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LONDON DISPATCH
PART ONE

by Laura K. Jones
 
The hype was relatively low-key for "Crash: Homage to JG Ballard" at Gagosian Gallery, but it was a blockbuster all the same, mounted 40 years after Ballardís kinky novel about car crashes as a sexual turn-on. Ballard caused a ruckus in 1970 not with his book but with an exhibition that preceded it, for which he put three junkyard cars at the New Arts Laboratory.

This time around the show was organized by Mark Francis and Kay Pallister and included about 60 artists whose work, presumably, has something to do with sex or death or both. Among them were Francis Bacon, Salvador Dali, Malcolm Morley, Cady Noland, Richard Prince and Florian Maier-Aichen, whose striking glossy C-print, Untitled (Freeway Crash) (2002), is my absolute favorite image of a stretch of road, ever. In the middle of the gallery, Paul McCarthyís Mechanical Pig (2003-05) snuffled and snorted away, while Carsten HŲllerís Giant Triple Mushroom (2010) sat there being a (psychedelic?) mushroom, probably wondering what it had to do with the exhibitionís theme.

Damien Hirstís When Logics Die (1999), a table of surgical instruments and photographs of air-crash victims, was appropriately revolting, and I walked all over Roger Hiornsí untitled installation of 235 dropped contact lenses on the floor until a security man waved me away. Sorry Roger. I spied Larry Gagosian standing in the gallery entryway, his shoes dusty from the rubble that had fallen from Douglas Gordonís carving in the wall above. It read "We Are All Going to Die" or some such cheery mot. But the work that really clinched it for me was Mike Kelleyís City 17 and City 20, models of glowing, futuristic Emerald Ozes.

On a rainy but hazy Saturday afternoon, I walked through Banglatown Ė- the predominantly Asian area around Brick Lane Ė- to the Whitechapel Gallery for a talk by Pakistan-born artist Bani Abidi in the galleryís soundproofed, sleepy lecture hall. She is included in the galleryís mammoth photography show, "Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh," and also had an exhibition on at a gallery I have never been to before, Green Cardamom.

The erudite Abidi once commissioned a native brass band in Lahore to learn by ear the Star Spangled Banner, which resulted in the much-exhibited 2004 video titled Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star Spangled Banner. Itís an outstanding work, demonstrating Eastern hospitality as well as the barriers to cross-cultural cooperation.

Abidi has also done some clean, hard-edged vector renderings of the various kinds of security barriers that protect the embassies in Karachi from car bombs and such, objects that she regards as exemplary of the culture of fear and paranoia. "The American Consulate uses shipping containers," she says, while the British consulate only needs "a box with some lettuce growing in it." Come on, wee Britain, keep up. Not that this is the point she was trying to make.

Her latest works, "The Karachi Series," are startlingly beautiful photographs of Pakistani people, outside on the pavement or in the road, casually doing private things like ironing, during the eerily quiet 15 minutes when fasting ends during Ramadan. Her work has a feel of the documentary about it, and also looks like fiction, because she hits the in-between note nicely, and a little ironically.

Thinking of the reproductions of those security barriers, I recently visited the studio of Peruvian-born, now-London-based artist Ximena Garrido-Lecca, who has been making miniature reproductions of the mud walls in Peru that carry the political slogans of the myriad rural factions in the highlands. Theyíre exact reproductions, painstakingly made, and Garrido-Lecca is planning to build a life-sized model, brick by brick. She is your go-to girl for translating classic vanitas imagery into sculptural installations.

Catching a glimpse of her Still Life with Corn and Tiger (2008) knocked me sideways. When I was visiting, I met her dog Cheney, who has since become my best friend, a chap I like to take out for walks in Victoria Park. He looks like a bruiser, and attracts the great unwashed on the Bethnal Green Road, who now insist I stop and look at their mobile-phone videos of their own vicious-looking dogs. There is no peace for me outside of my home.

As for Garrido-Lecca herself, I look forward to her upcoming show, "The Followers," which opens at the Working Rooms gallery on Apr. 28, 2010. "The Followers" resembles a hotel of still lifes, if you will, all stacked up one on top of the other, and inspired by the nichos, or the concrete structures that house the dead in Peru. The nichos are traditionally fronted by a box full of photos, flowers and more idiosyncratic offerings placed there by the deceasedís family and loved ones. "The Followers" is, I feel, a number of still -- as in stationary -- homages to a series of nonstationary lives.

Then I went off to "Feel Good," a sweet and fascinating show of little hyper-real paintings by Kelly-Anne Davitt at Blacks, private club opposite the Groucho on Dean Street in Soho. Davitt was in the "BP Portrait Award" show at the National Portrait Gallery a few years ago. These paintings are of a one-legged burlesque dancer, apparently, though you canít see her leg(s). The paintings are only £2,000, and I want one.

Someone told me that the artist Paul Fryer bought the painting Feel Good. Paul was said to have been in the running to design a huge tower for the 2012 Olympics, but as everyone knows by now the commission has gone to Anish Kapoor instead. His £19.1 million, 310-foot-tall, intestinal, cloying red thing, otherwise known as the ArcelorMittal Orbit, has two public spaces at the top: a viewing gallery and a restaurant.

A separate observation: Iíve noticed that junior staff in a number of West End galleries are now coming out to meet you and ask if you need anything; thatís if you do indeed make it down there during the day. This never used to happen, at least not to me.

You canít miss a Bruce McLean performance. Well, you try not to. Here he is moving things about to parped music, being generally bonkers as usual. The YouTube clip comes courtesy of the very kind man with a video camera, Robert Delaney of the Jacobson Gallery.

McLeanís A Hot Potato against a Very Dark Background marked the inaugural event at Testbed 1, a new space for art, music, performance, fashion, dance and conversation in Battersea, South London. Testbed 1 "will exist simply to allow people to think, to try, to fail, and to succeed," says the bumf. Not only that, "A Committee with No Agenda" -- whose members include Will Alsop, David Gothard, Jude Kelly, Bruce McLean and Donald Smith -- is delineating a schedule of events for the space, and keeping its ears to the ground for potential contributors. And its eyes peeled, and its nose to the wind.

Still with the Jacobson Gallery, artist Nina Fowler had a book launch there for her Valentinoís Funeral, a collection of pencil and graphite drawings of the movie gods and goddesses of the Hollywood age who attended Rudyís last outing. Film director John Maybury waxes lyrical about the portraits in his foreword to the book, and in attendance on the night were curator James Birch, the artist Pinkietessa and the film star Sienna Miller.

An older lady came to show me some postcards of her work; collages of self-portraits. I quite liked them and talked a little about the upsurge of interest in collage of late. The John Stezaker show at the Approach last month came to mind, among other things. It turned out she was Margaret Nolan, the lady painted gold and writhing about in the opening credits of the James Bond film Goldfinger, so that alone deserves a mention. When I looked on her website, I found that I liked a fair few of the works, Demure especially. Down with ageism I say.

Itís always a good thing when artists and, um, superstores get together. . . isnít it? So I was pleased to read that Reconstruction, the people behind the Sudeley Castle outdoor art exhibition, has been brought in to advise IKEA for a project that will see commissions by Jeppe Hein, Jim Lambie, Piotr Uklanski and others, as part of an "airport-sizedí Moscow-based development due to open in 2012.

"The works are part of a plan to create mixed-use spaces across IKEA sites, starting with Russia and former Soviet republics. The first will open at the 260,000-square-meter Mega Teply Stan retail park in Moscow," we are told. "Jeppe Hein is proposing a mirror labyrinth to be placed opposite the new building's facade, and Jim Lambie is working on a new version of his 2007 piece, Secret Affair. Simon Dance Design is working with IKEA on these developments."

Did we know that Peeping Tom was a late addition to the 11th century tale of Lady Godiva and her powerful husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia? Or that he was defined in the 17th century as "a curious prying fellow" and that that definition is analogous with the idea of an artist today as someone who looks where others overlook or dismiss? Not necessarily. But the painter Keith Coventry did and does, and has curated an overwhelmingly varied exhibition of small works on the theme of scopology, or should I say scopophilia, and housed it all in the Vegas gallery on Vyner Street.

Fiona Banner, Steve Claydon, Mat Collishaw, Jeremy Deller, Tracey Emin, Simon English, Marcus Harvey, Michael Landy, Simon Popper, Tim Stoner, Pinkietessa and Gavin Turk have all made works about peeping or being peeped at. The list of contributors is much longer than the above, in fact it makes my eyes blur.

There were so many people at the opening of "Peeping Tom" that I couldnít absorb all the work, but when I was invited back for a mid-show drink last week, I was suitably perturbed by most of the pieces, especially Sebastian Horsley’s large color photo of himself having sex with a woman who looks like a paraplegic porn star. Horsley, who is author of Dandy in the Underworld, insists the picture is genuine, taken in a secret Amsterdam brothel “surrounded by churches” with a woman he calls “a warrior. . .  an empress of style.”.

It was in front of Michael Landyís pencil drawing of Keith (the point here is Landy peeping at Coventry, I presume), that Keith told me of his upcoming show at the Lightbox gallery in Woking, where 40 paintings from his "Echoes of Albany" series (which were shown at Haunch of Venison last year) are to be exhibited alongside 14 paintings by Walter Sickert, on loan from the Tate. What a treat for Coventry, who has been a lifelong fan of Sickert. Heís worried about the comparisons that will be made, he said, but I donít think he should be. Those Albany paintings are solid.

Off to the Serpentine Gallery, which has taken the interesting step of housing reconstructions of artistsí studios for periods of two months at a time. Artists are working in their reconstructed studios just as if they were in their real ones, and can be observed through glass windows from the leafy grounds of Kensington Gardens. First off is the studio that churns out the curious and delicate work of Giles Round. "It was going to be called Giles Roundís Studio," Round told me at the Richard Hamilton talk at the V&A Museum a few days earlier (more on that later) "but I asked for it to be called ĎThe Studio of Giles Roundí." Thankfully they took heed, as that name alone would make me want to fling myself across London to see it. Itís something to do with the cadence.

Something else coming out of the Serpentine is Skills Exchange, which pairs artists with elderly people, market traders (weirdly) and care workers to both "swap skills" and "imagine social and architectural change." Dry as that may sound, this is a project that I love. Marcus Coates is going to be working with St Johnís Hospice, Westminster; Beatrice Gibson with Camden Care Homes and Tom Hunter with Age Concern.

So then to the octogenarian Richard Hamiltonís talk at the V&A, where the entire art world (or so it seemed) sat hushed, rapt by the father of Pop art talking about his lifeís work in a domed lecture hall that I have never seen before (that museum is huge). Hugh Allan, Peter Davies, Rachel Howard, Giles Round and 500 others listened in as Father Hamilton told us these things:

On Pop: "I always use the word ĎPopí in the sense of Elvis Presley and Bill Halley. The U.S. approach to Pop in the Ď60s was usually rather vulgar -- ice cream cones -- the opposite of what I was interested in, things like the work of Charles Eames or the Bauhaus."

On his Study for Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964): "I thought Iíd just do something fun to see what it felt like. So I tried to make a picture that expressed my feelings about nuclear weapons, because war is the opposite of cool, so I did Gaitskell, the famous monster. I thought it didnít quite work. It wasnít particularly aggressive. Maybe it is now in retrospect."

(His Mac laptop went down briefly, and he said, "Oh sorry my computer almost went to sleep.")

On political works: "My most political things were only ever jogged by people asking me to do something. The hospital room [The Treatment Room for the ICA exhibition "Secret Public" in 1983] was an invitation. . . . Tony Caro was asked, Howard Hodgkin was asked. Hodgkin did something with Liberty fabrics. . . which was fine."

"I had to have something to put on the screen; Maggie Thatcher had just made her election speech so I put that on with no sound. It seemed terribly boring and somehow apt. The Conservative Party tried to get it stopped. . . they got the idea it wasnít right somehow but they couldnít as it had already been broadcast on TV."

When the microphone went to the audience, he was asked what advice he would give to a young artist. "Better not to give advice. I got my students to do mental exercises instead."

And, as if he wanted to melt everyoneís hearts at the end, he said, "Iím awfully sorry to have kept you so long." Hamiltonís next gallery show is at the Alan Cristea Gallery, May 27-July 3, 2010.


LAURA K. JONES is a journalist based in London. She has written for the Guardian, the Observer, the Times, the Saatchi Magazine and artforum.com.

cont'd in Part Two