Signs Taken for Wonders

London Roundup, October 2021

Torkwase Dyson: Liquid A Place, installation view, Pace Gallery London, photography by Damian Griffiths, image courtesy the artist

“No one / expects the violence of glances, of offices, / of walkways and train stations, of bathroom mirrors,” a woman states. I am standing in a dark basement, the small room filled out with the bulk of three identical black sculptures, something like oversized, stylized Us, that make up the setting for Torkwase Dyson’s performance Liquid a Place: A. Encounters (2021) at Pace Gallery. Standing in the shadowy gallery with these swelling, Minimalist behemoths feels unmoored, as if I’m zooming out from the minutiae of life for a moment. But the poem punctures that sensation with a precise description of casual dissolution, of “wingless days” and smiles of “aluminum teeth,” that seems meant for the renewed weirdness of standing solemnly with a group of strangers in a small indoor space. I listen for a good five minutes before a shadow moves on the floor from under one of the rounded corners of the sculpture, and I realize that what I thought was a recording was actually the Canadian poet Dionne Brand, right there, reading her poem “Ossuary I” (2010).

The mistake—misplacing liveness or just not registering what was right in front of me—was an unintentionally apt start for my attempts at exhibition-going. It turns out that the majority of art on display this autumn across London isn’t about subtlety, but presence, bald and puckered. From grandiose gestures that at this point feel grotesque or just tone-deaf (like Marina Abramović’s endless deaths at Lisson, or George Condo’s mildly deconstructed horny paintings at Hauser and Wirth), to Frieze London’s return after two years with a heavy preponderance of fey abstract paintings, to more pointed appearances (like the four women in the painting Republic #2 [2021] who disinterestedly oversee Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings’s Disgrace, a quietly epic dissection of conservative feminism at Arcadia Missa; or Claudette Johnson’s crackling and direct self-portraits at Hollybush Gardens) it seems a moment for galleries and artists to raise a hand, to note that they are, as Johnson’s show is appropriately titled, “Still Here.” Though stepping out, or indeed going into rooms and giant tents amidst the latest wave of the pandemic in the UK, is not without its dangers. Aside from the obvious health implications, there’s also a metaphorical risk, where gestures are taken to mean more they can bear, objects are given more authority than they are due, and signs, as Homi K. Bhabha long ago put it, are taken for wonders.

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Gelare Khoshgozaran

documentary, fantasy and dreamers as activists of our time

Gelare Khoshgozaran, Medina Wasl: Connecting Town (still), 2018, 16mm film transferred to video, sound, colour, 31 min

In late October last year, a neon-yellow envelope came through my letterbox. Inside was a thick black card embossed with the sentence, ‘The gradients of fascism are diverse in their predictable dullness’. On the other side was a business-card-size USB drive, printed with a patchy green pattern of what might be an ivy-covered wall, punctuated by a figure covering their face with a black-and-white mask printed with the features of director Pier Paolo Pasolini. The sentence and the image both appear in the nine-minute film contained on the drive, Men of My Dreams (2020), by Los Angeles-based Iranian artist and writer Gelare Khoshgozaran. It’s a patchwork of dream impressions and pointed observations, opening with a passenger’s view of a drive down a street in LA. Armoured vehicles and rubbish trucks line the road, while shopfronts are graffitied with ‘ACAB’, ‘BLM’; a bank on one street corner has ‘George Floyd’ written across its window. Subtitles describe the artist’s move from Iran to the city years earlier. ‘I miss my home, but everywhere is so ruined on this planet I feel at home anywhere.’ What follows is a set of a vignettes, the artist sporting a range of masks depicting the titular men that appear in her dreams: poet Federico García Lorca, singer Farhad Mehrad. In one scene, she sits by the sea holding a mask of theorist Edward Said in front of her face, her hand covering his mouth as if stifling a giggle. In another, she mimes playing a game of tennis, the mask she wears remaining an unidentifiable blur.

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Between the Gaps

Ines Schaber’s projects look at the realities of how archives are used, and ask how we might consider our own habits of looking amid the presence of traumatic photography

Stefan Pente, Ines Schaber, Unnamed Series, 2008, installation view in Ines Schaber: Notes on Archives, 2018 (Camera Austria, Graz). Photo: Markus Krottendorfer. Courtesy the artist and Camera Austria, Graz

This is a story with many beginnings, and many possible endings. One starting point might be the Hopi people and their culture, who have for thousands of years been part of the arid southwest of what became known as the North American continent: a culture of oral histories and traditions based around stewardship of the land. Another starting point might be the European and Anglo settlers and homesteaders moving West across the continent during the nineteenth century to claim land, and the accompanying treaties and betrayals that saw Native Americans pushed into reservation silos and forced into assimilating with these newcomers, and their sense of property and propriety. Or it might begin more specifically in December 1895, when a young German man was brought to Hopiland by a Mennonite missionary. The German brought with him a handheld camera, taking a few dozen hurried and out-of-focus shots of what he saw in the villages, including several of the Hopi’s dances and seasonal rituals. By the 1930s, in response to the commercial exploitation and wide publication of sacred imagery, the Hopi had banned visitors from taking photographs entirely; and though the German man never publicised his photos from that trip – and asked that they never be published – after his death, in 1926, they were printed in books, in 1939, 1988 and 1995; and even after requests from the Hopi to cease their publication, they were published again in 1998, and yet again in 2018.

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London Roundup, October 2020

Dozie Kanu, Emo State (2020), c-type print. Image courtesy the artist and Project Native Informant.

It’s an unlikely benediction: two identical photos frame Dozie Kanu’s exhibition “Owe Deed, One Deep” at Project Native Informant: a small, slightly blurred image of a tower with a hand at the top, reaching awkwardly towards the sky. Emo State (2020) seems to have been taken from a moving car, the landscape around it giving some sense of the sheer scale of the tower, a religious monument modelled on the tower of Babel in southern Nigeria, constructed only a few years ago and torn down in 2019. The ghost of this demolished structure, the two hands waving over the five sculptural assemblages gathered below them, casts the works as their own temporary monuments, momentary markers to whatever spirit or feeling has possessed us, before disappearing. In a corner, St. Jaded Extinguish (2020) is a gray fire extinguisher stand placed forlornly on a flimsy, short set of black stairs, a bottle opener attached to its base that spells out a nihilistic mantra: “SELF SERVE.”

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Preposition Risk

April – May 2020

 

The bruise is a purple knot. We put arnica cream on it, though I’m never quite sure if that’s to help with the ache or to minimise how violet-brown it gets. We chase her up and down the corridor in the flat, for a bit excitement and exercise, only this time she tripped on a toe and went headlong into the side of a cupboard door. We had been going to the field nearby to kick a ball around and chase each other around the broken glass and cigarette butts, until the field is lopped in half by a high wooden fence, and the next day several large white temporary tents go up behind. The parent WhatsApp groups are abuzz a day later, after the jokes about it being a craft fair or music festival, who knows what chemicals they will use, infected bodies coming through the area, the ground will be tainted, they didn’t even ask us if it was ok to put up a temporary mortuary. Continue reading

Art in a Burning World

 

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Steve Bishop, Thank You (detail), 2019. Melamine-faced chipboard, MDF, PVC model cake, cardboard, bin holder, and polyethylene bags, 138 x 45 x 72 centimeters. © Steve Bishop. Image courtesy of the artist and Carlos / Ishikawa, London.

The world is burning. This is not a metaphor. The sky is bleached a searing lime green, tinged with burned orange that reflects off relentless choppy waves. Suddenly, the sky goes blood red and the horizon blackens, the sun a dull hole punched in the sky. Our view shifts, panning quickly to the left, then back again, as if searching for something, anything. The sky then changes again to a blinding sherbet yellow. The screen depicting this scene, mounted on a metal rack above a whirring circuit board, gives us a certain vision of our current reality. The shifting colors are a translation of information from a small atmospheric monitor mounted on the back of the rack. It’s not clear what directly causes the hues to brighten or waves to get that bit higher or more intense in Yuri Pattison’s sun[set] provisioning (2019) at mother’s tankstation—whether the car exhaust from the street outside, or the hungover breath from bodies in the room might make the scene that bit more trippy. The contraption offers a heavily mediated fiction, but it also makes an actuality visible and present: a drowned world, made hallucinatory and beautiful by toxins that saturate the air and water. Continue reading

Laurie Robins: ‘Free Trade or ELSE’*

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Laurie Robins, ‘FREE TRADE OR ELSE’*, 2019, installation view. Image courtesy the artist and South London Gallery. Photo: Andy Stagg.

South London Gallery, London
8 March – 26 May 2019

 

The age of Airbnb and crowdsourced local knowledge is meant to have made travel more insightful and more ethical, but Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid’s words from her book A Small Place (1988) still ring true: “A tourist is an ugly human being.” Free-floating consumers devoid of responsibilities, the tourist flaunts their ability to move around the globe freely, dispensing their disposable income. British filmmaker Laurie Robin’s new fifty-minute film “‘FREE TRADE OR ELSE’*” (2019) takes as its starting point German writer Heinrich Böll’s Irish Journal (1957), his collected writings based on being a tourist in Ireland throughout the 1950s. Using an edited selection of excerpts from the book as voice-over narration, Robins revisits the cities and sites that Böll described in order to see how Ireland has changed over the past sixty years, while at the same time implicitly asking if the tourist’s gaze, rather than their wallet, can reveal anything about a culture. Continue reading

James N. Kienitz Wilkins: Hearsays

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James N. Kienitz Wilkins, The Dynamic Range, 2018, VR film still. Image courtesy the artist.

Gasworks, London, September – December 2018

‘I’m tired of moving images,’ the narrator of the short video Indefinite Pitch (2016) tells us. It’s easy to sympathize: the twentieth-century avant-garde dream of everyone being a filmmaker is upon us, incessantly uploading videos of ourselves eating and unboxing tat, surrounding us constantly with loops and flashes. ‘Hearsays,’ which is the first gallery-based exhibition by the filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins, is a refuge from this deluge, with a single photograph The Second Person (2018) presiding over two moving image works in a mostly empty space. The photo, a lunar selfie, captures the 1969 moon landing as reflected in a space helmet, a photo drawn from NASA’s archives, but apparently, the press release claims, slightly modified – though the artist’s manipulation seems invisible. Similiarly, in Indefinite Pitch and the virtual reality (VR) film The Dynamic Range (2018), the artist seems to be absent from the picture, with both works featuring austere and largely inert visuals. The movement is instead provided by male voice-over narrators, each video defined by dense, meandering monologues. Listening to both men go on and on, the audience is cast as a therapist of sorts, listening to two neurotic but smooth-talking patients describe their doubts and troubled projections as they both try to negotiate a relationship with cinema. The artist might be trying to give up on moving images, but he apparently hasn’t given up on the “movies,” as he calls them. Continue reading