Never boring: A brief history of John Baldessari

A Brief History of John Baldessari - screen shot - title screen

A Brief History of John Baldessari, 2012 – title screen

In a way it’s just a short leap from Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell to the three things John Baldessari believes every young artist should know, though rather than painting these he chose to impart them to Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the directors of the short – very short, we’re talking six minutes here – documentary A short History of John Baldessari. It turns out it’s possible to find out quite a lot about Baldessari in six minutes, though I suspect knowing a certain amount about the man and his work before hand does help.

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Sitting pretty

installation view of Japan Pavilion, Venice 2013

Koki Tanaka, installation view of exhibition in Japan Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2013

One of the frustrations of art fairs, biennales and the like is the intense time pressure of trying to see everything you want to see in a day (or contemplate buying another ticket to go back, an unappealing option even if one has an extra day free to make it possible), making video and performance works really tricky. On the plus side, the excuse to have a bit of a sit down is often welcome so it’s not all bad. Certainly at last year’s Venice Biennale some of the works I enjoyed the most were time based including a number I really wanted to go back and spend more time with given the chance (didn’t really happen in the case of the things I most wanted to revisit, unfortunately, but that’s the way it goes really). I’ll write more about some of the works that have stayed with me most clearly in the coming days, I hope, but I’ll start with a show that mixed video and objects in a space that still bore the traces of the previous year’s architecture biennale. None of which is what interests me most about the work.

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Ways of knowing

Dean Banewl 1999 cows

Tacita Dean, Banewl, 1999

It’s just possible that art informs my understanding of the world a bit too much.

On holiday last month while driving through the Cornish countryside, conversation turned to the nature of farming in Cornwall. I knew there was arable farming from buying Cornish vegetables in the supermarket. Fair enough. But I realised that it wasn’t the cream teas or the plentiful local ice-cream that brought dairy farming to mind. No. It was art. Tacita Dean’s 1999 film Banewl to be precise.

Banewl is hardly action packed. Made during the total eclipse of the sun visible – albeit mostly masked by clouds – in the West Country, the hour-long work shows the edited highlights of a couple of hours in the lives of a herd of dairy cows on the day the sky went dark.

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Class war restaged

Deller Battle of Orgreave 4

Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave, 2001

As the media marks the death of Margaret Thatcher with blanket television coverage looking back at her time in office some familiar images are brought back to mind. But sometimes it’s hard to disentangle the memories: which of the images am I really recalling from the 1980s? In the case of the images of the 1983/4 miners’ strike, the boundaries between news footage and re-enactment are very blurry in my head. I remember the strike very well; I remember the marches and the benefit gigs, I remember throwing money into collection buckets every day on my way to and from work, probably with a ‘coal not dole’ badge on my coat, and I remember the news reports. At least, I think I do. But there’s a distinct possibility that some of that memory is somewhat second hand. The images of Orgreave that are so clear in my mind come not just from the news reports of the time, shocking though they were, but also from Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of the event, filmed by Mike Figgis.

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Gone

Gone with the Wind

Bob Light and John Houston, Gone With The Wind, 1982

Artists and designers reuse existing images all the time; think collage, think appropriation. And there’s a long tradition of photomontage as a way to make a political point with a powerful visual simplicity that I fully expect to write about further in a later post. IN reworking of the poster for Gone With The Wind for the Socialist Worker, Bob Light and John Houston brought together an iconic film poster (Reagan, after all, had a former career in Hollywood, albeit as very much a B movie actor; he was certainly no Clark Gable) with the politics of the 1980s with both humour and a serious intent.

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Learned behaviour

Hetain Patel, Dance Like Your Dad, 2009

Hetain Patel, To Dance Like Your Dad, 2009

At some point, all children copy adults. Admittedly, this doesn’t usually take the form of restaging a parent talking about their work, but that’s the basis of Hetain Patel’s To Dance Like Your Dad, a simple but effective video work shown at Frieze by Chatterjee and Lal. Shown on two screens, the work consists of Patel’s father showing us round his place of work and explaining what happens. Patel himself appears on the right hand screen, performing his father’s role in sync with the original. The parent and child relationship is seldom simple and while we may be fiercely proud of our parents they also have the capacity to embarrass. Here there is a sense of pride and respect in the act of restaging – and in filming Patel senior at work in the first place – but the notion of potential embarrassment is right there in the title. Dad dancing is generally not a good thing, after all.

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Closing the gaps

Elizabeth Price, The Woolworths Choir of 1979, 2012

Elizabeth Price, The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (still), 2012

With the end of the year rapidly approaching and with the start of the academic year having provide rather too hectic for me to manage regular blogging as well, now seems like a good time to close some of the gaps by looking back at some of the art I’ve seen but not written about this in 2012. And where better to start than with the Turner Prize – which in fact I have already written about but for MostlyFilm rather than here – and with the work I correctly predicted would win. Of the work in the Turner Prize exhibition, other than Paul Noble’s Nobson drawings which I’ve seen from time to time over the years that he’s been making them, it was Elizabeth Price’s The Woolworths Choir of 1979 and that I was most familiar with having seen it quite by accident at MOT International earlier in the year. That encounter was an intriguing one; I’d headed to Bond Street to see, I think, Nancy Holt or maybe Jamie Shovlin at Haunch of Venison and had a enough time to spare to pop in to MOT without having checked what was on there.

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