Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Venice Biennale part 4 Continuing traditions

Although I'm reviewing the 2017 Venice biennale, the themes and technologies I'm looking at often reach far back into history. For instance abstraction has a long history, Tantric art in particular having an ancient abstract lineage and research into abstract entoptic forms can take us all the way back to pre-history.
Abstraction in this year's biennale was represented by several artists, it obviously still has an important place within contemporary fine art practice. The two artists I have chosen to represent abstract practices however come from opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum. Dan Miller is autistic and drawing is his main means of communication. He draws words and images over and over again. Each drawing is gradually lost under a surface of marks as new drawings replace it. Superficially these drawings look like Abstract Expressionist works, but they are not, they are records of someone's life, a life that is perhaps hard for us to understand, but by the sheer perseverance of Miller trying to communicate, we are presented with powerful images that seem to have been 'abstracted' out of his various attempts to communicate, each surface becoming a palimpsest of seismic energy, which itself is more powerful than words. 

Dan Miller: detail

Close-up of the framing of one of Dan Miller's drawings

Sopheap Pich sits at the other end of the abstraction spectrum. His drawings are meditative responses to particular processes that he has set up. The drawings on exhibition were made by systematically pressing a stick of pigmented bamboo onto a sheet of watercolour paper. As each print is made more or less pigment is deposited, the process always being done to ensure a bi-lateral symmetry is maintained, carefully and systematically working a way out from the centre to the edges. 

Sopheap Pich

Sopheap Pich: Window mounted drawing 

It is interesting to compare how Miller's work is framed to Pich's. Miller's drawings float off their backing board behind a shallow box frame. The edges of the paper can be clearly seen and you get a sense that Miller works around his paper in such as way that the edge is very important. The paper in this case is presented as a physical object. In contrast Pich's work is window mounted, this heightens a sense of separation from the world, we are given a space within which to meditate on the process. 

Several artists were using textile materials and I have posted before on the stitched line and the relationship between drawing, grids and weaving. Of the artists using textiles I was particularly drawn to Maria Lai's work. 

Maria Lai

Maria Lai: detail of stitched writing

Maria Lai 

Maria Lai was given a posthumous retrospective, her stitched maps and books coming across as still being relevant and aesthetically potent when viewed at a time of international disruption, when there is a great need for empathy, but little coming from our world leaders. Sewing gathers threads together and her books which at first sight appear readable, dissolve back into a language of fits and starts, black blobs of caught cotton, standing for the words on a page, becoming the texts of forgotten languages of appeasement; as people babble and misinterpret each other’s languages as possible threats or aggressive sounds. Her books are soft; their unspoken words soft whispers for weary minds worried about world events, and a welcome distraction from the newspapers. 

Compared to Lai's work I found Achraf Touloub's textile hangings overly mannered and portentous, and although I could get the chain references, I wasn't really convinced. However as a way of furthering ideas in relation to the stitched line the work occupies that territory between 2D and 3D, the stitched lines incised into the surrounding padding, making these pieces into relief sculptures. 

Achraf Touloub

His small drawings, that were sort of Futurist in feel, were much more convincing and when I  looked at some of his other earlier work, decided that his drawings were nearly always more sensitive and concise. 

Achraf Touloub

Sparse and sensuous drawings by Huguette Caland were presented alongside three costume and mannequin works the artist made during the 1970s and 80s. The drawings were of particular interest as they demonstrated how minimal you can be and yet still be very sensual. 

Huguette Caland
Huguette Caland: Mannequin

I spent quite a long time in the Chinese pavilion, one of the reasons being the juxtaposition between old and new technologies. 

Wang Tianwen, Wu Jian’an and  Tang Nanan, Continuum – Removing the Mountains and Filling the Sea, shadow theatre performance, front and back views

Wang Tianwen, Wu Jian’an and Tang Nanan's 'Continuum' was a fascinating mix of technologies, using old shadow play techniques with contemporary animatronics. You could watch both sides of the installation with equal interest, the animatronics were easy to see and all the workings were 'open', so that as the bird flew across the sky, you could watch the mechanical arm and joints moving in order to activate the bird. You were of course reminded of how sophisticated we are as humans, and how hard it is to duplicate our actions with robots. By mixing the telling of an old story and an old shadow technology with contemporary robotics, 'Continuum' asked questions about the nature of our future relationship with technologies. 

A collaborative work had been developed by Tang Nannan, ‘what’s the sea’ with school children. This began with stories about the sea and workshops whereby the artist supported the children in making images about the sea. These images were then collected together and storyboarded so than an animation could be made, children sometimes then asked to return to their images so that they could draw the in-between frames. I should perhaps have put this post in with the one about relational practices, but because of the nature of the Chinese pavilion, this felt more about passing on a continuing cultural tradition than an artist acting as a catalyst for the development of a relational practice.

Tang Nannan, ‘what’s the sea’ workshop

The whole point of the Chinese pavilion was the interconnection between the past and the present. Old craft techniques and ancient stories, combining with new technologies and people both from inside and outside what could be called the 'fine art' bubble. Crafts people were working using traditional materials alongside fine artists, both equally valued. This attempt to demonstrate a continuing aesthetic tradition was I presume also a political statement about the coherence of Chinese culture, even so I thought it a powerful statement and one that had a lot of resonance for myself. I have often thought that if my own work is to have any traction, I need to make sure it sits within a tradition that makes it accessible and understandable to a wider public than the 'art cognoscente'. But what that is, is difficult to define. Because I'm interested in narrative, I tend to look at a tradition that goes via William Blake and Hogarth, via Rowlandson, 'folk' prints, comic book art and Steve Bell, and has its roots in Pieter Bruegel.  

Qiu Zhijie, The Map of Continuum.

I'm always drawn to maps as images and Qiu Zhijie's map of “Mountain/Sea” and “Ancient/New” representing “Yin/Yang” was presented as the framework around which the exhibition was built. Two well-known Chinese fables, The Foolish Old Man Removes the Mountains and Jingwei Filling the Sea, provide the imagery for the exhibition and the concept of “Bu Xi” (continuing tradition) is used to give coherence to the idea of bringing together two folk artists and two contemporary artists to convey the meaning of the narrative. 
I really enjoyed the presentation of traditional 'light box' images, these worked in a very similar way to stained glass and relied on the simplification of images and their articulation in a similar way to shadow puppetry. You could make very similar figures out of stained acrylic sheet.

A traditional animated story, presented as a video with English text overlaid

This complex cutout was used in exactly the same way as a stained glass window

Detail from the window above

Another detail from the window above

The point I am trying to get across is that as an artist you can use both old and new technologies, the one will often refresh the other and in their juxtaposition or combination you can often find a new way of pushing forward those perennial ideas that will always surface, ideas that each generation of artists will have to redefine in their own terms, but will be about life and how it is experienced. 

Nevin Aladağ: Traces

Finally I would like to recommend Nevin Aladağ's playful sound video, 'Traces'. She had edited together a series of short takes of various ways of getting things to play their own sounds. See this a how it was made documentary.  You might wonder what this has to do with drawing, but I would argue that the editing process is itself a type of drawing. Aladağ would have had to storyboard the idea and organise each shoot so that eventually all would fit together and in doing this I believe she would have had some sort of overall plan or map to work to.  You can see how Traces worked as a three screen installation here

Nevin Aladağ: Traces

In 'Traces' the city of Stuttgart plays itself. This review of Aladağ's work by Andreas Schlaegel in Frieze explains the work much better than I could.
"The action unfolds in public playgrounds and urban pedestrian areas: in one sequence, a cello rotates on a toy carousel; with each turn, it hits a stationary bow fixed to the ground, producing a note that elongates as the carousel slows. Aladağ has skilfully edited the scenes to create an ambitious musical and visual composition, at turns operatic and slapstick. As soon as a musical thread establishes itself, however, it is quickly interrupted or concluded, as when an accordion hanging from a lamppost slowly submits to gravity, emitting a final, fading moan. Traces, ultimately, is a composition of continuities and ruptures that resists readily identifiable melodies and harmonies, as well as all-too-easy politically correct readings. Aladağ’s ambivalence toward a finite meaning is tangible in the deceptively simple musical devices she creates. Traces is not only a theatre of animated matter, but of cultural references in motion – dynamic and quirky, but more often idling, aimless and melancholic. If the town plays itself, it is moody".
Andreas Schlaegel 

Nevin Aladağ talks about her work, she talks about one aspect being 'a drawing of the sounds'. 

Friday, 25 August 2017

Venice biennale 2017 part 3 Artist as visionary

Rachael Rose: Lake Valley

Drawing comes in many forms and I have several times pointed to the rise of animation as an established art practice. The Biennale was again a showcase for some of the most interesting contemporary work in this area. Rachel Rose had a short eight and a half minute animation that tapped into our collective childhood psyche.  It's simply about a woman and her dog. Each scene is made in such a way that the extraordinary beauty of everyday life is affirmed and moments of wonder are elicited from simple actions like sleeping or smelling, rich evocative moments, which make this film both memorable and significant, as it demonstrates how artists can make us aware of the rich substance of our lives. The animation is also a complex reference to the way illustration conventions shape our childhoods; scenes in the film often composed of collages taken from children's books and constructed in such a way that they both echo and yet re-create anew the idea of what it is like to be immersed in the world of our formative years again. 

Rachael Rose: Lake Valley

Grisha Bruskin's work in the Russian pavilion also struck a childhood chord. This time taking me back to the 1950s, a time of toy solders, cheap science fiction and the magic of shining torches in the night. As you walked into the first exhibition space you entered into darkness, the walls were moving animations consisting of simple white line drawings based on the sculptural objects that were set out on plinths around the room, each object was illuminated by moving spotlights designed to throw shadows onto the wall behind and thus mixing the moving shadow forms with the animations. 

Grisha Bruskin Russian pavilion

Bruskin's world is peopled with hybrids, as if from a nightmare passage from Toy Story, but it is also a world of archetypical myths and if you have followed his work you realise that the figures on view are part of a huge cast of characters that he uses to play out a personal mythology that is heavily indebted to his Jewish heritage. I saw his Alefbet tapestry project a few years ago and was soon engaged trying to unpick how his world was evolving, how his characters were growing out of both life experiences and mythic reflection. 

Bruskin: Silkscreen print

Bruskin grew up within two cultures that were driven by texts, the Old Testament and the Communist Manifesto. Marx of course was also a Jew and both texts look towards a future vision when God/Communism triumphs and being an artist in the middle of this is always going to be interesting. Within Communism, objects are commodities, the moment of monetary exchange sees abstraction becoming reality (the fetish) and in the Old Testament all things will only be revealed as they really are after the coming of the Messiah. 

The way these objects are lit is very important, on the one hand things being illuminated in the dark suggests some sort of religious experience, but the spotlit image also belongs to the world of the expensive shop. 
Some of Bruskin's sculptures feel as if they are forbidden graven images taken from a Biblical text, whilst others are from a more familiar world of state propaganda, such as military marches and massive building projects. Tales from the Bible, the echoes of Abyssinian history and culture that thread their way through it, state propaganda as seen through the eyes of a boy, all mesh within a private world that can only be given reality within the Capitalist world of the celebrated individual. It's no accident that Bruskin works between Moscow and New York. I have to admit a personal fascination with his work, and I'm sure the fact that my grandmother was of Polish Jewish heritage is partly to do with this. I also worry about the place of a personal mythology or allegorical practice within a society driven by much more prosaic needs. 

The Russian pavilion's curators were however not worried by these things and in the gallery beneath there was an exhibition of figures trapped in the geometric forms of a post-Schwitters cave, arms and legs protruding as they were frozen into their own Hell of digital transgression. You could only see their full bodies by using I-pads trigged to show images by the visual codes written on the walls. 

Recycle Group: Blocked content

The work was a reinterpretation of the 9th Circle of Hell from Dante's Divine Comedy and I didn't like it at all, finding it over complicated and too obvious. However it was interesting to see how new technology was now being used to reveal things that are hidden. 

I was more interested in the Latvian PavilionMiķelis Fišers uses the language of cheap science fiction comic book illustration, paradoxically presented and lit in such a way that we are meant to read it as something much more important than it really is. 

Miķelis Fišers: Multidimensional Entities Cut Up Their Avatars Before Evacuation from Planet Earth.

The drawings are cut out of a highly polished black surface laid down onto wooden boards, with something like a knife or scraper board tool. The polished black feels sophisticated, but the way the drawing is done is more evocative of amateur art. 

Ancient Aliens Execute Overqualified Rocket Scientists at Palenque, Mexico

Each drawing was set into a column with a niche and lit from above and below, as if we were in a very special exclusive shop or museum. 

Miķelis Fišers: Installation view

One area of the exhibition was taken up by a large white neon installation, whereby the idea was given a much more theatrical exposition and a soundtrack was also provided to enforce a weird science fiction feeling. 

Reptilian Immobilizes Hallucinating Darwinists, light and sound installation, extruded polystyrene, structured polypropylene sheets,
drawing cut in ORACAL® adhesive film, LED light tape. 600 x 600 x 600 cm. 
Sound by ERROR.

The image above is my own photograph when I hadn't adjusted exposure to take into account of the lighting, what it does though is reveal the building and how in reality the image sat. The weight and gravitas of the old arsenale building totally overpowering the light drawing, making it feel more like a kitch insert, which I felt was appropriate. With titles like "The Last Yeties Protest Against CO Emissions by the Great Wall of China" we are asked to bring all our myths together onto some sort of level playing field, whether these are totally fictional or not, doesn't seem to matter, everything, it is suggested is up for cheap thrills in this universe. I wondered if Fišers' tongue in cheek installation was some sort of commentary on the work in the Russian Pavilion and took some of its lessons to heart, in a time of post-mythology all perhaps we look for is entertainment. 

Luboš Plný

Luboš Plný's intense diagrammatic anatomical drawings are superimpositions of layers of private meanings into a space that superficially resembles that of a scientific diagram.  His 'skins' of collage trapped into skeins of line drawing being the creation of some sort of deranged Doctor Frankenstein. The difference is that Plný believes in this, it is no comment or struggle to realise a personal account of the complexity of a modern day allegory, this work simply is what it is. 
Luboš Plný

He works on stretched paper, the brown tape being cut through to release the images and at the same time make a border for them. There are often dates stacked up to a record of engagement, giving information as to his age, when drawings were started, when they stopped, when they started up again etc. Some areas are missed out, blanks related to old operations he might have had.  All of these things building up and making the work an intense autobiographical record. 

Luboš Plný: Detail of dates recorded during the image's making

Kiki Smith

Kiki Smith’s large scale prints were the products of another personal world, but one informed by a much more aware theoretical position. Smith's work is very much a product of post-feminist discourse and you can see various influences such as Angela Carter in the background. Smith's father was the artist Tony Smith, so she would have had a very sophisticated upbringing with an awareness of what it is to be an international artist. Smith's practice is drawing and print led but she works in sculpture and sound and like so many contemporary practitioners follows her instinct as she moves from media to media. Some of these images were presented in metal frames, designed so that sections could be fitted together. Looking closely at the various components, it looked to me as if she had been printing off perspex sheets, then had realised that the sheets themselves had a powerful quality in their own right as the ink became embedded in the scratched out drawing. These sheets were I think then cut up and embedded in the frames. If you compare the prints you can get a sense of the process. 

These prints are about six or seven feet high and are printed onto several sheets of thin handmade paper that have been stuck together. The paper quality suggests a certain fragility and the print process is drypoint, i.e. the image is scratched out of a plastic sheet and ink is then rubbed into the scratch marks and wiped off the surface before being printed by putting the whole thing through a press. (You can also do this with the back of a wooden spoon by burnishing the image from the back). In this case the most difficult thing would have been getting hold of a press big enough, but an artist of Smith's stature would have no trouble with that. 

Detail of acrylic sheet trapped in metal frame

You can see from the detail above how the scratched acrylic looks and how Smith has then had this inserted into the metal frame. The frames themselves are mounted onto the walls by using brackets. I'm always interested in details lie this, as there is always a time when you are faced with a similar problem and you can use the idea yourself. 

Frame detail

Detail of mapping pin in paper

Close up of Smith's printed drypoint portrait

Finally, in relation to this reflection on personal visions, I would like to present the work of Kananginak Pootoogook, the Inuit artist. 

I put up a couple of posts some time ago about the 'Magicians of the Earth' exhibition, and how much it had affected me. Magicians of the Earth' part one,  Magicians of the Earth part two.  What I was particularly interested in was the flattening of artist reputations. Unknown artists from often very under represented cultures were being shown alongside Western 'art stars'.  Their work was often powerful and had an integrity that many of the Western artists seemed to have lost. Pootoogook had been making images since the late 50s and his work documented the issues and landscapes of Inuit life. Often his drawings were not particularly 'well drawn', but because they were drawings they could capture the world in the way only drawings can do. You can see inside the boat below, each item is portrayed clearly and from the point of view of someone who knows how they ought to be ordered in the boat. You could not get this sort of information from a photograph. 

Kananginak Pootoogook

It could be argued that by putting Pootoogook's work into the context of the Biennale his work is in some way being demeaned by being taken out of its original context. But for me it was a simple reminder of how what is for one person their everyday life, is for someone else a world of wonder. Kiki Smith's portraits of her friends remind us that everyone around us is equally interesting, you don't need to strive for the unusual or esoteric in order to make interesting work. Pootoogook's drawings were made with ordinary coloured pencils and of course framed for presentation, which gives them a certain 'honorific' value. His drawings are now 'protected' behind glass, which is another issue and one I am very aware of, so I was glad to see Kiki Smith showing prints by putting them up with mapping pins. As always I digress, but I have had several conversations with galleries lately about this. I prefer to pin my drawings directly to walls, but galleries like you to have work framed. They are worried people might damage the work, but if Smith can get away with it in Venice, I would hope other galleries would take note. 

There were other artists I could have picked out that I felt occupied this old tradition of image making but perhaps there is enough in this post to make the point. I shall put up one more post as a sort of rag bag of interests before they fade from memory; the main point being that it is worthwhile going to these large Biennales, as you will always find something of interest. The Venice Biennale is on until November, so if you do have enough money to take a break over in Italy, why not go and see what's on.