Simon Martin

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Louis Ghost Chair Simon Martin

9 June – 22 July 2012

Louis Ghost Chair Simon Martin

Collective is delighted to be exhibiting a new body of work by Simon Martin, including his film Louis Ghost Chair and new photographic works, some of which have been made in collaboration with National Museums Scotland. The iconic object at the heart of Simon Martin's seventeen-minute film Louis Ghost Chair, is the classic design of the Louis XV armchair. The film considers the chair's contemporary afterlife in the form of Philippe Starck's updated 'Louis Ghost Chair'. From antique period-piece to modernday style accessory, the chair's transition from wood to plastic, from artisan workshop to high-tech assembly line is illuminated with commentary by a female actor. Martin’s practice examines the cultural significance of art and artefacts and our relationship to them through the use of moving image, photography and sculpture. To this end, Simon will display a new body of photographic works alongside Louis Ghost Chair. The work created specifically for Collective features a series of African headrests selected from the photographic archive of National Museums Scotland’s ethnographic collection. These photographic works further illuminate issues of the representation and framing of objects developed in the film work. Simon Martin graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art in 1989. He has had solo exhibitions at White Columns, New York (2005), Counter Gallery, London (2005), The Power Plant, Toronto (2006), a solo show at the Chisenhale Gallery (2008), a solo show at Kunstverein, Amsterdam (2010). He was the recipient of a Paul Hamlyn Award in 2008 2

and shortlisted for the Jarman Award in 2009. Martin took part in the British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet shown in Hayward Gallery, followed by venues in Glasgow and Plymouth. The film was commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella and Holburne Museum, Bath in association with Collective, Edinburgh, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland and Elena Hill. Supported by Arts Council England with additional support from The Henry Moore Foundation. Thanks to: Stephen Jackson, Senior Curator, Applied Art and Design, National Museums Scotland, Sarah Worden, Curator, African Collections, National Museums Scotland, Rose Watban, Senior Curator, Applied Art and Design, National Museums Scotland, Neil McLean, Lead Photographer, National Museums Scotland, Thomas Aitchison, installation.

Cover and right: Production shot of Louis Ghost Chair, 2012, Digital Video, 16 mins 30 seconds. Photography by David Pearson.

Spectres, Absences and Frames By Sarah Smith

I The exhibition, Louis Ghost Chair, by Simon Martin takes its title from that of its centrepiece, a short documentary film ostensibly about an act of design appropriation. French designer Philippe Starck’s mass-produced, plastic, moulded Louis Ghost Chair that went into production for Kartell in 2000, is based on the hand crafted neo-classical Louis XV chair, which also features in the film. This exhibition comprises three separate artworks: the film, the second of a trilogy that started with Carlton (2006), a photograph of Starck’s gnome stool, which appears in the film and a photographic series of twelve African headrests from National Museums Scotland’s ethnographic collection. Questioning the representation of art and design artefacts is at the centre of Martin’s

practice and, in particular, how objects are circumscribed by the prevailing practices and discourses of institutions such as the museum, the university and public service broadcasting. We might be forgiven for thinking that the ghost referred to by the film’s title is the original Louis XV chair, a supposition augmented by the film’s narrative, yet if there is a genuine spectre here, it is surely the voice of art critic John Berger, whose four-part BBC television documentary series Ways of Seeing (1972) forms a clear point of reference.1. Berger’s series challenged definitive art historical accounts of canonical art works, proposing them instead as sites of contestation, the meaning of which changed over time and according to institutional contexts. Moreover, his thesis offered an 3

accessible account of German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936) which, simply put, argued that mass reproduced images of art works depleted what he refers to as the ‘aura’ of the original.2. Berger also draws on French literary theorist Roland Barthes’ groundbreaking essay ‘Death of the Author’ (1967), which argues against the significance attributed to the author’s intentionality, to posit the reader (or viewer) as the key meaning-maker. Like Berger, Martin uses the expository mode of documentary for his enquiry and considers, among other things, the remnants of aura clinging to the original chair’s weathered wooden frame. However, this allusion to Berger’s TV series is not a straightforward homage by any means. Rather, it constitutes an interrogation of the didacticism and authority of the documentary and the art critic as they attempt to frame particular stories in particular ways. In addition, Martin’s film alludes to museum interpretation materials such as educational films and audio commentaries that offer up partial 4

stories of art and design objects. This interrogation of representational tropes may be productively situated within what has become known as the ‘educational turn’ of contemporary art where the authority of the pedagogue is scrutinised within various art contexts from artschool curriculum to museum education departments. While Berger’s thesis, groundbreaking in its day, encouraged a heightened awareness of received ‘ways of seeing’, the educational turn in contemporary art stages various interventions to reconsider ‘ways of learning’. 3. II Though implied by the objects represented in this exhibition – the chairs, the stool and the headrests – each of which offers a place of repose, the body is here conspicuously absent. This absence is amplified by the film’s soundtrack, comprised only of voiceover narration and workshop sounds for which there are no visual correlatives. Martin’s exclusion of the body from visual representation - and his own in particular can be seen as a critique of the authority of the documentarist exemplified by Berger, a reading enhanced by his decision to use a

female voice for the film’s narration. This disembodied female voice recalls the subject of Berger’s second episode of Ways of Seeing, the dominant male gaze of western art and the attendant proliferation of the female nude. For feminist film theorists, the disembodied female voice is full of promise, as it moves the woman represented from supreme object of the gaze to voice of superior knowledge.4. Film critic Stella Bruzzi notes the way that the female voiceover disrupts the “traditional tones of authority and universality” 5. of expository documentary’s ‘Voice of God’ commentary, which is always assumed to be masculine. Furthermore, she suggests that the presence of the woman’s voice creates “critical distance” between the words and their use and adequacy. While the woman’s voice is no longer a rarity in documentary narration, it still contains the potential to disrupt the traditional authority of the omnipresent male voice as epitomised by documentarists throughout film history from American pioneer John Grierson (1898-1972) to British vérité exponent Nick Broomfield (b.1948). The ascendancy of the male artists, designers and philosophers, cited either directly or

indirectly by Martin is further destabilised through another notable absence; the names of the makers of the African headrests (who, we must suppose, are unknown). Like the Louis XV chair, the headrests are finely hand crafted wooden objects. Unlike the chair, however, these objects are mediated solely through the photographic image without textual commentary and the ensuing silence is filled by the question - how do we represent and value these objects today? Postcolonial discourse repositions museum acquisitions such as these from Empire trophies to symbols of colonial oppression and they now serve as reminders of both stories, part of a catalogue of evidence.

Louis Ghost Chair features two objects that sit outside the economy of its story but serve to add a meta-narrative that proposes equivalence between art and design objects, disrupting official histories and the hierarchies they enshrine. Donald Judd’s minimalist sculpture Untitled (1963), a plywood box painted in cadmium red light with an iron tube embedded in the top, and Starck’s brightly coloured kitsch gnome stools sit awkwardly together within the diegesis of this film. Judd’s work is 5

discussed in relation to his essay ‘Specific Objects’ (1965), which marked an important point of departure from modernist discipline specificity in both art practice and theory, whereas Starck’s gnome simply appears but goes unmentioned by the narration, thereby assuming the form of hallucination. For Judd, the materials and their combination form the work of art. The plastic gnome, on the other hand, attempts (albeit without sincerity) to conceal its material, posing instead as wood, through the conventions of realism and yet, despite the apparent dichotomy, the two are linked by the minimalists’ aspiration to make works that resembled mass manufactured commodities. Just as Judd’s essay marked a point of redefining and reframing art objects, Martin uses the frames of the film screen and the photograph as devices to reconsider the connections between supposedly disparate objects. The dialogues across these works are complex and raise more questions than they answer, effectively countering the didacticism of the educational discourses invoked and parodied 6

here. In Martin’s practice certainty gives way to doubt, the usual close relationship between words and images is fractured and definitive histories are replaced by partial truths, attesting to the ultimate plasticity of institutional framings. 1. Martin acknowledged its influence on this work by screening the first episode of the series as a companion piece during the first showing of LGC at Bath’s Holburne Museum earlier this year. 2. The TV series was quickly followed by a book of the same name, which became a cornerstone text of university art history education. 3. A recent example of discussion of the educational turn in contemporary art practice was Transpedagogy: Contemporary Art and the Vehicles of Education which took place at MoMA, New York (15th May 2009) and, in relation to curating, see Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson (eds.), Curating and the Educational Turn (London: Open Editions & de Appel, 2010). 4. For a detailed discussion of this, see Kaja Silverman, ‘Disembodying the Female Voice: Irigaray, Experimental Feminist Cinema, and Femininity,’ in The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), pp.141-186. 5. Stella Bruzzi, New Documentary (London: Routledge, 2006), p.64. Above and pages 4 & 5: Untitled, 2012, pigment prints. Right: Untitled (Atilla), 2012, photocopy.


Collective is committed to supporting new visual art through a programme of exhibitions, projects and commissions. Originally established as an artist run organisation in 1984, Collective is an international organisation for the production, research, presentation and distribution of contemporary art and culture with a specific focus on new visual art and practices. We aim to foster, support, and debate new work and practices in a way which is of mutual benefit to artists and audiences. See the future of visual art today.

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