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June 2008 Archives

There’s always something seductive about the Edinburgh College of Art degree show, with the grand sculpture court and airy, high-ceilinged studios - contrasting with the rather more cramped conditions at Glasgow or Dundee. This year, the new graduates have more than lived up to their surroundings, many producing work of a standard not usually seen from students.

Kevin Harman’s work has already made headlines, after the police took interest in his piece Love Thy Neighbour. Harman nicked 200 doormats from the burghers of Broughton, leaving a note advising householders to ask the folk next door about their disappearance, later explaining that the mats had been appropriated in the name of art.

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Photo by scottishchris

This might sound like student high-jinks, but the prompting of neighbourly conversations suggests a serious purpose behind an apparent prank.

Katherine Ive investigates the emotional content of property, too, offering a moving essay on grief in the form of a sturdy brick wall, bashed through to reveal leaking - or weeping - pipes. Less easy to read is Michael Brown, building the top third of a church, which has landed in the gallery accompanied by an empty greatcoat, one arm pointing ominously. There are buildings everywhere in fact, from Mark Purves’s smooth, Pepto-Bismol pink logs, stacked beside plans for a cabin; to pebble-dashed wooden palettes by Liam Richardson, a flatpack evocation of suburbia. Other sculptors take a turn for the sinister. Emily Snell drizzles thick white goo through the plug-hole of a hospital gurney, planting bronze casts of her teeth in the resulting mess, while Gwenda Thompson Marchesi presents a life-sized donkey being pulled by unseen forces into a mirror, the illustration of a grisly fairy tale.

At Edinburgh, the word tapestry has lost its traditional meaning, and now seems to be a command issued to students to do whatever the hell they like. Just so long as it’s not tapestry.

Anna Robbins makes rather sickly work with food, allowing ice to melt through the toes of a stocking on to a perfect disc of white flour, cooking up a milk jelly and placing it over a heater, and setting dough to rise on a table. There’s something strangely nostalgic about these pieces, and very sad. This is not the norm here, though, with most graduates of the tapestry department displaying irreverent wit or a taste for childlike wonder.

Joanne Sykes has laid a precise trail of red pencils, which snakes its way past her peers’ installations. It’s hard to tell whether this is a generous gesture, proudly guiding visitors to the work of others, or something altogether more aggressive. Joanne Smithers’s wearable sculptures include a motorbike helmet with a huge animal horn, and a pair of horse legs, hinting at a new sport that’s unlikely to catch on. Michael A C Jackson’s box of tricks is a delight: he has come up with a Heath Robinson contraption that, when a ballbearing is dropped into a slot, plays a dolorous little tune.

A contrariness seems to have afflicted the painters too, with many of the best avoiding painting altogether. Alice Ladenburg has invented a satirical new world, complete with its own pantheon of secular saints. Tourists in this invented land can visit a religious retreat (it’s a shed, with stained-glass windows) or splurge on tea towels, mugs and commemorative plates at the gift shop.

Nika Kupyrova’s world is less welcoming, with furniture smashed up, reconfigured and laid next to grubby tanks full of liquids of unknown origin.

The painters who actually do paint and draw are strong, too. Stephanie Straine has done a wonderfully ordered, minimalist wall drawing, full of restraint. Antonia Gallacher has collected pebbles, arranging them in museum-like vitrines, replacing some with precise, pseudo-scientific sketches. Morag Macdonald, meanwhile, restricts herself to geometric forms, or simple cross-hatching, laboriously building up finicky fields of lines.

Charlie Billingham goes in for a complex fusion of art historical tropes and imagery appropriated from advertising and packaging. He takes on the guise of Warhol’s screenprinted Elvis, mounted on a hoarding outside the ECA building, glibly reworks a packet of Love Hearts to read “Love Hurts”, and offers a new washing powder, Abstrakte Kunst Concentrate.

Steven Harrison also displays an ambivalence toward high and low culture alike in his text-based paintings, piling up apparently unrelated words, listing stock phrases, and inviting viewers to accept his winking interpretation of a rubbish, Magritte-referencing painting of a lemon, delivered in uproariously florid art-speak.

There’s some strong stuff on show here, then, and, while it’s not a competition, Edinburgh’s new crop of artists this year seem to have the edge over their peers at the other Scottish schools.

Last month’s degree show at Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone college was dominated by animals, with fur and feathers flying everywhere. Down in Glasgow, a good number of this year’s School of Art graduates seem to have been thinking with their stomachs, using food in sculptures, installations and performances.

One of the highlights of the show is Rose Hughes-Jones’s hanging sculpture, made from a dense tangle of pyramid-shaped bags, impregnated with honey, which slowly drips on to the studio floor, forming a gooey little slick. Off to the side, a perfectly smooth pool of honey is bounded by a ring of fur. Besides being a beautiful, meditative piece, it also makes use of the one sense that artists rarely seek to engage, smell - the scent is so thick you can almost taste it.

Thankfully, this is not yet the case with the work of Gary Bolam. He has sewn strips of desiccated ham together and hung them over a portable plug-hole, presented the liver of an unidentified animal on a rough-hewn plinth, and, in a curiously moving piece, placed a dead fly on a greasy slick of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. A video in which Bolam toys with another dead insect adds a dark note to the skewed humour.

Erik Smith’s work is, by comparison, almost earnest, using snacks as raw materials to craft a sort of edible minimalism: grapes are strung precisely on a wire bisecting his studio space, pizza boxes are neatly stacked in a corner and knobbly cheese-flavoured crisps are piled into towers.

Like Hughes-Jones, Penny Rafferty makes use of honey, but this time in what looks to have been a rather violent performance, which left great smears of black paint and honey, applied with strips of fabric across the studio walls. Helen Tubriddy’s has an air of violence, too, but the results are more controlled, with a tangle of umbrellas and picture frames broken down and reassembled to form a spindly infestation, accompanied by smashed, smeared eggs and balloons filled with yolk.

These last two point to another strong trend this year for immersive, unrestrained installations, which often threaten to escape the bounds of their allotted space. Laura Yuile has fashioned one of the best of these complete environments. In a crazed update to Baroque excess, she has piled up great waves of tape torn from video cassettes, fashioned dense forms from interlocking kirby grips and made lurid collages from the pages of bodybuilding magazines.

Hazel Donaldson takes a more soothing tack with her beach installation. A steep sand dune and projected waves hidden by a gauzy curtain, and visitors are invited to take off their shoes and play. Laura McConnachie’s tiny foil figures, lit by rainbow lamps, at first seem similarly welcoming, but there’s an undercurrent of threat - the shadows cast by the figures have claws. The work of Ronja Svaneborg, whose installation displays an unusual breadth of practice, has a sinister edge, too, matching lightbulbs sheathed in leatherette with a ball of sticking plasters and a chair, its seat reduced to wood shavings.

Carolyn Barrett does not quite fit the tendency toward cohesive constructions, but her sculptures work together to foster an uneasy atmosphere - low, vaguely medical seating suggests some unpleasant procedure, matched by a stool tethered to the wall and buttressed with a steel rod.

Frances Walker bridges the gap between the graduates seeking to overwhelm their audience, and those who work with more economy. Walker has hung long rolls of translucent paper from the ceiling, unfurling across the floor, smeared the walls with a sickly green paste, and wrapped strip lights in DayGlo green paper. From a distance, it seems slight, but up close, it reveals Walker’s gift for combining elements in a way that fosters connections between them.

The same might be said of Caroline Gallagher, who makes taut, restrained sculptures, lifting materials from the builders yard. One piece sees a section of steel mesh, cut, bent and adorned with a tied strip of yellow lacing, another consists of a squat stack of gently striated concrete blocks, a third is nothing more than a metal pole pushing a folded piece of foam into a corner.

John McLaren goes a little further, but again uses restraint in his investigations into everyday materials, connecting a wall-mounted wooden frame to a gently curved metal grille with bungee cords, and weaving frayed shoelaces around a black bamboo stick leant against the wall. Nicola Nisbet’s chosen material is water, liquid and solid - she has made a memento mori in the form of frozen casts of a skull and flowers, and used melting ice and paint to make sculpture-paintings, leaving behind drips of black and white on her studio walls.

Next come the artists whose work is rooted in environments, be they natural, built or social. Cassandra Baron’s work is perhaps the simplest on show, but among the most affecting, consisting of an open entranceway, leading on to a claustrophobic corridor which culminates in the dead end of a sharp corner - a concise investigation of our relationship to architecture and interiors. Ric Warren occupies similar territory, with a large-scale model of three homes merged into one, with a foam-clad flattened section offering comfy seating for visitors. This welcoming sofa of the suburbs is undercut with another model home, this time bobbing half-submerged in the sea of the gallery floor. Natalie Lambert has engaged with the fabric of the Mackintosh building itself, building kinetic columns into a stairwell, which would look like original features, if they weren’t moving.

Keith Allen is rather more boisterous, cobbling together a temporary social club, complete with mildewed camping equipment, a dart board and oche, the latter emblazoned with the crude, mystifying slogan, “Dae ye want to see ma dugs dance?”.

Last, the painters. Louise Chang’s circular collaged works stand out, with their dense layers of paint, as do Richard Oscar Godfrey’s naive paintings of bleeding limbs and masked figures. Claire Paterson’s huge canvases, portraying arcane rituals augmented by cryptic symbols, and Lucy Macdonald’s queasily psychedelic portraits of weeping women are also strong. Those four aside, precious few painters make their mark, and fewer photographers still.

This makes for a decidedly lopsided show, leaning heavily towards sculptural work and installation, but the graduates working in those fields show enough verve more than to make up for the lacklustre performance of some of their peers.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 13th July, 2008.

In a break from its usual programme, which tends to include showings of new work by gallery artists and like-minded contemporaries, the Modern Institute is showing a collection of pieces by Ferdinand Kriwet, the pioneering multimedia artist and poet, best known for his ‘Bild-Ton-Collage’, or sound-picture-collages, matching a set of new pieces with a focussed retrospective, sampling the Dusseldorf-born artist’s activity in the 1960s.

The show opens with the seminal Apollovision, an attempt to fuse together the media sources Kriwet encountered on a trip to the US during the hubbub surrounding the Appollo 11 mission to the moon. Grainy television footage is cut and pasted together, paired with a soundtrack of radio broadcasts, sometimes allowed to flow, at other times cut down to single repeated words and looped announcements, to mesmeric effect.

Kriwet does not limit himself to sounds and images of the Apollo 11 mission, though, also homing in on the advertising slogans of broadcast sponsors (including, neatly enough, Brillo, a brand immortalised by Andy Warhol some five years earlier), allows the relentlessly American Superman through his filter and overlays recorded images with boldface single-word inter-titles, flashed up for just a split second: GAS, LSD, LAW, ORDER, VIET, and so on. The repeated compère’s introduction of Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew and the Apollo astronauts to some celebratory function sees Kriwet complete a complex picture of the moon landing as glorious scientific adventure, all-American hero worship, and advertising-laden capitalist propaganda victory.

It is this combination of the absorption and presentation of mass media with pointed commentary that allows Kriwet’s work to seem absolutely current, even if he is documenting a moment in history, and even if his techniques have been used before and since. William Burroughs extended his literary cut-up and fold-in experiments to tape, adding a veneer of hokey mysticism to the combination of existing texts and randomly inserted recordings, John Oswald’s plunderphonic manglings of hit songs might come laden with theory but remain a one-note joke, like the more recent micro-editing efforts of Cassetteboy, and Double Dee and Steinski’s feverish Lessons in the musical heritage of early hip-hop are confined to a single musical scene. Kriwet stands out from these fellow media collage artists not just for being a pioneer of the form, inspiring those that followed, but because his efforts seem to form a complete, coherent essay offering a genuine understanding of a period of past time. Those text overlay’s might hover dangerously close to agitprop, but Kriwet keeps a cool head, engaged in a genuine attempt, like David Bowie’s Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth, to absorb the welter of images, sounds and texts transmitted over the airwaves.

The merger of the political, populist and commercial continues in a pair of works from 1968, both titled Textsign. Both are stamped in aluminum, their circular texts highlighted in red on a green background, with the look of shop signs or advertising hoardings, and both contain sets of ellided words, fusing celebrities with allied or unexpected concepts, new coinages that prompt dense sets of images. ‘Marlonesome’ fuses Brando with Elvis, retrospectively doubling the fame-inspired reclusive nature of both men. ‘Robertarzan’ does a similar job on RFK and the King of the Apes. The more cryptic texts - ‘Hemancipate’, ‘Jungleleisure’, ‘Mentalamode’ - seem in hindsight to presage the absurd attempts of today’s advertisers and political pollsters to slice and dice demographic groups, from Soccer Moms to Fifty Quid Blokes.

The ten prints that make up Rundscheiben - literally, Round Discs - are not so easy to read. Each one is like a little big bang, with letters, words and phrases spinning out from an empty core. A bid to disrupt the usually linear progress of writing, these are not quite concrete poems (the circular display of words does not seem to enhance their meaning) but build a rhythm through juxtaposition, as in the print which lays meaningless syllables - ‘Stot, kin, tin…’ - around lengthy, complex compound nouns.

Kriwet changes tack with the recent series Trans-Script. While still working with language and text, his focus seems to have shifted even further towards the means of transmission, in this case the book. Three museum-like cabinets are set in the centre of the Modern Institute’s main gallery space, each bearing ‘book objects’, open for perusal, but under glass. Beneath the exposed editions are more of the same, but boxed and placed with some reverence on a set of shelves, accompanied by a stern warning that visitors should not touch them. Instead, the books - perfect bound, with rather lavish interleaves protecting each Xerox-copied page of often illegible text formations - can be read on a set of video monitors hung on the opposite wall. This is no interactive installation to flick through, though, with Kriwet testing the viewer’s patience by screening each page of each book in turn, including those blank transparent leaves. It’s a strangely fetishistic installation, the complex, almost unfriendly archival presentation serving to shift focus away from the content of the books, offering them up instead as artifacts to be considered. The presence of texts mediated via digital media hints that Kriwet might be considering the future of the book as a medium, a dystopian future where books are not objects from which an individual can glean knowledge, but relics to be studied at one remove, scanned and displayed on screens.

By way of contrast, a much more generous 1967 work hangs beside the Trans-script display. This ‘poem painting’ has white text in a friendly serif display font set against a black background, the letters butting right up against the frame, as if the work has been cut from a longer dialogue. As it is, the poem consists of a single word: Du. After the cool, stand-offish installation that dominates the room, this short welcome comes as something of a relief.

This is a concise show of just eight works, then, but it is just as satisfying as any full retrospective, offering a snapshot of Kriwet’s 1960s work, while revealing the breadth of his ongoing practice, from the early, influential multimedia collage experimentation of Appollovision to the fusion of print and digital media of the Trans-script installation.

This review was first published in The Herald on June 6th, 2008.

Artes Mundi 2008

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Artes Mundi is an unusual creature. It is a biennial exhibit for Cardiff, but with an emphasis on education projects and gaining as wide an audience as possible in place of the more usual, hermetically sealed, art-world shindig. It is, too, a contemporary art prize, offering a weighty £40,000 to the winner, that takes an unusual approach to selection. Two curators - this year Portugal’s Isabel Carlos and Bisi Silva, based in Lagos, Nig-eria - go on a global search for artists with solid reputations on home turf who are beginning to emerge on the international scene, and who make work that, in one way or another, addresses the human condition.

On paper, that last criterion looks awfully vague. But it might be the secret of Artes Mundi’s success, providing enough of a framework to guide the curators while granting them the freedom to make their mark, bringing issues and themes into focus and grouping together artists working towards allied goals.

For this, the third incarnation of Artes Mundi, Carlos and Silva have done a good job of sharpening up their broad brief, collecting artists who take a poetic, often ambiguous, approach to the political.

The show opens with Lida Abdul, an Afghan-born artist who left the country of her birth after the Soviet invasion in 1978 and returned some two decades later intent on examining the place and culture she had left behind. In the film What We Saw upon Awakening, a gang of black-clad young men heave and strain at white ropes attached to a ruined building, performing an invented ritual that is at once futile and hopeful.

Brick Sellers of Kabul takes another sideways look at reconstruction, filming a long queue of little boys, lining up to exchange bricks they have salvaged for cash. Filmed in a fugue-like, languid style, with largely silent soundtracks, these pieces are at once impenetrable - the purpose of these ceremonies is never clear - and incisive, condemning the destruction of a nation while codifying the resilience of its people.

Abdul’s work seems, in this context, akin to Source, a video piece by the Dundee-based duo Dalziel + Scullion, in which a child moves through a landscape, directly experiencing his surroundings with all five senses. It is undeniably political, even polemical, asking us to reconsider the position of the human in the world - but one that never hectors, simply offering the sensuous and sensual inspection of an environment as an alternative mode of being.

Susan Norrie takes a more direct look at man and his environment, documenting and responding to the impact of a torrent of molten mud unleashed by an oil drilling outfit in East Java. A bank of monitors screen documentary footage - of the mud, protest marches and tangential reactions, including a punk gig - while a more meditative piece shows a man climbing a mountain, holding a baby goat that is never sacrificed.

N S Harsha - who took the Artes Mundi Prize last month - leavens his work with a healthy does of humour. A new series of paintings, Come Give Us a Speech, shows hundreds of figures seated on plastic chairs, listening intently, perhaps for the viewer’s reaction to the work.

All human life is here, with artists, historical figures and deities seated alongside anonymous representatives of every race and creed. It’s a thoroughly charming piece, and one that cheekily subverts a slightly sugary call for global harmony.

On the floor, Harsha has painted a site-specific work in which headless schoolchildren are bombarded with representations of famous monuments and questions culled from textbooks. It’s a surface to be played on and enjoyed that offers a barbed comment on the way we drag children around museums, whether they like it or not.

Abdoulaye Konate stands out thanks to a more agit-prop approach to his political concerns. His large-scale works in fabric - a material chosen as representative of Konate’s native Mali, as well as for practical reasons when he found himself unable to buy paint - are not always subtle. Le Dos a l’Aame sees three shrouded figures emblazoned with symbols - the Star of David, a cross, the Statue of Liberty - one of whom is carrying a bundle of firewood tied up in the Chinese flag. More effective, and affecting, are such pieces as Homage aux Chausseurs du Mande, its surface covered in a dense patchwork of cultural artefacts and talismans, and Gris-gris Blancs, in which Konate has reinvented those talismans using a restricted palette and repeated forms to render them universal.

Rosangela Renno, the first of two Portuguese artists on the shortlist, uses found materials of a very different kind, re-presenting photographs or reworking newspaper reports. In Esphelho Diario, the artist takes on the role of 133 other Rosangelas, narrating tales culled from the tabloids arbitrarily connected by a name. Elsewhere, Renno takes slide photographs of crime scenes and arranges them on lightboxes, robbing them of any sensational thrill.

While Renno offers cool meta-analysis, Vasco Araujo’s work at times verges on the lurid, matching statuettes bought at junk shops with texts on incest by the Marquis de Sade - a disturbing juxtaposition of suburban tedium with sexual violence. He also works in a quietly lyrical mode, filming a girl playing with bones in an old sanatorium, or asking vicars to discuss community and individuality with reference to Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.

Last but definitely not least comes Mircea Cantor. Born in Romania and now based in France, Cantor uses different media to create arguably the best examples of the subtly political thread that binds the Artes Mundi artists together.

Diamond Corn is a sublime crystal sculpture of a staple crop, mounted on a plain cardboard box. In the film Deerparture, a wolf and a deer pace the floor of an empty gallery in a permanent state of uneasy truce. Add to this silent footage a flag slowly burning on its pole and a triptych of photographs of desire lines, the human routes forged in defiance of planners’ straight paths, and Cantor’s work begins to offer a deliberately non-specific look at national identity, the individual’s relationship to the state and the uneasy ebb and flow of globalised politics.

Though he did not win the prize, it is hard not to see Cantor’s installation as Artes Mundi’s centrepiece this year. His unforced, carefully considered, reductive approach is as open as the exhibition’s theme and, more than any of his peers here, he makes an oblique approach work, letting the audience explore his allegories without ever stooping to lecture.

This review was first published in The Herald on May 30th, 2008.