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‘with words like smoke’ 20.01.10 – 20.02.10 @ CHELSAE space #30

‘with words like smoke’

curated by Isobel Harbison

20.01.10 – 20.02.10 @ CHELSAE space #30

Another Becket reference in a contemporary art exhibition but this time it is relevant. ‘[…] with words like smoke, I can’t go, I can’t stay, let’s see what happens next’ is the quote at the beginning of the introductory text to the exhibition. The uncertainty in the last part could be seen as a metaphor for this show. The artworks seem all so different, therefore trying to explain the experience leaves you wordless. Isobel Harbison, the curator of the exhibition, clarifies in the accompanying catalogue that the body of works are gathered on the basis of a shared momentum and to understand the mutual relation, a physical sketch would actually be unavoidable.

Since a physical sketch is impossible to conceive in words and words are all there is to review this exhibition the impossible must become possible, but subjectivity overrules. Entering the space the video by Lois Rowe Argument for Design (2006) introduces us to the dilemma between the colours black and green and their struggle to overpower each other in the suggested connection to the architecture shown. Like most of the works in the show, the understanding and re-figuration of what there is to be seen happens after the first impression has disappeared.

On a stool beside Rowe’s work lies a pile of A4 paper with an image of a classroom full of young children behind their desks, hands folded, smiling to the camera; 27 Interruptions (2010) is a new work by Cally Spooner. What these 27 interruptions are and might be doesn’t become clear. Even though the text on the reversed side of the paper gives you the idea that there is some sort of logic to it. But, the number 27 is nothing more then a thing, not even a physical object but a starting point of something that will become evident at the end of the exhibition.

Desire is the key to an understanding the interrelations of works on show. Carl Andre’s poem Desire (1966) published in the artist’s edition and displayed in a glass showcase, mentions different body parts, written sometimes back to front and put into unusual clusters. The newly suggested relations between the body parts, is a beautiful metaphor for the show. As reflected in Fergus Martin’s photograph Table (2009) is outstanding in its indexical qualities. This particular table, is reminiscent of the different ways in which the photograph functions and its ability to confront us in an awakening of an intracebility with the subject’s spectacle, as mentioned by Barthes in Camera Lucida.[1]

Like the works already mentioned the other all have the ability to give one an understanding that needs no prior knowledge. They speak for themselves although often without words. The different materials, forms and styles generate their meaning inside the viewers body and like Carl Andre once claimed, they can be understood without a need to necessarily speak out loud.

By – Fleur van Muiswinkel


[1] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 119

Nicholas Byrne, A Catholic Episode, 17 October – 7 March 2010, Vilma Gold, London, UK.

Nicholas Byrne’s thirteen new works presented at Vilma Gold possess an incongruous union of haste and hesitance. The figurative looping curves and scraped layers of mark-making in his paintings attempt to display a chancing visceral energy, but instead are a transparent insecure editing process. Byrne has a heightened awareness that works against him. He coats large areas of his laborious marks in bright coloured paint blocks as though to conceal the shamed work of his own hand, leaving only his tentatively selected leftovers. These chosen visual remains are not enough to compensate for the unrewarding curiosity produced by the suffocating marks behind his pastel shades.

Many of his new works introduce abstract characters created through swooping scores in the paint, though somewhat playful, they lack the intent and enthusiasm of some of his more geometric works shown previously at Studio Voltaire in 2008. Byrne is more at home when forms are methodical, even his selection of pleasing vivid colours and use of linen and copper does not mask the distinct smell of doubt wafting throughout the gallery.

A Catholic Episode
as the title of the exhibition however, is well suited to Byrne’s dubious reveal-conceal approach. It conjures up images of church goers running to confession bursting to tell all, but hesitating at the threshold of sanctuary. Byrne’s cautious decision making within his new paintings reiterates his comfort with rigid forms and materials, as when compared to his metal sculptures, both past and present, drive and confidence is more evident in his three dimensional work. It is as though these paintings are transitional, and if Byrne would unveil the richness of his sins behind all that paint, they could be well on their way to redemption

Danielle Sachar

Michael Landy, Art Bin, 29 January – 14 March 2010, South London Gallery, London, UK.

Detractors of contemporary art will have their moment of glory when, on confronting Michael Landy’s new work, they will be finally authorised to state that: “Contemporary art is nothing else than rubbish!”. Deliberately playing with the disdain often concerning contemporary art, Landy has occupied the space of the South London Gallery with a giant steel and glass container (600 cubic metre) which functions as an Art Bin. Artists, collectors and the general public are invited to offer an artwork to be thrown away in the bin (from the top of a five-metre ramp of stairs) and then, once and for all, destroyed at the end of the exhibition, buried like any other kind of ordinary rubbish. 

To take part in the work, everyone can apply online (http://www.art-bin.co.uk/) or go directly to the SLG where Landy, who is working on gallery hours for the whole duration of the show, receives people, look over their artworks and allow or deny their disposal in the bin. The artist proclaims he want to realize a “monument to creative failure”, and this declaration of failure is then the only rule to contend for the ‘bin-competition’. Anyway, it is not clear how the failure is achieved: if it was already an intrinsic quality of the work (and, if not, we should understand when and why the artwork stop being successful) or if it is just a question of subjective and personal taste (both of the owner and Landy). Interrogating the concept of value in art (what it is, who determinates it, how to define a successful artwork), Art Bin sounds like a polemic statement on the ruthless and arbitrary mechanisms of the art system, where merit is not longer sufficient to determine the career of an artist. And this explains the absence of criteria in Landy’ selective process: “I decide what goes in, I am the bin monitor!” he says. It is in honour of the failure of those artists who, for different reasons, are refused or discredited by the art system that Landy want to realize his monument.  

But today can we really think of artists as defenceless victims at the mercy of the market? As D. Diederichsen suggests in On (Surplus) Value in Art (2008), considering the present economic conditions established by financial capitalism, the notion of art as commodity has lost glow. And the only artistic added value is recognizable in the valorization of the artist as an essential factor to guarantee the economic potential of art and, consequently, its survival. For Art Bin, some big names have already responded to the request of donating an artwork: from Peter Blake to Tracy Emin, from Matt Collishaw to Damien Hirst (what a surprise). Some young unknown artists instead, are queuing for their work to be smashed up and their names written next to those of the art-celebrities. The artworks don’ t count anymore here and Art Bin turns into a collective and performative action revealing the triumphal and (alarming) power of the artist as undisputed protagonist of the art system. Although there won’t be anything to sell and buy at the end of the show, Landy’s original intention is equally reversed: while contesting an old system of value, he (unintentionally?) leads up to the creation of a new one.   

For what it counts, the public – generally excluded by all these off-stage secret machinations of the market – is left with the sour consolation to decree that most of the artworks visible in the container really do deserve their place in the Art Bin.

Giada Consoli

Charles Avery @ Pilar Corrias, Onomatopoeia Part 2: The Port, 12 Feb.- 31 March 2010

Pilar Corrias presents Charles Avery’s new drawing from his the ongoing project The Island. This giant piece (2.40 m high x 5.10 m wide) will be part of a triptych, and is still unfinished like all of the artist’s current work; it illustrates an instant in the harbor of Onomatopoeia, the main city of the Island. Avery and his Island have to be considered as an encyclopedic project, that one can pick up or leave anytime. There is no real narrative, it is mainly a fictional concept.
On one of the gallery walls, facing the drawing a small photography represents a harbor taken from far away at sea. This mysterious place adds to the secret of the Island, which remains unrevealed in its total content and place. The photograph is meant to be a proof of the existence of this harbor, but is too vague in its title to make anyone believe that this is an actual port that the artist depicted in the drawing. This work represents a moment from the daily life of the port. Inside this huge artwork, a microcosm of countless scenes takes place: a cruise ship called Utility has just moored, tourists are about to take photo, locals kissing behind the mussels sellers, while important characters seem to be lost in thought wearing architectural hats…
Meanwhile, on the back wall, the artist pinned up the new Epilogue for his Island book. The main protagonist shares with the audience his experience; he is our only direct link with this world, the witness of this other world, sharing its discoveries and feelings for the place and its people. Avery’s writing style is poetic and he tells his audience just enough for them to feel engaged in the fiction. He manipulates the imagination and he uses drawing and text in order to illustrate his parallel world.
The use of a kind of nostalgia for explorers and discoverers has to be emphasized. The artist refers to Marco Polo in the drawing of a poster, the referring indirectly to the explorer by its discovery of rhinoceros and defining them as unicorns. Avery reveals the Island as an imaginary world which has already been discovered and colonized. The geography of the island is complex, the world possesses two identical sides; there is no time frame on the Island.
What is really striking in Avery’s work is his total disinterest to any sort of critic made on his project. The Island is a platform for him to experiment with philosophical and mathematical theory. He knows how to keep his audience on their seats without revealing everything. He defines the project as a never-ending fiction, where one can jump in and out any time.

By Anne Duffau

Chris Ofili at the Tate Britain

In the 90’s Chris Ofili was working in the area around Kings Cross, painting in his studio while listening to Afro-American rap. Outside in the street, the sex industry that was evident in this area was hard for Ofili to avoid. Mixed with influences from the media and music, the pimps and hookers on the street acquired new life in his paintings, as for example in Pimp (2007) where they are portrayed as crab-like creatures crawling over the glittering surface of a huge black penis with a clown-like smile. This image, as most of the others from this period, has a shiny colourful surface and is supported by two large piles of elephant dung. Despite these festive appearances, the paintings reveal a somewhat apathic view of a forlorn society. The 90’s Ofili walks in his pop ancestors footsteps, portraying a branding of the black, where the best acclimatized to the rules of the new society is the obvious winner.

The search for black identity in British society is obvious in Ofili’s earlier works. By using universal clichés such as the black rap artist together with personally invented symbols such as elephant dung, the distinction between collective and individual representation of identity sometimes becomes blurred. This technique could at its best create a valuable connection between the work and viewer based on a simultaneous recognition and emancipation from the recognized. Now, the repetitious use of symbols only enlightens Ofili’s inability of moving beyond the reproduction of stereotypes. The continuous use of elephant dung, lifting the paintings off the floor, reveals a number of references such as the western collective understanding of the African continent and its people, our distancing from nature as well more traditional critique of the value of the painting. Together with the glittering and repetitious theme, the works form collages of a private and public understanding of black identity, which at its best seems dated, but could also run the risk of degrading and simplifying the whole notion of “blackness”. Surely, there is more to say about the British black identity then what is found in the paintings of Ofili.

Since his move to Trinidad, Ofili has started working on another approach in his search for identity, however, still through reading of his the outside world. As apparent in the film produced by the Tate, Ofili “seem to has come at ease” with his ethnicity and found new inspiration in religious and mythical stories, often closely connected to nature. Here, as in the deep-blue series Blue Riders (2006), with motifs selected from the bible (and with quite obvious references to the Der Blaue Reiter), the figures organically emerge from the nature as characters from biblical stories. Also in Ofili’s latest series (and maybe the most suitable for the museum shop post cards) the human body and nature are inseparably fused together, seemingly without any context. Despite his use of bright pallet, Ofili seem to have lost himself completely in the sublime and the images rest in motionless tranquillity. Ofili may have found his paradise, but his mundane paintings certainly don’t have much to add to any art, ethnicity or religiously oriented discussion.

– Katrin Ingelstedt

Michael Landy: Art Bin @ South London Gallery, London, UK, 29 Jan – 14 Mar 2010

“Every road has a bend”, artist Michael Landy quotes from a song of Jim Reeves during an interview back in 2005. Looking at his latest installation at the South London Gallery, we are also reminded (to borrow the above mentioned quote´s syntax and logic), that there seems to be no modern civilization without waste bins. Here, in what is said to be one of the most beautiful exhibition halls in London, Michael Landy constructs a gigantic container for nothing less than art itself.

The formal qualities of a bin have certainly not preoccupied many individuals, but this one clearly does not resemble any conventional “container for waste”. Apart from occupying the exhibition hall almost wall-to-wall, with the ceiling not far from the vast gorge from where the artworks enter into oblivion, the bin is made of metal beams and glass, leaving a narrow path permitting circulation around it. Thus it allows viewers to look into what constitutes its intestines – an intended voyeuristic element, where the “failed” artworks are left visible in their very weaknesses, prolonging what would otherwise be one of the shortest exhibitions to view. Anyone can participate, given he/she has first filled a simple form and has been told when to come and dispose of the “creative waste”. Reminiscent of old sacrificial rituals, with the artist himself or gallery staff wearing white “curatorial” gloves, the work is then taken up the stairs to the mouth of this “negative plinth” and sacrificed to an invisible angry god. What is most interesting to note is that Michael Landy has reserved the right to refuse works, thus potentially declaring them failing to even fail. We soon learn, however, that except in the case of an artist Landy thought to be mocking the whole project by presenting a work that epitomized all contemporary art as rubbish (something the show is not trying to say), there weren’t any other cases of refused works. With this, a highly interesting element for analysis is equally discarded into the bin. Of course, children´s paintings were not eligible (is this because they, at least, could never fail?), neither were works belonging to other artists with no legal permission to be disposed of. The artist appears to have no interest in offering therapeutic services to the owners of the condemned works, trusting them to their judgment, and honouring it with a communal death-pit, where the hierarchy of the market or curatorial decisions no longer matter. In a way, this is an antithetical arrangement of flowers.

The semiotics of Michael Landy’s destructive acts cover a number of earlier works, most notably Break Down (2001), where the artists destroyed all 7,227 items he possessed, in the spirit of John Baldessari or Jasper Jones. Quite different from the symbolism of an act such as Rauschenberg erasing the de Kooning drawing, Landy  is constantly struggling between the desire to erase that part of himself that confronts the world and succeeds, for the other one to exist secluded, neglecting every worldly success. The project Art Bin could be read as a tribute to the artist himself instead of the “monument of creative failure” it claims to be. And we can’t help but wonder where all that “creative” junk is going to end up. Is this monument going to be recycled? And while the answers vary, leaving us with a general feeling that this question is being overlooked, we can imagine the worse: it is buried. Does the earth need another pile of waste (adding creative here seems irrelevant) to be hidden out of sight?

And when the worms eat the canvas, and grass grows through the cracks of the fiberglass, new failures will be awaiting to feed the angry god. Can we construct a bin big enough to accommodate their loneliness? Perhaps one day their remains will be unearthed, and new civilizations might decide to put them in museums, having lost track of the canons for failure, just as we have done.

Many joined the ranks of this unnecessary procession into the depths of oblivion or perhaps on the contrary – of remembrance.

– by Snejana Krasteva

LESSONS IN THE ART OF FALLING – NORWEGIAN PERFORMANCE AND PROCESS ART 1966-2009

LESSONS IN THE ART OF FALLING – NORWEGIAN PERFORMANCE AND PROCESS ART 1966-2009 at Preus Museum, Horton, Norway

The exhibition LESSONS IN THE ART OF FALLING – NORWEGIAN PERFORMANCE AND PROCESS ART 1966-2009 is a well-researched project concerning Norwegian performance art, happenings and process art. It provides an introduction to what has happened in the specific period, but is not to be seen as an overview exhibition. The different artistic output presented in the exhibition all have a in common ephemeral character and are directly related to photographic documentation. Until recently, there have not been any exhibitions of this particular theme of Norwegian contemporary art. It is therefore of great significance that the curators Jonas Ekeberg and Elisabeth Byre saw the importance of this show and published an extensive catalogue together with it.

The title of the exhibition comes from the work of the Norwegian-Swedish artist Kjartan Slettemark. He was one of the central figures in the Norwegian avant-garde of the 1960s and, according to the curators, one of the most consistent practitioners of performance art. He considered performance as his main way of expressing himself instead of it being supplementary to his practice. The historical overview presented by the exhibition shows that many international tendencies where picked up by Norwegian artists. It often took them a few years to find their own interpretations, which seems to be a result of Norway’s geographical distance to the main art scene in Europe. The exhibition highlights that there are two central cities in this country when it comes to the avant-garde, namely Oslo and Bergen. This has not changed and the two cities are still the most important places to see visual arts.

The exhibition consists of framed photographs together with small introductions to the subject matters represented. The catalogue provides a more in-depth explanation of the histories related to the photographs exhibited. In addition, it questions the documentation material itself and the relationship of the performances to the international context. For example, the feminist artist Wencke Mülheisen and the artist group Gruppe 66, both of whose work had strong aesthetical resemblances with the performances done by the Vienna Actionisten like Otto Mülh. Per Backlay is seen as the first to raise the level of photographic documentation of performative installation to a museum level. Postmodernism in contradiction to the international art scene did not really come off the ground until the end of the eighties/ early nineties. A good example is Kjetil Skøen’s performance Diafragma (1992), which questions the mediated reality of everyday life and its representation by means of images. One of the discoveries in this exhibition are the photographs of the live-art group Baktruppen who have been active for many decades: they work interdisciplinary and by means of their artistic activity they question normativity and draw attention to the instability of representational structures. Most of these photographs have never been shown before whereas the group has had a central role in the art scene.

The exhibition shows that Norwegian artists have overcome their provincial approach to what seemed internationally relevant at the time. The scene clearly professionalized and has become a significantly important scene. As this exhibition covers such a wide time span and only shows one work by an individual artist, it would be interesting to see a follow-up, with a focus on different decades and presenting more of the works done by the relevant artists.

– Fleur van Muiswinkel