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Friday 17 December 2010

Review: Fresh Hell at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris

Review by Rosa Rankin-Gee

There is something life-affirming about the queues to see art in Paris. Perennially long, and slow, and full of people complaining in a buoyant way. I was having a great time, until I realised I had actually joined the queue out of fondness rather than necessity, and was about to see Larry Clark at the Musée d'Art Modern for the second time in a week.

The Palais de Tokyo is just next door. Same egg-coloured building, different interior: hamster tubes, strip lighting and the famous fotoautomat. Fresh Hell sees the Palais give curation carte blanche to Adam McEwen, the New York-based British artist best known for his obituaries of the living, and turning chewing gum and text messages into artworks.

A privilege thus far only afforded to Ugo Rondinone in 2008 and Jenny Deller in 2009, the carte blanche is intended to map the artist’s brain, desires and influences. McEwen’s Fresh Hell is his dance through history, “unfettered” by chronology. Or, as it turns out, cohesion.

Visitors are greeted by three of the heads of the Kings of Judah, brutish 13th century relics lopped off the facade of Notre Dame by an angry mob during the Revolution. Directly behind them, the pointedly distracting backdrop of Rudolf Stingel’s tin foil wall, scratched with love hearts, and studded with paper planes and stabbed-in pens. The exhibition’s sense of self is perhaps clearest here: sabotage old and new, meaningful and less so.

Yet, also sharing the room is the cover image of the exhibition, Hanna and Klara Liden’s Sisters: two girls with thick knees and black rubber work boots. An arresting photograph, which deserves attention, it is out of sync with its roommates and thus nearly lost. This is characteristic of the show as a whole: it is a curiously strung necklace where mismatched beads weigh down the thread to breaking point.

Room two jerks us into Michael Landy’s Market, mini mountains of plastic crates draped with fake lawn carpets, a grocer’s market bereft of stock or customers. A statement about Thatcherism, the art market or economic recession, the 1990 installation (from the heyday, like many of the exhibits, of the YBA) declares itself ‘despairingly empty’, but this just seems like a perfunctory attempt to pre-empt criticism.

Fortunately, Hell gets a bit hotter with Anna Mendietta’s oddly touching self-portraits of her naked body straddling a skeleton, and Bruce Nauman and Frank Owens’ Pursuit, a film of 15 different people running, shot in disorienting, shaky-handed close-ups to a claustrophobic soundtrack of pounding feet and short breath.

Theoretically, the show skates through six stages: “genealogy”, “consecration”, “Danse Macabre” and “pilgrimage”, finishing with a dose of “mescaline” and finally “cemeteries”. These themes are borrowed from HC Westerman’s Connecticut Ballroom Suite, a bright and delicate sextet of woodcuts which nod to muralism, Dali and even Pop-Eye. Westerman’s six-piece Suite comes too late in the show however, and too understatedly, for its influence on McEwen’s curation to seem like anything other than a strapped-on afterthought. In fact, one theme, not six, emerges. The relentless runners, a transparent maze, a broken-into safe: futility is the order of the day. Sarah Lucas’s Is suicide genetic’ - a burnt armchair, throne to a motorcycle helmet made out of Marlboro Lights – neatly sums up the leitmotif.

In fairness, there are also moments of great playfulness (Barbara Bloom’s Playboy for the Blind: Marilyn Monroe seductively reading Ulysses on one page, a Braille description of the image on the opposite) and also fine workmanship. A late 15th century wood statue of Saint Florian, pin pricked with wood worm, is just beautiful. This is the problem: the water Florian pours onto a burning building is captured so well in wood that it makes one crave skill, and feel somewhat despondent about the ‘modern’ pieces that surround it. For example, Jessica Diamond’s Is That All There Is?, which poses the question atop a Clip Art image of the world, and Angela Bulloch’s flashing Belisha Beacons which are... exactly that, unadorned and unfortunately placed close to Martin Creed’s Work no. 925: 4 chairs, stacked together. Futility once again, and ferociously self-aware of course, but still, this is the type of art that won the YBAs their critics.

McEwen finds it exciting “when one work is allowed to generate friction with another.” Agreed. And flamboyant juxtaposition clearly lies at the heart of Fresh Hell. Yet there comes a point where ‘anarchic’ or ‘sprawling’ just become nice ways of saying ‘messy’ and, ultimately, ‘confused’.

McEwen’s only personal contribution to the exhibition comes very near the end. Hommage to Sigmar Polke – a scribble on the wall done with blue and cream masking tape which vaguely depicts a human form. Yes, there is certain irreverence, and a charm in the way the simple lines echo the cracks on the Palais’ shiny cement floor. However, like the overarching effect of the exhibition, it left me indifferent.

You exit the exhibition through Agathe Snow’s Yes, a wall full of a word which is perhaps deliberately inappropriate. Many will walk out of McEwen’s carte blanche with a question in mind rather than an answer: what Fresh Hell is this?

Rosa Rankin-Gee
Writer, and Editor of A Tale of Three Cities www.taleofthree.com, the first arts journal to join up the dots of London, Paris and Berlin, and Alight here: The Tube Project www.alighthere.co.uk

Fresh Hell contines at the Palais de Tokyo until 16 January 2011. www.palaisdetoyko.com

Hanna & Klara Liden, Untitled (Sisters), 2006. Colour photograph, 101 x 76 cm. Courtesy of the artists.

Thursday 16 December 2010

About A Minute – The Gopher Hole, London

Review by Carla MacKinnon

The Gopher Hole is a brand new venue and project space nestling beneath El Paso Restaurant at 350-354 Old Street in London. It's a cosy basement venue but the gallery's founders - aberrant architecture and Beatrice Galilee - have big plans for it. With an interest in “popular culture across borders”, The Gopher Hole looks to curate ideas and to facilitate critical debate on contemporary culture, the arts and society. The venue promises a diverse programme, from exhibitions and film screenings to interdisciplinary events and discussion.

Last Thursday, The Gopher Hole opened its doors to a small army of smart looking East London art lovers for a private view of its inaugural exhibition – About A Minute. The show takes as its starting point the increasing speed and availability of information, images and data and the correlating shortening of the common attention span. In a culture communicating through 140-character tweets and absorbing knowledge by skimming the ocean of information available at the touch of a button, sustained focus is increasingly rare. In the gallery context this can prove a frustrating challenge for curators. Should an artist respond to the needs of an increasingly skittish and time-poor audience, even at the expense of subtlety or detail? Must artists learn the tricks of advertisers and marketeers to compete with the noisy razzle dazzle of the city for public attention?

In About A Minute a selection of artists, designers, architects and writers respond to “a minute”, presenting a varied and lively take on the theme. The gallery is littered with compelling objects, all vying for the fickle attentions of the visitor. An old cassette player is screwed to a wall invitingly. When the play button is pressed the listener is treated to a minute long spoken word piece by poet Luke Wright, describing all the things that happen simultaneously “in the time it took you to tell me what I already knew”. The choice of the analogue, old school medium is a nice touch. After listening the visitor is instructed to wind the tape back, a reminder of magnetic tape's reassuringly physical method of capturing a period in time. Ralf Pflugfelder's striking conceptual piece The New Minute Society proposes a new kind of minute – one consisting of just 48 seconds. Wonderfully simple, the work consists of a digital clock running this new form of measuring time, alongside an oddly convincing (while entirely absurd) text encouraging viewers to sign up to the New Minute Society and enjoy the benefits, which include more leisure time and a longer lifespan. Elaine W Ho's Getting Cold This Time of Year invites the visitor to take away a watch face with no minute hand. Hundreds of these tiny, ticking objects wait in a box for the hungry hand of the gallery-goer, ever keen on an exhibition souvenir. In an adjacent box, however, is a collection of typed cards laying out a set of slightly oblique conditions to adhere to if you choose to take one of the devices. These include the avoidance of references to time in conversation, or to any discussion of 'meeting up again, talking soon or staying in touch'. The watches live on it the pockets of the visitor, a ticking reminder of these suggestions. Whether anyone will adhere to the requests on the card is questionable though the pleasing, if largely useless objects are satisfying in their own right.

There are over a dozen more artworks in this diverting and diverse show, which is well worth a look in. It is playful and not too precious, an engaging sketchbook of ideas. The most exciting element is in the curation of the contributors, cutting-edge practitioners from a cross-section of disciplines. This variety of voices seems central to The Gopher Hole's cultural mission, and the result bodes well for this colourful new project space.

About A Minute runs until 13 February 2011. www.holygopher.com

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Review: From Back Home at the National Media Museum, Bradford

Review by Ceri Restrick

The National Media Museum sets the bar for exhibiting world class art and culture. Swedish photographers, Anders Petersen (b. 1944) and J.H. Engström (b. 1969) opened From Back Home in October at NMM in Bradford. Having already exhibited in Paris and Stockholm, Bradford may not seem like the obvious choice for a UK debut; however, since Bradford became the recipient of the UNESCO City of Film Award in 2009, the city’s international reputation has grown dramatically. Because of this, it seems all the more appropriate that Petersen and Engström make their debut in Bradford at an innovative museum that boasts eight floors of galleries and three cinemas including an IMAX.

From Back Home originally started out as a book and is the physical manifestation of seven years of collaboration between Petersen and his assistant, Engström. Both Petersen and Engström are seasoned photographers with Petersen winning the Photographer of the Year award at the Arles Photography Festival in 2003 and being shortlisted for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize in 2007, while Engström started off as Mario Testino’s assistant and was also shortlisted for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize in 2005 for his book Trying to Dance (Journal 2004). Although both men are a generation and genres apart, they are linked by their shared history of Värmland, a rural backwater of Sweden where industry is in decline, long lakes and forests are in bountiful supply and town life is rarely interrupted by newcomers. These influences likely had an impact on the gallery space, which is like stepping into a design studio; clean cut with sharp graphics and sultry lighting.

Engström’s collection captures the viewers’ imagination. From the first glance it looks like an arrangement of simple portraits, but upon closer inspection the images reveal subjects who are gazing at the camera with a range of intense expressions; blue eyes pierce the viewer’s gaze and the familial and the familiar seep out of the frames exposing the relationships between the sitters. There is very little text accompanying the images, but this opens up the viewers’ imagination and ultimately permits the story of the artist to unfold, as we glimpse into each image, the narrative of teenager years causes reflection, and draws out the tiniest hint of nostalgia. Engström’s final montage reveals his personal involvement; the image of his naked body next to a medical diagram of genitalia juxtaposed with a variety of objects and landscapes is particularly striking.

A dramatic change from colour to black and white photography ensures that the audience’s gaze is steered to Petersen’s work. His angles are closely focused, with intimate portrayals of subjects that are haunting and terrifying: a snowman with holes for eyes, the rearing head of a horse, a slaughtered deer, the flesh of couples and the white blonde hair of children. Petersen’s use of sharp contrast is as distinctive as Tomas Alfredson’s cult horror film Let the Right One In (2008) and exudes the kind of small town community which the film explores. While their photographic styles are quite different, Engström adopts an analytical angle of his personal experience, while Petersen’s camera pervades the space of strangers; both photographers create intimacy and disconcertion with their juxtaposition of styles and their keen insight into the psyche of their subjects, provoking the melancholic joy of memory.

Greg Hobson, Curator of Photography at the Museum, remarks: “Neither photographer has attempted to make an objective portrayal of their homeland; instead they instinctively explore their memories; photographing friends and family, alongside people and places that are connected with their own recollections of growing up. The resulting images are affectionate, sometimes brutal and sometimes funny, but binding both men’s work are threads of sadness and solitude; Petersen described his recollections as ‘little hard memories of sad and lonely times’. It is this reflection of the memory’s ability to evoke such contradictory, yet complementary emotions that make From Back Home so noteworthy.”

From Back Home continues at the National Media Museum until 27th March 2011. Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday 10:00 – 18:00. Free Entry. www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk

Image: Untitled, From Back Home, 2001 – 2008 © Anders Petersen

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Review: MK2Morrow: One Small Step for Milton Keynes

Review by Nicola Mann

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away urban designer and theorist Melvin M. Webber devised a radical plan for a “new town” located in the then deep space hinterland between London and Birmingham. Atop a grassy plateau previously occupied by cows, sheep and swirling fog emerged Milton Keynes, a vision far in advance of its 1960s origins. Responding to Britain’s ever increasing rates of car ownership, Webber designed the town with mass automotive mobility in mind--an Americanised grid network of duel carriageways peppered with sleek roundabouts laced together shops and housing districts, lending it the air of a mini Los Angeles. Saving residents from a life sentence ensconced within the confines of their cars, Milton Keynes was also conceived as a Garden City, integrating 4000 acres of parkland, wildlife, and mazes of cycleways into its design. Love it or loath it—and the Prince Charles heritage bandwagon just loves to loath it—Milton Keynes embraced a spectacularly unique code of living.

Well, until today that is. Subject to “densification” orders from central government, Milton Keynes recently morphed into the kind of town it was most often accused of being but nevertheless proudly resisted. Milton Keynes became a non-place, marked by voluminous Amazon and Argos warehouses, predictable high-rises, and homogeneous chain pubs. Akin to a giant conveyor belt in an airport departure lounge, MK as it’s commonly abbreviated, is now as bleak and transient as the indoor ski slope that now dominates its skyline, leading some residents to ask for the first available flight out.

This month Leeds-based art collective Black Dogs step into this vortex, determined to reinstate residents as central stars in the town’s planning process. Except the artists’ projected (new) new town isn’t just another tacked on amendment to MK’s existing boulevards and business districts: this MK2 is, quite literally, a whole new world. Inspired by the recent scientific discovery of Gliese 581g, an inhabitable planet outside our solar system, MK2Morrow: One Small Step for Milton Keynes proposes that as pioneers of their own little planet, the town’s residents stand best equipped to manage the design of the new space colony. The exhibition asks: “What do you wish to retain, fabricate and develop of the original MK and what will the towns and cities look like?”

The first of three themed rooms invites visitors to provide answers to these questions by contributing to “The MK2 Survival Kit.” Tacked on the gallery walls, residents’ “how to” cards encircle a glossy revolving prototype of this skills-bible like small planets orbiting the sun. The highlights of the exhibition, these amusing nuggets of wisdom include instructions on “vital” life necessities such as how to dance, -cure a hangover, -roll a rollie, -play a heavy riff, and my own personal favourite, how to weigh a dog. “Will such life-skills prove indispensable to the future generations of MK?” ask the artists. Probably not, but what saves this from being a mean-spirited backhanded swipe at the “cultural legacy” of MK (or lack thereof), is the self-deprecating nature of the step-by-step guides and diagrams. Only a town as affable as MK could produce type-written instructions on how to organise a serious peace protest at the same time as offering a child’s guide to constructing a bunch-of-grapes fancy dress costume.

The audience-generated nature of the exhibition continues in the next room where visitors are invited to assume the role of architect and city-planner via the “Massive Tiny Space Colony” installation. Prior to the show’s opening earlier this month, Black Dogs distributed packs of postcards around MK leaving those that find them with materials to create small architectural models of the homes they would like to live in. Perhaps reflecting the sticky-back plastic Blue Peter-ness of this request, the resulting city plan--conceived around a cardboard land use model designating facilities (housing, schools, roads, church, etc) and values (public awareness and participation, etc)--has the feeling of an end of term trip to the Science Museum. Flickering strobe lighting fails to enliven a somewhat tired educational agenda, which lacks the frivolity and ad hoc originality of the previous room.

Madness returns in the form of a Smithsonian-style recreation of what Black Dogs predict will become the lasting symbol of community life in MK in years to come. So, what should every great society revere as its very own memory palace? A theatre? Schools? An exit portal to get you home should the galaxy be set upon by the Sith Army? No, as any English person worth their salt knows, the pinnacle of any town is, of course, the good old pub. Here, in the darkened realms of the third and final themed room, visitors find “The Pub at the End of the Universe”, bedecked with all the trappings of a traditional drinking experience: flocked wallpaper, Mr. Porky snacks, and the unmistakable squelch of beer-stained carpets. While supping London Pride, visitors are again asked to share stories, anecdotes, facts and fiction relating to MK on postcards dotted around the wooden bar. This is all great, except for the fact that unless you’re mad or an alcoholic (or both) no one wants to wax lyrical about the “good old days” by themselves, do they? On that cold wintry afternoon, I was the sole sad visitor to the “pub” and this is where the challenge for the exhibition lies. While fantastically original in theory—the artists have an important point to make about what defines a “community” as well as the government’s involvement in the nation’s housing--they need bums on bar stools to make it a success. At the moment, the proposed MK2 space colony is more New Romney than New York.

Carve out some space in your schedule to make the pilgrimage to MKGallery before the show closes on 2 January 2011. www.mkgallery.org

Monday 13 December 2010

Review: Turner Prize 2010

Review by Joseph Ewens

Now in its 26th year, The Turner Prize has become an epicentre for contemporary art debate. Its mission to highlight the work of the country’s finest new creators places it firmly in the firing line for modern art’s detractors. Imagine the bubbling cauldron of fury unleashing itself onto internet message boards when it was announced that this year’s winner, Lowlands by Susan Phillipsz, doesn’t even feature anything you can see.

Thirty seconds in her room at the Tate Britain ought to convince you otherwise. The soundscape, crafted from three a capella renditions of a traditional Scottish folk tune, pushes the boundaries of auditory sensation. Her three recordings are meshed together to create a sound that is often asynchronous, but always whole. Philipsz was nominated for her installation under the bridges of Glasgow and versions of the piece can be heard at locations around the country.

Even with only an empty room to work with, her quavering performance has a profound effect. It feels as if the walls have come to life, singing a lament for all they’ve seen; reporting the sad history of their existence to the fleshy creatures who pass between them. Sometimes an almost inaudible call will come from one corner, with the rest of the room joining in chorus for the refrain. It’s a truly beautiful noise; of the kind only art could create.

To be fair to the Turner Prize’s wailing critics, some of fellow shortlister, Angela de la Cruz’s work could simply be detritus. Clutter I, for example, is indistinguishable from broken canvas and wood, dumped without thought into the middle of the floor. Thankfully, the rest of her deformed paintings are more effective, in particular Super Clutter XXL. The striking pink canvas is scrunched to one side, as if it has passed through some alternate dimension and come out the other side. Untitled is similarly space-warping. Attaching a matte black cuboid to an off-kilter, but otherwise pedestrian, filing cabinet, translates the metaphysical impact of all items onto the physical plane.

The exhibition opens with a room of paintings by Dexter Dalwood. His work is a mish-mash of objects, ideas, and references, each designed to represent a pivotal person or moment in Western culture. There’s a collage-like feel to a lot of his paintings, as if things relevant to the subject have been stuck haphazardly on top of each other. It creates a kind of perceptual dissonance, which can be distracting.

The simpler his work becomes, the better it is. Lennie, an evocation of the warm-hearted dullard from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, would be a comfortable portrait of idyllic American countryside, if it weren’t for a great rip in its centre. The gash, coloured in red and black, is a straightforward but effective metaphor for the way Lennie destroys George’s dreams with his own unwitting oafishness. Even simpler, and even better, is the stark Death of David Kelly. It is a very lonely painting that captures the isolation of a man becoming the epicentre of a media tornado.

The fourth and final shortlisted artists are known collectively as The Otolith Group. The first of their two video installations is a re-cut of Chris Marker’s French documentary about Greece. It’s an intellectual work that probably deals with some exciting and interesting issues, but a gallery isn’t really the place to watch a 13-part TV series.

What you should spend your time doing is sitting at the other end of the room, gazing at the 49 minute film, Otolith III. It takes inspiration from Satyajit Ray’s un-filmed screenplay, The Alien, presenting a tale from the perspective of the script’s fictional characters, who blame the director for not bringing them to life.

Things get a little more convoluted when one of the characters appears to be creating a film-within-a-film. The images on screen are culled from Indian films, combined with documentary clips of Ray and 1960s London, picked to match-up roughly with the voice-overs from the various characters. It’s a wonderfully mind bending idea that’s a pleasure to unravel, before you start considering what it has to say about the way created people cultivate an existence beyond the page.

The Turner Prize is likely to remain as controversial as ever, regardless of the work it champions. It’s best to ignore the hubbub and enjoy the exhibition for what it is - a snapshot of quality contemporary art that, while not truly exciting, repays engagement with insight, invention, and pure aesthetic pleasure.


Image: Susan Philipsz
Lowlands 2008/2010
Susan Philipsz at Turner Prize 2010
© Courtesy the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York and Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin. Photo: Sam Drake and Lucy Dawkins, Tate Photography
3-channel sound installation, duration 8 minutes 30 seconds

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