'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

Sunday, 20 March 2011

I spent last week in silence in Sussex meditating 6 hours a day. On Friday I came back to London and sat in my flat spinning out. Saturday I went to the Ida Applebroog exhibition at Hauser & Wirth. Spinning out shifted to a whole new level.

I stood in front of Monalisa (2009) and tears poured down my face. It was overwhelming. It communicated with me on a level way beyond my conscious mind. It spoke rather to my body. Monalisa is about what it is to be human and what it is to exist as such in a woman's body.

Monalisa is a house, or what Applebroog has named a house, a would-be walk-in wooden box-like structure with membranous walls made up of scanned drawings through which the light filters.

The drawings are of what super-articulate critic, art historian, Applebroog expert and babe with a brain, Julia Bryan Wilson refers to as the artist's cunt. What Hauser's press release prefers to call her crotch. Yeah, we wouldn't want to be outré, we're art dealers for God's sake. Officially they're called the Vagina drawings, although at the symposium that followed the eighty-year-old knock-out-feisty Bronx born Applebroog said she'd prefer to have called Vulva.

Whatever we're calling them, these drawings possess a raw power the likes of which Tracey Emin can only dream about.

They were made in 1969 when Applebroog was living with her husband and four young children in Southern California. Desperate for time alone, a respite from the myth of domestic bliss, she would hole-up in the bathroom for hours at a time with her sketch pad. There she created somewhere in the region of 160 drawings of the intimate details of her own body.

Hearing Ida speak about the creation of the work it became clear that this wasn't conceived as an art project. There was no goal. She wasn't putting pen to paper with the dream locked away in the back of her mind that one day she might see them hanging in a white space in Savile Row, an internationally celebrated artist. No, she was just doing what she was doing. She was trying to find a way to exist in the world, a way to cope with life's grotesque disappointments and sometimes even harder to bear joys. She didn't even show them to anyone. No-one apparently. It was an entirely private and personal undertaking.

An erstwhile acquaintance of mine, a writer in fact, once asserted that no artist would create if they didn't have it somewhere in their consciousness that their work might one day be seen, published, exhibited or in some other way appreciated. This tragic, bourgeois nonsense is examplematic of a pernicious misunderstanding. Creativity is not driven by the ego. It is driven, if driven even be the word, by something far, far greater. Exactly such a limiting and limited notion is responsible for the desert of pointless bollocks that gets churned endlessly into the world. Applebroog's story finally allowed me to dismiss this initially unsettling but ultimately diminutive idea without even casting a swipe at it.

The Vagina drawings languished in Applebroog's apartment until 1974 when they were packed into a box, shoved in the basement and all but forgotten. In 2009 a studio assistant discovered them; waterlogged, rat-eaten, ravaged. Forty years after the work had been created Applebroog conceived of Monalisa.

It is not possible to enter the house. But one can peak into it through gaps in the papery walls. The front door leans up against the house with a space on either side too small to squeeze through but large enough to imagine one might squeeze through. Tantalisingly and frustratingly the viewer is excluded.

The monochromatic portrait that appears at eye-level on the front door punched me in the stomach with its visceral amorphous ambiguity. It reminded me of the Dead Marilyn photographs. The being seems only half alive, only half of this world. The head and neck merge with the body. The hair, or perhaps it is a lack thereof, merges with the black background. There is no pleasing clarity. No safety. No illusion of stability such as we like to gorge ourselves of. There's no sleep here. No numbness. There is only vulnerability and uncertainty.

The larger red portrait on the back wall inside the house struck another universal cord and a hammer blow to the self-exteriorising we spend so much of our time and energy in the management of. Fear in her eyes; anger in her deportment; horror in her body.

Nausea and love rose up in me simultaneously. Confusion and clarity reigned. Only paradoxes to offer. It is pain and joy and indifference all at once. But that's the way of life. We can run from it if we are so moved to try, but we won't get away. Not ever.
"Everywhere he saw lids going down on the truth, and easy smiles being painted over the top of them."
Warrior of Peace - The Life of the Buddha

Monday, 7 March 2011

A very, very funny book.

"I always suspected that Jake wasn't really an artist, having read this I suspect he's not a writer either."
Dinos Chapman

I’m trying to write about Marcus Coates again but I’m finding it almost impossible. Every time I try to write about Marcus Coates I become stuck, the words don’t flow the way they normally do.

I think it’s because Marcus Coates is really, really great and I find myself possessed of an over-excitable desire to say simply that, over and over. Marcus Coates is really, really great. Then I begin to tell myself, "oh you can't say that, Beverley," and once I've begun to tell myself what I can and can't say that's it, the game's over and it hasn't ended well. So I suppose I shall have to put the internal censor back in her box and do what I usually do, which is to say wing it, vaguely hoping that I don't make too much of a tit of myself. And if I do make a tit of myself I shall be consoled by the fact that it won't be the first time. Nor probably the last.

The embarrassing truth is I have a slight crush on Marcus Coates, although I’ve never even met him. But then that’s usually the best sort of crush, the sort that hasn’t yet been dragged kicking and screaming to its horrible, bloody end via a good pummelling from reality. Marcus Coates is my George Cluney - the art historians bit of crumpet.

What’s not to like about a forty-odd year old man wearing a turquoise shell suit, reflective aviator glasses and a badger on his head, clucking his way around the office of the Mayor of Holon in Israel, emitting notably realistic bird calling sounds. Alarmingly, I'm not even joking around here. I've noticed this tendency in myself, to fetishise a certain sort of individual who appears to have much self-awareness and at the same time very little self-consciousness. At once intellectual and off-beat, eccentric perhaps, or one might go as far as to say, a little odd.

Marcus Coates' work is possessed of a curious magic that seems to defy my every attempt to capture it. Its delicate and perhaps unintentionally ambiguous ethereality lies somewhere between childlike naiveté and knowing post-modern wit and for the most part proves too subtle for the absolutes that words desire. However there seems to be a generosity to Coates’ work, an enigmatic humility, that feels meaningful. Given the particularly idiosyncratic nature of his modus operandi, even by the current standards of contemporary art, it might be tempting to dismiss him as a piss taker, but I suspect that would be a misinterpretation.

Coates is interested in what he refers to as 'becoming animal'. His work often takes the form of a documentation of his attempts to physically embody animal in a ritualistic Shamanic fashion in order to help various groups of people to answer problems they may be experiencing in their lives and their communities.

His latest work though is uncharacteristically taxidermy free. Tucked away in the long room behind the Nancy Spero show at The Serpentine is a 35 minute film entitled The Trip for which Marcus Coates worked with St John's Hospice, and particularly with patient Alex H, to answer the question: 'What can I do for you?'

In a way 'becoming' Alex H, Marcus realised Alex's long term ambition to travel to the Amazon rainforest by following a very precise set of instructions issued to him by Alex. The film documents the conversations between the artist and the patient before the trip and after the trip. Rather than show film of the protagonists engaged in their conversation, or film from the trip itself, the image Coates chooses to show us for 35 minutes is an almost static view from the window of Alex's room. As the two men talk, we watch, at a distance, a critical remove if you will, various road and pavement users going about their anonymous everyday London lives.

Although this latest work may at first glance seem to be quite different to Coates' ongoing Shamanic oeuvre, I think it probably isn't. As with his earlier work The Trip is dependent upon a conscious engagement of the interconnectivity between apparently separate beings, a highlighting of the shared imaginative and symbolic space, in order to bring people and communities together and provide, probably not solutions to problems exactly, but discourses around events; discourses that might, over time, begin to allow space to open up and positions of identification to be seen. And as a thing is seen the possibility for it to begin to consciously change slowly comes into being.

Maybe it's about presenting things to people in such a way that a different perspective becomes available to them. Maybe it's offering the loosening of a fixed and imprisoning position that may have ceased to serve a useful purpose. As Coates suggests in The Plover's Wing, "What the bird represents here is the idea of identifying with a certain position, identifying with a victim position."

Like all truthful ways of engaging with the world Coates' work takes itself lightly but it does so with a sense of great seriousness. It may be ornithology but it's also art. It may be art but it is also life. Yup, Marcus Coates is really, really great.

Friday, 4 March 2011

"the answer to how to live is to stop thinking about it. And just to live. But you’re doing that anyway. However you intellectualise it, you still just live."
Damien Hirst (1995)
The Idler