Exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection are always eventful. I've seen sliced brain, freeze-dried brain, dessicated brain, two wax babies heads dissected, tin face masks for WWI soldiers disfigured by explosions and gunshot, i've learnt about the history of narcotics, read about a gentleman turned on by dirty maids, etc. Wellcome's exhibitions are dramatic and engaging but they are also impeccably researched and edifying. I can't remember having exited one of their shows without being fascinated by the amount of information their curators manage to pack in each room. Except this time.
The recently opened exhibition Death: A Self-portrait is entertaining, it contains some fantastic pieces and it definitely deserves a trip to the Euston Road museum but it is a bit light in reflection and cross-disciplinary references compared to what Wellcome has used me to. The show displays some 300 works -most of them being skulls- from Richard Harris's collection of cultural artefacts, artworks and scientific specimens devoted to the iconography of death and our complex and contradictory attitudes towards it.
The artefacts are grouped into five themes: "Contemplating Death" (a room full of memento mori), "The Dance of Death" (the 'many' faces of death, most of them are actually skelettons), "Violent Death" (artists representing the ravages of wars), "Eros and Thanatos" (the human fascination for death) and "Commemoration" (death, burials, mourning and their rituals). One moment you're looking at rare prints by Goya, next you find yourself in front of anatomical drawings, puzzling photos in black and white, ancient Incan skulls, or a gigantic chandelier made of 3000 plaster-cast bones.
Dr Luis Crucius's drawings of skeletons animated a promotional calendar distributed to doctors by the US Antikamnia Chemical Company in 1900--01. Ironically, the company's antikamnia painkillers contained an active ingredient which was later found to be toxic and addictive.
Our (western) culture tends to keep death in the background. We have lost touch with death and its rituals (unlike, for example, Mexico which celebrates the Día de los Muertos in the most flamboyant fashion.) And since none of us has a direct experience of death, we leave its interpretation and representation to artists.
Death: A Self-portrait remain open until 24 February 2013 at the Wellcome Collection in London. Admission is free.
I wasn't particularly dazzled by the press pictures of the exhibition Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s and i thought i'd visit it on a day i'd be really really bored. Which you're never supposed to be in London. Still, last Sunday i was at the Barbican, attempting to recover from the heart attack i had when i saw the endless queue to experience Random International's Rain Room and took the lift to see the photo show. I found that the press pictures didn't do it justice. Everything Was Moving is a magnificent, albeit slightly exhausting, show. The exhibition shows the work of photographers who lived and worked in countries as different from each other as Ukraine under Soviet control and Apartheid South Africa, Maoist China and Vietnam attacked by American soldiers. Plenty of politics, social issues and conflicts to cover!
I might not have (or rather 'take') the time to cover the whole exhibition but one of the rooms that impressed me the most was dedicated to the work of Japanese photographer Shomei Tomatsu. His most famous series is "Nagasaki 11:02". Fifteen years after the horrific atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Shomei Tomatsu was commissioned by the Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs to document the effects of the A-bomb on the city of Nagasaki and on its inhabitants.
The series is named after the photo of a watch that was dug up 0.7km from the epicenter of the explosion and which stopped at the exact moment the bomb fell: 11:02 a.m on the 9th of August 1945.
Another of his most admired series is Chewing Gum and Chocolate which exposes the influences of the US occupying forces and of American military and popular culture on Japanese society.
Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s remains open until 13 January 2013 at the Barbican Art Gallery in London.
Photo on the homepage: Hairstyle, Tokyo 1969.
Last Friday, i spent the evening at the Arts Catalyst for the Kosmica sound night, a social event for artists, scientists and the cosmically curious exploring sound and sonification of space. That means drinks, crisps, pop corn, space music and presentations by curator and artist Honor Harger, sound artist and composer Kaffe Matthews and designer slash sound artist Yuri Suzuki. With Nahum Mantra as master of ceremony.
I frantically took notes during the presentation, thinking i'd blog the talks until i realized that the Arts Catalyst was going to upload the video of the whole evening. So i'm going to merely point you to the videos: This way please!
Now all i'm going to write down is a summary of the presentations, along with a few links to the projects, historical facts and scientific discoveries mentioned during the presentations.
The first presentation was by Honor Harger. She is the director of Lighthouse, an arts agency in Brighton, UK. But she is also part of the artistic duo r a d i o q u a l i a together with collaborator Adam Hyde. One of their main projects is Radio Astronomy, a radio station broadcasting sounds from space. And i don't know how she does it but she also finds time to write a brilliant blog called Particle Decelerator.
Honor's presentation was an investigation into how we have used sound to gather information about space. We all have an idea of what space looks like. We've all seen images of it but what does space sound like?
Karl Jansky reads an instrument that detects radio waves from the Milky Way. © Bettmann/Corbis (via)
The story of the discovery of the sounds of space is intimately linked to the history of the telephone. From 1876 when Thomas Watson, the assistant of Alex Graham Bell, was listening through the wires to some strange sounds which corresponded in fact to activity taking place on the surface of the sun. To 1932 when Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer Karl Jansky was called to identify the cause of a "steady hissing" interfering with transoceanic telephone service. He correctly guessed that the noise wasn't coming from Earth but that they were cosmic radio noise from the Milky Way. The final stop Honor Harger made in the history of Bell Laboratories is 1964 when two researchers detected a source of low, persistent noise in Bell's antenna, the Holmdel Horn. It turns out that the noise was cosmic radiation that had survived since the birth of the universe. That was the first evidence of the Big Bang.
Honor's story was accompanied by a series of references to art and amateur science. I'm going to list them rapidly:
Joyce Hinterding's electromagnetic installation Aeriology (1995) "aeriology", a huge antenna that resonates to the VLF (very low frequency) section of the radio spectrum, and makes audible the crackle of spherics from the solar winds as they interact with the ionosphere and the background noise of the Milky Way, the energy emitted from stars.
Honor also showed one of my favourite videos of 2011: 20 Hz. The work observes a geo-magnetic storm occurring in the Earth's upper atmosphere. Working with data collected by CARISMA (Canadian Array for Realtime Investigations of Magnetic Activity), an array of magnetometers which study the Earth's magnetosphere and interprets the data as audio, allowing us to hear the "tweets" and "rumbles" caused by the interaction of solar wind with the Earth's magnetosphere.
Caroline Devine's 5 Minute Oscillations of the Sun, explores naturally occurring radio signal and solar activity and alternates every five minutes between acoustic and electromagnetic "listening modes" that provide new ways to "listen" to the sun.
Kaffe Matthews presented the work she created with Mandy McIntosh when they worked with NASA scientists and got to meet ex-astronauts to whom they asked "What is the sound like in space?" More about the project over here. The last part of her talk focused on the Star Gazer chairs, music and suits made to watch the star in the Galloway Forest, Scotland. The project was again developed with Mandy McIntosh and is called 'Yird, Muin, Starn,' which means earth, moon, star in old Scott.
Yuri Suzuki brought us firmly back to Earth with The Sound of the Earth, a spherical record with the sound engraved on the surface of the globe. Each country on the disc is engraved with a different sound, collected by Yuri Suzuki during his travels or with national anthems for the countries he had never visited.
During the last edition of Design Week, Yuri Suzuki drove a Sound Taxi around London. The vehicle was equipped with a microphone that recorded the noise of the city: traffic, screeching brakes, sirens, construction work, etc. A specially designed software analysed the frequencies of these noises and used them to generate music in real time.
His White Noise Machine calculates the quantity of street noise and then generates the same amount of white noise. The boxy design of the White Noise Machine was inspired that by the noise-generating devices that Italian Futurist Liugi Russolo built at the beginning of the 20th century. The videos showing children shouting at Suzuki's White Noise Machine is hilarious.
And with this i close my notes about Kosmica sound night.
A new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM, will be broadcast today Tuesday 11th December at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 13th December at 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.
This week i'm talking to Bruce Gilchrist, who together with Jo Joelson is the founder of London Fieldworks, an art practice that dialogues with science and technology.
Their work, which is usually developed in collaboration with other artists and with scientists, has investigated subjects as different from each other as the caravan and nomadic culture, the animal habitat, the impact of natural phenomenon such as the weather and the light on human consciousness and the possibility to send human beings into hibernation.
The projects of London Fieldworks have led them to the Atlantic Rainforest, the Scottish Highlands, North East Greenland but right now London Fieldworks have a show at the WORK gallery near King's Cross.
The exhibition, Null Object: Gustav Metzger Thinks About Nothing, has received much coverage in the press. The first reason for it is that London Fieldworks collaborated with Gustav Metzger, an avant-garde artist who launched the auto-destructive art movement back in 1959. The idea of auto-destructive art is roughly speaking to demolish art, and reconfigure the act itself as an artwork. His work however is never empty nor gratuitous, most of his pieces deal with social and political issues: threats to the environment, nuclear weapons, nazi Germany, capitalism, etc.
So it seemed almost logical that London Fieldworks would ask the artist to sit on a chair for 20 minutes thinking of nothing. But the second reason for the vast media coverage is that while the artist was seated, readings were taken of the electrical activity taking place inside his brain. The resulting electroencephalograms were then analyzed and turned into instructions for a factory robot to drill a hole inside a bloc of stone. The result is a 50cm high cube of stone with a void that represents what happens inside the brain of Metzger when he is thinking about nothing.
In the show we'll talk about neuroscience, brainwaves, biofeedback technology and other technologies that are influencing the way we live today.
The exhibition Null Object: Gustav Metzger Thinks About Nothing is up at the Work Gallery until 9 February. The book accompanying the show is Null Object. Gustav Metzger Thinks About Nothing (available on amazon USA and UK.)
Finally, if you're in London on Friday, Jo Joelson and Bruce Gilchrist from London Fieldworks will talk about their work at the symposium Digital Reflexes: Craft and Code in Art and Design.
The spotlight on computer art tends to fall on the shiny and new. Who won what at this year's edition of Ars Electronica, who's just designed a work of generative art for the promotion of a swanky car, who's exhibiting at the STRP festival. But a look back at the work of computer art pioneers sometimes proves to be a surprising and uplifting experience. To be honest, i was convinced that i'd find the exhibition Manfred Mohr: one and zero too austere, too abstract. A week ago however, i was walking down Eastcastle street on my way from the Alexey Kallima show at Regina Gallery (quite good) to the Vivisector at Sprüth Magers (very very good) and i thought it wouldn't hurt to push the door of the Carroll Fletcher gallery and have a look at Manfred Mohr's lines and cubes for a maximum of 30 seconds. I stayed almost half an hour staring at volumes emerging from flat surfaces and since then i've been telling people to go and see the exhibition. Today is Sunday, it's sunny out there and i won't pretend that i'm not copy/pasting a few paragraphs from the press release:
Beginning in 1969, Mohr was one of the first visual artists to explore the use of algorithms and computer programs to make independent abstract artworks. His early computer plotter drawings - when he had access to one of the earliest computer driven plotter drawing machines at the Meteorology Institute in Paris - are delicate, spare monochrome works on paper derived from algorithms devised by the artist and executed by the computer. P198aa (1977-79) is an elegant rhythmic composition of nine randomly rotated and cut cubes that hints at multi-dimensional space.
In other works that pre-date Mohr's pioneering work with the computer, his interest in systematic art-making can clearly be seen; Bild 24/768 (1968) is reminiscent of a simple circuit board with its curious symbols and hard-edged patterning.
one and zero explores how the complexity of the cube in 3, 4, 5, 6 and 11 dimensions, as well as the possibilities of going to even higher dimensions, have influenced Mohr's practice over the course of forty years. Originally a jazz musician, he compares the cube to a musical instrument and the detailed improvisation that the instrument allows within fixed tonal parameters. His large-scale wall relief - P-499A (1993) - is composed of fifteen unique laser cut steel pieces evolved from Mohr's investigation into the 6-dimensional hyper-cube.
In 1999, Mohr returned to the use of colour to emphasize and distinguish between subtleties in spatial relationships. P709b1-5 (2002), a large-scale digital painting on canvas shows five views of the 6-D rotation of a hyper-cube revealing an intriguing orchestration of solid greens, blues, purples and pink. More recently, digital technologies have enabled the artist to create works such as P1411-A (2010), in which a generative algorithm based on an 11-dimensional hyper-cube manifests an evolving progression of colour and shape as a screen based real-time computer animation.
The exhibition Shoot! Existential Photography opened a few weeks ago at The Photographers' Gallery and i never got to mention it so far. The selection of work is fantastic, the theme is seductive and it makes you want to locate the nearest playground.
Load, aim, Fire!
In the period following World War I, a curious attraction appeared at fairgrounds: the photographic shooting gallery. If the punter's bullet hit the centre of the target, this triggered a camera. Instead of winning a balloon or toy, the participant would win a snapshot of him or herself in the act of shooting.
The exhibition celebrates the use of the shooting gallery at fairgrounds by the famous (from Jean-Paul Sartre to Federico Fellini) and the non-famous but also the contemporary artists who have been intrigued by the idea of shooting oneself.
The most stunning work in the show is probably the video-sound installation Crossfire by Christian Marclay. I felt like that rabbit in the headlights of a car (or was it a hare? or a deer?) Crossfire is a super fast, loud and powerful sampling of shooting scenes from Hollywood movies. You stand in the middle of the room and wherever you turn your gaze there's Clint Eastwood, Antonio Banderas or some other action hero star aiming and shooting at you.
Since the late 1970s, Jean-François Lecourt has been literally shooting his own image. In his early experiments, the bullet smashes the camera. The roll is pierced by the shoot. In the second series, the bullet perforates a wall of the lightproof box, a ray of light comes in and leaves a mark on the photosensitive paper.
Similarly, Rudolf Steiner uses the camera as a target. In the series Pictures of me, shooting myself into a picture, the bullet hole is the aperture for a pinhole camera, creating an image upon impact.
The story of Ria van Dijk is endearing. Every single year, the lady goes to a fairground shooting gallery in Tilburg, Netherlands to shoot a self portrait. She started her pilgrimage to the shooting booth in 1936, when she was 16. The artist Erik Kessels collected all the images she has taken at the fair. Going from one self-portrait to another is fascinating. You see her hair getting greyer, her glasses following the fashion of the passing decades, her friends or fans coming along with her, etc. The only pause in the sequence is from 1939 to 1945.
The action takes place in total darkness with the flash being triggered just as the bullet breaks open the analogue camera and hits the negative inside it.
Sylvia Ballhause bought a shooting rig from the booth of a family business in Germany. It was the last booth working with analogue, large-format cameras in the country.
The shooting gallery is not as popular as it used to be but you don't need to go far to try the amusement yourself, the Photographers' Gallery has turned on of its rooms into a photographic shooting gallery so that visitors can shoot (at) themselves.
Shoot! Existential Photography is up at the Photographers' Gallery in London until 6 January 2013.
Related story: The cameras that record the moment of their own destruction.