“I don’t know what that means but I think there is a suggestion of indecency about it.”

Thursday 29 May 2008

Last weekend in London Tate Modern hosted photographer Nan Goldin’s slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. A brief writeup in The Guardian mentions, in passing:

In many ways, [singer/songwriter Patrick] Wolf’s input actually freshened up some work which has become slightly over-familiar, and gave extra emotional heft to shots that no longer seem so shocking or transgressive (though Goldin defiantly kept in the picture of two young girls that caused huge controversy last year).

Comments from readers are mostly affably jaded:

Shocking in 1983 perhaps but with the rise and rise of fetishy sex, drag queens, transexuals and Bondage/S&M fans is commonplace imagery today. Still good art though. Perhaps we do need a new Mary Whitehouse, as many Daily Mail readers are suggesting, if only to remind us how much fun decadence is one you de-commercialise it.

The “huge controversy” mentioned was when police seized a Goldin photograph from the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead on suspicion that it was child pornography.
In a few days I’ll be back in Melbourne for my upcoming show (plug!), but the climate there is a bit chilly for artists right now, and not just because of the weather. Right now, Australian Federal Police are investigating the National Gallery of Australia as part of what appears to be a self-appointed crusade against “immoral” art, after New South Wales police raided a Sydney gallery’s exhibition of photographs by Bill Henson. Henson and the gallery owners are being accused by police, politicians and various lobby groups of being child pornographers, and have been threatened with criminal prosecution.
Until last week, there had never been a complaint about Henson’s photographs during his 30-year career, despite it being shown all over Australia and the world, including the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim, and best of all, forming part of the permanent collection of the High Court of Australia.
Commentary in Britain has been pretty much as you would expect:

This isn’t the first time Australia’s cultural immaturity has been revealed in all it’s ugliness, and it won’t be the last…. Freedom of expression has a long way to go in the provinces.

To show its maturity, the British government has just announced its plan to “toughen up” its child pornogrpahy laws to include the outlawing of drawings of child abuse:

When the existing ban on photographic images was enacted, the argument in principle was that real children are exploited and harmed to make these images, which is true. That entire philosophical plank on which the legislation rested has now been kicked casually away. If you, alone in your room, put pencil to paper and draw – for your eyes only – an obscene doodle involving a child, you will invite a prison term of up to three years. There is real scope for vindictive citizens to ransack desks or bins and call the police.

(The title quote comes, of course, from one of the most influential literary critics, Detective Vogelsang of the South Australian Police Force.)

The Secret History of Peckham

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Except for an unwitting pass round the back of one of the sites on a drunken midnight ramble in February, there’s a major London pilgrimage I still haven’t done, even though I’m living right in its backyard. Since 1973 artist and Peckham native Tom Phillips has been working on 20 Sites n Years, one of the great works of rephotography:

Every year on or around the same day (24th May – 2nd June) at the same time of day and from the same position a photograph is taken at each of the twenty locations on this map which is based on a circle of half a mile radius drawn around the place (Site 1: 102 Grove Park SE15) where the project was devised. It is hoped that this process will be carried on into the future and beyond the deviser’s death for as long as the possibility of continuing and the will to undertake the task persist.

As someone who has attempted a similar undertaking – much smaller and less thorough, but based on the same principle – I understand the fascination these projects can exert. The city is revealed as a living thing, continually changing, but with each element changing at its own pace. A temporary sign can endure for years, while the building behind it vanishes. Then again, some scenes will suddenly travel backwards in time, reverting after a succession of revisions to way they were some years earlier after.

Phillips has uploaded all the photographs from the past 35 years on his website, with his own analysis and discussion of the history of each site (although these written observations end at 1992, the 20th anniversary). [amazing late-night observation eaten by dodgy web browser]

Robert Rauschenberg

Tuesday 13 May 2008

There is in Rauschenberg, between him and what he picks up to use, the quality of an encounter. For the first time.
Having made the empty canvases (A canvas is never empty.), Rauschenberg became the giver of gifts. Gifts, unexpected and unnecessary, are ways of saying Yes to how it is, a holiday. The gifts he gives are not picked up in distant lands but are things we already have… and so we are converted to the enjoyment of our possessions. Converted from what? From wanting what we don’t have, art as a pained struggle.
To Whom It May Concern: The white paintings came first; my silent piece came later.
– John Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, And His Work” (1961).

Have you heard, it’s in the stars

Saturday 10 May 2008

I there some momentous astronomical event happening that I’m not aware of? Mission to Mars is on telly right now. RMIT Project Space in Melbourne has just opened a show called The Mars Project (“Tapping into primordial hopes and fears, the dream to make Mars a life-sustaining planet possibly connects us to our past more than it does to our future”), followed by – hey!
Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, the 55th Carnegie International has just opened, the theme: Life on Mars (“The question, “Is there life on Mars?” is a rhetorical one, posed in the face of a world in which increasingly accelerating global events…”)
The Barbican Art Gallery in London is showing the Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art (“…presents contemporary art works under the fictional guise of a museum collection conceived by and designed for extraterrestrials.”) Well did you ever?

New Show! Redrawing

Wednesday 30 April 2008

Next month I’m presenting my piece String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta) in a new version, as an installation in the group exhibition Redrawing, at RMIT’s Project Space in Melbourne. With works by Bronwyn Clark-Coolee, Fiona Macdonald, Thérèse Mastroiacovo, and Spiros Panigirakis. Curated by Fiona Macdonald.
The show runs from Friday 6 June to Friday 27 June 2008; opening night is Thursday 5 June, 5 – 7 pm. Hope you can make it. There will also be a floor talk by me and some (all?) of the other artists on Thursday 12 June 12 – 1 pm, followed by a thrilling live performance of the String Quartet.
As you might have guessed from the above blurb, my piece will fit in very nicely with the show’s premise of redrawing, of imitation as a creative practice. More to come about the show over the next few weeks.
Also also, while I’m in Melbourne it looks like I’ll be playing another live gig, at Horse Bazaar on Wednesday 11 June. More about that one soon, too.

News from the Pavilion

Thursday 24 April 2008

Last month I wrote about the AADRL TEN Pavilion which was under construction around the corner from where I work, and which was due to open 13 March. Well, the fence around the construction site finally came down sometime in the past week.

After the cyclone fence, pallets and assorted rubbish was cleared away, the pavilion was roped off for a few days until the punters were finally allowed to play with it. The unemployed barrier poles are still loitering around a nearby lamppost, conspiring.

The pavilion still isn’t quite unfettered: a warning sign has been propped up at either end of the edifice. Someone’s gone to a bit of trouble to make those signs.

With hindsight this problem should have been obvious, although I admit that my lifestyle is so sedentary it never occurred to me during construction that the pavilion would make an excellent jungle gym.
As it stands, it’s an irresistable attraction for the urban thrillseeker. I have a couple of friends who, after an evening of drinking, would habitually become seized by a desire to go climbing things. One night in Melbourne they attempted to conquer the dome of the Royal Exhibition Building. The relatively low height and plentiful footholds of this pavilion make it just too tempting.

Ghost Sites and Grey Areas

Monday 21 April 2008

I got another email from an artist asking to exhibit in my gallery. This happens to me roughly twice a year. I don’t have an art gallery – have never had one; but ten years ago I was friends with some people who ran an art gallery.

They were a bunch of artists who had just graduated from RMIT and had found some studio space above the Port Phillip Arcade in Melbourne. It was a quiet, out-of-the-way arcade, the type full of stores selling things like telescopes, cake decorations, old stamps and coins. As part of the lease my friends also scored an unused shop in the arcade, which they turned into an exhibition space named Grey Area, after the dingy linoleum tiles on the floor. At first they just exhibited their own works, but soon opened the place up to other emerging artists.
One of the studio artists, who was (brace yourself) on the dole, started learning web design and HTML as part of a government job training scheme, so she used her time to design a website for Grey Area. I let her put my email address on the site as a contact point, because she didn’t have her own email address, not even on Hotmail.
None of the other dozen or so recent fine arts graduates who were running the studios had an email address either; or a computer, for that matter. Was this the last generation of people to come out of University without ever having an email address?
When the web design course finished work on the site slowed down, and then in early 1999 the collective was wound up, with the studios and exhibition space passed on to another group of artists. The website, however, lives on, undeleted, untouched for ten years. The only reminders I get that it’s still there, is when I get an email from out of the blue from some hopeful soul wondering if the place is still active in real life.
The website itself is a real, dusty museum piece of mid-Nineties design, complete with a tilde in the URL and a splash page with the legend, “This site requires Netscape 3, Internet Explorer 3 or better. It is best viewed with your screen set at 800 x 600 and with images and javascript turned on.”
The site gives a pretty much complete list of everybody who exhibited there during Grey Area’s lifetime (a typo on the calendar page says “1999” instead of “1998”), and some of the shows were even documented with a few online photos before time ran out. I wonder if it will last another ten years?

The Big Book of Bentham

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Two packages arrived in the mail today: one big, one small. The big one was the scanner I’d ordered, but the little one was a mystery until I realised it was probably that book from the University of Wales Press, which it indeed turned out to be. So, putting the two together:

Filler By Proxy LXII: Take the L…

Thursday 10 April 2008

I never cared much for Norman Mailer, and so didn’t bother noting his passing here until I saw this photo of him at home:

What on earth is that thing behind him?
Greg.org has the answer, along with a photograph of the object itself: a seven-foot high model of a utopian vertical city, designed by Mailer and constructed by him and a few friends with thousands of blocks of Lego.
It looks like a Lego version of one of Constant’s New Babylon models or similar Unitary Urbanist schemes, and seems to have been built in the same spirit.

“It was very much opposed to Le Corbusier. I kept thinking of Mont-Saint-Michel,” he explains. “Each Lego brick represents an apartment. There’d be something like twelve thousand apartments. The philosophers would live at the top. The call girls would live in the white bricks, and the corporate executives would live in the black.” The cloud-level towers, apparently, would be linked by looping wires. “Once it was cabled up, those who were adventurous could slide down. It would be great fun to start the day off. Put Starbucks out of business.”

It was built in 1965 and stayed in Mailer’s living room for the rest of his life. The Museum of Modern Art was interested in displaying it, but found that it was too big to get out of Mailer’s apartment without dismantling it, an idea which Mailer rejected.

It’s times like this I wish I hadn’t agreed to donate my Lego to needy kids when I moved out of my parents’ place. I’d started to soften my stance against Mailer, thinking he was a serious Lego nerd until I read:

Norman acted as the brains behind the project, soon discovering that he didn’t like the sound of the plastic Lego pieces snapping together; it struck him as vaguely obscene.

Visualising Music

Sunday 9 March 2008

This was going to be a simple post with a couple of fun links to cool music with groovy visuals to help pass some time, but then I remembered an unanswered question by Jodru on that post about new music concerts I mentioned before:

Okay, picture this:
You are performing “Pictures at an Exhibition” and you project Hartmann’s original drawings while you perform.
You are performing some of Virgil Thomson’s musical portraits and you project an image of the subject above the stage.
You are performing Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ and you project the score above the stage.
Are you guys certain that these are not sure-fire ways to increase your audience’s comfort level?

Those first two examples: still pictures, as backdrop? Maybe. Projecting the score to Treatise while it’s played? No. It may increase the audience’s comfort level, but it undermines the purpose of playing the music in the first place.
If you exhibit the score to Treatise while it’s played, why not do this for every piece played? A conventionally-notated score is equally illegible to non-musicians; Treatise‘s score is just cunningly designed to be illegible to musicians as well. Is it because Treatise‘s score is a beautiful object in its own right? Then the score is made to justify the music, when it should be the other way around. George Crumb’s music is equally beautiful on the page, but exhibiting the manuscripts during the concert would distract the audience from the music – surely Cardew’s music should be treated with the same respect.
An audience might feel more comfortable listening to Satie if the funny instructions were read out over the music, but they’ll be reacting more to the witticisms than the music.

So, after all that harrumphing, why am I now linking to these two neat little animations? Because they exist as works of analysis after the fact, not of aesthetic interpretation. Rainer Wehinger drew a “listening score” of György Ligeti’s electronic composition Artikulation nearly 20 years after it was made, using symbols to represent the recorded sounds. The snappily-named d21d34c55 has posted an animation on YouTube that syncs up the tape to the score, to show how music and image correspond.

The Rambler has posted a link to the pianist John Mark Harris’ website, which includes a fantastic page that combines a graphic representation of Iannis Xenakis’ punishing composition Evryali with Harris’ performance of the piece. The graph gives a clear demonstration of how Xenakis used aborescences to compose the piece.
Finally, just to complete the circle, d21d34c55 has another page on YouTube showing Xenakis’ 1978 work Mycenae Alpha, an electronic piece written on UPIC, a computer interface that translates images into sound. This time, the images came first, but were expressly created to produce music.

They Must Be Architects

Thursday 6 March 2008

Update! Alan Dempsey, one of the architects, has written in with a link to his informative team blog, which documents the history and progress of the Pavilion. Check the archives for the background on how the structure is designed and built.

Just around the corner from where I work there’s a strange construction going up in Bedford Square. At the moment, it resembles a temporary albeit stylish stage: the deck on the scaffold helps this impression. There were a few placards on the fencing explaining a little about the project, but not much too helpful. Some of the workers would occasionally stop and chat to curious passersby.
Its location in a square on the edge of a park suggests that it’s a piece of public sculpture, but its structure makes it look like architecture. A bit of googling of the names on the placard yielded this website, and it immediately becomes clear that it’s architecture.

First giveaway: the entire site is done in Flash, so the site is hard to read and navigate, overly fiddly, and impossible to quote whatever information the designers wanted to impart in the first place. Of course, plenty of art websites use too much (i.e. some) Flash, but they usually have some scraps of helpful information on them, or at least have a section in which they try to justify their existences. On this particular site, though, there is a complete lack of interest in explaining itself to the world. This is the second clue that this thing is about architecture.
According to the website, the construction is called either the DRL TEN Pavilion, the DRL.TEN Pavilion, or the AADRL TEN Pavilion, depending on which part of the screen you click. TEN may or may not be capitalised. There is no evident explanation as to what an AADRL is, nor of what if any function the Pavilion has. There seems to be an exhibition connected to the Pavilion, which has already opened, but there’s no information on what it’s about or where it is.

The Pavilion itself is announced as opening on 13 March. Judging from the state of the worksite it’s going to be a close thing.

Visible cracks, real and illusory

Wednesday 6 February 2008

As has been proved many times before, it is foolish to pass judgement on a work of art before seeing it for yourself. I finally saw Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth at the Tate Modern.
There has been plenty of discussion about the artwork since it was first installed – what it means, how it was made, whether or not it’s any good – so much that it is impossible to not be aware of its existence, nor of what the work consists of. (It’s a crack running the length of the floor in the Tate’s Turbine Hall, growing wider and deeper as it descends from one end to the other.) You could picture the entire installation in your head, except for one little detail that I’ve never heard mentioned when people discuss their visits to see it. At close range, the crack is revealed to be an obvious fabrication, with no attempt to conceal the wire forms embedded in the concrete.

For the weekend crowds peering inside its depths, or hopping back and forth over it, Shibboleth may as well be invisible if its success depends on the interpretation given to it by the artist and the museum:

In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. ‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. … In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.

Even ignoring the fact that the history of racism runs parallel to the history of everything, it’s hard not to read this as a fatuous piece of funding-speak. You don’t have to doubt Salcedo’s personal background and beliefs that support her art to see that her public interpretation of her own art reduces Shibboleth to a one-liner, simplistic and ineffectual. The installation is as much a tourist attraction as the building that houses it. Salcedo may be “keen to remind us” of “the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass”, but Shibboleth, in this context, utterly fails to fulfil her intention.
(Strangely, for all her talk of schisms and exclusions, the only interpretations I’ve seen of the formative mesh in the crack have been either abstractly structural or overly symbolic. I would have thought it made an obvious point that apparently natural divisions in race or religion turn out under closer scrutiny to be artificial, human constructs. Then the art could at least function in its own way as a neat little metaphor, if little more.)
In fact, Salcedo makes out her installation to be less of a work of art than it really is, although its true power may be of a type she did not intend, or even recognise.

The immediate image conveyed by Shibboleth when seen plain, beguilingly forging its path of destruction through the crowds inevitably wandering the Turbine Hall, is not one of division but of entropy. Starting almost undetectable at the high end of the hall, it is allowed to progress, or rather deteriorate, along the floor unchecked until it has opened up into a real tripping hazard for visitors. The image of a cultural institution whose foundations have been permitted to shift, and so decay, is potent; but in the Western World of the early 21st century it speaks to a different dilemma than the artist intended.
The Tate’s claim that the crack “encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves” isn’t exactly true. In truth, its presence embodies our culture’s current readiness to doubt itself, and to question its own origins, validity, and integrity – with little or no outside encouragement. The entropy was built into the system. This self-examination and picking apart of the social assumptions that underpin our culture could lead to renewal, or to disintegration. For a jaded society of sophisticates, the threat of destruction and disaster is extremely seductive. (As one reviewer says, “Salcedo’s cut is always varied and pleasurably violent. I’m not sure the pleasure is intended.”)

Salcedo’s professed aim to expose the dark side of modernity began within modernism itself in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In 1949, Charles Olson reflected on the inability of modernism to cope with the fragmentary nature of reality – it is no coincidence he had invented the word “post-modern” the year before – and wrote in his poem “The Kingfishers”:
When the attentions change / the jungle
leaps in
               even the stones are split
                                                       they rive

Dear University of Wales Press,

Monday 28 January 2008

If you really want my permission to use a photo of a statue of Jeremy Bentham in one of your books, don’t ask me to reply to a nonexistent email address. Also, if you really want me to find out what said book is about, don’t direct me to a placeholder web page written in Welsh. Yrs, etc.

“The Age Demanded” (forgotten post from December)

Monday 21 January 2008

Difference between London graduate art show and Melbourne graduate art show, 2007. Neither were hugely interesting, but for different reasons. The art presented by Melbourne students was sketchy, unfinished: they were still working through concepts rather than making fully-developed work. The British students were showing artworks which were complete, finished objects, but which functioned mostly as decoration or superficially imitated other artists’ ideas.
Nowadays peripheral countries like Australia are artistically affected less by the isolation from the circulation of cultural ideas, than they are by the isolation from the circulation of money.

“You’ve been in the house too long,” she said.

Wednesday 16 January 2008