Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi - now based in the USA - gives voice to women in the loaded contexts of the harem, the historically male art of calligraphy, and the Orientalist vision of the odalisque. The use of lavish 17-19th century ceremonial textiles further positions women as decorative objects, but the female tradition of henna is used to signal defiance through Essaydi's signature technique of covering her models with writing. The scripts, mysterious in their unreadability, are a poetic stream of consciousness on the artist’s and models’ experiences as women.
Nicole Wermers has often worked with how goods are displayed. For Infrastruktur, 2015, vintage fur coats, relined to match the seat colours, are sewn onto classic Marcel Breur chairs. Is this a high-end version of towels reserving sun loungers, or a break in some convention of the glamorous rich? The contrast of sculptural materials is striking, and the exclusivity implied by the reservation of space is magnified by the value of the possessions employed. Moreover, the wall holds ceramic versions of those tear-off flyers through which to obtain the phone number of a potential flatshare. Luxury is contrasted with crude utility, but both represent systems of social organisation and an infrastructure of sorts.
In 2015, Juno Calpyso created something of a sensation with her staged self-portraits taken in the would-be-luxurious and odd-for-one location of the American ‘love hotel’. Her new series does likewise in an even more surreal - and genuinely luxurious - setting. ‘What To Do With A Million Years’ is finds Calypso's alter ego in an underground house built in the 1960’s by Avon cosmetics founder Jerry Henderson. Hyper-pink bedroom, gold and crystal taps, swimming pool and waterfall are present, correct - and untouched for decades. The lighting imitates natural cycles, and murals at the windows give the impression of outdoor scenes. The current owners, Calpyso discovered, are cryonics enthusiasts – rather creepy seekers of immortality, the one luxury you cannot buy.
Josh Kline: Alternative Facts, 2017 - cheap cellphone, luxury cellphone, hardware, duct tape, and unique customized wooden display
Josh Kline makes upbeat films of possible ideal societies, featuring, for example, racial harmony and a universal basic income. But he conjoins them with installations anatomising the dystopian consequences of increasing inequality, automation putting millions out of work, and an imagined new civil war in the US. 'Alternative Facts' is from a series which crudely tape together 'cheap' and 'luxury' versions of everyday objects like fridges, blenders and laptops with titles such as 'Resentment' and 'Denial' emphasising how they give sculptural form to social divisions.
Michael Craig-Martin: Credit card from Objects of our time, 2014
What can’t be yours if you wave the right plastic? Michael Craig-Martin has an uninfected yet distinctive way of finding beauty in quotidian objects through colours brought to their maximum intensity. This credit card is an extreme example of how, as he puts it, “there’s very little information in these works, the information is in the viewer” - for we can fill in the cultural and social connotations. Craig-Martin’s 2015 Serpentine retrospective ‘Transience’ positioned him as an archaeologist of items now in the past, like VHS tapes and traditional light bulbs. Perhaps, though, his is the future of credit cards: coolly reduced to abstraction, all data invisibly encrypted.
Adham Faramawy’s pair of films Vichy Shower and Hydra, 2014, show naked men and women, sumptuously coated in soap suds and mud masks, drinking endless bottles of mineral water. Consistent with how that's marketed, water is presented as a luxurious product – indeed, it is fetished as it runs over skin in maximum definition, and the showering figures can't get enough. Yet, of course, water isn’t a luxury at all, but a necessity - and one with severe concerns over the long-term adequacy of supply: the future likelihood of ‘water wars’ is widely accepted. That’s one half of an equation, the films might suggest, in which we increasingly treat luxuries and necessities the wrong way around.
Harmen Brethouwer: Exquisite Corpse, 2015-2016 3D printed, pigmented sandstone - Collection Museum Boymans van Beuningen Rotterdam. Image: Courtesy Hidde van Seggelen, Hamburg
Decoration is by definition functionally redundant, and so luxurious. For 30 years the Dutch artist Harmen Brethouwer has been channeling the history of decoration and the skills which made it into repetitive forms, one being the cone. He commissions experts in such dying crafts as filigree and fake marbling to apply their skills. The recent Exquisite Corpse project tweaks this by using as its source The Grammar of Ornament (Owen Jones, 1856) which presents patterns of many cultures and materials in a common format. That suggests the potential for interchange which Brethouwer then applies by combining traditions on the layered sections of each cone: here colours and characteristics of four materials - Gold, Cardboard, Strawberry and Jellyfish - were combined with the patters of four styles: Indian, Moresque, Chinese and Egyptian.
At its purest, angst is due to ‘the human condition’, rather than a specific cause. That’s central to the existentialist tradition developed from Kiekegaard’s liberating yet horrifying realisation that he had the ‘dizzying’ freedom to control his own fate (The Concept of Anxiety, 1844) to Roquentin’s sickening estrangement from the world in Sartre’s Nausea (1938). Munch tapped into that sense with The Scream, and it was prominent in post-war art, most powerfully through Francis Bacon. Yet there are reasons for anxiety, and just as the threat of nuclear war loomed in the 1950’s, we have plenty of potential triggers for our anxieties - from data overload to terrorism to being watched to global warming to failed ideals – as well as the unavoidable fact that life is a process of dying. Contemporary artists speak to all of those angst-ridden concerns…
Bronze,138 × 120 × 120 cm
Rodolphe Janssen (Brussels)
Belgian artist Thomas Lerooy is visibly inspired by the macabre humour of James Ensor. Here the absurd conjunction of a collosal head with a body it is bound to immobilise undercuts the seriousness of the public scultures from which both elements could plausibly have come. The other implication seems to be that there's more to survival than the mere size of your brain, it's how you use it that counts. And surely that's our present condition: all the technological advances and understanding of the world combined with the angst of knowing that's no help in saving the world.
Pieter Hugo: Portrait #9, Rwanda from the series '1994', 2014
Stevenson Gallery, South Africa
South African Pieter Hugo has spent two decades photographing marginalized and unusual communities, most famously Nigerians with hyenas in 2007. His recent series '1994' has a far more restrained power: images of children in bucolic settings but posed in adult clothes ask the question: being born after the end of apartheid and the Rwandan genocide 20 years previously, can they escape the past to bring new hope and innocence, or will what went on in these very landscapes infect their lives with residual angst? Moreover, how much can their parents do - and Hugo includes his own in the series - to steer the next generation away from the burden of the past?
Robbert Weide: Breather Holes, 2017 – chewed straws inside verneered chipboard, stress - Martin von Zomeran, Amsterdam
Plenty of angst can attach, of course, to the production of art. So it is for Robbert Weide (born Amsterdam, 1975), who relieves the stress by chewing on straws - which he then found himself poking into holes in chipboard. The title ‘Breather Holes’ adds the suggestion, however, that we could breathe through the straws if only he hadn’t chewed them up, or through the holes if only he hadn’t blocked them with straws. Time to get seriously worried…
Amalia Pica and Rafael Ortega: Music para 429 Megaponeros, 2017 - 2.17 minute video loop with music by Rigo Quesada - Herald Street
Monika Sosnowka's practice originated from photographing the architectural impact of the upheavals following on from the 1989 revolution in her native Poland: hasty, and largely cosmetic, renovation alongside neglect, dereliction and demolition. She uses the original fabricators to make precise copies - here the steel frame of a shopping pavilion in Lublin - then twist and squeeze the idealism out of them, just as history did in their functional lives, to leave a slumped, animalistic form to do battle with the gallery's clean new space. The results are tortured, for sure, yet oddly graceful.
Pietro Mattioli: Untitled (Angst on Wheels / Paravan), 2015
Pietro Mattioli captures the lorries of a wholesale butcher's firm founded in Zurich 75 years ago by Heiri Angst, and combines eight images into a perspectival play. That might seem no cause for anxiety - unless you're a cow - but the resulting 3D form echoes the distinctive roof of an artists' studio complex built by Ernst Gisel. That features in other work by Mattioli as a surrogate self-portrait, for the Swiss photographer has chaired the managing committee since 2002. Is he suggesting that the role has its stresses?
Sarah Lucas: Angel, 2016 - beer can penis with wings
Sarah Lucas has various ways of making penises - not just, she's said, because she hasn't got one, but for reasons of 'voodoo, economics and totemism'. The simplest squash two beer cans together to construct a near-tautological male package through a stereotypical symbol of the male. Here Lucas builds on that suggestion of an old-fashioned evening down the pub using her more recent and differently double-edged signature material of cigarettes. Given that they form wings, conjuring and poking fun at the classical sacred phallus and the tradition of the unsexed angel, her bawdiness gets quite complex.
Annie Attridge: Should of Could of Would of, no. 7, 2016 - porcelain, tin glaze, concrete pillar - porcelain 17 x 10 x 6cm
Form follows function in young German photographer Bastian Gehbauer's cool depictions of little-seen spaces in which processes take place: a pink-lit greenhouse, an automated crematorium, and this garage of sorts - literally a 'performance box' - designed to allow sexual services to be provided more safely in cars. The set-up, he explains, enables the prostitute to flee the passenger seat on the right in case she is threatened, whereas it is almost impossible for the driver to open his door. An emergency button is also located in almost every unit. The property has a generous fence and is opened and closed by the regulatory authority every day in accordance with its 'business hours'.
Extension to cover Frieze New York, 2018:
|Daniel Firman's elephant balancing on its trunk was a bit too obvious for the comedy article, though the horizontal wall-sucking version is less well-known... (Nasutamanus, various versions since 2008)|
ELEPHANT: COMEDY Issue 33
Martin Creed: Work No. 2814, 2017
China’s leading new media artist, Cao Fei, set domestic vacuum cleaning robots free to roam a building site on the fringes of Beijing on which – as is the Chinese rule - the structure of the past was being pulled down. The bots come across as alien and threatening yet friendly and comical. Sometimes chickens stand on them to hitch a ride. Evidently, and metaphorically, their ‘cleaning’ task is hopeless: there’s no reversing the rolling cycles of urbanisation. In front of the film, to stress the point, three bots acted out their edge-sensitive dance on top of the traditional form of plinths.
James Hopkins: Scaled Ladder, 2014 - Wood and Stone
James Hopkins presents an implausible object, its spindly wooden slats bearing heavy rock to no apparent purpose. We’re tempted to seek a logic. Have the small rocks risen because they weigh less? It can’t be that, their density’s the same. Is it that the relative mass of a mountain as you climb it is echoed by the stones’ sizes as we imagine ascending the ladder? Meantime, the title puns on 'scale' as the act of climbing a summit, a fundamental concept of sculpture, and a reference to the diminishing size of the stones – and that brings out the resemblance to an abacus.