Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Laughing in a Foreign Language - Sophie Risner

30 Artists exploring humour around the world

The Hayward Gallery
Southbank Centre

25.01.08 - 13.04.08

Laughter is a tricky idea to represent - what makes us laugh and why we do it are two very different questions, thus under these conditions it can then be said that this is a bold move for the Hayward to attempt such an investigation into the theme. 'Laughing in a Foreign Language' sees a move towards the commodification of laughter in a 'time of increasing globalisation.' One of the first realities of this show is that it is incredibly weighed down with numerous video pieces. In an ever-digital age this is not particularly shocking but in curatorial terms it goes against the concentration of thought and time placed on this investigation. The shear historical importance of laughter per se means that any exhibition that tries to deal with it has to demand a certain attribute towards the past. Here, Brechtian 'alienation' is explored alongside themes of purposelessness and displacement. Generally speaking this exhibition seems to be overreaching its key themes and at many points seems to find the crafting of a pure assemblage of the funny more of a struggle than a joy. Samuel Beckett’s ‘Worstward Ho,’ 1983 has not only become the key text for recent explorations within art currently but integrates itself as a key paradigm within this exploration ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,’ becomes a get out clause within this exhibition’s exploration, marking not only the justification of failure within the remit of this show but the misunderstanding of failure within comedy. It is one concept to create a dialectic on the quite popular theme of failure within art but surely to bind that to failure within art and laughter is an over prescription of optimism. Mami Kataoka attempts to address this over-prescribed condition of predicating failure to the possibilities of such a global investigation into art and laughter. Is it possible for a show to address such global differences and such different artistic approaches in a bid to unify under the complexities of the funny?

Olaf Breuning’s video 'Home2' explores through a westernised irony the concept of tourism and subsequent breakdown in communication; based in Japan, Papa New Guinea and the Swiss Alps the film finds Olafs protagonist donning masks, playing with locals and screaming ‘I’m gonna meet the natives!’ it’s an uneasy film that seeks substinance in English / American irony yet suffers from an over prescribed length that wilts the humour more than lets it flourish. The polar extreme to this can be found in Janne Lehtinens beautifully subtle comments on the age-old tale of Icarus, here Lehtinen dares to mastermind comedy through the photographic, not easy – especially as most of the show is tragically shown through a video lens, rendering the idea that comedy is something experienced as a moving quantity over the still. Lehtinens ponderous moments of failed Icarus experimentations sum up wonderfully the key element of failure, as through these mini-tales we unpack Lehtinens own inner frustrations and not just sympathise but can see the ridicularity embedded within them. If Lehtinen could be described as subtle then Kalup Linzy’s 'Conversations wit de Churen' is anything but. Linzy embarks on a soap-opera pastiche based on an African-American ghetto family. Most of the footage is badly shot and the over dubbing embaressingly mis-placed - making the work uncomfortable viewing yet essential when transcending the show. Explicit sexual scenes and jargon are interspersed with mundane moments exploring the central characters relationship all performed to one another by the means of mobile phones. Other video work include Kutlug Ataman's 'Turkish Delight,2006' which finds the artist performing for the audience a highly improvised belly dance, wearing traditional turkish attire the artist mocks what he perceives as the conventional global stereotype of Turkey through an almost 3D motion self-portrait. Meanwhile Guy Ben-Ner also finds comedy through self-portraiture, one of the most striking video pieces Ben-Ner's 'Wild Boy' filmed in the artist’s own house and featuring his son looks to the role of father and son within art theory. Here Ben-Ner's son plays a feral child adopted by Ben-Ner. As the tale unwraps we view Ben-Ner teaching his adopted son how to read and write, eat and become human. The end product is awkwardly haunting yet intriquing, there aren't any major moments for clarity of the funny, but it does push towards crafting a relationship that trivializes humanity rather than glorifying it.

On a pictorial note the English contribution to the show manages to bark the obvious, Jake and Dinos Chapman de-face William Hogarth prints with the same mis-placed irony that saw them de-facing Goya in their entry to the 2003 Turner Prize shortlist. Though nothing particularly new, these painfully illustrative moments reflect perfectly back onto the Samuel Beckett concepts of 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better.' The Brothers Chapman manage to mastermind dark European illustrative mischief whilst working so incisevely within the Beckett remit. Shrigley equally finds it hard to step outside of his comfort zone, plastering the walls of the last Hayward space with slogans, wordy commentary and images that staple some kind of injustice and failure to the artists life experiences. Sadly through his more-than-notorious style there is more of a sense of repetition than a crafting through the shows key idea of Laughter.

The problem when forming this debate comes from the innards of what comedy and laughter actually ‘do.’ The response to a claim that a show exploring general themes of laughter is far to obvious, less was the contract of genuine hilarity and more was a construct built on exploring how the weird and wonderful world we live in responds to the notion of unification through the funny. We may not have laughed, giggled and erupted our way around the Hayward but at least Mami Kataoka dared to formulate a dilectic between comedy and the contemporary issue of globalization. Some of the works integrate themselves into this discourse and truly become moments of global observation whilst others lean too heavily on the Samuel Beckett illusion plastering their purposelessness at their core. It is this juxtaposition of failure and intrigued success that finds the show at the Hayward not finding its discourse in the materials of comedy production but in the essence of comedy effect. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Janne Lehtinen, Scared Bird, 1998 – 2004


Does Janne Lehtinen really believe he can fly?
Janne Lehtinen, Scared Bird, 1998 – 2004
Laughing in a Foreign Language
Written by Robert Dingle

The Icarian Sea, near Icaria (an island southwest of Samos), takes its name from the story in Greek Mythology of Icarus and his farther Daedalus. Having been imprisoned by King Minos within the labyrinth (the home of the Minotaur), Daedalus fashioned a pair of wings for himself and his son made of feathers and wax. Ahead of leaving his farther advised Icarus not to fly, either, too close to the sun, as its heat would melt the wax, or too close to the sea, as the wax would dampen. Icarus being overwhelmed by the sublime feeling of freedom that flying gave him forgot his farther advice and sawed into the sky. The wax melted, his feathers disappeared and Icarus fell into the sea.

Scared Bird, a sequence composed of eight large photographic Lamda prints, sees the artist try to surpass Icarus in a series of unsuccessful attempts. In each image the artist is frozen, either poised at the moment just prior to an attempt being made or contemplating the unforeseen errors in the aftermath of an effort gone amiss.

In the former, the image captures a moment of indeterminacy. The expectation and intention is clear. The artist, surrounded by wings, fins and sails and adorned with a ‘do-it-yourself’ aesthetic, is seen preparing to undertake a leap of faith. Through an act of bravery and in the face of seemingly stacked odds, the artist is held to a point of potential; a moment of generative possibility where any number of latent outcomes still remain open.

In contrast, the other images depict the lone figure, no longer surrounded by his avaitory trappings or the expectations they formerly embodied, rather, he remains central to the image, but surrounded by wreckage. The risk has been taken and the outcome determined.

Our initial reading of this work leads us to believe that it makes clear the divide between expectation and reality. The ‘before and after’ images seem to explicate how the process of failure can operate i.e. when the distance between expectation and reality no longer meet but become misaligned.

But what happens when realization no longer equates reality? When reality becomes fiction? We cannot ignore the fact that the work harbors a conceit. Does Janne Lehtinen really believe he can fly? The answer, although I have never met him, I am certain would be ‘no’. This leads us to understand the work as a series of attempts that rely upon the staging of events. Lehtinen does not expect to fly, he does not enter a realm of doubt or not knowing, he expects to fail and his expectation corresponds to reality.

Scared Bird becomes a successful illustration or interpretation of the idea of failure and leads us to acknowledge the well-established paradox intrinsic to failure i.e. failure can never be an objective, as when achieved, reverts to becoming a form of success; one successfully fails.

Icarus can be read as a fictional metaphor for failure. He shows us that an unorthodox act entering into a realm of doubt can produce a space of opportunity. However as Icarus pushes the limits of this prospect the conjectural possibility of failure eventually becomes an actuality.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Fire under Snow: Darren Almond

Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art, 14 Wharf Road, London N17RW
18 January – 30 March 2008

By Wiebke Gronemeyer

Upon entering the gallery’s premises 600 identical clocks forcefully carry out their task: keeping time. Nonetheless, the clocks in this sculpturally overloaded installation,
Tide (2008), act out more than this, questioning the objectivity of the passage of time. Indeed, these 600 clocks are unstoppable: each time a digital number on the computer-controlled synchronised clocks flips over to mark the passing of another minute or another hour, the gallery space physically reverberates. However, this overload of homogeneity lets us question time and its duration: should we think more often of the difference between an apparently objective chronometry and our subjective tools of measurement, based on experience and constituted in our memory?
Ideas about memory in relation to the subjectivity of time permeate all of Almond’s works in Fire under Snow: Darren Almond, his new exhibition at Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art in London. In his film
In the Between (2006), the artist deals with evocative meditations on time and duration, geography and displacement. The fourteen-minute long, three-screen high-definition film was shot in Tibet and China on the Quinghai-Tibet railway, the world’s highest train route. What Almond pictures is an ongoing itinerary, harnessing the symbolic and both the personal and historical potential of objects, places and situations. The visual juxtaposition of the outside landscape and the interior of a Buddhist temple turns out to be countermanded by the interference of the corresponding sounds: the clattering train and the monks’ monotone chanting. Thus, the linearity of this itinerary becomes undermined, affecting its narrative character. The work is on a very literal level still to be understood as depicting aspects of duration, both on screen and by means of sound. In addition, on a more abstract level, it is much more about a contemporary attitude that can be read through the train as a metaphor, making its way across a whole continent: a characteristic of an aesthetic of globalisation. Almond surpasses and subverts the notion of an itinerary as a means to an end that is not recurrent to itself. As he interlaces the different narratives – the train and the monks, the dominating and the controlled – the artist goes one step further of portraying the evident contrast between the industrial and the spiritual and reveals how even such a clash of culture can, in its narrative structures, have something in common – time, duration and the effects it has on the individual, on both sides of the story.
This nostalgic longing seems to filter through the other works in the show.
Bearing (2007) is a single-screen projection depicting the daily routine of an Indonesian sulphur miner, monitoring him on his way in and out of the mine, carrying the toxic material. The more than evident beauty of the landscape strikes the moral disguise that is evoked by the harmful characteristics of the sulphur, confronting the viewer to position himself out of his comfort zone in front of a high-resolution screen in London towards the social reality in Indonesia. Aren’t our reactions, whether they be compassion of fascination, be understood as unethical and thus wrong?
Night + Fog (2007) consists of six large-scale black-and-white photographs of dead forests surrounding the nickel-mining towns of Siberia. Again, Almond highlights pollution and its damaging consequences, relating to our historical situation, recalling similarities to the symbolic potential of pictures taken in the woods surrounding Auschwitz and Birkenau. Is a longing for the past as a means to an end for a contention with contemporary culture to be understood as how Almond lately, more poignantly, introduces nostalgia into his work? Whether this is a path worthy to explore could be a question to address in the future. As for now, it seems not to detract from the political claims he makes with his work but to strengthen them through carrying the symbolic antipodes, beauty and barbarity, image and sound, to their extremes.

Sober Realism

Images of Society. Contemporary Painting at Kunstverein Hamburg, 27.09. – 31.12.2007.

By Wiebke Gronemeyer

The concern of the exhibition
Images of Society. Contemporary Painting is expressed as “to explore the relation of painting to society”. More precisely, the question Yilmaz Dziewior posed in this recent show at the Kunstverein in Hamburg/Germany is one concerned with the political dimensions of recent paintings. The exhibition features several works by Minerva Cuevas, Eberhard Havekost, Victor Man, Corinne Wasmuth and Wawrzyiec Tokarski, among others, including easel paintings, murals and installations, that suggest relations between art, society and its politics, ranging from representational to repudiative characteristics. Thus, according to Dziewior, the works in respect to society advocate – referencing Jacques Rancière’s “aesthetical regime of the arts” – that in political matters there is no outside, since art and politics are but two different modes of articulating and dividing the sensory world; any hierarchisation of methods of productions becomes irrelevant.
Johannes Wohnseifer’s
Spam Paintings present an attempt at a critical engagement with low-culture consumerism. For this exhibition he subscribed texts from Spam E-mails, offering Viagra, penis enlargement procedures and university degrees onto previously patterned aluminium plates. These patterns appear as cracks on the surface that disrupt any reading of the superficial words and sentences. Hence, Wohnseifer visually transports the de-coding system of the e-mails onto the surfaces intending to emphasize on their exemplary characters for the relationship of today’s society with those dangerous accidental by-products of digital communication.
Gunter Reski’s paintings of images and words introduce proverbial peculiarities: images could be read as literal and words strike through their visual figurativeness. Both elements complement each other in these works, where Reski ambivalently relates images and words without asserting any correct interpretation of that relationship, thus enhancing an oscillation between the painting and the viewer, ascertainment and doubt, identification and critical reflection.
Caroline von Grone’s way of countering the social is literally one of
underpinning. The artist chose to work for several days in the subway of the underground station “Steinstrasse” in Hamburg; a highly frequented place, not so much as a tunnel for commuting passengers, as a home to drug- or alcohol-addicted women and men. The site-specific portraits, executed as “plein-air” paintings, picture the characteristics of the passage offering a correlating reality between the site as it is and the moment when one goes through it; usually this is one where the aesthetics of the site seem to be the reduced to their functionality. As the artist translates the three-dimensionality into the plane surface of the canvasses, she suggests an encountering with the site and the social circumstances it provides and/or evokes. Forasmuch, is the artist’s work for the exhibition to be understood as calling into attention an underpinning of social behaviour and attitudes or is it, far more, blaming us, as we seem to need a portrait of it on a canvas to actually encounter with real aspects of social life, whose issues we usually try to avoid?

The choice of working within the topic of contemporary painting seems to be not very obvious, as contemporary painting is deemed to feed art-market driven commodifying processes or conceived as attesting intellectual tediousness in the absence of any criticality whatsoever. However, in this case, the choice of painting was one that very well corresponds with the suggested Rancièrian set of ideas. Most of the works in
Images of Society. Contemporary Painting follow the line of thinking of a conflict between politics related to and concerned with the social sphere, as thematised in the works, but at the same time encountering the politics of the social cultural context in which they were produced. Hence, in Rancièrian terms the lines between spectator and stakeholder, the sensible and the intelligible, art and politics, fade, enabling a discourse in which hierarchies within communication become irrelevant. According to Rancière’s definition of the Sensible communication is no longer pertinent to a system of truth and lies but offers possibilities of examining and observing that operate across the grain from usual narrations. So do the exhibited paintings, as they question an an encounter with the social sphere in a medium, to which the comeback of Realism was heavily attributed in recent art history. However, the relationship between image and its application on the canvas is one that – exposed inside the gallery walls – no longer awaits reality to position against it, or attack it; more so, the works depict tendencies of reality, in some cases proposing changes, but in no cases executing them through their own medium. They remain tendentious, as Walter Benjamin would have called it.
In a similar way does the curatorial approach, as some critics have emphasized, arguing that political matters remain in the realm of re-presenting social motives, rather than presenting an encounter with them. However, this could have been the intention, one that is a subtle, but no less provocative, if contemporary painting is understood as re-investigating its relationship with realism, which implies a comment on the existing characteristics of social reality and their politics, which are themselves tendentious. In this sense, the exploration of the relationship between painting to society was a fruitful one, communicating against the established narration, insofar as remaining within the boundaries of contextualising political issues, not raising new ones.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Cy Twombly, Three Notes From Salalah. The grand opening of Gagosian Gallery Rome (or La Dolce Vita gets diabetes) - by Valentina Ravaglia

15 December 2007

For months, the specialized press had been wondering what exactly had led Larry Gagosian to open his seventh gallery in Rome. Why spend a huge sum to restore an entire palace, only a few steps from piazza Barberini, to open a massive showcase in a city that has very little interest in contemporary art and a totally marginal space in the international market? The answer is irritatingly simple: as Gagosian himself has declared, he’s just always loved Rome and thought, why not? I’ll do it just because I can. Just for the sake of it. And, of course, for the sake of publicity.

An aura of secrecy and glamourous lure had surrounded the whole operation, in a well calculated market strategy that worked particularly well in the spleen of the Capital of ruins. Until three weeks before the actual opening of the space, no one even knew what the inaugural show would have been. The local gallerists were terrified, as if Tony Hawks had just nonchalantly entered an amateur skateboarding contest. And in fact, the city shook at his arrival as it had seldom done before. The Mayor and the Minister of Cutural (In)Activities showed up in the afternoon to bow in front of King Larry, offering him Gold, Incense and any archeological site he may want to use to run his projects, which will undoubtedly enrich the cultural life of the City and of the Nation (has anyone even told them he’s an art dealer? Do your asslicking with a little more discretion, for chrissake). The entire street was closed to the traffic, a micro-army of policemen and security staff was drawn up on the site to enforce a zero tolerance policy on gatecrashers. The last time something like this has happened, it was when Mussolini borrowed a bunch of backdrops from Cinecittà to cover the slums from the sight of his friend Adolf, driving through Rome for an official visit.

The crowd of randomly gathered starlets, botox-faced mistresses, presentialist celebrities and other socialites seemed to have no idea what exactly they were there for. Everyone raved about the instant-classic oval room, and at times someone even tried to say something about the new Twombly series that was hanging in there almost as an excuse for conversation - small talk that local journalists managed to publish as malicious “rumours on the X million dollar Twomblys”. Truth is that Three Notes from Salalah is an intense cycle, as lyrical and compelling as ever; maybe a little mannered, true, but still in the manner of a great master that manages to reinvent himself after nearly 60 years of pure visual poetry.

In the meantime, a minority of collectors and art savvy people were trying to make sense of the logistics of that sort of tragicomic carnival, in order to finally get to the official networking area, also known as “the bar”. With a rather subtle coup de théatre, the refreshments were served in the garage-like basement of the palace (I am still unsure whether that wanted to look like some form of radical chic warehouse style interior design or if the construction workers were simply behind schedule with the renewal), where the aforementioned herd of socialites found itself totally stuck, as the invigilators, for some misterious reason, wouldn’t allow anyone to go back into the gallery space. “I am afraid you will have to go out and re-enter through the main door, miss”. Fine. Let’s hope at least the dinner will be less painful.

If I ended up actually enjoying the dinner quite a lot, it is only because it was so bizarre that I frankly couldn’t help finding it quite amusing. As a friend commented, the space where the gala dinner was served inside Palazzo Barberini looked “very Eyes Wide Shut”, with black velvet on the walls and an eclectic combination of candelabra, opulent tables covered in culinary decadence and Philip Stark chairs. The evening simply couldn’t get any more Fellinian that that.

After all, such exploits ought to be recognized as an integral part of what having Gagosian animate the roman art scene means. I am not sure whether he himself expected such a display of provincialism from the local bourgeoisie, press, politicians and art professionals - at least the ones who perceived him as a threat rather than as a positive chance to finally shake things around a bit -, but he undoubtedly received all the attention he had planned on getting.

Dear frustrated gallerists, dear so-called art writers and journalists, let poor Larry fulfill his little dream of having his own white palace in the eternal city. What’s wrong with that? If you have nothing better to do than talk about his grand opening as the event of the decade, it’s definitely not his fault. And whatever hidden strategical reason he may have, it really shouldn't shock anyone, considering the current state of the art system. Things seem to be finally changing for Rome's contemporary art scene, with new museum wings, young galleries, Gagosian, and the first “real” season of art fairs seeing the light at the end of February. The direction this change will take, though, is still quite hard for me to forecast.