Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Review of Helen Finney: Note to Self at Xavier White’s, Blackheath

21/12/11
Helen Finney: Note to Self
Xavier White’s, Blackheath
25 November – 29 December 2011

Glossy lips, plump and ripe, oily skin, hair follicles… Every minute detail, every blemish, nothing escapes these larger than life portraits by Helen Finney, on display this month at Xavier White’s in Blackheath. Painted in thick oils, and focusing in so closely on just the eyes, nose and mouth, these brutal yet beautiful canvases are honest to a fault. Clogged eyelashes, as if applied with an oversized mascara brush, strands of a fringe, glistening teeth. From a distance, the palate appears quite minimal – mottled skin tones, sometimes pallid, other times sun-kissed – yet as you draw in, you notice the many many colours, applied in an almost pointilliste manner, creating the illusion of human flesh. There is something quite abstract about these images, despite their most figurative of subject matter. The scale is so immense, and the viewpoint so intimate, that it becomes almost impossible to tell who is male, who is female. Does it even matter? The face is reduced to a bundle of features, shared by us all. And yet no two noses are the same; each person is recognisable as an individual. Especially the paintings of Finney herself, her eyes a startling blue, her skin a delicate porcelain.


Two larger works stand out from amongst the snapshots – Dear Jon… and You Never Saw Me. Each of these portrays a full length Finney, or, to be more accurate, several full length Finneys, overlaid as shadowy silhouettes against a dark background. In the former, where she is on the phone, this suggests not so much a sense of movement, but of duration. You ask yourself: what is being said? Is it a break up call? A make up call? Trying to read the expression gives no clues, since, as with the faces all around, the features do not speak. They are perfect, they are precise, they are truthful, but perhaps too truthful, and too decontextualised. Human flesh, viscerality, tangibility. But abstracted beyond emotion.




Similarly, You Never Saw Me, which shows Finney from behind, dressed in stockings and a basque, with buttocks bared and hand on hip, is nowhere near as erotic as it sounds. Here the blurred outlines suggest something of a vision, a dream – indeed, as the title suggests, was this scene ever witnessed, or just imagined? Again, flesh, presence, instinct. A harsh rawness. Humanity stripped bare.



There is something unnerving about these works. They draw you in and repel you all at once. Beauty and fascination, but the horror of reality revealed uncomfortably close at hand. One thing is for sure – I would not want to be Finney’s model!



Images:

All © the artist

Note to Self


Dear Jon...

You Never Saw Me

Strength

For further information, see: http://helenfinney.webs.com/

Review of Vika Verb: From Womb to Womb at East Gallery, 214 Brick Lane

21/12/11
Vika Verb: From Womb to Womb
East Gallery, 214 Brick Lane
13 – 18 December 2011

bird. woman. egg. Such is the title of two of the works in Vika Verb’s first solo show, taking place in East Gallery, nestled amidst the vintage treasure troves and multitudinous bagel shops at the lively northern end of Brick Lane. And, indeed, these motifs recur throughout her works, across many different media, as she experiments eagerly for ways to capture a certain lightness, and, as she herself phrases it: “In a world dominated by reason, profit and logic, […] to search for and revive the true meaning of femininity and its inherent value.”


The theme, one of cycles, periods, and women’s lives, with which she has been working for a couple of years now, has become very personal. In fact, she confesses to feeling not only exhausted, but also something of an emptiness, and the need to turn to something else for a while, having poured herself into these creations. The main set of drawings, encapsulating the subject of the show, is Cycles and Periods (Blood, Entry, Fruit, Ground), a set of four drawings representing the four cycles of a woman’s life: her first menstruation, her first sexual encounter, child birth, and the menopause, two of which Verb has already experienced, two of which she felt able to imagine through a sense of collective memory passed down from her female ancestors. The drawings, made, as is preferred by Verb who finds acrylics and oils too heavy, in ink, are intricately detailed and overflowing with symbolism. Her use of silver leaf brings to mind jewellery and femininity, the foliage has something organic about it, and the patterning is almost prehistoric – a term Verb repeatedly employs when talking about her work and subject matter. She is looking back to a time when women weren’t dominated by men, when femininity was about spirituality and a sense of connection. In tribal ritual, sacred objects may not be touched by menstruating women, and this is not because they are felt to be dirty, but, quite the contrary, because they are seen to hold such power that it would be impossible not to disrupt the weaker masculine power of the object. This sense of ritual is all too present throughout Verb’s work.

Take, for example, the works I mentioned already, bird. woman. egg (I, II) and the related Metamorfishes (I, II, III). These came about after Verb found a dead bird lying in the street and felt compelled to pick it up and take it home. Unsure what to do with it, she kept it for a while in her freezer. She was then inspired to go on a trip to Epping Forest, bird in tow, along with some fish and some eggs. Once there, she stripped bare, and took a reel of photographs of herself and the objects, setting the timer and running to take up position, thus scarcely having time to pose, and certainly not to ensure focus or composition. The outcome is beautiful and natural. For bird. woman. egg (II), the visitor is invited to click through a slide projection show of images revealing Verb’s own body, the bird, the eggs, leaves, foliage… Is this sexual? No, not at all. It is a simple presentation of the body, the feminine, and nature. Somehow, in modern society, nakedness has become taboo, especially of women. But this is a celebration, a return to our roots, a recognition of life and where it comes from. Metamorfishes (I, II, III), originating from that same excursion, are a set of black and white photos depicting Verb and two fish in the forest. In the first, she holds them over her eyes; in the second, in her ears; and, in the third, over her breasts – a female version of the Japanese three wise monkeys and the proverb they embody – “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” – whereby the element of speech, for women, who traditionally speak less than their male counterparts, is replaced by the suggestion of nourishment provided for their offspring?


Eggs recur again in 192 eggs, a tribute to all those ova women lose each month of the year, and named according to the number of periods Verb has had to date. A wicker basket containing (near enough) the said number of (hens’) eggs is watched over by two papier mâché faces, casts of the artist herself, wrapped into fabric bodies, contorted, clawed, and with long tails. They may look arguably like lizards, but Verb contends they are, in fact, birds, since birds are where it all begins: bird. woman. egg.

Ideal Imperfections is a series of prints, taken from the first menstruation drawing which, for Verb, epitomises the concept of “womb to womb”, and of the umbilical connection between us all, each one containing a deliberate error. Printmaking, she explains, is a very masculine technique. It is all about precision: lining up the paper, having the watermark where it should be, applying the right amount of ink. Mistakes, on the other hand, are typically associated with women (think of Eve in the Garden of Eden), and so this deliberate subversion reclaims the method for womankind. A new experience for Verb, printmaking offers her the chance to work with what she loves most: lines. “Lines are what are most important to me. Not colours. Lines. Lines and dots. Dots free me. I like to get to a state where I don’t analyse.”


In fact, she likes to get to a state where her works take on characters of their own, with whom she can converse. In Dreams of a 700-year-old Woman, ink blots are transformed into creatures, strange and surreal, often blurring features of various species. Asked why she mixes abstraction and figuration like this, Verb explains that, for her, abstraction is about emotion and feelings, but, to have feelings, you need a character. Thus it is all about releasing that character and finding the narrative. Telling the story.


The question might be, whose story is it which is being told? Is it purely personal, or is it one belonging to all of womankind? For the most recent work included in this show, Lunar Drawings (first to twenty eighth), Verb read her lunar horoscope daily for a month, considered its predictions, and then, at the end of the day, produced a drawing reflecting both on this, and on what actually happened in reality. Again, strewn with a menagerie of creatures, many revealing bright red vulva, some in a state of transformation, “they act as a reminder that every female has the power of the moon, of the animals, of the fish, of the plants. It’s a shame we don’t use it now. As soon as women start to fight for their rights, they become male. Aggression of this sort is not feminine. We have the power, but we should look inside ourselves and find it there.” A return to prehistoric feminism? A celebration of nature and spirit. An exploration and experimentation with many different techniques. An artist to keep an eye on.

Images:

All © the artist

Cycles and Periods (Blood, Entry, Fruit, Ground)

Metamorfishes (I, II, III)

Print from the series Ideal Imperfections

Ink drawing from the series Dreams of a 700-year-old Woman

For further information, see: http://www.vikaverb.com/

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Review of Pipilotti Rist: Eyeball Massage at the Hayward Gallery

17/12/11
Pipilotti Rist: Eyeball Massage
Hayward Gallery
28 September 2011 – 8 January 2012

Born in Switzerland in 1962, Pipilotti Rist, acclaimed as a pioneer of video art, has often also been pigeon-holed as a feminist artist because of her repeated use of the female body as both landscape and subject matter for her work. “Politically,” she agrees, “I am a feminist, but personally, I am not. For me, the image of a woman in my art does not stand just for women: she stands for all humans.”[1] And, indeed, her work is a visceral celebration of the human body, both inside and out.


Her current survey show – her first in the UK – which fills the Hayward’s ground-floor galleries, and spills out on to the terrace and into the toilets and café, brings together over 30 works, from when she burst on to the international art scene back in the 1980s, to today, including a number of especially commissioned pieces, one of which was not finished until the morning of the press view. There is nothing conventional about any of them: both content and placement deviate playfully from visitors’ expectations. So, for example, in Yoghurt On Skin – Velvet On TV (2009), we are confronted with tiny LCD screens hidden inside shells and handbags, whilst Pimple Porno (1992), a 12-minute video loop of a man and woman having sex, is buried inside a child’s cot, and Selfless In The Bath Of Lava (1994) projects up through a tiny hole from deep beneath the ground (“We had to dig down 200 metres below the Southbank and bury a woman who is now held there in purgatory” jokes Rist).


Several works are also projected across the gallery floor so that visitors can move in and around them, becoming part of them. Amongst these is Mutaflor (1996), in which the camera draws near and enters a naked Rist’s mouth, is ejected through her anus, and then loops right back to her mouth. In a similar vein, Digesting Impressions (1996), projected onto the abdomen of a dangling swimsuit, takes us on an endoscopic journey through the oesophagus, stomach, and intestines. There is more to this work than just a document of the bodily process, however – it might be taken as symbolic also of the digestion of information and the impressions with which we are continually confronted from the world around us.

The abdomen is perhaps the most significant part of the body for Rist: “This part of the body is very sacred, as it is the site of our entrance into the world, the centre of sexual pleasure, and the location of the exits for the body’s garbage.” As such, she considers underpants to be “the temple of our abdomen,” and this might help explain their proliferation in her sculptural works. Created specifically for the Hayward, Hiplights or Enlightened Hips (2011) consists of 300 pairs of pants in various sizes, individually lit from the inside, and hanging on a washing line outside the gallery. Inside, the first artwork one encounters is a giant chandelier, Massachusetts Chandelier (2010), also created from a large number of undergarments, but this time lit from the outside by projections. “I have no pants anymore!” jokes Rist, pulling down her trousers a little.


You cannot help but smile, both at the artist herself, whose wicked sense of humour captivates the audience, but also at her work. There is something comical, something cheeky, something reckless about it. Something childlike too? Her name, of course, is not her birth name, but one she adopted as a teenager in honour of Pippi Longstocking, the stripy-legged heroine of Astrid Lindgren’s children’s tales. But no, I wouldn’t call it childlike, maybe just simple and uncomplicated – as Rist herself says, she is using things around us and turning them into something beautiful. Others might call her work provocative, exaggerated, hysterical even. “But then,” as Adrian Searle concedes, “women are often accused of being hysterical when they tell unpalatable truths, or assert themselves.”[2]

There is, however, an undeniably Freudian aspect to Rist’s work. Elisabeth Bronfen[3] suggests that she epitomises female curiosity, and thus contravenes the concept of the drive to avert one’s gaze from the unpalatable. What Rist offers us is an exaggerated aversion of this aversion of the gaze. Her camera forces us to look at what we don’t really want to see, from genitalia and pubic hair (Red Bodily Love Letter, 1992/2007, and Blue Bodily Love Letter, 1992/1998) to menstruation (Blood Room, 1993/1998). But her goal is not to shock us: she is simply depicting the facts of life, expressing reality. And yet, at the same time, there is something about it which is not at all real, a hallucinatory quality, something dreamlike. Administering Eternity (2011), another new commission, is perhaps the best example of this. With white voile curtains floating in the breeze, scattered cushions handmade out of stuffed items of clothing, a soundtrack of bells, Tibetan monks, the wind, and a music box tune played back at half speed, we enter into a mesmeric, relaxing, fantasy world, surrounded by images from the most beautiful of dreams: flowers, plants, cats, mouths, skies, spirals, undergrowth, lambs… Visitors themselves become part of the experience, capturing and projecting images, as if they were emanating from their own fantasy. Rist has described her works as audiovisual poems, and there is something undeniably poetic about the atmosphere in this room. It would be possible to sit here for hours, day-dreaming, meditating, drifting through this psychedelic trance.

Less comfortable, however, is the earliest work on display, I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much (1986). Made whilst she was still a student in Basel, this film features Rist dancing about half-naked, always out of focus, singing in a distorted voice (played back at the wrong speed). For this show, the video is being projected inside a larger construction, A Peak Into The West – A Look Into The East (or E-W) (1992/2011), shaped like the beam from a projector, into which visitors must insert their heads, an act which both reaffirms and simultaneously subverts the aggression of the gaze.

As Bronfen[4] concludes, Rist’s work is based upon a “self conscious disturbance of visual and cinematic expectations.” She is a master of video and film technology, whose haptic camera work enhances the viscerality of her subject matter. Whilst
classic film editing –  known as continuity editing – is all about a striving for coherence, and an attempt to make the audience forget the presence and mediation of the camera and the fact that they are watching a film, Rist deliberately reminds her viewers of this very thing. She incorporates jerky movements, out of focus shots, distorted sound, jagged lines, and colour filters. In Bronfen’s words, this is a display of her “radically disjunctive excess;” but Rist herself simply says: “I try to find some coherence, but I’m not there yet.” As she continues: “We change every day. We are only a biological meat machine. When we meet someone, we have a conversation which changes us. Tomorrow we are someone else.” And, indeed, I challenge any one of you to leave this exhibition the same person you were when you entered.




[1] ‘Pipilotti Rist: “We all come from between our mother’s legs,”’ by Laura Barnett, in The Observer, 04/09/11, available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/sep/04/pipilotti-rist-exhibition-hayward-gallery Accessed 14/12/11
[2] ‘Pipilotti Rist: big time sensuality,’ by Adrian Searle, in The Guardian, 26/09/11, available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/sep/26/pipilotti-rist-hayward-gallery-review Accessed 14/12/11
[3] ‘Pipilotti’s Rist’s Use of the Feminine Body and Cinematic Gaze’, lecture by Elisabeth Bronfen, Blue Room, Spirit Level at Royal Festival Hall, 13/12/11
[4] Op cit. cf. also her essay in the catalogue to accompany the exhibition.



Images:



All works © the artist


Pipilotti Rist
Eyeball Massage Installation view at the Hayward Gallery. 
Photo Linda Nylind 
Administrating Eternity (2011)

Pipilotti Rist
Eyeball Massage Installation view at the Hayward Gallery. 
Photo Linda Nylind 
Selfless In The Bath of Lava (1994)


Pipilotti Rist
Eyeball Massage Installation view at the Hayward Gallery. 
Photo Linda Nylind 
Foreground: Massachusetts Chandelier (2010) 
Staircase: I Never Taught In Buffallo II (2003/2011) wallpaper






Originally published at http://www.rovesandroams.com/2011/12/pipilotti-rists-eyeball-massage-at-the-hayward/ 

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Review of Your Garden is Looking a Mess Could You Please Tidy it up at PayneShurvell


13/12/11
Your Garden is Looking a Mess Could You Please Tidy it up
PayneShurvell
4 November 2011 – 7 January 2012

PayneShurvell’s small gallery space is currently full to the brim with a mass of works by some big name artists, including Peter Blake and Bruce McLean, both hanging on the walls and strewn across the floor, loosely linked by the theme of cigarette packets and printed matter, or, rather, the disappearance thereof, in the age of radical digitisation and prohibition of tobacco advertising. The soundtrack to this exploration into the changing visual and cultural landscape is provided by Nicky Coutts’ Eastern (2010), a re-enactment of the final scene in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) by thirty non-professional actors in Tokyo. Playing on an eight and a half minute loop, the repetitive Western music soon begins to grate, but it certainly sets the scene for nostalgic flashbacks to the heyday of social smoking.


“Listen, while I tell you a story…” Rudolf Reiber’s artist’s book (Where the flavor is, 2011) is a compilation of texts from the many Marlboro cinema advertisements, themselves often featuring rugged cowboys riding high in the saddle across panoramic landscapes. Peter Blake’s one-off print, made especially for this show, and bearing the same title, also harks back to iconic advertising imagery, this time of Lucky Strike. Finally, in the 1980s, Niall Monroe worked as a tobacco pack designer for STAR, and his work of the same name displays a number of limited edition packets, culminating in the cult design, launched only in Switzerland, celebrating the fall of the Berlin wall.

But is all of this soon to be a thing of the past? Recent legislation in Australia means that from December 2012, all cigarette packaging must be plain and logo free. It is perhaps with this in mind that Marie-Jeanne Hoffner shot her short film in which she uses a scalpel to dismantle, scrape clean, and reassemble a Gauloise packet (Untitled, 2011). Dermot O’Brien takes this one step further by turning his Marlboro packet into an intricate and tiny model of the Bates Motel (Untitled, 2011).


The concept for the show comes from Andrew Curtis, an artist himself, but who also works in a print studio, and who is worried about the demise of this medium. Thus, other works included in the exhibition, which are not focused on the tobacco industry, include Greg Day’s Studland (2011), a large collage comprising ripped and torn posters from advertising billboards, and Gerhard Lang’s Unrecorded Leaf (2011), a series of five frottages made from leaves, each with a slight outline as if it were shaking in the breeze, purportedly exploring the interaction between man and his landscape. A leaf, after all, is the basis of all printed matter.


Perhaps the most innovative work, however, is Their Grassy Places (1971-2011) by Bruce McLean. In the 1960s, the Duke and Duchess of Bedford commissioned their gardener to use fertiliser to create their profiles on their lawn at Woburn Abbey, and a photograph of this was published in the Daily Mirror. McLean then bought the rights to this image and reprinted it in Studio International as an art piece. He later tried to resell this to the Daily Mirror, but they were not interested. For Your Garden is Looking a Mess Could You Please Tidy it up, McLean is inserting his print into a copy of the Daily Mirror bought for each day of the show’s run. He will then sign each of these as an edition. Whether or not the Daily Mirror will be interested now, who can say? Either way, what this peculiarly intriguing exhibition makes clear is that, despite the dying habit of handwritten notes, the homogenisation of books, newspapers and letters into online media, and the banning of cigarette advertising (not least following the actual death of three of the Marlboro campaign’s cowboys, two from lung cancer, one from emphysema), the interaction between visual and printed matter, and the potential for its exploitation, is far from dead.


Images:

Rudolf Reiber
Where the flavor is
Artist’s Book
2011

Dermot O’Brien
Untitled
Laser cut card, Marlboro packet, adhesive
2011

Bruce McLean
Their Grassy Places
45 newspapers containing a screenprint signed and specifically dated by the artist
Edition of 45
1971-2011


Review of Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt at Ordovas

13/12/11
Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt
Ordovas
7 October – 16 December 2011

Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669) lived over 300 years apart, and, on the surface, there is not much similarity between their work, so one might well wonder why Pilar Ordovas has chosen to inaugurate her new gallery on Savile Row with an exhibition looking at the connections between the two artists. A small show, comprising just six Bacon paintings (amongst them, two triptychs and one diptych), one Rembrandt, and then a number of working documents and related items, it is, nevertheless, worth a visit, and her well reasoned premise for the link is not actually as tenuous as it might at first seem.


The inspiration for the exhibition came back in 2006 when Ordovas was handling the estate of Valerie Beston, who had looked after Bacon during his time with the Marlborough Gallery. Amongst the items, Ordovas found a photograph, a facsimile of which is included in this show, taken by Irving Penn in June 1962, and depicting Bacon in his studio, with a pinned up, crumpled, and paint-spattered image of Rembrandt’s Self Portrait with Beret (ca. 1659) in the background.


It is well known that Bacon took a lot of inspiration, sometimes quite directly, from a number of his artistic predecessors (perhaps most notably Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, ca. 1650), and his collection of books, photographs, and reproductions filled his studio like a treasure trove. In his interviews with David Sylvester, recorded between 1962-1985, Bacon discusses his art historical interests quite candidly. Martin Harrison, in his essay in the catalogue to accompany this exhibition[1], suggests, however, that the opinions and preferences expressed in this source might well be interpreted in a distorted manner, since Bacon was often looking back in retrospect, rather than expressing his attitude from the time. His admiration for one artist, though, can be seen to remain constant – and this artist is Rembrandt.


Bacon held Rembrandt’s self-portraits, of which there are around sixty, shared between the media of paint and etching, in especially high regard, and spoke in depth about the Self Portrait with Beret in particular, extolling the fleeting application of paint, lack of intricate detail (the work is thought to be unfinished), and what he termed the “anti-illustrational” aspects, such as the deep shading around the eye-sockets, making it appear as if there were none. According to Sylvester, it was from looking at Rembrandt that Bacon learned “how to use an extremely restricted range of colour, how to dissolve forms into space and how to destroy the picture-plane.”[2] In his own words, Bacon praises the late portraits of Rembrandt for being those in which “he made a tightrope walk between appearance and caricature.” [3] In the film clip from an interview with Sylvester[4] being shown in the gallery, Bacon goes on to describe Rembrandt’s style in the beret-clad portrait as “the same as Abstract Expressionism [but] much more exciting and much more profound” because he is trying to record an actual fact, namely, that of self appearance. Certainly, his dark palate, thick brushstrokes, and gestural use of colour to highlight contours, are far from the naturalistic precision of his ancestors. Although the concept of a psychological portrait is not contemporaneous with Rembrandt, it would seem that Bacon would like to attribute something deeper than a pure physical likeness to the Old Master’s work, and, certainly, this attempt to capture something of the true character of the sitter was a goal of Bacon himself.

Notoriously antagonistic towards the prevailing tendencies towards Abstraction and Expressionism, Bacon was dedicated to the figurative in content, if not typically in style. His portraits are mere sketchy suggestions, with distorted figures, areas of bare canvas, strange box-like objects, and a vividly non-naturalistic palate. Indeed there is an undeniable likeness between his paintings and their subjects – perhaps more so than in some photographic style images – but, to my mind at least, this is achieved more through his abstraction and distillation of character than through any careful and planned mark making. Irrational marks they may be, but how else could the irrational character of these artists be so succinctly portrayed?


Whilst one cannot attempt to draw too many conclusions from this small comparison, and whilst it would certainly be out of place to attempt to infer too great a likeness between the two artists’ works, the many photographs and reproductions of Rembrandt’s work that Bacon had in his studio, various of which are on show here, and the obvious attention he paid to them, evidenced by the paint smudges and finger prints with which they are besmirched, do suggest that there is a connection which, until now, has been largely overlooked. As such, as well as simply to enjoy the contorted and agonised Bacon self-portraits and, of course, the glory of there being a Rembrandt hanging amongst them, a visit to this new Mayfair gallery space is to be recommended.




[1] Martin Harrison, ‘Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt’, essay in exhibition catalogue of the same name, Ordovas Gallery, 2011
[2] David Sylvester, ‘The Paintings of Francis Bacon’, The Listener, 3 January 1952, p29, cited in Harrison, op cit
[3] Transcript of Bacon interviewed by David Sylvester, December 1971; Hyman-Kreitman Archive, Tate Britain, cited in Harrison, op cit
[4] Sunday Night Francis Bacon. Interview with David Sylvester. BBC Television; dir. Michael Gill, 1966




Images:

Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

Self-Portrait
oil on canvas
35.5 x 30.5 cm.
Painted in 1972
Private Collection
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2011

Rembrandt Harmenz. van Rijn (1606-1669)
Self-Portrait with Beret
oil on panel
30.7 x 24.3 cm.
Painted circa 1659
Musée Granet, Communauté du pays d’Aix-en-Provence
© CPA, Musée Granet.

Working document: Fragments of Rembrandt, Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1660, from the book Rembrandt by Tancred Borenius, London: Phaidon Press, 1952 and leaf from book, A Pictorial History of Jazz by Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer Jnr, London: Robert Hale Limited,1955 (pp.79/80)
Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, Francis Bacon Archive (Reg. RM98F1A:79)
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2011

Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
Study for Self-Portrait
oil on canvas
152.4 x 140 cm.
Painted in 1964
Private Collection
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2011



Monday, 12 December 2011

Review of Laurel Nakadate at the Zabludowicz Collection

12/12/11
Laurel Nakadate
Zabludowicz Collection
29 September – 11 December 2011

Oops! I did it again
I played with your heart, got lost in the game
Oh baby, baby
Oops! You think I’m in love
That I’m sent from above
I’m not that innocent!
(Oops! I Did it Again, Britney Spears, 2000)

On the surface, Laurel Nakadate’s collection of video works portray a young, sexy American idol girl, dressed in little more than the skimpiest possible bikini top and shortest shorts, chewing gum, dancing about provocatively to her walkman or stripping with and for ugly middle-aged men with whom she seems quite clearly to have the upper hand. But scratch the surface and is it really as casual and playful as it seems? And if there is exploitation here, who is exploiting whom?


Nakadate’s first UK solo exhibition at the Zabludowicz Collection brings together a large body of her filmic and photographic work from over the past ten years, and also includes a couple of specially commissioned pieces. For I Want to Be the One to Walk in the Sun (2006) and Stories (2005), two of the longer films in the collection, Nakadate travelled across America, hanging out at truck stops, gas stations, and other less than salutary locations, looking to meet men with whom she could go home and make her work. Sometimes this would involve teaching them simplified versions of strip poker, live on camera, other times just asking them to follow her in the dark in a disconcerting style. In between encounters, she is seen in a maid’s outfit, with a dog humping her leg, and pole dancing around lampposts and a support on the porch of a weather-boarded chapel, to the soundtrack of Neil Young’s Heart of Gold. Nothing but a sexual being, the spiritual emptiness and loneliness are resounding.

This loneliness comes across again in Love Hotel (2005), for which Nakadate spent a week alone in Tokyo, staying in various short-term establishments intended for amorous liaisons. To the soundtrack of Bonnie Tyler’s Angel of the Morning – “then slowly turn away, I won’t beg you to stay with me” – she acts out love scenes with an absent, invisible lover. Particularly poignant also is the line: “I’m old enough to face the dawn.” For is she? There is something naïve and childlike to her performances, despite their obvious sexuality. In Greater New York (2005), for example, shot in the wake of 9/11 and capturing “small personal moments,” visions of her dancing to a backdrop of fireworks (a recurrent motif in many of her works: “… I attempt to find beauty in the world. […] Fireworks are so grand, and perfect, and then, only moments later, so wholly disappeared”[1]) and scenes of natural innocence, such as squirrels frolicking in the park, Nakadate cajoles a baby bird, quite obviously dead, to get back up and return to life. Similarly touchingly, Exorcism 3 (Dancing in the Desert for Britney) (2009) contains a performance carried out on the Salt Flats in Utah, about which Nakadate explains that she “danced as an attempt to exorcise Britney Spears’ sadness. I wanted to spare her…” Yet how genuine is this childlike simplicity, when, at the same time, she steadily holds the viewer’s – voyeur’s – gaze?

Britney is clearly an influence on Nakadate. Another work, the three-channel installation Oops! (2000), shows the efforts she made to teach men she met through random encounters to join with her in dancing to this song. In preparation, she watched MTV eight hours a day for a week to transcribe and learn the choreography. She then also bought a Hello Kitty boom box to take with her to the men’s homes. To return to the lyric with which I began: “I’m not that innocent!


Good Morning Sunshine (2009) stands out from the other works in the exhibition, not only because it is scripted (and without musical accompaniment) and stars three girls (selected via an open casting call on Syracuse, New York) rather than Nakadate herself, but because there is a chilling role reversal. Repeating the same scenario three-times over, once with each girl, Nakadate, armed with her camera, and taking on a sinisterly seductive male role, enters the bedroom, wakens the sleeping beauty, and gradually gets her to stand up and strip: “You know you’re the prettiest girl, right? […] Let me look at you. […] Show me your feet. […] What’s underneath your shirt? […] Don’t be nervous…” The girls, silent for the most part, with the occasion shy smile or nod, stand coyly, equipped with teddy bear, looking uncomfortable, but complying nevertheless. They are being manipulated and groomed, watched and exploited, devalued.


In amongst the films, spread across two small back rooms upstairs, are 365 A4 photographs comprising 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears (2010), produced between 1 January – 31 December 2010, during which time Nakadate photographed herself crying on a daily basis, purportedly to “deliberately take part in sadness each day.” But these shots – some naked, some not, and ranging from lying on her bed or in the bath, to standing before the mirror, to travelling by plane or train – capture so much more than sadness. They are moments of anguish, desolation, and despair: revealing the cruel truth behind the performances of sexual bravado and laughter. Stripped bare, we see a vulnerable girl with a lack of self worth, seeking meaning, seeking belonging.  Listen again to the lyrics of her carefully selected background songs: in Lessons 1-10 (2002), where Nakadate films herself acting as an art model in a man’s house, dressed as a school girl, in provocative lingerie, or spread eagled naked across the desk, Patsy Cline croons out You Belong to Me. Beyond words, however, is the choice of Satie’s haunting Gymnopédie for Where You’ll Find Me (2005), which reenacts the death and crime scenes of a number of young girls across America, sometimes stripped, beaten and bloodied, always alone. Who will miss them? Will they be noticed when they are gone? Once again, the desperate longing to be loved is apparent, this time to the shocking extent of seeking solace in death.


In an interview for Art Talk![2], Nakadate says: “there’s nothing more pathetic than a chance encounter that you try to turn into something real.” Sometimes, however, it takes such extreme action to distract you from the emptiness you feel inside; sometimes it is all you believe you are worth. Don’t be fooled by the superficial cavalierness of Nakadate’s films. Certainly, she is “not that innocent”, but, equally, there is much more to her overt sexual provocation than meets the eye.


[1] From the wall text accompanying 51/50 (2009), a three minute film of Nakadate dancing in front of fireworks, to the soundtrack of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy.
[2] Viewable on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMDNAlw3b-I, accessed 10/12/11.



Images:

Laurel Nakadate
Still from Oops!, 2000
3 channel video
3:33 minute loop
Edition of 5
Courtesy the artist, Zabludowicz Collection and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

Laurel Nakadate
Still from Oops!, 2000
3 channel video
3:33 minute loop
Edition of 5
 Courtesy the artist, Zabludowicz Collection and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York


Laurel Nakadate
From the series 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, 2011
September 4, 2010
Ink Jet print
8-1/2 x 11 inches
Courtesy the artist, Zabludowicz Collection and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

Laurel Nakadate
From the series 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, 2011
February 9, 2010
Ink Jet print
8-1/2 x 11 inches
Courtesy the artist, Zabludowicz Collection and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Review of Dara Birnbaum at the South London Gallery


10/12/11
Dara Birnbaum
South London Gallery
9 December 2011 – 12 February 2012

As someone who is notoriously sceptical about the extent to which video works ought to be considered art, Dara Birnbaum’s multi-channel installation, Arabesque (2011), being shown for the first time as the centrepiece of her solo exhibition at the South London Gallery, certainly convinced me of the possibilities. Born in New York in 1946, and trained initially in architecture and painting before becoming a pioneer in the burgeoning field of video art, Birnbaum’s works span over three and a half decades, from the early 1970s to the present day. Thus, whilst Arabesque amply fills the main gallery space, with its haunting soundtrack echoing through the corridors, bookshop, and café, it is put neatly in context alongside her oldest surviving installation, the black and white two channel work Attack Piece (1975), as well as eight small screen works from around the same time, all on display in the upper galleries.


Concerned with the relationship between the camera, the subject, and the viewer, as well as with gender stereotypes and women’s roles, her early works are a mixture of performance, politics, and psychological portraiture. Everything’s Gonna Be… (1976), for example, which is showing on a small monitor with its own headphones, presents a narrative about various US presidents and their affairs or encounters with girls, whilst, next door, six small screens run in parallel, Six Movements: Video Works from 1975, each a chapter on its own, and each a different length, some with sound, but none with headphones. With one long bench down the middle, and three screens on either side, the viewer becomes embroiled in the tension, distracted by the repeated scraping of a chair in Chaired Anxieties: Slewed, and the heavy breathing from Addendum: Autism, in which Birnbaum, performing her own work, rocks back and forth, eyes wide open and darting about in fear, paranoid, swallowing hard, panting, distressed, like a wild animal. On the opposite wall, in Control Piece, the movement is slower, but the exploratory hand creeping across the screen, the messy hair, and the psychiatric patient appearance are equally disturbing. Surrounded and entrapped, the viewer feels watched, unable to escape, unsettled to the extreme.


Attack Piece, as its title would suggest, is also fraught with tension. One screen shows slides, abruptly jolting and clicking through their sequence, whilst the opposing wall is filled with images from a handheld video camera, at times too blurry to make out, but mainly of Birnbaum herself, armed with a still camera, and filmed by her male collaborators (including David Askevold, Dan Graham, and Ian Murray). The whir of the motor and the motion sickness inducing jerkiness make it hard to watch, but the holiday snapshot set up, with 1970s clothes, hair, and cars, entice the viewer with an enrapturing fascination. I do wonder, however, quite how different my perception of this seminal work is from that of the contemporary 1975 audience.


For me, though, the real star of the show is Arabesque, and it would not be an exaggeration to say I could have sat there all day watching it over and over, being carried away on the melancholic chords of Clara Schumann’s Romanze 1, Opus 11, juxtaposed against her husband Robert’s better known Arabesque Opus 18. The screen on the right shows footage from the 1947 film about the couple, Song of Love, a melodramatic silent biopic about their relationship and her nursing him through his phases of depression and madness; the three left-hand screens show edited clips, taken from YouTube, of girls performing these works, overwritten with extracts from Clara’s diary, expressing her passion, grief, loneliness and feelings of inadequacy:

“… And I believe that a quieter life would leave me too much time for my grief…”
“… People fall in love with things they know in their heart they can never have…”
“… I need the love which beautifies daily life – if that were to go my life would go with it…”
“… Words always seem so feeble compared with what I feel. Feeling is so many-sided and words have but one side…”

But music and art achieve here what words alone cannot. The work explores and articulates the intensity of a range of relationships: between lovers, between a musician and his/her instrument, and with oneself. The passion these engender reverberates across the entire gallery, and accompanies the visitor for the rest of the day, stirring joy and pain, happiness and tears. If that doesn’t qualify it as art, I don’t know what does.


Images:

Arabesque (2011) 
Film still of pianist Iris Weingartner from Arabesque (2011) taken with her permission from YouTube. 
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York - Paris

Addendum - Autism (1975) 
From Six Movements - Video Works from 1975 
Single channel video, black & white, mono, 7' 20 
Edition of 10 
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York - Paris

Attack Piece (1975) 
Two channel video installation, black & white (transferred from film & slide footage) 
2 mono audio, 7' 40" 
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York - Paris  
Photo: John Berens

Arabesque (2011) 
Four channel video installation, four stereo audio, 6' 30" 
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York - Paris  
Photo: John Berens