'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, 27 January 2011

Here's one I wrote earlier. Last June actually. I'm not sure why it has only just made it out into the world. Pablo Wendel was in Bloomberg contemporaries as well. Although I didn't see it because the gallery shut early on the penultimate day, very annoyingly. Bloody ICA. Rubbish....

Visiting degree shows is a bit like going round the sales. Most of what you see is crap but when you do stumble upon a gem, it's a blinder. So it was at the RCA this year. Profoundly unfathomable map of works in hand I trudged round dutifully, stood before a video of someone's bare bottom; bizarre mounds of Styrofoam; a bronze mountain covered in Bosch-esque tiny little people all vomiting or shitting or shagging and a muddle of other strange items.

Then I came to a wall that had been half knocked down. Or half built up. It was a white wall and in that sense fairly unobtrusive. But its disintegration brought it into focus, not as something to be automatically circumnavigated or an unseen support structure for something else, but as a thing in its own right. On the wall were copies of a publication Subject: Re: Accidentally on purpose Pablo Wendel. The cover showed a photograph of a grey door with a lock on it, a sign saying PUSH, another prohibiting smoking and a lot of grubby finger marks. Inside the publication was a series of questions sent by Pablo Wendel to various members of the college.

The questions included "what do you think is the role of studio architecture in influencing an artist's work ethic?", "should student and teacher be able to act independently and courageously in an institution?" and "what do you think about the colour grey?" The emailed replies were published verbatim along with snapshots of structural elements of the college - walls, doors, etc.

Pablo’s other piece of work was listed as 'Number 55, MA Squat, House 14/6/2010-2/7/2010 accessed via stairs in the yard'. I went to the yard. No stairs. Somebody directed me out of the front door and around the back of the building. Eventually I came across a plank come make-shift ladder leading over a low wall and into a deserted shop. Inside was a table with a sleeping bag on it lying open, recently vacated. The place was filthy. I could hear voices from the next room and felt I was intruding so I went back out and walked around to the front.

There I found Pablo Wendel, the artist who is squatting this one time chippie for the duration of his degree show. He invited me to sit on the greasy plastic seating and showed me a video, shot two days before, the day before his show opened to the examiners and two days before it opened to the public, showing two members of the College administrative team in luminous tabards telling him they’re about to destroy his work on health and safety grounds. Wendel's voice can be heard objecting, explaining that this represents the culmination of two years work and the crux of his degree show. His pleas were ignored. What is Art in the wake of the modern demi-God that is health and safety?

This grotty little tableau provides a poetic response to the questions Pablo poses, demonstrating how little anything matters to us beyond the shoring up our own positions of safety against the imagined threats of an atomised world. Not creativity. Not compassion.

Wendel’s provocative action along fault-lines of power and control, freedom and constraint, can be viewed in the context of the art college and its politicking – the institution that defines itself in terms of its free thinking rebellious nature - so long as that rebellion doesn’t cost it. Or it can be viewed in a more universal sense.

Either way there was a rawness to this work that could only be perceived viscerally. Always we want to find meaning in things, to pin down a work of art and extract from it objective knowledge for ourselves. We struggle with the leap into an intuitive way of knowing. But to try too hard to evoke meaning is to miss it altogether.

In a disused fish and chip shop on Parkgate Road I came across a young artist with so much in his heart that he was prepared to risk losing everything in his attempt to express what he felt as he felt it, unmediated by tacit obstruction or the need to conform.

This is what makes degree shows exhilarating. When you find the real thing you’ve found it in its raw form, before the very systems of control that Wendel is grappling with have succeeded in knocking its vitality into the cruel slumber of passivity or mannered negotiation from which it will likely never awaken.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

“The best way to communicate may be just to sit without saying anything. Then you will have the full meaning of Zen. If I use my staff on you until I lose myself, or until you die, still it will not be enough. The best way is just to sit.” xx

Gabriel Orozco is ‘lightweight’ apparently. According to Jackie Wullschlager in the FT at least. Maybe she’s got a point. But then she goes on to say that “no visitor can fail to be delighted by its elegance and imaginative wit”. She’s speaking about LA DS, one of Orozco’s most recognisable works, the old Citroen he found in a scrap yard in Paris, sliced lengthways into three, removed the middle chunk and the engine and then squashed back together to form a very skinny ex-car capable of going exactly nowhere.

So she likes that one then. And because she likes it she automatically concludes that ‘no visitor can fail to be delighted by it….”. Tiny bit subjective peut-etre? Subjectivity is, of course, fine. It’s impossible to be anything other than subjective. But what we can do is acknowledge that subjectivity, rather than project our every unprocessed whim onto the entire human population. Frankly, that seems to me to be a bit lightweight.

Although it urks me even to begin to agree with an opinion so dated and out of touch in its self-importance, I have to acknowledge that I did experience an absence of chutzpah in the atmosphere at the Orozco exhibition that I found difficult to get to grips with. Something seemed to be missing.

Sometimes one enters an exhibition and finds the raw energy pounds off the work with such vitality and authenticity that it enters the viewer’s body viscerally before one’s even really looked at or begun to engage with it intellectually. Something more elemental than rationalisation and critique is going on. And that’s a very exciting thing. For me, that’s the power of art that’s akin to the divine; the experience of life and art and something else, some unnameable magic, merging into an experience that can be, if we let it, thunderously meaningful. Something so significant it goes beyond the reasoning mind and its constant need to label, order and control.

For me that didn’t happen with Orozco’s work. Something fell a bit flat. There were objects and sure they were quite interesting objects. Possibly about the idea that we’re so busy thinking we’re going somewhere that we’ve failed to notice that actually we’re going nowhere. The car has no engine, the box no shoes, the elevator no shaft etc. And then, of course, the skull and the obits; the momento mori; we’re all going to die. The lint; we’re ephemeral. Yes, quite. It’s all good old fashioned art historical stuff, presented in a pleasing contemporary-ish way.

There was no growl in the belly though. No meat on the bone. No raw power. Even so I can’t help finding it a bit limited as a critic, as an art historian, as a human being, to assume that any shortcoming one experiences in an exhibition is somehow the direct result of a shortcoming on the part of the artist. Maybe that lifelessness in the atmosphere had its own point to make. The work is, after all, concerned with death, transience, impermanence.

What I did have a problem with though was the curatorial decision to try and bulk out the sculptural work with a sea of photography. I wonder if this didn’t perhaps add to the air of listlessness, giving the impression that neither artist nor curator were confident enough in the sculptural work to let it hold the space. Maybe this stuff would have been much more powerful if its thunder hadn’t been stolen by an overwhelming set of own goals. You can’t show everything. Sometimes bold choices have to be made.

Seeing on the video as we left Orozco’s assertion that actually the work isn’t banal, simply the viewer has to put effort in as well, also felt sad and undermining. Obviously it’s true. The viewer will only ever get back what the viewer puts in. But that the artist feels the need to explain that before the viewer has even entered the space doesn’t garner confidence. Maybe confidence is the key. Faith, confidence, belief. Doubt crept in at a fundamental level. Artistic doubt. Curatorial doubt. Once doubt has got it claws into you you’re doomed. We’re all doomed. Even bloody Wullschlager and her naive universalising assumptions. Doomed.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

I found out this week that somebody I had thought felt some love towards me, even if was only just a tiny bit, actually doesn’t care about me whatsoever. Or rather I don’t know that they don’t care about me whatsoever but I feel as though they don’t, which is more or less the same thing. Because what’s the use of caring about someone if they don’t know you care?

So when I discovered this fact, ie that I am a poor uncared for soul, at least in respect of this particular person, I thought “…oh!” And after I’d thought “…oh!” for a bit, I spotted my Dior handbag - on the end of my arm you understand - hurtling at speed towards the head of the unloving being. Then I heard the unloving being say, “Jesus!” Then I stood up, picked up my coat and walked calmly out of the café.

Which is OK you know. Sure, it wasn’t my finest moment spiritually speaking but… it just was what it just was. And it did have one redeeming feature. It provided literally hours of amusement amongst my girlfriends. I couldn’t believe it. As I recounted my horrible behaviour with my head held ashamedly in my hands one friend in particular laughed so hard I thought she was having an asthma attack. Even a dharma teacher described it as ‘a little bit hilarious’. So I guess it’s not the end of the world. If there’s one thing you can rely on your girlfriends to do, they will tell you when it’s the end of the world.

Anyway, as luck would have it I’d been planning a trip to Kate MacGarry to see Chicks on Speed and my violent assault on another in Café Nero didn’t seem to be reason enough to deflect from that plan. In fact if there’s any reason to go and see Chicks on Speed this is surely it. What better balm for the soul (and yet more man problems in the absence of Gloria Gaynor) than what MacGarry’s press release describes as “their no-nonsense approach to self-display, sensory pleasure and forthright femininity that places them squarely in the post-feminist camp, where what the lady wants, the lady gets on and does.” Doesn’t that just make you feel good? I’m not even joking. No irony involved here. It makes me feel so goddam happy.

The transformative power of art I find endlessly awe inspiring and humbling. Suddenly I feel like it’s going to be ok. It might not be how I ‘planned’ it, but it will be ok. In fact, it almost definitely won’t be how I planned it, but still, it will be ok. So my new plan for 2011 is not to have a plan. A specifically no plan plan. I’ll do things, of course I’ll do things, but I’ll try and let them come to me a bit more rather than chasing around after what I think I want. Because life doesn’t necessarily bring you what you want, but maybe it does bring you what you need. And for once I’m going to try and embrace that rather than incessantly picking and choosing - this but not that; that but not this. Manipulating, plotting, scheming my life away – just a bit less of those things for twelve months and we’ll see how it goes.

Because let’s face it, we’re all going to be dead before long and I guess we’re not likely to be able to plan that. That kind of thing just happens when it happens. So I might as well start to have a tentative little go at the planless plan. That’s what’s happening anyway so I might as well start to acknowledge it at least.

After the supa-cool E-shoes – wearable guitars with sound producing sensory strings that these extraordinary and upliftingly bananas women wear for their performances – I potter off to Nettie Horn.

Nettie Horn isn’t usually my favourite gallery on Vyner Street but this was definitely one of the best 40 minutes I’ve spent in a gallery in a long time. I’m not sure if that’s attributable to my state of mind at that particular moment or if this really is one of the most glorious pieces of work ever made. A bit of both possibly.

From Here to Eternity is a film by Oliver Pietsch that consists of 40 minutes of movie clips about human death montaged into one fabulous whole. It sounds slightly grim. But it is so not. It’s marvellous. Watching it was like being hit by an emotional double decker bus over and over again until at some point even my will to resist expired and I found myself lying there on my bean bag in a blacked out Nettie Horn with a bunch of strangers I couldn’t see and with not an ounce of tension in my body, feeling totally at peace with the world. Well, maybe not totally at peace, but some level of acceptance had arrived that I don’t think I’ve experienced before. Suddenly what had been quite profoundly un-ok, was… ok.

This catastrophic tragedy we call life – by which I mean the fact that everything we love we lose, like everything everything - suddenly didn’t seem so bad. The fact that I could be pushing up the daisies as soon as this time next week – allowing a few days for the funeral arrangements etc., wheels put in motion and what not, suddenly seemed ok. And not in a morbid way. I feel happy. It’s fine. It’s a no plan plan. What a bloody relief. At some point I will die and I have absolutely no idea when that might be nor any control over it. I don’t have to do a thing. It will work out all by itself. Thank the Lord. And that’s what makes this a great piece of film. I’d go as far as to use the film critics favourite January accolade – I’d go as far as to say this is the best film of the year.

So, if like me you’ve had a bit of bad news, maybe you’ve just walloped someone with your handbag on Elgin Crescent and you’re not feeling that top notch about it, then go to Bethnal Green and check out From Here to Eternity. I promise you nothing is going to cheer you up like 40 minutes of death and dying. It’s a joy. An utter joy.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

Having to queue up to get into a commercial gallery for a Tuesday night private view is a slightly tiresome thing. Not being allowed to take your glass of plonk into said exhibition due to overcrowding doubly so. If it hadn't been Sprüth Magers I'd have stropped off home. As it was I satisfied myself with a small claustrophobia attack in the back room before hurling myself through the crowds and back into the fresh air. Where do all these people come from? I thought the art world was supposed to be small. Private views are turning into the upmarket equivalent of a football match. There's a serious risk of those at the front being crushed to death as those at the back just keep on piling in.

But with an indescribably awesome aircraft hanger-esque space in Oranienburger Straße Berlin and at the other end of the spectrum this quirky little ex-Medici gallery in Grafton Street Sprüth Magers are a stylish set up. I also seem to intuit a sense of integrity in Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers that died off long ago in most gallerists who've achieved anywhere near their level of success.

The difficulty with success of course is that it’s a honeytrap. Once it's got you in its sickly sweet and sticky paws you can't bear to lose it. Selling your soul, grandmother, artists up the river seems to be simply the hors d'oeuvres in the art world these days. Luckily all of that's never been too much of a problem for me! And whilst it could be a problem for Sprüth Magers they don't seem to let it be.

I'm also a sucker for the slightly feminist ideals lying low somewhere behind Sprüth Magers. I don't want to presume but I believe Monika Sprüth particularly is of such a bent. In the 1980s she set up radical magazine Eau de Cologne giving a voice to conceptual and feminist artists such as Rosemary Trockel, Barbara Kruger and creator of the solo show currently gracing Grafton Street, Cindy Sherman.

The work, considering it was Cindy Sherman, didn't grab me all that much at the time. Initially her work depends upon some sort of recognition of the stereotypes she's evoking I think and I didn't get a particularly strong feel for whatever they might be whilst I was in the gallery. But over a couple of days it's grown on me through my memories of it. There was a potent sense of tragedy that was difficult to be with but retrospectively seems important.

I also enjoyed the fact that the work seemed to be far too large for the space, so each of the self-portrait figures loomed huge over the tiny packed rooms like domestic dominatrices, deities to the religion of middle class perversion and denial. One character sported a revolting yellow pudding bowl and almost frighteningly gormless expression whilst mysteriously cradling a handful of leeks. My favourite wore an expression of melancholy along with a skin coloured track suit type thing with stick on boobs and bush whilst she gripped onto a very phallically placed sword. Come to think of it maybe the leeks were a bit phallic too.

All the figures stood before rather than within monochromatic romantic style landscapes that self mirrored like a Rorschach test. The whole schema decorated the gallery as a mural rather than discrete images, increasing the sense of overwhelment and oppression and also making it tricky to find a spot of wall upon which to lean whilst one got one's ear bent by yet another aggressively self publicising curator / artist / vapid hanger-on. But never mind, it wouldn't be a private view without all that. It's not about the art you know!