'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

Thursday, 25 February 2010

I found myself last night at an amateur poetry recital come music evening in a bar on the corner of Boundary Road. Actually, I’m not sure I found myself quite, but that’s where I was anyway.

The last time I was in Boundary Road I was staring at my own reflection in a shiftless lake of sump oil. This time I was listening to an octogenarian wearing an emerald green blazer and a gently listing russet toupé, quietly singing Fly me to the Moon with an almost total absence of harmony, to an audience of eight, six of whom were other performers awaiting their turn.

As Fly me to the Moon goes it was pretty terrible I suppose, but there was something endearing about it in an unobvious way. Perhaps its unobviousness was its charm. There are few things in life more ghastly than someone trying desperately to bonk you about the head with the details of their personal tragedy; their bloody “extreme pain”. Tragedy wasn’t really there for me from the amateur poet whose agonies over his dead girlfriend drowned at sea he frantically attempted to resuscitated for us whilst we chowed down on a burrito or two and quaffed a glass of chardonnay: “aaaaagh, water, water, aaaaagh, water.” It was pure comedy, albeit not for him, but it was difficult to care about him because he was so busy doing that himself.

Tragedy, on the other hand, is the fellow singing a song that nobody hears, that nobody even notices when he’s finished, gets up and wanders away. The inadvertent tragedy that doesn’t ask you to give a damn about it is ultimately the one that softens the heart. The tragedy that has no expectation that things should be any other than the way they are.

My personal tragedy this week is not, thankfully, the untimely demise of my nearest and dearest at the hands of large bodies of water, but the use of the word entropy in essays on art. I’m afraid I just don’t understand what it means. I am incredibly dense when it comes to anything even vaguely scientific. It’s really a difficulty these days for an art historian. I’ve found something on the internet – not on wikipedia thank you – that informs me that entropy means, or rather, ahem, “one of the ideas involved in the concept of entropy,” is that nature tends to veer away from order and towards disorder. Apparently entropy is why, if you shove a pile of books off your desk and onto the floor, they will invariably land in a disordered heap and not in the neat pile they once were.

I like this idea. For me it explains a lot about my life. What it does not explain to me is what is going on at the Camden Arts Centre in Katja Strunz’s installation Sound of the Pregeometric Age. Apparently it does explain what is going on at the Camden Arts Centre in Katja Strunz’s installation Sound of the Pregeometric Age for Adriane Muller, the lady who wrote the essay on this work for the File Notes. And maybe it will for you to, those amongst you who are not scientifically challenged as per moi.

But for those who may find yourselves a bit stumped by the complexities of advanced physics I thought I might expound my own interpretation of this work by Katja Strunz, with my usual lack of regard - although no lack of respect - for what the artist may or may not have had in mind when she created it and my similarly usual lack of regard for what anyone else might care to think. But there we are. That’s a nice bit of entropy for you…. I think?

The installation is made up of a series of vaguely anthropomorphic figures composed of found object and various bits of musical instruments that create the effect of a timeless and not specifically human orchestra of sorts, but human enough for the viewer to identify with - this viewer at least. From amongst this community of oddities a sound is somehow generated; sometimes squeaky, sometimes rumbly, always otherworldly. From one or two of these strange figures a wire leads out of the window to a tree outside in the grounds running alongside the Finchley Road. When I enquired I was told that the object in the tree was a micro-phone but that the sound was pre-recorded. Whatever the details, the set up clearly suggests some sort of link between the world outside and this strangely charming little army of indeterminate beings inside.

The word Pregeometric, according to my sometimes-reliable-sometimes-not-reliable friend the World Wide Web, is a term used in physics to speak about that which existed before space and time as we understand it. Or perhaps that which runs alongside the time and space we are familiar with, in some kind of parallel alternative fashion, that has so far proved to be rather beyond my comprehension, but very much within the grasp of my curious interest.

Being the slightly hippy-chick that I am, I like to think of this alternative sphere of existence, if that’s even the right way of speaking about it, as a sort of Oneness from which we, in our current existence apparent, have somehow manifested. If we are simply Oneness manifesting, then Oneness presumably is a place made up of us, but without the sense of us as separate beings, with the separate lives and separate agendas that seem to cause all of life’s problems. A mulch of energy, light, consciousness or what you will, wherein everything is just, well… One. Apparently some believe that this Oneness emits a sound vibrationally similar to the letters Om. Or Amen. Some can even hear this sound when sitting very quietly in a very quite place for a very long time. Om.

Anyway, the moment I wandered into Katja Strunz’s installation this is what I thought of and I greeted the thought with openhearted enthusiasm and a great big hug, as it is one of my favourite thoughts. I thought that it could be this Oneness, this place of Love, that Katja is referring to, albeit through the medium of mathematics and physics, rather than through this quasi-spiritual investigation of mine. But perhaps it’s all the same in the end anyway. All roads lead to Rome as it were. Or rather all roads lead to One. To Om. It’s certainly a very nice thought, a very warming, calming thought, that makes you realise that there’s really nothing that much to worry about. Life just is what life just is and we just are what we just are. Sometimes that means tragedy; sometimes that means joy. But it’s all One in the end.

To borrow from Eliot borrowing from the Upanishads… shanti shanti shanti…

Katja Strunz
Camden Arts Centre
until 7 March 2010

I’m sitting in my cluttered little office in Ladbroke Grove with a cup of green tea with jasmine in one hand and an image of multi disciplinary and performance artist VALIE EXPORT in the other.

VALIE EXPORT sits, legs akimbo, on a wooden chair, brandishing a military rifle, wearing black peep-toe sling backs, a black leather shirt pulled taught across her chest and a pair of black trousers with a large triangle of fabric cut away to reveal her bare crotch. She’s also wearing a massive, unruly black wig that calls to mind shamanic headdress with all its unnerving supernatural connotations. Beneath the wig VALIE EXPORT has a beautiful face and its expression is impassive.

The image is a piece of documentation from a performance that took place in Munich in 1968 wherein VALIE EXPORT entered a porn cinema wearing this awe inspiring feminist get-up and strode angrily between the rows of seated viewers.

Such a bold statement makes an unmade bed, a pickled shark, and perhaps even a gang of child mannequins with genitals where the noses should be, seem tame. Actually, perhaps not the mannequins, that’s a bit fucked-up even by art history’s standards. Nonetheless, Action Pants: Genital Panic took place in the 60s and it wasn’t abstract conceptualising and schoolboy shock tactics - it was for real.

EXPORT’s Action Pants: Genital Panic can currently be seen hanging in Tate Modern and the reason I’m gripped by it is I’ve been asked by an artist friend to collaborate with her on a project about the seven deadly sins. She’s asked me to come up with ideas for seven self-portraits that she will then choreograph with me and shoot on digital SLR, in a Calle-esque investigation of what a whole cross-section of different people will come up with in response to a certain emotive stimulus, in this case, the deadly sins.

I’ve chosen to approach the project as an art historian, mainly of course because that is what I am and it’s always wise to stick with what you know. For each ‘sin’ I’ve chosen a single work by one of seven women artists from 1968 to the present day. They’re all artists I respect hugely and all are largely working with their own bodies and/or incorporating some degree of performativity.

Initially my friend Manu had suggested that these self-portraits should be shot using an absolute minimum of props and that the clothes worn should be limited to a black polo neck and black trousers. So this is what I had in mind. My self-portrait Anger would consist of a symbolic re-creation of this image as an homage to VALIE EXPORT, but rather than getting into complicated outfit territory I would stick with the black sweater and trousers, a silhouette if you like, allowing the pose to do the talking.

So I meet up with Manu at the Camden Arts Centre to show her my ideas.
“Great,” she said, “very interesting approach, but,” she said, “would be so much more powerful as a piece of work in eetself and as an homage and as an illustration of the seens, to reproduce it exactly as the original.”
“Ah, you mean legs akimbo, no pants?”
“Right, I see. I might have to have a little think about that one then Manu.”
“No problem.”

My initial thought was, “oh bugger, I can’t do that”. But after a while I started to feel a bit pathetic about it. If VALIE EXPORT could do it in 1968 without bating an eyelash, why can’t I do it in 2010? God, what’s the big deal? It’s hardly news. Fifty percent of us look like that down there. It’s nothing we haven’t all seen before in one way or another. What’s so different about me? And now I’m almost thinking that to reproduce it in any way other than loyally would be an insult to the original. Making something that in 1968 was very radically not polite, not polite at all, but enraged and demanding to be heard, into something tame, demure, apologetic almost. That just wouldn’t be right. Even the vicar thought so.

So that’s it then. Decision made. Now I have to decide which trousers I don’t mind destroying in the name of my feminist art historical principals and get the scissors out! Body where mouth is. How liberating. Now I’m just looking forward to Jake and Dinos getting their kecks off. How very noughties that would be.
Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer
BALTIC, Gateshead
5 March to 16 May

I went to the private view of Irving Penn at the NPG last week with my wonderful French photographer friend Marité. I pointed out my favourite photograph, a portrait of Willem de Kooning and Frederick Kiesler taken in New York in May 1960.

"You're not looking at the photograph darling, you're looking at the man. Attractive older man you're latest thing is it?" she enquired.
How maddening the French can be.

Irving Penn Portraits
National Portrait Gallery
until 6 June 2010

"we don't call them shoots here. We don't shoot people. It's really a love affair."
Irving Penn

Monday, 22 February 2010

The Kingdom of Cambodia has a shrink - sorry - psychiatrist population of twenty. What I’m wondering is, does this mean that if I have a breakdown in Cambodia I’ll be laughing or buggered?

I’m tempted to think that if one’s wont to have a breakdown anywhere, then in the middle of nowhere is probably the place for it. Not that I’m exactly scheduling it in, but you never know. As my mother keeps reminding me in what is starting to become a slightly unnerving fashion, when travelling in these out of the way places one’s got to think ahead. Be prepared for every eventuality.

Cambodia also has 60,000 resident Buddhist monks, so I’m thinking maybe they’ll be a bit more useful to me in the event of an eruption of chaotic mental activity – more chaotic than usual that is. I’d like to think so, but I’m not willing to bet on it. In my experience no amount of meditating is capable of nullifying the wanker gene when it’s inherent. Nope, you’ve got to look out for yourself in this life because no other bugger’s going to do it for you. “We’re on our own kidda,” – more wise words from Mater.

When I get to Cambodia I’m planning on doing largely not that much. Hit and run tourism isn’t really my thing. A temple a week is about the extent of my site seeing aspiration and that’s cracking on some I reckon. Besides which, after a week of three hours of ashtanga a day – starting at 5am to avoid the blistering 40 degree heat that comes later – all I’ll be good for is lying in a heap, grappling with my, by then no doubt none too stable mental faculties.

A French religious mathematician (whatever such a thing may be) called Blaise Pascal said in 1653 (or sometime around then - who’s counting?) “all our miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly alone.” My feeling is he may have had a point there. So I thought I’d try a bit of that. Rather than aiming to see every temple in South East Asia in the space of twenty-one days, as I understand to be the expected procedure the minute wheels hit tarmac in Siem Reap, I’m thinking I’ll aim to see almost nothing. I’ll try sitting by myself for a couple of weeks in a place where my nearest friend is 4000 miles away. Maybe I’ll make a friend or two out there. Maybe not. It matters little.

If a county’s visa application procedure is any indicator then it seems it’s going to be a quietish trip anyway, which is a promising start. Getting a visa sorted for India these days involves an interminable and entirely opaque pantomime of head nodding and bureaucratic paper shuffling that led me quite quickly to imagining that poking myself repeatedly in the eye might provide an entertaining distraction. Bodies of an international variegation drape themselves across every available horizontal surface and wait, and wait, and wait, the air moist with the not entirely appetising coagulation of stale sweat and curry powder.

At the Cambodian Embassy, way off the beaten track in Willesden of all the random places, you press the buzzer “gently and just once please” on the front gate of a modest semi-detached off the main road. A charming smiley Cambodian lady bids you past the gleaming black Porsche Cayene parked out front (!) into the oak panelled reception area. Not another soul is to be seen. Nobody else, it seems, is after a visa to visit Cambodia this Spring. She follows me in and trots behind the reception desk, asking me for the simple one page form that I had, in seconds, downloaded off the internet and completed, requests £15, gives me a receipt and suggests I come back next Thursday to collect my updated passport. The entire transaction takes about 45 seconds before she's ushering me convivially back out onto the streets of North-West London with another beaming smile. Collecting the visa was even more efficient by a good second or two.

Despite, or perhaps because of their, to say the least, chequered humanitarian history, the biggest danger in Cambodia these days is apparently the landmines, of which there are a reported six million still live and dotted about the countryside. So if my head doesn’t blow up under the pressure of my own relentless company, it’ll be my body. Still, a shrink’s not going to be much use in that event either. But then neither is a Buddhist probably. Still, if I do accidentally blow myself up it’s warming to think that at least I know my Mum will miss me. Not entirely alone then. Not yet.

Friday, 19 February 2010

I’ve just written my first love poem. I think it’s probably best if I refrain from imposing it upon you at this stage. Or probably ever. It’s a bit amateurish I’m afraid, because of course, I’m an art historian by training, not a poet. The last line reads “…or am I just afeared of love?” Yes you see, I told you, bit amateurish. It is what I might this month refer to as “a bit Billy Childish”. By which I mean, it’s not without a certain rough charm, but neither is it really much good.

Still, I don’t think one should allow the possibility that one might spend decades of one's life creating stuff that isn’t really much good, prevent one from creating it anyway. Absolutely not. Creativity is everything. Creativity is our connection to the divine. Quality control is a secondary consideration. The thing is though, you might want to exercise a bit of caution in choosing who to share its results with. Or perhaps I should speak for myself here. Perhaps I should exercise some caution in deciding who to share my creative output with. So I’ll spare you the love poem. Don’t mention it. It’s the least I can do.

Of course, a lot of people like Billy Childish’s work. Or so we’re given to understand. If indeed that is what the term ‘cult figure’ means. Or does that just mean most people don’t like it but there’s one or two noisy ones as do?

Actually, you know, to be brutally honest with myself in a support group kind of a way, I didn’t even dislike it that much. His painting is technically inept to a large degree and stylistically derivative. A poor man’s Kirchner, only a hundred years out of date, lacking the compositional and colouristic sophistication and definitely without the fierce edge. But there’s some sort of channelled rawness there that one doesn’t find in a lot of so called ‘outsider art’.

It seemed oddly fitting at the private view that whilst standing in front of Robert Walser Lying Dead in the Snow with Footprints, a rather eccentric looking fellow with very, very rouged cheeks and equally cerised eyelids, loomed his face about an inch from mine, in a voice reminiscent of Mr Bean and with absurdly exaggerated lip movements, spoke the words:
“It’s called Snow isn’t it? Snow?”
I turned around to face him and I said,
“Do you know,” I said, “I’m not sure what it’s called.”
“It’s called Snow,” he repeated, and lest there be any doubt,
“It’s called Snow… Snow.”
“Righteo,” I chortled,
“Righteoooo...” repetition being contagious apparently and Viksie’s expression reading: don’t engage this man Bev, he’s clearly off his onion. It probably wasn’t worth mentioning, I decided, that the painting was in fact called Robert Walser Lying Dead in the Snow with Footprints.
“Wise decision,” opined Viksie.

After that altogetherly engaging interlude the fellow wandered off. We followed him with our eyes for a few seconds before returning our attention to Robert Walser Lying Dead in the Snow with Footprints. “I do believe he was wearing a PE skirt,” said Viksie. And so he was. And plimsolls. And little white ankle socks. This is what happens when a person becomes a “cult figure”. They become a nutter magnet.

If anything I preferred Childish’s poems to his paintings – “writer of poems to lick the thighs of the dead” – but that’s probably because I know nothing about poetry and therefore have no basis for comparison nor depth of understanding beyond the purely intuitive, which will get you so far, but beyond that a bit of education is a real boon, in my no doubt hopelessly middle class view.

It’s a bit like the environmental debate. We’ve all got an opinion of course, but how many of us really have a wide enough understanding of the immense historical, scientific and ethical complexities of the subject to have any sort of an educated opinion? How many of us have read the primary sources? And how many of us are simply paraphrasing a chaotic amalgam of second and third hand subjective journalistic sources usually sponsored by some right wing billionaire or other? It’s very easy to spout off. We can all do that on any given topic under the sun. But to spout off in an informed fashion is a far rarer thing.

It’s education. I just can’t help thinking there’s something in it actually.

So it often is with people who choose to slag off conceptual art. It may well be that Billy Childish’s criticism of concept driven art - “I hate conceptual art, our contemporary culture is as facile as the fucking Victorian chocolate box stuff, but not as talented” – grows out of a deep art historical investigation. But I can’t help wondering when he might have found the time to study the history of art when he’s been so busy getting kicked out of Central St Martin’s for obnoxious behaviour and under-performance and subsequently creating an alleged 2500 canvases, forty volumes of confessional verse, a hundred plus albums, and generally disappearing up his own backside in a rush of self important denigration of something he simply doesn’t happen to go a bundle on, or, dare I say it, understand. If you don’t like something fine, then go off and talk about something else. But leave those who do get something from it to enjoy it in peace. Please.

Born Steven John Hamper he named himself Childish. Not totally without insight then.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

"one paints because one can't bloody help it."
Gillian Ayres

Gillian Ayres at 80
Alan Cristea Gallery
until 13 March 2010

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

I’ve noticed lately that my tolerance for what I don’t want far outstrips my capacity to ingest more than a fairly limited quantity of the things I do want. The last thing you want, it seems, is too much of what you want. I suppose the difficulty is that getting what you want unavoidably kills the dream and if, as is almost inevitable, the reality fails to live up to the dream, then you’re left with a rubbish time and a desecrated dream. And then what? I’ve an idea that then one gets oneself another fantasy and makes sure this time to keep the thing at arms length where it belongs. Reality can be profoundly overrated.

And so it is with Michael Landy’s Art Bin. The publicity shots of Michael Landy actually in a wheely bin are rather more intriguing than the gigantic Perspex of Peckham installation itself. It should be interesting – failure, particularly in our goal oriented, ego-driven, success-athon society, is certainly a subject worthy of investigation. But it just isn’t particularly.

Firstly it’s too damn big. And it’s too ugly in a dull corporate everyman not quite ugly enough kind of a way. And too literal. “A monument to creative failure,” Landy calls it. Questions too obvious to list waddle about the outskirts of the space trying to look edgy and “on message”, ie anti-establishment (yawn)… but end up resembling your middle-aged IT guy imagining himself hip in a pair of combats nobody outside the 90s would be seen dead in. Who cares that there’ll be a Damien Hirst diamond skull print on its way to the land fill in a few months time? …ditto Emin, ditto Opie… and a whole load of other stuff that didn’t turn out quite as its less well-known creators intended? All those things would have been on their way to the landfill in a couple of months anyway. Now they’re going there in convoy. So what?

But would they have been going there anyway? In our celebrity obsessed age, it’s not inconceivable that some lesser known artists will be choosing the works they consider to be their most successful for consignment to the rubbish bin, rather than the pieces they consider to have failed, so that their one and only opportunity to show in the South London Gallery alongside Michael Landy, Alison Wilding, Gary Hume etc. - albeit accompanied by the unenviable indignity of being hurled into a dustbin - won’t have to involve the further shame making revelation of work they’re not happy with.

This hint of the Hyacinth Bucket meets Katie Price approach to life is the fault line along which the bin thing, possibly inadvertently, begins to hot up. How far will artists go for fame and notoriety? How far will any of us go? Will we happily destroy the best of ourselves in order to hitch a ride on the back of someone else’s bandwagon just to secure our fifteen minutes? Of course we will. And what does that say about us? To what degree have we lost touch with any sense of integrity? Have we become a bunch of complete phoneys chasing ignorantly after the empty chalice of success? Are we at the bottom of the barrel and still digging? As my favourite anti-hero and quintessential twentieth century failure Holden Caulfield might have said: it’s pretty depressing in actual fact.

That aside I’d probably have found the Art Bin to be a bit more engaging if it had hinted at the pleasure to be found in failure; the possibilities that exist in the gap between intention and realisation; the unknown, unmapped space in which innovation and growth are spawned. Even without the possibility of greatness emerging as the fog of failure clears, there’s an apparently perverse pleasure to be found there and a very real existential solace to be gleaned from the embracing of it.

It’s this joy of failure, wherein the more widely accepted understandings of the term oscillate to a dizzying degree, that Roman Signer flaunts with wit and simplicity in works such as Bottleneck (2000) for which a car was driven down a narrowing concrete tunnel and didn't stop when there was nowhere else to go. Bottleneck engages with the wilfulness of our relationship to failure, the fun to be had there and the lessons to be learned from the sometimes painfully destructive experiences that lead eventually to greater insight and compassion.

But maybe I’m being harsh on the bin. Maybe it’ll have more energy to it in a few weeks time when it’s begun to fill up. Maybe with so many thousands of indistinguishable works all squashing down on top of each other morphing into one giant body of rubbish, a creative buzz might begin to stir.

Or perhaps all along I should have stayed at home and imagined the bin, dreamt of how good it might have been if only I’d been able to get over there, if only, if only… rather than facing up to its (and life’s) short comings with quite so brutal an immediacy. Sad to say, oftentimes the image is better than the reality. And maybe the Art Bin is just one of those times. But even that is not so unfortunate, for were Landy to have created the perfect work of art there’d be no need for him to undertake another, which would certainly obfuscate his career as an artist and probably his entire raisonne d’etre.

So success isn’t all its cracked up to be. In fact success is potentially a pretty terrifying place. Which I suppose is exactly the point Landy is making. As Gertrude Stein said: “A real failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself.”