20 19: words on what I watched

2019 has been a cinematic year. Backlit on a proliferation of screens, hope and despair have been paired to dramatic perfection in what at one point would have been called a mundane existence. Now I’m sure in a parallel universe the political meta-narrative that has photobombed its way into every orifice of social life would be a hilarious boxset on Netflix; the kind that starts off juicy in season one, with an affair and a bitch fight, but by season six has evolved, now featuring an egotistical cast and matching shallow storyline  – let’s call it ‘Great British Brexit’ or ‘GBB’ for short…

As a dedicated gallery-hopper (basically the same thing as channel hopping), I have spent 2019 flicking between mega-museums, galleries, art fairs, biennials, project spaces and carparks, constantly exhausting myself by over saturating my eyes with art.

With life seemingly reduced to nothing more than 30 minutes of stale action (plus 10 minutes for add breaks) and confined to 16:9 screens (obviously I’m watching on widescreen), it seems fitting that for me 2019 has been a year of artist video.  Here are my top 20 videos with 19 accompanying words:

  • Larry Achiampong and David Blandy Genetic Automata, 2019. Seen in Genetic Automata at Arts Catalyst London, January
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HD images and poetry are enlivened by a multiplayer theme-tune portraying systemic race biases in our digitally liberated world.
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A fairy-tale Si-Fi drama across three-screens drawing on ancient and modern ideology to question the stage-management of national image.
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“What if women ruled the world?” A lament to violence; a peaceful procession leads us to a burial site.
  • Kevin Brennan Sp1ra, 2019. Seen in Murmurations at Candid Arts Trust, August
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Balancing erotica, pain and poetry beautifully, the film montages HD snippets from the darker side of a dramatic life.
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Charged with child-like excitement Calder’s kinetic sculptures transform into dangly creatures that perform to our amazement in a micro-world.
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“If you alter, even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” BEAUTIFUL!
  • Pádraig Condron I’ll never be dry again, 2018. Seen in Paracosmic Review at Transition Two Gallery, January (Yes I curated this show… but the film is too good not to mention.)
Pádraig Condron, Ill never be dry again, 2018 DETAIL 11
A quivering soundtrack, all-night-long dance moves, exhaustion, and quasi-spiritual rehydration convey a breathless anxiety too common in contemporary life.
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Reclining into this marathon, fireworks meet commentary, public meet professionals; as we witness a fantastical exhibition unfolding in real-time.
  • Beatrice Gibson Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs, 2019. Seen in Crone Music at Camden Arts Centre, March
10
A Miami-trash mystique that weaves an incoherent range of persona together into a multi-textural action thriller with no action.
  • Arthur Jafa Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, 2016. Seen in Freedom of Movement at the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), February; and in Forum of the Future at the Serralves Museum (Porto), November
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With a surplus expressivity that moves you to the core, look up at this mass of footage, this masterwork.
  • Jonathan Horowitz Transfer of Power (Gucci Soul), 2019. Seen in Pre-Fall ’17 at Sadie Coles, March
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Four screens map the US president’s administration to BeyJay. The common linkage: the political power generated through pop-culture appropriation.
portrait of a young samurai installation
A rehearsal for the last act. Koizumi scream for emotion, for ‘Samurai spirit!’ trembling, ghost-white, the task is completed.
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How poisonous are fairy-tales? Pairing aspirational clinical and nostalgic childhood footage the film explores the hegemony of our age.
  • Felipe Meres Global Illumination, 2018. Seen in the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (Ljubljana) as part of the Metabolic Museum-University, August
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Scrolling through a white box full of objects one isn’t sure if we are passively investigating or painfully extracting.
  • Oliver Payne The Clothes themselves, 2018. Seen at Herald St, February
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‘Arttire,’ ‘fashionable language’ are combined with found images and objects to make material our messy relationship with screen-based commerce.
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Caught up in pastel dreams – the kind only evoked at home – rhythms flow and as we salter in comfort.
  • Rory Pilgrim, Software Garden, 2017. Seen in It’s the whole world coming to me at De Ateliers (Amsterdam), November
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Chromatic channels: music, documentary, and narrative flicker with porous ignorance, stirring blissful imaginations in turn – something TV can’t give.
  • Julie Born Schwartz Love has no reason, 2014. Seen in Garden: 250 years of the Royal Academy schools, July
JBS_01_colour
Carousing through New York; pink, electric-blue, deep-grey, we observe a changing façade looping in time to the conductor’s rhythm.
  • Katherine Smith Taxi from here to there, 2019. Seen in An Art of Distance (an exhibition by visual anthropology students from Goldsmiths University) at Lewisham Art House, July
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A poetic investigation into the spaces between people and their communities mediated by the ubiquitous figure of a taxi-driver.
  • Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca Swinguerra, 2019. Seen in May You Live In Interesting Times (Brazilian Pavilion) at the Venice Biennale, May
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In our global present national power once displayed through mass military-might has been replaced by the vibration of bottoms.

Heres hoping for more good stuff in 2020 ✨

 

Please note: I have shamelessly stolen a lot of these photos from Google… sorry. My excuse: trying to capture good images of films, whilst they are playing is hard. 

LEARNING FROM THE METABOLIC MUSEUM-UNIVERSITY: THEORISING DYNAMIC COLLECTIONS AND CURATION IN ENGLISH MUSEUMS

“Museums are struggling to make the best use of their collections.”

Neil Mendoza[1]

Much like many of the artworks mounted to their crumbling walls,[2] it appears that museums and their curators are pinned precariously to structures that are failing to inspire, to educate and to meaningfully engage visitors.

Taking recent developments in English museology policy, this essay quickly surveys a range of curatorial methods used internationally to address issues of irrelevance and stagnation. It concludes with a phenomenological account of an experimental curatorial model, one which nurtures dynamic encounters within the museum, fostering a space of exploration, engagement and enjoyment in doing so.

In weaving together recurring dynamics across these methods, this essay proposes that English museums, and their curators, need to embrace a gestural approach to the curation and management of their collections in order to remain world-class institutions meeting the needs of the twenty-first century.

Governmental context: evolution not revolution

“A country can only be strong, healthy and contented if it nourishes its heritage and cultivates a widespread appreciation of the arts.”

John Major[3]

In 2016 the Department of Culture Media and Sport published a broad plan that detailed their aspirations for the creative cultural sector in the UK. Instead of a radical overhaul of current structures, ‘The Cultural White Paper’ aimed to be an evolutionary review: nurturing the UK’s creative cultural sector’s continued success through iterative reflection and organic development.

The plan held up museums (both national and regional) as flagship institutions for culture in the UK; drawing upon both socio-cultural and economic data to demonstrate their increasing impact. Despite the positive light cast however, the plan alluded to barriers compounding museums ability to fulfil their multi-faceted role. These include: dwindling public funding; requirements to deliver ever more multi-disciplinary outcomes, from education, to health; and the pressure to keep up with twenty-first century tastes in an ever-expanding entertainment industry.[4]

In order to alleviate these barriers, ‘The Cultural White Paper’ proposed a review of English museums, with the aim of facilitating an evolution within the sector.[5]

‘The Mendoza Review’ (The Review) was published in 2017. Focusing on England’s museum infrastructure, the review aimed to provide Government and its Arms Length Bodies, with a deeper understanding of the factors affecting museums and where support should be directed in order to achieve the long-term outcomes set out in ‘The Cultural White Paper.’ ‘The Review’ set out nine priorities, ranging from the challenges of decreasing public funding, to digital capacity, and cultural education. These priorities, in turn, led to the publication of an overarching ‘Museums Action Plan’ in 2018, that aimed to unite The Department for Culture Media and Sport and its Arms Length Bodies.[6]

Action: towards a dynamic museum

“It is easier to say what [the museum] should not look like, it should not look like a business or office building, nor should it look like a place of light entertainment.”

Marcel Breuer[7]

‘The Review’ makes clear that the fundamental point of museums are the collections they hold.[8] Museums are defined as spaces that bring people together; that improve health and social outcomes; that increase educational attainment; that provide space for scholarly research; and that allow visitors to contemplate their place in, and relationship to, the world. In other words, museums house more than just artefacts; they hold collections of affective objects, which through curatorial applications are capable of creating intuitive thinking spaces to borrow Aby Warburg’s term.[9]

Far from entities capable of flexing to the sociocultural climate, ‘The Review’ highlights the static nature of museums, a lack of curatorial expertise, and limited funding as factors constraining the sector. Moreover, competition with the growing entertainment industry and changing consumer tastes, has led to museums, especially those with historical collections, failing to meaningfully engage with a twenty-first century viewership.[10] These factors compound creating a vicious cycle whereby reducing visitor numbers (and diversity) equates to reducing income (private, public, and philanthropic), which equates to restricted programming and outreach, which equates to reducing visitors.

Recognising collections as fundamental to the success of the sector, ‘The Review’ called for England’s museums to adopt a dynamic approach to collections curation and management, using the rich histories they hold to tackle issues of irrelevance and stagnation through innovative storytelling, education and engagement.[11]

Dynamic, permeable, radical: semiotic labels and curatorial interventions

“The museum only make sense as a pioneer.”

Alexander Dorner (c.1920)[12]

 The areas of concern highlighted by ‘The Review’ are not common to England, nor the twenty-first century: a lack of diversity and relevance; confusion over the educational role of museums; issues in governance and staff capacity; along with mounting concerns around funding, are effecting western-style museums globally. Similarly, international museums have sought to find solutions to these structural issues in dynamic applications of their collection.

In her 2013 essay, come book, ‘Radical Museology: or, What’s ‘Contemporary’ in Museums of Contemporary Art’ Claire Bishop provides three case studies for museums that have adopted dialogical[13] approaches to the curation of their collection an wider programming; in doing so she highlights how they “reboot the future through the unexpected appearance of a relevant past.”[14] In her account of the display strategies adopted by Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Spain),[15] Bishop describes how the museum mobilises visitors to think in an active manner by juxtaposing works of art with wider visual cultures, in a self-critical yet playful manner. Bishop suggests that this curatorial methodology transforms the visitor’s encounter with the collection from a passive experience to an active engagement, one where imaginative connections can be drawn. This subjective reading allows the Reina Sofía to become a shared commons space: an emancipated space that Bishop likens to Jacques Rancière’s concept of the ignorant schoolmaster – that is, a space where there is no hierarchy in intelligence.[16]

Alina Cohen’s 2018 article[17] echoes Bishops argument for a commons space of dialogue. In the article she suggests that presentist structural issues are hindering museums ability to grow, becoming inaccessible (both physically and emotionally) in the process. Quoting Caroline Goeser (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), Cohen states that museums in the twenty-first century should focus their efforts on becoming welcoming spaces: curating their collections and displays in order to set up a plethora of entry and access points. By enabling subjective lines of enquiry to emerge in the space, visitors are able to generate their own alliances of attraction,[18] in turn leading to a feeling of ownership and empowerment.

To further conceptualise this dialogical alternative, Cohen takes Laura Raicovich’s simple initiative at the Queens Museum (New York) as a case study to explore how curatorial strategies could support museums to become relevant to their communities. The Queens Museum, which represents an ethnically diverse society, re-wrote its wall texts, brochures, website, (and other textual intermediaries) and in doing so established itself as welcoming space, broadening its viewership by allowing more people to relate to the basic contextual information.

The focus on social relevance is highlighted by Bishop in her discussion on the Van AbbeMuseum (The Netherlands).[19] Describing the VanAbbe’s experimental ‘Plug Ins’ programme – a recurring series of temporal exhibitions, where invited curators and artists curate a new exhibition using works of art held in VanAbbe’s historic collection – Bishop reiterates how these interchangeable methods of display can led to vivid readings and new ways to engage with the stories held in the museum. She suggests that these temporal interventions not only generate social connections, between visitors and the museum, but lead to new social value being created for visitors.

In relation to the diversification of visitors and making museums meaningful places for visitors, Holland Cotter[20] outlines three projects undertaken by New York institutions, where the process of diversification is initiated through collection management. By comparing the Guggenheim’s UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, The Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) C-MAP project, as well as the Queens Museum’s partnership with civic arts organisation Creative Time, Cotter makes clear that museums in the twenty-first century, far from following one didact methodology, need to embrace the fluidity of contemporary life in order to sustain their social currency.

“There will be no single model, and there shouldn’t be. Art and life which are equally a museum’s business, are too complicated to be reflected in any one mirror.” Holland Cotter.[21]

Across the different approaches surveyed here commonalities in methods emerge:

  • Risk: pushing systemic and institutional boundaries by having the flexibility to allow subjective engagements to happen in the exhibition space.
  • Dramaturgy: moving away from quasi-academic and/or capitalist modes of display and storytelling that aestheticize (neutralise through spectacle) artworks as corpses.[22]
  • Education: creating a space of equality and two-way knowledge transference.
  • Commons: creating a shared space of openness, where neither one voice, nor discipline are favoured over any other.
  • Artistic: the deep involvement of artists and creatives in the process of developing and delivering these fluid methods.

To enable these methods to evolve in the space the role of museums, their staff and curators becomes one that embraces fluidity. These experimental approaches; namely, inter-disciplinary openness, dialogical displays, and ‘alternative’ forms of education, echo numerous theoretical arguments made by acclaimed curators – such as Hans-Ulrich Obrist (in his new lexicon for curatorial practice),[23] and Okwui Enwezor (in his description of exhibitions as filters connecting fragments in a dialectical field)[24] – in their calls for progressive methods of curation.

Clearly, the evolution of museums is contingent upon an evolution in the curatorial methods applied. As facilitators of the commons museums, their staff and their collections need to work in a circulatory manner. Dynamic collections curation and management should reflect the risk, recursively, and remediation[25] characteristics by Dr. Clémentine Deliss in her ongoing research into new models of visual thinking and concept-work.[26]

The dynamics of the Metabolic Museum-University

“To articulate the complexity of the museum through its collections requires a restive curatorial methodology that tests out the effects of a clash between different positions, be they based on aesthetic, art critical, cultural, historical, or scientific propositions.”

Dr. Clémentine Deliss[27]

Conceived and directed under the vision of Prof. Dr. Clémentine Deliss, the Metabolic Museum-University is a conceptual model for a new institution, a trans-institution, that clashes the functions of a university (a place of learning), with a museum (a repository, with numerous socio-cultural functions), and a body (a complex ecology of organs and energies, all contingent upon one another, and external nourishment also).

As a project based on concept-work, the Metabolic Museum-University does not have fixed aims per se, instead, it aspires to “identify metaphors, images, and environments that give greater visibility to urgent questions affecting our common lives.”[28] Dr. Deliss describes these forms of communication as visual adjacencies: discursive ruses that, through conceptual, comedic, and communal experiments, exacerbate the visual frictions felt between different works of art, works and visitors, and between visitors themselves.[29] [30] At the core of these adjacencies is the celebration of subjectivity: curatorial stimuli are used as timorous connective tissues that nurture non-standard engagements with the work on display.

This curatorial concept reflects that approach to exhibition-making described by Irit Rogoff in her essay ‘An Embodied Criticality:’[31] that is, as a method that moves away from didact narration, and illustration[32] to an approach that enables an unbound exploration of the exhibition space, with a plurality of meanings conjured through the visual adjacencies injected.

The Metabolic Museum-University Ljubljana, 2019

For a week between July 26 and August 2, 2019 the Metabolic Museum-University (Ljubljana 2019) squatted in a number of cultural venues across Ljubljana (Slovenia); including: the National Gallery of Slovenia, the Contemporary Art Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Centre for Slovenian Culture, as well as in venues that formed the 33rd Biennial of Graphic Arts (curated by Slavs and Tatars, with support from The International Centre of Graphic Arts).

Over this ‘Organ Week’ the Metabolic Museum-University’s faculty (an interdisciplinary contingent of artists, scientists, historians, independent thinkers and students) delivered a discursive programme of events, lectures, artistic and dynamic activities; injecting an “emancipatory oxygen” into each cultural institution; and in doing so transforming these spaces “from a site of controlled consumption into a co-working space.”[33]

The importance of temporality[34] (the idea of squatting in the exhibition space) is something to stress here: being contained within a fixed architectural structure, or fixed within an institution, risks the aestheticization of the experience. A static (read stagnant) intervention, therefore, restricts the generative capacity of museums and their collections, limiting their potential to become welcoming spaces for subjective exploration.

By paring the theoretical with the highly tactile through a process of concept-work, The Metabolic Museum-University created non-gated, non-professionalised, non-commercial, spaces across Ljubljana. By squatting in these sites of controlled consumption, The Metabolic Museum–University established an openness, one where visitors were welcomed as fellow students, and thus emancipated from the standardised architectonical narratives and of presuppositions of a cultural narrative imposed by static institutional curating.

Against a backdrop of displacement,[35] how could a dynamic situation like The Metabolic Museum-University unfold in an English museum? What are the factors that need to be established? And what are the structural frames that need to be dematerialised to enable a space of metabolization?

Conclusion: Learning from the Metabolic Museum-University

“You don’t try to cure a museum with a museum. Instead, you remediate it by introducing an outside interlocutor.”

Dr. Clémentine Deliss[36] 

It appears that dynamic museums are producers of an unfolding experience, not merely repositories of goods, or tellers of commodified stories. The continued vitality of England’s museums, therefore, depends on their ability to generate discursive commons spaces that create meaningful encounters; be this in an educational, social-outcome, or purely enjoyable sense. To quote Alexander Dorner “The new type of art institute cannot merely be an art museum as it has been until now […] the new type will be more like a power station, a producer of new energy.”[37]

The Metabolic Museum-University (Ljubljana 2019) supplied this new energy through a process of transvesting: actively changing how visitors view, act, and engage with both the museum as a space,  and the collection it holds in order to make it – the museum transform. In a method similar to those outlined by Bishop, Cohen, Cotter and Vesters, it is by injecting a polyphony of cross-disciplinary stimuli into the space of display that The Metabolic Museum-University was able to dissolve the often coloured walls that segregate the institutional front and backstage. This dramaturgical re-imagining, to apply Erving Goffman’s concept,[38] is not an entropic one, instead, this process of concept-work fundamentally messes up the performed heteronormative, often colonial, structure (both the physical and the systemic structure) of the museum, and in doing so creates a constellation of unfolding experiences. The method adopted by the Metabolic Museum-University: its flexibility, its inter-disciplinary openness, and the visual polyphony it injected, not only enlivened the otherwise dead space of the display but actualised a new concept of mobile museums.

If English museums are to remain relevant, and to avoid presentist stagnation, it is vital that their fundamental purpose – that is, the curatorial application and management of their collection – is carried out in a gestural manner: actively changing how visitors engage and act by providing a commons space; one that inspires, that educates, and that allows visitors to establish their own place in, and in relation to, the diversity of art and cultural heritage held in collections across the country.

[1] Mendoza, N. 2017: page 44

[2] In their joint letter, published in the Times (2019) cited in Art Fund (2019), the National Museums Directors Council (NMDC) and the Museums Association (MA) articulated concerns around the physical structures of museums across the UK: highlighting that a decade of funding reductions, when paired with increased visitor numbers, has resulted in decreasing structural investment. This “means that loans and touring exhibitions are becoming more difficult to secure because insurers are concerned about the protection of exhibits” (Times, 2019, cited in Art Fund, 2019). NMDC and MA felt this lack of distribution, and the limited opportunities to celebrate the collections held in museums across the UK was having a negative impact on the UK’s cultural influence at large, and on individual museum’s ability to inspire and intrigue.

[3] quoted in Vaizey, E. 2016: page 5.

[4] These concerns were expressed in both The Mendoza Review (Mendoza N, 2017) and in the NMDC and MA’s joint letter (Art Fund, 2019).

[5] Mendoza, N. 2017

[6] DCMS. 2018

[7] quoted in Pepi, M. 2014

[8] Mendoza, N. 2017: page 10

[9] Warburg’s concept of a thinking space and its application in exhibition design (curating) as a way to unlock socio-political agency was articulated in Christel Vesters’ 2016 paper ‘A Thought Never Unfolds in One Straight Line’ (Vesters, C. 2016).

[10] Cotter, H. 2015.

[11] Mendoza, N. 2017: page 5, 44.

[12] quoted in Birnbaum, D and Obrist, H. 2010.

[13] Bishop, C. 2013: page 9, 61

[14] Bishop, C. 2013: page 61. Stress my own

[15] Bishop uses the Reina Sofía’s curation of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937) as a case study. Installed in a gallery opposite Jean-Paul Dreyfas’ ‘Espagne’ (1936) – a documentary style film conveying civilian traumas of the Spanish civil war – the juxtaposition exacerbates each works socio-political friction. Bishop, C. 2013: page 41.

[16] Bishop, C. 2013: page 43.

[17] Cohen, A. 2018

[18] ‘Alliances of attraction’ and ‘montages of knowledge’ are terms again borrowed from Aby Warburg. These concepts developed from his interdisciplinary library of 60,000 books which he arranged and rearranged according to his changing thinking and concerns (Vesters, C, 2016).

[19] Bishop, C. 2013: page 34.

[20] Cotter, H. 2015

[21] Cotter, H. 2015

[22] Groys, B. 2014

[23] Farquharson, A. 2003

[24] Okwui Enwezor’s approach to the curation of ‘All the World’s Futures’ the 56th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia (the 2015 Venice Biennale) (Vesters C, 2016).

[25] Veneri, D. 2019

[26] The term concept-work denotes a process of actualizing theory (or theories) through an open process of doing – exploring theoretical approaches free from the confines of the perceived ideal.

[27] Deliss, C. 2019: page 150.

[28] Metabolic Museum-University Ljubljana, 2019

[29] These visual frictions are akin to those provoked by the Reina Sofía in their evocative juxtaposition of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937) and Jean-Paul Dreyfas’ ‘Espagne’ (1936). Bishop, C. 2013: page 41.

[30] Metabolic Museum-University Ljubljana, 2019

[31] Christel Vesters takes Irit Rogoff’s definition of ‘the curatorial’ to articulate the possibilities created when art-objects, and exhibitions are freed from “an ‘old model’ [of curating] based on an unveiling, unravelling, and laying bare of hidden meanings.” The ‘curatorial’ instead implies a dialogical space of discovery (one akin to the commons outlined by Bishop) where meanings are established as you manoeuvre through the exhibition space (Vesters C, 2016).

[32] This approach (the sharing of knowledge) creates an exchange, and thus a debt and hierarchy between the museums and visitor.

[33] Metabolic Museum-University Ljubljana, 2019

[34] Bishop, Cotter and Vesters all speak about the importance of temporality in the surveyed texts.

[35] A critical examination of learning and engagement strategies developed by English museums highlights a number of systemic issues that need to be addressed if institutions are to become more dynamic entities. Tate Modern’s Exchange space is an example of this systemic toxicity. In an attempt to bring in new (often diverse or ‘marginal’) communities, Tate Exchange is set up as a welcoming site. Described on their website as “A place for all to play, create, reflect and question what art can mean to our everyday,” Tate Exchange’s fundamental floor is in its architectural planning. Removed from the Art on display, in Tate Modern’s formal galleries; away from the spectacular events, and lates programme, the freedom for ‘new’ audiences to play and question life is moved into the bare space on the fifth-floor. The personal experience, and subjective values that are essential to dynamic museums are in other words segregated from the official art on display; exacerbating the distance between viewer and institution – the reverse intention of the dynamic museum.

[36] Veneri, D. 2019

[37] Birnbaum, D and Obrist, H. 2010

[38] Goffman, G. 1956

Reference list

It’s not all blue: CMYK dreamscapes

Surveying the greasy pop-up that is Frieze Art Fair 2019

As the sun sets on a decade of mounting doom…Scratch that…On the brink of sunrise, we sit, waiting for the cold autumn dew, waiting for the darkness that has enveloped us to lift; burnt away by the radiant morning sun…cough art-wanker cough…

How do you begin writing, indeed thinking, about Frieze Art Fair? Now in its sweet-sixteenth London iteration, with hubs in New York and LA, this year’s fair is marketed as ‘the most international yet.’ (Fanfare… as inclusivity quotas finally make it as sexy marketing materials…) It is easy to be critical of the Fair, slating its capitalist connotations, mocking its un-coolness, and vilifying it as an artist ‘killer’, not an artist ‘feeder;’ but what’s the point? In our age of homogenous neoliberal reductivism, Frieze, like much of the art world, like much of western reality, is a greasy beast, but one that’s here to stay. So, let’s stop crying with loaves under our arms and blag our way in and enjoy the cringy delights that reside in the pop-up big top; after all we all love a dirty kabab and a cheesy chick flick once in a while.

Sunrise and sunset, they often look similar but lead in two different directions: night in, night out; up for work, burrowing down till noon, and it’s from this perspective of pastel pink and cold cyan that I began to ponder Frieze 2019.

I love Francis Picabia, and it was nice to see his weary presence in this contemporary art fair. Situated amongst a constellation of small drawings all made by western modernist/contemporary masters, Picabia’s intimate sketch Untitled (1933) depicts a knackered petit maître, gazing past us, overlooking the fair’s frolicking youth. As a group the collection of drawings resembles a troop about to perform some great act… no wait, they resemble the troop post performance, I mean look at that face, it needs a coffee!

Figure 1 Francis Picabia Untitled, 1933. coloured pencil, ink on paper. 27cm X 21cm
Francis Picabia. Untitled, 1933. Coloured pencil, ink on paper. 27cm X 21cm

Exceeding the confines of the discarded envelope, Picabia uses sharp lines of cold blue ink to define his characters facial forms; with looser washes being used to create dramatic arched eyebrows and glittering eyes. It’s not all blue however, Picabia injects drama with exaggerated scratches of deep red around his figure’s cheeks and curvaceous lips. The effect; a sense of exhaustion paired with bitch please sass (totally calling to mind Snoop Dogg’s 1998 album cover).

Figure 2 Snoop Dogg Bitch Please album cover, 1998. No Limits Records
Snoop Dogg. Bitch Please. album cover, 1998. No Limits Records

A similarly affective use of blue and pink can be seen in Johannes Kahrs Untitled (women and can), 2019. Here Karhs’ fluid application of paint creates a figure that appears as an unstable apparition: as a mirage, something akin to a late night ‘is that you?’ moment. Emerging from a shadowy backdrop the isolated figure almost pops out of the canvas to join us trawling the fair. Armed with a glinting can of Dutch courage, she seems up for going all night long, though I wonder if she needs anymore of that intoxicating nectar. The figures present-ness, her full-on charge out of the gloom, when paired with the ephemerality of her construction, creates a delicate tone, one reminiscent of those poetic moments of transference between day and night: one that reverberates softly, shifting ever so slightly every second until the moment is over and normality can continue.

Figure 3 Johannes Kahrs Untitled (women and can), 2019. Oil on canvas. 91cm X 130cm
Johannes Kahrs. Untitled (women and can), 2019. Oil on canvas. 91cm X 130cm

A sense of poetic normality is again rendered in painterly touches of pink, blue and radiant gold pigments in Claire Tabouret’s Patricia with her eyes closed (blue), 2019. Here Tabouret, whose delicate figures can be seen in a number of booths, captures an elegant ‘soccer mom’ in a state of whimsical dreaming. Concealed behind the golden skin Tabouret’s figure seems at peace with herself as she contemplates a dreamscape of CMYK possibilities. Hand to cheek, leaning ever so slightly to the left the figure does not force her way to another plane, instead she seems to evaporate through a paradoxical use of texture; coarse brushwork is used to define her loose curls, with definite lines constructing her flowing clothing. This contradictory use of formal elements makes me think about the idea of the façade and the faux-corporeal projections we all wheel out now and then (something that is omnipresent at Frieze).

Figure 4 Claire Tabouret’s Patricia with her eyes closed (blue), 2019. Acrylic and ink on paper. 76.2cm X 55.9cm.
Claire Tabouret. Patricia with her eyes closed (blue), 2019. Acrylic and ink on paper. 76.2cm X 55.9cm.

Relief, passion and awe, the pretty colours that inevitably flood the sky twice a day mark not only the unstoppable movement of our planet around the sun, but also provide a reflective moment from which we can get hyped-up! or begin to snuggle down. As time un-Friezes and London’s art world returns to its more manageable pace, I am left thinking more snuggly nights in are called for (for the next week or so anyway).

 


 

Originally published on Garageland Reviews October 8, 2019

Calle Tredici Martiri (Alley of the Thirteen Martyrs) – Book Review

Paper backed and bound without a spine. The schizophrenic Calle Tredici Martiri pairs faded jottings, like those found on the back of an encoded postcard, with dusty photographs.

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Described as a ‘fictionalised photographic reinterpretation’ Calle Tredici Martiri (Alley of the Thirteen Martyrs) brings together diary entries, archival and contemporary photographs, to narrate a poignant history of human struggle against regimes of narcissistic political power.

Taking his grandfather’s daily jottings from the mid-1940s as a point of reference, Calle Tredici Martiri is the result of Jason Koxvold’s wider research into the partisan resistance, in northern Italy. Labelled as a bandit Koxvold’s grandfather, Aldo Varisco, was an instrumental figure who co-ordinated an array of direct action with the intention of disrupting the power held by the German National Republican Guard, and the Italian Fascists alike. Collected here, the translated fragments abstracted directly from Varisco’s diary’s take us on a torturous tour through grassroots resistance meetings, militant campaigns, and the deadly repercussions of being caught.

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In keeping with the unstable times of 1940s Italy (we think we have it hard…) Varisco’s memoirs unfurl with an explosive speed: names of co-conspirators, roles, dates, locations, planned movements and campaign results are recorded with minimal subjectivity. This lack of the fleshy human voice calls to mind the limits placed on personal liberty by those holding power.

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As a continuation of his grandfather’s spirit, Koxvold strategically divides the 79 pages of text with archival photographs and postcards. These nostalgic interventions haunt the text; providing a visual ambiguity which clashes with the directness of each diary record. The juxtaposition between the text and the whimsical archival photographs, alludes to the fragility of memory and indeed of history. ‘History is always told by the victor,’ an old cliché but I am going to roll it out here as it highlights precisely the issue at hand; that is, who gets to speak, who gets remembered, and who ultimately shapes our reality.

The fog-grey chapter that holds Varisco’s history is enveloped with page after page of spectral photography. Pairing idyllic shots of early morning Venice with sterner photographs of modern architecture and political meeting spaces, Koxvold shifts the means of communication from the objective recounting of history, through text, to a more ambiguous narration, via the camera. In doing so he exacerbates the idea of controlled history and the erasure of narratives. Koxvold’s snapshots capture an emancipated Venice in a state of stasis, the jade green waters and skin toned architecture slowly fade like a negative left in the sun, whilst bureaucratic buildings are captured in sharp black and white clarity.

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Memory is always a hazy ideal without the regimes of history making it concrete. Throughout the book Koxvold not only provides a space to celebrate the achievements of his grandfather, but questions the power dynamics which are still being wielded today by men in economic/political power, to clinically remove the messy mass of humanity from its (poisonous) ideal society.

 

Jason Koxvold & Aldo Varisco
Calle Tredici Martiri 

Published by Gnomic Book, 2019

Continue reading Calle Tredici Martiri (Alley of the Thirteen Martyrs) – Book Review

When life gives you lemons, make reality art

In 1802 JMW Turner, the master landscape painter and the then professor of perspective at the Royal Academy of Arts London, crossed the channel in order to explore the exoticEurope for the first time. Like any tourist, Turner documented this, and his subsequent trips, by accumulating vast amounts of visual data — through in Turner’s day, unlike in our Instagram present, this data came in the form of perfectly curated sketches, saturated watercolours, and oil paintings teaming with atmospheric exhibition value.

There has always been a human desire to document, store, and share life. And in our 21-century reality it has never been so easy to snap our hotdog legs, get a half-face next to some icon, or boomerang some hot ass frock (not that I do a lot of that…): we love to capture those moments that ‘matter.’ What strikes me, reflecting on Turner’s travel paintings (fig.1.) and the cascade of filter-smothered images that appear when I run an Insta search for #citybreak (fig.2.) is the sheer similarity in the visual language used to communicate and sell on these moments.

Identifying as a ‘Reality Artist,’ Signe Pierce uses digital technologies as a material through which she melds art and life. Much like Turner in this regard, Pierce takes full advantage of socio-cultural innovations to portray modern life in high-speed luminosity. Gone are the pre-mixed paint tubes, replaced by Snapchat; the sketchbook, has had its day, all you need now is Instagram: each of these innovations (historical and modern) has brought the power to document reality, in a visible manner, to more and more people across the world.

What remains a constant across time however, is the need to tart-up the reality we share: we call it Spectacle, Turner called it Romanticism, really, they are two of the same: merely separated by time and a certain level of elitism, we filter our reality, in order to make an idolatrous artifice of life.

In Digital Streams of an Unloadable Consciousness: Stories 2016–2019 (Annka Kultys Gallery June 6 — July 6 2019), Pierce seems to fully acknowledge the paradoxical awkwardness created by the projections of life through society’s mass communicational devices (read social media). Far from hiding away from, or the opposite confronting, the contradictory enigma of reality sharing, the three works featured in the exhibition aim to somehow make the intangible, tangible through an absurd bombardment of millennial pink, and electric blue.

Projected on a monumental scale, with added smoke for good measure, Digital Streams of Infinity: Reality Painting (fig.3.) is a mesmerising saunter into the world of ‘Reality Art.’ As the video loops, we see red rectangles dance around the 16:9 screen; clashed against these forms, the occasional splashes of bright white, and pools of electric blue light float in and out of the frame as if caught in a glitchy vortex provides an engaging.. The films structural frame is alluded to through the introduction of white text, but the infinite stream of flowing RGB colours makes this totally unfathomable.

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Figure 3. Signe Pierce: Digital Streams of Infinity (2019) detail.

If Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed: The Great Western Railway (fig.4.) is a poignant symbol, giving texture to 19-century communicational innovation,[1] Pierce’s Digital Streams of Infinity is a transient monument, aiming to make the speed of digital communications textural: by metaphorically conveying the live flow of reality, be it in a very spectral manner.

Figure 4. JMW Turner: Rain, Steam, and Speed, The Great Western Railway (1844).

Pierce’s Digital Streams of an Unloadable Consciousness and When You Die, Your Camera Roll Flashes before Your Eyes are more successful in conveying, in readable terms, the idiosyncrasies of the glammed-up realities we have always shared. Both works are formulated from similar subject matter, Pierce’s Instagram and Snapchat stories, but each conveys the amalgamated documentary footage in different ways.

A sort of G-drive cabaret, When You Die, Your Camera Roll Flashes before Your Eyes (fig.5.) does exactly what it says on the tin: dividing the screen in two, Pierce unleashes an unmediated bombardment of carefully curated moments (yes that is an oxymoron), underpinned by an endless horizontal scroll of dates and locations. These provide us with a loose context; a flashy reference alluding to the lifestyle that is literally being sold in the gallery.

Figure 5. Signe Pierce: When You Die, Your Camera Roll Flashes before Your Eyes (2019) detail.

Acting as a sort of visual DJ, sampling the real world and harmonising these fragmented moments through colour, text and sound, Pierce’s Digital Streams of an Unloadable Consciousness (fig.6.) is a far more poetic version of the lifestyle being sold. What draws me to this work, and its strength, is the unification within and across the fragmented moments: we see poignant poetic statements layered over shockingly saturated snapshots; each moment harmonised by a fluorescent colour and language. As with any great Instagram aesthetic, the constituent parts are as harmonious in their individual form as the whole is in its oeuvre. This shear poetic perfection, alludes to a life where each perfectly crafted day flows seemingly into the next, building to create an immaculate life, one of liquid perfection.

Figure 6. Signe Pierce: Digital Streams of an Unloadable Consciousness (2019) detail.

Far from mere idolatrous personifications of self, both Digital Streams of an Unloadable Consciousness and When You Die, Your Camera Roll Flashes before Your Eyes have a sinister undertone encoded behind the HD surface. As Pierce’s perfect reality unfolds, the unstoppable serge of aesthetic data dissolves the trademarks of basic human life leaving us with nothing more than a spectral stream of scorching neon moments.

I suppose reality has always been bound to perspective. In the early 19-century ‘social perspectives’ were physically shaped through physical innovations in technology, economics and travel. Turner’s paintings embody this physicality through their gestural brushwork, and over saturation. Subsequently, in our digital present, where the technology, the economy and leisure are becoming less ‘real,’ Pierce’s use of post-realty, as a medium, exacerbates the fragility of our social framework, by making faux-reality as tangible as the digital life we craft.

If Turner had to over saturate his canvases in order to please his patrons, to make ends meet and survive, in today’s society, our spectacular acts of self-dehumanisation — via the perpetuation of ‘My reality’ — creates an endless existence where one’s life is bound to the value one can create through their artificial life they market online.


 

Signe Pierce

Digital Streams of an Unloadable Consciousness

Annka Kultys Gallery, London

June 6 — July 6 2019.

 

[1] In the late 1800’s the railways began to connect disparate communities across the UK; travel and exploration became ever more accessible to the masses, who stepping aboard the open carnages could literally feel liberating freedom of stem travel. Tuner’s canvas rives with an eruptions haze giving substance to the idea of steam locomotion and petrifying the physical sensation of being on a train.

Remediating space: The Dutch Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale

A sensuous citrus scent lingers in the air; and as I walk, I am enveloped by a soft pool of dewy fog. I’m warmed, I’m refreshed, but I’m about 5,000 miles away from an early morning stroll in Suriname… I’m in Venice at the 58th Venice Biennale and about to enter the Dutch Pavilion.

Titled The Measure of Presence, neither this alluring smell nor the fog are actually part of the Dutch presentation; though in a fitting irony, that evokes thoughts of the Netherlands history of industry and exploitation and exchange, these elements add to the Pavilion’s experience, as well as its conceptual depth.

Indeed, exchange is at the heart of the Dutch concept for this year’s Biennale: born out of a conversation between Iris Kensmil, Remy Jungerman and Benno Temple (the two artists representing the Netherlands and the Pavilion’s curator) The Measure of Presence explores, through dialogue, the interconnected histories that have formed 21st century Dutch culture.

The work of Remy Jungerman is perplexing. My first impression of his dominating installation was one of ghosts and decaying modernity. But this was me reading his work, and specifically his use of colour and material, through my western (aesthetic) bias. Finding inspiration in both the 20th century’s European avant-gardes and African and Monrovian cultures, Jungerman’s installations depart from the western notion of ‘influenced by’ — where a culture is appropriated and refined through the lens of the western view / practice to create a quasi-cross-cultural artwork for easy reading — towards a notion of cultural remediation: achieved through a levelling in visual languages.

Remy Jungerman: Promise IV, 2019

Entering the Pavilion Promise IV is the first work you encounter. Resembling an ornamental aloe vera, the monumental form is constructed from a set of slender wooden beams, painted in grey iterating sections. Positioned vertically these beams draw your attention skyward, and as you examine their elegant forms Jungerman’s source voices (read cultural influences) begin to speak to you: rusted nails puncture; wool whines. These adornments give each beam an identity, and life of its own.

Dotted throughout Promise IV’s structural base are a number of slats. Painted in muted colours and patterns their arrangement is far from random or romantic; Jungerman has laid out these slates according to his version of Stanley Brouwn’s (the South-American-born Dutch artist) conceptual ordering system.

This same visual language is used in Visiting Deities. Constituted by Kabara Tafra and Horizontal Obeah GREENGESITONU I, II, and III. The installation balances three Futurist ocean liners (Horizontal Obeah GREENGESITONU I, II, and III) above a baron seabed, creating a dynamic flow of horizontal energy that sails through the nothingness at the rear of the Pavilion. In a poignant reference to both the legacy of the sea trade (slave trade) and the modern-day flow of peoples, Kabara Tafra is the sea that sits between the ocean liners and the crumbling earth.

Remy Jungerman: Visiting Deities, 2019

A bleak reading initially, the two individual works that form Visiting Deities have a more utopian aspiration: to invite communication, conversation, and reflection across cultures. Far from staging modernity as a phantom of imperialism, this dishevelled blankness — an aesthetic resembling the city of Venice, is an invitation to fill in the gaps together; to share in order to replenish, and to provide the joint energy to fuel our ships on their journey towards a sustainable cross-cultural interconnectivity. Lets’ hope that the work doesn’t go the way of Venice and become a selfie icon.

Remy Jungerman and Iris Kensmil share more than just a refined colour pallet, of greys, blacks, soft lemons, pale blues and plumbs; both follow similar conceptual frameworks. Like Jungerman, Kensmil’s contribution to the Pavilion pairs different forms of production and display to expand conversations; and through this expansion, she aims to create a more inclusive cultural trajectory.

Kensmil’s work has a strong sense of agency about it. She urges artists, thinkers, and citizens to speak up, to ask for space beyond the identity politics trapping the 21st-century cultural discourse.

The New Utopia Begins Here #1 draws upon the idea of the pioneer — a term often associated with utopianism. The installation layers glowing portraits over a modernist wall mural. Depicting seven black women whose contributions to modernity has often been overlooked and left out of the mainstream narrative, these dream-like portraits linger in the space, their soft presence cutting through the clean lines of the modernist mural. Following a 19th-century impressionist painting technique — using a light undercoat to give the portraits a vibrancy — Kensmil imbues these portraits with an air of calm tranquillity that gives these pioneers an understated power and presence. By connecting these iconic black figures to modernism Kensmil aims to correct the one-sidedness of mainstream knowledge, in doing so she underscores the important role these women play in the construction of our present, and how their work will support the development of our future.

Iris Kensmil: The New Utopia Begins Here #1, 2019 (detail)

Behind this grouping, Beyond the Burden of Representation, makes explicit how knowledge is produced and maintained in the museum / gallery environment. Here a series of paintings, depicting exhibition environments, are paired with a collection of art history and philosophy books, and sit over Kensmil’s mural. By reproducing these containers of knowledge alongside their historical frame (modernism), Kensmil lays bare the limiting structure that has, and continues to, perpetuate a set of prevailing principles; principles based upon a restricted scope of what utopia and progress means.

Iris Kensmil: Beyond the Burden of Representation, 2019 (detail)

Benno Temple’s curatorial approach to the Pavilion’s underpinning concept works well: pairing two artists who dissect the overlapping cultural connections that have formed contemporary Dutch culture has been an effective measure of what constitutes the present. Not a critique or lament of our imperialist past, the Pavilion is an attempt to introduce into the conversation practices, iconographies and languages that have been overlooked or historically miss translated.

By re-animating, the present through a polycultural visual language, Temple, Jungerman and Kensmil have created a quasi-public space, a conceptual port of sorts. Far from a globalized privately owned public open space, where the reading is done through the eyes of the capitalist, the three create an alternative meeting point, one that breaks down the dogmatic bonds that have been pinning together our contemporary world, creating space for deeper more complex reflections on the past and how this can be used to shape the future.


 

Iris Kensmil &Remy Jungerman
The Measurement of Presence
Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
Giardini Castello, Venice
11 May — 24 November 2019