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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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