Thursday, 17 July 2014

Spinning Out: Samara Scott

The artist is the medium of her medium; her part is limited to selecting aesthetically acceptable affects from the purely accidental behavior of her color. — Harold Rosenberg on Helen Frankenthaler, ‘Art and Words’ in The Re-Definition of Art, 1972.  

Google search ‘Helen Frankenthaler’. To the right of the cascading results, Google’s ‘Knowledge Graph’ displays a thumbnail cluster of reproductions, a textured swatch, a compact if you will, of Frankenthaler paintings. Beneath is a cursory description (‘Helen Frankenthaler was an American abstract expressionist painter. She was a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting), her achievements flattened into datasets: 

Born: December 12, 1928

Spouse: Stephen M. DuBrul Jr., Robert Motherwell

Periods: Lyrical abstraction, Post-painterly abstraction, Color Field...

The datasets inconspicuously shorthand concrete histories: for instance, Frankenthaler is no longer merely the wife of Robert Motherwell but a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting. Google magnanimously wills us to ‘go deeper and broader’ with our researches: a click on the cluster of reproductions opens a richly dynamic mood board of colours and forms. What has risen to the top of this archive-in-motion are a series of photographs by Gordon Parks, shot in 1956 for LIFE magazine, of Frankenthaler kneeling — awkwardly, demurely — on her work. 

‘Samara Scott’s work,’ a friend suggested at the weekend, ‘always puts me in mind of that photograph of Frankenthaler in her studio.’ I’d looked at the very image earlier that morning. It’s not as much about her pose as it is her palette: ripe blushes of pastels, pinks, and blues swirl into one another, bruising at the overlaps. Translucent washes express the loose fronds of canvas. These canvases cover the floor and, stretched on boards, vertically meet at right angles to produce space, physical and psychological. The quasi-functionally repurposed paintings, as architectural structure and interior décor, are stage set for Frankenthaler’s portrait, and an ambient image of mind and body. The sliver of a view onto the room to the edge of the frame is a glitch.

It was a relation half lodged at the edge of my consciousness. Besides obvious formal resemblances, many shared themes productively appear, however relayed, in Samara Scott’s work.1 Exhibitions such as Open Heart Surgery (2013) at The moving Museum, London or Cascading Style Sheets (2013) at the Palazzo Peckham, Venice, staged work to enable a spatialised ambient effect.2 The addition of a low coffee table in Still Life (2013), The Sunday Painter’s solo presentation at London Art Fair 2013, ramped up the functional-decorative complex. Where the domestic appears as glitch at the edge of Parks’ frame, for Scott it enters fully into the frame. Sponges, toilet paper, and used blankets are grounds for visible and invisible stains, dyes, and bleeds of fragrance, pigment, and ink.   

Scott’s writings are unruly attempts at organising thought on her own work without enervating its propensity for meaning. Abstract, unresolved, her associative prose agglomerations return again and again to ripe metaphors of pungent bodies, metabolic transformations, and synaesthethic confusions: she seeks ‘juicy effects and bruised saturation’; ‘olfactory and gustatory sensation’; and surroundings that ‘curdle’ and sculptures that ‘ooze’.

For E.C. Goossen, writing in Art International in 1961, Frankenthaler’s single contribution to the history of Western painting was to ‘add a new candidate for the dictionary of plastic forms: the stain’. ‘Frankenthaler’s painting,’ he writes: 

is manifestly that of a woman... What she took from [Pollock] was masculine; the almost hard-edge, linear splashes of duco enamel. What she made with it was distinctly feminine, the broad, bleeding-edged stain on raw linen. 

Frankenthaler did more than pour paint onto the canvas. She bled on the raw linen. She stained the sheets. Through slippages of language, Goossen codifies stained paint as menstruation, so now, before Parks’ camera, Frankenthaler kneels surrounded by fluids that signify residue of involuntary bodily function, ‘an index of a thwarted or ineffectual creative process... not creative inception or biological conception, but their refusal, the flushing of an empty womb’.3  Where Frankenthaler’s male peers actively, intentionally impregnated the canvas, she passively stained it with the seep and ooze of bodily fluids. 

Today, bodily seeps, stains, and oozes are just as likely to appear in the work of male artists, such as Benedict Drew or Ed Atkins, as they are female artists, such as Lucy Clout, Kate Owens, or, indeed, Samara Scott. This is perhaps an effect of the post-human recognition of the inexorably embodied nature of experiences. And their biopolitical dimensions. Does this sameness of bodies elide biological-social difference, thus furthering the dismantling of gender inequality?4 

Why are certain qualities in art aligned to or with the ‘feminine’ or the ‘masculine’? In the journal n.paradoxa’s 12 Step Guide to Feminist Art, Art History and Criticism (2010), feminist critic Katy Deepwell asks whether this is consequence of the artists being male or female or a critic’s evaluation or value judgement about a feminine sensibility in the work. In the case of Frankenthaler, for Lisa Saltzman it is resolutely the latter: her stains were linked to menstruation by male critics at a more or less identifiable moment. In the work of Samara Scott, along with other female contemporaries, these questions are rendered complex by their own complicit and duplicitous — (in)authentic — performance of femininity through culture at large. Particularly in Scott’s work, this includes aspects of feminist art history itself, such as the stereotypical historical domain of the decorative arts, the amateurism of craft, and, of course, the gendered stain.5

Despite the rhetoric of individuality and personal freedom, intuition and expression, attached to gestural abstract painting, Frankenthaler was dumbly tied to her biology. Today, these sensual freedoms are stock in trade imperatives of neoliberal capitalism. Scott lives these myths as female consumer, not as autonomous artist; and yet she is granted distinction by virtue of being embedded within an institutional apparatus that grants art its autonomy. To parrot Rosenberg: the artist is, indeed, the medium of her medium, selecting aesthetic affects from the forces that bare down on her embodied experiences. 

Scott’s work to date is difficult to disentangle: individual works provide backdrops for others, they bleed over. Her work is an intimate and confused collision between her self, she became teen in the MTV-hyper-sexualised nineties — light even tones of DiCaprio’s barely pubescent face, Salt-N-Peppa’s midriffs, sweet-sticky lip gloss (I remember the taste of K.B.’s) — and the emotional resonances of contemporary consumerism. This collision achieves, Scott writes, ‘the tenor of burning teenage dreams while prodding the crass mass-marketing through which they are shaped in a plasticised urban spirituality’. It’s as if the latex web of the work Making Out, reminiscent of Faith Wilding’s crocheted environments, has returned from Scott’s past to display a trawl of universal ‘girly matter’ coloured by personal significance. ‘Everything,’ Scott told me, ‘begins with a sort of sentimental material investigation; a slow digestion of cosmetic, edible and chemical cultural debris which rise from a practice formed from an impatience, haptic greed and a patchy logic.’ 

Frankethaler’s stain, stripped of its thematic, is a material-technical choice. Applied to absorbent unprimed canvases wet oil blooms into translucent washes. Like watercolour, these oils necessitate precision and certainty in mark making. The economy lends a particular rhythmic expediency familiar to Scott’s work. Her absorbent felt, towel, and foam grounds draw-in moisture, unevenly depositing watercolour or eyeshadow pigments in blotches, softly — au naturel. In contrast, or apparently in contrast, glossy grounds, such as the Argos catalogue, and waxy, oily water-resistant materials make the material sweat. As real as walking down the street and going to the grocery store, installed at Rowing in 2013, is a gold-lined cavity, a picked scab, retaining a toxic cocktail of body products. The wall-mounted work Private, exhibited at Almanac Projects, is a foam camping mattress, shot through with incense sticks, fruit, breadsticks, and Argos pens. 

For an earlier generation of women artists — Tracey Emin is exemplary — intimate biographical details and the presence of the body gave the impression that true subjectivity was on offer.6 Scott’s is an experimental body, a conduit for twenty-first century experience, succumbed to the synthetic, that is netted by product, expressing how she is sold, seduced and hypnotised by matter. ‘I’m discussing my vulnerability to this hyper-superficiality,’ she writes. ‘Why am I attracted? To get deeper with the superficiality.’ 

Femininity is not necessarily feminist. Maybe Scott does have a ‘conventional Pop practice’, as she put it to me in her studio, a studio stuffed with materials, colours, and textures. Pop was an experiment in mass-marketed surfaces — an extension of the Modernists’ moral imperative of flatness into advertising and taste. Pop music, Jon Savage memorably put it, ‘hits the head, the heart, the soul and the feet.’ Pop, he writes, stands by default: 

at the intersection between two quite separate perceptions — the public world of news, current affairs and media chat, and the private word of life as it is lived. In this, pop’s perennial concentration on love is only the most obvious sign of its intention to make the private public. Hence also its flagrant concerns with sex and gender.7 

It is difficult to penetrate something that spins, that wants to ‘get deeper with its superficiality’. Scott’s toxic-positive works hypertrophy postmodernism’s indiscriminate cultural appropriation to excess. By succumbing to what she calls ‘the overpowering pseudo-romance of 21st century commodification’ she is able to ‘spin out its absurdities’. She starts from no distance and accepts the imperative to remake herself into a thing. 
.........
1 ‘Historical knowledge,’ writes George Kubler in The Shape of Things, ‘consists of transmissions which the sender, the signal, and the receiver are all variable elements affecting the stability of the message.’ He goes on: ‘Since the receiver of a signal becomes its sender in the normal course of historical transmission (e.g. the discoverer of a document usually is its editor), we may treat receivers and senders together under the heading of relays. Each relay is the occasion of some deformation in the original signal.’ — George Kubler, (1962/2008) The Shape of Things: Remarks on the History of Things, Yale University Press, p.19.

2. Scented products, such as toothpaste, hair gel and shampoo, and particularly perfume, are other means by which Scott’s work becomes spatialised. As the critic Alice Hattrick recently argued: ‘Perfume speaks the body. Wearing perfume you can be more than yourself. You can exceed your limits.’ See/listen to CAR podcast All Over You (2014): https://soundcloud.com/car_rca/car-15-all-over-you. 

3. Lisa Saltzman, ‘Reconsidering the Stain: On Gender and Body in Helen Frankenthaler’s Painting’ in Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History After Postmodernism, Eds. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (2005) Berkeley: University of California Press, p.376. 

4. The curator Shama Khanna proposes ‘flatness’ as a general rubric for the dehierarchising of political and social life, ushered in by screens plus network culture. 

5. In 2008 Annie Fletcher and others co-authored Cooling-Out: On The Paradox of Feminism, a book that addressed a perceived disinterest of young women toward the ideas and forms of Feminism, ‘resulting from a lack of palpable aims on the one hand and the acceptance of existing structures on the other’. I see less evidence of this today within my own East London artistic community. There are many feminist artist reading groups in East London (which I acknowledge is a very specific context), while feminism has a very visible presence in the mainstream media.  

6. See ‘Abject Craft: Mike Kelley and Tracey Emin’ in Glenn Adamson (2007) Thinking Through Craft, Berg. 

7. Jon Savage, ‘The simple things you see are all complicated’ in The Faber Book of Pop, Eds. Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage (1995) Faber & Faber, p. xxxii. 

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Dynamism is Continuous

This text was commissioned for a publication that accompanies Holly Antrum's solo exhibition A Diffuse Citizen at Grand Union, Birmingham (7 June - 26 July 2014). The subject of this text is Antrum's recent film portrait of the artist Jennifer Pike, a work that features prominently at Grand Union. The publication, designed by An Endless Supply, also features contributions from Antrum herself and the critic George Vasey. 


‘(I don’t often store images in my head.) they mostly just grow from different starting points...’ — jennypikcob, The Conglomerization of Wot.1

Where does inspiration come from? It’s one of those signal journalese questions that stumps the inspired, who, even if they know, usually recourse to lengthy processual anecdote, or immutable shorthand. What, the public want to know, does inspiration feel like? As if they’ve never felt it before. Wislawa Szymborska, the late Polish poet, translator and essayist, addressed this very question in her 1996 Nobel Lecture, delivered shortly after receiving the prize for poetry. ‘Whatever it is,’ she says, ‘it's born from a continuous "I don't know."’ But, to be sure, Szymborska continues, if one should wish to learn about inspiration-in-progress don’t look to films about poets. 

Scientific laboratories, stocked with instruments and machinery, hold the viewer’s attention; films about painters can recreate every stage of a famous painting’s production; and affective music sounds the lives of composers. Poets, Szymborska writes, are not simply bad subjects for films, they are, in fact, ‘the worst’. ‘Their work,’ she continues, ‘is hopelessly unphotogenic.’

Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens... Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?2

If there are to be no bolts from the blue, at least in the labour of scientists, artists and musicians, there is something vaguely interesting to look at and listen to. 

Szymborska’s point is rhetorical, ironical, even. Margaret Tait’s portrait of the language poet Hugh MacDiarmid is among the most transfixing pieces of film I know of, irrespective of its subject. MacDiarmid’s real labour takes place at the bar of his Edinburgh local: the drunken shuffling, gossiping, and slanging. In Peter Bell’s film portrait of Basil Bunting, the man is synonymous with the place — Briggflatts: his prosody springs from the landscape he’s cantered for years. Frank Wierke’s film portrait, An English Poet from Germany (2007), follows the poet and translator Michael Hamburger around his rambling rural home and garden: out there Hamburger claimed to find his poems in the trees.

Wierke told me that when making the film he had been respectful of ‘the usual, so important, everyday rhythms’ of the poet, particularly as, it would seem, the poems found Hamburger. 



If these films teach us anything about poetic inspiration it is that it’s born of noise. It’s also born of movement: out of, as Michael Donaghy used to say, the shape of the dance. Tait, Bell, and Wierke all let the noise in. Because they know inspiration is in the quotidian they leave the camera rolling. Only Tait joins her partner for the dance, achieving a certain prosodic prowess of camera movement and cutting. Foremost, Catalogue is a record of Holly Antrum’s dance with Jennifer Pike to a soundtrack of ambient noise. Like Tait, she moves with her subject; so although Pike is on display, so too is Antrum. 

Pike is not primarily a poet. (And even so, the poetry she performs is at the further shores of ‘mainstream’ poetry.) So what sort of dance is this? It’s already one far more beguiling than Szymborska’s model, which emerges out of stasis. Beginning with her early interest in theatre in the 1940s, Pike’s work has moved freely across media, applied arts and fine arts, from painting to collage, photography to printmaking, ceramics to jewellery-making. As member of the experimental music groups Birdyak (with Bob Cobbing, Lol Coxhill, and Hugh Metcalfe) and Domestic Ambient Noise (with Bob Cobbing and Lawrence Upton) Pike was projectionist, dancer  and designer of bespoke costumes and props. The transparent disc she plays with towards the end of Catalogue which fragments her face, was a favourite prop. In the last fifteen years computer software has been a method for animating screen-based object-texts known as the Computer Dances, and recording lyric fragments over synthetic beats. 

Pike attended drama school in the 1940s, and later studied painting, drawing, and sculpture at Saint Martins, painting at the Central School of Art, textiles and ceramics at Camberwell, and ceramics and silversmithing in the Sir John Cass faculty of art. Pike recounts her biography, itself a visual poem, in the foreword of her book The Conglomerization of Wot

Part-time jobs   exploring Arts/Crafts   DOING;    TEACHING — 
(26 Years at City Lit - Painting; 
Constructional sculpture; Kinetic art; Experimental Jewellery.)
Retired from teaching when 65.3 

Pike and Cobbing met in 1963, both aged 43. After living in Maida Vale, the couple moved to Petherton Road in North London, where Bob’s studio occupied the front of the house and Jennifer’s the back. Here, Jennifer had a complete metal workshop and electric kiln in the outhouse. The bathroom doubled as a photographic darkroom. In addition to teaching, Jennifer sold jewellery on a store in Covent Garden. Although drawn in her own artistic photography to abstract urban environments — heavy ironwork in boat docks, post-industrial decay, and reflections in water — her photographs of London’s countercultural scene, for example, Better Books and the Auto-Destructive Art Symposium, remain important documents of the time.

Pike and Cobbing often collaborated. It is her screen-printed design that adorns the original cover of his seminal work ABC in Sound. (Pike screen printed for others too, including Dom Sylvester Houédard.) Together they produced the Processual: After a fashion series of publications, and co-edited others such as Bob Jubile: selected texts of Bob Cobbing 1944-1990, and, with Bill Griffiths, Verbi visi voco. Both shared a kind of driven myopic view on their creative lives. Cobbing’s oeuvre is voluminous and incomplete. His output across media was prodigious and often ad hoc. Many publications were produced in small editions, often without regard for longevity. Jennifer was no less prolific than Bob, only prolific differently: her work is more object-based, bound to the studio, a studio inseparable from the domestic setting, which was a hub for the Writer’s Forum, always receiving poets and artists. The house, in its last months in Antrum’s film, was a significant cultural venue. 


‘Almost all of Jennifer’s activities,’ Adrian Clarke writes in the foreword of SCRUNCH, ‘have the character of work in progress, most of the stages of which hold as much interest as many efforts presented by others as finished.’4 In a comment on Cobbing’s growing inspiration among a younger generation, he goes on to claim that ‘If there is a School of Cobbing, the evidence here should remind us it has a sometimes neglected dimension.’ Back in 1978, when Mirella Bentivoglio curated the exhibition Materialization of Language at the Venice Biennale, an exhibition with an explicit feminist agenda to reconstruct the history of women and language, particularly across avant-garde poetry, Pike is ‘the wife of the poet Bob Cobbing’.5 

Perhaps this is because Cobbing was a nurturing father figure to many younger poets? It might be because Pike’s use of materials was too ‘promiscuous’? Or that she never attempted to contextualise her work, as Cobbing did on many occasions? ‘If you would know Bob Cobbing,’ Lawrence Upton has written, ‘then you must take account of the importance of Jennifer’s benign influence, companionship and support through the decades. In my judgement, she is equally outstanding in her different artistic achievements.’6

It seems specious to dwell on the many reasons Pike is not as well known as Cobbing. Clearly he was central to her ambient noise. And yet, as with so many other women artists of her generation, Pike’s work is only now reaching wider audiences. Catalogue invites us to join in the dance.    

1. jennpikcob, The Conglomerization of Wot, Veer Books, 2010, p.9.
2. Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1996: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1996/szymborska-lecture.html.
3.  jennpikcob, The Conglomerization of Wot, Veer Books, 2010, p.9.
4. Jennifer Pike Cobbing, SCRUNCH (2nd edition), Veer Books, 2010, p.10.
5. Mirella Bentivoglio, catalogue to accompany the exhibition materializzazione del linguaggio, Venice Biennale, curated by Mirella Bentivoglio, Magazzini del Sale alle Zettere, 20 September - 15 October 1978, p.34.
6. Lawrence Upton, Commentaries on Bob Cobbing, Argotist Ebooks, p. 45: http://www.argotistonline.co.uk/COMMENTARIES%20ON%20BOB%20COBBING.pdf

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Turner & Film

As a means to explore the biography of an artist, cinema offers a range of techniques distinct from the written word. Among these, notably, is the mimetic ability to represent iconic artworks or dramatically re-stage their execution, and, significantly, through the use of cinematography, the evocation of the visual world of the subject. These devices have been exploited by directors of the greatest artist biopics, from Peter WatkinsEdvard Munch and Ken Russells Savage Messiah, to Derek Jarmans Caravaggio, and now Mike Leighs Mr. Turner


The centripetal force of Leighs biopic is the ambiguous space between the radical, revolutionary fervour of Turners paintings and the mortal, flawed individual behind them. I wanted,Leigh explains in an interview for Tate Shots, to make a film about Turner the personality, but that means nothing by itself.Leigh shows Timothy Spall as a mutton-chopped Turner jabbing and spitting at Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (exhibited 1842) and re-stages, for example, sketched scenes at Petworth House. Only once does the cinematography align with the scumbled whorls of Turners later works the primal flux which denies the separate identity of thingsas Lawrence Gowing described it when the artist lashes himself to the mast of a storm ship in order to gain first-hand experience of the elements. This glance into the void reminds us of the revolutionary nature of Turners vision in the mid-nineteenth century: it fills the sight by force. 



In Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the nineteenth century the art historian Jonathan Crary elevates Turners vision as the measure of fundamental epistemological shifts that occurred in early European modernity. Certainly Turner was familiar with optics and theoretical ideas of colour, particularly Goethes Theory of Colour, which are tested in Light and Colour (Goethes Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge (1843). (According to Goethe, yellow red produces a shock, and seems literally to bore itself into the organ of sight.) John Ruskin intuited as much when, in 1843, he implored readers of Modern Painters to really look at the sky: it quivers in variety and fulness in it you see or imagine short falling spots of deceiving light, dim shades, faint veiled vestiges of dark vapour. This, he writes, is what Turner shows us: the instability of perception, rather than normal, stabilised vision. And Turners mature style is a radical challenge to the geometricized perspectival regime of vision, collapsing, as it does, the distance separating an observer from the site of optical experienceand situating perception itself as the object of vision. While few today find Turners paintings shocking, Leighs only-brief alignment with his vision suggests its disruptive power in the institution of mainstream narrative cinema.



Beyond Leighs biopic, the relations between Turner and film are rich. For example, beginning with the public announcement of photographys invention in 1839, the film historian A.L. Rees traces a kind of Warburgian survival moving to Sir Charles Eastlakes English translation of Goethes Theory of Colour, published in 1840, Turners Light and Colour (Goethes Theory), and Turners and John Constables influence on Delacroix and Monet, which, he claims, is unconsciously present, almost an Impressionist subject sprung to life, in the Lumière brothersFeeding Baby.

Into the twentieth century, much of what we now call historic avant-garde film sought to critique the apparatus of mainstream cinema, including the very space in which films were presented. And in post-war Britain Turners radical renewal of perception became of particular interest to artist film-makers who sought, among other things, to activate a spectator believed to be pacified by commodity culture. For such filmmakers, frame, surface, grain, light, movement, print stock normally invisibleaspects of film, provided the raw material for work. Even mistakessuch as flare, scratching, slippage, and double-exposure would be incorporated (one thinks here of Turners mistakes: spitting on the canvas, overpainting finishedworks on varnishing day). Rather than select a subject, many looked to natural phenomena as agency beyond the subject. But in the latter half of the twentieth century this was not so much to evoke the Turnerian sublime, as a post-nature Gaian sensibility.



 British avant-garde filmmakers, among them Chris Welsby, William Raban, and John Woodman, asserted the illusionism of cinema through the sensuality of landscape imagery, and simultaneously asserted the material nature of the representational process which sustained the illusionism. Rabans work View (1970) alternated shooting speeds to introduce rhythm into the landscape. Colours of This Time (1972) used long exposures to alter the colour of sunlight (in MM (2002) the camera stares unblinkingly into the sun). River Yar (1971-2), made with Chris Welsby, presents, in time-lapse, two views of the river at set points around the Autumn and Spring Equinoxes and alludes to the passage of the moon around the earth signalled by the change in tides and the passage of the earth around the sun the light at different times of year. With both Constable and Turner,Raban has commented, I was interested that their work preceded the French naturalists like Monet. Monet was of particular interest because of his serial paintings of the same place under different conditions of light.
  
Chris Welsbys own films have consciously avoided a stable, coherent point of view implicit in nineteenth-century landscape painting. Welsby achieves this is by employing multiple projectors, as with his six-screen film installation Shore Line 11 (1979), which loops portrait format images of waves lapping at the foreshore. Lawrence Gowing, ever perceptive, suggested that the essence of Turners last works might be gathered from the compound infinite meanings that he gave to water. Welsby is sensitive to these nuances in his film Drift (1994), a study of winter light falling on the continually moving surface of water. A misty pall restricts the visibility of objects at sea. The dominant colour is grey a grey that sparkles with hues of blues and greens.



These non-narrative films can be characterised by a near-total absence of the human figure, a fascination with temporal cycles, and the use of fixed-frame long take shots. Their use of predetermined, rationalised procedures and specific quantities of time, rather than simply optical effects, are what negates their Romanticism. These are qualities familiar to a younger generation of filmmakers, of whom Emily Richardson is exemplary. Richardsons film Cobra Mist (2008) takes its name from a secret over-the-horizon surveillance radar of the same name off the coast of Suffolk. Using time-lapse and manipulated sound-recordings, Richardson figures the camera as, simultaneously, a radio mast and weather mast. Squally showers lour in from the North Sea, wetting, steaming, and tinting the lens. Richardson invites the viewer to consider vertical terrestrial space its nebulousness from the grounded horizontality of the physical landscape in which the camera is placed.

Since opening in Margate in 2011, Turner Contemporary has exhibited and commissioned a number of artists who have respond to its namesakes legacy, including John Smith with his film work Horizon (Five Pounds a Belgian) (2012), and Rosa Barba with her exhibition Subject to Constant Change (2013). For three months, Smith filmed from the large picture windowof the gallery and around Margate, capturing dramatically changing weather conditions. Smiths intention is to collapse the poles of distance and involvement, to create for the viewer a simultaneous sense of being outside and inside, as Turners late works achieve. To accompany her exhibition Subject to Constant Change Rosa Barba made a selection of drawings Turner used to illustrate his lectures on perspective as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy. Barba, fascinated by their modern appearance, was fascinated by Turners depth of knowledge of points of view, colour, and reflection all key interests in her own recent work.



The nexus of these, and many more, diverse works influenced by Turner would be a fascinating way to furnish a biography by other means. What would emerge? A forceful sense of the extent to which Turners revolutionary renewal of perception has, and continues to, influence painting and cinema alike. 

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Per Kirkeby Brick Sculpture




By coincidence, London last hosted an outdoor Per Kirkeby brick work 28 years ago in the spot occupied by Martin Creed’s brick wall these last five months, on the Hayward gallery’s sculpture terrace, overlooking the Thames. Creed’s sheer 3.5 meter tall wall is of ‘facing’ coloured brick bands — yellow, blue, red, and brown; the patternation runs through its structure. Creed enjoys its seriality, while amusing at the gesture of screening out the view beyond. 

Kirkeby’s work, exhibited in the 1986 Hayward Annual titled Falls the Shadow, was of a different seismic order. Uniformly red brick, four shallow arches span outwards from the centre of a low, broad cross-shaped base, joining four squat split-columns at its ends. The arches divide the cross along its two axis to create four apportioned quarters. It appears artless, a Barrett homes bricky’s accomplished take on ornamental seating, and might have been easily overlooked. In both, there is something incontrovertible about the mortar bond that cements structural form to architecture — as if these things obdurately will remain. But the presence of Creed’s brick wall disproves this, and it too has already disappeared.  

Today Kirkeby is primarily known for his ‘lyrical expressionist’ paintings. A trained geologist who writes extensively on his art, he began using brick in 1965, exhibiting a mortarless block, ten bricks high and one and a half wide. A year later, in 1966, Carl Andre began exhibiting his Equivalents series. Equivalent VIII (acquired by Tate in 1972, only becoming contentious in 1976) consists of 120 fire bricks stacked evenly in two layers. The astringency of these works, devoid of artistic dexterity or graphic quality, are an attempt to strip narrative. Bodily connotations are rendered inappropriate to emphasise the act of pure visual perception.  

Although aware of Minimalism, Kirkeby did not identify with its aspiration to pure form or pure materiality. The brick had too much history. From its use to build dwellings along the prehistoric Nile delta, to the first towns of the Euphrates and Indus, the brick is a perfectly formed geometric unit that, when placed end to end, synthesizes into something greater than the sum of its parts. Arrangement introduces rhythm and texture, organises space, produces culture. Since its technological discovery in the 14th millennium BC —  an elemental combination of earth, water, fire, and air — the brick has deviated little from its anthropomorphic proportions. Its ‘handiness’ is an expression of transversal human history. (Kirkeby also arrived at elementary forms through Kazimir Malevich’s ‘absolute zero’ of form, and its application to architecture, which he called ‘Archi-tectonics’.) 

By the early 1970s Kirkeby had begun mortaring the brick seams, initially realising an architectural sculpture of a house in miniature, followed by a functional sculpture for smoking fish. Both were sited outside: the former in a Danish housing development, and the latter in a coastal garden. Into the ‘80s and ‘90s the brick works developed alongside Kirkeby’s painting and drawing practice, varying in siting (in the gallery, but mostly outside), scale, form, and function, while maintaining a resolutely conceptual logic. Many of his larger, later public commissions — throughout urban and rural Europe — share a monumental uncanny sense of incomplete architecture. Yet they shrug off any conventional language of architecture: windowless windows look into inaccessible spaces; ‘shadow joints’ create pockets of blackened air; interior space is irreconcilable with exterior volume. 

In an age of Pop, an experiment in mass-marketed surfaces — an extension of the Modernists’ moral imperative of flatness into advertising and taste, Kirkeby found material history. But his influences also belonged to more recent personal history. Writing in 1984, two years prior to the Hayward Annual, on the occasion of his solo exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, Kirkeby wrote of his childhood memories of the Grundtvigs Church in the Bispebjerg district of Copenhagen. Designed by P.V. Jensen-Klint and constructed of Danish red brick between 1921 and 1940, the Grundtvigs is an extraordinary Neo-Gothic wedge of brooding solidity. For Kirkeby the Grundtvigs transcends architecture. ‘Later,’ he writes: 

I saw the clear, modern brick ornamentation... The church’s monolithic and dismissive shapes are more difficult to fit into history. Here, I think I have had inculcated in me some structures which are to be found in all my pictures. Both the paintings and the sculptures. Perhaps that it is my own fiction. But it is at least obvious that in its dimensions and proportions the church frees itself entirely from historical illustration material.
     
Piper Keys, Whitechapel, is a productively anxious siting for Kirkeby’s never-before constructed work, Stenalt (2012). It was originally designed by Kirkeby to partially wrap a mature tree in the garden of his friend and former assistant Arne Fremmich. Fremmich has been present throughout the build of Stenalt, initially rescaling the work to find commensurability with its new setting. Kirkeby and Fremmich have given permission for Stenalt to remain in place, occupying the gallery’s communal space until the building is vacated. As such it might achieve a certain freedom from historical illustration material. 

Parallel exhibitions of Per Kirkeby's Stenalt and Robert Filby open Saturday 7 June 2014 at Piper Keys gallery, Whitechapel. For further information click here.

1 Per Kirkeby (1991), Haandbog, p.39. 

Monday, 28 April 2014

Archi-what? On Ryan Gander and modern design for Grafik


Last week, Grafik magazine published a feature I wrote on the British artist Ryan Gander and his fascination with modern design. An exhibition of Ryan's work, made in response to the architect  Ernö Goldfinger, is currently on display at 2 Willow Road, Hampstead — Goldfinger's former home. To read my article click here. To learn more about the exhibition at 2 Willow Road click here

Sunday, 13 April 2014

On Camille Henrot for Cura magazine

On Camille Henrot's show 'The Pale Fox' at Chisenhale for Cura magazine here

Friday, 4 April 2014

On Absalon for Noon Magazine



Noon, a new art/fashion magazine, launched last week in Soho. Jasmine Raznahan, one half of London-based studio ARPA, is editor-in-chief; Hannah Barton provided editorial assistance. I was invited to write about the late Israeli-French artist Absalon. Below is my article, but I recommend you purchase a copy of the magazine for the excellent illustrations missing here, and the other contributions by, among others, Michael Wolf, Wolfgang Tilmans, Jon Rafman, Jason Hughes, Lena C. Emery and Dean Kissick. 


Absalon: A Life Unfinished 

‘The soul feels isolated, lost, if it is not surrounded by objects which seem to it like an extension of the bodily members.’ - Simone Weil, The Needs of the Soul, 1949.

Like the scion of modern architecture Le Corbusier, Absalon wasn’t born in his adopted city of Paris. Today, Le Corbusier’s name is synonymous with French cultural life, yet he was born in the Swiss region of La Chaux-de-fonds in 1887, and only later became a French citizen in 1930. Exactly a century after Le Corbusier’s birth, in 1987, at the age of 23, Meir Eshel arrived in Paris, an émigré from his native Israel. After studying at the École des Beaux-Arts under Christian Boltanksi, Eshel would become Absalon. 

Charles-Eduard Jeanneret became Le Corbusier — a bastardisation of Le Corbesier, a French maternal ancestral name — to differentiate between his work as a painter and his work as an architectural critic: anyone, he believed, could reinvent themselves (throughout his life Le Corbusier received many names; his black-rimmed glasses earned him the nickname ‘Corbu’, a variation on the word corbeau, or ‘raven’). Both Corbu and Absalon were predisposed to messianic impulses. One hailed from famously neutral territory, and the other famously contested territory. 

So why might Meir Eshel have wished to reinvent himself? Unlike Corbu, Eshel took only one name: Absalon. Absalom, from the Hebrew meaning father of peace, was the most beautiful son of David, King of Israel, who murdered his brother, planned a rebellion against his father, and died, ultimately, because his coiffured hair snagged in a tree. In Rabbinical literature the story of Absalon serves to warn against false ambition, vainglory and unfilial conduct. 

In 1993 Absalon died of AIDS — aged 28. Between finishing at Beaux-Arts and an untimely death, he produced an extraordinary volume of minimalist architectural-sculptural works, exhibiting at the Centre Georges Pompidou, and, a year before his death, at the prestigious, quadrennially-occurring Documenta in Kassel. Remarkable talents that die young are prone to mythification. At fourteen Meir Eshel was sent to military boarding school, from where he passed directly into four years military service. But with only a year remaining he went AWOL, retreating, a modern Jewish St Jerome, to a hut on the beach of his hometown of Ashod to study philosophy. He sold handmade jewelry, saved his money and bought a one-way ticket to Paris.

The six works Cellules (réalisation habitales) (1993) are singular cell-like structures, containing minimum furnishings for basic human needs — lodging, sleeping, washing, working and eating — scaled around Absalon’s bodily proportions. (Le Corbusier’s own Modulor system divided the human figure into two sections, which governs all other dimensions of the human body, and is, like the ‘Golden Section’, a universal law for architectural scale.) Their scale wavers between confinement, the propensity for claustrophobia, and refuge, with all the connotations of shelter and security. These white geometric volumes were designed to be sited in six cities, including Paris, Tel Aviv, Frankfurt and Zurich. Two were realised, in Paris and Zurich. These would serve as accommodation for Absalon on his travels around the globe. As sculpture their aesthetic evokes Sol LeWitt’s primary structures; their stripped functional interiors are as archetypal in form as Rietveld’s crate chair; their nomadic mobility evokes a dream of Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin capsule tower, or Peter Cook’s Plug-in City. 

Cellules (1991) are self-contained sci-fi-Carthusian cells of wood, cardboard, white paint and neon. They are closed structures, larger than human scale, with sections unplugged to grant views inside. Inside their small interiors are suggestions of domestic functional details, which seem, as one critic has suggested, to have decayed back to the forms on which they were based. At KW Institute for Contemporary Art, which hosted an Absalon retrospective in 2011, various cells were exhibited alongside his video Proposition d’Habitation (1991). In this work a person dressed fully in white moves awkwardly about a small white room populated with objects that resemble furniture but lack any functionality.  

A hotel room, for Le Corbusier, should be a cell-like space for contemplation, meditation and recuperation. Discipline within its austere borders would, he believed, teach discipline in the larger society. The cell was humanizing, efficient and aesthetic. Le Corbusier’s commitment to a spartan environment reflected his commitment, not only to his Modulor system, but his early attraction to monasticism, asceticism, and a solitary existence. Several times in his book The Radiant City he writes, in a little frame, a formula for happiness: ‘the key = the cell = men = happiness’. 

For the French writer Gaston Bachelard, writing in The Oneiric House, the cell of the modern apartment block was a deadening, oppressive form: ‘I do not dream in Paris,’ he wrote, ‘in this geometric cube, in this cement cell, in this room with iron shutters so hostile to nocturnal subjects.’ Yet Absalon’s cells divert from the isolationism of Le Corbusier’s. ‘They are not meant to posit any solutions in terms of isolation,’ he once told an interviewer. ‘They have been made for living the social.’ It’s a terrible irony that a violent attack on the cells of Absalon’s immune system prevented him from becoming one of France’s greatest modern artists.  

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Benedict Drew: Ground Feeder

Image courtesy of the artist and Matt's Gallery, London.
In the preface to Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch (1921) — a long, learned semi-autobiographical tract on evolutionism — playwright George Bernard Shaw cites the German Neo-Darwinist August Weismann, whose History of Evolution devotes a passage to the ideas of the early German biologist Lorenz Oken. Oken, writing in 1809, observed that the original substance from which all forms of life developed on earth was a primitive slime, or Urschleim. And this slime, he claimed, took the form of innumerable vesicles (Schleimpunkte) — fluid-filled bladders, sacs or blobs — from which the entire universe was built. 

Shaw thought Oken a visionary: his vesicles anticipated modern cell morphology, long before the microscope and scalpel extended the perception of secularised lab workers. Oken considered natural science to be the ‘the science of the everlasting transmutations of the Holy Ghost in the world’. Approaching the mysteries of the universe was, therefore, approaching Him. Those secularised Modern lab workers, Shaw explains, remove dogs’ glands or tie up ducts, depriving them of strange vital slimes, their aim to affirm a known-known, the primacy of neurology, while in the process causing unnecessary injury. In Oken Shaw recognised a religious thinker who thought very hard to find out what was happening to the Holy Ghost; the irony is that such thinkers effected a shift towards scientific disenchantment — increasingly, external forces appeared not to be the Will of God. As Oken approached, He receded. 

If slime constitutes the building blocks of life (Schleimpunkte), and slime we become should our dead bodies putrefy, encounters with any viscous substance could be more than a little unnerving. Slime is both ignoble and noble. A taboo existed in eighteenth-century Britain against eating creatures engendered of slime and putrefaction, ‘the excrements of the earth,’ as one doctor put it, ‘the slime and scum of the water, the superfluity of the woods and the putrefaction of the sea: to wit... frogs, snails, mushrooms and oysters’. The taste for such creatures among the French and Italians only fueled English prejudice. Professor of ecology and evolutionary biology John Tyler Bonner argues that without cellular slime molds life on Earth would not be possible. A cellular slime mold begins as a single-celled amoeba. Providing it has food, the amoebae divide and live as single-cell organisms; deprived of food, the amoebae aggregate to form a slug in response to a chemical signal from a group of cells or a single founder cell. These slime slugs sense light, thermal or gaseous gradients, and migrate to food. An accelerated image of this non-human collectivist intelligence — red scare? — seeped into the post-war American imagination with The Blob (1958).
Image courtesy of the artist and Matt's Gallery, London.
A precarious slime, ‘spasmodic sap’, is how the ethnographer Roger Caillois characterises the emergence of life in The Writing of Stones (1970): 

Life appears: a complex dampness, destined to an intricate future and charged with secret virtues, capable of challenge and creation. A kind of precarious slime, of surface mildew, in which a ferment is already working... Obscure distillations generate juices, salivas, yeasts. Like mists or dews, brief yet patient jellies come forth momentarily and with difficulty from a substance lately imperturbable: they are evanescent pharmacies, doomed victims of the elements, about to melt or dry up... It is the birth of all flesh irrigated by a liquid... like the semisolid in the chrysalis, halfway between larva and insect, a blurred gelatin which can only quiver until there awakens in it a wish for a definite form and an individual function. 

Ostensibly, Caillois is not discussing human life. The Writing of Stones, his second on the subject, gathers to display, with commentary, his personal collection of polished precious stones, those he ‘often looked at, handled, and caressed’: jasper and agate, chalcedony and onyx. The extraordinary marks imbued in the stones is a kind of Urwriting; they receive their secret inscriptions over geological durations, durations that dwarf the human. ‘There are impossible scribblings in nature, written neither by men nor by devils,’ Caillois writes. And in these scribbles a viewer might decipher proto-images of anything invented by human visual culture, so that ‘already present in the archives of geology, available for operations then inconceivable, was the mode of what would later be an alphabet’. There were moors, bishops, lobsters streams, faces, plants, dogs, fishes, tortoises, dragons, death’s heads, crucifixes — everything a mind bent on identification could fancy. These were not copies, only ciphers for things. And yet Caillois was discussing human life: stones, like humans, are at the intersection of countless unknown forces too unpredictable to be measured, that shape us. So the stones might be ciphers for humanity at large. ‘The tissue of the universe is continuous,’ Caillois wrote. ‘I can scarcely refrain, from suspecting some ancient, diffused magnetism; a call from the center of things; a dim, almost lost memory, or perhaps a presentiment, pointless in so puny a being, of a universal syntax.’ But this was not to assert some anthropomorphic purchase on the world of things: he had long given up regarding man as external to nature. In The Writing of Stones man recedes among slime and minerals.   

Earlier, in 1929, Caillois’ colleague Michel Leiris, with whom he would co-found the College de Sociologie, fascinated over the damp slimy orifice just below the eyes — the mouth. Spit specifically, or ‘mouth water’ as he calls it, with its ‘lack of consistency, its indefinite contours, the relative imprecision of its colour, its wetness’, is an unverifiable substance, the very symbol of formlessness. It is a ‘soft and sticky stumbling block that, better than any sort of rock, trips up the steps of everyone who imagines a human being to be something: 

something other than an unmuscled, hairless animal, the spit of a delirious demiurge who roars with laughter at having expectorated this conceited larva, this comical tadpole who swells up into a demigod’s puffy meat.   

Spit is necessary for food to tumble down the organic ladder and eject through damp orifices below. In oral sex the mouth — the outward sign of intelligence — meets these most shameful organs, reducing man to the level of primitive animals for which a shared single orifice is the organ of both nutrition and excretion. We become frog, snail, mushroom or oyster. Oral sex represents diabolical retrogressive chaos, as if the noble and ignoble has not yet been disentangled. Spit, therefore, represented the height of sacrilege. When we think of this what value can we really give to philosophical oration, Leiris asks, if language and spit issues from one and the same organ? 
Image courtesy of the artist and Matt's Gallery, London.
French sound poet Henri Chopin’s renunciation of language in his article Why I am the Author of Sound Poetry and Free Poetry (1967) did not issue from a mythical-surrealist examination of organs, though he would have been aware of Leiris’s; rather, the word had been instrumentalised by bankers, politicians and leaders to create profit, to justify work and occupation. In short it had permitted life to lie. Chopin’s solution? A-significant human sounds, without alphabet, without reference to an explicative clarity. ‘The mimetic sound of man, the human sound,’ he writes, ‘does not explain. It transmits emotions, it suggests exchanges, affective communications; it does state precisely, it is precise.’ He continues: 

I’m fond of my noises and of my sounds, I admire the immense complex factory of a body. I’m fond of my glances that touch, of my ears that seem of my eyes that receive.

Addressing his readers directly, Chopin explains how it matters little whether they will like this synaesthetic disorganisation because in spite of themselves it will embrace them and circulate inside. Sound poetry must, he writes, ‘open our effectors to our own biological, physical and mental potentials beyond all intellect’. How slimy Chopin’s microphone must have been when he expelled it from his own body. 


To learn more about Benedict Drew's exhibition 'Zero Petrified Hour' in New Zealand click here. To learn more about his current exhibition at Matt's Gallery in London click here