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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Published poetry and prose

The Boy – short story in The Penguin Book of New Black Writing, 2000

short story in Firsthand, 2001

The Dream – short story in Wasafiri Magazine, 2006

Aerialist – poetry collection, 2007

Top 10 exhibitions

Marina Abramovic 512 hours at Serpentine Gallery 2014

I was observing one of Abramovic’s assistants walking around in a circle like a Zen Buddhist doing a moving meditation when the artist came over to me and said: can I explain to you the concept of the exhibition? our minds are like Ferraris, always racing at 100 miles per hour. this show is a chance for you to relax and just be. feel free to lie on one of the beds or do one of the meditations that my assistant is facilitating.

I nodded and thanked her. phones placed in lockers before you enter the show, a chance to really go with the flow of life

Cody Choi & Lee Wan Korean Pavilion at Venice Biennale 2017

Red lights, bordellos, Rancho Notorious, photos of stripper dwarves pole dancing making up one half. the other Mr K and the Collection of Korean History a photo essay depicting someone’s images from the time South and North Korea were united to post-partition. as moving and as gripping as a rocket flying inexorably toward you

Damien Hirst Treasures from The Wreck of the Unbelievable. Palazzo Grassi & Punta Della Dogana Venice, 2017

Playfulness, persistence ambition, dedication to a concept. sculptures so large, so epic the scale often jaw-dropping in palatial surroundings by a Venetian canal. a highlight of my trip to Venice that year

Damien Hirst mid-career show at Tate Modern 2012

The pills, Mother and Child, The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the circle of life depicted in graphic detail: larvae turning into butterflies and being zapped to death as soon as they landed on a device made for electrocution. titles alluding in poetic ways to all kinds of scientific or art historical precedents. he floats like his butterflies and  stings like …

The Chapman Brothers The Disasters of Everyday Life at Blaine Southern London 2017

The gleeful gay abandon with which they intervened in Goya’s prints, the suicide vests, the collages. a tiny explosion in Mayfair, a surreal detonation in my heart

Juno Calypso A Thousand Years at TJ Boulting 2018

Atmospheric, 50s music piping through the speakers, glamour, insanity, cryonics. a haunting exhibition, real life weirder than fiction

Tim Walker Wonderful Things at the Victoria and Albert Museum 2019 to 2020

The Pink Room, curation as smooth and slick as a seal’s skin, an entrancing body of work that sashayed down the line between fashion photography and arty images, blurring those boundaries, collapsing the divisions

Sensation at the Royal Academy 1997

The frisson of the crowds about to get  in, the lifesize, compelling Ron Mueck sculpture on the gallery floor; the captivating image made with the cast of a child’s hand children’s hand prints by of the repellant child murderer Myra Hindley; the elephant dung in Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary; Emin’s Everyone I have ever slept with 1963 to 1995. the show that catalysed my journey in art, the start the lodestar.

Olafur Eliasson In Real Life 2019 at Tate Modern

Beauty: the magic of a mist produced by the manipulation of light producing a rainbow merging and disappearing depending on the viewer’s movement.

Blind Passenger: fog in narrow corridor, barely visible room, relying on my friend to help me get through to the other end.

Works that elevate by tangling with us, gently assaulting the senses

France-Lise McGurn Percussia at Simon Lee Gallery 2020

Dancing, prancing, lithe and lissom figures spilling out across canvas onto the gallery walls and ceilings. she sure evokes memories of seeing great contemporary dancers owning the stage in a joyous, athletic celebration of life.