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What makes you and I different
February 24 - March 26 2006
Text: Lorraine Wilson, Curator (A catalogue for this show was published by Tramway, November 2006)
The starting point for this exhibition was simply that the artworks chosen should feature the artists who made them. From there, each work leads us to explore the different reasons for, and responses elicited by, an artist choosing to feature themselves in their work but all of them can be seen to reflect Cindy Sherman's statement, "I am trying to make other people recognize something of themselves rather than me."
In a range of media, sculpture, film, video, print and photography, the artists demonstrate a variety of ways in which the inclusion of themselves enables exploration of wider social or artistic issues - gender and cultural stereotype, the assertion of individuality in the onslaught of globalisation, the role of the artist today or the creative process itself. For some, the inclusion of their self-image is a key and consistent motif in their practice, whilst for others the inclusion of themselves is more specific to this particular work. All of the artists, to different degrees, experiment with control of identity and the presentation and reception of that identity in a cultural, social or artistic context.
Matthew Barney's (US, 1967) work is rooted in personal experience, become more blatantly so over time. Referencing an early career as an athlete, Barney aligns the experience of developing physical strength and potency through physical resistance-training, to the development of creative potential and output as an artist, creating works which, in his own words, " map the desire to create ". The triptych of prints, DRAWING RESTRAINT 9: Mirror Position ( 2005, 3 C-prints in self-lubricating plastic frames, 83.8 x 105.4 x 3.8 cm each, collection of Leopoldo Villareal Fernandez, New York, copyright 2005 Matthew Barney) in their first public display, is from Barney's Drawing Restraint series which he calls ' a meditation on the creative process" . They partner a video (not here) showing Barney and his real life partner Björk on a whaling ship, the Nisshin Marin, in Nagasaki Bay, Japan, taking part in a sedate tea/ wedding ceremony, being ultimately subsumed and transformed by their environment. The triptych, reminiscent of both traditional Japanese and early Renaissance wedding portraits, features Barney and Björk on either side of a third, 'ceremony-master' central portrait, the dramatic staging and elaborate costume typical of all Barney's works. The prints evidence Barney's increasing lean towards autobiography with the inclusion of his real life partner, musician Björk. Although this also bares witness to Björk's own parallel interest in the sublimation of the human being in nature and the relationship of art to nature, evident in much of her own work to date, it clearly demonstrates a progression in Barney's understanding of his own work, with regards to its relationship to his personal life. " I think I am more willing these days to identify what I have done as autobiographical in terms of its overall arc."1
Like Matthew Barney, much of Peter Land's (Denmark, 1966) work focuses on the struggle for progress and achievement, but here the task is simply to survive. Land explores the absurdity and mundanity of human existence through videoed performances of himself in various clumsy, undignified and vulnerable situations. Akin to Barney's focus on the restraint of progress leading in turn to progress itself, Land explores the idea that failure, mistake and deviation from the norm are part of a framework of meaning and understanding 'the norm' and without the establishment of such a framework of meaning - spiritual, intellectual, social - a life without boundaries would lead to eventual collapse.
In Land's work he is often (literally) stripped bare of disguise to portray man's struggle with the banal, mundane yet surreal nature of everyday existence. Land takes the role of the 'everyman', putting himself in situations such as here, falling repeatedly downstairs, in order to ask, when all values, routines and socially learned responses are stripped away- who am I? And what am I doing here? The Staircase ( 2 channel video projection, 5 min loop ) is a looped double projection, featuring Land on one side falling (repeatedly) downstairs, a computer generated image of a star-field opposite. The comedic performance, augmented by a 'hirdy-girdy' soundtrack, is reminiscent of the slapstick of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy's portrayals of impossible situations with success always just out of reach (also recalling Samuel Beckett's mock heroical statement " Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.") Further, just as these early haphazard and accidental performance artist routines belie their careful staging and choreography, the monotonous action of Land's trapped figure, moves an initially comic scene to one with tragic overtones. Land positions the viewer in between these two projections, gravity pulling Land down for ever on one side, the endless dark of the universe on the other. The viewer is asked to recognize their position trapped in the middle somewhere between heaven and hell, trying to find stability, meaning and perspective in a world where the ground is always shifting, and where asking questions of the meaning of existence challenges the very basis of that existence. " I guess my work with art is instrumental in my pursuit to establish an ethical meaning behind my own existence. In that way you can say that I need it to preserve myself from dissolving mentally."2
Like Land, Wood and Harrison's ( UK, 1969, 1966) work references the slapstick routines of Keaton and Lloyd and from there, Bruce Nauman's ideas on understanding the presence of the body in space - in existence - through action and movement. Wood and Harrison's video works, featuring them performing various simple actions or tasks, are also about the passing of time, the demarcation of time through action and the relationship with the viewer. The construction, filming and presentation of Luton ( 2001, single monitor DVD, 3 mins, courtesy Rick and Donna Ferris ) is, like their other single-monitor works, created with considerable awareness of the viewer's interaction with the work. " We think quite a lot about making them watchable and I guess we do take the viewer on board quite a lot, not just in terms of what we put on the screen but also the actual experience of going into the space."3 Filmed in a documentary style, there is as little to impede the reception of the work in that way as possible - editing is kept to a minimum, there is little that is narrative in the piece, Wood and Harrison themselves keep deadpan throughout, and the presentation on a single screen monitor as opposed to the more emotive or 'cinematic' projection format, is basic and 'low fi'. Attention then can be concentrated on the work as an exploration of space - the ambiguous, confined spaces they perform in, the two dimensional space of the monitor, the intellectual space shared with the viewer, and the space which unites the viewer with the performed action - the gallery space. In Luton , we see them tied to chairs on castors, rolling around in a white space indicative of the movement a Luton van in transit would induce (if one were tied to a chair in the back of a van...). They set up the conditions of the performance but once ongoing, the progress of the performed action is unpredictable, affected by gravity, the relationship between them, physical endurance and chance. Humour is, as always in their work, used to connect immediately with the viewer but, thereafter, we can understand the work as an exploration of control and of pushing the boundaries - technical, emotional or physical - involved in the creative process.
The element of control we have over our lives is also a recurrent and key theme in the work of Bjørn Melhus (Germany, 1966). As an artist he not only directs, edits and produces his video works but co-ordinates the soundtracks and plays all of the characters which feature in the work but all this serves only to position Melhus' question to what degree any of us be individual in an age of increasingly globalised -and homogenised - cultures? No sunshine's (1997, video, 5'30", courtesy Courtesy Galerie Anita Beckers, Frankfurt/ Roebling Hall, New York) disorientating sensory onslaught uses familiar sounds and images to connect with the viewer. The imagery seems recognisable from 1960's and 1970's film and television, and we can make out samples of well-known songs and popular music from that time. But this is not the 'golden age' of pop but the twenty-first century and we (the viewer) we have seen the future - a nightmarish world of saturated, digitally enhanced images populated by cloned creatures. The twin clones in the foreground can only appropriate sentiments from past generations' songs, which have no emotional/ political/ social currency for them, in an attempt to communicate with each other. The rhythmic soundtrack repeats over and again, almost lulling the viewer into a hypnotic state, referencing the way the mass media functions in contemporary society. Melhus' work centers on the struggle to retain individuality in the face of rapidly changing global cultures and the re-presentation of those cultures in the media. Like other artists in the exhibition, the idea of boundaries again surfaces - where do you stop and I begin? (what makes you and I different?). And, in outlining this nightmarish vision of the future, Melhus also asks how complicit we are - are we manipulated or do we manipulate ourselves?
The use of the 'doppleganger', clone or twin is also an ongoing vehicle in John Beagles and Graham Ramsay's (UK, 1970, 1968) work to explore the seedy, unsavoury side of contemporary culture and the malaise of modern life. Since they first started working together in 1997, they have created many versions of themselves, perhaps as an exorcism of the unhealthy, the dark, the seedy, the selfish and cynical sides of their (and our personalities), so they/we can get on and live clean, optimistic, healthy lives... In Glitter Island ( 2006, sculpture/ installation, two monitors, two photographic prints), one of two new commissions for the exhibition, Beagles and Ramsay have created a mirage, a folly, a theatrical backdrop to images of themselves languorously draped over the 'sand' (via monitors), dressed in eighteenth century dandy-esqe costumes, the glittering gold surface seducing us and becoming almost hypnotically alluring. But all is not well on this paradise island...The arrogance of the poses and expressions on the faces mask an unease that the tide is already on the turn, that having reached this place of perfection and bliss, disintegration and decay is but a breath away, that the words they whisper to us in Latin have little currency or meaning for the viewer, that all that glitters is, indeed, not gold. The work explores the idea that we live in an increasingly superficial world, of 'spin' and media onslaught, the need for meaning and substance in our everyday lives increasingly competing with the meaningless follies of fashion and the cult of celebrity, created by the corporate machine and peddled by the media. And, with an ongoing interest in the presentation of art and the politics, mechanisms and myths surrounding the 'cult' of art and its production, we can surmise that Beagles and Ramsay's creation of this folly, this mirage of a 'place within a place', questions the purpose, validity and importance of art and the role of artists themselves.
The seductive qualities in the media which both Beagles and Ramsay and Bjørn Melhus utilise, are also a recurrent theme in the work of Mat Collishaw ( UK, 1966). He has said, " Whether we like it or not there are mechanisms within us that are primed to respond to all kinds of visual material, leaving us with no real say over what we happen to find stimulating. The types of adverts to be found on television and in glossy magazines are visually designed to have a power over the mind before they can even be questioned." Collishaw's work explores the mechanisms of visual imagery and how they affect the unconscious workings of the mind. Often showing us the dark underside of society, recurrent themes are illusion and desire. Works like the Spitting Machine ( 1997, interactive installation, monitor, dvd, two-way mirror) focus on the dark, the unpleasant and the unpredictable. We are drawn towards the mirrored surface of the Spitting Machine - to ourselves. The price we pay for our vanity is apparent when Collishaw's own image appears and both he and the viewer share the same space for a few moments before he suddenly turns to spit at the camera/ us. The experience is unpleasant, surprising and uncomfortable and forces us to acknowledge our own sense of social roles and boundaries.
Since the 1970s Cindy Sherman's (USA, 1954 ) work has explored the social roles attributed to women and the stereotypes of women generated by and propagated in the media. Since the Untitled Film Stills series of photographs in the 1970s, she has appeared in her work whilst disguising herself in a variety of roles, from B-movie heroines to re-creating portrayals of women in Renaissance art. The images she creates in turn reference the construction of the self- image as well as its dissemination in the media. Like Bjørn Melhus, Cindy Sherman's control of the image - both behind and in front of the camera - is paramount to a critique of the control any of us can exert over our own lives. In works such as those exhibited ( Untitled, 1984 colour photograph,129 x 86,4 cm/ Untitled, 1982, colour photograph, 128 x 92 cm; copyright Cindy Sherman, courtesy Monika Sprüth/ Philomene Magers), Sherman attempts to deconstruct the notion of the female as an object in art and the media, by her taking position as both subject and object. Time and again, she sets out to disrupt our expectations of the presentation of women in art - here the images are deliberately unattractive, uninviting and ambiguous. They spill out of the frame beyond their boundaries, the edges obscured and disappearing into shadow. "A degree of hyper -ugliness has always fascinated me. Things that were considered unattractive and undesirable interested me particularly. And I do find things like that really beautiful." In appearing and yet not appearing in these and other works, Sherman attempts to highlight the subjectivity of identity and the mediation of it, in particular with relation to women, in society. Sherman's work of the 70s and 80s is closely tied up with theoretical discussion of the time with relation to gender politics and codes of looking/ watching/ and being watched. Her attempt to disrupt expectations of the female image led her to include herself less and less and to increase the element of 'ugliness' or disguise in her work, and the two works shown represent the crux period of this increasing obfuscation of her own image. The use of lurid colour and unusual construction also serve to increase an awareness of artifice in the work and, from there, to encourage a recognition of this artifice in all constructions of the female image. By appropriating the mechanisms and meanings of representing the female in society and art, Sherman attempted to deconstruct and subvert them from within.
Monica Castillo's ( Mexico, 1963) images also explore the subjectivity of representing and recognizing the female - to a large extent her own - image. Much of Castillo's work to date has featured herself, but these are self-images rather than self-portraits, used to explore the boundaries of self-representation, mimeticism and the notion of the original, authentic or 'real' in art. Like Sherman, Castillo's images focus on subverting the strategies used to amplify desire and beauty in the representation of the female image. In works such as Almost Hyperrealism ( 2000, digital print, 125cm x 120cm, private collection, Washington D.C.) she sets up an intimate relationship with the viewer, offering up her image to the viewer without confrontation by blacking out her own gaze. The close inspection this near access to the image provides, allows us to see that she has manipulated some of the features, enhancing some of the details. The image now sits somewhere between real and unreal, between truth and fiction. The details she has highlighted - the hairs, pores and blemishes - we know are not 'lies' but in being superimposed are neither 'truthful'. Castillo plays with the subjectivity of the construction of our own self-image, whilst referencing the 'make-over' and the fetishisation of the skin and appearance, common in contemporary society. The five digital prints Autorretratos Hablados/ Spoken Portraits ( 1997, 5 digital prints, 35cm x 35cm each, private collection, Washington D.C.) are a result of her asking five friends to describe her face to her. All five images are recognizably her but yet all are different. In referencing the subjective process we all undertake in recognizing images, she is also asking what lies between the 'I' and the 'other', beyond physical and psychological attributes of identity of both our own self-image and of others, and how an artist can explore the interchange between them.
Mark Neville's ( UK, 1969) work also focuses on an analysis of the creative act and the role/ cult of the artist, namely the heroic male performance artist. Neville approaches the creation of his 16mm films, sculptures and light installations in an almost scientific manner, as both the vehicle for and subject of his investigations into perception. He uses a scientific approach to analyse something which cannot be quantified in scientific terms - referencing the history of performance art in its use of technology for solely documentary purposes, before the presentation of such documentation began to fulfull another function, namely an aesthetic one.
'The Ghost of Stanley Spencer Watches Over Me As I walk Through the Shipyard in Port Glasgow' ( 16mm film projection on a loop, approx 9 mins, silent) shows Neville walking through Fergusons' shipyard in Port Glasgow, where the artist Stanley Spencer was resident during the second world war. References to the glorification of the working man, starting with the link with Spencer, who aligned spiritual redemption with physical labour, are augmented by the grid-like forms of the warehouse panning out below, reminiscent of paintings of Constructivist or De Stijl artists and their belief in a world where art and life - the physical and the spiritual - were one.
In line with Neville's statement, however, " My work tries to look at the way in which images are disseminated and constructed according to class and social divisions ." the choice of vantage point, the god-like overhead view - not the view of the ordinary working man on the shop floor - disrupts the film being read as either documentary and instead asserts the power and control of the (heroic male) artist. The painterly quality of the images, and the muted colours, move it further away from documentary into an emotive, cinematic mode.
The ambiguity of an artist's intention is also dealt with in Neville's second film, and the second new commission in the exhibition, 'I am Too Sad To Tell You. The Space Between Us Fills My Heart With Intolerable Grief' ( 16mm film loop, approx 5 mins, silent) . It recalls a photograph by Dutch artist Bas Yan Ader, an image which was dependant on the artifice and melodrama of the artist's act of placing himself before the camera while crying. As with Ader's piece, and many other art works in this exhibition, the film aims to pose questions about the intentions of the artist, with the question 'Am I sincere?' and of the viewer's ability to see beyond the emotive, over-wrought title and very visceral images shown, to that which is between 'truth' and 'lies'.
Melanie Smith's ( UK, 1965) projection Parres II ( 35mm, transferred to video), has obvious links with Mark Neville's films in the painterly quality of the images, slow-moving, drawn-out shots, and the way the viewer is affected by an emotive and evocative element in the work ( the folksong soundtrack here as opposed to the titles of Neville's work). But, in the same way, Cindy Sherman increasingly used devices to show the artifice of her compositions, Smith aims to make visible the element of illusion by breaking it down and using only the most basic of materials and processes - a camera, a roll of film and the one-roll-take (similar to Wood and Harrison's simple edit).Filmed in a small town outside of Mexico City, the film moves at a pace allowing each frame to be contemplated slowly, almost as a painting. The camera draws out from the eye of a figure - the artist - and moves backwards. Where at first the subject seems to be this lone, lost and bewildered figure ( the artist), standing in the rain, over time the figure looks increasingly solid and comfortable standing still against the background, and it is the viewer who appears to be moving backwards, edging away from the scene, as the figure continues to stare after us. Thus Smith plays with the subject/ object dynamic in the work and the viewer is made aware of their own presence, almost within the work itself. Just as the song finishes, the rain also suddenly stops, clearing the frame and revealing the woman once again. One of the film crew appears and measures the distance between the protagonist and the lense. In all, Smith seeks to make apparent the 'building blocks' of the art-work highlighting the creative process, whilst stripping it to its minimal elements of form, sound, light, colour and space. Her appearance within it serves to heighten this sense of 'coming clean' of the artistic process and of the relationship thus created with the viewer.
1 "Matthew Barney vs. Jeff Koons", Black Book, October 2004
2 A Few Notes on my Work by Peter Land; included in the catalogue to accompany the exhibition Peter Land, Kunsthaus Glarus, Villa Merkel Esslingen, Stadtgalerie Keil, 2000.
3 Paul Harrison, The Art Newspaper, No 137 June 2003