'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

Saturday, 24 October 2009


Dusk, deserted road, and suddenly
I was a goat. To be truthful, it took
two minutes, though it seemed sudden,
for the horns to pop out of my skull,
for the spine to revolutionise and go
horizontal, for the fingers to glue
together and for the nails to become
important enough to upgrade to hoof.
The road was not deserted any more, but full
of goats, and I liked that, even though I hate
the rush hour on the tube, the press of bodies.
Now I loved snuffling behind his or her ear,
licking a flank or two, licking and snuffling here,
there, wherever I liked. I lived for the push
of goat muscle and goat bone, the smell of goat fur,
goat breath and goat sex. I ended up on the edge
of the crowd where the road met the high
hedgerow with the scent of earth, a thousand
kinds of grass, leaves and twigs, flower-heads
and the intoxicating tang of the odd ring-pull
or rubber to spice the mixture. I wanted
to eat everything. I could have eaten the world
and closed my eyes to nibble at the high
sweet leaves against the sunset. I tasted
that old sun and the few dark clouds
and some tall buildings far away in the next town.
I think I must have swallowed an office block
because this grinding enormous digestion tells me
it’s stuck on an empty corridor which has
at the far end, I know, a tiny human figure.

Jo Shapcott

The good thing about Damien Hirst’s latest batch of work, his first ‘serious’ foray into painting by his own hand, is that they reproduce fairly well. Unfortunately this means that when one sees them in the flesh some disappointment, if not jaw dropping horror, may result.

Poor old Damo. However rich and successful and bravade one is, it must sting to have almost every art critic on the planet pan the creative results of your latest existential crisis. I don’t particularly want to add my voice to the cacophony, but it’s difficult to get around the fact that these paintings really are so dreadful there’s almost nothing can be said in their defence.

Historically I’ve always been rather a fan of Damien Hirst. The early formaldehyde works were bold, brave and eloquent, they captured the voice of a generation whilst simultaneously creating a truly pivotal moment in the history of British Art making. On top of that he’s a unique showman and entertainer, a powerhouse of energy and an incredibly savvy businessman. All that in one man is pretty exceptional and I take my hat off to him.

So what’s occurring now?

The main problem, or perhaps one of many problems, seems to be that we’re seeing a conceptual sculptor painting. It’s a brave transition to make. Stepping beyond the tried and tested is no mean feat. Pushing personal boundaries takes guts - nobody can take that away from him. I’m just not sure of the wisdom of taking up a practice for more or less the first time and in under three years expecting to produce work that’ll stand up alongside the likes of Poussin, Velaszquez, Gainsborough, Frans Hals etc. Maybe a bit ambitious? Ambition is a laudable enough trait but it needs to be served with temperance. To make the transition from sculptor to painter is a big deal. It’s not going to happen overnight. Transitions take time and if they’re not allowed that time, if they’re rushed, then someone usually ends up with egg on their face. And the worst part of it is that the person wearing the slightly foolish eggy grin usually can’t see it. It all becomes a bit embarrassing. Trying to run before you can walk is rarely a smart move. I know because I’ve tried it often enough, and always to my detriment. Impatience and sagacity never go hand in hand.

The whole sticky mess puts me in mind of the poker player’s mantra: “to master poker you must first master patience and discipline. A lack of either is a sure fire disaster, irrespective of other talents.” Ironically the characteristics that got Hirst where he is today are probably going to be the same that’ll be his undoing.

It’s not just Damien. There’s a lot of terrible painting out there, and a lot of mediocre derivative painting, which, for my money, might almost be worse. But one artist who is neither of these is Gideon Rubin, whose work is currently forming the inaugural show at Rokeby’s new location on Hatton Wall.

One of the first things that struck me about the installation of paintings that makes up the exhibition ‘1929’ was – if you’ll excuse my coining a very cheesy phrase - its almost breath taking beauty. And for the Parmesan shavings: it literally stopped me in my tracks. It did!

For a while now the art world has been on a bit of a downer as far as beauty is concerned, particularly with regard to painting, which I think is a bit of a shame. Whilst ‘pretty pretty’ probably isn’t my thing, at the same time I don’t find anything inherently problematic with something retaining a degree of visual appeal. For me visual appeal does not automatically equate to conceptual vacuity. It seems a fairly valid notion that a thing can look good and also have interesting things to say, maybe even interesting things to say on the subject of why it looks good. Just recently it has seemed as though if a painters work isn’t down right ugly, then it’s immediately dismissed as running dangerously close to being purely decorative. And of course nobody wants to be that or even anything approaching that. So we all make sure we back the really really ugly painting so that even the uninitiated couldn’t imagine for a second that the work we are associated with is anything other than serious with a capital ‘S’. Well, call me arrogant and patronising (yes, don’t worry, I’ve been called worse, I can take it on the chin) but I think I can tell the difference between a painting that is primarily decorative and a painting that is beautiful and at the same time conceptually challenging. I know, frightfully superior aren’t I!

Gideon Rubin’s paintings are largely figure and group scenes, underpinned by an atmosphere of elusive narrative. Personally identifying features are erased or ambiguous inviting the viewer to project our own half forgotten stories onto these near archetypal compositions, ripe with a sense of overlaid history, both pictorially and metaphorically. Therein lies the beauty probably, the realisation of the otherwise inaccessible – the hidden self. This is contemporary painting at its best.

Unlike the work of the infamous Mr Hirst (whose Blue Paintings are already sold to Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk) at a couple of grand a piece Rubin’s paintings aren’t even that expensive. If I had a few quid to spare I know where they’d be going. Oh well, roll on the good times. So whilst I’m still waiting for that to happen I hope it’s not yet too late for me to hear the notoriously ill-mannered Thom Yorke’s nonetheless wise words: “as soon as you get any success you disappear up your own arse.”

Friday, 23 October 2009

Artist Helene Appel graduated her MA from the Royal College of Art, London in 2006. The first commercial gallery to show her work subsequent to that was Beverley Knowles Fine Art later that year. Since then she has exhibited with (amongst others), doggerfisher, The Outpost Gallery, Norwich (selected by Gavin Turk), Rachmaninoff’s, London, and The Approach. Her work is currently featured in Art Now: Beating the Bounds at Tate Britain until 13 December 2009 and is shortly to feature in Newspeak: British Art Now at The Saatchi Gallery in June 2010.
I thought it might be fun to adopt an alter-ego. If it’s good enough for Grayson Perry it’s good enough for me. Not that I want to ponce about in a frock and an alice band on channel 4 (oh no wait, I’ve already done that) or charge £65 for a neck scarf (sad to report I haven’t done that) - but it would be useful to have a foil.

I’m not sure what I imagine the role of alter-ego to be. The worst version of me? Someone who yells racist slurs out of the car window at offence giving fellow motorists driving up your exhaust pipe when you’re trying to reverse park in Deptford? Obviously I’d never do that.

Or the best version of me? That’s trickier. First thought best thought. Tehching Hsieh. Ok, that’s that then - my alter-ego is cult hero and 59 year old Taiwanese performance artist living in Brooklyn with his wife Qinqin Li.

I have dodgy ankles from a performance piece I did in Taiwan in 1973 that involved jumping out of a second floor window and recording it on Super 8.

So what’s so great about that? So some nutter jumped out of a window when he was twenty-three, broke his ankles and called it art? So what?

So everything. There is nothing else.

Tehching Hsieh is famous for his one-year performances that took place in New York in the 80s. Each performance was prefaced with a statement.
On 30 September 1978 Hsieh wrote:
“I, Sam Hsieh, plan to do a one year performance piece, to begin on September 30, 1978.
I shall seal myself in my studio, in solitary confinement inside a cell-room measuring 11’6” x 9’8”.
I shall NOT converse, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television, until I unseal myself on September 29, 1979.
I shall have food everyday.
My friend, Cheng Wei Kuong, will facilitate this piece by taking charge of my food, clothing and refuse.”

If that doesn’t sound staggering it’s only because most of us, myself included of course, have so little idea as to how fantastically traumatic such an experience would be.

In 1981/2 Hsieh lived outside for a year. He did not go into a building, subway, train, car, airplane, ship, cave or tent for a full year. He had a sleeping bag only - in New York, which as we know, gets cold.

The point is he did these things not by accident, not in the course of life simply unfolding in the way that life does, but with self-awareness, consciously, as ‘art’. As performance art he was able to identify with what was happening to him and to witness it at the same time. That’s the difference between simply doing something and undertaking it as a piece of durational performance art in this way. He was able to see it. He employed positions of physical, emotional and mental extremes over sustained periods to investigate the notion of art and life as pure simultaneous processes. This is quite something. This is intellectual commitment to artistic practice second to none. This is passion with a capital ‘P’.

Having spent the last decade or so living in relative obscurity Hsieh has now released a book, so everyone’s talking about him again. Even Hans Ulrich Obrist calls him: “one of the great artists of our time. With immense courage, Tehching Hsieh revolutionised performance art.” And what Mr Obrist says goes, awight!?

So I’m wondering… when I’ve got an alter-ego will life be simpler? Will having an alter-ego help me to step back from the pain and the joy? To see them instead of always having to be them? I’m afraid to say the question that begins to emerge, to quote that immortal piece of cinematic history, Brian Johnson in The Breakfast Club (1985), is – “who am I?”
There’s wisdom in the strangest places:
“Saturday, March 24,1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois, 60062. Dear Mr. Vernon, We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us - in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. That's the way we saw each other at 7 o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.” (How overjoyed I was to spot the poster for that film in Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation Cavemanman (2002) in Walking In My Mind.)

And why limit myself to one alter-ego? Forget who do you want to invite to a dinner party. Who do you want to be? Hell, who are you? When you see the holy light what’s it going to look like? The Dalai Lama? Robbie Williams? JJ Charlesworth? the bank manager? (oh come on) Lucrezia Borgia? Japan’s favourite poet? Yayoi Kusama? Dr Who? Maggie Thatcher? (oh my God) Thích Nhất Hạnh? Joseph Beuys? John and Edward? Josephine Baker? Ziggy Marley? (“I don’t condemn. I don’t convert.”) Albert Einstein? Tehching Hsieh? just plain me?…. or the whole lot … simultaneously?

I think I’ll name my alter-ego Ann-Lee after the Manga character Pierre Huyghe & Philippe Parreno bought the rights to in 1999. A bit of attempting to free myself symbolically from my fixed position as product and to question the nature of identity and particularly my identity is just what I’m in the mood for.

What are we anyway? Are we all one? Are we all just the world manifesting? On a good day I think we probably are. On a bad day everyone else can go to hell. That’s what Ann Lee thinks anyway.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

if it's good enough for Zwirner, it's good enough for me!

om namah shivaya
I bow to my inner Self, the Divine in me and Others

Monday, 5 October 2009

So good it deserves quoting verbatim:

October 2009
Value Added
State of the Art
The myriad uses of art and artists
Dominic Eichler
(contributing editor of frieze)

"I have an artist-friend who enjoys a healthy sense of personal satisfaction and an externally verified, peer-assessed sense of worth. In the last few years he has had a steady run of success with galleries, critics, curators and collectors, although he has not yet become a household name, nor made enough money to live lavishly. He recently told me an anecdote which drove home, once again, the otherworldliness of contemporary art. His story is ostensibly about money, but my point is not to dwell on that, but rather on those moments when ‘art people’ realize that the only ones who really understand them are other art people.
Facing his own cash-flow crunch, my artist-friend had to go begging for patience at the tax office, where he explained that the cultural capital he had painstakingly accrued over the past decade hadn’t granted him much leeway with regards to revenue collection. At around the same time, he had also to go explaining his sorry financial situation to his local bank branch in Berlin – a city that contains more art and more artists than almost anywhere else in the world. There, after looking through his financial affairs – the fiscal equivalent of an intimate medical examination – the nice enough woman sitting behind her plastic desk at the bank confessed to him in a solemn whisper: ‘I could never live like you do.’ The first thing that entered his head, and remained there, was, ‘And I could never live like you do, either.’
What her statement implied was that she would never want to be an artist because: a) you don’t get paid regularly, if at all; b) she couldn’t see the real-world value of the profession; and c) she feels quite comfortable with maintaining her opinion because everything she knows about the expansive and difficult subject of art has confirmed to her that it is close to the bottom of her ‘relevant’ pile and can stay there. There are myriad variations on this story: the protagonist might be a young intern, an impassioned student of art history, a writer, almost any freelance curator, even a brave-faced gallerist. The scene could take place somewhere else: at a parent’s kitchen table, at a yawnsome school reunion or in an out-of-the-blue email. But the leading question will always be: ‘What are you doing now?’ To many civilians, art people are still suspicious aliens. Money might talk in shrill tones, but the same widespread incomprehension can greet even extremely well-heeled members of the art world. In other words, the suspicion with which art is generally
regarded does not stem from the fact that only a few can live well from it.
Even with things being a bit economically wobbly recently, those involved in the art world are unlikely to win much sympathy, since they are still thought of as a bunch of snobby and spoilt purveyors of highly specialized luxury goods which may or may not be a splendid investment or look half-pleasant hanging on the wall. So why on earth do we in the art world continue to do what we do? Is it possible to mount a reasonable defence, which might make sense to the sceptical bank clerk or lay person, or even just to comfort ourselves in dark moments of existential doubt?
Ranging from the serious and seductive whisper to the arms-waving, tearfully impassioned plea (OK, just drunk and exasperated), all of the following points are ones I have tried in conversation, to mixed results:
art is the only place left that still allows a relatively autonomous, wild and profound discussion on just about anything that matters to anyone and everyone; art is just as pointless, useless and necessary as any other activity in the world; while there has arguably never been a truly adequate depiction of art in film or on television, no good film or television programme could have been conceived without lessons learnt from art; whether justified or not, contemporary art has symbolic power in Western culture, and this power gives art context, responsibility and agency; art can transform images, things and situations into more than they would be if art didn’t exist; art is the sibling of language, and sometimes they have good fights; art embraces the absurd, irrational and irreverent; art people often abandon conservative notions of family; art has a wayward conscience in an unconscionable world; there are gender issues and all kinds of racial and sexual discrimination in art, but at least they are being discussed as problems; art is preferable to religion because it’s not about finding a ‘one size fits all’ resolution; some experiences of art can be better than the best love affairs; history shows that art is what remains; art is an alternative value system; art is in everything people do, so someone needs to address that; there are hierarchies within art, but they are volcanically volatile – bursts of energy can come from nowhere and change the landscape overnight; the idea of art is nimble enough to defy definition; art loves problems, misfits, hermits and the reckless; art challenges death and despair; art may be full of contradictions, but at its core lies the idea of championing freedom."

Thursday, 1 October 2009

There was a squirrel chasing the cat across the garden the other day. Then today a squirrel came into the lounge and buried a gigantic nut in one of my pot plants. “You should write children’s stories,” one of my friends said. But it was true. I’m not good at making stuff up.

And I cooked a cake. My first ever cake. It didn’t rise in the middle. My friend who I was bridesmaid for was visiting from Hong Kong. What more do you want from a trip to Blighty than a flat Victoria Sponge lovingly made in Ladbroke Grove? How very English. In fact - my friend’s husband generously offered - there’d have been no problem with the cake at all if the words Victoria Sponge hadn’t been mooted. Ah, labels, labels, labels… “dirt is just matter in the wrong place.”

My grandmother used to cook cakes. Not that successfully if lightness is valued above stability. Tedious conventionality - means nothing. Knowles folklore tells of one occasion when she tripped whilst carrying one of the finer of her fruit genus. Allegedly it bounced off the floor and not a crumb was lost. There’s always more than one definition of success. It was the war. How’s one to create lightness on rations?

And I met two pet piggies: Salt and Pepper, who were divine. And I met a yogi called Godfrey who believed in the divine, a quality I admired very much – but not in wearing clothes overly - interrupts the flow of chi apparently.

I slept in an eco-dome under the stars and went to the loo out of doors. It was heaven. Although I didn’t recognise it as such at the time. But then I had Proust to remind me of the profound odiousness of human nature. You don’t read Proust to restore your faith in humanity. And you definitely don’t read Proust in A&E if you’re looking for reassurances whilst your world’s slowly crumbling. Rather like A&E, not a lot happens. Or not a lot is perceived to be happening, which may or may not be the same thing, but probably isn’t, although it could be. Nonetheless, if you like a book wherein not a lot happens this might be the puppy for you. The plot began to thicken last night when our hero / anti-hero depending on your perspective, left his bedroom to go and visit the neighbours. I still probably wouldn’t call it a page turner quite but there’s truth there. Underweight plot, overweight truth. And let’s face it nobody wants too much of that. It gets a bit much to stomach after a while. Too much truth doesn’t sit that well on top of the fried plantain and okra.

Meanwhile Jill Magid’s telling me: ‘I can burn your face’ and then, more alarmingly… ‘the secret itself is much more beautiful than its revelation.’

Is it ‘real’ or isn’t it? A question only Jeff Koons can truly put a bullet through. After two visits to the Serpentine this summer – that’d be two visits too many - it wasn’t long before I could no longer give a monkey’s uncle whether anything is ‘real’ or not. To quote the awesome Scotsman Momus: “Every lie creates a parallel world. The world in which it is true.” Whilst Koons speaks like someone who’s learned the twelve steps parrot fashion and not very well.

A much more subtle and engaging enquiry into the blurring of the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the imagined is Authority to Remove (Tate Modern, Level 2, until 3 January 2010). I really don’t care that somebody can make a piece of aluminium look like an inflatable and then make it two dimensional and then paint boobs on it. And then strut about like a peacock playing with smoke and mirrors. I care so little it makes me cross. It makes me very cross. The profound pretending to be banal? Or the banal pretending to be profound? If I were one of those crashing bores who go on about such things I might care to mention tax payer’s money. But I’m not, so forget I mentioned it. Except if it were so banal I suppose I wouldn’t be so cross… but I’m in no mood to investigate that right now so I’ll gloss over it and get back to the surreal and the hyperreal, wherein I’m far happier this particular evening.

I’m not sure if this Jill Magid exhibition is real or isn’t real. At first I thought it was real and then I realised it wasn’t real, but then I wasn’t sure again. And now I’ve no idea. Can she burn my face? Can she burn anyone’s face?

Answer me that Popeye or the squirrel gets it.