Monday, 2 May 2016

Maria Eichhorn at the Chisenhale Gallery vs Silvia Ikkesett in Cork Street

A friend recently pointed me to an exhibition by Maria Eichhorn which put me in mind of an event I wrote about back in 2011 masterminded by Silvia Ikkesett. Maria Eichhorn's show, called 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours and which is currently on at the time of writing, features the Chisenhale Gallery being closed - an exhibition you can't enter. There are many conceptual questions around this which require some understanding of current conceptual thought vis-à-vis art and its purpose etc. etc., questions which I have little time for in all honesty. Silvia Ikkesett's Never Seen exhibition however, was an event which most people could understand right off the bat. I wrote it up as part of my research into the collection of art recipes Arnold Tuppley collected before his his death, and is an edifying account as to how an artist can be pushed to such limits that perception becomes more important than reality.

Never Seen

Silvia Ikkesett

Silvia Ikkesett, started her career as a portrait painter. She revelled in great detail, producing works on canvas whose heightened realism was the result of her tendency toward the extreme, and her insistence on concentrating with almost microscopic detail on the features of her clients. As a young woman she toured the great cities of art in Europe, painting her way through actors and politicians, whose vanity insisted on her presenting them with a level of detail they often later came to regret.

Success followed her wherever she went despite the small controversies that her candour elicited, including, on one occasion, a brief attempt at suing her for defamation by a client. But it was quickly dropped due to the incontrovertible evidence that the portrait she had painted, which was the subject of the lawsuit, was an unquestionably and extremely accurate representation of their likeness. None of this gave her any pause for thought however, as she continued her travels, eventually settling in London.

Her favourite subjects were actors. She enjoyed the notion of their character being assumed by everybody who had seen their work, but who in fact were usually very different. Some were shy, almost embarrassed at the idea that anyone knew who they were, having been more or less forced into the position of having their portrait painted as some kind of spurious reward for their talent by one organisation or another. But some were rather more ego-centric, and she did not get on with all of them: about one famous film actor she commented, “the banality of the characters he plays are only outweighed by the tedium of his personality.”

But her success was starting to bore her, as were the innumerable commissions for portraits. She started reducing the areas she concentrated on within the face, homing in on particular characteristics and features which she reserved for her special attention. The rest of the painting she started to block in with a more abstract style, which gave the sitter the appearance of coming through some kind of multicoloured fog into the foreground, but in the end she simply left those areas blank. Eventually she stopped painting portraits altogether.

After giving up the role that had made her name, she briefly concentrated her talents on very traditional still lives, using fruit and crockery as the main subjects, and then moved on to using found objects, or things that just happened to be around. These included a series of crunched up cigarette packets in ashtrays, discarded fast-food containers, often with the food still in them half eaten, and tiny wild flowers which she would harvest from between paving stones, or under trees on the street.  She would put them on the table in her studio without any real application of composition, creating beautifully executed but rather uninspiring works. Then she stopped painting completely.

For two years nothing was heard from her. No paintings, no exhibitions, no art of any kind, until she came back with a brand new idea which didn't involve painting pictures of anything at all. In interview, she said she had grown tired of painting, tired of being regarded as a great talent that could do almost no wrong, and lamented the fact that whenever she had an exhibition, thousands would flock to see the show, because it was Sylvia Ikkesett, the renowned artist and burner of actors. She continued, “they don’t care about what I do, they come for my name, for me”; she became disillusioned. As far as she was concerned the public doted on her every brush stroke because of her proximity to the rich and famous, and the fame that it conferred on her. She found the whole experience superficial and pointless, and so decided to give the public and the art-world what they really wanted: Sylvia Ikkesett, not art.

Her new show featured absolutely nothing at all. She claimed that it was an inevitable conclusion to her way of working, which was either to paint everything she saw in extreme detail, or to paint nothing with equal detail, still regarding herself as a painter although she produced no paintings. She described these shows as artworks that reproduced, in detail, all the people that came to them, since, as they were there explicitly for her show, they were in fact her creations. And as reproductions of people that went to art exhibitions, they were as detailed as it was possible to get.

Her first show in this series was called Unseen-Black. She rented out a gallery space in the west end of London, painted the walls, the furniture, the ceiling, everything apart from the glass in the windows, black. The private view was full of those that had eagerly awaited her return, but they hadn't read the invite properly, which told them to bring their own wine, as none, and nothing would be provided. Soon, someone had bought from a local pub as many bottles of cabernet sauvignon as they had, and the evening went extremely well. She didn't turn up herself, but it was nevertheless a great success with only a few naysayers amongst the arterarty that congregated on that Thursday evening.

Five more exhibitions followed, with different colour themes in each: pink, orange, blue, yellow, and dark grey, each entitled Unseen- and then the colour, though the colour stated only related to the colour on show in the first exhibition. Thereafter, the colour on show and the name for the show seemed to become abstract notions which were not in any way related to each other, as lost in their meaning as she was distrustful of the power she had gained through her art.

They were held over a little more than a year, one every two months or so, and gained quite a large following, becoming known for their party atmosphere where arty types would meet and discuss, mingle and network, all the while increasing Ikkesett’s renown. But again, she became tired of the format, and another period of silence ensued.

A year after the last Unseen there was more excitement when a new show by Silvia Ikkesett was advertised in the art press, all the listings magazines, on websites, and in national papers. The date and time for the exhibition was given, but no details as to where the show was to take place, other than it would be somewhere in London. The show was called Never Seen, and even had one editorial written about it before it took place which speculated on the direction Ikkesett was now taking. A week before the show, a new advert appeared listing a number of websites where, two hours before the private view and opening of the exhibition was to take place, details of the venue would be given.

Excitement grew with this prospect, the imagination of those who couldn't wait to go running riot with rumour and counter rumour as to where and what the show would be. Finally, later than advertised, only seventy-two minutes before its starting time of 5:30pm, the address of the venue was uploaded to the websites, causing one of them to crash with the huge surge in requests for data from their servers.

As expected, it was to be in the west end of London, in the heart of the old and moneyed contemporary art scene, Cork Street. But the number on the address was 39. There was, and is, no 39 Cork Street. By this time, excitement was at fever pitch, and hundreds of people descended on Cork Street looking for number 39. Outrage was restricted to a few tired individuals who had travelled hundreds of miles for the new show, but on the whole, the notion of an exhibition that didn't exist was greeted with pleasure, and the local pubs saw a massive jump in their takings as they filled with the art seekers who had nowhere else to go.

One can only imagine Ikkesett’s disappointment at not being able to put a foot wrong. The show was hailed a success, a revolution in art thinking and examination of the very concept of the famous artist, but Ikkesett herself was nowhere to be seen. Two more shows followed, one in New York, and one in Newcastle, for reasons Ikkesett kept to herself – as far as anyone knew, she had no connections with Newcastle, and had never even been there. But maybe that was the point.

That was the last show she ever put on. She hasn't been heard of since, even by her friends and family; she simply disappeared, vanishing as if her existence was as empty as the exhibitions she had masterminded. But there are those with a passion for the Unseen and Never Seen works that still keep an eye out for a new Ikkesett event, possibly advertised in a local paper, or on an obscure website, waiting for a time when she will come back once again.

I am ashamed to say that I had not heard of Sylvia Ikkesett until the first Never Seen exhibition took place. I went down to Cork Street along with all the others, and the atmosphere was fantastic, like a carnival or street party. I went with two friends, frequenting all the pubs in the area, talking to strangers all of whom seemed to be there for the show. It was quite a remarkable feat of advertising and marketing. But we must remember that had she not been Sylvia Ikkesett, no one would have turned up. And that was perhaps the point of these shows.

Her interest in the extreme led to her success, and necessitated her development. She was clearly unhappy with the recognition she had gained and thought it a vacuous entity that she tried to extinguish by pointing out to all that gravitated towards her and her shows that fame is nothing. But far from lancing the boil, her Unseen shows simply accentuated her notoriety, making her even better known that she had been before.

Similarly, and perhaps with her foreknowledge, the Never Seen shows did exactly the same thing. But where does one go after that? The person to ask is nowhere to be seen, and cannot be found. Perhaps, one day, she will turn up again. But until then, it is worth remembering that her shows were indeed a microscopically accurate rendition of the types of people that caused her to flee the success she had made of herself.

We were all, on that night in Cork Street, her belongings, her artworks, which she displayed in the pubs and on the streets of the wealthy art dealers. It is a testament to her understanding of her situation that it was such a success, whether or not she wanted it to be. And in that case, we can see her as the great artist she always promised to be from her earliest days of painting portraits.

More stories from the Notebooks of Arnold Tuppley are available on

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