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Friday, 11 February 2011

The Mechanical Animal Corporation

Review by Regina Papachlimitzou

The Mechanical Animal Corporation, a new Bristol-based theatre company dedicated to creating site-responsive theatre, have chosen an abandoned warehouse in the Paintworks quarter as the set of their first performance. Und, by Howard Barker, is a chilling exploration of the intricate ways in which self-perception, self-deception, and sexual desire at once stem from and overshadow each other in the struggle for survival.

The play opens with a young woman, ostensibly a member of the aristocracy, waiting for a gentleman to join her for tea. But he is late, he is unforgivably late. Und launches into a rambling monologue, which, although at first could be mistaken for an idle pastime, quickly takes on a more disturbing turn. Under the punishing glare of a floodlight, Und’s thoughts uttered out loud take on the character almost of a confession. And yet there is no one there to interrogate her but her own self: throughout the play Und addresses people who are pointedly not there, her absent guest, a seemingly defiant maid, even the mute audience. All the while, her voice echoes across the vast expanse of the abandoned warehouse, accentuating the very fact of her aloneness.

Und’s unfurling monologue strikes, one by one, all the notes in the scale of trepidation. The audience moves from detached curiosity to dismay, from dismay to wariness, alarm, rising dread –eventually and inevitably leading up to the horror of realisation. The setting, although never explicitly stated, is a concentration camp; the man she is so impatiently waiting for is an officer who ‘gathers Jews’. And as for Und, as she herself simply puts it: ‘I am not an aristocrat. I am a Jew.’ Her statement catapults the audience into the abyss of the human psyche, into its multitude of dark, interdependent layers which the play so expertly turns over, probes and questions.

For the next hour or so, the heroine’s barely controlled hysteria, her terrifying omissions and misdirected anger, her flimsy excuses and the lies she in turn tears down and attempts to patch up again, gradually make up a complex and disturbing portrait of her struggle; a struggle not for dominance but for mere existence. The beauty of the language she uses and her (at times wavering) elocution sharply contrast with the ugliness of the truths she stops short of uttering. Interspersed with quieter, contemplative moments, this manic accumulation of psychological evidence eventually gives way under the repeated reminder to herself that her maid is gone. ‘Put these in a vase!’, she barks at no one, and then more quietly, ‘She isn’t here...’; ‘Nevertheless!’ Und’s initial pastime of talking to herself while waiting for her guest has broken down to its inevitable conclusion. Her self-deception has become impossible to sustain, save through a schizophrenic personality split; and yet, she is still unable to achieve this, despite her concentrated efforts to the contrary.

The promenade-style of performance orchestrated by the Mechanical Animal Company makes excellent use of the space of the warehouse. The audience follows Und through a series of mini-sets, including a study, a garden and what appears to be the site of an execution: the sets mimic the circles in which Und’s self-exploration is condemned to move, the seemingly inescapable vicious circle of admission followed by denial. At the same time, the live soundscape of mysterious and often harrowing sounds serves as a constant reminder of the physical reality encasing the heroine. The proliferation of props such as trays, teapots, and spoons amplifies the character’s inner struggle with herself, her inability to reconcile what she thinks are her desires with the reality of her situation.

Und is altogether a hard play, in that it unreservedly asks painful questions to which it offers no straight answers. The production as a whole, and Annette Chown’s arrestingly multi-faceted performance as Und manage to bring to the fore, with admirable integrity, questions of identity, sexual desire, dominance, complicity, and survival.

Und is showing at Warehouse C, Paintworks, Bristol for 7 special performances only. For more details please visit www.tobaccofactorytheatre.com and www.mechanimal.wordpress.com

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Aesthetica Short Film Competition 2011 is now Open for Entries

The Aesthetica Short Film Competition 2011 is now open for entries! Last year’s ASF was amazing with entries coming in from over 30 countries worldwide. It was a fantastic experience, and privilege to able to experience such innovative practice. The competition offers filmmakers an opportunity to get work broadcast to a wider audience and we’re keen to see entries from both new and established filmmakers who are driving short film forward.

The winning film receives a fantastic prize package including:
•£500 1st Prize
•Screenings at film festivals across the UK, including Rushes Soho Shorts (London), Glasgow Film Festival (Glasgow) and Branchage (Jersey)
•A weekend filmmaking course, courtesy of Raindance
•12 months membership to Shooting People, the international film network
•Inclusion on a DVD that will be distributed to all Aesthetica readers (60,000 viewers)

The runner-up will also receive £250, as well as DVD publication. Films should be no longer than 25 minutes but can be any genre including artists’ film, music videos, dance films, horror and comedy or anything you can think of!

Entry is £15 per film. No limit to the number of entries permitted. Please visit www.aestheticamagazine.com/shortfilm for more information and to submit. Deadline 31 April 2011.

We’ve also run a series of Q&A with last year’s finalists and winners:
Part 1 – Carol Salter – “Unearthing the Pen” Winner
Part 2 – Jared Varava – “The Shadow Effect” Runner- Up
Part 3 – Shaun Hughes – “Mother” – Finalist

We’re incredibly excited about this year’s competition. So, if you’ve made a film that’s under 25 minutes, why not try your luck!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Subversive Force of Images

Review by David Gunn, Director of www.theincidental.com

“I didn’t want to be involved with the currency of images in any way ... I was interested in the obsolescence of images”.

As John Stezaker reflects upon the genesis of his artistic practice, he returns again and again to these ideas: removing images from circulation, staging their obsolescence. And at first, as you walk around this exemplary retrospective of his work at Whitechapel, his claim seems oddly incongruent. For Stezaker’s work seems intimately concerned with the social life of the image. Luxuriating in the re-presentation of the found; reinvigorating images with the most simple of transformations. An old film still turned upside down; photographs of a police line inter-spliced with the calm of a ballerina’ studio, a portrait of a cinema starlet obscured by a faded postcard of a rural landscape.

Cut ups, Cutouts and Occlusion- built upon a small handful of such techniques, Stezaker’s work employs them to create a surprisingly subtle range of visual and associative effects. A collage such as Bridge (B) 1 (2007) offers a typical example. A boy is seated on a bed, staring over towards a male figure, dressed formally. The latter leans forward, but his face is obscured by the image of a bridge that seems to emerge from his head and stretch across the centre of the composition. The supporting struts of the bridge connect with the bars at the bottom of the child’s bed.

From these simple elements emerges a finely balanced series of tensions. On a formal level, the two contrasted images are clearly distinct in origin (the monochrome precision of the bromide cinema stills and the gaudy colour of mid-century postcards), but they are simultaneously connected by a patina of age, a shared sense of images whose time has passed. Compositionally, two provocative points of visual connection are contrasted with a more general discontinuity in content and composition. And at a more symbolic level, the bridge offers an ambiguous metaphor of relations between the two figures, seeming at once to invoke both a sense of alienated distance and of direct connection. At once, these two images fuse into a common composition and meaning and also assert their own autonomy, their lack of relation. Here and throughout Stezaker’s work, the super-imposed images remain enigmatically suspended, calling forth from viewers an interpretative act that the artworks neither endorse nor deny.

As an artist who began work in the 1970s, brought up on Debord’s situational aesthetics and the détournement of images, it is tempting to locate Stezaker’s work within this context. But it soon becomes clear that Stezaker’s intentions are rather different. Indeed, as many critics are quick to note, his collages often bring to mind the legacy of a far earlier movement, the Surrealists. And it is no surprise, since his collages often seem to echo both the tone and compositional strategies of de Chirico’s clinical landscapes or the amended figures of Magritte.

But not all Surrealists were created equal, and nor were they always in agreement. And although Stezaker’s work may visually allude to the mainstream of the Surrealist enterprise, his underlying aesthetics seem to hold more in common with that of the Surrealists’ estranged cousin, George Bataille. As Breton carried Surrealism into increasingly socio-economic realms, embroiled with socialist aspirations and the political tumult of the 1920s and 30s, Bataille pursued more gnomic aims, concerned with moving away from a world of productive labour and the “world of things”. For him, acts such as sacrifice were examples of this: “the sacrificer needs the sacrifice in order to remove himself from the world of things”, the tragedy of humanity’s lost intimacy, and the tragic attempts to attain “the moral summit ... being suspended in the beyond of oneself, at the limit of nothingness”. Where Breton sough political action and the unlocking of submerged symbols, Bataille pursued non-utility, the non-productive share, total obsolescence.

In many ways, Bataille provides a valuable means to read Stezaker’s work. For Stezaker’s images also seem to be suspended “beyond themselves”, in configurations that reject their original purpose. Indeed, it is no accident that for both Bataille and Stezaker, symbolic violence is a key strategy. And where Bataille identifies sacrifice as a means to reject “productive value”, so too the cuts and splices in Stezaker’s work seem to operate as scars, techniques to denude the images of their functional value, to liberate them from their “productive” life in the world of commercial images.

The Masks series, given extensive coverage in this exhibition, evoke this idea at its most powerful. A series of Hollywood stars and starlets, their faces occluded by images of caverns and gullies, with the most delicate of visual echoes between the images: a chasm sketches the line of a forehead; rolling waves become a lock a hair. Using images once used to construct and promote a public identity, these collages neutralise this very identity, offering a vista and a meaning that are both hauntingly open. And here, in these flat image of cataracts and voids, Stezaker constructs a work that is all surface, an emptying out of meaning as he works against not only the commercialisation of the image in consumer society, but also the instrumentalisation of the image within contemporary artistic and activist practice.

Not all works operate at this intensity. But at its best, this retrospective is a remarkable collection of works. And perhaps most surprisingly of all, in creating works that are so entirely self-contained and free from the referential baggage so common to much of contemporary art, these somber processes result in work that is remarkably accessible, and so obviously compelling to the diverse visitors to the show. This show comes highly recommended.

John Stezaker at Whitechapel Gallery continues until 18 March 2011. Admission Free. For more information please visit www.whitechapelgallery.org

John Stezaker Love XI, 2006, collage. Private Collection, Switzerland. © The Artist.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Rosemarie Trockel's New Modes of Operation @ Talbot Rice, Edinburgh

Review by Colin Herd

At the heart of this extensive survey of Rosemarie Trockel’s works on paper is a corner-wall of the central gallery devoted to Perspex cabinets displaying what must be about a hundred of Trockel’s “book drafts”. These books, which Trockel has produced in half-formed, unique editions throughout her career, form a fascinating paper-patchwork of Trockel’s recurrent thematic concerns. Unconventionally erotic, sexualized imagery and a thorough attention to the materials she uses characterize Trockel’s practice, which has subtly explored gender politics since she burst onto the art scene in the 1980s with groundbreaking works such as her mechanically produced ‘knitted pictures’, her life-size ceramic sofas or her kitchen stove sculptures. The unrealized and inconclusive quality of the book drafts also sets the tone for a show that is ambiguous, anti-didactic and disconcerting, a show whose common threads are in fact threads, where matters of binding, adhesion and unraveling are central.

The book-drafts draw attention to the range of materials and techniques employed. In particular I found myself taking note of and examining the range of different bindings Trockel makes use of: some hand-sewn, some seemingly stuck together with glue, others loopily spiral-bound, a few left loose-leafed and still more stapled up the sides like razor wire. The paper-stock is just as various, with books made from ruled paper, graph-paper, artist’s paper, magazines, newspaper, yellowing letter-paper. Very often, these materials form the major part of the concept of the book-design. One book made from yellowing letter paper is hand-sewn with a golden thread. The cover is blank except for a small, typewritten, lower-case statement: “is not enough”. It’s an amusing comment on capitalism, on art, and on her own practice of producing ‘unrealized’ books. The books straddle the line between private and public, especially as they’re displayed behind Perspex, showing only the cover and not what’s inside. There’s an underlying dynamic of revealing private thoughts. For example, one book, with the title “imagine” has below it two columns of text, labeled “smaller” and “bigger”. Under “smaller”, the hand-written words: “schulden” (German for “debt”, but also “fault”), “Amerika”, “Ego”, “aujourd’hui”, “past”. Under the heading “bigger”: “breasts”, “income”, “beings”, “prisons”, “witchcraft”, “problems” and “time”. Running counter to the revelation of private thoughts and fears, though, is an equally strong dynamic of ambiguous or secretive withholding and restraint, where blueprints for narrative are suggestively whispered but not ultimately delivered. One book has the word “phobias” in large letters next to a faded picture of a woman standing next to a desk in what looks like an office. The piece suggests claustrophobia or agoraphobia, but also male prejudice against or discriminatory treatment of women in the workplace. Another cover simply has the word “Dad” in large black lettering.

Trockel’s exploration of juxtaposed texts and images continues in her wall-mounted, framed collages, as does her engagement with books and book-forms. Neighbouring Fields (1990) is made out of two different size pieces of graph paper stuck together. The right hand side of the image is dominated by a picture of John F Kennedy, which is overlapped and partially obscured by a book-jacket from Sylvia Plath’s volume Winter Trees. The connections between the two figures are traced by a black line in the shape of a slanted irregular quadrilateral that borders the Plath book and has one of its corners at the right hand side of Kennedy’s bright white smile. Both Kennedy and Plath met tragic, early deaths in 1963, and they were both born in Massachusetts. It took me a while to realize that the line is not black ink but a single thread, hovering just above the paper and literally tying these two very different but somehow parallel cultural figures associatively together. More recent collage-work extends and complicates this associative approach, juxtaposing a greater number of elements in a more oblique, confrontational dynamic to one another. The Magician’s Apprentice (2008), titled after the Goethe poem about an over-ambitious young apprentice, is a collage on painted wood-panel. From what we can see (much of it is obscured by the collaged elements) the painting is abstract, but there are faint suggestions of the shape of a face, as if we might decipher a face if the collaged elements were removed: a disappearing act. At the top of the page, a stuck-on leaf of paper with a portrait in pen of an elderly, overweight artist, sitting at an easel, self-assured but distinctly static. Below this portrait is another, much more crudely drawn, in brown ink, of a muscular male figure, standing proudly but a little embarrassed in his underwear. At the side of the collage is a piece of written text, like the name of a hackneyed spell or trick: “Disintegration de la Madame”. The piece flaunts masculine tension and insecurity, exploiting and obscuring female presence. In an ironic, provocative and defiant gesture, a single black thread stitched down the side of the top piece of paper is coming unstitched and fraying.

The disappearing woman act is turned on its head in the drawing Untitled (sleeping) (2000), a figurative study of a woman sleeping. Utilizing a hatching, shading technique that she uses in a number of works, lending her drawings a texture like wool, Trockel reveals the woman’s figure in the un-shaded space. The woman is a definite shape in the space uncontaminated by the little, uniform, fabric-like stitches or prison bars. Most of Trockel’s drawings are characterized by this engagement with and interrogation of the political and sexual associations of her materials and techniques. A suite of preliminary studies shows puffed up portraits and what look like statues of men, on a purple background. The men are splattered with white glue, or watery, gloopy acrylic, unavoidably seminal, like a porn-magazine. The images are powerfully degrading and vaguely ridiculous, revealing the corresponding degradation and exploitation of the pornography industry, and art industry too. The fact that they are preliminary studies playfully plants the possibility that these works might be carried out off the page. Trockel is an artist for whom ephemera, preliminary studies and drafts are a mode of operating rather than a mode of preparation. Her drawings, collages and book drafts are an extremely impressive, challenging and provocative body of work.

Rosemarie Trockel
Drawings, Collages and Book Drafts
Talbot Rice Gallery until 30th April

Rosemarie Trockel, Ich kann über meine Filme nur lachen (My Films Just Make
Me Laugh), 1993 Copyright: Rosemarie Trockel, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011.
Image courtesy of Sprüth Magers Berlin London and Private Collection

Monday, 7 February 2011

Kiki Smith on Nancy Spero – opening at The Serpentine, London in March

Opening on 3 March, The Serpentine Gallery presents the first major exhibition of Nancy Spero’s work since her death in 2009. Nancy Spero (1926–2009) was a leading pioneer of feminist art, and throughout her 50-year career, she created a vibrant visual language constructed from the histories and mythologies of past and present cultures. Nancy Spero was initiated by the Centre Pompidou, Paris,(presented from 13 October 2010 to 10 January 2011), and adapted for the Serpentine Gallery.

Kiki Smith on Nancy Spero

Nancy’s work was political, forthright, and unambiguous. Her practice was tenacious - a confirmation, and permission to be fearless and to find one’s own voice.

Nancy used the gestural language of the body to create non-linear, serial narratives. She implied movement by accumulating and layering still images. Her narratives could be read both horizontally and vertically, suggesting simultaneity and a non-hierarchical reality.

Artistically, she embraced ancient pictorial forms (i.e. frescos, hieroglyphics and friezes) and often included both historical and contemporary text. She preserved, witnessed and revitalized hundreds of these images and words. She recognized these images as testaments to endurance, while she subverted them.

She allowed the images their own integrity and attributes, and gave them agency and free movement outside of their prescribed narratives and cultural constraints. She relocated the written word out of context, in a pictorial space, which could constantly change and conjure new meanings.

Nancy used overtly sexual images, images of women at war, victims of violence, women of resistance, women exercising and at play, images of motherhood, tenderness, and humour in ways that were often transgressive and revelatory.

She created a dynamic corporal dialogue, disallowing a fixed or prescribed reading or vantage point. In the work, the collaged figures reveal new relationships to one another. She used her personal life and vitality to invigorate her work, without co-opting the images she used into an autobiographical narrative. Her work was topical without being dogmatic or didactic. Nancy made a generative, open story of humanity. The figures and language, as well as narrative, were multi-dimensional and non-fixed.

Nancy opened a narrative and visual space insistent on encompassing a complex human experience. She created work using the female body and allowed it to represent humanity. Her work was innovative both formally and in its content. It expanded our contemporary notion of art.

Kiki Smith (2010)

Nancy Spero opens on 3 March and continues until 1 May. www.serpentinegallery.org

Nancy Spero
Marduk, 1986
Ink, handprinting, and collage on paper
60.90 x 914.40 cm
Courtesy of Collection G. & R. Mayer

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