Whatís the point, I often say, and where to start? Itís hard to sift through the ever-greater profusion of shows and to work out quite why Iím doing this. January at one point almost felt like Frieze Week, so full was it with art, and I had to race about mad and often lonesome on public transport, from one opening to the other, then watch the tail-lights of the taxi cabs going to the art dinners. (More on that exaggerated nonsense later, perhaps. I shall soon remember if there was any glamour, hot food and wine for me this month, as this text takes shape.)
I know that I discovered Vyner Street. Well, Iíve been there before -- that goes without saying, being someone whoís supposed to make a living from writing about art -- but I always approached that run-down East End lane tentatively, with a bit of a sigh.
In fact, the words "Vyner" and "Street" put together always make me feel queasy. Maybe itís because someone once called it the "art street." That kind of categorizing always makes me shudder, not to mention the deliberate self-conscious clustering it describes. I never liked Moscowís art village, Vinzavod, or the jewelry district of New York either (but then who does like that blasted area of Midtown anyway. I do like theme parks though, so my aversion canít be to do with everything being handily in one place. Back to Vyner Street; this month I looked a bit harder.
Magali Reus, an artist from the Netherlands, is at Ibid Projects with an exhibition called "Background." Reusí film of this name looked as if it was shot in the desert in Israel but was in fact filmed in somewhere like Croydon in South London. At least, I think thatís what Tobias Wagner, the bearded and (uncannily-for-the-art world) handsome gallery assistant director told me, although he could have said Amsterdam, or somewhere in Turkey; it was a very packed opening and I couldnít hear too well. Or more truthfully, I no longer write things down, but instead rely on a brain that is now clearly entering its catabolic process (Look it up). I digress. . . .
In the film, six super-buff young men in soldiersí fatigues partake in military-style physical activity against a backdrop of hot sand and gravel. They engage in a slow arm-wrestle at one point; they make a human triangle, and they do some running about in formation. The camera contemplates them, and then the sand and the various indecipherable pieces of metal that wink and glint in it, reflecting the sun. (It canít be Croydon surely?)
It may be Minimalist and muted but itís also funny and theatrical, especially in its deadpan direction. No expression allowed except "masculine," it seems. A number of Reusí sculptures managed to be chilly but comical too. A metal sheet on the wall (Pattern Recognition) bore the cut-out shapes of 100 military dog-tags, while some twists of metal on the floor (Spill) were made to look like moist grey silicone rubber. I do like that gallery, not least because they have the painter Anj Smith on their books.
I must surely be a charlatan as I realized last month that I had never been to the Wilkinson gallery. Itís huge to start with, and painted black, and has bouncers on the door. Have they had that much trouble with drunks in the past? The Norwegian artist A K Dolven showed a clement film reflecting her (part-time) home of the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway, projected onto a slope.
A film of a snowy slope on a slope then, ahead is a high-definition masterpiece: of underdressed human figures, waist-deep in snow, struggling up the side of a mountain, passing a young woman between them, holding her feet first along their human conveyor belt. Itís ritualistic, pale and beautiful. People were sitting on the broad concrete gallery floor, wrapped in blankets, captivated.
On the way out, I spoke briefly to a man of 6 foot, 8 inches -- a "Marco" from Marseilles who has a gallery but didnít go into detail -Ė and I was struck by the rarity of coming across that height in a human. I also picked up some information about Dolvenís current work in Tullinokka, Oslo. Untuned Bell has seen her rescuing a 1.5 ton bell that was considered to be out of tune with the other 49 bells at Osloís City Hall. Dolven brought the silenced, grounded bell back to the city where the public have been given the opportunity to step on a pedal and ring it. The point being, one presumes, that as an independent bell, itís no longer considered out of tune. Every day last week, the in-tune bells welcomed back their banished sibling five times a day in a sound piece by Rolf Wallin. On Feb. 6, 2010, all the bells rang together, reunited as if in a melancholic Norwegian fairy tale.
Still on Vyner, the still-young Nettie Horn gallery, which appears to show only younger artists, is always worth a look in. "Podium & Pandemonium," a group show about "celebration," features a few stand out sculptural pieces by Rebecca Stevenson, including a sparkly swan -- Luxe Vert -- filled with flowers and seemingly coated in Sherbert-Dip (a British candy of old); may be intended to be nauseatingly over-the-top baroque, but just sugary and luscious to my eye.
I mustnít forget my foray into the world of music-art "crossover" that night: a trip to the club Dalston Superstore for the launch of the walking-piece-of-art singer-songwriter Bishiís new single One Nation. On the way there, I passed a house that my travelling companion pointed out was painted and designed by the artist couple Derek Bell and Juliette Blightman. (See picture). A hallucination, a strange oasis of brown and beige and black in the middle of Hackney.
After Bishi sang and played her uncanny, beautiful mix of sitar, pop and Bulgarian folk, with a voice like a clear Indian bell, into the Dalston Superstore walked not only Ana Matronic of the Scissor Sisters but also a man in a bathroom cabinet. Really, a man inside a bathroom cabinet. Painful for him; it looked so heavy; I wish I had no empathic core as my neck was hurting all night in sympathy. I made him let me take a photograph of myself in his mirror; it took a few attempts as one of the cabinet doors kept swinging open to reveal something pornographic and unladylike, which is, erm, so not me. "Bury dark things" is my motto, even if they come to manifest themselves later in life in the form of a horrible disease or mental illness.
It turns out his name is Richard La Rue, or Little Richard (but Iíve taken to calling him ĎLittle Richard La Rueí), and heís not your average scene-y dresser-upper. He has since told me he has body dysmorphia and frequently walks down the street wearing vortex mirrors. He says he sometimes even hops backward, while so mirrored. He was once the support act for Pete Dohertyís band Babyshambles, but now makes "actions and happenings that he finds beautiful or grotesque or both."
Ah yes, January, the month of men wearing furniture and fittings. Also the month when a lady approached me in Bethnal Green (in the East End borough of Tower Hamlets) beaming, dragging a suitcase behind her on wheels. She wanted to know if Iíd take a leaflet. "More Love in Tower Hamlets," it said. A veritable clarion call for artists to "become a believer, help share the love, and bring on community change." All you had to do was go to unusualview.org.uk -- which I havenít yet -- and see what itís all about. I then asked her where she got her rather beautiful vintage-looking silk scarf. "I canít tell you," she replied. "Youíll tell everyone else. Well, it was bought in my home town of Cleethorpes. But Iím not telling you the shop." So, yes, bring on the love, share it around.
Why do I give these people column inches?
I may have said it before but the man who is most attuned to this cityís zeitgeist is the young Paul Pieroni, Londonís most energized curator. He is co-director of Seventeen Gallery and chief curator of Space studios, and seems to be interested in and knowledgeable about everything "art." Heís never too busy to answer this particular puzzled charlatanís endless questions, either.
Oliver Laricís "Versions" at Seventeen was interesting not only for Laricís suite of polyurethane sculptures, each an exact replica of a Reformation-damaged icon from St. Martin’s Cathedral in Utrecht and each identical in size and form (only differing in their multicolored pigmentation), but for Laricís peppy curated show in the basement. "Real Talk" is the artistís presentation of four films or video collages that he cites as "influences." Aleksandra Domanovicís entertaining Anhedonia superimposes stock images from the Getty Images archive onto Woody Allenís Annie Hall, a film with very little incidental music. The audio content and code of the film is thus re-jiggered. Woody riffs on orgasm; Domanovic shows an orange squeezer (!?). A right-wing rock-and-roll star is mentioned, the artist flashes an image of George Michael. Not sure George would approve. In psychoanalysis, "anhedonia" is determined as an inability to experience satisfaction from normally pleasurable life events; Allen intended the word to be the original title of Annie Hall until he realized how difficult marketing a film with that title would be, says Pieroniís press release, with humor as flat as a skillet.
I once interviewed Woody Allen on a red carpet here and wore an oversized badge of his face pinned to my coat that I found in a New York thrift store moons ago. "Look Woody, Iím wearing your face on my coat," I said eagerly. I noticed, from him and Soon-Yi, an almost imperceptible shuffling away. Iím always pitching it slightly wrong. Too keen.
Most people (of a certain ilk) know that Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw formed part of the Michigan-based art band and underground art movement called Destroy All Monsters in the Ď70s, but the recent "Freek Summit" in London was perhaps designed to teach you a lot more. A talk given in connection with the James Hoff- and Carey Loren-curated exhibition "Destroy All Monsters: Hungry For Death" at Pieroniís other place, Space, featured Loren, who is an artist, along with Savage Pencil (Edwin Pouncey) and poet, radical, manager of MC5 and leader of the White Panther Party, John Sinclair. It was moderated by the writer Stewart Home. Everyone on the panel and in the audience seemed in awe of Sinclair. Heís still angry and has a twitchy leg that goes up and down at a rate of knots. Many once-perma-stoned looking men with beards nodded in agreement with everything he said. Lots of less raddled looking people were also there; a lady even wore a jumper with the words "Destroy All Monsters" emblazoned across the front. She told me it was by the Japanese design house Hysteric Glamour. Maybe thatís how the poorer ex-band members pay their rent? Woolly-jumper royalties from Japan? Which one of them would have been expecting that in 1973, when they were asked to leave their first gig after just ten minutes?
Young, an early member of DAM, kicked off by explaining how it all came about. "It wasnít a normal rock band; I was a junior White Panther member at 15. I saw it as a beautiful explosion of art and pot. Living in the suburbs was a horrible flat-line existence. So the things that came out of them like Johnís movement were beautiful to you. Weíd play to get food. We never had an audience. About 30 people in total ever saw us. Mike [Kelley] and Jim [Shaw] lived in a house called Godís Oasis. People thought it would be a church but it was a noise movement. The beginnings of a noise movement, anyhow. Jim was a noise maniac; the only people who related to it were jazz musicians. Mike and Jim would put up posters around campus [I didnít ask which] that they were organizing a happening. But there were no happenings, that was the point. People would turn up and thereíd be nothing happening."
John Sinclair chipped in. "The idea was to introduce a rock audience to free jazz. MC5 were on the same bill as Sun Ra in Ann Arbor. One of the happiest moments of my life was when a group of rock kids went nuts for Sun Ra and chanted his name for 15 minutes straight. "
From my beanbag cushion on the floor, I asked him if the White Panther Party had a written manifesto. "Not really, but closest to it was ĎEverything Free for Everybodyí. And we always said Ďfull endorsement and support of the Black Panther Partyí." What did the Black Panther Party think of you? I asked. "They thought we were nuts. At first," said Sinclair. "But we had a record contract. We wanted to help them -- they were being shot in their beds. Our magazine had 900-a-week circulation. Whatever we did to ameliorate their position was a good thing. By the end of Ď71 we were in prison, so we felt we were being effective. Bobby Seale, the leader of the Black Panther Party spoke at a rally to get me out."
So, following an afternoon sitting on a freezing cold stone floor in Hackney listening to the godfathers of suburban dystopia, I went along to the swanky, too-carpeted Ivy Club (above the now beyond-famous restaurant) for artist Polly Morganís 30th birthday. From the sublime to the ridiculous, or is it the other way round? (Morgan last showed in London at the All Visual Arts extravaganza "The Age of the Marvelous" during Frieze Week, and made headlines by selling her flying machine sculpture Departures for £95,000.) Itís becoming more and more clear that I know one group of artists who never go out unless itís to a glamorous exhibition or dinner of a close friend; and another group of artists who go to every nippy, obscure, run-down corner of London, to look at everything, like me. Iím feeling equivocal about this. Sometimes I just want to sit in and make things then go out for some expensive protein, but, I realize I canít paint very well, or make a sculpture. Iím tied to the poverty of words. And addicted to legging about.
Saying I canít paint, I was determined to paint -- for Miss Morganís birthday present -- a likeness of the Plaster of Paris bosun (old sea dog) that hangs on my wall and once belonged to my Cockney grandmother Iris May Williamson. The painting (see picture) was supposed to have a late-period Vincent van Gogh background, reedy and chunky (faute de mieux), but it all came out like a third-grade art project. Funny (for me), if a little embarrassing, though.
Well, at last, this was an art party with knobs on. At the Ivy was Sir Peter Blake, Jude Law, Portia Kennaway (granddaughter of Sir John Moores -- founder of the John Moores Painting Prize), Pollyís father the indomitable Arden Morgan, artists Jonathan Yeo and Keith Tyson and lots of seemingly well-looked-after people. Where does Polly Morgan find them all? One thing I learned there: the brand Diesel has employed a "creative agency" to suggest to a number of artists that they "get involved" in their new marketing campaign, for which the artist would be required to do a dance wearing Diesel clothes. People could go online and watch the video and there would be a link to the artistís website and biography, thus "bringing their art to worldwide attention." "They seriously suggested that in exchange for unnecessarily making a fool of myself in order to make them more money that they would be ’giving me a unique platform’," said Morgan. "I wrote back saying ’thanks for your invitation but I’m afraid I’d rather eat my own organs." She only looks like butter wouldnít melt.
Talking of organs, or at least mouths, I have decided to finally sort the chips and cracks in/on/of my teeth out and have been going to Damien Hirstís dentist, Ralph Palmer-Gilhooly, whom I met at the Hirst retrospective in Kiev (See Kiev Dispatch, May 4, 2009). If I didnít have a name, a contact, a reason, I just wouldnít have gone, in my very British way. Known to everyone as "Damienís Dentist," Gilhooly-Palmer and team are very good and not at all expensive. What has tickled me most about my time there was the form I had to fill out on my first visit. One of the questions asked me if I suffer from any "general pain." I answered "only existential."
Speaking of Damien, I see heís now doing cashmere blankets, and selling them through his Other Criteria website. There are always more ways and more reasons to get the word out, I see. And it has been very cold here of late. Looking back to that site just now, I notice that Peter Doigís also doing a beach towel. Itís only £60. Can I (A) have one, and, can (B), anyone tell me whatís going on?
We had here a bit of a to-do over a proposed public sculpture honoring the visionary 19th-century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (he built the bulk of out railways and bridges). Design critic Stephen Bayley in the Times scoffed at a "low-brow" memorial design by Kevin Boys, a blacksmith based at Surrey Docks Farm in Rotherhithe. "If planning permission is granted," he said, "this 20m-tall horror will be erected, schematic stove pipe hat, tailcoat and all, in Rotherhithe, near the mouth of the amazing Thames Tunnel that Brunel designed and engineered with his father."
Public sculpture has long been a fascination of mine, especially because of its dubious reliance on deliberately rough edges, and its repeated use of stippled sheet metal. In Britain over the last 20 years, at least, it inevitably has to look utilitarian, straight out of the workshop, and hewn by a "real" craftsman with very little money, or itís not allowed to go up. Thinking about this, I walked through Weaverís Fields, a local and less-than-salubrious park, and for the first time noticed this (almost beautiful in the snow) monstrosity that perfectly fits in with my theory. What is it? (See picture). Why does it all have to be about "Ďinclusiveness," people or things always dancing together? Whatís wrong with going solo? Iím no society-denying Margaret Thatcher, but do we always have to envisage ourselves in community groups? And could the poor designer ever have envisaged that CCTV camera becoming such an integral part of it? If it didnít make me weep, it would nearly make me laugh.
Whatís next? Ah, landfill. Well, Michael Landy, or "Landyfill" perhaps, and his "Art Bin" at the South London Gallery, where an enormous see-through skip covering the entire floor of the SLG (except for about a meter around the edges for people to walk around) started to receive the first of (I imagine) thousands of works that, in their individual creatorís eyes, didnít pass muster.
Itís a bit of a trek down to my old college stomping ground of Peckham, south east London. I say "stomping ground" because other people do, but itís a horrible term, denoting a lack of grace, and a predilection for rugby shirts, sweet bottled alcoholic drinks and group-shouting. Iíll never use it again. For me those years 1992-95 were more about sidling around, and not stomping at all: waiting, for example, for the crack dealer in the big BMW at the bottom of my street to let another £20 note fly out of his partially open window. I parasitically made about £50 a week picking up lost notes during the "hunger years." Pathetic, really. Couldíve just got a job. But in a way, it was a job.
What larks the sub-editors on the national newspapers have been having with "Art Bin." "Itís official, Modern Art is rubbish," theyíve squeaked, ad nauseam, in their headlines. When will they learn itís all been said before? Landy was sitting at a desk on the opening night, wearing a high mustard color polo-neck, looking a bit fretful, deciding which works could or couldnít go in. There was a large Hirst skull painting already smashed at the bottom of the skip (another artist told me sheíd slashed it earlier in the store room. Canít say her name, sheíll kill me), a Peter Blake self-portrait, and a "fluffy rabbit with a propeller up its arse" (Simon Parris, the SLGís program director, told me). It was exciting for an opening because of the great height the works were being dropped from. Much noise, huge echo, many things flying about or disintegrating as they hit the floor of the skip. It worked. It made you think about the value of art and the history of destruction in art. The SLG also produced a good newspaper, largely made up of relevant newspaper clippings about destruction-and-art happenings over the last 100 years or so. "Art Bin" goes on until March 14, 2010, at which point Iím sure it will be full to the brim.
A quick trip to Berlin and a striking show at the Hamburger Bahnhof of Walton Fordís "Bestiarium"; watercolors of animals that, at first sight, seem like 19th-century Natural History Museum illustrations made on a huge scale, accompanied by texts that sometimes explicate, sometimes connect in a poetic way with the paintings, often an unexpected historical detail or sexual aberration. Ford is more than a bit of an oddball; out of a routine 19th-century esthetic heís conjured something exemplarily contemporary.
At a group show of painting and video art at the Matthew Bown Galerie (full disclosure: it belongs to my "frequent travelling companion" but must be mentioned nevertheless) called "Time, Space, Meh" ("TSM"). I was struck by Niklas Goldbachís video piece Plot, which had two monitors facing each other ten meters apart, like a couple of duelers, and on the screens enigmatic figures dressed in black-and-white firing at each other down the length of the gallery. As in a computer game, nobody dies; Goldbach explained that it was the gallery visitors who got "shot" as they walked between the screens. Goldbachís English is sprinkled with phrases such as "dystopia," "Foucault" and "post-liberal nostalgia" (thatís one of the unnerving things about this city: everyone speaks better English than you do). This year Goldbach is making a film in the Appalachian Mountains.
The other artists in "TSM" are Evgeni Dybsky, Thomas Fischer, Sandra Lange, Monika Rechsteiner and Londoner Richard Wilson, whose famous sump-oil work 20:50 has just been re-installed at the Saatchi Gallery in London.
At the packed opening of "TSM" was expansive writer-curator (and ex-carpet dealer, ex-policeman, ex-monk, ex-Courtauld Institute lecturer) Mark Gisbourne, now preparing the big annual exhibition entitled "Rohkunstbau," which takes place in a castle outside Berlin. The show, this year, called "Hidden Histories-Imagined Identities," opens in July and includes Cathy de Monchaux, Mat Collishaw, Ori Gersht, Wilhelm Sasnal, Johanna Smiatek, Niklas Goldbach, Wafae Ahalouch El Keriasti, Elisa Sighicelli and Stefan Roloff. I went last year: Lake, reeds, sun, wine, sausages, good art. Berlin is always erudite but never uptight in my eyes.
Also sipping the Rioja at "TSM" was the legendary Ukrainian photographer and now Berlin-resident Boris Mikhailov; along with one of the "founding fathers of video art" (as he was described to me), U.S. expat Ira Schneider. Schneider told me that on March 4 his work can be seen at "Changing Channels," a show and a series of talks about early independent video, at MUMOK Vienna. He also told me of his time with Nam June Paik. "I was in the first group video art show with Paik in 1969. I had lunch with him in 1975. He had no money so he gave me a check. I didn’t cash it." (Hereís the pic).
One might as well go to one blockbuster a month, and Chris Ofiliís mid-career survey at Tate Britain seemed like the no-brainer. It was the first time Iíd noticed many (Iím tempted to write "any") black people at a Tate opening, or actually, at any opening. Apart from Ofili himself, Yinka Shonibare, Isaac Julien, ICA artistic director Ekow Eshun and a few others, the "upper" echelons of the British art world are strikingly underpopulated by black artists or art professionals. Despite everything thatís happened in the real world in the last, ooh, 50 years, this weird world of art is still nearly all white, at least in this manifestation.
It is an unforgettable treat to see all of Ofiliís winking, sinister, beautiful earlier works together. You forget, when someone becomes a bit "establishment," how significant and uncategorizable their work actually was and is. The room-sized installation called The Upper Room, originally at the Victoria Miro Gallery in East London (later to be purchased by Tate Britain to yelps of controversy because Ofili was a trustee of the Tate), hasnít lost any of its sacred/profane punch, and is recreated in its entirety, David Adjaye-designed curving wooden walls and all.
The room of new paintings was an unbelievably weird, flat experience. These were oversized, pseudo-biblical, weakly Gauguinesque, and the brightness was turned up way too high.
That room apart, the show demonstrated that there have been moments of genius throughout Ofiliís career. Peter Doig (sans beach towel) was there to celebrate; so was David Blandy, Michael Craig-Martin, Grayson Perry and all the usual suspects.
On my way home, I gave all of the money in my purse to the local crack addict. I usually avoid him like the plague, not only because he always walks on his tiptoes. Whatís happening? Did a Manchester-born, Trinidad-dwelling painterís mid-career retrospective affect me that much?
I must be going soft. That or Iím hoping someone will do the same to me. Yes, empty your wallets; I have no shame.
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.