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LONDON DISPATCH
by Laura K. Jones
 
After 300,000,000 years, insects have arrived. In our consciousness at least, or so says the curator and ecologist Bridget Nicholls, director of something called Pestival and a woman with an undying fervor for all things insectoid. After much success at a smaller venue in 2006, Pestival was invited this year, by Jude Kelly, to take place in the Southbank Centre, of which she is artistic director. The festival’s mandate: to celebrate insects in art and, while it’s about it, to celebrate the art of being an insect.

Many scientists and artists came together to create a number of oddball installations albeit with a solid grounding in scientific knowledge. Some pooled their talents to build a giant scale replica of a termite pavilion on the banks of the Thames, pulsating with light and the actual sounds of termites milling about at home, which had been recorded by the intrepid Ms. Nicholls during her visits to their colonies. Here’s some time-lapse footage of it vibrating away in the night.

In the pavilion, I learned that the British Library has a recording of a woodworm eating a window. I’m straight down there to listen to it next week.

Noboru Tsubaki, Pestival’s artist-in-residence, kicked the weekend’s proceedings off with a spacey dance in a space-age costume. He shuffled about for what seemed like forever to (I think) a bemused audience, "busting out" the odd Moonwalk move as he went. I later discovered his performance was a "Moonwalker vegetable wasp" homage to Michael Jackson. Tsubaki’s cocoon of a suit was supposed to enable Jackson to traverse between the world of the living and the dead. The King of Pop still seeping in everywhere.

Even London’s official Town Crier was there, saying that he’d never been invited to anything as unusual as this. He handed me his calling card, which was shiny and red with gold embossed lettering. Probably to match his outfit.

I left that place of bees and winged things thinking, here’s to the little fellows who really run the planet, we obviously don’t need that much room, let’s make some more space for them, and never again in a panic squish their crunchy little bodies underfoot as they scuttle for cover under the dishwasher.

It was good to see a gallery -- Carlson/Massimo de Carlo -- actually opening in London during this summer of financial distress. (Although saying that, I haven’t actually seen any signs of credit crunching at all in the London art world, but then, I have been wandering around in a fiscally non-aware fug since birth.) Up a tight stairway on Heddon Street, the glamorous outfit from Milan opened its London outpost with a gem of a show by Rob Pruitt, including a piece called Esprit Du Corps; Taking a Load Off –- a snugly fitted pair of jeans as worn by a pair of cement legs doing the box splits in the corner of the room.

Rob was in a corner too, collecting signatures on bits of hessian, as ever. I remembered at that point frequenting the same Mulberry Street Italian deli as Pruitt years ago when I lived in New York. Then, as now, I always expected a sparkly panda to be right behind him carrying his shopping bags (I’ve not gone mad, non-Pruitt fans, as glitter-spangled pandas are a running theme in his work), but that sadly never materialized. On the stairs as I left were Pruitt’s New York dealer Gavin Brown and his old pal the artist Mark Leckey. I asked Leckey how things had been for him since winning the Turner Prize this year. "Terrible," he growled.

Lanky flaneur Jarvis Cocker has increasingly been involved in the arts and the environment, working on one of Cape Farewell’s climate-change trips in 2008 that saw a group of artists -– including Gary Hume -- go off to the Arctic to make works. So I was looking forward to going to the seaside to see him open the new low carbon, retrofitted Grade II-listed Chalkwell Hall in Chalkwell Park, Southend-on-Sea. It’s the new HQ for Metal, the arts organization founded by (the earlier-mentioned) Jude Kelly in 2002.

Metal’s goal is to bring artistic thinking to bear on community issues. Kelly had noted that Chalkwell Hall sits in the middle of a very popular park in Southend, yet had been standing unused for years, so she and her team have brought it back to life. Jarvis opened the building on Sept. 24, 2009, to be followed with a "Village Green" festival on Sept. 26. Last year Metal also threw a "Village Green" party on the site -– before they renovated the Hall -- and 8,000 people attended, instead of the anticipated 500.

At the closing night of Henry Hudson’s "Knappin’" exhibition at Trolley Gallery (directors Gigi Gianuzzi and Hannah Watson are such a pair of cards that they seem to be throwing both opening- and closing-night jollies for all of their shows), John Carroll, a fine William Hogarth specialist from the Sir John Soames Museum, came to tea. Each of Hudson’s ten panels are opulently painted in melted plasticine and all are amplified details of the etchings of Hogarth’s Rake’s or Harlot’s Progress, from the 1730s. Hudson has updated the Hogarth works –- thankfully only subtly -- with wine stains, modern-day cigarettes, canvas tacks and crumbling plaster.

YBA Keith Coventry and Elliot McDonald, curator of the Hiscox Art Fund and the Sudeley Castle shows, were part of the gin-and-raspberry-swilling audience. Carroll posited that Hogarth was "the first Damien Hirst," having made multiple copies of his copperplate engravings and sold them from the window of his studio in Leicester Square, thus "freeing himself from aristocratic approval" and creatively restrictive portrait commissions. Someone’s mobile telephone then bleated out the Moonlight Sonata ringtone. "This has now officially become a BBC2 documentary," said Coventry, perhaps pining for the dissolution of those former days when he had a studio in the prestigious Albany apartments, site of several late-night portrait painting parties.

Talking of Keith, that very day, in the offices of the newspaper at which I am gainfully employed, I took delivery of, and so was carrying around with me in the early evening, a copy of Vanishing Uncertainties, the book about Coventry’s work that accompanied his incredibly full retrospective "Paintings and Sculpture Part II" at the Haunch of Venison gallery earlier in the summer. In that show was a whole room of small paintings, hung at chest height, of a very sad, faint looking Christ.

Why Keith had painted them, and in such quantity, I couldn’t remember. Looking into the book I discovered that the Christ series, called "Repressionisms," came about after Coventry had become obsessed with the great 20th-century faker of Vermeer, Han Van Meegeren. He’d then gotten to thinking about Emil Nolde, whose work was forged many times. "I decided I would paint reproductions of Van Meegeren’s fake Vermeers, but in the style of Emil Nolde," said Coventry, sticking to his customarily eccentric but somehow sane explicatory line.

When an email breezed in from Artangel, those champions of odd and often brave public art, about a new venture called the Museum of Non Participation, my heart leapt with a sort of muted joy, furnishing me as it did with hope that it isn’t just me on the earth keen to avoid any kind of meaningful group activity. On closer reading however, I realized that no, these are sensible people producing serious engaging work who have mistakenly mis-named their museum. Lawks, they’re all about participation!

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler conceived the Museum of Non Participation in 2007 when -- during the Pakistani lawyers movement in Islamabad -- they viewed the protests and subsequent state violence from a window in the National Art Gallery. Since then they have worked extensively in London and Karachi with street vendors, the cultural elite, architects, lawyers, artists, housing activists and writers, pursuing ideas connected to their position that day. The Museum of Non Participation opens for four weeks in a space behind Yaseen Hairdressers on Bethnal Green Road. It started on Sept. 25. I think I’ll go. Yaseen barbers, it’s just round the corner.

Email-based curiosities abound. For all of us teetering on the blasted ledge of a spiritual abyss, we no longer have anything to fear, succor now being provided as it is by the father of Sots Art. "Greetings True Believers!" blasts Alex Melamid in his irony-laden (we hope) epistle. "The web pages of the Artist-Prophet-God Melamid are now a reality! Join the Master Melamid as he reveals to you the manifest truths and secrets of Art Faith. Do not be afraid. You will attain salvation. Click here: www.melamid.com." It might be worth a try. Especially now Jacko’s gone.

My tendency to namedrop and to stargaze have never really bothered me for some reason, despite the fact that they’re both indicative of a pedestrian intellect and a woeful lack of self-esteem. So, I don’t mind writing, that when I received the following in my email inbox – "Jeffrey Lynn Koons has confirmed you as a friend on Facebook" [pictured] – I let out a kind of strangled yelp. Reasons: A. I mustn’t have bored him as much as I thought I did on the roof of Damien Hirst’s aftershow party in Kiev [see "Kiev Dispatch," June 5, 2009]. B. his name and the bland, chumpish and too-modern nature of Facebook go so well together. He’s not bland per se, at least as far as I can see, but he is certainly trying to say something about bland. Since writing he’s commented on my Facebook picture in which I am doing the splits. So I decided to offer to teach him how to do them. It all depends on the elasticity of his hamstrings. Actually, saying all this, I’m probably just Facebooking an impostor. How will I ever find out?

Should have asked him at his Serpentine Gallery talk last month, where he recalled how he got started as an artist? "From the age of seven I would go to drawing lessons every weekend at an old lady's house. She would look at my drawings and say, ‘Jeff, you can't take that home and show your mom, it looks like Frankenstein drew it’," he said she said. As for Popeye, he had seven words to say about that motif: "I always liked his nose and chin."

How bloody lovely and unexpected to be invited to Venice for a birthday party. Nic Iljine, the garrulous and insanely generous former director of the Guggenheim Foundation's corporate development in Europe and the Middle East celebrated a landmark birthday (and quite possibly the shaking off of his absurdly long job title) with a bunch of very hardy Russians and, er, Jeremy Irons. Sam Keller and Simon de Pury were also there on the roof of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, as were another 150 souls swaying in the wind, trying to keep up with the singing and concentrated vodka consumption. Iljine told me that he "didn’t have the courage to refuse the honorary membership of the Russian Academy of Arts," after receiving said honor. It was all very extravagant and filmic. And Russian. And Venetian.

I can’t imagine the American artist Matthew Brannon being too crestfallen after Richard Dorment in the Telegraph last week described him as "a master of seduction and insinuation, the Edgar Allan Poe of modern urban decadence." Not much to complain about there, unless, like me, Poe churns your stomach to paté. Brannon opened his first London show, titled "Nevertheless," at the Approach Gallery with a highly stylized and atmospheric simulacrum of an ocean cruiser which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a simulacrum of a stage set for the performance of a play set on board an ocean cruiser. Wheels within wheels, etc.

Most of Brannon’s accompanying prints in the show are inspired by board games. One includes the text, "It’s okay. Happens to everyone. Cough it up. Get it out of your system. That’s it. You’re going to be just fine. Here, wipe your chin and put this wet towel on your forehead. Now tell me. You were with whom? You went where? You did what?" The whole thing’s nice and mildly abnormal, ever so slightly sinister, and carrying with it a tendency to put you in mind of the super-eerie ‘70s and ‘80s television series, Tales of the Unexpected.

Off then for an aftershow party and dinner at the private house of Mark Hix -- friend of the Approach and the London art world’s favorite chef (he’s the one who’s NOT a celebrity). Chicken, lamb and an enormous summer pudding preceded Blue Monday cheese and a few Hix Fixes tipples (Prosecco and cassis with a cherry). Darren Flook, director of Hotel (the gallery), flung himself into the party late at night to announce the birth of his baby that day. The one he made nine months ago with Hotel co-director Christabel Stewart (obviously still at the hospital). Congratulations to them.

Mark Hix wandered round gathering items to build a shrine -- mainly cookbooks and candles -- to honor the most loved and the most raffish chef of them all, the original and truly the best, Mr. Keith Floyd, who had died, of a heart attack, but still, unbelievably, the previous day after dining on a meal of oysters and lobster in Hix’s Dorset restaurant. After eating he had said he felt better than ever before, then went home and died gently in his postprandial snooze. It was much too sad a passing for Hix to gain any pleasure from the enormous amount of unexpected free publicity he received due to blanket newspaper coverage of the bon vivant Floyd’s final hours in culinary heaven. Hix Oyster and Fish House will now undoubtedly become a shrine to the many legions of Floyd fans. But we’d much rather have Floydie alive still, if for no other reason than to provide a high benchmark of Situationist, non-conformist style against which the cesspool of desperate, grasping celebrity chefs that sully our TV schedules and dumb down our already vulnerable society can continue to be abrasively measured.

A few lucky people were off to Greece on Sept. 24 for Larry Gagosian’s new Athens gallery opening. The event was so oversubscribed by the upper echelons of Greek society that it took the gallery several days to confirm places at dinner because they first needed to seat an Onassis or two. Many were speculating whether shipping magnate Dinos Martinos would be there. He’s the man who (I hear) bought -– for €22,000,000! ($28 million) -- Eileen Gray’s Dragon armchair at the Christie’s Paris sale of Yves St. Laurent’s art collection this February. The second most expensive piece of furniture ever sold.

The London Fashion Week show for the contemporary-art-conscious fashion label Rodnik Band was a Thomas Crown Affair stunt instead of a traditional catwalk show, and surprised security at the National Gallery on Saturday, Sept. 19. Philip Colbert, the designer and founder of Rodnik Band, led a line of ten models wearing black bowler hats and his new collection -- inspired by Pablo Picasso and Giorgio De Chirico, including a De Chirico column dress (his last collection starred a Marcel Duchamp urinal dress) -- though Trafalgar Square then into the National. The models stopped to take in the Stubbs, Seurat and Velazquez. Security was asking everyone to reveal who was in charge but no one answered them. In the end it was clear that there was nothing they could do, there being no rule anywhere stating that you can't walk into a gallery in a line wearing a bowler hat.

Writer Sarah Thornton’s paperback version of her un-put-downable Seven Days in the Art World comes out this week in the UK and in November in the U.S. A chance again to get an insider’s view of a day in Takashi Murukami’s studio or witness firsthand the final stage in the judging and presentation of the Turner Prize. But this time the book’s about half its original weight, so much easier to carry around in your bag.

Keith Tyson’s room full of clouds at the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art -- "Cloud Choreography Paintings" -- is an uplifting thing to brood upon. The show is pretty much a Tyson mid-career retrospective, including his beautiful marbled-effect "Nature Paintings" and his "Operator" series, but with the new cloud works tacked on. They float perfectly around the walls of Parasol’s second-floor gallery. I liked Tyson’s take on Abstract Expressionism in Time Out recently: "When I think about a painting, I think about how it can be described as abstract, but if I were to pick that painting up and belt you over the head with it, it wouldn’t feel very abstract."

As I reached the Vegas Gallery this Sunday, I realized it was closed. I’m always getting my gallery opening days confused. I am so glad I called Suzanne Schurgers, the director, to see if she was in the vicinity and able to open up for a few minutes, not only for the fact that –- as soon as I arrived -- her mum brought me over a plate of Dutch rye bread, Dutch cheese and a jar of a Dutch apple spread called Applebroot. The Dutch: I’ve always thought of them as a tolerant, civilized bunch.

At Vegas, the super-strange luscious porcelain sculptures of Liet Heringa and Maarten Van Kalsbeek can be gazed upon for hours without causing any kind of boredom. The indecipherable and truly odd nature of these works always pulls them back from the abyss of kitsch. One minute the multicolored forms look like bloodied hanging slabs of meat, then like distorted Dale Chihuly sculptures, then like a flock of dripping rancid birds. Real (dead) birds actually form part of some of the sculptures, as do reproductions of exotic coral reefs, wood, resin and cloth. It’s the first time the couple has showed in Britain, and I think outside of Holland, and they deserve wild success.

Next up at gallery are the nice-looking mirrored works of Carla Arocha & Stephane Schraenen. Arocha is the wife of Luc Tuymans. A fleet of buses will bring us all, including Mr. Tuymans, back from Frieze to a dinner at the gallery. Can’t wait to see if I can scare myself by imposing myself upon him for a conversation.

The Tate Modern’s next blockbuster show "Pop Life: Art in a Material World," opens to the public on Oct. 1, 2009, and is to include, I hear, a selection from Jeff Koons’ porn-y "Made In Heaven" series, a recreation of Keith Haring’s Pop Shop, items from Damien Hirst’s mammoth Sotheby’s London auction, and a new work by Murakami. Two rooms of the exhibition, says a footnote on the press release, are closed to anyone under the age of 18. Rumor has it that the show was originally to be entitled "Sold Out" but after two artists complained, the Tate changed it to "Pop Life." Who were these artists? My reliable source says Richard Prince and Hirst. I can’t see them being so humorless myself.

A quick trip to Berlin. At the KW Institute space British artist Ceal Floyer showed how to elegantly fill a huge gallery with, well, garbage. Floyer is one of several ex-pat British women in Berlin, including Tacita Dean and, more recently it seems, Katie Paterson. A crowd was in constant attendance around a small piece of paper attached to the wall. On closer inspection it turned out to be a till-receipt from the popular Kaiser supermarket chain. A variation on white-on-white: a list of white-only foods. Most brilliant of all was Works on Paper: a whole room covered in pages from those little scribble pads on which people try out pens in stationery shops.

I can barely find the words to describe "Submission," Mat Collishaw’s show in the Berlin outpost of the Haunch of Venison Gallery, which opened last weekend and runs to December. Collishaw’s video projection The End of Innocence is a shimmering, gigantic image of Diego VelazquezPope Innocent X that morphs into Francis Bacon’s Pope Innocent X and then back again to Velazquez’s image, and almost knocks you out as you enter through the gallery door. I’m always shocked by real beauty in a gallery; this is all encompassing. It’s projected onto both sides of an enormous floor-to-ceiling screen, over which a striated waterfall of gold and silver squares sometimes distorts and sometimes enlivens the Popes from their slumber, yet still rains down on them in a constant drowning motion. Collishaw used six different computer programs to achieve the rich hypnotic effect.

It’s not very restrained of me, but upstairs, when I saw Collishaw’s zoetrope, titled The Garden of Unearthly Delights, I almost started crying. Encapsulating the essence of, yet improving upon every single piece of work in the Collishaw oeuvre, this is a hellish world of distraught animals, recoiling from the angry, tiny pissed-off children who are trying to kill them with spears. It’s a deep, almost filmic delight as well as a nightmare of monumental proportions, channeled through the rapidly spinning zoetrope, a much-modernized update of the Victorian device that produces an illusion of action from a rapid succession of static pictures.

So little moves me these days, but this is an astonishing, precise and considered piece of art. The stills on the Haunch of Venison website don’t really do justice to the piece, but hopefully go some way to visually explain its heart-stopping weirdness.

It seems a bit pointless to talk about the party after all that, but it was one to remember, not least for the birds-eye view of Berlin at night. Painter Rachel Howard and her husband Hugh Allan, Hirst’s business partner, had flown in for the night and joined us on the roof of the Pan Am lounge, the former private club for Pan Am pilots and stewardesses, whom the night’s waiters and waitresses, dressed in aeronautic garb, were clearly channeling.

Also there were Mat’s lovely parents Joy and Maurice Collishaw, Maurice looking more and more Darwinian (the man, not the theory) with every day that passes. Mat’s son Alex Collishaw, Alex’s girlfriend the curator Lauren Jones, the artist Polly Morgan and Haunch’s head-honcho Harry Blain were also there, tucking in to a good few German sausages from the rooftop barbecue. German sausages just beat the rest of the world’s sausages hands down; I think it’s the flavoring. Or the lack of meat guilt. There was dancing to the Smiths and lots of champagne in front of a fire.

Talk turned to stories about giants. I’ve been bothered of late that they’re vanishing from folklore and life. Certainly my childhood was peppered with tales of creatures with Brobdingnagian dimensions. So I posed the question, "Giant Stories. On the Wane?" Even though most people slowly edged away from me, a few stayed to agree that this is definitely a topic to return to.

As the sun rose over the Pan Am building, eight stragglers decamped to some of our party’s home for the weekend, the Matthew Bown Gallery (Berlin), which opens its inaugural show, "Painting of the ‘80s," this month to coincide with Berlin Art Forum and numerous other piggy-backing art fairs. The gallery is housed in a huge apartment in the diplomatic quarter. Until recently it was the homely home of Germany’s bundespresident, Walter Scheel, and his wife, but now looks very different painted white with a bunch of Julian Schnabel artworks on the wall.

There, in the early hours, sitting around the mammoth dining table, came from Collishaw the most memorable story of the night. Esquire magazine had recently (he thought) asked him and 17 other artists to take away a (different) designer’s suit and photograph themselves in it for an exhibition called "A Singular Suit," to be shown first at Somerset House and then Harrods department store (why there?). Off went Mat with his Dior Homme suit to Jamaica, his holiday "destination" this summer, where he had pictures taken of himself in the suit, looking rugged, standing on a rock -- and for reasons perhaps only known to him -- brandishing a machete. A photograph was sent back to England, and he thought it was a job done. Except it transpired that somewhere down the line, the brief had become a little bit skewed.

On returning home, he got a call asking for the suit back. Mat said he’d been led to believe the suit, because it would have been obviously worn, would stay with the artist forever. "No," said the curator, "we wanted you to use the suit, interpret the suit, as a piece of art. Other artists have done something quite sculptural. Antony Gormley has electro-plated his." As the exhibition was opening the next day, and Mat had told them his piece would reflect Jamaica and the sea, he decided to dump the suit into a bucket of salty water overnight, hoping the salt would react violently enough to significantly change it.

Next day, the curators arrived to pick up the piece of "work," now just a crap disheveled two-piece with some faint white stains crusting up one of the sleeves. "The salty suit went up in the Somerset House exhibition the next day, modeled by a mannequin in a glass case," said Mat. "Now it’s at Harrods. I had to be at both openings. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life."


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.