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Monday, 31 January 2011

Just an observation? Review - Duchy Gallery, Glasgow

Review by Alistair Q

As you come off High Street and enter the beginnings of the bedraggled East End, across from a noisy new construction site and in the midst of a row of hollowed out skeletal shop fronts you could be forgiven for the surprise at finding the large boisterous works of Michael White hidden amongst the churning hub of renewal taking place outside the small Duchy gallery in Glasgow.

Inside, White’s large totemic plaster work looms over the viewer, perched atop a large black stage, its presence squeezing the onlooker as it dominates the white washed space. Within the show are three disgruntled ambiguous works made up from a technique of layered and slapped-on plaster and paint over polystyrene, with fingerprints carved into their surface in an Arnulf Rainer-esque struggle with the medium. White has employed an almost alchemical technique in his approach to the pieces, working fabric dye and acrylics into the plaster which changes and moves as the work begins to dry: such being a theme of the work in that weeks later the two main pieces, Colossal Head and Grendel have changed in hue and dark veins begin to appear within the plaster itself from shifts in the pigment. Within it you can see various forms splash in and out of the mass; caves, faces, mouths and mountains piled up like uncertain cairns. They truly embody some kind of primordial clay as a theme, yet to be sculpted, or goals yet to be founded.

When speaking to the artist his investigations seem to go deeper into the role of sculpture as a classical and state supported practise but also investigating its former overruling ideologies. His research into anthropology and post-colonial contexts is mixed in with his contemporary interests in the seemingly endless mass consumption of inane information that influences our globalised lives. A strong point within this is that with the history of imperial monuments being cemented in the ideology of progression and power it’s a strong parallel when faced with today’s conflicted feelings of muddled direction, aim and goals, which sits well with the amorphous beings on display, not quite sure of what they are or what they want to be.

From this angle it can seem as if the work itself is a culprit to this lost ideology, in that they signify little towards a goal or path for this or the next generation, it is only in looking into the titling of the work that the viewer gains a little in reaction to a decade of confused objectives. Colossal Head for example slowly creates a commentary; being titled after a museum artefact, it reiterates the questions of object, ritual and meaning through its mute existence as an item of worship or utility. In writings on ancient communities, the head had no distinct function and so remains a mystery as to its use and relevance to the culture in question. The concept plays through in my mind as to what connections, if discovered hundreds of years from now, could archaeologists pull together in relation to our times and the works at hand? Michael himself states that his work is “just an observation” and that it is a reaction to the prevailing mood of the times, stressing the idea of an overall age of uncertain meaning.

The name, So Miami, helps cement and contextualise the works in our current culture, centring the show in parody to other contemporary artworks and artists. The artist describes the title as a pun on the care-less-ness of some of the amoral art of the past decade, particularly with the British talent of the 90s and noughties (which, as the title for a decade and on the theme of the work, is an abbreviation worthy of comment). The use of So Miami as a title is effective in grounding the work in mockery of our current British culture, with its reactionary scornful repulsive forms, splattered in functionless colours, strangely placing it in a seemingly pivotal moment for our generation.

With these ugly forms in mind the uncertain and ambiguous imagery of the work can be seen as a burden and a blessing: does it refuse to comment with certainty on the possibility of a banal future since it’s only past experience has been that of an unenlightening osmosis, as White aptly calls it, of celebrity gossip and advertising. Is it not just like other British art with it’s no comment attitude? Or does it truly embody a feeling of movement, shape-shifting and change, of the possibilities for a generation to gather a voice in reaction to the ocean of ideologies?

Before leaving the space, a local in the area, chapped on the door and began to tell us what he thought of the show, since he had been past a couple of times and said this was the first time he’d really been drawn in. “There’s quite a lot of things it could be, you know? I can see a face, a mouth, a man…”. With this in mind maybe the role of the work may not be to comment or preach as to what should be done, but rather to inspire our imagination to make changes that we ourselves can see through.

The next show to open at The Duchy will be Samuel Nias, presented by ARCANMELLOR, A prism applied to the eye glass of my reflector. For further details please visit The Duchy Gallery

Friday, 28 January 2011

Last Weekend of the January Sale - Know Your Aesthetica

If you read this blog, then your probably already know about Aesthetica Magazine, but just to recap Aesthetica is a British-based international arts and culture publication that was founded in 2002. Aesthetica engages with the arts both in the UK and internationally, combining dynamic content with compelling critical debate and pushing boundaries while exploring the best in contemporary arts and culture.

The January, we’ve been offering you the chance to take up a year’s subscription for £15.

This is the last weekend, where you will be able to save 50% off the annual subscription. With Aesthetica, you get more than just any old magazine – you receive the latest news, reviews, ideas and debate from the art world. Beautifully designed, the publication makes an excellent edition yo your collection. You’ll want to keep them or at least past them on to good friends and loved ones.

Keep up-to-date with the engaging editorial and fantastic content – here’s an example of what we’ve covered over the past 12 months:

Art & Design

  • Bani Abidi Identity Formation & Social History

  • British Fashion Photographers The New Generation

  • Jannica Honey Stylised Realism & Coaxing Emotion

  • Jerwood Contemporary Makers Inverting Preconceptions of Ideas & Craft

  • Jonathan Wateridge Reality, Fiction & Illusion

  • Manifestations of the Design Art Movement Art & Wallpaper

  • Marina Abramović Art Beyond the White Walls

  • Non-Conformist Soviet Art from the 1980s Glasnost

  • Peter Kardia Alternative Pedagogy

  • Photography & the Pervasive Influence CONTACT

  • Rafael Lozano-Hemmer Digital Art & the Platforms for Participation

  • Sculpture’s Narrative Altered by Photography Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today

  • Sean Raggett A New Identity: Decoding Portraiture

  • Stuart Brisley Politics & the Performance Artist

  • Stuart Semple Popular Culture & the Aesthetic Discourse

  • Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera tackles subjects both iconic and taboo


  • Artists' Films Take on Mainstream Cinema A Guerrilla Approach

  • Beautiful Kate A Forbidden Love Story in the Australian Outback

  • Dogtooth Subverted Dark Narratives

  • How to Animate: Part 1 Ideas & Inspiration

  • How to Animate: Part 2 Making & Shaping

  • Magical Realism on Screen Undertow

  • Secret Cinema Rewriting the Cinematic Rulebook

  • The New Frontier of Cinema & Digital Culture Abandon Normal Devices Festival

  • Winter in Wartime Martin Koolhoven's emotive film about deception

Literature & Theatre

So, now’s your chance to take advantage of this fantastic deal – if you subscribe before the end of the month, you’ll also receive the Aesthetica Shorts 2011 DVD FREE of charge – discover new and emerging filmmakers.

CLICK HERE to subscribe today for £15.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Gareth Cadwallader's Tangible Reality

Review by Paul Hardman

Window Paintings: Gareth Cadwallader

The new Gareth Cadwallader exhibition at the Hannah Barry Gallery, Peckham gathers much of its resonance not only from its content but also from its context in this location. The stark contrast between the environs of the gallery, the gallery itself and the idyllic scenes depicted in Cadwallader's large scale photographs cannot help but have an effect on how the work is experienced.

To visit the show it is necessary to make your way along Rye Lane, past yam stalls, halal butchers, and through the multicultural crowds that give this part of London the nickname 'Little Lagos'. I mention this because the photographs Cadwallader has chosen to exhibit in this space depict a world that couldn't be more different from the urbanity of South London, floor to ceiling on the walls of the gallery are three idealised, peaceful, rural, and classically European scenes. However Cadwallader has not been plucked from a traditional and conservative bubble and placed unknowingly in South London, he is very much a part of the cultural continuity of Peckham, and has previously both curated and shown in group exhibitions in the warehouses and squats of Peckham with the !WOWOW! collective. Presumably then, the juxtaposition of this collection of work with its location should be read as deliberate. The gallery itself, with it’s distinctly grunge aesthetic of exposed beams, peeling paint work, and location in a crumbling industrial estate forms is seemingly incompatible with the milieu in Cadwallader’s scenes.

The first of the enormous photographs, Picnic, depicts three young women wearing straw hats, sat on a beach among hamper and food while three middle aged musicians play a violin, cello and guitar. The light is fading as if around 9pm on a summers evening. The clothes of the figures indicate warm weather, there is still food to be eaten, and all are smiling and contented. Pond depicts a lily filled lake surrounded by woodland where two young women are enjoying a trip in a rowing boat. In Cyclist, a cyclist reaches down to grab an apple from a pile as he passes by, again in a rural setting unmarked by any signs of development. These are arranged on three of the walls, and are separated by two abstract paintings of radically different sizes. One, seven metres tall is shaped like a giant surfboard stood upright in the sand, the other, only 40cms high, is more like a small window, or a panel in a medieval religious painting.

The paintings share a seamless fade from near white at the base up to a mid blue at the tip in a manner reminiscent of a clear but pale sky. Cadwallader is known for his expertly executed oil paintings, and usually these are figurative, but here he has used all his skill in perfecting this subtle gradient. Sven Münder's text that accompanies the exhibition describes the paintings as 'macho, sexualised objects', but the extremely mild, pale blended surface of these, diffuses any aggressive effect, and instead they provide a kind of complementary dream space, or additional sky, should any of the scenes require it. The combination of the photographic with the abstract does provide a dimension of uncertainty to the exhibition, and demand that the photographs should not be taken at face value. The scale of both the photographs and the large paintings has the effect of submerging the viewer into each scene. The positioning of Picnic in particular provokes an uncanny sensation, as the sea in the background seems to relate to a large damp area on the concrete floor that spans the width of the picture and reaches out towards the centre of the gallery. It is as though Cadwallader is using these photographs to bring a near perfect world, one that owes its conception to the tradition of painting, particularly impressionism, into the more ambiguous and fallible realm of reality.

Ultimately, Cadwallader has set up an exhibition that has the sense of a riddle about it. As if by examining the details in the photographs, and contemplating their relation to the featureless surface of the paintings a message could be found. In fact, he has provided one element that stands out as if it were a clue, the jersey of the cyclist reads 'Look Mum, no hands', a detail that suggests something childish. Would Cadwallader have us believe his art is there simply for him to show off? Perhaps he is making a comment on contemporary art in general, that it may often be childish, and fails to connect with everyday real life. After stepping briefly into this mild world, the reality outside the gallery felt all the more tangible.

The show continues until 3 March. www.hannahbarry.com

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Review: Gerard Byrne at MK Gallery

Review by Nicola Mann

Case Study: Loch Ness (Some possibilities and problems),

Gerard Byrne grew up in Dublin in the 1970s. It was a time and place where socio-political realities were filtered through the hazy gauze of influence installed by the Roman Catholic doctrine. The chasm between historical facts and fictions, and their distance in time and space from the present, informs Byrne’s artistic repertoire. In his video and photo installation 1984 and Beyond (2005-2007), Byrne re-staged a 1963 Playboy interview series with science-fiction luminaries of the time. The way Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke et al foresee the millennium veers wildly between the far-fetched and accurate, and yet it is the self-consciously constructed nature of the contemporary re-enactment—borne out in bad acting and mistimed interview techniques, which illustrates the simple fact that the past can be even harder to envisage than the future. The artist builds upon his interest in representational critique and the temporal collision of past, present, and future in his first major solo exhibition in a UK public space, Case Study: Loch Ness (Some possibilities and problems), 2001-2011. The culmination of 10 years of research around Loch Ness, the exhibition employs film, photography, installation, and original “eyewitness” accounts of “Nessie” to explore the dissemination of the most elusive of all myths. Byrne’s clinical trove of archival relics asks: How can a “monster” survive for so long in the visual imagination and yet remain so resolutely invisible?

The exhibition pivots off of the gallery’s central room which the artist lines with small, framed photographic “sightings” of the monster. A dog’s head peaking out of the water’s surface, a gnarled piece of twisted rope, crocodile-like wooden stumps, and ripples in the water, seem to quietly substantiate the obvious: what we think we see, is not always what’s there. Instead, the perennially camera-shy beast resides in the psycho-geographic topography of our visual imaginations, fed by lashings of popular culture conjecture, Daily Mail headlines and wishful thinking. By employing an analogue as opposed to digital printing technique, Byrne emphasises the connection to individual touch and interpretation, tying site, myth and the viewer into a web of temporal, tactile identification. The presence of a monumental tree stump in the centre of the room — cut through to reveal growth rings dotted with pins — anchors the exhibition, emphasising not only the visceral physical, but also historical connections with which the artist is engaged. Led by a trail of bark shed petulantly onto the gallery floor, the tree stump’s horizontal visual timeline refracts vertically, like a rash on the architecture’s skin, onto a wispy graphite wall drawing, upon which Byrne plasters a frenzied chronology of sightings of the monster. Glossy black and red transcriptions dating back to 1527 liken the beast to a “submarine submerging,” with a “head was like a terriers,” and a “long neck of swan-like appearance,” illustrating the unwieldy historical progression of the myth, as well as the viewers’ relationship to this transmission. Combined with the faint hum of audio recordings of the quotes emanating from the next gallery, Byrne bombards the viewer with a triptych of narrative modes —photographic, audio, and printed — a technique that serves to highlight the role of the viewer as consumer of and conduit for the dissemination of all modern-day myth.

Byrne expands this idea with photographs of bound volumes of The Inverness Courier from 1933. Vivid headlines describe the monster as “Like a black horse” (8 August) or a “Black object with two humps” (October 31st). In tracing the first flurry of monster sightings, the artist suggests a correlation between the myth and the increased use of mass production printing techniques during this time. In this sense, Byrne invokes Brecht’s “alienation” technique, demonstrating, again, the distance between the original “event” and ravenously consumed gossip. With psychic portent, a headline from 12 September 1933 states simply, “Loch Ness Monster – Again,” hinting at an almost resigned acceptance of the legend’s impeding legacy — a longevity that fails to prevent each sighting from evanescing into tomorrow’s chip paper again, again, and again. It matters not that the text in Byrne’s newspaper reproduction is too small to read: much like a large chunk of our present tabloid journalism – it’s all about the headline.

In the exhibition’s final room, Byrne laces the gallery walls with an epic display of photographs taken around the Loch over the past 10 years. Large-scale, black and white images of dead deer, hardy swimmers, and the tree stump from the next room, weave together, building the exhibition to a crescendo of whimsical confusion. Despite the fact that the photographs could well have been shot just the week before, the salt and pepper flecks of heroic monochrome landscape photography transport the viewer back to the 1930s, ravishing them into a dreamlike meditation on historical distance and aura. Black and white is an aesthetic of the authentic, lending the Loch Ness myth the authority of time or what historian Paul Grainge defines as “visual historicism.” Yet, the unmistakable physical presence of Byrne’s wooden photographic subject in the MK Gallery, just feet from its theatricalised alter-ego, complicates this historicization (another Brechtian invocation), thereby blurring the lines between past and present, fiction and documentary, and leaving us suspended between times.

Don’t come to the show at MK Gallery expecting to be titillated by lake-dwelling critters and flights of aquatic fancy: the works are deadpan to the point of frustration, as stark as the dark wooden frames in which he mounts his photographs, and without a slippery saurian in sight. Nevertheless, if you are willing to enter into an intellectual debate about the politics of appropriation and play a starring role as mediator in this discussion, then this is the exhibition for you. For Byrne, the entire world is a stage one way or another.

The show continues until 3 April. www.mkgallery.org

Image: Gerard Byrne: Towards a Gestalt - Loch Ness & Fact. Research ongoing since 2000 AD. Image courtesy the artist.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Northern Art Prize- It’s not the winning…

Review by Bethany Rex

The Northern Art Prize celebrates and rewards contemporary visual artists based in the North of England. Now in its 4th year, it has established itself as a significant and relevant not only in the North, but nationwide too. A maximum of 24 artists are put forward by 12 nominations from the North East, North West and Yorkshire regions. The lucky four who make the shortlist exhibit their work in a group show at Leeds Art Gallery. We popped over to the Award Ceremony not only to extend our congratulations to Haroon Mirza, this year’s winning artist, but to celebrate the contribution of all those who took part.

The Northern Art Prize is judged by a panel, which this year, included Richard Greer (Collector), Susan Hiller (Artist), Mark Lawson (Journalist, Broadcaster and Author), Tanja Pirsig-Marshall (Curator of Exhibitions, Leeds Art Gallery) and Andrea Rose (Director of Visual Arts, British Council). Unusually, however, there is also an online public vote, which was won by Lubaina Himid. There was no prize for this accolades as such, just the knowledge that those who visited the exhibition (it has been on since 26 November 2010) liked your work the best. This supposed gap between public and professional opinion prompts a host of questions relating to awards in the arts; who are they to decide?

There is definitely something to be said for the conversations that occur when we visit exhibitions and spend time with the work. In the gallery it was more than apparent that the conversations surrounding Himid’s Jelly Mould Pavilions (2009-2010) were the most vibrant- unsurprising given the playful yet thought provoking work on display. The effect of Himid’s work is difficult to describe; featuring beautiful and intricate hand-painting Victorian ceramic jelly moulds and prints, surrounded by miniscule figures going about their daily business (my personal favourite was a Muscle Beach body builder in a string vest), the work manages to be interactive despite the fact that, unfortunately, you can look but not touch. Exploring the historical representations of the people of African Diaspora and highlighting the importance of their cultural contribution to the contemporary landscape, Himid explores the social and political issues surrounding black history and identity. It is important to highlight that despite the aesthetically whimsical work on display, these jelly moulds are a device to encourage debate about enslavement, commerce and the pleasure of dialogue.

The crowd surrounding Mirza’s sculptural assemblages and installations was markedly different. A host of puzzled faces, whispered exchanges and raised eyebrows observed Anthemoessa, a combination of Birds of Pray (2010), SOS (2010) and Adhan (2009). Taken from Greek mythology the title, Anthemoessa, is the island where the Sirens are said to have lived, luring unsuspected sailors to their demise by calling out their beautiful song. Birds of Pray is a portrait of two Sirens in which the song is created through malfunctioning electrical items such as a strip light, radio and turntable. The work installed to include Edward Armitage’s (1812-1902) painting The Siren (1888) that has been removed from the Victorian collection and incorporated into the installation. It spills from the video projection points towards the painting, suggesting the works latent narrative. SOS is a siren in itself. An energy saving light bulb slowly revolving over a transistor radio causing interference that generates a sonic accompaniment to the film, Adhan. Texts accompanying Mirza’s work speak of allusions to the contradictions inherent in the Islamic faith and the exploration between hearing and listening, however, perceiving these meanings was difficult and Mirza’s decision to incorporate Armitage’s work into the installation is perplexing. There is much to be said for comments which question the wider value of Mirza’s artistic practice and I think perhaps, including a piece from a time where concepts of artistic skill were both definable and visible only served to add fuel to the fire?

Wider debate aside, the four shortlisted artists; Alec Finlay, Lubaina Himid, David Jacques and Haroon Mirza reflect the broad practice of artists working across rural and urban locations and the exhibition provides a fascinating glimpse into contemporary art practice which should not be missed.

See the exhibition for yourself at Leeds Art Gallery until 6 February 2011. Let us know what you think?

To read more about Haroon Mirza’s work see the "Beyond the Visual: The New Role of Noise" in the February/March issue of Aesthetica. Out 1 February.

www.northernartprize.org .uk

Image: Haroon Mirza, Northern Art Prize exhibition. Credit Simon Warner

Friday, 21 January 2011

London Art Fair 2011 - The Round-Up

Review by Bethany Rex

Presenting over 100 galleries and featuring some exceptional contemporary work from leading figures and emerging talent, this year’s London Art Fair is exceptional. The opening night provided a refreshingly buoyant atmosphere, which was steadily helped along by a crowd of people who were clearly more than ready to shed the incessant recession talk that has hung around arts organisations like a bad omen throughout 2010.

Compared with last year’s 2010 “recession busting” fair, there was a reassuring number of red stickers proving that galleries and artists have strengthened their position in the market. The FAS Contemporary stand was buzzing all night and despite the high-ticked pieces on display there was an amusing piece of theatre created by a seating area made from old crates that could have easily been moonlighting as an installation piece. Until the artist sat down on it.

At Advanced Graphics London, there was an accessible collection of prints by the likes of Neil Canning and Clyde Hopkins. Produced entirely by hand and in collaboration with the artists, the prints are an easy buy-in for those of us whose Amex is still in the post. Carrying on the trend for contemporary and innovative printmaking, Glasgow Print Studio’s stand was a hive of activity, presenting a beautiful new screen print, Oriental Poppies, by Elizabeth Blackadder and a charming image by Moyna Flannigan Mr Lucky.

At bo.lee gallery Ione Rucquoi’s portraits were interestingly juxtaposed next to the anthropomorphic sculptures of Beth Carter. Purdy Hicks’ collection of Tom Hunter images was evocative, particularly in Anchor and Hope (2009) for which there was, a very British, queue to take a closer look. Sims Reed Gallery impressed with a stunning Grayson Perry tapestry and numerous David Hockey etchings.

Photo50 presented a 5th year of the contemporary photography showcase, featuring 50 words and containing a broad range of approaches to contemporary photography with established artists such as Helen Chadwick alongside emerging practitioners. Particularly notable was Lisa Barnard’s series 32 Smiths Square, which documents the abandoned former Conservative Party Headquarters with a sequence of pictures of Margaret Thatcher. Not sure I’d want that on my wall though. On the gallery side, Foley Gallery did what it does best, showcasing a variety of images that inject a much needed sense of humour.

Art Projects, returning for its 7th edition with 31 UK, European and American galleries presenting curated displays was the location for my favourite project of the night. Presented by SUMARRIA LUNN, the provocative work of Glaswegian art collective “littlewhitehead” was pointedly humorous and witty - if not a little dark for some. Emphasised by a smart, and decidedly cute, move to install the work outside of the tradition Fair strand- you are forced to confront the pieces as they become part of the narrative of the occasion.

Commissioned for the London Art Fair, The Struggle, represents the first of a new body of work and invites the viewer into a darker world. The artists have burned 100 copies of Hitler’s ideological text Mein Kampf to dust, mixed and ash with resin and cast it in a mould taken from an antique copy of the Bible. The broader cultural meaning to be found in this piece is evident, however, what stood out to me was the human aspect of the work. Against a background of endless Damian Hirst prints, these brutally honest installations might sit uncomfortably in penthouse apartment but are more than at home here.

There was plenty of name clocking to be done this year. Tracey Emin, David Hockney and one of our favourites David Spiller at Beaux Arts London prove that the art world doesn’t stop for anyone. London Art Fair showed no signs of Blue Monday, showcasing a fantastic (if not slightly overwhelming) array of establishing and emerging contemporary art. Whether you’re looking for the next big thing, browsing, or attending with a view to invest there is plenty to write home about this year.

London Art Fair continues until 23 January at the Business Design Centre, Islington. A series of tours, talks and discussions are taking place alongside the fair this year. All tours and talks are free to attend with your ticket and can be reserved in advance at www.londonartfair.co.uk/talks.

See our review of Abstract Critical@Poussin Gallery in the February/March issue of Aesthetica. Out 1 February 2011.

Image courtesy littlewhitehead and SUMARRIA LUNN.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Filmmaker Series - Part 3 Q&A with Shaun Hughes

We continue our Q&A with the Aesthetica Short Film Competition winners with some insights from filmmaker Shaun Hughes. Shaun’s film, Mother, is an intense and devestating film set in 1970s Scotland. In a remote farmhouse a woman takes her own life, leaving her husband and 12-year-old daughter alone and isolated. As the seasons pass the father’s grief becomes more intense. His daughter tries to relieve his suffering and on the one-year anniversary of the death, and in the wake of their loss, we witness how fully the daughter has fallen into her mother’s role.

To see this film or learn more about the filmmakers read the current issue of Aesthetica Magazine, available online or from a number of stockists worldwide.

The Aesthetica Short Film Competition 2011 is now open for entries and you can find out more here.

How did you begin filmmaking?
I studied painting and went on to do a Masters degree in fine art; through this I was able to focus on expressing ideas through images. My first experiments were more in the realm of video art, striving to express an idea or emotion and my work generally dealt with memory and psychological processes. Through the Fine Art Masters course I started working in narrative film. I believe film is a collaborative medium and continued to work with my friend and collaborator Tim Courtney outside of an educational environment. We formed our small production company Factotum Films, which today consists of me, Tim and Caroline Smith (Co-producer on my short ‘Mother’) as well as our regular collaborators David Falconer and Richard Browne. Much of the film’s success can be attributed to their hard work and commitment to the project.

Who and what are your influences?
I’m interested in modern directors taking genre filmmaking and bringing something new to it, be it a modern take or just an unconventional story. Some films that come to mind are: Paul Thomas Andersons incredibly assured There Will Be Blood, John Hillcoat’s The Proposition and Duncan Jones’ Moon. I have a wide range of interest in film - commercial, arthouse and world cinema and I’m a huge fan of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker is a favourite) as well as the more obvious references such as Martin Scorsese and Jean Luc Godard.

What do you try to achieve through your filmmaking?
I aim to make thought provoking films with an arthouse aesthetic, European in style and execution. Much of my work leans towards the darker side of human experience. There’s intrigue in the shadows and grey areas and I aim to communicate stories and ideas through images and sound in the most interesting way possible.

Can you tell me about the balance between cinematography and narrative, which takes precedence?
Each is highly important in that you need both to be of a high standard to make a successful film. If either one of these elements is weak the film will suffer. For me cinematography dictates the look and feel of the film and provides the images that you use to tell the story, or drive the narrative. The two are interlinked at the most basic level.

Talk me through the process of making a film – working practice, shooting, collaborations, funding?
It starts with the seed of an idea. I find it good not to become too confined within the one idea. For this reason I always have a number of projects at varying stages of production, and I often work on them simultaneously. I think it was Bunuel who said that creativity is a muscle and must be exercised. I subscribe to this. I’ll often write and rewrite a few drafts until I am relatively happy with the idea. I’ll then send the script to friends and collaborators. Everyone has an opinion, get as many as possible.

Collaboration is key and a good producer will be a godsend. Before shooting everything has to be planned and organised within an inch of its life. I often do my own storyboards and write an incredible amount of notes on my script. While shooting I would say a director should focus mainly on performances and drawing the best from the actors, as the cinematographer should be well versed in the desired look of the film. I always edit my own films as I want to be fully in control of the final product. Once I have a rough draft I’ll take notes from my producers and feedback from anyone with eyes. I’ll then set about refining the film before taking more feedback. This process is repeated many times and editing can take months to get things just right.

My films so far have been self funded. ‘Mother’ was made for around £500. However my cinematographer had a lot of his own equipment.

What was the most challenging aspect of making your film?
The most difficult aspect was getting the balance right in telling a potentially controversial story in a controlled, sensitive manner. It would be easy to really get it wrong but hopefully I have managed to tell the story with a degree of subtlety and accessibility, whilst retaining the darkness of the idea.

How would you define cinema culture today? How easy is it to make a film versus the process involved with screening and distribution?
Almost anyone can make a film; the quality of which will vary greatly, but it is very difficult to get distribution in today’s climate. Especially short films. One of the few routes to take is to aim for success in festivals after which it seems shorts often disappear. There are various forms of web-based distribution from Vimeo channels and YouTube, to sites devoted specifically to short films. I believe filmmakers today can’t afford to ignore the Internet as a distribution tool.

How do you feel short films fit into today’s cinema culture?
Short films are important in today’s cinema culture in the same way as short stories are in literature. It’s rare that a filmmaker will start with a feature. There has to be stepping-stones. Shorts can be used in a number of ways. Some filmmakers will use them for ideas, sketches and exercises, and others will use them to tell fully formed stories. Shorts are very versatile.

How do you make yourself stand out from other filmmakers? What’s your plan for marketing your films?
I try to make original films and develop my craft and practice in a way that reflects my influences and sensibilities while retaining a voice of my own. I try to exhibit my work at every opportunity and submit to short film festivals. I have had an art exhibition of production stills, polaroids and storyboards from the making of Mother while I was in post production on the film. This helped to generate interest in the project.

I have set up a Vimeo channel for the production company that I co-founded called Factotum Films and a Facebook Page.

What are your future plans?
I have recently started a 2 year master’s course in Film Directing in Edinburgh, where I plan to make my next two short films. I am also developing my first feature film.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Review: What Next For The Body at Arnolfini, Bristol

Review by Regina Papachlimitzou

Unon entering What Next For The Body, you are greeted by a warm and comfy lounge, complete with inviting brocade sofa and armchairs, a table littered with art books, and low lighting. The gallery is inviting you to take some time to relax, make use of the reading material provided, leave an opinion or just contemplate the exhibition on your way out. This feeling is quite unlike what you might be used to experiencing upon entering the high-ceilinged, almost austere foyer of Arnolfini.

It doesn’t last long. In stark contrast to the cosy familiarity inspired by the little lounge (which could have easily belonged to a friend or neighbour), the first set of artworks looming around the corner plunge the visitor into the unfamiliar, disconcerting environment of what appears to be a biological laboratory. Leaving the lounge behind, you find yourself confronted by Kira O’Reilly and Jennifer Willet’s work Refolding (Laboratory Architectures). The first picture, mounted on the gallery wall, is of a cluttered lab populated with specimens that appear to be loosely following the evolution of life: preserved in jars we can spot seaweed, simple fish, crustaceans, and more complicated fish. There are also skeletons of a bird and two hominids, lonely remnants of once living organisms now reduced to mere science class specimens. In the centre of the lab stands a chest freezer, the lid open to reveal a contorting mass covered in white lab coats; two legs (belonging, presumably, to different individuals) stick awkwardly out from underneath the fabric. No clue or explanation is given as to the origin of these body members: only a lingering sense of the messiness of human life juxtaposed with the meticulousness of the specimens preserved in the lab for study.

A few steps away stands the very freezer featuring in the centre of the previous picture, and peering in it you realise another picture awaits you. It is possibly the same lab, albeit cleared out of everything that isn’t a permanent lab fixture; the sole exception being the freezer that featured in the first artwork, the freezer you yourself are now standing in front of. A mysterious figure is climbing into or possibly out of it: only a leg is visible, a faint “x” carved mid-calf, the foot tensed against the hard surface of the dimly reflecting floor. The rest of the figure is covered by lab coats thrown on in disarray, in a manner that makes them appear like a dishevelled shroud, one which gives little indication as to the outline of the figure beneath it. A similar contortion of the human figure as in the previous artwork is present, only in this work the stark sterility of the surroundings, bare of any other intimation of life, render the solitary figure at once more poignant and more enigmatic. The figure’s position in front of the cooling box mirrors that of the visitor contemplating the artwork; a subtle way of pulling you into the artwork’s unsettling world, of inviting you to question your own position in space, inside your own body.

On the second floor of the exhibition are installed Teresa Margolles’s arresting pieces, 37 Cuerpos (37 Bodies) and Aire (Air). The first work consists of threads once used after an autopsy, to sew up bodies of people who met with violent deaths. The string of threads stretches across the largest gallery of the Arnolfini; the threads themselves are stained dark red or brown, presumably as a result of the various processes followed in the morgue. By confronting us with the physical dregs of post-mortem examination, Margolles denies us the distance we usually enjoy between our own selves and violent death. On a more fundamental level, the artist brings to the fore our discomfort in the face of death: not necessarily the tragedy or senselessness of it, but simply the physical fact of death and how uncomfortable we are with it, how much we have banished its physical reality from our daily experience and from our thoughts.

Tight plastic flaps hang heavily over the entrance of the adjacent room, where Margolles’s second piece, Aire, is installed; the work itself consists of two cooling systems humidifying the air in the otherwise empty room with water previously used to wash bodies before autopsy. A note below the description of the work informs the visitor that “The water used in this installation is completely safe” -a practical consideration, which serves as a poignant reminder of art’s role as a mediator between an individual and tragedy, of its rendering tragedy suitable (digestible almost) as an object of contemplation. It would be fair to suggest that, on some level, experiencing this artwork is almost a non-event –the same way that, often, other people’s deaths can be a non-event, be it due to geographical or social distance, the distance afforded to a medical professional, ignorance, or simply a lack of interest. In this sense, Margolles’s work is at once an honest expression of one of the ways in which we can react to violent deaths that don’t impact on us directly, and an invitation to consider our own (lack of) reaction to other people’s suffering and loss.

In addition to Richard Hancock and Traci Kelly’s haunting work Untitled (After Iconographia), the gallery hosts works by Zoran Todorovic, Jordan McKenzie, and Back to Back Theatre, exploring the themes of corporeality, absence, and their relation to the self.

What Next For The Body continues until Sunday 6 February 2011 at Arnolfini in Bristol. www. arnolfini.org.uk

The exhbition is part of the Inbetween Time Festival of Live Art and Intrigue , which takes place across the streets, sites and art spaces of Bristol. Over 75 events involving 130 artists from the UK and beyond will make up a breakneck programme of live, digital, sound, sculptural, architectural, dance, theatre and guerrilla works. www.inbetweentime.co.uk

Read a Q&A from Issue 34 (Apr/May 2010) with Tom Trevor, Director of Arnolfini.

Image (c) Kira O'Reilly & Jennifer Willet

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Review: Uamh/Cave - Gill Russell at the Royal Scottish Academy

Review by Colin Herd

Every year, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the centre for Gaelic language and culture on the Isle of Skye, hosts an artist residency programme for artists interested in producing work informed by an engagement with Gaelic language, culture and environment. One of the current recipients is installation artist Gill Russell, and some of the work she’s produced in the residency is now on show, for the month of January, in the downstairs gallery at the Royal Scottish Academy. Russell works with sound and light, creating installations that explore and unsettle the sensory perceptions of visitors. Previous work has included Sòlas (2008), a site-specific installation in which viewers were invited to take a nighttime walk through the woods of Glenuig in the highlands until they reached seven fiberglass globes. The globes absorbed light from the sun in the daytime, and reflected it back, blue-tinted into the night-sky. Russell also worked in collaboration with the astronomer John Brown on the ‘constellation project’, in which children from eight Scottish schools chose stars to form a new constellation in 2009.

As well as an artist, Russell is a trained scientist, having completed a PhD in Biochemistry at Aberdeen University before crossing town to enroll at Gray’s School of Art. There is something of the sensory-experiment in her light and sound installations, multi-sensory situations the viewer has to adjust to. Entering Russell’s cave-like installation at the RSA, you step through a thick black-out curtain. It’s a disorienting experience- the room is extremely dark, with just 3 dim blue sculptural installations. I couldn’t initially make out if there was anyone else there until my eyes refocused to the low level light. There’s soft background percussion, sometimes like a heartbeat, sometimes like an echo, sometimes like the sound of running water.

The piece is inspired by ‘Uamh an Ard Achadh’, meaning ‘high pasture cave’, an underground cave used since Mesolithic times, which Russell came across in her time on Skye. The cave has been connected to use as a religious and votive site, in particular to the Celtic Earth Goddess Brigid. Brigid lends an important structural element to Russell’s installation. She was a Celtic ‘Triple Goddess’, one goddess but often ambiguously represented in triplicate along with her two daughters, also named Brigid. Correspondingly, the three light sculptures are individual pieces themselves but part of the larger installation as a whole. Distinct but connected images, all difficult to make out in the dark. As you enter the cave, you’re confronted by twisted blue-lit branches suspend from the ceiling all the way down to a disc on the floor, on which the branches cast a network of shadows like rivulets. The branches simultaneously suggest bones and helical DNA structures. To the left, at knee-level, there’s a hollow, feathery nest-like orb encasing an illuminated blue ovum, floating like an egg on a spongy pillow. The most obvious allusion is to a womb, but the blue light is strange, more distant, even extra-terrestrial. At the far end of the room, in perhaps the most intriguing of the pieces, feathers are suspended from a blue ceiling-light above a pile of bone-like antlers resting atop a dark and muddy spherical heap. The feathers shimmer and flicker in the light at the faintest hint of movement- they could be falling from the sky or rising from the pile of antlers like smoke.

Every aspect of the piece has been carefully considered. The use of organic materials gives all three sculptures an air of fragility. The sounds I was mishearing are in fact recordings made by Russell inside the stream passage in the cave of the musicologist John Purser playing ancient instruments. You pick up the muffled sounds and echoes of the cave in the unfamiliar notes and sounds of bone flutes, harmonic singing and bronze horns. One of the most interesting aspects of Russell’s installation is the way her interventions in sound and light alter the viewer’s perception of time. The piece has a timelessness that stretches back (by evoking the ancient rites performed in the cave) and outwards (by simultaneously suggesting the otherworldly and cosmic).

More pragmatically, you have to slow your perceptions as you adjust your eyes to the dark and move alertly round the room. I found myself creeping around, part nervous and part reverent, as though the low-level lighting and thumping heart-beat audio had triggered a heightened instinctual state of darkness-alert, a connection to the Mesolithic origins of the cave. ‘Uamh’ is a humbling, thought-provoking installation.

Uamh/Cave continues until the 31 January. www.royalscottishacademy.org

Image: Tree Feather Antler Light (c) Gill Russell

Friday, 7 January 2011

Review: Marcel Dinahet at Domobaal, London

Review by Emma Cummins

In a world saturated with images; with photographs, films, videos and video art; Marcel Dinahet’s work is a welcome reprieve. Now in his sixties, Dinahet has been working almost exclusively in video since he abandoned sculpture in the early 1980s. Exploiting the intimacy and transportability of the video camera, Dinahet’s work is characterised by a quiet ambiguity, which resists any straightforward narrative logic.

At first glance his work might seem a little presumptuous; at Domobaal he shows three looped video works and little by way of explanation. There are no titles in the gallery, and although the exhibition pamphlet is illuminating, it is general and does not make reference to specific works in the show. Because of this aspect, Marcel Dinahet, which is available to view by appointment throughout January, requires patience and the desire to find meaning.

For regular gallery-goers, this isn’t too much to ask; in fact it is rather refreshing. A respite from overwrought concepts and closed artistic narratives, Dinahet’s work is more about experience than epistemological gain. Exploring terrestrial and submarine landscapes, Dinahet works from a visual, and deliberately non-political, perspective. Borders, territories and frontiers are evoked, not explained, by an ethereal, liminal aesthetic.

In practical terms, his video works can be loosely distinguished by a few fundamental approaches. In many instances, Dinahet demonstrates a candid approach to documentary video. Shaped by an interest in the particularity of a place, he regularly carries his camera through towns, villages and coastal areas, recording at close range the faces of the people he meets. A fascination with ports, seaside communities and peripheral coastal areas permeates Dinahet’s work; a theme which is regularly attributed to his birthplace – Finistère in western-most Brittany (the name Finistère comes from the Latin ‘finis terrae’ meaning ‘the end of the earth’).

When it isn’t being traversed around remote geographical areas, Dinahet’s camera can often be found underwater. Dragged along sea beds, submerged in rivers or skimming the surface of a high tide; it is occasionally accompanied by a cameraman, but more often than not, it is literally thrown overboard. By relinquishing control, Dinahet allows nature and chance to replace the bodily presence of the artist. The resulting video works wilfully combine unplanned visual footage with images of everyday interfaces, such as the borders between countries, or the limits between air, water and sky.

This technique is seen to great effect in the piece The Sky from under the Sea - La Pointe du Grouin (2010). Projected onto the ceiling of Domobaal’s stairwell (an ornate Georgian stairwell, no less), this subtle, site specific work depicts the view from a seabed looking up to the sky. The liquid fluidity of the water merges ambiguously with a light coloured sky to create a dislocating sense of freedom and movement. Detached from any specific sense of place, The Sky from under the Sea has a beautiful, dream-like quality that infuses the gallery with ambient light and subtle, undulating reflections.

In most of his work, Dinahet chooses not to explore the epicentres of capital, trade and tourism, but the world’s cultural and geographical peripheries. A seeming obsession with the more marginal communities of Europe is typified by works such as Portraits (Pontoise - Pantin) (2010). The piece, a series of filmed close-ups, depicts a selection of randomly chosen Parisian suburbanites.

The area of Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône, famous for the historic Abbaye de Maubuisson, is an area charged with social and cultural friction. In its contemporary setting, the 13th century abbey’s architectural perimeter provides a hang-out for local gangs and idle youths - an aspect unseen in Dinahet’s video. Merely disclosing the faces of anonymous individuals, Portraits (Pontoise - Pantin) has no discernable context or topical urgency. As Celia Cretien explains, the artist has no intention to comment on a social situation.

Bearing in mind the proportions of a portable video camera, the claustrophobic proximity of these wordless human encounters is a physical and psychological test for artist, subject and viewer. By deliberately withholding contextual information, Dinahet detaches the visual from its point of political or geographical interest. In turn, he proffers a curiously neutral perspective; an act which reveals as much about video itself as it does about the people he portrays.

It is in this sense that Dinahet’s work is frequently compared to early Structuralist films where narrative was abandoned in favour of exploring the inherent qualities of the moving image. Here, the ‘face-to-face’ encounter, as theorised by writers such as Emmanuel Levinas, provides a visually and theoretically productive mise-en-scène, when mediated by a mechanical video camera.

The final piece in the show, a diptych featuring the works Figures (Maud LePladec) and Figures 2 (Maud LePladec) (both 2008), is equally rife with critical possibility. Split between two screens (a large central screen and a smaller screen to the right hand side of a viewing bench), an unseen cameraman circles the face of a young woman submerged in a turquoise coloured swimming pool. The floor of the pool is striped with lines of black paint, creating a strong visual contrast between its rigid, architectural structure and the supple movement of the chlorinated water.

The fact that Dinahet casts a ballet dancer in this piece - an aspect revealed only after subsequent research - allows her poise and relaxed self containment to exude a peaceful, unexplained eloquence. The effect, both calming and captivating, is an interesting contrast to the intensity of Portraits (Pontoise - Pantin). Stripped from conclusion, context and conventional narrative structure, Figures provides a rich visual arena from which to contemplate abstract notions such as time, space and being. More metaphorical, and perhaps philosophical, than the other works at Domobaal, it allows for period of peaceful suspension with no call for explanation.

The Marcel Dinahet show at Domobaal continues throughout January, by prior appointment only. Marcel Dinahet has a solo show until 17 January at Galerie Les filles du calvaire, Paris.

Image: © Marcel Dinahet Figures 2 (Maud LePladec)

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Visual and Performance Art for All

Q&A with Alice Lobb, Gallery Programmer at artsdepot. Artsdepot an exciting and vibrant arts venue in North London, committed to providing a diverse range of high quality visual and performance arts for everyone.

Making contemporary art accessible is one of artsdepot’s overriding goals; how do you see artsdepot overcoming the obstacle of funding cuts in order to continue to attain this goal?
The proposed funding cuts to artsdepot's core funding from London Borough of Barnet were a huge shock to us, but we are gathering significant support from the sector and our users. We already have our ACE funding in place for 2011/12 and are currently writing our bid for 2012 – 2015. The team at artsdepot remains positive about our future and is continuing to work on the 2011/12 programme as planned as well as identifying new ways of working to ensure that we are sustainable beyond this. A free gallery programme remains at the heart of these plans.

How would you define the artsdepot experience? What should audiences expect?
Something different every time. The changing programme of exhibitions in the gallery makes available a range of approaches to contemporary art throughout the year. Combined with a lively programme of dance, comedy, music and theatre as well as courses and classes for all age ranges there are a vast array of experiences available. Artsdepot is not just about what happens in the building either, we have a busy outreach programme that introduces different artistic practices to the diverse community of Barnet.

What is it that makes the interdisciplinary format of artsdepot so important?
artsdepot exists because of the result of a consultation that showed that local people wanted improved local access to the arts. It is the only professional arts venue in Barnet and so it is important that it is as a multi-art form venue that strives to serve its diverse local community.

Your programmes show a diverse range of visual and performance arts; do you feel there is an overarching theme for the 2011 program?
artsdepot’s mission is to engage with a wide audience with an inspiring, high quality and inclusive programme. We’ll continue to do this in 2011 by working in partnership with different artists and organisations to show different approaches to contemporary arts practice in the gallery. The overarching theme for the 2011 programme is collaboration; we’ll be showing collaborative arts practices and exhibitions produced through different ways of collaborative working. In February we’re hosting an event for local artists with Emerge that will explore different ways of working in collaboration.

The current exhibition VISITOR focuses on the space between the invented and the real, the represented and the imagined; do you think these themes are symptomatic of a wider theme within art practice?
Ruth Gibson and Bruno Martelli (igloo), who have created VISITOR, see their practice as located in a tradition of exploring the figure and landscape. Inspired by an almost old fashioned human spirit of exploration of the natural world they render their findings using the tools of new technologies. The real and imagined aren’t separated in their installations but combined in a way that blurs the boundaries between them and aims to make the viewer re-think how we experience the world- be it real or virtual. In this way I think their practice is aligned with many contemporary artists who explore the different ways in which we experience the world around us.

Now in its sixth year, Creative Routes, celebrates young artistic talent in Barnet. How does this initiative fit in with the gallery’s programme as a whole?
Creative Routes is developed each year through a partnership between artsdepot, ten local primary schools and a team of professional artist educators who work together over the autumn term to create new artwork that is then shown in the gallery space over the Christmas period. The programme aims to create a unique arts experience for children in Barnet. The project begins with the children coming to the theatre at artsdepot, for many of them it is their first ever visit to a theatre. This visit usually inspires the theme for the artwork that they then work with an artist to create. They develop new skills and enjoy the experience of showing their artwork in a professional gallery. The project also enables artists and school staff to share and develop new skills.

What does your programme look like for 2011?
We launch the spring season with VISITOR- an exhibition of new work by artists Ruth Gibson and Bruno Martelli (igloo). Supported by the Henry Moore Foundation, Arts Council England and the Banff Research Centre this is the first visual arts commission for the gallery at artsdepot. It will be with us between 14 January and 27 February before touring to Lakeside Art Centre, Nottingham.

After that we have Blue Suede Shoes, an exhibition of new drawings by artistic collective Gumbo. Our audiences will be invited to play the same word games that the artists have used to create the work.

Lab Craft: Digital Adventures in Contemporary Craft, curated by Max Fraser in partnership with the Crafts Council, will look at the use of technology as an extension to the capabilities of the human hand. This will be shown at artsdepot from 6 May to 26 June.

We then have artsdepot open, our annual open submission exhibition. I’m working with some of artsdepot’s youth panel on an exhibition for the autumn. They will take the lead on the exhibition theme and artists - working with me to research, devise and organise an exhibition of contemporary art. We end the year with our annual Creative Routes exhibition.

See www.artsdepot.co.uk for full details throughout the year.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead at the British Museum

Review by Robert J. Wallis & Tiffany Jow

Dr Robert J. Wallis is Professor of Visual Culture and Director of the MA in Art History, and Tiffany Jow is a candidate for the MA in Art History; both are at Richmond the American International University in London.

In a lecture given in 1949, the British Museum director Sir John Forsdyke advocated against the sensational exhibitions he saw the institution beginning to embrace:

“The important consideration is this: do these sensational exhibits induce people to take an interest in something better? I think not, but that on the contrary, they encourage them to hope for something worse. In the Mummy Room of the British Museum that hope is gratified by the body of a predynastic man, who crouches naked in his grave among his pots and pans. I do not think that many of the people who look at him give any thought to his historical significance.” (1)

Over 60 years later, the museum’s (free entry) “Mummy Room” remains one of its sensations for many visitors, yet the enduring theme is of voyeuristic consumption over education. The blockbuster Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition, while still sensational (including a £12 entrance fee), is a rather more reverential and studious exhibition, the first of three BP-sponsored (whose controversial mark is conspicuous at the entrance) exhibitions on “life, death and the divine as both a real and spiritual journey.”

The term “Book of the Dead” was coined when many of the first of thousands of specimens to reach Renaissance Europe, centuries before Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs in 1824, were found alongside mummies in burial. This tradition gave rise to the misinterpretation that the Book of the Dead was a definitive text equivalent to the Bible. Its translation as “The Chapters of Going Forth by Day” is more accurate if more cryptic (and the British Museum exhibition does not unpack this meaning). The Western world was introduced to the Book of the Dead by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, (Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, 1893-1924) who purchased the iconic Papyrus of Ani (19th Dynasty, c1275 BCE) for the collection and published his translation, which did much to bring the Book of the Dead to public attention and sparked sensational, enduring interest in ancient Egyptian religion. Because of their sensitivity to light, the Book of the Dead papyri are rarely displayed. The British Museum is home to one of the most comprehensive collections of these papyri in the world, and unveils its treasures here for the first time.

One achievement of the exhibition is to clarify that the Book of the Dead is in fact not a single “book” or ancient Egyptian "Bible", but a diverse range of papyri and the “culmination of a long tradition…of providing religious texts for the dead” (exhibition panel text). Viewers are presented, Jonathan Jones notes, with "individualized books of the dead, each one making a different choice from the corpus of spells, movingly personalized with portraits of the dead person."(2)For the wealthy, such as Hunefer (scribe, steward and overseer of cattle in the reign of Seti I, c1294-1279 BCE), whose Book of the Dead is the best surviving of those from the period of the most elaborate papyri, the manuscript is highly illuminated and personalised to the individual with whom it was entombed. For the less affluent, the mass-production Book of the Dead of its day was available, with space to insert the particulars of the deceased towards its close.

A general perception might be that the ancient Egyptians had a finely-tuned understanding of the afterlife and coherent map of the “Duat” (netherworld), culminating in the Judgement Scene and weighing of the heart against Maat’s Feather of Truth. But the Book of the Dead in fact offers only the basic signposts, landmarks and "spells" (this term, and ‘magic’ are never explained satisfactorily in the exhibition) required to placate the denizens charged with foiling safe passage – something of a “passport to the afterlife.” (3) There were “several possible paths” including to the perfect vision of Egypt called the “Field of Reeds”, a destination hinted at perhaps by the exhibition’s rather annoying ethereal synth soundtrack and bird song (though less intrusive than the forbidding winds at the Moctezuma exhibition).

Certain passages of the Book of the Dead were left open to interpretation, with some papyri containing red text, perhaps by priests or scribes, inserted to offer interpretation. The lack of interpretative text in the exhibition, in the form of direct translations in particular, is an issue, as Jones notes: “Although Budge’s translation is now considered dated, there are clear, modern English translations of many of these spells, and surely there should be more of them on the walls.” (4) Instead, the papyri are accompanied by text explaining what is happening in the illustrations, albeit in a simple, straightforward manner. Ultimately, the British Museum offers a formal, aesthetic, didactic assessment of the Book of the Dead, overlooking the problems Egyptologists face when attempting to translate and understand the papyri. The nuances of Egyptian religion are also brushed over. The sophisticated, flexibility of polytheism is difficult to appreciate in a world dominated by monotheism and/or atheism. Such an exhibition could work harder to transform the stereotypes of cursed mummies, animal-headed (and therefore “primitive”) gods and “Stargate” portals to alien worlds.

Alongside the book of Ani, highlights include Nesitanebisheru’s Book of the Dead (better known as the Greenfield Papyrus) with which the exhibition closes, at 37 metres the longest Book of the Dead on record (displayed in a crescent shape, punctuated with occasional commentary), and never before exhibited to the public in its entirety. Also, the book of Hunefer, famed for its generous illustrations and recently conserved so that its vibrancy and freshness is remarkable. Nesitanebisheru, daughter of the High Priest of Amun at Thebes died c930 BCE, and was clearly a wealthy and powerful woman. Many of the best exhibits are associated with such high-ranking women, demonstrating the agency of women, alongside their men, in Dynastic Egypt. The object confronting viewers as they enter the exhibition (in a room themed “Crossing Boundaries”) is not a papyrus but a stunning painted cartonnage “Mummy Mask of Satdjehuty” (Thebes, 18th Dynasty, c1550-1295 BCE). She is coloured so as to be made god-like, with gilded flesh and blue hair of lapis lazuli. Nearby is the limestone “Ipay of Sah [the body transformed by mummification]”, the “chantress of Amun” (Saqqara, 18th Dynasty, c1390-1352 BCE) and these two female objects are balanced by the steatite “Shabti of Sunero”, an affecting image of a high-ranking man (indicated by his rich dress of a pleated gown, sandals, bead collar and elaborately curled wig) embraced by his ba (“spirit”) in the form of a human-headed bird, its wings enfolding him as he clutches the form to his chest.

In subsequent rooms, taking viewers on a labyrinthine journey simulating that of the dead through the netherworld, artefacts ranging from painted coffins and masks to amulets, jewellery, mummy trappings and tomb figurines, accompany the papyri. Wonderful as all of this visual and material culture is, the exhibition is dominated by the papyri. Some of these are illuminated with wonderful images of animal-headed deities, monsters and the walking dead, but the black hieroglyphs are overwhelming, and one really needs to be into hieroglyphs and papyri to get the most out of this exhibition.

One aim of the exhibition may be to “re-humanise the Egyptians.” (5) Yet still these icons and images are far-removed from Western understandings, a distance which is not crossed by the interpretative text. And the focus on the Book of the Dead inevitably reinforces the stereotype of a death-obsessed culture. The exhibition is both sensational (subdued lighting, deep shadows, ethereal music, deathly black and tomb-like ochre-coloured displays) and serious (the focus, necessarily, is on the minutiae of the papyri themselves) – a tension which should keep most visitors interested. The ambience is one of hushed reverence, despite the crowds, and this is the first time that the cathedral-like mid-nineteenth century dome of the reading room, inspired by Rome’s Pantheon, has been in some harmony the gilded splendour of the objects on display. (The match may be all the more complementary with the next exhibition, Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, Summer 2011).

Journey through the Afterlife is educational in revising stereotypes of the Book of the Dead by offering the papyri themselves to scrutiny alongside some stunning objects, and as such offers an engaging insight into ancient Egyptian understandings of life-after-death, gender dynamics in life, and how "ritual is central to the development of language and writing." (6) But problems of translation are brushed over and rather than rehumanising these ancient Egyptians, they are reified as alien and peculiarly death-obsessed.

(1)Sir John Forsdyke, “The Functions of a National Museum” in Museums in Modern Life (London, Royal Society of Arts: 1949): 3.
(2)Jonathan Jones, “Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead — review,” The Guardian (2 Nov)
(3)Chris Waywell, “Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead’, Time Out (11-17 Nov): 48.
(4)Jones, Ibid.
(5)Alastair Smart, “Egyptian Book of the Dead” — review, The Telegraph (8 Nov)
(6)Waywell, Ibid.

Gilded mummy mask of a person of high rank. A spell from the Book of the Dead is inscribed on the headband, 1st century BC. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead continues until 6 March. www.britishmuseum.org

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Review DAVID MALJKOVIC at Sprüth Magers, London

Review by Charles Danby

From Grafton Street there was little to see. The large glazed exterior of London’s Sprüth Magers offered a near empty room and a side view of a 16mm projector towards its left end, an upfront disclosure of Croatian artist David Maljkovic’s alluring economy and deft intransience towards slightness and concealed thresholds.

On closer inspection the room was, in fact, divided across its width by three slices of line / object, the projector to the left, facing and projecting inwards, a suspended screen to the right of centre, and a heavily framed photograph of similar size hanging on the right side wall.

On entering the space, through a door into the room from the left side, the exterior view across the work, and across the span of its purported projection, from light source on the left to image on the right, was vicariously reversed. Walking in directly behind the 16mm projector the view presented by Maljkovic was as if from “over the shoulder” of the projectionist. A gaze to an eponymous (and actual) silver screen, that floating and seemingly weightless in its suspended form, obscured the photograph which was now directly behind it on the back wall. The stretched silver fabric of the screen - pulled across a simple wooden frame - was marked, scratched, creased, folded and hemmed, giving it a series of vertical and horizontal lines across its surface that were picked-up and animated by the cast projection.

The white light projected from the machine illuminated a matching rectangle within the linear edges of the screen, and in doing so constructed the frame and “image”, which at the same time, through a lack of light, established darkness across the remainder of the surface optically transforming it into a frame or boarder. The moving frames of white light flickered across the screen with juddering uniformity. Light was also cast back from the reflective silver surface, creating a “sunspot” that obscured and moved across the surface with each altered angle of gaze.

Walking through the space and around the silver screen the photographic print could be viewed. It was a “recalled frame” (the title of the show Recalling Frames) from Orson Welles’ The Trail (1962) after Franz Kafka’s 1925 novel of the same name. Kafka’s character and the story of Joseph K (the protagonist in The Trail) is one of action and inaction, of narrative suspended within narrative, inverted, circular and ultimately ungraspable - in so much as that absurdity plays through as both cause and effect. It was here that the industry of Maljkovic, in unpicking and constructing layers of image, material and idea, whilst with it making leaps (metaphorical and actual) between them – of silver screen – made emptiness dissolve.

The photographic print showed a man (the actor Anthony Perkins playing Joseph K) standing in a darkened warehouse with a large empty rectangular light screen behind him. It is a position from which in Welles’ film he speaks directly to camera. Here Maljkovic has removed a rectangular section from the “screen”’, an incision that includes the removal of a large portion of the man, from his waist and elbows upwards. The residual cut marks of Maljkovic’s interaction with his source image were clearly visible within the photograph, which was also marked at its peripheries to the top, sides and bottom, by the text and numeric markings of the film stock used.

In correlating the cut black rectangle of the photograph to the actual suspended silver screen within the space, and the light screen behind the man’s head in the photograph to the projector at the other end of the room, the photograph took on a strange instructional dynamic. It seemingly directed the viewer where to stand within the “installed” elements of screen and projected light, to allow for the photograph to be both replicated, in real time, and at the same moment to have its image inverted within real space.

Permeating throughout the space was an audio track, excerpts taken from Welles’ film, slipping dialogue that seemed to poignantly echo from the darkened corners and recesses around the photographed figure.

Away from the glass frontage a second room showed four even sized photographic works, matching in size and framing to the one in the first room. These showed layered montages of film stills (again from Welles’ The Trial) cut with photographs taken by Maljkovic of the same buildings that featured in the stills, shot from the same angles. Much of Welles’ The Trail was filmed in the streets of Zagreb, and Maljkovic engendered this, constructing through image intersections of real space that cut through layers of recent past within Croatia and its former status as SFR Yugoslavia.

In one of the affecting works [all titled Recalling Frames (2010)] three silhouetted figures huddled to the left of centre of the frame, as if in dialogue, seeming to occupy an internal space, they evoked some sentiment of an inverted Edward Hopper painting, being instead collectively refracted through a complex matrix of intersecting external spaces. Maljkovic’ s works retained a sense of compositional mapping, of cinematic movement and rich opportunity for the detail often missed, or simply unseen, in the unrelenting spin and cycle of flickering light and silver screen.

Recalling Frames closed on 23 December 2010. The next show to open at Sprüth Magers, London will be Cindy Sherman on 12 January. www.spruethmagers.com

Image © David Maljkovic courtesy Sprüth Magers

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