Saturday, 17 September 2016

Dust, Interrupted

It has been a while since I posted anything about tools on this blog [spanner in the workz] and in keeping with tradition I have decided to focus this week’s post on a painting seen recently at the John Moores Painting Prize in Liverpool. That and occasionally it is satisfying to write about one piece of work in more depth instead of attempting to write about it all!
Whilst primarily a British prize for painting the John Moores Painting Prize  for the past four years has included a partner exhibition, John Moores Painting Prize China and exhibited in Shanghai. The five winners from that prize are also exhibited alongside the British John Moores in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.
The question, ‘When is a painting not a painting?’ Would be a good place to start for discussing Lang Shuilong’s ‘Fundamental Tool’, created from dust on linen it already breaks convention in being the only ‘painting’ in this year’s John Moores Prize not to actually include any paint! I am unsure if my selecting this work as my favourite in the show reflects well on the state of the Painting Prize as a whole other than raising a trivial point that such categorisation has long been irrelevant and is generally a good thing and proves the Prize isn’t stuck somewhere in the past.
Lang Shuilong 'Fundamental Tool' (2015) Dust on Linen. 128 x168cm.
 In ‘Fundamental Tool’ the trace of  the shovel where Shuilong once laid it flat on the linen creates an almost indecipherable ghostly-void in the centre of this work; you are not sure at first glance that it may even be a tool, it almost looks completely abstract. The shovel’s absence is defined as an outline by the dust that has settled around it from the building-site where it was created. Shilong’s intervention is to then use a paintbrush to wipe the dust back off the linen canvas, “hoping that art will be able to undo nature, and creating a painting that sits between control and chance”. The whole piece is a very subtle and both traces of the artist’s brush and tool are the only structural elements to be seen.

Natalie Parsley 'Pin Hammer Drawing' (2012) Detail.
As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in my own practice using tools the idea of ‘control vs chance’ is one that does not seem to go away. Tools generally, are often depicted as objects of control or power (think communist hammers and sickles) but often when you speak to people that use them on a regular basis the relationship between ‘man and tool’ is more sympathetic in that they extend our reach of what the human-body can do, but as much as we are in control of them, they in-turn control our actions as much as our body form defines their design and purpose. Just as ‘control’ is associated with tools in art therefore so is the human body that wields them; the scale of Shuilong’s painting is body-sized and was it not horizontal would imply that association of an upright human-figure even more. The fact that it is horizontal is a much more submissive state and so highlights the attention to the absence of a human figure  or a figure at rest which is why maybe at first it appears more abstract or alien.
Natalie Parsley 'Hammer Drawings' (2012) Charcoal on Paper.
My own journey from creating fairly large scale representational drawings of tools eventually evolved to using the tools themselves to create the drawing [this took the form of a hammer used to make marks on a surface either through mono-print or hitting a lump of carbon from the centre of a sheet of paper working outwards as it gradually broke into smaller fragments and eventually dust, to create a drawing]. The element of chance in this work, for whatever psychological reasons, was one I was never particularly yielding towards, but none-the-less it was unpreventable in that the drawing had to adapt to where the charcoal dust and fragments scattered and broke off. In ‘Fundamental Tool’ however this juxtaposition between control and chance signifies the opposing factors of man’s perceived sense of being in control against the unstoppable natural forces of dust and time. To elaborate further it is between man’s control over the tool, here as a means of shovelling cement to build a structure and the unpreventable and uncontrollable consequence of the dust that falls or is blown by the wind after time; time which is also inevitable but out of man’s control. In intervening with this process by using a paintbrush, Shuilong, in a part archaeologist, part artist statement is trying to regain back that control.
Man Ray 'Dust Breeding' (1920) Photo.
It is also an active version of Man Ray’s photo, ‘Dust Breeding’ [1920] that came into existence from Duchamp’s ‘Bride Stripped Bare of Her Bachelors, Even’ laid flat and purposefully left so that it developed a thick layer of dust. The hand of the artist within Shuilong’s painting is the crucial difference between the observed dust of Man Ray’s photo and the disturbed dust in ‘Fundamental Tool’ in which the pushed around dust is important at creating a narrative of an implied action that has taken place, the image being seen here is the consequence of the actions of the shovel having been used for its work is then placed down, the resulting dust created from its digging eventually settles around it leaving a trace. Man Ray’s dust was a result of time, waiting and doing nothing whereas Shuilong’s was as consequence of work or an action. In my own work I had the similar rationale to Shuilong, that whilst not physically present in the drawing, the tool was still present in the resulting marks that told of the action which had taken place. Whilst the end image was subject to chance the actions that led to its creation were most certainly more controlled.

Zhao Liang 'Behemoth' (2016) Film. Still.
For me, this painting was also reminiscent of a film documentary I had seen a few days before during my stay in Liverpool; the film, titled ‘Behemoth’ documented the infernal plight of the Chinese mining industry focusing in particular on the lives of the farmers turned miners who work there. It was mesmerising visually however also uncomfortable viewing, the sheer scale of what was happening and relentless futility of the miner’s situation a depressing reality to comprehend. It is hellish in every sense of the word. One of the lasting images from this film was the amount of coal dust, soot, and smoke, earth and stone that left its coating on everything and everyone; so much that it actually results in the deaths of many of those who are exposed to it for long periods of time. The tragic thing about this particularly is that many of these miners have very little other choice other than to embark in this dangerous line of work in order to exist. Understandably the film has caused some controversy in China and without wanting to make unfounded comparisons I could not help but see Shuilong’s ‘Fundamental Tool’ in relation to this documentary I’d seen the night before, even more relevantly with Shuilong of course being Chinese. We know nothing of the person who laid the shovel down in ‘Fundamental Tool’ but the ghostly impression the trace of it leaves only furthers the feeling of absence of its owner. I suppose I started to wonder if it was the shovel left by one of those coal miners in ‘Behemoth’, its owner also succumb to the dust and soot of its actions. I am amazed at just how bodily work without the human figure present in them can be and ‘Fundamental Tool’ is an excellent example of this. There is the bodily element of the shovel and its association with bodily use, its horizontal positioning on the canvas that echoes a lying-down position or even perhaps a figure being buried; the shovel at once the object of burial and the representing the deceased. There are the physical marks made with the brush of a human-hand and then there is the use of dust which is also synonymous with the earth, stars and the idea that in some ways we are all made of dust. It is pure coincidence that I saw these two things around the same time, it does not however change the fact that these things are happening in China and could still be relevant. Shuilong creates these pieces from construction sites around China noting how the tools from the past are still the tools used today. They both are looking at China's occupation with growth and the consequences that construction has.I prefer the possibilities being kept open and it is perhaps unfair to compare the two together but I was unable to separate the two at the time.

It is however this central importance, signified by the positioning of the tool in the centre of the painting that gives 'Fundamental Tool' its title and in my own art relationship with tools to date, I hope this post has gone some way to proving just how much there is to be thought about and continues to fascinate me from something as seemingly mundane as the tool. Still much digging to be done!
Lang Shuilong’s ‘Fundamental Tool’ can be seen as part of the John Moores Painting Prize at The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool until November 27th 2016

Thursday, 8 September 2016

We Can Work It Out

With just over a month left to visit the Liverpool Biennial 2016, here’s the ‘Spanner in the Workz’ review of what to expect...
Now in its tenth year, the biannual contemporary arts festival, integrated across communities and venues in the city of Liverpool, has become a regular fixture on many an art calendar; least alone in part thanks to the added draw of some of the city’s more or less salubrious pubs and bars! Its inclusion of both national and international artists have made it, in some way, the cultural 'acid-test' of what to expect from contemporary artists working today; the most recent artistic practices, developments, thinking and reaction to some of the current developments and challenges faced in the art world at present.
Granby Street, Toxteth -Liverpool
It should come as no surprise that Liverpool, like most of the country, continues to struggle from cuts to arts funding over the last few years (despite this it is reassuring that the festival is still running), but is becoming increasingly reflective of the impacts that lack of funding may be causing. This year’s Biennial feels like a befuddled lack of continuity or criteria from direction of a clear theme or funds needed to bring in curators/artists with this sort of experience OR artists hungry for the exposure that participating in the Biennial would give. It has in fact been curated by committee into a series of episodes titled, Monuments from the Future, Flashbacks, Ancient Greece, Children’s Episodes, Software, and Chinatown. In short it feels more confused, less defiant and as though it has slightly lost its way in being clear in what message it wants to give; even the Student Protests from 1985, shown in a film and documentation in Open Eye Gallery do little to stir cause for action today or ignite social change. They’re of the past and only seek to act as a comparison at how un-politically motivated and disinterested my generation are often guilty of portraying. I am perhaps stubbornly of the belief that art can act as a platform for self-expression and still have a social or ethical cause or at the very least have some meaning or significance to the present (cinema, seems to do this better than most).
All of this is reflected in the choice of artists to display in the Tate Liverpool, classical Greek sculptures amongst Ikea-style furniture and random assorted half-hearted piles of rubbish on the floor (Half-hearted piles of rubbish, as they are too small to have significance and slightly too contrived to look natural). They are the, dare I say, ‘work’ of Jason Dodge who calls the intervention ‘what the living do’ but it sounds like trite to me and doesn’t say anything new about man’s relationship with his waste. I suppose the fact that it annoys me by its being in an art gallery is the point he’s trying to make though it still feels weak for being so subtle and failing to care whether it engages with its audience or not. This being the 2016 Biennial at its worst and many critics pointing out that viewers ‘have to sift through the rubbish’ in this year’s Biennial is an accurate assessment. Visually, Koenraad Deedibbeleer’s use of subtly altered Greek sculpture is interesting but only because they are Greek sculptures, the newly created modern plinths they stand on are somewhat superfluous and don’t really add anything new. If ‘pointlessness is the point’ and that it is in some way reflective of the throw-away, media heavy era we are currently occupying then it feels lazy and somehow unhelpful as it is unclear if it is being critical or supportive. Generally speaking I think I am leaning toward a contemporary art that challenges the status quo rather than adopting it. Upstairs and not part of the Biennial programme of events is the excellent Francis Bacon exhibition that only widens the cynical division between the art of the past and that of contemporary. Why couldn’t the contemporary exhibition have been the better of the two? I think art needs to rise to the challenge rather than take such an apathetic approach.
Rita McBride at Toxteth Reservoir (2016)
In almost all other arts, from music, to film and books there is a much greater desire placed in the making of these mediums to engage with their audiences, create excitement and progression of new ideas and intent behind their making than much of the contemporary art offerings on display here. There is a similar felling that filters into this year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries, apathy breeds apathy, with work that is so ‘self-aware’ or trying to be too clever or self-referential of the art world within which it resides that it often fails to communicate with its audience. I don’t think any of this is reflective of contemporary art or graduate work as a whole; more frustrating that the work selected does not portray enough of the breadth well. Maybe it is a question of, “is this representative of the true direction that the art of today is heading?” or more relevantly “If the work shown in this year’s Biennial is representative of Contemporary Art today then is there still a place within contemporary art for an art that is meaningful?”
There are however a few glimmers of hope and in what the Liverpool Biennial has always prided itself in doing so well, is opening up unusual or abandoned spaces to artists and allowing the public access to some truly remarkable buildings. This year is no exception and the ABC Cinema, Cains Brewery and Toxteth Reservoir are a few of the gems worth investigating as buildings alone.
Next year the Cains Brewery is being transformed into artists studios! This is great news as its a spectacular space. Although the curation of the Biennial art show currently occupying Cains Brewery fails to compete with its surroundings or respond to the context it finds itself in. Visitors will be disappointed to find that there are no references to the buildings interesting history that beneath the brewery is a lake that is 40 feet deep; somewhat surprisingly given the mention of it in the Biennial guide (why mention it if none of the work responds to it?!) There is a video here by Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, ‘Dogsy Ma’ Bone’ that uses locations in the Brewery and throughout Liverpool but isn’t enough on its own to quell the disappointment of the exhibition as a whole. Outside, is an un-open- able door as part of Lu Pingyuan’s ‘Do not Open it Series’; a further confounding metaphor if needed that the future of art is perhaps a locked door to nowhere or nowhere other than our perception of what we believe is behind the door… 
Lu Pingyuan 'Do Not Open Series', Cains Brewery, Liverpool  
The greatest success of this year’s Biennial is the integration of the main festival with its inner city areas. In and around Toxteth there are little signs as to where the City’s European Capital of Culture funding in 2008 was spent and even fewer signs of people or life compared with that of the bustling shopping district of Liverpool One. Despite this however, the artists have moved in and are beginning to make positive changes; on Granby Street, Turner Prize winning Art Group, Assemble have been working since 2012 to save the area from demolition through collaboration with the community. Granby Workshop is a social enterprise based there which sees handmade products made and sold by the local people. Elsewhere on Rhiwlas Street, Lara Favaretto has placed a 'Momentary Monument- The Stone' in the middle of this abandoned terraced street that looks like something more out of a dystopian horror than England, 2016. After the Toxteth Riots in 1981 many people have been forced to move out of such areas to allow for redevelopment. A redevelopment however that appears to be a long time coming and as result has only led to further decay of much needed houses. Painfully depressing, yet stunningly too, the area is a remarkable ghost-town and is an important reality-check from the ‘pointlessness’ of much of the Biennial art in the centre. Favaetto’s stone stands like a sentient monolith in the middle of this street, part blockade, part gravestone, part Brutalist sculpture, its appeal is in its context. In its unmovable, stubbornness it signifies some of the resistance and confrontation matched by the people whose lives were affected by events that happened here. On one side it has a small postal slot for donations or notes when after the Biennial the stone will be removed and cracked open; its contents distributed to local asylum seeking charities. 
Lara Favaretto 'Momentary Monument -The Stone' (2016) Rhiwlas Street
Just three-hundred metres down the road from this is the impressive Toxteth Reservoir, no longer in use, its purpose in a modern-day Liverpool is yet to be defined. The building slopes upwards with a flat turf lined top and inside is a chamber of arches and steel columns befitting of an atmospheric scene from a thriller or crime drama. Stepping inside this space viewers encounter Rita McBride’s laser installation consisting of several straight green beams of light, crossing in places, spanning the length of the reservoir. The affect is one of the most visually striking spectacles in the entirety of the Biennial and transforms as well as illuminating the space into something both dramatic and unreal at the same time. The laser beams shimmer under the dampness of this cavernous-like space and the whole thing feels temperate, fragile and in-keeping with some of the uncertainty of what the future holds within this building and area. McBride describes it as a wormhole and its use of green light does give the whole atmosphere a sci-fi feel, but for me it’s the way it works within the architecture of the reservoir that makes it so exciting; the horizontal lines created by the beams in contrast the the verticals of the supporting columns and curves of the bricked archways compositionally makes a lot of very interesting shapes and shadows. This work was created for this space and it’s that level of understanding or site-specific awareness that is missing in so much of the Biennial elsewhere.  
Ian Cheng 'Something Thinking Of You', Hondo Chinese Supermarket, Liverpool
Back in the City centre you’ll find more video art than you could ever hope to see in one place, even along the shelves inside a Chinese Supermarket (pictured)! I could almost write a whole piece about the video art in this year’s Biennial alone. Mark Leckey ‘Dream English Kid’ shows a snapshot montage of the cultural events that happened in the artist’s year’s growing-up between 1964-1999. The film has some brilliant moments, amateur footage from an early Joy Division gig sourced from YouTube and close-up, panning shots of vinyl record sleeve that resonate of nostalgia that Leckey’s work tends to do usually quite well. This piece covers so many ideas that it almost ends up saying nothing at all, but perhaps in that way it is more representative in portraying the feeling of memory/memories as a series of glimpses and fragmented layers thrown-together? Which would be convenient for Leckey, but acts more like the work in the Tate and Bloomberg tending to alienate its audiences.
Krzysztof Wodiczko 'Guests' (2011) FACT, Liverpool
If you only go see one film however go see Polish artist, Krzysztof Wodiczko’s ‘Guests’ (2011) at FACT gallery on Wood Street. Projected as a series of life-size arched, illuminated doorways the silhouettes of legal and illegal immigrants in Poland and Italy who animate these doorways in scenes of everyday life in a public square; there is a window cleaner, leaf blower, umbrella seller, parents, children and others. Conversations and actions happen simultaneously with characters occupying and disappearing from their framed windows as passers-by. So watching this film is to read (its subtitled) fragments of conversations about immigration, debates about seeking asylum and the situation of immigration policies and the affects it has on real people and their lives. For projections they look like ghostly Marlene Dumas paintings and is one of the few immersive video installations in the Biennial. Each figure is anonymous so the viewer becomes devoid of any judgments they may bring to the piece; these characters are all simply people. Wodiczko’s other pieces in FACT are given smaller space but deal with some equally poignant issues from homelessness to PTSD amongst American war veterans and is certainly an artist to look out for.
Overall the Biennial may feel a bit muddled this year and generally it hasn’t been as good as it was in perhaps its heyday as the Capital of Culture year; though despite this people still keep visiting it and it deserves to thrive if nothing other than for the city and its people who have supported it for so long.
Liverpool Biennial 2016 is on until October 16th. Visit: