Monday 15 September 2014

'Play What's Not Really There' at Raven Row

One of the most challenging exhibitions that I've recently seen in London was mounted at Raven Row over the summer, an independent foundation based in one of London’s oldest, surviving shops in Spitalfields. The starting point for the show can be summed up by the phrase coined by Miles Davis to ‘play what’s not there’. This impossible act became a metaphor for a larger enquiry around existential expression in art. Curator, Michael Bracewell, chose to explore artists working beyond Soren Kierkegaard’s description of ‘the despair of the aesthetic’, those infinite and potentially paralysing creative decisions, in order to achieve something more profound and ‘spiritual’. It is a highly romantic notion of artists as visionary and medium, compelled to reach for ‘truth’ despite the cost and then to share knowledge with those who choose a safer, more prosaic route.

In a succinct essay, Bracewell examines Kierkegaard’s philosophical quest for meaning in life. To illustrate the theme, he chose an eclectic number of works dating from the 1960s. You needn’t have shared Kierkegaard’s religious or intellectual interests to enjoy the show. The works ranged from Linder’s ‘The Working Class Goes to Paradise’, a trance-like performance in a Manchester nightclub to Edward Krasinki’s consciously awkward constructions in wood and wire. Cerith Wyn Evans’ Leaning Horizons, two upright rods leaning against the wall were neon illuminations embodying geometry, weight and gravity while standing as cocky intrusions in the room.

Most of the pieces in the show were isolated within dedicated rooms. This was appropriate for Robert Whitman’s Wavy Red Line, a laser powered projection of flickering, red lines that traced the proportions of an 18th century panelled room. The future incongruously met the past here. Perhaps the work that most addressed the notion of boundaries and transitions in comprehension was Bruce Nauman’s infamous ‘Clown Torture’ a pair of video works illustrating psychic confusion whereby a two characters dressed as clowns neurotically speak plaintive chants, which are later contradicted. He stages two fictional characters performing statements that might be factual or imagined, demonstrating the fine line between certainty and doubt and what lies between them. It’s those ambiguous, narrow spaces in language or materials that open up new meaning and knowledge.

Thursday 11 September 2014

‘Lookout’: The Folkestone Triennial

Can art revitalise a town? The Folkestone Triennial, now in it’s third edition, believes that it will. In tandem with the establishment of a creative quarter, the town has embraced art and design as way of attracting new visitors and activity to what was once an important port, much of whose former cargo now bypasses it through the Channel Tunnel and whose former visitors head south on cheap flights. This is a town compelled to re-invent itself.  The Triennial attempts to integrate art into the very fabric of civic space. These 21 guest artists take a guerrilla approach by placing artworks under bridges, on rooflines, within disused sites and even under the sea.

Lewis Biggs, the director, has named this year’s festival ‘Lookout’ taking a cue from the town’s maritime character. Some artists have embraced the theme, such as Pablo Bronstein’s ‘Beach Hut, in the style of Nicholas Hawksmoor, which resembles a miniature lighthouse placed beside other, more modest and traditional huts painted in jaunty, seaside colours. On press day, I saw Alex Hartley’s ramshackle eagle’s nest protruding from the roofline of a prominent hotel and Sixties eyesore, but missed the artist perching on the platform jutting out precariously over a car park, facing the sea. For the duration of the festival, he will periodically crawl out onto this makeshift ledge like an occupier or solitary mystic, combining architectural intervention with performance.

Marjetica Potrc and Ooze, an architectural and design practice, have constructed a temporary lift that rises up adjacent to the town’s extraordinary Victorian railway viaduct, the highest in Britain. Originally conceived as wind-powered,  the weather proved unreliable so the solution now is a digital screen indicating how much energy the turbine is feeding into the national grid and how much energy the lift extracts.

Other artists have taken a less technical approach, addressing specific sites and associated histories of the town. Jyll Bradley has built a temporary installation on the site of a former gasworks. Remembering days spent picking hops, a crop indigenous to Kent, she has constructed a matrix of string courses used to encourage the vines, supported by illuminated, upright struts.  ‘Green/Light’ invites you to stroll through this memorial to agricultural craft thereby revitalising what had become sad and redundant.

The highlight of my visit was a sound sculpture, ‘Undélaissé’ by Amina Menia, set up on a derelict site once inhabited by a food shop bombed during World War One. In an air raid, 60 queuing residents died. The pathos of that event is amplified by wandering across this neglected plot, now overgrown with thick clusters of buddleia that cuckoo plant colonising no-man’s land. Hidden speakers within the undergrowth repeat recipes for baking bread brought to the town by new migrants carrying memories of their roots. It’s a haunting work that links together death, loss and the simple but universal bonds of food, the stuff of life.

By the old harbour, Gabriel Lester has erected an impressive structure made of bamboo poles that sits above redundant railway lines, like much of Folkestone’s old infrastructure. Drawing on memories of living in China, the pavilion becomes a focus for considering the port’s historic relationship with the sea as trade increasingly reverts eastwards towards Asia.

As I strolled along the harbour front, I met Sarah Staton standing outside her ‘sculptural pavilion’ a large freestanding steel sculpture punctured with Modernist incisions. A bench shelters under the steel shell ringed by edible plants. She’s hoping the hybrid shelter and bench can become a permanent feature of the seashore.

Folkestone Triennial is not a grand affair like the Venice Biennale or the Edinburgh Festival. It’s modest and humorous and vernacular without losing ambition. While instigating the restoration of a local park, it still hosts international artists such as Michael Sailstorfer whose ‘Folkestone Digs’ has been generating most interest. Thirty pieces of gold are buried beneath the sand of a harbour beach and ‘Folkestone Digs’ continues into the future until all have been found.

I declined to roll up my trouser legs but enjoyed watching a large scrum of journalists, visitors and locals digging through wet sand in a hunt for gold hidden that morning under the cover of darkness. Despite some suspicions of an elaborate hoax, the diggers trustingly began the mucky task with gusto, instinctively hunting for treasure, like a pack hungry for food.