Wednesday 21 August 2013

John Armleder's 'Quicksand' at the Dairy Art Centre

Hidden down a narrow lane off an old cemetery in Bloomsbury, two prominent collectors Frank Cohen and Nicolai Frahm have opened a new public, non-profit exhibition space this summer called the Dairy. Named for its former role as a milk depot, the cavernous warehouse lends itself well to the type of large-scale work and installations on show in this opening exhibition of work by the Swiss artist, John Armleder. He is associated with the improvisational and performative Fluxus and rejecting institutional or commodified art. Armleder is instinctively transgressive. Wallpaper and painted walls compete with hanging paintings made by splashing and pouring paint, resin and glitter across canvasses. This is not the intuitive expression of Jackson Pollock or the formal experimentation of British Painter, Frank Bowling, but an attempt to challenge that urge we have to categorise art in order to seek some certainty.

Armleder is an active curator of his own exhibitions and this is evident at the Dairy. He enjoys mixing the work up so that aspects of interior design muddle the distinctions. Walls are painted with stripes and 12 disco balls (Global Tiki, 2000) hang from the ceiling in a diagonal progression across the gallery. Plants sit within makeshift beds made from old tyres that replicate planting in the yard outside. Boundaries collapse and the gallery becomes a theatrical set in which viewer becomes performer.

In the ‘fridge’, Armleder has built an installation from metal shelving stacked with bric-a-brac of lava lamps, old framed photographs and stuffed animals. The explicit absence of good taste here touches on the perilous territory of class and caste. But the universal interest lies in the suggestion of domestic accumulation of stuff that threatens to physically overwhelm us. Objects also potentially carry memories and aspirations. On a sound loop, grating Hawaiian music plays its kitsch melodies as if we are stuck in Honolulu airport. Armleder also piles up old art books and magazines in a messy heap. Culture and human achievement are reduced to a stack of discarded rubbish. But it uncannily echoes that desire for distinction between what’s valuable and what’s junk. Who hasn’t struggled with that dilemma? Ultimately, everything within this installation begins to resemble a flea market of the redundant, creepy and worthless. There is the hint of mothballs, the charity shop and the hoarder.

Such a critique of materials and their associations is most explicit in a work that curls out across the floor merging metal shavings, wood logs, bowling balls, art books and sand. Comprising both the raw and the manufactured, these elements suggest formlessness and precision, functionality and waste. The pliability of materials and their myriad uses embody the spectrum of human activity but seem dumped on the floor as a levelling gesture. Perhaps the most puzzling works are paintings made from simple, repetitive designs like spiders or flowers, resembling stickers or potato prints. Paradoxically, made by the artist in a painterly process, at the same time they suggest a universal, graphic language.

In the entrance sits one of the artist’s ‘Furniture Sculptures’ a fashionable looking lacquered bar top with stools covered in various ‘lollipop’ colours. Imitating high-end design, the ‘sculpture’ doubles up as counter you might find in a fashionable bar, but the piece maintains Armleder’s frustration of clarity – for most of the time it is an inviolable sculpture to be gazed at.

Armleder’s work is intentionally provocative and wilful. Formally diverse and inconsistent, the exhibition conveys the playful intentions of an artist first emerging from the 1960s. Conceptually, the work is quite robust as Armleder consistently resists a singular ‘style’ or subject.  He quotes art history while turning materials and objects upside down. Irresolution is the prevailing theme. You’ll discover an exhibition packed with subversion, where teasing contradiction becomes a value in its own right.

Thursday 8 August 2013

Jose Dávila's ‘Shadow As Rumour’ at the Max Wigram Gallery, London.

Jose Dávila’s initial training as an architect shapes his practice, informed by the histories of art, design and urban space. At the Max Wigram Gallery, he takes photographs of Dan Flavin’s lighting strip sculptures and cuts out the lights themselves leaving empty voids within the photographic print. Sculptural arrangements in space are thus reduced to the flat page and then excised from the image. The viewer sees the ambient light and colour emitted from the original sculptures but their once solid forms are now absent. The space is filled by underlying white paper within the frame. ‘Topologies of Light’, 2013, comprises 18 individual images of different works by Flavin, arranged as a composite piece across the wall. Together, the photographs form a frame around an empty space. The rich, ambient hues of Flavin’s sculptures remain seductive, but Dávila disrupts the logic with his interventions. Where the light strips took physical form, we now look directly at a void more glaring than the original electrical beams.

‘Shadow As Rumour’ departs from altered representations of pre-existing artworks. Now Dávila constructs his own sculpture using a Mobius strip, resembling a figure of 8 placed on its side. We encounter a linear obstruction running diagonally across the room. Instead of geometric and mathematical perfection, this object is rickety and meandering. It twists awkwardly as steel arms slot together forming rough joints. These breaks are articulated in varying colours of green, yellow and black like a syntax. This infinite loop hesitates and stalls as if it were a faltering machine. The prospect of smooth and flowing curves is interrupted and sets up the metaphor of imperfect systems. ‘Shadow As Rumour’ runs as a narrow and even fragile loop hovering between monumentality and doubt.

This interrogation of histories is now a familiar enquiry among contemporary artists looking over their shoulder in order to plot a course into the future. There’s a risk here of repeating a wider engagement with the past that begins to feel rather introspective though the adaptation of Flavin’s light works has some audacious flair raising interesting questions around quotation and comprehension. But it’s Dávila’s invented, rambling sculpture that is the star of the show.

Monday 5 August 2013

'do it' at Manchester Art Gallery

In a spirit of engagement with the individual and the world, artists exhibiting in ‘do it’ have conceived open-ended instructions that open up new possibilities. Ceding control of the finished object or performance, each artist imagines an action that is limitless in interpretation or time allowing everyone to make an artwork. Originally conceived by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier in 1993, the exhibition collates all the historic works together, embracing many diverse practices by living and deceased artists.

As an extension of the show beyond the gallery, Theaster Gates has staged a performance within the city’s shopping centre titled ‘How to catch the Holy Ghost or Get Arrested in a Shopping Mall’ using the repetition of a phrase randomly selected from the bible. I saw ‘my soul refresh’ spoken outside big- brand shops until the performer grew hoarse proposing an alternative condition to consumption.

Some pieces simply provide succinct one-word invocations such as Lutz Bacher’s ‘LIVE’ or Uri Aran’s ‘Doodle’ while others might involve a negation or a position of resistance such as Carl Andre’s ‘It is best to do nothing’ written on a postcard as a cryptic form of advice. The success of the exhibition’s concept lies in its endless variation and possibilities for interpretation.  Some works are precise while others dispense with detail to encourage multiplicity. Individual artists address progressive instincts for reforming the world while others embark on absurdity, a DADA strategy of subversion and satire. For example, Andreas Slominski asks for a lemon to be squeezed against a bicycle seat. Tacita Dean summons the sublime with a direction to find and press a four-leaf clover.

‘do it’ asks us to consider new opportunities and the potential of imagination. These works often require courage to attempt the impossible, the fantastical and the ridiculous. Improvisation becomes a value for art and living in its own right.

Some instructions lose authority when there’s little at stake for the artist or the facilitator. Sometimes ideas seem glibly tossed out on the spur of the moment to meet the project’s criteria. But ‘do it’ admirably attempts to find a free terrain between inspiration and enactment. It is also potentially limitless in size and ambition. The audience encounters a flurry of competing ideas encompassing practical and creative challenges. While it may be overly loose in some parts, the exhibition also contains rigorously disciplined work. ‘do it’ builds on its conceptual power and leads artists and audiences towards a dynamic collaboration.

Friday 2 August 2013

The Vessel by Mike Ricketts at Works|Projects, Spike Island, Bristol

Imagine a grey, rectangular box pretends to be a ship. Instead of carrying bananas or crude oil, this vessel holds its prisoners in confinement. A prison, by definition, resists scrutiny. It is a state institution designed to house those deemed to be marginal and a threat to public order. MikeRickett’s ‘The Vessel’, recently shown at Works|Projects in Bristol, asks us to consider how the state takes drastic measures to house prisoners. But such pragmatic functionality is transformed as this giant object slips  away under the cover of dark to new locations and activities.

Lured by a view of a floating structure across Portland Harbour and berthed outside a permanent prison on Portland Bill, HMP The Verne, Ricketts attempts to photograph this ship that resolutely abdicates any aesthetic qualities in favour of pure function. Seen from the exterior, it has the appearance of a warehouse, which is its purpose ­– the storage of 450 prisoners. He tries to get close enough to photograph the ship from the cliffs above, but anticipating restrictions about photographing the structure, Ricketts takes advantage of a legal helpline to seek guidance. Such concern for legalities becomes moot when it is towed away in the middle of the night bound for Nigeria to house oil workers.

The ship was constructed in 1979 as a pontoon ‘flotel’ in Stockholm and later used as accommodation in the Falklands following the war. Identified in its life by insidiously nondescript names such as ‘Jascon 27’ and ‘Bibi Resolution’, this vessel embodies the endless, clerical shuffling of international, corporate assets. Ranging from factory worker accommodation in Germany to a New York drug rehabilitation centre obscuring river views, the ship is a commodity untethered to place, function or owner. The only constant is a residential barge-master with a passion for loudly playing show tunes from ‘Phantom of the Opera’.

Ricketts unravels this saga of displacement and reassignment, with an arch doggedness, illustrating the bureaucratic processes of global commodity exchange. But at the end of his investigations one mystery remains: where is the painting commissioned to commemorate of its time as a place of detention? This picture is cited in a letter written by the prison governor congratulating the artist for producing ‘a remarkable work and so correct in all its points’.

Collating together a film, news clips and the re-discovered painting, ‘The Vessel’ is a project that leads us through a painstaking and funny journey to pin down something that is wholly elusive. A hollow container has a function superimposed and then withdrawn. A ship normally subject to weather, tides and location, temporarily squats by the English coast. Ricketts asks us to consider its transitional presence and status. All that remains of its service to Her Majesty’s law and order is a banal painting that attempts to suggest some dignity in a structure possessing all the elegance of an electricity sub- station. Titled ‘HM Prison, The Weare 1997-2005’, the rediscovered painting is now on loan to the exhibition and illustrates the irony of trying to lend gravitas to something that is a giant, floating shed. Instead of nautical romance, we’re left looking at a crude rendition of grey geometry sitting awkwardly in Weymouth harbour, embodying pretence, subterfuge and evasion.

Mike Rickett’s project deftly exposes the dry imperatives shaping this ship’s existence. All that remains of HMP The Weare’s contribution to our national life is an insipid ‘painting’, a limp description in oil, which exposes the wide gap between decor and its more utilitarian history. 'The Vessel' takes us on a hunt for clues, pulling together evidence to suggest ways in which this peculiar floating structure might be understood. The ship, if we can call it that, begins to embody the secrecy of government and financial bureaucracies that take possession of it. Constantly reinvented, ‘The Vessel’ is uncannily pliable, sailing out of sight from one definition to another.