'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

Friday, 9 November 2012

In the feature length documentary film centred around Marina Abramovic's 2010 MoMA performance retrospective The Artist Is Present, Klaus Biesenbach, apparently quoting Marina, tells us that the difference between performance art and theatre is that “when you perform you have a knife and it's your blood, when you are acting it's ketchup and you don't cut yourself.” Even though this is undoubtedly a simplification it feels comforting to have a clear definition, language creating the illusion of safety in separateness.

Answering my probably somewhat banal question along similar lines, “what is the difference between sound art and experimental music?” artist and curator Sam Belinfante generously provides me with an equally well thought through and appealing sound bite. Sound art (I paraphrase) suggests an artist inviting other artists, musicians, etc to assist her or him in the realisation of her or his idea, whereas experimental music implies a group of artists and musicians working together in a collaborative spirit, towards an egalitarian creative goal.

As a starting point at least I found it helpful to keep this definition in mind when thinking about The Voice and the Lens, a four day festival and exhibition at Ikon Gallery, curated by Sam Belinfante and Ed McKeon, the later of music production company Third Ear. Neat little boxes can be misleading if taken too literally, but we do so long for them.

For The Voice and the Lens the curators have selected five artists with an interest in sound and the voice, paired each with a creative vocalist and asked them, in their sets of two, to explore the voice as both subject and medium. In this way five newly commissioned works have come in to being that will occupy the First Floor Galleries at Ikon and will be neither sound art nor experimental music but something in between the two, expanding notions of performance and collaboration into new territory.

Upstairs will be a series of what Belinfante refers to as 'mute images'. The title is, in part, a play on words, images being by definition mute whilst these particular images will imply sound via the imagination of the viewer. Interestingly, everyday language becomes tricky in the sphere of art works whose primary concern is auditory, its subjective nature revealed. Technically speaking can we refer to a 'viewer'? Is this an exhibition we will go to 'see'? These linguistic ructions neatly point towards some of the notions the exhibition is exploring: the fallible and visual-centric nature of language and the role of voice created sound in a space beyond or without language.

Sam Taylor-Wood's Mute is the earliest work on show, a six and a half minute video close-up of a man singing opera with the sound removed, from 2001. The work makes the power of sound apparent through its absence. That which evokes such profound emotional activity in the singer, we the viewer (if you will) cannot hear. We have a strong sense of it but it is not available to us. The result is a strange disconnectivity, by turns cartoonic and pathetic. Mute, Belinfante admits almost by way of confession, is the work that inspired the show and by default much of his work of the last few years concerning music and the language-less voice. Belinfante's own photographic work for this show, Aperture, is a series of seven stills that visually record the artist performing an ascending scale, the changing shape of the mouth mimicking the camera's aperture widening as it lets in gradually more and more light. Aperture was his response, homage perhaps, to Taylor-Wood's film.

A different trick after similar ends has been employed by artist Kathryn Faulkner. Faulkner has used a CymaScope, a device that generates an image in response to sound vibrations passed through it, to create My Voice, Chanting (2009). The syllable the artist has chosen to engage is 'om', the mystical sound of the universe in various Eastern philosophical and religious traditions, believed by some to be the vibration of divine consciousness and all that is. When recorded by the CymaScope however the vibrational quality is lost, its effects preserved visually. In so doing the result, again, is alienation, a sense of absence and loss that perversely highlights the profound nature of sound and at the same time our conscious unawareness of its omnipresent and perhaps even transcendent nature.

Whilst we're speaking - on the telephone ironically, a medium that allows one to hear but neither see nor feel the person with whom one is attempting communication - Belinfante, who is currently working on a PhD in Fine Art at Leeds University, quotes Nietzsche, Derrida and Lacan. My sense is that as well as being an aesthetically interesting show this will also be heavily theoretical for those wishing to approach it in such a way. Mladen Dolar, in his book first published in 2006, A Voice and Nothing More, posits the voice as not so much an “anthropomorphic masquerade of thinking” but as “the lever of thought”, the active, that is to say, rather than the passive component in the relationship between the individual and the world. This seems to me to be a profoundly radical notion that necessarily casts its radicalism over Belinfante's exhibition. If the voice controls thought rather than thought controlling the voice then it is surely something we should be paying meaningful attention to.

8 to 11 November 2012
IkonGallery, Birmingham

written for This is Tomorrow

Friday, 26 October 2012

Writing about Rashid Johnson's exhibition Shelter at South London Gallery feels awkward. Rashid Johnson is an African American living in New York producing socio-politically informed post-Colonial work. I am an English Caucasian female and feminist art historian. Inevitably there is a lot in this show that will resonate with me and a lot that will go over my head. Which doesn't invalidate my responses but does (as my shrink would probably tell me) warrant acknowledgment.

I'm encouraged by Rashid's words in an interview with Matthew Day Jackson earlier this year: “I've always had a difficult time recognising myself in historical narratives although I grew up with them as a backdrop to my childhood because my mother was a historian. But I didn't relate to those histories nor did I want to reproduce or live them. Now I've begun to pick and choose which parts I find useful and in many cases I also create my own. The artist functions as a time traveler. Using my work as a means or portal to effectively rewrite history, not as a revision but as a work of fiction.”

This feels liberating, permission to make my own way and to embrace ambiguity.

The artist, we are told, has transformed South London Gallery's main space into “an immersive environment”. On the walls are works made of black soap and wax, others comprised of mirrors, shea butter, LP covers, oyster shells and books, as well as photography and branded flooring. All of these are recurring media in Johnson's work.

In the centre four day beds dominate the room. Each occupies its own persian rug, two standing on end, one on its side, only one embracing its intended usefulness on all four legs. It feels like a rebellion of sorts, an uprising. Upholstered in zebra skins, their frames and rugs are defaced with black soap and wax or otherwise scratched and scared. The pelt recalls the Corbusier / Perriand / Jeanneret B306 Chaise Lounge, cow hide versus zebra flagging up African-ness with a nod to modernist aesthetic and middle class collectibility. Irreversibly interwoven yet disparate cultures.

This curious ordered chaos is the setting for an imagined society, perhaps a future society, in which psychotherapy is freely available to all. But something has gone awry: the couches aren't “available” and the pot plants look down on us from the rafters way above. As a psychotherapeutic environment it is topsy turvy. With one hand it offers and with the other it takes away, which may or may not be an intended comment on the psychotherapeutic process itself. Is there shelter here one wonders?

Persian rugs are highly symbolic and mystical objects, the designs influenced by factors in the weavers life, personal, religious and cultural. They also set a strong Freudian tone - the father of psychoanalysis was a voracious rug collector, his talking cure couch always draped with Persian carpet. As Tom Morton suggests, they are also emblematic of the artistic achievements of a non-Western culture as well as functioning as “a place holder for American anxieties about Islam”. That the rugs are here subtly defaced with black paint and wax suggests violence - mental, emotional and physical - a violence associated, at least in part, with racial tensions.

Whilst flagging up the fictional nature of histories this show brings together questions of race, power, violence, growth, flux and much more in a deep and poetic investigation that has things to say to all of us, whatever our real and imagined personal histories may be.

28 September to 25 November

written for This is Tomorrow

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A colour photograph hangs at eye level, of a middle aged woman seated on a child's ceramic potty. Her body is stooped and twisted in shame, face lost in shadow, girlish white knickers bunched around bare ankles. Behind her, scuffed floorboards, a bannister worn with age, the bumps and bruises of family life. This is the excavation of human trauma in the name of healing and of art.

2012 is the twentieth anniversary of the death of Jo Spence. By way of homage SPACE, London and Studio Voltaire have collaborated to create a two part exhibition that chronologically spans the artist's career. As a key component of Spence's modus operandi was collaboration, this synergy feels right.

Part II takes place off Clapham High Street and covers the period 1982 to 1992. The subject matter is Spence's cancer diagnosis, her subsequent journey into the world of holistic health care and the pioneering photo therapy that makes up the greater part of her best known work.

For Spence, photo therapy meant using the camera to heal herself within the broader context of psychoanalysis. It was a process she undertook with photographer Rosy Martin and through which they both discovered that 'there is no single self, but many fragmented selves, each vying for conscious expression, many never acknowledged.'

Coming into dialogue with the fragmented selves became a means of self-empowerment and of moving towards health; a way of rejecting existing mythologies and the systems of hegemony and dominance that spawned them, yet without creating new ones in which to get lost once more. It was a way of acknowledging her own constantly shifting totality.

One set of photo-theraputic works is devoted to the re-enactment by Spence of various moments in the life of her mother. Putting herself into her mother's position, she reported, made her feel guilty for the way she had behaved towards her mother when she was alive. This material is so raw and so emotionally fraught it may begin to explain why work of such evident potency has been almost totally overlooked by the existing art establishment. The exhibitions at SPACE and Studio Voltaire are her first retrospective in London. The Victoria & Albert is the only public collection in England to include her work and that by donation. As Spence herself once observed: “breaking out is not painless for anybody.”

The work on show at Studio Voltaire evidences her rejection of the cult of the artist. She employs a democratising technique of willed amateurishess, even abandoning the title 'artist', envisioning herself instead as 'cultural sniper', capable of appearing anywhere and in any guise. Her work is more commonly laminated than framed, giving the exhibition an awkward, community centre feel. Yet Spence's output is steeped in theory, amalgamating the academic with lived experience.

In 1991, having contracted leukaemia, she began The Final Project: A Photo fantasy and Photo therapeutic Exploration of Life and Death. She spoke of a crisis of representation. “I have not the faintest idea how to represent leukaemia except for how I feel.”

In one self-portrait from this series, traces of dark hair creep out from behind the toothy grimace of a rubber death mask, whilst over one black-clad shoulder a large wicker shopping bag nonchalantly hangs. The power of Spence's work is in its directness. She projects the strength of an army with the sensitivity of a butterfly. This confrontation drags death into life rather than the other way around. And not just into her life, into ours as well.

It may seem that Spence's political engagement, her socialist and feminist sympathies and the documentation of her difficulties with the NHS during what she parenthetically referred to as 'the cuts', could lodge her intensely auto-biographical work into a time specific niche outside of which it lacks resonance. This show at Studio Voltaire dispels that myth. Spence uses the deeply personal nature of experience as a means of accessing the universal. She presents us with the inescapable facts of all our lives – childhood, ageing, illness, death - and she does so without cliché. It is the brutal honesty with which she casts the objective gaze upon her own life that makes this exhibition so important and so long overdue.

WORK (Part II)
13 June to 11 August 2012

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

ArtAngel are celebrated for many things, not least the ingenious eccentricity of their one-off locations: a council house in Elephant & Castle, a disused Fire Station, the V&A's reserve collection storage unit to name a few. Their latest triumph, Lindsay Seers Nowhere Less Now, takes place in a 19th Century Grade II listed church just off the Kilburn High Road. The Tin Tabernacle, as it's colloquially known, was built on a shoe string from corrugated iron in the 1860s. It's roof is now full of holes and rust seems to pour from every tumbledown wall. Even more extraordinarily it's interior was converted to take the form of a naval ship by the Willesden & St Marylebone Sea Cadets when they originally took it as their home in 1947. As I wander around agape with awe at the peculiarity of it all I'm reminded of Ms Seers words: “site-specificity,” she told me with a nervous blink, “is highly problematic as an art form”.

Over the last few years Lindsay Seers has emerged as one of the most distinctive voices in the new generation of post-YBA British artists. Simultaneous with her first solo show at Matt's Gallery It has to be this Way in January 2009, her captivating immersive installation ExtraMission was one of the high points of Nicholas Bourriaud's not uncontroversial Tate Triennial, Altermodern. This was followed by solo exhibitions at BALTIC Gateshead, Mead Gallery Warwick, National Gallery of Denmark and Gallery TPW in Toronto, as well as a roster of illustrious group shows and a handful of prestigious awards. Ms Seers' star is on the rise.

The object of primary interest in Seers practice is the camera. The camera, the image, the body and the question of how these three relate to one another in a lived sense. More than providing answers, Seers work poses questions. What roles do the camera and the image play in our society? Is the camera a tool for capturing history or for creating it? Is truth something that can be told or is it a series of ephemeral and infinitely interconnected moments experienced intuitively by the body as it moves through space?

Seers poses these questions via complex and profoundly inconclusive narratives drawn from her personal histories and those of her family, which she then weaves, by way of dense research and intense image making, into a wider, and not necessarily directly related, social, political and psychogeographic context.

From one work to the next a web of intricate tales is spun, apparently autobiographical but always bafflingly inconsistent. Beginning with her upbringing on the island of Mauritius, we learn of the artist's speechlessness as a child that resulted from a photographic memory so vivid it abnegated the need for the vocalisation of words. When she spoke for the first time at the age of eight, her photographic memory faded, the traumatic loss of which lead her to attempt to turn herself into a camera by placing photo sensitive paper inside her mouth. Other stories tell of a step-sister, Christine who suffered memory loss following a moped accident in Rome and then mysteriously disappeared.

These strange narratives of personal trauma and ancestral psychodrama wind their way through Seers work, bound together with hints of the psycho-physiological, the paranormal and the occult. It's a gripping matrix to which there is no neat, satisfying resolution.

The key, I eventually realise, is to avoid getting drawn into overly simplistic debates relating to the credibility or otherwise of these curious overlapping stories, wildly tempting as that may at first be. There is no resolution to the narrative and the search to find one is pointless. What the viewer is being engaged in is a Brechtian theatrical event of a highly constructed nature, a performative maze with no exit, around which the inattentive viewer could meander for indefinite ages unaware that they are going nowhere. Which is a delicious metaphor for life. Nothing is as it seems.

Rather, the autobiographical is engaged by Seers as a trope, a stand-in for selfhood. The work is ontological, it is about being in the world. It is about you and it is about me, but it is not personal. In fact, the stories are largely irrelevant. They are about human experience, that's all. As Seers puts it with a gentle smile, “any story would do”. The important question is what effect these stories have on consciousness and on how we live our lives. And this question Seers addresses through an investigation of her, and our, relationship to image. Image as the still or moving object captured by the camera and image as the relationship of the individual to her apparent surroundings, or as Bergson expressed it in Matter and Memory, “a system of images which I term my perception of the universe and which may be entirely altered by a very slight change in a certain privileged position – my body.”

For Seers the camera is a motivator, a method for living by. She begins work at 7am and finishes, usually, around midnight. “I'm spending all of my time with this stuff,” she says, “so it becomes lived.” The camera is at the heart of this artist's personal ontology.

To date Seers work has focused on the female side of her family tree. Nowhere less Now makes the shift into the male side taking as it's departure point her father's long career with the sea cadets that began in the 1940s and a family photograph of her great great uncle, George Edwards, taken aboard the HMS Kingfisher at the end of the 19th century. Research for the project has had the artist journeying to the archipelago of Zanzibar, the seat of East African witchcraft. Into the mix comes artist and occultist Mina Bergson, who was born on 28 February 1865. Mina Bergson and Lindsay Seers share a birthday, one hundred years apart, and both studied at the Slade. Bergson was the sister of Henri Bergson and wife of Samuel Mathers who founded the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, one of the most influential organisations in the Western Mystery Tradition. Nowhere less Now is also the first time that Seers will be projecting her stories into the future, a future, fascinatingly, in which the photographic image is no longer a legal entity.

This time with the support of the inventive team behind ArtAngel, Seers' idiosyncratic cocktail of photography, film, performance, animation and installation, is both shaken and stirred. As the elusive truths begin to slip simultaneously through the lens and the viewers metaphorical fingers, the deeper truths surface. Nowhere Less Now is a goose-bump inducing aesthetic and intellectual roller coaster from one of the most promising artists working in Britain today. If there's one thing not to miss this year, it's this.

Written for This is Tomorrow 

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Nineteenth century biologist Raoul Francé noted that plants move their bodies just as freely and easily as humans do. We struggle to identify that movement as such, he postulated, because it's so much slower than our own. From this it was a small step to conclude that plants are capable of intent. Roots move towards moist ground, leaves towards the sun etc.

In 1966, America's foremost lie-detection examiner, Cleve Backster, on an impulse attached the electrodes of one of his lie detectors to the leaves of his Dracaena Massangeana. The shocking results prompted many years of work, eventually suggesting that plants display emotional response to stimulae in much the same way that animals do. Only more so. Plants are far more sensitive, responding to the thoughts of those in their locale, as well as to their actions. “Maybe plants see better without eyes,” Backster surmised, “than humans do with them.”

All this and much much more is investigated in Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird's book The Secret Life of Plants (1973) a delightfully off the wall investigation into the spiritual and emotional relationships between plants and animals. That book, as well as the writings of Sigmund Freud and the Victorian era anonymous sex diary My Secret Life, provides the inspiration for the collaborative exhibition of works by Jonathan Horowitz and Elizabeth Peyton currently showing at Sadie Coles HQ.

The show is a peaceful affair, elegantly evocative of times past with a subtle undercurrent of human frictions ever-present. An apparently eclectic selection of paintings, drawings, etchings and sculptural installations crisscrosses the space, bathed in summer light from the vast over head windows. Some of the works need that light more than others. Horowitz has 'liberated' two Bonsai, placing one of these tiny trees - victims, if you will, of our desire to manipulate nature to our own ends, to believe we are in control - into a vast reclaimed wood barrel. Another is placed in an antique tin bath.

A series of eight large grisaille of silhouetted plants, titled after their latin names, quietly wends its way through the exhibition. Created with interior wall paint on linen, these works narrate the story of plants as motif for both the physical interior space and the private introspective space - the home, the emotional landscape and the imagination.

Peyton has made sensitive, interesting portraits, often introducing flowers into the arena of her more familiar subject matter. The head of a young Sigmund Freud, a framed image of dancer Yvonne Rainer within a domestic tableau of plants and cut flowers, a poignant etching of Jonathan in profile overlaid with petals.

The flowers lend themselves well to anthropomorphisation, standing in for difficult or ambiguous emotions, mental and subconscious events; accommodating receptacles for our projections, by turns concealing and revealing at will. In some instances they symbolise sexual relationships, the flower as the reproductive component, that which attracts and allures. In the same vein perhaps they speak of the hidden, those things apparent only to the initiated. Or of secrets darkly concealed behind a veil of riotous colour and form. It's an engaging show, quietly thoughtful and interesting. An unlikely oasis.

Secret Life

7 June to 25 August 2012

Sadie Coles HQ
4 New Burlington Place
London W1

written for This is Tomorrow

The Tanks, part of Tate Modern's £215m expansion project, launched on July 18th, marking a significant art-historical moment. Designed by Herzog and de Meuron, a Swiss architecture firm perhaps best known for designing Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium, the Tanks are the world's first museum galleries dedicated exclusively to exhibiting performance, installation and film. This marks the first time live art is being made accessible to the non-arts professional, the non-initiate. 

For the last 50 years live art has been a key mode of expression among contemporary artists. It emerged in part from a rejection by artists of the art market. In challenging art as objects to buy and sell—as status-based goods to display above the couch—they turned to their bodies, the ultimate non-commodifiable media. This came at a time when performers were also breaking down the traditional concept of theatre. The result was a new landscape for experimentation, in which artists and actors processed and presented fresh ideas in unconventional ways.
Yet despite its art-historical significance, live art has remained invisible to the vast majority of the public. On the rare occasions when it has been visible it has usually been in the form of video or photographic reproduction. Though certainly better than nothing, such documentation does little to convey the visceral urgency of a live performance. Now, with the Tanks in London, performance art is about to go public.
Entering the Tanks is like stepping into another dimension. These cavernous underground oil drums are rich with the heavy atmosphere of industry. Massive concrete girders and the dense, warm smell of history provide strange comfort. Clever lighting intensifies the disorientating chiaroscuro mood.
For the next 15 weeks the Tanks at Tate Modern will present Art In Action, a programme of events as part of the London 2012 Festival. This will make a full schedule of performance art available to the public free of charge and, in most cases, without the need to book. The programme includes a captivating combination of historically important pieces alongside cutting edge work by emerging artists, and interdisciplinary collaborations. The festival opened with Fase, an hour-long dance-based work choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Set to the music of Steve Reich, the four-part piece was first performed, to great acclaim, in 1982.

Fase is interested in the relationship between music and dance. The idea is to consider dance as something independent of the music, rather than a way to illustrate it. Two performers—Ms De Keersmaeker and, for this Tanks specific reworking, Tale Dolven—perform highly repetitive sets of movements in perfect synchronicity. Although primarily a formal work, over time it bleeds into a powerfully emotive space. The relationship between the two dancers feels poignant, shifting subtly between ease and tension, ebb and flow.

Alongside this landmark live art event, Sung Hwan Kim, a young Korean artist, presented a specifically commissioned installation. And two feminist works from Tate's permanent collection, Suzanne Lacy's The Crystal Quilt (1982) and Lis Rhodes's Light Music (1975) occupied a third space.

Tate's timing with the Tanks feels just right. At a moment when the art market is too often mistaken for the art world, and Tate Modern's own Turbine Hall hosted a certain diamond-studded skull, it is a fine thing for the museum to be introducing live art to a wider public. This is an important step for broadening the popular understanding of contemporary art.

written for The Economist

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

We were five in January,” beems Alix Collingwood, curator at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art as she guides me around their latest exhibition.

Middlesbrough is an old steel mining town in Teesside. It's a poor area with one of the highest crime rates in the country. mima (the gallery is known by the obligatory four letter sobriquet of the contemporary public art space) wants to change all that. Imaging itself as 'a flagship venue for Middlesbrough and the Tees Valley and a beacon of the town’s aspiration', it finally opened in 2007 after twenty years of planning, with the laudable aim of 'driving the local economy, inspiring civic pride, supporting local arts infrastructure, encouraging visitors to the town and sub-region and creating opportunities for enjoyment.'

As I hurry up Middlesbrough's soulless, near deserted high street and turn into Centre Square – the 19,000sq meter area surrounding mima, the largest civic space in Europe, that includes a 120 jet water feature and a 35 foot Claes Oldenberg sculpture - the experience is akin to what I imagine it might be to encounter a space ship on the Hangar Lane Gyratory. To behold this vast glass and steel palace to contemporaneity in the heart of a depressing and depressed post-industrial wasteland is, without exaggeration, an awe inspiring experience. One stands agape.

And mima isn't pulling any punches with it's programming either. Inside the exhibition space the first thing the viewer encounters is Berlin-based Cyprien Gaillard's 16mm film Cities of Gold and Mirrors. Emotive twin sound tracks – the loud whir of the old fashioned projector that dominates the room and an elegiacal, otherworldly musical score – dictate the mood in which we interpret the visual image. Alcohol soaked teenagers in knee length swimming trunks and gold neck chains, on a sun drenched path of rebellion in Cancun, Mexico, their self-destructive activities played out against a backdrop of palm trees and cheap hotels. The hangover these kids will at some point entertain is an apt metaphor for the invasive tourist structures thrown up in places like Cancun with no regard for the long term ramifications upon the landscape or the culture. Later in the film we see crumbling Mayan ruins on parched grassland, the lumpen modernist tourist structures of tomorrow's archaeology floating behind.

This isn't a crude negation of modernity though and neither is it an overly simplistic romanticisation of yesteryear. Rather it reminds us that history is alive in the present, that every moment in time includes its own past and its own future. Landscapes collide.

Alongside Mr Gaillard's work is an exhibition that is separate but conceptually linked and is, in some ways, an even bolder choice on mima's part. John Gerrard is one of only a tiny handful of contemporary fine artists working in the field of computer art. The media of cutting edge technology and computer generated image is still something of a wild card to the contemporary art world, dangerously close to its own nerdy, utilitarian roots.

This exhibition of two of his most recent works 'consolidates' mima suggests, 'his reputation as one of the most innovative artists working today'. Both pieces take as their subject a school created as part of the 1960s social revolution in Southern Cuba. In reality the school is still in use but it appears here in a state of ruinous disrepair; grey with age, windows smashed, concrete crumbling.

The methods of data capture that Mr Gerrard employs are complex and inordinately time consuming. Upwards of 4 to 5,000 images of his subject are taken on site. These he collates, along with satellite imagery and the assistance of mind boggling gadgety, custom built gaming software, and a team of technological wizards, in his Vienna studio. By some mysterious act of alchemy what emerges is a real time virtual world so detailed it portrays every nook and cranny of the school through 360degrees, even reflecting the actual time of day in Cuba.

Vacated of children the school's single occupant is a caretaker who comes twice a day to switch the lights on and off. The effect is of a lonely, dehumanized and disconnected environment that speaks eloquently of the challenges of our time. That mima has, in the last few days, acquired one of these Cuban School works for its permanent collection demonstrates an impressive level of insight.

As mima enters it's sixth year one wonders if it is succeeding in realising the ambitious goals of its outset. Is building a shrine to the sharp end of contemporary art in a cultural and economic wilderness such as Middlesbrough seriously a means to regenerating an area? At this point it's impossible to know. But research conducted over the last five years certainly shows that mima is one of the most popular visitor destinations in the North East, attracting in excess of a hundred thousand visitors a year who very likely wouldn't have dreamt of going there otherwise. Bringing their tourist money with them this would certainly seem to be no bad thing. But as Gaillard makes clear, today's monuments are just tomorrow's archaeology.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

There is a notion within certain segments of the contemporary art community that in order to be 'serious' a contemporary artist must bleed their work dry of any hint of wit. That humour is somehow a sign of weakness and that poe faced gravitas, at all times, is the only sure fire indicator of heavy weight sagacity.

This is a notion of such literal minded stupidity it beggars belief. It seems to me that only a mind blinded by its own desperate craving for acceptance could possibly entertain the concept that the conscious performance of seriousness and seriousness itself are one and the same thing. In actual fact there is nothing more profound than hilarity because only a joke can hold the tragedy of life. Only a joke can mirror society's ridiculousness back at itself without invoking its rage.

Legend has it that when Sadie Hennessy was studying at Central St Martin's in 2010 it was suggested to her by her tutors that her work would be improved if she removed the humour from it. Thank god she had the wit to give that lamentable advice the finger. Because her first solo show with WW Gallery is embalmed in wit. And it is brilliant.

Humour is also - I'd like to point out to the great burghers of Central St Martin's - a tool that's been claimed and re-claimed by feminist artists for the last fifty years. VALIE EXPORT, Margaret Harrison, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Sylvie Fleury, The Guerrilla Girls, Sarah Lucas, Sarah Maple, Mel Brimfield, even Tracey Emin, have all engaged humour to make a space for themselves that simply wouldn't have existed otherwise. So I think it's safe to say that Ms Hennessy is working within a tradition.

If female sexuality is slowly, slowly beginning to emerge from the dark cave of it's own taboo (Caitlin Moran talking about her first wank without alienating her entire public was a great right of passage for that one) the one thing that without a doubt remains universally horrifying is the sexuality of older women. It might be just about ok for a 23 year old girl to be a sexually empowered entity but by 63 or 53 or even 43, she's expected to have become dormant. We don't mind a sex kitten but nobody's interested in the cat.

Sadie Hennessy tackles this issue with elegance in her sculptural assemblage Big Night Out (2012) a zimmer frame 'wearing' a pair of black sequined ankle-wedge boots and with a black sequined heart shaped handbag hanging over the top of the frame. It speaks to the invisibility of the older lady and the fact that if she's not invisiblised altogether, she is, at the very least, desexualised. Too old to be virgin or whore, she becomes mother / grandmother / crone. As one ages it seems one's life can be expected to progress from one cardboard cliché to the next. Big Night Out reveals the humanity of this older lady, her vulnerability. The absolute universalism of wanting to be loved. There's not a man or woman alive who can't relate to that.

Also good is the Lost Art of Keeping A Secret (Porn Star Eyes) series of cut outs, in which porn star eyes are collaged onto fresh, smily faced 1950s beauties. Reminiscent of one of my favourite artists, the pioneering photomontagist and early feminist Hannah Hoch, these works are laugh out loud funny on first viewing but, as with much of Hennessy's work, gradually expose a melancholic underbelly as the viewer lingers. Both the porn star and the fresh faced beauty come to seem trapped within the performativity of the societal roles they each have necessarily embraced.

After Sadie Hennessy I went across town to another Sadie. Ms Coles has just opened John Currin's lastest show. If anyone should question why Sadie Hennessy feels she needs to be so outré in the conveyance of her feelings about female sexuality and female objectification in this age of supposed equality and respect I would suggest they might try the same. What John Currin seems to be getting away with in 2012 in the name of art is frankly totter inducing. Has fifty years of feminist art history by-passed the man or does he simply not care? Oh for the day when the sort of shit he's producing is taboo and Ms Hennessy is commanding his prices. Then we'll be able to talk about equality without having to laugh our arses off in the process.

written for Spoonfed

Monday, 18 June 2012

On 5 October 2007 the artist Kristin Lucas legally changed her name from Kristin Sue Lucas to Kristin Sue Lucas in a Superior Court of California courtroom. On the name change petition she described the reason for the change with a single word: 'refresh'. The presiding judge - the Honorable Frank Roesch - was, perhaps understandably, a little baffled by this change that wasn't a change. A philosophical back and forth ensued in which the artist explained:

I am hear for a refresh.
A renewal of self.
I consider this act to be a poetic gesture and a birthday gift.
I am ready for an update.
An intervention into my life.
I am here to be born again as myself, or at the very least, the
most current version of myself.
I am prepared to let go.
To empty my cache.
To refill the screen with the same information.
Kristin Lucas is ready for change.
And Kristin Lucas awaits her replacement.”

After a two week break to consider his position and the position of the court the judge came back with his answer. “I think it's a nutty idea... but I'm going to do it. So you have changed your name to exactly what it was before in the spirit of refreshing yourself as though you were a web page. Stay here and we'll have some paper work for you.”

At 7.30pm on Tuesday 12 June 2012 the transcript of that case was 'performed' via Skype. The person playing the part of the Honorable Frank Roesch was in California, whilst the person playing Kristen stood before a large screen and a small audience in an internet cafe in Waterloo.

This is net art. Or, more accurately, this is multi-disciplinary art featuring interactive web projects and live performance. It's nutty, but it's also kind of wonderful.

Upstairs was the hardcore net art. A bank of computers in the round with a handful of people standing about chatting and drinking beer. It was a scene both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. One or two of the computers were in use. The rest sat dormant, screen black.

The curators of Public Access – four MA students from the Curating Contemporary Art programme at the Royal College of Art – are billing this as the first ever 'Speed Show' in London. 'Speed Show' was conceived by Aram Bartholl in the US in 2010 and involves a gallery style 'private view' relocated to a public cyber cafe. The speed part is that the show is only open for one evening.

Upstairs I encountered Ms Lucas again, this time in the form of a work from 2011 engagingly entitled Everyone Loves My Cocoa Krispies. To begin with I spent five minutes watching Bobby Pickett singing Monster Mash on YouTube before finally realising that this had nothing whatsoever to do with Everyone Loves My Cocoa Krispies and was, in fact, an unrelated window opened by a previous user of the machine. Just because the computer was an art work for the evening didn't stop it also being a computer. You could look up whatever you wanted on it. Each computer's browser was set to default to a particular work of art when re-opened and by that means each computer was it's own work of art between the hours of 4.30 to 9.00pm.

I clicked away from Bobby Pickett to arrive at a vimeo page. This showed a film of a rotating cube containing the double heads of Kristin Lucas and Kristin Lucas, revolving to a sound track of generic beats overlaid with Kristin's own voice delivering near monotone phrases in duplicate that turned out to be marketing slogans culled from the web. “You're going to like us, You're going to like us. I never knew you had dandruff. I never knew you had dandruff. We wear short shorts, We wear short shorts.” It's hypnotic. Funny and ludicrous.

The powerful thing about net art is that it is just that. It's available publicly on the internet. What I saw 'live' at the Speed Show I can also watch in my own home. What I'm seeing in my home isn't a reproduction of an original. Nothing is lost. If you want to watch Everybody Loves My Cocoa Krispies you can, here: http://vimeo.com/33129267. It'll be like you never missed a thing.

Following on from Duchamp's seismic Bottle Rack (1914) and the feminist artists of the 1960s employing their own bodies as the media, net art moves further and further away from art as object. Here there isn't even documentation, and yet the work is available, free of charge, to anyone at any time. Net art is the ultimate democratisation of the art work, the ultimate conflation of art and life.

Which point is eloquently made by Caleb Larsen's A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter that takes the form of a physical sculpture, a box, that continually attempts to auction itself. Every ten minutes the box pings a server on the internet via the ethernet to see how it's eBay sale is progressing. If its auction has ended or it has sold, it automatically creates a new auction for itself. When somebody buys it, the current owner sends the box to the new owner. The new owner then plugs it into the ethernet for the cycle to repeat itself. The art work exists in multiple locations simultaneously, the wired up box itself and the interactive Web2.0 page. It presents an object, but that object eludes ownership. The work exists both within and without the market. In both cyber and meatspace.

Interestingly for an art form that is arguably more public than any that has proceeded it, net art emphasises the very private nature of experience. Most net art is experienced by an individual at a computer. Even the communality of the internet cafe is staring into its own grave in an age of mass wi-fi availability. The appreciation of net art is not a collective experience in any sense, but rather highlights the profoundly isolating nature of ideas.

Written for This is Tomorrow

Monday, 21 May 2012

The tulips at Poppy Sebire are certainly not excitable, despite the bold spring day streaming into All Hallows from the skylights above. These tulips are calm, quiet, dank almost. The colours are ochre, pale lilac, beige and brown, here and there a dab or two of dullish green. It feels like something of a non-event. A woman artist painting flowers, photographing and collaging, stitching flowers even, shocking for all the wrong reasons.

Yet there's a whispered sense of something else at work here. Nikki de Saint Phalle haunts the space, although there's nothing of her wacky exuberant vivacity. Rather there's a listlessness that borders on painful, a nothingness that's almost too much to bear. I don't want to linger long. I want to be somewhere else, somewhere brighter, more alive.

The title of the exhibition, The Wounded Tulip, comes from a poem by Sylvia Plath that she wrote in March 1961 whilst in hospital for an appendix operation and following a miscarriage in February of the same year. “I didn't want any flowers,” she says in the poem as she catches sight of their blood redness beside her, “I only wanted to lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.” The flowers seem threatening to her, reminders of the world outside that she has temporary respite from. They demand things of her that she is not able to give. “The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals,” she says.

Georgie Hopton's tulips hold no such threat and make no such demands. These tulips are themselves wounded. Perhaps they reflect our own transience and vulnerability, maybe even our brokeness. We recall Georgia O'Keeffe and her wildly passionate flower paintings, erotic and alight with sensuality and movement. All that is present there is absent here.

Hopton's flowers, in an anthropomorphic sense, are brittle and dry, uptight and asexual, frightened almost of their own existence. Or they are bulbous and heavy, drooping under the weight of their own portentiousness. They seem sad, dissociated and forgotten, as though time and life has passed them by. They are old men and women who missed their chance to sing and dance and laugh and cry and now prefer to pretend they have missed nothing, to tell themselves they're happy as they are. They smile a dry, shallow smile. They are nobody. They have given up their names and their day-clothes to the nurses. Their history to the anaesthetists and their bodies to the surgeons. These tulips are not livid red, alive and screaming. They are the patient, quietly numb, dying a slow sad death from which they turn tragically away.

Poppy Sebire
Georgie Hopton
The Wounded Tulip
11 May to 16 June 2012

written for Spoonfed

Friday, 11 May 2012

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

In 1952, in the wake of her father's death, Louise Bourgeois began therapy with the Freudian psychoanalyst Dr Henry Lowenfeld. She was to continue to see him, three times a week, for thirty years. It is probably impossible to over estimate the influence this must have had on her life and work. And yet it was not until 2004 that her long time assistant Jerry Gorovoy unearthed two large boxes full of hand written notes made in response to the treatment, notes she had previously kept hidden.

The exhibition at the Freud Museum, Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed was inspired by those notes. It is an intimate enquiry into the extent to which art was itself a transformative, therapeutic tool for the artist who more than once asserted: “art is a guarantee of sanity, that is the most important thing I have said.”

Featured in the exhibition are some of the works upon which Louise Bourgeois's reputation as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century are founded. Femme-Couteau / Knife-Woman was a motif the artist returned to again and again across her seventy year artistic life span. It appears here in the form of a vitrined blancmange pink, near life-sized figure with half a leg and both arms missing. From the neck a long, rusty knife emerges, floating horrifically and menacingly over the soft fabric body.

Next door, in the rarefied, near holy atmosphere of Freud's study, the room in which he conducted his talking cure some seventy years ago, Janus Fleuri hangs over the couch, a revolting, flaccid, apparently decomposing sexual organ of neither specifically male nor female origin, cast in bronze. Its eloquent placement reminds the viewer of Freud's and Bourgeois's and perhaps by default our own preoccupation with sex. In its shadow a powerful, almost mocking flavour of failure and dissatisfaction is cast over the hallowed space.

In the garden lurks Maman, the giant arachnid for which the artist is probably most widely known. Although we are often told that Maman represents the safe and protective influence of the mother that Bourgeois claimed to love, I wonder if I can be alone in finding it repulsive, alive with the terrifying primitive horror that exists outside words.

Before her death in 2010, Ms Bourgeois's permission was sought and granted to display her psychoanalytic notes alongside the work. What the notes bring is evidence of her humble and humbling self-awareness, the minute by minute battle to remain engaged, to look at that which would be so much more easily swept under the carpet, in order to transform or transcend it.

“I have failed as a wife, as a woman, as a mother, as a hostess, as an artist, as a business woman, as a friend, as a daughter, as a sister. I have not failed as a truth seeker...”

These are not the words of an unhappy or depressed woman, they are the words of a brave woman, a woman bold enough to stare into the void and have it stare back at her. Only such a woman could smile as she spoke the words: 'I have been to Hell and back and let me tell you, it was wonderful.'

Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed
Curated by Philip Larratt-Smith
Freud Museum Hampstead
8 March 2012 to 27 May 2012

written for This is Tomorrow