Review of David Noonan’s ‘Mnemosyne’

still from the film

Review of David Noonan ‘Mnemosyne’ at Stuart Shave’s Modern Art gallery March 1-April 2 2022

Digging away in the graveyard of history, exhuming various remains and displaying them seems to be the method of David Noonan in this exhibition. Seeing the past through a fog seems to be a pervading concern, which is fitting as the show’s title is derived from the name of the goddess of memory in ancient Greece.

As you enter Modern Art’s central London outpost, you spy a bench on which to sit and watch a twenty-minute video on a loop. It starts with an illustration like you would find in a cartoon of what seems to be nobility from the British isles from centuries ago. Then you get gliding by decontextualized images of: kabuki performers on stage; a suburban house; a woman with a hairstyle reminiscent of Farrah Fawcett in her Charlie’s Angel days with two girls clutching dolls, all smiling, all enveloped in a yellow haze and black swirls descending, lending an air of nostalgia to what is being depicted. The music, an ambient drone type of sound with what seems like an accordion cutting through intermittently, is provided by Noonan’s friend and a Nick Cave collaborator, Warren Ellis. It is sinister and forbidding like the majority of Cave’s lyrics. All three are Australian. Is this project an attempt to reach into Australia’s short history and obliquely remind us a lot’s hidden?

Splicing images from archives and other sources and re=presenting them allows the artist to escape concrete interpretations and enables the viewer to make up narratives to wrap around the images. Noonan’s work brings to mind young Nigerian-American Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s. Some of her paintings that I encountered in the UK’s National Portrait Gallery in 2019 have Nigerian pop stars and politicians, family members and ads for groceries juxtaposed and jostling for space. Could such artists be attempting to ward off our collective amnesia? Might being cultural hybrids – Noonan migrating from Australia to the UK, Crosby moving from Nigeria to the US- have something to do with the way they construct complex works with various layers?

I was inspired, after my second visit, to look up the introduction to Radstone’s anthology Memory: Histories, Theories and Debates. She asserts, ‘The idea of memory runs through contemporary public life at high voltage, generating polemic and passionate debate in the media, in the spheres of politics and the academy.’ She talks about possible reasons for this: from postmodernism with its notion that organic memory has disappeared due to the advent of digital forms of storage, or that capitalism’s commodification of histories renders memories obsolete; to the politicisation of what should be kept in the public’s memory as the public arena buzzes with debate about what we should put up and what should come down. It seems we can expect to see more artists creating notable work that mine the past, that hold things up to the light for our delight or horror.

I was glad I was by myself when I first visited as I could allow myself to be immersed in the video, especially as the gallery attendant was the only other person around. Downstairs I was also alone as I looked at stills from the video. I left the gallery having been mesmerised by Noonan’s spell and his adeptness at drawing on the shared memory of humanity. I’m still haunted by the wyrd weaving he’s done.

Oh, the wind, oh, the wind


Oh, the Wind, Oh, the Wind Theaster Gates 17 September – 30 October 2021

Theaster Gates

Oh, The Wind

2021
Single channel film HD 16:9

© Theaster Gates. Courtesy White Cube

It is a grey, gloomy, misery-making morning as I walk through the whistling wind past tourists and Londoners to White Cube’s Mason Yard site to see Theaster Gates’s recent work. I enter the gallery and pay little attention to the works on the ground floor, hand-thrown ceramics that are a synthesis of ancient African influences, as I am there mainly to see the performance recorded on film: Oh, the Wind.

In the basement, in a darkened room I sit on one of two benches provided for the audience to view the 12-minute film. The opening shot shows the redundant brick factory in Montana where Gates did the performance. Then it cuts to the artist standing in a grey greatcoat with his back to the camera. He starts off crooning in a low voice his improvised gospel song that refers to the wind and the fire spreading through his soul. His volume rises and he grows more energetic, ripping off his beanie and waving it around as he sings as if he’s a praise leader whose soul has been taken over by the Holy Spirit. At times he stands with his arms outstretched, looking up the heavens while bathed in shafts of sunlight sliding through the slats of the factory. He’s like an ecstatic saint, the light his halo. He shuffles the length of the factory floor, while at times the camera cuts to other bits of the factory and the snow-capped environment it was filmed in.

Theaster Gates

Oh, The Wind

2021
Single channel film HD 16:9

© Theaster Gates. Courtesy White Cube

I am transfixed throughout and as I leave the gallery, I spot Jay Jopling, the urbane ex-public school founder of White Cube and a leading light in the UK contemporary art firmament. I collar him and ask about where the performance had taken place (I rarely read press releases till after I’ve seen an exhibition). He’s very enthusiastic about Gates and points out the factory had been taken over by the Archie Bray foundation, and the artist had spent art of the pandemic there doing a residency. Jopling sees the film as a celebration of the earth, and I have to agree that with the emphasis on the elements of wind and fire in the song and the depiction of frozen water (snow), that seems a plausible interpretation.

So what draws me to Gates’ work? I admire his project to reinterpret aspects of African American culture, from black magazines to the church. Praise and worship is paramount in the black church and was the most fun part of attending when I was growing up in Lagos. Singing, whether you had a great voice or not, was a way to get the Spirit to descend, to bless you and to send you into rapture. By sinking his own money into social practice to help the poor in his native Chicago, and elevating the everyday by placing it in art contexts, he is someone that proposes a relationship between the secular and spiritual. Religious rhetoric and cerebral commentary intermingle in his practice in an easy equivalence. The sonic soundscapes conjured with his booming baritone and harmonies historically associated with gospel enchant for this genre has often encapsulated suffering, sorrow, resilience, hope and the thrill of transcendence. For his art to touch people across the social divide all around the world – from upper class Brits to working class Americans – there must be something significant going on there. Long may that continue.

Theaster Gates

Oh, The Wind

2021
Single channel film HD 16:9

© Theaster Gates. Courtesy White Cube

Reconceiving space: my experience on an online course aimed at budding performance and installation artists

How to start? How to begin a log/review of my experience doing an online course for those that want to learn the intricacies of making an installation or performance and getting it seen? Who’d read this? Who’d care enough to read it? I have nothing as poetic as Nabokov’s first paragraph in Lolita which ends with the awe-inspiring alliteration ‘look at this tangle of thorns’, or the teenage insouciance of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye: ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Besides, those are from novels. Something more apt might be in the tone of Hemingway’s memoir, A moveable feast, where he starts his atmospheric account mid-flow: ‘Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal…’

But enough of those dead white males. Hopefully you’re interested enough, having read this far, in a log conveying my emotions and thoughts as I went through the short course. Maybe I should state I took the course because I felt it would not only give me insights into the processes behind the practices of the tutors who were professional artists, but it would also give me a bit of structure. You see, I’m in the limbo between finishing my Master’s and my PhD which is focused on Jelili Atiku, a Nigerian performance artist. Figuring out that I could do worse with my time than taking an online course put together by Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education, called Reconceiving Space: Installation and Performance Art, I signed up and paid for the Verified Track option which promised ‘graded assignments and exams’. I’m such a nerd that even when I could take it easy, I chose to do a course where an essay was expected!

18/09/21

I approached the course with so much excitement and enthusiasm I blitzed through a fortnights’ worth of video lectures and exercises in one day. I introduced myself on the forum and noticed my classmates were from all around the world. They were taking the course for a variety of reasons- from those deepening their knowledge to those considering taking up performance art. I thought about the answers to questions we were asked to consider and did the quizzes set. I took a look at the reading list and even downloaded the one that looked most fascinating. Called No Innocent Bystanders: Performance Art and Audience by Frazer Ward (2012), it interrogates artistic strategies adopted by Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden and Tehching Hsieh to implicate the audience in their extreme performances. There’s no space to go into a full review of it, but I would recommend it to anyone keen to examine how iconic works by these titans of live art have entered the annals of art history.

20/09/21

I plodded through some of the week three material that day. I was getting bored by then, finding it harder to see the relevance of the course to me for some reason. Could it be because the format for each unit of the course was the same, or was it because that particular component, with the emphasis on practical methodologies putting on a drama didn’t appeal to me seeing as I have no ambition to write or produce a play? Things were not helped by the fact that the information provided on how the lecturer secured funding was sketchy to say the least. Giving no detail on such a key point isn’t really helpful to those that want to embark on such a journey.

There was one thing that stayed with me. The tutor referred to the cruciality of liveness in her practice – that notion of work being experienced in person –  which got me thinking about the question of whether an audience is necessary for a performance. I dove into texts that explored what it is to be concerned with performing live during a pandemic. Did you know that in Shakespeare’s day, when there was a plague, he retired to his home at Stratford-upon-Avon as the theatres were shut? Similarly, during modern lockdowns a significant number of those employed in the performing arts rehearsed for postponed plays and gigs as even ‘invisible theatre’ (a new term I’ve learnt – a play that’s performed in an unconventional setting with the public as unwitting participants) was potentially illegal. Quite a few performers engaged in Zoom performances though. As laudable as their intentions were, I recall I avoided those as the anticipation, the embodied perception, being amongst other bodies, exulting in the co-presence of the audience, seeing the sweat on the brows of performers, all those essential elements of live art are what make it captivating for those of us that are wary of the mediatisation of everything, for those of us with a strong appetite for and insistence on liveness.

21/09/21

More week three stuff, more disinterest, more scrolling through the transcripts instead of sitting through the recorded lectures. I searched for what assignment I was meant to work on and didn’t see one, so I contacted the Institute of Continuing Education. They told me there was no assignment and that I should contact edX. I noticed hardly any of my peers entered their answers to the questions by this stage in the forum and wondered if they were also bored, or didn’t see the point in doing so knowing no tutor was going to look at it.  I carried on with the quiz and even got all the answers right without having to read the suggested extract.

23/09/21

I was transfixed by Abigail Gibb’s lectures and explanations of her practice in the final unit! She discussed: her view of artmaking as serious play; her love of assembling texts from various sources and treating them like found objects; the genesis of an artwork she created; and was inspiring in the way she discussed the various outputs (a performance and an artist’s book) that resulted from it. The reflective task at the end of that unit, which was to select an extract from a text or choose an object in order to consider how they could be re-presented to the public, was an echo of the work she had talked us through.

Reconceiving liminality

So, was it worth doing the course? Well, the reading list was brilliant and extensive, and the platform for delivering the program was smooth. Also, it got me thinking about liveness and learning terms like co-presence, while discovering the poetics and praxis of Alison Gibb. Invisible theatre is something else I had come across before as Atiku once faked a marriage to a preadolescent girl on the streets of Lagos (Senator Yerima’s Wedding, 2013 in protest against a Nigerian politician doing the same thing) leading to passers-by becoming outraged enough to intervene, but I wasn’t aware of the term, so that’s going to feed into my PhD. Being in limbo has given me a chance to slow down after a busy few months and the course has enabled me to go on an intellectual journey in which I encountered gems, and learnt more about the aberrant and wondrous world of live art. What was important about cramming in more formal learning in this liminal stage was it plugged some gaps in my knowledge. Coming across people daily engaged in the creation and delivery of performances and installations was an intriguing proposition, and my curiosity was enough to see me through, though the lectures were tedious at times.

Could it be though that this desire to get an essay marked with a certificate of completion from Cambridge University is a symptom of imposter syndrome, or just a desire to show I have achieved something concrete in this transitional period, and a reflection of a condition that afflicts most of us: too focused on doing, instead of simply being? I leave that to you to ponder on.

How to start? How to begin a log/review of my experience doing an online course for those that want to learn the intricacies of making an installation or performance and getting it seen? Who’d read this? Who’d care enough to read it? I have nothing as poetic as Nabokov’s first paragraph in Lolita which ends with the awe-inspiring alliteration ‘look at this tangle of thorns’, or the teenage insouciance of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye: ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Besides, those are from novels. Something more apt might be in the tone of Hemingway’s memoir, A moveable feast, where he starts his atmospheric account mid-flow: ‘Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal…’

But enough of those dead white males. Hopefully you’re interested enough, having read this far, in a log conveying my emotions and thoughts as I went through the short course. Maybe I should state I took the course because I felt it would not only give me insights into the processes behind the practices of the tutors who were professional artists, but it would also give me a bit of structure. You see, I’m in the limbo between finishing my Master’s and my PhD which is focused on Jelili Atiku, a Nigerian performance artist. Figuring out that I could do worse with my time than taking an online course put together by Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education, called Reconceiving Space: Installation and Performance Art, I signed up and paid for the Verified Track option which promised ‘graded assignments and exams’. I’m such a nerd that even when I could take it easy, I chose to do a course where an essay was expected!

18/09/21

I approached the course with so much excitement and enthusiasm I blitzed through a fortnights’ worth of video lectures and exercises in one day. I introduced myself on the forum and noticed my classmates were from all around the world. They were taking the course for a variety of reasons- from those deepening their knowledge to those considering taking up performance art. I thought about the answers to questions we were asked to consider and did the quizzes set. I took a look at the reading list and even downloaded the one that looked most fascinating. Called No Innocent Bystanders: Performance Art and Audience by Frazer Ward (2012), it interrogates artistic strategies adopted by Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden and Tehching Hsieh to implicate the audience in their extreme performances. There’s no space to go into a full review of it, but I would recommend it to anyone keen to examine how iconic works by these titans of live art have entered the annals of art history.

20/09/21

I plodded through some of the week three material that day. I was getting bored by then, finding it harder to see the relevance of the course to me for some reason. Could it be because the format for each unit of the course was the same, or was it because that particular component, with the emphasis on practical methodologies putting on a drama didn’t appeal to me seeing as I have no ambition to write or produce a play? Things were not helped by the fact that the information provided on how the lecturer secured funding was sketchy to say the least. Giving no detail on such a key point isn’t really helpful to those that want to embark on such a journey.

There was one thing that stayed with me. The tutor referred to the cruciality of liveness in her practice – that notion of work being experienced in person –  which got me thinking about the question of whether an audience is necessary for a performance. I dove into texts that explored what it is to be concerned with performing live during a pandemic. Did you know that in Shakespeare’s day, when there was a plague, he retired to his home at Stratford-upon-Avon as the theatres were shut? Similarly, during modern lockdowns a significant number of those employed in the performing arts rehearsed for postponed plays and gigs as even ‘invisible theatre’ (a new term I’ve learnt – a play that’s performed in an unconventional setting with the public as unwitting participants) was potentially illegal. Quite a few performers engaged in Zoom performances though. As laudable as their intentions were, I recall I avoided those as the anticipation, the embodied perception, being amongst other bodies, exulting in the co-presence of the audience, seeing the sweat on the brows of performers, all those essential elements of live art are what make it captivating for those of us that are wary of the mediatisation of everything, for those of us with a strong appetite for and insistence on liveness.

21/09/21

More week three stuff, more disinterest, more scrolling through the transcripts instead of sitting through the recorded lectures. I searched for what assignment I was meant to work on and didn’t see one, so I contacted the Institute of Continuing Education. They told me there was no assignment and that I should contact edX. I noticed hardly any of my peers entered their answers to the questions by this stage in the forum and wondered if they were also bored, or didn’t see the point in doing so knowing no tutor was going to look at it.  I carried on with the quiz and even got all the answers right without having to read the suggested extract.

23/09/21

I was transfixed by Abigail Gibb’s lectures and explanations of her practice in the final unit! She discussed: her view of artmaking as serious play; her love of assembling texts from various sources and treating them like found objects; the genesis of an artwork she created; and was inspiring in the way she discussed the various outputs (a performance and an artist’s book) that resulted from it. The reflective task at the end of that unit, which was to select an extract from a text or choose an object in order to consider how they could be re-presented to the public, was an echo of the work she had talked us through.

Reconceiving liminality

So, was it worth doing the course? Well, the reading list was brilliant and extensive, and the platform for delivering the program was smooth. Also, it got me thinking about liveness and learning terms like co-presence, while discovering the poetics and praxis of Alison Gibb. Invisible theatre is something else I had come across before as Atiku once faked a marriage to a preadolescent girl on the streets of Lagos (Senator Yerima’s Wedding, 2013 in protest against a Nigerian politician doing the same thing) leading to passers-by becoming outraged enough to intervene, but I wasn’t aware of the term, so that’s going to feed into my PhD. Being in limbo has given me a chance to slow down after a busy few months and the course has enabled me to go on an intellectual journey in which I encountered gems, and learnt more about the aberrant and wondrous world of live art. What was important about cramming in more formal learning in this liminal stage was it plugged some gaps in my knowledge. Coming across people daily engaged in the creation and delivery of performances and installations was an intriguing proposition, and my curiosity was enough to see me through, though the lectures were tedious at times.

Could it be though that this desire to get an essay marked with a certificate of completion from Cambridge University is a symptom of imposter syndrome, or just a desire to show I have achieved something concrete in this transitional period, and a reflection of a condition that afflicts most of us: too focused on doing, instead of simply being? I leave that to you to ponder on.


Interactive show I curated

I discussed, in January 2020, organising an exhibition of Julie Gab’s work with Stacey McCormick, the director of Unit 1 Gallery, an art foundation I’d been visiting for some years. We settled on an online, interactive show which was a new venture for all three of us. We launched it in July 2020.

https://www.julsgabs.com/error

Review: Fischli&Weiss at Sprueth Magrs 2020

Fischli & Weiss- ‘Should I paint a pirate ship on my car with an armed figure on it holding a decapitated head by the hair?’

 

 

The ‘new normal’ they call it, this inexorable spread of queues snaking round blocks for popular shops, sanitisers dotted on the sparse streets, shop staff gazing forlornly at the sunny world outside their cage, Mayfair slowly coming back to life, recovering slowly, a weak patient taking her first tottering steps.

I’d booked a time slot to see the exhibition and arrived early. The gallery assistant at the front desk in a mask and gloves apologised for offering two masks in an envelope, explaining how I and the other visitor should try to avoid each other and asked me what my experience had been like in the other spaces I’d visited. I left her chatting to my fellow visitor and went in to see the show, a capsule overview of the work of the artists who worked together for over three decades.

Appropriately in the basement there is a video of footage captured in a sewer. Kanalvideo (1992) is just over an hour long and as unprepossessing as you would expect given the subject matter. I’ve never understood why artists don’t realise the average modern gallery visitor is unwilling to spend more than, say, around ten minutes on a video piece, let alone one in which barely anything happens.

Things get more interesting when you get to the ground floor. A work that brings to mind The Raft of the Medusa by Gericault, and spread across two rooms, the installation The Raft consists of an array carved out of polyurethane foam, a material the artists came across in LA on the set of a horror film. Over seventy pieces are carved including a skull, a rucksack, a pig and her suckling piglets, cannon, a threadbare tyre, barrels, wooden crates and canisters with a broken mast towering over the piece. Hippos and crocodiles surrounding it add an air of menace.  Made in the Cold War era, the uncertainty and pessimism it conjures have modern-day echoes. Who can say that we are living in a period of peace and prosperity when just recently the centre of bustling cities all around the world from Lagos to London turned into ghost towns, citizens too scared to venture out, curfews and travel restrictions everywhere, people afraid to hug others for fear of falling victim to the silent killer, COVID-19? What’s been served up here is a work that reverberates through the ages for fear and loathing, pandemics and pain have always been with us.

You go to the gallery upstairs and come across Fotografias which was made in 2005 and consists of eight vitrines each filled with forty-five four by six inches black and white images, the size of postcards. They are cropped, underexposed photos from wall paintings and promotional signs for amusement parks and fairgrounds, with scenes from urban myths, fairy tales, animals, sci-fi and horror stories. Through these small photographs the artists depict relentlessly dark and disturbing scenarios echoing the barrage of sad, grim news in recent times. Here a demon saws a nude sleeping beauty in half while there a young woman in a sparkling dress stands clutching a microphone about to dazzle an audience. Sex and violence, Eros and Thanatos intertwine in an eternal embrace. Taking from kitsch, commercial pictures has been around since Pop Art, it’s a device that enables artists to express an idea using something that the public see in their day-to-day lives, a way of making art that’s more accessible. This series produced over a decade ago again resonates now. Fischli and Weiss were masters at capturing the essence of modern life in all its crazed, uncertain, garish glory.

 

 

 

Five fantastic photo books

Alan Huck I walk toward the sun which is always going down 2019

Lyrical, philosophical travelogue. He writes with a poet’s sensibilities, images of places, spaces with no human beings in them. simple and yet, and yet you’re entranced, you can’t simply glance at these, you want to follow him on his journey.

Thomas Demand The Dailies 2015

Demand’s paper sculptures, the trickery of photography making them seem not like models, Hal Foster’s meditations paired with them to devastating effect.

Joanna Piotrowska Frowst 2014

Black and white photos made to seem like nostalgic snapshots. awkward poses, claustrophobia, bodies intertwined like dancers in an uncomfortable embrace. Perplexing true tales that she tells through her lens.

William Claxton Young Chet 1993

Chet, crooner, cool, hot trumpeter Let’s Get Lost, his velvety tones impossible to convey in the publicity photo sessions, but something else captured, the essence of his ambition, the indefinable presence of his magnetism, his charm, images showing people following their bliss as they dance with instruments.

Viviane Sassen Flamboya 2008

Images of Africans’ blue-black bodies by beaches captured with the light of Caravaggio, braggadocio, flamboyance. she stages snapshots of rumpled elegance.

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