Ryan Gander – Night in the Museum @ Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

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There is an infamous scene during John McNaughton’s Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer in which the film’s two protagonists are seen torturing and ultimately murdering an innocent family, which is disturbing enough in and of itself, until we then cut away from the scene to find that we have actually – and chillingly – been watching the killers watching themselves perform these deeds. It is in this detached act of voyeurism that we find the most human of truths: we habitual third-party observers, even in the face of injustice, intolerance and iniquity. This framing device is a trope which has been used so often in popular culture that we barely register its recurrences, and has been used across the board (in one form or another) by Coleridge, Shelley, Robert Wiene and The Simpsons. Ryan Gander, at Night in the Museum, uses a similar framing device in the form of Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, ostensibly to focus on the act of looking (we encounter, throughout the exhibition, examples of sculptural works “looking” at two-dimensional artefacts from the Arts Council Collection). However, the vaguest familiarity with Degas’ sculpture discloses an historical truth: at the time of its creation, Little Dancer represented the face of the underclass which art criticism balked at. Rendered in beeswax, as opposed to the more traditional bronze, and lacking in grace, she was stuffed away in Degas’ cupboard for more than half-a-century until she emerged somewhat serendipitously, in 1956, to a slightly more enlightened age.

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In 2008, Heimo Zobernig unveiled his curatorial intervention – titled Heimo Zobernig and the Tate Collection in his characteristic detachment – which brought together artefacts from the Tate’s collection and arranged them with a certain dialogical tension alongside the Austrian artist’s stripped-down, aloof (yet, for all that, playful) works.  Zobernig, with tongue-in-cheek, obstructed the view from the gallery of the Cornish coastline with a red chroma-key curtain.  One can read this is a pointed suspension of the relationship between art and leisure, or indeed the preoccupation with the aesthetic balance – a thing which even today is all-too-British.  It was in such disruptions that Zobernig’s exhibition succeeded dialectically, whereas Ryan Gander’s decision to use The Little Dancer in the aforesaid prosopopoeial manner (ostensibly to exemplify a notion of formal liberation) is little more than a cynical attempt to bring the family back into a modernised version of that very thing which Zobernig disrupted.

In this sense, the Gas Hall is an ideal parallel of both the Little Dancer’s story and the present-day state of Government funding of The Arts: until privatisation, this hall was used by Birmingham’s populace to make their gas payments and, although we no longer queue in our serried bureaucratic misery, we are still nonetheless paying a debt. Today’s debt in the Gas Hall is our collective tribute towards a threat of “use it or lose it,” and this re-imagining by Gander of the Little Dancer, as she surveys Modern and Contemporary Art and its indifference to proletariat ballet enthusiasts, finds her in an age in which Britain is happy to pat itself on the back for its obedience to the tribute. Not only is Britain retentive of an holistic understanding of its own cultural heritage, but has also fostered an appreciation of the historical imparity of others’.  One sees art-world rhetoric scattered throughout the exhibition, designed – one imagines – to encourage the family away from Ikea and into the museum:

 “The reason why being an artist is one of the greatest jobs in the world is that you get to see what intangible ideas look like in the real world – the fallout of thinking is never quite as you imagined it.”

 One such magniloquently declarative soundbite boasts in yellow-on-spruce, in its congruent nestling among other such quotes which only ever belong either on a Sky Arts ident or, like here, as a congratulatory punch on the arm to the “family what arts.”  A municipal enterprise such as the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, forever chasing next year’s pot of municipal gold, is terminally enslaved to such bombastic cultural jingoism.

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Gander’s curatorial choices (my cynical take on the exhibition notwithstanding) are well-chosen, given the theme of a crepuscular, after-hours museum.  The paintings, impressively supplied by Robyn Denny, Patrick Caulfield et al, are all of a deep-blue, evening hue.  Though it is the sculptural work which is truly meant to attract visitors.  Sirs Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, solidified within the cultural lexicon of the Twenty-and-Twenty-First Centuries, give the Arts Council the greatest opportunity to flex its muscle, whilst more subdued works by such contemporary figures as Angela Bulloch are arranged as conversation pieces for the uninitiated.  As ever, though, with such municipal ventures, the focus is always upon education – not to mention the implicit condescension that the age of advanced technology has somehow made the populace more beastly and torpid towards its own culture.

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Curiously, the museum elevator is out of order, and given my present cynicism I am forced to entertain the notion that Gander has engineered a false breakage.  My suspicions are leant further buoyancy when a mother with a pram arrives in exasperation of this situation, and as I help her up the stairs towards the museum’s main body I cannot help but feel as though I have been caught up in some elaborate postmodern rouse.  Promotional material for Julia Donaldson’s timely half-term exhibition promises more prams and pushchairs in pursuit of the Gruffalo – a beast whose ferocity in outweighed only by his own credulity.  As we part the exhibition, this updated morality tale feels like the most pernicious indictment of Night in the Museum of all.

Roger Hiorns @ Ikon, Birmingham

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The Birmingham weather beating its seasonal tattoo upon the roof of the Ikon provides a soundtrack of no small irony as, accompanied by the spirit of Antonin Artaud and my six-year-old Son and with a handmade poster declaiming human BSE as a conversational topic-starter, we are politely informed of the explicit content beyond. We take heed of this caution and, indeed, there are penises to behold, though their depictions are merely cartoonish, and not quite as explicit to stir Artaud’s spirit. I mention to him that there is more than a hint of Ballard to this exhibition and so, discouraged to venture any further and already perceiving that the fare on offer is not nearly as cruel or absurd enough for him, he decides to wait outside. Had I also mentioned to him that the questionable imagery was to be found on paintings made of brain matter, I muse, perhaps his enthusiasm would not has dissipated so rapidly.
I feel wholly justified in invoking Artaud’s ghost for this occasion for, if not in the individual works themselves, then certainly within Roger Hiorns’ modus operandi does the late playwright also haunt. One only has to listen to Hiorns enthuse about the body – its fragility, its impermanence, its bloody-minded capacity to survive – to hear echoes of Artaud’s oft-repeated rant:

When you will have made him a body without organs,
Then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
And restored him to his true freedom.”

We guard ourselves constantly from the dangers of the world; we distrust its total indifference to our perpetuity, and yet in doing so we inevitably surrender ourselves to those elements which we fail to perceive. This has been at the heart of Hiorns’ output for a number of years now, and accordingly this new exhibition feels like a retrospective in all but name.
Once more, Ikon have selected a body (pun only slightly intended) of work which sits somewhere fashionably in the middle of concept and delivery and which plays on the gallery’s layout sparingly, yet with the feeling of contrivance. As though Hiorns himself vacillated between “too much” and “too little,” decided upon the former only to pad the remaining space out needlessly with work of spurious kinship to the rest; invention sits uneasily amongst a number of nigh-on unnecessary works. Already there is a confusion of materials: on the one hand, Hiorns has clearly handed the lion’s share of his most recent, untitled, exhibition over to the body, hence the piqued interest of Artaud’s discorporated spirit. Simultaneously, however, the artist’s obsession with jet engines refuses to give way to the dominant theme. There are the powdered remains of such an engine, like a wild card set into an oblong on the floor and incongruous with the anatomical thread herein. Like a joke that one cannot bring oneself to stop telling, Hiorns has been displaying this piece for at least three years already, and perhaps should now let go.
This is not to suggest that the work as a whole is in any way old hat. There are some profound sparks on offer throughout the first floor, such as the weighted stunt dummies which hang in a Damoclean manner from the main wall (one of which, Hiorns ensures us, contains a copy of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, although we have only his word on this) and the aforementioned Ballard-esque humanoid forms. Had the late HR Geiger (who famously trod more heavily upon the realm of the phallic) extended his vision of the biological incorporating the mechanical to include the machinery readily available to all, rather than relying on an idea which was uniformly one of science fiction, his output may well have resembled the technologically-transmorphic “bodies” hung (inferred symbolically) from Ikon’s ceiling. All historical and literary allusions aside, the key issue here is that Hiorns is becoming an artist with the depth and scope to fill Tate Modern’s colossal Turbine Hall, yet still labours to produce sculptural works for a gallery space on a human scale. He wants us not to be a mere audience because these works come alive when we interact with them; they only realise their full meaning when we able-bodied and fully organic creatures walk among them, so that not just our differences to these bastardised figures stand out, but also our similarities.

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Roger Hiorns has a keen eye for those elements of quotidian contrivances which emulate human nature: thus we encounter assemblages of car parts steadily ejaculating foam – a visual shorthand, one imagines, for the human propensity for talking much, yet saying little. Hiorns, however, is not so cynical. There is hope here for humanity in all its fleshy, febrile organic frailty. We can live, Hiorns says, beyond epidemics, beyond political turmoil and further beyond what our increasingly-delicate climate can burden us with. Perhaps because the individual body still holds sovereignty over yesterday’s dystopian vision of a Brave New World, Hiorns also refers to older work addressing the issue of vCJD and, more broadly, the body’s susceptibility to micro-organic attack.
His sculptural work alludes more to the failing of the human body than it does to human failings, as one can intuit when passing from one room containing these aforementioned hybridised marionettes into another with an upended (and presumably defunct) X-ray machine. Topical, in an age of endless NHS cutbacks, the piece retains a dry wit of its own: the dead machinery left to rot as the patients it once assisted back to health suffer a similar fate.

There is nothing more useless than an organ!” cries Artaud’s mad ghost from the courtyard below and I – taking my Son by the hand and re-joining him outside– am compelled to agree.

No Job for a Grown Man (part five) – “Oh Yes, I Forgot – Other People Make Art, Too.”

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Because the internet no longer accepts that I am capable of making my own decisions, I am constantly susceptible to what are called “helpful suggestions,” which even the more liberal websites are guilty or inflicting upon one.  These suggestions are not always limited to advertisers – art websites suggest artists and galleries to follow (synonymous with that most loathsome of terms, “like”).  The internet sculpts the browser (in both senses of the word) as it shapes itself into an interface which fits the user, moulding itself into what is now an approximation of an extension of the user.  The keyboard is now the second point of separation between the user’s consciousness and the tactile world.  Twitter feeds are unique to each individual, giving the illusion of a thing which is beheld by one person only at any given time, or an information feed meant only for one pair of eyes.

Why have I allowed my cynicism to stop just short of deactivating my account?  We are each of us in the thrall of this convenience: who wouldn’t want that amount of information at the touch of a button?

In truth, we are now incapable of returning to that world of a mere two decades ago, when information was still mainly analogue.  Newspapers, books, magazines and terrestrial television could never offer the smoothness of informational exchange which we get from the online world, and we have had (for some, just under and for others, just over) twenty years of this Information Superpower.  Once a power is taken for granted, as the internet now is, it is impossible to go back.

All of which is a round-about way of saying that my browser (or, more specifically, my bookmarks bar) is at any given time playing catch-up to a massive backlog of things which I fully intend to digest properly, but which dromology will not allow for – the best I can ever hope to do is to speed-read what I consider important and demote the rest to some kind of cache, to be caught up with in the event of a major catastrophe preventing me from doing anything other than catching up with such a thing.  Although I shied away from the art world this Summer, this did not prevent me from keeping one eye out for something to catch it, and inevitably some things did – I have a bookmarks folder entirely devoted to artists, and as I write this I can count more than fifty of these in an oblong box which drops down to far beyond the lower limits of my screen.  Easily half of these artists can be dismissed with a “why the Hell did I bookmark that?,” however some things are worth a second look (and the are even a few which merit a third and fourth look).

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An artist duo who fall into the second category are Tokyo collaborators Ken + Julia Yonetani, whose Close Encounters, Sweet Barrier Reef and Crystal Palace tick most of my aesthetic boxes, even though their themes and motivations, laudable as they are, cannot help but come across (to me) a little too much like that pompous Yoga-Geordie, Sting.  Granted, I am cynical, but The Police killed punk.  This antithetical niggle notwithstanding, there is much to be enjoyed visually from such works as the aforementioned Sweet Barrier Reef, with its Jean Painlevé-esque subaquatic mimicry, or the gorgeous Crystal Palace, which manages to turn a motif of nuclear power into something enchantingly ethereal.

Mix Claes Oldenburg, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Allen Ruppersberg and Robert Raushenberg together and one might come up with the organised visual chaos of French artist Nicolas Pol, who again falls into the second category precisely because I can pick out those four influences without even trying.  Art Povera, Art Brut and Pop with Egyptian and Caribbean overtones – naturally, some of it works, some of it doesn’t.

In the second (for his collages) and third category (for his neon assemblages), I can easily place Evren Tekinoktay, a Danish artist who is clearly himself not averse to the same species of “colour-POP!” which always suckers me in.  2015’s Ulalume at London’s The Approach Gallery has the look and feel of an 80’s after-hours jazz bar punching a temporal hole through to the present day.  I’m thinking Gallon Drunk with Yello on the bill; I’m thinking high voltage Kandinsky; I’m thinking “I’m in”.

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Again, teetering between the second and third categories is Calgary-born Christian Eckart who, while presenting nothing earth-shatteringly original (even when one bears in mind the virtual impossibility of such a prospect today), does nothing earth-shatteringly original with a boldness and confidence I feel terribly endearing. Once more, the colours have claimed me.

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Martí Cormand does something with old bits of cardboard that is both simple and effective, peeling away its strata to reveal its inner geometric components and exposing its stark abstract qualities. More traditionally beautiful are his graphite and watercolour drawings of leaves, icebergs and glacial fissures held together by multi-coloured steel poles and wires, and what’s more, the Spanish-born New Yorker has also rendered in graphite and oil such pioneering works as Duchamp’s Fountain, Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs and Weiner’s To See and Be Seen, thus bringing Conceptual Art’s refusal of pictorial representation full-circle. Oh, yes, he’s got my vote.

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Speaking of Lawrence Weiner (which I have been for an irritatingly long time now, to anyone who sticks around long enough to listen), I have often strived to bridge the distance between my love for his work – with its simple, Zen-like poetry – and the work of Peter Halley (who, along with Weiner, comprises the joint first-place in my personal Artist of Choice poll). Somehow, Airan Kang has beaten me to the challenge by resembling neither of those venerable artists yet recalling them both. Her Luminous Words at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York last year astonishingly electrified the printed page. Words are my thing, but those bright colours always get me in the end.

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Pavel Büchler – (Honest) Work @ Ikon, Birmingham

My entry to the Frieze Writers’ Prize 2015. It never stood a chance.

In 1997 Michael Haneke’s television adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle was met with overall critical ennui. The director suffered accusations of flat characterisation and lackadaisical narrative, which was surely the point (as some sympathetic critics observed). The truth is, Kafka belongs to abstraction: we are more accustomed to thinking of the Czech writer as an idea of isolation, alienation and bureaucratic absurdity than as a composer of considered drama. This is perhaps why so many artists are wont to turn to Kafka for reference, as to lift these factors from their literary setting is to understand the abstract nature of his characters – in The Castle, K. is frustration; he is alienation. If one were to place K. in a contemporary setting, he would doubtless epitomise Zygmunt Baumann’s other: that which has no societal strata and falls through the cracks in our globalised social geography, recognised only as diaspora.

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Pavel Büchler’s most recent (retrospective) exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery features references to The Castle prominently, perhaps subconsciously recognising that Kafka’s great unfinished novella loses none of its potency by being cut off abruptly (Haneke himself honoured this by having his film come to a full-stop in precisely the same place as Kafka’s book). Indeed, one could argue that it is this quality of narrative sudden-death which has kept Kafka’s voice so vital in the years since his death, as it automatically precludes itself from resolution – K. is eternally trapped in the bureaucratic purgatory of non-admittance to the castle, and as such we sympathise with his societal ouroboros. Büchler here gives us this abstract frustration neat, stripped of its narrative trappings. A solitary figure taps away on a typewriter and presents the viewer with the imperative “SILENCE PLEASE.”; antiquated Marconi speakers are arranged in a tree-like formation and simultaneously blare out fanfares and excerpts from The Castle in various languages and dialects, an aural cacophony which itself permits no accessibility. A resituated EXIT sign partially conceals the ghost of a typeface remaining from one of Julian Opie’s many past exhibitions, ostensibly a prison for a desperate fly seeking egress as K. seeks ingress.

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If one keeps to the theme of contemporaneity, then one could say that few are the cities currently more apposite than Birmingham to host the work of Büchler: the Czech-born artist has, over the past three decades, carved out an oeuvre for himself which draws much of its strength from a Western disinclination to discard ephemera in tandem with its constant and exponential technological turnover, and to this end the Ikon – less than ten minutes on foot from the former Central Library, a Brutalist structure forsaken in favour of a new architecturally Altermodernistic building – is perfectly in situ to frame the macrocosm offered by the former library: just as Büchler’s tape-to-tape cassette recorder hangs on the wall of the gallery, functional yet still obsolete, so too does the gutted ex-library sulk redundantly in the shadow of its successor.

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Büchler has a keen eye for re-situating material, and if his allusions to Joseph Kosuth appear somewhat superfluous then one needs only to afford his prints (“One and Three Words”) a second thought: the ingenuity here is that Büchler has transposed the philosophical model as expressed by Kosuth in his instantly recognisable One and Three Chairs from the Heideggerian to the Wittgensteinian, neatly encapsulating along the way both Conceptual art’s methodology and its forms of expression. One can, of course, argue that – regardless of insight – the self-referentiality of Conceptual art is something which has by now been covered from all angles, yet Büchler’s intellectual in-jokes work too on their own merits. Here, the mannerisms of Kosuth, Weiner or Huebler are presented as small snippets of literature to complement both The Castle and Samuel Beckett’s Watt (an excerpt of which is applied to the gallery’s entrance). The parenthetical honesty of the exhibition’s title is interpreted this way as a truthful representation of modern Greenbergian law, in that the old highs and lows of post-war culture are no longer segregated in any real (honest) way, and artists such as Pavel Büchler (whom also serve as our modern cultural theorists) give us the intellectualism in an increasingly anti-bourgeois age. Honest work, indeed.