Since I’m on a bit of a skull theme, Lucy Skaer’s Leviathan Edge – the skull of a sperm whale borrowed from National Museums Scotland for inclusion in her installation Thames and Hudson – popped into my mind. The skull is rather larger than those adorned by Damien Hirst or Gabriel Orozco. By about 14 foot or so. The whale skull is vast and its shape utterly unfamiliar. It’s a curious object made all the more fascinating by Skaer’s tantalising presentation of it in an enclosed space so that we can only see small sections of it through narrow slits.
For the Love of God, Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, got me thinking about another – and in my view much more interesting – human skull that has become contemporary art. Gabriel Orozco’s Black Kites is an extraordinary three-dimensional drawing on a distinctly less than conventional ground. This is a work I found both moving and compelling.
David Shrigley, Untitled, 2011
I like David Shrigley’s work. It makes me laugh. Why then did I approach his Hayward Gallery exhibition with a sense of dread? Well now, let’s see. Firstly, the strength of Shrigley’s work lies in its simplicity and that’s something that can get wearing when seen en masse. Secondly, the Hayward Gallery is a very big space even allowing for the fact that Shrigley is sharing it with Jeremy Deller’s Joy in People (which warrants a post of its own at the very least). Thirdly – and this one’s the big one – I’ve yet to see a Shrigley solo show I properly liked. Despite that tinge of dread I tried to stay hopeful. With my expectations low, surely a pleasant surprise was in order? Well, yes. And, more importantly, no…
There are three paying exhibitions at Tate Modern at the moment. The Damien Hirst exhibition is being widely advertised and has been the subject of a lot of media attention. Of the other two, the Yayoi Kusama seems to have generated the most discussion. Hirst is of course a household name and Kusama was already firmly in the consciousness of Londoners with an interest in contemporary art following Walking in my Mind at the Hayward Gallery in 2009 which was heavily centred on her work, indeed her polka dot wrapping of the trees along the South Bank ensured that her work also reached a signifcant non-art audience. The Hirst and Kusama exhibitions are also the ones making the most – visual – noise in the gallery, and while the Hirst was proved mercifully quieter than I had expected when I visited, they do seem to be attracting the bigger crowds.
There were things I liked about the Hirst – it was good to see those early works again and entertaining to stare in horror at the worst excesses of his more recent output – and I really liked the Kusama exhibition (at some stage I may well write about both) but it’s the other show – Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan – that I found by far the most inspiring.
Like Susan Hiller, Mary Kelly documented her pregnant belly as art but it is the work she made after the birth of her childfor which she is better known. Post-Partum Document made between 1973 and ’79, the first years of her son’s life, is an extensive document of the mother and child relationship and of the nature of motherhood. The work is in six sections and contains over a hundred items of documentation from the vests shown above to diary notes, graphs and other data and artefacts such as stained nappy liners. The work is driven by the process of making it and clearly parts of that process aren’t pleasant.
Before moving on from text and language – at least temporarily, there’s more I want to write about at some point – it seems like a good idea to go back to the basic building blocks of text: letters and punctuation. Typography is more usually the domain of designers but given that lots of artists have concerned themselves with language as a sign system, it’s no great surprise that some have also worked with its constituent parts.
In Every Word Unmade, Fiona Banner presents the alphabet as an opportunity for communication; the basic letterforms have the potential to become words.
Paul Noble, Nobson Central, 1998-9
The world of Paul Noble is a strange one. His imagined city, Nobson Newtown, which he started constructing in the form of monumental drawings in the late 1990s, is a complex space. The houses are modernist boxes; the city includes open spaces and evidence of a degree of urban planning reminiscent of the utopian ideals of the garden cities and new towns of the early to mid twentieth century. Everything, surely, should be perfect?
Fiona Banner, Apocalypse Now, 1997
Stories can be told in many different ways, words on the page and images on a cinema screen being two of the most common. It’s when the means of story-telling becomes words on a cinema screen that things start to get confusing. I’m not sure how easy it’d be to try to follow the story of Apocalypse Now from Banner’s piece of the same name, but the narrative is all there. It’s just that it’s there as a hand-written text on a page the size and shape of a cinema screen. And only yesterday there I was claiming Sean Landers choice of line length seemed excessive!
In 2001, with digital practices becoming increasingly widespread in the visual arts, Thomas Schütte decided to use very traditional, analogue image-making as a way of keeping a visual diary. Rather than drawing in sketchbooks, as he usually would, Schütte adopted the more labour-intensive approach of etching. He subsequently produced an edition of 139 prints, one of which is included in the Print/Off at MoMA.
Reading someone else’s diary, a decade after the event, isn’t necessarily that interesting and in part the fascination of this work lies in the installation rather than the images. The prints are suspended on lines criss-crossed through the gallery just above head height (if, like me, you’re quite short).
I should have known from the start that there would be more to Adel Abdessemed’s Mémoire than was apparent at first glance. After all, his work is never quite as it seems and there is almost always a degree of violence and pain somewhere in the work. But watching Mémoire, my first response was laughter. This was a baboon spelling words out on an magnetic whiteboard. Maybe if I watched long enough it would start writing Shakespeare. Isn’t that what monkeys are meant to do given time?