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by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

August 2007 Archives

Most people have an easy, unthinking relationship with buildings. We gain entrance through the doors, walk the corridors, and sit ourselves down in the rooms. London-based artist Alex Hartley is different, preferring to climb up, over and around the buildings he encounters - a practice known as ‘buildering’ - naming each climb, describing it, and rating it for difficulty.

Evidence of his activity is plastered across the Fruitmarket Gallery’s frontage, in the form of Elevation 1:1, a photograph of the building on the building itself, complete with detailed instructions for eight climbing routes across the facade, and drawn white lines marking out each ascent. The descriptions reveal that, while Hartley is dead serious about his intimate explorations of exteriors, he also has a sense of humour, littering his texts with obscure jargon from the worlds of architecture and mountaineering to form a comic, and often oddly poetic builderer’s argot, first seen in his mock-serious guidebook, LA Climbs: Alternative Uses For Architecture.

Inside, after walking through Elevation 1:1 - ironically, one cannot follow Hartley’s lead up it, since his photograph has smoothed over the very lintels, mullions and window-ledges he used to gain purchase - are more documents of climbs around Scotland. These digital prints, drawings and photographs are of two types. The first sees Hartley in action, hanging on for dear life to the rounded, windowless walls of a crofter’s cottage, and effortlessly clambering onto a ledge overlooking the main hall of the shamefully derelict St. Peter’s Seminary at Cardross. The second type are more generous, open-ended evocations, with lines drawn on buildings which both track Hartley’s progress and suggest, like the instructional texts that dot the front of the gallery, that we too might attempt a climb.

Next come a series of photographic works encased behind satin-etched glass, which give a convincing illusion of three dimensional space. Installation (FMG) extends a room in the gallery, the glass a barrier to entering a space which is not there. Case Study recreates a modernist Californian house, the deep view of its interior seen through the windows negated by the sculpture’s thin, wedge shape.

It is hard to describe the effect that viewing these works has. One cannot help but pace restlessly around them, searching for the perfect viewing angle, frustrated that the images remain always out of focus, sometimes disappearing entirely. Some even prompt a physical response of a different, more powerful kind, a sort of giddiness or vertigo that makes looking at them at once uncomfortable and rather thrilling - feelings familiar, one imagines, to those felt by a builderer mid-climb.

Add to this photographs of more modernist homes glimpsed as a trespasser might see them, through dense foliage, and architectural reliefs of sinister doorless sci-fi structures looming from the surface of barren landscapes, and Hartley’s dissatisfaction with the standard understanding of the built environment becomes plain. And his attitude is infectious. On leaving the gallery, the buildings on Market Street have changed, becoming more than places to enter or admire, their features now a challenge to explore.

This review was first published in The Herald in August, 2007.

On leaving the National Gallery Complex on The Mound, you could be forgiven for thinking that this show’s rather grand subtitle - A Celebration of Life… and Death - is a misprint. It really ought to read A Celebration of Death… and Death, and Yet More Death.

Of course, much of Warhol’s work is explicitly concerned with death - the Death and Disaster series, the skull paintings, the Marylins made in the wake of the star’s demise, the Jackie Kennedy screen-prints that show her grieving for her assassinated husband - but here, that morbid streak is infectious, colouring works that are generally taken to be celebrations of life, chock full of optimism.

Take the Brillo boxes that open the show. Elsewhere, these replications of the ordinary can only be read as happy Pop evocations of democratic American sameness - ‘All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good’, as Warhol himself had it - but here mass production becomes analogous to the Cold War threat of mass death evoked in the late monochrome painting Map Of Eastern USSR Missile Bases, the repeated threat of a Pistol screen-print or the grim potential for death upon death of an empty electric chair. And, too, Warhol’s studied absence as an artist in his development of Duchamp’s readymades (unlike Fountain, which is a urinal upended, renamed and signed, the Brillo boxes are simply recreated, handmade readymades) is no longer a jolly, winking invitation to elevate the everday, but nothing less than an artistic suicide.

This might seem a wilful, even tenuous reversal of Warhol’s stated intent and long-accepted critical interpretation. If so, this show is to blame, thanks to a didactic tendency to divide Warhol’s legacy in two, pitting life against death to an extent that forces one to question the truth of that division.

For example, the catalogue essay insists that there is an optimistic twist to the skull paintings - which have an overwhelming, immersive room to themselves - since each skull casts a shadow in the shape of a baby’s head. If this is true (and, to be honest, it seems a bit of a stretch) the shadow baby is a glum little thing. Not a symbol of rebirth, but an acknowledgement that, from the moment of birth, we’re all hurtling towards the grave. And their irrepressibly jolly colour-schemes are no sign of acceptance, but a grim joke at life’s expense, just like Self-Portrait With Skull: platinum wig aside, it’s hard to see the difference between the man and the memento mori.

Even the Paintings For Children, hung low against fish wallpaper here, as they were when first exhibited in 1983 at a Zurich gallery, are deadly. Warhol did not paint animals or people for children, but clockwork toys; lifeless things with rictus grins, condemned to death each time their mechanisms wind down.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. One room is given over to Silver Clouds, an installation of reflective, helium-filled pillows, and, on my visit, full of toddlers gleefully ignoring the notice to interact ‘gently’ with the exhibit. Then, in the lower galleries, we are treated to a selection of Warhol’s early illustration work. There are glorious drawings of shoes and handbags using the ‘blotted-line’ technique that prefigures his later use of screen-printing, and line drawings of beautiful boys smacking their lips, too. But the next room will wipe the smile off your face. It contains vitrines piled high with the contents of Warhol’s boxes, time capsules full of ephemera explicitly destined for posthumous examination. As a record of Warhol’s daily existence these collections of fan letters, playbills and press cuttings are simply fascinating, but as works of art, these boxes must be read as an attempt to stall time, to cheat death.

And, with that thought, the room full of celebrity portraits upstairs is recast. Instead of celebrating beauty and fame, revelling in superficiality, they become another attempt to guard against the future and its inevitable end. So, Debbie Harry is preserved in aspic, not held up for admiration. And, conversely, Truman Capote is shown not as the the absurdly gorgeous, plump and pouting seducer that Warhol fell for in his youth, but sad-eyed and thin-lipped: another skull painting in all but name.

This is a wonderful show, then. Not just because it offers the chance to view works never before seen in Europe, let alone Scotland, and not just because it is beautifully put together, especially when it comes to the recreated installations, but because it will more than likely change the way you think about Warhol and his work, whether you end up agreeing with its central thesis or not. Considering the ubiquity of Warhol’s images, the never-ending stream of retrospectives devoted to his work, and the volumes of popular and academic criticism devoted to his legacy, this is no mean feat.

This review was first published in The Herald in August, 2007.

You’ll need your wits about you when you step into doggerfisher to take in Nathan Coley’s exhibition of new work. The Turner Prize nominee has marked the threshold with an oak beam, forcing the visitor to consider the very act of entering the gallery, and, on a more practical level, threatening to send them head over heels.

This is typical of Coley’s work. With a simple, restrained gesture, he neatly draws attention on an unconsidered relationship with the built environment, and the experience of gallery-going in particular, as if a liminal moment of anticipation has been made flesh.

It is also a human and humorous piece, qualities that Coley’s unerringly serious work sometimes lack, despite his tight focus on the physical, social and psychological relationships between people and places. The threshold is a pun of sorts - a recognition of some visitors’ fear that ‘difficult’ contemporary art might be out to trip them up - and, on a more visceral level, one can imagine a hapless caller stumbling over the thick oak beam in a flurry of silent slapstick, tumbling headlong into the next confrontational piece, Untitled (Barricade Sculpture).

Like the marked threshold, Coley’s barricade calls attention to space as much as it exists in space. It is not a lumpen authoratitive object, but an open, temporary one, almost fragile, made of slatted plywood panels on a timber frame. It is possible to see through it, but not to pass through it.

After this rather disquieting introduction come the Annihilated Confessions, a series of photographs of ornate confessionals, almost entirely obliterated by thick sprays of black or white paint. Coley might be concerned with making already private spaces so private that none may enter them, or secular denial of holy places, but, thanks to the heightened awareness of movement through space prompted by the threshold and barrier pieces, the first response to the Confessions is phsyical. It is impossible to ignore the irrational urge to lean to one side so as to peep behind the rough curtain of paint that obscures the confessionals, leading to an awkward dance with static images. By way of contrast, the shining fairground lights of Secular Icon in an Age of Moral Uncertainty offer a moment of still consideration, without ever revealing anything approaching meaning.

The ownership of spaces, be they public or private, is another key strand running through Coley’s practice and, with his usual economy, the status of the gallery is questioned by twin lightboxes. One, labelled ‘here’ is in the exhibition space, another labelled ‘there’ is placed inside the gallery office. To see them both is to acknowledge the barrier between the public and private spaces within the building, and to recognise the power relationship between passive, consuming visitors and active, providing gallerists.

Like all the works here, the two lightboxes reveal Coley to be in the business of observation and analysis, distillation and presentation. Nothing is wasted here, and each seemingly simple gesture unfolds into a web of ideas, matched by an almost oppressive set of physical manipulations. This might not be art for the heart, but it certainly engages both body and mind.

This review was first published in The Herald in August, 2007.

Black Box

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Black Box, the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s strand devoted to experimental moving images, operates under something of a misnomer. The name suggests that the big screens and black boxes of the cinema are divorced from, even opposed to, the small screens and white cubes of the art world. Its programme, though, eloquently shows that the divide between the two forms - film and, for want of a better term, video art - is at least semi-permeable, resting not on the work, but on the artist’s intent, the context in which it is shown, the audience that consumes it and the means by which it is distributed.

Of course, this being the EIFF, some of the work on show is purely cinematic. Phantom Love, a feature-length film by Nina Menkes, takes the viewer on an immersive trip through the fractured psyche of Lulu, a woman who, bored of the repetitive attentions of her young lover, allows her mind to empty and fill up again with half-memories and subconscious effluvia. What follows is a series of vignettes, in lavish black and white, that switch from the seedy glamour of hotel casinos to harrowing encounters with a woman who may be Lulu’s sister or her troubled, hidden self. Yet this is still a work at the intersection between art and film, with nods to Buñuel’s work with Dali, and, thanks to a snake slithering down a corridor, direct allusions to the overt, obvious dream symbolism of the Surrealists.

The waters get really muddy with In The Wake of a Deadad, in which Andrew Kötting travels the world with a huge inflatable dummy of his late, grinning father, blowing up the effigy at locations of particular resonance to dead dad and live son. The work is conceived as both a 65-monitor installation and the film shown here. The former must be a confusing affair, bombarding the audience with endless instances of Kötting’s hysterically Freudian erection of his father. In linear, projected form it is, for all its complex merging of performance work and psychogeographic investigation, and its no-budget look, a distinctly conventional film. By turns funny and touching, once the viewer accepts the unedited episodic nature of In The Wake of a Deadad it forms a narrative, complete with surprise plot twist, and paints a portrait of a family beyond Kötting’s awkward tribute to his father. Sure, its not exactly the stuff of a Saturday night at the multiplex, but the simple shift in presentational modes shows that ‘difficult’ video art can become ‘easy’ cinema.

To an extent, the reverse is true of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, now showing outwith Black Box at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. This is the dual-screen gallery version of Douglas Gordon and Phillipe Parreno’s cinema release, one of an edition of 17 that pairs the original film with raw footage from one of the cameras used to track the French international during a match between his club Real Madrid and Villareal. It’s an absorbing piece, which, as the two screens occasionally come together to display the same shot, calls to mind much of Gordon’s video work, with its recurring themes of doubling and doppelgängers. And, too, this version works as - to borrow from the jargon of the DVD extras menu - a ‘making of’, revealing the choices made in the edit suite, and the glossy sheen given to the washed-out rushes in post-production. It also raises questions about the distribution of artworks made of moving images: why is this work a hugely expensive, limited edition, when the film on which it is based was made available to anyone for the price of a cinema ticket? (A question that can be asked of many a ‘cinematic artist’, like Mathew Barney, whose masterly Cremaster Cycle is trapped in $100,000 DVD sets, or Glasgow-based documentary-maker/artist Luke Fowler, whose fluid filmic portraits can only be seen at gallery screenings, despite, arguably, belonging in the cinema.)

To return to Black Box, Beverly Hood’s piece Madame I not only questions modes of distribution but folds the means of viewing the work into the work itself. Telling the story of an anonymous patient in a neurological study who has lost her sense of proprioception - the awareness of the body in space - this short computer-animated film is designed to be viewed on a mobile ‘phone. And so Hood poetically evokes Madame I’s situation, a consciousness that has lost its moorings to the physical world, and forces us to look to our own disembodied existence as avatars virtually linked by the ever-present network through increasingly sophisticated mobile devices.

Is Hood’s work video art, a short film, or some as-yet-unnamed interactive experience? After taking in the work on show, or the films screened, at Black Box, such distinctions disappear, and this is the programme’s great strength: it not only gathers the best in moving images at the margins, but questions their very nature. Fascinating stuff, individually and collectively.

This review was first published in The Herald in August, 2007.

This was a significant year for the visual arts at the Edinburgh festivals. Joanne Brown was appointed as director of the Edinburgh Art Festival, with an ambitious remit to put the young festival at the heart of visual art practice in Scotland, putting the EAF on an equal footing with its sister festivals. Talking of which, this was also the year that saw the Edinburgh International Festival renew its lost focus on visual art, appointing Katrina Brown as its curator.

It is too early to gauge the impact of the two new posts, but one thing is certain: visual art is now at the heart of the festivals, with shows and events that garner as much attention as anything that the Fringe, Film or Book Festivals have to offer.

The hit of the summer was, of course, Warhol: A Celebration of Life… and Death, which announced itself with confidence, thanks to the transformation of Princes Street into an exhibition space for the Campbell’s soup cans that wrapped the National Gallery Complex’s columns. And confidence was needed. The more cynical among us let out a groan at the news that a Warhol retrospective was on its way. Such shows are hardly rare, and are rarely done well, but this one turned Warhol fatigue to its advantage, dashing low expectations thanks to the wonderful, eye-popping recreations of original installations, the coup of bringing together works never before seen in Europe, and a finely-judged tone that managed to both offer new insights to those who know the artist well and serve as a clear introduction to those experiencing his work in the flesh for the first time.

Across town at the Dean Gallery, the second flagship exhibit, Picasso on Paper was a relatively dry affair. In place of whizz-bang installations, we were treated to a serious, exhaustive survey of Picasso as draughtsman and experimental printmaker that, while it was slow to reveal its delights, nonetheless delighted. The same might be said of Richard Long: Walking And Marking, another deep survey of an artist’s practice. As at the Picasso, the National Gallery of Modern Art felt a little over-stuffed, with Long’s weaker, more explicitly sculptural work at times threatening to diminish the impact of the clean gestures of his central practice, which he began at the tail end of the ’60s with the still-breathtaking A Line Made By Walking. With the debut screening of the gallery version of Douglas Gordon and Phillipe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait rounding out the National Galleries contribution to the EAF, their input to the festival proved to be both broad and deep.

On the more contemporary front, Nathan Coley’s outing of new work at doggerfisher showed a lighter side to the Turner Prize nominee’s practice, with a witty threshold sculpture threatening to trip up unsuspecting visitors turning Coley’s investigations of public space into a distinctly physical experience. There was architectural interaction on offer at the Fruitmarket, too. Alex Hartley’s ‘buildering’ work saw the artist clambering over the buildings of Scotland and crafting disorientating trompe-l’œil interiors with blurred photographs and etched glass. A final highlight: the Ingleby Gallery’s quick-fire programme of artistic pairings, which saw Rachel Whiteread pitted against Robert Burns’ breakfast table, and the late photographer Francesca Woodman matched with the great sculptor Richard Serra’s early film work.

Not all was rosy at the EAF, of course. Picasso: Fired With Passion, a look at the artist’s ceramics, was an unworthy companion to the Dean show, and a flock of forgettable shows at the more staid galleries formed an uninspiring backdrop to the glittering exhibitions listed above.

The EIF’s Jardins Publics, a four-part exhibit of specially-commissioned public artworks, was, sadly, also firmly in the uninspiring camp. This was partly down to some of the work being sub-par. Michael Lin’s flowery platform in East Princes Street Gardens had the feel of well-meaning but ill-executed municipal project, and, while Apolonija Sustersic’s garden at Chessel’s Court was doubtless a boon to local residents, it had little to offer visitors. Richard Wright just about saved the day with the etched glass window he placed in St. George’s Well on the Water of Leith, which offered a meditative experience, and a genuine transformation of the surrounding landscape. Overall, though, Jardins Publics felt like a missed opportunity - its chief pleasure was the walk between the works, which could have been heightened by taking a cue from a project like The Grand Tour, the National Gallery in London’s August public project, which offered audio tours and a true emphasis on the city surrounding the art.

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An even damper squib, though, was this year’s Annuale. Launched four years, this was a festival offering a grassroots alternative to the big bucks internationalism of the EAF that by its third year had become a serious alternative event, and, importantly, a means for emerging Edinburgh artists to find a wider audience. This year, though, it was nigh on invisible, with nothing more than a poorly-designed pamphlet listing show titles and locations (some inaccurate) to guide gallery-goers. This organisational failure was made all the more galling by the fact that much of the work on show under the Annuale banner was of a high standard - Matthew Inglis’ curious boxed vignettes at Hyperground, Adam Maclean’s eccentric overview of alchemical symbolism at Embassy and the freewheeling, fantastic group show at Shangri-La-La in particular - and deserved to be seen. Hiding these lights under a bushel did artists and audience alike a disservice.

The reverse was true of The Comic Book Project, which could almost be seen as a festival in itself. Centred on the Collective Gallery, with a show that offered belly laughs to match anything at the Fringe thanks to Mel Brimfield’s feverish imagining of an affair between Barbara Streisand and Joseph Beuys, and Brian Dewan’s deadpan, not-very-educational slideshows, the project’s great strength was its injection of a dose of art into all four major festivals, with film screenings, theatre and talks and a publication. This forward-thinking, uniquely inclusive event ought to be taken as a template for future bridge-building between the festivals.

In the end, then, 2007 was a strong year for art in Edinburgh, and one that held the promise of stronger years yet to come, thanks to the EAF’s coming of age, The Comic Book Project’s innovative collaborations and the hope of the EIF engaging with the visual arts with greater success in future.

This review was first published in The Herald in August 2007.

In the run-up to its tenth anniversary, Ingleby Gallery is playing host to a rather hectic year-long programme of twenty-six installations, each one pairing a contemporary artist with something they have chosen, be it another artist’s work, an object or a concept.

The third installment of this inventive curatorial conceit, and the first of four that coincide with the Edinburgh Art Festival, consists of three works by Rachel Whiteread and Robert Burns’ breakfast table.

At first glance, it’s an odd pairing - what on earth does this curiously low folding table once used by Scotland’s favourite son have to do with the work of Rachel Whiteread? - but the more time one spends with Whiteread’s work and the piece of furniture she has chosen as a counterpoint, the more connections between the object and the art appear.

First, there is the matter of absences. Whiteread’s work is, on a simple level, all about that which is not there. Her sculptures, from the Turner Prize-winning House to Embankment, the 14,000 polythene boxes that filled the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2004, are all solid casts of spaces where something isn’t, so to speak.

Here, to match Burns’ table, Whiteread is showing Cushion, a plaster casting of the interior of the titular object set upon a steel chair frame. It is a sagging, soggy and soft thing, though it is made of a brittle substance, and it is attractive too, almost demanding to be pinched or squeezed, a fact recognised by the rather terse note on the exhibition handout forbidding any such contact.

In this context, sitting beside Whiteread’s transubstantiation, Burns’ little table is an eloquent object, one that tells of a series of absences. The first absence is, of course, Burns himself, but his work is also absent - this is not his writing table, after all - and so, too, are its owners, some of whom are listed on an engraved metal plaque set in the table’s top. That Burns and those who owned the table after him are as absent as is possible, all of them long dead, points to the morbid aspect of Whiteread’s work. This is most obvious in her series of casts of mortuary slabs, but equally present in her casts of domestic interiors, which commemorate the lives lived in them as much as they solidify negative space, and in early works, which had a distinctly nostalgic bent, with casts of the furniture that surrounded her as a child, and the space beneath her bed.

Even the fact that the table can be folded away seems apt: unfolded, it is solid like a Whiteread cast, but when folded it occupies one space, and offers the potential to occupy another, like the space a Whiteread cast describes.

The table might, too, be a meditation on fame, selected as a sort of autobiography by proxy. Unlike her fellow YBAs, Whiteread is famously uncomfortable with the fame her work has brought her, and, given her status, it is not inconceivable that, one day, someone will pay good money for some ephemeral, irrelevant object from Whiteread’s own home or studio. If so, the choice of Burns’ breakfast table can be seen as a pithy, even acid commentary on the essentially ludicrous importance attached to unimportant objects like this one, that bear the patina of celebrity, and are revered by association at the expense of the famous artist’s work.

In short, it seems as if Whiteread is using Burns’ breakfast table as a sort of critical object, a means to provoke a conversation about her practice as a whole, not just the works shown alongside it.

And so, if there is a problem with this exhibition, it is that Burns’ breakfast table is too eloquent and too loud, its silent commentary on Whiteread’s work threatening to overwhelm the work itself. The pair of works on paper in particular are coloured by the table’s presence. Both consist of photographs of interiors with sections removed, sometimes replaced by pencil lines. In Books, a teetering pile of volumes rests on a chair, while Open Door shows a door and its frame, the space between them removed. Here, thanks to the table, they feel more like preparatory sketches or new routes to understanding Whiteread’s sculptural work than complete pieces, as if the excised portions of the photographed rooms might exist elsewhere or in the future, as casts made of plaster, resin or concrete.

In the end, this is a remarkable show, much more than the sum of its parts. Just as Whiteread uses a seemingly simple tactic - the casting of objects and spaces - to make works that are, more often than not, awe-inspiring, so this quiet little collection speaks volumes.

This review was first published in The Herald on August 3rd, 2007.