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Thursday, 28 April 2011

Experiments in Space Exploration: Secret Satellites, Belfast Exposed.

Review by Angela Darby

For the exhibition Secret Satellites curated by Karen Downey, the Belfast Exposed gallery has been divided into three distinct sections. The light filled foyer, a semi darkened space and a blacked out projection area. Across these three areas artworks by four artists reflect on the theme of space satellites. By definition, a satellite is any object that orbits another. Typically, the phrase space satellite is used to describe man-made satellites, artificial entities that orbit the earth. There are around 2,500 satellites in orbit around the Earth. They have been placed there at great expense to carry out a range of observational and communication activities. Some peer into the dark recesses of the universe as tools of astronomical research, some enable lightening speed contact between opposite sides of the globe whilst others may have both sinister and benign purposes. The GPS app on your phone owes its capability to the same set of satellites that deliver a cruise missile to its deadly destination.

In the foyer, two large framed photographs by the artist Trevor Paglen still the movements of satellites on their trajectory across the firmament. Two more photographs are hung behind these in the semi darkened area. In Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada, deep blues instil snow-capped mountains with a muted quality whilst in Keyhole 12-3 (improved crystal) near Scorpio, high key oranges bleed across clouds presumably illuminated by sodium vapour lamps on city streets below. The images are formally beautiful, and immediately work on a purely aesthetic level. However the interpretative text accompanying the exhibition points out the sinister aspects of Paglen’s practice. His exploration concerns not just the darkness of space but also the hidden realms of US national security. The images are from an ongoing project The Other Night Sky which attempts to track photograph classified American satellites in Earth orbit. A total of 189 covert spacecraft we are informed. On his website Paglen goes into further detail as to how he was able to locate and intercept these secret objects. He explains that he draws inspiration from early astronomers such as Kepler and Galileo. Knowing how these observers were treated by the Catholic Church one can only hope that Paglen’s attempts at drawing attention to a new orbital reality does not lead to sanctions by the military elite.

At the entrance to the gallery’s semi-darkened area we encounter a cluster of low-tech models constructed from cardboard, polystyrene and plastic bottles. Small in scale and suspended from the ceiling, they are hand-made sculptural interpretations of satellites. The artist, Joanna Griffin organized and facilitated a workshop inside the gallery with a group of participants. Their contributions and outcomes form the basis of Griffin’s ongoing research project The Satellite Investigators. This physical, hands-on approach to extraterrestrial technology offers a lay perspective as opposed to a theoretical observation. If a satellite is an object which has been placed into orbit by human endeavour then we should at least feel that we have a sense of ownership of it? To her credit, Griffin’s fascination with satellites and space has gained her acceptance and entry into the bastions of scientific exploration, working with scientists at Space Science Lab, UC Berkeley and the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, the UK's largest university-based space science research group.

A lay perspective of universal physics is also revealed in Aisling O’Beirn’s scintillating Flash animation Some Structures Invisible to the Naked Eye. The film presents a rapid sequence of swirling drawings converging then splintering into brief pulsating black and white sharp lined marks. The artist attempts to expose ‘some of contemporary physics more quirky and abstract theories relating to space...’ Through this imaginative visual aid, O’Beirn’s animation uncovers and demystifies a part of the cryptic world that the rhetoric of science obscures. The lines of magnetic energy around the earth, the pulsing waves from Pulsar Stars and the flow of energy into black holes are also drawn, purposively small, in white chalk on a large expanse of blackboard walls. The figure 8 swirling in many of these pictograms suggests links to the mathematical representation of infinity and the mystic lemniscates of eternity. Like a contemporary alchemist O’Beirn transmutes base materials into contemplative forms on which to meditate on the eternal.

Simon Faithfull’s 25-minute film, Escape Vehicle No 6 also transports us to another plane both literally and metaphorically. We watch the artist release a weather balloon with a chair suspended below. A camera fixed to the balloon films the chair and sends its signal remotely to a receiver. As it rises, the chair lunges, swinging madly in response to the atmospheric pressures and air currents. We watch the earth recede and disappear into a fog bank, we re-emerge into a sun filled region above the clouds. It’s stunning. At 18 miles above the earth the balloon collapses in on its self, the chair works free from its bindings and disappears. The intermittent sounds of a bell toll and static which has accompanied the journey ceases and we are left in silence at the edge of space. The film lends itself to reflection on intellectual aspiration and physical limitation, a new telling of old myths that caution against the hubris of our times.

Secret Satellites reveals how visual art can invigorate material exhausted through scientific explanation. The decision by Belfast Exposed’s senior curator, Karen Downey to incorporate sculptural outcomes in addition to the lens based works was welcome and to be applauded. I left the gallery wondering in which part of the world Simon Faithfull’s chair had landed.

Secret Satellites, continues until 30 April. For more information please visit www.belfastexposed.org.

Image: Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada (2007) © Trevor Paglen
Courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Köln and Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Arab Spring: Hesam Rahmaniam, Paradise Row, London.

Review by Jessica Jones-Berney

It is with acerbic wit that Iranian-born artist Hesam Rahmanian deplores the rapidly unravelling fabric of his native land, consumed by a maelstrom of political uprisings spreading throughout the Middle East. His painterly narratives offer an irreverent insight into his own turbulent relationship with Iran, a place the artist envisions as a “precarious mixture of culture and religion.”

Last year’s 1000 Dollar Baby portfolio consisted of pregnant gas-masked women, babies suspended above marching soldiers and stork-like fighter-bombers delivering baby bundles of ammunition, eliciting caustic humour to predicate the inevitability of war-torn generations to come. Till the End of Dawn at Paradise Row is equally as sardonic, visually narrating rebellions in the Middle East through a fearlessly scathing lens - the only artistic response of its kind being exhibited in London.

Rahmanian’s In the Name of God, We Work Till the End of Dawn, in which a white fist wields a black blood tipped machete, emblazoned with a sandy-hued caption of the title speaks of Middle Eastern regions where the path of brutality reigns under the misconstrued banner of Islam; a fitting opening to an exhibition that refuses to shy away from the violent cacophony of a corrupt theocratic regime.

Understandably, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad frequents the series, but not in the way we are accustomed to seeing him. Gone are the microphone bouquets and tailored suits. Instead Rahmanian embeds Ahmadinejad into the dilapidated scenery he is culpable for. In Lebanon, the leader's face appears in a depressing cinereous ‘welcome’ poster. The only colours to punctuate the bleakness are those of the Lebanese flag; red, yellow and green bandaged across his face like a battle scar trophy. Coupled with an unintelligible animal plummeting down the right side of the frame, Rahmanian alludes to Iran’s (mis)use of Lebanon as a proxy state, drawing upon religious iconography of the sacrificial lamb to question whose freedoms are forgone and for whose common good? In Sweet Talker Ahmadinejad’s face is grafted onto that of a yellow and teal feathered parrot, perched atop a doppelganger of Hezbollah’s Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s black turban. It is humorous, but true to Rahmanian form it is laced with equal measures of ridicule and condemnation, tying the parrot's symbolic association with surveillance to Iran’s support of Hezbollah.

Iranian-American artist Tala Madani, who is exhibiting at Pilar Corrias Gallery this May, shares a similar penchant for ridiculing despotic figures. Her paintings fuse irony with playful violence, depicting stereotypical Middle Eastern men engaged in outlandish activities; effeminately engrossed in beauty regimes and prayer rituals concealing homosexual orgies. Rahmanian's paintings also subscribe to this unsettlingly facetious portrayal by making a mockery of political policy and policing gone awry. He depicts a chaotic world in which hand-grenades are heralded like trophies and green uniformed soldiers fire at blindfolded men, intermittent with bunny-eared riot police.

But it is the loose expressive brush strokes intrinsic to Rahmanina’s style that really captures the spontaneity of uprisings across the Middle East. Amid moody greys and bruised purples, slashes of fiery reds and oranges permeate like violent bloody slashes across the canvas. Bar high-ranking political figures, other faces bare Bacon-like contortions or appear as a convolution of matchstick figures and turban whirls caught amidst moments of chaos and struggle. It renders a documentary-like quality in the paintings, as though Rahmanian is capturing front-line events as they unfold, etching the energy of ephemeral confrontations onto a permanent canvas. The result is a series of visual allegories and metaphors that invite scrutiny and speculation, ultimately calling into question a repressed region of the world.

Hesam Rahmanian Till The End of Dawn continues at Paradise Row until 7 May. For further information please visit their website.

Hesam Rahmanian, So Little Time, So Many Traitors to Denounce, 2011, Acrylic on canvas, 200 x 300 cm (diptych)
Courtesy the artist and Paradise Row, London.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Contemporary sculpture in Croatia + Hungarian reflections, Hungarian National Gallery

Review by Adam Harangozó

For the opening event of the Croatian Culture Months, the Hungarian National Gallery has arranged a rich exhibition from the works of contemporary Croatian sculptors with reflections by Hungarian artists. Curated by Jasminka Poklečki Stošić and including 51 items from 17 artists, the selection is characterised by infinite richness and diversity – walking through the exhibition is like walking between the borders of concepts like substance, stability and surface.

Watchman from Dalibor Stošić is a dark and dusty piece. The fragmented oak log is joined with a strict steel mask, which gives it a human-like form; the metal plates, studs and buckles lending a military feeling to the bust. The way the sculpture maintains its own unity brings inner conflicts to the surface: the cold steel is not watching the outside; it is rather guarding matters of the inside, and so observing shows to be only a play obscuring its fragile nature. Kuzma Kovačić, designer of the Croatian coins, examines a topic that is not easy to shape sculpturally: language. His Čakavica in Sculpture, made of wood painted blue, portrays the čakavica dialect. In the wood there are pits here and hunches there, but these are all small compared to the size of the log. The special state of the Croatian language adds to the thought-provoking nature of the statue. It represents dialectical differences as negligible, and emphasizes the mutual body of the language, to which everyone connects with their own idiolect.

With her sculptures, Marina Bauer contemplates the biographic interpretation of art. In Portrait (the artist e-mail letters) she makes a stone mortar with an e-mail letter sent to her pressed on it. Looking at this work, the viewer becomes the voyeur; the act of watching becomes breaking into the artist's private space by reading her personal letter. In Memories II we not only become a viewer, but we interact with the artist's memories. There is a large crate full of sand with bricks of stone in it with a scene, a memory, painted on each. On the side of the crate, there are two brushes, tempting the viewer to delve into the memories of the artist. It is as if Marina Bauer is suggesting that, much as there are approaches that seek to detach the biographic artist from the artwork, we still are interpreting a part of her personal life.

Several artists deal with the deception and negation of space and matter. The hung aluminum strips in Alem Korkut's High Tide create the effect of flowing by bending the material, so the strips appear to be stages of a tide, contradicting the heavy iron look of the material. Windy from Damir Matašuić, made of painted wood, copper, epoxy and glass, is a window whose curtains show that the air is breezing softly – the fine and elaborate nature of the material takes the possibility of solidity away.

Hungarian Reflections proves to be fitting to the Croatian artworks in topic and quality; it doesn't force any narrative on contemporary Croatian art, only gives us insight into the thematic and aesthetic richness of sculpture.

Contemporary sculpture in Croatia + Hungarian reflections Without Borders continues until 3 July at the Hungarian National Gallery. For more information please visit www.mng.hu.

Dalibor Stosic
Courtesy the artist and The Hungarian National Gallery

Monday, 25 April 2011

Cross-generational Dialogues: Margaret Harrison & The Girls, PayneShurvell, London

Review by Laura Barone,, a candidate for the MA in Art History at Richmond the American International University in London.

It’s only April, but what a year for feminist art in London: from Cindy Sherman at Sprueth Magers to Louise Bourgeois and Tracy Emin at Hauser and Wirth, to Nancy Spero currently at The Serpentine, it has certainly been a strong few months. I am a Fantasy at PayneShurvell featuring Margaret Harrison and the performance artist duo The Girls (Zoe Sinclair and Andrea Blood) energetically continues this trend. Curator Beverley Knowles has deftly combined several of Harrison’s ironic gender-bending series of media icons with The Girls and their creepily and wonderfully Sherman-esque ‘static’ performances.

Harrison, by now well known for having a show shut down in 1971 by police on the cause of indecency, has not at all lost her provocative touch. Although Fantasy Footballer (1998), a drawing of a footballer with breasts, exposed garters - and a penis- is not as shocking to a 21st century audience, Harrison continues to critically engage with societal constructions of masculinity and femininity through the appealing façade of irony. There are 15 pieces of Harrison’s paintings and drawings, roughly divided into three groups. The first, six Marilyns (1994), are an unsettling homage to the very starlet that declared the namesake of the show, “I am a fantasy.” The image of a freckled young, almost girlish Marilyn evokes anxiety due to the setting – her eyes are closed and she is sleeping. Marilyn is nice to look at when she looks back, but, here she is a child and viewers are treading on the uneasy grounds of naivety, the formations of what will become a fantasy.

Where Harrison really excels is with her watercolours, coloured pencil, and graphite on paper of celebrities and superheroes. Olympia: Model Role (Hattie McDaniel ‘Mammy’/Vivien Leigh ‘Scarlett O’Hara’) (2010) racially recasts Édouard Manet’s infamously provocative nude with characters from Gone with the Wind, this time, with Olympia played by Mammy and the black maid played by Scarlett. Several Captain America (1997) pieces burst with generous breasts and toned calf muscles – in the same figure. High heels, garters, matching outfits – Captain America is outfitted in everything a female superhero should be; his masculinity has been ‘compromised’ with attributes of the kind of damsels in distress he should be saving, but he doesn’t seem to noticed. The comic-book inspired works are reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein, but Harrison’s choice of a much smaller scale and her use of watercolour on paper plays with the idea of secret, sensual images that one can hide away for personal use. If that’s so, what kind gendered gaze is taking these away to consume in private?

The Girls contribute one piece, Diamonds and Toads (2011), an installation of a large, two-person, circular couch piece that looks like it belongs in a French boudoir. Its padded interior is a deep, luscious colour, but upon closer inspection, some of the fabric is ripped, and suddenly, it could be an extra set-piece at a funeral home, or something dirtied and discarded, left on the side of the road for garbage clean-up. When Sinclair and Blood are present (the evenings of 14 April and 5, 21 May), they lounge in the couch, motionless, in elaborate dresses and mannequin-like masks where their eyes eerily open and close. The masks allow them to watch viewers in a voyeuristic way, to gaze unrestrained, but their horizontal position within a gallery space equally subjects them to scrutiny. When the artists are not present, the Rococo-like couch and costumes still will be, jarringly strange in a white-cube, yet still serving to emphasize women’s ability to slip in and out of prescribed trappings of femininity like ruffles and florals and fabrics.

This is not militant feminist art. In fact, both Harrison and The Girls employ well rehearsed themes of feminism like gender as a socially constructed category, the ‘putting on’ of femininity rather than something biological, and women’s objectification through their equation with consumer products and food (Harrison’s witty drawing Available in Other Colours (2007) depicts a blonde bombshell with a cell phone as a face). Yet, after so many ‘waves’ of feminism, these sorts of works still seem so poignant and contemporaneous, challenging viewers to consider that no matter how progressive they ascribe themselves to be, their consumption of media, history, and advertisement does quite a lot to counter that. The good news: it seems that Harrison, Sinclair, and Blood are having a good time at it all.

Margaret Harrison and The Girls, I am a Fantasy, continues at PayneShurvell until 21 May 2011. The Girls performances will be 5 May and 21 May, 6:30-7:30. For more information see www.payneshurvell.com

Hes only a bunny boy but hes quite nice really
Archival print on paper with hand finishing
Edition of 100
Courtesy PayneShurvell

Captain America
Watercolour and graphite on paper
Courtesy PayneShurvell

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