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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Shadow play

Lis Rhodes, Light Music, 1975 (installed at Tate Modern, 2012)

Performance art in museums is still something of a rarity. Though film/video installations do fare a bit better, the prospect of having a space dedicated to showing practices such as these in a major museum is an exciting one. Given that I am also intrigued by the reuse of former industrial spaces, all in all I’m quite excited about the opening of The Tanks – the vast underground tanks that once held the oil for Bankside power station – at Tate Modern. Converted, like the building itself, by architects Herzog + De Meuron, The Tanks are not remotely like the white wall gallery spaces we’ve come to expect. Like the Turbine Hall, The Tanks – two large circular spaces plus some smaller rooms – have been left unashamedly industrial.

In many ways Lis Rhodes’s Light Music which I saw in The Tanks at Tate Modern reminded me of Anthony McCall’s solid light works, such as Line Describing a Cone (1973). There is the same use of a hazy space to accentuate the beams of projected light. But it is also a very different work. Though both can be described as drawings, Light Music feels more random, as the lines one screen come and go; like much of Rhodes’s work, in some ways, this feels more like collage.

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Building in hope

Yael Bartana, Summer Camp, 2007 (still)

Yael Bartana, Summer Camp (still), 2007

There are many ways of making political art. For some the point needs to be made in an explicit way while others are happier to leave things open to interpretation. Though Summer Camp is much easier to make sense of than And Europe Will Be Stunned, which I wrote about here recently, Yael Bartana is clearly towards the open to interpretation end of the scale. In Summer Camp, Bartana records the rebuilding of the house of a Palestinian family in the village of Anata (east of Jerusalem) by volunteers organised by the Isreali Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), a non-violent direct action group both protests about house demolitions and seeks to rebuild demolished houses. The team of volunteers filmed by Bartana included both Palestinians and Isrealis as well as people from other countries. In a sense then, Summer Camp is effectively a documentary, but as with the films that form And Europe Will Be Stunned there’s more to it than that. 

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Suburban stories: the borrowers

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled (Woman at Vanity), 2004 (from the series Beneath the Roses)

Although Gregory Crewdson’s strongest influences seem to come from Hollywood cinema, and his works are easy to read as film stills, in some of his pictures there are also clear art historical references. Untitled (Woman at Vanity) could easily be a still from a film or and American television series. I find myself wondering about the open curtains – especially given that this is a ground floor bedroom – and worrying about the slightly open patio door. The couple seem sad, but this is not a shared state; each looks lost in their own thoughts and their own private disappointment. The setting and the relationship between the couple might scream Crewdson but coupled with a hint of Edward Hopper.

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The power of place

Yael Bartana, An Europe will be Stunned, exterior installation view, Polish Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2011

Given the subject matter of identity and nationhood that lies at the heart of Yael Bartana’s And Europe will be Stunned and the way the trilogy explores the possibility of return and the dangers of nationalism and totalitarianism, the context in which I first came across the work – in the Polish Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale – was a fascinating one. It is unusual but not unheard of for an artist who neither lives in nor comes from a country to be selected to represent it at Venice and this was the first time Poland had been represented by an artist who wasn’t a Polish national. And, of course, the history of the Venice Biennale along with the architecture of the national pavilions, the positioning of them within the Giardini and factors like when different countries built or acquired their pavilions offers an interesting, albeit inevitably incomplete, picture of the politics of Europe in particular. Add to this the fact that in 2009 Poland was represented by Krzysztof Wodiczko, who left Poland in 1977 and has been a Canadian citizen since 1984, with Guests, a work about migration and the status of immigrants who remain forever ‘guests’ in their new homes, and the Polish pavilion becomes a fascinating, and intensely loaded, location for Bartana’s installation.

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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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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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