'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, 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.