Monday, 19 November 2012

Cedey Codray - Harvest

Cedey Codray is not a name that springs to mind when confronted with a room full of art whose primary material is that which can be harvested from the human body.  But perhaps his previous diatribes, railing against the art establishment as well as his view that most artists are lazy and unimaginative, can give us a clue as to the reasons for his latest exhibition 'Harvest'.

One might imagine, on reading the press release for this show which states "Codray enjoys the gathering of materials to make his work almost as much as making the work itself, cultivating his crops with great care and attention to detail to ensure the perfect outcome for his art..." that we might be looking at some kind of vegetable sculptures, or maybe grass weaving or an examination of different soils that kill crops or enliven them, causing famine in some parts of the world, and feast in others.  But no.  That is not his style.

The central piece in the show is mounted on a plinth in the middle of the gallery.  Two glass cases stand next to each other, separated by about an inch of clear space.  Inside each case is a cast of Codray's head, but each has a slightly different colour, a subtle variant of off-white, and on closer inspection, they also have a slightly different texture.  One of them is a little yellowish, and perhaps crumbling a bit, its surface pocked marked with the signs of deterioration giving the impression that if you were only to touch its surface that away would come the detail of Codray's skin; the other, is whiter, and harder, at least in the places where it is not stained by the transgression of the pollutant that has been incorporated into the material.  At their closest point, the facing sides of the cases are open, leaving clear space between the two heads, facing each other, nose to nose, as if each is inviting the other in to their domain, but neither is willing to make the first move.  It isn't a challenge, it isn't violent, their glass cubicles are open, their expressions ambivalent, though slightly different, since it is clear that the casts are not duplicates, but from different moulds.

So as I look at this piece, and briefly read the title 'Dirty Twins', I wonder about the dirt.  They do both look dirty, it is true, but in different ways.  Then, all of a sudden, the title of the exhibition itself combines with the title of the work, and the faint whiff of latrine, and I look again at the label to try and find out a little more.  And there it is.  The subtitle is "Piss-Head:Shit-Head" and the materials used read... well you can guess that they entail an incorporation of Codray's waste products.  But despite ones immediate reaction to such a juvenile approach to art creation, I could not help wondering about that gap between the two cases, and the sub title.

Codray's reputation as a drinker and, to put it politely, his lack of interest in the niceties of normal discourse when a sufficiency of alcohol is in his system, I was already aware of having met an old friend (or more accurately an ex- old friend) of his at an unrelated show a couple of months ago.  And so the concept of dualism, the Jekyll and Hyde complex, the loving friend and hated drunk, is brought into the foreground and I quickly realise that what I am looking at is not some facile attempt at re-imagining Marc Quinn's poetic, if overdone, blood head, but is in fact a self portrait.  He takes a drink, he takes another, and another, and another, he is a piss-head, for want of a more literary phrase, he can't help himself, he likes to drink.  And then the transformation begins, he becomes loud and abusive, revealing secrets of his friends, cursing his lover, rounding on anyone who doesn't let his ego rampage across the room; he becomes the shit-head.  The two heads are inextricably linked: the one is the cause of the other.  And what better way to demonstrate the literality of these states of mind than with his own waste, his urine mixed in with the plaster for one, causing the texture to alter from that of the usual hard casting one would otherwise expect, and the “mashed up faeces” as described by the title label, to exemplify the result of his addiction, leaving dirty, stained streaks of shit across the surface of his face, a well as our imagination seeing the pollutant cast in seams of filth through the whole head.

It is quite a disgusting piece once you realise what you are looking at, but powerful, and accurate, and by far the best piece in the show.  There is really only one other work worth any real consideration.  But first we walk past 'Can', another replica object, but this time of a drinks can, and not cast out of plaster, but made of papier-mâché forced into a mould made of the can of a well known soft drink manufacturer, papier-mâché that was made with wallpaper paste, and, you've guessed it, toilet paper, and yes, you're right again, used toilet paper.  One's mind boggles at the processes he must have gone through to create such a piece, and then moves on quickly realising that to dwell on such a revolting series of processes would certainly put me off my lunch.  But the use to which the toilet paper was put is obvious for all to see, and I am sure there was a slight taint in the air as I moved on to 'Blood Bank'.

'Blood Bank' is a wall-mounted piece.  No waste products were used in its creation, but instead he uses his blood.  "The extracted blood," the label alongside informs us, "is mixed with gelatine and poured into square moulds before leaving in the fridge to set overnight."  It's jelly then.  "The result is a form of lightly elastic blood red movement which brings to the possibility of coagulation during storage," it's jelly, right? "and defines anew the notion of blood as food-stuff."  Right.  It is jelly.  Blood jelly.  Now, I like the idea of blood jelly.  Not to eat necessarily, but to wobble.  Blood is a good colour, a deep dark red, one of the best colours, and always gets a reaction.  And jelly?  Well, jelly's fun, it wobbles, that's always fun!  But on this occasion, it's not so fun.  You don't get to wobble the jelly.  The 170 blood-jelly cubes are mounted on a white board that is framed and hung on the wall, like a painting.  They are arranged very neatly in a square, 13 by 13, with the central space missing.  But by now, you will have got the impression of beautiful blood red cubes arranged neatly on the wall, drawing you attention to the role blood is meant to play when exposed to the air, to coagulate and stop the flow of any more blood from a cut on your body, so you don't die from loss of blood.  But no.  These cubes aren't the hard beautiful blood red sculptures you imagine, but sag slightly, under their own weight.  And on top of top of that, just to destroy and possible beauty they may have had once upon a time, they have clearly been left out of the fridge for quite a while, and have been encouraged to grow a thick garden of moulds.  The coverage of mould on the cubes is uneven, but green and white, as one would imagine, a little hairy, and quite unappetising.  But is does make for a more interesting piece than simply displaying perfect dark red squares would have been.  Indeed, one is left with the impression of the impermanence of the bloods use once it has left the owners body.  Blood, where it should not be, is not much use, other that as food for moulds, or animals.  And I think of the blood banks as a network of depositories across the country, all reliant on the fridges and freezers that keep them usable and safe from deterioration.  What would happen if the lights went out, the fridges turned off, how long would it be before the only use any of that blood could be put to is as art, or food?  How long do we have?  Weeks?  Days?  Hours?

We live by a thread in our comfortable western palace of convenience, where gathering food means walking to the end of the road to the nearest shop, where diseases are cured as easily they kill in other parts of the world, where an accident, that had the ambulance arrived only ten minutes later, would have seen Cedey Codray dead from blood loss, but instead he survived, thanks to the paramedics skill and the blood they carried with them, which inspired the creation of this piece of mouldy art.

I will pass on describing the piss paintings, and semen stained adverts culled from magazines and newspapers to draw attention to the overt sexuality employed to sell... almost anything.  They are not that interesting, or artistic in my view.  But 'Piss-head:Shit-Head' stays with me as I leave the gallery, and the thought of the black pudding I had in a café that morning leaves me feeling a little uneasy as I head off for lunch.

Roundhouse Gallery, Coventry, till December 13th.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Turner Prize Game of Art

It's Turner prize time again.  Yes indeed.  And aren't we fortunate to be living in an age where even the most spurious of individuals can have their moment in the limelight.  And thank god for that.  If they didn't come out into daylight every now and again we might be under the misapprehension that modern art had somehow disappeared, or become irrelevant or simply nonsense to those that search unabashed for the truth in art and culture.  So to take a quick tour of the contestants this year let us look first at... no.  Lets not.  I was going to write an educated 'in the know' essay on the nature of contemporary art, its place in society, the effort with which the Turner Prize strives to explore and examine the diversity of understanding and (that hateful word) 'practice' that is demonstrated by the four, whose catchphrase really should be "all for none and one for what?"  But there are myriad commentators on the subject of the Turner prize, those for, those against, and of course the in-concise verbiage you encounter when you try to fathom what on earth some of this stuff is for, let alone what it is about.  No.  Lets not bother with any of that.  Instead, let us play a game, the 'Turner Prize Game of Art' (also known as T-Art).

Lighbulb on/off
This game requires 3 or more players, 5 is a good number, preferably disaffected artists, and at least 2 bottles of wine, or a bottle of whisky (Lagavulin by choice), or brandy.  Vodka and gin are no good, and neither are cocktails or liqueurs (don't even think about advocat), since the contestants usually end up hurling abuse at each other or actually creating the 'art'.  In that case, you may as well enter the real thing, which is a lot less fun.

For a game with 5 players it takes place over 5 rounds.  Before the game starts, a consensus must be reached as to who is likely to be the winner, who will come second, third, fourth and fifth.  These 'seeds' must be noted as they are vital for the final scoring and may be used in arbitration to declare the winner should a fight break out.  Each player takes their turn to be the judge, while the other four have to come up with new works of art in each round for the competition.  In turn, they describe their work of art, its meaning, its physical manifestation, and why their art is important.  After the four have finished, the 'judge' must score the work, out of ten, for each of 3 categories: quality of art, entertainment, and aesthetics.  Some knowledge of art is crucial here, as if the judge is certain that the work of art they are scoring has already been made, with or without the contestants knowledge, their overall score for that particular work is halved.  The other players at this point can interject with their own knowledge, but if the judge completely disagrees, they automatically incur a 10 point penalty, and if the judge does agree, they gain 10 points.  Again, this is important for the final scoring.  After each round bets may be placed as to whom the eventual winner might be.

After all the rounds have been played, the scores are tallied up and compared with the initial rankings decided before the game started.  The winner will be the one with the most unlikely score.  Therefore, the 'artist' who was deemed to be the one with the most chance of winning, will only be the winner if they have in fact scored the least points.  And similarly, the one who was thought to have had the worst chance of winning, but actually scored quite highly, may end up the winner.

Since the final decision has to be made by all contestants, the idea of the game is to trick the others into believing they are something they are not, and then pleasantly surprising them with their inability to come up with any good ideas, or conversely, with their impressive creativity given their lacklustre appearance in their initial odds.

Cast yourself
You might imagine that it would therefore be easy enough to win, especially if you are the one in the group who is thought of as the best artist.  But the inability of a real artist to subdue their creativity regardless of success or money or anyone else caring in any way whatsoever about the masterpieces they have created, makes it almost impossible for them to step back and come up with nonsenses that could win them the prize.  There are many different tactics that can be employed to win this game, but beware that simply coming up with ideas that you imagine are rediculous, or completely bizaar, is likely to see you lose, since the more ludicrous the idea, the more likely it is that it has already been done.  And you might also be surprised by the creativity expressed by the 'non artists' of the group who then go on to make a decent career out of their imagined works, eventually winning the Turner Prize for real.  I could happen.

It is a delicate balancing act, and one which the Turner Prize judges take very seriously.  Each year, their task is to surprise.  They don't always get this right however.  In the early days, the prize was regularly awarded to those artists that had not, in the judges view, been sufficiently recognised so far in their career.  So you got the obvious winners, Howard Hodgkin, Tony Cragg, Richard Long, Anish Kapoor etc. etc.  Then the 'enfant terribles' came in.  But of course, they couldn't be awarded the prize straight away, no no no!  That would be far too obvious.  They were made to sweat.  Then, a few years later they would win: Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, that bloke in the bear costume...  The judges sit, they deliberate, but none of them ever ask, since it is not in their remit to do so, "is it art?"  That is a question that is beyond the pail, it is anathema to their way of thinking.  Simply considering the question shows you don't understand what contemporary art is.  After all, the contestants have been through the correct art hoops, they talk the talk, they walk the walk, they are called artist, ipso facto, what they produce is art, no question.  And who cares what art is anyway?  It's not even a question worth asking.  It is irrelevent.

Shed, something, shed
You see, anyone who has come to the point in their life when anything goes, as long as it is under the banner of 'art', is someone who has lost all interest in what art actually is, or what it is for.  For these poor souls, art is a playground, an entertainment of exquisite esoterica, things or events or short films the like of which no one has seen before - and that is the point.  Whatever you do, if you want to win the Turner Prize, it must not have been done before.  No matter if the paucity of the original conception is akin to a stick drawing of a man by a four year old child verses Rembrandt's last great self portrait, laughing at the ludicrous nature of life (it is truly a fantastic painting), there is no shock or surprise.  It cannot win.  Superficially, we have seen it all before, therefore, there is nothing more to see.  So don't look, don't examine, don't, god forbid, question the veracity of the works you are looking at.  Accept, and be happy that your tight little world of extra-ordinary banality has furnished you once again with a neat little cabal of abstract conceptions that, in years to come, will be washed away by the seas of time.

Well, that is perhaps not quite true.  Occasionally there is something to be said for a work that appears on the shortlist.  But you can lay your bets that they won't win.  And nor should they.  The Turner prize is not about art, never has been.  As I described earlier, originally it was used to reward those that had not been fully recognised, and were becoming to old to be considered 'new'.  But now, it has degenerated into a competition against itself.  Can the prize be more outrageous than the year before, can it create more headlines than ever before?  It is, in short, a very successful marketing exercise, the 'Big Brother' of the art world, that in the years when it was sponsored by Channel 4 Television, must have seen the increase in takings by the Tate gallery gift shop go up by several magnitudes, and footfall into the spaces that during the early years was confined to what is now known as Tate Britain, rise and rise and rise.  And that is a good thing.  Since without that they would not have found the funding for Tate Modern, and I, for one, would not have had the pleasure of walking over the bridge from St. Paul’s Cathedral towards the gallery, pausing to watch the riverboats, and marvel at the view of London, before entering the gallery and finding my way into one of the rooms that holds some of the greatest paintings of the 20th century.

I wrote an article about the Damien Hirst retrospective a few weeks ago, and I commented on how there was actually little or no art in the whole show, though its quality of entertainment I scored at a rather good 7½.  Once out of the show, I went into a free exhibition showing surrealist art from the Tate's collection, and came upon, after many years, Dali's 'Metamorphosis of Narcissus'.  You might think the title pretentious, but it is nothing as to the titles Damien Hirst gives his vacuosities.  The exhibition was appallingly hung, badly displayed in every way, paintings shoved here there and everywhere in a 'it doesn't really matter, its all old stuff' kind of way.  But that Dali - a small painting, filled to every corner and all four edges with imaginative detail, vibrant and vital.  Any one square inch of that painting contained more 'art', more thought, more guts and delight, than the whole of Hirst's retrospective.  But original?  Certainly the image may be, but the conception of smearing pigment saturated linseed oil on a finely woven cotton fabric?  Seen it before.  Been there, done that.  Move on.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Damien Hirst Restrospective - fun and fantasy at the Tate

When you go to a Damien Hirst exhibition, you are full of all sorts of expectations, good and bad, as, of course, his fame and notoriety precedes him to such an extent.  Indeed, you can take something from that, something very Damien Hirst.  Yes, a lot of expectation.  So what do you actually get?  Well the first room, his early works, was fairly uninteresting.  Cooking pots painted and hung on the wall, well..., photo of him with some poor mans dead head, nice..., his first spot painting, and reading the little guide you get given, once I was back at home, was something called 'Boxes', which was so astounding in its artistic power that it completely passed me by.

How to make a shark tank
How to make a shark tank
Ok, so I'm not particularly a fan of the 'art' of Damien Hirst, but that is not to say that he hasn't made some great things.  So we move on the second and third rooms that basically show Hirst in his entirety.  The shark, the spot paintings, the dead cows head with flies, the shelves of tablets.  For anything more, you have to go to some of the other rooms where you will find, as expected, halved cows/calfs, a sheep or two, another shark, a dove which is absolutely cliché-tastic.  You get the pharmacy stuff, various different displays of pills and packets etc., all very boring, a giant ashtray 'crematorium' which is tedious school boy fantasy art, the kind of thing you laugh about with your mates when sneaking out of school for a quick smoke when you should be doing something else, but you never actually make the giant ashtray because, well, you realise that the idea is the thing, and the thing isn't the idea.  I thought the shelves of fish would be good, but given that their colours have been all but lost, again, pretty boring to look at, just a collection for no adequate reason.  Similarly, more collections of pills, of surgical instruments and teaching aids, which struck me as the kind of collection you might make when you have the money to do it but no reason to do it, a couple of floaty ball things (naff and boring if you're not 6), and spin paintings which were so dull they brought tears to my eyes.  I'm sure even he realised this which is why he had one of them spinning round on the wall (or was it both of them?  It hardly matters), and made them as big as he possibly could, "got to give the punters something to talk about," I can imagine him saying, "there not going be fooled for long if they're static and only a few feet wide."

You see, what you get with Damien Hirst is a whole load of stuff.  He professes an obsession with death.  Indeed, he is quoted on the wall of the gallery as wanting to bring death into the space to 'provoke a profound primal fear'.  But that is not what you get.  What you get with the shark, is two impressive things: the shark itself, and the cabinet it's in.  And at no point is there a primal fear involved.  How could there be?  The cabinet is so strongly made, so overtly engineered that the barrier between you and the dead beast is as insurmountable as that between our little sun and Alpha Centaury, so any possible fear one might have is completely lost.  When you see it, you are first impressed by its size, then the interesting bending of light as you walk around it and the prism effect of the liquid within gives you differing views.  Then you enjoy the shark itself, as you would.  It's a massive shark for gods sake!  It's cool, it really is!  But you don't get death, not in any way.  What you do get is dead.  And you get dead again with the cows head, you get dead with the other cows/calfs/sheep/shark/dove.  It's dead, over and over.  No exploration, no understanding, the pure laziness of his 'art' is quite astonishing; the concept that all you have to do is exhibit something to have it mean something is arrogant in the extreme.  It is a fashion, I know, and it is not limited to Hirst, and of course because some people think it's rubbish it must actually be great art etc. etc.  But no.  There are those critics that fall over themselves to marvel at his Svengalian objet d'art, and those that keep a little more quiet, or try to see it as art.  Don't listen to any of them.  If there is a group of people any where who know less than the average punter it is those self same critics.  Once someone achieves a modicum of success, however they manage it, and they are lucky enough to have the collectors move in, then money is involved, real money, and critics seem to see it almost as their duty to take sides.  They move in like blinded vultures, scrabbling around for whatever they can find, eating off each other if necessary, because you can't ignore money, Hirst certainly got that one right.

How to make a spot painting
How to make a spot painting
So what else is there?  Well, there is the butterfly stuff.  The stained glass window designs are really nice, but again, there's no interpretation or exploration, just pretty butterfly windows.  There's the butterfly room itself, with live butterflies from the pupae on the canvases.  And just like the shark, what you get here is not 'life', but alive, just stuff that is alive, just like any butterfly tunnel you can go in up and down the country.  "But it's in an art gallery," I here you cry, "so it's art, isn't it?"  All I can say to that is believe it if it makes you happy, but really, saying something is true doesn't make it true.

So in the end, you have a whole load of stuff, none of which has been explored to any great extent, some of which hasn't been explored to any extent at all.  They are decorative, or shocking the first time you see them.  But that's it.  The spin paintings are about spinning a canvas and chucking paint on it.  The sharks are about "wow a shark... look!".  The ashtray is like that crazy-glue conversation you had for hours one night when stoned at a party.  The floaty ball thing?  - what you talked about after you got bored of the crazy-glue conversation.  The mini floaty ball thing with a ping-pong ball and hairdryer, art?  Really?  The dead flies in resin, the shelves and shelves of pills and cubic zirconia that are so devastatingly dull they even resorted to describing the materials that the shelving units were made from in an effort to liven things up a bit.  They reminded me of some of the terrible art from the seventies that either assumed you had no brain, or you would believe whatever you were told, or they didn't care one way or the other because communicating with any kind of language that meant someone without an in-depth knowledge of art history could understand surely meant that all you could do was paint figurative landscapes or portraits, instead of trying a little harder and doing what an artist is meant to, finding a way to communicate directly with their audience without the need for explanation.  The problem is, once you need to explain why something is art, and what it means, the art is gone, or perhaps it was never there.  Art is meant to communicate.  If it doesn't, it is not art.  Maybe the explanations become the art?  Maybe Hirst's shark should have been put on the wall as the label that describes its title?  Maybe.

But after all that, yes, after all that, I left with a smile on my face.  The spot paintings were the closest he came to any form of actual art, any thing in the show that attempted to grapple with something that required the artsist to actually think, to make decisions, to put forward a point of view thereby at least making an attempt to transcend the physical object to a state where it connects to other human beings, communicating something of what it is to be alive, to be human.  But even then, the most interesting thing about them is the idea, the concept.  Their reality is ultimately a let down, as is proven by your passage through the show when they turn up time and time again, and each time they get a little less interesting, a little more the same, a little less... anything at all.  And of course, we all know that he didn't paint them anyway, so he firmly pins his flag to the mast of conceptionist, designer, leaving any possible artistry to his underlings.

There is a poverty of imagination here, and almost no art at all.  But there is entertainment akin to watching a blockbuster movie, Die Hard or something similar.  It is fun and fantasy, but ultimately vacuous, like a lot of art today.  Would I go to another Damien Hirst exhibition?  Sure I would.  Great fun.  And I might even take my kids.  But I wouldn't pay £15.50 for the privilege.

Art 0.5/10
Entertainment 7.5/10
Aesthetics 6/10

Sunday, 9 September 2012

String Theory


How do you define space?  It's an interesting question for an artist.  The word 'space' is used in art talk as a way to claim territory that is to be used for art, a way to rest it from the public, or from the common or garden purpose for which it is normally used.  But what is space?  When I put on an exhibition I consider the 'space' within which the exhibition is to be displayed.  If paintings or other 2D wall based art, then it's the boundaries of that space I'm concerned with.  But if 3D, then it's the area within the boundaries, but not actually the space as a thing in its own right; that area is simply a vehicle for the art to be transported from unseen object to manifest art in the presence of the viewer.  The space, though used, is still left undefined.

One way to usefully define space and at the same time quote Paul Klee is 'the area described by taking a line for a walk'.  But whereas Klee's line would be a two-dimensional one, one that only exists on the surface of a piece of paper, I favour a three-dimensional line, but nevertheless a single line with a starting point and an end point, weaving its way this way and that, feeling its way through the space until it has found a shape that lives within it.

My lines are drawn with string, pulled taught, creating true lines, straight lines rather than curves, which would be a very different matter.  Obviously, one cannot take a curve for a walk since its shape is already defined by its algorithm, so should you choose to change course you destroy the curve you were using, but a line can start anywhere, and go anywhere, it is a point-to-point transfer.  One might argue that the when the line suddenly changes direction it in fact becomes a new line, but this is not the case.  The line is straight, it is space that is bent, creating an apparent multitude of lines when in fact only one exists.  The result of this, in a room say, a studio perhaps, is a drawing together of the disparate elements that create that space, elements that one is not normally aware of, from the bottom near-side corner in the web of a spider, through the air to a point in the middle of the room where you walk through everyday without any thought then sharply turning to address a another point on the wall where you cannot reach unless standing on a chair but without which one would feel claustrophobic, hemmed in, since space is not simply the area we move within, but also the area we can see, an area that allows out brains to breath even though we may never actually visit it physically.

And once completed, the space one thought one knew is transformed into a completely different world, a looking-glass world where ones assumptions about what is where and how you get there are no longer easy questions to answer.  They may involve acrobatics, dimensional drift, or reviewing you concept of the room you thought you knew, but which is now as a parallel universe hitherto unexplored.  You can see everything you could before, but you can no longer reach it; all of a sudden, you are aware of the space you have been using and taking for granted, you become caught by your own assumptions and are left helpless in the face of space flexing its muscles, finally answering the question that has defeated the greatest of philosophers: how long is a piece of string?  It is proportional to the space it's defining.