'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