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October 2007 Archives

For the first time in 23 years, the Turner Prize Show has slipped its moorings and sailed up to Liverpool from London. By happy accident, this year’s nominees, Zarina Bhimji, Nathan Coley, Mike Nelson and Mark Wallinger, all deal in themes that, right now, suit Liverpool to a tee. Though their approaches are very different, each of the four explore the politics of spaces and places, and the way in which history, architecture and environment work together to affect and define us. Stand outside Tate Liverpool on the Albert Dock, looking toward the city, and the view resonates with the installations inside. The Liver Building is to the left, the Anglican Cathedral off in the distance, and in between a gaggle of cranes work to regenerate the river-front, slotting nondescript towers into the skyline. It’s a rich view, brimming with Victorian civic pride, haunted by ghosts of Empire and the slave trade, topped with unfettered progress for good or ill, and serving to turn the Turner Prize show from a grubby competition into a group show anchored in time and place.

Step into the gallery, though, and highfalutin ideas prompted by the setting begin to fade. You might think that the show would rise to the occasion and make the most of Tate Liverpool, perhaps spreading across two floors, giving the four nominees plenty of room to breathe - there’s nothing a Northern city likes more than showing the Southerners how its done, after all. But no, the show is squeezed into a corner of the fourth floor, an airless, clammy and claustrophobic space. This too, though, seems rather apt - the sense of impending disappointment raised by the cramped installation matches local expectations for the reason behind the Turner Prize show’s move, Liverpool Capital of European Culture 2008, a project beset by administrative teething troubles that is limbering up to be a distinctly damp squib.

More than any of his peers, Mike Nelson stands up to the constraints of the space offered to him. This is a surprise. Nelson is best known for big, meandering installations that weave splintered narratives, blurring the lines between his work and the spaces it occupies. Here at the Tate, though, he’s conjured up Amnesiac Shrine, a tight, concise installation that opens and closes with two near-identical campfire sculptures, crafted from charred sticks and flames of plastic. In between is a maze of sorts. Four cubes stretch from floor to ceiling, each with an untidy peep-hole bashed into one corner. Inside, the cubes are hollow, piled up with dunes of sand, the interior walls mirrored to form an infinite desert landscape, overlooked, thanks to the mirrors, by the viewer’s own blinking eye. It is hard to resist flitting from one to the other in a bid to uncover previously unseen subtleties. This to-and-fro makes it easy to become disorientated, confidently striding out of the exit, only to find it’s the entrance. The piece has a back-story, too. In the mid-90s, Nelson invented a mythical gang of Gulf War veterans, the Amnesiacs, with whom he ‘collaborated’ on a series of works. While the resurrection of the Amnesiacs fleshes out the narrative of the Shrine, it doesn’t feel central to the piece - visitors create their own story, and suffer amnesia of their own, lost inside the installation.

The same cannot be said of Mark Wallinger’s Sleeper, a film, more than two hours long, which shows the artist, dressed as a bear, spending a few nights hanging about in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie. It’s quite funny (men dressed as bears always are) but without the explanatory note that outlines Wallinger’s concerns, which include the ‘sleeper’ spies of the Cold War, an appropriation of Berlin’s bear emblem by a foreign visitor, and a satirical undermining of Mies van der Rohe’s stripped down Modernist building, we’re left with a faintly amusing diversion. And, once informed of Wallinger’s aims, the work hardly improves, with interlocking concepts floating over the work, not part of it. Like State Britain, his reconstruction of anti-war protester Brian Haw’s banners and signs, for which he earned his Prize nomination, Wallinger’s Sleeper is a slight work, easily shrugged off, and no amount of curatorial justification can change that.

Nathan Coley, on the other hand, makes dense, complex work that can speak for itself. His room is blocked at both ends by two threshold sculptures, oak beams that hinder the gallery-goer’s progress. When last seen at Coley’s solo show at doggerfisher, the threshold sculpture was slight and sly, a quiet suggestion to consider the space between spaces. Here, he’s beefed up the beams, so that they shout out an announcement that visitors are entering his gallery, an oddly aggressive gesture, undermined rather by the gallery attendants constant requests that visitors mind their step. There Will Be No Miracles Here, first seen on the Isle of Bute, is also transformed by this new context. The weak glow of the sculpture’s gaudy fairground lights have taken on a deflated, sad air, offering a wry commentary on the Turner Prize competition, alongside the piece’s existing associations. (The text is clipped from a 17h Century proclamation that ends ‘…by order of the King’, a curious clash between church and state). Hope and Glory is another text made flesh, this time applying the patriotic English song to a model of a lowly terraced house, signs of its making still present on the surface, in stark contrast to the heavy metal plinth on which it sits. This is a distinctly ambiguous, ambivalent piece, and Coley, with typical economy, invites the viewer to tease out possible meaning - is it a denial of jingoistic bluster, or a tribute to honest patriotic feeling? Both, and a lot more besides.

Finally, Zarina Bhimji’s photographs explore scenes of conflict in East Africa, hinting at horrors unseen. Illegal Sleep shows rifles leaning against a wall, and it takes a moment for their pleasing arrangement to fade, their true purpose becoming clear. Similarly, it is the childish drawings scratched into the wall seen in Echo that draw the eye, only for a graffito that echoes Coley’s work hoves into view: ‘The man which come from Congo should be killed by the order of the army’. Bhimji’s film Waiting closes the show, and here she turns away from conflict to closely examine a single place, a Sisal processing factory. The camera pans slowly, lovingly, over dillapidated corridors, drying machines, and dusty cobwebs, never quite revealing the building’s purpose, revelling instead in its atmosphere.

So, who will win, and who should? For some reason, Wallinger is seen as a dead cert by bookies and critics alike, but compared to the other three, his work is weak, insubstantial and eminently forgettable. Just like last year’s winner, Tomma Abts. If the public had a vote, and the prize was judged on this exhibition (they don’t and it isn’t) Mike Nelson would be a shoe-in: on my visit, the Amnesiac Shrine was met with squeals of delight and vigourous debate, with visitors lingering longest in his space. Nelson, who, like Wallinger has been nominated before, would be a deserving winner. And so would Coley and Bhimji. Though their reputations in the art world haven’t reached the giddy heights of Nelson and Wallinger, both have forged rich practices, and it is their installations that linger in the memory, offering much to mull over after leaving the gallery.

Whoever takes the prize on December 3rd, the show is well worth the trip South. For once, it has the feel of a true group exhibition, with deep connections between the four selected artists, all in a city that suits them well.

This review was first published in The Herald on October 26th, 2007.

The Brittania Panopticon is a building with a long and storied history. It began life as an anonymous warehouse - no one is quite sure when - before architects Thomas Gildard and HM McFarlane transformed it into a music hall in 1857, adding the familiar facade and, inside, a proscenium arch and tightly packed stalls.

The transformations continued apace, with the advent of moving pictures in the late 1890s, and, once impresario AE Pickard took over, a programme that added freak shows, waxworks, the amateur talent contests that saw Stan Laurel make his stage debut, and even a zoo to the playbills.

Its name has changed over the years too, from the rather unimaginative Campbell’s Music Saloon to the gloriously euphonious Hubner’s Animatograph, not forgetting its current nickname, the Pots and Pans.

And, though the music hall closed its doors in 1938, as the appeal of music hall faded, the building continues to entertain, with its lower floors home to a bustling arcade, and the crumbling auditorium playing host to performances and screenings arranged by the volunteers of the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall Trust.

The latest chapter of the Panopticon story comes courtesy of artist Minty Donald, whose Glimmers In Limbo project directly addresses the building’s past, present and future, examining and interpreting its varied uses, and the decaying fabric of the music hall, too.

She has responded with a set of ‘interventions’, each as layered as the palimpsest of the Panopticon.

‘It was daunting at first,’ Donald admits, explaining the genesis of her project, ‘and really hard to know how much to do. It’s such a busy space, with such a lot going on - the displays of the building’s history, the decay upstairs, the arcade downstairs. I felt uncomfortable doing to much.’

This unwillingness to overstep the mark has resulted in a series of installations, performances and projections that share an air of understated eloquence.

Against the rear wall of the auditorium sits Shoebox Archive, 600 white shoeboxes piled up in stacks. Some contain artefacts Donald found in the building - everything from rusty safety pins to scraps of celluloid - and, when opened by visitors, light up to reveal their contents. Others are empty, and visitors are invited to leave artefacts of their own. ‘I’m trying to get people to really engage with the space,’ Donald explains, ‘and the piece is also a sort of memorial to the space, which at one point was a shoe warehouse.’

Donald has also engaged with the Panopticon’s faded exterior. From the street below, passers-by will be treated to projected animations, turning the upper windows into a giant fruit machine. ‘Instead of fruit,’ Donald says, ‘letters spin in the windows, sometimes they resolve into words, sometimes they don’t.’ Like the shoebox installation, Facade Fruit Machine is packed with allusions to past and present alike, the letterforms based on signage that has adorned the building over the years, the rolling drums a nod to the arcade that occupies the ground floor. That too has been transformed, with photographs of the dilapidated architecture inside, inaccessible to the public, displayed like estate agent’s particulars in the arcade window.

The heart of the show, though, is a performance, and the traces it leaves. Last night twelve singers performed accompanied by a pianola, its reels made according to piano arrangements by Giles Lamb of Savalas. For the remainder of the show, recordings of the event will play out, with selected lyrics projected onto the hall’s walls, an installation which Donald calls ‘a ghost of a performance’. ‘I’m not trying to recreate the old-time music hall,’ she says, ‘so all the songs were chosen as a personal response to the building. Some fit perfectly: the Orange Juice song Wan Light has the line, “There is a place which no one has seen, where it’s still possible to dream.”.’

That combination of personal response and unexpected resonance seems key to Donald’s work, which looks beyond the specific history of the Panopticon. Glimmers In Limbo is part of an ongoing research project, with a second stage due to interact with another Glasgow building with a rich heritage and uncertain future, the Tramway. ‘I’m interested in asking questions about the goals of site-specific projects,’ Donald explains, ‘and about the spaces people are deeply invested in, looking at the built environment in terms of memories and emotions, not just bricks and mortar.’ Interaction and involvement are, too, central to the project. ‘It’s really important to me that people participate,’ Donald says, ‘We can keep writing histories, and rewriting them, even falsifying them.’

The result of this deep thinking about places and spaces, and the way artists can respond to and transform them, has rejuvenated the Britannia Panopticon, and looks set to draw in a new audience, an effect that will last beyond the end of Glimmers In Limbo’s run. It seems fitting that, given time, Donald’s careful, thought-provoking work will become another story, another memory attached to the Britannia Panopticon.

This preview was first published in The Herald on October 19th, 2007.

When confronted with a Turner Prize nomination, with all the attendant attention, and the prospect of going head to head in competition with their fellows, some artists shy away. Not so Nathan Coley. ‘I found it quite easy to say yes,’ he says, taking a break from installing his work at Tate Liverpool, ‘because it’s an accolade, because some really great artists have been nominated in the past - it’s good to be associated with that level of work - and, honestly, because it brings a huge audience to my work. And, in terms of the work that I’m making, I feel that it’s a good time to be shortlisted.’

On that last point, Coley is dead right. Not that his recent work has reached a new plateau, or eclipsed his past practice, instead he is at a stage in his career when past pieces and present projects seem to be gelling together, revealing resonances, some surprising.

This is apt. Coley’s sculptural objects and installations are, more often than not, deceptively simple, marked out by a tendency to develop slowly, disclosing new layers of meaning, long after the viewer first encounters them.

‘With individual pieces of work,’ Coley explains, ‘I neither seek to steal the show, nor am I interested in one-liners. My intention is for the work to have a number of ideas, a number of references.’

A good example, both of this deceptive simplicity and the increasing interconnections between his work, could be found at Coley’s recent outing at doggerfisher. Untitled (Threshold Sculpture), a slim beam of wood that blocked the entrance to the gallery, forced visitors to take care in stepping over it on their way into the space. ‘You can look at that work a being just a piece of wood on the floor,’ Coley explains, ‘maybe in the context of minimalism, but then you start thinking about the whole notion of the space you’re entering and the space you’re leaving, and then, it’s made of oak, which has a particular spiritual history and is, architecturally, used and loved by Modernists.’

Coley also sees the piece - which formally has little connection to works that have gone before - as closely linked to the work which first drew wide attention to his practice, a reconstruction of the witness box at the Lockerbie trials, made when he was ‘unofficial artist’ at the Hague: ‘It’s about the control of space, a demarcation of space, even though there’s no resemblance. Both come from my interest in how we show who we are through the architecture of our spaces.’

This talk of an innate connection between a block of oak and a witness box might make Coley sound like an arch conceptualist, with little interest in the physical manifestations of his ideas, but nothing could be further from the truth.

‘It’s a nice contradiction,’ he admits, ‘On the one hand I’m a person who makes objects, but I don’t think of that being the centre of the work. The object is somehow a mechanism to make the idea come to life.’

Indeed, he is close to incensed by references in the press to his piece We Must Cultivate Our Garden, the last line of Voltaire’s novel Candide illuminated and installed atop a building on St. Andrew’s Square in Edinburgh, being made of neon. ‘I took a lot of time and energy not making them neon!’, he says, ‘Neon has a long history in contemporary art, but I wanted to find something that had common or folk associations, so the light-bulbs are fairground light-bulbs, which means that the gravitas of the text is contradicted by the “circus is coming to town” feel of the piece, so you have one of the masters of the Enlightenment meeting the fairground and the football pitch.’

That installation, and his best-known work, Lamp of Sacrifice, 286 Places of Worship in Edinburgh - anonymous cardboard sculptures of every church listed in the Edinburgh Yellow Pages - point to a trait Coley shares with his fellow nominees, especially Mark Wallinger and Zarina Bhimji: an avowedly political bent.

‘Some people see a work like Lamp of Sacrifice as a celebration of faith,’ Coley says, ‘but for me it’s the absolute opposite. With We Must Cultivate Our Garden, that last line has been discussed at great length as being anti-church, anti-royalty and as being a call to arms for self-determination. So it’s no accident it’s on St. Andrew’s Square, named after this supposed saint of this supposed religion, Christianity.’

As for the big question - who will take the Prize? - Coley is sanguine. ‘The shortlisting is the thing that I’m excited about, not least because I have great respect for the other three who are shortlisted,’ he says, ‘The winning or the losing is a whole other thing, to do with the personal taste of the judges, to do with things that are outwith my control.’

This interview was first published in The Herald on October 12th, 2007.

Feral Kingdom at CCA

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As soon as you enter the CCA’s foyer, the promised ‘sensory overload’ of Feral Kingdom begins, thanks to a great big mural by E*Rock and Zeloot. It is - and this is putting it as kindly as possible - not very good. Face after face is piled up in day-glo orange and biro blue, from freckled and fresh-faced schoolboys to gummy aliens and most points in-between. The style is probably best described as tweenage exercise book doodle meets cack-handed graffiti, but this isn’t some exploration or appropriation of juvenile folk art, it is simply poor drawing, hoping desperately to raise its game through overwhelming repetition.

Next comes a flurry of work by Zeloot and Jelle Crama. Crama is based in Antwerp, Zeloot in The Hague, and going by the selection of silkscreen posters and record sleeves tacked to a pillar here, both are designers of choice for their respective cities’ cooler gig promoters and labels. Both lean heavily on 1960s, San Francisco-centred countercultural psychedelia of the sort defined by American illustrators and artists like Rick Griffin and Stanley “Mouse” Miller, with nods to the underground comics movement. Their adoption of the old acid drenched standards - wavy female figures, vaguely scatological imagery - is tempered by a contemporary illustration style that will doubtless mark out the first decade of the 21st Century for future audiences as immediately as the groovy hippie look works as a visual shorthand for the late ’60s, complete with angled geometric lettering that, being hastily hand-drawn, is granted a rather louche looseness. The pair have obviously done their homework, fully absorbing the style of their psychedelic forbears, but the hip new twist feels forced, unlike, interestingly, some of the wigged-out noise groups their poster works promote.

On to CCA 2, which houses work by Dr. Lakra, an artist and tattooist based in Xoaxaca, Mexico. He presents a huge mural, spanning the length of the gallery wall, and, like Zeloot and Jelle Crama, wears his influences on his sleeve. Cartoonists the Hernandez Bros. loom large, and there are shades of Daniel Clowes, too, with a dash of Japanese Manga thrown in for good measure. Unlike his co-exhibitors, Dr. Lakra’s work isn’t so much informed by other artists, instead he simply apes their style. The content, meanwhile, is a witless litany of supposedly shocking schlock imagery - orgasmic porn actresses brush up against glowering super-villains, and bewigged 18th Century judges chow down on a cooked human corpse, overlooked by an Eastern god. Of course, this might all be underpinned by a raised eyebrow, but if Dr. Lakra’s joke is to present ham-fisted renderings of glib subject matter, it isn’t particularly funny. Nor are his drawings, which see him take images of dolly birds and pin-up girls from dubious magazines, adding incongruous tattoos. It’s a step up from idly doodling glasses and moustaches on magazine covers, I suppose, but only just. Other works return to the tired shock tactics and derivative drawing of the wall piece, with more pin-ups, drooling African artefacts, and tattoo-style pieces combining in a yawn of hoped-for controversy.

After that, the mediocre work in CCA 3 comes as a relief. Baldvin Ringstead’s installation features a working Theremin surrounded by paintings, mostly religious, in which every detail has been excised except for the figure’s hands. Do you see? Ringstead is matching an instrument that produces ethereal, other-worldly sounds when you wave your hands over it to images of ghostly hands suspended in the ether. Very clever. DJ and style mag fashion photographer Mathew Stone fares better in his collaboration with performance artist The-O. On a large screen a male figure is projected reclining on the floor naked, in a vaguely Christ-like pose, and covered with glitter. After a time, the glitter slowly rushes upward, a downfall in reverse. It’s a lyrical, rather beautiful image, unencumbered by much in the way of meaning.

Lastly, there’s Lolly Batty, whose sculptural work is peppered throughout the gallery. Her inclusion here is a bit of a mystery, lacking as it does the cod-psychedelic or vaguely underground sheen of the rest. Her pieces are also, surprisingly in this context, really rather good. Each is a pristinely symmetrical form with a pristine white surface, and look like the physical manifestations of arcane mathematical formulae, which, though they are laboriously hand-crafted from polystyrene blocks, might have been made for an unknown purpose in some gleaming hi-tech factory.

That might sound like admiration for a ‘real’ artist in the midst of disdain for designers, illustrators and tattooists, but the problem with this exhibit is not the wide net it casts across artforms, the problem is the dismal quality of most of the work. In the end, it is puzzling how the show came to be. Did no one notice that the work being gathered together was so poor? Perhaps it is intended as a sort of insurance policy for the CCA: however flawed a future show might be, visitors will at least be able to say, ‘At least this isn’t as bad as Feral Kingdom’.

This review was first published in The Herald on October 8th, 2007.