'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Monday, 23 September 2013

The truth is I haven't been an art dealer since 2009 and in a little over three weeks I won't even be a thirty-something any more.  So it seems it's finally time to retire the Diary of a Thirty-something Art Dealer.

Thanks so much to anyone who has read it and to anyone who has made the material that has fed it.  I'll still be writing and I'll still be putting on exhibitions so if you're interesting in what's going on it'll all be at www.beverleyknowles.com

“The end of THE END is the best place to begin THE END, because if you read THE END from the beginning of the beginning of THE END to the end of the end of THE END, you will arrive at the end.” 
Lemony Snicket, The End

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

In 2010 Mariko Mori founded the charitable foundation FAOU with the stated intention of creating “a series of six site-specific art installations, spread across six unique ecological settings of the six habitable continents on earth”, each work providing “lasting testimony to the natural beauty of its surroundings.” One of those site specific works, Ring, is currently installed at the Royal Academy in Rebirth, the artist's first solo show in London in 15 years. Another, Primal Rhythm, is there in documentary form.

When it is complete Primal Rhythm will be located in a bay off the coast of Okinawa in Japan; a plexiglas column, Sun Pillar, emerging from a rock cluster and a large Moonstone rising out of the water shifting its colour according to the phases of the moon. At the winter solstice - this year predicted by the Mayan calendar to herald the end of the world and its rebirth - the sun pillar will cast a shadow over the water to intersect precisely with the moonstone.

Ring is a Lucite circle symbolising the eternal cycle of life. In the Royal Academy exhibition it is suspended above an artificial waterfall. How much more poetic and beautiful it will seem when it finds its intended location, floating indefinitely over a waterfall in Brazil. Man made of a synthetic material it will speak of and to a world wherein humanity is one with nature, where human rhythms coincide with those of the natural environment.

Wandering around the exhibition at the Royal Academy the viewer is faced with biomorphic shapes, with twinkly lights, with rocks and acrylic objects in Stonehenge-esque formations and drawings in pastel colours. In the texts we are confronted with words such as 'transcendence', 'consciousness' and 'universe'. It is not easy, in the post-modern, post-internet western world to address such matters without being perceived a crackpot. Through our defensive filters of hardness and scepticism we could be wont to see all of this as nothing more than mawkishness. Or as some sort of moral imperative to 'save the world', a Christian style beration upon our heads for not behaving more responsibly towards the planet. The paradoxical nature of the universe seems to defy easy translation into words and images and I am reminded of the warning of the Tao Te Ching: “the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”.

But Mori is not a hokey space-cadet, nor is she engaged in the business of telling us what we should or shouldn't be doing. Sitting opposite her in a quiet stately room at the Royal Academy she exudes inimitable elegance and thoughtful, intuitive grace. Born in Tokyo in 1967 she grew up in Japan. In 1989 she moved to London to study at Chelsea College of Art. She now lives and works in New York. The cultures, philosophies and theologies she is most interested in and influenced by are those native to her, those of her ancestors: Shintoism and Japanese Buddhism. She is also interested in science, cosmology and modern technology.

Discussing the question of man's relationship to nature she tells me: “We are nature. Our minds overestimate human power towards nature. There is no good and bad, just the rhythm of the world. We can't control it.” Speaking of the difficult ecological events in Japan over the last two years she says: “It is sad to lose so many lives but at the same time we are part of a whole.” These are not the words of a mawkish sentimentalist. Not at all.

Written for This is Tomorrow

Helen Marten talks quickly and at great length, in a sort of quasi-Deleuzian stream of consciousness fashion that's difficult to follow and almost impossible to make much sense of. Plank Salad at Chisenhale Gallery, her first solo exhibition in a UK public space, follows a similar presentational style.

What I can only call stuff is everywhere. Cigarette packets, a half drunk frappuccino, one ironed sock, a sports bag, a loaf, pizza delivery fliers somehow mashed up with images of Gerhard Richter's hugely recognisable Betty, fake donuts, bags of rubbish, a pound coin, some strange flat objects that look like they could be veneered speed bumps. Loads of apparently random stuff.

There are a few slightly less random bits of stuff on the walls. And I mean slightly. One wall offers what ought to be furniture. It is immediately recognisable as a grouping of chairs. They are objects but they are flattened down to a two dimensionality that renders them functionally redundant. They are coded for us as chairs but they are useless as such.

The opposite wall gives us flattened, stylised images of a man's head printed onto modular gatherings of stretched leather and ostrich fabric. The man turns out to be Mozart. Oozy bits of cement appear at various points between frame and stretcher and from the bottom edge bottles of alcohol - Limoncello, Ouzo, Courvoisier if you're interested - hang from bits of strings. Mozart's face, Marten tells us, is “castrated by its flatness”, but reactivated by the alcohol which is “a liberator and a catalyst, but also a stagnator”. I see.

The first thing to have hit my retina in what Helen Marten styles the “entrance space” to her exhibition is three canisters of Greek olive oil standing on the floor. This entrance space exists because Marten has built a wall sectioning the white cube into two: a smaller, introductory atrium and a larger central space. This, apparently, is the artist playing with hierarchies, with questions of value and worth, margins and leftovers. More interestingly, it is also her playing with time. The wall interrupts the flow of the viewing experience. Like a gigantic architectural comma it delays our progress. We are, if you will, deliberately “snagged” upon it. She is dictating our movement and in the process bringing to our attention the element of time in connection with the viewing of objects and images. Objects have a speed, a rhythm, a pace, she says, that is central to what they are and the way we understand them.

Objects and images are so loaded with association, “pregnant with their own suggestion” as she puts it, that all they are capable of is “performing” themselves in space. A bag of rubbish performs our idea of what a bag of rubbish is or should be. The more densely overlaid or overwrought objects become with information the emptier they are. She speaks a lot about treachery and violence.

When I saw the canisters of Greek olive oil my mind went to a story in Vonnegut's Bluebeard, a story of treachery and violence funnily enough, in which we're told that Mussolini liked to punish his victims by making them drink a quart of castor oil. The result of this was that they would shit and vomit themselves to death. That's an association peculiar to me of course and peculiar to that moment in time, but in a way it seems to sum up something about this exhibition. There's something rather sad at work here. It's as though content has been deliberately evacuated and all that remains is surface and highly informed but ultimately empty rhetoric.

written for This is Tomorrow

Very excited to announce my latest curatorial project...

Kunstihoone Tallinn presents young British artist Sarah Maple

Sarah Maple
1 to 24 February 2012
Kunstihoone Tallinn
Vabaduse väljak 6
Tallinn 10146, Estonia

At twenty-eight Maple has already had solo shows in Munich, Amsterdam, Paris and London, as well as exhibiting in group shows alongside the likes of Martin Creed and David Hockney. She now brings her very individual brand of anarchic humour to Estonia.

Described by Alice Jones in the Independent as “a brilliant self-publicist and an incendiary feminist,” Maple uses her art work to challenge traditional notions of religion, identity and the societal role of women in multi-cultural twenty-first century Britain.

Maple's fifth solo show in as many years will present an overview of her work since she emerged from art college and won the Saatchi New Sensations prize in 2007. Alongside early works including Vote for me, Salat and Haram - the portrait of herself in Muslim dress holding a piglet that caused controversy and even death threats when it was first shown in 2008 - will be her more recent feminist informed works. The large scale triptych canvas Menstruate with Pride that received its own blog post in the Independent last year, a close up photograph of the artist sporting a green and purple vajazzle reading Votes for Women, inspired by the Suffragette movement and the Newsnight vajazzle debate, as well the Disney lightbox series in which Maple dresses up as each of the six fairy princesses, recontextualising them into an equal opportunities narrative: Cinderella winning a seat in Parliament, Sleeping Beauty performing open heart surgery and Belle managing a football team, yelling at the players from the dugout. In these powerful works Maple tackles taboos, wrestles them to the ground and guffawes in their face. Or, as Antony Gormley put it: “It's very emotive stuff. She is using the female notion of appropriateness to explain political and personal realism.”

Maple's approach comes out of a long feminist art historical trajectory of using humour and herself as protagonist, becoming a warts and all mirror to contemporary society and pop culture through the device of self-portraiture. Her work is influenced by Sarah Lucas, Frida Kahlo, Gillian Wearing and the timeless social commentary of William Hogarth.

The show was conceived by Anne Maisvee and will be co-curated by Rebeka Poldsam and Beverley Knowles. It will be hosted with the support of the British Council and Anne Maisvee.

Friday, 9 November 2012

In the feature length documentary film centred around Marina Abramovic's 2010 MoMA performance retrospective The Artist Is Present, Klaus Biesenbach, apparently quoting Marina, tells us that the difference between performance art and theatre is that “when you perform you have a knife and it's your blood, when you are acting it's ketchup and you don't cut yourself.” Even though this is undoubtedly a simplification it feels comforting to have a clear definition, language creating the illusion of safety in separateness.

Answering my probably somewhat banal question along similar lines, “what is the difference between sound art and experimental music?” artist and curator Sam Belinfante generously provides me with an equally well thought through and appealing sound bite. Sound art (I paraphrase) suggests an artist inviting other artists, musicians, etc to assist her or him in the realisation of her or his idea, whereas experimental music implies a group of artists and musicians working together in a collaborative spirit, towards an egalitarian creative goal.

As a starting point at least I found it helpful to keep this definition in mind when thinking about The Voice and the Lens, a four day festival and exhibition at Ikon Gallery, curated by Sam Belinfante and Ed McKeon, the later of music production company Third Ear. Neat little boxes can be misleading if taken too literally, but we do so long for them.

For The Voice and the Lens the curators have selected five artists with an interest in sound and the voice, paired each with a creative vocalist and asked them, in their sets of two, to explore the voice as both subject and medium. In this way five newly commissioned works have come in to being that will occupy the First Floor Galleries at Ikon and will be neither sound art nor experimental music but something in between the two, expanding notions of performance and collaboration into new territory.

Upstairs will be a series of what Belinfante refers to as 'mute images'. The title is, in part, a play on words, images being by definition mute whilst these particular images will imply sound via the imagination of the viewer. Interestingly, everyday language becomes tricky in the sphere of art works whose primary concern is auditory, its subjective nature revealed. Technically speaking can we refer to a 'viewer'? Is this an exhibition we will go to 'see'? These linguistic ructions neatly point towards some of the notions the exhibition is exploring: the fallible and visual-centric nature of language and the role of voice created sound in a space beyond or without language.

Sam Taylor-Wood's Mute is the earliest work on show, a six and a half minute video close-up of a man singing opera with the sound removed, from 2001. The work makes the power of sound apparent through its absence. That which evokes such profound emotional activity in the singer, we the viewer (if you will) cannot hear. We have a strong sense of it but it is not available to us. The result is a strange disconnectivity, by turns cartoonic and pathetic. Mute, Belinfante admits almost by way of confession, is the work that inspired the show and by default much of his work of the last few years concerning music and the language-less voice. Belinfante's own photographic work for this show, Aperture, is a series of seven stills that visually record the artist performing an ascending scale, the changing shape of the mouth mimicking the camera's aperture widening as it lets in gradually more and more light. Aperture was his response, homage perhaps, to Taylor-Wood's film.

A different trick after similar ends has been employed by artist Kathryn Faulkner. Faulkner has used a CymaScope, a device that generates an image in response to sound vibrations passed through it, to create My Voice, Chanting (2009). The syllable the artist has chosen to engage is 'om', the mystical sound of the universe in various Eastern philosophical and religious traditions, believed by some to be the vibration of divine consciousness and all that is. When recorded by the CymaScope however the vibrational quality is lost, its effects preserved visually. In so doing the result, again, is alienation, a sense of absence and loss that perversely highlights the profound nature of sound and at the same time our conscious unawareness of its omnipresent and perhaps even transcendent nature.

Whilst we're speaking - on the telephone ironically, a medium that allows one to hear but neither see nor feel the person with whom one is attempting communication - Belinfante, who is currently working on a PhD in Fine Art at Leeds University, quotes Nietzsche, Derrida and Lacan. My sense is that as well as being an aesthetically interesting show this will also be heavily theoretical for those wishing to approach it in such a way. Mladen Dolar, in his book first published in 2006, A Voice and Nothing More, posits the voice as not so much an “anthropomorphic masquerade of thinking” but as “the lever of thought”, the active, that is to say, rather than the passive component in the relationship between the individual and the world. This seems to me to be a profoundly radical notion that necessarily casts its radicalism over Belinfante's exhibition. If the voice controls thought rather than thought controlling the voice then it is surely something we should be paying meaningful attention to.

8 to 11 November 2012
IkonGallery, Birmingham

written for This is Tomorrow

Friday, 26 October 2012

Writing about Rashid Johnson's exhibition Shelter at South London Gallery feels awkward. Rashid Johnson is an African American living in New York producing socio-politically informed post-Colonial work. I am an English Caucasian female and feminist art historian. Inevitably there is a lot in this show that will resonate with me and a lot that will go over my head. Which doesn't invalidate my responses but does (as my shrink would probably tell me) warrant acknowledgment.

I'm encouraged by Rashid's words in an interview with Matthew Day Jackson earlier this year: “I've always had a difficult time recognising myself in historical narratives although I grew up with them as a backdrop to my childhood because my mother was a historian. But I didn't relate to those histories nor did I want to reproduce or live them. Now I've begun to pick and choose which parts I find useful and in many cases I also create my own. The artist functions as a time traveler. Using my work as a means or portal to effectively rewrite history, not as a revision but as a work of fiction.”

This feels liberating, permission to make my own way and to embrace ambiguity.

The artist, we are told, has transformed South London Gallery's main space into “an immersive environment”. On the walls are works made of black soap and wax, others comprised of mirrors, shea butter, LP covers, oyster shells and books, as well as photography and branded flooring. All of these are recurring media in Johnson's work.

In the centre four day beds dominate the room. Each occupies its own persian rug, two standing on end, one on its side, only one embracing its intended usefulness on all four legs. It feels like a rebellion of sorts, an uprising. Upholstered in zebra skins, their frames and rugs are defaced with black soap and wax or otherwise scratched and scared. The pelt recalls the Corbusier / Perriand / Jeanneret B306 Chaise Lounge, cow hide versus zebra flagging up African-ness with a nod to modernist aesthetic and middle class collectibility. Irreversibly interwoven yet disparate cultures.

This curious ordered chaos is the setting for an imagined society, perhaps a future society, in which psychotherapy is freely available to all. But something has gone awry: the couches aren't “available” and the pot plants look down on us from the rafters way above. As a psychotherapeutic environment it is topsy turvy. With one hand it offers and with the other it takes away, which may or may not be an intended comment on the psychotherapeutic process itself. Is there shelter here one wonders?

Persian rugs are highly symbolic and mystical objects, the designs influenced by factors in the weavers life, personal, religious and cultural. They also set a strong Freudian tone - the father of psychoanalysis was a voracious rug collector, his talking cure couch always draped with Persian carpet. As Tom Morton suggests, they are also emblematic of the artistic achievements of a non-Western culture as well as functioning as “a place holder for American anxieties about Islam”. That the rugs are here subtly defaced with black paint and wax suggests violence - mental, emotional and physical - a violence associated, at least in part, with racial tensions.

Whilst flagging up the fictional nature of histories this show brings together questions of race, power, violence, growth, flux and much more in a deep and poetic investigation that has things to say to all of us, whatever our real and imagined personal histories may be.

28 September to 25 November

written for This is Tomorrow

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A colour photograph hangs at eye level, of a middle aged woman seated on a child's ceramic potty. Her body is stooped and twisted in shame, face lost in shadow, girlish white knickers bunched around bare ankles. Behind her, scuffed floorboards, a bannister worn with age, the bumps and bruises of family life. This is the excavation of human trauma in the name of healing and of art.

2012 is the twentieth anniversary of the death of Jo Spence. By way of homage SPACE, London and Studio Voltaire have collaborated to create a two part exhibition that chronologically spans the artist's career. As a key component of Spence's modus operandi was collaboration, this synergy feels right.

Part II takes place off Clapham High Street and covers the period 1982 to 1992. The subject matter is Spence's cancer diagnosis, her subsequent journey into the world of holistic health care and the pioneering photo therapy that makes up the greater part of her best known work.

For Spence, photo therapy meant using the camera to heal herself within the broader context of psychoanalysis. It was a process she undertook with photographer Rosy Martin and through which they both discovered that 'there is no single self, but many fragmented selves, each vying for conscious expression, many never acknowledged.'

Coming into dialogue with the fragmented selves became a means of self-empowerment and of moving towards health; a way of rejecting existing mythologies and the systems of hegemony and dominance that spawned them, yet without creating new ones in which to get lost once more. It was a way of acknowledging her own constantly shifting totality.

One set of photo-theraputic works is devoted to the re-enactment by Spence of various moments in the life of her mother. Putting herself into her mother's position, she reported, made her feel guilty for the way she had behaved towards her mother when she was alive. This material is so raw and so emotionally fraught it may begin to explain why work of such evident potency has been almost totally overlooked by the existing art establishment. The exhibitions at SPACE and Studio Voltaire are her first retrospective in London. The Victoria & Albert is the only public collection in England to include her work and that by donation. As Spence herself once observed: “breaking out is not painless for anybody.”

The work on show at Studio Voltaire evidences her rejection of the cult of the artist. She employs a democratising technique of willed amateurishess, even abandoning the title 'artist', envisioning herself instead as 'cultural sniper', capable of appearing anywhere and in any guise. Her work is more commonly laminated than framed, giving the exhibition an awkward, community centre feel. Yet Spence's output is steeped in theory, amalgamating the academic with lived experience.

In 1991, having contracted leukaemia, she began The Final Project: A Photo fantasy and Photo therapeutic Exploration of Life and Death. She spoke of a crisis of representation. “I have not the faintest idea how to represent leukaemia except for how I feel.”

In one self-portrait from this series, traces of dark hair creep out from behind the toothy grimace of a rubber death mask, whilst over one black-clad shoulder a large wicker shopping bag nonchalantly hangs. The power of Spence's work is in its directness. She projects the strength of an army with the sensitivity of a butterfly. This confrontation drags death into life rather than the other way around. And not just into her life, into ours as well.

It may seem that Spence's political engagement, her socialist and feminist sympathies and the documentation of her difficulties with the NHS during what she parenthetically referred to as 'the cuts', could lodge her intensely auto-biographical work into a time specific niche outside of which it lacks resonance. This show at Studio Voltaire dispels that myth. Spence uses the deeply personal nature of experience as a means of accessing the universal. She presents us with the inescapable facts of all our lives – childhood, ageing, illness, death - and she does so without cliché. It is the brutal honesty with which she casts the objective gaze upon her own life that makes this exhibition so important and so long overdue.

WORK (Part II)
13 June to 11 August 2012