João Penalva 336 PEK
Camden Arts Centre, London

Art Criticism

João Penalva 336 PEK
João Penalva 336 PEK

The gallery has been turned into a cinema. A blurred image flickers. It seems to be a park of some sort. There are trees and grass. People, a dog, children pass to and fro like pale ghosts. A subdued voice, in Russian, breaks into the silence. “And his question was `What do you remember of your father?'” The monologue continues against the monochromatic backdrop, like someone speaking in a dream. “I remember the sound of his lighter, opening and closing.” The voice later states: “Had I been asked the same question one minute, one second earlier or later, I would have answered with another image”.

This is a mesmerising, riveting work by the London-based Portuguese-born João Penalva: an hour-long video, with 1,000 subtitles – the original English text of the Russian translation. The central image of 336 PEK is Lake Baikal, with its 336 tributaries. The folklore of the lake and the personal memories of the speaker (including the poignant story of an old couple who fill their tiny apartment with bin bags of refuse) are spun into an hypnotic meditation on the nature of truth, identity and narrative. Listening to the voice is like entering a trance; events and memories, true and false, are woven into a poetic palimpsest. The lake becomes a metaphor for the imagination. Dark, black and deep, it is a place where both noxious rubbish might be buried and from which fairytales of swan maidens, symbols of longing and desire, emerge. For the final 15 minutes the voice intones the names of all 336 rivers, only to state: “These are not the names of the 336 rivers I learned in school. Because now, we are told there are 460 and only 277 have been named.” With its poetic intensity and lack of easy irony, this extraordinary work has the poignancy of a Chekhov short story.

João Penalva 336 PEK at Camden Arts Centre, London until 23 Jan 2005

David Hockney
Retrospective Photoworks

National Museum Cardiff 

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This formidably large exhibition can’t help begging the question of whether Hockney’s forays into photography are interesting in themselves, or only as an adjunct to his career.

It’s difficult to reach an opinion because the works themselves are so varied in quality. The recent laser-printed photos of the seafront at Bridlington are pitifully poor; unremarkable compositions made to look even worse by tacky colour and slapdash presentation. Elsewhere, things perk up, although the best shots are often those with the most gossip- value: portraits of Bigger Splash-era Peter Schlesinger; numerous prints of Henry Geldzahler looking melancholy; Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy or Billy and Audrey Wilder collaged; Hockney in a hotel bathroom with extravagantly jock-strapped friends.

The Polaroid collages of the 1970s and 1980s are often the most satisfying, if only because they wear their craft on their sleeves. Back then, it really looked as if Hockney had found a new form. A collage of Brooklyn Bridge from 1982, with the tips of the artist’s brogues peeking out at the bottom of the picture, is superb. After that, the technology gets more advanced but the art mostly doesn’t. For any Hockneyphile, however, the show is essential.

David Hockney Retrospective Photoworks at the National Museum Cardiff until 5 Jan 2000

Paul Fusco
RFK Funeral Train

Photographers Gallery, London

Paul Fusco RFK Funeral Train
Paul Fusco RFK Funeral Train

Paul Fusco The Photographers Gallery There are many contenders for the moment when the utopian agenda of modernism collapsed and began its slide into the winner-takes-all state of postmodernism: the 1968 student riots in Paris, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of Thatcher. For Paul Fusco, the American photographer, it was the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Many believed that when his brother had been elected President there would be a new inclusive brand of politics that upheld the rights of the have-nots rather than the privileged haves. When Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, dying in a blood-spattered heap in Jackie’s lap, there was both the belief and hope that his brother Bobby would take on the mantle of reform. But tragedy struck again. Just past midnight, in the early hours of 5 June 1968, in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, Bobby was gunned down and with his death something else died.

After his funeral in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, his body was taken by train to Arlington Cemetery, Washington, his coffin placed in the last of the 22 carriages, elevated on chairs so as to be visible through the windows. Paul Fusco was on the train and photographed the mourners waiting along the track gathered to pay their respects. Town bands, cub scouts, nuns, fat men in shorts and children in sneakers all gathered to bid farewell as the train passes. These are ordinary, working Americans. As the train passes though trailer parks and downtown suburbs an elderly black woman kneels in prayer while a solitary white matron stands in a field waving a white handkerchief clasping a bunch of hastily plucked daisies. The photographs are arranged round the room like the journey. One can almost feel the hope draining away.

Paul Fusco RFK Funeral Train at the Photographers Gallery until 5 Feb 2000

Jordan Baseman
The History of Existentialism

Wigmore Fine Art, London

Jordan Baseman, Untitled (Hackney Hospital), 1995
Jordan Baseman, Untitled, Hackney Hospital, 1995

Wanting to make the grand millennial statement must be tempting. But it’s probably better resisted. Jordan Baseman is an artist I’ve always rather enjoyed. I remember a piece, some years ago, made of black latex and huge dressmaker’s pins. It resembled a sado-masochist’s lavatory brush crossed with a fox’s tail. It was its witty ambiguity that made it appealing. Poignant, too, was a piece shown in 1995 at the abandoned psychiatric hospital in Hackney. A rack of children’s blue school shirts, each with a hallmark tuft of hair, stood in mute isolation. Neither work attempted “the big statement” and was all the better for it. Meaning was fluid and the viewer left to fill in the gaps. But “The History of Existentialism” aims at the big theme. (And what bigger than the end of a millennium?) But it comes across as rather contrived. Existentialism is a loaded word, conjuring intense Sixth Form debates on Sartre and the meaning of life while being cool in Juliette Greco black. Here Baseman leaves us in no doubt as to his theme with a single slide projecting the words “THE END” just above the skirting board. In the basement, three video monitors show a McDonald’s paper cup blowing in an anonymous industrial landscape (the evils of capitalism?), a mangy old crow pecking in a park (ecological devastation, perhaps?) and a defunct fountain in a run-down urban locality over which the words of a lullaby are played (urban decline and the collapse of rooted society?). Next to these is “a modified carbon dioxide dispenser, its tubes ready for insertion into the nostrils” – necessary, no doubt, as we gasp our last, hurtling towards the end of history, and a bottle of sulphuric acid, which sits ominously on a large wooden table, presumably in case we don’t think it’s worth it and want out.

Jordan Baseman The History of Existentialism at Wigmore Fine Art, London until 14 Jan 2000

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1999

Image1: © João Penalva
Image2: © David Hockney
Image 3: © Paul Fusco
Image4: © Jordan Baseman

Published in The Independent on Sunday