Sunday, 26 October 2014

"Pass me my oil pastels!"

'By words visual imagery is given a second vividness. And writers recast it into a descriptiveness that's infinitely portable.' Ross Feldt

 How does one begin to write about a painter, sculptor such as Anselm Kiefer?! A painter whose work is huge, 'heavy', both in materials and content, multifaceted in its layers and rich surfaces, symbolic, breathtakingly immersive, powerful and to reiterate ,really anything but portable!! To quantify the sheer scale of his works alone in a blog post, had you not ever seen any of them in person is to attempt to imagine an oversized Van Gogh painting on steroids! The physicality in weight, amount of layering, carving and sculpting of materials and paint involved in a Kiefer painting is phenomenal. They almost swallow you up these paintings such is their enormity in size, depth of surface and symbolic content. Hence he's not the sort of artist who is easily done justice in words or photos, in fact, until I saw his work in person (seeing my first Kiefer in 2008) I struggled to see what all the fuss was about. I strongly encourage you to read no  further and go and visit the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy, London for yourselves.

For those of you unable to get there at present or in need of further convincing then please read on...

The opening quote, perhaps over ambitiously summarises my aspiration for this post (oo-er). It is an ambitious statement indeed and not meant to sound  as pretentious as it first may seem, but is intended a way of justifying the case of 'why bother attempting to write about an artist like Kiefer at all?' [The quote] Taken from a book I recently read called, 'Guston in time' documents the letters between writer, Ross Feld and painter Philip Guston. It is an excellent example of the dialogue between artist and writer, sharing an almost symbiotic relationship as they fuelled and bouncing ideas off the other.I have already alluded to the fact that words cannot really do justice to seeing Kiefer's work in the flesh and more generally I am curious to understand the relationship writing has to visual art, whether it helps or hinders our understanding/enjoyment of the work and is it really possible to make Kiefer's work 'infinitely more portable' through words? Is it foolish even to try?

'Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations: The New Theory of War. Time, Dimension of the World, Battles at Sea Occur Every 317 Years or Multiples Thereof, Namely 317 x 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 . . . . . . . .' (2011-14)

In this retrospective of the German born artists' work the viewer is taken on a chronological tour from Kiefer's early watercolours and 'Attic' paintings (from the Venice Biennial in 1971) to his present day paintings and installations. Its a wonder how the curators physically fitted it all in! When I mentioned earlier that Kiefer's work is 'heavy' I meant it in both senses of the word. Born in the Black Forest region of Germany in 1945 at the end of the Second World War Kiefer often explores the weight of human history, particularly of Germany's involvement in World War II. Not the lightest of subjects to make work from and is arguably why critics often refer to Kiefer's work dealing with the 'burden of history'; it would have been easy for Kiefer to give in to the darkness and anxiety of such a task, but taught by the mystical and shamanistic teachings of Joseph Beuys, Kiefer's work draws on mythology and symbolism as his starting point, making the work referential to the war but not enclosed by it. His work often symbolically challenging (sometimes confrontationally so), attempts to rewrite the collective memory of the atrocities of war whilst paying homage to it through images of ploughed fields, decaying neo-classical ruins designed by the Nazis) to books and submarines out of materials that also hold symbolic properties such as ash, clay, sunflowers, earth, lead, diamonds (yes you read correctly -take that, Damien Hirst!) and straw. This idea of redemption and remembrance through creating what are thick, obliterated surfaces is, you could argue, both metaphorically a 'covering-over' and 'wiping-out' of history whilst also being a turning-over and creating of something new; it refers to a cyclical movement of time -birth, death and rebirth. The ploughed fields in paintings like 'Nigredo' represent both the end of one thing but the beginning of another. And in other works, sunflowers emerge from ashy dystopian ruins offering a sign of hope and life from despair and destruction.

'Nigredo' (1984)

Viewer stands next to 'Ash Flower' (1983-97) *

The 'passage of life' and link between the celestial/the spiritual and the earthly is a reoccurring theme in Kiefer's work and whilst the human form is often absent his use of perspective and scale draw the viewer into inhabiting and pondering these charred, haunting, desolate spaces. Spaces in which pyramids become mediators between heaven and earth, ruins crumble (are they failed utopias or future dystopias?) and diamonds twinkle off the surface of canvases like constellations whilst also reminding us that they come from the blackest soil found at the base of volcanos; near/far, sky/earth, known/unknown, repulsion/attraction, darkness and light. These are some of the binary opposites which Kiefer uses to represent large concepts or ideas in the same way, I understand, that myth, allegory or metaphor have been used as accessible ways of understanding/contemplating some of life's largest, most intangible questions.  

In Kiefer's paintings the sumptuous surfaces of paint, plaster, concrete, metal, rust, earth and ash cause you to linger, to inspect so that eventually you are engaged in the work long enough to start to wonder what it all means. Both the material and how it has been manipulated hold meaning; the properties of materials like lead holding alchemic associations with transformation as well as compositionally adding to tones of grey within various works. This duality, in the sense that everything is there for a reason gives his work a depth that exceeds from creating a purely a visual experience. Whilst you're walking around the Royal Academy show you can almost here quiet gasps of awe and intake of breath as people fall spell to the lure and vastness of these works that are both beautiful and chilling at the same time. This is one reason why Kiefer is often compared to Romantic painters such as Casper David Friedrich as being inspirational. Equally it is difficult not to get overly poetic in your use of language describing Kiefer's work or loose site of the fact that some of the subjects he is dealing with are very emotive. [He often references the poet, Paul Celan (himself sent to a labour camp during the war) in many of his works.]

 If the spaces and landscapes Kiefer paints are apocalyptical then the only things that remain relatively unscathed are the books which remain a crucial motif in his practice. Once quoted as saying, 'art is an attempt to get at the very centre of truth' Kiefer's use of lead books, physically attached to and mounted on his paintings; is perhaps symbolic of the legacy of books as vessels for human thought, knowledge and culture. It reminds me of a quote I heard or remember from somewhere about when civilisations fail all that remains of them is through their art and culture (forgive me for not being able to find the exact reference). The books in Kiefer's work act as the preservers of history, the remains of human voice in the absence of any human life. Books however, do not necessarily point to a universal sense of 'truth' but do, like art and music document man's search for it. The piece 'The Language of the Birds' placed theatrically at the top of the stairs as you approach the Royal Academy exhibition encapsulates this idea well, marrying the escapism, lofty-ness of books by giving them wings whilst at the same time weighing them down by making them out of lead as though weighted by the knowledge contained in their pages. Perhaps more disturbingly too the spread wings are also reminiscent of the eagle motif used by the Nazis, whilst in its Kiefer-esque duality could also refer to angel wings. By not being too polished and remaining decidedly earthy in its materials it doesn't somehow fall victim into becoming too gimmicky or clich├ęd.

'The Language of the Birds' (2013)

How does one man deal with the darkness of  the Second World War and remain tireless in pursuit, inexhaustible in a quest for meaning? Somehow Kiefer remains prolific as the sculpture 'Ages of the World' (2014) in the RA exhibition attempts to emphasise. Hundreds of canvases are seemingly precariously stacked into a mountain, pyramid-like pyre with sunflowers sticking out between the sandwiched layers of canvases. It is as though we are seeing the hundreds of works which have been sifted through, created and then discarded in an artistic process/frenzy. Incidentally, it is probably my least favourite works in this exhibition as I think it fails where other paintings and sculptures have tackled a similar idea of presenting 'mass' and cataloguing but have done it better. This piece feels more like a by-product of trying to work something out or search for answers but unlike Kiefer's sketchbooks (which do a similar task) it is more clunky and feels more 'throw-away' or less considered than the sketchbooks. Maybe that is what it is meant to be? In a room adjacent to where 'Ages of the World' is positioned are a couple of paintings depicting the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia, their surfaces ashen, dusty and worn as though well travelled across a dusty barren landscape prior to being archaeologically revived in the gallery (or so they seem, it is a myth all too befitting of an artist such as Kiefer). They depict the pyramid structures of Mesopotamia that are, I speculate a curatorial decision to be echoed in the 'Ages of the World' sculpture. If anything it feels as though in this preservation of history and predicting of future it is time itself that drives Kiefer to make work so voraciously, by making work that is about past and future before it is too late or before it is forgotten.  

'Morgenthau Plan' (2014) **

The danger with Kiefer is the more you read about his work the more it runs the risk of becoming a bit pretentious, especially if, like me, you aren't at times all too familiar with a wide knowledge of mysticism and mythological references. However I'd argue that his work doesn't need to be over-thought in order to resonate and still communicates at a level of engagement and human consciousness that is accessible to anyone willing to spend time in the presence of these works. This is partly because the symbolism he uses is archetypal but also because it is presented with, for want of a better word 'guts', there's nothing half-hearted about Kiefer, it is big, it is expressive, it is challenging, beautiful and haunting and that gives his work an authority, a presence that can't really fail to prompt a reaction. For me personally, the barometer of whether I enjoyed an exhibition or not usually hinges on two things, whether I feel like I want to write about the exhibition and whether I feel inspired to draw/make studies of work in the exhibition. On this occasion I felt like doing both, hence the blog post and in addition felt compelled to dig out the oil pastels and draw. As for whether it is possible to encapsulate the lived-experience of seeing Kiefer's paintings into words I'll leave that for you to decide. 

Anselm Kiefer is on at the Royal Academy until the 14th of December 2014. Catch it whilst you can!

Monday, 20 October 2014

I can't believe it ain't Calder!

I thought about writing, the usual, a long, analytical, slightly jaded, thought-provoking monologue about the annual London Frieze art fair (sort of like I did last year*) but then I thought, words don't really do justice to the enormity of over 190 galleries from all over the world all packed into two tents over 225,000 square metres in Regents Park that receives in its three day running over 60,000 visitors (coincidently a number that continues to grow each year, a sign of arts increasing popularity/awareness..?)! One of the biggest, most over-the-top, ostentatious arts events of its kind, it is the one that sees gallery directors, collectors, the rich and the famous buying and investing in art. They also let the public in! And so, what better than to sum-up the showcase, the museum, the spectacle, ...the madness that is Frieze than to go all-out in full Frieze style by bombarding and overwhelming you with a cacophony of images and observations until you're left feeling sick, enlightened, inspired, exhausted, horrified and thoroughly confused as to what this art business is all about.

Welcome to Frieze Masters, Regents Park, London 2014!

It's worth mentioning here that this year I only went to Frieze Masters. Frieze annually is separated into two venues within Regents Park, Frieze London represents contemporary art and Frieze Masters, as I learnt this year, tends to be made of Modern, ancient and classical art (less politely referred to as 'the old stuff''). There's nothing wrong with old mind, as this exhibition set to distinguish the 'fine' in Fine Art and believe me from the work on show it is an accolade well deserved. This is the tent that all the new, emerging artists in the Frieze London tent at some point in their career want to be in. The artists in this tent aren't a passing fad they're here because they've got longevity, a legacy to the history of art. And it is hard to imagine any artist that wouldn't ultimately strive toward that sort-of immortality/recognition. On the opposite side to this though, perhaps there is also a darker price to this immortality which I'll talk about more two images down.    

Each gallery has its own space within the tent and is signposted with their name and, what are usually the names of cities in which they have galleries. As you may expect virtually all the galleries host big names, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, New York, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Berlin and London etc. Therefore it was really quite touching to see the Hauser and Wirth section boast, 'London, New York, Zurich and Somerset.' I can just imagine the curiosity from the cosmopolitan art elite, 'Where is this Somerset?' Do come and visit, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised, but not disappointed! Hauser and Wirth's offering to Frieze Masters is a series of works by Jean Tinguely. The kinetic sculpture in this image being made up of everything from cogs, wheels, a typewriter, shopping trolley, gate, spoons, a weather vane and even prosthetic leg. Incredibly complex to engineer and visually challenging to draw (believe me I've tried!) I've always admired Tinguely's contraptions although they never inspired me to create something 3D similar, they create an interest in the shapes, forms and design of junk and everyday objects that definitely has had some influence on my own work. In the digital age of engineering and technology its good to keep an awareness of physical, clunky, lumpy, 'useless' objects as a reminder of the potential of making, creating and building.  

Kunstkamer cabinet set up by George Laue with treasures from the Renaissance and Baroque

What is notably different about Frieze Masters is that it's, at times more like a museum, featuring work from Renaissance Italy, churches, classical marble sculptures, 16th century Japanese screens, African art,  Rembrandts, Constables, Turners and work you're more familiar seeing in national galleries then in a marquee. It also offers what I feel is a bit of an alarming insight into what 'the super rich' spend their money on and generally I've always found this commercial side to viewing artworks uncomfortable. I, perhaps naively, always assumed  these works existed and were created for greater good, more inquisitive, meaningful and soul-searching reasons than to be destined to spend their later lives on display in such a manner that only those, like myself, who paid the ticket price to enter, to see them. This is, what I would call, the darker reality to becoming an artist in the Frieze Masters tent; yes it means you are successful and culturally important to the history of art and that by being 'invested' in this way ensures the protection and immortality of your work to continue to inspire and inform future generations, but conversely it also means you're work has now also become a sought after commodity whose audience may be a different, more elite one than that which the artist may have originally intended. It's a tricky one.    

Anotoni Tapies 'Fusta amb samaretta' (1971) Pencil, collage on wood assemblage, 232 x 236cm.

Hard to mistake this giant wall plaster for being anything other than a Tapies.

Maybe one of them is downloading an app that works as a spirit level for that back left painting?

It seemed that if it ain't got a Calder in the collection then it probably isn't a Modern Art gallery with just about every other gallery having one or several of the late American artist's mobiles hanging on display somewhere! How many did he make?! I wonder if it could all be in anticipation of an exhibition of the artists' work coming to the Tate in 2016?

The awkwardness around the commercialism of some art objects continues with the abundance of African art on display at Frieze. Objects that were made for sacred, spiritual or meaningful properties/uses are displayed as objects of appreciation, for looking at, for understanding but from afar. The loss of integrity in its true function bothers me a bit as I feel if you real appreciation and understanding should come from experiencing it in its true context. And with the artist often being unknown for such pieces how do (if any) the profits from sales of such work go back to the people or place where the work originated? Arguably though, they are also being preserved and protected by being displayed in this way, but I am torn to know where this fits ethically. I appreciate it is more complex a debate than what I give it space for now and is why I plan on touching upon it again in a separate piece about this year's Turner Prize, in which one of the artists, Duncan Campbell has made a film piece about the West's commoditisation of African art in response to Chris Marker and Alan Resnais’ 1953 film Statues Also Die.

Richard Prince 'All you can eat' (1996) Acrylic, silkscreen on canvas, 213.5 x 244cm.

I've never come across this artist's work before and retrospectively having researched some of his other work online this morning I'm not that keen on it. Born in America in 1949 his painting and photography explores the pervasiveness of the media often with humour. However, I did find this piece interesting having a bit of a 'thing' for the colour orange and I liked the humour/comic-book panel style to the work probably because in that way at least, it reminded me of a Philip Guston. I won't dwell on it but mention it as a good example of the down-side of only seeing one example of an artist's work and not getting a feel for the greater whole that feeds an understanding of the individual works.

Balance is restored when I came across an American gallery exhibiting a booth full of Guston's!  I've been reading a lot on Guston lately and he is the artist that keeps on giving the more you learn about him. He was an artist that made such a notably significant shift in his practice from work that was received well by the art world to work, more of the likes seen here, which, at the time, weren't met with such admiration. I think this is why he is particularly of interest because that strikes me as a very brave thing to do and his need for making art, for himself as a kind of necessary process over that of satisfying others tastes is very honest. That's difficult to do, but shows here that it really paid off, with the later Guston's being his most accomplished and in my opinion most interesting, most painterly work. A heavy drinker, smoker and obsessive; debatably not the most admirable of qualities, but I do find his tenacity and conviction to making art especially inspiring.

"Art" is not needed for, like living out our lives - it is putting in some time & activity - staving off the "other"- the ultimate form. It is nerve-wracking -the need to fix an image forever -like a Pyramid of the desert...I have known, but did not permit myself heretofore to recognise that art is a death - a death. That the purpose of creating is to kill it or at least get rid of it -once and for all. Now I truly am fearful of creating -such a dread of it. Our processes are so mysterious -I know I'll begin again-to relive the same experience.' -Guston

James Rosenquist 'Highway Trust' (1977) Oil on canvas in three parts with casters, 152.4 x 365.8cm.

One of my highlights of Frieze Masters was that walking around and spotting work by artists whose work you recognise became a fun game. "Is that a Hockney? I spy some Francis Bacon! Look there's a James Rosenquist! Oh, that one looks like a....what was their name...?" It was like a 'Guess Who' or 'Where's Wally?' of the art world and there was still more than plenty I had never heard of! The indistinguishable slick, stylish, graphic boldness of a Rosenquist could be seen a mile away. Whilst clearly I've mentioned I'm not a fan of the commercialisation of art funnily enough I'm not too bothered about art that is about commercialisation or uses the language of advertising to create an image. What Dada did for creating an awareness of everyday objects as art, Pop art continued and brought to the masses by way of a bigger, bolder more graphic style. Rosenquist plays up to the imagery of billboards, shop windows and consumer goods but subverts it slightly with unusual juxtapositions giving new meaning or making the familiar become abstract. 

Kaws 'Small lie' (2013)

The sculpture park at Frieze is free and is actually one of the more dynamic parts of the overall fair. Sculpture is certainly more photogenic than painting which lends itself to best be seen in person.

Matt Johnson 'Baby dinosaur (Apatosaurus)' (2013)

Yayoi Kusama 'Pumpkin(s)' (2014)

Yayoi Kusama with her now 'trade-mark' polka dots on a pumpkin gourd shaped sculpture. Like most things about Frieze, it's a little unsettling how the meaning of her polka dots has shifted from Kusama's deeply psychological hallucinations and visions whereby the dots then became symbols for self-obliteration, the sun, the moon and the universe into becoming a commoditised, almost fashion symbol or brand.

Thus concludes our whirlwind tour of Frieze Masters 2014. Hope you enjoyed the ride! The lived experience is one that is fragmented, bizarre and intense and doesn't sadly allow for the depth of thought and reflection that the art often deserves. If you take it for what it is however, you will be rewarded by a vast, impressive visual array of work of which there are many, many more artists whose work I didn't include here but are worth a mention; Martin Kippenberger, Ha Chong-Hyun, Joseph Beuys and Sigmar Polke (the latter of whom has a major retrospective currently on at the Tate). Try to ignore the crowds and embrace the fact that art remains so healthily popular, valued, enjoyed and you'll have a good time. But neglect a perspective of reality at your peril! 

Read last year's thoughts on Frieze here:

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Oceans of intrigue

Since the opening last Friday, of Tania Kovats’s exhibition at Hestercome it seems to have done nothing but rain! Let’s hope the exhibition titled ‘Oceans’ that comprises 365 bottles of donated sea water, sculptural reefs, atlases and other works that both explore, document and use water as both source and material for the work is not prophetic of things to come!  

I find it exciting (not to mention an incredible opportunity for Taunton) that Kovats has been chosen to be the second exhibition at the recently opened Hestercombe House, Somerset. The debut show, ‘Leaping the Fence’ opened in May 2014* and exhibited the work of sixteen contemporary artists from Mark Wallinger to Mike Nelson. Kovats (who also had a piece in that first exhibition) is the first artist to have a solo show here which includes a new piece, ‘Sea Mark for Hestercombe’ (2014) above the staircase and entrance hall as well as bringing together previous work(s) from the exhibition ‘Drawing Water’ shown recently at The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. (Regular readers will note that I wrote about the book which accompanied that exhibition in a previous blog post.**)  

There are two aspects of Kovats’s work in particular that I’m glad have been presented into the show at Hestercombe. The first being an emphasis on the importance of drawing in Kovats’s practice; where drawing is used as a means of exploration, investigation, documentation, measurement, action – consequence –the passing of time. In ‘Oceans’ the first thing that hits you on the impressive stairway is a drawing or wall work of tiled, inky brushstrokes that intermediate horizontally disappearing into an imaginary horizon like a series of puddles or clouds. Could they also be islands? Or tide marks? A similar piece in another room later reveals that the marks to be the broken surface of the sea, ‘the wet marks originally made on the tiles were dried and were fired and return to their fluid origins, glossy and liquid’. Despite learning this, they remain ambiguously still quite abstract, quite meditative. Elsewhere there are multiple drawings made from evaporated sea salt water and ink on blotting paper. They’re exploratory and alchemic in their seemingly simple curiosity of, ‘what happens when I put this together with that and let time pass. It produces spontaneous, seemingly effortless, often beautiful (if I may state my personal opinion) and uncontrived results. For Kovats, perhaps this method of drawing which relies less on the ‘hand of the artist’ and more on the passing of time, is a more authentic reflection of nature and properties of the sea water. In her words,  

“I let a drawing make itself. I am not drawing anything but the other drawings the ink retains its fluidity and floods the paper...echoing the movements and forms of water in nature.”

'Sea Mark for Hestercombe' (2014) Tania Kovats ***

 The second aspect brought from Edinburgh to Hestercombe is in the presentation of a variety of works that allows for multiple meanings on the same theme. I shall explain, ‘Drawing Water’ presented work from  map-makers, writers, shipbuilders, whalers, soldiers, sailors, artists, archaeologists, cartographers, scientists, uranographers (mapping stars), engineers and dreamers  all of whom have used drawing as a way of searching, understanding and looking at water and our use/connection to it. In ‘Oceans’ we see how that influence has filtered (pardon the pun) into different sides of Kovats’s practice; from the drawing based works previously mentioned, to the sculptural and participatory nature of the piece 'All the sea'. The following quote taken from ‘Drawing Water’ by archaeologist Colin Renfrew reiterates this cross-over and shift in contemporary visual arts practice,  

“Over the past century or so the visual arts have transformed themselves from their preoccupation with beauty and the representation of the world into something much more radical...into what might be described as a vast, uncoordinated yet somehow enormously effective research programme that looks critically at what we are and how we know what we are.” 

'All the sea' (2012-14) Tania Kovats

In ‘All the Sea’ (2012-14) 365 bottles of seawater have been collected and sent to the artist from individuals all around the world forming a library of seas all gathered in one place. It is a little bit reminiscent of Susan Hiller’s ‘Homage to Joseph Beuys’ (1969-2011) in which the artist collected antique bottles filled with holy water from around the world. If I may be bold, I actually prefer that piece aesthetically and can’t really ignore it for being so similar to Kovats’s piece to avoid mention. In some aspects, what Hiller did for holy water, Kovats is doing for oceans and what is striking about both is away from the 'labels'/ideas we surround them with they’re both essentially still, water. The water in ‘All the sea’ mostly looks the same (except for the very obvious, if alarming, yellow North Sea and subtle variations in sediment colour in others) and in being contained Kovats doesn’t seem to be trying to present the vastness or power of oceans, in a sublime sense (these are not huge gestural paintings) but the preciousness of it, it’s very sameness in relatively modest, clinical/functional plain looking bottles, more personal and more controlled.  Inadvertently though they create an awareness of the scale of oceans not by being different, but by being many. This statement of unity, for me, is representative of the water cycle as a whole, the idea being that tomorrow’s dirty dishwater is eventually someone else’s rain. They cannot be pigeon holed into having one preferred reading, like Hiller’s more pilgrimage/spiritual based piece. Kovats’s waters are not her own, they have their own stories, that largely remain anonymous.  Mischievously too, I still wonder if anyone was tempted to sneak their bath water in there somewhere claiming it was sea....  

‘Where Seas Meet, North: Baltic & Tasman: Pacific’ (2013-14) is another example where two sea waters inhabit separate vessels but also connect via a pipe at the top, in the undistinguishable similarities between the two seas it highlights or reminds us that the fabrication of boundaries, as a way of mapping/controlling oceans, is man-made idea. The mapping theme, neatly ‘flows’ into another work in the exhibition, ‘Only Blue’ (2013) which uses obsolete Atlases, laid open on four tables with their landmasses erased under white paint so all that remains is the blue of the sea. In the same way it is much easier to understand the physicality of sky based on where it meets the horizon, where it meets the land, a tree, a hill, a mountaintop, plane or bird; the same can be said of oceans/water and we can only comprehend their vastness by the relationship to the land or containers that surround them. Or at least so I speculate. ‘Only Blue’ makes one aware of the oceans more as a physical space, as to a temporal one that links landmass. It’s like when you’re learning to draw you learn to draw negative space between objects as to the positive, solid object itself.

Oddly for me, the more representational works in the exhibition are the ones which fall flat in having less to say, ‘Reef 1’ (2014) and ‘Reef 2’ (2014) are two sculptures made from barnacles covered in gesso. They are more obvious in their connection to the sea and are actually more static and heavy than the fluidity of the ink drawings and other sculptural works which have something more of a process or ‘moment in time’ to them; this can also be felt in the series of sculptures titled ‘Schist’ (2001) whereby wax is layered and compressed by lead shot into arched folds mimetic of tectonic plates. Although now hardened they retain a 'molten', soft appearance to them which bizarrely, feels more close to nature than the actual natural object of the barnacles. In a separate room a third sculptural style ‘Tilted’ (2002) is a cast rocky interior hidden inside a contrasting modern, flat architectural, plinth-like exterior. They are a little reminiscent of Mariele Neudecker's mountainscape/forms in mist-shrouded vitrines, but I'm not dwelling too much on that its just interesting if you like these works and want to find an artist who is similar.      

'Schist' (2001) Tania Kovats

 It is really rewarding to see a solo exhibition at Hestercombe that has so many different approaches to exploring its central theme. Kovats's practice is coherently diverse and I enjoyed experiencing each of her works individually in rooms but also together as a whole show. The whole thing was  'more digestible' as someone put to me, which I think was pretty apt.  

 I left having spent the evening of the private view in the greatest of company and felt enthused that more people should know and experience this exhibition,  later I also wondered if Kovats has paid our Hydrographic office a visit and vice versa...? It seems as though the two are connected.  

“Water is the element of connection.....that any action however small is connected to every other action and sends a ripple out into everywhere.”

Tania Kovats 'Oceans' is on at Hestercombe until January 11th 2015

Further reading:
*** Photo courtesy of Sara Dudman

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Lazy Reality

A couple of weeks ago in a lazy evening of television channel hopping boredom I stumbled across a documentary about the life and work of Japanese born artist, Yayoi Kusama (1929) on BBC4. Kusama, now eighty-five years old continues make work at a prolific rate, obsessively exploring her use of brightly coloured polka dots that swamp, multiply and create the surfaces of her paintings, installations and sculptures . After the documentary had finished the BBC also showed a video piece Kusama made in 1967 titled ‘Kusama’s Self Obliteration’. The film, running at approx twenty-five minutes is a psychedelic, (in every sense of the word) colourful, trippy, fragmented and experimental documentation of the artist as she paints polka dots on animals, people and plants in uniquely created/painted/lit environments also made by Kusama. Perhaps more unusual than the film itself however, was that I watched it in its entirety and from my living room. Yes, it is a sad, sad, lazy but true reality that I am useless at watching video art as I don’t often have the patience to watch it in a gallery even despite having a love of film (in the cinema sense). So I was interested how I felt more willing, more open to watching Kusama’s film because of the lazy convenience and relaxed familiarity of watching it on TV. Does that really matter? Is it better to see a film at all than only see it only in a particular context? And so this post isn’t really about Kusama or that film in particular, but is more of a confession, discussion and question of how and where we view video art in general.
Can video art be viewed outside the context of the gallery and in doing so does it cease to be art?

It’s an uncomfortable confession because there is a kind of snobbery, a ‘dumbing down’ by watching ‘art’ on TV as to a gallery as though some of the quality, the importance and authority of the gallery is lost when the work is shown on TV, which unsettles the fuzzy familiar experience of mainstream entertainment or information programmes. I’ll admit this self consciousness sounds slightly ridiculous but does raise some interesting debates on how context definitely alters not only how we view the work, in terms of time spent (because at home I’m watching Kusama’s film in the comfort of my sofa in my pyjamas) but also alters what the piece means by having it presented on the censored public serving corporation that is the BBC.  On one side the eager to please, usually politically correctness of public service broadcasting on the other the anti-establishment, radical and challenging tone of modern art and modern art galleries. The two in many ways don’t, in a natural or all too obvious way, fit together.  The censorship and risk-taking of galleries being different to that of the more tightly regulated world of British broadcasting...or so I assume? So it’s very interesting that maybe now the piece is 51 years old that the BBC thinks the public are now art conscious enough to be ready for the experience of a young Japanese woman painting polka dots on naked men and horses (and rightly so albeit better late than never). Maybe more contemporary video art should be shown on television? Would it be allowed? Had the Kusama video not been shown in context to the documentary that proceeded it would it have ever been shown at all? Equally, I wonder what would happen if the BBC decided to show a still of a Hans Holbein, Constable or Van Eyck painting for twenty-five minutes?
 I had the opportunity to see this same Kusama film in a gallery when I went to the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at the Tate Modern two years ago and spent ages looking at the subtle layering of her infinity net paintings and immersive polka dot filled installations but gave little attention to this same film in the context of the gallery installation because (as often) I felt too impatient and excited by seeing all the other work on offer. There are many unspoken anxieties involved in the process of viewing art and one of them is the assumption that having studied art I must automatically be able to appreciate and understand it all. In truth, despite in having what I consider a good knowledge of how to ‘read art’ there’s still much about it that puzzles me which is why I continue to see so much of it (that’s also part of its appeal). However video and film art has remained awkward for me, despite over the years trying to sit through as much of it as my fidgety, nervous excitableness will let me and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. Many friends and peers I’ve spoken to have mentioned how the amount of time a film demands its participant to commit is often frustrating compared to that of viewing a painting.  You can’t walk into a painting half way, it’s already a frozen moment in time whereas in film you can walk in towards the end, the middle or beginning and  have to be much more active and thinking in order to make sense of what is going on. This power struggle of attention between art and viewer is more obvious and directly questioning in video art, “are you going to stay and watch more? Will it all make sense in the end?”

Christian Marclay 'The Clock' (2010)
Ironically I am someone that absolutely loves cinema and see some shots from films and works by particular directors as being art or amongst the greatest works of art ever created.  Whether they need to be viewed in a gallery, cinema or on the television to be seen this way is perhaps subjective; I just think you have more time and the expectation is different if you plan to see a film instead of accidently seeing it half-way through. Christian Marclay explored the distinction between art and cinema in his 24 hour extravaganza, ‘The Clock’ which used images of clocks or references to the time from thousands of different films to create a 24 hour montage of clips that followed the real time you were watching it (still with me?). This was art as a celebration of cinema, but also showing that the limitation of cinema is that it isn’t set in ‘real time’, its escapism. As an art piece it combined those two things whilst always reminding you how long you’d been watching for and that your watching was happening in the present moment.
 Video art gives a creative freedom to film makers that can potentially lead the shift from art world to movie world as is the case with Turner Prize, now Oscar winning artist turned director, Steve McQueen who has been quoted as saying, . “I don’t see much contrast from the art world to the movie world.”Similarly photographer turned Hollywood director, Sam Taylor Wood will be presenting her second directorial outing with ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ showing February next year. Or some artists like Matthew Barney remain more creative but equally (if not more so) ambitious away from the consumer-driven industry of cinema with work such as 'The Cremaster Cycle' which is a series of five feature length films but borders on being an immersive sculptural, painterly, installation, musical, performance, film all in one. 
The video art I have responded to best is when it acts as something other than film, i.e installed in a space/environment, projected in a room or on a screen like cinema, installation or painting (examples to follow). Every scene should grab you, capture the viewer's interest so that it hold them to stay and watch it all. John Akomfrah’s  film ‘The Unfinished Conversation’ (pictured below) being one such example of a film shown as part of the 2012 Liverpool Biennial that was a three-way split screen which filled the room and played three different narratives simultaneously whilst relating to one another to tell the story of cultural theorist and writer Stuart Hall. On a basic level it worked as a documentary, but visually some of the scenes, photography and clever use of the split screen enhanced the emotion and impact of the experience to being more than that of 'just a documentary'.

John Akomfrah 'The Unfinished Conversation'  (2012)
Bill Viola 'Martyrs' (2014)

Elizabeth Price is a video artist that combines text, stock footage and soundtracks to create punchy, mesmerising films. I first saw 'User group disco' (pictured below) as part of the British Art Show at Plymouth and it marked the first piece of video art I watched in a gallery from start to finish. At university in Plymouth, I also proceeded to visit it several more times. This film was brash and hard-hitting in its use of tabloid style text on top of close-up imagery of spinning and whirling kitchen utensils and ornaments; it sort of mesmerized and sucked you in. Although at the same time it was enigmatic enough to make you curious to stay and watch it until the end. It has to be said some of the simplest video art has often been the best, Kader Attia 'Oil and Sugar #2', 2007 (shown Liverpool Biennial 2012) delivers exactly what its title promises as oil is poured onto a stacked cube of sugar cubes. You can already picture what's going to happen, the inevitable collapse of the sugar cubes as they dissolve into the oil, but it is nonetheless watchable because you'd never see how these two materials react together elsewhere.

Bill Viola’s ‘Martyrs’ (pictured above) shown at St Paul's in London is not only an example of a video piece of art that wouldn't work as well outside its context but also how film can act, in this instance more like a painting, an altar piece with a straight forward narrative of action and consequence, full of elemental symbolism, lighting and framing that borrows itself directly from the language of early Renaissance painting. Viola' s work has been criticised for being 'too obvious' and too readable in its meaning through iconic imagery, but I personally think that their accessibility is part of their appeal and their use of symbolic imagery is archetypal. And the more you look you find there's loads of cross-referencing between painting and film, Peter Greenaway being another example. To look at this another way it is a shame that, generally speaking, we don’t take the same amount of time/attention to viewing painting/sculpture as we do viewing film. Although tellingly this probably reflects the time we are in.

Elizabeth Price 'User Group Disco' (2009). Watch the video here:
What it really comes down to is a question of audience, video art in galleries allows for creative freedom and experimentation for artists, it can present new ways of seeing the world and developing/testing new technology. Like all art it can either alienate audiences if you aren’t expecting to spend time watching it or it can open-up and make art more accessible to those unfamiliar or uninterested in painting, printmaking or sculpture. Maybe it is about empowering the audience so they can decide if and when they watch a piece of video art, which is pretty much and has gone without saying, what the internet does already, but then what role does the gallery play? Like painting or sculpture there are plenty of good and bad examples (some of the good hopefully mentioned here) of film art. Despite getting slightly more patient and slightly more knowledgeable over the years I think I will continue to endeavour with my inhibitions around video art; never knowing how long or not to spend viewing the work, whether I should sit on the uncomfortable wooden bench, the floor, or stand in the doorway or back of the room, whether I should walk around and come back to it later, whether I should wait 5 minutes or two; things I never feel as self conscious about when viewing other art, but then they are also reasons why I will continue to enjoy confronting and being challenged and maybe not feeling as guilty for watching it on the television as much as seeing it in the gallery.