Monday, May 10, 2010

Grace Jones by Chris Levine

First published on

Grace Jones with laser and crystal bowler hat by Chris Levine
Grace Jones with laser and crystal bowler hat by Chris Levine (c) Chris Levine

One can hardly imagine the spiky dervish Grace Jones sitting still for a second, let alone remaining motionless long enough to have photographs (and plenty of them) taken for her portrait. Nevertheless, Chris Levine has managed to pin her down - in a manner of speaking.

Levine's exhibition at the Vinyl Factory - Stillness at the Speed of Light - captures the performance artist's restless activity in a very clever way: several of his portraits are in fact lenticular 3D portraits - holograms. Having shot many images of Grace's face in motion, Levine layers them and illuminates them with acid colours and lasers. When you walk past the portrait, her eyes demurely flutter open or shut or she sways slightly.

The laser beam bouncing off Jones' crystal bowler was Levine's contribution to her recent show at the Albert Hall, and he has made it a motif for this one, Jones' impassive stare daring you to look on as light shoots towards you.

Levine used this technique most famously with a portrait of the Queen, but it works especially well with Jones: for her, a machine of perpetual motion, only a moving portrait will do.

See Chris Levine's portraits of Grace Jones in motion here.

The most spectacular piece in the show is perhaps impossible to capture. By cutting an image of Jones into tiny vertical strips and feeding them into a flickering column of light, you see nothing when you stare directly at it, but as soon as you turn away, it appears in a flash in your peripheral vision, and disappears as quickly. Another perfect metaphor for Jones' heightened speed.

  1. Stillness (single)
  2. Stillness (triptych)
  3. Superstar (single blue)
  4. Superstar (single red)
  5. Superstar (triptych)
  6. Superstar (sequence blue)
  7. Superstar (sequence multicolour)

LUX/ICO Artists Cinema Commissions

First published on

A still from 'Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright' by Akram  Zaatari
A still from 'Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright' by Akram Zaatari

In my parents’ day, apparently, one just turned up at the cinema whenever one felt like it, even if that meant the first thing you heard on entering the auditorium was Bogart signalling the start of a beautiful friendship. That doesn’t wash these days – the auteur put paid to that – and given the short films commissioned by ICO/LUX to run before the feature, we can only approve.

ICO, which supports independent film in the UK, and LUX, an agency for artists who work with film, asked eight international artists to make five-minute films, the results of which are being premiered at Cannes on 15 May. There is a fitness in this conjunction, film being the most popular medium of the 20th century and a key medium of 21st-century visual art.

The results are, expectedly for contemporary art, a mixture of linear narratives and semi-abstract mise en scènes, touching personal stories and alienating political works, the harmonious and disjointed.

Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright by Akram Zaatari is the most obviously filmic: words magically appear on paper fed into a typewriter, and the person sitting at the typewriter engages with the ghost in the machine, who appears to be a former lover, taunting, teasing and tenderly enticing him.

It works as its own narrative, a taut romance played out in front of us, yet is almost suggestive of some sort of screenwriter’s madness, where he becomes so caught up in his writing that the characters come alive and type themselves. This film succeeds because it talks to the audience in cinematic terms it will understand.

That can’t be said for This Quality by Rosalind Nashashibi, which goes from a long take of a woman staring at the camera to sequential shots of unmoving cars. Unmoving is the word, although you might more kindly say “meditative”. The Last Days of British Honduras by Catherine Sullivan with Farhad Shamini requires far too much hinterland to be appreciated by the incidental filmgoer: if you (like I) have never seen Ronald Tavel’s play of the same name (and perhaps even if you have), you will instantly be lost in this maze of mysticism.

Pulmo_MarinaPulmo Marina by Aurélien Froment (pictured right) is the most visually abstract: a white jellyfish glows against an electric blue background, arresting like an Yves Klein, as a voiceover talks about the jellyfish’s nature and biology and the construction of the marina. Whereas most films tell a story in pictures, this film separates the two and makes you question the artifice of the whole medium, a little like those Downfall videos where Hitler fulminates against vegetarians or copyright theft, or John Baldessari’s early word-paintings.

There is no good reason why these films have to be “accessible”, since they are art, after all, but it is clear that some will work much better before films – engaging the audience, making them reflect on where they are and what they are about to see – than the obscurity of others. Nevertheless, the project is daring and thought-inspiring, and may well stir cinema-goers out of the torpor the darkened auditorium and the shining screen can easily induce.

Stuart Semple, Morton Metropolis

First published on

Almost vibrating with tension: 'A Pounding Outside Poundland' by  Stuart Semple

Almost vibrating with tension: 'A Pounding Outside Poundland' by Stuart Semple (c) Stuart Semple Industries

Sincerity is not a quality the contemporary art world seems to value: the masking of emotions under layers of irony is where we stand. But while Damien Hirst paints from a cynical palette, British Pop Artist Stuart Semple's Nineties-inflected paintings have sincerity to spare.
The Happy House, his new show at Morton Metropolis and his first in London for three years, combines the commercial tropes of Pop Art as refracted through a certain naffness with self-portraits both visual and emotional.

This is clear in the show’s outstanding picture, A Pounding Outside Poundland, where Semple recreates the time he was assaulted outside the titular mart. It has the shrinking awfulness of the enthusiastic Poundland logo (“yes! everything’s £1”), the assailant in a skeleton tracksuit and mask, glaring at the viewer, and Semple in a kapow!-style stagger, complete with neon flashes to exaggerate the force.

comfortablynumb_high_2The way in which Semple plays with the time scheme – the skeleton has already hit him and turned away, while he is in the instant after the blow – gives each figure much more potency and individuality and puts the event in a permanent state of happening, the canvas almost vibrating with this tension. The cartoonish power-lines try and inject some levity but serve only to heighten the tension, like a weak joke at a wake. That this is all taking place outside Poundland makes it that bit grimier even as Semple is mocking it.

Anything before 2008 suddenly seems appealing, as suggested by titles like Comfortably Numb (pictured above right) and Killing Me Softly cribbed from golden oldies; the crosses emblazoned with “Our Price”, “Biggie” and “Working Class” in the former picture hark back to what is no longer with us.

These are very much post-recession works, disdaining the indulgent Noughties: there is a tiny Jeff Koons balloon-rabbit in silhouette in the far distance, and one of the decade’s stars, Kate Moss, is a cheap and corpulent patriotic stripper in Welcome to Middletown. (Nostalgia is, after all, free.) Pairs of suspicious eyes taken from the cartoon Trapdoor hang around the canvas, while the word “HAPPY” in emetic colours and manic-depressive arrangement suggests we are anything but.

KillingMeSoftly_LOW_RESIn Killing Me Softly (pictured left), Semple layers a message to a former lover over what looks like a Harajuku Lolita in front of a distant forest. Each letter of the message is in a different colour (in one of the matt paints he has designed especially for his work), dizzying the viewer as the girl stares out from behind huge red sunglasses.

The message in part reads “Maybe… you’ll see me as I paint this song”, and that captures what Semple is doing with this exhibition: by melding wide-ranging cultural references with an intense emotionality – finishing this painting with “i miss you… Good luck, Goodbye xxx” [sic] in his own script – and his vital yet sensitive technique, he is making Pop Art personal.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mark Quinn moves White Cube into the green

First published on

'Archaeology of Desire' by Mark Quinn

'Archaeology of Desire' by Marc Quinn

Thanks to the wonders of council applications, theartsdesk can bring you an exclusive preview of Marc Quinn's new sculptures to be placed outside the White Cube gallery on the grass of Hoxton Square.

Quinn will be putting two colossal orchids (over two metres squared each), cast in bronze and painted white, in Hoxton Square as part of his new show Allanah, Buck, Catman, Chelsea, Michael, Pamela and Thomas (7 May-26 June).

According to the application, submitted to Hackney Council, The Archaeology of Desire is "based upon a naturalistic Phalaenopsis, a genus of the orchid family, which has been rendered in exquisite detail. The fine, papery petals, each distinguished by unique venation, defy the properties of the bronze medium in which they are cast to appear almost weightless and ethereal."

The piece will continue Quinn's work which strives to create the ideal beauty of nature yet, by the grossly artificial means of production, undermines this beauty. Garden, where flowers were cast in silicone, is one such work.

Quinn is one of the best-known YBAs, for such works as Alison Lapper Pregnant on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square and the bust of himself made with his own frozen blood (which melted when Charles Saatchi's freezer broke).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Culture Show: Henry Moore, BBC2

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure (1951)
Henry Moore, Reclining Figure (1951)
(c) Andrew Dunn, 9 September 2004

What emerges from tonight’s Culture Show on Henry Moore, which examines how the sculptor exploited the media (and vice versa), is not the difference between the media of sculpture and television but the similarity.

Rather than a simple programme on Moore’s career – one fawning talking head after another – to coincide with the retrospective of his work at Tate Britain, Alan Yentob has instead chosen the meta-route, talking about TV talking about art. It is a topic which resonates today, where the one thing we love as much as looking at art is hearing people discuss art, and is well chosen.

Moore was cannier than one might assume for an early star of television (his first appearance was on the BBC in 1937): he does not give himself a televisual disembowelling, pouring his emotions out into the camera as one must today, Stoicism be damned, and he quite reasonably deflects probing questions about his motives. He says that if you talk about your reasons for working, they may disappear, a common belief among artists: the unexamined life may be a productive one.

The films about Moore by John Read – six over 40 years – were groundbreaking because they showed an artist’s creativity and process in action, but they do not take us much closer to what lies behind the work. In a later film, Moore recalls massaging his mother’s back when he was a young boy, and, thanks to Yentob not intruding with a statement of the obvious, we draw our own conclusions. But this is much later in his life, when memories cannot harm the artistic drive, or his own persona.

John Read hits on a vital point when making a defence of himself for (let’s say) creatively editing a key scene for one of his films. A plaster version of a sculpture has cracked, but as Read had not captured that moment, he cuts from the complete sculpture to the studio cat to the cracked sculpture. Yentob says he’d be fired for that today, but Read responds with: “To tell the truth you have to cheat sometimes.”

If anything is an artists’ mantra, it is this. Artists can summon all the resources of artifice to make something real, from Illusionist curtains over paintings to sculptures with hollow interiors. Perhaps Moore learned this from Read, for later we find him erecting sculptures made from polystyrene on his garden’s artificial mound, but it is anyway clear that this basic principle of television – make it look like truth (even if that truth is mental or emotional rather than physical) – has also been basic to art.

Moore also quite deliberately “manages his image”, as Yentob suggests: the omnipresence of his necktie, the relegation of any talk of the sexual or political aspects of his work. He was beatified in Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation. Clarke was a true Mephistopheles, seducing Moore with his patronage and – in the opinion of some of the talking heads – turning his work into public-sculpture banality. Moore clearly did not respect Clarke just for his high standing on TV, but it couldn’t have hurt.

The talking head contribution from Sir Anthony Caro is moving: he talks about his experiences as one of Moore’s assistants and recalls how he signed a letter protesting against Moore’s demand that the Tate build a new wing for all the work he intended to donate to it. He seems genuinely regretful, speaking slowly and looking away: “You shouldn’t do that to another artist.”

Yentob carelessly or thoughtlessly falls victim to the clichés of today and sets up straw men: Moore is “a global superstar”, it is a “paradox” that his reputation can be low critically just as it is high popularly. Anyone watching the Culture Show on Henry Moore will not need such inflated language or cheap sophistic devices to get a better understanding of the artist: the programme itself does that.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Variety spikes own critics


, the most venerable entertainment trade journal in America, is sacking its chief film and theatre critics, including the man for whose film reviews many people read the magazine, Todd McCarthy.

According to a leaked internal memo from editor Tim Gray to editorial staff, “It doesn’t make economic sense to have full-time reviewers, but Todd [McCarthy, chief film critic], Derek [Elley, senior film critic] and Rooney [David Rooney, chief theatre critic] have been asked to continue as freelancers.”

The memo prefaces this by saying: “Today’s changes won’t be noticed by readers,” which manages to insult both the departing critics and Variety's readership. The leading Chicago film critic Roger Ebert blogged yesterday that he was unsubscribing from the magazine on the news of McCarthy's dismissal - if it could fire its best-known critic, he said, could Variety itself long survive?

What is most worrying is that Variety, even with its new paywall business model, doesn't feel that it can support full-time reviewers. Variety's paywall means that you can only access up to five articles a month before you have to pay to subscribe; paywalls are being rolled out across media brands on the internet.

There is also a clear degree of panic in the memo: “Ignore the bloggers (who obviously are trying in vain to steal our readers and our advertisers).” Those bloggers almost certainly include the acute, fearless and favourless Nikki Finke, with her Deadline Hollywood Daily, which has been screwing Variety to the wall for a while now. And – in possibly a valuable lesson to Variety – her blog has just been sold to a large media company.

Variety, founded in 1905 in New York to cover vaudeville, before evolving into the leading entertainment weekly for Hollywood too, has not covered itself in glory lately anyway - what with a director threatening to sue after he paid $400,000 for an ad campaign in the magazine to promote his movie, only for the magazine to turn round and give it a terrible review. Revealing its integrity, Variety pulled the review when the director starting making noises.

Nevertheless, Hollywood runs through Variety’s veins, including the hometown principle which requires you to shut up about your problems: “Be sensitive to co-workers," the memo says. "Doom-&-gloom helps no one. It may make you feel better to talk about your darkest fears, but it might make them feel worse.” One may almost be certain it is the sacked critics who probably feel the worst.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

From Page to Stage to Screen


The thought of watching a filmed play is enough to make even the hardiest theatregoer flee screaming down the aisle. Recording the stage has a poor history, causing even the nimblest staging to seem thudding and deep performances transparent. But that was before Digital Theatre came along.

The Old Vic's Kafka's Monkey at   Digital TheatreSet up in late 2008 by theatre director Robert Delamere (Julius Caesar at the Manchester Royal Exchange, The Crucible at the Sheffield Crucible, among many others) and TV and radio producer Thomas Shaw, Digital Theatre films plays in front of their audience, edits them and offers them for download for £8.99, far less than a ticket would cost (let alone an entire evening out in town).

So far they have the Royal Court’s Over There, English Touring Theatre’s Far from the Madding Crowd, the Old Vic’s Container and Kafka’s Monkey (above: Kathryn Hunter in Kafka's Monkey), and the Almeida’s Parlour Song. It is an iTunes of the proscenium.

Delamere says the idea stemmed from surprise that no-one had tried to film plays in a sophisticated, unobtrusive, realistic way: “Surely given the advances in technology there might be a way of not having big, burly cameramen sitting in an auditorium taking up seats? And [we wanted to avoid] a static, completely neutral filming, which is what people have seen for years and which doesn’t accord with anyone’s idea of film language.

He has previously cited Newsnight Review as a culprit in this regard, with its lifeless clips. The National Theatre has, of course, in the past year filmed three of its shows and broadcast them to cinemas around the country, with varying degrees of success.

“Everyone said at the beginning, ‘Hurdle, hurdle, hurdle, hurdle, hurdle’,” recalls Delamere. “Can you aesthetically do it, can you do it practically, can you not disrupt the performances, what about the rights and legal scenarios? There’s a mountain to climb even to get to the point where you start filming.”

After negotiations with the relevant unions and licensing authorities, and £1 million of private investment, Digital Theatre launched its first play, Madding Crowd, at the end of last October, and is now in the final stages of producing its sixth.

With anywhere between five and 13 cameras fixed around and above the stage, controlled from an external production unit, and two performances of each show filmed, there are hours of material to sift through before a final edit can be made. This turns out to be a collaboration between Digital Theatre and the original creatives, Shaw says, “Since Rob’s been a director before, you’re able to have a sensitivity which goes a long way.”

But rather than just relying on their own taste, skill and intuition, they work closely with directors, lighting designers and sound designers so they can “follow the intention of the original production itself,” says Delamere. Not that that is without its problems, according to Delamere. “With people who are working strictly within that discipline of theatre, their understanding of film technique or language can sometimes not be as high.”

That captures one of the artistic paradoxes of Digital Theatre: is a filmed and edited play still a play, or some chimerical new genre? If you take a purist’s view, you should not need to understand the language of film: theatre does not work on zoom shots or rapid editing, should not direct the eye second-by-second.

Indeed, the idea of stitching together the best of two performances to make one film could be downright untheatrical. You expect, on any particular night of a play, unified yet unique performances, varying according to the actors’ moods and developing by experimentation, and so merging two separate ones for any one actor is philosophically difficult. Theatre is not Meryl Streep’s best laugh from 15 takes.

Delamere counters this with “the practical recognition” that sometimes actors make mistakes which they’d prefer not go down to posterity, and Shaw says, “In the edit, we do use one [performance] mainly.”

The Almeida's Parlour Song at  Digital TheatreBut this difficulty is far outweighed by the end product and what it allows. The film of Kafka’s Monkey moves in rhythm with the performance, gently panning up as Kathryn Hunter tenderly reaches up to the monkey projected at the back of the stage. The Container is claustrophobic and dark as the illegal immigrants panic and argue in their enclosed space. And Parlour Song (picture left) even makes you forget you are watching theatre, so natural are its shots.

Madding Crowd, different from the others in its larger cast and more expansive set, has perhaps too many cuts from one camera to another: just because there are more people to focus on does not mean you have to shift so quickly between them; theatre is rarely that frantic. Further Digital Theatre productions will lead to greater sophistication in this respect.

Given the global marketplace Digital Theatre finds itself in, it is no surprise when Delamere says, “We’re in 106 countries now, and we get these great emails from African schoolteachers going, ‘The idea that I could possibly get my children to watch a British theatre production is beyond imagining and now it’s a possibility.’” And closer to home, Digital Theatre is making these plays – by no means mainstream, frequently with brief runs – available to the rest of the country, which too often feels isolated from the giddy metropolitan world of the arts, and indeed to those who saw them the first time and would like to revisit them.

There are some plays that Delamere and Shaw concede will not work in this medium, although they gallantly don’t say which. What about the immersion-theatre of Punchdrunk, where the plot is almost incidental to the experience of their fully imagined world? Delamere ponders what it might be like: “You’d have to operate some sort of game theory, which would be to multi-record it. You could option what your experience was. You’d have 12 to 15 screens to decide where you were next. It would be amazing to set up a wall somewhere where you could do that.” It sounds like a perfect replication of the Punchdrunk mode, surrounding you with the show.

From intimate chamberpieces to full-blown epics and even 360º installation-events, it seems as if there are few theatrical productions Digital Theatre will not tackle. As their experience becomes greater and their name spreads further, their productions will become the exemplars of their genre and they may prove a durable exporter of a previously Britain-bound industry.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ana Mendieta, Alison Jacques Gallery


Still from Untitled (Creek #2), San Felipe, Mexico 1974
Still from Untitled (Creek #2), San Felipe, Mexico 1974
Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, courtesy of Gallerie Lelong and Alison Jacques Gallery

Works of art are usually quite easily recognisable: they’re in a frame, or on a pedestal, or (if it’s a particularly expensive one) there’s a security guard nearby. You’ll probably be in an art gallery or a smart private house too. But what about when the art is in the land? And moreover, when that art is almost too subtle to be noticed?

This is what confronts the viewer of Ana Mendieta’s work, on show at Alison Jacques Gallery in London. Cuban-born Mendieta (1948-85) made interventions in the landscape based around her own silhouette, such as pressing her hand into grass or arranging stones around her outline, and then took photographs. She also made videos of herself, lying naked underneath stones, hardly visible, in what looks like a quarry, or submerged in a Mexican creek.

Drawing on Mesoamerican traditions of the spirituality of the land, an anthropomorphised land, Mendieta affects nature by putting herself in it, almost as if she is willing that spirituality to enter her, or her to enter it. Her photos and videos, which seem almost bland at first, are thus quiet examinations of the relationship of man (and woman) and nature. She alters nature without doing so in an obvious or permanent or destructive way, and thus maintains an ancestral respect; contrast the “art” of Mount Rushmore and you’ll see what I mean.

By inserting herself into the landscape, and indeed with several photos of vaginal slashes in the earth, Mendieta is asserting the importance of the feminine in the natural world. Whereas most interventions are grand masculine statements, Mendieta’s play on her own womanhood makes her work that much more modest and affecting.

Mendieta_-_NanigoAnother important aspect of Mesoamerican culture is ritual, which motivates Mendieta’s performances. One of these was recreated at the private view last night, where guests lit black candles arranged around Mendieta’s silhouette and the candles were left to melt down. (Picture right is the original performance.)

This echoes a Cuban ritual from which Mendieta was excluded both by being a woman and an exile, her family thrown out of Cuba for opposing Castro. By being invited to light one of these candles, that is, become a participant in Mendieta’s ritual, it became a meditative experience, poignant and inclusive.

Thus far most famous for her death (her husband, artist Carl Andre, known best in England for Tate Modern’s arrangement of bricks called Equivalent VIII, was acquitted of her murder after she fell out of their 34th-floor apartment window), Mendieta is difficult because of how she draws on unfamiliar non-Western traditions of art and because of the low voice in which her art speaks. However, her conception of nature, and specifically woman’s place within it, is ultimately compelling and beautiful.

Ana Mendieta: Silueta and Silence is on at Alison Jacques Gallery, 16-18 Berners St, from 19 February to 20 March

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cathedral of Shit knows the art world's secrets...

...and isn't afraid to tell them. The contemporary art world - filled with million-pound paintings, august institutions, competitive gallerists, rich collectors and so many egos - is never that good at keeping things quiet. There's always some advantage (or just glee) to be gained by spilling the beans, and the better your sources the more popular you'll be.

By that yardstick, Cathedral of Shit is the most beautiful girl at the dance. The anonymously-written blog is roiling the art scene with its Deep-Throat-like knowledge, and art parties now resemble McCarthy's inquiries: "Are you now or have you ever been a contributor to Cathedral of Shit?"

Someone is spilling secrets, about art PRs out of favour and gallerists out of luck, plus there is plenty of general mockery of art's nostrums and most celebrated figures (especially Damien Hirst). Why is the Armory art fair in New York having a rough time? Which PR was banned from Frieze this year? And what's going on with the ICA? Plus, it performs a public service in working out where the Arts Council has been wasting its money.

The finger has been pointed in several directions, including at this writer, and there are several likely suspects, but whoever it is is taking no prisoners.

Ironically, one thing is for certain: Cathedral of Shit has given the art world one more thing to gossip about.