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October 2008 Archives

Matthew Smith

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Matthew Smith makes art out of everyday things. He buys duvets and rolls them up tight, or arranges them on specially-constructed wooden stands, takes records from his collection and tears off the front cover art, hunts down back issues of the NME, scribbling over the newsprint, and bleaches the colour out of pyjama tops before carefully folding them. Once, he put a nectarine on the floor of a gallery.

Many readers will, I imagine, be raising their eyebrows at that list of Smith’s past efforts, and, walking through the door of Mary Mary to be confronted by a spoon plonked on top of a piece of chipboard, that was my reaction too. But, after spending a bit of time with Smith’s assemblies of commonplace, terribly mundane items, some of which he’s altered, but only a little bit, they turn out to be nothing short of engrossing in their attempt to reconfigure the status of familiar objects, and rework ideas from past art movements in lowly materials.

The fact that Smith doesn’t appear to be doing very much with those materials ends up working in his favour, too. That piece of laminated chipboard, the sort of thing you see left out for the bin men after some cheap self-assembly shelving has collapsed under its own weight, is propped up on one edge, and the wooden spoon has been balanced perfectly on top, and the arrangement looks so precarious that you’re afraid to tread too heavily on the gallery floor, in case the whole thing comes crashing down. This forces a careful inspection of the piece, which reveals a lot of little mysteries. It’s clear that Smith has deliberately drizzled latex into the bowl of the spoon and along its handle, but did he make the seven marker pen lines on the reverse side of the chipboard slat, or affix the shreds of packing tape stuck to it? It’s impossible to tell, but the closer one looks at the piece, the more its two parts fade into the background, losing their meaning, or any symbolism, and becoming constituent elements of a sculptural work, relating to the space around them.

In the next room, there are more chipboard panels, and they prompt a similar process of recognition, inspection, forgetting and revelation. This time, there are seven boards balanced on top of each other, again precariously, one of which is a slightly different shade of off-white to the others. The surfaces are marked with more packing tape, and little drizzles of red resin, including a perfect little circle, which, from another artist might be taken as a cheeky reference to the red dots that mark works as sold. This time, once Smith’s choice of material has faded, the piece looks to be following in the footsteps of Donald Judd’s rigourously spaced stacks of pristinely constructed metal forms.

Some of the pieces here don’t even trouble the viewer with the status of their components - there are two works made of folded towels, some coloured, some bleached, that are immediately apparent as minimalist exercises examining colour and form.

Smith changes tack when he groups together a folded futon mattress, a wooden spoon, and a concrete cast of a wooden spoon. Smith is hardly the first artist to make casts of domestic objects, of course. But, where Rachel Whiteread presents negative space full of emotional resonance, or Bruce Nauman, casting the empty spaces beneath his chair back in the ’60s (a work later reprised by Whiteread), asks where space begins and ends, Smith doesn’t seem to be interested in big questions, or prompting associations, or even in the object he chooses to cast. To put it another way, Smith hasn’t made a little monument to spoons, he’s made a thing out of concrete, just as he’d rather we cast off any thoughts we might have about mattresses, or towels, or cheap furniture and focus instead on the formal associations between these objects.

There is a sense that Smith is trying to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his deconstruction and decontextualisation of familiar objects. The titles he chooses suggests he’s more than aware of this. One of the towel pieces is called Second Design For A Window, implying that the work might have been made from anything, or sketched on paper, but the futon and spoons assembly is dubbed Some Afternoons, returning the viewer to the domestic sphere from which the objects were taken and, supposedly, stripped of meaning. Too tricksy? Perhaps, but there’s something satisfying, or pleasantly frustrating, in the way Smith refuses to be pinned down, which matches the way he denies any attempt to find meaning in the apparently meaningful objects he arranges and adapts, only to remind us of that meaning.

This month also marks Mary Mary’s foray into publishing, with books by Karla Black and Lorna Macintyre, the first in what gallery director Hannah Robinson hopes to become an annual series of publications by artists on her roster. This is a good move. Few fans of contemporary art can afford to buy work, even by emerging artists, and artists books offer a chance to own and collect pieces by the artists they admire without breaking the bank. Black’s large format book Mistakes Made Away From Home offers a survey of the past three years of her practice, with installation views and close-ups of her room-sized abstract sculptural pieces, which marry together sheets of cellophane, polythene and paper with hand cream, petroleum jelly and make-up. There’s a freewheeling essay, too, which opens with a tongue-in-cheek assessment of Carla Bruni’s taste in handbags, slips into a discussion of third wave feminism, and ends with Black’s manifesto for making art. Macintyre takes a very different approach. Instead of cataloguing past exhibits, her Fourteen Drawings is a set of new works, making up a book that is a work in itself. Each page contains an a photograph created without a camera. Rather than following the deliberate placing of objects on photographic paper pioneered by Man Ray and Lee Miller, Macintyre folds, tears and crumples the paper itself, making two dimensional records of three dimensional sculptures born of chance gestures. Beautifully printed and bound, both books bear up to repeated viewings, and while they’re no match for encountering Black and Macintyre’s works in the flesh, they’re certainly desirable objects in their own right.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 24th October, 2008.

Monica Sosnowska

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As you walk down Robertson Street in the city centre, between the pawnbrokers on the corner and the office block that houses The Modern Institute, there’s a scrappy plot of land on the right. It’s been empty and fenced off for years and years, the sign promising imminent redevelopment failing to deliver while weeds grow, and passers by use it as a great big litter bin.

Now, it looks like a construction company has finally sprung into action on the disused site. Foundations have been struck, concrete has been poured, and two huge steel beams, seven metres tall cast a shadow over the building site.


That’s probably what the new activity looks like to a passer by glancing over their shoulder, at least, but the metal and concrete forms are part of a new sculpture by Monica Sosnowska. A closer look reveals that, though the materials are authentic, there’s something not quite right about this structure. For one thing, the ground around it hasn’t been cleared, and there’s no sign of the usual scaffolding. For another, you don’t need to know much about the construction industry to guess that plonking two girders into a pile of concrete probably isn’t the best or safest way to make a start on a tower block.

There’s something funny about the scale of the piece, too. For all its imposing heft, the thing looks like a model for something much larger, thanks to a sort of pathway shaped into the side of the rounded-off pyramid of concrete at the base of the piece which.

Sosnowska isn’t building, then, she’s borrowing forms from the building trade and doing away with their usual function. To what end? I’m not sure. Towers are usually optimistic things, and they often result in unintended consequences, from Babel to the Le Corbusier-inspired social housing of post-war Britain, and Sosnowska’s edifice, reaching up the heavens only to be abandoned midway through its making, certainly fits that pattern. More prosaically, the piece seems prescient - given the current economic climate, it isn’t hard to imagine unfinished buildings becoming a familiar sight.

This ambiguity is typical of Sosnowska’s work, which began with an interest in the standardised reconstruction of her native Poland after World War II, and now takes a more general investigative approach to buildings, in terms of the forms they take, the stuff they are made of, and their capacity to trigger intellectual and emotional responses. Sometimes, these investigations are little short of aggressive. Late last year, Sosnowska filled the upper floor of Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice gallery with strips of industrial rubber sheeting that hung densely from the ceiling, treating visitors brave enough to enter the work to a claustrophobic, confusing journey through the space. The last time she exhibited at The Modern Institute, back in 2004, the gallery was filled with a strange, roving tube-like structure finished in municipal brown paint and dotted with small entranceways, which forced viewers to find routes through and around it. In the Polish Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Bienale, her work 1:1 was a huge model of a building’s skeleton, forced into too small a space, and buckling under its own weight.

Inside the gallery Grill is a continuation of the themes explored in these past works, an architectural feature that runs amok. At its centre, there’s a perfectly functional, rather pretty security grill set into a window frame. But it has gone to seed, sprouting a tangle of intersecting steel wire tendrils that thrust out into space, embedding themselves into the floor, walls and ceiling. Like those rubber strips at Talbot Rice, or the large scale installation that once graced this gallery, Grill is an infestation, something that is growing out of control in the room, making the space worse than useless - to reach the sheets of paper listing the works on show, visitors have to gingerly step over and duck under the work. This is a fairly unpleasant experience, and a fraught one - the piece is a valuable work of art, after all, not something you want to trip on or bash into - but Grill is also a beautiful piece. That conflict is at the heart of this strand of Sosnowska’s practice, which she has described as ‘anti-architecture’: her work does everything that architecture shouldn’t do, making spaces that are aesthetically pleasing but that lack function or function actively against the people that inhabit them. This is more than a d├ętournement of architectural language, it’s a critique of architectural failure, a prickly satire of the Modernist experiment, the Utopian vision which, diluted and misunderstood, resulted in grim housing schemes and crumbling prefabs, structures that worked on the drawing board but failed on site.

For all that, Sosnowska shows a fondness for the materials and structures that she appropriates, questions and satirises. The last two works here are small, controlled, less obviously site-specific, and far from aggressive. On a window ledge L Profile is a tiny three-pronged sculpture modelled after a device used in construction to control the right angles of a building. One of its edges is irregular, as if it has been teased apart, impossibly, by human hands, a suggestion reinforced by the presences of the small, shaped blobs of metal that lie beside it. A reminder, perhaps, that, for all the organic, uncontrolled nature of Grill, it has been precisely designed and built. Beside the entrance to the gallery sits Crates with Concrete, a group of three plastic crates that have been filled up with lumpy concrete. These are studies in the properties of two materials, to be looked at and appreciated, and they make no attempt to control the space around them. And there’s even a little joke embedded in the work: the crates bear the logo of the Barr brand, which inevitably calls to mind the Irn Bru slogan, ‘made in Scotland from girders’.

These quiet works may operate on a different level to the aborted building site outside in the street, or the uncomfortable reconfiguration of space offered by a work like Grill, but they further what seems to be Sosnowska’s main aim, to prompt her audience into considering architecture in new ways, questioning its purpose and examining its effects. She succeeds at this. After seeing this show, you won’t look at the buildings around you in the same way again.

Monica Sosnowska is at The Modern Institute until 8th November.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 17th October , 2008.

Video art with a capital ‘V doesn’t really exist any more. The video camera is just another tool in the artist’s kit, and the monitor or projector are as at home in the gallery as good old paintings and sculptures.

By the 1970s, the medium was maturing - pioneers Nam Jun Paik and Fred Forest first taped and screened footage shot on Sony Rovers, the first portable recording devices that allowed for instant playback and easy editing, in the middle 1960s - but still in a state of flux, with artists feeling their way around the new medium, making work video art about video, and the possibilities it offers the artist.


Mick Hartney’s Orange Free State opens with the camera roving over a tableau of oranges in bowls set on a table covered in an artfully arranged white sheet, borrowing from a C├ęzanne still life. Hartney tests the viewer’s patience, repeatedly panning his camera over the scene to a syrupy Debussy soundtrack, only to focus in on a monitor set up in the studio, which is showing the footage just seen, including the moment when the action shifts from the studio to the monitor, leaving us watching a video inside a video inside a video. Next, a young black woman takes a place at the table, and begins to peel and segment an orange while delivering a short spiel offering unconventional investment advice. ‘If you have no social conscience,’ she says, ‘you can invest in South Africa. If you are downright anti-social, you can invest in art.’. This time, the camera can’t keep still, and images of the young woman are intercut, layered and repeated. In the third an final section, the woman undergoes an interview in which a disembodied, patronising voice, male and presumably white, dismisses her protests that she has ‘done the work’ by speaking her words and peeling the orange, insisting that ‘the orange and the words are not the work, watching the the orange and hearing the words are the work.’ There is, too, a pretty confusing discussion of when the events shown have happened - are they in the actors’ present, the edit suite’s past, or the viewer’s future?

On paper, this discussion of the work’s means of production, race, gender and South African boycott politics, all filtered through self-conscious use of tricksy effects and repetitive editing might read as terribly dated, but Hartney’s enthusiastic analysis of video as a medium, paired with his weighty, densely layered political content, is little short of breathtaking - video might be old hat now, but Orange Free State is nothing of the sort.

Chris Meigh-Andrews’ Distracted Driver is, compared to Orange Free State, a simple, meditative piece. The familiar screeches of Bernard Herrmann’s score for the shower scene from Psycho are matched to grainy, blurred footage shot through the windscreen of a moving car. As the music fades, the car’s passenger embarks on a lengthy retelling of the film’s plot, stumbling over the details. Bored Driver might have been a better title. The motorist, who occasionally interrupts, sounds decidedly nonplussed, replying, when finally asked if he has seen ‘Hitchcock’s best movie’, with a curt ‘No’. On screen, Meigh-Andrews uses rudimentary processing effects to colour the over-saturated image, shifting from blue to purple to red, with street lamps, the driver’s hands on the wheel and the occasional pedestrian picked out in glimmering highlights. The result is a piece of anti-Hitchcock anti-cinema: instead of being caught up in the action, manipulated by the director, and distracted by a MacGuffin, the viewer shares in the subjective experience of the poor, bored driver, the shifting colours hinting at a bid to avoid falling asleep at the wheel.

Simpler still, Stephen Partridge’s installation is a single shot of a small monitor screened on the monitor itself, resulting in an endless repeat of the shot feeding back on itself, a visual equivalent of Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room. It’s a simple experiment, testing out what happens when you point a camera at a screen showing the camera’s output, and feels more like an instructional essay on the technical potential of video, as if Partridge is working towards a formal language of video.

Next door in doggerfisher’s small second gallery space, there’s a loop of works by David Hall and Ian Breakwell. The most remarkable thing about these pieces is that they were shown on commercial television. Hall’s advert break-length TV pieces were screened on Scottish Television in 1971, appearing unannounced, with no explanation, designed as ‘interruptions’ to the regular flow of programmes. His shots of a telly burning in a field, or a tap filling the screen with water must’ve come as quite a shock. Breakwell’s Continuous Diary, a series of 21 pieces were doubtless quite at home on the Channel 4 of old, but it now seems inconceivable that an artist would be given a slot in which to combine mundane observations of an artist’s daily life, a psychogeographical tour of London’s East End and a searing attack on the treatment of wounded soldiers returning from the Falklands war. It really is a shame that there’s no longer any room for this type of experimental programming between the endless repeats of imported comedy and increasingly cynical reality television.

The hint of nostalgia offered by Breakwell and Hall’s television pieces doesn’t, however, dominate this selection from the archives of REWIND, the University of Dundee’s video art research and preservation project. Instead, the steady, deliberate experimentation seen in much of the work on show, and the sense of excitement these artists must have felt while striking out into new terriotory is infectious. The medium might now be a familiar one, but, over the two hours it takes to watch Video from the 70s and 80s, viewers are given the chance to experience video as it once was, a new, even shocking, format for artists to explore.

Video from the 70s and 80s is at doggerfisher, Edinburgh until 25th October.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 10th October, 2008.

This year, the Turner Prize show makes a lot of sense. This makes a change from the more usual cobbled-together feel, with four artists who have little in common bar their nomination gathered so that the public can assess them in advance of the judging panel’s decision.

The tie that binds Runa Islam, Mark Leckey, Goshka Macuga and Cathy Wilkes is a common interest in making art about art, and the way it is made. They all do this in very different ways, but the underlying theme of artists exploring, researching and revising the work of other artists, the art form in which they work, or, in Wilkes’s case, her own life and practice, makes this feel less like a parade of artists lining up for a cash prize, more like a group show, and a satisfying one at that.

Of the four, Macuga makes the most explicit art about art. Known for quoting from other artists, and for her interest in the way in which art is collected, curated, archived and exhibited, Macuga’s focus here is on two couples, personal and professional. She is showing a trio of sculptures that recreate designs by Lilly Reich, first seen in the German Pavilion of the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition. These cool, stand-offish industrial structures in smoked glass and steel must have packed more of a punch when Macuga exhibited them earlier this year in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, a building designed by Reich’s partner, Mies van der Rohe, but her bid to reassess Reich still stands, thanks to the pieces’ rather pointed titles, Haus der Frau and Deutches Volk - Deutches Arbeit. Macuga’s new pieces for this show are collaged combinations of photographic prints by British modernist Paul Nash, paper cutouts by his partner Eileen Agar, and other ephemera, all culled from the Tate’s own archives.

A snap of Agar in a swimming costume is layered over a Nash photograph of some tree trunks, and a Nash snap of a cliff top is enhanced with an anatomical drawing of a hand pointing down from the heavens from Agar’s collection - posthumous collaborations enforced by Macuga that are oddly convincing, suggesting an alternate history of a particular corner of British art history.

Mark Leckey mines the past, too, but his tactics are more personal, more subjective. His Cinema-in-the-Round is a film of a lecture Leckey has been giving, and revising, for the past two years, a roving, often funny look at the artworks and films that Leckey is drawn to, and the relationship between objects and images, quoting Marx one minute and Homer Simpson the next. Made in ‘Eaven trains a camera on Jeff Koons’s highly-polished steel sculpture Rabbit, which reflects a mirror on the wall of Leckey’s studio, which in turn reflects the materials he gathered while researching the work. It’s a dizzyingly self-reflexive trick, at once commenting on the vacuous sheen of Koons’s piece, and Leckey’s attraction to it.

Self-reflexivity is the cornerstone of Runa Islam’s film works. Cinematography sees a motion-controlled camera slowly panning around the workshop of motion-control expert Harry Harrison, with a soundtrack made up of the clicks and whirrs of the camera apparatus. You’d never guess, but the camera is tracing out the letters of the word “cinematography”. For First Day of Spring, Islam returned to her native Bangladesh, and paid rickshaw drivers to rest, working as actors playing themselves. Again, the camera pans slowly, exchanging an establishing shot for close-ups on the drivers’ faces, but the sudden, unscripted interruption of a passer-by, who looks straight into the camera, reminds us that this is as much a film about documentary film-making as it is a documentary. If all that sounds too clever by half, Islam’s work is saved by being simply beautiful, and by its presentation in carefully-designed, dimly-lit screening rooms - watching them, enjoying the images presented, is enough, with the theoretical underpinnings of each film the cherry on the cake.

After these three, Cathy Wilkes comes as something of a relief. Her work is immediate, affecting and deeply personal. Rather than mining some obscure corner of art history, Wilkes looks to her own life, assembling large-scale installations from everyday elements. Set on top of two supermarket checkout units, there are bowls full of dried soup. On the floor, empty jars with batteries placed inside them. There’s a shop mannequin perched on a toilet and festooned with rusty horseshoes, a tea cup and other detritus. A second mannequin is trapped inside a birdcage and draped in sliced up tea-towels. In part a diary of domestic life, in part a feminist critique expressed in juxtapositions with a surrealist bent, Wilkes’s work works because it is, first and foremost, sculptural. Those dirty bowls are aligned with perfect precision, a pair of jam jars mirror each other, the placement of the squat heaps of roof tiles, each painted with a cross motif, fizzes with tension. And, when that cross motif reappears, this time made of spoons and wadding, it comes, inexplicably, as a genuine shock. There is, too, something deeply satisfying in the way that Wilkes borrows from her own work, slowly developing a grammar of allied objects over many years - there’s a pushchair here that offers a reminder of a 2004 installation in a disused Glasgow hairdresser’s, the tiny whelk shells that peppered a recent show at the Modern Institute have been replaced here by flower petals, the heart motif of a flat, rubbery sculpture is rendered in pink, not yellow as it has been in the past. These subtle repetitions, revisions and removals are, admittedly, only apparent to viewers familiar with Wilkes’s past work, but there’s no doubt that fresh eyes would see that Wilkes has thought deeply about the objects she gathers together, and the relationships between them, even if the reasons behind the choices she makes remain a mystery.

So, who will win? Mark Leckey has been hotly tipped since the shortlist was announced, but he’s not a dead cert like Mark Wallinger, who took the prize last year. There’s no obvious stand-out, either, and none of the artists look out of their depth. Were it up to me, I’d have a hard time choosing between Runa Islam and Cathy Wilkes. Both have developed complex, layered and weighty ways of working, but neither of them, unlike Leckey and Macuga, has slipped over the line into making rather dry, academic work. The result is film and sculpture that makes you think, and think hard, but, more than that, Islam and Wilkes make the sort of stuff that sticks in the mind for reasons it is impossible to explain away in a curatorial note, operating, for all its sophistication, at a gut level, appealing to the viewers’ eyes and instincts. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Islam and Wilkes are better artists than their peers here, but it does make it possible to fall in love with their work, rather than admiring its wit, rigour and sophistication.

The Turner Prize 2008 is at Tate Britain, London, until January 18.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 3rd October , 2008.