against overcast skies. The ambition of this is audacious. It will bend with the winds, appearing and disappearing in structured sequences. Several kilometers tall, and subject to the vagaries of local atmospherics, it will potentially be seen from as far afield as Blackpool, Bradford and Manchester, a reminder that there’s more to the up-and-coming Olympics than simply huff and puff, and a huge budget deficit. A work of art more and more comes to resemble a high budget, high octane Hollywood movie. Whether it is Anthony Gormley’s vast Angel of the North or Anish Kapoor’s colossal Marsyas in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, it is dependent on teams of engineers and computers to bring it to fruition, making simple paint on canvas look like another activity all together.

Anthony McCall Vertical Works is at Ambika P3 / Sprüth Magers University of Westminster until 27 Mar 2011

20 May/June 2011 artillery

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Image © Anthony McCall. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers Berlin London
Photo: Stephen White

Published in Artillery Magazine

Newspeak: British Art Now Part II
Saatchi Gallery

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

Tessa Farmer Swarm (detail) 2004
Tessa Farmer Swarm (detail), 2004

Rather like the Christian calendar, which codifies events as occurring before and after the birth of Christ, so the British art scene can be understood as that which existed before the arrival of Charles Saatchi and after his hallmark exhibition Sensation (was it really 1997?). From his background in advertising he promoted work that was hard-hitting, ironic and had a desire to shock, so that the language of art seemed to shrink in direct proportion to his interest in it. Transformation, the sublime and social discourse all went out the window in favor of a fashionable insouciance. But love or hate Jake and Dinos Chapman’s penile-nosed dolls or Marcus Harvey’s portrait of the moors murderer Myra Hindley, no one can doubt the effect that Charles Saatchi has had on British art.

Since then he seems to have been looking for the “next big thing.” We had New Neurotic Realism, whatever that is – you can tell Saatchi is an advertising guru; it’s just such a great title. But what did it add up to? Not much, really, other than being a rather pale version of Sensation. Then there was Triumph of Painting, the gallery’s 20th anniversary show, at London’s County Hall, which never made a very successful gallery. After having been largely absent from the gallery scene as a result of being forced from his Thames side home in 2005, Saatchi came back fighting in 2009 with The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art, housed in his swish new Chelsea exhibition space, with its white walls and de rigueur acres of glass, in the Duke of York’s prestigious former headquarters.

Maurizio Anzeri Rebecca 2009
Maurizio Anzeri Rebecca, 2009

Now George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary is getting smaller every year”, provides the title for his latest exhibition. To be included in such a survey show is tantamount to artistic canonization. So has Saatchi come up with anything fresh that will take art off in new directions in the manner of Sensation? Well, yes and no.

That he refuses to include video work might be a reason to claim that he is out of step with what is really going on. Yet on the other hand there would be many who would welcome his focus on the traditional arts of painting and sculpture. And is it any good? Well again, yes and no; though it’s hard to see any overarching themes emerging, other than to say that there seems to be a blessed reduction in ubiquitous irony, which has come to look as tired as a pair of 1980s shoulder pads.

Clarisse d'Arcimoles In The Bath (My Mother And My Sister) 2009
Clarisse d’Arcimoles
In The Bath (My Mother And My Sister), 2009

Much of the painting is of the sloshy-boshy abstract school and Luke Gottelier’s desire to consider “Englishness” is not aided by the clichéd inclusion of old school and club ties in his paint. Whereas Arif Ozakca’s work, which creates an interplay between his own Anglo-Turkish-Cypriot heritage by setting aspects of Ottoman tiles and miniature painting within East-End London streets, is genuinely arresting. So, too, are Maurizio Anseri’s portraits made by sewing directly onto vintage photographs. His embroidered patterns not only act as strangely surreal costumes but also suggest disquieting psychological masks and veils. Idris Khan’s ghostly ectoplasmic photographic prints of gas reservoirs and water towers have a poetic subtlety and could easily be mistaken for graphite drawings, while Tom Elli’s black-and-white painting of copulating dogs in acrylic on canvas not only plays with Walter Benjamin ideas of the mechanisms of cultural production but also evokes something of Francis Bacon’s 1952 Study of a Dog.

Clarisse d’Arcimoles’ photographs, in which a past scene is then reproduced exactly at a later date, such as her sister sharing a bath with her mother as a small child and then, as an adult, provoke very human thoughts about the passing time, while Tessa Farmer’s vitrine Swarm was always going to be a hit. A sort of miniature Damien Hirst ensemble, she has used the desiccated remains of insects and other organic ephemera to create a veritable cabinet of curiosities that evokes the Victorian fascination with magic and fairies that battled alongside a more rational Darwinian approach to science. Big, baggy and at times overblown there are, nevertheless, things well worth seeing in this exhibition. Ending with Des Hughes’ Endless Endless (2010), based on the effigies of stone knights found in medieval English churches, this ragged figure seems to link long-forgotten history with the tragedies and atrocities of modernity

Newspeak: British Art Now Part II at the Saatchi Gallery until 17 April 2011

20 Jan/Feb 2011 artillery

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Image 1: © Tessa Farmer 2004
Image 2: © Maurizio Anzeri 2009
Image 3: © Clarisse d’Arcimoles 2009

Published in Artillery Magazine

Grayson Perry
Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
British Museum

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

He is best known as the bloke who accepted the 2003 Turner Prize in a dress. Now Grayson Perry, potter, artist, writer and transvestite, with a singular line in Bo Peep dresses, has created an extraordinary show in the British Museum, a large scale “cabinet of curiosities.”

Grayson Perry Rosetta Vase 2011
Rosetta Vase, 2011

The first such “cabinets” were personal collections of, usually, wealthy individuals. Also known as Wunderkammer (“wonder cabinets”), they contained the weird and the wonderful: natural and man-made objects that provoked a sense of curiosity in the viewer. These cabinets reached a peak of popularity in the 17th century and were attempts—before formal systems of taxonomy—to create, if not scientific, then narrative structures of the world.

Perry first visited the British Museum as a 6-year-old boy with his mother, aunt and sister, soon after his father had left their Essex home. As had an old edition of Arthur Mee’s 1920s Children’s Encyclopaedia, its moldy pages peppered with Greek monasteries and medieval German cities, the visit acted as a catalyst in the formation of an imaginary world that would dominate his childhood and his life as a potter and artist. For two-and-a-half years, Perry was allowed to raid the vaults of the museum to handpick gems from the vast collection. The result is a dreamlike exhibition of his own work juxtaposed with museum exhibits — an idiosyncratic Wunderkammer.

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is “a memorial to makers and builders, all those countless un-named skilled individuals who have made the beautiful man-made wonders of history. The Unknown Craftsman is an artist in the service of his religion, his master, his tribe, his traditions.” In Perry’s personal cosmology, the craftsman is also the mythical handyman, the absent father who fixed the house and dug the garden. In many ways, the whole exhibition is a meditation on nostalgia and loss.

“Do not look too hard for meaning,” a placard tells the visitor at the entrance. “I am not a historian, I am an artist. That is all you need to know.” Joseph Beuys, one of Perry’s heroes, saw himself as a shaman and was a great mythologizer of his own life. Perry also describes himself as a shaman, a trickster and a sorcerer who tells stories, dresses up and gives things meaning. Cross-dressing allows him to express both the masculine and feminine elements in his character.

Grayson Perry Frivalous Now 2011
Frivalous Now, 2011

On many levels this exhibition is a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage through the museum’s collection as well as through Perry’s psyche. His trip to Germany—accompanied by his boyhood teddy bear Alan Measles who, during childhood, became a projection of Perry’s idealized characteristics of maleness, acting as surrogate father, rebel leader and fighter pilot – was undertaken because “we wanted to make peace.” The “bad Nazis” had, during boyhood, been Perry’s default image for all negative experience. In his moth-eaten little jump suit, Alan Measles sits in his case near a Egyptian wood carving of the household god Bes. “If Alan Measles had been around in ancient Egypt,” says Perry, “he would have hung out with Bes.”

The exhibition is full of charms, talismans and shrines, objects imbued with spiritual or mystical power in much the same way as a contemporary art object. His Tomb Guardian, a glazed green-and-white ceramic from 2011, squats in its glass case near a tapestry doll from Peru (circa 900-1430). The puppet-doll, though it has seen better days, still stares bug-eyed at the viewer. Perry’s guardian also has bulging eyes, plus a downturned mouth, a rotund stomach and an enormous erect phallus, the tip of which becomes a grotesque horned face.

The Frivolous Now, 2011 is an example of how Perry weaves his concerns about contemporary life and issues into his work. At first glance his glazed ceramics have an archaic quality. But a closer look reveals that they are incised with graffiti, along with images related to child abuse, and cyber-bullying.

Perry has a great feel for the Jungian archetype and the symbol. The exhibition is a psychoanalytic journey, a modern day Pilgrim’s Progress full of demons, dreams and myths. This is the collective unconscious, which stretches back in time and forward to the present, where it is made visible. In the final room we come to the tomb itself—an iron Ship of Fools sailing into the afterlife. The ship is also a pun, a craft for the craftsman, decked with the fruits of his labor and laden with a cargo of blood, sweat and tears.

Grayson Perry Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is at The British Museum from 6 October 2011 to 8 January 2012

24 Feb/March 2012 artillery

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012
Images © Perry Grayson 2011

Published in Artillery Magazine

Gerhard Richter
Tate Modern

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

The death of painting has been predicted so often that it’s surprising anyone should still nail their colors to that particular mast. Yet this first major retrospective, since 1991, by the German painter Gerhard Richter, shows his ongoing preoccupation with the possibilities of painting, and his belief that, like dancing or singing, it is “one of the most basic human capacities.” As its title, “Panorama,” suggests, the exhibition takes an overviewof his oeuvre. This is presented, not as a thesis, but as a debate. Ongoing possibilities and new beginnings are characterized by the oppositions that occur between abstraction and figuration, painting and photography, the poignant and the banal. No definitive readings are offered. Rather questions are posed which examine painting’s responses to the disasters of history and the tension between skepticism and ideology. Richter is reluctant to speak of what he does, quoting the composer, John Cage: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

Gerhard Richter Demo 1977
Demo, 1977

Each room at Tate Modern is devoted to a particular moment in Richter’s career from the photopaintings of the 1960s to his monumental Cage paintings, completed in 2006 and shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007, where the surfaces have been animated by the application of a squeegee. While focused on painting, the exhibition also includes glass constructions, mirrors, drawings and photographs that all, in some way, refer to and extend his practice as a painter. The relevance of Richter’s early years in the East – he was born in Dresden — and his “relocation” in 1961 to the West where he studied in Düsseldorf and encountered the spawning of new avant-gardes such as Fluxus and Pop, is at the root of these oppositions.

In the ’60s he began to use readymade photographs as the basis for his paintings. This was both a rejection of the current overarching dominance of abstraction, and a response to the plethora of Western media that assaulted him. The profound impact of Duchamp resulted in paintings such as the beautifully sensitive Ema (Nude on a Staircase), 1966. Richter also began to confront Germany’s largely unacknowledged Nazi past, painting family members who had been both supporters, as well as victims, of National Socialism. His Uncle Rudi (1965), dressed in his Wehrmacht uniform, executed in monochromatic grays, has the potency of old newsprint. This blurring of imagery, like a still from a grainy black-and-white TV, is used again in his “October, 18, 1977” series of the Baader Meinhof: a radical group active in West Germany in the late ’60s and ’70s, who were motivated into direct action by the belief that many former Nazis still held power. These hazy images seem to exist somewhere between actuality and dream. Like the narratives of the German writer W.G. Sebald, Richter invites us to look through a glass darkly, so that images float into our consciousness like lost memories.

Gerhard Richter Aunt Marianne [Tante Marianne] 1965
Aunt Marianne [Tante Marianne] 1965

His “damaged landscapes” of the late ’60s employ a heavier impasto so that his cities and landscapes appear to disintegrate into abstraction as the viewer approaches. Many of these seascapes and mountains look back toward the German Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich, but Richter’s work is imbued with a sense of melancholy that the chasm of modernity separates from the Romantic vision. It is as though — like Rothko — he’s fundamentally attracted to the idea of the transcendental, while acknowledging the impossibility of such a position: “If you grow up first in a Nazi system and then under a Communist system … that’s enough to make anyone skeptical,” he has said. Yet, despite this skepticism, he acknowledges “that we can’t exist without some form of belief in things. We need it … even as an atheist, I believe. We’re just built that way.”

Yet, for all his life experience and the diversity of his artistic approach, Richter eschews irony and cynicism. At times his work is highly charged, at others more banal, functioning as two sides of an argument. Monochromatic gray paintings sit alongside multicolored grids. Some works are meticulously planned, while others are the result more of chance. What this powerful exhibition shows is a subtle sensibility grappling with what it means to be alive during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Theodor Adorno claimed it was not possible to create lyric poetry (or art) after the Holocaust. But Richter makes a case for attempting to do so. When asked what the purpose of art is, he answers: “For surviving the world. One of many, many … like bread, like love.”

Gerhard Richter Panorama is at Tate Modern from 6 October 2011 to 8 January 2012

22 Nov/Dec 2011 artillery

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Gerhard Richter

Published in Artillery Magazine

Bridget Riley
Paintings and Related Work
The National Gallery

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

In the 1960s the use of her black and white Op Art images became so ubiquitous that Bridget Riley was forced to take legal action against their commercial exploitation. Her stark abstract patterns, adopted by fashion designers and graphic artists, became the iconography that defined Swinging London. But Riley has always been clear about her seriousness of purpose, distinguishing high art from decoration and illustration, saying that “I think abstract art should try to be as resourceful and as expressive as the great figurative art of the past.” It may come as some surprise to learn that for her admission in 1947 to London’s Goldsmith’s College, Britain’s leading abstract painter made a copy of Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a man (Self Portrait?) (1433) because she was taken by the “beautifully constructed head,” with its distinct planes. Looking and copying – what she calls “the old way of learning” – have always been central to her work.

It was in 1961, at the age of 30, that she made the first abstract painting that launched her career. The appeal of her work cuts across generations, seducing both cognoscenti and public alike. Now the National Gallery has mounted a show that focuses on her most recent paintings while stressing the influence of and connection to particular old masters from the National Gallery collection by including works by Raphael, Mantegna and Seurat alongside her own. The serpentine forms of Raphael’s St. Catherine of Alexandra (circa 1507) and the flowing rhythms of the procession in Mantegna’s Introduction of the Cult of Cybele to Rome, (1505-6) provide a visual and historic key to Riley’s recent large-scale works.

Bridget Riley Red With Red 1, 2007
Red With Red 1, 2007

Riley is an articulate exponent of her own practice. Listening to her on film at The National Gallery reveals the importance, not only of the process of looking, but of the optical experiments and surprises inherent in her work. She does not deny art history but has stripped away narrative to reveal the rhythmic movement within the traditions of western painting. Although she began by making work in black, whites and grays, color soon became integrated into her structures, giving them a unique coherence. The image pulsates, expands and contracts. Colors merge, interact and make new colors, fusing and separating to build a kind of kinetic web so that they float, sink and emerge as one continues looking at a painting.

She insists that the experience of looking cannot be known, only discovered through the process of making. When looking at her paintings the eye does not know where to rest. With their repeated abstract marks and optical sensations they seem to release visual energy, to bring something into being through a process of trial and error. She works from what she knows in order to discover what she does not. “You cannot deal with thought directly outside practice as a painter,” she says, “doing is essential in order to find out what form your thought takes.”

Bridget Riley Man with a Red Turban (After van Eyck), 1946
Man with a Red Turban (After van Eyck), 1946

For the National Gallery exhibition she has made two works directly on the walls. Composition with Circles 7 is a wall-drawing created by her and her assistants on the Sunley Gallery’s longest wall. Here the overlapping, interlocking circles create shifts in perspective, distance and depth. While a version of her painting Arcadia, last seen at her 2008 retrospective at the Musée de l’art Moderne in Paris, has been recreated here on a larger scale. This reveals how shapes move over the edges of the containing rectangle, pushing out to become free and dynamic from its solid enclosure. “When I start I don’t have an aim or an image in mind for how the painting is going to look,” she has said. “When I started to do studies at the beginning of the 1960s, few other artists made preparatory works. Most people felt that they were not spontaneous or sufficiently informal … but I felt that – I didn’t just feel, I knew … that drawing and preparatory work has always played a large part in an artist’s practice.” To this end collage holds a central role in her preparations.

Bridget Riley has been committed to abstract painting for more than 40 years. She believes that painting was an abstract art long before abstract art became a style and a theory. As Maurice Denis famously said in his quote that seemed to anticipate 20th-century abstraction: “It should be remembered that a picture – before being a warhorse, a nude, or an anecdote of some sort – is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”

Bridget Riley Paintings and Related Work is at the National Gallery from 24 November 2010 to 22 May 2011

20 March/April 2011 artillery

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Bridget Riley. Courtesy Karsten Schubert, London

Published in Artillery Magazine

Mark Wallinger Interview

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

YOU CAN TELL A GOOD DEAL ABOUT AN ARTIST FROM his studio. After I arrive at Mark Wallinger’s, in the buzzing heart of London’s Soho district, he pops out to buy a couple of cappuccinos before we settle down to do the interview, giving me a chance to nose around. His bookshelves contain an erudite mix, with the poems of John Ashbery wedged between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Pinned to the walls are a couple of photographs of ears (left and right) and Rilke’s famous quote from the Duino ElegiesDuino Elegies: For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure.” There are photocopies of Velázquez’ scarlet-clad Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) that Wallinger used for his piece, I am Innocent (2010) – an investigation into religious authority.

Mark Wallinger

Reproductions of Titian’s Diana and Callisto and The Death of Actaeon (based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses) reference his most recent project at The National Gallery, part of an exhibition of contemporary responses to the master, Metamorphosis: Titian 2012. This exhibition reunites those two paintings for the first time since the 18th century. We also see works by leading British artists Chris Ofili, (up for the Turner Prize) and Conrad Shawcross, along with those by Wallinger for designs they created for newly commissioned Titian-inspired ballets at the Royal Opera House. These, in turn, generated scores by some of the country’s leading composers, as well as a collection of Titian-inspired poetry, with contributions from Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison and Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy. At the National Gallery Wallinger built a sealed room where the viewer was turned into a voyeur, a veritable Peeping Tom, encouraged to peer through broken glass panes and keyholes to catch a glimpse of a woman washing. There were fears it might encourage the heavy-breathing brigade. How long did his “Diana” have to be confined in this sealed gallery room, I ask. “Oh, there were several of them working two-hour shifts,” he volunteers. Apart from Metamorphosis it’s been a hectic year; he has had recent shows at the Baltic in Gateshead and at the new Turner Contemporary in Margate.

Mark Wallinger DianaMark Wallinger Diana

Since leaving his MA course at Goldsmiths College in 1985, his career has been on an upward trajectory. In 2004 he spent 10 nights in the Berlin contemporary, the Neue Nationalgalerie (he was living in the city at the time), dressed in a bear costume (the symbol of the city is a bear). After that he went on to produce a series of technically adroit oil paintings of the homeless and race horses (racing is a passion) and created the only religious public statue to appear in England since the Reformation, his life-sized Ecce Homo, a proletarian Christ created as part of the ongoing series of sculptures for the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Then in 2007, he won the Turner Prize for his audacious recreation of the protest camp erected against the Iraq war outside the Houses of Parliament by the British peace campaigner, Brian Haw. Wallinger had been photographing Haw for a year before he made the piece and enjoys the irony that what was seen as an eyesore and an embarrassment in Parliament Square was worthy of a prize and serious critical analysis when placed in the marble Duveen Hall of Tate Britain. I mention Duchamp and how the gallery context defines a piece as a work of art. “Yes, there is a similarity,” he agrees, “but Duchamp used readymades and this was a reconstruction.” In 2008 he went on to win the prestigious competition to erect Britain’s biggest figurative artwork, a giant white horse to welcome visitors on the Eurostar in Kent. But, for the moment, with the recession, it has been put on ice. And then there was a major monograph simply titled >Mark, published by Thames and Hudson.

Mark Wallinger State Britain / Brian HawMark Wallinger State Britain / Brian Haw

As we settle down with our coffee I ask if he always wanted to be an artist. Ever since I was a kid,” he says. That’s really all I wanted to do. I spent a lot of time drawing. It was something of my own.” Did he have any idea what contemporary grown-up” artists did? Probably not. I just did what I was good at, what absorbed me, though as a child my parents took me to the National Gallery and the Tate.” Born in semi-rural Essex (just outside London) he came from a politically aware, left-wing family. His father protested in 1939 against Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in Cable Street, a Jewish quarter of the London’s East End. Not moneyed, his parents nonetheless valued education. A clever kid, he got top grades at school and could easily have gone on to university. Instead he did an Art Foundation course at his local technical college. It was hard living at home when all my mates had started university.” But by 1986, at the age of just 26, he was having his first solo show in London, Hearts of Oak, at the Anthony Reynolds Gallery (Reynolds remains his dealer). There, under the title Where There’s Muck There’s Brass (an old Yorkshire expression eliding the notions of shit and money), he showed a painting that appropriated Thomas Gainsborough’s 1750s double portrait Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, which he executed on plywood sheets appropriated from Collet’s, the leftist bookshop on Charing Cross Road where he worked, in order to explore issues of the English class system during the Thatcher years.

Mark Wallinger Where There's Muck There's BrassMark Wallinger Where There’s Muck There’s Brass

Although he attended Goldsmiths, the college that under the tutelage of Michael Craig Martin produced most of the YBAs, Wallinger’s work sits outside the ironic posturing of much of that group. Older by a number of years, his attitudes were minted in the hardcore political years of the 1970s. At college he came across a number of books that would be seminal to his intellectual and artistic development: Joyce’s Ulysses, on which he wrote his thesis, E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and John Barrell’s The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730-1840 (1980). Always interested in issues of social injustice, he didn’t, he says, get along well with authority. Does he, I ask, see himself as an issue-based artist who reaches for metaphors rather than playing with ironic conceits? For me art has to have a certain ambiguity that keeps it alive. One of the reasons I stopped painting was because I was using painting rather than making paintings. As a painter there was no place to go. It’s easy to get trapped by your own facilities and the weight of art history. History has got painting by the throat. The work was becoming too arch. I wanted to make work about being in the real world. There’s something a bit antediluvian about spending one’s time stretching canvases and squeezing paint. I like art that’s democratic, that suggests you, too, can do this.”

Myth and religion seem to have an important role in his work, I suggest. Well,” he says, I had the idea for Ecce Homo whilst on the phone. It was almost instant. It was, after all, the millennium and no one was mentioning Christ, which seemed a bit odd. I wanted to know how much residual connection there still was in this country with the Christian tradition. I liked the idea of the vulnerability of the piece standing alone on its plinth in Trafalgar Square, a place that has seen many political protests.”

Mark Wallinger Ecco HomoMark Wallinger Ecco Homo

I wondered if age and success have changed the way he makes art. You build up a body of work by following your nose and gravitate towards certain themes and intellectual ideas and just hope that you’re not getting worse!” he answers. I’m in the business of asking questions. I am not interested in being didactic. I don’t bring a signature style to what I make. As to success, well, I spent two years working on Metamorphosis and was paid £5,000. So it’s not riches.

So what is important to him? That a work has impact, beauty, poetry, truth.” That sounds a bit like an old-fashioned romantic, I suggest. He laughs. But I also have to enjoy the function and rigor of the piece.” Having abandoned painting he has made an incredibly varied array of work, but what underpins it all is a questioning humanity. In 2008 he created Folk Stones for the Folkestone Triennial on the East Kent coast. Set in concrete were 19,240 numbered stones on the town’s clifftop overlooking the English Channel. It was from here that millions of soldiers left for a certain death on the battlefields of France during the First World War. Each numbered stone corresponds with a soldier who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. It is a powerful, moving monument, but one that does not aggrandize.

Mark Wallinger Folk StonesMark Wallinger Folk Stones

While being fully aware of the relationship between signifier and the signified it ultimately puts human compassion center stage. Here, then, is a rare artist who is unafraid of the big questions, who relishes ambiguity and whose work is open to multiple readings. In 2008 he was commissioned to place a Y-shaped painted steel sculpture resembling a tree in the idyllic Bat Willow Meadow of Magdalen College, Oxford. This poignant piece could stand as a logo for much of Wallinger’s work in that it encourages the viewer to ask the question, Why?” and then listen for the varying answers that bounce back.

november/december 2012 artillery

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012 
Image 1: Photography Charlie Hopkinson
Image 2: © Mark Wallinger. Photography Mark Wallinger
Image 3: © Mark Wallinger
Image 4: © Mark Wallinger. Courtesy of the Tate.
Image 5&6: © Mark Wallinger.

Published in Artillery Magazine