Unmaking the readymade

Damián Ortega, Cosmic Thing, 2002

No car maintenance manual would be complete without an exploded view diagram or two, so it seems appropriate that it should be a car that Damián Ortega chose to break apart and display as a kind of three-dimensional diagrammatic representation of itself; indeed Ortega based the car’s deconstruction on the diagram in the car’s repair manual. The car in question in Ortega’s sculpture Cosmic Thing is a 1989 VW Beetle. The Beetle is one of the Seen from the side – or the front, albeit to a lesser extent, as the picture after the jump will show – the car is immediately recognisable and the work seems like a drawing in many ways.

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The reassembled object

Simon Starling, Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture no. 2), 2005

At first sight, Simon Starling’s Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture no. 2) appears to be a readymade. It’s an old shed. It looks a bit the worse for wear, but age will do that to a shed. Things aren’t quite a simple as they appear though and the first clue’s in the title.

Shedboatshed is a shed. Shedboatshed started out as a shed. But it hasn’t always been a shed. Starling turned an old shed, which he’d found in the banks of the Rhine, into a boat which he then used to get to Basel, carrying the unused parts of the shed in the boat. On arrival, the shed was reassembled and exhibited in the Kunstmuseum Basel and later that year in Tate Britain as part of the Turner Prize exhibition, which Starling won.

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Art about art – Mel Brimfield: Between genius and desire at Ceri Hand Gallery

Mel Brimfield, Vincent (Portrait with Fur Hat and Bandaged Ear), 2012

Mel Brimfield makes art about art in a very different way to others that I’ve written about here before (the reworkings of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress by David Hockney and Yinka Shonibare or Gregory Crewdson’s remained Edward Hopper picture, for instance). As with Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy, Brimfield’s work is performative but there’s a humour in the work that feels more connected to Nina Katchadourian’s Self-portrait as Sir Ernest Shackleton though in Brimfield’s work the performances are collaborations between artist and performer. The resulting works – photographs, videos and sculpture – reference not only the artists Brimfield is looking at but also our ideas about art and the way the artists have been represented in films. Brimfield’s exhibition Between Genius and Desire at Ceri Hand Gallery Project Space – the gallery’s first show in London – gave me a lot to both think and smile about.

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Ordinary people

Tino Sehgal, These Associations, 2012

From the start, the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern has been unusual. Taking its name from the function of the vast space when the building was still a power station, it’s really not a typical museum space. The artists commissioned to make work for it have all responded to it in very different ways but it’s the response of the audience, almost as much as the work itself, that makes the annual Unilever Commission fascinating. From Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (which I’ve written about before) to those brief few days when visitors to Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds were allowed the access the artist had intended before health and safety concerns caused the work to be cordoned off, the Turbine Hall somehow makes people behave more like they would at the beach than in an art museum. All of which makes Tino Sehgal (whose work I’ve touched upon before elsewhere) an intriguing choice for this year’s commission. How would an artist whose work lies in the dynamic between audience and performer make work for such a cavernous space? And how would the audience respond?

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All in a day’s work (from something to nothing)

Francis Alÿs, Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing), 1997

It’s the idea of making art by making a journey that’s brought Francis Alÿs to mind now. Alÿs is an artist whose work I find fascinating. It can be funny, moving, thought-provoking and, in a couple of cases, really quite alarming. And quite a few of his video works are all about the journey. I’m pretty sure I’ll write about other works by Alÿs at some point but the idea of the dismantling and remaking of the shed in Simon Starling’s Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture no. 2) in my mind, has made me think about Alÿs turning something into nothing by making a journey.

In fairness, a block of ice in Mexico City stood a proverbial snowball’s chance in hell really, but Alÿs has made facilitating the act of disappearing the ice into a pleasingly futile act through the application of hard work in the hot sun.

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Costume drama

Yonka Shonibare, Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 11.00 Hours, 1998

For Yinka Shonibare, Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress was a starting point for an exploration of art history and the representation of black people rather than something to be reworked for a new time. And with a fascination with the Victorian era, Shonibare chose to change both the narrative and the period in which it’s set, creating a series of photographs called Diary of a Victorian Dandy, made over a period of three days at a stately home in Herefordshire. And though Hogarth’s series is a clear inspiration, the story of Shonibare’s dandy is told in five scenes seemingly taking place in a 24 hour period and each titled with just the time of day. The dandy – played by the artist – rises late. He is attended by many servants; contrary to the narrative we see played out across the history of Western painting, it is the dandy who is black rather than one of the servants who seem to dote on him.

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Strangers in the evening light

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Brent Booth; 21 years old; Des Moines, Iowa; $30, 1990-92

If Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads series tells us little of real substance about the people in the pictures then perhaps his Hollywood series tells us too much, though these are pictures that straddle that blurry line between fact and fiction. In Hollywood, as in Hollywood, anything is possible. The series – also known as The Hustlers – was made on a part Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood with a significant population of drug addicts and male prostitutes; for each picture, diCorcia prepared the scene including positioning camera and lights before looking for a suitable subject for the image. Those who agreed to be photographed were asked their name, age and where they came from and these details, along with how much diCorcia paid them to pose, became the titles for the pictures.

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Photography and the poetic

Julia Margaret Cameron, The Angel at the Sepulchre, 1866

Given Madame Yevonde’s use of photography to retell classical myths in the mid 1930s, the relationship between storytelling and photography clearly goes way back. But though Madame Yevonde’s use of colour was unusual and though her images were genuinely different, even eighty years ago the ides of using photography to represent old narratives wasn’t a new one. In fact it’s essentially as old as photography itself.

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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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Reenacting acting

Rod Dickinson, Milgram Reenactment, 2002

In Stanley Milgram’s 1961 experiment to test obedience to authority, the experimenter orders the volunteer subject – cast in the role of teacher for the purposes of the experiment – to administer a painful electric shock to an unseen pupil when they get something wrong. In fact the experimenters and pupils were actors and the screams were pre-recorded sounds. The test determines the degree to which the subjects of the experiment were prepared to obey orders when doing so involved – or so they believed – inflicting pain on others.

In 2002, artist Rod Dickinson, working in collaboration with Graeme Edler and Steve Rushton, exactly recreated the setting used by Milgram – the Interaction Laboratory at Yale – and engaged actors to reenact the experiment as an art performance.

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