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Thursday 23 December 2010

Nam June Paik at Tate Liverpool and FACT

Review by Kenn Taylor

As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, it appears as if “media art” is finally being accepted as a high art form. It has been nearly 60 years since Nam June Paik’s first experiments with sound, television and video emerged into the international art consciousness, and so reaching a point of major institutional recognition highlights just how far ahead of his time he really was. Perhaps more profoundly, this first major retrospective since his death in 2006 signifies how so many of his ideas predicted our present day multimedia world, which is saturated with technology, information and interactivity.

Exhibited across both Tate Liverpool and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Tate does what it does best with a grand narrative retrospective, while FACT does what it does best with a focus on examining Paik’s use of video and cutting-edge mediums from the 1970s onwards.

Paik began his creative work with music. The first section at Tate examines, how his relationship with the radical composer John Cage informed all his later work and how, despite not considering himself a “visual artist”, he began to move into new mediums saying: “I knew there was something to be done in television and no one else was doing it." Despite this, in his later work, he retained many of the concepts he learned whilst composing avant-garde music; chance, interaction and pushing the limits of technology.

From his earliest works Paik wanted to break down the boundary between artwork, artist, and viewer and viewed. The great hulk of Video Synthesiser 1969 (1992), developed by Paik and engineer, Shuya Abe, to allow participants to manipulate images on a screen without specialist technical knowledge, is startling. A lump of knobs, dials, leads and CRT monitors, it allowed, the general public (perhaps for the first time) to do what previously only broadcast engineers could do and what today any kid with a basic computer and internet connection could do.

As with so much retrospective documentation of performance and experimental work, the old televisions and tape machines detailing early works can only hint at the experience of witnessing or using them at the time. It's hard to imagine when these common devices were cutting edge pieces of technology that were being used in a radical way, particularly now, because analogue TV sets and tape machines look like nothing more than junk-shop relics.

The best of Paik’s work though, transcends this. TV Garden 1974-77 (2010) one of his first large-scale installations, a series of televisions placed among a myriad of tropical plants each showing a mesmerising television mash-up Global Groove (1973) that could be a proto-YouTube video. Its continual, rhythmic flickering colours and sounds are beautiful, illuminating the foliage in the darkened room, and a prominent example of how Paik wanted to break down the barriers between the natural and technological.

Underpinning this were Paik’s Zen Buddhist beliefs. Often highlighted as his signature motif, his collection of “TV Buddhas” epitomises much of his art and philosophy. The ancient Buddhist symbol, in a variety of guises, sits watching a TV screen, displaying clearly, the interaction between humanity and technology and the contrasts he so loved; the Eastern and the Western, the old and new, the technological and the spiritual.

The contextual information in the gallery further highlights Paik’s desire for global human connectedness through technology. He is credited with coining the term “Information Superhighway” back in the 1970s. His foresight is also highlighted in 1994’s Internet Dream, a video wall displaying a constant stream of rapidly changing garishly coloured scenes to hypnotic effect shows his early awareness of our move towards information saturation and his celebration of its constant expansion with every shift forward in technology.

At FACT meanwhile, the cavernous Gallery 1 is entirely taken up by the spectacular installation Laser Cone 1998 (2001). A tent-like structure you lie beneath and experience an overwhelming, intense laser show. Like Internet Dream, it seems to reflect Paik’s interest in subjecting the viewer to the beauty inherent in visual overload.

Gallery 2, by contrast, is set out like a chic lounge where, armed with remote control, you’re invited to flick through hours of Paik’s video works. Some of Paik’s riffs on the potential of the medium and his love for pushing it to its limits look retro, in some cases, just boring, compared to today’s potential for intervention and experiment with media. However, their influence, on everything from MTV to Skype and today’s video artists, is clear and profound.

This retrospective is comprehensive, but not overwhelming, and, even spread across two venues, it’s easy to navigate through the artist’s life and career. This enables visitors to clearly see how his work morphed and changed with the times and advances in technology.

Paik was a pioneer of “media art”, yet it seems he always wanted what we have today. Not only did he realise the potential for technology to be used in art, but its potential to allow the viewer to take a more active role, for mediums to merge, and for anyone to make or manipulate the content. Paik understood that technological art needed to move beyond the medium, and like all great art, to be about humanity and its relationship to the world. This show is a must-see.

Nam June Paik continues until 13 March 2011 www.tate.org.uk

Nam June Paik demonstrates Zen for Walking 1961
© Manfred Montw√©. Photo: Photo by Manfred Montw√©

Consumerism & Desire at Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art, Sydney

Review by Isabella Andronos

Sherrie Knipe’s work in Bootiful, at Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art in Sydney explores the tensions between consumerism and desire. Knipe has created enigmatic sculptures using pine, plywood, and acrylic, with each work synthesising a type of consumer product. Focusing predominantly on shoes and handbags much of Knipe’s work in Bootiful can be seen as coded with a sense of the feminine.

Consumer brand names have become synonymous with ideas of mass production, sweatshops and slave labour. Having delicately created each sculpture, distinctions are forged between Knipe’s artwork and the consumer products they are based on. Each of Knipe’s sculptures is imbued with a sense of the fake. They are not designed to be functional, consumer items. Knipe’s works are not replicas, but yet aim to imitate items from a consumer culture.

Sherrie Knipe’s elegant sculptures of shoes appropriate popular styles of footwear, combining them with minute details hidden within the pattern and surface design. She has created works that resemble Converse Chuck Taylors, NIKE dunks and Birkenstocks. Utilising elements of design from these styles, Knipe has added small details of keys, pegs, combs, and lace in each respective pair. Coloured in neutral beige tones of the wood, the shoes take on an organic feel. Linked with the titles of the works, Knipe’s sculptures read as visual puns. For example, Knipe combines a flip flop style shoe and a series of small combs of various designs located within the sole. In this sense, the style of shoe represents the beach, and combined with the combs, the work corresponds to the title, Beachcomber (2010). In a similar vein, Feed Bag (2010) shows a clear acrylic handbag exterior, filled with cutlery shapes carved out of wood. Spoons, knives and forks can be seen fitted within the interior handbag space. By titling the works in this way, the audience is challenged to consider hidden meanings in the works.

Sherrie Knipe’s Boot Bling (2010) is a sculpture of a sneaker which resembles a classic Converse Chuck Taylor style shoe, created using pine veneer and cotton. Knipe explores the idea of design excesses within this work, as she depicts a series of smaller sneakers dangling off the back of the shoe. The use of the word bling in the title of the work is referencing these smaller sneakers as a decoration or adornment. Bling is defined by flashy or gaudy jewellery, named for the sound generated when worn. It is seen as a status symbol, worn as a means of promoting standing within specific sub-cultures. Within Knipe’s sculpture, the shoe is rendered functionless by this adornment, it is an impractical design. The distinctions between consumerism and desire are explored, as Boot Bling (2010) becomes a symbol of the excesses in the Western world.

A similar sense of repetition is explored in Baggushka (2010) created out of pine and found veneers, cotton and plywood. Sherie Knipe’s sculpture shows a large handbag with a series of tiny handbags attached to the strap, each getting progressively smaller. The handbag can be seen as a gendered item, an item designed and marketed to appeal to women. To have three bags dangling off a larger bag can be seen as somewhat superfluous. By presenting audiences with a design where impracticality has replaced function, Baggushka (2010) allows audiences to consider the surpluses of consumerism and design.

There is an interesting distinction between the sculptural objects Knipe has created, and products which they are based on, which could essentially be bought at a shopping centre. There is an inherent obsolescence associated with fashion in contemporary society; new collections are released each season, trends change, a sense of the “new” is valued. Bootiful functions to question this consumer need. Elevated to the status of art, Knipe’s sculptures are exhibited in the gallery space, they are static; they are not worn, or used, or displayed as a status symbol. They are not thrown out at the end of the season. In this sense, the excesses of a consumer driven society are referenced in Bootiful, with each sculptural piece showing us a reflection of these indulgences.

Bootiful closed on 19 December 2010. To see the forthcoming programme at Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art visit their website www.ssfa.com.au

*Take Away Series
Knipe, Sherrie 2010
Recycled pine
19 x 5 x 15.5cm

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Camera-less Photography at Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

Review by Colin Herd

As processes go, few are more mysterious and fascinating than the seemingly paradoxical art of camera-less photography. With its roots in early photographic experiments, camera-less photography retains flashes of the exciting cusp before the advent of abundant, mass-reproduced images, a time when creating a photographic image involved a seemingly magical communion of light, artist, chemical and time. At the same time, with its emphasis on process, chance and its capability of abstraction, the camera-less photograph feels remarkably in-step with contemporary concerns and art-practices. At the Ingleby Gallery this winter, and running concurrently to a major survey of camera-less photography at the V&A, A Little Bit Of Magic Realised showcases career-spanning work by Garry Fabian Miller and Susan Derges, two contemporary artists who for over 20 years have been making fresh and experimental photographs without a camera.

Honesty, May - September 1985, is the earliest piece in the exhibition by Garry Fabian Miller. It’s made using the dye-destruction printing process, where dyes are embedded in photographic paper, and destroyed or preserved in proportion to the image. The images in Honesty are seed-heads, arranged in a grid and seen at monthly stages of its cycle of development from left-to-right, and weekly stages of each month from top-to-bottom. The changes in colour are striking: brown in May, gorgeously sharp and green in June, faded but with tints of red in July, blackening like a virus in August and a purified dull-cream in September. Just as destruction, development, light and exposure are an inherent part of Fabian Miller’s process in the production of these images, so too are they an unmistakable part of the cycle he depicts, which gives the images a great sincerity, an at-oneness between the artist, the process and the image.

More recent work sees Fabian Miller using a similar dye destruction process to create striking and stark works of chromatic abstraction by exposing images with different durations of light. Exposure (12 Hours of Light) from 2005 is a large thin red ring drawn over 9 black rectangles. The eye is drawn to the fuzzy margin where red meets black, and the counter-intuitively smooth cohabitation of shapes: circle and rectangle. The Night Cell (Winter 2009-10) is a blue circle on a darker blue rectangular background, pocked by bursting dots of light, like little starlets, or like the structures of a cell. The relation of the piece to the physical world is only one of its aspects, though, and as a work of abstraction it is tense and mesmeric, an exploration of colour, light and shape.

Susan Derges is best known for her images of water, often made by submerging sheets of photographic paper at night and exposing them by moonlight with the aid of a flash-gun. Because of the time involved in the process, her work is able to capture and explore some of water’s changing, shifting, un-static qualities. Her piece Atlantic Ocean from 1998 is two images of the tide. Viewed head-on on a gallery wall, the tide looks thick and gloopy with a powdery, sandy foam, pouring slowly, as though paint, down the packed sand. Her technique of developing her pictures by the night-sky as a natural darkroom gives her work a circularity- the focus of the picture, i.e. water and light, are also the tools of its creative development. An earlier work, Full circle 2 (1991), is a series of images of the underwater development of spawn to larval tad-pole to little frog. Particularly fascinating in these works is the mergence of a natural development process with sometimes painterly artistic composition, both of which tinged by a metaphor for the human birth-cycle too.

The Ingleby Gallery have taken the inspired decision to show these contemporary explorations of camera-less photography alongside some of the earliest pioneering photographic experiments. Most important of which is a very rare copy of William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1845 book Sun Pictures in Scotland. Peeling back the protective felt to tentatively peer at crisp and well-defined landscape images, I was pulled both ways: by the importance of sensitivity and delicacy in all these works on one hand, and the direct, confident interaction with the elements on the other. A print of a calotype negative by Fox Talbot of patterned lace dating from the early 1840s reveals the intricacies of its pattern-work and the texture of the fabric itself. Seen in the context these early examples, the works of Garry Fabian Miller and Susan Derges shine with their spirit of invention, exploration and respect.

The show continues unti 29th January 2011. www.inglebygallery.com

Cow Parsley (Swaledale) 1987
leaf, light, dye destruction print
11.3 x 11.7 cm

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Simon Starling: Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) at The Modern Institute

Review by Alistair Quietsch

On 10 December, I read yet another apocalyptically tinged news report: that of Burma building silos with aid from North Korea. Now I know this is not a scare mongering news site, and realise people don’t come here to be dragged down by such reportage, but after seeing the recent Simon Starling show, Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima): The Mirror Room at The Modern Institute in Glasgow you will see why such news is relevant.

The title of the show lays the groundwork for some comment on “The Bomb”, however on arrival I was surprised at the stillness and ambiguity of the silent masks that meet you. This is the first part of a two-part exhibition to be realised at The Modern Institute and Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, where Starling will exhibit in January 2011.

Walking into the main space you are confronted by a large mirror and eight handcrafted Japanese masks (by skilled mask maker Yasuo Miichi from Osaka, Japan) all staring eerily at you and their own reflections. Ahead of them, hidden from their view, are three photographs all of the Henry Moore sculpture Atom Piece (1964-65), which, as an art piece, is an integral part of the conceptual puzzle that Starling has laid out.

I was weary of getting so little from the pieces on display and having to go straight to the books to gain more of an understanding and essentially a sterile reaction, as is the case with many heavy conceptual pieces, but these works offered so much on so many levels. Are they victims of “The Bomb”? Are they a comment on the viewer/work relationship? Such is the constant downfall of conceptual works. When confronted with masks of James Bond, Colonel Sanders and traditional Japanese villains cryptically renamed Joseph Hirshhorn, (while also reading the introductory blurb describing the traditional “possession” of Japanese Noh actors) any obvious connection seems very distant.

The booklet though (a vital 20 page addition to the show) slowly brings these characters together in a fascinating, almost movie script narrative. As previously assumed the title does refer to the atom bomb, (asking the question, how can that city’s name not bring about that daunting recollection?) and the tradition of the Noh Theatre actors possession before the mirror prior to the stage conjured infant thoughts of the art pieces preparing to be unfurled, unwrapped and dissected by the viewer.

It is an intelligent move on Starling’s part to suspend these masks, not simply in stuffy glass cabinets, but instead propped on thin tripods at a human height to stare you and the mirror down deafeningly as they draw the viewer in to hear (or read as the case may be) their story.

The tale and histories are a complicated interconnection of art, espionage and the making of the first atom bomb, all written out in a new and captivating narrative, like a twisting whodunit plot. The cast is made of the unlikely characters of James Bond, Henry Moore, the famous English wartime sculptor, Anthony Blunt, the art historian and Russian spy, Colonel Sanders, of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain and Joseph Hirshhorn, who as some of you will know was one of the biggest collectors of art in the North East of America, but who was also closely connected with the illegal mining of uranium in Canada. As you read through the booklet (written entirely by Starling) slowly you start to unravel each characters connection with one another, their role in the art world and their final connections with The Bomb.

One humorous example is the drawn out connection of James Bond to the art world, where the villain Auric Goldfinger from Ian Fleming’s novel was based on Erno Goldfinger, the Hungarian Architect who later met Henry Moore in the cultural melting pot of London’s Hampstead in the 1920s.

The show is the first of a two-part exhibition, with the latter scheduled to take place in Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art in January 2011, and my initial feeling was that Starling is only giving a glimpse of the end product to come; of actors before their roles or some “behind the scenes” special feature, always entertaining, but not the main feature.

On reflection (since the play itself is never acted out) you can understand the line “This publication is an integral part of the exhibition” at the end of the booklet, because if this play were staged you’d have to break down each character’s background before even introducing them to the set. It is a hindrance that the show lacks that immediacy of emotion but makes up for it with its allure of plot, character and in the intricacy and care taken over the engaging wooden masks.

It is a fact that ruminations on subjects like Hiroshima and the threat of nuclear war is something that you don’t just quickly digest and throw away, but rather it’s something you sit with patiently, as if you were defusing a bomb.

Through Starlings’ play with characters, histories, and his success in finding new connections to well documented events, he retells a story that, though told over and over again, as journalist I. F. Stone once said “has to be told again and again.”

The show has now finished in Glasgow, but for details on the opening at Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (22 January – 10 April 2011 visit the website or for further information on Simon Starling visit The Modern Institute.

Monday 20 December 2010

Review: Joy Gregory - Lost Languages and Other Voices

Review by Ceri Restrick

Lost Languages and Other Voices is Joy Gregory’s first major retrospective. The exhibition charts the artist’s career over two decades and confirms her position as one of the most important artists to emerge from the Black British photography movement of the 1980s. The title of the exhibition refers to the works Gomera (2008) and Kalahari (2010) in which Gregory highlights the cultural importance of marginalised African indigenous languages. Split into 14 sections, the show deftly explores themes of identity, gender, race, post colonial identities and stereotypes, and while the topics are intense, Gregory’s tone and presentation are quite the opposite. Her use of text combined with video installation explores these concepts in a skillful, honest and playful manner. Her sense of humour and sardonic wit are particularly evident in Journey to Kuona (2009) and Six Weeks (2009).

Journey to Kuona takes shape through a series of blurred photographs, which are printed onto foam canvas-board, and slotted together like a panorama, each photo varies slightly; a dirt track road, red soil and creamy white villas are unassumingly juxtaposed. Refreshingly, there is no accompanying text, the photographs take the air of documentary transcending the boundaries of fine art, however Six Weeks brings the sweet sound of clarity to this torrent of imagery. A collection of scribbled notes and doodles are traced onto 42 scraps of paper, and as the viewer follows the spider-like handwriting and cartoon diagrams a narrative and journey unfolds. The story goes likes this; Gregory was invited to Nairobi to be Artist in Residence at the Kuona Trust. She then realised she had forgotten the charger for her camera. Not to be thwarted, her mobile phone became her camera and pen and paper became a tool for documentation.

The blurred photographs and scribbled notes are poignant, acting like a diary of the artist’s experience. This creates an immediate relationship between the artist and the viewer, making the work all the more so personal and relevant. The notes give the still images depth, movement of thought and offer an acute observation on the creative processes. The text re-assembles specific and transitory moments that occurred between each shot, resulting in the mapping of Kuona.

Autobiographical work is often criticised for being self-indulgent and can be used as an excuse to skim over technique and quality. However, Lost Languages does not fall into this pit. Gregory uses her personal experiences to ask key questions which not only provoke, but evoke debate. Bottled Blonde (1998) examines the complexities behind the female desire to be blond and the associated racial implications. Sites of Africa (2001 – present) documents the relationship that London had with the African continent and the notion of absent histories. Throughout the exhibition it is striking to notice how many continents are represented in Gregory’s collection; Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Such is the richness of this exhibition that it requires several visits to absorb everything that Gregory has to offer. This shouldn’t be a problem though, since, like all good things in life, entry is free.

Lost Languages and Other Voices continues at Impressions Gallery until 19 February 2011. Opening Times Tuesday to Friday 11am to 6pm. Late openings Thursdays until 7pm. Saturdays 12pm to 5pm.


Image: (c) Joy Gregory from Kalahari, 2010

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