'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

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Expectation is rarely a helpful viewing companion when visiting an exhibition. On the other hand, one can't very well leave it at home. What one can do though is bring some awareness to it. That is to say bring awareness to the fact that a thing is almost always judged on the degree to which it meets, exceeds or fails to live up to what we, individually, expect of it. In and of itself, it's just whatever it is. It's what we project onto it that causes us problems. And then we want to blame the work for our projections when it doesn't live up to them. It's what makes being a 'critic' an impossible task.

The fact is I can't tell you whether an exhibition is good or bad. I can't even objectively tell you what it's about or what the artist intends. I can only tell you what my experience of it was and my understanding of the artist's intention filtered through my subjectivity. However educated or erudite I might like to tell myself I am, I am never going to be able to be objective. I am never going to be able to exterminate my expectations and my history.

Unfortunately I forgot all of that when I trotted off to see the Bridget Smith exhibition at Frith Street Gallery. The result was, sad to say, crashing disappointment. Probably nothing was going to live up to the breathtakingly sensitive Marlene Dumas paintings that proceeded it nor the exultantly creative press release that accompanied it.

What I was looking at was, in the first instance, six framed prints. Two images of the medical spaces at Lourdes, here empty of people, wherein examinations are carried out to test the validity or otherwise of so called miracles. The other four images were of various locations in As Neves, Galicia, the place where those who believe they've had a near death experience can express their gratitude to Santa Martha by way of pilgrimage. The rest of the gallery is curtained off into a cinema-esque space showing the thirty minute film We Must Live!

We Must Live! is set around the feast day in As Neves, of Santa Martha, who, her devotees believe, has the power to cure illness. The ritual of the day involves those who've been saved from the jaws of death climbing into a coffin to enact, perform as it were, their own death ceremonies. Out of respect they, in their coffins, are carried aloft through the streets of this tiny village, a throng with festivities, drinking, eating, dancing, chanting, wailing, praying, prostrating. All wonderful, rich, other-worldy stuff. And yet we see almost none of that. What we see is a few slices of staggeringly dull (under the circumstances) subtitled interviews with the death survivors, intercut with moments of the local Padre waffling pompously about what a load of old nonsense he finds all of this to be. Then a solitary woman jiving around on a deserted stage like some sort of highly alarming x-factor reject, and a few octogenarians enjoying a quiet vol-au-vent or two from the buffet table.

I'm not looking for sensationalism. Just a little depth would be nice. The press release tells us that the film raises questions of how much recovery from illness can be attributed to personal faith. It's a fascinating question but I don't see it being raised here particularly.

I don't. But you might. So you're probably best off taking my view with a pinch of salt. I'm not trying to tell you what the show's like or even what it's about. I'm just trying to share with you my experience and hopefully to amuse you for a few minutes with some vaguely engaging writing. That's all a writer can hope to do. If I've failed in even that, then it's time to hang up my boots!

Bridget Smith
We Must Live!
9 December 2011 to 11 February 2012
Frith Street Gallery
Golden Square

Written for and reproduced by kind permission of Spoonfed

Miriam Kahn
David Roberts Art Foundation, London
30 September to 17 December 2011

click here to read my review for This Is Tomorrow

Monday, 12 December 2011

Women and Art
Crane Kalman Gallery, London
to January 14th 2012

click here to read my review for The Economist

The work of French conceptual artist Anne Deguelle is engaged in the poetic task of locating the universe within a single atom. She leads us, in her search for all that is, to the most unlikely places. Always her attention is on the intimate detail, the overlooked, the rarefied.

Not so long ago her key preoccupation was a tiny star shaped biscuit the prodigious writer Raymond Roussel had been served whilst lunching with astronomer Camille Flammarion in the late 1890s. Rather than consuming the biscuit with his coffee as presumably did the other guests, Roussel placed it in his pocket, took it home and preserved it in a small glass case which he inexplicably retained for the rest of his life. For the exhibition currently showing at the Freud Museum Ms Deguelle focuses her attention upon the subtlest details of a highly decorative rug woven by the nomadic Qashqa'i tribe of Iran, that was sold to Sigmund Freud by his merchant brother-in-law and subsequently used as a cover for the famous psychoanalytic couch, first in Vienna and then in London.

In both cases the question that occupies Ms Deguelle is: why? Why would Raymond Roussel choose to preserve a seemingly innocuous petit four for decades on end? And why would Sigmund Freud drape the piece of furniture on which his most important work was conducted always with one very particular Iranian floor covering?

Sigmund Freud moved to the house in Maresfield Gardens that is now the Freud Museum in 1938 having left Vienna upon its annexation by Nazi Germany in the same year. There, in a downstairs room overlooking the garden, his patients lay on the couch talking of their dreams. There now we may see his consultation room just as it then stood. It is in this room that we encounter Anne Deguelle's first intervention into the home of the father of psychoanalysis. Above the iconic couch hangs a white neon that reads “to sleep to dream no more,” a quotation from Shakespeare's Hamlet, a play Freud interpreted in essay form using his theory of the Oedipus complex.

'To sleep to dream no more' comes from the 'to be or not to be' soliloquy, itself an examination of the virtues of life lived to the full and the uncertainties of death, particularly death by suicide; which ties in with Freud's own death in the very same room in 1939, when he allegedly drew a line under his agonising battle with terminal cancer by means of a deliberate over-administration of morphine. Deguelle weaves a complex web. But what of the eponymous rug?

A Persian rug is a work of art in itself, every knot bathed in rich symbolism on levels individual (the weaver's personal story), cultural, tribal, spiritual and cosmological. One of the most common themes, and a theme of Sigmund's Rug, is that of lush garden, abundant with flora, fauna and heavenly bodies of water, the later symbolic in Islamic iconography of Paradise, that place wherein the faithful shall dwell in the afterlife, in psychoanalytic terms of the subconscious. The insignia of the cross that peppers Sigmund's Rug represents stars, the cosmos and the Infinite. If the viewer were to attribute an element of the spiritual onto Freud's choice of couch covering she might therefore interpret some link between the individual and the eternal, between that which stands without space and time and that which perceives itself as rooted very much within space and time.

Upstairs Ms Deguelle guides her enquiry into further intricate nooks and crannies, this time art historical. Strong similarities are highlighted between a rug that appears as a table covering in Holbein's The Ambassadors – a painting weighty with spiritual and cosmological reference and again foregrounding the momento mori - and another piece from Freud's twenty strong antique rug collection.

Perhaps amidst all these narrative twists and turns one might begin to sense the influence of Deguelle's fellow French speaker Hercule Poirot, and perhaps a shadow of reservation in light of that might not be entirely misplaced. Certainly the exhibition is heavily research based and not easily accessed on a visceral level. That said, it is so charming, so intelligent, and in many ways so subtly multi-dimensional that I feel to allow it a little elusivity is the least I can do. After all what is psychoanalysis but the search for the elusive, the uncovering of the hidden, perhaps even, ultimately, the locating of the universe within a single atom?

Anne Deguelle
Sigmund's rug - To sleep to dream no more
Curated by Yvan Poulain
at Freud Museum until 15 January 2012

Saturday, 3 December 2011

James Yamada at Parasol Unit. Wonderful.

I've this week uncovered a number of reasons to count my blessings. Foremost amongst them is the fact that I don't live in Paul McCarthy's head.

Paul McCarthy is currently the lucky recipient of the first transatlantic show to be presented by Hauser & Wirth, his work simultaneously filling their New York gallery space and the two in London, whilst an outdoor sculpture dominates St James's Square. In terms of square footage this is some considerable homage to a contemporary artist from one of the most powerful commercial galleries in the world.

Now well into his 60s and known for his in-yer-face grotesquerie McCarthy hasn't let age soften his sensibilities. Impressive in a way because I imagine it must be quite hard work being this repellent. Savile Row, the latest addition to the Hauser & Wirth empire, offers us a larger than life size mechanised pink blancmange-like sculpture of George W Bush sodomising a pig, in duplicate, with a smaller pig in each case humping away at the larger pigs right eye socket. The mechanism is movement sensitive allowing Dubya's double heads to swivel around and stare at the viewer as she enters the room, which intrusion he doesn't allow to put him off the task in hand. If anything the burgeoning audience seems to add to his dense enthusiasm, the heads whirring more and more excitedly.

The most skin crawling elements of this work for me are firstly it's name: Train, and secondly the expressions in the eyes. Dubya's register a sort of numb, semi-conscious, unsalvable craving, whilst the pigs' show a terrified, silently squealing horror. It occurs to me that what's driving the two is not dissimilar. Both are lost to themselves and profoundly unhappy. The idea of an abuser and an abused begins to seem like an oversimplification, a false dichotomy even.

Over at Piccadilly we're confronted with the appex of the shock-merchants double whammy: sex and religion. In front of a row of empty pews, empty that is but for the odd gallery visitor who's plonked themselves down exhaustedly, is a monumental altar atop which sits a naked Christ-like hyper-real sculpture of the distended artist himself. His eyes are closed, his limbs semi-severed. He sits amid pots of paint and in front of his own easel. Entitled The King this is the quintessential self-portrait, the artist surrounded by his insignia and his vast ego. Around the room are enormous canvases; Britney Spears in one of her 'accidentally' indiscrete knicker-less climbing out of a car moments of a few years back, a page from a porn magazine, Henry Fonda in a ten-gallon hat - symbols of our time, placed upside down to indicate mockery and rejection as well as Baselitz style human tragedy on a global scale.

As I wander around I become aware of the sound of a chain saw drifting ominously from the basement. And sure enough, downstairs, in this ex-bank's dark, foreboding vault, a video is playing of the artist attacking the rubber model of himself that is to become King, in what could probably be called a fairly terminal manner. Not content with the sex and religion combo, McCarthy treats us to a slasher movie as well. Only this is a slasher movie with a difference - protagonist and victim are one and the same. We are not the 'victims' of this sorry state we find ourselves in, McCarthy tells us. This is not someone else's fault. We are doing this to ourselves. I can't deny it has insight.

Oddly enough, in a world that smiles fondly at memories of Vito Acconci's SeedBed and laughs knowingly at the Chapman's FuckFace series, McCarthy still somehow manages to generate horror. What I can't quite get my head around is why? Insight and horror do not necessarily go hand in hand. In the long run what's to be gained by horrifying visitors with your freakery? Does it not ultimately have the same numbing effect that Dubya and the pigs are acting out under. Feeling starts to go, life ceases to be experienced in all it's wonderful, rich three dimensionality... pretty soon, unhealthy, ambient discontentment are all that remain, our own lifelessness floating unacknowledged at the edges of our peripheral vision. So dead have we become to our emotional responses eventually we don't even realise they've gone. Loss without awareness of loss. Waking death. Then where will we go for our kicks? Presumably we'll all have to start fucking pigs. Perhaps we already are. Perhaps that's the very point he's making. Perhaps in his somewhat idiosyncratic Christ-like way he's telling us to first take the plank out of our own eyes, and then we will see clearly to remove the speck from our brother's.

Written for and reproduced here by kind permission of NY Arts Magazine.

Slightly belated review of Charles Avery at Pilar Corias written for and reproduced here by kind permission of NY Arts:

An erstwhile acquaintance of mine once asserted that if art doesn't concern itself with presenting something beautiful to the world then artists have fallen to the level of bad philosophers. Does this suggest then, I wondered, that an artist producing beautiful work is automatically a good philosopher? Or does it imply that the only real tool for the presentation of philosophical ideas is the written word?

Scotsman Charles Avery has embarked upon the creation of a universe parallel to our own. This universe presents itself to the viewer in the form of incredibly detailed mural-like panoramic drawings, a snap shot of some infinitely complex multi-faceted narrative. Objects also feature, anthropological in feel, almost as though they've morphed from the two dimensional plane into the three by way of some yet to be invented teleportation devise.

This ambitious project, The Islanders, was begun in 2005, since which time Avery has devoted his entire artistic output to its realisation. In the latest instalment at Pilar Corrias, we find the eponymous exhibition curated around the four by two and a half meter drawing Place de la Revolution, that details an urban centre over-run with cyclists, feral four-legged beasts and a melange of cameo's brought together into a whole. A haggard looking merchant pedals a curious bicycle made up of Duchamp's readymades, Fountain for a seat, Bottle Rack for transporting his wares and L.H.O.O.Q. nestled between the handle bars; elsewhere an urchin attempts to flog tourist tat to a well-heeled couple who are revolted by him; two men sit chatting happily balanced on unicycles, one is legless, his cycle adapted to be powered by hand; a half eaten sausage sits in a polystyrene box, discarded on the side of the road, along with a lone shoe, a lace up brogue. It is everywhere and nowhere; an eccentric but not impossible amalgam perhaps of Delhi, Bayswater and Futurama's New New York. Alongside the main drawings are various preliminary sketches, maps, maquettes and objects, such as a fully functioning table lamp brought back from The Island. Fiction and reality collide to confuse and delight.

What we're seeing at this elegant Rem Koolhaas designed gallery in Eastcastle Street is a tiny slice of a lifetime's project so vast that to get a meaningful sense of the whole the viewer needs must at least glance through the book originally published to coincide with Avery's show at Parasol Unit in 2008. The book tells and illustrates the story of The Island from the moment of its discovery by the diarising traveller known as Only McFew and of the exotic assortment of beings he encounters there. Avery is a highly accomplished draughtsman, as a wordsmith he is not quite so full in his glory, but it's a charming read nonetheless.

The Islanders has occasionally been described as implausible, far-fetched and that old chestnut, dystopian. But the truth is there's no fiction stranger than the truth. This 'real' world of ours that we take for granted is bizarre, extraordinary and entirely implausible on a minute by minute basis. We don't see that because we're too close to it. But create a subtle shift in our paradoxical, unresolvable, dichotomised equilibrium, wherein details are tweaked just enough that they appear unfamiliar, place it in a gallery setting thereby conferring instant critical distance, et voila, so little do we know ourselves we find the whole thing unimaginably outlandish. People addicted to gin soaked eggs we laugh! But we're all of us addicted to things far stranger than a gin soaked egg. In fact a gin soaked egg is not even so very far removed from Mr Bond's drink of drinks. As any marketeer will tell you, it's all in the presentation.

The truth is Charles Avery's project is not an excessive dystopian vision, not even so much an impressive feat of one man's Blake-esque imagination, more simply it's a mirror of the world we've created for ourselves. What's clever is he's nudged this mirror right under our noses almost without our noticing.

If self-knowledge is the most enlightened knowledge, as just about ever thinker, writer, artist and seer since time immemorial has at some point suggested, then I'd like to see a philosopher who can present us to ourselves more engagingly with a dictionary full of incomprehensible five syllable words than Avery can with a simple HB.

Charles Avery
Place de la Revolution
Pilar Corrias, London (and Frieze Art Fair 13 to 16 October)
12 October to 16 December 2011

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Newsflash folks... Feminism is cool! And the best thing is a Feminist doesn't have to be this way or that way or any other way. Nope, in 2011 there's no such thing as a Bad Feminist. You can be any way you want (except a tragic little misogenist!) and still be a Feminist.

For inspiration, just whilst you get your Feminist wheels oiled, here's are a few 'cool' styles out there.

There's Caitlin Moran's strident, funny, ladette How to be a Woman Feminism: “What is Feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be.” Woop.

There's Tracey Emin: “I know having a penis definitely affects your wage packet, but I’m not bitter and twisted. I’m grateful to all the women that work so hard to enable women like me to have a voice. And I’m still shouting.”

There's Lady Gaga's blue armpit-hair wearing Feminism: “I am a Feminist. And I want to change the way people view women.”

And now... there's Helen Carmel Benigson aka Princess Belsize Dollar.

Bigged up on these very pages back in July 2009 after I first spotted her at her Slade BA degree show, and now, just two and a bit years later she's solo-showing it around London, seducing from the pages of Vogue, noted as the one to watch in The Independent's list of successors to Hirst and Emin and performing at Frieze – in short, she's on the way to Made-It-Land.

To walk into The Future Queen of the Screen at ROLLO Contemporary is to walk into a palace, an homage, a (smallish) cathedral, to over the top, in-yer-face, girlie hyper-femininity. It's sassy, it's sharp, it's pop culture with a capital P. It's ironic and sincere, it's direct and abstruse, it's multi-narrated and multi-faceted. It's Benigson and it's Feminism and it's Now. It makes words like 'Girlfriend!' just want to spring right out of my mouth! It wears short-shorts, heart shaped sunglasses and hooped earrings the size of Saturn's Ring. Sometimes it even wears nothing. It flirts outrageously with men twice it's age, it swears in a squeaky little girl voice, it giggles about sushi and chocolate and guns and what's more, it apologises for none of it. It's reclaiming tits and arse with a raw, inimitable style all of its own. But don't make the mistake of thinking it's benign. If you cross it it'll deck you and no messing. It's Miss Piggy in a baseball cap and converse. It's Tracey Emin on speed with de Beauvoir on the side. In other words, it's totally awesome.

The Future Queen of the Screen
features multi-layered video-work, print, photography, installation, sculpture, and performance, not to mention stools she's made for you to sit on whilst you watch it all unfold. At the opening she's upstairs rapping for the audience, whilst downstairs a live poker game is taking place. There's nothing she can't turn her hand to in weaving her intricate world of multi-identities and alter-egos. Even @PrincessBelsize crosses the line between reality and fantasy, virtual and actual, art and life. The morning after the opening she writes: “i loved all my sexy boy poker players and i love @gali223 the most xxxx”. Is this an artist remarking on her own private view or is this a work of art in itself?

As far as I can see there is no clear distinction between Helen Carmel Benigson and Princess Belsize Dollar, between her cousin who features in a lot of her work and looks almost indistinguishable from her, the avatar she's created of herself, Helen the academic, Helen the goddaughter of Tamar Garb, Helen the artist, Helen the girl, Helen the woman. It's a maze she leads us into, giggling and wiggling, and leaves us there, lost but amused. Her power is in that she subverts from within. It's not all cupcakes and thongs. Behind the frothy facade the questions she's posing are serious, intelligent and spot on.

It all reminds me of one of my favourite Feminist quote of all time by Mary Beth Edelson: “'The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.' To which I say: Fuck his house—who goes there anyway?" Benigson sure doesn't.

written for Spoonfed:
Future Queen of the Screen
at Rollo Contemporary Art
Until 13 January 2012

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings
The Mayor Gallery, Cork Street
to 16 December 2011

click here to read my review for More Intelligent Life

Monday, 31 October 2011

Turner Prize 2011
Karla Black, Martin Boyce, Hilary Lloyd and George Shaw
BALTIC Newcastle Gateshead
to 8 January 2012

click here to read my review for The Economist

Monday, 24 October 2011

In the darkened ante-chamber of the Serpentine Gallery a little drum plays itself. Nobody wields the sticks that whisper it's gentle, ghostly rhythm. They're held in the hands of time.

The next room is more deserted still. Not even a drum here. No paintings or sculptures, just blank grey canvas hinting at nothing and curious oblong holes punctuating the exterior walls so I see out into the park, hear its noises and feel its breathe on my face. I sit on the floor whilst the time passes, certain that something, at some point, will occur. It's a magical pause, a hole in time, a moment of conscious not knowing.

Then the low resonant notes of a saxophone ripple towards me. I turn to see a lone, romantic figure, staring out through one of the small perforations of the gallery wall, playing these long, melancholy, haunting notes. A film starts. On the wall another solitary dark haired man, this one carrying a musical box through the quiet semi-urban streets of a place that could be anywhere, slowly turning the handle that creates an unlikely version of Should I Stay or Should I Go? The Clash twinkles, childlike.

I follow the saxophonist's crepe shoes into the domed atrium like he's the Pied Piper of Hamelin, mesmerising. Here another film starts to play. An empty white room leads my eye to an open window outside which an ambiguous object is suspended. The camera creeps forward and the riddle is solved. A man with white hydrangeas adorning his black dreadlocks hangs mysteriously, suspended high up a residential tower block, an angel from the Gods. He also plays the saxophone. It turns out to be Berlin, the high rise known locally as The Long Sorrow, the man noted free jazz musician Jemeel Moondoc.

The images in this exhibition are exquisite, suspenseful, celestial, but the real power lies in the music and the silences. The sounds and the absence of sounds. The artist, Anri Sala, has worked closely with musician and experimental composer Andre Vida to create a living exhibition through music and performance in which no two days will be the same, no two performances will match. Andre Vida will share with the audience, or not as the case may occasionally be, a marathon nine live saxophone improvisations a day, seven days a week, over fifty-two days. And within that creative, performative, non-fixed space questions will arise that may, or may not, find answers.

Sound is the ultimate poignant manifestation of the impermanence at the heart of life. The very second it is heard is the very second it disappears. This improvised music is not recorded, written down, or planned. It exists in the moment and nowhere else. Vida says: “when you're improvising you have to be as open as possible to the moment, to your responses to it, to what you can actually achieve but also to what you can't achieve, to what you don't know about yourself.”

Vida is responding in an immediate, instinctual way to the music of Jemeel Moondoc, to the space and to the ever changing tide of people around him. The question is, during the course of 468 live performances, will the departure point at some stage cease to be an inspiration and start to become a prison? Will the relationship begin to sour or can the love, the focus, and the openness be maintained? Will the fixed slowly strangle the fluid, wrapping around it like poison ivy? Or will it provide a stable and grounding platform from which the fluid may flourish? Every moment will be a question. Every moment will be unknown.

As I wander round back to the start of this intriguing looped echo of a show, Should I Stay or Should I Go? continues to reverberate around the space at different speeds, on different films, played by different people. I'm in a strange magical wonderland where nothing exists but this very moment – all and nothing. The drum taps out one last heart beat to me as I push open the gallery doors and head back out into the cacophony of London, feeling like I've just dipped my toe into eternity.

Anri Sala
showing at Serpentine Gallery, London
until 20 November 2011

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Pipilotti Rist
Eyeball Massage
showing at Hayward until 8 January
Article commissioned by Artwrit whose much more professional edit you can read here: artwrit.com.
My unedit filed here just for a laugh and by kind permission of Artwrit...

Strings of greying underpants hang like washing on a line. A smoke filled bubble emerges from a machine that turns out to be Nothing, and wobbles away, goalless and gentle, seemingly out of place in this brutal environment. It bursts, a peace bomb or, in the artist's words, like a 'fart from within the trousers'. In a moment another one appears to take its place.

At first glance Pipilotti Rist's work appears fun, playful, a little absurd. On one level it is all of these things, on another it engages a meaningful existential investigation into what creates barriers and the ways in which those barriers may be peaceably transgressed. I'm reminded of Wittgenstein's assertion that a serious philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.

Rist is a video artist who's working method is to transgress boundaries in terms of both the content and presentation of her work. There is an atmosphere of something deeply imaginative, free from the usual ways of being in and perceiving the world. “I tend to feel the video pieces inside myself,” the artist reveals. The statement inspires me and I want to know how these works feel inside me if I attempt to break the habit of a life time and engage them as much through my body as through my intellectualising, controlling mind.

I'm Not The Girl Who Misses Much (1986) is a five minute video played inside a conical structure protruding aggressively from the wall by several meters and into which I must insert my head via one of several holes. The encasement is entitled, significantly, A Peak Into The West – A Look Into The East. The film shows what appears to be a semi-clad Rist frenzidly gyrating her body as though in trance-like ecstasy, chanting the words of the works title. The film speeds up, slows down, speeds up again, the image is variously distorted, the time continuum illusion well and truly messed with.

As with mantra the repetition of a single phrase over and over eventually tricks the power crazed discursive mind into releasing its vice like grip on our experience of the world and for a few moments the body is revealed as the existential mediator it is. Conversely, at that moment, my body is outside my experience of this world of the girl who doesn't miss much. My head, tucked safely inside the cone, my body elsewhere, missing. A sensation of dislocation arises in which I feel, curiously, safer, estranged from the vulnerabilising corporeality of my body's very apparent and very alarming, to the ego at least, impermanence. Je pense donc je suis, leaving me free to ignore the hints given by the slow disintegration of my body and those bodies around me, that this state of affairs will not continue indefinitely. Like the air bubble, I will soon be gone, replaced by another.

Blue Bodily Love Letter and Red Bodily Love Letter are two films in which the camera travels over a naked female form. For Rist the female body symbolises humanity, not so much sexuality, more innocence and a sense of coming home to oneself. This pair of works concern themselves with Love. Rist points out that in German to 'fall in love' is verlieben; liebe translates as 'love' but comes from the word lieben which means literally 'to embody'. The German speaking world then recognises, in the very structure of its language, that love arises and takes place within the body. Far from being a dangerous, contaminated place, the body is the very source of all that is good.

If the viewer seeks to interpret Rist's work on a purely intellectual or theoretical level he may find it lacking. Such a lack is not inherent in the work but in the method of engagement. This work gives most when it is engaged in the manner in which it was created: through a sensory, real-time investigation into the body. It seems to suggest that by embracing the wisdom and vulnerability of our bodies we may go beyond our corporeal, existential fear and thereby break down some of the barriers standing in the way of joyful inter-relationship.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Occasionally I go to an exhibition so pertinent I'm agog to tell everyone about it. Phyllida Barlow at Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly is one such. Previous encounters with Phyllida's work have left me a little cold, grasping at straws, but this week I had my Phyllida epiphany. I feel now I get it a bit, what the Phyllida fuss is about.

As you enter the gallery you walk straight into a forest. Not the conventional kind but thus inspired. The viewer is jostled about the ugly feet of a cacophony of tripodic monsters whose spindly, jointless metal limbs support vast concrete blocks over which rest delicate beautifully coloured silk veils, like sheets over a bird's cage, to hide or to protect, we know not which.

The feeling as I walked below this weighty platform was anxious and awe-filled. Ms Barlow may have captured something of what Christopher Wren was after when he built the dome at St Paul's. Automatically, spontaneously, my gaze was drawn upwards. The pressure from above was immense. There was a sense of being below, amid the foundations that hold aloft something greater, something mightier; of being in the gutter but looking at the stars. What was happening up there and would such skinny legs hold it, whatever it was, or were these entities about to crash down at any moment? Not rational of course, health and safety being what it is, business being what it is, but the human organism is not, whatever we may like to tell ourselves to the contrary, a ration entity. Gods or monsters I wondered. But of course, always, both.

From the balcony the landscape is different. Here we're in dialogue with the cloaked heads. We're on their level. The view is less daunting. Now we can study them closely and discover finally that they're not concrete but polystyrene. The sense of weight was an illusion. Empty after all. The thing I had looked up to, feared, held in esteem, proved, upon close proximity, to be nothing special. Distance and my own irrational projections had lent it a weight it did not, of itself, possess. It was a reminder to me of an important lesson I've been lately learning - strength is within, never without.

The work in the basement is quite the opposite experience. Here we meet a colony of lemming like beings, perhaps those tiny bi-pods whose individuality is subsumed to the greater collective authority, who move like a sea amongst the feet of the giants above. Fellows meaningful en masse but inconsequential alone. Fellows like you and me, projecting our weight on to those above.

The higher up the building we go the more celestial the atmosphere becomes until we reach the attic. Instructed by the invigilator I pottered through the tiny kitchen and up the narrow fire escape stairwell until at the top I peered through a small hatch into a cramped loft containing a rainbow of entrancing coloured spheres hanging from the ceiling like celestial bodies. An incidental sign reads: 'Caution, Electrical Hazard'.

The title of the exhibition is Rig. One presumes the word alludes to the construction of these works, that range from the ambitiously monumental to the delicately ethereal, in situ and in response to the architecture of the gallery space. Another, perhaps more niche meaning for the word is that of a gelded male horse who inexplicably continues to exhibit stallion like dominance type behaviours. I doubt this is the association the artist had in mind but to me it seems curiously fitting. Appearances, so often, are deceptive.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

"There is no great genius without a mixture of madness."

That's my excuse right there!
This week I went to visit the studio of an artist whose work I'm curating in a solo show next year, details of which are still under wraps so I'd better not spill premature beans. Hopefully it's safe to mention that Sarah's studio is in the well know artistic hub of Crawley. Not having the first clue where Crawley is I imagined it was going to take me the best part of a day to get there, but Google Maps informed me its not so far past Cobham. So, I thought best thing in terms of time management and my latest quest to make myself a 'highly effective person' was to go after my riding lesson. All very efficient and satisfactory, but it did mean I had to walk round Crawley in riding jodhpurs, knee high black leather boots and an ageing baseball cap concealing stuck to the forehead sweaty riding helmet hair which was a bit self conscious making. Ms Maple though generously pretended not to notice.

Sarah Maple is a feminist artist. Only problem is no-one really knows what that means because nobody knows what a feminist is. No-one knows what an artist is either for that matter, or rather everybody does and nobody agrees. So to say someone is a feminist artist is just to append to them and their work a selection of letters that serve to create various impressions in various minds many of which will be at odds with whatever may or may not have been the intended impression.

The other way of doing it is to state what a feminist is not:

So that's cleared that up. Excellent.

Sarah's work uses humour to discuss sensitive subjects. The one thing we're never supposed to mention in polite society is the elephant in the room. But, like all artists of significance, Sarah doesn't allow herself to be limited by social niceties, that ugly, desperate, and largely successful attempt to control, shape and manipulate. Rather she just says it like she sees it.

Not everybody enjoys the joke. Consequently her 2008 solo show attracted some fairly robust criticism (click here, and don't miss the staggeringly eloquent Suad al-Attar. Good old Auntie scoured the globe twice over to come up with an art historical expert of that calibre. Thank goodness for the TV licence, hey.)

Luckily Sarah hasn't let that put her off. Rather she's spent the last two years creating an entirely new but equally uncompromising body of work for the forthcoming show. I can't wait. It's gonna be a cracker.

Sarah's work is currently forming the inaugural exhibition at Inception Gallery, Paris, in a show entitled Sarah Maple est Croque Madame.

It must be strange to find yourself seventy-six, you've had three hip replacements and four children, you've been working diligently away in the same Kent studio for four decades without anybody taking the blindest bit of notice of what you're up to when suddenly Sienna Miller's putting your work on the front of t-shirts for her fashion line Twenty8Twelve, Ralph Rugoff's pitching up at your private view, Germaine Greer's bigging you up in the Guardian, you're even being referred to as 'electric and eclectic' by Grazia magazine. (I'm not sure which is greater, The Guardian or Grazia. Actually, no, Grazia obviously.)

Yet it seems this sort of thing is going on for a goodly handful of septuagenarian artists. Never mind life begins at 40. For a certain generation of women, life, it seems, is beginning at 70. Depressing on one level, inspiring on another, because it goes to show, you never know what's around the next corner.

One such is Rose Wylie. I really want to like Rose Wylie's work. What kind of a feminist doesn't like Rose Wylie's work? I'm trying, I'm really trying. But I'm kind of aware that I like the story more than I like the canvases. If I intellectualise the whole thing I can like them. If I'm going on my gut response, I don't.

They're very big, they're figurative and they're painted in that way that sort of implies spontaneity without actually being spontaneous. It's not a pretence, it's a process, just the result doesn't really grab me. Which, as Germaine Greer scathingly points out, it didn't really grab Charles Saatchi either, hence Wylie now finds herself 'imminently collectible'. Thumbs down from Charles, thumbs up from Sienna. Quelle minefield?! Who knew Germaine was such a follower of fashionable taste and its makers and shakers.

The exhibition currently showing at The Approach has Wylie's work alongside US born sculptor Evan Holloway. These, I'm afraid, I found utterly dreary. That sort of folksy, crafty looking stuff isn't my thing, however subtle its comments on modern scultpure's legacy.

That said, The Approach is a great space with an interesting exhibition programme, situated above a charmingly unpretentious pub. The private view was on First Thursday so post-Wylie we really should have dashed off to Vyner Street or Redchurch Street or somewhere equally buzzy, wherein we could have hoovered up three hundred exhibitions in less than half an hour. But my new policy in life is, I'm so over rushing about. What's to be gained from seeing three hundred exhibitions in less than half an hour anyway, when you can see one and then retire to the pub for a glass or two and a relaxed chin wag with a friend?

Yeah, I'm taking it easy from now on. Because apart from anything else, whatever I do, however hard I work, however much pressure I put on myself and on this thing called 'success', I don't know what's around the next corner. And if I do dash about and I do see everything and achieve everything… then what? Rather take it easy and leave a few challenges for next year.
Two wonderful things entered my life this week. A MacBook Air and a cat. The MacBook Air came from that haven of all gadgets glorious, the Mac Shop. I've never been into a computer shop I've liked before. Never spoken to a computer vendor I've understood. Now I suddenly get why forty-something girlfriends call me up whispering: "Beverley, I'm in the Mac Shop speaking to the most delightful young man. You must get a Mac."

The moggie is, if possible, even more delicious and beautiful. She came from the Mayhew. She's one year old, white and tortoise shell and she's the sweetest little thing since toast. Yesterday she introduced herself to the MacBook Air by typing very many 3's, followed by switching the volume off.

I'm afraid I've been horribly lazy about my blog recently. Or rather I've been caught up with other pressing matters. I've also been out of London for two months and of course there's no contemporary art outside the capital. It's grim up north you know. That's why they have those huge signposts at the start of the M1 saying THE NORTH. It's not information. It's a warning. And hey, I'm allowed to say that, because I'm a northerner, so no letters in from irate Wiganers please. It's true, there was the Manchester Festival, but I missed that, which I was sorry about as I would have loved to have seen the Marina Abramovich thing.

So, the first bit of contemporary art to cross my retina in two months had to be from those purveyors of contemporary art that's stylish, slick and edgy all at once. Of course, Art Angel.

In the name of bringing one's own subjective position into awareness, I should state that I was in a bad mood when travelling to Wenlock Road. Not that that's a bad thing in itself, but I think it's important as a reviewer to acknowledge that, in a way, the viewer is always creating the art work themselves. In part, if not in its entirety, the art work, and indeed the world, is a manifestation of one's internal landscape. And I was cross when I entered Ryan Gander's Locked Room Scenario. Which may (or may not) explain why I didn't really enjoy it, despite the fact that a bit of immersive installation (if I can use that ambiguous term du jour) is usually exactly my bag.

Locked Room Scenario is an exhibition in a depot in East London. But, when you get there the exhibition is ostensibly shut. Doors locked. No going in. So the 'exhibition' as it were, that is to say Ryan Gander's art work, is the viewer's engagement with the setting in which this locked exhibition space is located. The viewer walks down the various corridors that surround the exhibition, coming across nooks and crannies though which to steal a glimpse of what may be hidden beyond; a slide projector clicks through images seen via a mirror you have to lie on the floor to look in, a shadowy figure moves about behind a locked and frosted glass door, one corridor is so dark you have to grope your way along the wall. That was unnerving. At one point I gained confidence from a woman who was following a short distance behind me. I wasn't alone. I looked back a second or two later and she was gone.

Yet for all of that I still didn't really like Locked Room Scenario. It was quite fun I suppose in the way that the fairground might be thought of as quite fun. But it was clunky, a bit obvious and, dare I say it, a bit derivative. At the risk of revealing my ignorance I must confess that Mike Nelson sprang to mind and in the comparison, for me at least, Ryan Gander didn't come out that well. Probably if Mike Nelson or Ryan Gander were to read this they'd both be cursing such a banal observation. Nevertheless, Mike Nelson's works, Coral Reef I'm thinking of particularly, seemed to have more depth, more engagement and more narrative. The 'is it real, is it fiction' boundary blurring game has also been played with greater panache and success by other contemporary artists, notably I'm thinking of Jill Magid. It's rather the leitmotif of the moment.

The best bit was two supposed junkies, teenagers, looking slightly out of it, sitting in the concrete stairwell as I first entered the depot. For a nice middle class girl like me they were a bit nervous-making I'm slightly embarrassed to admit. I hid behind the door and listened to their conversation. I imagine it was scripted. The boy was talking about women and the fact that some girls reveal everything about themselves straight away whilst others are more complicated, revealing themselves slowly over time. So that was a hint for anyone who wasn't quite getting Locked Room Scenario. It's good folks, because it doesn't reveal itself all at once. Aha, it has hidden depths. I guess I must be the shallow type then because I'm still waiting for those hidden depths to reveal themselves and so far… no dice. I can't help thinking though that if you have to signal to someone upfront about how deep and meaningful you are for fear they might otherwise miss that fact, it's not a portentous sign.

Locked Room Scenario
Londonnewcastle Depot
N1 7SL
until 23 October

Saturday, 25 June 2011

I’ve lately developed a healthy obsession for the Greeks. Ancient that is, not modern. Bloodbaths, matricide, all powerful goddesses - what’s not to love? It’s archetypal stuff that anyone with any self-knowledge can probably relate to. Actually I seem to have discovered that even if you haven’t a great degree of self-knowledge – mine’s a bit thin on the ground I’m beginning to suspect, although that in itself seems to be a fairly good starting point on the basis that the minute you think you know is usually the exact minute you stop knowing – you can acquire some through reading these timeless stories and spotting your own habits in the character’s unfolding dramas.

We’ve all got goddess traits of one sort or another and it’s fun spotting your own, although I should confess I did get a bit of a hint on which mine might be from an American girlfriend who, upon hearing of my latest romantic nuclear meltdown, (and we are talking Chernobyl here, a Chernobyl of female rage and destructive indignation at perceived maltreatment of women in general and moi in particular, aka misogyny, from someone who’s public ‘spiritual’ face falsely suggests he should know better) asked me what was with me and my Artemis complex.

A lightbulb came on and I immediately remembered what had been my favourite painting when I worked for Anthony Mould in the late 90s – Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Lady Anne Dawson as the Goddess Diana, Diana being the Roman equivalent of the Greek Artemis.

I decided this must have been my subconscious identifying with the insignia of Diana the Huntress – the silver crescent moon in her hair, the adoring greyhound gazing up at her whilst she rests a gentle protective hand on its neck, not to mention the enviable antique rose coloured silk gown with plunging, but not immodest, décolletage.

It was like suddenly coming across my best friend and mirror image – a perhaps slightly over competitive, but in its positive manifestation highly focused, nocturnal, animal lover and somewhat aloof feminist loner who keeps a strong army of female friends and a strict approach to the kind of behaviours she expects from her male partner, i.e. a bit of respect if you don’t mind, otherwise there’ll be trouble. Oh, and a nice line in feminine rage with which to drum up aforementioned trouble as needed.

There’s one particularly amusing story about Diana inadvertently shooting dead her lover, Orion, from some miles distance, when her brother, Apollo, challenged her skills with the bow and arrow. After all, who can resist a good challenge?

Another woman who had more than a little Diana about her was ground breaking photographer and Suffragette Madame Yevonde (1893-1975) who’s most famous quote is the nervous-makingly astringent: ‘be original or die’. Quite right, tell it like it is and no messing.

Madame Yevonde was one of the key pioneers of colour photography. At a time when photographers and public alike were so used to seeing the world reproduced in black and white that the new fangled colour version was met with some hostility, Madame Yevonde was flying the flag for the new with alacrity.

Possibly one of her most important bodies of work is the Goddesses series part of which is currently showing at the PM Gallery in Ealing. Here you’ll find her work hung along side a photographic portrait project by contemporary artist Neeta Madahar, which is a shame in a way because Neeta’s work doesn’t have nearly the va-va-voom nor the creative insight to match up to Madame Yevonde’s. To have hung her work with that of the great woman might have been a mistake akin to Damien Hirst’s brainwave to show his first ever body of work with a brush alongside Gainsborough and Reynolds at the Wallace Collection. A bit of humility might not have gone amiss.

But never mind because the trip out to Ealing is more than worth its while for anyone with an interest in female archetypal psychology or powerful portrait photography. With images here of 1930s society ladies taking on the guise of mythological characters including Arial, Hecate, Flora, Venus and even Medusa, it might give you the chance to discover your own inner goddesses.

Role Play
PM Gallery and House
Mattock Lane, Ealing
until 3 July

I’ve just finished reading a delightful book from Persephone Books who publish forgotten classics by (mostly) women writers. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson was first published in 1938, then forgotten about for many years by all but a few, and then, on the back of its being re-published by Persephone Books in 2000, was made into a ‘major motion picture’ in 2008.

Seventy years after it was penned by a secretary from Newcastle, and six years after her death at the age of 96, Miss Pettigrew grossed $17 million at the box office. Maybe that’s not that much in movie terms these days, I don’t know, but what I do know is that if something I’d written grossed $17 million ever in a million years, I’d be thrilled over the moon. Although of course poor old Winifred was dead by then, so thrilled was probably out of the equation, but nonetheless, my point stands.

And my point is this: I’m always expecting in life that if I do the graft then the payoff will shortly follow. I think actually that’s what we’re taught to expect, but I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that in reality it’s a bit more complicated than that. I’m finally coming to understand that you must put in the graft and that you must then let go of it and, crucially, you must also let go of any expectation of a payoff from it. The payoff may well come, or it may not, but to plan for it is a mistake.

Particularly in producing anything creative, too fixed an idea of any particular end result is a fatal error. For where is the heart to enter if the head has already closed every door? And without the heart what have you created? Nothing more than an intellectual game; nothing of depth or integrity; nothing of meaning. In short then, nothing at all.

If you let the head rule the heart, if you imagine you can think your way through life, you may well dull some of the pain, but you will also numb the joy, and you will never, ever be truly creative. Because creativity comes through the heart, not the head.

But, as usual, I’ve allowed myself to waffle far from the point I had in mind. What I was wanting to say was that I wondered if Miss Pettigrew was perhaps the first ever piece of chick lit. Although I’m aware the term probably isn’t a great compliment and I’m not even entirely sure what it means, I do love Bridget Jones – I read it every time things go a bit stinky in life, and Miss Pettigrew seems like something of a go-girlfriend style precursor.

As well as its ahead of its time post-feminist over tones, Miss Pettigrew is also of that very time specific and very English genre of novel that’s one of my favourites - 1930’s Waugh-esque posh kids lounging about sipping cocktails, going to non-stop glamorous parties in diaphanous gowns, driving their cars far too recklessly just for a giggle, using phrases like “cheese it” and having elaborate conversations that go round and round in circles making no rational sense whatsoever, which is absolutely my favourite kind of conversation.

It must be said though that Miss Pettigrew does lack Waugh’s dark subtle underbelly, but she more than makes up for that absence by the fact that absent too is the Smurfette effect, i.e. that world common to literary fiction wherein the reader finds herself amongst a group of blokes with no more than one or two token women who constitute simply the love interest. Miss Pettigrew on the other hand is written from the girl’s perspective with the fellows taking up the romantic bit parts. Delicious.

What’s more I was over-joyed to find stated in serious literary print that has withstood the test of many decades of time passing, a truth that I have long known but never quite had the stomach to say aloud: that a girl’s most essential tool for successful navigation of the world at large is indubitably her face powder.

“Miss LaFosse and Miss Dubarry powdered their noses.
“Come along now Guinevere,’ said Miss LaFosse. ‘You must powder your nose again. It isn’t done not to. Last gesture before entering a room – powder your nose. It gives a sense of confidence.’
With trembling fingers, nervous, clumsy, contented, for the first time in her life Miss Pettigrew powdered her nose.
‘Do you know,’ she said happily, ‘I think you’re right. It does add a certain assurance to one’s demeanour. I feel it already.’
‘Attaboy,’ praised Miss Dubarry.”

Yes indeed girlies, it’s all about the heart. Without too much in the ‘thinking’ department I find one can manage perfectly well in life, but without the nose powder… one isn’t even off the starting blocks!

Monday, 6 June 2011

I went to the Mark Leckey performance at the Serpentine on Thursday evening. A grand job was done of building up the suspense as it didn’t start until half an hour behind schedule. But lucky for me as I was running twenty minutes late myself having spent too long with my webdesigner, Helpful Webhosting – excuse the flagrant plug but their utter wonderfulness warrants it - polishing off my new look website that I’m tickled pink with.

If you’re not impressed with that however, then check out this: It looks like a cat but it is not a cat. It is a lion in the living room. I’ve seen smaller ponies.

It was hot and sweaty at the Serpentine but no less appealing for that. So appealing in fact the girl in front of me fainted. Delightful Liverpudlian Mark Leckey apologised for the heat and the soon to be experienced noise levels. I noticed at that point quite a few people were wearing ear plugs and I thought for a moment they must be the uber-initiates and that the next half hour was therefore going to be torture for the rest of us. But it turned out they were just the suckers who’d bought the ear plugs the Serpentine were selling in the foyer. Money better spent on beer because in actual fact the ear plugs were completely unnecessary and I decided it was entirely lame-arse of the Serpentine to go in for such a piece of nanny-state-ism. It’s contemporary art for goodness sake, embrace it as the artist intended.

BigBoxStatueAction took the form of a gigantic speaker stack positioned opposite the Henry Moore sculpture Upright Motive No 9 (1979) in the Serpentine’s main atrium. The performance involved the speaker emitting experimental music, sampling and live interjections from Leckey at a volume that made my jeans quiver but didn’t seem to adversely affect my ears.

The sound was focused directly at the Moore sculpture apparently in an attempt to elicit some response from it. Leckey himself was studying the Moore for signs of said response fairly closely throughout. Nobody else seemed that interested what Henry might have to say. I suppose it’s investigating whether or not one’s perceptions of the Moore sculpture are altered by the introduction of this significant degree of sound into its immediate environment. Of course one’s perceptions are altered. How could they not be? Perhaps then it was investigating in what way one’s perceptions are altered?

Overall the show has caused quite a critical curfuffle. Jonathan Jones in The Guardian gave it the slating of all time. His review, which seemed to me to be a sensationalist, ill-informed and frankly, personal attack, attracted a staggering 308 comments before the comments page was closed 5 days after the piece went live. More than 30 of the comments were from Jones himself, seemingly digging himself an ever deeper hole, even claiming at one point that he doesn’t like contemporary art. There was also a comment from Mark Leckey who came out of the whole thing with his dignity and reputation entirely in tact, a feat Jones failed to pull off.

A few days later Frieze jumped on the bandwagon with a curiously pompous investigation into the credibility or otherwise of broadsheet art journalism:

The whole thing made me realise how much we all love to take the upper hand. Everyone’s always got to be right the whole time. We’re all so keen for everyone to know how much clever we are than they. But if we’re all so much cleverer than each other then who on earth can ever be cleverest of all? Whoever it is it’s bound to be a man. Tusk, Beverley, childish. Anyway, its gin o’clock now so I’m off. You can argue amongst yourselves about who’s cleverest. I’m quite content being thick.

BigBoxStatueAction 2003 performed by Mark Leckey and Jack to Jack at Tate Britain.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

"If you are going through hell, keep going."
Winston Churchill

Tracey Emin, Love is What You Want

The problem with success is that once you've attained it it's almost impossible to avoid being typecast by it. One of the biggest misconceptions about the twenty-first century phenomenon that is Tracey Emin is that her work is all about sex. In fact as Ms Emin's first major London exhibition clearly shows, her work is about far more than her sex life. In fact, I would argue, her work concerns itself very little with her sex life. A lot of other things go on in a bed besides sex. No, her work is about intimacy. It is about love. By which I do not mean crappy Hollywood-style love with a small 'l' to which most of us these days are already horribly over-exposed, but big Love with a big 'L' that takes no account of gender, race, or even - as we discover at the Hayward via a by turns comic and somewhat disconcerting video sketch featuring a dribbling bullmastiff - species.

Tracey Emin seems to take a lot of flack in this country. What I can't quite figure out is why. Is it her success and our perverse British desire to see the mighty fall? Is it because she went on TV a bit pissed and exposed herself as someone who is occasionally - gasp - out of control? It can't seriously be because she pays people to stitch things for her? Surely not, because Reynolds paid people to paint things for him, as did Gainsborough and we don't have a problem with them. Maybe it’s the narcissism we perceive in her use of her own life as the starting point for her art. But where then would we like her to start? An artist can't really begin a meaningful examination of life with someone else's life can they? For how do we know what someone else's life is like? Maybe it's because we imagine she can't draw and that's why she embroiders tents and submits unmade beds as art? Yet it has often been said, and I tend to concur, that she's a very able draughtsperson. So, it's a mystery to me. But whatever it is, for anyone to provoke that much irritation simply by going about their business, they've got to be doing something meaningful. Frivolity, surely, just isn't that annoying. Could it be then that she's pointing to something we might not want to look at? Something in ourselves? Is it that in showing us her own vulnerability she is also showing us ours? And perhaps we're not completely sold on the idea of gawping into our own wounds?

Maybe the kind of poignant statements her work is littered with are a bit too close to the bone:

"you stop me from feeling anything" / "I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone" / "every time I feel love I think Christ I'm going to be crucified" / "I whisper to my past, do I have another choice"

For all the vapidity she's accredited with it is fairly strong stuff.

Tracey Emin: Love is what you Want spans Emin's entire career to date including a lot of work that I'd never seen before and some work made especially for this exhibition. It opened my eyes to the vast expanse of Emin's oeuvre rather than the smallish pond of what I had thought was her oeuvre. She's prolific and works very successfully in all media. Add to that she's feisty, she's controversial, she's fun and she's a little bit cross. She's strong, vulnerable, profound, sensitive, brave, insecure, witty and all in all I cannot but to take my hat off to her. I don't care if some love to hate you Trace. I don't, I love to love you.

Tracey Emin
Love is What You Want
Hayward Gallery
til 29 August
My review for Twin
Twin is a bi-annual art, fashion and feminist book inspiring a daily blog

Monday, 23 May 2011

Got sent a couple of good quotes back to back on Twitter. It felt significant for some reason.

The first:

"The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works." Saint Augustine

And the second:

"All cruelty springs from weakness." Seneca

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Lismore Castle Arts
Still Life
Curated by Polly Staple
Gillian Carnegie, Anne Collier, Mark Leckey, Sherrie Levine, Seth Price and Richard Wright
until 31 September 2011
Click here to read my review for More Intelligent Life
Lismore Castle Arts

The Girls will be performing 'Diamonds and Toads' for the final time at PayneShurvell on Saturday 21st May 2-3pm.

Described by critic Herbert Wright as 'compelling and disturbing', I Am A Fantasy was chosen as one of the Guardian Guide's top five shows and described as 'seriously saucy, resplendent with feminist chutzpah.'

Friday, 22 April 2011

It’s Good Friday folks. The nation’s got twelve days off on three days holiday. Dave’s wearing morning dress for the wedding after all. It’s a scorching twenty five degrees out there. Someone’s mowing the lawn. The cat’s chilling out in the sunshine. Latte from lovely Ben on the window sill. It’s all good. And yet, I’m pissed off.

I’m feeling sorry for myself. I got caught up in someone else’s cowardly and self-deceiving web, a spiritual someone, a vicar no less. I’m feeling isolated and I'm feeling like the victim and it makes me want to run over someone’s head in my big shiny tractor. I can feel myself sitting right up there in my plastic seat, out of which I fly by about a foot every time one of my giant wheels passes over so much as a pebble on the path. And suddenly, crunch, squish, ooops, there goes someone’s head, flat as a pancake, bits of brain and eyeball stuck to the rubber. Grotesque violence sure does have a cathartic effect. Someone got squished and I feel gooooood.

It’s not pretty, I admit, but that’s the way it is. It puts me in mind of that glorious little poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

There was a little girl, who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead,
And when she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

She stood on her head, on her little trundle bed,
With nobody by for to hinder;
She screamed and she squalled, she yelled and she bawled,
And drummed her little heels against the winder.

Her mother heard the noise, and thought it was the boys
Playing in the empty attic,
She rushed upstairs, and caught her unawares,
And spanked her, most emphatic.

That’s me today. I’m drumming my little heels. And - unlike some who prefer the world to find them beyond fault at all times - I don’t give a shit who knows it. I shall be charming and delightful and generous tomorrow. But today I shall be horrid. And I don’t apologise for it. Not one little bit.

There’s something deeply healing about the feeling of someone else’s rage when you find yourself near consumed by this tricky emotional state yourself. As long as that someone else is operating within a safe schema, by which I mean I suppose a controlled, creative environment for example. Maybe it’s just as simple as feeling you’re not alone in struggling with this thing. Rage may be universal but it is not socially acceptable, and certainly not in women, who are instantly hit with the Mrs Rochester 'mad woman in the attic' stick. A woman's rage it seems terrifies the life out of people. Which understanding I began to embody last week when I saw Electra at the Gate Theatre. Wowe, that is one pissed off woman. And I loved it. How I loved it. I can’t begin to imagine what psychosexual horrors this might reveal about me to the shrinkies amongst you my dear readers, but be that as it may.

If you don’t know the plot, basically it goes like this. Electra’s Mum kills her Dad and moves her lover in. Electra finds this unsatisfactory. Electra’s sister (passive aggressive if you ask me) buries her rage and advises Electra to do likewise for her own good. To which Electra says, “Fuck off, I’m killing Mum. Are you in or not?” Sis says, “Err, no. You’ve gone mad Electra.” (classic passive aggressive response – accuse everyone else of being mad!!). At which point the prodigal brother pitches up at the family pile after more than a decades absence. Turns out he wasn’t loving the whole thing either and he’s come back to kill Mum. So he and Electra set too. Mum gets bludgeoned.

As the friend I went with rather sagely pointed out even before the performance began, there’s many more ways to kill a person than with a knife. You can kill with infantilisation, with neglect, with passive control. The death referred to here is not just the death of the physical body. Death can occur on many levels. And I guess in a way the person who’s dying, the ‘victim’ as it may be said, has made choices too. Ultimately we’re all responsible for ourselves. No shit!

Which is why I got a bit irritable when I read somewhere that Chantal Joffe paints victimhood, woman as victim. Chantal Joffe does not paint woman as victim.

If you haven’t seen the Chantal Joffe show at Victoria Miro I’m afraid you’ve missed it. However it was interesting enough to speak about retrospectively.

It was a series of gigantic canvases of largely solitary women, referencing canonical figures from art and literary history: Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, Susan Sontag, Lee Krasner, Tamara de Lempika and others. Bold, brave, inspirational women who kicked some arse at a time when kicking some arse was not what women did. Not publicly at least.

These canvases are massive, three meters high in some cases, Joffe reportedly required scaffolding to paint them. The women dominate the space like goddesses, like a wonderful army of creative, archetypal powerhouses. But these are not two dimensional characters. They’re ‘real’ women - by which I mean unashamedly multi-faceted - living ‘real’ lives characterised by vulnerability, fear, wit, talent, confusion, flirtation, contemplation, aggression, gentleness, coquettery, the hunter and the hunted and so it goes on.

Upstairs these monumental portraits are interspersed with canvases of Joffe with her young daughter Esme. At first I found these curious insertions baffling. Why was my glorious museum to ball-busting women being interrupted by predictable, almost quaint little Mother and Child scenarios such as one’s seen a million times before. Indeed is there a woman alive who hasn’t at some point turned her creativity towards the ubiquitous Mother / Child cliché in this rather literal fashion?

Eventually I stumbled upon the self-evident and crucially important thing that my own chippiness was blinding me to. Joffe was placing herself, the ‘ordinary’ woman doing ‘ordinary’ things, like bringing up her daughter, into the very heart of the lexicon of female power. The predictability was precisely the point. For predictable read universal.

Not that Joffe doesn’t seem extraordinary by virtue of her talent and success, she does, but the point is it isn’t her talent and success that make her worthy of her place in this lexicon, it’s her ordinariness. We’re all up there, is the point. You and me. ‘Ordinary’ women going about our ordinary, and at the same time, completely extraordinary lives. Good days and bad days. Joy and rage. Strength and weakness. Beautiful, wise, sensuous, serene, at the same time harsh, ugly, repugnant, terrifying.

And all of that’s fine. Actually it’s perfect. Things don’t need to be good all the time. We don’t need to be good all the time. Sometimes we smell good and we look good and we love the world and the world loves us. And sometimes we’re angry and we rage and we shout and we drum our little heels against the winder. And that’s fine. That’s perfect just how it is.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Hanging the show I am a Fantasy last week I somehow found myself in the unfamiliar position of applying tape measure to wall. When I asked the hanging fellow to pass me the yellow thing it was quickly deduced that I was out of my comfort zone and I was kindly rescued and dispatched to do something pressing on the typewriter. A few light-hearted words ensued on the subject of the technician's accoutrement and feminism circa 2011:

Rescuer: The yellow thing? Would that be the spirit level?
Me: (grappling with tape measure) Err, yes.
Rescuer: That's forty years of feminism down the drain then. You'll be asking for the twirly thing next.
Me: What's the twirly thing?
Rescuer: (deadpan) The drill.
Me: We're post-feminists now darling, we don't need to know about drills, we just need to look gorgeous and kick some arse!

There is no simple answer to the question of whether or not I am a Fantasy is a post-feminist show, although if a simple answer had to be given, for me, it would be a yes - despite the fact that Margaret Harrison is not, as such, a post-feminist artist. Rather, she is an artist whose illustrious career began in the late 1960s with work coming out of the tradition of James Gillray and George Cruikshank, influenced by Pop Art and heavily embroiled within the feminist politics of the day. But in 2011 she is producing work that is just as relevant now as it was in 1971 when her first solo show in London was shut down by the police on the grounds of indecency.

On the other hand, performance artists The Girls, aka Zoë Sinclair and Andrea Blood, weren't even born in 1971 when Margaret's career was hitting the buffers of its own inadvertent controversy. The Girls, I believe, would concede to being referred to as 'post-feminist' artists, but in a way, whether they would or not is beside the point, because we are living in post-feminist times and as such we, the viewer, can't but look at this work, this exhibition, through the lens of our early 21st century sensibilities.

Margaret Harrison and The Girls both engage powerful archetypes and gender clichés and whether as a society we like it or not, archetypes and gender clichés have just as much to say to us in 2011 as they did in 1971. Or indeed in 1958 when the post-feminist's heroine Marilyn Monroe breathily told the world: "I have too many fantasies to be a housewife. I guess I am a fantasy."

PayneShurvell and curator Beverley Knowles present:
Margaret Harrison and The Girls / I am a Fantasy
15 April to 21 May / Private view 14 April 6-9pm

The Girls are British artists Andrea Blood (b.1975) and Zoë Sinclair (b.1976), whose collaboration began in 1996 at Central Saint Martins. The Girls' practice focuses on creating private staged tableaux and recording them as self-portrait photography or video, as well as live performance. Themes explored include childhood, gender, feminism, women’s relationship with food, Englishness, obsession and eroticism. In collaboration with The Photographers' Gallery, The Girls were artists-in-residence at Selfridges' Ultralounge in 2010. The Girls have also exhibited at The Photographers' Gallery, The ICA and The National Portrait Gallery. 'Irreverent post-feminism. Think Angela Carter crossed with Cindy Sherman.' London Evening Standard

Margaret Harrison
was born in 1940 in Wakefield and lives and works in Cumbria and California. She studied at the Carlisle College of Art, Royal Academy Schools, London and the Academy of Art, Perugia, Italy. She has exhibited extensively since her first solo show in London in 1971, most recently appearing in the touring feminist retrospective 'WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’ at MOCA LA and PS1 New York and solo show The Bodies Are Back at Intersection for the Arts San Francisco in 2010. Her work is part of the permanent collections of Tate, Arts Council of Britain, University of California, Carlisle City Art Gallery and The V&A.

Press for I am a Fantasy:
The Guardian
Art Licks
Woman's Hour
Le Cool
AnOther Magazine
Scene 360
Saatchi On-line