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LONDON DISPATCH
by Laura K. Jones
 
Does it seem like London has more art exhibitions than ever? Isn’t everyone scared of overkill? I certainly am.

I suppose excess is a good thing. Is it? Nothing to be done about it, in any case. One thing to remember: highlights, highlights, focus on highlights. So it would be remiss of me not to underline the presence on this soil of the works of the Berlin-based artist Thomas Scheibitz (b. 1968), on view at the Camden Arts Centre, Feb. 22-Apr. 20, 2008. That place! So far to get to; the walk from the Tube along the Finchley Road -- or the moody cab ride -- is never anything less than taxing and always set against a backdrop of driving rain.

But this time it’s worth the pain. Scheibitz is here fulfilling the second part of a trilogy of his called "about 90 elements / TOD IM DSHUNGEL." His recent show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art formed the first part; an upcoming book (also called TOD IM DSHUNGEL) is the third. On Feb. 21 he was to be found in a darkened room, tinkering with a laptop, sitting next to Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith -- art historian, critic, Turner Prize judge and the gentlest man in art -- so it meant we were in for a nice time. And a talk between the two of them. Perhaps a couple of weird slides.

The first half of Scheibitz’ title refers to the 90 natural elements of the periodic table, while the second part translates as "dead in the jungle," a reference to a headline about Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Scheibitz makes half-abstract paintings and sculptures that only use appropriated shapes -- from architecture, from trawling through books, from "looking at pictures on cell phones," even. "Everything is derived from previous imagery," Scheibitz said, by way of apology that he’s interested in secondary things.

"‘Second nature’ was already very fashionable in the ‘80s and ‘90s -- I just don’t have a better phrase for it at the moment," he said, continuing his apologetic tone. That’s OK. No one seemed to mind. All of the upstairs rooms of the CAC are filled with mighty canvases and a few painted sculptures.

The following words and phrases describe it all: Systematic chaos, kaleidoscopic color ("Yellow, red, blue and white," he said. "All the other colors I use are mixes of these."), forensic attention to form, building blocks (his forms can suggest corners of boxes teetering on the edges of other boxes, or nudes descending a staircase, if I dare go so far) and, yes, mastery. The way he takes odds and ends from the world and combines them in his own organic concoctions is like alchemy. Or, at the very least, semi-alchemy.

I don’t know what exactly makes good painting good, but this is it. Just standing in the room and looking on makes you feel like you’re having a shower inside your own head.

Anything else? Yes. Luc Tuymans. Scheibitz once used less color; now he’s the best-known painter of his generation for color, I imagine. When he was using less, though, Tuymans visited his studio and snapped up one or two works. "He was loving the dark European paintings. Now I heard recently that he’s been asked what he thinks of me," said Scheibitz. "Someone asked him, ‘What do you think of Thomas Scheibitz now?’ Tuymans said, ‘He’s gone and become a West Coast Painter.’ I don’t think that was a compliment."

Into the after-party downstairs strolled the London-based sculptor Gary Webb (b. 1973), not such a coincidence because some people see an affinity between their work, at least in terms of form and color (and what else is there, really?). Milking his generosity, I got a lift in his monstrously oversized truck back to town for Angus Fairhurst’s first solo show in ages, at Sadie Coles’ new gallery on South Audley Street. A couple of words with Michael Craig-Martin (Webb and Fairhurst’s old Goldsmiths College tutor), about the new seating arrangement at McDonald’s, of all things, and in we went.

I saw Angus in the corner. He seemed a bit quiet, but then he always did. Despite the fact Angus was always so sensitive, shunning the perceived brashness of the yBa scene, nobody could have known that a few weeks later he would go and hang himself from a tree in the Bridge of Orchy in Scotland. Now one can’t help but look for portents. Perhaps I’m being sentimental, but in retrospect I swear the work at Coles’ looked a little wounded.

Black and orange paintings had spindly trees painted in the foreground, and here and there, some black lacquered things on plinths. The paintings looked papery, and some were smashed in the middle. A big broken real estate agent’s sign was sticking out of the wall. Was there a certain sense of destruction, and something gentle and thoughtful as well? Yes. But then Angus always was gentle and thoughtful, as far as I knew him. The last time I spoke to him was last month, at the odd and slightly tacky Whitechapel fundraiser. I don’t know why, but we got on a roll about London, and how phenomenally weird it can be if you’re on your own. He seemed subdued.

His good friends, Sarah Lucas, Rebecca Warren, Coles, Gregor Muir -- who just penned Angus’s heartbreaking obituary for the Guardian -- Mat Collishaw, Damien Hirst and the rest of his crowd are just reeling from this. How difficult for them and for Angus’s mum, Sally, and for his brother, Charles. Angus Fairhurst, artist, born Oct. 4, 1966, found dead Mar. 29, 2008. Everyone is hoping that you can rest in peace.

Onwards we must go, though, and the next night -- my birthday, as it happened -- I took the visiting parents to the opening of "Derek Jarman Curated by Isaac Julian" at the Serpentine Gallery. Work and play. And work. And play. An "immersive environment," the show is a retrospective of Jarman’s output -- he was an expressionistic abstract painter as well as a filmmaker -- and of his life (he lived from 1942 to ‘94), as well as being peppered with Julien’s own works. It includes, for example, Julien’s almost hyper-realistic photograph in a lightbox of Jarman’s house and tourist-friendly garden at Dungeness.  

Lurking in a corner at the opening were the ever-lugubrious film director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Queen) and his collaborator, the writer Hanif Kureishi, their presence confirming, somehow, that a certain period and style of London life will never die. They were looking at Jarman’s black-painted mattresses (king size) that were on the wall. Jarman’s last film, Blue (1993), made when he was blind and dying of AIDS -- it consists of a narration and a bright blue screen -- was playing on a loop next door.

In the next room were a number of rarely seen Super-8s from the holdings of James Mackay, Jarman’s producer; then came Julien’s new film, Derek, which features a lot of Tilda Swinton talking about Derek while walking over a selection of London bridges. That film is said to "document Britain between the ‘60s and the ‘80s," something which would be quite a feat. I shall go back and check it out, but only when there are fewer people about.

The exhibition coincides with the launch of a season of Jarmanesque things that are happening on the TV channel More 4 and also across London’s cinemas. Serpentine supremos Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones, along with the compact-and-bijou Julien (to use a realtor’s term), spoke at length about Jarman’s pioneering spirit, about how he brought the moving image into the gallery, about queer power and about the impact of AIDS.

Blue was actually shown on the telly many moons ago, when it was a queer hymn for bad times. Jarman was one of the first to go public about the AIDS virus. The tabloids, then as now, forgot that tolerance is underrated and responded by calling him a criminal. Lest we forget. Lest we forget.

Two things happened while leaving:

1. Thomas Scheibitz (of all people) appeared through the crowds like an apparition. This correspondent’s mother took it upon herself to call him over in order to relay the information that he is her daughter’s favorite artist, "in the world," no less. Her words. I suppose that could be construed as endearing. Or embarrassing. Not sure.

2. A crazily long queue to get in had formed, along with a pack of paparazzi, and people were whispering or shouting things like "you just missed Kylie," so I suppose that means Jarman’s still really loved. Or that he’s trickled down to some other level of culture that he probably never wanted to trickle down to.

Next stop, The Approach W1, where Los Angeles’ ever-surprising and music-mad Dave Muller (who plays in a band called Destroy all Monsters with the artist Mike Kelley) made his exhibition "The World on a Wheel" work well, partly because he stayed up all night before the opening, painting the walls with spheres made of clover leaves and lots of song lyrics written backwards and forwards along the equatorial middle line of the room, at hip-height. Also painted straight onto the walls are globes, spirals, wheels, worlds and more words in spirals.

Muller has also made two gigantic paintings of disco balls, LittleBigBall#0 and LittleBigBall#1. Each square mirror section of each ball is painted in a different muted pastel or grey color, and with such depth of perspective that it looks as if it could be peeled from the canvas, and stuck back on, anywhere around the room. Or eaten.

A lovely story is told about a linked pair of paintings of the spines of record sleeves -- Like/Love (2008) -- that represent Muller and his young daughter. It is a very complicated story but essentially involves the lining up of the words of the album covers so that the words "I Like Your Music" are spelled out. Which is something she said to him once, which probably made his heart melt.

There might be a good thing going on here in the working relationship between Muller and Approach director Jake Miller. They go back to 2000, at least, when they both knocked through the wall of Miller’s Eastend flat (which adjoins The Approach E2) to accommodate the exhibition, "How To Secede (Without Really Trying)," one of Muller’s signature "Three-Day Weekend" curatorial projects, in which he showed Evan Holloway, Andrew Grassi and others in the flat, and his own work in the gallery. The hole in the wall acted like one of those serving hatches from the ‘70s between the kitchen and the dining room. But in reality, it just acted as a window.

I think next was "The Island: London Series" by the London-based artist Stephen Walter (b. 1975), curated by Tag Fine Arts in the dank and ancient crypt of St Pancras Church (best looking church in London) on the Euston Road. Over the space of two years, Walter has made, in pen, a minutely detailed, geographically accurate map of this city, alongside 33 similarly obsessive maps of each of the city’s boroughs. Each minute landmark, road, stream, gallery, "scene" and church is given a new name or symbol, as dreamt up by the artist.

London is an island, as the title suggests. Locations just outside the city look like they’re out at sea. Slough, for example, floats off to the extreme northwest, as is its wont. Magnifying glasses were on offer at the door. Good job, otherwise you’d have missed out on a lot of detail. Next stop: Berlin -- watch this space.

The 26-year-old performance artist Eloise Fornieles makes strange and unforgettable pieces that viewers tend to find themselves involved with, even if they don’t particularly want to. For "Carrion," a three-day-long performance at the beginning of March, the whole floor of the Paradise Row gallery was littered with thousands of items of unwanted clothes. Fornieles was in a cage of sorts in the middle of the room, inserting notes of apology that had been passed to her from the audience into the skinned carcass of a cow that was hanging from the ceiling. This went on for 72 hours.

At its simplest, the work is a ritual of apology to slaughtered animals, with the artist’s nakedness adding an element of vulnerability. For Fornieles, just before she went in to slice the skin of the cow (Fornieles is a lifelong vegetarian, does that matter?) and to shove a new note in, would take off the set of clothes she had on and put on a fresh set, selected from the huge pile. Cameramen (vultures?) in quasi-military uniform circled the piece, perching on the scaffolding or standing in the heaps of clothes, filming what was the final and concluding chapter of a trilogy of performance installations by the artist. The edited film is slated to be shown at Tate Modern on May 10, 2008.

The next stop was "Figures of Speech," the London ICA’s annual fundraising thingamajig at the art deco Lawrence Hall near St James’ Park. At table, Jerry Hall made sure her companion, the dealer and collector Ivor Braka, watched his health. "Don’t eat that darling, farmed salmon will give you worms," she said, as she struggled to recognize the speakers on stage. "Who is it?’ she asked. "It’s Nigella Lawson," we replied. "Well, who’s that one?" she asked again. "Erm, that’s Michael Nyman" (the composer for all those Peter Greenaway films). Was she finally showing her age? No. It was "a bad case of conjunctivitis," she confided, later still.

As part of the festivities, lots of people took the microphone to reveal their favorite object -- something they would run back for if there was a house fire. Gavin Turk chose a chip fork.

During the benefit auction, Norman Rosenthal, our dear eccentric and retired director of the Royal Academy, appeared to be keeping his toe in the job market. He bid £4,500 for a one-week internship at Harper’s Bazaar magazine. The man obviously misses work so much that he doesn’t mind stuffing envelopes, making endless cups of tea and being barked at by stroppy fashionistas.

Next was a showing at Seventeen Gallery of Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), a film by Les Blank of the iconoclastic German director eating his shoe, just because he said he would, and also because he was trying to cajole his friend and fellow filmmaker Errol Morris into finally finishing his 1980 masterpiece film, Gates of Heaven, which is about pet cemeteries and America. Selected by the always switched-on Paul Pieroni, associate director of the gallery, the film now is a breath of fresh air.

Beyond its obvious pantomime, Eats His Shoe is about completing a project even if it hurts (big Herzogian theme). The film is interspersed with footage of Herzog explaining (a bit camply) why he loves Morris’ film, because of its strong imagery. "If we don’t have adequate images, we will die out like dinosaurs," he says, as he cooks the shoe with rosemary and salt and then finally chops it up and eats it. Slowly. On a stage. While saying things like "More shoes. More boots. More garlic."

My favorite night of the entire month was a brief one, and involved going to watch Michael Landy (b. 1963), the yBa artist who famously sold all his possessions in 2001, give a talk at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, which is located on a square just east of Tottenham Court Road. He spoke about one of his first big installations, Market (1990), a collection of empty market stalls. He said that the big bakery company Sunblest agreed that he could have 2,000 crates, "as long as they would never go back to their original use." Why the strange restriction, one wonders.

Then Landy talked about his 1992 Closing Down Sale, in which he staged a bargain close-out at Karsten Schubert’s gallery in London in 1992, and his 1996 Scrapheap Services, for which he founded a fictional cleaning agency. During his talk, Landy intermittently asked if he was "babbling," but in fact he was quite funny. The aforementioned Breakdown turned out to be his breakthrough, in which he broke down and destroyed, on a huge conveyor belt, every single possession in his life, 7,227 items in all, at a recently closed department store.

A parody of consumerism, and other weighty themes, the show had him branded a "madman" by the Evening Standard and attracted a wedge of flash bulbs and press over the days that it took place. But that didn’t stop a volley of old ladies barging in with shopping bags. "It was just after the January sales," said Landy. "They were trying to exchange their unwanted purchases or get their money back. But they just got me, in safety glasses, breaking up my mum’s old Beatles collection."


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.