As the largest of its kind, the Venice Biennale presents one of the world’s most important platforms for the dissemination of contemporary, international artwork. It would therefore be expected that each artist, either individually at the IllumiNATIONS exhibition or whilst representing their country at a pavilion, would aim to bring something new to the artistic palette. This year’s exhibition at the British Pavilion, I, Impostor by Mike Nelson, offers something far greater than that. Though the work that Nelson is exhibiting seems to have no obvious link to Great Britain, with the dark, dusty rooms and ever-continuing passageways evoking a traditional Istanbul house instead of the British tearoom-like building the pavilion once was, his work offers two things: Firstly, the chance for three very distinct cultures, Great Britain, Venice and Istanbul, to mix and intertwine through contemporary art, demonstrating the multiculturalism of our modern British society. Secondly, the opportunity for both artist and audience to see that in the contemporaneous climate, national identity and the ‘traditional’ Biennale idea of representing ones country is not straightforward or specific anymore.
Through his particular art practice, Nelson constructs site-specific, large-scale installations that represent a period of living and working in a particular location. His immersive works are intriguing and atmospheric, submerging the viewer into an unfolding narrative that develops through a sequence of meticulously placed articles and spatial structures. Throughout his career, Nelson has constantly returned and re-examined territories that he has already visited and experienced within his own art practice. Here, we can see this again, with the piece for the British Pavilion revisiting the work he created for the 8th International Istanbul Biennale in 2003, entitled Magazin: Büyük Valide Han. More often than not, the specific worlds that Nelson creates are deeply personal. He states that “in relation to the work in Venice, both cities have played a pivotal role in my life. Istanbul especially has acted as a meter silently occupying a part of my psyche since 1987. Each time I return it has changed, as have I, and yet there is a history, a felt history. In coming to make a work for Venice what I wanted to attempt to do was to make sense of the last 10 years that had elapsed since my last time there in 2001. Somehow I wanted to talk about how I perceive the shift in the world since then but to articulate these histories in such a way that they touch upon my own.”
Mike Nelson’s art has often been described as being only implicit in its cultural, social or political standpoints, with a certain amount of attention and imagination being required on the viewer’s part. Nelson’s work is also unrestricted by the stereotypical British point of view one may expect; instead it roams over many cultural territories and combines them to create a far more substantial art practice. Despite being selected to represent his country, Nelson produces a work that seems only to speak of a detachment from it. However, this is clearly the aim of his work for the Venice exhibition.
The work begs the question: do artists exhibiting at the Venice Biennale have a social responsibility to represent their country as a nation? Or is this view defunct, leaving the artists with only a responsibility to themselves? If we cling to the former, what was once an opportunity for countries around the world to present themselves on an artistic level has now turned into a form of artistic Olympics, where those with the biggest financial backing and greatest egos strive for gold, or in the Biennale’s case, the Golden Lion.
Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, the U.S. Pavilion’s chosen artists, are two of the main runners in this artistic battle, with their exhibition Gloria. Their work puts forward a stereotypical view of America, one of joviality and over compensation through an excess of funding. Combining sculpture, performance, video and sound elements, the works use poetic shock and unexpected juxtaposition to reflect on competitive enterprises, ranging from the Olympic Games to international commerce to the military industrial complex. The title, Gloria, has the ability to reference military, religious, Olympic, economic and cultural grandeur, allowing this exhibition to cover all bases, but never really pinpointing on something solid.
The design of the exhibition is poor considering the funding that would have presumably been provided, and yet on another level – perhaps more likely for two conceptually rigorous artists - Allora and Calzadilla are playing up to this stereotypical view that many other cultures hold of America. In a society that has so many misconceptions as to what that specific culture truly is, this buoyant and almost self-critical viewpoint is refreshing, if a little over the top.
Though the U.S. and the U.K. representatives hold completely contradictory standpoints on the idea of national representation, both pavilions emphasise the fact that it is no longer possible in the globalised age, to portray a nation as a unified body without falling into cliché. The U.S demonstrate this, the UK abstains – opting for the alternative.
It can be seen in Mike Nelson’s work that the weaving of fact and fiction are fundamental, and his constructs are steeped in both historic and literary references, whilst drawing upon the specific cultural context and geography of the location. Here in I, Impostor, Nelson has created a building within a building using cheap materials found in junkyards and skips in Venice and Istanbul. “I planned, and ultimately did, give the building two exteriors; one the neo- classical exterior of a bastardised tea house, an anglicised Italian building - the pavilion. Whilst the other was based on that of a courtyard in an Istanbul Han, a seventeenth century Caranavaserai remodelled and re-built in concrete, re-sited in the centre of the existing building by the removal of the roof. The Han in question was the site of my 2003 work for the Istanbul biennale: Magazin: Büyük Valide Han. 2011’s work references back to two previous works to make sense of two cities, their historical relationships to one another and their relevance to me and my own subjective history.”
Nelson continues: “My aims firstly were not nationalistic, they were like any other work to make the most interesting use of the context possible at that point in time, both on a conceptual or narrative level and on a structural or sculptural level. Of course to deny an interest in the building’s identity and history would be disingenuous, and perhaps the gesture of removing the roof, letting the air in (and whatever out) whilst replacing the building with another building within, with an eastern identity is all part of that.” The ever-present multicultural aspect of Nelson’s work is the defining idea that emphasises the apparent demise of a stereotypical, national identity at the Venice Biennale. Paradoxically however, through his work Nelson has captured a very contemporaneous stance. After all Britain is no longer a tearoom-like society, both in culture and in art. In turning away from a nationalistic agenda and ignoring well-worn clichés, Nelson has avoided replaying the past and perhaps come closer to representing modern Britain than we may initially think.
Originally published on Line magazine: A Virtual Biennale blog and printed in Line Magazine: The Illuminated Artist edition.
Emily Burke: The majority of your practice is dedicated to activity outside the traditional ‘art world’ and entails public interventions, workshops and teaching. How do you feel your installations provoke and disarm our voyeuristic gaze, which so often inhibits our full engagement with the spectacle of atrocities?
Alfredo Jaar: I have worked in the public realm for 30 years; perhaps because I consider myself an architect making art it was natural for me to get out of our small, insular “art world”. I feel that working outside of the “white cube” keeps me grounded in the real world. Teaching has also been a fundamental activity as I find it important to share my experience with the new generations of artists and in doing so, I also learn enormously from them, they give me a real sense of the zeitgeist. This does not mean I dismiss the world of art galleries and museums as I think it is equally important to engage that audience as well. But I need to move in all three worlds to feel complete.
We undoubtedly live in the society of the spectacle that Debord so brilliantly analysed in the sixties, perhaps today’s reality has become even worse than what he predicted. And atrocities, unfortunately, have become part of the spectacle and most of the media unashamedly victimises, exploits and humiliates the victims again and again. I always felt that we have to search for new strategies of representation, and this is what I have tried to do with my work. In my practice I have argued that there must be a way to dignify the victims instead of victimising them again. At least this is what I have tried to accomplish.
EB: You try and stay as up-to-date as possible with everything that is happening in the world. How can artists respond to the world in the state that it is? Can art make a difference, especially when a lot of the public will happily ignore what is going on outside their comfort zone?
AJ: We live in dark times. We are surrounded by information that most of us would rather ignore. For those of us trying to deal with the reality of the world it is a real challenge to work from this depressing reality. Hopefully there are strategies of communication that can we can use to engage our audience in a meaningful dialogue. We must insist that art makes a huge difference in our lives; it was Nietzsche who said that “without music life would be a mistake”, just imagine for a second life without art, dance, theatre, literature, it would be unliveable. Art is precisely a way to understand the world, to make sense of it, and to act in it. We must find ways to engage our audience and offer them the tools necessary to enter the world of culture, they will then discover that in fact, it is a space of resistance in difficult times, and is, ultimately, a space of hope.
EB: With the amount of media that allows us to stay upfront with the world, is it possible to live a screened existence?
AJ: In this era of unlimited, unparalleled access to information, apathy and indifference are our biggest enemies. Most people live a screened existence because it is not so much the extraordinary amount of media surrounding us that matters, but the quality of the information they convey to us, and the way it is delivered to us. The important news is most of the time decontextualised and drowned in a sea of consumption. A responsible media should not only inform us but also encourage us to understand the bigger picture and where do we stand. A responsible media would illuminate us and move us to action. Unfortunately today most of the media treats the news like any other business, and delivering news has become part of a larger enterprise that also delivers entertainment and advertising. The news is treated today like any other for entertainment. It sounds depressing but it is unfortunately true: just stop a few people in the street and ask them a couple of simple questions about, say, Afghanistan, and see the kind of answers you get. I used to do this exercise all the time and the results were so depressing I had to stop.
EB: In your work how do you differentiate between educated information and reality, especially with the many different perceptions and receptions by the viewer in an age of globalisation?
AJ: We artists cannot represent reality, we can only create new realities, and they are generally a poor reflection of reality. Because, as Godard said, “art is not only a reflection of reality, it is also the reality of that reflection.” We create new realities that are, in a way, models of thinking the world, models that will help us understand the world. These models translate our lived experience and create representations of the world. Some of these models have the potential to educate, yes, but I am interested in going much beyond educating my audience, I want to inform her, I want to touch her, I want to illuminate her, I want to move her, and invite her to act. It is perhaps very demanding to ask all this from a work of art, but we should aspire to nothing less.
EB: Are your works an education in themselves? Surely you must learn from them when they perhaps do not go as planned?
AJ: I learn from every work and perhaps even more when they fail, which unfortunately happens very frequently.
EB: You describe yourself as a “project artist”, and not a “studio artist.” Does your training in architecture influence this? What are your views on traditional art education in the contemporary artistic climate?
AJ: All my works are based on real life events, they are conceived as projects in response to specific events or situations. I have never created a single work out of my imagination only. My imagination is triggered by an event or a place and I react, creatively. I have always described myself as an architect making art, basically because that is what I studied and I apply the methodology of architecture to develop my projects. I studied film as well, so it is also a major influence in the way I work. I feel completely free as an artist precisely because I never studied art in a formal way, and if I do not follow any “artistic” rules it is simply because I ignore them. In my working with art students, I have noticed a struggle to create beyond existing rules, a realisation perhaps that these times demand going much beyond existing formulas.
EB: How informative and educative was the Marx Lounge that you exhibited at the Liverpool Biennale?
AJ: The Marx Lounge was born out of despair. Like everywhere else in the UK, I found Liverpool near bankruptcy and about to breakdown financially and socially. The city centre was full of empty stores. In the face of funding, particularly in education, I decided to create a work that would offer a space of resistance, a space that could possibly contain all the knowledge, all the revolutionary ideas created in the last 50 years. This is how I created a reading room with approximately a thousand books from Marx to Gramsci, from Hall to Bourdieu, from Mouffe to Ranciere, from Butler to Zizek and from Fanon to Badiou. I did not expect people to read the books at all, as in Biennials, people rush around works, stressed out, trying to see everything and dedicating 3 seconds to each work. But the idea of offering all that knowledge in a single table fascinated me.
It was an ephemeral work and the books were given away at the end of the exhibition to poor, underfunded libraries and struggling radical bookstores. It was a surprise to receive invitations from other European venues to re-create the Lounge and incorporating more books by local authors.
Originally printed in Line magazine: Alternative Strategies edition
The life and death of painting and its presence in the contemporary art world has been, and still is, continually debated, with the established norms of painting being broken from every angle. However, it takes a certain audacity to play around with the medium of painting; it is, after all, the most traditional and solemn of art forms. It is through Angela de la Cruz’s work that we can see this break happening in a contemporary but also controversial way, with her work challenging the definition of painting and sculpture, and where the distinction between the two mediums becomes somewhat blurred. The clear identity of a painting, established so firmly after so many centuries of recurrent use, has therefore been distinctly challenged.
Born in La Coruña, Spain in 1965, the storm-tossed Atlantic sea town where Picasso spent his most tumultuous early years, De la Cruz moved to London in 1989, where she has subsequently stayed for her entire artistic career. She began her studies at Chelsea College of Art, continuing in Fine Art at Goldsmiths’ College and completing an MA in Sculpture and Critical Theory at the Slade School of Art in 1996. Her work has been exhibited across the world, with many solo and group exhibitions to her name. However it was in 2005, when she was midway through organising a major show in Lisbon when she suffered a brain haemorrhage. While in a coma for several months, she gave birth to her daughter, but her recovery has never truly been completed, and it was only in 2009, with the aid of assistants, that she began to start working again.
Regardless of this brief spell of illness, her work still controversially challenges the idea of painting and sculpture, and it was in her first exhibition in a UK public gallery, at the Camden Arts Centre in 2010, that one saw a compilation of her works produced over her twenty-year career. The show included pieces such as ‘Nothing’, ‘Ashamed’ and ‘Homeless’, works whose condition as art are precarious, but yet still hold an air of vulnerability about them. These titles reveal an almost human quality to her work, however they are not an outpouring of De la Cruz’s anxieties, but rather an expression of a driven determination in an antagonistic world, where even the gallery space of the Camden Arts Centre seemed unsympathetic; crushing and trapping works in doorways or corners. But it was perhaps this entrapment of her work in the Camden Arts Centre that gained her a nomination for the 2010 Turner Prize, and although unsuccessful, this nomination was truly justified.
De la Cruz’s starting point for her work is in the deconstruction of painting, with this idea coming about when she apparently removed the cross bar out of the back of a canvas, with the painting bending as a result, and it was from this moment on that she began to look at painting as an object. This idea will be pressed further in her up-and-coming exhibition at the Lisson Gallery, March 30th – April 30th 2011, entitled ‘Transfer’. The work for this exhibition implies a transition period in De la Cruz’s career, partly because she is less physically involved with the work, but also because it is becoming more direct, free, minimal and clean. The gallery states that what can be seen through her art exhibited as a whole is that a “scene of frenetic violent activity has just taken place leaving in its wake the strangely paradoxical feeling of spent energy and a sense of calm; a visual catharsis.” Her work can most definitely be seen as violent, with canvases ripped off their frames and chairs laid helplessly broken on the floor, but De la Cruz instead sees her distinct form of art as humorous; in a way a cruel form of sadistic painting.
De la Cruz’s work brings a three-dimensional quality to painting, and we are left pondering whether it falls under a category of ‘sculptural painting’ or ‘painterly sculpture’. The line between these two mediums has most certainly been blurred, but the new exhibition at the Lisson Gallery will without a doubt prove that her work puts a firm stamp on the ideas of painting, and that it’s death is far from imminent.
Originally published on Line Magazine blog, 29/04/11
Trying to document a nation of people is no mean feat, and would have been substantially more difficult in the early 1900s without the availability of modern technology. However, the new exhibition at the Dean Gallery proves that it was possible.
August Sander, one of the greatest and most influential photographers of the twentieth century, made it his life-long ambition to document the nation of Weimar Germany, classifying them into seven groups according to their occupation or position in society: ‘The Farmer’, ‘The Skilled Tradesman’, ‘The Woman’, ‘Classes and Professions’, ‘The Artists’, ‘The City’, and ‘The Last People’.
Sander’s aim was to show these people in a historical perspective, so that we can look back and see the groups which helped shape German society. The classification process may show that it was a varied nation, but the way in which the figures are presented, in front of a neutral background, wearing work clothes and facing us head-on with no expression, gives an impression of collective as opposed to individual identity.
The people are presented as a whole, a visual representation of the geographic unification of Germany; a concept that changed dramatically in the turbulent years of war to follow. The images that we are presented with are incredibly raw, but the viewer cannot delve further into the lives of these people. Instead we are left with a stereotypical image of a soldier, or mother.
Nevertheless, this exhibition is a brilliant overview of Sander’s work, and is demonstrative of the enormous influence he had on modern photography.
Exhibition: August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century
Venue: Dean Gallery
Dates: 12th February - 10th July 2011
Originally published in The Journal, printed and online, 23/02/11
Gill Russell works with sound and light to create installations that explore and unsettle the sensory perceptions of the viewer, and her most recent exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy is no exception. Entitled ‘Uamh’, the works exhibited here were inspired by Russell’s visit to the Isle of Skye, where every year Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the centre for Gaelic language and culture, hosts a residency programme for artists interested in producing work informed by an engagement with Gaelic language, culture and environment.
Russell uses a cave, or uamh, as her inspiration, which is believed to be a religious and votive site, in particular for Celtic Earth Goddess Brigid, or the ‘Triple Goddess’, which provides an ideal setting for the three light sculptures in the exhibition. Although individual pieces they are also part of the larger installation; simultaneously distinct and connected.
As you enter the cave-like area of the RSA, you are immediately confronted by twisted blue-lit branches suspended from the ceiling, which suggest almost a helical DNA form. To its left, a womb-like orb encases an illuminated blue ovum, but the blue light adds an extra-terrestrial stance to it. The final piece, however, is the most intriguing of all; suspended feathers above a pile of bone-like antlers resting atop a dark spherical heap.
All three of the pieces, along with the accompanying sounds of ancient instruments, have been carefully considered, giving the exhibition an air of fragility. However, once inside the cave, the viewer’s perception of time is altered, as one gains an insight into the ancient rites of the past, but also another cosmic world.
Exhibition: Gill Russell: ‘Uamh’
Venue: Royal Scottish Academy
Dates: 1st - 30th January 2011
Originally published on The Journal website, 09/02/11
Inspace is a public engagement lab on the ground floor of the Informatics Forum of Edinburgh University, which aims to explore the cultural significance of informatics, whether it be through the arts, science, medicine or humanities. You would be forgiven for not recognising this tucked away building, but the exhibits and shows that are put on there should definitely not be missed. This can most certainly be said for the most recent performance Dressed in White Noise, hosted by the newly launched LINE Magazine, which aimed to unmask the face of sound and to question the blurring of the boundary between performance and reality. Created in Spring 2010, LINE is a Scottish art publication that provides a platform for both emerging and established artists and writers across Scotland and internationally. It’s latest edition focuses on the use of sound as an artform, and the exhibition is a celebration of the publications recent success, inspired by artists such as Turner prize winner Susan Philipsz, Chris Cunningham and Michael Gondry.
Conventional ideas of ‘distance’ between work and audience are most certainly challenged in this performance, both physically and emotionally, through the placement of performers discreetly within the audience. The viewer is taken on an all-encompassing sound experience, with each stage of the piece adding to our otherworldly, trancelike but transient state. However, with the presence of human figures throughout the piece, the audience is brought firmly back to reality, and although the experience was ephemeral, the impact of sound in art is certainly not lost.
‘For the first time I have been able to look at myself and realise how I have led my life’. Mirrors: Prison Portraits, the new exhibition at the National Gallery Complex, displays a dramatic and thought-provoking collection of portraits, aiming to help prisoners from five Scottish jails take a look at themselves and come to terms with the crimes that they have committed. The exhibitionis part of Inspiring Change, a pioneering partnership project, led by Motherwell College, which uses the arts to stimulate engagement with learning and improve literacy skills among offenders in custody, as well as demonstrating the potential of the arts to support the process of rehabilitation. Displayed anonymously and with no details of the crimes committed by the artists, the images include photographs by female offenders in HMP Greenock, figurative portraits created by long-term prisoners in HMP Shotts, and other works from HMP Barlinnie, HMP Polmont and HMP Open Estate (Castle Huntly). However, it is through this anonymity that the viewer gains a real sense of sadness and the loss of identity of these prisoners, a feeling that emanates throughout the whole exhibition, and makes it harder to engage with the work.
One can see a vast array of artistic influences in the work displayed by these prisoners, ranging from the Francesca Woodman inspired pinhole photographs of the reality of rehabilitation; the stereotypical female fictional characters of Cindy Sherman, representing female inmates’ personalities; or the Kevin Reid inspired graphic novel, where inmates channel the harsh realities of prison into some kind of narrative within ‘cells’ or boxes, mirroring everyday prison life. However, whichever way the work is produced and displayed, there is an overriding sense of misery, emphasising their imprisonment even further, but still showing an honest representation of prison life.
Exhibition: Mirrors: Prison Portraits
Venue: Scottish National Gallery Complex, Edinburgh
Dates: 5th November 2010 – 16th January 2011
Originally published in History of Art Review, 13/12/10
Bringing together work from Bristol’s Centre of Fine Print Research, this show at Edinburgh Printmakers is a comprehensive introduction to 3D printing. The show seeks to explore the close relationship between the second and third dimension in fine art print where rich surface qualities have traditionally been used to enhance the impact of a 2D image, creating something more akin to an object than a mere visual illusion on a flat surface. As these artists begin to explore a new printing process, the exhibition arrives appropriately at a juncture where the three-dimensional is rapidly being incorporated into our visual culture. The illusion of object and image is proposed as the conceptual drive of the exhibition, but this isn’t a conceptually driven display: it is an education in process.
Some of the works you see on display are baffling to the mind, putting forward ideas that would never have been thought possible: works such as Pulsar by Katie Davies and Peter Walters, which shows a digitally processed interpretation of the sounds of distant galaxies rendered as a 3D printed object. Standing apart as the most recognisable name, Richard Hamilton’s The Typo: Topography of Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass is a work that demands engagement, a re-working of the infamous Duchampian piece, which holds wit and intellect for those who offer their participation. Brendan Reid’s Foxvoxbox tackles the idea of the formulation of imagery, and brings a sense of humour to the foreground.
The work varies greatly in subject, but the artists are united in their choice of medium and the idea of developing processes. 3D 2D most certainly will change your perceptions on the printed medium, showing that new digital technologies for print are enhancing the scope of the fine art printmaker’s palette beyond what we ever thought possible in 2D.
Exhibition: 3D 2D: Object and Illusion in Print
Venue: Edinburgh Printmakers, Union Street
Dates: 18th - 30th October 2010
Originally published in History of Art Review, 25/10/10