A belated review of the exhibition Jeremy Deller - Joy in People...
It's always daunting to write about an exhibition that so many articles have commented on already. We've all read that Jeremy Deller won the Turner Prize in 2004. That he has never been a good drawer nor a talented painter. In fact, his teacher strongly advised against art school (a suggestion i fully understand if Deller is to blame for the mural painted behind the screen that shows the documentary So Many Ways to Hurt You, the Life and Times of Adrian Street, see photo below.)
Jeremy Deller does art outside galleries. It thrives in 'low culture' and it is usually ambitious, socially-engaged and unexpected. Indeed, most of his career is built on looking for art in the most unpredictable places, working with the public or with people who have particular knowledge or skill but who wouldn't otherwise be associated with the contemporary art world. They include unemployed miners, brass bands, a campaign banner maker, fans of Depeche Mode, a glam rock wrestler, experts in battle re-enactments, etc. He even collaborated on an art project with nightclub owner and trendsetter Peter Stringfellow.
In late February, a retrospective of Jeremy Deller's work opened at the Hayward gallery. It is called Joy in People and joy is precisely what it brings.
It should be tricky to exhibit the work of Jeremy Deller, an artist who doesn't produce artefacts but experiences, happenings and interventions. Out there. In the streets. Neither you nor i were there. Consequently, the show includes many videos and video documentation of some of his works. But there's also a reconstruction of Valerie's snack bar in Bury market, Lancashire. You can sit down and get a free cup of tea. There are people hired to read texts to make you melancholic, people on hand to discuss their experience of war in Iraq, t-shirts, photos of his 'failed' artworks, an introduction the world of re-enactment aficionados, music videos, magazines, a replica of Deller's teenage bedroom where he organized a solo show while his parents were on holiday, etc. Many art critics wrote that it was all a bit 'second hand'. But if it was, it was good enough for me. I spent a whole afternoon visiting Joy in People. I'll probably go back before the show closes.
Most of the works on show are very well documented already but i'm going to highlight two that i found most irresistible.
The show had a whole section, titled My Failures, that documents the projects Deller never realized.
One of them is a proposal for Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth. Deller wanted to place on top of the plinth a life-size model of Dr David Kelly, the biological warfare expert who committed suicide in 2003 following the media frenzy provoked by his comments on the British government's dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
'I had two ideas for the Fourth Plinth that I suggested to the committee, the first was for a destroyed car from Baghdad - a victim of the Iraq occupation - called "Spoils of War (Memorial for an Unknown Civilian)". The other was going to be a mannequin of Dr David Kelly [who committed suicide in 2003 following the controversy his comments on the British government's dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq] just sitting on the edge of the plinth, facing Whitehall, because some people may have forgotten who he was. They were both ways of deflating the meaning or effect of public sculpture, basically to act as an antidote to the sculpted men who had done things in battle.'
I wish So Many Ways to Hurt You, the Life and Times of Adrian Street was available online somewhere (there's only a short extract of the film.) So Many Ways to Hurt You documents the life of glam rock wrestler Adrian Street Street was born into a coal mining family in Wales in 1940. He was sent down the mine at a very young age, fled to London at 16 to pursue a career as a model for bodybuilding magazines and professional wrestler. One day he realized that the way to stardom was through a glam rock persona that would tap into the homophobia of the macho wrestling world. And so he started designing and cutting his own costumes, wearing garish make-up and extravagant platinum hair-dos. He'd blow kisses to his opponents or make silly dances to further provoke them.
Street now lives in Florida, he's still wrestling but I haven't got a clue about what happened to his singing career:
Also in the exhibition:
His 2001 film The Battle of Orgreave reconstructed the famous and violent clash between police and striking miners in 1984 with the help of historical re-enactment societies and former miners.
For 1997's Acid Brass, Deller invited a brass band to play acid house tunes. The video at the Hayward shows the actual performance but just the soundtrack makes my day.
The History of the World demonstrates the intertwined histories of traditional brass band music and the acid house scene of the late 1980s.
Don't miss The Posters Came from the Walls, a brilliant, witty and charming film about fans of Depeche Mode around the world. It's in the gallery upstairs, by the entrance. And it's free.
Jeremy Deller - Joy in People remains open until 13 May 2012 at the Hayward Gallery in London.
There's only one week left to head to Newcastle, Sunderland, Gateshead and Middlesbrough and visit AV Festival, a biennial of contemporary art, music and film which main theme this year is As Slow As Possible.
One of the works on show is the extremely long-term project that sees Agnes Meyer-Brandis training a flock of young geese to fly to the moon. The whole training started last Spring and according to her schedule, the birds will go on their first unmanned flight to the satellite in 2024. However, the artist plans to accompany them on a later flight, most probably in 2027.
Meyer-Brandis' scientific experiment is inspired by The Man in the Moone, a story written in the early 17th century by English bishop Francis Godwin, a believer in the Copernican heliocentric system and of the latest theories in magnetism and astronomy. The book tells how Domingo Gonsales flies to the moon and gets to meet an advanced lunar civilization. The adventurer managed to escape the 'magnetic attraction of the earth' by harnessing a flock of birds called gansas, specifically trained for the purpose. Some critics regard the story as the first work of science fiction in English.
Since it has become so difficult to locate moon geese, Meyer-Brandis breeds her own moon geese. She acquired the eggs last April, named each of them after an astronaut, placed them in an incubator, watched over them, witnessed the hatching and imprinted herself on to them as their stand-in mother, just like Konrad Lorenz did with greylag geese.
The surrogate mother had to spend the weeks following the hatching in close contact with the eleven geese. The astronaut training started almost immediately, the young birds were encouraged to walk in a V-shape --the formation used to tow Godwin's chariot-- taken on expeditions into the mountains for high altitude training, taught how to use morse code devices for improved interspecies communication, and given lectures about astronomy and navigation.
The birds are currently continuing their training at Pollinaria (Italy), in an analogue that simulates the conditions of the Moon. Visitors of the show The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility in Newcastle can see a scaled model of the remote analogue site, admire the portraits of the astronauts, watch a documentary of the experiment and follow the birds daily life through the screens in the control room at the back of the gallery.
Documentation of the project and installation The Moon Goose Analogue:
Agnes Meyer-Brandis: The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility is part of the AV Festival and you can see the film and installation at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle through 31 March, 2012.
Also on view at the AV Festival: Slow Motion Car Crash.
You've got until the end of the month to 'run don't walk' and see 10 x 10, an absorbing video screened at the new Carroll/Fletcher gallery just off Oxford Circus. I've been twice already and i won't stop there.
The camera of 10 x10 slowly scrolls down a 100-storey building, going from one floor to the one below, looking through the windows, room after room. The result looks like a strip of film.
The rooms are often occupied by an ordinary office worker. It is always the same guy and he is wearing a suit. A pair of Dr Martens betray the fact that he might not want to be there, with a pie chart as his sole companion. He is very probably the most bored office worker you could come across. He kills the hours cycling within the confine of his office room, hiding behind furniture, crafting paper planes, launching paper planes, inflating a swimming pool mattress, dressing up as a cowboy, Spiderman or a knight Templar, etc.
He might also be the one who arranges plastic office chairs into sculptures or perfectly symmetrical installations.
Extract of the 15:37 min video
There is a tension i've never seen in a lift film since Elevator to the Gallows. You're kept on the edge of the seat wondering what will come next, why and how the man ended up in such situations, why he's recurrently portrayed battling with illuminated fluorescent tubes, what the meaning of the chair arrangement might be, what is going on with that pie chart: is it always the same or is it changing over time? Yet, 10 x 10 is not a drama. We might try and piece together fragments of narration but we never fully understand what is going on. Maybe that man is not even an office worker anyway. Besides, 10 x 10 is more akin to a comedy verging on slapstick than to a drama. I think that anyone with no interest in art whatsoever could enter the gallery, sit down in front of the video and spend 15 minutes smiling at the images on screen.
10 x 10 is part of John Wood and Paul Harrison: Things That Happen, an exhibition that generously proposes plenty of activities for the sick and tired man. Experimenting with the laws of physics using sheets of paper, fans or an electric sander is one suggestion...
Or recreating scenes from disaster movies using models...
And of course you could also invite a friend, pretend you've landed on the surface of a satellite and pose as 'Bored Astronauts on the Moon'.
John Wood and Paul Harrison: Things That Happen remains open at the Carroll / Fletcher gallery in London through March 30, 2012.
I discovered the work of Anri Sala only a few months ago but once i looked into it, i started seeing his work everywhere. Back in September 2011, i was invited to the Absolut Art Award in Stockholm to see some of his videos, attend a screening with popcorn of 1395 Days without Red and interview the artist. A few weeks later, Anri Sala had a solo show at the Serpentine Gallery in London. The show is now closed. I've waited far too long to write about Anri Sala's work.
Sala is a video artist but somehow, he outgrows the title. He makes films of course but each of them enters in a dialogue with local weather conditions, architecture, history, live performances, sound, language, public participation, etc. Even more interestingly, he seems to play his own works against each other.
Many of Sala's works are stuck inside my head, even months after having seen them. Let's start with the first video i saw:
On what looks like the outskirts of a city, a lonely man is slowly playing Should I Stay or Should I Go? on his music box. Somewhere nearby, a man and woman are pushing a music box on a cart that plays the same punk-rock tune.
But there's a third instrument playing the famous riff of the song: an abandoned concert hall where The Clash played in the early 1980s. Microphones were placed inside the building and the music reverberates with a melancholy that the original tune didn't have.
Le Clash is an homage to punk-rock song Should I Stay or Should I Go?. It is also almost a reenactment of the concert the group gave in that building in Bordeaux. But the once influential rock and punk venue is derelict, its future uncertain, just like the relationship the song is talking about.
The show at Serpentine added a further layer to the movie: a glass pane was fitted with a music box that visitors could play. The music was the same as the film's soundtrack. Sadly, it was broken when i visited the show.
In the site-specific installation, Score, the perforated score used in the barrel organ is part of the architecture of Serpentine gallery. The perforated pattern is carved through walls covering the windows in one of the exhibition spaces, translating sound into a different materiality and creating openings to the park, letting the natural light sneak into the gallery and intertwining the sounds of the park and the sounds of the gallery.
The lion of Why the Lion Roars is the Metro Goldwyn Mayer one. The lion usually roars to signal the start of a movie, the start of the viewer's disconnection from the outside world. In Sala's piece, the animal roars each time the temperature outside of the cinema room goes up or down. The installation is based on a temperature chart made up of several movies. Every degree Celsius represents one movie. A film like Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville is associated with cool temperatures, a romantic drama will evoke the Summer. Whenever the temperature outside the exhibition building changes, the movie on display inside changes, too.
If you're lucky, the temperature outside won't bulge and you'll be able to watch Ninotchka till the end. Most of the time, however, only fragments of various length of the films are screened.
Why the Lion Roars is the temperature-cut version of a fiction based on a true story: the weather.
Answer Me was filmed in Berlin's listening station Teufelsberg, which means "Devil's Mountain" in German. It's actually just a hill but a hill made from the rubble of postwar Berlin and a military-technical college designed by Albert Speer (Adolf Hitler's chief architect), is buried under it. Later on, the NSA built a listening station on top of the hill to monitor Soviet and East German communications.
In the film, a woman attempts to end a relationship, but the man stubbornly plays the drum to silence her. Her appeal is lost in the spectacular space of the Buckminster Fuller-created geodesic dome and even after the man has stopped playing the drum, the whole drama is deafened by the long echos reverberated in the building structure. But the role of the building doesn't stop there, the frequencies of the man drumming are amplified by the dome, causing the skin of a drum abandoned next to the frustrated woman to vibrate and its drumsticks to bounce.
1395 Days Without Red, 1395 without being able to wear red or any other bright colour that might be easily spotted by one of the snipers positioned in the hills surrounding Sarajevo during the siege that lasted from May 1992 till February 1996. The film relives the trauma experienced day after day by people caught up in the siege.
The camera follow a woman crossing the city. Each crossing, each alley, each street commands a change of pace. She often has to pause when she feels that the next few meters will expose her to shootings. Then she holds her breath for a moment (i found myself doing the same) and runs till she has reached a safer street. The city's topography alternates exposure and protection, fear and relief.
As the woman moves through the deserted city, an orchestra rehearses Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 6, Pathétique elsewhere in the city. She seems to rehearse the music in her head too, using it as the soundtrack of her perilous journey through the city under siege.
The ABSOLUT ART AWARD was instituted in 2009 to celebrate the vodka company's 30 years of creative collaborations (which started by chance during a dinner attended by Andy Warhol i was told.) After giving the award to Keren Cytter in 2009 and Rirkrit Tiravanija in 2010, the third annual ABSOLUT ART AWARD went thus to Anri Sala. He clearly deserved the recognition.
The jury's citation reads: "Anri Sala's work offers a unique way of looking at the world that combines reflection on history, memories, and consciousness of the instant, with an absolute awareness of presence and disappearance. He possesses a special talent for precise and subtle displays, and a unique ability to conceive installations and architectural proposals including sound, image, sculpture, film and live performances."
Some researchers have observed that apes held in captivity watch tv programmes. Some of them are fond of the Teletubbies, others favour emergency room dramas or Disney cartoons. But is it possible to script, shoot and screen cinema just for primates? That's what Rachel Mayeri set out to discover with her work Primate Cinema: Apes as Family.
The artist worked with Stirling University comparative psychologist Dr Sarah-Jane Vick to identify which kind of action, narrative or images a group of chimpanzees from the Edinburgh Zoo were most receptive too. The scientist and the artist observed how monkeys reacted to documentaries, cartoons, dramas screened inside a research pod where the animals could pop in and out as they pleased. The monkeys would spend a few minutes in front of the images then go away, come back, sit down for a moment, get up and bang violently against the wall that protect the tv screen, etc. Unsurprisingly the monkeys reacted more strongly to scenes featuring sex, food, violence but they were also interested in drumming and seemed quite fascinated by humans dressed as monkeys and by humans removing their monkey masks.
The result of the artist's research is a 20 minute movie. The video installation juxtaposes two screens. The right screen shows the movie for apes, its stars are actors dressed as and acting like monkeys. The second half displays the reactions of the ape audience when the film was shown on a chimp-proof screen at Edinburgh Zoo last August.
The hero of the film for monkeys is an actress wearing an animatronic suit with motorized eyes that are controlled by a puppeteer. She enters a house, gets a soda from the fridge, goes upstairs and falls asleep in front of the tv. Soon, a group of chimpanzee intruders enter the house as well and start misbehaving: they help themselves to the bananas and carrots in the fridge and basically trash the house. The clatter wakes up our chimp heroine. She gets up and goes downstairs to see what's the tumult about. That's when the plot thickens. Because chimpanzees also appreciate to watch social and sexual dynamics on screen.
Rachel Mayeri told us a few thought-provoking facts during her presentation:
- chimps might like to watch tv but that only happens when they are in captivity. Left in the wild, they have far more interesting things to do than watch tv.
- even the zoo is not the most suitable place to study the reaction of monkeys to moving images as the chimps' backgrounds may vary dramatically: some were rescued from poachers, others used to be mascots, some were born in captivity, etc.
- it's not correct to say that we descend from chimps as they haven't stayed exactly the same while we were evolving, our closest cousins have evolved too.
- chimps don't focus solely on the images appearing on the TV, they regularly check the changing social situation around them. They monitor each other ("who around me is sexually available?" for example) just like we do on facebook. Two of the most 'avid' tv watchers were a mother and daughter. During the research, the females were the ones who spent most time watching the tv screen. On the day of the screening of the finished movie for chimps at the Edinburgh Zoo, they were in rut, distracted and the center of male attentions.
- The artist is conscious that she made a film that reflects her own, very human prejudices and ideas of what a film should be like. She therefore asked herself "If a chimp director had to do a film for humans, would it have done the same mistakes and made a film for chimps rather than one for humans?"
Rachel also showed an extract of her first Primate Cinema video experiments, Baboons as Friends. In the two channel video installation, field footage of baboons are shown next to a reenactment by human actors, shot in film noir style.
The work was inspired by primatologist Deborah Forster who, unlike most people, can watch babboons for hours as if they were actors in a soap opera. The artist attempted to translate the plot of lust, jealousy, sex, and violence into the human world.
Primate Cinema: Apes as Family is at The Arts Catalyst in London until 13 November 2011.
I don't review documentaries very often but 1. i should and 2. this one is about Joe David, a pioneer in the field of art and biotechnology. And so much more.
Trailer for HEAVEN + EARTH + JOE DAVIS, a film by Peter Sasowsky:
Short Synopsis: Thirty years ago, a peg-legged motorcycle mechanic walked into the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT. They had not returned his calls. The police were summoned. Forty-five minutes later he walked out with an academic appointment. Since then Joe Davis has sent vaginal contractions into space to communicate with aliens, encoded poetry into DNA, and designed a sculpture to save the world.
It's a great life for a man driven by imagination - except when it's not. No one pays him. He is evicted from apartments and labs. His uncompromising approach to art and life collides with the world's banal requirements. This is a story of self-discovery, sacrifice and the complexity of human endeavor, of the price of art and the ecstatic joy of discovery.
HEAVEN + EARTH + JOE DAVIS is a 90 minute wonder: the movie manages to capture the chaos (or at least a significant part of it) inside the head of Joe Davis. Clearly, the film Director is like most of us, he is puzzled by half of what Davis says or does but that doesn't prevent him from appreciating and communicating the wit and depth of the MIT researcher, artist, thinkerer and scientist.
The first moments of the film might be unsettling if you've never heart of Davis or of the field of bioart but the movie fills you in bit by bit and the charisma of the man will do the rest. On the other hand, you can still expect a hell of a ride even if you've studied the work and thoughts of Davies. One minute, the artist goes on a 'trash night' in Cambridge next, he explains you how to insert messages into bacteria or how to distinguish the sound that a paramecia make from the sound that a stentor emits. After that he will marvel at ferns or cover a pretty Norwegian woman in honey for a performance that will transport sound on lightwaves and then remind you that astronauts are flushing toilets in outer space and that the matter is circling the Earth as you're reading these lines. We see him washing dishes in a bar like others do yoga, fight for a space to store his work, fight to get funding, fight to find a language that other people might understand.
The most disheartening moments depict the resistances he meets in the art world and the science world alike. Because if there's one man who can teach something to the many 'art and science' conferences organized all over the world these days, it's Davis. He is an artist as much as a scientist and he cannot really dissociate between the two like our culture does. The film shows how he moves back and forth between departments at MIT. He belongs to the biology, the art or the architecture departments but he doesn't quite fit in any of them.
The images alternate between snapshots of Davis life, archives documenting some of his most memorable works and family movies that show Davis as a kid and capture the faith that the '50s had in the power of science and technology.
The film has its lengths and repetitions but it illustrates quite convincingly Davis's belief that "The things that are the most sensible turn out to be most absurd and the things that are the most absurd turn out to make most sense."
If you're in London, don't miss the screening of HEAVEN + EARTH + JOE DAVIS on October 1 and 2. The film is an official selection of the 2011 Raindance Film Festival, and is one of 5 films nominated for the jury award of Best Documentary.
Follow the facebook page of the film for news about screenings and related events.
P.s. Thanks Tamar for telling me about the film!