At the start of November I spent a day in each of four north-of-London cities which, while they seem too close to the capital to support a significant commercial art sector, did nonetheless have plenty of art on show.
The Liverpool Biennial has received very positive reviews, and one can see why: it is easy to walk between venues, several of which make a virtue of buildings being derelict; the choice of artists is excellent; and many have responded well to the chance to make new work for the occasion. Add such significant subsidiary shows as the John Moores painting prize at the Walker and Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the A Foundation, and there is such a feast that our only problem was that everything opens only 10-6. But maybe that’s just to free up time for the permanent public art, notably Richard Wilson’s ‘Turning the Place Over’ and the hundred Antony Gormley figures on Crosby beach.
Tehching Hsieh: One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece)
One of the most striking rooms at the Biennial contained work by Tehching Hsieh, who has made no art since 1986. That's when he concluded the fifth of his year-long performances which explore the passing of time with frightening tenacity. Hsieh is well-known in America, having emigrated there from Taiwan, but this was his first exhibition in England. It documents the second of his one year performances: after spending twelve months of 1978-79 in a cage, Hseih punched a time clock every hour, on the hour, day and night, during 1980-81. That is presented through various documentary proofs, including some 8,000 individual photographs and a six minute movie of his appearance at the time of punching (shown at one second per hour. The growth of his hair, uncut for the year, is the most obvious variation. Hsieh went on to spend 1981-82 entirely outside, 1983-84 tied to a woman with a rope, and 1985-86 wholly avoiding art as, as it were, art.
Rosa Barba: Free Post Mersey Tunnels
Many of the Biennial’s commissions sought to bring Liverpool into the work, none more successfully than Italian film and installation artist Rosa Barba’s sound-sculpture of pipes. ‘Free Post Mersey Tunnels’ combined a sinuous yet intestinal space-filling form (derived from the river’s ventilation tunnels) with the sound of the traffic and air movements which occurs in those spaces. The exposure of inner workings – the guts of the city, perhaps – chimes with the ingenious video-related work which Barba has running concurrently in the Tate Modern, which draws more attention to its mechanical means than to its apparent end products.
Pablo Wendel: Terracotta Warrior, 2006 in Bloomberg New Contemporaries – A Foundation
The funniest – if far from the newest - piece in Bloomberg New Contemporaries was a neat commentary on the nature of artistic truth and fakery. The young German artist Pablo Wendel, who was then studying in Hangzhou, disguised himself as one of the 2,000 terracotta warriors guarding the tomb of Qin Shihuang in North-West China. In the eight minute video which resulted, the guards find him hard to distinguish from the army, but once they do are startled to come across a warrior who seems alive. Cue incomprehending astonishment and increasingly panic-stricken attempts to decide what to do about a situation clearly not covered by the rule book.
Manchester was the venue for the 2nd edition of The Manchester Contemporary, a fair with a dozen well-chosen galleries (four from London, two from abroad, the rest from round Britain), together with partner and project presentations. There were no weak links in a relaxed mixture of solo, duo and multiple presentations of artists. Add to that the reliable City and Whitworth Galleries and the adventurous Cornerhouse and Castlefield spaces, and Manchester also provided a pretty full day.
Marcus Coates: The Confused Apamea furva (Cockayne, 1950), 2010 @ Workplace Gallery (Gateshead) in The Manchester Contemporary
It’s delightfully hard to be sure how seriously Marcus Coates takes the pseudo-shamanistic performances in which he purports to reach spirit worlds while dressed in the guise of one animal or another – though the scripts are alarmingly plausible. More plausible, surely, than attempting to disguise himself in turn as each of the 21 species of British moth simply by moulding shaving cream onto his face. And yet…
Richard Wilson: Earthquake Collage, 2007 @ Work/Projects (Bristol)in The Manchester Contemporary
Having just seen ‘Turning the Place Over’ in Liverpool, it was timely to come across Richard Wilson’s half-humorous, half-apocalyptic, decidedly cubist set of ten collage versions of the de la Warr pavilion under extreme duress. It's spirit is consistent with the space-tweaking subversions of his major installations, through which for example architecture gets pulled around (‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window’), turned upsidedown (‘Set North for Japan’), moves (‘Turning the Place Over’) or rendered senseless (‘Squaring the Block', of which Work/Projects had a great maquette).
Evangelia Spiliopoulou @ Bureau (Manchester) in The Manchester Contemporary
Manchester’s own Bureau showed work by the locally-based Greek artist Evangelia Spiliopoulou, who had her first solo show in parallel at the gallery itself. She showed works which adopt a surprising and appealing internal logic by beginning and ending in Microsoft Word. Spiliopoulou generates philosophical-sounding sentences which she then uses as a starting point for similarly abstract drawings which attempt – rather winningly – to capture the concepts behind the words. She uses the Microsoft Word programme which – unbeknown to me after years of use – can actually generate quite a wide range of drawings. There are limitations to the programme, of course, but that’s part of the appeal: the rules of the computer programme stand in for the rules of the academic drawing in which Spiliopoulou trained.
Birmingham is much the trickiest of these cities to navigate: eg it’s a couple of miles from Ikon’s main space at Brindleyplace to its East Side satellite in Digbeth, but walking between them is faster than any of the convoluted public transport options. Nonetheless, the East Side has started to develop a lively scene in recent years…
AVPD: ‘Conceal’ and ‘Hitchcock Hallway’ at the Ikon Gallery
AVPD are Danish artists Aslak Vibæk and Peter Døssing, who have enjoyed undermining our perceptual expectations for some years, notably by setting up false windows to imitate the exact lighting through real windows in the same building in Double Exposure, 2007. They showed layerings of experience at both Ikon galleries. In the main space, they had added extra sheets of glass to a window, demonstrating one way in which the more means you add to facilitate looking into something, the less you can see. At Ikon Eastside, they filled the space with eleven consecutive and identical small white rooms. Each, on entry, was dominated by the door into the next room in the sequence. Is that what life has been reduced to, I wondered, a succession of indistinguishable experiences dominated by moving on to the next one, until at the twelth time of asking, you are by-now-unexpectedly ejected into the street?
Jamie Shovlin: Hiker Meat @ Grand Union, 19 Fazeley Industrial Estate, Birmingham East Side
The art public is probably too wary by now to be deceived by the persona through which Jamie Shovlin presents his work, but his interest was always more in how information is subject to the person using it. It’s pretty obvious, then, who lies behind the Italian film director Jesus Rinzoli, who has produced a sixty screen collage of over a thousand clips from 1970-80’s horror films. The viewer can follow them in a treble spiral around the room as they move from opening credits to scene-setting, rising tension, gorily violent, concluding and closing shots. And that’s just the inspiration for a 65 page script, soundtrack from the imaginary / real band Lustfaust, costume designs and posters: all show how the horror film which combines the best (worst?) of all horror films will come about. It felt like a satire on the very notions of recycling and progress.
Nottingham hosts the first run of the British Art Show 7 in two sparkling new venues (Nottingham Contemporary and the New Art Exchange) plus a very old one (the Castle, the grounds full of boys charging round with wooden swords). The star work here has already been shown in London: Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’, which outdoes even Jamie Shovlin in terms of number of movie clips. I also enjoyed Sarah Lucas and Karla Black’s sculptures, and two challenges to the subsidiary role of sound in visual art: Luke Fowler’s film of natural sound effects ‘A Grammar for Listening’ and Haroon Mirza’s Joy Division-inspired sound-object collage ‘Regaining a Degree of Control’. Looking at this as the third recent survey of new British art, I see that three artists were in the 2009 Tate Triennial and Saatchi’s Newspeak survey as well as British Art Show 7: Spartacus Chetwynd, Matthew Darbyshire and Olivia Plender – not favourites of mine, true, but of plenty of others, evidently… Lots of work dealt with the dry-sounding matter of taxonomies, but I’ve chosen two of that drift which were full of life.
Elizabeth Price: User Group Disco in the British Art Show 7
The sleek quater hour video 'User Group Disco' sets corporate-sounding phrases such as ‘strategic apex’ against glimpses of ceramic objects revolving on a record turntable. They're presented as being in the Hall of Sculptures in a ‘New, Ruined Institute’, though it seems more like a factory. The film builds to a dance of sorts by the kitsch sculptures set to throbbing disco music and more mysterious phrases, now bringing critical art theory to mind. I took this to be a satirical take on our reliance on computers; the conventions of powerpoint presentations and all types of authoritarian language; retro-styling and the fetishisation of vinyl; and the consumer drive in the twentieth century as a whole. However, it was all presented in such a gleeful manner that the film seemed as glad of the opportunities provided as seriously worried by the consequences. Not an institutional critique, says Price, ‘but one of its descendants’.
Keith Wilson: Ziggurat in the British Art Show 7
'Ziggurat'is a stepped pyramidal tower with 26 of its 41 galvanised steel spaces filled with items which may – or may not – directly or indirectly constitute an alphabet. Is the boot there to represent ‘B’ or, or might it be a stylised ‘L’? Or is there no logic at all? It’s a puzzle of sorts, maybe of knowledge gone askew, or else from a different culture; a neat demonstration of the arbitrary nature of signification in language; and an interesting sculptural anthology. Is there a reference in all that to what can be another obscure, untranslatable language - that of art itself?
An enjoyable tour, then. I only just noticed that there are no paintings in my selected ten, whihc I suspect is unusual among my lists, but illustrates the variety of practice.
Picture credits: relevant artists and galleries + Alexander Newton (BAS 7)