'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, 15 January 2013

In 2010 Mariko Mori founded the charitable foundation FAOU with the stated intention of creating “a series of six site-specific art installations, spread across six unique ecological settings of the six habitable continents on earth”, each work providing “lasting testimony to the natural beauty of its surroundings.” One of those site specific works, Ring, is currently installed at the Royal Academy in Rebirth, the artist's first solo show in London in 15 years. Another, Primal Rhythm, is there in documentary form.

When it is complete Primal Rhythm will be located in a bay off the coast of Okinawa in Japan; a plexiglas column, Sun Pillar, emerging from a rock cluster and a large Moonstone rising out of the water shifting its colour according to the phases of the moon. At the winter solstice - this year predicted by the Mayan calendar to herald the end of the world and its rebirth - the sun pillar will cast a shadow over the water to intersect precisely with the moonstone.

Ring is a Lucite circle symbolising the eternal cycle of life. In the Royal Academy exhibition it is suspended above an artificial waterfall. How much more poetic and beautiful it will seem when it finds its intended location, floating indefinitely over a waterfall in Brazil. Man made of a synthetic material it will speak of and to a world wherein humanity is one with nature, where human rhythms coincide with those of the natural environment.

Wandering around the exhibition at the Royal Academy the viewer is faced with biomorphic shapes, with twinkly lights, with rocks and acrylic objects in Stonehenge-esque formations and drawings in pastel colours. In the texts we are confronted with words such as 'transcendence', 'consciousness' and 'universe'. It is not easy, in the post-modern, post-internet western world to address such matters without being perceived a crackpot. Through our defensive filters of hardness and scepticism we could be wont to see all of this as nothing more than mawkishness. Or as some sort of moral imperative to 'save the world', a Christian style beration upon our heads for not behaving more responsibly towards the planet. The paradoxical nature of the universe seems to defy easy translation into words and images and I am reminded of the warning of the Tao Te Ching: “the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”.

But Mori is not a hokey space-cadet, nor is she engaged in the business of telling us what we should or shouldn't be doing. Sitting opposite her in a quiet stately room at the Royal Academy she exudes inimitable elegance and thoughtful, intuitive grace. Born in Tokyo in 1967 she grew up in Japan. In 1989 she moved to London to study at Chelsea College of Art. She now lives and works in New York. The cultures, philosophies and theologies she is most interested in and influenced by are those native to her, those of her ancestors: Shintoism and Japanese Buddhism. She is also interested in science, cosmology and modern technology.

Discussing the question of man's relationship to nature she tells me: “We are nature. Our minds overestimate human power towards nature. There is no good and bad, just the rhythm of the world. We can't control it.” Speaking of the difficult ecological events in Japan over the last two years she says: “It is sad to lose so many lives but at the same time we are part of a whole.” These are not the words of a mawkish sentimentalist. Not at all.

Written for This is Tomorrow

Helen Marten talks quickly and at great length, in a sort of quasi-Deleuzian stream of consciousness fashion that's difficult to follow and almost impossible to make much sense of. Plank Salad at Chisenhale Gallery, her first solo exhibition in a UK public space, follows a similar presentational style.

What I can only call stuff is everywhere. Cigarette packets, a half drunk frappuccino, one ironed sock, a sports bag, a loaf, pizza delivery fliers somehow mashed up with images of Gerhard Richter's hugely recognisable Betty, fake donuts, bags of rubbish, a pound coin, some strange flat objects that look like they could be veneered speed bumps. Loads of apparently random stuff.

There are a few slightly less random bits of stuff on the walls. And I mean slightly. One wall offers what ought to be furniture. It is immediately recognisable as a grouping of chairs. They are objects but they are flattened down to a two dimensionality that renders them functionally redundant. They are coded for us as chairs but they are useless as such.

The opposite wall gives us flattened, stylised images of a man's head printed onto modular gatherings of stretched leather and ostrich fabric. The man turns out to be Mozart. Oozy bits of cement appear at various points between frame and stretcher and from the bottom edge bottles of alcohol - Limoncello, Ouzo, Courvoisier if you're interested - hang from bits of strings. Mozart's face, Marten tells us, is “castrated by its flatness”, but reactivated by the alcohol which is “a liberator and a catalyst, but also a stagnator”. I see.

The first thing to have hit my retina in what Helen Marten styles the “entrance space” to her exhibition is three canisters of Greek olive oil standing on the floor. This entrance space exists because Marten has built a wall sectioning the white cube into two: a smaller, introductory atrium and a larger central space. This, apparently, is the artist playing with hierarchies, with questions of value and worth, margins and leftovers. More interestingly, it is also her playing with time. The wall interrupts the flow of the viewing experience. Like a gigantic architectural comma it delays our progress. We are, if you will, deliberately “snagged” upon it. She is dictating our movement and in the process bringing to our attention the element of time in connection with the viewing of objects and images. Objects have a speed, a rhythm, a pace, she says, that is central to what they are and the way we understand them.

Objects and images are so loaded with association, “pregnant with their own suggestion” as she puts it, that all they are capable of is “performing” themselves in space. A bag of rubbish performs our idea of what a bag of rubbish is or should be. The more densely overlaid or overwrought objects become with information the emptier they are. She speaks a lot about treachery and violence.

When I saw the canisters of Greek olive oil my mind went to a story in Vonnegut's Bluebeard, a story of treachery and violence funnily enough, in which we're told that Mussolini liked to punish his victims by making them drink a quart of castor oil. The result of this was that they would shit and vomit themselves to death. That's an association peculiar to me of course and peculiar to that moment in time, but in a way it seems to sum up something about this exhibition. There's something rather sad at work here. It's as though content has been deliberately evacuated and all that remains is surface and highly informed but ultimately empty rhetoric.

written for This is Tomorrow

Very excited to announce my latest curatorial project...

Kunstihoone Tallinn presents young British artist Sarah Maple

Sarah Maple
1 to 24 February 2012
Kunstihoone Tallinn
Vabaduse väljak 6
Tallinn 10146, Estonia

At twenty-eight Maple has already had solo shows in Munich, Amsterdam, Paris and London, as well as exhibiting in group shows alongside the likes of Martin Creed and David Hockney. She now brings her very individual brand of anarchic humour to Estonia.

Described by Alice Jones in the Independent as “a brilliant self-publicist and an incendiary feminist,” Maple uses her art work to challenge traditional notions of religion, identity and the societal role of women in multi-cultural twenty-first century Britain.

Maple's fifth solo show in as many years will present an overview of her work since she emerged from art college and won the Saatchi New Sensations prize in 2007. Alongside early works including Vote for me, Salat and Haram - the portrait of herself in Muslim dress holding a piglet that caused controversy and even death threats when it was first shown in 2008 - will be her more recent feminist informed works. The large scale triptych canvas Menstruate with Pride that received its own blog post in the Independent last year, a close up photograph of the artist sporting a green and purple vajazzle reading Votes for Women, inspired by the Suffragette movement and the Newsnight vajazzle debate, as well the Disney lightbox series in which Maple dresses up as each of the six fairy princesses, recontextualising them into an equal opportunities narrative: Cinderella winning a seat in Parliament, Sleeping Beauty performing open heart surgery and Belle managing a football team, yelling at the players from the dugout. In these powerful works Maple tackles taboos, wrestles them to the ground and guffawes in their face. Or, as Antony Gormley put it: “It's very emotive stuff. She is using the female notion of appropriateness to explain political and personal realism.”

Maple's approach comes out of a long feminist art historical trajectory of using humour and herself as protagonist, becoming a warts and all mirror to contemporary society and pop culture through the device of self-portraiture. Her work is influenced by Sarah Lucas, Frida Kahlo, Gillian Wearing and the timeless social commentary of William Hogarth.

The show was conceived by Anne Maisvee and will be co-curated by Rebeka Poldsam and Beverley Knowles. It will be hosted with the support of the British Council and Anne Maisvee.