Liverpool Biennial 2012:
The Open Eye Gallery (7)

Art Let’s begin with a warning. Contrary to the information in the Biennial booklet (“all exhibition venues will be open to the public from 10AM to 6PM, daily”) and some websites, the Open Eye Gallery is (so far) keeping its usual office opening hours of 10.30am to 5.30pm, Tuesday to Sunday. It’s closed Monday as I discovered when I wandered over there after visiting the Hotel Indigo at the beginning of the week and ended up having a conversation on the doorstep which I’m embarrassed to admit included phrases from me like “but I’ve come here specially” and “Sefton Park” and “well, there’s my bus fare” and “it’s because I’m visiting them in numerical order”.

Happily, it was open today (Friday). The new Mann Island berth has a different convenience than Wood Street; whereas that was an excellent stop off during a shopping trip, here it’s become part of the Albert Dock tourism run, along with Tate Liverpool, the Museum of Liverpool, Maratime Museum and Liverpool One which means it could benefit from increased visitor numbers. In 2010, the complex hosted Hector Zamora’s artificial birds dangling from the glass ceiling outside the gallery. This year those have been replaced with coloured banners advertising Mann Island itself as a place to live, thrive and survive.

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At this new site, the Open Eye Gallery has a rolling programme of commissioning artists to decorate the façade of the building in their own style which perfectly suits Sinta Tantra who creates wildly colourful decorations and structures of giant architectural sizes. She was responsible for the pastel patterns on the bridge at Canary Wharf (a piece entitled A Beautiful Sunset Mistaken for a Dawn) which appeared on some of the contextual footage during the television coverage of the London Olympics and her website also highlights a giant fibre glass egg produced to dangle outside the Royal Festival Hall.

Tantra has covered the façade of the gallery in diagonal blocks of florescent colour in various shades, golds, blues, pinks and white. She’s attempting to create “a spectacle of submergence and superabundance” and it's certainly a visually rich intervention.  I visited on a relatively cloudy day, but judging by this photo, the effect of the sun against these reflective walls is stunning. Rather like one of Christo’s wraps, it turns the building into an enticing gift waiting to be opened and also contrasts spectacularly against the dark, brooding monolithic marble of the rest of the edifice.

Beyond Contemporary Art by Etan Jonathan Ilfeld.

Art As if it wasn’t apparent already my approach to viewing contemporary art is this: all contemporary art is rubbish unless it (or the artist or displaying gallery) is able to persuade me otherwise. Actually, that’s not just so-called contemporary art. With all of the squeezes on free time (admittedly not so much for me at the moment) and the sheer mass of culture available to fill the gap when we’re not sleeping, life’s too short to spend time attempting to get to mental grips with something it's creator potentially hasn’t given much thought to themselves.

Harsh? Yes. But before we enter a one sided discussion about how some artwork is a slow burn, that not everything is an instant hit, that some work requires the viewer to concentrate over an extended period, let me agree with you. But let me also add that it’s still up to the aforementioned communicators to signpost that this may be the case, either by making the work irresistibly intriguing from the off, or providing the relevant teases in the accompanying text. Some art is simply designed to be pretty. Some however, beckons to be solved. The best art clarifies which of these it's supposed to be.

In other words I’m the least receptive audience for Beyond Contemporary Art, artist and curator Etan Jonathan Ilfeld’s survey of the current “scene” which lists those artists he believes to be at the forefront of visual culture, producing a kind of exhibition catalogue for a global group show. In the introduction, he says the book's thesis is that “contemporary art” as a concept is indefinable because it’s constantly evolving with even individual artists are re-imaging their style from work to work (presumably with only their thematic interests as the connecting tissue).

As Ilfeld notices, at a certain point “contemporary art” replaced “modern art” as a general description of this work. As such this creates problems since “contemporary” is a chronological moveable feast, every movement being “contemporary art” at a certain point in time. Are we to now categorise late 20th century art as the modern stuff in an attempt to differentiate? Or is it simply that “modern” as a word has it's own connotations and doesn’t really capture the multitudinous media within which art now expresses itself?

As the Liverpool Biennial demonstrates, in any white cube setting, a visitor is likely to be confronted with painting, photography, performance, film, video, installation, intervention, sculpture, discussion, digital and cross pollinations between all of these and more. On the one hand this can be an exciting adventure full of surprises. On the other it can be exhausting. Perhaps that’s why we often tend to retreat to the more accessible exhibitions. However often they’re sometimes tarted up with furniture and contextual objects, we know where we are with a room full of paintings.

With no exhibition in particular to accompany, Ilfeld arranges his survey in alphabetical order, an approach which means that even if the book’s read cover to cover, the experience isn’t unlike visiting one of those white cube,s as we’re never quite sure what we’ll see around a corner or through a door or as is the case here, at the turn of a page. A similar approach was utilised in Phaidon’s classic The Art Book, which jumbles up the history of art to create surprising juxtapositions, Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Hamburger opposite Orcagna’s St Matthew.

Ilfeld collects together some equally extraordinary images. Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (seen in Duncan Jones’s film Source Code) is spread across a couple of pages allowing the reader the play hunt the photographer across its convex mirrored surface. Look, there’s Eduardo Kac’s Natural History of the Enigma in which the artist fused his own DNA with a petuna to create a “plantanimal”. Or how about Lisa Anne Auerbach’s photographs in which she clones herself in order to highlight her ensloganed knitwear promoting humanistic causes?

Paragraphs could be devoted to describing this rich pictorial record so it’s unfortunate that Ilfeld’s accompanying text is so devastatingly inconsistent. One of the reasons The Art Book remains a classic is its stripped down approach to presenting the work. Each artist is represented by a single piece, a high quality image of which takes up most of the page and the accompanying text, in three columns at the top dedicates itself to providing some background to the work and through that offering a window into an artist’s whole career.

Ilfeld’s attempt is more eclectic, with biographical notes, descriptions of works and how they can be accessed. But the structure is all over the place. Sometimes he noisily jumps between all three in the same paragraph at the expense of clarifying work which by its very nature is deliberately obtuse. A clearer approach, utilised in exhibition catalogues across the decades is to keep the two separate, providing a wider explanation of the artist’s interests before drilling down into the pieces at hand. This is a rare example of the work sometimes being less exhausting than the text.

More damagingly, no, that’s too harsh, more interestingly, the works included often don’t match those mentioned in the text. A typical example is the Antony Gormley entry which dedicates a paragraph to his Angel of the North but has a photo of his Spleen II which is unusual because with its steel block construction its entirely unlike Gormley's signature style. Or it's not obvious. The section about Pierre Huyghe's creation of a “manga” figure who starred in a series of collaborations though it's not completely clear if the imagine on the page opposite is supposed to be an example.

Ilfeld also comes unstuck when considering film. His synopsis of Miranda July’s Me And You And Everyone We Know focuses on the contemporary art satire and ignores its structural elements about the connectedness of society somewhat thanks to the internet. Steve McQueen’s entry has a page filling still from Hunger (erroneously describing it as a movie poster) but offers a very broad synopsis of Shame which fails to note its visual richness and how it applies what are arguably elements of video art to a narrative structure.

If all of this seems petty and nitpicky, it’s because as I indicated earlier, contemporary art is defined by its communicators. Offering a still from a video piece without explaining what’s in the thousands or millions of surrounding frames leads to neutering the artist’s message. Being more interested in listing the exhibitions an artist has presented at or their many awards first rather than putting their work front and centre seeks to confirm all of the nastier assumptions the wider public has about contemporary art (and I’d include myself in that).

At a certain point I wondered if I just wasn't the audience for the book, just as I'm not the right human for Vogue's September issue, man at Asda as I am.  But as the video above explains this is supposed to be as useful for the curious and I'm not sure how useful it is to be told in the second sentence of the main text that public artist Invader "the 6th Lyon Contemporary Art Biennale, the Mama Gallery in Rotterdam, the Brouston Centre for Culture and Arts in Instanbul, and MOCA in Los Angeles, California."  Such information could  just as easily be included in an abbreviated CV elsewhere in the page or book.

There are admittedly some entries in which there’s synergy between the photographs and explanatory text (if only the rest of the book was as good as the Kac entry) and in places, Ilfeld has included illuminating quotes from interviews with the artists from a variety of sources which help to create a certain unity or purpose. But what’s the point of including a photo of Damien Hirst’s controversial diamond encrusted skull, For The Love of God if the accompanying three paragraphs are going to obsess about his mammals in formaldehyde and over-inflated auctions?

We could also have a discussion about the choices of artist (how does Hirst get in and not Michael Craig-Martin or Tracy Emin? No Rachel Whiteread?) but this is a matter of personal choice and priorities and this is just one book amongst many. But I’m left with a strange sense of disappointment, of wanting to be engaged but being faced with the textual equivalent of a gallery invigilator chatting to a colleague about the work they’ve seen in an artist’s other exhibitions but without much knowledge of what’s directly in front of them.

My view on contemporary art remains largely unchanged. There are hundreds if not thousands of really excellent artists, some of them working in fields where the financial rewards are minimum but where they’ve found their own ability to communicate, but that it’s often the dozens artists who are able to gain the massive financial rewards who have nothing to say. There’s a lot of rubbish. A lot of rubbish. But like all other forms of culture, it’s still worth sifting through the rubbish for those works which have the capacity to educate  entertain and even redefine us.

Beyond Contemporary Art by Etan Jonathan Ilfeld is published on the 23rd October 2012.

Just Like Richard Nixon.

Politics  Ahead of tonight's US presidential debate (2am, here, um, not sure, might stay up) and with only so much speculation available, the web's also been busy looking for other angles. What about debates of the past? What of their participants? What of Nixon? Again?

1960's Awkward Richard Nixon
Dicky finds himself trying to spin himself out of a massive put down by his president in the famous debate opposite Kennedy. It's roughly the moment he started sweating, an involuntary response which would continue, unabated, for several decades.

The Checkers Speech After 60 Years
He went on to be at the forefront of a number of firsts though unfortunately most of them weren't for the most positive reasons.  The Checkers Speech was the first televised address by a politician, not because of war, not because of a national disaster, but to answer questions about abusing a political expense fund.  If only some of our own politicians had been as forthright a couple of years ago.

Nixon gets socked in Laugh-In’s most famous, and influential, five seconds
It's the Nixon equivalent of Blair's "Am I Bovvered..." moment.  Except that Nixon was running for office.  Obama later appeared on The Daily Show though arguably his appearance was far more directed towards hard news in style than some of what purports to be hard news in the US.

Claire Danes interviewed in The Observer.

TV With everything else that was going on, I forgot to mention the Claire Danes interview in Sunday's The Observer. In truth there's nothing especially new, especially on the My So-Called Life front, or at least new to me, apart from the news that ...
"... she turned down the role of Rose in Titanic. Chasing stardom never seems to have been her priority."
Presumably the producers and James thought they'd bring Leo and her back together after their successful chemistry in BL's WS's R+J but it's weird to think of her in one of Kate Winslet's signature roles.  I'm also reminded that WS's R+J and KB's WS's Hamlet were both released in 1996.  Big year...

She would have been incredible, of course she would, but it seems like an odd fit and indeed it's interesting that Winslet then went on to play just the kinds of roles Danes would end up playing herself.  Going straight into Hideous Kinky suggests stardom wasn't on Winslet's mind either.

The Poppy Factory.

That Day  As the cat and mouse season begins between the Daily Mail and the BBC at to whether a researcher for the paper notices a contributor at three o'clock in the morning on BBC News who isn't wearing a poppy so that they can fill three pages with tutting, Ian visits the factory where the paper flowers are made:
"Today, the factory has 47 people working on site, and a further 35 people working from home locally. One 95 year old lady working at home still manages to assemble 2,000 poppies per month for them.

Also, in recent years, the factory has received funding grants to devote more effort to helping newly disabled soldiers back into civilian life, and has secured work for 180 ex-service people in the past year and a half."
Poppy Two always seems less dignified somehow.

Elizabeth Wurtzel talks Prozac Nation on the BBC.

Books Elizabeth Wurtzel was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 this morning:
"In 'One to One' the journalist and broadcaster, Sarfraz Manzoor, has been exploring the risks and rewards of taking a personal story and making it public. This is something he's done in his book 'Greetings from Bury Park' and within his journalism where he's written - amongst other topics - about his mixed-marriage and the experience of being a new father. He's intrigued by both the process and the ramifications of revealing private thoughts and experiences: How do people react to you? Do they see it as a betrayal? Do you risk hurting friends and family? Is it worth the risk if you achieve something that truly resonates with your audience?

"In this, the last of his three interviews, Sarfraz Manzoor speaks to the author of 'Prozac Nation', Elizabeth Wurtzel. Published in the mid-1990s, it was considered the first in the 'misery memoir' genre and was a huge success. But how does Wurtzel feel about what she wrote now, almost 20 years on?"
The episode's available here (semi-permanently by the looks of things). There's also a podcast.

Liverpool Biennial 2012:
Hotel Indigo (6)

Art Liverpool’s Hotel Indigo is part of an international franchise chain of “boutique” hotels which stretches across most of the states of America, the various geographical easts and continental Europe. Each of the rooms is apparently individually furnished, the overall hotel taking inspiration from the surroundings (the Edinburgh outlet does seem more rustic than “ours”). It’s also the home of a Marco Pierre White Steakhouse, Bar & Grill. Seems just right that part of a Biennial which has “hospitality” as its core theme should have some activity within a hotel, though it’s worth noting that it’s also the main accommodation partner for the festival.

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Runo Lagomarsino’s public intervention is in the plush men’s loo on the ground floor within the restaurant area. Only afterwards did I consider the implications of that for someone with a XX chromosome and just rang the reception desk of the hotel to check. Apparently they’re happy for another member of staff to accompany a female visitor who’s interested or a friend. Nevertheless as you’ll see, it’s surprising that the artist didn’t simply consider producing a duplicate version of the piece for the women’s toilet since the constituent items aren’t “unique” exactly.

Just above the two wash basins on a wall at right angles to a mirror are two pictures. One is a canvas print of a photograph of a bust relief portrait of a bearded gentleman in Elizabethan clothing which a label beneath indicates is F or Francisco Pizarro González, the Spanish conquistador who conquered the Inca Empire. Next to this is a framed print of what we must also assume is Pizarro in full armour galloping manfully forward rapier aloft. Beneath are the words, “Pan American Union, Washington DC”.

Accompanying these, beneath a stone is an A5 printed booklet containing a reproduction of this text (at this link) in which the artist describes an artwork which never was, the corpse of a toad he named Pedro, which is was unable to conserve long enough to display in an upcoming exhibition. The Pizarro connections are that the unfortunate amphibian was found in Buenos Aires and was to have been shown in Sao Paolo along with some “pink wallpaper based on the rubrica of Francisco Pizarro”. There’s a photo of that wallpaper here.

Except, as I stand looking at these objects and even after reading the text, I’m not sure of what any of it "means". The Biennial booklet simply lists the artists name and that this is a public intervention with a direction to see the entry on the Lagomarsino piece in the Cunard Building, “An Offensive Object in the Least Offensive Way”. That features a statue of a macaw owned by the artist’s neighbour in Sao Paulo which she’s agreed could be shipped to Liverpool to accompany an early 20th century tourist advert for Brazil which contains a picture of a similar Macaw.

There’s plenty about the Macaw on the Biennial’s website. But there’s nothing about the Hotel Indigo piece, not even a title. Sifting around the loo in my memory I don’t recall seeing an information board and if there is it’s not in an obvious position (I don' think). We can attempt to make our own connections about Pizarro and the implications the conquistador’s actions might have for someone who lives in South America and how the bust of the man and the print mirror the macaw and the print in the other piece, whose title could equally apply.

But from a presentational perspective its disappointing that a visitor’s somewhat left in limbo, presented with objects which we might find interesting but without a necessary explanation aren’t able to appreciate the artist's efforts. There doesn’t even seem to be a title. A glance around the web offers the few other clues I’ve linked above but it's especially problematic that there isn’t anything on the Biennial website at least. Unless I’ve missed something. Which as we both know isn’t an unlikely scenario.

Frank's The Angels Take Manhattan review.

TV After last night's train wreck, can I point in the more coherent thoughtful direction of Frank's The Angels Take Manhattan review?
"In effect, The Angels Take Manhattan is not only told through the clues in these typewritten thoughts but then, most importantly, through the pot-boiler novel ghostwritten, one could say, by River Song as Melody Malone. River is a natural author, having already written a detective novel in the form of a diary that presses the pages of her life with the Doctor together but which is experienced by them both in random form. The reading of this book, or more specifically its chapter headings, is almost a parallel to the peeling back of the wallpaper in Wester Drumlins in Blink, both being a supernatural augury of events that have happened, are happening and will happen."
Well, of course it is.  Is it just us fans who've noticed that Steven essentially has one story in his episodes which he tells over and over again in different configurations?  I've talked ala my own reviews about how this could be a third Who genre, beyond global catastrophe or base under siege both of which can be equally repetitious.

I suppose the problem is that unlike those other two, there's a lack of inherent unpredictability because in built is predictability and whether the Doctor or whoever will create a paradox or no, will rewrite history or not.  As well as Amy & Rory, let's hope this is the last we'll see of this sort of thing.  We can't have another Christmas special about this can we?

Liverpool Biennial 2012:
FACT (5)

Art  And so to FACT one of the Biennial’s main venues.  It’s difficult to remember a time when the FACT centre didn’t exist or what was in its place on Wood Street before all of this art and cinema took up residence here.  It’s only when compiling this tag for my blog that I realised just how regularly I’ve been a visitor even if it’s been to the cinema less and less.

Indeed it’s only on this visit that I noticed how some of the staff have FACT on their t-shirts and other Picturehouse.  As was explained to by an usher as I idled by the Box screen, there is an invisible demarcation line through the building, with everything on the left being owned and run by the arts organisation and everything on the right by the cinema chain.

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In the area which used to be the Media Lounge, Pedro Reyes has installed Melodrama and Other Games, a kind of playground for existential angst in which strangers and friends are tasked with playing games which the artist believes can “foster new tools for collective problem solving”.  The walls are covered with brightly coloured posters in pastel shades, most eye-catchingly “Pillow Fight” next to a storage facility filled with all kinds of soft furnishings.

An invigilator approaches and explains some of the above and asks if I’d like to have a go.  I wonder if there are any solo items and I’m introduced to a map of the Great Britain filled with words, the aim of which is to read rhythmic poety out-loud as quickly as possible.  She says that because I’m on my own I’ll only need to go as far as Scotland but since that would seem like a job half finished I indicate that I’ll work my way through to Dover.

Shouting nonsense in public is surprisingly easy once you get started (which is presumably why politicians happen) and beginning with “Ingle Angle Golden Bangle” and finishing with “Iggle Oggle Black Bottle Out” I work my way through the Milliganesque mess of verse influenced by regional accents and sayings each indicated by a geographic location and arrow.  Liverpool has no arrow, but since Ipswich didn’t have The Beatles it probably balances out.

Reading unfamiliar verse is unsurprisingly difficult and I do trip over my words a couple of times and have to stop briefly around Birmingham because it's becoming increasingly difficult to read without bending over so I carry on with the indentical poster above.  I think I briefly have an audience too which serves me right though I’m not sure how much they are entertained.  But this is the kind of art I tend to like, with an interactive element, sometimes mental, sometimes mental and physical.

Reyes’s main game is Melodrama, a homage to Snakes and Ladders which forces the player through the ups and downs of a relationship.  The invigilator manages to corral a couple of other visitors, two girls, students I think, to play and the three of us sit around the table giggling our way through the various stages from meeting at a party to marriage to a party, the up arrows indicating emotional fulfilment, the down arrows signifying the pitfalls, the arguments, settling for less, that sort of thing.

The experience of playing with strangers is presumably different than with friends.  Friends tend to know all of your secrets and each circle is a potential reminder of some moment experienced.  Strangers are a blank slate and although there were a few knowing glances between the other two, none of us were prepared to say too much.  The simplicity of the game presumably means its own as enjoyable as the company and the three of us were never going to be fast friends.

Perhaps relationships are a form of "collective problem solving".  Even if the only people involved are the people involved, rather than the family and friends with their ears to listen, voices with advices and shoulders to cry on, the word "problem" so often used in relation to relationships suggests that there has to be something to solve.  Except, of course, some problems are crossword puzzles, some are campaigns in Portal and some are the Hadamard conjecture.

For the end of the experience Reyes has left prizes in the form of the posters of the games so we can enjoy them again at home and they’re now sitting next to me as I type.  The invigilator suggests I return when it’s busier and it's true this probably works best when there are more people to watch or enjoy the games with.  But Reyes has at least created workm that like of the best artwork, forces the visitor out of their comfort zone.