'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, 30 November 2009

Newsflash (not), sex sells. Advertisers, marketeers, business people, basically everyone except Mary Whitehouse (God rest her soul) can’t get enough of this joyous orgiastic bandwagon. Everyone wants to leap on its back and sell, sell, sell. And the art world is no exception. And never has been.

Interesting it should come at a time when everything our society holds most dearly to its heart, ie money, is in freefall – that suddenly the exhibition circuit is awash with sex. When money is in short supply, wheel out the only thing everyone loves almost as much. Everywhere you look people are shagging. Or if not actually shagging then alluding to it with varying degrees of subtlety or lack thereof. I’m not complaining. It’s the stuff of life and as such an entirely fitting topic to come under the microscope of artistic investigation. It’s just the sheer volume of it that’s surprising.

Take Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy. He’s the first living artist ever to be given the entire gallery space. And what has he filled it with? Sex.

Ok, there’s a bit more to it than that. His work is about the human condition. Its absolutely reductive nature allows space for the viewer to open into, thereby catalysing engagement with the spiritual. Within that context, much of his work is intensely visceral. It’s about the body and the memories stored in the muddle and mass of tissue that constitutes our human physicality.

Whatever. The fact remains that, at what my history teacher used to term a ‘grass roots level’, it doesn’t get much more blatantly sexual – without being a larger than life sized sculpture of the artist shagging his Mrs of course – than Shooting into the Corner. As the title suggests, every twenty minutes a cannon fires its load into the corner. For twenty minutes the tension builds, the anticipation is almost unbearable, finally the performance: violent and deadpan. There’s a loud bang… and it’s all over.

If that weren’t unambiguous enough, two rooms across and we’re looking at Svayambh, translated from the Sanskrit as ‘self-generating’ apparently, wherein a gigantic blood-red loaf on wheels trundles phallically through a series of arches, leaving its gooey mess in its wake. “That’s a very large loaf Anish. You know what they say! Mid-life crisis peut-être?”

And where is this loaf off to? It terminates its trajectory at Slug, a twelve-foot high bright red shiny vulva attached to a Laocoön-esque trail of imperiously writhing tubes. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud.

So, if that’s got you in the mood, then it’s off to Sold Out at Tate Modern, aka Pop Life. Pop Life wonders whether Andy Warhol may have been the first to tread the path since followed by a handful of ǜber-commercial artists, to prostitute their work to such a degree, that arguably, it becomes artistically bankrupt, utterly void of integrity and meaning, and no more intellectually or spiritually relevant than, say, a $3000 handbag or a pair of very expensive pumps. I’m not saying this is my view. I’m not saying it’s Tate’s view. But it is a question worth asking.

What I am saying though is that Andy Warhol didn’t invent vacuity. He didn’t invent selling the everyday as art (and what realm of the every day sells better than sex?) He didn’t invent producing art in such a way that he was able to make a shed load of money out of it. Neither was he the first person to employ a studio full of assistants to help him keep supply in line with demand at the most profitable tipping point. What about Gainsborough? How many versions did his studio knock out of prettified society ladies dressed up as Hebe or some such, wherein he’s painted the face and some minion’s coloured the rest in. Plenty. A whole career based on it. A livelihood. And what about Hogarth? So ecstatic with the popularity of his titillating morality tale A Harlot’s Progress in 1731 he virtually invented etching as we know it so he could hang ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, we’ve all got to make a living. I’m just saying, I don’t think we can lay all the credit, (or blame?) exclusively at Warhol’s door for the ‘Pop’-ularisation of art. Whether popularisation is the same as sell out is another question, but presumably not given the outcome of the row over the proposed title of the exhibition.

But back to the topic du jour. When it comes to no frills sex in art it doesn’t get much more in yer face than Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven series. This guy surely must be a few sandwiches short of a picnic? The reluctant recipient of one too many wedgies in High School perhaps. Just looking at him freaks me out, his gurning faux naïve face conjuring up unwelcome images of a perverse Sunday school teacher. It’s disturbing even before you’ve seen the close-up shots of his ex-wife’s genitalia that dominate Pop Life. And far worse than the work itself is all the random banality he dribbles out about it - cynically or crazily - like some sort of new age motivational fodder for the emotionally depleted: “It's about control, and chaos - do you want to serve or be served? Do you want to show a lot of love to your dog or do you want your dog to bring you the paper? Do you want to show your neighbour the same kind of respect that you'd like for yourself? It's about humankind's relationship to itself, the external world, whether there's a higher power outside of oneself ...”

Bollocks. It’s about money. Money and power and sex. He claims his work isn’t ironic or kitsch. He claims it’s optimistic, it exists (apparently) to make people feel better about themselves. What an altruistic little bunny he is. The whole thing makes me frightened, it really does.

So, it doesn’t get much more in yer face than the horizontal antics of Jeff Koons and La Cicciolina, but, it turns out, it does get a bit more so. The boys have had their stab at it. Now it’s the girl’s turn. And this one takes the biscuit. For the boys it’s all about scale and power. For the girls, a little more interrogative: Andrea Fraser’s 60 minute video Untitled (2004).

Jerry Saltz in an article written in 2007 describes a conversation he had with a fellow critic wherein Saltz mentioned he was writing an article about Fraser and the other guy responded: “Andrea Fraser is a whore”. God Bless America!

In fact Andrea Fraser is not a whore. She’s a performance artist who uses her own body to undertake a highly engaged enquiry into the workings of art institutions. For Untitled (2004) Fraser asked her gallerist to find a collector who would be prepared to pre-buy a piece of video art documenting that collector having sex with the artist. The selection of the collector was left entirely up to the gallery. The result is a silent, unedited video of Fraser in a hotel room having sex with a collector who’d pre-paid an ‘undisclosed sum’ reportedly in the region of $20,000.

It’s a powerfully extreme and honest way to conduct an investigation into the machinations of the commercial art world and the function of art itself. The question it asks is “what do we want from art?” The answer it ultimately provides is “transcendence”.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Miroslaw Balka link on the Tate website is a very irritating piece of over-engineering.

Tate consistently brings us superb, if sometimes overly monumental, exhibitions. Recently though I’ve noticed an increasing Tate tendency (Tate-ency?) towards what, for want of a better word, I’ll borrow from Baudrillard and call the Disney-isation of exhibitions, in a way that could, perhaps contentiously, be seen as the slippery slope of insidious artistic sabotage.

Miroslaw Balka’s Unilever commission is a hulking yet unexpectedly beautiful steel shipping container, raised on Corbusier-esque stilts, sitting like a misplaced and unfathomably vast UFO at the far end of the Turbine Hall.

You can walk around it. If you’re brave enough, you can walk under it. And at the back, the ramp is gently lowered, enticing you to walk into, its dark cavernous depths. Inside is the void. Part warm and inviting womblike peace regained, part unknown and destabilising day trip to hell - a sense perhaps of the double-edge of eternity.

Conceived as the equal and opposite of Eliasson’s gigantic sun, as dark as The Weather Project was light, Balka’s How It Is will probably call to mind for many of us disturbing narratives of persecuted peoples. Balka grew up in a town in Poland in which 75 per cent of the population had been exterminated in the death camps and inevitably that informs his creativity. But How It Is also speaks symbolically and poetically of that which lies beyond the beyond.

Walking up the ramp to enter this installation is a collective, visceral experience. It brings the participant experientially into touch with our own boundaries and fears, whilst simultaneously we are reassured by a strong sense of the same in others, as we all edge tentatively and disjointedly through the deep, absorbent, warm darkness towards who knows what.

At one point I thought I’d bumped into a particularly inanimate being, but eventually realised I’d reached the end and what I was touching was the surprisingly soft, velvety reassurance of the inside wall. The person next to me I couldn’t see, or even make out a shadow of, but I heard his disembodied voice gently enquire: ‘is that it?’ Whether he was referring to the end wall, the significance of Balka’s work, or the meaning of life hardly matters. ‘I’m afraid so,’ responded another eerie voice.

Miroslaw Balka’s Unilever commission is a significant piece of theatrics, and I don’t say that with even a hint of denigration. I found it to be an awesome and inspiring creation. Consequently, in trying to research it retrospectively, and starting with Tate’s website, I find myself wondering: does it really need Ghost Train inspired technological spinnery, clicking and bleeping and silly spooky noises to big it up?

Which gets me to wondering once again whether Richard Long’s exhibition at Tate Britain needed floor to ceiling sized multi-coloured bits of text riding rough shod over the enigmatic subtlety of the work in order to keep us in the moment? Or could that have been curatorial ego inserting itself where it didn’t need to be?

And what about the ludicrous Andy Warhol portrait wallpaper, or whatever it’s supposed to be, in room 3 of the Pop Life show? Given the theme of that exhibition is the commodification and popularisation of art you might think it’s more in keeping there, but the fact that it’s just one example amongst many suggests that’s not the reason it’s there.

Presumably these curatorial add-ons are provided for us because someone somewhere imagines Joe Public to have the attention span of a gnat, and without a constant barrage of over stimulation to the senses, he’ll probably just wander off to the pub or something. Although, let’s face it, with the number of eateries and drinking holes at Planet Tate, even if he does choose bodily refreshment over visual and intellectual stimulation, it’s still cash in the bank for Tate.

Business is business; I appreciate that, and certainly a hell of a lot of people visit Tate and get much pleasure from it. A reported twenty million people have visited the Turbine hall since it opened nearly ten years ago, so they’re certainly getting a lot of things spot on right and I applaud them for that.

But could not the very question that Pop Life raises also be asked of Tate itself? Firstly, is Tate selling out? And secondly, are we, the general public, really such a bunch of half-witted troglodytes, needing everything to be in primary colours and twenty feet high, or bearing more than a passing resemblance to a win or lose computer game, in order for us to take a sustained interest in it? Personally I think not.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

"An art dealer is like a plastic surgeon. You want to go to someone you can trust."

Saturday, 14 November 2009

"When you're in downward facing dog you're not a human being pretending to be a dog; you are that dog."
David Life

Friday, 13 November 2009

I read last night that the so-called Jungian psychologist of love Aldo Carotenuto believed we humans find ambiguity so troublesome to deal with because “very few have the courage or the strength to hold the tension between opposites until a completely new standpoint emerges, because, in acknowledging contradictory truths, one has to create an inner equilibrium to keep from being torn in two.”

Ambiguity is certainly tricky. One wants things to be either one thing or another, not a little bit of both. It’s so much easier to see the world in black and white, to contain ones experiences in a series of neat little boxes with the appropriate label clearly annotated on the front, preferably typed and laminated so it doesn’t risk getting wet and doing nasty smudging things that might open the door, once again, to the horrors of ambiguity.

It’s all very well to know this intellectually. In fact knowing things intellectually is a piece of cake compared to living the knowledge, incorporating the knowledge into the choices one makes as one bumbles through life. I’ve begun to wonder even if it mightn’t be the case that the more one claims to ‘know’ things, the less one really knows anything, for to ‘know’ something intellectually is to close the door on myriad other possibilities that might also be true. Perhaps a claim to ‘know’ something is little more than an expression of the impossible desire to eradicate inherent ambiguity from ones own mind?

An erstwhile friend of mine used always to know everything. Whenever I’d say anything about anything, even my own personal emotional responses to circumstances I had experienced, she’d respond: ‘I know that’. After a while it started to sound defensive. Does the act of knowing something somehow distance one from the fear of the possibility that one might not know - the fear of the ambiguity and uncertainty of not knowing?

To ‘know’ is very self-affirming. To allow that one might not know, perhaps one needs either a very stable sense of self or else a faith in something beyond the self.

It’s all very well my observing other people’s wont always to know, but the truth is I wish I could let go of my own need to know. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be happy not knowing; to kick back and go with it, wherever it’s going and whatever it may be? To have sufficient faith that I could be content simply to believe that ultimately it’ll be alright, rather than having to know, for the sake of my own peace of mind, the details of what exactly it is, or will be, in relative, academic terms.

I went to an interactive performance at the David Roberts Art Foundation last week called Conversations with the Other Side by Sidsel Christensen and Ben Judd. There were about sixty of us in the basement. We were all instructed to sit down on one huge piece of paper. The performance went on for an hour and nobody was to enter or leave during that time. It was all rather serious.

At the start Ben explained that he was going to put Sidsel into a trance. Sidsel would then act as a medium for the audience in an attempt to bridge the gap between the audience and the beings existing on the other side. It sounded a bit bonkers and I was curious to know whether it was all very ironic and amusing or whether Ben and Sidsel really were intending to attempt some sort of clairvoyancy in Great Titchfield Street, W1.

An hour later I was no wiser. Had Sidsel really been in a trance? Had we really been conducting a conversation with beings from another dimension?

It didn’t occur to me until some while afterwards that it might not be so simple as a case of either or. Predictably my pedant’s brain had leapt at the default position of neat little boxes. Pleasingly it turned out that Conversations with the Other Side is based on a creative investigation into ambiguity. It seems Ben and Sidsel are interested in the point at which world’s collide and barriers become de-stabilised; not only between this and other dimensions, but also within our selves as individuals and within our countless inter-dependent communities.

Ben Judd’s work relies on the tension between belief and non-belief. Unlike most of us who spend our lives on a ceaseless quest for resolution and stability, Judd is on a quest for the unresolved in-between position. Instead of fighting it, Judd is proposing the position, or perhaps non-position, of inconsistency and ambivalence as fundamental truth. He seems to be embracing the very unknown that most of us are in a constantly unsuccessful battle to resolve.

“I would like to believe in clairvoyance and when I stood up in front of a class and tried to demonstrate my clairvoyance, I felt that I did do it in a genuine sense. On the other hand, I think it is absolute nonsense – a ridiculously constructed experience for everyone. Being a non-believer or an atheist is still also a belief system. I try to become the medium through which other people experience these different positions. Hopefully people can see from my own expressions that I am going through this very intensive period of questioning. Hopefully they can put themselves in my position….. The idea of questioning your own beliefs is very important. I don’t want to find a position of stability.” Ben Judd

Perhaps in a way Conversations with the Other Side is a metaphor for art itself. Perhaps that is the raison d’etre behind the creation of and engagement with art – to act as a facilitator in helping us suspend our limiting beliefs, ejecting us from our comfortable, rationalised, safe positions and forcing us out into the terrifying, but ultimately liberating, waters of ambiguity and the unknown.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

thought for the day: a bit of hurling oneself at the floor is good for the soul
I’ve come across a handy euphemism this week. What used to be referred to as making a pass at someone, coming on to, hitting on, etc is now apparently known as being ‘informal’.

I haven’t yet ascertained quite where the boundaries of informality lie. Evidently the ‘my wife doesn’t understand me and when do you get off work’ chat does count as informality. As does, when tea and chat are clearly over, hovering on a person’s doorstep looking ever hopeful, rather than simply leaving. Informality can also include hovering on the doorstep for so long that one is eventually nudged off it on the end of a polite finger and with the gentle repetition of the word ‘bye’. In some cases informality can include gazing into someone’s eyes, telling them how lovely they are, resting a weary head on their shoulder and enquiring as to their current romantic status and what sort of things they cook for supper. Oh yes girls, it’s the twenty-first century alright.

Whether the term informality expands so far as to include the antics of Boris Becker and the broom cupboard is anyone’s guess.