Mark Wallinger’s ID – A Conversation (Part One).

On May 1st, Richard Guest & I visited Mark Wallinger’s show  ID  at Hauser & Wirth London W1. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing.

Superego 2016 Stainless steel, glass mirror, motor 350 x 160 x 160 cm / 137 3/4 x 63 x 63 in Photo: Alex Delfanne

Wallinger’s Superego 2016 Stainless steel, glass mirror, motor 350 x 160 x 160 cm  Photo: Alex Delfanne

David: Firstly let me confess that I don’t know much about Mark Wallinger or his work apart from the copies of the Stubbs horse paintings which I prefer to the originals but consider pretty pointless. What (unusually) made me want to see this show were some reviews of it that I saw. I didn’t read them too closely but the fact they reached me in my bunker caused me to think that Hauser and Wirth are trying to reshape the critical landscape that art inhabits in a way that hasn’t been done (in London at least) since White Cube thrust itself upon us about fifteen years ago, and in a way that say Anthony d’Offay or the Lisson gallery have in the past. Is there a bit of a curatorial turf war in progress and is Mark Wallinger a pawn or a player? Or should I just be looking at the work?

Richard: I can see H&W as a hipper D’Offay (a gallery I used to love). Not sure what MW’s role is, but the exhibition’s an interesting one. The works I think of when I think of MW are Ecce Homo (1999) (a human-sized Jesus on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square), State Britain (2007) (a recreation in Tate Britain of peace campaigner Brian Haw’s anti-war protest display outside Parliament) and a video work called Angel. They were all conceptual works to a certain extent, but ones that had a strong emotional effect.

Shall we talk about the work in the order we saw it?

David: Well, the show comprises just six works (although one is a series of paintings) sparsely occupying the two pristine HW spaces on Saville Row. The first piece we saw in the South Gallery was Superego (2016) which is essentially a large mirrored triangular prism mounted on a rotating pole about three metres off the ground in the centre of a large bare room. I was watching it for a little while before it dawned on me that it was a replica of the famous Scotland Yard Sign with mirrored faces. The mirrors reflect only the room, and first I read it just as an optical toy, but then when I remembered where I had seen the shape before and it assumed another meaning in my mind (and probably only in my mind). The blankness of the mirrored facets reflecting the empty gallery although defining the motion in a hypnotic way seemed to imply a mindless automaton –  a machine efficiently ruling an empty world, indifferent to the futility of its task. Is this some kind of comment about the Met Police or is Wallinger just appropriating and abstracting a familiar shape in a way derivative of Jasper Johns’ Flag? (Amazing how much contemporary art seems to owe to that piece – much more than to Duchamp or anyone it seems to me).

Richard: Wallinger likes to play with British (pop cultural) icons – he displayed a shiny, super-reflective, Tardis at the Hayward Gallery in 2009 (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space, 2001). In that case, it looked as if Doctor Who’s police-box-shaped time machine was dematerialising in front of the viewer. The police again…

My gut feeling is that Wallinger is taking the Johns route, which coincidentally (or not) brings with it a certain amount of wry comment (in the 1970s, to the little kid me, the revolving sign, when seen on TV news, communicated the idea of law and order, and the authority (and possible omniscience) of the police. And did it succinctly. Who else had a revolving sign in the UK at the time? – it was positively space age!).

So with Superego, Mark Wallinger has stripped the object of its crime-fighting power and presents us with what? A deliberately dumb object. A symbol of authority transformed into a decorative object. Where Superego differs from Johns’ Flag is that the flag is in an ongoing relationship with the nation it represents. Wallinger’s Superego is time-locked to a certain extent; I feel like there is a definable demographic who would “get it”.

Definition:

superego

suːpərˈiːɡəʊ,-ˈɛɡəʊ,sjuː-/

noun

Psychoanalysis

noun: superego; plural noun: superegos; noun: super-ego; plural noun: super-egos

  1. the part of a person’s mind that acts as a self-critical conscience, reflecting social standards learned from parents and teachers.

“the father is the model for the superego”

Of course, it may just be a revolving mirror, ha ha.

In any case, I like how big it is, and the fact that it seems, initially at least, not to be saying anything. Is it the odd-man-out in the exhibition?

David: Maybe it is just an image of our superego as the police force of the mind, tirelessly reflecting society and its values back at us. It could be that literal. It’s hard to say if it’s the odd one out because MW seems keen to avoid any deliberate pattern to his work – at least in appearance – but there is a Freudian theme to the titles in the show. There is a sentence in the gallerist blurb which made my heart sink as I read it : “Wallinger utilises Sigmund Freud’s terms id, ego and superego in an interrogation of the psyche, the self and the subject”.  Oh dear. I don’t know how much clinical weight Freud’s definition of levels of consciousness still carries as a description of the mind but in art they seem to be familiar labels. Too familiar, perhaps. But we are getting ahead of ourselves: we came to id and ego after superego in the North Gallery, so once again we are going round an exhibition backwards, but we seem to like it better that way!

Found myself driving by one of the roundabouts on the A10, close to Orrery’s location. I did not find my muse here though…

Found myself driving by one of the roundabouts on the A10, close to Orrery’s location. I did not find my muse here though…

As it was we came to the three video works next. For me the most persuasive of the three pieces was Orrery (2016) – four journeys around a roundabout made at different times of the year shown on four screens where the viewer was in the middle. It was quite a neat trick to turn the commonplace experience of driving around a roundabout into a description of the cosmos but the other two video pieces – a filmed shadow walk and a static tableau of a barber’s shop – were less successful for me.  I think we both have reservations about video in galleries, or maybe just short attention spans…did these work for you?

Richard: Yes, I liked Orrery and its air of flat artlessness (it made me feel nostalgic for video art in the Eighties (specifically the late night spot on our local ITV channel, which I watched religiously).

Ever Since (2012), the static tableau of a barber’s shop was interesting for having no discernible action taking place, and at first I thought it was one element of a video installation – Shadow Walker being the other part. There was a nice tension in the room between the static image of one and the relentless motion of the other. I liked the mystery of Ever Since. Seen in isolation, Shadow Walker reminded me of a lot of boring (not in a good way), handheld video made in the Nineties and 2000s). Watching someone’s (Wallinger?) shadow as they progress along a street from the perspective of a handheld camera quickly pales as a viewing experience. I’m sure this is the point, but I was impatient to get away from the video after a couple of minutes. Having said that, Shadow Walker creates a nice bit of visual noise, which destabilises the exhibition and keeps me interested in what Wallinger chose to show.

…(Part Two to follow)…

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On the Road in Bucharest

Create like a god, command like a king, work like a slave. (Constantin Brancusi)

right

Brancusi’s l’oiseau dans l’espace c 1932 (Bird in Space – Sold at Philips in NY for $100,000 in 2013)

I was whisked to Bucharest for work a week or so ago and although I didn’t have long, I did take a look at a couple of things. Although I was not really expecting the city to really be the Paris of the East, it did in some ways feel like that. There is the contrast between ornate Nineteenth century architecture and modern brutalist apartments, chaotic traffic and lots of graffiti. The women are very dressed up too, and there is a certain intense superficiality that feels Parisian. But people are a lot more friendly (how could they not be?) and the few tourists have even fewer places to eat. Its galleries and museums are also very different.

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Nicely shaded graffiti in Bucharest

After a long search for food one afternoon we visited the National Art Collections museum. A massive museum  which houses a spectacularly mediocre collection of post-impressionist Romanian art culled from individual collections that the state has acquired: it was a dispiriting experience. It is a large building with a handsome courtyard; there are several doors. When you go in you are not sure you have chosen the right one because there is no-one else to be seen. But in a little while a cloakroom attendant appears and directs you to the ticket office in the bowels of the establishment. There is a lot of stone on the floor and walls and everything echoes, you are still the only visitor in sight. When you get there and buy a ticket the lady gives you a map and tells you at length the route to take in order to see absolutely everything. But museum fatigue sets in around about the second room and you realise you are never going to make it. There are endless rooms of genre scenes, flowers landscapes charmless dingy daubs that break your will to look at art. But you are the only punters there and the staff (of whom there are many) are very keen to help you round and make sure that you see everything…so you go on. Room after room of hopeless stupidity of so many artists pursuing a goal with no vision and the equally terrible determination of the state to keep it all.

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The beautiful house where we were filming

But a Brancusi exhibition in the other National Gallery a bit further along the road was closed. Days passed. It was my last morning and it was raining hard. I had to walk all around the building (which is very large) to find the right door for the Brancusi show. I felt briefly like a pilgrim. When I found it, my faith in looking at art was restored because although only two small rooms, it was a gem of a show. Black & white photographs of Brancusi’s studio in Paris that he took himself shortly after being taught how to use a camera by Man Ray. They are breathtakingly atmospheric, and totally fill you with the aura of creativity of that time and of the man himself. Beautifully composed, the forms breathe next to one another – they seem relaxed in a way that they never could in a gallery, freshly created or still coming into being. Behaving naturally like animals in their natural habitat rather than a zoo.

Charmingly, also in the gallery there was a little stand with wood, marble and metal and tools to cut and polish them to give the visitor an idea of Brancusi’s favourite materials, without safety restrictions.959549-Brancusi_studio,_Le_Baiser_1923-1925,_La_Colonne_sans_fin,_detruite_ulterieurement,_La_Colonne_sans_fin_I_v._1925,_LOiseau_dans_lespace,_marbre_blanc_1925

Brancusi was of course Romanian, but he went to live and work in Paris, the Paris of the West with the rude French people. The crumbling legacy of the Ceausescu era lies quite close to the surface here and much of value has, like Brancusi, gone to find richer pastures.

I was dismayed to learn that in Paris you can visit a reconstruction of this studio, which cannot be anything but a soulless theme park. Paris may have all the crowds at its celebrated shows, but there is something in Bucharest of life that is still felt and experienced directly in a way that some more sophisticated places have forgotten.

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Romanians saying what we all feel from time to time. In the men’s toilets at the Fire Bar in Bucharest.

Michael Craig-Martin: a conversation (part three)

The final part of my conversation with Richard Guest about Michael Craig-Martin’s Serpentine show

The Future Is Papier Mâché

5th January 2016, David Cook and I visited Michael Craig-Martin: Transience at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. Here’s the third and final part…

Richard: Ha, just about. The comparison with the Rothko room is interesting. To me, where the Rothko room has an under-lit chapel-like atmosphere, MCM’s rooms at the Serpentine are in-your-face oppressive, like being trapped in a car showroom with an over-energetic salesman. Not so much of the transcendence. And I think that’s part of the point. MCM makes you engage with the work and the objects he depicts by force. These are aggressively ugly colour combinations – they’re pugnacious.

It’s interesting that some of the objects depicted have fallen out of use or had their design overhauled. Here we have Cassette, 2002. By 2002 cassettes had pretty…

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Michael Craig-Martin: a conversation (part two)

The Future Is Papier Mâché

5th January 2016, David Cook and I visited Michael Craig-Martin: Transience at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. I’m afraid the exhibition is over. Anyway, here’s part two…

David: Instead of the old Paul Klee adage of ‘going for a walk with a line’, Craig-Martin’s version might be ‘going to the gym with a line’ – what you end up with is very strong but robotic, and yet the paintings and the wall drawings still have the human hand in them. They aspire to the condition of machine-made things – a very Modernist conceit – but they are not. They are fascinatingly three dimensional when you view the paintings from a glancing angle – they reminded me of the Nazca lines in Peru. They are slight vertical disturbances on an otherwise…

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Michael Craig-Martin: a conversation (part one)

The Future Is Papier Mâché

5th January 2016, David Cook and I visited Michael Craig-Martin: Transience at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. The exhibition ends today.

David: I was extremely keen to see this show, but my expectations of it were uncertain: I was familiar with Michael Craig-Martin’s work but I had never seen a large body of it together. To some extent I am still ambivalent, but I am glad to have something solid to be ambivalent about. I was very impressed with a wall drawing of a coffee cup that was in the R.A. summer show, but I have also been less impressed by some things he has said and slightly put off by his role as the midwife of Goldsmiths’ YBA talent factory. Did you have any preconceptions about the show?

Richard

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To Be Perfectly Frank – The Movie

selfportraitauerbach-largeJust back from a screening of Frank, a new documentary portrait of Frank Auerbach by his son, film-maker Jake Auerbach at King’s Place.

It was a simple format – Frank was shown a video of his retrospective in Bonn (the same show now at Tate Britain) and he talks about the paintings and issues arising.

Overall you are left with the sense that Frank is one of the few people who has not wasted his time on Planet Earth. He has pursued the ostensibly pointless diversion of painting with an obsession that endows it with extraordinary intensity and unique value.

The seemingly limitless choices of creativity seem like a paradise to those of us who live within walls prescribed by quotidian exigencies. We are constrained by our lives, but to paint without restriction imposes its own harder discipline. Frank has accepted that servitude gladly and we are given the benefits of his dedication when we look at his paintings.

In the film, Frank is illuminating about the process behind his paintings but in a way that mystifies it more. There are some things that cannot be explained – they have to be experienced. When paintings ‘work’ they are precious vessels that share life experience between people over thousands of miles, over centuries. The difficulty of attaining this goal causes Frank to ruthlessly revise his work until it does: a process that can take years for a single picture.

Frank abandoned a career as an actor in favour of painting. This seems almost unbelievable given his apparent reticence to talk about his work or appear on camera. His stance seems almost the obverse of Andy Warhol who seems to have been shy in the extreme in his private life and the reverse in his artistic one. Frank may have kept the art world at arm’s length, but he knows exactly how long his arm is…

His work is the embodiment of the tension between the Old Masters and Contemporary  Art, yet it belongs to neither. It goes its own way. Stick to your guns, Frank!

To Be Perfectly Frank

Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain Millbank London SW1

Miles Richmond at Messum’s Cork St London W1

Frank Auerbach Head of JYM 1984-5

Frank Auerbach Head of JYM 1984-5

The Frank Auerbach show at Tate Britain is a very classy retrospective hung by the artist and long time Auerbach cohort Catherine Lampert (depicted in some of the pictures). It does not follow the usual pattern of a retrospective: although chronological it doesn’t really attempt to show linear artistic development. Rather it shows evolving treatments of the same themes (sometimes the exact same ones) over a lifetime’s work. And at Tate Britain rather than Tate Modern it eschews the ephemeral trendiness of the latter for a more enduring relationship with the past.

Auerbach is famous, slightly notorious in some ways, for his extreme work ethic – seven long days a week in the studio. But a relatively small output – a couple of dozen paintings a year. This show is a core sample of that intense output, showing the same sitters and views from the 1950s to today. There is no fat on it. Now well into his eighties he has not let up at all, rather the reverse – still a lot of painting he needs to do, he says, and he is more reluctant than ever to leave the studio. So what’s my excuse?

Frank in the Studio - a good day at the office...

Frank in the Studio – a good day at the office…

Sometimes I think Frank’s painting is Impressionism gone mad, sometimes it seems more like Expressionism gone sane. It is the tension between and synthesis of the two that makes his work so compelling. Everything in the work comes from observation of the subject, but he is building a pictorial equivalent of the subject through dynamic interaction with paint not an illustration. Some people just never get this. That’s just the way it goes. Yet to some he is a stubborn reactionary for whom other postwar ‘developments’ in art simply never happened.

In the years 1945-53 the gears of the world were still turning and the seeds of the future being sown despite the exhaustion following the war. Pol Pot was studying engineering in Paris and in Minnesota, the four year old Bob Dylan was singing ‘Accentuate the Positive’ at a family gathering. In London, Frank Auerbach was attending David Bomberg’s drawing classes .

Miles Richmond - Ronda Landscape

Miles Richmond – Ronda Landscape

Miles Richmond - Self Portrait

Miles Richmond – Self Portrait

Bomberg had by this time turned his back on the aggressive modernism of his youth and returned to painting from life. Also there was Miles Richmond, whose work is also on show in London at the moment. Lesser known, and much more redolent of Bomberg, there is nonetheless a lot of energy and interest in Richmond’s work. It just has not forged a new vision in the way that Auerbach’s has. And I think that has a lot to do with the extreme commitment that Auerbach makes to every painting and the despair that he accordingly feels when it falls short – as all paintings inevitably do. But that only reinforces his determination to carry on. And as he is a very introspective, even insular artist who very much goes his own way oblivious to the rest of the art world, this internal conflict between energy and rational despair gives his hand its unique quality. So many artists today, almost all of them in fact, are desperate to avoid the ‘hand’ of the artist being apparent. It is not Duchampian, Warholian, Johnsian, empirical – they would maintain. But that is because their hands are weak.

Lucien Freud in bed under an Auerbach drawing (Daily Telegraph)

Lucien Freud in bed under an Auerbach drawing (Daily Telegraph)