A quick preface: Since I drafted the first half of this post, more than a week ago, my computer died, and things have been pretty busy with work (and will continue to be through this ha-ha-holiday weekend), so there's been a lot going on and I'm really not sure when I'm going to next get the time to write the second half. So I'm going to post this bit now -- people always complain my posts are too long anyway -- and the rest will, I hope, go up before too long. In that second half I'll mostly be discussing Mark Ravenhill's Over There, using Lucio Fontana as an entry point (no, really); and reflecting a bit on King Pelican, as well as offering some thoughts on Castellucci's Inferno and Purgatorio. (Actually only one thought on Purgatorio, probably, and expressed without my customary ornateness...)
"I guess I wont send that note now, for the mind is such a new place, last night feels obsolete."
-- Emily Dickinson, letter to Mrs J.G. Holland, October 1870
Lots to catch up on after a long time away from these regions. King Pelican is over and rehearsals for The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley are already, alarmingly, halfway through. About King Pelican I think I want only to record again my gratitude to everyone who worked on the production, especially the extraordinary actors, Gerard Bell, Maggie Henderson and Jonny Liron: for none of whom was it a carefree walk in the Black Forest exactly, but they were resilient, and pretty unfailingly good company; the word that comes to mind is a mot juste from Lyn Gardner's review: I thank them for their grace. Lyn's review of course made everyone happy, though she used other language in various blog posts and so on that was probably more quotable... I'm in the odd position of actually having not liked the piece quite as much as she apparently did. Lots in it I was very pleased with, but a scripted play is an odd thing, and the process of working on it is also peculiar, and one wonders a bit what one is actually doing... I think I'll probably come back to this later in the post. [Actually in part 2 - C.T.]
Wound Man and Shirley has been fun to work on, though it's been hard to knuckle down -- one can always make a case for playing basketball and having long talkative lunches, especially with someone as engaging (and engaged) as Jonny in the room as associate artist and chaperone; and to be fair, I have every bit as hard a time getting down to business when I'm directing others as I do when I'm directing myself. So, yeah, we've been playing quite a lot of ball and, more recently -- since our basketball got nicked from our slightly dismal rehearsal space, and I anyway sustained, during a game that frankly degenerated into out-and-out roughhousing, an injury that is still, more than a week on, making me feel pretty sore and, by now, a bit grumpy -- improvising piano duets. And the lunch -- and the breakfast -- has been robust. But we've also done some good work, and I'm enjoying that too. The old squeamishness about performing is very much present, notwithstanding the much smaller amount of proper acting required by this show than was the case with Kiss of Life (at least in its Sydney version) or Nine Days Crazy: but Jonny is being brilliantly encouraging and insightful and I'm liking getting to know the piece from the inside. Also the physical production is, I think, shaping up very beautifully, I once again have a fantastic team around me, so the experience is very like crowd surfing -- which, of course, is something I've done a lot in my life, so I know exactly what I'm talking about.
And other stuff has happened or is happening alongside all of the above. My night with Fluxx on Night, London was more fun than I expected and I came away genuinely impressed with many aspects of what they're doing. Performing Blurt Studies at the Klinker was not quite what I wanted it to be -- I'd really hoped to have some substantial rehearsal time but some reasonably well-laid plans went inevitably aglay so in performance I was encountering these very tricky pieces for the first time and with, essentially, no preparation. How hard can it be?, you not-unreasonably ask. Well, here are a couple of pages from the score: try performing them now.
...Ya get me? -- Anyway I got Jonny to videotape the resultant performance, which I might upload here if and when the obsessive-compulsive swallows return to Capistrano to check that they haven't left the gas on. I wasn't entirely pleased but thanks to the multiple layers of skin on my poor neglected teeth I think I got away with it, and there was an excellent moment where some unfortunate crone with a tray of ham sandwiches appeared in a doorway behind me while I was at my hootmost.
Add to these divers tomfooleries my continuing (and continually revelatory) strand of exploratory work with J., and the meetings that I appear to have -- as our transatlantic cousins would say -- up the wazoo, and you'll appreciate that the Calippo-fuelled subarboreal languishes and picnicular lolls of summer are keenly anticipated by your somewhat ragged Controlling T. I have even conceived a yearning for frisbee-chucking; those who remotely know Your Host will confirm the unlikelihood of such a pang hereabouts. Presumably no such summer will arise, particularly as my diary seems set to keep me strapped to the grindstone throughout: though the British Council have now rejected Wound Man and Shirley for this year's Edinburgh Showcase, which will thankfully free up a little extra time for parklife.
Between King Pelican and Wound Man there was a free week (free except for the bonus events mentioned above) which I was trying to treat as a half term holiday, concentrating mostly on catching up with a few cultural bits and pieces -- so here are some thoughts about what I saw. It's hard to suppose that my reports of these things actually amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world; on the other hand, since I last posted, Blogger has introduced a tab called 'Monetise' which evidently I click on if I want to cover this whole place with adverts for herbal penis extensions and legal-high toner cartridges: so perhaps we'd better start talking about art in slightly louder voices, eh?
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Roni Horn aka Roni Horn, at Tate Modern till 25 May, may begin with a small mercy if, like me, you idiotically confuse Roni Horn with Rebecca Horn and, on the bus journey down, are bracing yourself for a big dose of the latter's unyielding symbolic intensities and oddly humourless eccentricities. Roni Horn is in every way a cooler proposition, and this terrific show was like a dollop of tzatziki on my fevered post-Pelican brow.
The retrospective presents work from the mid 70s through to the present, and -- both figuratively and literally -- covers a lot of ground. Horn is first and foremost a quietly pragmatic conceptualist, finding the right medium or form for the idea that attracts her: so we get sculpture, drawings, photography, book art... And in a way we also get performance as well, though it's us who supply that. One of the salient factors that unites these diverse works, in addition to their unemphatic precision and the slow revelation of different kinds of tension beneath their apparent surface quietude, is the way they conduct Horn's interest in creating a theatrical experience for the viewers of the work. This theatricality is far from the bogus hijacking of the superficial trappings of theatre that was represented in Tate Modern's tiresome The World As A Stage a couple of years ago; rather, Horn clearly has -- and trusts -- a deep concern with how viewers establish their own live, mutable relationships with the fixed points of her work; how they make connections between different pieces, how they move through the gallery. Ant Farm, from 1974-5, is a good example: as we bend, twist, crouch in front of it, trying to watch the ants going about their business, we eventually become aware that others in other parts of the gallery are watching us in turn. (Only later do I find out that Horn originally presented Ant Farm as a performance-installation: she herself, present, watching the ants, was an integral part of the work.) Or we might think about her use of repetition, doubling: as we move between rooms, certain elements recur, sometimes placed so as to create a genuine confusion -- didn't I just see this? (Well, yes; but no, not this.) Louis Greaud has recently explored similar uses of repetition, but his interest is apparently in a kind of unheimlich quality, while Horn seeks not to disturb our perception of the here-and-now by part-fictionalising it, but to affirm and expand it in its actuality. By creating patterns in time as well as space, Horn heightens the awareness of our movement, our participation, in exactly the way that, following Goodman, I want the audience to my theatre works to be moved by what they are doing -- attending -- as much as by whatever's happening on stage. It made me very happy to recognize this in Horn's practice, and for it to feel so kindly and so obvious.
I very warmly recommend this show -- there are some exceptionally beautiful individual pieces in it, especially the drawings from the mid 80s and the more recent book works such as Doubt Box (Book IX) from 2006 -- but as it went on something started to bug me, a kind of paradox (of which I don't doubt Horn is aware). It's a large show, and rightly so as there's a lot of significant work collated here and all of it needs breathing space. Some of the later drawings and image works are also on a pretty big scale in themselves. But there is an important difference in quality between the largeness of (these) ideas and the largeness of the rooms that contain them. In the closing stages of the journey I started to find a sort of accumulated monumentality was pressing in on my response to the work; mixed in with the reverberance of the pieces themselves were a lot of unwelcome and unappealing connotations of the large gallery, the big room, a kind of grandiosity or heaviness. Considered simply as objects in space, the work fills its environment very satisfactorily and generously; but the show as a whole ends up claiming for itself a kind of authoritative impressiveness that the work itself has no interest in, has often been quite careful to eschew. I don't know if it's glib to wonder whether this has to do with something overbearingly masculine about the gallery space; to think that, obviously, immediately evokes a category of women artists which is probably absurd in itself and suggests a matrix that anyway has nothing much to do with the particulars of Horn's work. But I do wonder whether this is all there is, for artists later in their careers, when is starts to be useful and worthwhile to try to look at the trajectory of their work over three or four decades: where there's a large body of work, and where (as in Horn's case) it comprises a lot of different species of idea and presentation, what else could there be for the viewer other than big rooms and a long walk? But I wanted something more fluid, more human-scale, and I certainly didn't want the curious whiff of testosterone that started to interfere with the experience. Horn's work is sometimes quite clearly concerned with androgyny, with adolescence, with a quite ravishing intimacy; what would the big-enough gallery look like that was conceived in precisely that queerness and proceeded from there?
Meanwhile, fifteen minutes along the South Bank can be found another major exhibition charting the career of another significant woman artist, the French -- one might say very French -- installationist Annette Messager. For as long as I've been interested in contemporary art I've known Messager -- I saw her Arnolfini show in 1992 when I was still in my teens -- but even back then, when I was probably much easier to bowl over, I didn't feel a strong connection with her output (perhaps a little more with what I understood of her practice and philosophy): and though there's plenty to enjoy at the Hayward, I still don't find her stuff particularly compelling. Her playfulness starts to feel a bit hollow, even neurotic: why is she so determined, you start to wonder, not to take anything too seriously? There is an investment in performativity (though mostly not theatricality), and in a kind of liquid Deleuzian flux, which ought to appeal, but finally feels evasive. "We are each multiple, contradictory and ungraspable," the exhibition guide quotes her as saying in 1973 -- well, so far so good. But then, it follows for her that: "I am undoubtedly always wanting to be someone else, somewhere else, and to avoid being restricted to an ultimate form, lacking contradiction...". By comparison with the equally ungraspable slipperiness of Roni Horn, whose work nonetheless is concerned to place itself always here and now in the encounter, Messager seems not to have arrived at the more interesting conclusion from her fecund premise. If we are, as she says, multiple and contradictory, we can just as adequately -- and perhaps more interestingly and progressively -- attest to that complexity by attempting (and by all means failing) to say who we are, to locate our selves within the work we make: rather than by seeking always to play at disguise and dress-up, insistently rejecting autobiography (as she does) in favour of a fabulism that makes it hard -- for me, at least -- to care about the worlds she conjures: not only is little at stake, which can make the work seem decorative or trivial, but she doesn't even appear interested in analysing the technologies she's using, or in asking us to think discriminatingly about her (surprisingly narrow) lexis. It is odd for an artist who's so fascinated by disguise and dissemblance to want us to accept so much at face value.
Nonetheless there are enjoyable pieces here which jag in the mind. Children With Their Eyes Scratched Out, from 1971-2, is deeply alarming but also blackly funny; likewise the more recent aerial installation Them and Us, Us and Them (2000), which groups a number of stuffed animals each of which has its head covered with the head of a soft toy. This is a genuinely disquieting and lurid image, notwithstanding the use of plushies is just one of the tropes in Messager's work that becomes grating with overuse, and the ethical dimension to her frequent employment of real stuffed animals is a bit troublesome (for me): though she's actually better than, say, Maurizio Cattelan -- with whom she could interestingly be compared & contrasted on a number of levels -- at bypassing any sense of cuteness or cheap anthropomorphism. Perhaps the most striking works here are a couple of room-size pieces which use computerised fan systems to bring soft structures to life in choreographed quasi-performances: a section from Casino (2005), which places the viewer inside the belly of a whale, is sumptuously beautiful and lyrical, and worth watching like a performance piece, from the beginning to end of its fifteen minute cycle; Inflated-Deflated (2006) creates a surreal ballet of bodily organs rendered in parachute fabric, which, like much of Messager's work, provokes a smile that quite quickly starts to feel uncomfortable. I want more, much more, than this: but perhaps Messager's content with the (realistic but dismal) idea that she's not the only artist, and she doesn't have to make all the work.
Meanwhile, upstairs at the Hayward (until 4 May) is Mark Wallinger's fascinating curatorial exercise The Russian Linesman: Frontiers, Borders and Thresholds. As its subtitle indicates, this is essentially a show exploring the idea of liminality, and it's to the exhibition's benefit as well as its detriment that there's almost nothing -- especially in the territory of visual art -- that can't somehow be spun into reflecting on the liminal one way or another. To some extent, then, this is really just about climbing into Mark Wallinger's head and having a wander around among the bits and bobs that he finds intriguing or provocative: and the degree to which this produces a successful exhibition may perhaps be proportional to the level of your interest in Wallinger. I'm a big fan, so I liked this.
It's an arrestingly wide-ranging show, which pulls together not only high-end art from Durer to Tacita Dean (via an X-ray of Titian's Death of Actaean) but also an assortment of stereoscopic photos, a documentary clip pulled from YouTube, a DVD of Philippe Petit's Twin Towers walk, an audio recording of James Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake, and a series of Ronald Searle's extraordinary PoW drawings. Personal high points: Giuseppe Penone's Alpi Maritime 1-6 (1968), a series of photographs recording interventions / performances undertaken in natural surroundings by that most likeable and exemplary of the Arte Povera artists; a glass Klein bottle exquisitely realized by Francis Oakes (1967), endlessly fascinating, captivating, oddly touching; Fred Sandback's heart-stopping minimal sculptures from lines of acrylic string; Jerome Bel's film Veronique Doisneau, from 2005, which picks the eponymous dancer out of her usual position in the corps de ballet to produce a warm and witty and ultimately rather poignant reflection on the individual and the group; and a terrific 1999 video by the Bosnian-born artist Bojan Sarcevic called It seems that an animal is in the world as water in water, in which he impassively films a number of dogs at large in an otherwise deserted Amsterdam church.
That The Russian Linesman feels at all coherent is probably due more to a sense of Wallinger's personal sensibility than to the theme of liminality that supposedly unites it all. There's absolutely nothing here that doesn't repay (at least) a second and third glance, and in fact I wish I'd given my whole afternoon over to it, and had the time and space to explore the connective readings that came to my mind, as well as trying to educe Wallinger's own sense of the wiring of the show. In so far as it does, explicitly, treat of liminality, its perspective is actually shrewd and indicative in what I take to be an encouraging way: Wallinger is as engaged politically as he is conceptually, and is interested in borders partly because of the disputes they give rise to; in thresholds because of their contestation; in frontiers because of the way they demark and territorialize human relations. It would be stretching a point to call The Russian Linesman a political show, but, like the ideas that flow around it, it has political uses, without ever appearing dogmatic or doctrinaire.
Some of the questions posed by The Russian Linesman -- and much of what it represents as a show simply by ventilating those questions in the first place -- are interestingly reframed by the other big group show in London at the moment, the Tate Triennial, Altermodern, curated by Nicolas Bourriaud. Bourriaud, the vaguely controversial critic whose investigations of 'relational aesthetics' have had as major an impact on contemporary performance studies as they have on the domain of visual art, is here advancing a quite careful (if somewhat nebulous) thesis about a wave of artists -- including the mostly British artists here -- whose work is responding to a set of trends and tendencies which, taken together, look set to supplant postmodernism as the prevailing cultural condition, or I suppose more likely as the favoured modality of artistic response to that cultural situation. Altermodernism is about those specifics of cultural identity which have so often been airbrushed out of mainstream multiculturalism, and the navigation of passages between particular cultural and political instances and situations. "Altermodern art," writes Bourriaud, "often functions as a hypertext, translating and transcoding information from one format to another. Artists wander in geography as well as in history, exploring a transcultural landscape saturated with signs to curate new pathways between multiple formats of expression and communication."
Well, OK, so perhaps let's turn immediately to a couple of works in the exhibition and see where they fit with this schema.
My first scribbled note to myself was: "Or is this just postmodernism that has at last sucked politics into its vortex?" In other words, just as democracies thrive by absorbing dissent into their own prevailing authoritative structures, permitting it -- and pointing it up -- in order to neutralize it, have we just added here a new aisle in the postmodern hypermarket, where specific political exigencies and cultural loci are piled up alongside the old familiar postmodern brands of identity politics and global jumpcutting? A totem for this question might be Ruth Ewan's Squeezebox Jukebox (2009). I pick on it because as an object -- a largest functional accordion in the world -- it could easily sit alongside other works by an arch-postmodernist such as Christian Marclay (e.g. his giant distended drumkit). But then: "Once a day for the duration of the exhibition two volunteers will play a selection of songs from Ewan's ongoing archive of protest and political songs...". The day I went, we'd just missed their stab at a rendition of "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free". It's a greatly serviceable paradigm for one of the a priori notions behind relational art: that artworks are completed by, activated by, existent only within, people. (I'm reminded of the title of an electroacoustic music compilation from a few years ago: "This music is silent until you listen.")
A second useful example to pull out is one of the most successful in the show: Walead Beshty's Fedex Large Kraft Boxes 330508, International Priority, Los Angeles - Tijuana, Tijuana - Los Angeles, Los Angeles - London, October 28, 2008 - January 16, 2009. A nice does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title for an elegantly suggestive work. Beshty simply ships big glass boxes around the world, via Fedex, and then exhibits the boxes, each of which becomes progressively more damaged in transit on each leg of its journey. This work hardly represents a breach with pomo in its actions: it has a low authorship quotient and a high level of concern with translation and mobility. But until relatively recently, the postmodern fantasy was of frictionless travel. About breakage, wounding, corruption, loss in translation, it was often in deep -- or, rather, shallow -- denial. Bourriaud's "landscape saturated with signs" belongs to postmodernism; what's changed here (if something has) is that these abundant signals are now being considered not in themselves or within the ambit of their own system, but with explicit regard to the signal-to-noise ratio that inflects our relations with them.
In a way, then, the altermodern seems to respond to Claire Bishop's concern regarding relational art that it cannot quite articulate the specifics of its social functionality: what exactly does it do, and how, and to what ends? In other words: now that we've found love, what are we going to do with it? In a way, this seems to me not to supplant but to resuscitate the permissiveness of postmodernism, by redescribing it as instrumental rather than as a pure delight or an accurate and impartial reflection of the times. But that's not to say this new wave doesn't generate interesting sensations or behaviours. Sometimes these strong inductions yield only short and showy benefits: there are some hysterically overachieving colourists here, and a lot of work, particularly installation, in which the management of resources initially suggests complexity of a challenging, cross-connecting kind, which quite quickly reveals itself to be merely complicated, in a decorative, self-involved way. There is something refreshing, bracing even, about the willingness to look intellectual here, but an apparent disdain for cogency (as if it weighed against multiplicity) or real lucid intelligence; moreover, few of these artists have much use for the body, and of those that do, too many are more invested in bathos than desire.
As with The Russian Linesman, much of this work is politically motivated and has a relatively sophisticated sense of itself in its civic orientation: which is more than welcome, and in many ways the show as a whole feels optimistic, stoked. But, again, what is that political orientation towards? The exhibition guide puts the whole of 'altermodernism' in a handy nutshell in its gloss on the slightly underwhelming wood and acrylic pieces of Seth Price, a much talked-about young artist working out of New York. "Price's practice examines 'the system'," it says: "...and suggests there are no longer ways for us to exist outside it: instead, new links must be opened up." And that, right there, is the reason for the optimism of altermodernism: it starts from a place of defeatism, and finds itself wonderfully unburdened therefore by the old narratives. There is, we are told, no viable anticapitalist function for art -- this is meant to feel merely sobering, I think -- and we should therefore do a better job of saying who we are under, or inside, capitalism. (The lack of bodies here makes it harder to visualise -- or physicalize -- the extent to which capitalism is inside us too.) Ingenuity of affiliation will help to create networks of relation that in turn help us to withstand capitalism, perhaps alleviate the most parlous of its effects, but not to imagine our lives beyond this foreshortened horizon.
This defeatism is a real shame; the average age of these artists (if we exclude from our calculations the anomalously -- but thankfully -- included Gustav Metzger, the legendary octogenarian whose Liquid Crystal Environment, from 2006, is one of the show's few out-and-out individual successes) is 38, which feels young to be giving up on the project of working towards liveable alternatives to capitalism -- especially now, when 'the system' feels frailer and more transparent than at any point in the lifetime of a 38-year-old; it's not merely unimaginative, it's inattentive. But there's something here that does, in the end, feel promising.
A few years ago I wrote an essay for Edinburgh Review that used the reclassification of poetry, following a then-recent overhaul of the US industrial classification system, as a kind of information rather than a manufactured material, as a way in to thinking about how, within an overwhelming and terminally arrested postmodern culture, politically-engaged art and activism might be able to be consequentially dissident rather than simply another free-floating presence in Bourriaud's "landscape saturated with signs". That essay accepted the premise attributed to Price, that we can not at present live wholly outside capitalism, but used the idea of what I called "perpetual re-entry" to suggest that a significant, consequential anticapitalist dissidence was practically and locally possible -- and necessary. The post-liminal urge, I'd suggest, remains natural and meaningful to us. We do seem to want, to need, utimately, to be able to say who we are and are not, what we need, what we desire, what we came here to do. Rather than the endlessly extended and attenuated play/performance of an Annette Messager, we want to affirm certain truths as, to borrow a phrase, self-evident: and to hold ourselves to account in relation to those truths. This in no way prohibits change, slipperiness, queerness, play: all of which are instincts in us, valuable, life-saving instincts, and not at all untruths. But it requires also a radical indicativity, a desire to say what is and what must be as well as, and (literally) before and after, we say what might be, or we mendaciously say for the sake of art or exploration that what we know to be untrue is true.
We live, now, in a liminoid culture, and the revolution that Richard Schechner thought was on the way in 1968 or whenever (when, through his work with Victor Turner, he started to hanker after social portents of the seemingly inevitable passage into post-liminal reincorporation) will arise only if and when we permit it to be visited on us: forget the dandy highwaymen and low-falutin narcissists who made the recent G20 protests so monumentally dull and servile: no one's going anywhere interesting till the oil runs out, innit. But surely it's possible to create work that, while it accepts that it's conceived inside that liminoid stupefaction, can find ways of articulating and responding to that predicament and proposing alternative structures for personal and social relations, simply by achieving and sustaining a rigorous fidelity to the kinds of aspirations that serious anticapitalists of all stripes hold to be self-evident truths. What else would we do? Wait until the work's been achieved by some other means, and then re-tell that story? No, the obligation is to an exemplary and insistently reiterated commitment to re-entry, to articulating and promulgating the desire to re-enter a condition of post-liminal indicativity. This is possible -- in fact in many ways it's easy, or it's at least no more difficult than creating artwork that doesn't care to do these things. In other words, we can accept that, pace Price (or his explicator), we don't now exist outside the system but we can still make work that openly and honestly describes our desire to move beyond it, rather than short-circuiting that aspiration with a kind of resigned pragmatism (which anyway is barely more pragmatic than our own commitments). And every time Mark Wallinger asks us to think not merely about borders but actually about border disputes, or Walead Beshty presents us with a site for contemplating travel not as a globalizing edutainment spree but as a generator of erotic harm, the will to re-enter the world below the grid is compellingly disclosed. At the same time, though, it feels to me more and more that visual art, like poetry, can only help delineate the scope of the enquiry, shape its terms: that the entry point will be, must be, already is, theatre: because a theatre that can host this task of re-presentation will already be not merely a map of the life it seeks to secure, but itself some consequential instance of that life in action.
How does this relate to Mark Ravenhill? Or Romeo Castellucci? Join us for our next instalment, coming up after these messages...