Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Laura Bartlett Gallery 2008

written by Tom Trevatt

With the close of Lydia Gifford’s recent exhibition this November Laura Bartlett celebrated one year in existence in her narrow slice of space in Clerkenwell. Situated between two buildings this oddly shaped sliver is a seemingly impossible place in which to mount an exhibition, yet Bartlett has managed to make it work. Focussing on discovering younger or lesser known artists, she has carved out a dedicated stable of rising stars such as Becky Beasley, Nina Beier & Marie Lund, Lydia Gifford, Stefan Burger and Sophie Macpherson. Resistant to certain formal displays, the narrowness of the space has provoked some very specific responses from the artists invited to show there. Beier & Lund, for example, wedged a number of long objects between the walls; fishing rods, garden forks, walking sticks, bits of timber, all borrowed from a 68 year old man.

One year’s programme at any gallery comprises such diverse operations and opposing forces that any survey resists homogenisation. One must be aware that an adequate reading of the accumulation of material and outputs produced during a year requires a plurivocal approach, not to mention an indepth analysis. What inevitably results from such an enterprise is a series of assumptions and part-truths alongside more informed judgments of what curatorial concerns the gallery owner herself has. However, given the strange relationship any commercial gallerist has to what might be named a curatorial practice, it seems inappropriate to assume such strategic authorship. Yet, especially with Laura Bartlett, I would argue this is not the case. One could argue that the commercial sector increasingly allows a much greater curatorial freedom than that allowed in public galleries and museums. As Bartlett herself proves what is called curation is not a universal paradigm; to argue she has a ‘practice’ as such would be wrong. Or, rather to argue she has a sustained investigation of particular claims, counter claims, hypotheses, theories, provocations and the like, would be wrong. What Bartlett does express in her role, however, is a sensitivity to specific situations. As she invites only a small number of artists each year we could embark on an adequation that would link these practices together, yet I would suggest that any such endeavour necessarily underestimates the diverse practices collected together. Bartlett’s position is a curatorial one, one with a particular freedom to manoeuvre afforded to her by the market, but not one that is determined either by specific requirements, due to funding for example, or institutional pressure, or more general requirements such as an answerability to a populous or the state.

What is curious, then, about particular commercial galleries is their use of the relative autonomy granted to them by their position within the market. The freedom of capital gives them a very specific relation to art practice more in the model of a small independent gallery, but with an extremely inflated budget. How this is utilised critically is of real interest. Artists exhibiting within a commercial gallery, of course, have a bipartite relation to the art world; both within it and at the same time expected to be critical of it. But as commercial objects do their position within the market flatten or de-radicalize the critique?

Adorno suggests that the solution of critical art is not to refuse commodity, as this would just weaken art, marginalising it in a world where commodity dominates, or positioning it as the yet to be commodified (to oppose the dominant ideology runs the risk of being recuperated into it). His argument would be that the artwork must mount a critique out of its role as commodity by a subversive mimesis of it. Adorno asserts that the art object is both autonomous art and commodity, both destroyed by and a product of capital, both its critique and its ideology. It is this exact possibility that commercial galleries such as Laura Bartlett provide. Today critique is no longer easy to spot. The political content of work is diminished, not so much because there isn’t the taste for it, but that the lessons of history have been learned. Capital is flexible, it is able to accumulate and accommodate. Any direct attack against capital merely strengthens it. What is required now is a different conception of critique, not dependent on direct opposition, radicalised politics or the anti-commodity. The space it would seem to embark on this is inside these small galleries. Exactly because they are involved in the movement of capital the artwork has the possibility to exist both as commodity and its critique.

8th December 2008, London

Mie Olise Kjaegaard - Ruins of the Future, Standpoint Gallery 2008

written by Tom Trevatt

Kjærgaard’s reclaimed timber plank construction leads mutely into the gallery. Elegant yet nebulous, the wooden alleyway describes an opening and a long deep recess rather than a pathway. Lodged in the back of the recess is the disproportionately large lift, still occasionally in use, utilised by Kjærgaard to house the small projection of her recent film work, Into The Pyramid (2008). Beyond the lift is a further construction out of the same timber planks, similarly horizontally slatted and screwed together with small black screws. Although neat and well made the whole structure is haphazard and precarious, threatening to fall and engulf you at any moment. At the back of the gallery the wooden slats give way to an amorphous tangle of material, rope, wooden fruit boxes, the legs of a strange figure, a badly made kite or small hang-glider model all sat atop a rusty bike. This element of Kjærgaard’s installation is in collaboration with the other artist in the show, Mary Mattingly, and engages in a very different register than her previous installations. Although seemingly chaotic and ad hoc, on closer inspection, Kjærgaard’s structures belie her architectural training. Carefully poised on the edge of collapse they suggest a hasty addition, the provisional and anxious constructions of humans on the brink of extinction, of fleeing tribes or dilettante tree house builders. However, despite not being fixed into the floor or ceiling at any point, these planks have been sawn specifically for this space and as such are wedged firmly and screwed securely to each other, producing a surprising rigidity. Accompanying the installation are four large scale paintings depicting further imagined wooden structures, a grand piano, a typewriter and one of her ongoing obsessions, a boat.

Arguably, the key to Kjærgaard’s practice lies in a conjunction between the sea and the land, the paintings of boats depict them left perched on high ground at low tide, and her wooden platforms and houses are shown balanced on precarious stilts or in the crooks of branches high in the canopy. In fact, one could go so far as to suggest that the sea and land in her work are conjoined also in their absences. Boats without water and houses without foundations suggest a fiercely fluctuating tide, the occupants of both caught short or wise enough to build high above land. But there is another element at play. Kjærgaard parasitically intervenes to create sculptural structures, employing short term and cheap constructions that go up and come down fast, resting in the space between architecture and object. Like a Scandinavian take on the favelas they are human in their materials yet aspire to gestalt greatness. Forever falling in on themselves yet simultaneously holding off the moment of final ruination, these architectural interventions develop temporally sensitive apocalyptic fantasies. Oscillating between utopian dreams and end of the world nightmares, the structure threatens to both thrust upwards of its own accord and collapse without warning.

The three minute long film, Into the Pyramid, is an edited series of still images of the abandoned Russian city on the edge of the arctic circle, Pyramiden. Becoming much more than a research trip, Kjærgaard’s exploration of this desolate ex-mining town on the Svalbard archipelago in Norway is a dispassionate yet engaged retrieval of visual language that feeds into her continued project. Boasting the most northerly bust of Lenin, Pyramiden was evacuated in 1998 by its Russian owners Arctikugol Trust because it was too expensive to maintain. Despite Pyramiden’s sad history, the film engages less in nostalgia than an aesthetic endeavour. Indeed one of Kjærgaard’s self-imposed rules is ‘no people’, suggesting an abandoned mining facility as the ideal location for the film. In fact, ruin as by product of lack of human involvement doesn’t seem to be Kjærgaard’s project at all, instead, she re-imagines the ruin as a productive or creative act. There is a play here between her intervention into ruin and her intervention as ruin. Take the title of the exhibition, Ruins of the Future. Ostensibly this suggests dismay at the failed utopian modernist dream. However, I would argue that this title names two distinct possibilities. Both the possibility of the ruination of existing buildings in future time and the ruins of the idea of the future. Or, the ruining of the future. But, to be clear, this work isn’t the representation of ruin as such, but what we could call adapted-ruin. Figured as personal dwellings amassing like favelas at the edges of state control, the structures are both utopian and at the same time antagonistic, a constant reminder of human endeavour in the face of government abandonment. Could one then read Kjærgaard’s work critically? As a strongly democratic or anarchist critique of statist visions of utopia? One could situate this work within the structure of an anti-regeneration argument. The adapted-ruin as an individually productive site of egalitarian resistance to dominant forces. Yet I am uneasy doing this. The strength of Kjærgaard’s work is that it rests only lightly and temporarily, constantly moving on, being constructed and destroyed at regular intervals, to be reduced again to its constituent parts. This throws the work into sharp focus. As architecture it is only temporary, and not nearly large enough or sturdy enough to house a family, yet as object it is too imposing and active in a way. It rests, then, between the two, like the conjunction of sea and land, Kjærgaard’s work acts doubly, at the edge of abandoned civilisation and at the height of utopian dreams.

23rd November 2008

Anthony McCall - Serpentine Gallery 2008

written by Tom Trevatt

On the moment of death, when, as Blanchot might say, one is hung between existence and non-existence by the merest of threads, will the crossing be perceptible? Will the transcendental moment, the cut between two forms of discourse, between that that is sayable and that that is absolutely un-sayable, one cannot speak of death, be marked by a sublime experience? The ‘white light at the end of the tunnel’ as the imperceptibly thin plane that is passed through, just a few protons thick, reduced to a point by our position within it. As a metaphor for avant-garde art practices that surpass the discursive limits of their own particularities, that cross the boundaries between, say, art and the rest of society, art and non-art, this is rather blunt, but let’s run with it. In his seminar at the Whitechapel last year Robert Linsley picked out G. Spencer Brown’s idea that “when the frame is noticed it is crossed”, and suggested that “with reference to art we can probably also observe the opposite, namely that to cross the frame is to render it visible”. His suggestion, that the very process of the crossing makes visible the boundary, and the imperative in Spencer Brown that one must cross the boundary once it is noticed come to act doubly on the discursive limits of art. Modernism is supposed to operate as such. A working through of its own presuppositions necessarily involves an investigation of its boundaries, as it is the boundary of the system that is the precise definition of it. This double movement, to notice the frame is to cross it, and to cross it is to render it visible, has the figure of the cleave. That to cleave is to both to cut apart and to bring together. In the crossing of the boundary one is both marking it and passing beyond it. The path breaking, then, that renders what is broken through perceptible also joins the inside to the outside. At the moment of my death then, I am not only crossing the Styx, I am a bridge across it.
With Anthony McCall’s recent retrospective at the Serpentine it is difficult not think of moments of death when traversing not just the space occupied by his solid light drawings, but the very planes of existence created by the solidity of the beams of light themselves. Refracted off smoke, the light comes to operate as solid form.

9th January 2008, London

Roman Signer - 7th February 2008

written by Tom Trevatt

A man fires six rounds from a revolver towards a metal can whilst strapped into a weight loss vibration belt. The gunman’s hand vibrates too violently for his shots to be accurate. None hit their target. This neat vignette is mildly humorous and absurd. One wonders if Signer would have shown the film had any hit their target. If the can had been pierced would this film have worked? If the gunman had been successful then the film would not have been.

Old Shatterhand is a fictional character in sixteen western novels by German writer Karl May and is reportedly the alter ego of the author. His name refers to his ability with a rifle and the character in the books and 1964 film of the same name certainly exhibits an outstanding accuracy. Old Shatterhand was also the inspiration for a character played by Stewart Granger called Old Surehand, supposedly the meaning of sure hand being easier to grasp for its American audience.

Indeed shatterhand invokes stutter, shake, or scatter. Not the image of a western crack shot you expect. Glass shatters, as do plates or crockery. To be shattered is to be tired, exhausted. The gunman’s hand is shattered by exertion on the slimming machine. He stutters at the decisive moment, trembling before the decision to shoot, the decision to kill. The German gunman in Karl May’s novels wouldn’t stutter before taking the shot, Old Shatterhand here implies his hand fires a shattering shot. He shatters his victim. In Signer’s film the shots are scattered about his target, shaken off course by his stuttering, trembling caused by the (non-)exercise machine, the machine that exercises you without you having to work. Is this not exactly Zizek’s Interpassivity? Interpassivity, where something is experienced for you, where, following Marx, “things believe instead of us”. Zizek gives this example:

Is the Western liberal academic's obsession with the suffering in Bosnia not the outstanding recent example of interpassive suffering? One can authentically suffer through reports on rapes and mass killings in Bosnia, while calmly pursuing one's academic career (The Interpassive Subject, Slavoj Zizek)

One can calmly have the exercise experienced for you. Old Shatterhand as the ideal interpassive subject. Impotence lost by interpassivity, the subject supposed to believe has belief believed for them and can’t hit the can. All old heroes have to die.

7th February 2008, London

Strange Events Permit Themselves the Luxury of Occurring - curated by Steven Claydon

written by Tom Trevatt

In ‘Strange Events Permit Themselves the Luxury of Occurring’ Steve Claydon has permitted himself the luxury of the unapologetically grandiose task of cultural restitution. In his file notes Claydon asserts that ‘Strange Events…’ concerns itself with certain exceptions, flaws, aberrations, yawning apertures and flowering discrepancies inherent in taxonomic, historical, and aesthetic groupings. We shall begin by accepting Claydon’s claims to a redistribution of typologies and allow ourselves the luxury, indeed, to follow his curatorial argument.

Curation as happenstance; with a selection of objects and things that, through a process of becoming art (what he equates with the Heideggerian ‘Work-Being’), are selected purely for their ‘thingly’ character, Claydon comes to move away from two distinct curatorial models. On the one hand the more conservative method of selecting work to illustrate a theme or idea of the curator, to develop a narrative, on the other, the recent rash of curators that curate as artistic practice. This move, the curator suggests, is due to a pure love of the work. He has no thesis as such. His assertion that the show explores the problematic and elusive penumbra where the art object somehow distinguishes itself from the utilitarian or craft object through means of discretion or bombast seems to touch on what it means to exist on the discursive limits of art. However, the political move that Claydon makes here, whereby his questioning of modernism’s enunciation of the regime of art comes to bear on the specific objects he has selected for this show, is restricted to only objects he loves. This is the rub. Indeed, to say ‘I love you’ is immediately to cause violence, it is to say to all other things ‘I don’t love you’. What Claydon does then, put simply, is to form necessary limits of exclusion. By doing so he performs the very symbolic discrepancies within modernism that he flags at the beginning of his notes. The limits are necessary because any form of entering into an enunciation regime (as Latour calls it) unavoidably describes a closure of knowledge. Which is to say that to speak is to delimit. It is also, however, to speak for, to make oneself heard, to split the regime. And this split is the important moment here in representation. As we are aware, Bruno Latour, in his ‘From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik’, points to democracy’s etymology:

The word "demos" that makes half of the much vaunted word "demo-cracy" is haunted by the demon, yes the devil, because they share the same Indo-European root da- to divide. If the demon is such a terrible threat, it's because it divides in two. If the demos is such a welcome solution, it's because it also divides in two. A paradox? No, it's because we ourselves are so divided by so many contradictory attachments that we have to assemble.

For the social field is absolutely split, ruptured, fragmented and to enter into discourse is to act within this field to produce this split. But re-presentation (for this is surely what Claydon is involved in above all else) inescapably relies on the distance between that that is being represented and that that is doing the representing, and at the same time relies on an absolute transparency that can never be achieved. In Emancipation(s) Ernesto Laclau proposes that 'transparency requires full representability, and there is no possibility of achieving it if the opaqueness inherent in radical otherness is constitutive of social relations' (p.5) and i would propose the inverse, that full representation requires full transparency. Which is to say that the structure of democracy and representation operate in the same way; namely they both rely on a movement of radical difference and universality concurrently. There must be a commonality for difference to be constituted operationally within social discourse.

Steve Claydon’s exhibition, then, comes to bear on what we might know as a British modernist history by re-presenting artworks that have a thingly quality in common offering an entry into the regime. Our question would be, does Claydon’s selection have enough of a relation to modernity for his claims regarding the rehabilitation of them into the regime? Or more specifically, how does he read the exceptions, flaws, aberrations, yawning apertures and flowering discrepancies he sees in history? If on the one hand his selection is a means to set right an imbalance, to offer an alternative, then he is in danger of over simplifying the political in this problematic. However, if he suggests the show enacts a certain failing democracy, if he understands what we might call the dialectical nature of modernity (following Adorno and Horkheimer’s formulation of the Enlightenment as a dialectical process, haunted by the violence inherent in rationalism, rather than as the Kantian model of a linear process of perfection), then we may just allow him this one.

29th January 2008, London