Jane Boyer: Repetition ain’t what it used to be

October 3, 2014 · Print This Article

Susan Francis, Palace of Sham (2012), installation view

Susan Francis, Palace of Sham (2012), installation view

Eat, Sleep, Repeat: there’s a meme doing the rounds all about repetition. As philosophies go, it’s a little simplistic, suggesting nothing so much as a kind of nihilistic stoicism. So if you want the antidote, consider the next show due to open at No Format Gallery.

RECURSIVE is a group show which looks at the cyclic nature of personal history, as suggested by the work of five international artists. The Gallery in South London is hosting Hitomi Kammai, Ant Pearce,  Susan Francis, Simon Fell and Jane Boyer.

Boyer is also curating the show. The artist is losing count of the number of times she has by now also curated. Some kind of repetition compulsion might be at work there, except for the fact that Boyer draws inspiration, not from Freud, but from one of the authors of Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze.

Her group of artists may be select, but the show organiser is gathering them together with a proposition by the influential French thinker:  “We don’t repeat because we repress, we repress because we repeat.” It sounds true, but what exactly might it mean?

The morning she was due to begin the hang in London, Boyer spoke with me on the phone. “It’s a difficult one,” she freely admits about her quotation. “In fact it’s given me a challenge, as well, to really wrap my head around it.” That at least is reassuring.

“He’s talking about an initial elemental experience we all have,” suggests the artist, “whether it’s the moment of birth or whether there’s some sort of trauma or some other thing that begins to develop and really solidify our identity.”

In other words, perhaps, we repeat to give us a sense of ourselves. We repeat because we could use this elemental experience in some way.  And as life develops we try and fit these repetitions into our current situations.

Since repetition is so vital to us, says Boyer, “We begin to disguise that and perhaps, as [Deleuze] says, close it”. What really intrigues is that this originary experience is one we all share. Rather than a factor in a sickness, like one of Freud’s primal scenes, it appears to be a cornerstone of who we are.

The Califormian artist says that, while it never gets in the way of visual pleasure, she’s “very intrigued by and inspired by philosophy”. And in this respect particularly Deleuze: “As I read philosophy, I just have all sorts of mental images, that happen in my head and as a result I feel sort of compelled to get those images down in the artwork.”

Boyer makes no apologies for staging a show in which the philosophy is overt. Indeed she makes it sound like the most honest starting point: “Philosophy underlies every aspect of society so any attempt to look at art without philosophy would be like going to the movies without philosophy.”

While everyone gets, say, The Matrix (1999), some still balk at raw post-structuralism. “But it’s there, insists Boyer, “and whether or not they’re engaged with it and understanding it, it is in fact affecting their lives and and it’s entering their lives in ways that they may or may not be aware of.”

That holds true for Deleuze, however off the wall he might seem. His presence at this show is after all a result of a certain “clarity” which can be found in his work. Says Boyer: “It’s a sort of twofold clarity.” And the artist enjoys both the “brilliant” initial thoughts and his detailed explanations.

“What I’ve learned in reading Deleuze is to follow with him,” she says. “Sometimes it’s not easy, but to follow with him . . . he’s making a case and making an argument for each element, in his argument and then he brings it all together and makes a final statement”. Sounds clear as crystal.

But no one said curating was easy. “Curating my own work is particularly challenging,” says Boyer. So this week has been busy, and soon she could be back in her role as an artist. That is to say: read, paint, sleep, repeat.

RECURSIVE is at No Format Gallery, London, from October 9 to November 2 2014. See exhibition blog for more details.

Looking for memories of Goya in Madrid

September 5, 2014 · Print This Article

goya for bad at sports

The Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida is a neo-classical chapel in the centre of Madrid. The city has grander buildings, but few can be so stunning once you step into the cool interior. This one bears the handiwork of Francisco de Goya, and shows that, like any baroque master worth his salt, the Spanish painter was quite capable of IMAX-style entertainment avant la letrre.

Like Michelangelo, Andrea Pozzo and Rubens before him, Goya here produces a work which rewards the development of a crick in the neck. Ignore the mirrors provided, the painted scene demands that you consider your distance from the heavens in real physical terms. It might even be a blasphemy, in the presence of this divine intervention, to be gazing downwards.

Saint Anthony of Padua’s greatest trick was to resurrect a murder victim, doing so in order to clear a man accused of murder. The twist in the tale is that the reluctant defendant was the formerly dead man’s father. This all took place in 13th century Lisbon. Goya updates the wardrobe department to bring to life the drama in 18th century Madrid. But they could be wearing pelts for all the difference this makes. The miracle is Fresh, as the vivid expressions attest.

Sadly, it’s not possible to share fresh pictures with Bad at Sports readers. St. Tony might have broken all the laws of nature. Goya might have bent a few perspectival rules. But today, when taking photos has become as reflexive as breathing, visitors to this shrine in Montcloa will be met with a frustrating ban on photography. This strikes one as odd for at least two reasons.

Firstly, you have to be careful not to trip over Goya’s tomb in the apse. This proves that the artist who brought you here will suffer no loss of earnings from the proliferation of poor images of his tromp l’oeil feat. Secondly, photos can only increase the desire to come here. No one ever saw a mere photo of a show stopping chapel like this and thought, ‘I’ve seen all I need to’.

It’s the same story across town at the Prado. You can spend as long as you can bear it, gazing at one of Goya’s black paintings. But can you take a photo? Well, no. You might console yourself that these dim and undefined panoramas would probably photograph horribly. You might even be happy to buy a guidebook, if you want these memories as keepers.

I’m sure there are less commercial considerations for the widespread veto of Goya-inspired pics. For starters, there’s less danger of denigrating his great genius with a selfie next to his droning dog. To a large extent, one can even believe that the aura of these breathtaking works is protected, unlike say that of the holdings of the Louvre.

But as we visit galleries and connect with paintings in our own ways and build our own stories about trips we took, days out we enjoyed or pilgrimages we made, it’s a real handicap to find photography blocked. Gone are the days when a sketchbook would have sufficed. The genie is out of the bottle to use a phrase which could itself inspire a pretty black painting.

Outside the chapel, we cross the train tracks and make our way back up into the adjacent park. Four monoliths, which we missed on the way down here, now realign themselves for a perfect view. They spell out the heavy debt we owe in four of the most evocative letters in both classical and modern art. Those are of course G, O,Y, A. Here, at least, we can snap away.

Real Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida can be found on Glorieta de San Antonio de la Florida, s/n, 28008 Madrid, Spain.

The Museum of Non Participation

August 1, 2014 · Print This Article

mirza butler

On their entrance exam, would-be students to Eton College are presented with a fictional scenario and asked, in the face of civil unrest, what they would do, as UK Prime Minister. Under normal circumstances you might dismiss this as a bit of pedagogical fun. But facts remain that David Cameron, the real PM, attended this school along with a number of his closest advisors.

Eton College is commonly thought to be the best education money can buy. And in Britain it currently seems as if money can buy your way to the top. But, strangely, despite their roll call of 19 prime ministers, the Berkshire school has produced few notable artists. And one imagines, rightly or wrongly, that an old Etonian would make traditional, reactionary art.

Such an accusation could never be levelled at Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. The duo make films you might call incendiary. They are building a body of work known as the Museum of Non Participation, making art at “pivotal moments of change, protest, non-alignment and debate”. Take,for example, 2009 film The Exception and the Rule.

Neither a documentary nor a work of fiction, this film draws Mirza and Butler from the vibrant streets of Karachi towards a scene of angry economic protest, a landscape in flames and a lone figure who sleeps by a roadside and could be dead. But the distance between here and there is collapsed by the final shot of a multi-cultural estate in Britain.

“If all art is political, how can you make a political film?” asks one of the narrators. They are answered shortly: “A worker who buys a small camera and films his vacation is making a political film”. But there are so many places you can’t film in Pakistan (much like the UK/US), and the team collaborate with one of two local filmmakers who appear to get what the Museum of Non Participation might be about.

Mirza and Butler film everyday crowds on street corners and roadsides, then speed up the results to create an exhilarating time lapse. They film the India-Pakistan border ceremony, call it an Intermission, and ghost out the military participants. At no point do they succumb to the traveller’s temptation to render this distant land like a picture story from National Geographic Magazine.

As a result, this is a successful political film. At one point the artists suggest, “Positioning the camera is to take sides”, in which case it sides with the ‘people’. That’s if we can still talk about the ‘people’ in this atomised new media age. The Exception and the Rule will allow you to travel, so long as you forego your status as a tourist.

The work can be found at Waterside Contemporary in East London in what, remarkably, is only Mirza and Butler’s first solo show in Britain. It shares a gallery with a timely sculptural installation; “You are the Prime Minister” is both title and a phrase picked out in neon. You can see it from the street outside. Savvy kids cycle past and laugh at the notion. This is not the grounds of Eton college but an inner city estate.

Should any of them take up the challenge/invitation they will discover school desks set out in a row and duplicates of a genuine admission exam for Eton. The hypothetical question at the top of the paper begins “You are the Prime Minister” and goes on to question how you might send in the army to deal with rioters. Never mind providing work and prospects for the urban poor, at Eton these days politics is all about keeping the population in line.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler: The Unreliable Narrator can be seen at Waterside Contemporary, London until August 9 2014

Najia Bagi: Playing art and making music

June 30, 2014 · Print This Article

najia baby art club

If you think the regular art crowd can be critical, spare a thought for Najia Bagi. The Manchester based musician and artist has been making work for babies. Now that’s a tough gig.

Baby Art Club is a collaboration with Naomi Kendrick at Manchester City Art Gallery. The duo have prepared multi-sensory installations based on current exhibitions. Lots of work goes into these and the audience may fail to respond at all.

“The first time I did baby art club was really difficult,” she tells me via phone. “They don’t do anything. They don’t really move around very much and they don’t want to create anything.” The audience were, as she says, “Incredibly challenging”

“I just thought, What do you do with these tiny little creatures who don’t want to make anything and don’t understand words!” And where verbal communication isn’t possible, received ideas about art go out the window.

Yet Bagi and Kendricks have perservered, creating stimulating environments which, thanks to their strong aesthetic sensibilities, rightly belong in a gallery. “Then you just watch what the babies do and whatever they do is right.”

If times get tough, Bagi has musical talents to fall back on. “I’ve twice played my guitar and sang, and had these really magical moments where tiny babies sing with me, making noise,” she tells me.

“But I felt like I had a lot more to learn from them than they did from me.” It is soon clear that Bagi is “genuinely interested” in child development. And the gallery treat her and Kendrick as artists, rather than educators.

So when the progressive Manchester venue wanted sound art to accompany a show of paintings of the Scottish Highlands, one half of Baby Art Club was right in the frame. “I was surprised at how well it worked,” she says of her evening event.

“One woman was in there for 45 minutes and people were standing in front of each painting for a really long time. They were allowing themselves to be absorbed.” One happy visitor described the experience as painting in four dimensions.

Thanks to mics, headphones and 150 objects (mostly spoons), the busy sound artist is currently adding an extra dimension to the family space at Tate Liverpool. The benefits, unlike most of those in art, are tangible

“In terms of being in an installation or in an art gallery with sound, you know that the other person in the same space is hearing what you’re hearing,” she points out. “And that creates a form of human connection which is really good for wellbeing”.

Next on the agenda could be a public artwork in the form of an interactive sound sculpture. Bagi has been inspired by the Scandinavian origins of the adventure playground, which, in the 1940s, were called Junk Playgrounds.

“It’s completely unthinkable now. You couldn’t do it because of health and safety but it was amazing. There were hammers and nails and tyres and nails and wood and saws and bricks”.

Bagi’s art playground will, of course, be a much safer space but she is still excited about the chance for kids to respond to the landscape buy creating sound. She envisions this project being realised in a central outdoor space in either Liverpool or Manchester.

“In my head they’re creating sound art and I would say it like that, but in their heads they’re just having a great time.” And that’s how to make art for people who have no interest in art.

Seaside postcards: Spencer Tunick in Folkestone

June 6, 2014 · Print This Article

MSBASjune14

Museums at Night appears yet to reach the US, but if any cultural impresarios are reading, this concept is ripe for import. In the UK it’s an annual extravaganza which sees nearly 500 museums throwing open their doors after hours. It generates crowds, good will and new audiences, taking its cue in turn from continental Europe where the phenomenon first took root in Germany in 1997.

On May 17th, event co-ordinators Culture24 sent me to a small coastal town in Kent  which, thanks to the festive circumstances, was hosting a world famous artist. The venue was Georges House, Folkestone, and the big name draw was Spencer Tunick, known best for photographing nudes in their hundreds and thousands. Yes, whole crowds of people in the buff.

This project, which often gets the wrong kind of attention, makes most sense when you learn about Tunick’s upbringing. His father was a photographer and an entrepreneur. He would shoot folk on holiday, develop the film as fast as possible, then return to the scene to sell back his images to his more or less willing subjects. Tunick became an apprentice who learned early what it meant to deal with crowds.

His Museums at Night project has been developed with arts organisation Strange Cargo and entailed the capture of more than 150 nudes on the Folkestone seafront. The results were slotted into key-chain viewfinders, such as his father would have used. Tunick calls these scopes, and the show here in Folkestone involves the installation of these colourful creations, each one lit with LED lights.

The installation is in reassuringly good taste. Perspex housing hangs from the ceiling and divides the room. As you peer into each scope, you cannot but be aware of the people to your right, left, and on the other side of the divide, the people in front. There is nothing furtive about the experience, which may be why participants all appear to be so happy with the results.

One woman even hands me her scope, giving me little choice but to put the plastic gizmo to my eye and get an eyeful. I tell her the photo is “beautiful” and we go on chatting about other things. Well, it is certainly an icebreaker. It turns out she too is a photographer, with a specialism in self portraiture, also nude. “Sara’s an artist,” Tunick tells me. “You should discover her!”

Certainly, there are plenty of discoveries to be made here. Another woman searches for her scope and asks, “Have you seen me yet?” In truth, people look so different with their clothes off that is is hard to say for sure. The installation is a parade of male and female bodies, most in good shape. All stand on a jetty facing the camera. It is about as erotic as a nudist colony, ie; not very.

But the punters here in Folkestone don’t seem to mind. The venue and the street outside are buzzing.  Visitors have to queue to scrutinise the scopes. Looking at people with no clothes on turns out to be the most fun you can have with your own proverbial clothes on. The high spirits might worry you just a little; after all art is supposed to be a serious endeavour, not a peep show.

Tunick, mind you, comes across as perfectly sincere. And as he has said, his work falls between land art, sculpture and performance art. The critical faculties may be stunned by mass nudity, but the format here in Folkestone calls to mind the unimpeachable Marcel Duchamp. His final artwork of course, a nude by the name of Étant donnés, also employed the keyhole approach to viewing.

Comparisons should probably end there. Duchamp’s faceless, depilated nude spreads her legs for the viewer and is quite the opposite of this surprisingly wholesome show in Folkestone. You would also have to visit Philadelphia to see Duchamp’s installation, whereas for the art lovers of Folkestone, these nudes have come to their doorstep. But in any history of the nude in art, you would surely have to mention both contrasting angles.