This collects my ArtUS review of my favourite current (if you hurry!) London show and incidental writings on what I expect to be some particularly interesting exhibitions which open in September. It covers:
Francis Alÿs @ Tate Modern (to 5 Sept)
Alex Gene Morrison @ CHARLIE SMITH London (opens 3 Sept)
Sinta Werner @ Nettie Horn (opens 3 Sept)
The Body in Women's Art: Flux @ ROLLO Contemporary - interview with Philippa Found
Helen Carmel Benigson in 'Flux' (opens 8 Sept)
Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing)
Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception
Tate Modern, London: 15 June – 5 Sept 2010
The Mexican-based Belgian multi-media artist Francis Alÿs came to art late, training as an architect before travelling to Mexico in 1986 on two years voluntary service as an alternative to the army, then staying. Logically enough with that background, his first years in art were very much concerned with deciphering the city – largely through his love of walking through it. And Alÿs kept the architect’s habit of working in collaboration with all kinds of people, coordinating them towards a specific occasion or production. Equally logically, his practice stands somewhat apart from the norm, though a comparison might be made with Christo: the long gestation of carefully planned and expensive projects, funded largely through the sale of studies, which have an ongoing presence in the collective memory.
Alÿs’s knack is to combine complexity with simplicity: on the one hand a proliferation of projects and their differently documented aspects and a probing into relatively subtle political issues – at least compared with the targets of most political art; on the other hand, the ability to distill all that into one simple action-as-parable, making his videos ideal for the gallery context: a fairly brief and arbitrarily-timed viewing will generally set the viewer thinking. And he has been prolific: although this mid-career survey contains twenty five major projects, an equally strong story could have been told through works not chosen. For example, neither of his major examinations of authorship in painting – the Sign Painting Project (1993-97) and the ongoing collection of found canvases of Fabiola – were here.
‘A Story of Deception’, which travels to Brussels (Oct 2010 – Jan 2001) and New York (May-July 2011), is beautifully paced and easy to navigate. Several of Alÿs’s best-known works are here. For example, the absurd excesses of effort over effect of ‘The Loop’ (1997), for which he flew from Mexico to the USA without traversing the Mexico-USA border; and ‘Paradox of Practice’ (1997) in which he pushes an ice block around the streets of Mexico City. That plays off the efforts of the street traders moving their stocks around, which he documents photographically in the same room. There’s the Sisyphean futilities of works which stand in part for the stuttering failures of economic development in South America: the car attempting to mount a hill in ‘Rehearsal 1’ (1999-2001); and ‘When Faith Moves Mountains’ (2000) in which 500 Peruvian volunteers take the romance out of land art by shifting a sand dune a few inches. That chimed with the social and political disruption occurring in Peru at the time, which Alÿs felt called for a gesture ‘futile and heroic, absurd and urgent’. The walks with a social or political point are also here, such as ‘The Green Line’ (1995) dribbling paint along a forgotten border, and the provocations with a gun in Mexico City in ‘Reenactments’ (2000).
But there are also newer and less frequently-seen works. The film of a mirage (2003-06) gives the show its introduction and title, ‘A Story of Deception’. There’s an unusually extensive installation of ‘The Collectors’ (1990-92), magnetized model dogs which Alÿs walked through the city so that they picked up metal detritus. That was, says Alÿs ‘the first piece in which the process of walking was the mechanism to intervene in the urban context: instead of adding to a city which was already saturated, he wanted to absorb from it. I had not previously seen the ‘camguns’, which are sculptural merging of camera and gun, or the film compilation of Alÿs¹s annual attempts to run literally into the eye of the tornado. There are well over a hundred of his scruffy, illogically affecting little paintings, sized to be travelling notes of often-absurd ideas such as a man wading through the sea with a glass of water balanced on his head, or another attempting to hang himself with a rope he holds in the air. The newest paintings, of colourful explosions, are presented alongside sketches and scraps of text, among which ‘it is the struggle that defines utopia’ caught my eye as echoing throughout the show.
The overall complexity provides resonance and points of comparison for simpler works, which might otherwise come across as thin. Thus the ongoing series of films of children’s games can be seen to mirror symbols and structures. They include building sandcastles soon to be washed away, and skimming stones out to sea where they’re bound, however many hops are achieved, to sink… The exhibition finishes with the lyrical video loop ‘Song for Lupita’, in which a woman pours and repours water from one glass into another while singing ‘Mañana’ – suggesting procrastination and optimism together, albeit – to return to the show’s beginning – with the possibility of self-deception.
All of this could feel like too many ideas for one show, and that’s before one starts to make connections between works. And yet the effect is far from heavy, especially considering that Alÿs’s themes are serious and somewhat fatalistic. This almost paradoxical combination of lightness and gravity is made possible, I think, by Alÿs’s ready acceptance of provisionality – not just in his working methods and presentation, but in society. He rubs along with how the world is, pointing out what could be better but too unsurprised to be angry when it turns out not to change. There’s something of the same spirit in the volunteers who move the dune: it may make no sense, but they still have a definite sense of achievement once they have succeeded in shifting the sand. See this show, and you’ll feel better about those inevitable sand-shifting moments in your own life.
STORIES OF THE DEATHLY ABSTRACTS
Alex Gene Morrison: ‘Dark Matter’ at CHARLIE SMITH London
Those who saw Alex Gene Morrison’s last solo show in London, 2006’s ‘Vile Lure’, may be surprised by his new body of work. Four years ago there were paintings and videos of gloopily comical, pastel-coloured characters who seemed to have zoomed in from some unspecified sub-culture: we were in an alternate universe with equal measures of seduction and repulsion. In contrast, Morrison’s new show is of paintings only and is dark, serious, restrained and apparently abstract.
But not so fast. A closer look at the biggest canvases in ‘Dark Matter’ reveals that these may not be so abstract after all. ‘Sentinel’ suggests a door, a tomb or some Cyclopic presence. ‘Mass’ could be a dark planet, a black hole, a ball of flies or an opening into the void: an earlier version even started as an ironically black Smiley face. ‘Static’ could be a another dark opening, but also a huge close-up of a medal with ribbon, a computer screen or even two green faces in profile shouting each other down.
Nor is Morrison all that restrained. Far from disguising the artist’s hand in the flat style of much minimalism, there is a hand-drawn wobble to the shapes and plenty of painterly effect. The black centre of ‘Mass’ has a swarming, crawling texture. The reading of ‘Static’as a screen is supported by the horizontal static-like striations of paint. ‘Sentinel’ contrasts areas of gloss and mat paint. Several smaller paintings make playful use of dark on dark colouration so that shapes are evident from some angles only.
These apparent abstracts, then, all from the last few months, are openings – literally, in those which depict portals, doors and screens – but also metaphorically. Openings into what?
First, they are openings to other places. The visual language echoes the worlds of science fiction and computer games and the urban landscape – all consistent with Morrison’s background and previous interests. Perhaps his characters may yet be ready to occupy these spaces. The paintings in ‘Dark Matter’ also suggest the more abstract world of artists such as Malevich, Rothko and Reinhardt to which they clearly refer.
Those three are spiritual painters, which may be another clue. Morrison’s father died shortly before he embarked on these paintings. That, not surprisingly, affected him profoundly and explains why tombs and coffins can be seen in the paintings, too. It is also consistent with the dark tonality and serious atmosphere of the work, and suggests that those openings may be into the possibility of an afterlife. The solar and planetary elements and the presence of hovering – or possibly rising – forms fits in with that.
The portals may also lead us into different times. The science fiction reference recurs if we see the paintings as depicting a form of time travel. References from the past – eighties technology, primitive video games, classic abstraction – are thrown forward into an imagined future. A future in which – as is the way – it seems the looks of former times have come around back into fashion. It’s a sort of primitive retro-futurism.
The emotional and scientific implications of ‘Dark Matter’ are, then, present throughout. The stage is set for these apparently abstract paintings to imply a surprising amount of narrative content – historical, personal, spiritual, transformational, and speculative. It’s not so much that Morrison has discarded his previous content, as that he’s testing how far he can move away from its figurative characteristics and still refer to it. I get the sense that this game works both ways: some forms start from the narrative, others emerge for themselves and Morrison then has to puzzle out whether and how they fit in. That keeps the process open and fresh.
Abstraction often arrives through a paring-back of references to the world in favour of concentrating on the work of art as an independent object in itself. In one way Morrison has started from that point by concentrating on geometric forms, but then added back the links to the world. Yet one could at the same time say that the result is rather closely related to Rothko’s intentions, for he saw himself not as an abstractionist but as a painter of human emotions.
Morrison’s latest work, then, gives us subtly lush paintings which pilfer the history of abstraction, but also provide openings into other times and places. They are abstracts activated by the to and fro of their stories.
Paul Carey-Kent, August 2010
ALEX GENE MORRISON talks to PAUL CAREY-KENT
What’s with the ‘Gene’?
It’s basically practical. I’ve always been called Alex, though my actual first name is Eugene, but there’s also an American artist called Alex Morrison. That was confusing online, and when I got asked for information about his forthcoming show I decided to do something about it!
Where did you grow up?
In Birmingham in the eighties and nineties. Then I did my degree in London, so I’m very much urban. Birmingham was a brilliant place for what were then the sub-cultures of skateboarding and alternative music. That’s reflected fairly directly in my earlier work, and especially in the videos. My older brother, John, was a bass player in the band Hefner for some years and now collaborates with me by providing the sound tracks to my videos.
How did you come to be an artist rather than a musician?
Music has always been really important to me and I was in a few bands, but was pretty crap. So I don’t think there ever was a point where I was going to be a musician rather than an artist - I left the music to my brother. As a kid I was constantly inventing games and worlds for myself by drawing, and I was always encouraged in that by my parents.
The pastel colours and human-like characters of your videos and previous paintings don’t feature in this new show. Why is that?
In part it was a conscious decision to change my approach and palette, but without question the enormity of losing my Dad in 2009, which was a strange and affecting experience, was bound to have an impact on the work.
So your father’s death reinforced changes which were already occurring?
Yes, I already wanted to make the shift from one kind of alternate reality to another with a different feel to it – more solid, or maybe the same world but with the lights turned off: with dark things in dark spaces rather than light things in light spaces. Perhaps a world in an in-between state, like something evolving. And it feels nice to show something that’s the start of something – I didn’t want a show that felt like the end of something I was exhausting.
And the change in colours?
That was a real decision to do the opposite of paintings which were getting lighter and lighter. I wanted a conscious shift. I wanted a stronger palette with a dated feel but which still felt modern – parallel to the way fashions come around again.
The new paintings look rather like abstractions. Are they?
No. As well as being form, colour and shape buzzing against each other, I want them to be readable as things. That – as well as my love of sci-fi films like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, may also lie behind the presence of gateways and portals. I wouldn’t want to get rid of all those things I am interested in: I don’t feel I could get up in the morning just to work on pure colour theory or geometry. I want to take that stuff and then try to do something with it. We have the liberty nowadays to appropriate things quite shamelessly and then look to do something with them – but you do need to do something to justify it.
Though there is one face in view?
Yes, ‘Self portrait as the skull of an Apeman’ is the oldest painting in this show and something of a link to earlier work. Despite references to the ‘technological sublime’ and an interest in new technology in relation to painting I still want the paintings to be expressive, physical and sort of primitive . So ‘Self Portrait’ relates to that more bluntly in a symbolic way. However by depopulating the spaces and making them less specific I have allowed myself to be freer with the exploration of painting processes.
So the science fiction could stand in for the creative process?
Yes, definitely. You’re never settled with your own paintings – you can’t have that experience of finality which you have with other people’s work. One painting is always a step in moving on towards the future paintings. You’re always looking to move on. But things also tend to be cyclical and old ideas come back up again in new forms.
Are you deliberately referencing abstract artists?
Yes, I like playing games with art history and its genres. Here I’m absorbing a different kind of painting history, which has always interested me but I haven’t directly used before. I wanted to use it to create a new language, recognizing it’s impossible to make a painting that doesn’t refer to other paintings. I like the kind of time travel aspect of referencing Malevich, Rothko and Reinhardt while still keeping the viewer in the present.
How do the paintings come about?
I get there through the process of painting and repainting on a small scale, plus photographing them and then messing around with them on photoshop to try different things. It’s a matter of letting the thoughts and influences float in and out without crowbarring them too much, and then seeing what comes about.
Although you haven’t made videos for this show, the paintings also have the feel of video games…
That is a massively integral part of my aesthetic. I’m aesthetically interested in the clunky feel of early computer games like Pong, which came about from their limitations – having to use flat planes, restricted colours and vector graphics to show space. But then if I made video which looked like these paintings it would look just like old computer games. I didn’t want that, and I wanted to assert that painting has always been my core concern.
There are also what look like blank screens?
Yes, there may be a connection there. The screens are important for how they look out at you and you look into it them.
What’s the hovering motif about?
When my Dad died I felt like someone had literally lifted me and it was a few days before I felt I had my feet back on the ground. I think that led to the idea of painting things which were being affected by some force or other, or being held in a state of balance from which they might be knocked off. A sense of weightiness and solidity contrasted with lightness and floatiness, but also with a science fiction or magical feel, together with the sense that painting can do whatever it likes.
Are the paintings set in any particular time?
Well hopefully the past, present and future! The past projected into the future or the other way around. Definitely not just ‘now’.
SPACES OF DISILLUSION
SINTA WERNER talks to Paul Carey-Kent (for Nettie Horn)
Grey Areas (2008)
Over the past few years, the young German artist Sinta Werner has become known for the site-specific and site-responsive installations she has made across Europe. They reconfigure spaces to provide spectators with one coherent and momentarily straightforward view, only for that to collapse into myriad alternatives when the viewer moves. The effect is typically of trompe l’oeil in reverse: instead of a two dimensional illusion of three dimensions, Werner conjures a three dimensional illusion of two dimensions. It’s an entertainment in itself when the spectator’s shift reveals the mechanisms of the deception, but that also brings a fresh focus to the gallery space, exposes the differences between classical and modern understandings of the world, and provides a post-modern illustration of how multiple points of view undermine any expectation of objective truth. Her new show, ‘Along the Sight Lines’, takes those concerns in a digital direction which also brings virtual worlds to mind, and is accompanied by collages which address parallel issues.
How should your name be pronounced?
Sinta is an Indonesian name, which should strictly have more of a ‘d’ than a ‘t’ in it, with even stresses on the syllables – but as a German I say ‘t’. ‘Werner’ is a German first name and should be pronounced with a ‘V’ in English.
What led you to become an artist?
I grew up in Karlsruhe in south-west Germany. My interest in drawing and painting doesn’t come from my parents – who are engineers – but was always just there. At eighteen I moved to Berlin by myself, lived in a squat, and got to know artists. After three years there I started my artistic training, which included gaining an MA from Goldsmiths in 2007.
You work as Franz Ackermann’s assistant. Is that helpful?
Yes, it gives me an ideal balance. I have been doing it for five years – apart from my year in London – for two days a week, with some extra time traveling to make wall paintings. In fact I trained as a painter before I switched to installation at Goldsmiths, but now I don’t paint much apart from as an assistant – although
in some works I include the process of painting, for example
in ‘Along the Sight Lines’ I have painted a realistic image of the space into the space.
How do your installations develop?
I start by looking at the space for the exhibition – my ideas develop from that – and I build a model of the space and respond to it. Then I was on site for nearly two weeks to build ‘Along the Sight Lines’, fitting it to the actual space.
How does ‘Along the Sight Lines’ work?
There is a double exposure of one image, so that the first image is the real space and the second image is the same space two steps to the right, so you see it from two different angles pushed together. I want to materialise a photograph and at the same time dematerialise the space by letting it appear transparent.
What perspective do you use?
The way I construct installations is taken from one point perspective – I use strings and a tripod in order to set out the perspectives to be followed. That then forms a window on the space which works in the same way as in the theory of renaissance perspective, such as Alberti’s visual pyramid in which everything within the triangular set of rays leading back to the eye makes the picture which is the base of the pyramid. But as the viewer moves around my installations, there are multiple perspectives.
There’s something mathematically exact in your work, then, but the result is quite mysterious, perhaps uncanny…
Yes I like these contradictions. I use the basic principles of geometry to build precise constructions, but what happens is meant to be less logical and more dreamlike.
Would you describe your work as theatrical?
Yes, as the spectator is at the same time a kind of performer on the stage, and there is a front side and a back side to the work. As in a stage set, you can experience the work from ‘behind the scenes’. And, as my work is always in between two and three dimensions, that led me to an interest in the foreshortened stage as an element of theatre design. My installations, like stage designs, are about setting up an image in space.
Do you aim to trick the spectator?
I enjoy that, yes, but the trick only lasts for a second, so it’s more about the disillusionment than about the initial illusion. It's about centering the spectator when they stand at a particular viewing point, but then giving them all the other different possible places to look at the installation from – from which it is something fragmented and cubist, like a space falling out of the original space. The other perspectives interest me more than the moment of trickery.
In several installations, such as ‘Grey Areas’ (your previous show at Nettie Horn) you have set up imaginary mirrors. What’s that about?
It’s about the idea of flattening an image, reversing the idea of illusory depth in a painting so that it’s the flatness which is an illusion. There is also something psychological about experiencing the mirror but not your own mirror image in it.
The mirror also proposes another world you could step into. I’m interested in how Foucault used the metaphor of the mirror in his lecture ‘Of Other Spaces’ (1967). He introduces ‘heterotopias’ as alternative spaces which work in the same way as utopias but which are real spaces – like a garden, cemetery or prison – spaces which are relevant for society in order to be other, yet which also reflect the society itself. The mirror stands for the utopia as well as the heterotopia.
Is the gallery a heterotopia in that way?
Yes, and as I don’t make a proper artwork in the usual way, the gallery space is left open to reflect on itself at another level. You can then think about how the space looks architecturally and what the gallery space is made for. My proposals are in one way an empty gallery space. What interests me is breaking the borders between the architecture and the work – what is the gallery space and what is the art work? The gallery space itself becomes part of the work.
Is there a sense in which you make not just the gallery, but also the viewer, disappear?
Yes, there is a parallel. The viewer should become aware of his own position and performance in the space, but at the same time he is not visible in the mirror. And maybe there is a parallel with the gallery space in that by representing and doubling the architecture you point to it and give it room to be looked at.
Does the way the viewer sees behind the illusion in your installations stand in for how we may be disillusioned in life?
It can do, yes. It points up how you can’t really trust anything you perceive, there are always different viewpoints, there is not one truth, everything is very subjective and changing all the time. And the world is mediated through 2D media which you come to rely on.
Foucault said that the anxiety of modern times has to do with space more than with time. Are your installations all about space, or is there time in there as well?
It’s more about stagnated time. This new installation uses digital media somewhat like making a virtual reality, in which you would sit in front of the screen and the space would be what moves around you. That way, the relationship between spectator and space is reversed compared with the one in reality. In 'Along the Sight Lines' you leave the fixed standing point – as the one in front of a photograph or a computer screen - and you are able to see behind the construction or to see a construction that doesn't work any more. Either way, time is stagnated but the movement in time changes the way the space is seen.
Could you say something about your collages?
They are made from photographs I take myself, and like my installations they explore the space between two and three dimensions. I am showing a new series using landscapes with certain elements cut out such that they look a bit like hallucinations and propose some other dimension – like a fourth dimension.
How do the collages relate to the installations?
Sometimes they lead to ideas for installation, sometimes they don’t - but when I make collages I always imagine how they would look as real spaces transferred to three dimensions. I think of them as sketches for something which could be three dimensional, even if I can’t make them in practice, for example because it is of a huge mountain.
Who inspires you?
I particularly like Matisse, and also minimalist artists. Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark, Jan Dibbets and Richard Wilson are interesting artists who share some of my concerns.
'The Body in Women's Art: Flux' @ ROLLO Contemporary
ROLLO Contemporary Art in Cleveland Street, London, shows The Body in Women’s Art 2: Flux from 8 Sept - 5 Nov. The exhibition, which will then travel to New Hall, Cambridge, features work by Tracey Emin, Cecily Brown, Natalie Djurberg, Tiina Heiska, Sarah Lederman and Helen Carmel Benigson. It forms part of a wide-ranging three-part survey with accompanying catalogues *. I talked to its curator, Philippa Found, about the thinking behind the project and the artists featured.
Cecily Brown: New Louboutin Pumps, 2005
PCK: This is the second part of three. What are the themes across the exhibitions?
PF: The idea of the project was to review the women’s art of the last decade that focuses on the body, and suggest three themes that seemed characteristic of this period.
Part 1: Embodied examined the resurgence of political performance-based art in the last decade, investigating this use of the physical body as a vehicle to explore cultural identity. The exhibition featured four international women artists: Sigalit Landau, Regina José Galindo, Jessica Lagunas, and Lydia Maria Julien.
Part 2: Flux investigates the representation of the body, and specifically the presentation of the body as a site of instability. The exhibition considers how the assertion of the uncontrollable nature of the female body might be seen to reinterpret and disrupt its traditional representations to present a contemporary body of flux, freedom and sexuality.
Part 3 will look at more abstract definitions of the body, the evocation of the body without the physical presence of a body, and the changing relationship between the body and its outside environment.
PCK: Why does it seem particularly relevant to return now to the subject of the body in women’s art which was notably well explored in the 1960’s - 70s and again in the 1980’s – 90’s?
PF: The end of the decade offers a good opportunity to review its defining themes and movements, and I felt there had been little analysis of the body in women’s art as a subject since the ‘Bad Girls’ in the 1990s. There seemed to be a lot of strong, theoretically engaged work being made by women artists focusing on the body, which warranted updating with critical attention.
I was also inspired by the book The Artist’s Body (edited by Tracey Warr: Phaidon, 2000), which reviewed the relationship between the artist and the body from 1960–2000, approaching the topic thematically through such subjects as ‘Body Boundaries’ and ‘Performing Identity’. My exhibition series is asking: if The Artist’s Body continued to date with three more chapters, what would those chapters focus on? So it is fantastic that Tracey has worked with me and contributed an essay to the book of the exhibition*.
PCK: Compared with, say, the 1970’s, how do you see the relationship of women to their bodies having changed in society as a whole?
PF: I think the impact of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the Bad Girls culture of the 90s has had profound effect on changing attitudes to the body . I also think there is far more sexual liberation now: women can be much more open with their sexuality and in expressing their desires, which is positive.
Yet there seems be a flip side; in that the sexualisation of women is more overt in mainstream culture – in the lads mag, the normalisation of strip clubs, pole dancing classes etc. There’s a danger that society might just be repositioning women as sexual objects for male consumption rather than supporting female empowerment. There is a very interesting recent book, written by Natasha Walter, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, which addresses this idea.
The normalisation of plastic surgery has also had a huge effect. There is an ever-increasing pressure on women to attain the ‘ideal’ body – which leads to increased body anxiety – caused and perpetuated by an increasing bombardment of these unobtainable ideals in advertising, fashion and beauty magazines. Anxiety around aging, dieting and body aesthetics seems to have escalated. A culture of insecurity is rife. Women have ever more freedom and yet conversely there’s an increasingly narrowed ideal being targeted at them. The position of women in society as a whole – as well as the relationship women have with their bodies – is becoming ever more complex.
PCK: And how are those changes reflected in the art being made now compared with that in the 1970’s?
PF: In the high gloss aesthetic of a lot of body art. Generally the performance and video art being made today isn’t the grainy documentary style that it was in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s much more evocative of MTV, pop videos and advertising – suggesting that these are very real forces in defining women’s attitudes to the body, which artists are appropriating in order to tackle.
This idea of the changing ideal and its relationship to capitalism was addressed through Jessica Lagunas’ videos in Part 1: Embodied. The artist applied make up continually for an hour in repeated and exaggerated gesture to reflect the pressures imposed on women in society to modify the body to reach ‘perfection’. The video mimicked the high gloss aesthetic of advertising and its tendency to crop the female body to one part, so that to start with it’s almost as if it’s an advert for a make up brand – yet as it continues it becomes clear that this is a parody of the representation of the female body as presented in contemporary visual culture, and one which undermines its authority by re-presenting it in terms of insecurity and obsession.
That exhibition also included Regina Jose Galindo’s Cut Through the Line, in which the artist hired a top plastic surgeon to mark her (beautifully proportioned and slim) naked body with all the lines of surgery that would be required to transform her into the ‘ideal’ as dictated in western society. This marking up continues for over 38 minutes – making overt the bizarre, extreme and brutal scrutiny projected onto women and their bodies.
Looking at the artists in Part 2 and the presentations of the body as a sexual entity, it seems overall today that women are proudly proclaiming their femininity and sexuality rather than rallying against attitudes to it or campaigning for gender equality. The artists acknowledge and explore the complex dynamics of being sexual objects – the degrees of complicity, nonchalance and empowerment – rather than simply rejecting it or trying to subvert it.
I feel that women’s art today is also more overt in assuming a female subjectivity, so that a female rather than male viewer can be assumed. That moves beyond the art historical tradition in which the feminine is seen as an artificial construct derived from the primary ‘male gaze’ of men taking pleasure in looking at a passive female object. Consistent with that, criticism has moved on: today’s women artists can present the female body as a site of sexual pleasure without being accused - as they would have been in the 1970’s - of ‘essentialism’, that is of displaying their body/sexuality in a way which reinforces the idea that women are defined by their sexual parts.
Sarah Lederman: Ascending in Tights I, 2009
PCK: The Body in Women’s Art Now: Part 2 deals with flux. What types of flux are the artists concerned with?
PF: The ephemerality of the body (which is another concern more prominent than in the 70’s) – its aging, changing and degradation (Djurberg/Lederman/Heiska). Also the body’s potential to experience and express desire, passion and sensuality; an erotic state of flux (Brown/Emin). Three of the artists focus on adolescence (Heiska, Lederman, Benigson) – a period when the body is in physical flux, and identity is in flux as a sense of self is defined. All the artists conjure ambiguous and complex positions – Lederman’s female nudes could be seen to be vulnerable or provocative, Benigson overtly displays hyper-femininity as parody or celebration – and so the works teeter on the edge of opposite interpretations which in itself is a ‘flux’.
PCK: Can both Cecily Brown and Sarah Lederman’s work be seen as critiques of male attitudes and the art which expresses them?
PF: They can, yes. Brown’s work is often read as a ‘feminisation’ of male abstract expressionism – as Brown’s paintings of erotic subject matter go against the art history tradition of painting as a product of the male sexual drive . And Sarah Lederman’s paintings of the female body as a drippy, fluid and messy undermine traditional male depictions of the female body as neat, pretty and contained.
PCK: Is there, then, a danger of them having their agenda defined by the male through how they react to it?
I don’t think either artist’s work is limited to that one interpretation. Far from their work being defined by men, I see them as engaging with and articulating a female subjectivity. As Tracey Warr says in her catalogue essay The Hysterical Sense of Leaking*, Brown’s work articulates the sensation of sex from a women’s point of view. Speaking of New Louboutin Pumps, 2005, Warr says ‘This painting depicts a female experience and a female space: part artist’s studio and part boudoir. This is a different site of desire from the female body exposed and displayed for the male gaze. In this female version all is focused on the sensation of the entered vagina.’
Meanwhile, Lederman talks of her work as being strongly influenced by her childhood fantasies and fairytales, and presenting her memories of the loss of innocence and of adolescent desire and awkwardness. Brown and Lederman’s work – like any in the present – can of course be read in relation to what has preceded it, which in the case of art is a history which is predominantly male. But both go beyond that to make women’s art for a female audience – the men don’t need to come into it.
PCK: Tracey Emin’s work is often seen as neurotic, but you present it in more celebratory terms?
PF: Yes - in the way they unashamedly describe women’s sexuality. I remember at the time of the Suffer Love exhibition at White Cube in 2009 there was an article prompted by Emin’s mono-prints and video animation of her masturbating , which asked whether female masturbation was the last taboo. I don’t necessarily think it is, but the fact that Emin’s work can be seen to break a taboo – and one which is about denying or suppressing women’s sexuality – surely has to be celebratory.
Tiina Heiska: Untitled from the series Butterfly Caught (no. 5), 2008
PCK: There is something sinister about both Natalie Djurberg’s claymotion videos and Tiina Heiska’s paintings of herself as an adolescent. Could you say something about that, and the empowerment represented in their approaches?
PF: Djurberg’s films are like twisted folk tales: the aesthetic is akin to children’s television but the themes are dark – sadism, bestiality, death – all set against toy chime music by Hans Berg, which makes them even more deliriously dark. The sinister aspect of Djurberg’s work is that her characters don’t have consciences, they act on their wild impulses – but that’s quite liberating!
Heiska’s paintings have a cinematic quality, especially reminiscent of Hitchcock. Her characters always seem laced in latent danger with a sense of voyeurism and tension. I’m fascinated by the ambiguity surrounding the female character in her work: you can’t tell if she is a child or adult – herself or a fictitious character – being stalked or part of a complicit game. Her characters may be seen as vulnerable or as reflections of women’s fantasies – whether that fantasy be a sexual one, or one about reclaiming youth.
Helen Carmel Benigson: still from the video Wet/Wet, 2010
PCK: Helen Carmel Benigson plays complex games with her self-identity, for example by representing herself through others. How does that relate to the themes of the show?
At times the artist is the central character in Helen’s work, at other times it’s her cousin, who looks almost indistinguishable from her. This means you’re never 100% sure whether the woman in her video is Benigson or her cousin. At other times Benigson stars as her alter-ego ‘Princess Belsize Dollar’ - a rapper. Benigson’s indefinable ‘self’ complicates the notion of identity being a fixed entity, suggesting it may be performed or exist in flux. What I think is fascinating are the dichotomies that her works embody – presenting her identity as a religious follower and a rapper, or pivoting between parodying the objectification of women and being an active participant in that.
Benigson assimilates a plethora of seemingly contrasting historic and cultural stereotypes and characteristics, and rather than fighting them, assumes them all as components contributing to her vision of contemporary identity – an identity formed from a multitude of opposing factors. By embodying contradictions and complexities, by complicating and rupturing tradition, by challenging objectification but also proposing the body as a site of pleasure, she shows the complexity of contemporary feminine identity.
PCK: Looking more broadly, is there any evidence that less attention is still given to work by women than to work by men?
PF: Speaking from a British perspective, unfortunately yes – this is evident in the comparative number of museum solo shows, the number of top prize winners, and the auction records for male and female artists. I researched this for Part 1 and found that between 2000–09 approximately 62% of students graduating with degrees in the creative arts in the U.K. were female. Conversely, however, since 2000 only 29% of solo exhibitions at the Tate Modern had been of women artist’s works. Similarly, out of the 116 artists who had been short-listed for the Turner Prize since its origins in 1984, only 35 had been women – and only three women had won the Prize.
PCK: How is that reflected in the market?
PF: Currently the highest auction price for a female artist is £6.6m paid in 2008 for The Flowers by Natalia Gonchavora (1881-1962). The record for a male artist is £65m for Alberto Giacometti’s statue L'Homme qui Marche in 2010. There’s quite a significant gap!
Tracey Emin made the very interesting documentary What Price Art? (2006) for Channel 4 regarding the disparity between the prices women artists’ works attain and those of men. That sadly but powerfully highlighted similar disparities in the prices of work of contemporary artists who are deemed to be equally significant in terms of exhibition history or critical acclaim.
PCK: Given that imbalance, what would you like to see done?
PF: I’d love to see the history of feminism and women’s art movements adequately reflected in the history of art which is presented in museums. I think there’s a real disjuncture between the history of 20th century art that’s being taught at universities (where feminism is presented as such an integral movement) and the one that’s reflected on our museum walls. We need big museum shows to address women’s art movements - like the Pompidou’s elles, except here in the UK.
Ultimately I’d love to see some buying committees specifically for women’s art in our museums – as happens very actively based on the nationality of artists And more female directors (currently only six of the 28 members of the The National Museums Directors Conference Association are women). The boys have had their turn defining art history, it’s time for the girls now.
* Exhibition catalogues can be bought from ROLLO Contemporary Art: Part 1: Embodied (with essays by Philippa Found and Dr Harriet Riches) and Part 2: Flux (with essays by Tracey Warr, Philippa Found and Paul Carey-Kent).
Images courtsey the artists and ROLLO Contemporary Art
Helen Carmel Benigson in 'Flux'
HELEN CARMEL BENIGSON - PROVOCATIONS IN PINK (for Rollo Contemporary)
Helen Carmel Benigson’s videos Wet/Wet (2009) and Saturation Between My Legs (2009) form part of a provocative practice which turns on two different but compatible ways of exploring boundaries.
First, Benigson directly probes such borders as those between the self and the world; art and life; power and submission; the natural and the artificial; sex and violence; consumerism and religion; and inside and outside. Evidently, she is no respecter of conventionally-drawn lines.
Second, Benigson operates at the edges of aesthetic boundaries, close to the cloying, the hackneyed, the sentimental, the girlish. Taking the risk of slipping into the ‘wrong’ – i.e. non-art – category has provided many contemporary artists with an effective dynamic. The way Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin work with pornography and kitsch, or Takashi Murakami and Yoshimoto Nara spin off from manga, provide parallel examples – though perhaps Shana Moulton’s use of new age imagery and Sylvie Fleury’s exploitation of advertising glamour are closer to Benigson’s spirit.
Born in London in 1985, Benigson has always seen herself as making art, though that includes rap performances as well as printmaking and, most typically, videos – often shown in installations which crank up the heady atmosphere. She has a Jewish background, has often visited Israel and is a practising religious believer. That doesn’t stop her – and why should it? – foregrounding sexuality in her work, though that conjunction is an interesting and potentially uncomfortable one.
Benigson works cumulatively, in that she has developed a set of obsessions-come-symbols and a personal language in which they are set. Both recur in different forms from film to film. Layered meanings accrue through the repeated use of lollipops; cupcakes; globes; eyes; liquids; guns; the Wailing Wall; flowers, especially roses; and a mania for pink. The style is also cumulative: rap and the musical track as a structuring device; video overlays and inserts; colour intensification; the use of surrogates; sexual blooming. As a result her work is highly distinctive visually, and the recurring motifs allow us to read through one work into the others and build up a sense of her world.
By way of illustration, Benigson’s earlier video works include the soft-hard contrast of a pink underwear-clad dance with a gun (Planes (2009)); a sexual rap to images of explosions and the Wailing Wall (Blow Up (2009)); semi-naked gyrations in which virtual hearts seem to infest her breasts (Micro Soft (2009)); a profession of desire for the phallic gun regardless of the threat of venereal disease, apparently represented by viral lollipops and set, paradoxically, in a cleansing pool (Ani Ochivet Your Gun Even Though It Causes Infection (2009)); and the female sexualisation of an archetypal male pursuit (Playing Football Inside You (2010)). Nearly all feature pink roses, whether straight, as video collages, or in wallpaper on the set.
Much of Benigson’s world might be described as ‘hyper-feminine’ in a traditional sense. It would be easy to think that this is an assertive exaggeration of what might be seen as negative stereotypes of women’s interests. Consider John Berger’s succinct statement in ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972): ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.’
An assertion of the feminine world would meet the criticism of earlier feminists for seeking to challenge male power by adopting male paradigms – Margaret Thatcher as a ‘better man’ than her Cabinet colleagues, for instance. But it would still be defining women, indirectly, in response to the male gaze - and that’s not what Benigson wants to do. Rather, her enthusiasm for ‘girlish things’ is genuine, unironic and independent of any take on feminist positions. ‘Anything sweet, anything dairy’ is her summary . Indeed, Benigson says that if she could she would sooner run a supermarket than make art, though presumably the Benigson Mart might turn out to be art anyway.
In a parallel way, her sexuality is displayed as much for women as for men, and from a position not of ignorance or rejection of the norms and options for challenging stereotypes, but of having moved beyond the debate in the terms in which Berger couches it. It’s not, I think, that Benigson defies orthodox views about what feminine empowerment or political correctness or religious piety ought to be: it’s that she doesn’t even dignify those orthodoxies with the need for defiance, and so gives them no chance to influence her by how she reacts against them.
So that’s one group of border issues: Benigson sets equally to one side the traditional boundaries on women, the potentially conservative strictures of her own religious beliefs, and the revisionist views of feminists. She does so in order to make fresh use of an aesthetic which blithely rubs up against the edges of the saccharine and of conventional male fantasy. The second group of boundaries is brought into play by setting off contrasts in the content of the work itself. I will consider how Benigson does that for issues around personal identity, the ambiguous nature of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, and the question of who is in control.
Our traditional sense of our own personal identity makes a strong distinction between how things appear to us from the inside and how they look to others outside of us. The nature of that distinction may have been challenged by behaviourists and radically explored by phenomenology, but its common sense grip remains powerful. We are, though, forever seeing inside Benigson’s protagonists, as through the globe which opens up an inner world in Saturation Between My Legs. There’s a reference here, I think, to the more directly anatomical use of interior video by Pipilotti Rist and Mona Hartoum, but with the new twist that the inner body reveals the thought process. Benigson says her friends tell her that ‘looking at my work is like looking inside my brain’ , and that seems so, though I would expand it a little to say that we see into and through the body of Benigson (and her alter egos) and find… a mind. It can feel a little like a female take on that typical summation of male obsession: ‘he thinks with his cock’.
The distinction of the self from others is also broken down in a playful way, for Benigson uses at least three ‘selves’. In addition to Helen Carmel, there’s her own rapper persona, ‘Princess Dollar Belsize’, in whose guise she appears in performance and in some videos, she uses her cousin as a frequent video surrogate, saying that ‘she is like another version of me’ . She also has an alter ego male rapper proclaim her words while a rabbi prays simultaneously (Sweet Baby Sexy Girl Works (2009)), and has adopted a collage made by her boyfriend from her own photographs as her usual source of rose images.
It’s pretty clear where the control lies, though. We hear Benigson repeatedly directing her cousin in I Like It When My Body Goes Boom Boom Boom (2009) to come ‘closer, closer to me’. Benigson has chosen the prayers for the priest and written the words for the rapper– he must now, it seems, attempt to seduce her at her command with the words she wrote to seduce him. Or maybe it’s all to seduce us, like a refracted play on Vito Acconci’s Theme Song (1973). In that film the artist, with a disturbing assumption of intimacy, manipulatively and hypnotically attempts to seduce his viewer before eventually admitting pathetically that ‘I’m only kidding myself...You're not here.'
Acconci’s game seems prescient of the atmosphere of the more menacing aspects of internet chat, and it does feel as if we’re seeing an online version of Benigson –
Constructed, as the online world can so easily be, out of as many fictions she wishes. It certainly feels like the generation after the YBAs, and Benigson herself says she finds Tracey Emin’s work ‘is like reading her diary’, whereas her own ‘is like looking at my Facebook profile and printing it out and then sticking it on your walls, your floor and in your bed’.
Given this background, we can see how Wet/Wet and Saturation Between My Legs pull together Benigson’s themes. Wet/Wet bursts into hypnotically-coloured triple-layered images of a multi-cultural mix which includes the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, standing in for Benigson’s more often-seen globe; the Wailing Wall; sushi, which seems to morph into her more characteristic roses; and plenty of liquid and flowers. Benigson plays herself, and the soundtrack is Cheryl Cole singing ‘Fight for This Love’. In the Israeli context, the words ‘Anything that’s worth having / Is sure enough worth fighting for’ gain a political import Cheryl probably intended no more than she meant to foreshadow the recurrence of problems with husband Ashley. There are also some irruptions from ambient sound, which turns out to include Paris Hilton’s sex tape: it is typical of Benigson to take a bit of ownership when she uses other people’s music by playing it in a specific place, as affected by her world, not simply as it is in its digital purity. Wet/Wet concludes with an extra-large rose, a cupcake with a nipple-like cherry on top and the sound of wailers at the wall: a video supermarket mix of the personal and political rubbing up against any number of potential boundaries.
Benigson’s cousin plays her part in Saturation Between My Legs. The integration of a screen-sized eye into the layered images emphasises her gazed-upon status, but she adopts a blank expression which challenges us to wonder what she makes of her apparent objectification. We can only conclude that she doesn’t care. Or care what we think. She sits with a globe between her legs, but with a circle of imagery imposed on it. That may stand, we can surmise from the symbols used in other videos, not just for the obvious globe, eye and vagina but also for a speculum, a Petri dish with bacteria, a pool, the stigma of a flower (containing, of course, the female parts) and the worldwide saturation of images. At several points the globe fills with fireworks, at once violent and orgasmic. The last frame shows a rose cut into a rose: what’s in an alter ego, one may ask, that by any other name Benigson’s tastes remain as sweet?
Overall, then, Helen Carmel, Princess Belsize Dollar and her cousin lure us into plenty of layered complexity through their seductive visual hooks. Or as Benigson’s rap invitation provocatively puts it ‘you should come and link me late one night’.