Clever To Follow Goat: Antione Levi, Paris
September 6th – October 15th, 2017
It’s been good to slowly get to know these characters. Before I met them I had thought about what they might talk to one another about. How they might interact and how they might know one another through their proximity. I initially thought of Pirandello with regard to my invitation to give voice to these characters. It was Pirandello in reverse! Rather than 6 characters in search of an author it seemed to be an artist and a curator in search of their characters. How, or better who, to give that voice though? This is a responsibility. And it made me consider Boris Groys. In going public (2010) Groys considers the etymological link between ‘to curate’ and ‘to cure’. He argues that the artwork is inherently sick when devoid of context. An artworks inability to show itself reveals the need they have to be ‘nursed’ from their own latency. It is the demonstration of the artwork that nurses the object to health, giving something life. This seemed useful but irresponsible. I couldn’t begin from a place that might suggest these things are alive because of me. I understand the sentiment but reject that role. They were far from sick, perhaps just unaware of who they were? I am no nurse but maybe I could be their coach? Besides, this seems far from Benjamin’s notion of artworks needing to be ‘extant’ rather than simply ‘seen’. He says ‘cult value’ depends on existence rather than exhibition. I like Groys and I know he likes to pick a fight with Benjamin from time to time. But I also agree with Byung Chul-Han’s analysis of Benjamin; That locking sacred items in an inaccessible room, and thereby withdrawing them from visibility, heightens their cult value. The act of exhibition is a capitalist value as it verifies itself through a necessity of attention. Commodification in other words. Giving voice to your work wasn’t about reviving or birthing them into functioning exhibitionists but giving character to things already living outside of this conundrum.
Your messages confirmed we were always finding our way to these characters with some synchronicity. You spoke of how they might be individual parts of the same brain, talking to themselves, (itself). You pointed me to Baudrillard on cars, and their reluctance to take full advantage of their freedom to move, instead conforming to patterns governed by safety and the rules outside. You wondered if these characters were in a moving vehicle, the world passing by while they recounted themselves inside, learning of their singularity in a multiplicitous world. I was considering their own cognitive awareness through the confines of a gallery. An allegory for what enunciates art as such. Not so much their individual value but their relation to one another. Within a confined space, deliberately brought together for the purposes of communication. In their anthropomorphised condition they might similarly be components of a singular circumstance, given meaning simply because they were brought together, separate from the world but with an intention of some kind. Their dialogue with one another might offer a discovery that they exist only because they exist together in a given place.
But it’s when we both discovered inescapable and persistent family connections that this metaphor became something more. Like with the artwork or specifically the annunciation of art through an object’s display and proximity to another, the family becomes a unit of consciousness and identification. I had been reading Roussel’s Locus Solus where the anthropomorphesisation of objects reveals the constituent parts of Cantarel’s expansive mind. Each object an opportunity for a story to unfold. You found your way to ‘the fable of the goat’ by S.Y.Agnon. In this story a goat holds a letter instructing a distanced father to follow him to the location of his son. The letter was never found and the father killed the goat, losing the key to this reunion. You saw familial relationships and breaking ties, finding the world and oneself through alternative routes to knowledge. Your father’s drawings are literally in these works but I don’t know how to give character to these things. They know each other and that is how we will know them.
I insisted my mother kept all my father’s technical drawings when he died. They were damp, mildewed. Perfectly rendered in pencil on a kind of paper that would be hard to come by. They had been made when he was an apprentice draftsman in the 1960’s and I loved looking at them regardless of the fact I couldn’t understand what they depicted. He had kept them until his death in 1999 and having inherited his sentimentality I wanted them now in a way that was hard for others to understand.
I also have my Grandfather’s cartography tools. Things to this day I don’t know how to use, even though they still accompany me on the desk that I’m writing at now. I have never tried to use them. I rarely look at them in fact.
I look exactly like my father did. He looked exactly like his father. We were carbon copies of one another but my Grandfather looked nothing like his. My mother discovered, after both their deaths that my great granddad was not my Grandads biological parent. His biological father was unknown and now, as then, it’s an unrecoverable secret. We were carbon copies of an unknown man. One, who I suspect, could also draw.
I studied architecture for one year, 10 years after my father’s death. Nights spent at a desk, hand drawing plans in pencil elicited emotions that I fetishized. But it turns out drawing was not for me. Applying myself in this concentrated way was not what I wanted to do. I liked the drama of the emotion but not the real heartache of hard work. The genuine connection I lusted after had been tainted and made impossible by my own indulgent knowledge of its significance. I wanted to be drawing, but I didn’t want to draw. Even though I too was a good draftsman.
My dad worked predominantly in the middle-east and was lonely, missing his family. When home we avoided him. For no other reason than for the awkwardness and fear that is roused when in the company of something you feel you don’t fully understand or know.
He was someone we all observed intensely though. To observe him was to observe our environment. To anticipate him was to understand ourselves and how we would need to behave. Reading us back, our cautiousness upset him and the revolving observation of one another built an environment we misunderstood even more. This is how I knew my dad which is to not have known him at all. This was only knowing who we were together. What it was to be.
We spent a lot of time in the Middle East where he mostly lived through the 80’s and 90’s during long stints of work. Nearly 20 years after his death I find myself coincidentally, and for very different reasons, frequently working in the same places. I have taken the same flights as he did to the same airports, with the same routes into city centres. I recognise the architecture and the roads. I know the smell of the desert and the dry heat of the air when doors are opened. This is simultaneously a re-enactment of my childhood and of my father’s own experience. I have even on occasion stayed in the same hotels, wondering alone if I’ve been in these very rooms before. Or if he has. I no longer crave the nostalgia but I feel the connection. Not just to him but to it all. Perhaps it is in feeling it all that we know.
We might yet know these people, Beatriz.
Birth as Criterion: 32nd Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Art
16 June – 29 October 2017
Published in Art Monthly September 2017
Founded in 1955, the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts had a clear agenda from the beginning. Seen in the light of Yugoslavia’s status outside of the Soviet Union and yet with a clear vision for a progressive socialism under President Tito, the following six decades of the Biennial often sought to transgress geopolitical ligatures and to reflect the changing political milieu of the region. The 32nd edition furthers this tradition radically.
The title ‘Birth as Criterion’ is taken from Slovenian poet Jure Detela’s work of the same title. The insertion of the poem – an existential showdown with life, death and God, but also with meaning and perception [suggestion] – which opens up questions of authorship, narrative, structure and translation. In an attempt to rethink the global art biennale beyond the author-centric viewpoint of a curator, the Biennial offers instead ‘an experiment’ as to how the participating artists are selected. Put simply, the process worked as follows: recipients of the Grand Prize of the past five Biennial editions beginning with Jeon Joonho in 2007, followed in succession by Justseeds, Regina Jose Galindo, Maria Elena Gonzalez and Ivan Ist Huzjan in 2015, were invited to propose one artist to participate in this year’s event. These artists were then invited to nominate the next five artists. This process consisted of five more rounds revealing a final list of 27 participants. This reflexive approach aims to transform the content and structure of the Biennial, but often leaves artists adrift in uncertain and undefined territories.
There is a noticeable lack of Slovenian artists represented in the project and through further extrapolation from the genealogical tree of invitees we see a striking impetus towards national parity. While this might be nothing more than an example of how networks operate and how a participant’s knowledge of their field is largely predicated on their own environment, it does expose a problem with the methodology. In its attempt to be generative and open, it in fact highlights an ever-diminishing sphere of influence informing the artist selection process. The worry being that ‘the experiment’ could be seen as exemplifying nepotism or strategic maneuvers on the part of the artists. There are moments, however, which occur either fortuitously or in response to the invitation, when the question of location, identity and global movement are pertinently addressed. Jess X Snow, for example, presents the work Unstoppable By Borders, 2017, a mural that poetically renders the silhouette of a fleeing family holding hands indistinguishable from that of a flock of migratory birds. Snow’s work clearly suggests that a rethinking of national identity as a political imperative could be replaced by the understanding of movement as a natural part of human existence. Kaitlynn Redell’s ‘Supporting as Herself’, 2013-17, presents drawings in pencil and ink with collaged elements in relief that indicate bodies with an ambiguous identity. These intricate drawings of what might be hair or muscle tissue conceal what otherwise might reveal facial features and obscure any discernable marks of race and gender. By stripping the social conditioning that determines identity, Redell offers abstraction as bodily presence.
It is, however, the works that interrogate linguistic structure and issues of translation that respond most intriguingly to the Biennial’s ‘experimental’ methodology. Slavs and Tartars, for example, in their works Tranny Tease for Marcel and Nose Twister, both 2014, present issues of transliteration of politically defined borders and cultural clichés through the use of advertising. The familiar Coca-Cola slogan ‘Coke is it!’ is reconfigured in part Cyrillic to read ‘Quass is it’, Quass being the Soviet Bloc rye bread-coloured equivalent of Coca-Cola. Alongside this, a sofa takes the shape of an Arabic letter which was excised from Turkish during a period of westernising language reforms in 1928 in its repurposed form it encourages physical interaction with the dropped linguistic image. Jennifer Schmidt’s Everything for Review, 2017, utilises Dieter Roth’s work Review of Everything, 1975-87, to include printed versions of the title into newsprint ’zines and posters. In its proliferation and display, the distinction between production, distribution and consumption is collapsed and language is all that is left to consider. In a nearby video, Brazilian artist Erica Ferrari spray paints in red publicly submitted responses to the question ‘To whom does this architecture belong?’ onto the façade of Ljubljana’s Tivoli Mansion. Each answer is then diligently sprayed over in white before the next is overlaid in red, leaving only a physical trace of language.
If there is an affinity in these artworks with Dutela’s poem, there is also some suspicion as to how coincidental or imagined much of this interpretation might be – leaving one doubting the efficacy of relinquishing curatorial responsibility. In fittingly open-ended essayistic style, ‘Birth as Criterion’ concludes with a symposium in October. Perhaps the coming discourse will uncover what future iterations of the Biennial might or might not be capable of achieving. Or, indeed, whether following the knotted thread of connections between artists might yield more complex patterns of exhibition-making.
Stuart Middelton: Beat
ICA, London, 6 May to 2 July 2017
Published by Artworks London – June 2017
There are two definitions of a resignation. One, as an act of resigning from one’s job, another as an acceptance of something undesirable but perhaps unavoidable; One is resigned to the fact that a government has no credibility and one hopes that those in power will themselves resign. (Just an example).
Resigning is hard to do. I once had a job in a shop that I hated. I waited for the day I could tell my boss I was quitting to move on somewhere better. I imagined and rehearsed my moment, only to be overcome with fear when it came. No cinematic grandeur just an apology for any inconvenience caused and a promise to work two weeks more than I’d planned.
Not like my friend Paul. Paul quit McDonald’s. Being bossed around in a job that was supposed to be a responsibility-free, easy ticket to fast cash wasn’t part of his plan. He took off his uniform and walked out but apologised and came straight back just so he could do it again properly. He knew the currency of a resignation but in his haste to leave, forgot to cash in. The moment the badge was back on his shirt, he unpinned it and threw it in his boss’s face.
I wish I’d had Paul’s nerve. I wish I’d actually had somewhere better to go.
Stuart Middleton shows us this currency in Beat, his solo show at the ICA, London. There are ostensibly three works in the exhibition. 1, 2017 in the lower gallery is a total evacuation of the fabric of the ICA. The walls, ceilings and architectural detailing, forcibly removed, leaving nothing but the structural shell. It is barely recognisable as the ICA. It is industrial in its proportions and condition, reminiscent of a warehouse, the design either highly contrived or plainly functional. This could be a new All Saints clothing outlet as much as the site of a livestock auction. If not for its scale it might even be the setting for a new ‘dude food’ pop up. All gourmet burgers and triple fried chicken. Where are the Edison bulbs and jam jar cocktails?
The stripped interiors continue and in the upper gallery there’s a film projected on a large screen. Titled 2, 2017, it is a stop-frame animation of an undernourished dog, made in modelling clay, padding, scratching, sniffing and barking its way around a bright white, featureless room. Is it a laboratory? It is clinical. Anxiety abounds and the austerity of the image is only matched by the bleak husk that remains of the room we’re in.
The accompanying text, collected on entering the ICA, makes the third work of the show. Although not acknowledged as such in any map of the exhibition, the six-page booklet titled Beat offers not a press release but the rant of a motorway diner employee, littered with teenage clichés and misplaced aspiration. This kind of text is a familiar component of Middleton’s practice. As with his 2015 Carlos Ishikawa exhibition, The Gonks, where the exhibition literature consisted of a fictional email exchange between Don and his colleague Carol, Beat presents an oblique frame through which to read the show.
In The Gonks, only Don’s emails are revealed. A flirtatious tone, self-assured of its innocence, quickly deteriorates into aggressively defensive statements, exposing Don as arrogantly unaware of his own misogyny. In Beat, our protagonist is resigning. It’s a teenagers vitriol about what’s wrong with the world and a six-page resignation letter to boot. He describes the faux American trailer, on the side of the road, as a grubby microcosm of the world, full of artificiality, indifference and complicity and his boss gets both barrels. He’s off and they can’t stop him!
The exhibition skilfully positions us as the worldlier reader and we can’t help feel for this employee. We fear that his hopes of finding a just world, decency and authenticity on the open road may simply lead him to more of the same. More shit, more disappointment, more faux American diners selling “horse meat burgers”. The detail in the characterisation and the accuracy with which Middleton delivers the emotion in this monologue is moving. There is a vulnerability in the anger and this is what propels the exhibition from a site-specific intervention to an unsettling allegory. This is a microcosm of the world that we inhabit. As you stand reading the letter in the ambiguous shell of the ICA, asking what it’s offering, we see how emotion, capital, power and cruelty are too frequently the tools of societal structures and how they can force our complicity. This is the ICA as abattoir, as pop-up restaurant, as distressed jeans showroom and as gallery. The ICA as a deception.
The boy from the diner is claiming something back. He is resigning but Middleton is resigned. These private resignations, performed publicly remind us of our own acceptance of the perhaps unavoidable but certainly undesirable situation we now find ourselves in and that really stings.
John Latham: A World View
Speak: Tania Bruguera, Douglas Gordan, Laure Prouvost, Cally Spooner
Serpentine Galleries, London, 2 March to 21 May 2017
Published by Art Monthly – April 2017
A countdown, in German, from millennia to seconds fills the first gallery as you enter the Serpentine. The crackling, distorted recordings are from the 1971 film, Erth. As part of a projected showreel of five films, including Speak, 1962, which informs the title of the Sackler Gallery show, Erth stands out as a work that epitomises John Latham’s theory of ‘Flat Time’. Over 25 minutes, dusty, scratched film stock rolls past, blank except for the specks of white light from abrasions and occasionally interrupted by bright, bleached images of planet Earth. Eventually, every page from the Encyclopaedia Britannica is shown, one page per frame, revealing all human knowledge at a giddying pace that lasts just a few minutes of the film. Both physically and cinematically, this is a journey through space, structured through the recounting of time. The temporal quality of film here works to support Latham’s theory of the universe as not expanding from a singular physical origin but evolving as a non-linear event structure, understood on a time-based spectrum and not an object-oriented principle.
‘A World View’ articulates a narrative of key moves Latham made with materials from 1958 through to 2005 that address these complex concerns. Spray paint gun works were developed as a way to visually depict a moment in time. The act of making a mark inseparable from its durational signature was typified by his (Noits) One Second Drawings, 1970-72. The roller works THE, 1976, and Time Base Roller, 1972, are kinetic paintings that unravel canvas from a roll into draped lengths using a motor. With text, stripes and painted surfaces, they exhibit complex fields of information that are spatially, temporally and linguistically in flux. Key works which incorporate books are presented too, from the planet-like assemblages suspended from the ceiling to the 15-panel The Story of RIO, 1983, that incorporates glass, spray paint marks and books in relief. Here, the book as a sculptural material is read as a vehicle for the containment of knowledge but its purpose is subverted to deny conventional dissemination methods. Some Artist Placement Group projects are also presented. The APG was an initiative set up by six artists in 1966 including Latham, Barbara Strevini and Barry Flanagan. It would go on to place 15 artists within government and industry through to the 1980s and it is here that Latham would coin the term ‘Incidental Person’ or ‘IP’ to replace the term ‘artist’. In a context outside of the art world the IP could operate at a critical distance, usefully questioning aspects of an organisation that employees could not. This would be for the better functioning of the company and therefore of society.
This resonates pointedly with the work of Tania Bruguera in the exhibition ‘Speak’ – a group show response to Latham’s legacy – with a video, installed at the entrance of the Sackler Gallery, of an interview between her and Serpentine curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. The interview parallels the eponymous work from Latham’s show, with her demand to ‘turn your ideas into civic action’ chiming with Latham’s notion of the IP, a citizen placed at a critical distance in society to effect change. In the case of Bruguera her invitation is specific to three projects that address humanitarian issues in her native Cuba, Immigrant Movement International, Arte Útil (translated as Useful Art) and The Institute of Artivism Hannah Arendt – INSTAR (interview AM400). All three projects are embedded into society and function by giving voice to citizens while encouraging them to take ownership of their democratic future. These long-term socio-political movements, performances and actions form her practice but she also stresses the value in obfuscating the definitions of what art might be, or at least recognising the importance of ‘defending complexity’. If you cannot recognise something as art then it cannot be censored as such, which becomes useful when pursuing her aim of ‘art as civic action’. For Laure Prouvost, a synergy with Latham is evident most explicitly in her use of language and the wilful slippage of translation and structure. In a darkened room, objects made in glass are illuminated and activated in a choreographed sequence that follows a personal narrative voiced by the artist. Titled end her Is story, 2017, and credited as being 1,080,000 milliseconds long, tins of spam, fried eggs, taps, pipes and dentures populate this reflexive scene, accompanied by a melancholic soundtrack. This is a film exploded into a physical encounter, where the viewer is not cast as passive observer but engulfed and disorientated. This resounds as a physical and intuitive approach to knowledge and with its complexity of forms, timing and staging amounts to what Latham might call an event structure.
Cally Spooner’s work possibly inhabits the most temporal and ephemeral form, where language, data collection and bodily gesture collide, conferring a state of permanent rehearsal, out of time and dislocated from place. Speakers live-streaming New York City radio stations can be heard throughout the gallery. A hotel alarm clock telling local time in Aspen and set to ‘Bed Time Beats’ is activated. A single performer, continuously stretching, warming up in preparation for something uncertain, roams the gallery at their own free will. These polarisations of time and space are set against a drawn visual data stream across all of the gallery walls. Using a tanning mist, sprayed at the artist’s eye height as the graph’s constant, a series of pencil marks undulate across its length. They reflect Spooner’s metabolism, career rank according to Artfacts.net and the British pound measured against the euro. Titled Self Tracking (the five stages of grief), 2016, the work gives a visual language to the myriad factors that locate a body in society. Towards the end of the graph a visible dip occurs in the pound. The effects of Brexit and Trump, perhaps, leading HSBC to announce that we are witnessing the final stages of grief for the currency. It is a poetic turn of phrase, humanising the determining forces of the market. It is later revealed, however, to be a ‘fat finger’ incident: a less poetic human error – a clumsy move on an ergonomic keyboard – slipping a zero and crashing the pound. The physicality of the body is here comically inseparable from our digitised existence.
Latham’s practice is cited, in ‘A World View’, as a toolbox for generations of younger artists, yet it is perhaps only Douglas Gordon who visibly mines Latham for content. There are two video works titled To Flat Time and Inside Flat Time, both 1999, which show interviews with the artists and Obrist discussing at length Latham’s theories and personal experiences. They are each displayed in duplicate on Hantarex monitors as mirror images of themselves. A familiar strategy of Gordon’s, here read as a nod to the kind of multiplicity that Latham spent a lifetime in pursuit of. There are text pieces that appropriate the writings of Latham, re-purposed to lament the nature of time. These are interspersed with spray gun marks and present a kind of homage. There are also two games that visitors are invited to play: modified versions of table tennis and billiards, new rules dictating that multiple balls must be kept in constant motion – a neat metaphor for Latham’s theoretical concerns about time and space and ‘the whole event’.
Latham, however, seems less of a working toolbox to the other artists in ‘Speak’ and more like a mirror. As in Flat Time House, Latham’s home turned sculpture, the complexity of his ideas is embedded in the very fabric and site of the work. This is true of Bruguera’s, Prouvost’s and Spooner’s practices too. Not so much a response to but an identifiable synergy with; works with an embedded complexity that shapes knowledge into form without the use of metaphor. The presentation of Latham’s retrospective, in dialogue with these works, makes it clear that he anticipated the way in which artists would navigate and respond to a changing socio-political landscape. In this sense, the exhibitions, viewed together, become a reminder that Latham’s ideas were truly ahead of their time.
Candice Lin: A Body Reduced to Brilliant Colour, Gasworks, London
22 September to 11 December 2016
Published by Art Review - November 2016
Candice Lin’s determination to engage the senses is apparent from the minute you enter this solo exhibition. Visitors are invited, through touch, sight, sound and smell to understand a complex movement of material and ideas through structured systems of control and exchange. As a result, one’s consciousness of the body and its ability to ‘digest’ such a display is heightened.
An invitation to leaf through a flesh-coloured book, containing text written in an unidentifiable language and faux-historical drawings that catalogue culturally loaded colonial trade goods foreground the centrepiece to the exhibition: an imposing, yet precariously assembled structure, supporting a complicated system of tubes and pumps that carry a bloodied red liquid through the space. Traversing and penetrating porcelain vases, glass jars and modified household objects as it goes, it also passes through a copper still, which seems to confirm this object’s status as an active apparatus of some sort. More alarming, however, is the putrid aroma emanating from a shallow pool of the dark red liquid at the installation’s core. A working kettle and a multitude of tools and substances (also depicted in the book illustrations), such as sugar, tea and unrecognisable earthy materials litter the structure. Detritus, perhaps, left behind after the ‘feeding’ of this machine? This is a circulatory system as sculpture, a failing body, its waste collecting in a glossy pool, while an additional network of tubes siphon and expedite the excess out of view.
An audible monologue draws your attention next door, wherein lies the final excretion of fluid onto the floor of the faux-marbled second gallery. Titled System for a Stain (all works 2016), the immersive work that traverses both sites finally collides with the sound piece, A Memory Blushing with Innocence, and the transformation of goods into liquid waste is framed by a female voice. It describes the body in abstract terms, relaying childhood memories as the daughter of a plantation owner: a description of a life whose privilege is rooted in the slave trade – a voice that speaks for collective guilt, for America (the artist was born in Massachusetts), for the western world perhaps? Piecing these works together, the exhibition reveals a significant research enquiry. The translation of the book, available as a gallery hand-out, reveals the original to be written in Formosan, a language invented by George Psalmanazar, a self-styled mythic figure of the eighteenth century who claimed to be from the fictional state of Formosa. The exhibition itself becomes an act of translation, from research project to visual metaphor. Vitrines containing living cockroaches and silkworms, forced to choose between sugar (familiar as trap bait) or sugar paste replicas of Chinese porcelain vases for sustenance, alongside faux-historical etchings and paintings that unearth the consequences of exploitation describe the toll these loaded objects have taken on communities. Encountering the insects in these additional works, suggests the ambiguous substance to be carmine, a natural dye extracted from the cochineal and highly prized across historic colonial routes. This is the red colour we see in the fluid. The transformation of goods such as tea, sugar and cochineal, and the journey they take through the body of the sculpture, turning into ‘blood’, becomes a visual metaphor for the materialist urges at the root of colonial violence and echoes the flow of bodies and matter through colonial trade.
While all the works in the show are powerfully reiterative, the exhibitions poignancy and success can be found in System for a Stain’s singular visual poetry and the erudite suggestion that the marks left behind when people and culture are commodified are somehow indelible.
Matt Ager, Gusto, Studio Leigh, London
10 November 2016 to 14 January 2017
Published to coincide with the exhibition - November 2016
There is no Polo Maldini website. There is no Wikipedia entry. But I’ve seen the brown Polo Maldini loafer in Matt Ager’s studio and I’ve tried to find out more. I’ve never encountered a shop that sells them but I’ve held the surprisingly light, chisel-toed shoe in my hand. It’s extravagantly stitched, the leather is shiny and hard, there’s a sunburst gradient of tonal browns, a rubber tread moulded from a snakeskin pattern for extra grip. Polo Maldini is emblazoned across the insole. Its large typeface tells you everything you need to know.
It’s a vertically stretched serif font, with a mid-20th century gravitas that exudes unquestionable quality. A cut price approximation of the Ralph Lauren font, surely. Vidaloka or ITC Fenice, perhaps? In white, against a black background it strikes a classy tone. Polo Maldini sounds good and it looks good too. Evocative and unashamedly capable of seduction. Luxurious yet familiar. Timeless. Italian. What exquisitely good taste. Very Prima Gusto.
There’s a trickle of activity on style forums. People asking questions and looking to the internet to assuage any doubt that this really is the exclusive brand they believed it to be. Anxieties about the authenticity of the company are aired. In reply it is suggested that maybe they’re unknown outside of the town where they are made (also unknown), affirming exclusivity and allaying any deep-seated fears or regrets about purchases made. Questions about the quality of the shoes emerge with a quiet desperation. ‘I’m sure this leather will soften’… ‘Rubber tread is definitely a pragmatic decision, these are stylish and practical’… ‘They’re Polo Maldini for god’s sake’. ‘Guys? Polo Maldini?’
DKZZZZ (banned) offers a diplomatic if not philosophical close to the thread by suggesting:
“Quality is in the eyes of the beholder”. 
I first saw Matt Ager’s work at The Royal Academy Schools in 2015. Marble, glass and natural objects were configured as a coldly corporate aesthetic for his postgraduate show. Slick and coolly inert, the installation offered an acute attention to display methods. Sculptures that seemed to employ the vernacular of the business conference or the trade show belied an interest in material relationships. Cheap material masqueraded as luxury good, the marble surfaces were, in fact, vinyl wraps. Artichokes used to support clear surfaces were cast in plaster, hand-painted with meticulous attention to detail. Singular, hand-crafted components were made to appear ubiquitous and highlighted the deceptiveness of the entire proposition. Placed on low platforms, positioning themselves as an event or a stage, the works pulled you into a misleading and duplicitous game, led by disingenuous trompe l’oeil that surprised and infuriated. This was the artist calling out your own prejudices about taste and holding your value judgments to account before revealing you had been duped.
In Gusto, at Studio Leigh, this strategy endures but the objects have been located in a wider context. The Polo Maldinis become the physically supporting element of each sculpture and the sculptures not only refer to their own materiality and proximity to each other as a way to read the work, but also to a specific environment. The environment is made clear by the material; the material examines the cultural cache of place, informed by our own preconception of what that signifies.The exhibition exudes an earthy tone, a flavour of a place, a Mediterranean palette. Plastered surfaces awaiting a fresco, glass and marble objects suggest the outline of people’s faces in profile. The work becomes bodily with feet and heads, human and confrontational. The sculpture locates itself this way but it locates you too. You are somewhere else. Susan Stewart’s extended essay, On Longing, analyses the ways in which everyday objects can be mediated in order to animate a certain version of the world. Examining how a notion of the ‘souvenir’ or a personal collection of objects can infer an abstracted experience of time and space. She writes:
“In most souvenirs of the exotic, however, the metaphor in operation is against one of taming; the souvenir retains its signifying capacity only in a generalised sense, losing its specific referent and eventually pointing to an abstracted otherness that describes the possessor”.
This is how we might view Matt Ager’s works. A coalescence of form, figuration, experience and feeling. An abstracted account of the world viewed through the language of its objects and how they can be heightened through a sensitivity of handling and a provocative interrogation of their cultural value and personal signification. The Oxford English Dictionary reminds us that Gusto is not simply an etymological descendent of the word ‘taste’ or an enthusiasm for enacting something, but also the style in which a work of art is realised.
A folder of Matt Ager’s related research accompanied the invitation to write this piece. As well as brochure images of swimming pool designs displaying the architectural plans of ‘The Venetian’, ‘The Texas’, ‘The Bahama’ and ‘The Copenhagen’, there were thirty or so snap shots from around Tuscany and Northern Italy, Pisa and the island of Elba specifically. Not so much a travel journal but a material diary. Tightly cropped images of the chalky, yellow grain of hard cheese, colliding with the marble counters that they sat on. Close-ups of exuberantly rendered, architectural surfaces showing deliberate apertures left in the walls to reveal the perfunctory brickwork behind. The collusion of different surfaces. Tiles and artificial marbling, shiny car bonnets and the salty deposits of the sea air on glass. Terrazzo flooring, polished to impressive finishes. Geometrically shaped plinths, stuccoed to look organic and rock-like in a shoe shop window. In this I saw a closely observed account of material hierarchies and how differing cultures value the expression they offer. A visible economy of minute decisions being made by craftsmen, DIY enthusiasts, amateurs, experts and charlatans alike. The inclusion of impoverished approximations of quality favoured over the exclusion of the real. Signifiers to a set of values being good enough. An openly inauthentic currency.
We know the differing swimming pools offer nothing other than a slightly altered step configuration, we know deep down that Polo Maldini can’t deliver us the shoes we dream of and we know the marble in our kitchen isn’t marble at all. But we also know the value and the magic that these things do hold. Matt Ager exposes the trick but in his interrogation of our relationship to objects and their signification he speaks more pointedly to our desire to know the world. As Susan Stewart reminds us:
“The magic of a souvenir is a kind of failed magic. Instrumentality replaces essence here as it does in the case of all magical objects, but this instrumentality always works an only partial transformation. The place of origin must remain unavailable in order for desire to be generated”.
1 DKZZZZ, Maldini shoes?, www.styleforum.net/t/20397/maldini-shoes (10th April, 2006)
2 Susan Stewart, On Longing. Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke University Press, 1993) p. 148
3 Ibidp. 151
Josh Bitelli: A Partition Curated by Rebecca Lewin, Cell Project Space, London
29 April to 12 June 2016
Published by Art Monthly - May 2016
Curated by Rebecca Lewin, the title ‘A Partition’ is taken from Michel Serres’s seminal text The Parasite, and, read in this post-humanist context it implies a barrier or a distancing from certain human interactions and behaviours understood as parasitical within a reading of the text. It is collaboration and a perceptible sense of dialectical process, however, that emerge more visibly through layers of the exhibition’s making and present an obfuscation of a hierarchical framework.
A distinction between the exhibition and the work is noteworthy here as it is in the exhibition’s very staging that the dialectical and collaborative approach first emerges. A polystyrene tiled ceiling, lowered to a more penurious regulation height and, bathed in flat light on one side, a disposable medical curtain – used to give patients privacy – divides the space, rendering a clinically prepared environment, stark and clean. Reminiscent of a hospital waiting room, it offers a momentary disorientation that frames the reception of the video work All Doors and No Exits, 2016. The off-white curtain is deliberate in its proportion and treatment, and yet it is confusing as to who has authored this clearly purposeful intervention into the space. Two flat screens stacked vertically on a unicol stand suggest a seminar room. On them we see healthcare professionals engaged in a seemingly endless, tautological performance of both scripted and improvised dialogic action which plays out like an absurdist training manual for the corporatisation of care. Offered guidance via headphones, the participants respond, perform and adapt. Self-monitoring their sincerity and their ability to perform, while improving and ensuring the improvement of their peers, this is an exhausted end game in which the exercise inevitably disintegrates.
One might assume the altered environment forms the material components of All Doors and No Exits, but instead it is simply a bold staging of the work, a co-authored extension rather than a constituent part. The determined curatorial credit and the two available titles (one for the work and one for the show) assert that the exhibition has been conceived as an independent project, touting the intellectual remit of the enquiry and simultaneously housing Josh Bitelli’s video. Disconcertingly, if ‘A Partition’ is authored separately and only within its form can All Doors and No Exits exist, the question arises as to which operates as host and which is exposed as parasite. The curatorial voice is clear. A larger project is offered, but the video work also benefits immeasurably from this curatorial strategy. This is co-dependency made manifest, and it is tempting to think of Boris Groys’s notion of ‘curating’ as etymologically linked to the word ‘curing’; an artwork that exists outside of a given context does not have the necessary strength or health to present itself for contemplation. Curating is curing an artwork of its latency, nursing it into being.
This dialectical entanglement of the artist and curator operates as a mirror. Both in real life and in the making of the work, healthcare professionals depend on each other. These dependencies are revealed in a choreography that demonstrates the collaborative relationships at play between all parties. But if curating is to ‘cure’, it is also surely to ‘care for’, and in the context of an ever diminishing public sector it is impossible to ignore a political backdrop. In Jan Verwoert’s 2010 essay ‘Exhaustion and Exuberance’, he outlines a possible way through capitalism’s increasing coercion of people to perform. If performance inevitably results in exhaustion, exuberance and defiance are inherent in activity that does not derive its value from external criteria of necessity or success. In 2 other words, not to demonstrably achieve anything but simply to do. This is latency as activity, one that creates an inherently politicised space which sits outside of conventions of productivity. For the curatorial voice within ‘A Partition’ to have such an effective agency as that of the artists, it too must inhabit a reflexive field. This can only happen by embedding Bitelli’s artistic strategy within his film in the physical staging of the exhibition.
The disconcerting demonstration of collapse in Bitelli’s work reveals the complicated nature of one’s relationships to others and also to a system of care within society. Institutions cannot accommodate latency, but in collaborative activity, where the criterion for measuring value emerges from within, latency asserts itself as a reflexive interrogation of performance as complicity. In ‘A Partition’, collaboration emerges as a politicised position. Not one in advance of, or indebted to another, but one that together resists hierarchy and a susceptibility to external value judgements predicated on disingenuous notions of progress and value. ‘A Partition’ values human interaction and an organised notion of collective care.
Mark Wallinger: ID
Hauser & Wirth London, 26 February to 7 May
Published by Art Monthly - March 2016
Mark Wallinger’s exhibition effects a discernible power shift, whether this is through the Vitruviandimensioned paintings in the North Gallery or the silently turning triangular sculpture Superego, 2016 in the South (which, although stripped of all text or meaningful signifiers, is instantly recognisable as the revolving New Scotland Yard sign of the London Met Police HQ), it is clear that the viewers are the subject under scrutiny from the outset.
As with much of Wallinger’s past work, ‘ID’ offers an investigation into the self and how a conception of such sits within a broader context of the cultural landscape. Class, religion, nationality and the political have provided the lenses through which the need of the individual to belong has been revealed as a principal component of identity. A strategy that Wallinger has frequently employed is that of the alter ego, the fabrication of a distanced other to manifest the collective self. Blind Faith, for example, allegorically espoused the moral foundations of Christianity onto the secular banality of modern experience. And he famously dressed as a bear, roaming lonely through Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie for Sleeper of 2004 in which the embodiment of a national identity was inhabited within a codified body. In ‘ID’ the interrogation is a singular one. The alter ego is absent and the artist is omnipresent, but the lens is you.
A recreation of a detail of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam consists of two iPhone photos of the artist’s own hands. Faithfully imitating the central element of the iconic scene and printed life-size, the images are collaged together to exact the same excruciatingly charged gap between the fingers of God and Adam before they make contact. Titled in this instance Ego, the work simultaneously shows the tools by which the following works were made (the artist’s hands) but also sets the tone for the show: the moment of annunciation, the first recognition of the self.
This comparatively diminutive sized work is followed by a suite of 17 ‘ID paintings’, which are hung in a grand, formal arrangement across the four walls of the large gallery. Tall and narrow in their proportions they are reminiscent of flocked wallpaper, hung as drapes in some monochromatic palace. The visibly hand-made marks and obvious but contrived symmetry becomes apparent among the gesturally painted surfaces. Through a process of applying black paint to freshly primed canvas using his hands, Wallinger mirrors the movements and marks of both sides of his body. The resulting paintings become evidence of visceral human gestures that pair Vitruvian inevitability and that of Rorschach tests. It is this model of body as tool, the self as subject and object of the work pervades the exhibition. Leonardo’s Vitruvian man does not simply demonstrate the symmetry of the human body but its place in the natural order of the universe – Man being at the centre, of course. The ubiquitous Rorschach test – often parodied in popular culture’s depiction of psychoanalysis – supposedly elicits insight into subconscious predilections and desires. With the ‘ID’ paintings it is the limit of what we see that matters, not what Wallinger shows us. We are at the centre of the work, not the artist.
This complicity is reiterated when faced with Superego, the denuded New Scotland Yard sign. As a metaphorical symbol of Michel Foucault’s ‘panoptic’ vision of permanent visibility, where the prisoner always ‘feels’ they are being watched and therefore do not have to be, the endless 2 revolutions of the sign keep an authoritative gaze. However, looking more intently reveals only ourselves in its reflection.
It is when we stand within the four-part video work Orrery, 2016 that Wallinger’s interrogation reaches its full intensity. Four videos, shot during each of the four seasons while circling an Essex roundabout, face inwards on their monitors. As with the sun in the 18th-century astrological model that gives the work its title, the presentation places the viewer at the centre of the universe. The earth around the sun. The iPhone around the roundabout, a dizzying display of life: the ancient oak, planted during the festival of Britain on the island roundabout as a microcosm of the nation, the sun and moon glimpsed like clockwork, the postwar municipal library sliding in and out of view – you are Vitruvian Man, you are Blind Faith, you are Adam.
ID draws on Freud’s most enduring ideas of the psyche. The ego, id and superego, where the ‘childish’ wants of the id are placed under the material realities and authority of a superego which keeps the ego in balance and check. It is also tempting to draw on Freud’s views on religion as delusion, feigning security and forgiveness while keeping us from acknowledging death. Protecting the individual’s narcissism, religious faith keeps us at the centre of the universe. This is where Wallinger places us. Rather than the hermetically tight riffs on collective identity we have seen in the past, ‘ID’ as an exhibition becomes open and reflective. Is this the artist as collective superego? The unifying outsider, keeping our egos in order, insisting on a complicity that holds our own ids to account.
Whitechapel Gallery London, 29 January to 15 May 2016
Published by Art Monthly - February 2016
To start at the beginning is not an option when entering ‘Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966)’ at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. The exhibition is an ambitious attempt to map technological developments against their use in art practice across a 50-year time period beginning in 1966. Except that’s not where you begin. Viewers work their way towards 1966 from the seemingly impossible position of a fixed present. Olaf Breuning’s Text Butt, 2015, and Katja Novitskova’s Innate Disposition, 2012, greet us on entry and are therefore, by extension of the exhibition’s logic, positioned as the most contemporary characterisation of art and technology’s entanglement. Text Butt presents an oversized photographic image of a human bum, leant against the wall, excreting a garbled conversation seen through the familiar blue and green text bubbles of instant messaging. The speed of response has produced an asymmetrical conversation, rendering the dialogue nonsensical: ‘Did you had fun last night?’ ‘whaterver you think’. Novitskova’s adjacent Innate Disposition is a freestanding digital image of a cute, doe-eyed rodent nestling in the palm of a human hand. The banal vernacular of internet entertainment is inserted uncannily into the real world and positions you firmly in the prosaic digital realm.
From this point on, the relationship artists have with the internet becomes the central tenet among the various propositions put forward about how artists have both used and commented upon the technology of their own age. However, the categorisation of this use quickly switches from the irreverent to the political, via a series of manoeuvres that jump between a vast array of different modes of expression: work that uses the internet pragmatically as a platform for its dissemination; artwork that is structurally embedded in the fabric of the internet and couldn’t exist any other way; or, simply, artworks that appropriate the vernacularisms of the internet and computer graphics into the physical plane of the art object. This is evidenced by the inclusion of painting in the first gallery. Petra Cortright’s gestural paintings on both silk and aluminium furnish a trompe l’oeil effect, that later reveal the gestural marks are in fact generated and printed digitally. Joshua Nathanson’s A Fiction About the Near Future, 2015, presents the inverse deception: an image that looks like it was generated on a smartphone paint app, airbrush sprayed, finger swiped and colour faded, exposes itself under closer scrutiny to be oil and acrylic on canvas. This is a strange breed of photo-realist painting, where the exact gestures made on a tablet have been faithfully copied onto canvas using traditional techniques.
Works in this first gallery frequently feel like an exercise in demonstration, taxonomically ordered as examples of where the internet has had an effect. Occasionally these suggestions feel a little perfunctory, for instance where works use technology as a tool, rather than insisting on a critical interrogation of the internet as subject. There is a thread to be found here that holds more agency when discussing the internet’s pervasiveness. Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum’s Autonomy Cube, 2014, for example, houses within its minimal Perspex structure multiple internet-connected computers. It is set up as a hot spot that routes all internet activity across the Tor network, a volunteer-run service that disguises and encrypts data, rendering its users ‘invisible’ online. By connecting, the visitor becomes complicit in a politics of resistance that challenges the ubiquitous corporate ownership of the internet and government surveillance of online activity. Equally interesting is Zach Blas’s installation Queer Technologies, 2007-12, which subverts the 2 heteronormative dominance of internet technology and critical theory by adopting a corporate vision on his QT brand. Instructional videos of how to implement Queer Bomb products offer an indignant opposition to the industry’s ability to ignore feminist, queer or politically engaged thinking within the development of technological products. These, as well as Douglas Coupland’s 2015 series ‘Deep Face’, which undermines facial recognition software, offer a much richer investigation of the internet’s influence across the socio-political landscape. The exhibition’s determined inclusiveness, though, makes for an overcrowded hang and seems to detract from an incisive curatorial position and close reading of much of the work on display. If you can be forgiving of this, however, and embrace the idea of a metaphorical depiction of the visual noise of the internet, you can happily hyperlink your own route through the show. The emergence of the internet as a possible site for artistic production is highlighted with a series of works that might be categorised as ‘born-digital’. In a selection made in collaboration with Rhizome, the works take the infrastructure of the internet as both object and subject. Works that exist online and exclusively inhabit internet architectures make clear their vulnerability and the level of care and conservation needed to keep them ‘alive’. This indenture to the hardware critically addresses notions of authorship and authenticity and the efficacy art has to critique those architectures from within. This is pertinently demonstrated in Taryn Simon’s Image Atlas, 2014, which indexes the same top image search results across different global search engines, thus bringing into view the cultural differences and political motivations at work behind such pervasive and seemingly neutral technologies.
As the exhibition extends deeper back in time, the works on view are afforded more space. This helps to contextualise the raucousness of the present and makes visible a more concise curatorial aim. Nam June Paik, who first coined the term ‘superhighway’ in relation to electronic art and lends this exhibition its title presents Internet Dream, 1994, impressive in its fortuitous prediction of an information age, and of Judith Barry’s film Space Invaders, 1981-82, marks the point at which the critical artistic imagination was drawing connections between networked architectures and the possibility of a future characterised by a growing human relationship to technology.
As a curatorial device, the reverse chronology is compelling. But like an astronomer, looking deep into space to see back in time, you are encouraged to assume that the ultimate goal is to locate the big bang of creation. This big bang, it turns out, feels a little unsure of itself and as the journey reaches towards its conclusion (or its origin?) the hyperlinked narrative eventually usurps the artwork with the archive. The inclusion of the Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) archival material is auspicious and details both the formation of the group in 1967 by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman with engineers Billy Kluver and Fred Waldhauer as well as the group’s seminal events that set a precedent for artistic collaboration with those in the growing technological field. More puzzling, however, is the inclusion of two circular paintings – Corona, 1970, and Light Pulse No. 3, 1968 – by Peter Sedgley that change colour when lights interact with the painted surface. The archival material rather abruptly (for an exhibition about fluidity) ossifies the exhibition while Sedgley’s paintings draw attention to optical illusion rather than to any innate relationship with technology. This renders the origin of the exhibition narrative ambiguous and perhaps legitimately poses a question not of where and when technology and art became intertwined but how and to what end.
This question is raised repeatedly throughout the exhibition but only approaches a truly lucid answer when viewers encounter Harun Farocki’s installation Parallel I-IV, 2012-14 on exiting the main show. The inclusion of this work shrewdly places the viewer back in the contemporary moment and reminds us that computer technology and the internet have more troubling implications than suggested by the garbled syntax of an instant-messaging bum. As we watch avatars run beyond their constructed worlds and fall into the digital abyss alongside renderings of leaves rustling in the trees, we are told that when the wind blows in a video game it is not a digital approximation of nature but rather a new constructivism. ‘Reality will soon cease to be the standard by which to judge the imperfect image’ we are told. ‘Instead the virtual image will become the standard by which to measure the imperfections of reality.’ For a show that quite bluntly captures a snapshot of activity, the openingup effect of Parallel I-IV prevents an unwanted historicising of the contemporary moment. It is positioned as neither the beginning of the show nor the end and implies that the contemporary moment is in flux, looking to understand the changing nature of our relationship with technology.
Hana Noorali and Lynton Talbot
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