Tag Archives: relational

Los Angeles

Arts Matter: The best of the rest from 2012

To wrap up 2012 and bound into 2013 without any baggage, here, in mostly chronological order, are the interesting images I have collected over the year, of art works that I experienced but didn’t end up writing about at the time.

I attended a heartening number of solid shows at artist-run spaces. Among the highlights were Liz Nurenberg‘s wearable sculptures and MUC‘s Carnival of Insecurities. Both these art events grabbed me with their honest embrace of dysfunction and their humorous yet earnest solutions.

THEEVERYMANY (Marc Fornes) Y/Struc/Surf 2010

THEEVERYMANY (Marc Fornes) Y/Struc/Surf 2010

This piece in the Centre Pompiduo represents a growing field of applying computer programming and generative processes to art and design. Flashy design technology probably won’t remain that interesting or cutting edge for long, but Everymany is leading the field in visually impressive directions.
Ahmed Mater, Magnetism. (c) Ahmed Mater and the Trustees of the British Museum

Ahmed Mater, Magnetism.
(c) Ahmed Mater and the Trustees of the British Museum

Part of the British Museum’s Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, an exhibition which explored the history of the pilgrimage to Mecca, Ahmed Mater’s striking sculpture of iron filings surrounding a small magnet, eloquently captured the collective energy and awe of not only the hajj, but of belonging to the Islamic faith.
Exploring Liz Glynn's "Anonymous Needs and Desires," part of her installation at the Hammer Biennial.

Exploring Liz Glynn’s “Anonymous Needs and Desires,” part of her installation at the Hammer Biennial.

Liz Glynn’s installation at the Hammer’s Made in LA biennial, balanced visual pleasure with a science museum’s hands-on exploration. It was smart but approachable, grounded in current events but nuanced and open ended, without the unpleasant aftertaste of a political diatribe.

KrugerBus

The LA public bus emblazoned with Barbara Kruger’s words makes me happy every time I see it; not only is it a splash of visual excitement when stuck in traffic, but it also proclaims loudly the importance of education in eradicating prejudice, encouraging empathy, developing self-confidence and building a healthy society. This is the first bus in the LA Fund’s year-long Arts Matter campaign, hoping to raise $1.5 million for arts education.  Yes, apparently the greater metropolis and our city’s politicians need reminding that the arts matter, as absurd as that may seem to me.

In addition to the success of Arts Matter, I have some other art related wishes for 2013, just in case the universe is listening.

To interview Wangechi Mutu. Her December show at Susan Vielmetter Gallery used collage to powerful effect. One piece very specifically referred to traditional African masks and rituals, and I hesitate to interpret the piece myself–a conversation with the artist is the obvious solution.

To see a really great painting show. One that delights, inspires and moves me, or stirs something that I don’t understand. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know.

A trip to either Amsterdam or Accra. I’m always itching to travel and see new work, but there are particularly exciting things happening in these cities. On a more achievable scale, while on the east coast this spring I hope to visit Amalia Pica’s show in Boston, this exhibition at Princeton and squeeze in the current Picasso exhibition at the Guggenheim.

A Fantastic Heliotherapy logo. Any graphic designers looking to trade skills?

Some clarity. I started this blog at the beginning of 2012 with the tentative sense that I had some things to say and didn’t want to wait until someone asked my opinion. I am still figuring out if this counts as criticism, what is interesting to readers and where to point my nose. Your feedback is truly appreciated.

With that, into 2013 we go!

 

Los Angeles

Nature and Free Animals

In Nature and Free Animals, English poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) imagines God berating her for the domestication of dogs, for teaching them “the sicknesses of your mind and the sicknesses of your body.”  She responds petulantly that “it’s all very well to talk like this” and to complain about the way humans treat animals, but reminds God that he created humans and if he doesn’t like the way we act then he only has himself to blame. The poem ends: “What with Nature and Free Animals on the one side/And you on the other,/I hardly know I’m alive.”

Smith’s poem weaves together her anger at the subjugation of animals and her own struggle to find meaning as a human. Though not explicitly stated, I interpret her long struggle with God (he occurs frequently throughout her oeuvre) as a tool for discussing her struggles with patriarchy. In Nature and Free Animals she expresses her paralysis as a woman: not completely free, as she imagines wild animals to be, yet also denied the full agency of a man. Her disgust at the weak servility of dogs is a thinly veiled expression of her feelings towards the role of a wife in the early 20th century.

But Smith is nothing if not ambivalent, and she doesn’t let herself or others of her gender off the hook. By shifting the identity of the speaker in the middle of the poem, the accusation is directed first at the reader, then at herself, then at “God.” No one, even the animals, is blameless and the unequal distribution of power causes unease and dissatisfaction for all parties.

This poem came to mind as I was trying to make sense of the recent works of artists Erin Payne and Amber Hawk Swanson. Though quite different in tone and intention–Payne’s surrogates provide tentative comfort, while Swanson’s is an unnerving reminder of abuse–both artists have created animal surrogates to tackle the messy web of relationships in which they find themselves.

Western Burrowing Owl

Western Burrowing Owl

For the collaborative endeavor In a Landscape where Nothing Officially Exists, a performance/installation that took place at this year’s CAA in Los Angeles, Erin Payne created ragdoll versions of five Californian species that are facing extinction, and then painted portraits of the dolls. The puppets were inspired by the surrogate puppets used to feed the California Condor chicks that are raised in captivity. Simultaneously quiet memorials and loosely rendered playthings, the paintings straddle the childish fantasy of connection with nature and the rational adult, human-centric perspective.

We have a strong imaginative and instinctive attraction to nature and Payne’s pieces capture the primitive desire to connect, understand and represent our natural surroundings.  Dai Toyofuku, one of the artists who organized In a Landscape, suggested that ever since the cave paintings of Chauvet we have been attempting to understand what it means to be human and our own role in the ecosystem by depicting animals. He believes that a deeper engagement with other species as equals would lead to a richer understanding of our own humanity. In creating portraits of the dolls, (what could be more representative of our individualistic, human centered perspective than a portrait?) Payne draws attention to our inability to see animals outside of our own human paradigm and the gaping cultural gap that exists between us and other species.

Yosemite Toad

Yosemite Toad

The Yosemite Toad feels like a familiar storybook character laid out ready for dissection or accidentally suffocated by a curious child (yes, I did that and clearly I still feel guilty), reminding the viewer that our desire to interact with nature often causes more harm than good. Even our attempts at sustainable living can end up making matters worse.

Playing with the flattened perspective of childhood (a world in which dodos and flamingos and talking mice are equally real) Payne brings us forward in time to the point where more familiar creatures (owls, frogs, song birds) start to exist only as fantasies. When our lives are already so removed from nature, does it really make a difference whether these species exist or not?

Tilikum, in progress.

Tilikum, in progress.

Where Payne focuses on the psychology of human responsibility in specific relationship to animals, Amber Hawk Swanson’s Amber Doll->Tilikum transformation highlights the aggressive potential of the oppressed and the destructiveness of captivity in both human-animal and human-human relationships. Over the course of ten days Swanson dismantled the RealDoll Amber (a sex doll made in her likeness, to whom she was married) and resurrected her as a human scale version of  Tilikum, a bull orca whale held in captivity at Sea World. Tilikum is a year younger than Swanson and has been in captivity for almost his entire life. During that time he has killed three people.

Through To Have and To Hold and To Violate: Amber and Doll, Swanson explored issues of agency, power and culpability, witnessing and allowing her Doll self/partner to be violated by strangers. In transforming that same doll into Tilikum, she suggestively ties together the narrative of an aggressive animal in captivity and her own treatment of Amber Doll. Two of the human’s that Tilikum has killed have been his trainers, people with whom he has worked for many years.  In both those instances he did so during performances, implicating the audience in his attacks: if no one paid to see those shows, Tilikum wouldn’t be in captivity and wouldn’t be acting out. The human scale and homemade quality of Swanson’s Tilikum further emphasize our readiness to consume Tilikum and our inability to see him on his own terms.

Seeing the flotsam and jetsam of a human reconstructed as a slightly cartoonish, DIY killer whale is both humorous and disturbing. The fake breasts flopping at the end of the whale’s tail scream of artifice and objectification, tying the physical damage inflicted upon Tilikum by the limitations of his captive existence to the psychological damage of women in a misogynist society.

Artist Amber Hawk Swanson with her sculpture of the killer whale Tilikum.

Artist Amber Hawk Swanson with her sculpture of the killer whale Tilikum.

But the beauty of Swanson’s work is that, like Smith, she is not making a simple victim out of Tilikum or herself. If the goal of the Amber Doll project was to have victim and victimizer exist simultaneously, Tilikum is the way for them to merge into one contradictory object. Swanson directly inserts herself back into the frame as both sexual aggressor and sexual object, her stiletto jauntily echoing Tilikum’s tail fin, reminding us of the erotic frisson created by a power imbalance.  Where Smith looked with jealous unease at “wild” animals, Swanson comfortably aligns herself with that wildness.

London

Nowt so Queer as Folk: Jeremy Deller’s Social Surrealism

David Shrigley Banner, The Southbank Center,London  

David Shrigley’s smartly satirical banner, revolting against the dreary London sky, is a fitting prologue to Jeremy Deller’s sincere and political mid-career survey, Joy in People. Shrigley’s work, which is also on view at the Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Centre, is humorous and mildly disturbing –watch this video to see what I mean– and was well worth the visit. But it was Deller’s work that I have found myself discussing, questioning and digesting over the last two weeks.

Valerie’s Snack Bar (2009). During the show visitors can enjoy free cups of tea while watching a video of the procession Deller organized in Manchester. Photo by Linda Nylind

The show Joy in People documents Deller’s “social surrealism” projects from 1993 through the present. A definitive relational artist, Deller’s role in his works shifts between collaborator, facilitator, patron and documentarian. He interweaves the quirks and questions of daily life (bathroom stall graffiti, struggling with an unruly deck chair, “whatever happened to Bez from the Happy Mondays?”) with the larger arcs of social history and politics that we all play a part in. Unlike relational artists who have used interaction as a  metaphysical tool (think Felix Gonzales-Torres or Rikrit Tirivanija), Deller’s work is useful: empathy and dialogue are direct results of his historical reenactment, the greasy pole monument allows a town to continue one of their folk traditions, and his London Bat house project provides protected species with a replacement for habitats destroyed by development.

In The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One is An Injury to All), 2001, Deller reenacts one of the more violent confrontations of the 1984-85 British miners’ strike.

One of the last sections of the exhibit documented Deller’s failures, including his rejected proposals for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and the London Tube map. In one of the plinth proposals, scientist David Kelly -who killed himself after being accused of telling the truth about Weapons of Mass Destruction to journalists- sits with his legs hanging over the edge of the plinth, trying to edge out of the spotlight that history has given him. His story echoes that of the Yorkshire policeman in The Battle of Orgreave (2001), who joined the force to serve his community and ended up “helping to destroy it”. In that same film, MP Tony Benn quotes the adage “In war, truth is the first casualty.” But the stories of these two men suggest something darker and more complex about the ways truth and morality can be manipulated by those in power, and the casualties that result.

Rejected proposal for the Fourth Plinth, with David Kelly. Copyright Jeremy Deller.

Though all Deller’s plinth proposals failed, he did eventually design a successful cover for the Tube map: a portrait of the longest serving TfL employee, executed by artist Paul Ryan.

In an interview recorded when Deller was a nominee for the 2004 Turner Prize (which he subsequently won), he confidently declared that he does not care whether what he does is art or not, and I agree that this debate is not interesting. However, it is interesting to look at how Deller has navigated through his projects, both using and expanding the position of “artist.” This position gives Deller access to various cultural and political institutions, and allows him to come into charged situations as a somewhat unbiased outsider. The fact that he is an artist, and not a scholar or journalist, also gives him the latitude to explore ideas backwards and inside out, focusing on the details and characters that peak his interest. He is not the first artist to use the role this way, but his playful disregard for the boundaries of art making, and the ranging scope of his interests, felt fresh. And as an artist, it felt like a call to action.