'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, 28 February 2012

The key word at Lisson Gallery during the month of February is NO. Not NO to something specific, to some particularly irksome something or other. This NO is bigger than that. This is a NO to everything. An all-encompassing, universal, absolute NO.

Visually, this monumental negation by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra manifests itself in the form of a black painted wood sculpture shaped as the word NO, spelled out in an Arial typeface, weighing half a ton and measuring somewhere in the region of 6 by 14 feet.

Since 18 July 2009 when it left Lucca, Italy, the giant NO has been on a road trip. Now it stands proud – incidental graffiti picked up on its travels notwithstanding - in Lisson's back gallery. In the interim it has visited Milan, Berlin, Rotterdam, Maastricht and Brussels, where it made an appearance in various venues including the NATO headquarters and the European Parliament. Other NOs have been built and simultaneously they've criss-crossed the globe like jet-setting movie stars.

Before we encounter the NO at 29 Bell Street we come across what is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of the sentiment in the form of Death Counter that in 2009 made the news for its year long residency outside Hiscox Headquarters, London, and now hangs above the entrance to Nicholas Logsdail's longstanding palace to contemporaneity. The giant LED sign registers the annual number of human deaths worldwide, from any cause, over the course of one year starting from zero on New Year's Eve. I imagine this is supposed to remind us of the transience and essential meaninglessness of existence, with, knowing Sierra, sub-narratives around themes of work, the commodification of human life and the structures of power that make life the disaster riddled horror it sometimes seems to be.

The exhibition is entitled 'Dedicated to the Workers and Unemployed'. From the gallery's entrance the viewer might be daunted by the sight of fifteen flat screen televisions showing black and white footage of what turns out to be various groups of unidentified workers engaged in niche forms of gainful employment.

In this way Sierra presents us with 8 People Paid to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes; 68 People Paid to Block a Museum Entrance; 11 People Paid to Learn a Phrase; the almost rather droll in its surreality A Workers Arm Passing Through the Ceiling of an Art Space from a Dwelling and, doubtless the pièce-de-résistance played on a vast screen in the main gallery, 10 People Paid to Masturbate. This film is 55 minutes long. I confess I didn't sit through the duration. I assume they were all men.

One could perceive here a whiff of self-righteous indignation on the part of the artist - not of the workers themselves of course, but of the structures of power that have reduced them to this indignity. But we are warned by the artist not to be fooled into an over simplistic reading. Sierra has said “it's not the kind of art that says George Bush is a mother fucker.. people become uncomfortable because it's a portrait of themselves.”

written for This is Tomorrow

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Daniel Rapley has spent the last 18 months writing up the entire King James Bible, by hand, on standard feint ruled notepaper with a ballpoint pen. Or so, at least, we are told. Because when we enter the white cube space of PayneShurvell, what we see is a sturdy sheaf of feint ruled notepaper, each sheet sitting exactly one atop the other, beautifully presented in a tall glass vitrine, the uppermost page of which is, apparently, a hand written reproduction of the beginning of the King James Bible. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth...” in a tidy, non-nonsense hand.

We are being asked to believe something we can't see with our own eyes and for which we have no proof. Has Rapley spent the last 18 months reproducing the entire bible by hand or has he written up the first page and then made it look as though what's beneath is the rest? Will we choose to have faith in what we are told? Will we sit in the space of not-knowing? Or will we invent an entirely different story and choose to believe that instead? It's a poignant metaphor for life.

On the wall to the left of Sic, as Rapley has entitled his 'bible', we see seven framed text works that purport to offer us behind the scenes tales about the production of Sic. Recounted in modern, mock biblical style, they remind me of low budget television programmes about the making of a television programme; there's also something of the quasi-confessional, a religious zealot desperate to find meaning in everything.

At first glance I assume these works are printed, Times New Roman. I probably wouldn't even have questioned that thought if it hadn't been for the Canadian intoned words that floated from the PayneShurvell office, “they're hand drawn too.” Evidently I was not the first to make this erroneous assumption. I was being offered a guiding hand and I took it gratefully.

As I peered in closer I began to detect tiny pencil markings in the otherwise flawless copy. I remembered the thing I'm constantly forgetting - that things are rarely, if ever, as they seem. The mistake now would be to make further assumptions, based on this new information, without reference to the fact that there are probably other illusions through which I have yet to see. Seeing through these other misconceptions may, or may not, shift the picture entirely. But how can I know?

It occurs to me that it's possible that the first page of Sic, the one that I can actually see, isn't even hand written. Perhaps Rapley designed a font after the style of his own handwriting, had it transferred to a computer programme and some further piece of software then printed out the 'bible' to look as though he'd written it. It sounds unlikely, of course it sounds unlikely, but how can I know it's not the case. Far stranger things have turned out to have basis in reality. And isn't that the point? That we simply don't know. We don't really know anything. Everything we think we know we only think we know because we don't know any better, but we stick with those beliefs because the thought that we don't know is too hard to swallow.

There's so much depth to this exhibition one could write a thesis never mind a 600 word review. There are profound questions here about authorship, authority, faith, meaning, about reproduction and authenticity, about God, even the nature of reality. But for me, the most important thing it questions is belief and not just belief in divinity (whatever that might mean?) but belief in our own thoughts. What would life be like if we didn't project such authority onto the flotsam and jetsam of own ever changing minds? What would life be like if we had faith in something other than our thoughts? Is the answer to that question available in the 3,116,480 characters of the bible? The answer to that is - I just don't know. But I doubt it.

Daniel Rapley
27 January to 3 March 2012

written for and reproduced here by kind permission of NY Arts Magazine

Thursday, 23 February 2012

“My desire was to predict and measure the infinity of the unbounded universe, from my own position in it, with dots – an accumulation of particles forming the negative spaces in the net. How deep was the mystery? Did infinities exist beyond our universe? In exploring these questions I wanted to examine the single dot that was my own life.”

So says Yayoi Kusama in her autobiography Infinity Net. It's an ambitious intent and a grand design for the humble dot. And yet the word that springs most readily to my mind when searching for a way to introduce the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Tate is... fun. But somehow 'fun' doesn't seem quite sufficient to describe the output of an octogenarian Japanese woman of startling biography whose work, apparently, the viewer ought to read through the lens of her life. A woman who, by her own account, endured an abusive relationship with her mother, experienced lifelong hallucinations and a tendency towards morbid obsession and in 1973, after a sixteen year period of prolific art making in New York that was plagued by bouts of depression and psychosis, returned to Japan and checked herself into the mental hospital where she has lived and worked ever since. Not a day goes by, she has said, when she doesn't think of suicide.

How curious then that my abiding memory of the show is of something light, convivial - not without seriousness - but absent of density. The two things don't seem to conflate. Contradictory then is how I shall characterise it.

What the work certainly does possess is a charmingly idiosyncratic sort of poetry. The early works expressing the biomorphic influence of Miro and the Surrealists. The extraordinary sculptural installation Aggregation: One Thousand Boats - a life-sized phalli covered rowing boat that makes the painfully invisible humorously visible. Her 1967 film Kusama's Self-Obliteration that features exquisite imagery of the artist riding bareback on a dark horse through a mystical landscape, to the liquid, dissonant and distinctly spiritualised accompaniment of The Citizens for Interplanetary Activity. All are characterised by poetry and metaphor.

In the film, as in so much of the artist's output, the profound existential interconnectedness between woman and horse - between woman and universe if you'll excuse a lurch towards the grandiose - is alluded to visually by the egalitarian distribution of dots. It's as though the dots are representative of a time before individuation, before the words horse and river and tree and woman tore the mind, and thereby the world, into mutually antagonistic fragments; to a time before self and other, to a time of One. It's as though the dots cast a net that obliterates that which distinguishes me from you, she from it.

Delightful is the immersive domestic interior of I'm Here, but Nothing, in which everyday furniture and accessories are illuminated by a lilac glow and resultingly dappled with fluorescent dots. And, perhaps the pièce de résistance, the final Infinity Mirrored Room, in which mirrors and tiny dot shaped lights are used to extend the allusion to Oneness - the obliteration of the self – literally into infinity.

Kusama's exhibition feels to me to have a distinctly female voice. I don't want to patronise the work by calling it feminine, (whatever that might mean, I nod to you Ms Butler) but in some way that I struggle to put my finger on, it seems to engage archetypes that I can only describe as female. So I was unsurprised to read Waldemar Januszczak's inane tweet: 'Yayoi Kusama and Lucian Freud were born at the same time. So how come she produces spotty infantile drivel - and he was a genius?' Leaving aside the inherent idiocy of this rhetorical statement, what is being expressed is an inability to connect with Kusama's work that I would suggest might have something to do with gendered perspectives.

Rather like Niki de Saint Phalle, the work of Yayoi Kusama is perhaps that of a woman's woman. Which is not quite the same (if I may be so bold Mr Januszczak) as calling it infantile drivel. Perhaps what could be seen as infantile is more positively described as childlike in its directness, possessing something of what Picasso et all were striving towards when they investigated the art of children, 'primitives' and the insane. That is to say, work that is unencumbered by the tedious modern addiction to the illusion of control through rationalisation.

Perhaps this is where the Feminist context through which Kusama's work is sometimes read enters the frame. Like Pipilotti Rist's work, this exhibition feels to me like the output of a woman who is investigating reality through the medium of the body first, intellect second. This doesn't make the work less intelligent, far from it, rather it makes it less cerebral, more instinctually intelligent. As Picasso posited, 'every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.' Perhaps this is something to which Yayoi Kusama has come close with deceptively profound results.

written for Spoonfed

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

ee cummings

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Thursday, 2 February 2012

When I first walked into the Jerwood Project Space (aka the Jerwood cafe) to see Katie Schwab and Jamie George's collaborative exhibition My (We) I'm embarrassed to confess I hit upon a problem. I couldn't see any art. Sandwiches and cakes aplenty but, at a cursory, impatient, 'let's get this job done and dusted' glance, no art. In retrospect I suppose this is symptomatic of the very thing I'm so often shouting my mouth off about. These days we want to dash into a museum / gallery / project space, have it tell us something immediate / amusing / educational and then we wish to leave, expediently, perhaps slightly smugly, with a new nugget of information tucked into our back pockets. So used have we become, in this marketing-driven information age, to things jumping out and bonking us about the head with whatever message it is they wish to convey, we have no sensitivity left with which to tune into the subtler things in life.

Luckily I did not fall at the first, or the second, because this work, even once discovered, remains elusive. Perhaps contemporary art has become so ambiguous, so 'difficult' in the communicating of its message precisely in response to the grasping nature of the Ikea Generation. At any rate, rather than criticise it for it's aloof intellectualism, better to enquire into what it holds in the fist it clenches so firmly behind its back. At the very least, it challenges us to engage ourselves at a deeper level than we are perhaps used, which is no bad thing.

I remind myself, when lost, start from where you are. So, in front of me are three small black and white passport sized photographs framed as one work, showing what reveals itself to be the torso of a woman wearing in the first a t-shirt with a large circle, then a t-shirt with a star and thirdly, a t-shirt with a stripe. The rest of the body, including the head, is absent. Thoughts of identity and nationality present themselves, the ways in which we symbolise our identities to the world. Way above me on the wall is a large blue circle containing five stubby uprights that hint at fingers, but also put me in mind of ancient monoliths. Again disembodied, decontextualised symbols, images reduced to a bare minimum, stripped of superfluity.

Below that, de-centered on the far left of the wall, two framed photographs sit one atop the other, blocks of colour, green and grey, one an inverted smiley face drawn with a finger in wet concrete, the other has a smiley sticker appended to the glass. Behind me, two thin girder-like beams, cast in concrete, flank the large window like very modern sentinels. I don't know what they are but they amuse and delight.

Accompanying the work is a publication. A captivating short story by Katie Schwab and a somewhat dense (for my taste) text by Jamie George, the later offering relief in the form of a dusting of short quotations from the likes of Maurice Blanchot, Henri Lefebvre and Jacque Ranciere. I am transported, with no small dread, to the befuddlement of my days wandering the halls of Goldsmiths'. What is going on here? What am I being shown?

Eventually I recalled the day I stood in front of my tutor, the terrifying powerhouse that is Professor Irit Rogoff, nursing a pristine copy of Deleuze & Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus. Having listened to her speak, for upwards of two hours, on the subject of nomadic thought and the rhizomatics of domination, I found by the end I had no clearer understanding than I'd had at the start. Please let me be clear: I am absolutely certain that this was due to the shortcomings of nobody but myself and I am, once again, embarrassed to admit that I have not, since that day in 1999, attempted to grapple with the extraordinary genius of Gilles Deleuze. When I plucked up the courage to tell Professor Rogoff that “I don't get it,” her reply was confoundingly simple. “Darling,” she said, “there's nothing to get.”