Sunday, 30 May 2010


'Hidden in Full View' @ the Anita Zabludowicz Collection, 176 Prince of Wales Road - Chalk Farm - Sunday 6 June @ 3pm Free, but booking via www.projectspace176 is recommended.

These are the notes for my tour of a selection from the 217 works from the Zabludowicz Collection in 'The Library of Babel' at 176, as covered on 6 June.

I'll pretty-much ignore Borges, fascinating as he and 'The Library of Babel' may be. Instead, I'll experiment by applying a rigorous schematic to nine works from the collection. There are, of course, other ways to look at them, but it’s interesting to see what happens with a constraint – an approach which can work well in art itself. I do anyway believe that the best contemporary work is quite often amenable to the following three stages of examination:

1. We are struck by a feature which initially draws us in to wondering: just what is that?

2. We explore further and understand what's been done, and how – we get, if you like, ‘the trick’

3. We then ask: what thoughts lie behind that? That's a key stage, because if the work simply provides a trick for its own sake, it won't satisfy for long.

Often we have to probe to get to levels 2 and 3, even though there's nothing we can’t actually see. They are hidden in full view.

Foyer: Susan Collis ‘I dreamed I had it all’, 2007

1. Susan Collis is a not-all-that young – she was late starter – British artist who has come to prominence in the last four years or so. She shows with one of my favourite galleries, Seventeen. Her work often provokes initial puzzlement as expressed by the question: 'where’s the work?' Thus, when you walked into her first major show at Seventeen Gallery in 2007, it seemed you had got the opening time wrong. There was a stepladder covered with drips of paint, more drips on the floor, a broom, fixings on the wall with nothing attached to them… it seemed the previous show had just been taken down and the gallery was being whitewashed ready for Collis's installation.

2. But things were not what they seemed. Careful inspection revealed that the paint drips were carefully inlaid mother of pearl, the rings and marks on the table were, according to the almost biblical list of materials, made of diamond, pearl, opal, howlite, fossil coral and magnecite. 'I dreamed I had it all' (which is from a 176 edition, and not strictly part of The Library of Babel)has an extra ‘where’s the work?’ effect, as the screw in the wall is, to put it mildly, unobtrusive. It’s made with hand-cut garnet and black onyx.

3. So there is a kind of sculptural trompe-l'oeil in play. But that isn’t Collis's primary interest – in fact, though it’s fun, it’s a bit of a distraction. Her main interest is in issues of value. Making something of nominal value out of precious materials is one way of making the dichotomy between the worthless and the valued. Her laundry bags, hand-drawn in biro, make that point without precious materials - ludicrous labour to produce something commonplace. The invisibility also relates to the idea of hidden labour in consumer products. I also like the way in which her paint splashes make something which looks spontaneous and accidental out of a process which is the very opposite.

Work 21: Jason Savalon: 76 Blowjobs, 2001

1. Chicago-based Jason Salavon (born Indiana, 1970) has worked as a programmer in the video game industry, and is known for his use of custom computer software to manipulate and reconfigure media and data. He admits to having “weird nerdy fun” manipulating the computer. Obviously something of that sort is going on here, but up close this is a somewhat vague image.

2. In fact, '76 Blowjobs' comes from one of the main strands of Salavon's work, which is to overlay multiple photographs so that the result is a visual amalgamation – examples being the ‘averaging’ of tourist photos and of the looks of playmates across each decade. Actually he precedes Idris Khan, who is better known in Britain, in using this technique – but applies it quite differently. This is from that body of work: it simply blends 76 blowjob scenes from pornographic sources to make a vague average, resulting in the softest possible hardcore.

3. Savalon himself has said that he aims ‘to distill the complexity of life to make it more understandable.’ In fact he makes it all look rather uncertain and unspecific. I would sooner read into the project as a whole some commentary on the generic and interchangeable nature of our experiences. But what I like about this particular image is how, led by the title, it looks as if it could be made out of smoke: it could have been a construction from 76 shots of smoke – blow jobs of one sort – in order to make a blow job of a different sort, and that in turn makes 76 ‘small deaths’ into one large one. That is reinforced by the Sean Dack video, visible in the background, which does show smoke…

71: Jim Lambie: Psychedelicsoulstick # 30, 2001

1. Glasgow-based Jim Lambie (who shows with The Modern Institute in Glasgow and Sadie Coles in London) uses eccentric materials. He picks stuff up from market stalls and jumble sales, manipulates such items as records, trainers and handbags. There’s a punk glamour, very rock ‘n’ roll feel to his work, which has been termed 'pop alchemy'. Even with that background, though, this seems a mysterious object.

2. Psychedelicsoulstick # 30 is from a series of bamboo sticks around which thread has been wrapped to capture discarded items like watches, guitar plectrums and cigarette packets. So those typical Lambie materials are present, but hidden. I’m reminded of two artists strongly associated with the 1960’s: Andy Warhol, who made ‘time capsules’ - boxes into which he shunted all the trappings and detritus of his life – and Joseph Beuys, the shamanistic German artist, one of whose symbols was the walking stick.

3. Lambie is interested in bringing the experiences of countercultures and music in particular into the gallery. We see that most clearly in the ‘gallery to disco’ move of his ‘Zobop’ series, which makes psychedelic floors of stripes with tape, mapping the architectural space while overwhelming it. Here there is the suggestion of a chrysalis, plus the Beuysian ritual, plus the time capsule, plus the title ‘Psychedelicsoulstick’. It all points to how hidden elements have power, and to the ongoing power in our lives of the artistic and musical cultures from the past – of their near-ritualistic importance to our lives now, how we're largely the sum of such influences…

53: Damien Roach: Chapter 1: Appearance and Reality, 2007

1. Damien Roach is a very varied, conceptually-based young British artist. He chooses not to have a British gallery at present, but is represented in Dusseldorf and Brussels, where I recently saw a three room installation of his which apparently had the same set of works in each room until you started to look more closely… Clever stuff, then. And here we have the cover of Bertrand Russell’s ‘Problems of Philosophy’ along with some alphabetically-ordered lists of words.

2. The title gives us a fair clue about what is going on: Roach has rearranged Chapter 1 of the book, so we see the right words but in different order. Interestingly, that idea has been explored by other artists recently, albeit to different ends: Kim Rugg’s rearrangements of newspaper front pages, and Simon Popper’s alphabetical version of Joyce’s Ulysses. This work is particuarly close to the Borges story 'The Library of Babel',whihc decribes the hopelessness of trying to find meaningful answers in a library which contains every possible book, ie whihc would therefore include not just this rearrangement of Russell's book, but every other one.

3. One of Russell’s central philosophical concerns was how to break down the world as it appears to its basic underlying constituents. He pursued that through, for example, an attempt to demonstrate how set logic underlay mathematical truths in the forbidding 'Principia Mathematica', and an analysis of the primacy of sense data in a logical construction of objects in ‘Our Knowledge of the External World’. Roach has satirically applied Russell’s techniques to his own analysis, breaking down Russell's text into its constituent parts - only to reveal that it is then senseless: it was the manner of combination which constituted the meaning. Perhaps we can read across to a critique of any attempts to reduce art-making to the formula of its elements.

96: Luke Rudolph: Portrait Number Eight, 2009

1. Luke Rudolf graduated from Goldsmiths College only last year, and his first solo show is on now at Kate MacGarry. This is typical of the work in that show, which looks – at least up close -like a complex, multiply-layered abstract painting combining various painterly languages - drips, taped-off hard edges, metallic effects, prominent brushstrokes - and uses both acrylic and oil. A kind of compendium of mark-making.

2. We see the trick pretty soon, though, as pointed to by the title ‘Portrait Number Eight’. It's pareidolia, if you want a word for it: Rudolf forces together the visual language of abstraction and the figurative tradition of portraiture by exploiting how easily our tendency to recognise a face can be triggered. They are, though, generic faces, not based on particular individuals, so they aren't really portraits or abstractions. Here there's a clownish look to the mouth and ears, complementing the somewhat comical treatment of the abstract.

3. This painting is, I think, simple fun. But it's also about the history of art. It uses the clich├ęs of both figurative and abstract impressionism – combining them vigorously enough to make them fresh – but reverses the typical move whereby the artist abstracts from a representation. Instead, the mannerisms of abstraction are used to construct a representation; as if to point out how the artist himself is never rendered abstract, however much his paintings may be.

134: Marc Quinn: Garden2, 2001

1. Marc Quinn (born 1964) is a ‘YBA’ best-known for his frozen 'Self' series (from 1991) and for putting Alison Lapper on the fourth plinth. I find him uneven, but I like his current show at White Cube (though few people seem to - see Paul's Art World for why I do). These - 5 from a set of 8 hand-varnished pigment prints - look at first glance like a set of photographs of flowers, which indeed they are – but what else is going on?

2. 'Garden Squared' has frozen origins, linking it to 'Self'. They are photographs of Quinn's 'Garden' (2000), a real botanical garden of 1,000 plants and flowers from all over the world, which was preserved in full bloom by immersion in twenty-five tons of liquid silicone kept at a constant temperature of -80˚ Celsius. The flowers in it could neither grow nor perish. Quinn claims to have found a Permaprint inkjet print process which freezes and fixes the frozen garden in turn – this time as an indelible image.

3. This is a play on the vanitas tradition of Dutch still lives with flowers, designed to remind us of the transitory nature of life. Those paintings were often made over several months in order to include ‘impossible’ combinations of flowers which did not bloom at the same time. Quinn exploits modern international growing methods and freezing technology to make such scene both possible and potentially permanent. Is the result perfect flowers with the enchantment of a continuous spring, or yet another deplorable example of the artificial replacing the natural? We might also make links to genetic engineering and global warming.

182: Martin Boyce: Telephone Booth Conversations (1) , 2006

1. Martin Boyce, who showed for Scotland at last year's Venice Biennale and is represented in Glasgow by The Modern Institute, provides us with the curious site of a payphone booth in a gallery display. Such a booth was becoming rather dated, wherever located, by the time this was made in 2006. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that there is no telephone present, not even a non-functioning one; nor that there are signs of graffiti. Evidently the titular reference to ‘conversations’ is ironic, at least at the literal level. So what’s it doing here?

2. It’s not just any old phone booth found or reproduced. The vocabulary that Boyce has employed is derived from his discovery of a photograph of the concrete trees designed by the Martel brothers for the Art Deco exhibition held in Paris in 1925. According to Boyce these trees “represent a perfect collapse of architecture and nature”. From them he extracted a grid template that has since become the basis for his practice – from sculpture to typography. Thus, once you’ve seen Boyce’s work, you can recognise the distinctive quadrilateral forms which make up the structure of the booth.

3. Boyce is interested in the legacy of modernism corrupted by use and abandonment. Typically, the combination of such elements as trees made from neon, upended benches, slanted waste bins, suspended lighting and phone booths creates a modernist theatre-set, suggesting the marginal zones of the modern city – perhaps a playground at night. Here we have an extract from such installations, which fits neatly with the violence implied by the surrounding works (featuring a bullet hole and a car crash). I think Boyce achieves a futuristic look, albeit derived from the past, which could be read as somewhat gloomy: our futures will be rooted in our pasts, and the old patterns of decline will affect them, too. That, I think, is the kind of conversation to which Boyce refers, and which we might have in front of the work.

186: Anne Hardy: Cipher, 2007

1. Anne Hardy (born 1970) is represented by Maureen Paley. This is on the face of it a photograph of a curious room in a state of some decay and disarray. The erstwhile occupants seem to have been carrying out some obscure sports-related activities. Maybe it's the hiding place of a dangerous obsessive of some sort: 'Cipher' suggests the symbol or secret system of a cult. Perhaps those weights have ritual uses.

2. Hardy is, however, one of those artists (like Thomas Demand and James Casebere) who doesn't photograph reality, but makes a construction which she then photographs and destroys. In her case, she fills her studio in Hackney with objects, typically sourced from the streets or markets round about and implying some seamy narrative prequel. Moths of labour are involved. She never shows the inhabitants directly. The results are desolate and somewhat unnerving.

3. There is underlying concern with deception and the nature of reality. What if, in the manner of Plato's cave, what we believe to be the world is actually a stage set constructed by an omnipotent artist? Or else Hardy might be commenting on how people manipulate their own environments; on how we make assumptions about people from where we find them; or on the real life of the objects to which she gives an alternative life, most of which are rescued from the excessive disposals of a society in which a third of supermarket food purchases are thrown away uneaten. She also reases with potential meanings: what system lies behind the numbers which look like markers from a crime scene? We want to acribe a meaning, but suspect there is none.

183: Vik Muniz: Origin of the World, After Courbet (from 'Pictures of Soil'), 1999

1. Vik Muniz is a Brazilian artist (born 1961) who grew up in the poverty of Sao Paulo before escaping to America in 1983 - after, as Muniz tells it, getting the air fare from a rich man who paid him to keep quiet after shooting him in the leg during a fight in which Muniz was not involved. This is, as we are told, a version of Courbet’s famous / notorious ‘Origin of the World’(1866), and is made out of soil, which Muniz then photographed. So it is, like Hardy's work, a reconstruction; but if there’s a deception, it doesn’t last long, and soon gives way to some wonder at the technical feat involved.

2. Muniz is intensely interested in capturing the past, and in how photographs can misrepresent it. His early work actually links rather neatly to Luke Rudolf’s, as in ‘The Equivalents’ he fabricated and photographed elaborate cotton-ball sculptures to simulate the recognizable images suggested by passing clouds, so playing with the double illusion of photography and clouds, and perhaps suggesting similarities between them. He has worked with a range of unorthodox and transitory drawing materials, which he then turns into a lasting photographic image. 'The Sugar Children' (1996) and 'Pictures of Chocolate' (1997-98) are notably resonant.

3. The Pictures of Soil series tends to show people, reinforcing the moral and religious overtones of soil as the substance from which life emerged and to which it will return – and this particular image makes that point of origin very clear. That links it to the vanitas tradition also explored by Mark Quinn. There is also an tonally different play on the idea of an 'earthy' or 'dirty' picture, which relates it to Savalon. Add the element of trompe-l'oeil which parallels Susan Collis; the breaking down of the image, as referred to by Damien Roach; the bringing of what was once a controversially modern work into a current language, not unlike Boyce's use of modernism - and we can see this is a very rich work which pulls matters together and seems a suitable place to end.

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.