Leaving London, and so Sawdust too – though I suppose there’s no necessary reason why the blog can’t be continued somewhere else…
Rokni Haerizadeh, Laleh Khorramian, others
Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East
30 Jan – 9 May 09
It is unfortunate that it is grouped under a label – “Middle East” – because there is plenty of work here that could easily stand on its own without any sort of appeal to current events or sociopolitical interest to make it relevant.
Rokni Haerizadeh’s “Typical Iranian Funeral” (2008) and “Typical Iranian Wedding” (2008), for example, are both beautiful paintings in their own right, recalling Renoir with their crowds and parties, but because of their titles they are made into sociocultural documents. The viewer does not remark, “What a beautiful work,” but, “How beautiful those Iranian weddings must be.” Maybe this is a necessity for artists from Southwest Asia; maybe Western collectors have certain expectations for them – that their work should discuss the social realities of their communities – that they have to play into to gain a broader audience.
There is nothing wrong with capturing a place or event in art, of course, but the use of the term “Middle East” – not to mention “unveiled” – in the exhibit title reveals an intent to capitalize on people’s interest in current events. The Middle East is only a geopolitical locus, an imagined space which someone can certainly be from, but once we see them as from the Middle East rather than a specific country or Southwest Asia or North Africa we can only see their work as engaging the associations that make up the term “Middle East”.
Laleh Khorramian’s “Eden – 1st Generation” (2005) and “Some Comments on Empty and Full” (2008) are perhaps simultaneously the most interesting, for me, and least concerned with the expectations of Western art buyers on the outside looking in. Her paintings are made from pressing paper against the paint she has applied to sheet of glass. She then created tiny scenes and figures on the runny surface which, combined with the root systems of drips and hills of paint layers, give birth to a complex and mythical landscape. The details – both intended by the artist’s hand and spontaneously caused by the paint on glass – are fascinating.
Charles Saatchi was born in Baghdad, but, commendably, there is nothing here that would lead one to necessarily suspect that. Some reviews have applauded the originality of Saatchi’s uncovering of the largely unknown talent of the region. Certainly there is something commendable about his discoveries – as I said above, most of the pieces are striking – but there is little original about pointing out critiques of the governments or social mores of the region. This is what we completely expect.
Olivier Ruellet, Disinformation and Usurp, others
Liminal: A Question of Position
11 March – 25 April 09
There are some big ideas here. Probably too big, but the effort is inspirational in itself. Liminal starts with a story – one artist meets another artist, a spark of connection, a gathering of other like-minded artists, a collaboration. The ideas have to do with architecture – the information architecture of digital media, the physical architecture of the city, the cooperative architecture of relationships. Power is decided and constructed through these architectures. But what these ideas seem to promise is not fulfilled here; “the question of position” is never fully explored.
Downstairs, the gallery is clear and open. The big door slides back and places you in a foyer just as airy as the alley outside. The boundary between outside and inside, upstairs and downstairs, one room and the next is glossed over. Or is supposed to be. The gallery notes say architect David Andjaye “suggests that the spaces within the building should exist in a non-hierarchical relationship with each other.” This is a fascinating idea and I am all for examining the relationship between the gallery and its art, but ultimately Liminal only skims the surface of this idea.
The works in this downstairs space are installation-scale, yet they do not command one’s attention. They blend in a bit too smoothly with the space in which they are contained. The show is a collaboration of sorts by artists whose interests revolve around digital media and the urban environment, and so influences on each other’s work is to be expected. Likewise, one of the ideas behind the show is that it would itself be a part of the outside environment, that the works would interact both with the audience inside and the audience walking by the big windows on the street outside. But they seem to just blend in to each other and that outside environment. Interaction is theme here as there are several works that give the viewer the power to modify them. This is certainly somewhat interesting – and thus the galley is worth a quick visit – but aside from being mildly fun it leaves unanswered the questions the show set out to answer.
Upstairs is more interesting. In a closed-door room with two rows of benches and a giant projection screen, Disinformation and Usurp’s “London Underground” (2009) plays. It is made up of recordings of magnetic field interference caused by the Underground accompanied by scratchy color images of the trains. As the interference screeches, one cannot help but feel sorry for the gallery attendent sitting in the back corner, but also the slow realization that you are looking at the same thing you look at every day – black tunnel walls, ads and people zipping by – only now these are on display rather than the backdrop of some iPod daze, squeezed-in and humiliated after an honest day’s work.
On the same screen, Olivier Ruellet’s “Ferro Scape” (2008) comes up next. It is a white background with dark wires and telephone poles zipping above a train. Sitting in the front row, one’s shadow becomes part of the projection and that familiar-looking silhouette head head travels down the animated train line. Tunnels are passed through and a catchy beat of mechanical Tube sounds plays throughout. It is a rather enjoyable journey until you realize there is nothing here but black and white and wires and forward progress. In the end, a station is reached (Shepherd’s Bush) and, with it, the city, where claustrophic streets and lifeless walls are an understood, and thus comfortable, way of life.
There are interesting concepts here which certainly deserve to be explored and all these artists, I think, are quite young, so I am sure they will be. But the works here, at least downstairs, are dry and only scratch the surface of the ideas that have inspired them. The most important thing, though, is to be inspired by interesing ideas – rather than creating pieces that are pretty but mute – so at least they have that.
Gallery tours and workshops: http://www.rivingtonplace.org/events
Olivier Ruellet: http://www.ctrl-n.net/en
Iniva, who is curating and producing the show (and who is Rivington Place by another name): http://www.iniva.org/exhibitions_projects/2009/liminal#
Andres Serrano, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Yvon Lambert – London
3 Feb – 28 March 09
There is a way of thinking that sees art as about buzz. Packaging, publicity, celebrity, it says, are what makes something quality art. They see evaluating a piece of art as a completely arbitrary exercise, and so, whatever, I guess that piece is kinda cool – it’s famous and at least I understand it. This is a way of thinking that does not believe Art, as such, is worth saving. If crisis struck, nothing related to art would be anywhere near their list of lifeboat-worthy objects. And that is fine, except that for those of us peering into the art world from outside the first pieces we see are those that play to this art-doubting audience which relies on attention-gotten to direct them toward what is worthy of their own attention.
Works like these hurt Art. They are the Jay-Z or Nelly of Art, destroying what was good about hip-hop by simply overshadowing it with louder, more obvious songs – the songs the wider public expects, and expects to be able to condemn, in hip-hop. For the artist, these works build up her reputation, for better or worse, not based on what she has conveyed or depicted but how she has done so. Her works are simply the means of eliciting disgust, shock, outcry, debate, rather than being ends in themselves, being complete pieces of work that can be discussed as pieces of work rather than as topics of social debate.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a collection of past works from Andres Serrano, and the general thrust of his oeuvre can be seen clearly here – the intent to shock and disgust. Not everything said above is fair with regards to Serrano. I do believe his works are at least somewhat “ends in themselves”; many photos have an internal beauty and cohesion independent of their sometimes rather obvious attention-grabbing intent, but it is near impossible to view such works on their own internal terms – and the social context should never be completely ignored anyway. With Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (1989), the discussion was never left at whether this work or the work of Serrano was defensible as quality art – and so worth NEA funding – but whether contemporary art generally was defensible as a cause – and funding-worthy. This is how the deliberately shocking piece of art hurts Art, at least in the eyes of the general public. It is not so much Serrano’s fault as those – senators, church leaders, etc – that subscribe to the way of thinking above, but I can not imagine there was much of an inescapable artistic compulsion mandating Serrano make “Piss Christ”. It was always as much about the reaction to the piece as the piece, and as such was always more of a means than an end, and artistically suspect because of that – and that only.
The photos with the most shock value here are perhaps the ones upstairs – transsexuals, dwarfs, dead bodies, and androgynous older ladies in sexual acts or on their way. This room looks down on a schoolyard below and is furnished with two long couches. Downstairs are close-ups of smooth, detail-less guns and portraits of nuns, a KKK member, dead faces, homeless, and Ethan Hawke juxtaposed with 1980s porn star Vanessa del Rio. The photos are bright and sharp, with no interesting details to uncover; they are straightforward and do not say much aside from the obvious, whether it be disgust, accusal, or humor.
Most interesting is the Shit series which has its own room filled with close-ups of, yeah. Taken individually, they are quite complex and interesting. Mounds become landscapes of deep brown gullies and crevices, punctuated by yesterday’s undigested plant matter. Personally, I had never looked at shit this way before, and so this is new, interesting, able to be seen as a piece of art rather than a photo of a pile shit. A room full of such photos, though, is a bit overwhelming. Of course, that is probably the point, but it is a crappy one (yep) and one that has been done too many times already.
Milan Kundera’s “lightness of being” refers to the stochastic insignificance of life, how “what happens but once, might as well not have happened at all” (p. 238 of HarperCollins’s 1999 paperback), yet Serrano’s works drip with sociocultural significance and seem to keep coming back to the same tired themes. Their relation to an unbearable and fruitless search for deeper meaning is no where apparent in these works. – M.O. Berger
Yvon Lambert will close its London gallery at the end of March, due to a stingier art market and the fact that “Paris and New York are the two crucial centers for the gallery”: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=a0cKjgqZGkhQ&refer=muse
Andres Serrano bio: http://andresserrano.org/Bio.htm
Andres Serrano interview: http://www.communityarts.net/readingroom/archivefiles/2002/09/shooting_the_kl.php
Sean Snyder, Index
Institute of Contemporary Arts
12 Feb – 19 April 09
There is nothing too exciting here, but that does not mean it is not worth checking out. The way the ICA gallery spaces are set up – cinema, café, and bookshop interspersed – they are on two different levels, which maybe makes it difficult to maintain that exclusive focus on the art while walking from the downstairs gallery to the next but which, it turns out, echoes the different aspects of art Snyder seems to be discussing.
There are two videos that seem especially incongruent but interesting. Downstairs, behind a partial wall, “Exhibition”, 2008, plays. It re-edits a Soviet propaganda film showing an art exhibition at a provincial museum and then another outside, against the wall of a farm building. In still-chilly London, it is amazing to watch an open-air exhibition and dream about how the landscape and paintings must play off each other, but, of course, it is a propaganda film and this admiration must be tempered with some amount of suspicion. But after Snyder’s editing to make the film about art and not art in service of revolution, this piece seems to mostly speak about the tiny role art plays in a community like the villages in the film. The paintings – copies of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and others – look so tiny and insignificant in front of the sturdy walls, the sky, the fields, the peasant-farmers. So that’s one layer – art somewhat out of place against a certain socioeconomic background.
The other is art as an observer of that socioeconomic background. Through the cafe and up the stairs, “Casio, Seiko, Sheraton, Toyota, Mars”, 2004-5, plays. Most reviewers seem to have focused on its examination of brands, of wars as marketing expansions for brand names. But it also spends a lot of time discussing photojournalism – its techniques, its conventions, and, at least implicitly, its ethics. Still photos are shown with a voice-over quoting textbook advice on how to approach the recording of an event. Children and their grandparents are seen unloading food from a train. These people have far less time for art as such than the Ukrainian villagers downstairs, but the difference is they are art. The photojournalist is not just recording an event or a place but is aesthecizing it through finding the right subject – a young boy walking away and looking down, distracted, a couple bananas dangling from his fingers – or the right composition – a close-up of that boy or with the action of unloading still going on raucously behind him – or the right combination of shots – a landscape, a close-up, a group – to tell a quick but powerful narrative.
Art as diversion and art as a constant, watching presence are the two aspects Snyder seems to be discussing, then, but these are just inferences; it is not at all clear what exactly Snyder means to convey with these videos. The other video, “Afghanistan, circa 1985” seems at first more obvious, but is actually less so. It depicts Soviet and Afghan troops dancing together, loops with sound and then without, and is the kind of vague, seemingly pointless video that makes me feel films in dark rooms with benches really have no place in a gallery setting. But the first two mentioned are actually both excellent in their separate, though related, ways, and really more gallery films should be like them.
The other aspect of Index, the main aspect, is, in fact, “Index”, a collection of photographs of the media hardware on which Snyder’s work has been stored. Which work is not clear, and the gallery notes and other reviews seem to be especially unsure about how these photos relate to his other work here and elsewhere. There is a website that is supposed to be somehow related (see below), but, no, it really does not clear anything up. These photos are nonetheless interesting in their own right. Put simply, Snyder reifies information. He presents a memory stick or a cassette in a photograph and though we know the objects hold much more interesting information, we are forced to be interested in that object as it is, as a piece of art in itself. He takes this a step further in the extra-close-up photos on the concourse level (leading to the cafe) where pieces of the technology of modern communications technology are focused on so completely as to make them into something undeniably artistic, and nothing but artistic, recorded by some other technological device. The recorder becomes the recorded. It is not new, but it is done with new, different, digital objects, and though there is not much to it – just a few photos – it works.
In these and in his re-presentations of propaganda films, Snyder is focused on the materiality of information – both how it can be molded to fit one’s ends and how it exists not just as ideas and images, but bits of celluloid and silicon. This interrelation of the diverse pieces of the exhibition is what ultimately saves it from being a little too varied and sparse, and eventually allows it to live up to the photojournalism guidelines quoted in “Casio, Seiko, Sheraton, Toyota, Mars”: “You should have a clear idea of why you’re taking the photo, what it’s meant to convey.” – M.O. Berger
Sean Snyder’s Index site: http://126.96.36.199/
Sean Snyder’s Optics. Compression. Propaganda.: http://www.amazon.com/Sean-Snyder-Optics-Compression-Propaganda/dp/3865603289/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1237078803&sr=1-5
Even better, his summary of the ideas in the book: http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/pdfs/snyder.pdf
Frieze’s review: http://www.frieze.com/shows/review/sean_snyder/