Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Belgium Pavilion and a Free Lunch

this image and the one below: Jef Geys, Quadra Medicinale, Belgium Pavilion

It is well known that the ingestion of too much strong art can lead to incoherent babbling, convulsions and bleeding at the ears. There was no going back for us now though; we were going to risk exposure of the most dangerous kind. It was day three at the Venice Biennale and we were balanced on the edge of a fjord of artistic endeavor; greased and goggled we were ready to belly-flop gracelessly in.

The Belgium pavilion was close to the Illy stand so it received our attentions early on. Jef Geys was showing a collaborative, quasi-scientific work entitled Quadra Medicinale. De Geys engaged four acquaintances, each living in large cities, New York, Moscow, Brussels and Villeurbanne; he allotted them each a single square kilometer to search out twelve wild plants growing in the streets. The results of this research were catalogued, including any medicinal properties the plants had and then they were presented by means of framed dried samples alongside 'in situ' photographs, maps, analytical drawings and descriptive text.

Geys' deceptively simple undertaking operates on many levels. Visually the work is aesthetically arresting in the same way that a Durer anatomical drawing or the page from a da Vinci sketchbook is. The work also invites us to question what we value. Geys employs the word terroir to ground his creative intention; terroir is a term used in the wine trade and refers to inherent and unreproducible qualities in the wine born out of its origination in a specific geographical origin. He
subtly re-appropriates this familiar idea and introduces it into the context of his project.
In global historical terms the total separation of art and science, which of course we now take for granted, is a relatively recent phenomenon. People had once accepted that strict empiricism was dry and ultimately of limited practical use without the appropriate creative vision through which to interpret it. Science and Art were holistically and co-operativley engaged in the unravelling of the mysteries of our shared existence. Gey's undertaking goes a long way to re-establishing this vital connection.

Belgium had a small press launch, in keeping with a country's size and stature. They were passing out freely flutes of dry sparkling wine outside the pavilion along with crusts of dry bread and small quantities of dry cheese. From the photograph below you can see that the yachting set are mixing freely, elbows sharpened, with two 'gentlemen of the road' (check the man in the cap) who had been waited in in the Giardini for almost two months for this very event.

The extraordinarily exciting prospect of receiving that mystical 'free lunch', however meager, was just too much for some and prompted much wailing, gnashing of teeth and flailing of limbs as they fought to secure their share. I approached the table from behind thus avoiding the stampede and secured an armful of stale bread amidst howls of protest from the trampled masses; I then fed it to the birds in the hopes of further provoking the situation.

I spoke to one of the 'gentlemen of the road' afterwards and he told me of a night shelter not five miles into the mainland where the bread isn't stale and you don't risk serious injury attaining it. I thanked him and told him I would bear it in mind for a future trip.

The next day we saw a heavy conflagration of suited and booted carabinieri fiddling nervously with their nightsticks; the official story ran that they were there because the king and queen of America were visiting for the award ceremony but the truth was Estonia were giving away out of date muffins at their press launch and they anticipated a riot. The crazy fools, will they never learn!

Friday, 5 June 2009

No Sleep to Guidecca- Blown at the Venice Biennale day 2:

Venice was every bit as seductive as I had remembered it. Now however, as well as its own unique, particular and sultry beauty, this sinking city has an 'all you can eat' festival for the visual arts balanced precariously on her brow like a rakish crown. The Venice Biennale officially opens on Sunday the 7th of June and runs through to November.

It is 6.15am and rather than lying awake listening to the herd of drowning piglets in the bed next door to me I am sitting bolt upright ruminating on the previous days events, (Ed isn't so much a snorer as a one man site specific audio installation); I however am listening to Ali Farka Toure, writing and feeling as fresh as an orchid.

We loaded up on free Illy iced goodies yesterday (Illy are giving away free iced coffee, as many as you can drink, at the entrance to the Giardidni, I ingested 27 cans over the 4 days we were there) and then we joined the mêlée
at the Russian pavilion (a faded parody of all things architecturally 'Russian') for their official launch.

The spokeswoman (pictured above) presented us first with the artists who had clearly been dragged from their utilitarian garrets and scrubbed down for the occasion before being thrust unwillingly into the limelight.

Mr Smirnoff spoke quietly in Russian, my unverified presumption would be that one of the Cayman Island registered 'play palaces' was his, moored within wafting distance of St Mark's Square. I like the one pictured below, it is exactly what I would have drawn aged 10 if I could have designed my own ship with a couple of billion budget except mine would have had a lot more guns and rockets. He mooted 7 months as a date for the completion of the pavilion's total renovation, now that's personal commitment to art!

The Minister of Organised Crime proudly announced that only two people had been assassinated that year whilst curating the exhibition, or it may have been the Assistant Minister of Culture congratulating the artists and organisers for their hard work, it was hard to tell as my Russian is at best flaky. He put his thumbs up and tried to smile for the cameras but that was even more scary.

I asked the nice lady behind the press counter for a few bags of goodies, (I thought my girls would love them. The Russians are ahead by the way in the Blown Best Bag of Biennale award so far this year; I know many of you are dying to know) and the Assistant Minister denied that the quality was achieved through the use of real human hair. It is all wonderful.

The exhibition is entitled 'Victory over the Future', a triumphalist title for sure but would it be able to fulfill this promise? There was on display a balanced mix of traditional media with more contemporary vehicles of communication. New media is so often favoured over traditional manually crafted objects because of what it is and its perceived trendiness rather than for any conceptual content it may or may not have to convey. Subtlety too becomes a casualty in this race up the greasy pole for easy recognition. Here however the Russians have demonstrated confidence, breadth and vision in their handling of the curatorial process.

Pavel Pepperstein, Landscapes of the Future 2009, watercolour on paper, Russian Pavilion

Pavel Pepperstein is a true polymath, writing novels, performing rap, theorising on art and culture as well creating exquisite watercolour drawings that tug playfully at the many symbols and mindsets resident in the Russian national psyche. Each drawing is superficially bizarre and yet perhaps under the surface reassuringly familiar; they are not surreal in a Daliesque 'mining of the unconscious' sense instead the elements of the compositions are hewn from deliberate, considered and carefully conjured metaphors; they are all the more disturbing for this considered treatment. Pepperstein manipulates the pathos of the past with a deft lyricism. I feel sure that if Kazimir Malevitch were to have taken up children's book illustration it would have looked something like this! What an excellent start to the Russian Pavilion!

Having spent time writing up yesterday's blog and wrestling with the dodgy wi-fi in the press room it was time to head to the Welsh contingent's 'John Cale Live' launch party. Many profound connections were forged over a long, long night, at this point is better to let the pictures do the talking:

I am now looking down the barrel of a full day of art ingestion after absolutely no sleep. Hunter S would definitely approve.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

So Much Art, So Little Time

Standing in front of Silvio Wolf's massive lightbox installation, (I Nomi del Tempo, photography, light and sound, 2009) could be a metaphor for the whole Biennale experience. There are 77 countries exhibiting in their own pavilions across the islands of the city, and 44 collateral events, a truly bewildering quantity of art to fit in three weeks let alone the three days we have.

We have decided to concentrate on the countries with a perceived agenda beginning in earnest with the Russian press launch tomorrow morning. Wolf's monumental work was shown in the prime real estate of the Italian pavilion and for me once again proves the transcendent power of art to become more than the sum of its parts and even a vehicle for the divine.

My traveling compadre is Ed Pereira, our boss and executive editor; a man whose snoring, as I found out, is similar in pitch and volume to the Titanic as it ground against the iceberg that fateful night. The only redeeming fact was that it is impossible for the human body to maintain such destructive vibration without collapsing in on itself like a dying star, he quite simply shook himself awake every 5 minutes or so. He was, he later told me, down with hay fever and asthma half the first night, crawling around on the floor, gasping for breath as he had forgotten his inhalers but I, deeply asleep, heard none of it. The idea of performing the Heinrich maneuver at 3 in the morning, not that it would have probably helped much, filled me with mixed emotions, none of which I particularly care to call to mind. Ed, strangely, insisted on booking the hotel himself once I informed him that I get mixed up between a twin and a double rooms; it is a fine and comfortable affair on a bus mainline on mainland Mestre, a few short minutes from the action.

I consider it a personal insult when I travel to the continent if it is even a tiny bit overcast; on principle I never take even a jumper (a principle that of course has the capacity to backfire horribly), but on this occasion I was vindicated, there was not a cloud. It is the smell that really informs you that you are abroad; as we wondered aimlessly on the first night through Mestre, the heavy sweet perfume from some unnamed flower gripped us.

There were a number of things I was not quite prepared for as we stepped off our bus in Venice that first morning. The first was the shear beauty, my eyes were assaulted by a thousand vistas each of which had been photographed a million times. The thing one has to realise about Venice is that everything is aesthetically conceived; take a humble mooring pole for example, it clearly is never just any old lump of tree trunk but an object, beautifully and sensitively shaped, before being driven deep into the Venetian mud.

We wandered down the Grand Canale by vapporetto, the excellent water buses, and found the press pavilion at the Arsenale, one part of the dual hubs of the Biennale around which everything else spins. Then began the convoluted 'two step' of securing press credentials with precious little proof that we were not just freeloaders. Press packs safely in hand we could begin the impossible task of planning our time.

Wales' John Cale experience was under full steam when we paid them a preliminary visit with the ministers, curators and powermongers wafting down the shady alleyways in sharp suits leading to the Capannone on the island of Guidecca. There were typical pre-event logistical struggles unfolding, lost cheeses for example (Easyjet in their wisdom took them to Milan). We were looking forward to screenings and the party the following day.

As the day closed and the sun set over the water the sheer size of the task awaiting us over the next few days seemed truly daunting but one which we would throw ourselves into with every ounce of strength we could muster. So much art, so little time.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Diane Arbus: The Simplicity of Photography

Diane Arbus, A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street , N.Y.C. 1966 1966
Copyright © 1971 The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC
National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and The Art Fund 2008.

Photography is a simple process, consisting, in essence, of little more than the careful aiming of a light tight box and perhaps the judicious twiddling of a few knobs. In theory at least everyone possesses the capacity to make a photograph and it is the mark of our time that almost everyone does. So why then have we singled out and celebrated the work of Diane Arbus from the tsunami of images that engulfs us each day? She famously said 'For me the subject is always more important than the picture and more complicated'. Indeed Arbus seemed to use her camera not so much as a sophisticated paint brush but more as a jemmy to prise her way into the souls of her sitters. Her dogged adherence to this unconventional approach engendered work that displays a raw fragility and directness that shines bright and hard like a firefly in our image rich but truth poor society. Having worked for many years in fashion she was well versed in the art of manufacturing superficial glamour but why then should she chose to flee to the periphery of human experience? perhaps on these outskirts she found that all pretense could be stripped away. 'Giving a camera to Diane Arbus' said Norman Mailer ' is like putting a live hand grenade in the hands of a child'. He was right; Diane Arbus was a complicated human being who through the simplicity of photography found answers in places most of us would not even dare to look.

Diane Arbus, which comprises 69 black and white photographs will be on display at the National Museum Cardiff until 31 August 2009.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The Prophets of Gijon, A Prologue

Ric travels to Gijon to see 'En Residencia', a site specific collaboration between Asturian and Welsh artists curated by Marc Rees.

I held the knife aloft, so everyone could see it clearly; I continued to display it because I was still somehow convinced it was the pen I had been rummaging in my jacket pocket to find. How could it possibly be a knife? I had passed through the 'criminality detector', the 'golden arch of truth', which reaches deep inside your mind at customs. The uniformed woman had sifted me with her eyes and then removed my boots, but still she had failed to distinguish me, so clearly a felon, from my fluffy and vanilla fellow airline passengers, many of whom were now watching me very closely. They were, I think, trying to anticipate my next move, more bemused than concerned at this stage; I was providing for them an amusing if a little unnerving interlude from their budget airline tedium. I had a clear choice: I could stand up and, after pledging allegiance to some monstrous deity, start butchering the passengers one by one, (beginning with the most nubile of course), before crashing the plane adeptly into the nearest shopping? Or I could sit down quietly and put the weapon back in my pocket. I chose the latter.

We arrived at Santander having avoided untimely arrest and we embarked on the coast road to Gijon. The rain hammered against the car windscreen, all hopes of giving my mankini, , its debut airing looked to be dashed, but we were in Spain, the land of Laurie Lee and we were, I reminded myself, here to air our brains, not our buttocks. My compadre, Dave, had even less in the way of a concrete expectation of what we might find at the end of the rainbow than I had; indeed
, much of the outward journey was spent justifying to him performance as an art form, (I dare not mention installation, far too complicated). “It is my conviction”, I told him, “that performance as artistic statement finds its roots in the very foundations of human interaction”. After all, the Prophet Ezekiel, in 600BC, lay on his left side for 390 days, cooking only one 8 ounce chapati each day over a crap fire (not his own crap, the Lord spared him that indignity). He would, undoubtedly, have been awarded a healthy grant for such an undertaking nowadays. Ezekiel, of course, had a specific purpose for his work, a message to deliver, but what would the 'Prophets of Gijon' have to tell us? And in an age in which, the Socratic maxim, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living ‘ has been so brutally inverted, would we even listen?

The next morning, we strode from our hotel into the weather; we allowed the wind
to clear our minds of expectation; 'unimpeded wonder', is the correct mental attitude with which to attend an event such as this. So it is as children that we make our way between the beige and brown apartments, which dominate Gijon with their symmetry. Our rented roller skate, pushed bravely through to the outskirts and to the horizon from which slowly grew, elephantine and intensely masculine, La Laboral. Its tower alone stands 170 confident meters above the muscular belly of the surrounding campus. La Laboral was built in the 1940's and ‘50's, in response to a mining accident, which left over a 1000 orphans. It was, in essence, a huge boys school, but its cocksure presence belies this relatively straight-forward function. The strong honest masses, of which the majority of campus is comprised, had been cruelly festooned with neo-classical frippery by the architect, Luis Moya, providing further evidence of the complicated forces that brought this place into being. Marc Rees, En Residencia's curator, had chosen local Asturian artists, together with the finest artists selected and imported from Wales, twenty in total, with the brief to 'respond to La Laboral as a space' and, by association, its history. The leviathan fell out of favour after Franco's demise, only when a generation had passed, and the memory of the majority had softened, had it been forgiven, re-packaged, marketed as a university and perhaps even celebrated.

blog photos: Ric Bower
above: La Laboral
below: Bendedict Anderson's upended pews with dance artist Tanja Raman in green

The rest of this article along with photographs from the celebrated Warren Orchard will be featured in Issue 1 of Blown at the end of May/early June.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Conspiracy theory #6723b

It has finally dawned on me; the camera companies are in league with the memory manufacturers. I can find no other plausible explanation for the utterly pointless number of pixels that are crammed onto the tiny sensors in every common or garden digital camera other than to fill up terabytes of expensive storage with meaningless information.
No doubt these pointless pixels are painted on the camera sensors by small children in sweatshops in Uzbekistan, working long into their night, ten to a candle, they will be 'retired' at the age of five, their eyesight forever ruined.
I will resist my nerdy urges and not patronise by explaining why more pixels does not equal greater image quality and move on swiftly to boast that I can now comfortably furnish a billboard with the badly composed overexposed shot I took of the neighbour washing his car the other day. The tiny fraction of the non work photos that I will actually ever commit to print will only ever be enlarged to 6" x 4" the remaining information destined to languish pointlessly amongst my growing family of external hard drives. To prove that I too am sucking hard at the corporate nipple I printed a landscape I took on a family walk to gargantuan proportions and then took up a magnifying glass out to coo over every conceptually flaccid leaf, blade and twig. The image was inoffensively pictorial in the very worst sense, devoid of punctum and was truly a magnet for almost all the lowest common photographic denominators.
I was relieved to read that Samsung have come up with a gizmo that recognises what you are ineptly pointing your camera at and automatically chooses which shooting mode to work in, so for those who are not sure if they are taking a landscape or a portrait your path to photographic competency is now ensured. I personally look forward to the time when my camera will sense when I might feel like taking a photograph then cheerily leave the house on little legs to travel the world on my behalf taking lots and lots of pictures of things I might like and people I could have befriended; then photography will have become the truly democratic medium it has always promised to be; no winners, no losers just an endless sea of data. Maybe at this point we will all sit up and consider that image making may have something to do with the expression of ideas rather than being a showcase for vacuous athleticism and mechanical prowess. Clicking without thinking is perhaps akin to masturbation and can surely not result in the birth of meaningful images.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Lux is Out

I was a gig virgin when I saw Cramps. We took the train to Portsmouth wrapped in PVC and leather and loaded to the gills with bad amphetamine. I don't remember much about the gig apart from the fact they did not play much more than half an hour; that did not seem to matter though because their point had been made. We inevitably missed the last train back and spent the night in a random shed. The sensibilities of Lux Interior (photographed above like a de Ribera St Batholemew), their front man, expressed perfectly my teenage dissatisfaction with the life my careers officer was offering me; I don't want a 9-5 job.... 'I want some new kind of kick'. Lux, who loved to shock, executed his most shocking act ever this week, almost unbelievably, he died. Some time has passed since I saw him and I still have never had a 9-5 so at least a small part of my existence is on track; Lux, your influence lives on. Check out this page for some excellent Cramps moments
I chatted to Catrin Dafydd today who with her latest book Random Deaths and Custard is on the short list fo
r the 'Spread the Word: Books to Talk About 2009' award. Upon reflection Catrin's mind was clearly a Bugatti Veyron to my Rover with go faster stripes which made me all the more keen to discuss with her the passing of Lux and what was expected of her as she grew up. She told me that creativity to her was always an 'outlet rather than an achievement' and her father too was a writer; perhaps this holistic approach to the creative process in some way explains her balance in success. Catrin has written some astonishing musings on childhood for Blown issue1. We wish her all the best with the award. You can vote for her here
yours in hopeful mourning