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Thursday 11 August 2011

Documenting the Political: Belfast Photo Festival, Various Venues.

Text by Angela Darby

The Belfast Photo Festival is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland. The organisers have managed to encompass a large part of the city centre working in partnership with 20 venues and exhibiting the work of over 50 regional and international photographic artists. The media perception of Belfast is generally one of a recovering war zone scarred by years of hostility and conflict. Evidence of this still emerges during the July’s notorious ‘marching season’ with its sectarian overtones and civil unrest. Presented with such a heavy association, one might ask how can a photo festival based in Belfast during the summer months avoid the city’s clichéd images without simultaneously disregarding its notorious history?

The festival's director, Michael Weir explains: “we want to show there is a lot more to the country's photography. We intentionally wanted to focus on the country's present and future photography while reflecting on the past.” This aspiration is evident in the impressive photographic archive presented at the Red Barn Gallery. In the collection of astounding street scenes dating back to the beginning of the last century is an image by Frankie Quinn that captures the stalemate that blighted a large part of Northern Ireland’s recent political history. The photograph documents the ‘Ulster Says No!’ campaign led by Dr Ian Paisley in the 1980s. It is an overhead shot of Belfast City Hall circa 1985 with a throng of approximately 100,000 people assembled together to declare ‘No!’ to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and ultimately ‘No!’ to equality. With the luxury of retrospect, the image fills you with a sense of disconcerting futility, what if there had been a more positive response to the agreement and power sharing at the time. Did it really have to take a further ten years of conflict to achieve a semblance of peace? The Red Barn’s archive serves as a testimony to the stereotyped divisions of our past and provides an historical backdrop against which to view the other exhibitions within the festival.

An exhibition that directly engages with other national stereotypes is displayed at The Waterfront Hall. Europe, a series of imposing images by the German photographic artist Christof Pluemacher has captured clichéd activities associated with different nations across Europe. Like an anthropologist studying social behaviours the artist identifies and labels his subjects. In so spanish... we are treated to the spectacle of a brightly adorned matador bravely parading in all his machismo splendour. The bullring is his arena, gloriously composed by the photographer. The viewer becomes an onlooker, witnessing the climatic moments leading to inevitable death. Under the heading so british... white clad players participate in a traditional game of lawn bowls and elsewhere a marching army is pointedly titled so german..., One wonders how Pluemacher might choose to depict Northern Irish inhabitants in his ongoing photographic project.

According to Weir, the festival organisers did not apply a thematic approach to their programming: “we felt we would be...restrictive and less inclusive. So with this in mind we have taken the approach of presenting national photography in an international context, to help inspire and enhance peoples' perceptions and perspectives of photography in a broader sense.” However there does seem to be an emergent pattern that connects several of the exhibitions together, one of inertia and entropy. Images of extensively harvested Irish peat bogs in County Offaly, are presented as records of ravaged landscapes in Under a Grey Sky at The Golden Thread Gallery. The artist, Simon Burch has documented the inevitable decline of this traditional fuel source over a period of four years. In Kilmacshane 01 (2010) the uncut peat rows have been covered with a protective film of black plastic sheeting, the light hitting the plastic renders it metallic-like, and the rough edges resemble jagged rows of teeth positioned to devour the ancient earth below. Throughout the festival, one is struck by images that force us to reflect upon our material consumption, our desire to attain at any cost. At the John Hewitt Bar, Kenneth O’Halloran addresses human culpability in Tales from the Promised Land. Ghost-town housing estates and abandoned plots of land are reduced to wastelands in the wake of the collapse of the housing market. The curator Barry W. Hughes confronts us with this same sense of dissipation in the group show Long Way to Paradise at Platform Arts. And again we witness the consequences of Ireland’s economic and cultural transformation in Common Place by Eoin O’ Conaill at the Ulster Hall. The internationally renowned artists, Paul Seawright and Sophie Ristelhueber exhibiting at The Ormeau Baths Gallery both observe the traumatic effects of war on cityscapes and landscapes in Detonating Rough Ground.

The festival’s well curated program showcases many high quality works, the contents of which could easily tour to any international venue. Moreover the open submission opportunity garnered a huge response of approximately 4000 entries from across the globe. And of the14 selected artists one in particular really stands out. Austrian artist, Klaus Pilcher’s documented images of taxidermy museum exhibits entitled Skeletons In The Closet have a surreal quality to them and are extraordinary in both composition and content. In one of the photographs exhibited at The Spaniard Bar, a pterodactyl and its tree lie redundant and decommissioned in a Museum’s basement. Ladders attached to the wall above the beast suggest a comment on evolutionary ascendancy and inevitable extinction. The annihilating nature of time has been perfectly captured by Pilcher’s lens and it’s a theme that drifts through many of the Festival’s excellent exhibitions.

Belfast Photo Festival continues until 14 August. Individual exhibitions continue up until 28 August.


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Kenneth O'Halloran - From Series: The Promised Land
Sophie Ristelbueber - From Series: Detonating Rough Ground
David Gepp - 'An Italian Dream'
Frankie Quinn - From Series 'Red Barn Archive'
All courtesy the artist

Wednesday 10 August 2011

The Ethereal & Concrete: Structure & Material, Spike Island, Bristol.

Text by Regina Papachlimitzou

Structure & Material brings together three artists who, although engaging in distinctly different sculptural practices, share a similar preoccupation with the potency inhering in the ambiguous, almost taciturn nature of the materials employed in their works. Showcasing works by Claire Barclay, Becky Beasley, and Turner Prize nominee Karla Black, Structure and Material invites the viewer to consider the ethereal and the concrete no longer as two ends of a spectrum but rather as co-existing and interfusing traits.

Claire Barclay’s Quick Slow (2010) displays a jarring combination of a soft piece of tapestry resting on a harsh, black metal frame. The socio-historical resonance of tapestry as a traditionally ‘female’ pastime set against the cold, unyielding, emphatically male quality of the somewhat gallows-like structure makes for a poignant re-imagining of the ever-present spectre of the limitations that culturally dictated norms place on acceptable male/female endeavour. At the same time, the work silently questions the all-too-easily drawn distinctions of soft/feminine, hard/masculine that even now infiltrate the appreciation and interpretation of artistic output. This concern is further expressed in Barclay’s appropriation of craft techniques (traditionally considered a somehow less valid form of creativity), and the reaffirmation of these techniques as an acceptable part of fine art practice through the incorporation of obviously hand-crafted parts in larger sculptural works, as for instance in Flat Peach (2010).

The small gallery showcases a series of photographic works by Becky Beasley, including Hide (2004-2006), Infirme (2004-2006), and Stool, Towel (2006). The pictures in the series have an enigmatic quality about them, the objects they portray covered to various degrees and their ‘true’ function therefore obliterated and replaced by the compelling power of possibility. The arcane, unidentifiable nature of the works’ subjects points towards Beasley’s preoccupation with blurring the boundaries between sculpture and photography: as evidenced further in works such as the Curtains series and the dual Gloss II and Night Music (2007) works, there is a pervading desire to remove the quantifiable, measurable qualities through which a work can be definitively situated in either practice.

Black’s works are undoubtedly the most intriguing of the art displayed, not least because of their – paradoxically – almost palpable aloofness, their sustained refusal to allow for a final and concrete allocation of meaning. Using delicate and friable materials such as paper, flimsy plastic and bathbombs in a light, ‘girly’ palette, Black creates sculptural works of immense potency: dominating the space they are displayed in, the sculptures are simultaneously wide open and hermetically closed, inviting and forbidding. Speaking of her works, Black affirms that: "nothing points outside of itself" – and it is certainly the case that the sculptures included in Structure & Material compel the viewer to peer into them, through them, at them, to return again and again to the work itself rather than to go off in search of an extrinsic interpretation. Not surprisingly, her work What to Ask of Others (2010) is strongly evocative of a cocoon, a cradle, a swaddled infant, a shroud: instruments of concealment and protection that invite scrutiny by their very resistance to it. And while refusing to yield, the materials evoked – and the works showcased – insistently hint at the terrifying possibility of openness, of display.

Structure & Material continues until 4 September.


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Karla Black, Unused To (2007), Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London (c) the artist and Becky Beasley, Brocken (I – VIII) (2009), Courtesy Laura Bartlett Gallery, London and artist.
Photo: Stuart Whipps
A Hayward Touring exhibition from Southbank Centre, London on behalf of Arts Council England

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Profundity & Play: Anish Kapoor: Flashback, Edinburgh College of Art.

Text by Colin Herd

Following on from its first incarnation at Manchester Art Gallery in the spring, Anish Kapoor’s touring Arts Council-funded mini-retrospective Flashback is currently on show at Edinburgh College of Art as one of the flagship exhibitions of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival. The exhibition takes place in the airy and impressive Sculpture Court, a space usually given over to displaying either the college’s collection of antique statuary, including casts of the Elgin Marbles, or occasionally, to the giddy, experimental work of mid-degree art students. It’s a liminal space itself, then, caught between two moods and aesthetics, and the perfect choice to showcase Kapoor’s trademark blend of profundity and play.

The work in Flashback changes depending on the venue. In Manchester, Kapoor presented ten works, surveying a relatively wide selection of his explorations in sculpture, spanning his whole career. In Edinburgh, perhaps as a reaction and certainly as a relief to the mayhem and frenzy that Edinburgh finds itself in each August, this is slimmed down to just two sculptures: an early piece, White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers (1982) and the recent Untitled (2010).

White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers is an early example of Kapoor’s interest in creating sculptures out of raw pigment. Four small geometric structures made of powdery pigment are arranged in dialogue with one another on the gallery floor. They look like the tightly-packed piles of dyes and spices you might see in Indian markets, or like bizarre abstract sand castles, which in a sense is what they are: a miniature red mountain, studded with prickly peaks; an angular black tree-like form, jutting out in audacious spikes; two identical yellow bergs or breast-like mounds and an enveloping black wavy trough, almost the shape of pouting lips. As they are constructed from raw-pigment, colour is more than a surface effect; it’s the physical material the sculptures are made of. The work’s strong illusory quality comes from the central paradox that we don’t normally think of colour in terms of its physicality. The sculptures convey a sense of being physical objects and somehow not being at the same time, each one leaving a powdery trace around its base into which it seems they could very quickly dissolve and disappear.

At last year’s wildly successful retrospective at the RA, the two works which most caught the public’s imagination were the self-generating crimson wax-works Shooting into the Corner (2009), a canon that shot pellets of wax onto a gallery wall, accumulating over the duration of the exhibition and Svayambh (2007), a huge train made of wax that tracked its slow, relentless way through five rooms at the RA leaving large wax smears and blobs on walls and door frames, constantly moulding itself as it pushed through. Although less outlandishly ambitious than these works, in its own way Untitled (2010), a huge self-generating bell-shaped wax form that dominates ECA’s high-ceilinged Sculpture Court, is no less affecting.

A large steal fin like a butter churn moves around a circular track, so slowly that it could be a day-dream, all the time moulding and maintaining the bell-shape in its centre. You watch the fin, you see it moving, and although you know it must be turning, its pace is such that it never seems to move. There’s an obvious solemnity to the work, the bell a strong symbol of how we experience the passing of time, and given its position almost directly under a 1914-1918 war memorial, it’s impossible not to see its imposing blood-red form as a kind of memorial in itself.

Under the relentless progress of the mechanized blade, the bell itself appears smooth from a distance, but is actually embossed all over with blemishes and ruptures. It’s the literal embodiment of not smoothing over cracks, the pressure of the steel form having the opposite effect of imprinting each imperfection all the more clearly, like imaginary maps, or like the all-too-real ‘turning the map red’ of British Colonialism.

And yet, as with Shooting into the Corner and Svayambh, this sculpture has a sense of ungainly melodrama and dark humour. The edges of the fin become smudged and blotched with ragged rashes of red gunk, which spread out onto the floor. The surface of the bell is literally sticky, a tacky texture that also infiltrates the mood of the piece. In a space which is usually given over to classical sculptures, Kapoor’s sculpture has something of the detached, exhilarating horror, the tackiness and gore of a slasher film.

It’s part of Kapoor’s magic as an artist that he’s able to achieve this balance of frivolity, abstraction and high-mindedness, without undermining anyone.

Anish Kapoor Flashback runs at the Sculpture Court of Edinburgh College of Art until 9 October.


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Anish Kapoor
White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers (1982)
© the artist
Courtesy: Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London

Monday 8 August 2011

Lyrical Images of Life by the Sea: Sea Creatures, Joseph Bellows Gallery, San Diego.

Sea Creatures, an exhibition featuring work from Joni Sternbach, Dana Montlack and Liz Lantz, examines life above, below and around the sea. Featuring tintype portraits of surfers, images of life beneath the deep, and the lifestyles of women surfers around southern California, Sea Creatures is on show at Joseph Bellows Gallery until 13 August.

Sternbach’s 19th century wet-plate collodion method transforms surfers from around the U.S. and Australia into timeless portraits of modern seafarers alongside the primal landscapes they inhabit. Montlack dives below the sea to capture the life there, and then re-interprets them into painterly photo collages. Lantz poetically renders the details of women surfers’ lives: the trek to the sea, the back of a van, prized tattoos and amulets. Although using different photographic styles (which complements the experience of each), the photographs on display blend the specifics of people and their environments with life around and below the ocean. They depict diversity in a place of exhilaration and solace. Taken together, these three distinct artists, who use the beach as a flash point for their subject matter, generate a more complete, lyrical picture of life by the seashore.

Joni Sternbach works with a large format camera using the wet-plate collodion process first used during the American Civil War. The procedure is labour intensive, with chemistry mixed and applied to metal plates just seconds before each exposure. Her darkroom is a rolling tent set up on site; it attracts audiences wherever she goes. On the shorelines of both American coasts, and most recently in Australia, her distinctive process lures surfers to pose for her camera. The use of a large camera slows time down, so that her subjects adopt a timeless beauty and permanence that defies the otherwise active, animated life of surfing the big wave. Some are beautiful and fit, others show the toll of sun and salt water. The styles of their boards, the decals they place there, the wet suits and swimsuits they don, the hair that is usually long — all describe a highly eclectic tribe of mariners that has long fascinated the photographer.

Sea Creatures is on show at Joseph Bellows Gallery until 13 August.


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We hope you enjoy reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary arts and culture you should read us in print too. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!

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