Art in the Auditorium: Jalal Toufic

28 Jan – 17 Apr 2011, Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK

Art in the Auditorium is an international touring programme, aiming to showcase the work of some of the most exciting young artists working with film, video and animation. As the selection process’ goal is not to unite the disparate works under some thematic umbrella or examine particular issues pertinent to the mediums listed above, it is only just to muse on each work in its own right. From the six videos screened (four of which were by the Chinese artist Huang Xiaopeng), one sticks to mind.

Lebanese writer and artist Jalal Toufic presents us with one part of his trilogy around rituals of the Shiite Muslims. The five minutes video Lebanese performance art; Circle: Ecstatic; Class: Marginalized, Excerpt 3 (2007) seems to occupy three conceptual parts. Starting with a quite documentary approach and subtitled Lebanese performance art , a group of topless men engage in the ritual of Ashura where they mourn the death of Husayn (grandson of prophet Muhammad) by chest beating and shouting. They do it in waves, and the beating is usually accompanied by painful exclamations such as “O, stranger”, O, Husayn”…. That cuts to a second part, titled Review of the Cinematic Memory. This section of the video is a mesmerizing slow-motion essay of the movements and emotions of the same group of men. The camera is engaged with its own viewing intelligence, trying to remember not the underpinning ideologies but the purely external, formal concerns of physiognomy and bodily drama. Suspended is a purgatory of emotions, these men seem to never be able to make it out as everything is slowed down to the frustrating dream of motion. The dullness of the slaps, however, gives the illusion of smoothing the flesh so mercilessly self-abused. The video ends on a note: “An original video should be watched twice (rather than looped)”, and it starts again. So that the whole second viewing becomes a holistic third part of the first screening. This last statement implies a rhetoric blame for passivity from the part of the beholder who should choose whether towatch something again or not, but is told by the artist to do so, simultaneously playing with the idea of “newness”. Ironically, it loops anyway. Something that has to do with being forced to watch it again under the auspices of being tricked by the artist, resolves certain problems with the intimacy of the viewing process otherwise absent in the loop situation. Without sanctifying or sacrificing too much the freedom of the audience, it reaches a fine balance to enter more ideological arenas.

In his intro to the video, Toufic tales an ancdote from Nietzsche’s trip to Italy where he witnessed the whipping of a horse. His reaction was to toss his arms around the horse’s neck to protect it but then collapsed. He signed many of his letters after this incident as “The crucified one”, and this story is often told as the point of his mental breakdown. Looking back in the afterimage of my memory of the half naked men beating themselves, I kept thinking: would I step in and protect them from their self-inflicted pain? Would I stop the loop?

By Snejana Krasteva


The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds

12 October, 2010 – 2 May, 2011

Tate Modern, London, UK

There are particular art spaces that are difficult to survive. The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, for example, can offer inspiration for “big thoughts” but can easily present a trap. And this is not entirely the fault of its intimidating vastness but is perhaps more due to it being part of a powerful institutional body such as Tate. Spaces like these have their contextual ghosts roaming around, always out on some unfinished business. The 11th commission from the Unilever Series, given to the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, signals the diversions a museum can impose on the original intentions of a work, but also points to a curious outcome where a work seems to have one mind and the artist – another, especially when it comes to compromises with institutional concerns.

Ai’s installation Sunflower Seeds is fairly simple to describe. Visually, the space remains empty, while in fact it is covered with 100 million of sunflower seeds made of hand painted porcelain, forming a sort of carpet a few inches high. The remaining stripe of floor, the walls and seeds blend in a monotonous gray color, accentuating the modesty inherent in these tiny little seeds. From here, it is like a book written through the rhetoric of accumulation – facts and interpretations pile up over the tranquility of these small objects, enriching them with new metaphors and meaning but at the same time, rendering indistinct what is to be captured. The safety distance demarcated by the barriers still allows visitors to take a closer look, to play with it (such as use the seeds to write their names) but for those lucky ones who came in the first week after the opening, the work experienced was something else. The artist, who in the first press releases and interviews stated clearly his intentions for his installation to be “democratically” walked on, for the seeds to crash under someone’s heels, accepting even the possibility and temptation one would have to steal a few of them (this being the main worry for the institution). Allowed to fantasize, the beholder would then imagine it to slowly disappear as the exhibition progressed –each one of those unique porcelain pieces could have made its way into the life of an individual. Thus the work’s initial metaphor – the seed representing the uniqueness in the middle of the mass grounded to the floor. That mass we imagine able to make a difference, but that ambiguously could be also lending itself to governmental statistics based on the fear of small numbers; the minorities of voices are crushed under the weight of the “vertebral” communist regime of China as opposed to the “cellular” structured globalized world. So when the work was closed and contained by museum barriers (the dust coming from the crushed porcelain was deemed damaging to health) and when the wall texts were altered to the new statements, the question we could ask is: if the artist says tout va bien with these changes, is it really alright? Is it still the same ghost in the shell?

Another strong point of institutional concerns entering the picture can be felt in the unusual (for the artist) video documentation of the production process. For an activist such as Ai Weiwei, it felt quite apologetic. Emphasize felt on how happy the factory workers were to receive higher wages after the city of Jingdezhen, the best producer of porcelain in China, was on the verge of bankrupt. Exploitation of cheap labor, as someone would inevitably associate with Ai’s piece, is apparently exorcised here. But instead of emanating generosity, it further amplified the dynamics of stereotyping with this need of explanation. And finally, to encompass seemingly more of the artist’s practice – strongly connected with the new possibilities of globalization offered by the internet, the section One-to-One with the artist staged this “democratic”, confession-like opportunity to ask or answer questions to and from the artists. Under the theme “Politics and society” (curiously), there was a video capturing two cheerful young girls asking Ai the following: “Hi, Ai Weiwei. So where do you think these go?” holding one sunflower seed each. Whether they realized it or not, it is good question we would expect the artist to answer.

Snejana Krasteva

CRASH; Homage to JG Ballard, Febuary 11 – April 1 2010, Gagosian, Kings Cross, London

Gagosian Gallery in Kings Cross sits on a quiet side street off Greys Inn Road. The lacklustre exterior does little to hint at the plush modernist galleries filled with sexy, explosive artwork hosted within. CRASH is a group show of over 60 works in deference of the relationship between JG Ballard and the art world.

The title of the show is poached from Ballard’s 1973 novel in which former car-crash victims re-enact celebrity crashes to satisfy their increasingly extreme sexual fetishes. Ballard is master of the post-modern condition; his characters exemplify the perverse relationship we have with technological commodities. An expression of this sentiment exactly, Jeff Koon’s New Hoover Convertibles of 1984 belongs firmly at the centre of the show. The consumer electronic is a design which seems momentarily futuristic and has over time becomes a festishized vintage classic, all the while belonging to a domestic suburban target. Other works included function as a backdrop to the Ballardian diorama, urban hyper-real landscapes are the subject of Cyprian Gaillard’s floodlit cemetery and Dan Holdsworth’s uncanny approach down a motorway; Untitled (Autopia).

In the 1960s Ballard produced a number of what he called ‘advertiser’s announcements’. The writer purchased advertising space from magazines, including New Worlds and Ambit, and used them to display a photograph and accompanying epigram. One such epigram of Ballard’s advertising exploits suggests that just as Freud recognised of internal psyche “…it is now the outer world of reality which must be qualified and eroticised”. His strategies may seem indistinguishable from those of conceptual artists emerging at a similar time, but Ballard was without doubt a visual artist. He not only wrote but made collages, and cited Francis Bacon as his greatest inspiration.  

The first piece that confronts the visitor on arrival to CRASH is the undercarriage of a Boeing 747. The 10 foot brutish hunk of metal, jumbo rubber wheels akimbo is at first a too obvious physical illustration of the violence and technology associated with Ballard. Adjoining the area which the disembodied Boeing occupies is a ‘small viewing room’ containing the erotic Surrealist images of Man Ray and Hans Belmer, whom among others shaped Ballard’s analysis of our civilisation. The images are a combination of explicit and implicit representations of the female organ; as a face, a fragment, an incision and a meeting. A foot-note to the other rooms which see predominantly urban, technological and violent representations, this peep show transforms pieces of twisted metal and fetishized technologies, implanting them with an electric, sexual charge.

Perhaps this arrangement is a legal obligation, allowing those with a mild manner, or with children to avoid the explicit images. Whatever the reason, the ‘viewing room’ is an effective psychological mapping of space, performing to compartmentalise the chasten urges of a deviant citizenry.

Helen Kaplinsky

Bharti Kher, Inevitable Undeniable Necessary at Hauser and Wirth, 20 March – 15 May

In her earlier work English born artist Bahrti Kher has shown an interest in the combining the human body with animal body parts to myth like creatures. The merge of nature and human body together with symbols taken from the Indian culture has served as a repetitious mantra throughout her production. For this new body of work Kher’s identity and Indian legacy is still mirrored in the work, however developed into new directions, leaving the representation of the body instead engaging with symbols and the material. Still often using the found object, Kher focuses more on the transformation of the object in itself, rather then to turn it into an amputee inserted into an alien body. The old medical charts describing childbirth and the different possible defects of the foetus, Contents (2010), are covered with floating steams of sperm-like bindis, creating an uncomfortable connection between the traditional Indian symbol, fertility and the delicate drawings of the risks of the same.

The bindi is constantly returning in Khers work, as a sperm it becomes a masculine symbol, whereas the round dots refer to femininity. Covering the surfaces of the different objects in the exhibition, they allow the material dimensions of the work to become more visible simultaneously as adding a symbolic dimension. The mirrors installed on the upper floor, Indira’s Net Nirror 1-16 (2010), have lost their initial function and become pallets of the artist, cracked and covered with colourful bindis. Even though powerful, they seem rather confused, as the artist has fused to many symbols and meanings into the same work. The mirror in itself offers a direct dialogue with the viewer. Cracked up, the dialogue becomes even more frantic and complex (as in the work of for example Michelangelo Pistoletti). However, adding even more layers in the shape of differently shaped bindis in colourful patterns, a dubious title and a distinctive frame referring to past times, makes the work too self absorbed and leaves out the immediate encounter with the viewer. Throughout the exhibition the symbolic references are as many as they are evident and this makes it hard to navigate between the work, even though beautifully installed. Some of the objects seem closer connected while other exist independently. In the basement the silent and perhaps most striking work in the exhibition In the Presence of Nothing (2009-2010), is installed right next to what seem to be an old massive safe. On a simple white podium is a shiny brass bowl, with its outside surface still not polished. A mechanical polishing device stretches from the roof, rotating around the bowl. Leaving out the organic body, the polishing machine still produces a human ritual as it slowly moves around the bowl. Without ability to change course, to detect flaws and correct them, the machine moves in endless circles slowly turning from usefulness to uselessness. Not having to share the space with other objects in the show In the Presence of Nothing creates its own universe, attracting the viewer at the same time as pointing out its independence of human interaction.

– Katrin Ingelstedt

A Review of Candice Breitz: Factum (Edited Version)

12 February- 20 March 2010

White Cube Hoxton Square

Candice Breitz’s exhibition: Factum exposes the viewer to the personal histories, stories, and impressions of four pairs of twins, and one pair of triplets, all living in Canada. According to the White Cube press release, the exhibition takes its name from two seemingly identical paintings by Robert Rauschenberg titled Factum I and II (1957); Breitz’s video diptych (and one triptych) manage to highlight the differences (as opposed to the similarities) that becomes clear when similar subjects are placed alongside one another.

Using video as her medium, Breitz displays five, roughly one-hour long videos of separate interviews that she held with her genetically similar subjects. The subjects and narratives are captivating and tempt the viewer to sit and watch for their lengthy entirety. Depending on one’s preconceived notions or assumptions about what it is like to be a twin, the resulting interviews are surprising; all subjects seem to rejoice in their ‘twinlyness,’ describing it as “fun,” and seeing it as “a plus, “a gift,” or “a bonus.” Words like “jealousy” or “envy” never enter the twins’ vocabulary.

As time goes on, the viewer becomes exceedingly more aware of the physical differences between the twins and the variations in their mannerisms, posture, and facial marks start to paint the picture of two physically different people. It becomes quite easy to identify the subjects by their voices. Breitz titles the five videos Factum: Tremblay, Factum Misericordia, Factum McNamara, Factum Kang, and Factum Tang, the second word being her subjects’ respective last names. This titling system aligns her project to a case study, similar to the way that a scientist might label a series of experiments. As a constant, Breitz dresses the twins in the same outfits and puts them in front of the same backgrounds. However, unlike a scientist who collects “pure” data, in Breitz’s project she has a more active role during the editing process. Breitz manipulates her subjects’ narratives by intertwining their -separately conducted- interviews; she pauses, repeats and chops up her subject’s sentences. In some instances, no subjects appear on the screen, in other cases we can only see one subject, and in other moments one subject will be visible on the screen but the viewer can only hear the voice of the absent twin. The decision to interweave and circumvent narratives makes Breitz’s videos effective. When one simultaneously hears the same birth story told differently by two subjects, one cannot help but question the truthfulness of the narrative. Which twin is more trustworthy? Which twin has a better grasp of reality?

Of the five separate works, Factum: Tremblay proves to be the most interesting and poignant work. This set of interviews presents the viewer with twin sisters whom both identify as queer and who both play with androgyny. In these interviews, Breitz’s subjects go beyond talking about what it is like to grow up as a twin, and more interestingly discuss how sexuality, gender, and fetishism can relate to “twin-ness.” In this instance, the twins discuss concepts of “nature vs. nurture,” a subject that is often discussed in the context of identical twins that were not raised together. Factum: Tremblay sets itself apart from Breitz’s other videos which, as a group, lack a sense of diversity; all the twins are white and educated, making her ‘case-study’ slightly close-minded or lacking.

Nonetheless, Breitz’s videos prove to be captivating and accessible, exposing the viewer to a series of unique histories and personal recollections. Factum provides the viewer with insight into the specific relationships and impressions that can only be experienced when one lives his or her life with another person who shares the same exact appearance, genes, and upbringing.


Franz Ackermann: Wait

10 Feb—1 Apr 2010

White Cube, Mason’s Yard

On his third solo show at the White Cube, German artist Franz Ackermann exhibits two site-specific installations, some paintings and drawings. On the first floor of the gallery, the visitor is invited to come inside a billboard structure space and see the installation that entitles the show. Composed of wall-painting, an L-shape bench, two round paintings (one displayed rotating on the floor with some trunks over it), a photo and a video, the piece disappoints for it’s similarity with some other works recently conceived and exhibited by the artist. Changing only one or other element of the installation, the atmosphere of the piece reminds, more than in an authorial discernment level, “Home and Home again”, exhibited at Hoxton Square White Cube in 2006 and notoriously ‘No direction home” showed at Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo, in 2007.

Much more interesting than the upper level installation, “This is London” is exhibited in the centre of the lower level space. It is a pile of two coloured cubes, followed by a round flat painting that also turns, only now displayed vertically, as a guardian of the room. In addition to the work is a couple of painted columns, sand bags and found objects, such as magazines and postcards. One side of the upper cube has a black and white photo depicting a dirty glass façade, where the spectator reads “Tourist information” in both English and Portuguese. The photo was obviously not taken in London, and most likely the other materials and paintings on the work doesn’t have an immediate relation with the city either, so what is there in the work about London, except the fact that it is being exhibited in the city? In this piece, the long time interest of the artist in themes such as globalisation and tourism makes itself much more clear and apparent in images than the fact of exhibiting similar works worldwide.

The turning canvas on the top of this installation operates as a guardian of  the several paintings and drawings exhibited on the wall. Though the artists plays with the shape of the frames, more than once constructing it very irregularly and, in one case, attaching a necklace to the work, the canvases appears to be layers of inks, very rigidly thrown over the surface. The strong colours proper of the artist pallet give the sensation of paralyzed images, on a different direction from what he appears to aim. Shyly displayed in the end of a wall are four drawings. Mixing pencil with oil, the artist achieves a subtleness that is not possible within his paintings. The combination of the precision of graphite with ink gives a fragile and beautiful aspect to the drawings, far more than in the canvas, for here it’s clear the hand of the artist and his effort to carefully merge the two techniques. Although full with a bit of the same (even regarding the drawings), the exhibition reserves good surprises for an attempt look.

– Maria do Carmo M. P de Pontes

Matthew Barney @ Sadie Coles HQ, London, 27 Jan-06 March, 2010

Sadie Coles presents Matthew Barney’s  opera project (2008-on going), inspired by Ancient Evenings, a novel written in 1983 by Norman Mailer. This show exhibits mainly drawings, alongside sculptures, and research materials.

With the composer Jonathan Bepler, Barney intends to create a Libretto set in a seven act performance. Each act will illustrate the seven stages in which the soul passes through after the death of the body. Based on Mailer’s novel, Barney recreates the myth of Isis and Osiris in contemporary and industrial scenery, mixing popular images with Egyptian mythology.

This show presents seven glass cabinets, each titled by the different stages described in Mailer’s novel (Ren, Khu, Sekhem, Ba, Ka, Kaibit and Sekhu). These containers have a nineteenth century look; they exhibit the research tools of the artist: pictures taken from the internet of shocking distorted faces, images of Chrysler cars, Mailer’s book, collages and drawings of Egyptian gods, humans mutating into animals. The artist presents his imagery, his thread of thoughts in his gory and metamorphic style. Even though, at first glance, these glass cabinets seem overloaded, an order and logic reign; for instance in the first one Ancient Evenings is open at its first page and in the last glass box at its last page. Every detail has been though. The scene is set as in a curiosity cabinet where precious artefacts are exhibited; the viewer feels as if it is an ongoing project. This is part of Barney’s theatrical; the artist plays with the ancient and with the 19th century style in the display.

The theatrical and the cabaret style can be noticed in the choice of symbolism to identify Osiris with a top hat; it recalls the magician world, the bourgeois in the 19th century, and mystery. Another side of his work is the archaic reference to the contemporary, the mythology and pop culture, the mutation of the flesh with the mystic, the sacred.

On the walls, the drawings, meticulously executed and delicately framed, contrast with the roughness of the materials in the cabinets. They describe the dystopian stages of the roaming soul. The mystic and sacred invades these drawings with some hints of colours added by silver and gold plates, as well as red and blue watercolours. Here, the drawings illustrate the artist’s mind; they document and record his thoughts. In KHU: Here, at the Center of the Pain is Radiance (2010) for instance, the title speaks for itself, the silver plates spreads on a dark base. Barney brings a story alive with bits and pieces, scattered but flowing together, he turns flesh and blood into beauty such as in the sculpture Isis. This piece exemplifies this aesthetical materiality; it is chunks, trunks, human torsos made of pink wax which are sparse on white slabs, it is powerful and its texture leads to a real as well as unreal representation. The human shape is intended but it is diluted at the same time. Barney excels in bring his audience into an uncanny and disturbing world.

This show works as fragments from past and future performances. It is there as an archiving process of an event that will happen. In 2008, Barney executed the performance Ren:Chrysler in LA. Music, orchestra and cars were the main components.

Barney’s gory materiality and aesthetic is fully developed here. He turns past mythology into contemporary tales where the human body mutates. His imagery is there, flesh and blood, to shock and to be admired.

By Anne Duffau