Laura Ford Venice Biennale Sean Lynch herman de vries Katerina Gregos Song Dong George Barber Fragile? Mike Perry ISSN 2053-6887 9 772053 688016
flora 2015 - 2016 flora.orieldavies.org
Arddangosfa a thaith addysg flora ar draws Cymru: flora exhibition and education tour across Wales: Oriel Myrddin, Caerfyrddin / Carmarthen 19 Medi / September - 31 Hydref / October 2015 Comisiwn flora commission, Anne-Mie Melis Hydref / Autumn 2016 orielmyrddingallery.co.uk, 01267 222775 Oriel Plas Glyn-y-Weddw, Pwllheli 20 Mawrth / March - 15 Mai / May 2016 oriel.org.uk, 01758 740763 Canolfan y Celfyddydau Aberystwyth Arts Centre 12 Gorffennaf / July - 17 Medi / September 2016 aberystwythartscentre.co.uk, 01970 623232
Dau breswyliad flora i artistiaid: Two flora artist residencies: Gardd Fotaneg Genedlaethol Cymru, Sir Caerfyrddin National Botanic Garden of Wales, Carmarthenshire Hydref / October 2015 – Chwefror / February 2016 gardenofwales.org.uk, 01558 667149 Canolfan y Celfyddydau Llantarnam Grange Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre, Cwmbrân 16 Ionawr / January – 12 Mawrth / March 2016 lgac.org.uk, 01633 483321
Image: Ori Gersht, Time After Time (08), 2007, courtesy the artist Mae flora yn Arddangosfa Deithiol Genedlaethol sy’n cael ei churadu gan Oriel Davies a’i chefnogi gan Gyngor Celfyddydau Cymru. Mae rhaglen i ysgolion, Allgymorth ar Daith flora yn cael ei chefnogi gan Ymddiriedolaeth Ernest Cook. flora is a National Touring Exhibition curated by Oriel Davies and supported by Arts Council of Wales. The flora Outreach on Tour schools programme is supported by the Ernest Cook Trust.
carwyn evans gwlith/dew 4 september - 3 october 2015
sue williams TOUCHY 8 - 31 october 2015
23 windsor place cardiff cf10 3by +44 29 2034 5978 | gallery-ten.co.uk
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– The Editor– Migration, territories and barriers are all over the news at the moment, as is the question of who can do what, where. This issue is a celebration of creative people pushing at boundaries, asking uncomfortable questions and often coming up with enlightening observations, or solutions. That’s really what makes art so powerful and why, when the contexts for art-making and presentation are threatened by politicians using ‘austerity’ as a catch-all excuse for curtailing creative output, there is an outcry. We’ve been lucky enough to meet some people who are willing to push at received ideas, or to point up the flaws in the status quo in creatively engaging ways. It’s access to this kind of thinking, expounded in language that hooks the intellect and prompts small but important shifts in our world view, which maintains a productive tension between authority and the individual. Events like the Venice Biennale create a comprehensive platform for artists to share sometimes contradictory perspectives. This year’s biennale, themed as All the World’s Futures, curated by Okwui Enwezor was no exception and we make no apologies for the
fact that this issue is dominated by Venice, as we continue in our quest to find out how artists think, or how they make us question the world around us. But we’re also interested in artists and curators who push at creative barriers too, and you’ll find risk-taking sculpture, textiles, ceramics and video in this very juicy issue. In fact we had so much material that you’ll find it spilling over to our website too, where you can also find reviews, previews, listings and links to our back catalogue, and (ahem) our subscription offers. Our undying gratitude goes out to everyone who collaborated with us so enthusiastically, some going way above and beyond the call of duty, but all generous with their time and in sharing their ideas. And, as always, I am misty eyed as I thank the small, but determined CCQ team, who have worked so hard to bring you these pages.
Editor: Emma Geliot Deputy Editor: Ric Bower Design, Editorial Assistance, Sales: Rhiannon Lowe Editorial Assistant: Francesca Donovan Sub Editor: David Sinden Design Consultancy: Height Studio Web Development: Glass Mountain CCQ Magazine Chapter Market House Market Road Cardiff CF5 1QE 029 20398510 ccqmagazine.com @CCQmag Distribution Central Books, 0845 4589911 Editor email@example.com Deputy Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
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Cover: Chattering Girl II, Laura Ford, 2015 Photo: Felix Wendover
—Contributors— Robert Harding Robert Harding is a sculptor and art researcher who has been associated with the Art College in Carmarthen for over 30 years. His research concerns in the past have included Art & Utility, Public Sculpture, and Art & Play. Since being approached by the Henry Moore Foundation in 2008 to help understand the foundry that Moore established in his garden in the early 1950s, he has begun to research the numerous post-war sculptors who also set up experimental foundries. Robert visits the High Temperature Festival in Wroclaw, Poland and gives us his account on artistic experimentation with fire (p86). roberthardingartist.com
Richard Bowers Richard Bowers is an artist working with mixed media, with a strong emphasis on audio and moving image. Recent works such as In Slower Motion – an installation incorporating video and automated percussion – have been encompassed within his overarching exploration of the imagery of cinema, The Velvet Lantern. Richard shares his love of video practice in an interview with George Barber on p22.
Catherine Roche Catherine Roche is an artist and lecturer in fine art at Carmarthen School of Art. She is also a freelance writer based in Cardiff and has contributed to various publications including Ceramic Review, Ceramics: Art and Perception, New Ceramics, Sync Tank and a-n News. On p70 Catherine gives us her take on Fragile?, the major ceramic exhibition at the National Museum Wales, Cardiff. Joeleen Lynch Joeleen Lynch is an Independent curator and gallerist currently working for the year of Irish Design 2015 (ID2015) based in Dublin. With experience working and curating for public art galleries, commercial galleries, pop up exhibitions and heritage sites, she has represented organisations such as the Eden Project, National Trust and the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland. Her curatorial practice explores contemporary art, historical and environmentally significant sites, while thinking of sustainability for our future world. Joeleen responds to Luke Jerram’s work for Trust New Art in Bristol on p84. joeleenlynch.flavours.me
Francesca Donovan Francesca Donovan is an arts journalist who recently completed a masters degree from the School of Journalism at Cardiff University. Since moving to Cardiff last September, Francesca has immersed herself in the South Wales arts, blogging as THE ART DIFFerential. She has recently joined CCQ as writer and editorial assistant. Francesca speaks to the artists in residence at St Fagans National History Museum, discovering how venturing out of the studio can spur on the creative process (p78). ccqmagazine.com
Tara McInerney Tara M usually features in our corrections section, due to CCQ’s inability to spell her name. However, we are pleased to have her feature as a contributor this issue. Unbeknown to us, she has a longstanding fascination with circuses – particularly the more acrobatic, anthropocentric kind. To be invited by NoFit State to witness on-site preparations for Bianco seemed nothing short of a childhood dream come true for her. See her drawing on p92 & 93, and online at ccqmagazine.com taramcinerney.com
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21st Century Gothic Horace Walpole’s fantasy house in a quiet London suburb has some unexpected tenants as Laura Ford’s sculptures take up residence
When Consciousness Jumps George Barber’s videos offer narrative within the framework of popular culture and audiences with an increasingly short attention span
Adventure Capitalist From bicycle monuments to factory machinery at the bottom of the sea, Sean Lynch weaves together the flow of narrative through disparate materials in his solo show, Adventure: Capital for the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
Cordon Sanitaire Sammy Baloji, examines the complex legacy of colonialism in his powerful and thought-provoking work at the Venice Biennale
i am here, i am this herman de vries, bares more than his soul at the Venice Biennale as he examines the complex relationship between humankind and nature
From the Blood Song Dong invites Venice Biennale visitors to remove (and eat) his installation and reveal themselves in the process. The Beijing-based artist photographs himself for CCQ
Opening Up CCQ tackles Art Brussels and the Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in an unusual collaboration across two cities and 17 contributing artist/curators, and a chicken
Something Rich and Strange Mike Perry finds beauty in an unlikely place as his photographic project Môr Plastig (Plastic Sea) reveals the transformative power of the sea on everyday detritus
Four artists share their responses to a residency at the St Fagans National History Museum
Dark and Beautiful Ruth Harries challenges the traditional view of textiles in a series of works that combine stitch, found objects and multiple layers of meaning — Francesca Donovan takes a look on the dark side
A laptop, a bicycle and a Cup-a-Soup
Luke Jerram installed a small fishing fleet in woodland near Bristol to highlight an industry in decline — Joeleen Lynch takes a walk in the woods to find out why
The Heat is Rising
Sculptor Robert Harding goes to Wroclaw for a festival that allows artists and audiences to play with fire
Fragile? At the largest survey exhibition of ceramics in Wales, Catherine Roche explores the possibilities of this most malleable of materials at National Museum Wales, Cardiff
Illustrator Tara McInerney took a sketchbook behind the scenes as NoFit State Circus prepared for the return of Bianco
Arddangosfa o waith graddedigion celf o Gymru, wedi’i churadu gan yr artist Richard Billingham A showcase of artwork from Wales-based graduates, curated by artist Richard Billingham
Llun \ Image: Samantha Alland
Medi 11 Sept – Tach 15 Nov ’15 Arddangosfa Am Ddim \ Free Exhibition
Serious & Canolfan Mileniwm Cymru \ Wales Millennium Centre yn cyflwyno \ present
Melody Gardot The Currency of Man Tour Gyda Chefnogaeth \ Plus Support
“A singer/songwriter whose talent knows no boundaries” Mojo
Tach 18 Nov ’15 wmc.org.uk 029 2063 6464
Twenty First Century Gothic Laura Ford’s sculptures are full of wit, compassion and an occasionally dark humanity. Emma Geliot explores an extraordinary setting for a show that sets off the artist’s remarkable talents. At Horace Walpole’s gothic fantasy house at Strawberry Hill in London, Laura Ford’s sculptures seem right at home. Giant cats stride pensively, but with purpose, on two legs; their tails flail in their wake as they cross the newly restored lawns. This is the first sign that something unusual is happening in leafy Twickenham. In a dream state, everything is logical and the absurd makes sense. Strawberry Hill is an ideal setting for a morphine-triggered dream and, not surprisingly, Walpole pseudonymously wrote the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, there. Labyrinthine corridors upset the inner compass, leading into successively surprising rooms with views onto what shouldn’t be there. Into this setting, looking for all the world as if they belonged, Ford’s sculptures set off unexpected trains of thought. She explains how this happy combination came about: “Strawberry Hill got in touch with Stephen Feeke [the director of New Art Centre, Roche Court], asking him to curate a contemporary exhibition, and he suggested me. Stephen and I had worked together at New Art Centre; he has a very good understanding of my work and my process, and we trusted each other’s opinions. “When we looked around Strawberry Hill with him, I was so excited, as I felt it was perfect for my work: the scale of the place; the grandiose feel of what was really two cottages put together; the images in the stained glass windows, the nod to various cathedrals; it was all wonderfully playful and a bit bonkers. “Stephen was fantastic to work with, very encouraging and thought provoking, and we had similar responses to the house and what would inhabit it. “Our approach was very intuitive and we responded mainly to the atmosphere of the house, but also the work of Anne Seymore Daimer [a sculptor supported by Walpole] and the stories about, and by, Horace
Walpole. It also helped that we had nearly two years to think about what should go into the house and then what I needed to make to complete the show. The atmosphere of the house and its inhabitants had plenty of time to really sink in and do its work.” The artist’s extraordinary modelling skills allow for a convincingly human starting point. Wan little girls weep in the Priory garden, in nooks nearly overlooked. Their pale bedraggled hair tugs at the heart. The Armour Boys lie crumpled in the library; fallen child soldiers, sleeping, not dead somehow. An older work, Glory Glory (2005), sits in a niche – an arctic explorer, with a teddy bear pouch, put on his shelf after some expedition. And the Dancing Clog Girls I-III, are cutting a rug (if only there were one) on the bare floorboards of an empty bedroom. Elsewhere there are Medieval Cloud Girls, their heads buried in colourful dream-clouds, Love and Hate tattooed on their nearly clenched knuckles – not such sweet little girl dreams then – while the Chattering Girls appear banished to their bedroom, one sulking on the bed, the other, puppets on her hands, gazing out of a window. These human forms suggest their own stories, but they’re hinted at, allowing the viewer to provide the detail. And, although the figures with animal heads (or are they animals with human bodies?) are far from anthropomorphisms, or whimsical, zoomorphic fabrications. They steer a course between pathos and bathos; they are imbued with a kind of humanity that elicits a complex response. The dressing-gowned Bedtime Boys II & III, with elephant heads, appear to have slept-walked into position, while one of Ford’s Headthinkers rests his donkey head on a pile of ancient, leather-bound books, as if absorbing a world full of knowledge by contact. And in a chamber, gilded and ornate but empty, Kangaroo looks like a burglar caught in a police torch with a pouch full of booty. In the parlour, a trio of primped poodle ladies, The
Waldegrave Poodles – takes tea and gossips, harking back to an era before the term ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ was coined. Mute in a passage, the caped and hooded Sorrow Filled Cat I asks for pity. Of course, there are straight renditions of animals: a (sick) squid, a donkey, a bear; some blending in so seamlessly with the house that they appear to be heraldic devices, or original ornamentation, until more closely examined. This is a mix of old and new work, some made especially for this setting, so this is a survey show of sorts. However, the works have been carefully selected or tailored to echo their surroundings. Sorrowful Cat I’s cape is patterned with honeycomb, echoing the quarry tiles beneath its paws. The Waldegrave Poodles’ white swirly fur and ornate coiffures
draw the eye to the stuccowork on the cornicing and the filigree detail on the over-the-top fireplace. Ceramic figurines, glossy with glaze, sit on the mantelshelves, and the Armour Boys’ metal suits add to the medieval gloom of the library. Ford describes how she made the new work to respond to Strawberry Hill: “The first new work I made for the house was The Waldegrave Poodles. One of my favorite films is Best in Show, there’s a fabulous poodle in it called Rhapsody, which was the first thing I thought of when studying the portrait. The portrait of the three sisters was painted in order to find husbands for the sitters, and they look faintly ridiculous sitting there in their wigs, with the one sister staring out quite fiercely at the viewer; it’s a fantastic painting.
“The Medieval Cloud Girls was inspired by the super-intense red flock wallpaper and a wonderful carving of a vision of Hell, which I had seen in a museum in Dijon while I was thinking about the house. The Chattering Girls was really about using the room to suggest some sort of internal drama and, as you look out of the window of that room, you see Days of Judgment, which adds another layer.” The house was originally packed to the gunwales with objects as eccentric and eclectic as its owner. Bare now, as the restoration continues meticulously, these artworks fill an aching void. Ford works with a wide range of materials: fabric, bronze, steel, ceramic, jesmonite and plaster, allowing the form to dictate the substance. And there is wit, which is not to be confused with any funny ha-ha humour, running
through much of what she produces. Apart from the terrible Sick Squid pun, this is humour designed to stir a smile before going deeper behind the façade. The smiles on viewers’ faces are ones of recognition; responding to familiar small mannerisms, tics and nuanced gestures, as well as the unlikely splicings of animal and human components. But there are also darker works, ones that touch on fear, isolation, bewilderment, or self-absorption. The aesthetic is uniquely Ford’s. Perhaps her fairground family background informs the look. But these objects are far from garish or gaudy and often soft with fabric; the colours are rich and complex, rather than primary, for the most part. Whatever it is, it obviously strikes a universal chord.
Ford’s work has been seen in many contexts. She represented Wales at Venice for the Biennale in 2005 and, this year, she’s part of the Vita Vitale exhibition for Azerbaijan, with a huddle of bemused looking penguins, perplexed at the disappearance of their habitat, waddling across the grand terrazzo floor of a Venetian palace. And Ford is prolific. This year alone she has work in exhibitions in Sweden and Germany as well as the Venice penguins. A version of Days of Judgment Cats, prowling across the lawn at Strawberry Hill, pops up again in the financial heart of London, this time as a permanent installation. Which, of all of these contexts, does Ford prefer to work with, I ask her? “I love showing in venues like Strawberry Hill as it gives me things to think about and respond to and it leads me to unexpected places, but I am equally happy with a white cube: it’s just a different way of thinking.” —CCQ
Laura Ford at Strawberry Hill House runs to 31 October 2015 strawberryhillhouse.org.uk The exhibition was curated by Stephen Feeke of New Art Centre, Roche Court sculpture.uk.com After Strawberry Hill, Ford’s exhibition will move to Abbot Hall Art Gallery, and to nearby Blackwell, The Arts & Crafts House lakelandarts.org.uk lauraford.net
p15 Armour Boys (detail), Laura Ford, 2014 Copyright Laura Ford, photo: Gautier Deblonde
p19 (left) Days of Judgement (Cat II, V & VI), Laura Ford, 2013 Copyright Laura Ford, photo: Gautier Deblonde
p16 Clog Girls, Laura Ford, 2013 Copyright Laura Ford, courtesy of New Art Centre
p19 (right) Weeping Girl II, Laura Ford, 2013 Copyright Laura Ford, photo: Gautier Deblonde
p17 Headthinker, Laura Ford, 2013 Copyright Laura Ford, photo: Felix Wendover
p20 Kangaroo, Laura Ford, 2015 Copyright Laura Ford, photo: Felix Wendover
p18 (left) Armour Boys (detail), Laura Ford, 2014 Copyright Laura Ford, photo: Gautier Deblonde
p21 (top) Old Nick, Laura Ford, 2013 Copyright Laura Ford, photo: Felix Wendover
p18 (right) Waldegrave Poodles, Laura Ford, 2015 Copyright Laura Ford, photo: Gautier Deblonde
p21 (bottom) Bedtime Boys II and III, Laura Ford, 2013 Copyright Laura Ford, photo: Gautier Deblonde
When Consciousness Jumps Video artist, George Barber, plays to the increasingly short attention span of art audiences. He talks to Richard Bowers about his relationship with the mainstream of video art and the primacy of narrative in his work. In his article, Scratch and After: Edit Suite Technology and the Determination of Style in Video Art, George Barber describes the importance of technology in the 1980s, yet he’s insistent that he doesn’t care much for technology as a subject for discussion: “I don’t know how that relates to my work. I don’t think about things like that.” As he asserts in his essay, though, technology informs video works. His seem to chart the developments of the medium and this felt, to me, like a point of departure. George Barber began working in the 1980s at a time when the established video art canon seemed rather po-faced by today’s standards. The context in which he was taught in the 1970s at St Martins promoted the formal experiments of such artists as Joan Jonas and Nam June Paik, who explored the specific limitations and characteristics of video as an artistic medium. They emphasised the relationship of the camera to the body and
the presence of the CRT monitor (‘this title must be presented on a monitor’ is a stipulation of presentation to this day). It became impossible to escape the medium’s esoteric qualities: the scrolling, the haziness, the moving flecks of soundtrack. Barber hankered after something more, however - “even after narrative, God forbid!” - and felt that the work’s content was “a lot more important than the monitor it was being shown on”. “When I was at St Martins, I was very much put off by the minimalism on offer. They said, ‘don’t think about anything outside the piece. Metaphors are bad; literary ideas are bad; just look at the shapes and that’s the piece’. I, and other students, felt that you needed a lobotomy to keep this up! How long can you stare at a red dot or a blue square? And who actually wants to watch a TV with a picture fault?” The minimalism and the formal experiments were determined, in part, by the paucity of
the video technology available at the time. However, Barber’s early ‘Scratch videos’ (a term coined by Pat Sweeney in 1984) were able to make use of a new video product, the Sony Series V system, which enabled the editing of short moments to create rhythms. In Barber’s 1988 article Scratch and After, he celebrated the impact that the technology had on the look of moving image work, “in much the same way as acrylic paint allowed the possibility of hard edge painting”. The Sony Series V uniquely enabled you to edit live, something that hadn’t been within the reach of artists before. “This facility, more than any other, shaped a lot of work back then, especially mine.” Barber produced videos that sourced trashy television and Hollywood movies for choice moments to riff on, unleashing the visual equivalent of hip-hop sampling. “The more I used popular culture in my work – disco music and fast cutting – the
more I was perceived as being involved in the music business. I engineered concepts which related to desire and other postmodern themes but, ultimately, I think I was just following my gut. Occasionally I would try to rationalise it all for my tutors’ benefit. This idea of recycling Hollywood films, for instance, then emptying them of their significance was dynamite to me. I think my affiliation with popular culture confused people as to what the intended status of my work was, though. No galleries took me on and nobody ever gave me advice on how to build an art career.” Barber and I share a passion for Godard’s film and television work. Re-contextualising images, even clichéd ones from popular media, was a strategy that Godard took on in his Histoire(s) du cinéma. He makes powerful video collages from a mixture of film clips, newsreels and other sources, coupled with his own inimitable droning ruminations on
history, culture and the film industry, that can be both comical and shocking at the same time, and with very little concession given to photogeny. There are parallels with Godard in Barber’s work: the music and the images are aesthetically ‘neutered’. Indeed, Barber sees himself, like Godard and Chris Marker, as a video-essayist. Although not beautiful, works such as Branson and Yes Frank No Smoke build visual fugues that captivate because we cannot resist the allure of the ‘cut’. “I made those pieces by trying to reduce the dialogue to six or seven phrases that would be repeated like a chorus in a pop song. I was trying to get rid of all meaning – making rhythms like the Fluxus group. If you are watching a TV screen, you have a sense that it can only be art when sequences are being repeated because normal television doesn’t do that. It had a kind of beat, so the banal things they are saying turn into a rhythm.”
Barber’s work became more televisionlike in Walking Off Court and Shouting Match. The latter presents a game where two ‘competitors’ face each other in chairs on a rail, and move closer or further apart, depending upon the loudness of their shouting. A purist approach would have been to fix the camera and to be strict about the whole intensity-matching-position aspect in how it was framed. But Barber seems to enjoy the humour of it all, to the extent that the excessive scale of the operation and the professionalism of the crew should be exposed through fluid camera motions, foregrounding the absurdity of the piece. In his work Gibberish, there is more absurdity; a sense in which he is aping soap opera. The chit-chat of a group of four people portrayed in the work slips in and out of an unknown language, sustaining an illusion of conversation: “I’m interested in expression beyond language,” explains Barber.
“The characters were talking sense for a while before drifting into gibberish, but in a funny way. You’re left with their facial expressions and the brain races to make sense of it, and when they’re making sense, they’re only talking rubbish anyway.” Akula Dream, an account of a submarine crew, with a captain who is more interested in spiritual enlightenment than carrying out his duty, uses CGI. The ubiquity of new technology, including CGI, made it possible for Barber to create works with the high production values expected in the world of advertising and, increasingly, the world of art. “A lot of current art practice has a high degree of finish to it and looks a bit corporate. In the end, you’re like a mini Jeff Koons. You can tell the status of the art by the size of the gallery and the degree of its finish. It’s not surprising that some younger artists are drawn to all that. Personally, I still
need something of the human hand evident somewhere in the process to get anything from it. The important thing for me about Akula Dream is that the piece is a feature film in a fine art register; it is a narrative work punctured by traditional video art tricks. There’s a sense of excitement to be derived from the narrative of a feature that drives you on. It sits in two camps. It’s video art, but it only lasts 26 minutes, so hopefully, you are not dying for it to end!” This urge to hold an audience runs throughout his oeuvre from Absence of Satan, kept under five minutes, to Walking Off Court, a 10-minute account of the nervous breakdown experienced by a tennis coach as a motorway is constructed outside his house. “It drives me nuts watching video pieces where they effectively show rushes. You could watch five minutes, or you could watch twenty, it would make no difference. I think
I’m a classicist, in the sense that I want every section to count and to be moving you on. Artists are incredibly narcissistic people, they love taking up your time. A lot of my work isn’t edited in art-time; it is edited in TV time. “We’re in a very postmodern period. It’s all about consumer culture. Look at flares and the fetishisation of ’80s Adidas trainers. There is even an industry developed around stripe paintings. You can see them done ironically, in hi-tech, and in weird non-painting ways. Every art fair must have some stripe paintings. Originality? Why waste your time?” So the narratives, sensical and nonsensical, persist in Barber’s work. His recent piece, Fences Make Senses, uses actors to reconstruct the thoughts of migrants. Barber explains this unconventional approach: “I’ve seen lots of films about migrants and displaced people, but they all seem to say the same thing. They go to Lampedusa
or Cyprus and they interview people – harrowing interviews – people who have lost everything and are then met with aggression and hostility. I kept seeing this kind of film, and after a while, I thought I’m interested in the issue, but I don’t want to make a piece like that. It became interesting to imagine people that I know having to act out some of the thoughts displaced people have and situations they endure. Art is about the transformational moment when consciousness jumps.”—CCQ
George Barber’s Akula Dream will be at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, from 01 October 2015 – 10 January 2016. chapter.org georgebarber.net
p22 & 23 The Freestone Drone, George Barber, 2013 Video stills p24 Fences Make Senses, George Barber, 2015 Video stills p25 Akula Dream, George Barber, 2015 Video stills
Adventure Capitalist For the Irish Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, Sean Lynch finds relationships between disparate objects and imagines material with history and ambition. He talked to Emma Geliot about his very particular approach to material and digressive narratives. I have to confess to having surreptitiously stalked Sean Lynch, as he guided a group around his newly opened exhibition, Adventure: Capital, watching his face as it beamed with enthusiasm for his subject matter in a way that made it impossible not to respond in kind. His wasn’t the only smiling face, as the work, and particularly the film, snagged visitors, keeping them a good while in the Irish Pavilion, at a time when art lovers are madly running around, trying to see a lot of work at once. I went back four times in the end. The exhibition is made up of two halves: a large plinth, showing objects that, as Lynch says, “Have agreed to live together for seven months”. Stone heads – river gods with fruit and fish in their beards; plastic fruit from China and Italy; drawings and a half-remade maquette of a steel sculpture – a public
artwork now buried in landfill; a bullaun – a hollowed out stone hemisphere, with a perfectly circular stone for wearing it away further, perhaps with a curse; reproductions of Boris Artzybashef’s devil, the Gobán Saor and a pile of brick paviers, some stacked in a tower. Odd bedfellows, perhaps, but watch Lynch’s film and all becomes clear. In the film, narrated alternately by a male and female voice, journeys are described in a most lyrical manner, told from the point of view of stone or steel; charting the progress from red hot magma to quarry, to village, town, city and on to public art or landscaping. It is usual for artists to be called upon to draw out the genius loci when working in the public realm. As if there is some magical spirit in a shopping mall or an airport. Lynch’s proposition relocates that spirit, or innate
sensibility, to the material. How on earth did he arrive at this most poetic of approaches? “There were certain modes of ‘soft’ conceptualism prominent in Ireland when I was trying to figure out how to be an artist, 10 years ago. Within public art briefs, an artist would often be brought in on the proviso that they would distil some sort of essence of a place – emphasising that one particular location had something so, so special about it. Maybe there might be some kind of truth to this, but it’s really more a fetishisation of site moving towards touristic branding or middle class identity, all the time sidelining interpretation of the inherent relationship between one place and another, and the flows of materials shaping our world. If you read Manuel De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, a book that’s very special
to me, it describes a process of accumulation that occurs through sorting, shaping, sometimes aggressively taking apart the world and reassembling it in other places – so perhaps that’s a way of diffusing that notional essence of site? And so it becomes about layer upon layer, object upon object, attitude upon attitude that creates a village that turns into a town, into a city, into what you have in London today. “These geographical constructs are always interesting to think about – especially the transitory nature evoked in how an individual has to pass through or inhabit already historically-determined environments. That’s part of the theme that I’ve been trying to investigate, to figure and play out in the pavilion here. I always liked this idea of the conceptual toolbox – if you’re an artist you
need a variety of approaches to deal with the situations you encounter – and there are certain ideas that exist in that toolbox that can do a job. For me, it’s always been about this kind of serendipity of movement and forming a liberal attitude to ideology, rather than developing a fixed aesthetic programme.” Here Lynch looks for an example of something from his toolbox and lights on the story of Sweeney, the pagan king of Dál nAraide. Sweeney is cursed by a bishop (in one version at least) and turned into half man, half bird, doomed to fly from place to place as a wandering spirit. “He could never settle in one place. He could perch on a tree and lament the hierarchies that created him into a wandering spirit and imagine another place and another time. In Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds
[Sweeney] is one of the characters that drives the narrative along. In many ways, At Swim… is a catalyst for the show in Venice, for in its pages a loose grouping of characters, including Sweeney and cowboys from the wild west, all work 9–5 to keep a narrative running. In this sense, the sculptures here are bedfellows as you suggest, sleeping at the pavilion at night time, reawakening again to telling a story once the video projector goes on in the morning…” Oddly I had been thinking about Flann O’Brien as I watched Adventure: Capital, as I’d been reminded of the sub-narratives in The Dalkey Archive, which spring out of the footnotes and take on a life of their own. But At Swim Two Birds offers multiple narratives and stories within stories, and this does seem a better fit with what Lynch is
describing and how he relates his concerns to his art practice. “There are certain things that exist outside the canon of art – but the great thing about contemporary art-making is that you can take those things and drag them onto a stage – it’s good to be egalitarian in that process.” I wonder about the relationship Lynch will have with the objects in this exhibition, and their relationship to each other, after the pavilion closes. If the work moves to another location, will they still be together and will Lynch still feel the same about them? “It is about that notion of identity, and especially in the context of a national pavilion. There’s always this possibility of falling into the trap of feeling so comfortable in your working processes and output that you know who you are and precisely what you’re doing. For me, I imagine that would be very tedious for the artworks to have to put up with an author making such overtures. So how boring is it for an artwork to know exactly what it is? Instead, it can live a life, change and morph over time, be presented in different ways and bring an audience along during that process. This way of working has developed through several different projects over the years. Especially, I worked on a project around the DeLorean motorcar from 2008, 2009 onwards and it still gets manifested into gallery shows in different shapes and forms nowadays.” The project, recently presented as a solo show in DeLorean Progress Report, at Ronchini gallery in London, connects to Lynch’s childhood and a revelatory moment of understanding about material. “My father ran a garage in north Kerry, in a small village, fixing tractors and small trucks for farmers. In the evenings he would go to scrapyards and I would be brought along for the ride, to get spare parts for the next day’s repairs. The bossman running the yard typically hated the taxman. On the hottest day of the year, there would be a puddle of water of indeterminable depth at the front gate to keep out anyone wearing a nice suit and shoes, while the sound of a barking dog in the
distance made the place more intimidating. Yet, once you got inside you realised that there was an incredible encyclopaedic knowledge possessed by the scrap dealers of 1980s Ireland. They knew exactly where everything was in this massive pile of scrap - it was specific material still latent for another use, rather than thinking all junk was the same.” Years later, Lynch returned to the scrapyards, looking for remnants of the DeLorean car factory. After DeLorean became bankrupt the factory in Belfast closed and the scrap dealers moved in to pick over the machinery. “Large tooling presses, once used to shape the exterior panels of the car, some weighing over twenty tonnes, went through these yards and were exported to British Steel in Sheffield and Kent. There, they were melted down and recycled into steel to later form a building in Canary Wharf or elsewhere, and so the material’s journey continued. I managed to locate some leftovers of the factory, which were instead reappriopriated as anchors for a fish farm in the Atlantic Ocean. For me, this was a very precise example of continuity – objects used as a manufacturing component for a sports car in Belfast then end up in the bottom of the Atlantic with a lobster and crabs living in their manmade forms. I would like to think that these transformations happen around us all the time, and it’s useful to evoke their ghosts to understand more about the constant shaping of the world around us.” Lynch has a fascinating approach to location and material and we talk about the idea that an artist can be commissioned somehow to unlock the identity of a site. He’s more concerned with the flow of material through a site or rather, “…the flow of what is essentially something that is incentivised by notions of capital”. He has spent the last few years building on those notions, thinking about the interplay with allegory and the value of storytelling. He illustrates this with a recent project: “I made an exhibition in Oxford last year based upon John and James O’Shea, nineteenth century stonecarving brothers
with a history that was not delineated in any meaningful way. Nobody knows where or when they were born in Ireland, they survived the potato famine and later appeared as virtuoso artisans in Oxford in the late 1850s, where John Ruskin befriended them. They carved monkeys on the façade of the Oxford Museum, just as Darwin’s theories of human evolution were gaining momentum. When the University tried to censor these carvings, James O’Shea changed the monkeys into a grouping of fierce cats, referring to an old Irish myth about the Kingcat of Keshcorran, who guarded the entranceway into hell. They effectively labelled the creation of museological culture inside as a hellhole – it’s institutional critique on an epic scale, a hundred years before the term even existed.
Later, the O’Sheas ended up in more fights and covertly made more illicit carvings. You can still see all these features when walking down the street in Oxford today, yet they are frequently ignored and certainly not part of a wider discourse on individual agency, the public realm, and the accumulation of knowledge. The thing for me is to draw these themes out and not become an expert in the material, but shunt it along and pull it into contexts where it can add to the weight of the world and push towards more liberal understandings.” Inevitably we return to Flann O’Brien and an on-going project. “On Carauntoohil, the highest mountain in Ireland and the closest place to heaven, a crucifix was erected in the 1950s to signify
Ireland’s great relationship with God. In 1983 some folk superseded the cross by dragging a bicycle up to the top of the mountain and erected it there as an unofficial monument to Flann’s The Third Policeman, another of his books that features pushbikes prominently. I’ve been investigating this incident and try to meet as many people as I could that were involved in the erection of this monument, assembling a projected slide show and gallery presentation around it that changes as more information is uncovered. The desire is to find the bicycle that has fallen down the mountain, somewhere near the summit, left in a rocky crevasse. The symbolism here is important for me – imagine replacing the hierarchy of the ‘word made flesh’ from the top of the mountain with Flann
Issue 7 O’Brien’s notions of associated digression. Flann’s atomic theory, which comes to the fore in The Third Policeman, sees someone ride a bike for three hours a day for ten years – the same bike – and there’s an atomic exchange between the bicycle and person. So you might meet a fella who is 40% bicycle, leaning against the wall, or going around in a circle to stay upright. Imagine that’s the new belief system, that everything we touch becomes a part of us.” So digressive narratives, the flow of experience through material, the bringing together of objects to create a connection, albeit sometimes for a short period of time, is at the heart of what Lynch is trying to achieve. “To rally these instances together, as a strategy against that kind of mainstreaming of identity and the rigid frameworks that the state, religion, or digital media bring upon us, is something to be shared publicly. And it’s our responsibility to live in the world, to beg to talk about it, and make conversations about it, and I’d like to think these exhibitions try to push at those ideals.” —CCQ Sean Lynch’s solo show, Adventure: Capital is the Irish representation at the 56th Venice Biennale 9 May - 22 November 2015 Commissioner: Mike Fitzpatrick Curator: Woodrow Kernohan adventure-capital.ie seanlynchinfo.com
p26 & 27 (bottom) Adventure Capital, Sean Lynch, 2014–15, projected colour image Courtesy of Ireland at Venice; Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, Dublin; Ronchini Gallery, London p27 (top) Adventure Capital, Sean Lynch, 2014–15, mixed-media installation Courtesy of Ireland at Venice; Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, Dublin; Ronchini Gallery, London p28 & 29 Adventure Capital, Sean Lynch, 2014–15, mixed-media installation Courtesy of Ireland at Venice; Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, Dublin; Ronchini Gallery, London p30 DeLorean Progress Report, Sean Lynch, 2009-11, colour photograph, 44.5 x 59.5 cm Courtesy the artist and Ronchini Gallery p31 Adventure Capital, Sean Lynch, 2014–15, mixed-media installation Courtesy of Ireland at Venice; Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, Dublin; Ronchini Gallery, London p32 & 33 DeLorean Progress Report, Sean Lynch, 2009-11, colour photograph, 91.5cm x 121.5cm. Courtesy the artist and Ronchini Gallery, London
i am here, i am this Representing Holland at the 56th Venice Biennale with a body of work entitled to be always to be, herman de vries explores humankind’s relationship with nature. Ric Bower talks to the man who refuses the tyrannical hierarchy of capitalisation. After struggling through the dusty heat and petulant crowds of the Biennale opening week, the atmosphere inside the Dutch pavilion is as peaceful as a Buddhist temple. On the wall, to the left, is a grid of 84 framed rubbings on paper called from earth everywhere, made using natural pigments collected during the artist’s travels. The work resembles a giant Sennelier pastel colour chart; the ordering of the pigments is considered and their arrangement in a grid is intended to facilitate us in distinguishing their different hues. Many of the earth samples are collected from cultivated land and – as with much of
herman de vries’ work – they bear witness to humankind’s interface with the environment. On the opposing clean, white walls are framed and flattened dioramas, arranged from collected grasses; they are redolent of Dürer’s sensitively coloured natural history drawings. After all, de vries employs compositional motifs that find their origins from before the first clamourings of modernity. Extending beyond to be always to be, in the Gerrit Rietveld designed pavilion in the Giardini, de vries’ enquiries reach across the Venetian lagoon. Visitors are invited to share the artist’s experience of
Lazzaretto Vecchio, an uninhabited island, which was once a quarantine area for plague victims. This offsite engagement, natura mater, seems to acknowledge and make peace with the site’s painful past. Running through to be always to be is a series of softly spoken invitations, in the form of constructed grids, journal pages and photographs; they are invitations to engage our senses directly with that which is around us. In essence, de vries employs the traditional tools of empirical, scientific enquiry, but first he strips away their modernist, teleological agendas. Around 1975, herman de vries’ practice took a significant turn. He became dissatisfied with his capacity to represent the variety of experience presented to us. He chose to make unmediated material existence the only medium through which he sought creative expression. His message is gentle. It is not partisan, didactic or linked to the vagaries of fashion. He is adept too, in his use of beauty as an expressive tool, using it to draw attention to aspects of reality that might otherwise pass us by unnoticed. There is a disarming lack of difficulty in his work; what you see is what you get. In many ways, he is simply sharing his enthusiasm for the world in which we live. We met at de vries’ operational headquarters in Dorsoduro. The heavy door in Palazzo Nani Maocanigo creaked open and I entered a cool, dark Venetian interior and was ushered into the apartment’s courtyard garden. Here de vries and his extensive entourage – which included ferociously territorial tortoises – were comfortably settled. He offered to create a gesture for a photograph. It was an act of pure generosity and, as with all his dealings, it was uncontrived. I began the conversation by asking him whether artists carry a particular responsibility to the society in which they function: herman de vries: sure they do... Ric Bower: Do you feel the burden of that?
hdv: no! oh no, it’s not a burden; my engagement with what’s around me and then with the work itself prevents it from being a burden.
RB: The Dutch pavilion in the Giardini was built in 1953. It’s been around almost exactly as long as you have been practising. It’s stayed pretty much the same, whereas you are constantly evolving. The pavilion represents an alien geist, one of human and technological optimism, an outlook which is entirely foreign to us now in the 21st century. How do you relate to the building as a place to show work?
RB: As part of to be always to be, you’ve been investigating the Venice lagoon – a strange environment both in its physicality and how humankind relate to it. What have you discovered? hdv: i think it’s very interesting to observe a few tiny islands in the marshlands, which have not just remained a place for fishermen and a few hardy duck hunters. instead they have evolved into an important and interesting city with a distinguished history. when looking around, everything we come across originates from the past, be it recent or the dim and distant; i found pieces of pottery that originate from the 12th century, byzantium. the history of the whole place is lying there under our feet. the rise in water level is a more recent and sinister development though...
hdv: yes, i started working as an artist in ’53. the ’50s were a stupid and depressing time in my experience; everything was fixed, there was little political development. perhaps the pavilion does represent the zeitgeist of that time, but it is still a very good space to exhibit in now. the light is just fantastic! RB: You began your career as a horticulturalist and a natural scientist. Was there a point when the processes of communication available within these traditions of enquiry were no longer sufficient to carry the ideas that you desired to express?
RB: ...something for our children to worry about. hdv: i can pinpoint the time exactly. i got hold of an old publication, a reprint of the journal mammalia. as i was holding it in my hand i can remember thinking that it’s so partial, so one-sided. science has the capacity to enlarge our view of the world but it is also limited and limiting. i wanted to do something else beside science, so i started to work as an artist. i continued working at two scientific institutions for a while, but that came to an end. i found what happens on the borders, on
hdv: perhaps we need to be more imaginative in how we approach environmental problems. my friend visited rwanda; he was prevented from crossing the border into the country with the plastic bags he was carrying. they simply don’t want any more plastic bags to come into rwanda. that is a fantastically brave approach and, surprise, surprise, it hasn’t come from europe!
the fringes of societies, to be more important and interesting than what happens in the middle. there, at the edge, are the real developments, the genuine innovations, and i think the world that i had been inhabiting, scientifically speaking, was centrally situated. in science you have to formulate postulates, and you need words to do this; sometimes though, ideas are simply not possible to express in words. art affords possibilities to make things visible without words. interpretations are open in the arts too; there is a certain freedom that this way of thinking affords.
in glass frames. they seemed to almost compose themselves as i worked. the samples are all different and they display, in themselves, an encyclopaedic range of different information, but they also display a certain unity. these are the kind of complexities we walk over every day, but we are completely unaware of them. there is, fundamentally, both a homogeneousness and a heterogeneousness to our environment. when you first go into the pavilion you hear my voice, it says ‘infinity’, and then ‘in...finity’, and then i say again ‘infinity’. inside the word infinity is the word finity. in the finitude represented by finity you always find infinity and the finitude is always in that infinitude. those words and the ideas they embody are utterly different, but still, they exist naturally together.
RB: Do you think there is a parallel with the worlds of science and art, in that the most interesting things exist on the edge? hdv: yes, of course. where else? perhaps the middle ground is necessary though, as a point of initial departure.
RB: Are we being offered a series of false dichotomies in our everyday understanding of these things? Should we choose not to choose, or to alternate focus, between simplicity and complexity, finitude and infinitude?
RB: Do you hold to a position that values complexity fundamentally? That reality – as we experience it – is irreducible? To me this position resonates with the interventions you initiate.
hdv: yes, my point is that it is with words that you separate these things from each other. language is a strong tool with which to analyse our environment, our life-space. We can manipulate with language, we can communicate with it, but at the same time we lose something with it too. it breaks the unity.
hdv: complexity, yes. things are complex, but complexity can be demonstrated in a simple way. how better to observe and experience a complex array of phenomena than as part of a totality? as i walked over the islands in the lagoon, i collected sample bags of the substratum they are made of. when i got home, i began to organise the samples
RB: What of the relationship between the work in the pavilion
p34 freigestellt, herman de vries, 2014 p35 from the laguna of venice – a journal (detail), herman de vries, 2014 p36 & 37 from the laguna of venice – a journal, herman de vries, 2014 p38 herman de vries: this is me, here i am, Ric Bower, 2015 p39 from the laguna of venice – a journal (detail), herman de vries, 2014
and natura mater, the work on the island? Can you explain the conversation between those created environments and how they work together? hdv: natura mater is a building that is falling apart. nature has taken over, like nature always does. i hope it becomes a sanctuary, a space isolated from the influence of humanity, and that it can remain like this. i made a sanctuary on a traffic point in stuttgart once; there was a big iron fence around it and inside there was nothing. so the newspaper reported: ‘we know what will happen, we know what will grow in this empty space... bad weeds!’ my response to that was: ‘yes, they will. the weeds are the pioneers.” a large part of europe was once wild forest. when a forest develops it can remain, self-sustaining, for thousands of years. parts of it can fall apart, but it will fill up again. the forest feeds itself; all the rotten woods are the food for the next plants - it is in a perpetual state of regeneration. i love forests. it’s a different experience to walk in a forest than to walk through the streets of frankfurt or london. RB: You use grids – human tools – to order your work. You also commissioned a custom font for the catalogue, font natura. How have
these structures and aesthetic traditions for ordering information worked their way into your practice? hdv: a grid is the most efficient means by which to observe difference; it facilitates comparison. it is a scientific method, but it is also an aesthetic tool. my grids are always adapted, as such, to work within the context of a given show. RB: The sickles and cutting hooks arranged in one of the grids in the pavilion, are visually aggressive; a very different aesthetic experience to viewing earth marks or stones arranged on top of posts. hdv: you use the word ‘aggressive’ for the sickles. of course the sickle is aggressive; it’s the tool with which we first tamed the environment. it’s a very old tool too. at the beginning of our material culture it was just a stone with a sharpened edge. the sickle and the net are still in use now and those that use them have a close relationship to their harvests. the man who sits on the combine harverster with his ears protected has very little connection with what he is doing. the sickle represents the beginning of agriculture, and our culture is built up out of that, from
the possibilities offered by nature as a gift. spirituality too comes out of culture and that is another way to step away from direct experience. it’s something like a photo; the photo is never what is photographed. RB: There is a process of removal from the experience then? hdv: that process of removal comes out of the movement ‘zero’. zero is significant as a number; it is a gate. zero is a mode of being, of freedom and openness. i can return to zero and start again in any direction. remaining in zero is optimal being, the doors of perception are open. that’s on my website by the way, zero is the gate; i don’t use the internet though, i am still a primitive. in these modern times i cannot function on my own, but I’m fortunate enough to have ladies who help me. it’s a luxury to be a primitive, you know. —CCQ
to be always to be is in the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale until 22 November 2015 mondriaanfonds.nl/en/venice-biennale/ hermandevries.org
“I really love art. I think art is life. The boundary between art and life is very blurred. Sometimes art is about copying and reflecting life so I am very interested in the project at the Flemish Pavilion. I learn art and life from my parents, my neighbours, all the people around me. The deepest ideas are not from the eye and brain; they’re from the blood. The heart is the key. You cannot only use your brain, you have to feel something from your heart.”
From the Blood As his installation for the Flemish collateral exhibition at the Venice Biennale is built around him, Beijing–based Song Dong takes time out to talk about his working philosophy to Francesca Donovan and collaborates in a series of portraits. Two days before it was set to open, the Flemish collateral contribution to the 56th Venice Biennale, The Revenge of the Common Place, was a construction site. Wires from light fixtures tumbled out from
holes in walls, wrapping themselves around brooms and stretching across, what was then, an empty space. The installers worked to piece together the exhibition space after the project had been forced to
“When I was very young the government sent my father to the South of China, accusing him of being a counter-revolutionary... My father was a calligrapher. The Cultural Revolution was at its height. The war destroyed everything. We lost a lot of memories. My family were landowners so were categorised as bourgeoisie. We were shamed but my parents taught me to be proud; we were educated and they knew the value of education.”
relocate. Amidst the controlled chaos, Song jumps to his feet and in a moment of spontaneous enthusiasm, starts to position himself in front of the camera, to build a series of assisted self-portraits for CCQ. Song Dong was born in the Chinese capital, Beijing, in 1966, to a once prosperous landowning family, who had fallen into poverty during China’s mid-century turmoil. Supported by his mother, the young Song began to paint. After the Tiananmen Square protests, in 1989, the
artist’s work took on a more experimental approach. He had watched the landscape of Beijing change out of all recognition in the preceding decades and, in some ways his practice has perhaps been formed out of a response to those changes. In 1995, the artist began to keep a diary. The resulting work, Writing With Water, saw him relay the diary entries onto a flat stone using a brush and water instead of ink, so that the words disappeared.
“Hans is very interested in copy. He asks whether art is original or fake. I do a lot of original fake. Sometimes copying is not a bad thing. I use some of Marcel Duchamp’s ideas. I learned a lot about Chinese craft by copying predecessors. Hans likes to make dialogues. I have constructed works in order to create dialogues with Marcel Duchamp and Magritte and Ai Wei Wei. I made dialogues between the masters and myself. I like that everyone is an artist. Everyone has a mobile phone and can take a picture. An exhibition is not only in one room: it’s online, it’s in the whole world and the whole world is witness.”
On a visit to Tibet, he had himself photographed repeatedly striking the surface of the Lhasa River with an archaic Chinese seal. This stamp of authority left no imprint, for Printing On Water (1996). That same year, he produced Breathing. On a freezing New Year’s Eve, Song lay face down on the icy ground in Tiananmen Square for 40 minutes. As he lay, his breath formed a sheet of ice on the pavement. Sometimes it seems that the past has been forgotten in China. Song, however, has never succumbed to this particular form of amnesia. Waste Not (2005) was an ode to his mother’s obsessional hoarding, a habit that stemmed from her experience of extreme poverty
in the ’50s and ’60s. Song constructed a house and garden from 10,000 of her knick-knacks, trinkets, books, buttons, pots and pans. Harnessing the mundane power of the object, Song explores how our possessions are defined within their surroundings. His practice is less focussed on aesthetics than on a deeper exploration into an object’s value or essence; its capacity to become transformed into a receptacle for significance. Waste Not has, with other works, been exhibited at the Barbican Centre in London. He has also exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and dOCUMENTA (13). Hans de Wolf invited Song to
“Here, everyone can pick up candy. That is artwork. Many people desire the sweet Belgian chocolate: first they take the rich chocolate and afterwards they take the plain biscuits. Most people are more interested in luxury and seeing this in action makes me question what is important in our eyes. Some people who come to my exhibition want to see art. Others want something for free: free food, free gifts. Some want candy and some want art because people have different levels. That is a very happy thing and people who come to see art want to get happy.”
create a new work for the Flemish exhibition at the Venice Biennale, to be shown alongside work by Francis Alÿs and Rinus van de Velde. He hoped to initiate a dialogue around differing attitudes to appropriation across the East/West divide, using Warhol’s famous Brillo boxes and Marcel Duchamp as conceptual starting points. —CCQ facebook.com/therevengeofthecommonplace pacegallery.com Song Dong’s solo exhibition – Life is art, art is life – is showing at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands until 1 November 2015.
p40 & 41, 42 & 43 Assisted self-portraits, Song Dong, 2015 Photo: Ric Bower
Cordon Sanitaire Sammy Baloji tackles the structures of old colonial administrations to investigate the shades of grey between black and white. Introduction by Francesca Donovan, interview Ric Bower. Sammy Baloji is many things: anthropologist; photographer; Congolese native; ethnographic topographer and visual artist,now working in Brussels. Above all, he is greedy for information. Baloji collects stories from the past and tragedies of colonial control in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These inform a practice that investigates urbanism, as experienced by indigenous people. Baloji’s photographic social reflections secured him the mentorship of Danish-Icelandic conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson, and two presentations at the Venice Biennale. Baloji was born in the city of Lubumbashi, in the Katanga Province. He grew up in the mining capital of the DRC, a country with a deep-rooted history of colonisation. The Congo Free State, as it was once called, was personally owned by Belgium’s Emperor Leopold II from 1885 to 1908; his very own private empire. Leopold II’s imposition of industrial urbanism is still present in Lubumbashi – in the landscape of the city and the scarred bodies of its inhabitants. As a young man, Baloji was trained in image capture. His work now falls between documentary and fiction as he strives to create a new narrative strand, independent of words. Baloji’s fascination with images led him to discover the photographs of Alice Seeley Harris, whose missionary work helped expose the human rights violations in Congo in the late 1800s. Taken with Harris’ heroic mission and her portraits of Congolese workers, Baloji imposed them upon his own photographic depictions of industrial decay in Katanga, creating a poignant bridge between historical fact and the altered realities of the present. As Baloji develops as an artist, he begins to push the dimensions of his practice, in both notion and physicality. Continuing to draw on archives from the past and on his own remarkably candid photographic skill, he has contributed two works to the Belgian Pavilion in Venice this year. They explore the pervasive control of the collective black body during Belgian colonial rule with a previously unseen complexity and a thrilling divergence of media. Essay on Urban Planning (2013) is a grid of twelve photographs. Six aerial views
of Lubumbashi show the five-hundredmetre-wide cordon sanitaire – a dead zone, imposed by the colonial administration to separate the city’s black and white neighbourhoods. These aerial shots are interspersed with six photographs of the large collections of flies and mosquitoes owned by the National Museum of Lubumbashi. The tensions in the piece are electric: this buffer zone, a vast expanse filled with racial unrest, was directly determined by the maximum flight range of malarial mosquitoes. Essay on Urban Planning maps a sprawling cartography of control on entire urban populations. This social engineering remains inscribed in the landscape today. The geographical landscape of the DRC is not the only malleable material altered indefinitely by social structures of control. The same can be said for the bodies of Congolese tribes who scarified their flesh in rituals of identification and anti-homogeny. Sociétés secrètes (2015) documents the surveillance systems and persecution of these native sects by the Belgian Secret Service. Baloji unearthed photographic details of different scarification patterns from the archives of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium. With these patterns, he constructed a series of copper bas-reliefs. In the DRC, which holds enormous copper deposits, copper ore has been mined by black labourers for the profit of white colonisers. As Katerina Gregos, curator of the Belgian Pavilion puts it: “Economic exploitation imposed by the West subjugated the local populations; Baloji re-inscribes identity by way of a material dependent on the labour of black bodies, juxtaposing two politicised readings of the body in different corporeal cartographies.” The history of colonialism is part of Baloji’s sense of self. Baloji says he belongs to both Belgium and the Congo. A loaded discourse about migrations ensues.
to borders created during 1885. I’m more interested in migrations in Congo and Africa than our national identity. RB: You’ve had difficulties getting to London. How does your experience of travelling and the obstacles you encounter inform your practice? SB: There’s a kind of discrimination. People have always travelled, so the notion of ‘the other’ already existed. The fact that I can’t travel and learn makes me think about barriers; obstructions to something or somewhere I can’t access. I still feel excluded in a way, but actually we are always in a position in which we can be accepted somewhere. RB: Portraiture has dominated your work and you have extended that by looking at Alice Harris’ pictures. Can you talk about your relationship with her images? SB: I came from Katanga, so I knew how society operated. The people who worked for the mining industry and the train company, both important companies in the province, were considered above other workers, who were dependent on the Man. My parents didn’t work for those industries. We were the kind of people who depended. You had a class system. When I started to document the architectural heritage of the mining areas, I found them completely abandoned. It was a kind of destruction. I thought about all I’ve learned and all I’ve experienced in this reality, and there was a contrast that shocked me. I wanted to know more about the story of the mines, so I started to document the landscapes. RB: Is Katanga still a mining area now? SS: Yeah, yeah! RB: So there’s a continuation of the past?
Ric Bower: What are your feelings about national identity? Sammy Baloji: Truly, I am not sure I can talk about national identity because it relates
SB: Of course. I discovered it through the archives of the mining company. I started to realise how the mining industry was built and how people were deported and
brought by force to work and the way that affected them. I wondered about this post-colonial period after independence and how our leaders now think about society and people. It was interesting to focus on the way archives can talk. With photography, people were treated with only a camera. There is something really violent in the way they were depicted. RB: Does the act of taking a photograph create further separation? SB: You do see that. You can even see it when you compare black people and white people in the pictures. There’s a real separation. I started to think about the past and trying to mix it with the present, because I don’t think there is separation there. There can be some discontinuity, but we still live in the same process. Archives do not belong to the past. Somehow it’s just about looking to the past from this point in time and seeing how the past can influence the present. For me, it’s about now.
SB: No, but now what I’m trying to do with my work is to present a fact. I think there is another way to see or to deal with the city. RB: There’s a history of people leaving a difficult environment and finding that they have much to teach the world about dealing with accelerated power structures. Do you find that you are now working in two environments: the Congo and the environment here – a postcolonial, postmodern Belgium?
RB: Your work acts as a bridge between now and colonial times, then?
SB: Yes. Actually, I think that I belong to the two parts of the world that I come from, but I’m not focused on the Congo being in Africa and Europe being somewhere else. The reason for the First World War was not about the assassination of someone, like everyone says. It was because European countries wanted colonies. Since then, we have been in a relationship. We are still linked. I used to think that people in Europe believed themselves to be separate from Africa, even though they get resources from African countries. They still think they are here and we are there, which is wrong. In a way I still think we are connected – all of us.
SB: I set out to discover the history because I knew nothing about the colonial past. We don’t talk about that time.
RB: In Venice, you’re working with many other artists. That dialogue is complex. What do you learn in that context?
RB: Why is that?
SB: It’s not just other artists. It’s other architects and photographers. I come from the Congo where we haven’t got an Academy of Fine Arts and the only way you can do anything is to collaborate with other people or it can’t exist. So I have this positive notion about working within a group; I need to be in a community and a group is a community, in a way. I’m not the kind of man who thinks just about himself. Working with other artists makes me feel stronger. —CCQ
SB: Collective trauma. I think President Mobutu wanted to erase the past, but also create a national identity. We had a dictatorial period for nearly two years and people were tired of that. My work is an introspection, while also trying to balance these ideas. But I want more information. I don’t just want to use archives. RB: When you look back through these archives, you apply the same sensibility in your own work. So where could that process go beyond photography? Any plans to extend your practice to other media? SB: My work is about space and human bodies in the space. It’s not about archives. It’s about our positions in the landscape. What’s the position of the body in society? When we talk about society or the city, it’s interesting to understand how the body can define these social structures. I also try to understand how people deal with the city. People are dealing with the city in their own painful way of mixing tradition with modern. Now the conversation suggests we just copy and paste the colonial constitution but, in reality, there’s a mix of the traditional pre-colonial period and the modern way of thinking and being. I’m trying to show that mix; it’s an identity that resonates with a lot of people today. So actually my work makes cartographies or topographies of cities. It examines the remains of the postcolonial conception of spatial politics related to the body. In that sense, I’m using scarification because scarification is a graphic signature, or way of writing, belonging to a political thinking, but also a social way of living and community. RB: Is there a tradition of scarification in the Congo? SB: Yes, but it disappeared with missionaries during the colonial period. RB: Has it re-emerged now?
Ric Bower spoke to Sammy Baloji at the Imane Fares stand at Art Brussels. Baloji exhibits work as part of Personne et les autres: Vincent Meessen and Guests at the Belgian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale until 22 November 2015. personne-et-les-autres.be/ belgianpavilion.be/en imanefares.com
p45 (top) Untitled 18, Sammy Baloji, 2006, 60 x 159cm, archival digital photograph on satin matte paper Courtesy of the artist and Imane Farès p45 (middle) Untitled 12, Sammy Baloji, 2006, 60 x 180cm, archival digital photograph on satin matte paper Courtesy of the artist and Imane Farès p45 (bottom) Untitled 24, Sammy Baloji, 2006, 60 x 160cm, archival digital photograph on satin matte paper Courtesy of the artist and Imane Farès p46 Essay on Urban Planning, Sammy Baloji, 2013, 12 colour photographs Copyright Sammy Baloji, courtesy the artist and Imane Farès
cut out and keep souvenir programme
With special thanks to all of the collaborators.
Alexia Menikou Francesca Donovan Emma Geliot Rhiannon Lowe
The Production Team
Personnes et les autres, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale runs until 31st October 2015 personne-et-les-autres.be
Act II, The Belgian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale Belgian artist Vincent Meessen, together with international guest artists, present Meessen’s proposal Personne et les autres. The exhibition breaks the tradition of Belgium’s representation in Venice, which has to date featured solo or duo exhibitions of Belgian artists. It challenges the notion of national representation, opening it up to include multiple positions and viewpoints. Working in close collaboration, Meessen and curator Katerina Gregos have welcomed 10 other artists from four continents, whose work has explored the question of colonial modernity. The title of the exhibition, Personne et les autres, is borrowed from a lost play by André Frankin, a Belgian art critic affiliated with the Lettrist and Situationist Internationals. It questions the Eurocentric idea of modernity by examining a shared avant-garde heritage, marked by artistic and intellectual cross-pollination between Europe and Africa.
Art Brussels, 22 April – 24 April 2016 at Tour & Taxis artbrussels.com/en
Act I, Art Brussels An annual contemporary art fair at the end of April, Art Brussels attracts 30,000 visitors over four days. In 2015 Art Brussels hosted six artist and curator-run, non-profit spaces. Each one was invited to present a special project, creating a platform for experimentation and durational practice. From 2016, Art Brussels will be held at the Tour & Taxis site in central Brussels.
Catalogue P.F.A. ‒ les bandes dessinées de petit format pour adultes publiées en France, Yves Grenet, 2015. 7 volumes articulés par éditeurs, de 164 à 464 pages chacun, 210 mm x 297 mm. Artists Club Coffre Fort, (Les Coffres Forts/ The Heaviest Booth, Art Brussels 2015), Photo: Gástôn van Mülders, (after Juan Sánche Cotán)
by Bertolt van Mülders
A play in two acts, in two cities, in which not much happens but much is said
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Olive Martin & Patrick Bernier Participating artists, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale The collaborative duo present a new work, L’Echiqueté, as part of Personne et les autres at the Belgian Pavilion. L’Echiqueté, included in the ICI exhibition Free Play, is a variant of the game of chess – but captured pawns are not removed from play, instead they change colour from black to white, or vice versa.
Maryam Jafri Participating artist, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale For the Belgian Pavilion, Maryam Jafri presents a series of photo and textbased works, which juxtapose iconic images from post colonialist African Independence in Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya, and Congo. Ownership of the images is claimed by private image banks. Jafri highlights their contested ownership to reveal inherent inconsistencies. Presenting a new work for the exhibition, Getty vs. Musée Royal D’Afrique Centrale vs. DR Congo (2015), Jafri contrasts an image of King Baudouin of Belgium with one of President Kasavubu of Congo on the day before Congo’s independence from Belgium. maryamjafri.net
James Beckett Participating artist, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale In his work produced for the Biennale, Negative Space: A Scenario Generator for Clandestine Building in Africa (2015),James Beckett examines African architecture and the surge of Modernist vernacular. An automated storage and retrieval machine – as used in warehouses and pharmacies – arranges wooden building blocks into portraits of Modernist African buildings, referencing the buildings’ negative space and potential for clandestine expansion of living spaces. jamesbeckett.tk
Nathalie Hartjes Artistic Director, Nieuwe Vide Based in Haarlem, the Netherlands, Nieuwe Vide has been showcasing emerging contemporary art practice since 1997. The programme ranges from exhibitions, festivals and gatherings, with a developing focus on crossdisciplinary working. Small experimental solo presentations, in their own exhibition space, coexist with large collaborations at multiple locations. Hartjes was, at the time the artistic director of Nieuwe Vide in Haarlem, and commissioned Holls’ performance at Art Brussels nieuwevide.nl
Artists Club Coffre Fort Participating artists, Not-For-Profit area, Art Brussels Artists Club Coffre Fort is an artist-run, not-for-profit initiative, focusing on supporting experimental practice and the production of new work. Set up towards the end of 2012 by Thibaut Espiau, Ištvan Išt Huzjan and Gregoire Motte, together they run a studio and a lively exhibition programme in the vault of a former jewellery store. artistsclubcoffrefort.com
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------About the play Opening Up is the only surviving work by Bertolt van Mülders, the enigmatic playwright who came to prominence, briefly, at Art Brussels in April 2015, where the first act is set. He workshopped the dialogue with the artistic director, Katerina Gregos, and some of the exhibitors in the not-for-profit section of the art fair, namely Artists Club Coffre Fort, the Holls collective and Nathalie Hartjes, of Nieuwe Vide.Van Mülders resurfaced a month later, at the Venice Biennale, and continued to develop the work with some of the artists who had been invited by Vincent Meessen to exhibit in Personne et les autres, at the Belgian Pavilion. Shortly afterwards, Opening Up was published (the title plagarised from a catalogue essay by the pavilion’s curator, Katerina Gregos – making a return appearance). Van Mülders then vanished; rumours about the playwright’s disappearance have been rife. It has been said that he died in a tragic accident, involving a space hopper and some sausage meat.
The Cast Katerina Gregos Artistic Director, Art Brussels and Curator, The Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2015 An art historian, curator and writer, based in Brussels, Gregos was curator of Contour 2009 – the 4th Biennial of Moving Image in Mechelen – and the founder of a new initiative, The People’s Cinema – a flexible and mobile presentation platform, devoted to work by contemporary artists working with moving image. During 2006 and 2007, she was the artistic director of the Centre for Art and Media in Brussels, and an independent curator between 2003 and 2005. From 1997 to 2002 she was Director of the Deste Foundation, Centre for Contemporary Art, Athens. Gregos regularly publishes writing in magazines, books and exhibition catalogues, and is a frequent speaker at international conferences and seminars. The Holls Collective Participating artists, Not-For-Profit area, Art Brussels The collective comprises: Lisanne Ackermann, Dóra Benyó, Saskia Burggraaf, Katinka van Gorkum, Josje Hattink, Pia Louwerens, Lotte Pet, and Machteld Rullens. They all trained at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. While retaining individual practices, they operate as an interdisciplinary machine. Their performances involve physical labour, time and endurance, to create space-invading installations. The Holls organises themselves in meetings and metaphors, often using game tactics. At Art Brussels, their performance Got my mind on confetti and confetti on my mind, was an adaption of their earlier work Confetti/Control (2013). Involving 200kg of confetti, it subverted the art fair, confetti inadvertently being carried away by visitors. thehollscollective.com
Opening Up A play in two acts, in two cities, in which not much happens but much is said. by Bertolt van Mülders
Dramatis Personæ In order of appearance
Act I Brussels, April Ric Bower – reporter Katerina Gregos – Artistic Director, Art Brussels Ištvan Išt Huzjan – Artist, Artists Club Coffre Fort Thibaut Espiau – Artist, Artists Club Coffre Fort Gregoire Motte – Artist, Artists Club Coffre Fort The Chicken – Collaborator, Artists Club Coffre Fort The Chorus – The Holls Collective Nathalie Hartjes – Artistic Director, Nieuwe Vide
Act II Venice, May Katerina Gregos – Curator, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale James Beckett – Artist, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale Maryam Jafri – Artist, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale Olive Martin – Artist, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale Patrick Bernier – Artist, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale
Brussels Act I, scene I Art Brussels. A great hall divided into booths. Set back from the main commercial stands, a cluster of not-for-profit, artist-led booths huddle together for warmth. The stage is occupied with one such 25m2 booth,. it is crammed with open safes filled with artworks by Artists Club Coffre Fort collaborators. In one safe, a chicken clucks. In the background the braying noise of art-lovers, collectors and critics is muted.
profit spaces, emphasise the sales aspect of the art fair and use the opportunity to reflect on and play with the specifics of that context. For us, it was always clear that we couldn’t participate in Art Brussels without joining in with this game. Ric: [looks down at his notes again, runs his finger down a list] Nietzsche once said, “We possess art lest we perish of the truth”; what role does truth play within creative practice? The Holls : Our response to Nietzsche would be that truth is both the starting point and the destination of creative practice. Katerina: I would be careful about using the term ‘truth’, because it is a relative concept; but, that said, art reveals things that some prefer not to be revealed. Ištvan: As artists we tell the truth by lying. Thibaut: [dead-pan] I think the chicken has something to say on the subject of truth... The Chicken: ...pluck, pluck, pluck... BDAAK, bdaaaak, pluck pluck! Gregoire: When we got the proposal from Katerina, our initial reaction was to work with people we already work with, as opposed to seeking out famous or saleable artists to collaborate with. Ric: Some might claim that art has become irrelevant to everyday experience. How might creative practice re-engage with the general population? Katerina: There is a paradox in your question. You are saying that art has become disengaged at a moment when art has never been more popular. There have never been more exhibition spaces, museums or cultural initiatives; there is an explosion of art all over the world. I would turn the question round and ask you ‘what does that say?’
[Ric, the reporter, enters stage left and sits on one of the safes. He eyes the chicken uneasily and furtively looks down at his notes. The artists and the chorus lounge on the other safes. They talk to each other, ignoring the reporter] The Chicken: Pwark! [Katerina enters from behind the booth and sits next to the reporter. They begin to talk, their conversation is inaudible at first. The background noise fades away] Katerina: I think it is important to consider how an art fair yields its power. The not-for-profit spaces at big art fairs, like Art Brussels, allow for practices that are more experimental. Ric: So, how does performance fit in at an art fair? The Holls: [sarcastically] We fill the space with 200 kilos of useless material and eight performing artists. It barely fits into a 25m2 art fair booth. You might call the original version of the performance, Got my mind on confetti and confetti on my mind, our bestseller. Repeating this performance with more confetti pretty much guarantees us even more success, don’t you think? Ištvan: We are always questioning the format within which we create. For Art Brussels we have become merchants, safe salesmen. The Holls: It’s interesting to see how artists, represented by not-for-
Ric: But is there not a distinction between popularity and relevance? Katerina: [increasingly irritated] You cannot presume that because millions of people are visiting exhibitions, they are only going to see a spectacle. How can art engage more effectively? By not being elitist for starters. Everybody wants to know to what extent art affects society, but this question presupposes that art is something you can measure with tools of statistical analysis. That is simply not how art works. In both society and individuals, art works latently. In short, I am not going to answer your question because I disagree with it. Ištvan: I think there is a way to measure it, and that is by taking it away. This has happened before in times of fascism. It is happening again now due to politics of austerity. [Nathalie Hartjes rushes into the booth and takes a seat on a spare safe.] Ric: Katerina, how do you fold inherently non-saleable practices into an art fair? Katerina: First of all, some of the work on view in the Not-for-Profit section is saleable. Not-for-profit does not mean not-for-sale. What I hope will happen for these spaces is that, on the basis of dialogues and relationships created within the fair, there will be a continuation of activity. Not necessarily just within the field of art. When one has an encounter that sparks the intellect, one tends to pursue that encounter. These encounters – as I have seen happen many times before – might then be transformed into other dialogues; a domino effect that you cannot predict. Nathalie: [slightly breathless] In principle, everything is saleable. Tino Sehgal sells what he does with unwritten contracts, even though it is entirely intangible. What we do here, you can label simply not-for-profit, but I think it is more accurate to say that we have an alternative obligation. As public institutions, we have a responsibility to the public, whereas the gallery’s obligations are firstly to the artists and their careers. We are showing here a performance piece, Got my mind on confetti and confetti on my mind, which is certainly difficult to sell, but by no means impossible. Aside from the issue of sales, the exposure we get here, at Art Brussels – where there are 30,000 visitors over four days – is really useful. Ric: Does society get the art it deserves? Katerina: [now very irritated] I have problems with that question too. You are presuming that art takes a specific form that is reflective of society. When you look at the one per cent – the bankers, the financiers and the flippers – perhaps they get the art they deserve: the bling-bling work with the inflated prices. But that is the one per cent and the rest of us are the 99%, of course. I have real trouble when people say ‘the art world’. They are presuming that art is just one thing. There is no art world. There are art worlds, plural. In the same sense, there isn’t one society; therefore there cannot be one kind of art that is a mirror of society. Nathalie: It is a really evil question! Ric: Can you see us moving into a time when art is not seen as product; a pre-renaissance, pre-enlightenment time, when artists were cultural prophets perhaps? Katerina: I would not call artists prophets, but artists are often ahead of the times in terms of understanding societal mechanics and perceiving, or alluding to, how things might change. Nathalie: When you phrase the question ‘going back to a time’, you are presuming that over the course of the intervening centuries, a phenomenon did not exist. There are undertows and sub-currents
in which a great variety of creative engagements occur. Ric: Is it impossible to stand separate from the traditions within which we operate? Katerina: There is a difference between tradition and history. What is important is to understand where you have come from. If you want to kill your parents, so to speak, you first need to work out who they are. I would like to offer a reflection on entanglements at this point; particularly, if you will excuse me, misunderstandings perpetuated by the press in relation to linear definitions of power. In reality things are more complex than the black-or-white perspectives proffered by the media. An art fair is a good place from which to reflect upon this artificial polarisation. The truth is there is no art without at least some money to enable it and the market, in itself, is not inherently bad. It’s how one exercises one’s ethics from within it that counts. Nathalie: The sale of a work is often the first step towards its conservation... Katerina: ...I agree. And, that aside, art is perhaps the last unregulated space for free expression in the face of increasing commodification and privatisation. Maybe for some it is a niche space, but does it have to lose that character if it is from within this niche that the best critique comes? [Fade to blackout] The Chicken: Bwark! [Curtain]
Untitled, Sadaharu Horio + On-site Art Squad ‘KUKI@, 2015 safe, various materials, cardboard, paper, wood, various dimensions Artists Club Coffre Fort, (Les Coffres Forts/ The Heaviest Booth, Art Brussels 2015), photo: Gástôn van Mülders, (after Juan Sánche Cotán) [p51]
PUPE, Evor, 2015, plaster, ink, 310mm x 150mm x 70 mm Artists Club Coffre Fort, (Les Coffres Forts/ The Heaviest Booth, Art Brussels 2015), photo: Gástôn van Mülders, (after Juan Sánche Cotán)
Fox, Henhouse and Crow, Robert Whilhite, 2015 safe, taxidermy fox, chicken and crow, various dimensions Artists Club Coffre Fort, (Les Coffres Forts/ The Heaviest Booth, Art Brussels 2015), photo: Gástôn van Mülders, (after Juan Sánche Cotán) [p54] Prop, James Beckett, 2015 safe, mixed steel and wood, various dimensions Artists Club Coffre Fort, (Les Coffres Forts/ The Heaviest Booth, Art Brussels 2015), photo: Gástôn van Mülders, (after Juan Sánche Cotán) [above] Got my mind on confetti and confetti on my mind, The Holls Collective, 2015, confetti, various dimensions, Art Brussels 2015, photo: courtesy of The Holls Collective
Venice Act II, scene I A garden in front of The Belgian Pavilion, its façade just seen, in the Giardini at the 56th Venice Biennale. There is a great deal of media activity on stage. Artists and curators are being interviewed; camera crews and glamorous television presenters are jostling for the best locations. On a low plinth, to the rear of the stage, Katerina is doing a television interview. We see her gesticulate. Ric sits on a deckchair in the shade of a solitary false acacia tree, sipping espresso from a paper cup. He is waiting. Katerina finishes a television interview and draws up a second deckchair beside him.
gesture of sharing throws into question the notion of exclusive authorship. The artist chooses not to occupy centre stage but to enter into a dialogue: ‘the harnessing of collective intelligences’, as Vincent puts it. Through these dialogues we are looking at what Belgium represents as a country. Belgium itself is a construct that was created in 1830 and perhaps, within Europe, has the least developed sense of national identity. In that sense, it provides the perfect context for an international exhibition. [James enters. His hair is long and his arm is in a cast after a recent motorbike accident; he wears sawn-off skate shorts and a loose fitting T-shirt. He pulls up another deckchair and sits down.] Ric: How do assertions of ego or, conversely, demonstrations of altruism – the manifestations of a practitioner’s character – fold into this presentation where there are so many participants involved? Katerina: The title, Personne et les autres, answers your question I think. Personne is the individual but it also means ‘no one’ in French, so the individual becomes anonymous in relation to the whole. In this case Vincent becomes the Personne. He relinquishes the authorial position and puts himself in relation to les autres. He becomes anonymous. It becomes about the development of relationships and how these relationships occupy space on an equal footing. James: We have to make a community of artists so we can help develop each other’s practices, rather than this linear bullshit. Ego is what separates us, so when the shit hits the fan we find that we are lacking solidarity, and the infrastructure around us serves only to foster those individual egos. China is a very interesting extreme. I was working there from 2000 to 2006. Students would be picked up by galleries and then their classmates would, as a result, be completely out of the picture. It seemed random, how they got selected. There was certainly nothing healthy about the process. Artists in the West generally have to be entrepreneurial; they have to push themselves. I get the sense that elsewhere, in Russia for instance, artists can aspire to be hermetic and to focus on their work over their career. Ric: This kind of falls in line with the Platonic idea of eudemonia, the good composed of all goods; a kind of holistic flourishing.
Ric: [taking a deep breath] In the catalogue essay for Personne et les autres, the Belgian presentation for the 56th Venice Biennale, you talk of ‘opening up’. What does that mean exactly? Katerina: We had to consider, within the context of the Venice Biennale, what national representation means today. The Biennale is a construct that originates in 1895, during the heyday of the idea of the nation state. The Biennale was one of many exhibitions and fairs that were intended to showcase the achievements of the European superpowers. Now we are in the 21st century and the world has completely changed. The notion of the nation state is in question and identities are acknowledged as being migratory and fluid. It is very strange to me that the majority of pavilions in the Biennale still adhere to this 19th century model. I find it rather conservative and deeply uninteresting to be honest. It also makes absolutely no sense to base the criteria of selection for a pavilion on an artist’s origin. Often the norm in national pavilions is a solo exhibition of an artist that comes from – in other words, holds the passport of – the country they are representing. So the first thing we asked ourselves was what it means to represent a country. The Belgian Pavilion is a very particular case. It is shared by the two main linguistic communities within Belgium – the French speaking and Flemish speaking regions. I had already worked with Vincent Meessen on a number of occasions. He came to me with the idea of opening the pavilion up and not occupying the Pavilion alone as an artist; something he very well could have done. We decided to invite10 international artists to participate in what Vincent determined as an act of sharing and exchange. Of course, this
James: The Greek idea of community, whereby you give yourself to your friends in a process of personal interchange, is a useful idea too. Our perception of what constitutes happiness has become this polar and essentialist thing. Many such old ideas have suddenly become urgent and pertinent. Katerina: Russia is a good example of how private interest plays a significant role through foundations run by oligarchs. There is the myth, though, that public institutions provide a purer domain in which to work, but the moment an artist is selected to represent a pavilion – or is chosen for the main exhibition at the Biennale – a mechanism is put in place where private money still needs to be harnessed. Nothing is pure. There is hypocrisy in demonising the market. Art has always needed money; it can’t be made out of thin air after all! What is dangerous here is a shift in balance where private money is taking over from public money in importance. [She pauses and looks up through the leaves of the tree] We are seeing the erosion of state contribution towards the arts; collectors and private investors have stepped into a more central role. When this happens commercial factors come into play and certain other considerations are inevitably marginalised. When we began work on this show we received basic funding from the French-speaking community of Belgium, which is the amount of money with which one would expect to produce a solo exhibition, rather than a group show. So, I started fundraising for the pavilion. It was very, very difficult to convince people to put money towards a project that was, first of all, political and dealt with an uncomfortable aspect of Belgian colonial history and, secondly, included artists who are not market names. Some collectors said to me, ‘But, who is this Vincent Meessen? We have never heard of him, he does not have a gallery’. It highlighted to me the discrepancy that exists between these different art worlds. It is as if an artist who does not have a gallery does not exist. Ric: What does showing at the Venice Biennale do for the development of an artist’s career? Katerina: Let’s start with a basic given: it is extremely challenging and difficult for an artist to show in a context which has been increasingly co-opted and commercialised by the art market.
Personally, I do not look at ‘career trajectory’, but into what an artist creates in terms of his or her practice. In the case of Vincent – who has consciously been completely outside the art market and has been producing his work under the radar for many years – he has not been as susceptible to the kind of violence the market exercises on other artists who have been hyped. There are different art worlds: the art world of commerce and then the art world of institutions, biennials, critical and institutional practices and so on. Within the context of the commercial art world, this constant searching for the ‘next hot young thing’ becomes a problem. Elsewhere, artists can develop their practices in a more organic way. The Venice Biennale is both the best and the worst place to show. It offers a tremendous platform, but, on the other hand, there is so much to see that people’s attention is compromised. I know some artists who have done very well with Venice and others who merited great success, but nothing happened for them. Showing in the Biennale does not come with any guarantees. Ric: Once the hegemony of the old historical metanarratives have been laid to waste, what might we expect to find in the ashes? Katerina: Ashes are a good metaphor because they are grey. It is within this grey territory that truth lies, particularly when deconstructing history, as artists are doing in this pavilion. From the ashes of formerly cemented narratives, the artist comes to play an important role. The sociologist Paul Gilroy recently said the people who are leading the discussion, in terms of the state of the world, are not politicians or academics or philosophers, they are artists. Artists are able to pinpoint, excavate and reconstruct using these ashes to rediscover meanings that had been cast aside. And once we know where we come from we can inquire as to where we are going. [Fade to blackout]
[above and below], ONE. TWO. THREE. Vincent Meessen, 2015, Three channel video installation in loop, Photo: courtesy the artist and Normal
Act II, scene II [Ric and James are still sitting in their deckchairs under the tree. Katerina’s seat is now empty.]
Generator for Clandestine Building in Africa proposes bricking in and making private the negative spaces within these buildings. Residential use of these buildings is, of course, absurd! You would never do it! It is more celebration than subversion though. The African buildings we are looking at are fantastic and really varied; from Art Deco in Ethiopia, through a number of variations on the International Style, to Israeli architects working in Nigeria. I actually have very little critique personally of modernist architecture; we are just creating facade portraits of the buildings. Ric: It feels like the Amazon robots, which you have used in the installation, have been redeemed from their normal societal function, in some way; that is to feed consumer demand. How did your thinking develop to include them? James: The idea developed out of a conversation with Katerina about
Ric: I can’t work out whether Scenario Generator for Clandestine Building in Africa, your contribution to the Belgian Pavilion, is essentially optimistic. Or are you co-opting characteristically postmodern vehicles – the computer and the commercial robot – to subvert the dehumanising influence of modernity, to seek out a different path, so to speak? James: It’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek trick, really, to turn ceremonial and infrastructural modernist African architecture – universities, airports and hospitals – into residential space. Most of the buildings we examined were built between the war and the respective African countries’ independence from their colonial occupiers. The Scenario
trade. We were referencing a particular Situationist play. I went on to research how the use of ivory in the manufacture of billiard balls transitioned into the use of Bakelite. I wanted to create a device that demonstrated the process of mechanisation in the movement of commodities. Then our conversation shifted to encompass architecture â€“ in fact, the conversation keeps shifting. It is not about appropriating the robots to do something of genuine use, as you were suggesting, but demonstrating that we already have super-efficient machines doing things that are completely ridiculous, like the car, for instance, which is a brilliantly executed, bad idea. Ric: How does your machine make decisions? Is there an algorithm by which the space within each building is reordered? James: The program works with data from scans, which is collated
into a database, rather than from a single, universal algorithm. The blocks themselves are derived from Froebel blocks and they represent all the possible dimensional permutations of the reconstructed space; as they get larger they become lighter in colour. Froebel blocks are educational toys that became popular as brainstorming tools for architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and within the Bauhaus. The geometry of each space is represented through a separate vernacular within the different types of blocks. Ric: Is research, in the context of your practice, inherently a collaborative process? James: Very often, yes. When working with Katerina you get pushed. Itâ€™s nice to be pushed. [Darkness] [Above], Negative Space: A Scenario Generator for Clandestine Building in Africa, James Beckett, 2015, Installation view, Photo: courtesy of the artist
[left] Constitution of Niger Armed Forces, Unknown, 1961 Photo: courtesy of Patrick Bernier [right] L’Echiqueté (Checkered Chess), Olive Martin & Patrick Bernier, 2012 Installation view, photo: Olive Martin
Act II, scene III [Interior of the Belgian Pavilion. Olive is standing in front of a chess board. There is a large black and white photograph and some descriptive text on the wall behind her, stage right. Ric enters, stage left. Walks up to the photograph, glances at the text and raises an eyebrow at Olive]
later through this project. Ric: Can you explain the significance of that single archive photograph you took as your starting point for the project? Patrick: The photograph is of the constitution of Niger’s Armed Forces and the commemoration of the first anniversary of the Republic of Niger in 1961. This event followed the signing, which had occurred a few months earlier, of a defence agreement between France and what are now Burkina-Faso and Benin. The agreement stipulated that the French would provide material aid and would allocate troops to help these countries form their own national armies. Under the table, negotiations were being made to ensure France’s privileged access to Niger’s abundant natural resources. In many ways this event marks the beginning of France’s neo-colonialism in the area. [He pauses, looking around for somewhere to deposit the apple core, which he has been using to emphasise words like ‘violent’, gives up and continues to hold it, turning back to Ric] The three key people in the photograph are the first president of Niger, Hamani Diori, wearing black; and at his side is the commander of the French army in Niger, in white. On the other side of the president is the first counsellor of the French ambassador, Auguste Bernier, wearing grey. That’s my grandfather. He was from Guadeloupe in the French Caribbean and went to Paris during the ’30s to study at the Ecole Coloniale. He made his career as a colonial administrator in different African countries. This position, in the newly independent Republic of Niger, was his last one. His profile was not unique; French administration seemed to make use of its Caribbean citizens in that way. I question how someone coming from a colonised piece of land, with a background related to African slavery, should morph into the administrative arm in another colonised country in Africa. These paradoxical characters epitomise the transitional characters Olive and I are interested in. Ric: That is fascinating, but we must play chess now. And I warn you, I get very grumpy if I don’t win. [They all leave, walking slowly off behind the wall bearing the photograph. Patrick is still waving the apple core as they disappear, their voices disappear] [Fade to blackout]
Olive: The project started with an archive image. We conceived our chess variant to disrupt that formalised opposition inherent in the game. [Patrick enters, eating an apple] Patrick: We find ourselves attracted to transitional characters. Switching sides in life can be a survival strategy. The chequered character that emerges in our chess variant plays this part. Ric: To be transitional, or transgressive, is a provocative position in itself. Society finds it threatening. Have you therefore formalised the idea of the transgressive within your chess variant? Olive: Yes, indeed. Society usually demands clarity. Patrick: A chess player approached me to play yesterday. He began by asking me what my level was as a player. I showed him the adjusted rules, then we began to play ‘rigorous’ chess. When he made the first capture I explained to him that the piece was now a ‘common’ piece. He stood up sharply, exclaimed it was all ‘completely ridiculous!’ and left. He was really upset. In a less emphatic sense, when I teach people to play the variant there is a level of broader comprehension that develops. People find the chequered pieces uncomfortable; they want to take them out of the game. Olive: In chess the language associated with capturing a piece is violent: you take or you capture. L’Echiqueté uses a different set of words; to cross or to marry. As with colonisation, within the chequered piece remains a scar of the initial violence, but the character of both sides remains within it too. When playing L’Echiqueté, one experiments with the idea of reciprocal capture. Ric: How did you find working in a pavilion with nine other projects? Olive: We had known Vincent for years and he was familiar with L’Echiqueté, as we first presented it in 2012. He spoke to us about being involved before he knew he had got the gig; we thought it was courageous. We did not know all the artists but we trusted him. It is all very much about dialogue for us. We met Katerina
Act II, Scene IV
[Maryam collapses, exhausted, into an empty deckchair, under the false acacia tree, brushing spent blossoms from the canvas as she sits. Ric appears and walks briskly to stand in front of her, digital recorder in his hand. He remains standing]
forward. Getty and Corbis own a huge portion of the image landscape we see online. Official information is almost all coming from those guys. The Internet is bizarre; it is an explosion of diversity and homogenisation simultaneously. It’s schizophrenic. On one hand it levels the playing field with new voices, and on the other it concentrates sources of power. My Venice works present a series of schisms: offline/online, African/international, public/ corporate, digital/analogue. Ric: Where would you say this schizophrenia is leading us? Maryam: The dystopian view states it will get more concentrated in terms of capital, power and the right to make images. Then, there is the privatisation of absolutely everything. But you have just had an election so you know that! In Africa we were dealing with fragile analogue archives, stored in tropical conditions so, unfortunately, it will be the digitised Corbis and Getty versions of history that will dominate in the next 30 to 50 years. [Fade to blackout]—CCQ
Maryam: I hear you lost in five moves. Is that a record? Just to let you know, I am running on fumes, so go easy on me. Ric: [unsympathetically] Maryam, is the exhibition space – as it has developed over the 20th century – inherently inappropriate for the presentation of your work which, due to its intimate scale, requires close examination and total attention from audiences? Maryam: [struggling to hide irritation] That is a leading question. You are expecting me to say ‘yes’ but the answer is ‘no’. The work is in dialogue with specific elements of art history and showing the work in a white cube formalises that lineage. I am always thinking of dialogue with other artists when I work. I question who actually owns the archives that artists, researchers and academics are looking at. Where are the information pipelines and how do they reach us, in other words? I was specifically looking at African colonial independence days images, which are already highly charged. There is an older museological debate related to cultural patrimony going on too. Rather than dealing with the Parthenon Marbles though, we are dealing with information; bits and bytes. Ric: What is it about the lens that is so pertinent as a vehicle for documentation? Are we moving into a post-lens era now? Maryam: We are moving into a post-lens era, but not a post-image era. The dialogue I present is not so much looking back as looking
[above], Getty Vs. Ghana, Maryam Jafri, 2012, Installation view (detail), Courtesy of the artist
Something Rich and Strange
A casual find on a Pembrokeshire beach became a full-blown project for photographic artist Mike Perry. He tells Emma Geliot about some of the challenges in presenting work about environmental change.
I first saw Mike Perry’s series of photographs for Môr Plastig online and was immediately taken with them. But seeing them in the flesh in Venice, shot at 1:1 scale with incredible detail, was a revelation. I left the show with Ariel’s speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest running through my mind, reminded that Nature is a powerful force and that nothing... “…Doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange” And I wanted to know more, so I asked him. Emma Geliot: How did Môr Plastig come about? Did you find a single thing or come to the realisation that the beach was full of these unusual objects? Mike Perry: I started picking up and collecting bits of plastic after I moved from London to the West coast of Wales in 2005. At first, I played around with them as sculptural ready-mades, but soon started photographing them with a small digital camera, recording them in a book format, like a contemporary guide to the seashore. I was mainly interested in playing with the juxtaposition of shapes and colours. The environmental story was important but secondary at this stage.
Eventually, I started photographing single pieces with a powerful medium format digital camera, which allowed me to capture the degrading effects of the sea on the plastic with extreme detail. My recent landscape work had been photographing Man’s impact on Nature, but here I was looking at Nature’s impact on the man-made. I realised that, as individual objects, they told a fuller story... not just the environmental narrative, and what we are leaving for future generations, but also how Nature breaks down and re-designs our material world. EG: When did the photographing of these objects become a project in your mind and did you impose any kind of structure or criteria on yourself? MP: I knew, as soon as I had made the first single piece, that there was something promising here and Môr Plastig, Welsh for ‘Plastic Sea’, was the obvious title. By photographing the object, rather than just framing it as a ready made, I was giving it a different status. The ‘structure’ I imposed was to photograph each piece forensically at a scale of 1:1, straight onto camera and with flat, neutral light. This is intended to bring objectivity to the process, allowing the viewer to decide how to interpret the objects and their stories. I didn’t want to create highly emotional campaigning images. Instead, I wanted to reduce the objects to their pure formal states, separating them for a moment from any meaning beyond their sculptural presence. The ambiguity or tension that
this may create between the aesthetic and underlying narrative is an important part of the work. The paradox is that nature creates extraordinary forms from whatever is put in front of it, whether it is the ‘natural’ landscape or man-made pollutants. It will go on doing its thing whether humans are around or not. EG: How did you come to be selected for Vita Vitale? MP: Vita Vitale was curated by Artwise, a UK based curatorial team. They had seen a pair of my Môr Plastig shoes, in 2014 at Cornelia Parker’s curated Black and White Room at The Royal Academy, and a grid of shoes at The Photographers’ Gallery in London. The work seemed to fit with Vita Vitale (‘Vital Life’ in Italian), a show about the ‘delicate balance of the planet’s ecosystem and Man’s footprint within it’. It was great to be included, given the quality of artists showing, and nice to have some additional presence for Wales at the Biennale. In fact, at the time they were selecting artists I was
attending an artist residency at Oriel y Parc in St Davids, in partnership with National Museum Wales. They included several pieces made during the residency; objects that had been collected via a public beach clean along the Pembrokeshire Coast. I was asked in Venice, by one of the Biennale organisers, whether I’d organise a similar event at The Lido and make work for the latter part of the show. I’m currently looking at the feasibility and I suspect there will be rich pickings, as the Venetian authorities don’t appear to keep their beaches as clean as the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park… That reminds me, I must write and request that they leave more plastic out for me! EG: Did you consider the notion of representation when you were included in that show and what was the curatorial premise you were given? MP: The ecological theme of the show was very important to me and it’s not easy to reach large numbers with environmental
issues, so Venice was a great platform. A number of the artists discussed the connection to Azerbaijan – an oil state with a poor record on human rights – but the conclusion was that the message should take priority and, in this global world where everybody burns fossil fuels, artists have to get their messages across where they can. The sponsor, International Dialogue for Environmental Action (IDEA), the conservation charity, Save Our Species (SAS), and the curators seemed genuinely passionate about the subject and new work was commissioned for the show from scientists as well as artists. I think that the animals whose habitats are threatened by climate change and pollution would probably want their stories told, whether the sponsor is an oil nation or not. With corporate sponsorship playing a bigger role in the arts, and increasingly in the area of sustainability, it is becoming a lot more problematic for artists trying to decide which funds to accept and which to reject. BP’s sponsorship of the Tate is a good example. Personally, I think the key thing is that artists
are not censored and have full control over how their work is presented. A year ago, I pulled out of a photographic competition sponsored by a manufacturer of the banned neonicotinoid pesticides, which, according to independent scientists, are killing our bees. After sending them photos of dead bees, my website was suspiciously dismantled. I’m ashamed to admit this had the effect of scaring me off. I think the point I’m making is this: there are people who care about the environment in places like Azerbaijan and China, and Western corporations that are cynically using the arts to clean their image. Artists have to make their own decisions based on their research and their gut. EG: Did you make any connection between Azerbaijan, its oil production, and the objects you were showing? MP: I think the various works make different connections. The grid – Flip flops and Shoes – is as much about the state of capitalist consumption as it is about the material they are made of. I added shoes from Cuba, Tanzania and Sri Lanka to give the piece a global feel. The Chinese flour sack, which made its way via ocean currents to our local beach in West Wales, is a symbol of the
global reach of China and the crate fragments are about the new abstract forms emerging from the ocean. The pebbles held together by melted plastic are perhaps the most literal connection to oil. But our reliance on oil and the dangerous chemical particles that are getting into the ocean food chain from the breakdown of plastic – a bi-product of oil – is a message that runs across all the work and is relevant to all corporations and nations, blindly investing our futures in this destructive commodity. EG: What’s next for you and for Môr Plastig? MP: Ultimately, I’d like to make a Môr Plastig book as I think it would make an interesting document of our times: a kind of contemporary natural history art publication and a nice way of anchoring the project in West Wales. But I still have a barn full of plastic and lots more work to make in this project. I am about to start photographing ‘plastic stones’ that scientists have named Plastiglomerates, which I’ve been collecting from beaches in North Pembrokeshire. I made a cabinet full of them for Venice. Under the lights, they looked like mini asteroids. It was great to watch people’s reactions. They are defining a
new geological era within the Anthropocene, the epoch where man’s impact on nature is greater than Nature itself. A walk on the beach is never the same for me anymore, as I know that almost everywhere there are stones that aren’t really stones at all. Simply lumps of plastic that have taken on the appearance of stones. Recently, a local landscape painter asked me: “Are you not giving these bits of rubbish a bit too much reverence?” At first I was a bit defensive, but then the penny dropped that actually we were doing the same thing. Both of us were making landscapes about the sublime power of Nature but, whereas his paintings are made by his skillful hand, mine are made by nature. All I had to do was take the photographs. —CCQ
Vita Vitale is one of two Azerbaijani exhibitions at the 56th Venice Biennale created by IDEA (International Dialogue for Environmental Action). It runs until 22 November 2015 azerbaijanvenicebiennale.com m-perry.com
p62 Flip Flops and Shoes x14, Mike Perry, 2015 p63 Pink Fragment, Mike Perry, 2015 Freshwater West, Pembrokeshire, Wales p64 (left) Plastiglomerate, Mike Perry, 2015 Newgale, Pembrokeshire, Wales p64 (right) Chinese Sack, Mike Perry, 2015 p65 (left) Shoe 16, Mike Perry, 2014 p65 (right) Shoe 22, Mike Perry, 2014 Playa Santa Maria, Cuba
Dark and Beautiful Ruth Harries challenges the traditional view of textiles, in a series of works that combine stitch, found objects and multiple layers of meaning. Francesca Donovan takes a walk on the dark side. Black nails spike through barbed wooden chairs, metal wool entwining their legs. Ruth Harries’ dark sculptural forms evoke electric chairs on Death Row. Smaller, inky black objects punctuate a clean, white plinth, like miniature gravestones or dark altars, meshed in gauzes of coal-coloured, cotton coated wire, bent, twisted and covered in a synthetic representation of the fuzz and moss of old age. Silence. Stillness. Presence. Absence. Tranquility. Transience. These are the six themes that guided Ruth Harries in producing her most recent series of work, Synthesis, as part of a Fibre Art Wales group show, Transience. In Synthesis, still and silent objects appear somber, almost solemn, while displaying a material vitality and bursts of creative handwork. Harries explains that the unifying monochromatic pallete is designed, through subtle tonal variations, to focus the eye on the detail in the work. Obliterating the everyday, often utilitarian colours of the prosaic found/readymade objects, draws out other characteristics, rendering them dark, beautiful, and mysterious. Harries says she is aiming for a sense of spirituality and presence as she explores the emotional disparities between construction and destruction, reinventing and reassembling. She memorialises found objects and gives practical items a new creative lease of life. The artist has two strands to her practice; she makes more commercially focused textiles and, as here, more conceptual work. This latter requires a deep engagement with the physicality of organic and man-made matter.
Working with both malleable matter and seemingly intractable found objects, Harries’ love affair with material – textiles, metals and plastics – is inspired by her father, she admits. “The gradual introduction of items, such as pins and nails in my 2D work, developed into 3D sculptures. Revisiting and rediscovering the materials that my father had used for carpentry, carpet laying, soft furnishing and building, led to a response to his practical making in a non-utilitarian way. Many of the items I use came from his abandoned workshop – unexceptional items, which might otherwise have been discarded and overlooked. I also delight in found items in the hardware store.” Through observing her surroundings, Harries uses her findings to develop pieces with both conceptual depth and a refreshing lack of pretension. This current work has reignited Harries’ interest in hand-made processes, she explains: “In an age of fast moving technology, they are an appreciation of the labour-intensive hand techniques and skills of the past; delicate hand knitting and stitching, weaving and patient, concentrated construction.” She becomes absorbed by intense detail, incorporating textile techniques, which might contrast with the simplicity of a single manmade button, for example. The series of small sculptures developed from a set of ten, which Harries felt worked a complete family. Each of these objects has its own unique character, but seen together they begin to interrelate and pack a punch. They are evasive, defensive, enigmatic, almost morbid
in their veiled blackness. Harries describes her solution to the complications of working on a series composed of multiple related objects: “I see each piece as an individual, complete work, yet working with others as an interconnected series. I work very intuitively and on several pieces at the same time”. And, while some of these objects are very small, delicate and vulnerable looking, they are strong and, through the density of colouration, powerful. The artists’ developing practice has won her a lot of fans at home and internationally. She was the only artist from the UK selected for China’s prestigious International Fibre Art Biennale in 2014. For Transience, Harries went into production overdrive, producing 40 more sculptures. The desire to push her practice forward is evident in the output made specifically for the show. “Alongside the small sculptures, I started to work on a larger scale, enjoying the more physical act of making altogether more robust sculptures with concrete, nails and wire. In the Transience exhibition, these were presented on chairs, part upholstered with binding and tacks, ambiguous textured knit, and wrapped with wire, referencing the personal memory of a home built, protection and presence within.” As Harries maintains this upwards shift in scale in her continually developing practice, the basis of her thinking remains the same, with the blend of found object and artistic intervention being seamless: “I respect and acknowledge the material’s own persona and physicality, whilst endeavouring
p67 Synthesis I. Ruth Harries, 2015 Installation view Photo: Charlotte Kingston p68 Synthesis I & III, Ruth Harries, 2015 Installation view Photo: Charlotte Kingston p69 Synthesis I & III, Ruth Harries, 2015 Installation view Photo: Charlotte Kingston
to marry it sensitively with my own controlled handwork.” Harries exploits the tactility of the materials she uses, while skillfully constraining and guiding their malleable natures with her own interventions. “I am interested in the juxtaposition of materials – wire, thread, iron, concrete and felt – and in the contrast of strong and delicate, soft and hard elements in this building process.” She adds, “They are an investigation of intimate coexistence, balance and harmony.” Harries is one of the founding members of Fibre Art Wales, whose members demonstrated the breadth of contemporary textile practice when showed together in Transience. The group has an ethos of support which she embraces, and she finds creative sustenance in the collective of like-minded makers: “In forming Fibre Art Wales, the group was committed to raising the profile of Welsh contemporary Fibre Art. Our work is very diverse in technique and together gives a strong voice, affording many opportunities to exhibit at home and abroad; promoting artists individually as well as the group.” With this strong body of dark objects, which reveal complex layerings of meaning in their detail, Harries challenges the notion of textiles as a soft art form. —CCQ
ruthharries.co.uk Ruth Harries’ work will be shown as part of Made By Hand in Cardiff from 29 October - 1 November 2015 Transience was at Craft in the Bay, Cardiff makersguildinwales.org.uk. Read our review of the exhibition online ccqmagazine.com
Fragile? Clay in all its forms is celebrated in a new survey exhibition at The National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. Catherine Roche explores Fragile? and finds a breadth of practice and approach that demonstrate that our love affair with clay is as robust as ever. While domestic ceramic objects clink and chink their way through our everyday lives, there is a certain expectation of quiet reverence that surrounds a museum, or gallery exhibition, dedicated to ceramic practice: ‘take care; do not touch’ seems implicit when viewing such supposedly delicate artefacts. So, to describe Fragile? – the current large –scale ceramic exhibition hosted by The National Museum of Wales, Cardiff – as a ‘sensory experience’, seems initially surprising. The penetrating, rich tones of brass-band tunes are not the first thing you anticipate encountering in a museum display dedicated to clay in all its forms; neither is the crunching physicality experienced whilst walking across a sheet of bone china shards. Perhaps it is only fitting that an exhibition dedicated to a material so diverse in all its properties and potentials, defies such assumptions. Diversity underpins this show. A Bronze Age vessel, Staffordshire figurines and a Bernard Leach jar all comfortably coexist beside works that stretch the boundaries of a more traditional notion of ceramic practice. Drawn from the museum’s impressive collection and supplemented with institutional loans alongside new artists’ commissions, Fragile? offers a remarkable breadth of ceramic practice whilst maintaining a clear sense of purpose. This focus originates from a desire by the museum to place its ceramic collection within a current context. The new contemporary gallery spaces within the museum have afforded this possibility; large-scale pieces from the archive collection can finally be displayed effectively. Andrew Renton, Keeper of Art at the museum, explains: “We have been acquiring quite ambitious pieces that we wanted ultimately to be able to show properly. We are trying to reflect the ambitions that people working in ceramics have for the medium now. We are aiming at a multi-dimensional experience of ceramic practice today.” Such an inclusive approach could have led to an unwieldy survey of ceramic ‘greatest hits’. Fortunately, strong curatorial direction has resulted in a well-edited, thoughtprovoking thematic show. Exhibiting artist
Keith Harrison describes the exhibition as “a celebration of the medium’s versatility. It seems to be refreshingly without hierarchy”, he says. “It reflects how far the net has widened in terms of what a museum-based show might encompass, with temporary works part of the mix.” Co-exhibitor Clare Twomey adds, “I think the curatorial choices allow for a fresh view, and I don’t think it’s a re-evaluation by any means because the exhibition is incredibly inclusive in the most positive manner. With such high quality works across the board”, she says, “it’s a bit like joining a fresh set of conversations about clay”. Fragile? certainly stimulates dialogue. The title is important; it indicates an exploratory position, rather than a statement of fact, and creates a streamlined context for the show that places materiality at its core, whilst opening further conceptual propositions that subtly reverberate around this theme. Here, fragility can suggest two opposing states: the precariousness of the ceramic process and its materiality; and the longevity that ceramic artefacts maintain. But as Andrew Renton suggests, the permutations of interpretation can be far richer: “The starting point was the museum’s ceramic collection and how we make sense of it. The idea of fragility, the vulnerability of the objects, seemed to be a fertile area to explore”, he explains, “a way of examining preconceptions about the material itself, but also our own physical and emotional interaction with ceramics.” A modest Chinese stoneware bowl (AD 1000-1200) best encapsulates this expansive approach to the notion of fragility and the potentials therein. Delicate veins of gold lacquer accentuate the repair lines of its broken form using the Japanese technique of kintsugi, a process that acknowledges breakage and repair as inherent to the identity of an object. Here fragility is recognised, accepted, celebrated and contested; characteristics of ceramic-making made manifest throughout this exhibition in a multitude of ways. The exquisite tension of contrasting materiality examining these preconceptions of fragility is evident: the paper-thin delicacy of Ruth Duckworth’s modernist vessel
intensifies when juxtaposed against the raw physicality found in the sculptural forms of Claudi Casanovas or Hoshino Saturo; the monumental scale of Felicty Aylieff’s enamelled porcelain vase defies expectation of this revered material. More metaphorical readings abound. The vulnerability of human experience is shared in Claire Curneen’s poignant figurative sculptures, whilst Iraqi artist Halim al-Kalim’s porcelain notebooks, Soul Archive (1982-91), address wider issues of political instability in relation to personal strength. Neil Brownsword’s installation, Elegy (2009), provides a bittersweet note; a celebration of craft and labour, it also commemorates a lost British industrial heritage, highlighting the frailty of indigenous traditions in the face of global economies. The most direct demonstration of fragility can be experienced through one of the exhibition’s commissioned temporary artworks – Clare Twomey’s Consciousness/ Conscience (2001-15). Destruction is an inherent aspect of this floor-based installation. The piece employs hundreds of slip-cast, bone china boxes laid flat across a gallery threshold. Visitors must walk across this delicate ceramic band to proceed through the show; inevitably their footsteps instigate the demise of the artwork, leaving only crushed remains as evidence of their progress and participation. While Twomey’s installation addresses assumptions surrounding display as well as audience-artwork relationships, it also strikes a deeper chord. Our consciousness and conscience are awakened; the sensory satisfaction derived from a tactile walk across broken shards is inestimable. It is joyously childlike and acutely visceral at once; empowering in its inclusivity, yet tinged with guilty pleasure. Sensory experience underscores this exhibition; maybe it resides at the core of any human interaction with clay. The experiential capacity of ceramic artefacts is made explicit as bodily correlations emerge. Gesture, weight, density, gravity, texture, scale and balance inhabit the works dedicated to exploring the versatility and variety of ceramic bodies. In the upper gallery, ceramic surfaces are at the forefront, with the exterior
finishes of artworks – rough, smooth, matt, gloss, incised, dripped and painted – inspiring tactile perception. Two other site-specific works have been commissioned for Fragile? Both actively engage our sensory faculties whilst pursuing the more extreme potentials of working with clay. Keith Harrison’s installation Mute (2015) explores the medium’s relationship with instability and deterioration through sound. Music is played on turntables through a stadium-scale PA system filled with liquid clay. The sound is ‘muted’, but as the slip dries and cracks due to the vibration of speakers at maximum capacity, the volume will potentially increase – or the speakers may fail. Harrison is interested in the clash of materials and their unexpected outcomes in this participatory, audio experience. He welcomes the inclusion of temporary artworks in a museum show and the opportunities they afford for interrogating the discipline: “There has been a real desire to grapple with the dilemma of how works made not to last might still be incorporated in this show,” he says, “and how this might be achieved through the strategic use of commissioning.” Harrison has literally created
a wall of sound: immersed in a chamber of reflective light, its imposing fascia presents a seductive, golden tile-clad structure. The reverse exposes its basic workings: speakers, turntables, plywood, unfired clay and human interaction. Phoebe Cummings also works with raw clay. “Her work is a great way to explore clay itself as a material before you fire it and turn it into something a little bit different, which is ceramic”, explains Andrew Renton. Her fantastical temporary landscape installation, Scenes for a Future History of Ornament (2015), is inspired by the museum archive objects and plays with notions of scale, ornament, time and permanence. The contradictory spaces of miniature and human-scale are juxtaposed through intricately processed, labour-intensive clay environments; the makeshift materials that house these worlds – cardboard storage boxes, polythene sheeting, reclaimed wood – imply theatricality or work in progress. Encouraged to enter and conversely glimpse these crumbling, decadent places, bodily orientation becomes displaced with the viewer positioned as both voyeur and
protagonist. Located at the entrance of the exhibition, Cummings’ installation creates an air of uncertainty, its stacked archival boxes and raw clay structures suggesting unfinished business. In a room adjacent to Cummings’ installation, raw clay dominates as the properties and processes of clay in all its states are sympathetically examined. Four newly commissioned, contrasting artworks by Welsh ceramicists, Claire Curneen, Walter Keeler, Adam Buick and Lowri Davies – each with accompanying documentary films – tell tales of these makers’ diverse and extraordinary involvements with clay. It is here that the experiential character of this exhibition is perhaps extended more deeply. The films are unexpectedly affecting. Beautifully captured and skilfully edited, they offer poetic insight into ceramic making. Each describes a practical journey from clay to finished artwork, but they achieve more than this. They tell of the seductive qualities of raw and fired clay, of its robustness and elasticity, its delicacy and precision, its brittleness and strength. They are evidence of skill, knowledge, patience, time, labour
and care. Sited next to their corresponding artworks and projected in unison around the gallery space, rhythms and counterpoints have been expertly orchestrated in the footage: wedging, moulding, extruding, rolling, throwing, scraping. The physicality and intimacy of each artist’s relationship with clay becomes a shared experience for the viewer, carrying the bodily activities of each maker out into the wider experience of the exhibition. Time, and therefore labour, emerge as dominant features of ceramic practice in these documentaries. “When you see the beautiful films about the making of those works, it gives us both an understanding of time and a re-evaluation of time”, states Clare Twomey. Questions of permanence in an institutional context arise through the time-based commissioned installations. Elsewhere in the exhibition, whether signified through the immediacy of an imprinted hand in Hoshino Saturo’s Appeared Figure (1990), the uncertainty of Paul Astbury’s sealed and sweating, wet-clay sculpture Case (1995), or the durability of a bronze-age ceramic jar, the temporal character of ceramics makes its presence known. Annie Turner’s intricately constructed cage-like structure Sinker (2006) speaks of patience and care as integral to labour, while knowledge and the often repetitive nature of craft are inherently linked to time in Edmund de Waal’s multiple artwork Porcelain Wall (2005 & 2007). Welsh sculptor Carwyn Evans pays homage to the labour-intensive processes of studio-based ceramics in Cast (2012), a large, ringshaped construction made from numerous bone china remnants of
slip-cast tableware. Creating a powerfully simplistic elliptical motif, it references functional ceramic form, releasing rhythmic echoes across its neighbouring artworks. Evans enjoys the play of positive and negative; discarded parings press against each other creating a central void. While the demise of Welsh ceramic legacy may be inadvertently implicit, Evans emphasises his subjective inspiration. “It’s very much a personal response rather than being a bigger cultural signifier of ceramic tradition,” he explains. Appropriating the leftovers of his ceramicist partner Lowri Davies’ studio practice, Cast’s dense and intricate structure is part memorial, part totem; it is a wreath-like testament to the overlooked. In contrast, Neil Brownsword’s Elegy comments upon the wider post-industrial landscape of Stoke-on-Trent. His film projection witnesses the demolition of this town’s once great ceramic factories; ambiguous fired clay forms referencing the by-products of manufacture are laid out against this bleak backdrop of destruction. Reminiscent of archaeological remains, they mourn the past, piecing together an account of lost labour and skill. But Elegy also implies longevity and ultimately survival. The earthy bodies of Brownsword’s fragments are met with notes of exquisite colour; their glazed surfaces suggest jewellike specimens that both commemorate and uphold the rich heritage of ceramic tradition. Keith Harrison extends the sentiment found in Elegy to the exhibition as a whole: “The title Fragile? makes associations with an endangered habitat”, he says, “serving as a reminder of what has been
p71 (top) Cast (detail), Carwyn Evans, 2012 Copyright Carwyn Evans
lost in recent years in terms of ceramics industry and education. The question mark is significant however. It also suggests a more optimistic interpretation, one in which the material is seen to be much more robust. The tactile seduction of working with clay continues to attract, as it morphs and finds new expressions in design, fine art practice and all the shades between”. Fragile? is not only a celebration of clay in all its forms, it demonstrates the integrity and versatility of contemporary ceramic practice within an international context. “There are absolute delights of knowledge in each room”, says Clare Twomey. “If you were to walk into this exhibition, from many perspectives you would feel included; a really rich environment has been created.” Many of the exhibitors acknowledge the significance of this large-scale museum show. “Whilst the number of ceramics courses is diminishing, the actual interest in clay – maybe not necessarily in its fired state – is really hot at the moment”, explains Felicity Aylieff. “This exhibition has hit the spot and I can’t think of anything better to draw attention to the breadth and dynamism of the discipline.” Fragile?, it seems, is anything but. —CCQ
p71 (bottom) Touched, Claire Curneen, 2015 Copyright Claire Curneen/The National Museum of Wales p72 & 73 (left) Still Life with Three Chinese Vases II (moving from kiln to crate, Mr Wu’s Big Ware Studio, Jingdezhen, China), Felicity Aylieff, 2011 Copyright Felicity Aylieff p73 (right) & 74 Scenes for a Future History of Ornament (details), Phoebe Cummings, 2015, Copyright Phoebe Cummings/The National Museum of Wales p75 (top) Mute, Keith Harrison, 2015, installation view Copyright Keith Harrison/The National Museum of Wales p75 (bottom) Mute (detail), Keith Harrison, 2015 Copyright Keith Harrison/The National Museum of Wales p76 Shift (detail), Anne Gibbs, 2014, Bone china, thread, wire and pins Photo: Chris Stock Courtesy of the Derek Williams Trust, on loan to Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales
Fragile? is at National Museum Cardiff until 04 October 2015 museumwales.ac.uk/cardiff/
p77 Consciousness/Conscience, Clare Twomey, 2015 Copyright Clare Twomey Photo: Gástôn van Mülders
There will be a Fragile? exhibition conference on 30 September (booking required)
A laptop, a bicycle and a Cup-a-Soup A temporary relocation can fortify the creative juices. Francesca Donovan meets four artists in residence at the National History Museum, St Fagans.
Making art in a space that isn’t your own can be a strange and sometimes unsettling experience. It may also spark ideas that were lurking below the surface of the psyche, just out of reach. New realms challenge artists, often prompting them to explore new physical and intellectual territories. This is what an artist’s residency can do for the creative soul and St Fagans National History Museum offers a playground for experimentation. Here, buildings of historic, architectural or social significance have been translated, brick-by-brick, stone-bystone, from their original locations across Wales. Rebuilt in their original orientation, but with new neighbours, the museum allows visitors to time travel in a matter of paces, to peer through windows, sit at firesides and smell the past. Artists Melissa Appleton, James Parkinson, Claire Prosser and Bedwyr Williams were all given free reign in this most unusual museum for six weeks. Entering the museum site is like jumping down the proverbial rabbit hole, where time is malleable. The wooden floorboards of an old 16th century family home creak underfoot, as they would have done for the original inhabitants, while it’s easy to imagine the dink of bone china, or the wireless playing in a post-war terrace. St Fagans brings history to life by recreating more than just the physical buildings. Melissa Appleton, whose training includes both fine art and architecture, describes St Fagans as: “Structures and organic matter, once separated by time and place, brought together on a hybrid plateau. It’s like a time travelling organism anchored loosely in the present.”
The site forms a walking tour through Welsh history. It offers the chance to remove oneself from the constant noise of the present and de-camp to multiple, more tranquil eras at once. That’s the beauty of St Fagans, it’s a window into another world. James Parkinson agrees: “St Fagans challenges the notion of the historic artefact or monument being dormant and immobile.” Three of the artists, Appleton, Prosser and Williams, grew up in Wales, and the country’s most popular heritage attraction is ingrained in their childhood. Performance artist Claire Prosser remembers asking her mother about a memory from when she was very small: “Wrapping up warm, a long journey into the dark night; I remember a velvety, midnight blue backdrop with warm yellow droplets flying as we walked along narrow paths with high walls surrounding us. This memory was of St Fagans.” Bedwyr Williams adds: “I’ve loved the place since I was a child. I didn’t fully understand what it was then, but the idea of buildings being dismantled and then relocated fascinated me. A lot of historical buildings in Wales are presented in a dated, soulless way. It’s all castles with lawns.” Appleton echoes his sentiment: “I’ve always thought of it as an extraordinary place and a fantastic, experimental landscape.” Thanks to an impressive Heritage Lottery Fund grant, St Fagans is undergoing a major redevelopment; and the Arts Council of Wales funded residencies are part of the transitional process for staff and visitors. “St Fagans is about people as much as it is about the objects
and buildings”, Williams explains. In fact, the museum is now rehousing a building from his village. During the residency, Williams planned to construct an artwork based around the reappropriation of these structures, inspired by, “how these buildings are blitzed and then painstakingly rebuilt at St Fagans”. The process, he tells me, reminded him of Mike Teavee – the technological prodigy in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – being teleported as tiny particles from one space to another. Appleton’s time at St Fagans was influenced, almost dictated, by the site. She explains, “I set out to sample the site and to create a palette of fragments – a space of collisions – between the domestic, the spiritual, the everyday and the otherworldly”. Gathering found objects, she planed to rework them into a shifted yet familiar landscape. “In essence, I set out to evolve a parallel St Fagans, with one foot in this world and one in another.” Exploiting current technology in her residency, Appleton used a drone and 3D scanners to document her surroundings, collecting what she describes as, “layers, fragments, wholes and crumple zones”. With this information she was able to expand, compress and translate the essence of the site into vectors; manipulating the existing notions and physicality of St Fagans in order to discover more about it’s meaning. Soon, Appleton discovered that the most fruitful artistic method was to let her encounters shape her progress by amassing a range of materials that accumulated organically.
Describing their responses to the museum, the artists wax lyrical, Appleton reeling off a list of objects and encounters: “A cottage formed of glacial boulders, its surface a microcosm of the North Wales landscape it once inhabited; enchanted rocks; a man on a beach conjuring mackerel through song; a triskelion; a triple harp; window frames made from recycled aircraft; a figure of death scratched into a head post; the ghost of a naked coracle man furiously paddling across a river; gunpowder, drones and stones.” Prosser’s list includes the staff who work at St Fagans: “The love spoons carved by one of the wonderful museum assistants, David Davies; early sunrise with the cleaner in Rhyd-y-car cottages; the pleasure of restaging an old photograph of the gardening team for them to hang up in their mess room; helping make my very own clogs.” She had been afraid that going behind the scenes would diminish the magic of the place for her, but the reverse was true, as she became familiar with the less obvious workings and stories. Appleton now perceives the museum as an organism, shaped by the desires of the people that inhabit it. St Fagans is an entity defined by its present – by the people, the life and the energy that it contains. Prosser and Appleton were fascinated by the tiny elements, the details that make up the museum experience. Prosser was also interested in the temporal bridge that St Fagans builds. She reflects, “As I’ve grown older I’ve become absorbed in the concept of the site holding space between the past and the present”. Her interest was in the staff,
who act as a conduit between history and the visiting public; so she investigated the interactions between staff and visitors and the gestures that are often unremarked. History is everywhere at St Fagans – in the mud, the stones and the ancient woodlands. It affected each artist’s approach to the residency differently. Parkinson, on discovering the vast archives on site, felt the draw of the museum’s own history. He began by speaking to different departments, among them the historic buildings unit and the conservation department. He also explored the film archive and the furniture store and developed a close relationship with the archaeological conservators, through a series of conversations which, he claims, have broadened his artistic horizons. He explains how rewarding it was to hear about the personal histories and stories of the site and
the people who work there. Williams also took advantage of abundant archival material; beginning with photographs, he quickly realised that the audio archives offered another dimension beyond imagery. “There was something about hearing voices of people in the 1950s, who have long since passed away, talking about their childhoods, that felt like some kind of time portal. The sound of their carriage clocks ticking in the background, and the little sounds Welsh people make in between sentences; it sounded so familiar. All these Nain’s and Taid’s [North Walian grandparents] talking about people from their pasts.” There was more interest for Williams in the objects he had access to and he developed a love of chimneys. “Chimneys were always these creepy spaces in my childhood, and there are a lot of superstitions relating to
chimneys, some of which are mentioned in the audio recordings I listened to.” So, how can an artist residency help the creative process? And what can a creator achieve within the constraints of someone else’s turf? As Appleton puts it, “It’s a privilege, but you’re just passing through.” All the artists unanimously agreed that a residency is shaped by the people involved. According to Prosser, “The members of staff were so generous with their knowledge and kindness”. Williams agrees, saying, “In a place like St Fagans, where everyone is helpful, it’s great – some residencies can be quite testing”. Williams freely admits he’s not sure he’s achieved anything except more ideas for future projects. However, he, Appleton, Prosser and Parkinson understood there was nothing concrete, no finished piece, expected from any of them. Artists’ residencies are
designed to nurture and develop ideas and prompt responses, rather than force production of tangible artworks. The artists’ creative processes and St Fagans itself were at the centre of this project. “It hasn’t changed the way I perceive my practice”, Williams says, but he adds, “it made me realise that residencies shouldn’t be about going into libraries and regurgitating something, splattering art sauce all over it”. In other words, residencies allow artists to be challenged, to experiment with new means of expression. Hopefully, whatever ideas evolve spark a creative chain reaction. Despite the disruption and upheaval of leaving a more permanent studio space – for which Williams claims the antidote is, “A laptop, bicycle and Cup-A-Soup” – a trip into less familiar territory can invigorate the creative process. —CCQ
p78 (left) Working Hour, Claire Prosser, 2015 Performance still p78 (right) Gunpowder, Drones and Stones, Melissa Appleton, 2015 Video still
St Fagan’s National History Museum is open all year round. There are plans to invite four more artists to take up residencies on site in the near future.
p79 Alptraum, Bedwyr Williams, 2014 Video still Courtesy Limoncello, London
p80 & 81 Gunpowder, Drones and Stones, Melissa Appleton, 2015 Video still
jamesparkinson.co.uk melissaappleton.com byclairelouiseprosser.com limoncellogallery.co.uk/bedwyr-williams/
p82 & 83 The problems with anything in the field are mainly logistic (detail), James Parkinson, 2015, plaster and drawstring travel bags
Withdrawn Luke Jerram’s stranded fishing flotilla invites visitors to consider climate change and the decline of an industry that used to be at the heart of the South West of England. Joeleen Lynch takes a walk in the woods. There’s something wrong with this picture. Glimpsed through the trees are fishing trawlers, pitched on their sides, apparently washed up in the leaf mould of Leigh Woods. Luke Jerram’s forest flotilla, Withdrawn, is his response to a brief for an installation; a site-specific work located within the beautiful, biodiverse and broadleaved ancient woodland of Leigh Woods. Jerram explains, “The artwork was inspired by my interest in science and the environment. Wherever there is extreme weather or sudden shifts in our environment, there are elements of our world which seem to turn on their heads.” As part of Bristol’s year as European Green Capital, Jerram says he “wanted to produce a piece of work that would challenge audiences to consider the impacts of over-fishing and marine pollution on the future of our planet and eco-system. There was a time when a man could make money from one small fishing boat, but for the past 50
years the seas around us have been so overfished that this is no longer financially viable.” The boats have been purchased on eBay and Gumtree from around the coast of the UK; they have then been hauled on trailers in preparation for beaching across Leigh Woods. The Gloria Jean, Grey Gull, Martha and Seahorse are caught in a network of branches, far from the sea, to be stumbled upon by dog walkers, ramblers and the many visitors who will be connecting with the project through a programme of events. From marine-themed talks and walks to performances, story-telling, theatre and live film events, this programme explores our multiple connections with the sea. Leigh Woods are both environmentally and historically significant, and home to many rare plant and moss species. Jointly managed by the National Trust and Forestry Commission England, the 200 hectares of
woodland is a designated Site of Natural Conservation Interest (SNCI), set against the spectacular backdrop of the Avon Gorge and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. Jerram’s decision to place the boats amidst the trees is a curious one. He says, “The positioning of the boats in the trees is also partly a response to the extreme weather and apocalyptic imagery we’ve seen in the media recently – Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Japan, and even closer to home during the floods on the Somerset Levels last winter, where cars were floating down streets and houses became submerged in water.” Trust New Art Bristol, a strand of the National Trust’s Contemporary Art Programme, is a three-year experimental programme of international, national and regional projects, exhibitions and collaborations on National Trust property in and around the Bristol area. The programme’s ethos explores how the production and presentation of contemporary art in places of historic interest and natural beauty can connect people to places in new and unexpected ways, with the purpose of encouraging a renewed sense of place for visitors. Through Trust New Art, National Trust manages and facilitates environments and extraordinary places that are interesting for artists to respond to, enabling them to reinterpret and challenge the existing narratives of a site. Reciprocally, the programme has proved that artists find such collaborations and projects enhance their practice through their experience of working with National Trust experts, including, Conservators, Gardeners, Rangers, and Bodgers. This way of working is far from new to Luke Jerram, however. His entire artistic practice is reflective of this collaborative and inter-disciplinary approach. As an artist and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the University of the West of England, Jerram has worked internationally from his Bristol base to create a number of critically acclaimed artworks over the past 18 years. These include his celebrated and far-reaching large-scale public engagement works such as Sky Orchestra and Park and Slide, Play Me, I’m Yours (presented in over 46 cities internationally to date). His artistic practice encompasses sculptures, installations and live art, and his ambitious projects relate closely to his on-going investigation into human perception and how we understand the world. Collaboration is imperative to Jerram’s practice and through which he believes ‘anything is possible.’ In the past, the artist has collaborated with composers, craftsmen, engineers, glassblowers, hot air balloonists and medieval musicologists. For Withdrawn, Jerram worked with fishermen, scientists and marine experts to research the fishing industry and the impact mankind has had on the ocean. He describes this experience during his artist research as, “both fascinating and disturbing”. The Southwest of England, through over-fishing and mismanagement of the sea over the past 100 years, has effectively caused many fish stocks to collapse. Bristol also had a strong fishing industry until over-exploitation of the Severn Estuary caused many species to disappear. “Scientists and statisticians believe that there’s just 2% of the fish left in the ocean now, compared to 150 years ago – before the industrialisation of fishing. If the fish stocks we currently have double, that’s still only 4% of what they once were!” Jerram exclaims. It seems clear that Jerram, through his installation, wishes not only to get to the heart of the decline of the fishing industry – the impact of climate change, coastal erosion and factory fishing – but also to make something more open-ended and contemplative, something that
would draw an audience in. “I always think carefully about a visitor’s experience. I try and shape and steer; for me, the experience of an artwork can begin at the point when a visitor decides to go and see it.” Gloria Jean, Joanne Marie, Martha, Seahorse and Grey Gull – these vessels each evoke the different characters and adventures of their previous owners and come with their own stories. Seahorse, previously known as The Iverna, was built of larch and oak in Cornwall in 1939. She was de-registered as a commercial fishing vessel in 1996. Although the reason for being taken out of commission was ‘change of activity’, it’s most likely that it was no longer commercially viable for her to continue as a fishing vessel. Similarly, small old fishing boats like Seahorse have little commercial value anymore. Having passed through a number of owners and various uses as a tripper boat and hobby boat, Seahorse was purchased for Withdrawn and sailed from Hayle to Gosport, before making her way to Leigh Woods by trailer. Grey Gull was built in East Anglia in the 1950s. In the past she and her owner, Jamie Potts, fished for cod, sole, skate, herring and bass – weather and fish stocks permitting. With only low fish stocks to catch from, the cost of diesel and maintenance makes fishing at this small scale untenable. These prosaic tales belie the initial mystery and unusual aesthetic pleasure in finding a small fishing fleet in a woodland glade. However, Jerram hopes that they’ll prompt the questions: ‘Why are these boats here?’ and ‘How did they get here?’, and gradually the connections will be made about the fishing industry and the fragile eco-systems on which it relies. This open-ended invitation to ask questions is characteristic of Jerram’s approach. When I visited, my intial thought was of an unusual tidal surge, the kind that strands whales on the shoreline and litters the tideline with jellyfish. Audiences can interpret their surreal encounter with abandoned boats among the trees, in their own way. Despite Withdrawn’s visual allure, the artwork comes with an unsettling undertone and I left the woods wondering what would happen if we fail to restore the equilibrium of our natural resources. Will we end up washed up and stranded on an unfamiliar shore?
Luke Jerram made Withdrawn to celebrate Bristol’s year as European Green Capital 2015. He was commissioned by the National Trust, in collaboration with Trust New Art Bristol, The Forestry Commission, Bristol European Green Capital 2015 and Arts Council England. Luke Jerram, Withrawn, Leigh Woods 18 April - 06 September 2015. trustnewartbristol.org Jerram is showing with Seung Hwan Oh at Gallery Elena Shchukina, London 4 November 2015 - 8 January 2016 galleryelenashchukina.com lukejerram.com Withdrawn, Luke Jerram 2015 Installation view from a boat
The Heat is Rising A festival in Poland allows artists and the public to play with fire to a creative end. Robert Harding visits Wroclaw to feel the artistic burn.
As all arsonists know, fire is fascinating. Since our ancestors had their Promethean moment and discovered the secret of fire, we have been able to make and transform materials, not just char them. Down the centuries artists, as well as scientists and technologists, have been experimenting with high temperatures. However, because of the inherent danger, plus the potential for financial gain, these experiments were, and are, all too often conducted behind not just closed doors but bolted ones. The result has been that the practitioners of the alchemy involved with high temperatures have worked in secretive isolation from one another, and the general public has therefore little understanding of the complexity and skill required to control the processes that are behind so many everyday things. Recent artists who have used burning, directly as a tool or medium, are as diverse as Yves Kline, Jean Tinguely, Dennis Oppenheim, Tim Davies and David Nash. But a greater heat really changes things. For the last eight years, the Art Academy in Wroclaw, Poland, has run a free, public High Temperature Festival, alongside a professional conference to address some of the related issues. As an institution with a fine reputation in ceramics, glass and metals the Art Academy has been the ideal host and each year the event spreads its net ever wider to attract participation from across Europe. This year the title of the festival was There is no Art without Fire, and sculptor Andy Griffiths, from West Wales, was invited to participate and share his experience of DIY metal casting. Andy was also asked to provide a theatrical performance for the last night of the festival. So I and a group of five sculpture students from the
Carmarthen School of Art tagged along to help. Andy’s performance was programmed to take place on 20 June, the day before the Summer Solstice. The schedule was pretty hectic, but even so, I managed to meet a bladesmith from Portugal, a sculptor from Kentucky, a Czech glass blower, another glass artist from Turkey and a metal archaeologist from Greece – as well as numerous Polish artists. There were also a few trade stands, so I watched in fascination the demonstration of a ceramic digital printer, a micro raku kiln, and an induction furnace the size of a large coffee cup; but unfortunately missed the neon workshop. The issue of how a production technique, however intrinsically dramatic, can become an artistic performance is a pertinent one at this festival. Andy commented, “Having watched and participated in molten iron performances in the UK and abroad for the last ten years, there were several things that were important to me in the work; it had to be completed with just one tap of the furnace so that from beginning to end there was a sense of immediate narrative with no repetition of actions. Such a ‘one-shot’ performance gets the adrenaline running in both audience and participants. I also think that there should be a tangible artefact at the end of such a performance that can act both as a standalone sculpture and as a memento. The three minute punk songs I used to perform on stage in the late 70s (as lead singer in The Wall) have now become short explosive performances with cast iron, filled with the same energy and sense of danger.” In the four days before the festival Andy’s team created the necessary props for his performance, Sunrise. Among other things, this involved the creation of a nearly fivemetre-high trebuchet–like structure in wood, which would be capable of gently lowering a steel and wooden former into a sand/wood mould. Into this mould would be poured about 100 kilograms of molten iron at nearly 2000°C which would, in turn, burn the wood and encapsulate the steel. The importance of this choreography was emphasised by Andy: “The prologue is the slow lowering of the steel skeletal former into the mould and the charging of the furnace. The start
p86 High Temperature Festival Poland, 2015 Photo: Dawid Biernat p87 High Temperature Festival Poland, 2015 Photo: Paulo Tuna p89, 90 & 91 High Temperature Festival Poland, 2015 Photo: Dawid Biernat
of the performance proper is the moment metal is received from the furnace; then the metal being poured into the mould via the beam resulting in the main performative and explosive element; and the finale is the very slow raising of the solidifying, but still red hot, ‘sun’ into the darkening sky.” This very suitable and simple poetic tribute to the solstice is obviously perilous, exhausting and spectacular, as anyone who has seen the film documenting Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament (2014) project could testify. The beauty of this festival in Wroclaw (the 2016 European City of Culture) is that it focuses on the experimental: after all, this is a city with a long history of art performances and happenings that goes back to 1957 and the founding of a Theatre of the Senses. At the High Temperature Festival, even the public can experiment with sculpture by forming polystyrene and having their resultant pieces cast the next day in aluminium; or carving sand blocks and casting the negative space in iron; or creating small bronze talismans using cuttlefish moulds much as people did hundreds of years ago. And that was just the public participation within a single department – glass and ceramics had other workshops on offer for the eight to ten thousand visitors (no definitive figures are recorded as the event is free, and there are at least two entrances to the site). The professional artists are also encouraged to try new things. For instance, there was a heroic attempt this year to create the first flying ceramic kiln, using the excess heat generated in the process of firing various pots to lift a small hot air balloon. So Andy Griffiths’ risky venture Sunrise was the subject of only a single health and safety meeting. The production of molten iron and pouring it into a mould was never going to be the problem. As Head of Sculpture at the Art School in Carmarthen, Andy has had a decade of experience of this metal: the issue was one of weight, balance, flow and the potentially explosive interaction with the wood and cold steel frame. Somewhat anxious the night before the performance, I had a dream that I was back in Poland in January 1986 (at the time of the crackdown on Solidarity), and became an
actor on the Lódź stage in Kantor’s Let the Artists Die. I needn’t have worried so much. Not only had the refining of the choreography helped clarify the narrative of Andy’s performance, but the practice dry-runs had resolved all the safety issues. So everything ran smoothly, at least initially. The 100kg of iron (as much as two strong people can carry safely) was melted, tapped into a ladle and poured into a receiving cup carved into the trebuchet beam. A stream of metal ran down the carved channel into the mould, creating a line of fire. At this point some metal was spilt, both in the transition from beam to mould and, because of the speed of flow, some more metal overshot the mould. As predicted only a very small amount of metal was shot into the air as the wood combusted. However, the amount lost was critical as, when Andy had determined that the metal was solid and initiated the lift, it became obvious, after just a few centimetres, that the steel structural web was not properly encapsulated in the cast iron. Red hot metal started to break and deform, but Andy continued with the slow lift and what rose into the night sky was not a new sun but more of a phoenix. As Andy later reflected, “This was my first large scale performance piece in iron and was deliberately highly ambitious due to the nature of the event. The idea of lowering a form into a reactive mould to be poured, and raised while just solid and still glowing, is something I will continue to develop as I feel it speaks about the transformative nature of metal. “I had hoped to leave the piece at the top of its beam, in the sculpture garden at the Academy in Wroclaw, as a permanent work and reminder of the event. However, as some parts failed to become encapsulated in the steel former, the iron has now been shipped back to Wales, where it is being fitted together to make a final piece, Wroclaw Sunrise – 95 kilos of iron which, because of being poured into a reactive mould, shows in its surface the explosive nature of its creation.” —CCQ
Dress Rehearsal Earlier this summer, Tara McInerney was invited into NoFit State’s rehearsals of this year’s reworked Bianco. For more of Tara’s illustations see the CCQ website – here we’ve chosen our double-page favourite.
NoFit State is touring Bianco: CREAC, Bègles 2 - 11 October Festival CIRCa, Auch 17 - 24 October Odyssud, Blagnac 30 October - 8 November nofitstate.org taramcinerney.com
Swyddfa Ewrop Greadigol y Deyrnas Unedig Cymru
Cyllid a chyfleoedd i’r sectorau diwylliannol, creadigol a chlyweledol
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Opera Cenedlaethol Cymru – La traviata. Cyd-gynhyrchiad gyda Scottish Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu a Teatro Real, Madrid. Llun © Bill Cooper. Prosiect Cyd-weithredol wedi ei gefnogi gan gronfa Ewrop Greadigol, yn cynnwys Opera Cenedlaethol Cymru. La traviata oedd yr opera cyntaf i gael ei lwyfannu a’i ddarlledu ar THE OPERA PLATFORM. www.theoperaplatform.eu | www.wno.org.uk
Welsh National Opera – La traviata. Co-production with Scottish Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu and Teatro Real, Madrid. Photo © Bill Cooper. Part of a Cooperation Project supported by Creative Europe, La traviata was the first opera staged and broadcast on THE OPERA PLATFORM. www.theoperaplatform.eu | www.wno.org.uk
1 - 31 October / Hydref 2015 diffusionfestival.org
__NatioNal theatre Wales iN associatioN With/meWN cydWeithrediad â __FFWrNes
a theatrical stagiNg oF christopher logue’s War music llWyFaNiad theatrig o War music gaN christopher logue epic storytelliNg meets box-set theatre stori epig yN cWrdd â theatr box-set
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Rebecca Gould & Lindsey Mendick
with accompanying text by Rebecca Ounstead
11/09/2015 - 24/10/2015
HEART SHAPED LIKE A BASEBALL BAT Alfie Strong 06/11/2015 - 19/12/2015
Chester Street, Wrexham LL13 8BE www.periclo.org @P_E_R_I_C_L_O @orielwrecsam
Venice Biennale interviews: herman de vries, Katerina Gregos, Song Dong, Sean Lynch. As well as conversations with Laura Ford, Sammy Baloji,...