More questions than answers

Yael Bartana, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), 2007

I don’t go to see art expecting easy answers. I like work that makes me think. (I like work that just bowls me over visually too, but I’m going to assume that’s a given rather than getting bogged down by trying to make an exhaustive list of types of art I like. Let’s just work on the basis that I like art. And, for my purposes here, that thinking is a bonus and a bit of confusion is fine.) I’m not scared of challenging work and I don’t necessarily expect to get it straight away. I’m pretty tenacious; I’ll go back for a second look (if I can, my tendency to see exhibitions on the day they close can be something of a limitation in this respect) or read whatever background information I can find. All of which should be borne in mind when I say that I’ve seen Yael Bartana’s And Europe will be Stunned three times now and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I think about it.

The work is made up of three connected films – Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), Mur i wieża (Wall and Tower) and Zamach (Assassination) – made over a period of several years and is based around the premise of a movement encouraging the return of Jews to Europe. You won’t often find me focusing on biographical information, but it’s relevant here: The artist, Yael Bartana, is an Isreali Jew whose grandparents died in Poland during the Holocaust.

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Playing all parts

Gillian Wearing, Self-portrait, 2000

People take pictures for all sorts of reasons. The family album is the way we build shared memories as a family group. Our appearance is recorded for documents such as passports, driving licenses and the like. Artists make portraits for a host of reasons but often the aim is in some way to understand people and how we relate to one another or to the world around us. Self-portraits can provide an opportunity to pretend, to become someone else, perhaps to suggest a narrative in the way that someone like Cindy Sherman does.

For Gillian Wearing, self-portraits are usually made from behind a mask. While many of us put on what is effectively a mask-like expression for the camera, Wearing goes for a more literal and painstaking approach.

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A simple state of change

Hans Haacke, Wide White Flow, 1967

Looking at Hans Haache’s Floating Sphere yesterday made me think about another work of Haacke’s that surprised me when I came across it at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York a few years ago (February 2008, fact fans). I’d gone to the show because I was in New York with students and at least one Chelsea gallery day is kind of compulsory and because I really like Hans Haacke’s work but haven’t seen nearly as much of it as I’d like in real life; as on any visit to New York, there wasn’t time to see everything I wanted to, but this was always going to be high enough on my list to make the cut. My previous knowledge of Haacke’s work was in the main of more politically driven works and of a drier, more conceptual approach.

I fully expected to be interested and absorbed. Being bowled over by the beauty of the work came as a complete surprise.

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Keepie Uppie

Damien Hirst, The Battle Between Good and Evil, 2007

Without wishing to seem obsessed with either Damien Hirst, the titling of work or the programme at White Cube’s Bermondsey space, having written about Hirst’s paintings (terrible) and Nauman’s films (great) the completist in me thinks it worth writing about Hirst’s installation in 9 x 9 x 9, the final gallery space in the Bermondsey building.

The work takes the form of two beach balls – one black, one white – floating above a black and white square basis, held aloft presumably by a fan within the base. This is a playful work but my enjoyment of it was offset by wondering firstly how it would look in colours that said beach ball more assertively and secondly by wondering how it would look all in white. As it happens, on both counts, Google is my friend here.

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Artist describing a square

Bruce Nauman, Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square, 1967-68

‘If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art.’ – Bruce Nauman in conversation with Ian Wallace and Russell Keziere, Vanguard, Vol. 8 #1, 1979

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, when moving image was making its way into the gallery in a big way as 16mm film started to be replaced by video, they often took a pretty descriptive approach to titling work. Bruce Nauman’s film and video works of that period – a number of which are on show in the North Gallery of White Cube Bermondsey at the moment as part of the Inside the White Cube programme – are simply made and descriptively titled and driven by Nauman’s assertion that as an artist, everything he made in the studio must surely be art; an argument that works well enough for Nauman himself but one which is immediately undermined by the collection of Damien Hirst paintings on display here in the South Galleries, which I wrote about yesterday.

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Painting by numbers

Damien Hirst, Two Parrots, 2010

After so much discussion recently about Damien Hirst’s spot paintings and his non-involvement in the actual painting process, I decided to face up to the challenge and go and take a look at the paintings he makes himself. Hirst’s exhibition Two Weeks One Summer at White Cube Bermondsey includes a series of 35 paintings Hirst made at his Devon home in 2010 along with an installation, The Battle Between Good and Evil (2007). I missed No Love Lost Hirst’s Blue Paintings at the Wallace Collection in 2009-10 and though I remember the poor reviews that show received I went to this one with an open mind and a determination to write about the work fairly. So here goes…

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Taking confession

Gillian Wearing, Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say (Help) and (I’m desperate), 1992-3

Though Gillian Wearing doesn’t re-enact the work of a scientist to make art, arguably she does nonetheless take on another role: that of the confessor. In a number of different works, Wearing allows those she encounters – either through approaching strangers on the street or by advertising – to express their innermost thoughts in one way or another.

For the series of photographs Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say, made in 1992-3, Wearing asked people to write a sign that said something they really wanted to say and hold it up for the camera. Some of the signs comment on the wider political situation of the time – like now, Britain was in a recession – others expose the anxieties of those who made them, with the subjects’ inner thoughts often jarring with their images.

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Reflections on the weather

Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, Serpentine Pavilion, 2012

Not that you’d know it to look out of the window, but it’s summer. And, amongst other things, summer means a new Serpentine Pavilion. In a fit of optimism, this year’s pavilion is open sided so it’s likely that for much of the summer those venturing to see it will find themselves staying close to the middle to avoid the driving rain and quite possibly huddling together for warmth. Ah well…

So, disregarding the disparity between building and climate, is it good architecture? Does it work as a social space? Is that even what it’s for?

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World turned upside down

Zoe Leonard, Arkwright Road, 2012

Given my recent preoccupation with work that transforms the space its shown in, making us focus on the gallery in a new way, it’s really about time I wrote about Observation Point, Zoe Leonard’s exhibition at Camden Arts Centre. Doubtless I would have written about this sooner, but I kept forgetting to go and see it; I love Camden Arts Centre and it’s really easy to get to for me but somehow those two facts seem to conspire to make me miss show after show there. Thankfully, this is one I didn’t miss.

Pretty much the only thing I knew about the exhibition before hand was that Leonard had turned one of the gallery spaces into a camera obscura. I was slightly worried that making my visit during a late night opening might prove to be a mistake but though the space – and the projected image of the road outside – was dim, it was nonetheless fascinating. Despite the work taking its title from the road the gallery is on, the lens points not at Arkwright Road but at the relentlessly busy Finchley Road to the side of the building. The traffic is constant but the skyline is also arresting with a large crane stretching from the wall onto the floor and across the space.

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Memory and pain

Doris Salcedo, A Flor de Piel, 2011-12

Probably best known in London for Shibboleth – the crack in the floor of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern – Doris Salcedo is an artist with an extraordinary ability to take the most ordinary objects and materials and turn them into moving and often highly political works. Her current exhibition at White Cube, Mason’s yard contains just two works. Nonetheless it gave me a lot to think about and, time permitting, I’d like to go back.

In the upstairs space, A Flor de Piel looks more like flayed skin than rose petals. The piece is a large-scale blanket of what must amount to many, many thousands of petals and stitches which the press release describes – much better than I can – as ‘a shroud composed of sutured rose petals’. That word sutured seems apt. There is a sense of the bodily in its skin-like appearance and also a feeling of a surgical mending rather than a more domestic sewing together (though of course the two essentially amount to the same act).

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