Monthly Archives: May 2016

Find the sweet art

unduhan-3For me, it’s marshmallows. The moment I catch the scent of powdered sugar I remember lying with my head in my grandmother’s lap as a child. For Benjamin Loyauté, it’s apple-flavoured sticks from Rouen that exert the Proustian pull, transporting him back to his Normandy childhood and squabbles with his twin sister over the sugary treats.

Sweets may be universal, but the nostalgia they hold is intense and intimate, which is why – says Loyauté – they are the perfect vehicle for his long-term project to highlight the “immaterial heritage” of Syria. With a man-bun and a curator’s love of critical theory, the Brussels based artist and designer makes an unexpected confectioner. Yet when we meet in the foyer of his London hotel, on the table in front of us are little packets of pink candies created to his exacting specifications.

At first glance they could be the cheap sweets sold by Syrian street vendors, except that each is shaped to resemble an “eye idol” – those ancient Syrian figurines whose use and meaning archaeologists are still debating. Loyauté describes his sweets as “transmitter objects” – everyday things with “a real value and symbolic value linked to emotion, history, heritage”. In other words, as it says on one of his text paintings: “candy keeps the past alive.”

“One woman said she never ate these candies because they are sold on dusty trolleys – they are not for rich people,” he explains. “It was only when they started disappearing from the streets thanks to the war, that she realised: ‘I miss them’.”

I can’t wait any longer and break off our chat to open the simple plastic packet and pop one in my mouth. The soft texture yields an intense burst of sugar and rose. For an artwork, they are pretty delicious. And at this month’s London DesignBiennale, visitors will get their own chance to scoff. Loyauté’s exhibit includes “a practical sculpture”, otherwise known as a vending machine. For £5, it will dispense a packet of the sweets and design buffs will be invited “to do their bit”.

The money put into the machine will directly transfer to the Mosaic initiative, a small London-based charity which distributes aid, both within Syria and to educational projects for Syrian refugees elsewhere. If Loyauté has his way, it will be only the first step in a Willy Wonka-ish ambition to bring people together through sweets.

Despite Baťa’s original vision, his Essex outpost only reached a third of its planned size after Bata was nationalised by the communists in the wake of the second world war. Decline set in during the late 1970s and, by the new millennium, there were only 200 employees left in East Tilbury. Bata closed the factory in 2005, moving most of its manufacturing to Malaysia.

Rippingale and her siblings resisted following their parents into the footwear business. She became a secretary and moved to London, only later buying the family home. Once teeming with workers who clocked in to music piped out of speakers at the company gates each morning, the listed factory buildings are now owned by a storage company, and the estate is looking a little rundown.

Despite this, East Tilbury has generated a steady and growing interest among architects. The Bauhaus foundation has paid a visit, says Pinion, and the last piece of Bata Trust land was sold recently to a developer, Cogent Land, which has built a portion of new housing faithful to the original modernist designs. The whole Bata estate is a conservation area and there is talk of the houses being listed in line with the factory buildings.

Radical Essex’s talk of the county as “the cradle of modernism” is an attempt to to get a grip on its sprawl. As Nikolaus Pevsner wrote in his 1954 book The Buildings of England: “The county is too big and varied to be taken in as one.” Characterised by rivers, creeks, marshland and an abundance of overpopulated A-roads, rather than by any particular architectural style, the Essex look has flitted with the political wind: from weatherboarded houses to Barratt estates, early 20th century “plotland” bungalows to mid-century new towns later sold off under Thatcher’s right to buy.

Underwater artist that inspired you

unduhan-2When I have fears that I may cease to be,” as the old poem goes, “before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain … then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone, and think / Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.” The artist Peter Matthews has gone one step further than John Keats: he’s actually waded into the sea.

The 37-year-old, who hails from the stubbornly landlocked hills of Derbyshire, has made a career of drawing and painting in the ocean. That’s right: floating in the sea, using an old piece of plywood as a desk-cum-flotation aid and scrawling across huge sheets of paper with the charcoal pencils and gel pens that he keeps tucked under his hat.

“My mother’s father sold fish in Leicester, so I like to think it’s in my roots,” says Matthews, currently in Taiwan where he’s been bobbing about in the Pacific. “I’ve always had this profound fascination with the ocean.” In 2007, in Mexico, he experienced a “life-changing event” while out surfing. “I got hit by one of those rogue huge waves. It crashed over me, broke the leash connecting me to the board and I got a surge of primal fear. It was kind of epiphany; I saw life drawing to a close.”

All at sea … Matthews’ canvas Photograph: Peter Matthews

It dawned on him afterwards, however, that waiting around in the water was where he was happiest: “that communion with the ocean”. And so he swapped surfboard for hardboard and started immersing himself in the sea, often from dawn until dusk, trying to capture, consciously and subconsciously, that strange, suspended state.

Looking at the resulting drawings, which Matthews often leaves in a tidepool overnight to work on again in the morning, it’s tempting to draw comparison to the scratchy, abstract works of Cy Twombly or Jasper Johns. But there is also something of the alchemist to Matthews – his stream-of-consciousness texts, his lyrical way of speaking and his frankly eccentric work practice. “Big grey seals often pop up,” says Matthews, who has been working for years around the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, wild-camping on the cliffs near Coverack. “When I’m exhausted and lie on the rocks to try and generate a bit of heat, the seals come up really close. Those unexpected things in nature are fascinating.”

It would be wrong to describe Matthews as a nature artist. Although his work is literally soaked in seawater and scattered with the imprint of small shellfish, he is far more interested in exploring the fluid midpoint between sea and land, thought and form.

“There’s a period of time in the early morning and again at twilight that’s beyond words,” he says, his soft Derbyshire vowels still just about detectable. “That’s when the scrawlings ignite. It’s almost caveman-like. Approaching the ocean is quite mysterious in itself: seeing it, and that visceral experience of listening to it, smelling it, touching it.”

5 Hours In and With the Atlantic Ocean #2 (England) Photograph: Peter Matthews/Courtesy of the artist

Of course, there are practical obstacles to working in the sea. As well as numb hands, the odd fall into a rockpool and concerned dogwalkers peering out at him on the horizon, Matthews has to contend with the unpredictability of waves. “There’s a romantic side to me that’s drawn to the wild, breaking white. But I’ve also lost quite a lot of drawings that way,” he tells me, as I try to picture this floating male selkie pulling pencils out of his sleeve like a magician. “The waves crash over, it tears off the board, and ebbs away into the abyss.”

Some of his works dance along the border of the brilliant and the ridiculous. For the piece With the Forces of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Matthews rigged up a CD player on a floating tripod, then spent days bobbing about in the Atlantic, listening to a recording of the Pacific, trying to capture the watery confusion between the two. For A Mystical Exchange of Energies he sprayed nine litres of Pacific ocean, collected during typhoon Nanmodal in August 2011, into the Atlantic using a fire extinguisher – transferring one ocean into the other.

How politics animated the art

By his own admission, South African artist William Kentridge’s career got off to a slow start. Even by the time he was in his mid-40s and had built a reputation in his own country, a UK broadsheet critic could declare without embarrassment that he had never heard of Kentridge when reviewing, positively, his 1999 show at London’s Serpentine gallery. It is not an admission that has been made much since. Kentridge’s work is shown and collected by great museums all over the world and his growing status as a public intellectual saw him deliver the prestigious Norton Lectures at Harvard in 2012.

Kentridge will be difficult to avoid in London this autumn. His first major UK show in 15 years opens at the Whitechapel Gallery later this month. It will be followed by his own design and direction of the English National Opera’s production of Berg’s Lulu, a collaboration with the composer Philip Miller at the Print Room, as well as a lecture.

But while Kentridge and his work will be appearing in different venues and in different mediums, there is far more that connects these apparently disparate events than divides them. His production of Lulu is underpinned by his distinctive expressionist charcoal drawings and animations. The event at the Print Room involves the human voice as well as film. His lecture has a strong element of performance and includes specially made artwork.

“When I started out I tried to follow the, well-meaning and sensible, advice of all my friends who told me to do one thing and do it well,” he explains. “Just do drawing, they said. Just do theatre. Only make films because otherwise you get caught between them. For a long time I tried that, and I failed at all of them. Now I don’t even pretend to know what form an idea will ultimately take or what project it will end up in. I just get on with doing things knowing they will end up somewhere.”

Streets of the City (2009), tapestry weave with embroidery. Photograph: Courtesy William Kentridge, Marian Goodman Gallery, Goodman Gallery and Lia Rumma Gallery

Observing Kentridge at work in Johannesburg is to get a sense of the scale of his production. He has two studios, one at the family home where he was brought up in the old-money suburb of Houghton, near where Nelson Mandela spent his last years and a neighbourhood in which the primary selling point of property is now the size of its security walls. His other studio is in a larger space downtown in what has become an artistic oasis in a city centre that had been hollowed out by crime and the flight of commerce. But just as the whole of Johannesburg life seems to be present in his work, so his pieces come from all over the city. This year his gallery, the Goodman, celebrates 50 years of presenting art that has challenged black and white elites alike. Kentridge is not only its star artist, but a sponsor and supporter of other artists in a society in which state subsidy is vanishingly small. Much of his artwork is produced by David Krut’s print shop, next door to the downtown studio; Kentridge works closely with one of the last foundries in the city, and a few miles out of town is the Stephens Tapestry Studio, with whom he has been collaborating for more than two decades.

Work from all these sources will be in evidence at the Whitechapel show in the form of installations, film, sculpture, drawings, tapestry and prints, often featuring the artist himself in his habitual uniform of dark trousers, white shirt and pince-nez glasses either perched on his nose or hanging round his neck. They combine to address Kentridge’s eternal subjects of time, art, colonialism and utopian politics. The newest work – only completed in the last few weeks – will be an installation, Right into Her Arms, in which two corrugated cardboard screens are transformed into recognisably human characters who dance a sexually charged pas de deux. The piece not only exemplifies Kentridge’s enthusiasm for cross-fertilisation, but also his underlying artistic and political preoccupations.

“It is someway between Dada and a cabaret performance,” he says. “These were things I was looking at while making Lulu but they didn’t get into the final production. Our initial goal was to make programmable, movable screens to see what projected images looked like on them as they shifted. It was quite a challenge and the team had to develop new software. But soon the focus changed to whether the set itself could become the protagonist. And what began as just a way of receiving images of Lulu and her lovers, ended up with the screens being lovers themselves. I’m always interested in what I call the ‘less good idea’, by which I mean the secondary idea. You start with one plan and then something better emerges from the periphery that would have been impossible without the first thought.”

Right into Her Arms also connects to another installation in the show, O Sentimental Machine, which is about Trotsky’s declaration that human beings were semi-manufactured products. “A lot of Soviet thinkers were concerned as to what would happen to imperfect people in a perfect society. They asked if our emotions were mechanical, could we get rid of rid of rage and jealousy and so on which would make it so much easier for us to get along? You can see how well that went. But the counterpart is the very contemporary idea of can we teach machines to be human? And so in Right into Her Arms the micromovements of the screens that appear to be like human pauses and shifts and hesitations, effectively become the work.”

The power of art

images-2In repressive states, the role of the artist is unambiguous: to assert the individual imagination, the singular power that all dictatorships fear. I remember once talking to the Czech dissident and writer Ivan Klima, who had been subject both to the arbitrary horror of a Nazi concentration camp as a child and the long grinding years of Soviet occupation in which he had become a “non-person” for two decades, harassed constantly by secret police and unable to speak or write in public. He survived by “living in truth”. “I have always pursued inner freedom,” he said. “I have never been censored.”

Klima was part of that group of artists and writers who gathered in the Magic Lantern theatre in Prague in 1989 to orchestrate the “Velvet Revolution” and see their dreams of liberation realised. And how did it feel to experience freedom, to have the external world finally correspond with that interior life for the first time?

Czech writer Ivan Klima: ‘I have never been censored.’ Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

“It is interesting that a man very quickly accepts freedom as a normal thing,” Klima said. “Though we had fought for it for so long, after a few weeks or months we did not think about it. Rather you start to see things you would like to change, things that make you angry, corruption and so forth, environmental problems, the obsession with the market…” Habits of protest die hard.

There are, of course, many courageous artists across the world with Klima’s stubborn courage. Ai Weiwei is only the best known, but he remains a crucial figure, one irrepressible man living in truth who reveals the billion lies attending China’s advance into the world. Weiwei used to reject the idea he was a political figure, insisting that he was only an artist (as if the two were distinguishable). After his imprisonment in 2012, his tone seemed to change. “People are always wondering if I am an artist or politician,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just clearly tell you: whatever I do is not art. Let’s say it is just objects or materials, movies or writing, but not art, Ok

In Russia, Pussy Riot have acquired something of Weiwei’s power – the power to prove the futility of censorship and the integrity of protest. They took their inspiration from the Voina, a group which, like all the best art political movements, trailed a manifesto. Point one read: “Create the rebirth of heroical behavioural ideals of an artist-intellectual… the artist as romantic hero, who prevails over evil. Produce lively romantic models in contrast with today’s soulless commercial conceptual art.” Voina’s most famous performance was a protest against the 2008 election of President Medvedev. This “lively romantic” act took place in the Moscow Biological Museum, beside a stuffed bear. Five couples from Voina undressed and had vigorous sex in the hall. One of the participants, Alexei Plutser-Sarno, described the work as the only honest portrait of pre-election Russia: “Everybody fucks each other, and the puppy bear” [a nickname for Medvedev] “looks on with an unconcealed scorn.”

Pussy Riot perform in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral to protest Putin’s return to the Kremlin, 2012. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/AP

In the west, where freedoms of speech are, theoretically at least, guaranteed in law, the challenge for an artist to make an effective political statement is more complex. Where anything goes, where we are flooded daily with millions of uncensored images, what honestly gives us pause, or makes a statement? Perhaps as a result of this, the art world, that moving spectacle of expos and fairs and biennials – Voina’s “soulless commercial conceptual art” – can appear to exist in a self-referential bubble. The suddenly hardening political moment, however – where across Europe and in the US, liberal certainties feel under threat – seems to call for a different kind of artistic engagement. What that might look like is still under construction.

Street art and the outlaw sloganeering of Banksy was one effort to test the in-house freedoms of the gallery in less permissive spaces. Another, more rigorous attempt would be the inspiring project of the American Theaster Gates in Chicago’s South Side. Gates is using the material of his historically blighted neighbourhood, repurposed as art, to regenerate entire blocks of that community and connect its residents with a radical civil rights past, making black lives matterin bricks and mortar. His 2011 collection, In the Event of a Race Riot, coiled a series decommissioned fire hoses from the civil rights era in gilt-frame boxes. They sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and Gates ploughed the money directly back into community projects.