My review of This Is A Voice at Wellcome Collection for Exeunt magazine:
The story of St. Peter’s Seminary in Cardross began in the hopeful glow of modernism but rapidly darkened into disuse and dereliction. Built in 1966 after the radical design of Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein of the Glasgow-based architectural practice Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, the seminary was inhabited for just 13 years before it began a slow decline into its current ruinous state. Its erstwhile sanctity was celebrated by the late Canon James Foley, who described the beauty of the light streaming down across the chapel walls and floors. That beauty is now lost in the exposed shell of a building which seems not so much a space of learning and contemplation as a mouldering urban skate park or motorway underpass, its exposed concrete walls now plastered with graffiti and profanities, flagrantly mocking the formerly sacred space which it inhabits.
This sounds dispiriting. But when the Brutalist hulk of St. Peter’s became the lynchpin of Scotland’s 2016 Festival of Architecture, serving as a temporary home to a site-specific art installation, the building was transformed into a magical, otherworldly space filled with haunting choral music and light projections, offering a new and surprising kind of beauty for visitors to contemplate.
Hinterland was produced by NVA, a Glasgow-based public art organisation committed to affirming people’s connection to the built and natural environment. Alluding both to a geographically remote area as well as a metaphorical territory lying beyond what is visible or known, Hinterland animated St. Peter’s with a specially commissioned choral work as well as light installations, which brought to the fore both the majesty of the architecture as well as its parlous physical and moral state.
We were shuttled to and from the Hinterland site in buses from Helensburgh, admirably organised by a team of dedicated volunteers. The time slots were scheduled in the hours of darkness, and on arrival at Kilmahew woods each visitor was equipped with a light stick to navigate their passage down the pitch black (and perilously muddy) path. As visitors wound their way through the barren trees they made for an eerie and mysterious sight, a ghostly procession of lights on a pilgrimage into the dark. On approaching our destination, snatches of haunting music could be heard through the trees.
As the building hove into view it was a breathtaking sight. An awesome concrete shell, bedecked in graffiti and moss, with runnels of water dripping down the walls and pooling on the staircases, landings and walkways. As we were led through the space by stewards, our first stop was a broad concrete staircase into a crypt. On one side of the stairs were wide niches, on the other concrete plinths, and like so many mini-altars each of them contained white flickering candles. Their light glimmered on the graffiti-strewn walls, highlighting a prominent painting of a large skull. The steps seemed to lead nowhere but a pool of dirty rainwater caught in the square recess at its base, an ironic inversion of the purity of the baptismal font.
The Brutalist backdrop, the grotesque imagery and obscene language (the godless words “porn” and “magic” were illuminated on the wall of what was once a toilet cubicle) along with the sometimes discordant musical score combined with the driving rain, dripping walls and floors slick with water to create a setting worthy of Dante’s descent into Hell. The flames of the candles on the altar side of the building were echoed later when flickering red lights were projected through the cell-like spaces perched above the space that once accommodated the refectory; these too carried more than a whiff of the diabolical.
The refectory was also the location for a performance whose allusions to sacred Catholic ritual seamlessly co-existed with the infernal aura of the setting. The eerie sound of invisible choral voices was reminiscent of sacred chanting, prompting thoughts of the monks who once lived and studied here. Indeed the two mysteriously clad figures that appeared might themselves have been the ghosts of monks past. To the peaceful, harmonious sound of the unseen choir they emerged out of the gloom and stood before a cart, apparently welding, throwing flashing white lights up into the space. They then walked, sentinel like, along gangways on either side of the room, to launch an enormous thurible, strung up on iron cables, swinging across the centre of the room in which a large pool of rainwater had collected in a recessed floor. Incense could be seen billowing out over the water in some kind of industrial modernist variant of the Botafumeiro in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
The sacred traces echoing through this despoiled ruin made for a compelling and unforgettable experience of tremendous power. NVA’s intervention seemed to blur sanctity and profanity and explored how architecture of this type can be uplifting for and venerated by anybody, regardless of religious persuasion. For anyone (like me) with a penchant for urban and industrial ruins and an increasing appreciation of Brutalist architecture (which, like its primary material, concrete, is currently enjoying a considerable revival), the beauty of Hinterland was indisputable. By exploring how art can animate an architectural space and how a community of people can collectively experience a cultural event, Hinterland embodies NVA’s long term manifesto for St Peter’s, which champions public artistic practice as a shared human experience and as a means of opening up a democratic cultural space.
My review of Julian Charrière, For They That Sow the Wind, at Parasol Unit, London, for Apollo Online: http://www.apollo-magazine.com/smart-art-that-will-make-you-reconsider-your-smartphone/
My review of Bench at Tintype Gallery, London, for The Learned Pig website: http://www.thelearnedpig.org/bench/3219
Reading about Hashtag History today has been – to quote a particularly odious guest at Fawlty Towers – really getting my dander up. The Hashtag History website proclaims that its aim is to provide (or fight for) “History for all”, to reclaim it from the “people out there who believe history should be presented only in the way historians want it”. Hashtag History’s contention is that the presentation that historians demand –namely that historical material ought to be referenced, footnoted and provided with a bibliography – is tantamount to a barrier to “the masses” accessing history.
The impetus behind this contention is the article written by actual historian Kate Wiles for History Today, about the proliferation of historical images (particularly medieval illuminations) on Twitter that are frequently posted with no reference or credits, making it extremely difficult if not impossible for anybody interested in the image to explore it further. Hashtag History argues that silly memes using historical images might grab someone’s imagination in a way that journals like History Today will not because, in their words, “History Today is a magazine for the academic”. If silly memes are burdened with having to provide references then this will only “keep history in the academics club”. This clarion call to bring history to the ‘masses’ (a somewhat unsavoury, patronising term) sounds well intentioned, but how extremely muddle headed it all is.
Let’s begin with the writer’s description of how (s)he became interested in history. The interest was apparently inspired by Jurassic Park, and further stimulated by a visit to the Natural History Museum’s dinosaur exhibit. Jurassic Park may not be an attempt to depict anything like paleontological reality but it was nonetheless produced with the advice of Jack Horner, an American paleontologist (a form of historian, no?). The Natural History Museum’s exhibitions are produced by those specialists who work at the museum – paleontologists, keepers of collections, curators, researchers – some of whom no doubt qualify as academics and/or professional historians.
My own love of history was partly galvanized by reading History Today. I subscribed to the magazine (it is a magazine, not a journal) as a teenager. I was far from being an academic, merely a young person passionate about history and with a geekish thirst to learn more. It is undoubtedly a rigorous publication, written by specialists in their fields, and it demands a certain level of intellectual engagement. But to describe its target audience as “the academic” is quite wrong.
Hashtag History allies itself with the likes of Horrible Histories and “live historians and volunteers who push the imagination” in wanting to give history back to the people. Horrible Histories are not akin to “silly memes”. They are rigorously researched books that rely on information provided by historians and historical researchers. Live historians are – well – historians. And volunteers (I’m guessing (s)he is referring to those who work at historical/heritage sites?) are almost invariably extremely well informed, well educated people who research their areas with all the rigour of the professional historian (indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if some, or many, volunteers are retired historians/educators themselves). So I’m at a loss to understand what kind of history Hashtag History thinks it needs to reclaim?
I am **all** for history being accessible. As a writer on historical matters (including museum/heritage interpretation) and museum curator it is my job to make history engaging to a non-specialist public. One of the motivations behind my work is my indignation, not to say downright fury, that so much art history writing is so deliberately obfuscatory that it creates a near unbreachable barrier between the public and the subject.
There is nothing wrong with having your interest in history piqued by non-academic sources, whether its Jurassic Park or Blackadder (from which I gleaned many a historical erm – fact). But behind any good, engaging history is either an actual professional historian or a person with meticulous research skills, using sources that are themselves well researched, well referenced, and properly contextualised. In short, academic sources. There’s no need to reclaim history. If you want, as Hashtag History claims, “History told properly”, then it should be done by qualified people. Like those who do it for a living.
Anaïs Tondeur is an artist who delights in expeditions. Whether tracing the nascent wildlife burgeoning in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant (Chernobyl’s Herbarium, 2011), or following the migration of a graphite pencil from its geological origins to its unlikely terminus in the bladder of a seventeen year old girl (I.55, 2013), her journeys conjure an intriguing narrative that is in turn poetic, poignant, and scientifically compelling. Her installations have delved into history, geography, and an array of scientific disciplines (physics, geology, oceanography), but at the heart of each there is a captivating story that engages the most human of emotional responses.
Nowhere is this truer than in Lost in Fathoms, Tondeur’s current solo show at GV Art, London. Not simply a story but a mystery; a Whodunnit, even. Lost in Fathoms tells of the mysterious disappearance of a volcanic island called Nuuk, formed at and then apparently lost in the nexus between the North American and Eurasian continental plates. The story of the now-vanished Nuuk – the Greenlandic term for ‘promontory’ or ‘headland’ – is the springboard from which to explore the geological, environmental, and atmospheric forces that might have caused it to disappear.
On entering the first gallery the visitor is immediately engaged on an auditory level by a large, old-fashioned and curiously anthropomorphic speaker, emitting strange crackling noises that seem to be trying to communicate but in a language beyond our understanding. It is only after descending to the second, lower gallery (appropriately below ground level) that the mystery of this message is revealed: the speaker is connected via cable to an equally antiquated microphone descending from the ceiling and hovering above a piece of basalt rock on a plinth. ‘Echoes from a geographical chronicle’ captures the sound emitted by the fracturing of a piece of basalt (retrieved by Tondeur who dived into the fissure between the two tectonic plates) when it was subjected in a lab to the kind of environmental conditions that might have caused the island to fragment and eventually disappear. In its ambition and execution the piece is typical of many works in the show: it brings an environmental event that materialises on a massive and imperceptible scale down to a visible and graspable scope. In the hypnotic video Singular Occurrence of a Fall, which reconstructs in slow motion the effects of an earthquake on the rock of an island, geological time and phenomena that would ordinarily be beyond human purview are brought into the confines of the gallery.
The same can be said of the pelagic installations in the third gallery, concerned with the inconceivably colossal oceanographic phenomena that might also have contributed to Nuuk’s demise. Through the medium of a shadowgraph MOC Waterdive creates a visual analogy of a gravity wave in a ‘scaled down ocean’, mimicking the movement of deep oceanic currents. Meanwhile Encapsulated Ocean, a set of exquisitely lit phials containing water samples collected from across the world, represents not only scientific endeavours to comprehend global oceanographic circulation but also the ‘memory’ of a notional journey travelled by a wave lapping at Nuuk’s shores after entering a global oceanic current. The theme of the archive, both scientific and more touchingly personal is even more pertinent to Memory of the Oceanographer, a set of water samples from the collection of Professor Harry L.Bryden, still housed in their original, 40-odd year old bottles with their stained, faded hand-written labels.
The mysteries of Nuuk’s disappearance multiply layer upon layer throughout the show, which the viewer is invited to unravel. The beautiful, evocatively named shadowgrams, for example, beg all sorts of questions not only about their production (are they photographs? are they hand drawn?) but also about their apparent blurring of fact and fiction.
Lost in Fathoms is the product of an artistic residency at the Hydrodynamics Laboratory of the École Polytechnique (LadHyX) and in collaboration with Professor Jean-Marc Chomaz, Director of Research at the National Centre for Scientific Research in France. Its scientific rigour and explorations of oceanographic and geological phenomena inevitably bring it into the ‘art/science’ realm but it would be unjustly reductive to pigeonhole Tondeur’s work in any such category. Lost in Fathoms succeeds in dissolving the art/science border, creating a mysterious and lyrical journey tracing absence, memory and loss, whose poignant echoes reverberate through the protean depths of the ocean and the shifting strata of the earth.
‘Lost in Fathoms’ is at GV Art Gallery until 29th November 2014.
This review was originally published in the Apollo Magazine Online and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
To enter the Wael Shawky exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery is to be instantaneously transported into a magical realm of childhood. The door opens onto a spectacularly lit display case occupied with rows of delightfully grotesque ceramic marionettes, standing in lines as though stuck in a motionless queue.
These 24 puppets of men, women, children, animals, and hybrid creatures with human faces, have been exquisitely designed with fantastical, monstrously exaggerated features, evoking memories of childhood legends and myths, and arousing the desire to know – what are their stories?
Story-telling, myth, legend, history, and the complex relationship between them is at the heart of Shawky’s work, and these themes are richly explored in three of his recent films at the Serpentine. Two of these films, Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File (2010) and Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo (2012) depict bloody episodes from the medieval Crusades enacted by marionettes.
Shawky’s use of puppetry and creation of a magical, timeless aesthetic through the golden-hued lighting and exquisite scenery, eases the journey into an inflammatory and contested period of history, while poignantly emphasising the discordance between the fairytale world of childhood and the often barbaric scenes of internecine slaughter, assassinations and cynical politicking within the Christian and Muslim camps.
This discordance blurs the boundaries between myth and fact and also begs the questions, whose voice is telling these stories and how does their perspective impact on the stories’ veracity?
Shawky gives this question greater urgency in the Horror Show File by using European puppets (200 year old Italian-made marionettes) to enact stories that were recorded by Muslim writers. This serves to remind us that there is no single, universally agreed version of history, and that there are other voices that are not always heard.
These awkward, stiff little marionettes are nonetheless surprisingly expressive, conveying panic, anxiety, fear and sorrow in a way that heightens the emotional impact of Shawky’s films. Their small stature, beautifully crafted detail and the miniature world they inhabit creates a sense of intimacy that cannot help but elicit empathetic engagement with their story.
We are irresistibly drawn in by the films’ other-worldliness, particularly The Path to Cairo with its more fantastical looking puppets that often break into song, as if in the midst of a musical. But if anything, our childlike wonder at these beautiful marionettes only underscores the all too dark and adult nature of their stories. There is no Punch and Judy hilarity to be enjoyed here.
In his most recent film, Al Araba Al Madfuna II (2013), Shawky plays once again with encounters between childhood and adulthood. In this re-telling of two Egyptian parables by the novelist Mohamed Mustagab, ‘Horsemen Adore Perfume’ and ‘The Offering’, child actors mouth the words of the script that are dubbed by adult voices.
Once again Shawky’s preoccupation with storytelling is at the heart of this starkly beautiful black-and-white film, shot in a village in Upper Egypt, in which a child, standing in for the traditional village elder (the boys wear moustaches to give a surreal edge to the substitution) recounts a tale to an assembled group of boys and girls.
‘The Offering’ is itself a story about stories, or rather, the loss of the power of storytelling, in which an entire village is deprived of the power of speech. The oneiric quality of the film makes for a curious, jarring viewing experience that is less enthralling than the puppet films, but the central message, about the timeless importance of narrative in how we understand ourselves and our place in the world, remains undiluted.
‘Wael Shawky’ is at the Serpentine Gallery until 9 February 2014.
This review was originally published in the Apollo Magazine Online and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
My feature on current trends at the Royal British Society of Sculptors, written for World Sculpture News. (Some of the picture captions have not translated into the PDF, sadly)
Somewhat belatedly, here is my feature, written for Asian Art News, on the Wellcome Collection’s “Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan” show which ran from 28th March – 30th June 2013.
I have vivid memories from my childhood of the television adverts for PG Tips, featuring anthropomorphised chimpanzees drinking tea and talking, voiced by actors. These adverts were first aired in the 1950s and ran, perhaps surprisingly, until 2001, despite complaints in the ‘70s from animal rights groups. In response to new sensibilities, the becostumed simians were replaced ten years ago by claymation versions and more recently a puppet. Indeed, the PG chimps would hardly be tolerated now, at a time when “No animals were harmed during the making of this film” is a familiar disclaimer.
These cultural indices suggest how the attitude to the treatment of performing animals has shifted in the last 70-odd years and more generally how our relationship to animals has – in some respects – become ever more ‘enlightened’. The same may be said of the evolution of the modern circus. Increasingly, major circuses touring the UK focus on human acrobatic and gymnastic skills, and animal-free circuses seem to be becoming the norm globally.
With these developments in mind it is hard to conceive that the early development of the modern circus in the last quarter of the 18th century has been credited not just with reflecting an increasingly sympathetic attitude towards animals, but with actually shaping it. This intriguing thesis was the subject of a symposium hosted on 13th November by London’s GV Art gallery, organised by the charity Art and Mind and presented by Marius Kwint, Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture at the University of Portsmouth.
Dr. Kwint outlined the foundations of the modern circus as a product of late 18th century England, emerging primarily from the racecourse – trick riding was at the centre of this burgeoning form of popular entertainment. Despite the traditional connection between horse riding and the nobility, the circus performers tended to be from a plebeian background, including the widely acknowledged ‘father’ of the modern circus, Phillip Astley, who opened his first riding venue in 1768 near the present Waterloo Station. Trick riding was soon supplemented by other elements that rapidly became familiar staples of the circus – clowns, ringmasters, dancers and performing animals.
Anthropomorphised animals became an increasingly common feature of the entertainment. Putting the tea-drinking chimps to shame, examples included the marvellous spectacle of dogs dressed up to perform a canine re-enactment of the storming of the Bastille. The Learned Pig was another member of the circus cast, who appeared to read from cards placed on the floor of the stage. Though this prompted the symposium guests to chuckle it had apparently provoked a profound realisation in one contemporary witness, as reported by children’s writer Sarah Trimmer in 1788:
“I have,” said a lady who was present, “been for a long time accustomed to consider animals as mere machines, actuated by the unerring hand of Providence…but the sight of the Learned Pig, which has lately been shown in London, has deranged these ideas and I know not what to think.”
‘Deranged’ is a telling term that suggests how the normal hierarchies of nature were reversed, wherein brute nature was apparently raised above its usual status in creation. Here was a confusing vision of animal/human relations that no longer conformed to the simple order in which animals were firmly set within man’s dominion. Dancing dogs and erudite swine seemed to destabilise the still widely influential account of animals, expounded by Descartes, as nothing more than insentient automata.
Dr. Kwint discussed how cultural production, in the form of the circus, both reflected and shaped a more sympathetic sensibility towards animals, which was partly mirrored in the enlightened rationalism of the age and the development of the brain sciences. Animals were increasingly understood as more than mere machines programmed to behave according to divine dictate. Moreover, cultivating a humane sympathy with animals was becoming an index of good citizenship.
The age of Romanticism, with its emphasis on nature as sublime and untamed, further encoded the changes in the human appraisal of animals. Artists such as George Stubbs, Gericault and Delacroix showed an aestheticised appreciation of the primal power of these unbridled animals. The horse, regarded as a noble species, was used as a metaphorical expression to depict emotional states – racing, in flight, or being attacked by wild animals. Once more, a form of anthropomorphisation further emphasised the affinities between man and beasts. Mazeppa, Byron’s Romantic narrative poem featuring a young man punished for his love affair by being tied to a wild horse which is then let loose, found its expression at Astley’s Amphitheatre to melodramatic effect. Other equestrian dramas flourished, including productions of a variety of Shakespearean plays such as Macbeth, Othello, and, aptly, Richard III.
Intriguingly, the early circus did not only employ animals as performers; it also provided demonstrations of good practice in animal training and husbandry. In so doing the circus conveyed its credentials as a civilising form of entertainment for an enlightened age (with respect for land and property, and all the power and authority invested in them). This contrasts with other popular forms of entertainment of the age such as football and fairgrounds which were regarded with suspicion and hostility, associated with vice, disorder and laziness. Such demonstrations, particular those relating to the care and instruction of horses, were intimately bound up with a system of symbolic values that helped to provide the circus with the cultural legitimacy it needed to survive. Excellent care and breeding of horses were signifiers of a sophisticated hierarchy of social status, wealth, gentility and style, and the horses themselves were symbols of the nobility of such values.
The circus appearances were therefore invested with polyvalent meanings. On the one hand trained and tamed by man to perform obediently, on the other increasingly understood as more than brutes subject to domination: animals became endowed with their own kind of intelligence, their affinity to mankind promising harmony, yet simultaneously suggesting a stable hierarchy turned upside down. Learned pigs, dancing dogs, noble genteel steeds or wild tempestuous stallions: circus animals (and their depictions in visual culture) performed within a complex web of connotations reflecting contemporary tensions in the understanding of human/animal relations.
It seems that these relationships are destined to become ever more complex and ambiguous. Whilst contemporary attitudes to domestic animals suggest that the relationship has developed into a role involving emotional support akin to that of a friend or family member, at the same time, scientific and technical innovations are changing animals’ roles in the field of biomedicine, particularly in the sourcing of organs and cells for researching, controlling and curing human disease. It would make a fascinating subject for a future symposium: the consideration of how such developments are altering the symbolic representation of animals and, indeed, vice-versa.
This article was originally published in the Journal of Wild Culture.
Image credit: Oberlin College Archives