Monday, 26 September 2016

It's the thought that counts.

BBC4's recent mini-season on conceptual art was something of a mixed bag - as you'd probably expect with such a remit. My July trip to Tate Britain's retrospective on British conceptual art hadn't been entirely satisfactory but I was curious to learn more. Find out if I'd been missing something.

By that reckoning I was in the same boat as Dr James Fox who presented the opening show, 'Who's Afraid of Conceptual Art?, by ramping up his reservations about the whole thing only to let them slowly subside as the show went on. A friend of mine thought him completely the wrong presenter for the show but I don't think he was as wet behind his ears as he pretended to be.

He began by opening a package he'd ordered from Martin Creed. It cost him £180 and inside it was a rolled up ball of paper. Nothing more. Nothing on it. That's one expensive, and slightly ruined, sheet of A4. Creed pops up again later but to tell the story of how this kind of thing could come to pass off as art Fox went right back to the chain smoking sphinx.

Marcel Duchamp, with his famous 'readymades', was the first to suggest that beautiful artworks and prosaic artefacts could be, even were, interchangeable. Like Creed, and unlike many others who followed in his path, there was humour at play in Duchamp's subversion. You were even allowed to spin his bicycle wheel round. Though it seems not piss in his urinal.

Duchamp eventually gave up art to become a professional chess player and the Italian Piero Manzoni picked up the mantle. Both conceptually and in the realms of bodily functions. Manzoni signed real bodies, drew supposedly never ending lines, and claimed his own breath (which he'd used to pump up balloons) was art. He then shat into ninety tins and enclosed them. So if you think modern art is crap you're totally right.

He sold the canned turds for the equivalent price of their weight in gold. You may feel those that bought it were the mugs but it's now worth more than 200 times the price of gold. Providing it's left unopened. So, is there even any shit in the can? Does it even matter? Manzoni's not here to say, he died aged just 29, but defenders of conceptual art would say it doesn't at all. It's the idea, not the physical manifestation of it, that is the work.

Martin Creed's also a fan of defecation. He's filmed people shitting which surprisingly didn't gain as much attention as his empty room with the lights going on or off or his tiny piece of blu-tac attached to a gallery wall. Fox meets him. It seems apparent that Creed is a bit of a chancer with no firmly held beliefs about anything. His punk-pop band are decent enough but he brings far more to his own bank balance than he does to our story.

In the sixties there was a movement to purge art of frilliness. Words started to replace pictures (I think we're seeing the reverse of that now as clickbait dominates over the long read) and, in 1973, Michael Craig-Martin made his Oak Tree. As many of you will know it's a glass of water that Craig-Martin insists is an oak tree. A painful interview between him and Fox becomes an utterly pointless exercise in semantics. Much like Xmas presents I've given my mum it turns out 'it's the thought that counts'.

There's certainly a lot of thought, and of course shit, gone in to Mary Kelly's Post Partum Document. Logs, quite literally, of mother and child's life together inscribed on to stained nappies may be a bit self-indulgent - or smelly - but are a great example of high conceptualism and how feminist artists took the boy's toys and played a more grown up game with them. A document about the nurturing of a new life. What could be more vital? It's just a pity the trailers for the series used a cookie cutter nagging woman's voice to portray the supposed philistine unable to comprehend this stuff.

Kelly's work will always remain relevant, though not to the taste of all, and I'd like to think Robert Montgomery's will too. His installations also had a beating heart and I liked the fact that he'd taken them to the streets to interact with people who may not choose to spend their free time inside art galleries (they exist?). Ghost, in Bermondsey, touched the hearts of many strangers. Much as everyone can appreciate the joy a new life gives we can all understand how important it is to find solace after the loss of a loved one.

Other conceptual artists were more concerned with making you, or even theirselves, uncomfortable. Vito Acconci stalked people. Yoko Ono sat impassively in New York as the audience cut away her clothes, and, in 1974 Joseph Beuys flew into JFK covered in felt where he was taken by an ambulance to a gallery to spend three days in a room with a wild coyote. An allegory or a social sculpture about peace, tolerance, and respect for nature? Or just a big show off? You decide.

Another place conceptual art took on new meaning was under the Brazilian military dictatorship of the sixties. Not for it. Against it. As Os Mutantes soundtrack Cildo Meireles 'Yankees Go Home' Coke bottles I think I'd liked to have heard a bit more about the Brazilian scene but this is a whistlestop tour and we're soon moving forward a decade.

By the seventies, as predicted by Marshall McLuhan, the medium had become the message. Not content with having himself shot Chris Burden crawled through 50ft of broken glass on his stomach in just his pants. A comment, a bloody painful one, about how we'd become desensitised to the violence of the Vietnam War. Burden bought air time and made adverts that sold absolutely nothing. A refreshing change to the artist-as-tycoon model we sometimes see now.

Fox ends by meeting bollock naked German artist Christian Jankowski. The interview takes place with the Vision On music in the background but luckily Wilf Lunn doesn't rock up with his cock out. Even though his proto-hipster 'tache would've fitted right in. Jankowski is essentially a prankster. But he's a good one. His casting for Jesus along the mould of Pop Idol was somewhere between Jeremy Beadle and Duchamp.

It's certainly a long way from Carl Andre and his pile of bricks. Or Equivalent VIII to give them their proper name. The second show of the three focuses on the time Britain was outraged that the Tate could spend money on such a thing. It was even mentioned on John Craven's Newsround. As it was 1976 there's a good chance I watched it.

As strikes and inflation ground the country down, and uplifting disco pop rang out, members of the public were interviewed. 'Taking the piss' and 'wasting taxpayer's money' seemed to be the general consensus. The Tate did receive a grant to spend on art so these were not unjustified concerns.

Carl Andre had been born in Quincy, Massachussetts 41 years earlier. He was, by 1976, an ex-railroad worker with a silly beard and dungaree combo. Which made it hard to warm to him.

The Tate had held minimalist works (which isn't really the same as conceptualism so not quite sure why this programme was even in this strand) for some years. They'd examples by Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, and Robert Ryman. There'd been no fuss but now The Sunday Times wanted a fight.

It didn't help that the bricks were exhibited at the same time as the Tate was hosting a blockbuster Constable exhibition so many who'd visited to have a look at the landscapes of East Anglia made a special diversion to be offended by Andre's offering.

Brian Sewell, perhaps surprisingly, makes a very good point - and one that could've saved a lot of fuss. He thought, and I agree, that by not buying the whole Equivalent series (all bricks but all arranged in different ways) the artwork just didn't work. Andre was happy to pocket the cash and the renown didn't hurt him so badly in the long run but it was a while before Britain was truly comfortable with modern art.

There's a somewhat bizarre coda when a guy who daubed blue dye on the bricks jocularly relates his story and how he made it in to The Sun (on Page 3, underneath the tits). Though he still stood by his protest he doesn't take it too seriously.

Something you could never accuse Vic Reeves of. Using his real name Jim Moir he's heading up the third and final part of our conceptual trilogy with a look at Dada. It began in Zurich (cue yodelling, cheese, and cuckoo clocks) in 1916 during World War I as an exile protest moment.

In an absurd world the Dadaists strove to be deliberately so. Thus was born the Cabaret Voltaire. On the first night Romanian poet Tristan Tzara cast a tribal Maori spell, people wore cardboard masks, a dozen balalaika players took to the stage, and some German bloke hit a drum with a riding whip whilst shouting 'Pig's bladder kettle drum cinnabar cru cru cru'. All those made up words. Uvavu indeed.

Warming to his mission Vic/Jim gets dressed up in an outfit that sits somewhere between The Pet Shop Boy's elongated pointy hats and New Order's True Faith video. There doesn't seem to be much reason for this which, I guess, is in keeping with Dada principles.

Five months after its opening night the Cabaret Voltaire closed. The venue was, after all, primarily in the business of selling sausages and beer. Dada didn't die though. Quite the contrary. Richard Huelsenbeck returned, from Zurich, to a devastated Berlin and the movement then got very political.

John Heartfield hung a dummy from a ceiling dressed in a German military uniform and with a pig's snout. Otto Dix painted disabled war veterans and Hannah Hoch's Cut with the Kitchen Knife pioneered photomontage. By all accounts German society was shocked.

Elsewhere the japery continued. Dada chief and self-proclaimed President of the Earth Johannes Baader wrote his own obituary and then pretended to be resurrected. Huelsenbeck was well jel. In New York Duchamp's fountain/urinal showed up (tying things up neatly). Duchamp also displayed a closed window, a snow shovel, and, of course, the bicycle wheel. He then defaced a copy of the Mona Lisa and called it She's Got a Hot Ass. Inspired by this Vic and the artist Cornelia Parker carry out their own Dadaist intervention on the Bond Street memorial to Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt.

Back in Zurich Tristan Tzara mockingly issued a fake press release that claimed he'd been involved in a pistol duel. It looks now like something from The Day Today. Tzara also invented the cut'n'paste technique which later inspired William Burroughs, Cassetteboy, and even those of you who like to make fridge magnet poetry.

You'll not have to look too far, either, to find modern versions of Cologne's 1919 take on Dada. There they went for shock for shock's sake. You entered the gallery through a pub bog where you were showered with obscenities and, on arrival, you were encouraged to destroy the art on show.

Michael Landy, having destroyed everything he owned once, is clearly the right man to chat about this. Instead Vic Reeves puts a plate on Landy's head and then knocks it off with a broom handle smashing it to smithereens.

It's funny. It's generally quite entertaining to watch and perhaps that's the point of Dada. At least now. A silly respite from all the horrible things that are happening. The wider remit of whatever conceptual art is, however, remains as thorny as ever. These programmes, of varying quality as they were, don't necessarily make it easier to grasp but at least provide a clue as to why, more than a century later, people are still arguing about it.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

A design for life?

I'd never been to a biennale before. Barely knew what one was. I loved rolling my tongue around the Italian pronunciation as I bought my ticket on a sunny afternoon in late September but I had no idea what I was entering into. As it turned out it was the first time London had hosted a Design Biennale so I was probably not alone.

Even though I was, strictly speaking, on a solo mission it didn't feel like it. The place was busy and it was orange too. Very orange. It felt at times like Easyjet, rather than Jaguar, were sponsoring the thing.

Thirty seven countries were represented. Exploring 'big questions about sustainability, migration, pollution, energy, cities, and social equality'. Sometimes overtly. Often prismatically. Occasionally simply bewilderingly.

Portugal claimed the dubious honour of gaining my biennale cherry. Unlike the country itself the experience was disappointing. Not traumatic but UN/Biased (what a shit name) and their use of maps and bacteria to comment on the problems of sexism in society was all a bit half-arsed. I don't question their intentions or that male hegemony is still a concern but this addressed nothing.

The German room, Utopia from Elsewhere, had a wanky John Malkovich text writ large and a darkened room where you could sit around a digitally generated fire. Pleasant enough but nothing more exciting than you'd find taking a random wander round the, free, galleries of Mayfair.

So, once I'd accepted that this was about art rather than politics, I was able to appreciate, on a reduced level, architect Rianne Makink and designer Jurgen Bey's installation (above) which, apparently, asks questions about how institutions collect history.

Makink and Bey were representing the Netherlands. Saudi Arabia had called on the services of the sisters Noura and Basma Bouzo. Their Water Machine took the form of a bubblegum dispenser and sought to make a point about our planet's handling of its resources. Water especially.

From Water Machine to Wish Machine. Autoban (Turkey) will chuck your message into a tube, send it round Somerset House, and then dispense it into a void. A kind of existential Santa letter, it'd be depressing if it wasn't fun to watch.

Fun certainly seems to be what it's about here. Not too much though. Serious points to make. Yasuhiro Suzuki was carrying the flag for Japan with A Journey Around The Neighbourhood Globe. A confusing pennant it was too. Pencils, apples, jigsaws, question marks, and the globe, itself, with a zip sewn into it. If you like to put the Japanese penchant for enigmatic behaviour on a pedestal you'll not be disappointed.

For France, Benjamin Loyaute's The Astounding Eyes of Syria shows the artist meeting with displaced Syrian kids. He collects their 'memories of sweets' but to save it being simply an exercise in virtue signalling he's set up a vending machine where you can buy packets of candy with the proceeds going to Syrians rendered homeless by the war. A small gesture but an admirable one.

For Israel Yaniv Kadoh's AIDrop first aid distribution system also offers practical solutions to real life situations. The claim being that his innovation can drop urgent provisions into disaster zones before other help can arrive. Not sure how realistic this is but, again, the intentions are to be acknowledged.

Mezzing in Lebanon, overlooking the Thames, was the best thing at the biennale by some distance. Even the arrival of some light drizzle couldn't dampen this winning performance. A recreation of a Beirut street market complete with food stalls, orange juice sellers, backgammon rooms, and beds to recline on. No shoes, mind!

The next few rooms were bound to suffer as a consequence and, well intentioned though it was, Chile's Counterculture Room paled next to the Levantine extravaganza. Using something called 'Cybersyn' to make points about Salvador Allende it was probably interesting but I couldn't make head nor tail of it.

The fairly uninspired Swedish and Croatian salons suffered even more in comparison. The clocks, candles, and Sunday supplement cool home furnishings (Sweden) and geometric shapes (Croatia) all looked nice enough but you may as well have been in Habitat. They don't even charge you an entrance fee.

Austria's LeveL (mischer traxler, lower case artist's own) gets things back on track, Essentially a riff on Alexander Calder's mesmerising mobiles with a bit of LED thrown in they may be far away from the political ideas expressed elsewhere but they're rather beguiling to look at.

The Spanish room is loosely themed around the city of Santander's adoption of technology to improve both urban life and the environment. VIRpolis ponder what such a smart city may look like in the year 2116. One with two of me in it it seems from the photo above. You lucky lucky people of the future.

Both the rather grandiosely monikered Time Tunnel (the one with me in) and the virtual reality room were enormously popular. Muy bien Espana pero esta vez sin cigarro.

The fifty four pylons in Tunisia's Pulse Diagram (above, Chacha Atallah and Haythem Zakaria) refer to the fifty four cities in Thomas More's Utopia. The Greek take on the Utopian Landscape (as you've probably gathered, a leitmotiv that runs though the whole show) is a digital recreation of a quarry in Dionysus.

All interesting enough but far better is the United Arab Emirati contribution:- al Falaj:Water Systems of the Gulf's Oasis. A vast system of planned irrigation once stretched across the Gulf. The UAE rooms show how and why it could, and should, be recreated. I place it in bronze medal position.

The Pakistani 'abstract playground', Daalaan, took me back out into the courtyard where it was no longer sunny. Nor was it raining. It was now windy. It was like the weather was changing to reflect all the different 'territories' on show.

Fernando Romero for Mexico's Border City ruminates on the US border (it wasn't gonna be the Guatemalan one, was it?), culture clash, and other highly topical issues. It's interesting enough but I feel there'll be a lot better stuff about that particular theme to come. Plus the music sounded like something they'd have used during a mental agility test on The Krypton Factor.

From Poland Klara Czerniewska and Maria Jeglinska have devised a game of Cadavre Exquis (Exquisite Corpse) with surreal, vaguely political posers plastered on to yellow boards. It might be fun to play if you come with a mate. I didn't.

Even with chums the Taiwanese Eatopia experience is not as much fun as it could be. You're not allowed to eat the food. The haunted forest room and friendly 'waiters' do make it a pleasurable experience though.

Italy hosts the world's most famous biennale (Venice) so they weren't missing out on the fun. Their selection of white flags (no sniggering, military historians) was an exhibition of its own - calling in artists from around the world. A nice touch.

Better still, and raking in the runner's up position behind the Lebanese, was South African Porky Hefer. His name alone deserves some sort of prize but his series of hanging nests in animal forms (Otium and Aceda) celebrated playfulness in a way that's all too rare. Even if both a killer whale and a piranha were resident in his menagerie.

In thirty five years Shenzhen in China has grown from a city of 300,000 to one of 17,000,000. A megalopolis and no mistake. URBANOS addressed the obvious challenges this transformation brings using Italo Calvino quotes, cool models, and lots of cardboard boxes.

Chakraview's Indian blast of colour seemed a positive note to leave on. The gallery here opens up on to the Embankment and the sun was out again. An Indian summer if not quite Indian weather.

There wasn't enough time to take everything in. The Indonesian, Norwegian, Swiss, and Russian rooms were so full of stuff to read I had to give them short shrift. That's a pity but it was my first time at one of these events and I'd not come prepared. When and if I come again I'll have a better idea what to expect and what that is is a very mixed bag indeed. But if the Lebanese food truck rocks up again then I'm keen.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Shoot speed kill light.

'If you can remember the sixties you weren't there'. That's what they used to say. Well, I was born in 1968 and have no recollection whatsoever of that decade. So, clearly on all counts, I was very much 'there'.

Even if I could remember something it'd probably just be lying in a cot crying or shitting my nappy (not much changes eh?) because that was my lived reality. Oh, and getting burnt so badly by a pan of boiling milk that the scars still show to this day.

I've never really got the fascination/fetishisation of this decade above all others. I'm sure it was great at the time and all that but this wilfulness to peer back through rose tinted spectacles at a past that never was is one of the English people's less appealing traits. In the same way, and for the same reasons, as a Keep Calm and Carry On poster, a young man dressed as an Edwardian strongman, or a Brexit campaigner posing in a pub with a pint of nut brown ale.

But in the name of research I found myself digging out my best Austin Powers fancy dress outfit and having the Mini Cooper sprayed up like a Union Jack. I'd even taken the trouble to get a helicopter to film me driving over Tower Bridge from a jaunty angle to a John Barry soundtrack. Groovy!

Obviously I didn't do this really (lol, soz 4 the epic bantz!) but, instead, I wore my normal clothes on the 63 bus to Elephant & Castle and took the Bakerloo line to Oxford Circus and then walked down to The Photographers' Gallery where they were hosting Terence Donovan:Speed of Light. Which hopefully explains my somewhat lengthy preamble. As a major chronicler of the era Donovan can take a lot of credit (or, indeed, blame) for the way we view it now.

He was born in 1936 and committed suicide (seemingly after reacting badly to prescribed drugs) sixty years later. He lived in Stepney all his life and knew the area better than most cabbies. In 1959, aged 22, he opened his first studio in West London. His first commission was a still life photograph of a sponge cake. Very disappointingly it's not in this show.

Donovan claimed his eye, as restless as the great metropolis itself, scanned at the speed of sound. Quite a boast yet he was entitled to feel pleased with himself. His ascendancy as a fashion photographer coincided with a more overt, more sexual, certainly more heterosexual gaze. Whereas earlier practitioners had been borderline aristocracy and predominantly homosexual Donovan, along with his contemporaries David Bailey and Brian Duffy, were working class and, to use the parlance of the time, fond of the birds.

Walls of contact prints attest to both this and the cool jazz crowd they were down with. They feature Jean Shrimpton, Susan Hampshire, Joanna Lumley, Roland Kirk, and, er, Michael Heseltine. Yes, that one.

Tom Wolsey was art director of Man About Town magazine and he gave Donovan one of his first big breaks working together with Don McCullin the much respected photojournalist whose images of war and urban strife portrayed a very different world to the leisured classes Donovan both observed and mixed with.

He wasn't completely isolated in an ivory tower of haute couture and beatnik bliss though. Whilst his colour works for Elle, Vogue, London Life, and Brides magazine raked in the cash his black and white photography hewed closer to McCullin's documentarian and realistic oeuvre. Strippers and self-confessed 'layabouts' aren't quite Biafra or the Vietnam War but they do point to a greater versatility than I'd previously been aware of.

He formed a close bond with fellow working-class-London-boy-made-good Vidal Sassoon and took the hairstylist's advertising shots from the sixties and beyond. Other fashion shoots made good use of unlikely locations. Here's Grove Road Power Station in St.John's Wood. It was demolished in 1973.

He was just as happy working in a grey Victoria Park or in the bleak evening light of Deptford as he was with the stars of the era. Contrast the power station above with the shots, below, of Jimi Hendrix, Cathy McGowan and Kenny Lynch, Sarah Miles, and Julie Christie.

Unlike some once the sixties were over he moved on. The seventies and eighties saw portraits of characters as disparate as Roald Dahl, Max Wall, Norman Wisdom, Ian Dury, Jimmy Greaves, Elvis Costello, and Henry Cooper.

Country Life, Harpers & Queen, Tatler, and Cosmopolitan all came calling. Princess Diana sat for Donovan four times and he adapted, seemingly and unsurprisingly with great enthusiasm, to the supermodel era. Both Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford posed for him.

He turned his hand to pop videos too. Malcolm McLaren's Madame Butterfly and Robert Palmer's Addicted to Love being his most widely recognised works in that genre. There's a very sexy picture of Vicky Ferda in the Park Lane Hotel, Piccadilly from that time and, perhaps a little less titillating for you, shots of both Donald Sinden and Kenneth Williams.

In 1996, for GQ magazine, he took the series National Anthems focusing attention on the musical heroes of the day. It turned out to be one of his last commissions and The Photographers' Gallery have a room devoted to his prints of Jarvis Cocker, Jazzie B, Sean Ryder, Terry Hall, Mark E Smith, Goldie, Lemmy, Wilko Johnson, and Underworld.

Terence Donovan's not responsible for the ongoing obsession with the sixties. He was, clearly, a man very much cut from the cloth of the era but he was talented enough to adapt and to continue at the top right up until his untimely demise.

The Photographers' Gallery show is a fitting reminder of a career cut short and a major talent to boot. Despite my earlier protestations I thoroughly enjoyed it.