Monthly Archives: January 2013

Ekki Múkk

This piece appeared on the Sight & Sound blog.

Named after the second track on Sigur Rós’s Valtari album, Nick Abrahams’ award-winning short film Ekki Múkk, as eerie as the music and lyrics that inspired it, was made for the valtari mystery film experiment. To promote their sixth studio album, the Icelandic band Sigur Rós gave a dozen filmmakers and directors a small budget and free reign to make whatever they pleased by way of visual accompaniment to any song off the album. The resulting videos, made by directors who are artists in their own right or have collaborated with artists – Ryan McGinley, Ragnar Kjartansson, Clare Langan and Ramin Bahrani, among them – have the feel of artist-made films rather than pop videos.

For Ekki Múkk, Abrahams, who made his name by directing music videos for various bands, including Sigur Rós, has tried his hand at doing something new. The gambit evidently paid off, since the ten-minute-long film just won the main prize at this month’s London Short Film Festival. In contrast to his old punk-rock movies shot on handheld Super 8 (recently shown alongside his more recent output in ‘A Night of Nick Abrahams Films’ at the ICA), Ekki Múkk, filmed in large part with a RED digital camera, feels slick and measured. By Abrahams’ own admission, its radically different aesthetic owes something to the influence of artist Jeremy Deller, with whom Abrahams has co-directed two feature-length films, a documentary about Depeche Mode fans around the world and one about the British visionary artist Bruce Lacey.

A taster for his own first feature film, Ekki Múkk is based on a true story of a man with learning difficulties who gets lost on his way home and ends up walking for four days. Featuring Aidan Gillen as the man and folk singer Shirley Collins as the talking snail that guides him on his journey through field and forest, it’s a paean to the British countryside.

Beautifully shot by Ole Birkeland [homepage], with additional photography by Martin Dohrn (who has filmed nature programmes for David Attenborough), Ekki Múkk mixes drama, natural history and magical elements to beguiling effect. Sigur Rós’s music dictates the film’s languid pace but the director takes liberties with the soundtrack, which has been altered at times, paused for dramatic effect and overlaid with dialogue extraneous to the original lyrics. Far from merely illustrating the song, the short created in response to it has a will of its own.

London Waterworks

This review appeared in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art.

London comes as something of an afterthought in Roger Deakin’s Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain (1999), inspired by John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” and its film adaptation starring Burt Lancaster. By his own admission, urban swimming is not high on Deakin’s agenda, and the capital of Britain has little to offer an advocate of wild, freshwater swimming. Deakin notes in passing that the Port of London Authority strictly forbids swimming in the Thames. “Apart from the danger from constant river traffic,” he writes, tacitly condoning this state of affairs, “the water itself, although not as polluted as it used to be, can still seriously damage your health.” London-based live artist Amy Sharrocks sets out to challenge assumptions such as these in her latest piece, Thames Water. Together with playfully reflective offerings by Tim Etchells and Search Party, and commissioned by home live art for the Mayor’s Thames Festival, Sharrocks’s Thames Water was one in a trio of new works made in response to the River Thames, jointly titled A River Enquiry.

The piece was a bid to bring Londoners closer to their river, or rather to bring the Thames closer to Londoners. A human chain of volunteers carried plasticbuckets filled with Thames water from the river’s pebbly shore by Tower Bridge, up some steep moss-covered steps in the Horsleydown Old Stairs leading to the Thames, and a few yards down a crowded cobblestone passageway running alongside the river all the way to Potters Fields Park, on the other side of the Tower Bridge. It took ten people or so almost two hours, the duration of a performance repeated on two consecutive days, and considerable effort to half fill an inflatable paddling pool of rather modest proportions. Members of the public were then given a chance “to wade through the water of the city” in the paddling pool. Barring children and artists, few appeared to be tempted by its murky waters.

The Thames is purportedly one of the cleanest rivers in the world, though when you examine it at close range, sitting in a paddling pool, this defies belief. Its turbid brown color, according to a home live art representative, is not due to pollution but to the silt churned up by the ebb and flow of the tide; it would have looked much the same in Roman times. A cow’s bone polished by the waters, rusty nails, pottery shards, seaweed, and bits of refuse emptied out of the buckets, were carefully removed and displayed like so many trophies at a nearby table. Volunteers from Thames21—a charity dedicated to keeping London’s network of waterways clean—were on hand to demonstrate that the water’s pH and oxygen levels are ideally suited to support plant and fish life. Some one hundred and twenty fish species, freshwater and marine alike, have been recorded in the river over the last twenty-five years, including salmon, which returned to the Thames in 1974. So why shouldn’t Londoners follow suit?

This is precisely what Amy Sharrocks invites them to do. Having drafted fifty people to join her for a group swim across the capital’s public baths, ponds, and lakes in SWIm (2007), Sharrocks used Thames Water at last year’s Thames Festival to enlist public support for another art swim, one that would see a hundred hardy souls cross the river beneath Tower Bridge in the year of London’s upcoming 2012 Olympics. The petition-cum-manifesto for Swim the Thames 2012, which all interested parties were given to sign, does not propose to flaunt the Port of London Authority measures in a guerilla-style swim, but simply to draw attention to the Thames as a shared public waterway,asking who controls it and what are the public’s rights to it.

Thames Water is Sharrocks’s most recent addition to a body of work investigating “how contemporary Londoners connect with water.”1 In a series of one-on-one and collective live art pieces, the artist has tapped into the liquid element in its many guises: natural and artificial, hidden and apparent, indoors and out-of-doors. Central to her practice as a whole, journeys act as a linking thread between each discrete work. Another is the Thames itself, “port, sewer, pleasure ground, heart of London. . . its lifeblood,” in the words of Swim the Thames 2012. All London rivers lead to the Thames. Like the sea, London’s great natural boundary draws all tributaries into itself, engulfs them all, makes room for them all.

The series of six public walks—named after each of the underground rivers they traced: Effra, Fleet, Walbrook, Tyburn, Westbourne, Neckinger—spanned the course of a year from June 2008 to June 2009. Together they make up London is a River City. Each had its own distinctive flavor and set of participants. A collaboration with Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre, Neckinger (September 23, 2008) took place at night and in silence. Effra, on February 1, 2009, saw the walkers contend with gusts of wind and swirls of snow. Walbrook ( June 19, 2009) was the blue walk: the fifty odd people who signed on for it were asked to wear blue and were loosely tied by the waist with blue ribbon. In Westbourne (April 28, 2009), all the participants were equipped with dowsing rods, acting as water detectors of sorts.

Rather than “guided tours, in the usual understanding,” the walks were conceived as “attempts at a different kind of engagement . . . a connection to a different grid. As much a physical connection as a leap of imagination.” For the actual mapping of the underground rivers, likened to a “kind of palm reading of London,”2 Sharrocks availed herself of the services of a professional water dowser, Vicky Sweetlove. Prior to the walks, the dowser would hold a pendulum over the map of the city and dowse the river by first locating its source and then following its hidden trajectory all the way to the Thames. This virtual survey would then be verified in practice with the aid of dowsing rods used as pointers to show the direction of the river’s flow on the actual walks. However dubious this method of locating water may appear, dowsing relies on the assumption that our bodies are mostly made up of water and thus physically react to water.

The artist’s avowed aim in making these collective artworks was to trace the memory of water running beneath our feet, tantalizingly close yet separated from us by layers on layers of concrete. Richard Long, the archetypal walking artist, is quoted on the London is a River City Website as saying that a “walk is just one more layer, a mark.” But whereas the walks at the heart of Long’s practice tend to be a solitary pursuit, Sharrocks and other London-based artists such as Simon Pope—in his London Bridge Recall (2007), Memorial Walks (2009), and most recently in the film Memory Marathon (2010)—have explored walking as a sociable activity in their work.

Walbrook, a public walk that set out to “re-create one of London’s oldest rivers by thronging the pavements with people,” is a case in point. Sporting as many shades of blue as there were walkers, the participants gathered outside of Highbury and Islington underground station, the meeting point, where the organizers proceeded to tie them up together with shimmering blue ribbon. “There is no actual water on this walk,” Sharrocks declared at the outset of a three-hour-long itinerary that traced the course of Walbrook River from its source in Islington, meandering its way through the heart of the City, to its mouth at the Thames beneath Southwark Bridge. “Until we get to the Thames, we are the water—90% water apparently.” Part bondage, part girdle, yet supple enough to allow for ever new permutations and conversation partners, the ribbon at once restricted movements and ensured that the walkers flowed together, river-like, past lamp posts, phone booths, cars, and any other urban obstacles.

For the span of an afternoon, collectively the participants embodied a river that had been buried for five centuries. Like many of London’s lost rivers, paved over, piped in, and largely used as sewers, the Walbrook today is commemorated above ground in the names of streets or churches, in the boundaries of city wards that espouse the river’s course, and in the occasional plaque that records its hidden passage. In the second part of the walk, after they had emerged from the tunnel beneath the Old Street roundabout, the walkers were under strict instruction to observe a vow of silence. For those who kept to it (not everyone did, making for a somewhat thwarted meditative experience), the focus shifted away from their companions to the busy streets of the City and to onlookers whose amused, and occasionally bemused reactions followed the silent convoy until it dispersed onto the shore of the Thames.

The shared experience of meditating on water, in some cases quite literally, is something that Sharrocks turns to again and again in her work. This ongoing preoccupation goes back to Drift (2006), initially staged indoors within the confines of a Victorian swimming pool in Camberwell, and more recently recreated on lakes, rivers, bathing ponds, and swimming pools around England, including on the boating lake in Battersea Park as part of Battersea Arts Centre’s BURST festival (2009). Unlike the group meditation that pieces such as Walbrook encourage, Drift was a one-on-one artwork in which the artist invited people to join her in a pontoon for two fitted with cushions and decked out with lanterns. The cocoon-like set-up lent itself to an intimate private exchange as the boat was set adrift, borne by water currents and wind gently spinning it (at least in the piece’s outdoor incarnations). Moments of silence, leaving one ample opportunity to become alive to a range of new physical sensations, alternated with snatches of conversation in a meditation à deux on the aesthetics of drifting.

In Roni Horn’s 1999 Still Water (The River Thames, for Example), the question “What is water?” underlies the fifteen photographs riddled with tiny white numbers, each of which connects up with fragments of conversation and seemingly random thoughts elicited by the great river. These close-ups of the river’s reflective surface capture only a fraction of its many moods, hues, and textures. Sharrocks’s London water pieces tally with Horn’s sculptural and photographic attempts at sounding the complex nature of water. From Battersea Park to Tower Bridge, they cohere around the Thames and gravitate towards it like so many of the waterways buried beneath the city’s pavements. Coming at it from different directions, by day and by night, whether walking, swimming, or drifting, together they form a sustained meditation on and a celebration of water in the city.

NOTES
1. “Swim,” Red Giant Projects and Amy Sharrocks, accessed May 2007, http://www.iwanttoswim.co.uk.
2. “London is a River City,” Red Giant Projects and Amy Sharrocks, accessed May 2009, http://www.londonisarivercity.com/why.html

Sideways festival

This report from Sideways festival was posted on the Walking Artists Network site.

On August 22nd, day 3 of the first leg of the Sideways festival (Menen to Herzele), I let myself be tied for almost a day to Russian artist Yana Kraeva or Yana K.M, the name she officially goes by. Almost but not quite. When Yana, in response to my somewhat alarmed query, answered by saying that ideally we would remain tied to each other for 24 hours, I didn’t waste any time telling her that it would remain an ideal. I draw the line at staying tied to a stranger during the night. Such a breach of privacy struck me as beyond the call of duty. Yana didn’t try to persuade me right then and there but, come evening, she had managed to wear down my defenses, so much so that I found myself begrudgingly agreeing to lend myself to the experiment.

Yana K.M originally intended to spend the entire month of the Sideways festival tied to her partner in life and art, TJ; the resulting piece would have been titled Twinning 2. Of course in this kind of scenario being tied to someone at night would not present as many difficulties. But the relationship ended before Yana was given a chance to bid her lover adieu in the way that, say, Marina Abramovic and Ulay famously did, by walking towards each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, from the Yellow Sea and the Gobi Desert respectively, each covering some 2500 km on foot. Instead, Yana would be tied to any willing victim she could induce to thus spend the day in her company; failing that, to an object, such as her bicycle.

When I met Yana, shortly after I’d arrived in Menen, fresh off the Eurostar, she had just completed a five-hour-long meditation-cum-performance where she had sat still above a grotto in a park, a stone’s throw from the festival hub. I first saw the artist from across a small lake, where a group of us had congregated to witness the end of her performance. Yana, who is interested in shamanic practices, was sporting a five-coloured tutu skirt of sorts worn over a white outfit. Each of the five colours corresponded to one of the elements from Tibetan, and specifically Bon, mythology: earth, water, fire, air and space. She later explained to me that this particular week or stretch of the journey was dedicated to fire; on the day we walked tied together, in fact, she wore red.

My expression of interest in her work, following the performance, naturally designated me as a candidate for a more active engagement in Yana’s practice. Having taken part in Amy Sharrocks’s WALBROOK (2009), during Arts Admin’s Two Degrees festival, which involved fifty participants or so, all wearing blue, loosely bound together with blue ribbon and walking from the source of the river in Highbury to its mouth at the Thames, I cannot even say that this is the first time I had been tied to someone in the name of art. This felt different, though, in its sheer duration, roughly four times that of the WALBROOK piece, and in the exclusive nature of the bond.

Yana had asked me to donate (or sacrifice rather) an item of clothing, which, cut up into strips, and combined with one of her own, would serve to make a rope, using a Siberian knotting method she taught me. Supple enough to stretch a little, it would be tied to and around our waists for the next 20-odd hours. Its full extension, and thus the maximum distance between us, was three meters at best. The rope, effectively restricting our movements, symbolically acted as an umbilical cord of sorts. Thus twinned, ours was a peculiar circus act that complemented well the donkey, the caravan, the professional clowns and storytellers in our midst.

As the day wore on, I became increasingly aware of the rope as a metaphor for the invisible ties that bind us to someone – be it child, lover, partner or any relative we are responsible for. With no dependents to speak of, I take my freedom for granted: no one is there to restrict my movements in any significant way. The rope gave me a taste of what it would feel like to have to factor in another person’s wishes, needs, pace, interests. Two is also the basic unit of human relations. The day’s experiences put me in mind of the myth of androgynous beings that Aristophanes relates in Plato’s Symposium: split into two by vengeful gods, we are forever hankering after the lost unity, searching and longing for our other half.

Maurizio Cattelan: Amen

This review appeared on artforum.com.

Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled, 2007.

Maurizio Cattelan’s 2011 retrospective at the Guggenheim, emphatically titled “All,” was meant to be his last show. But with “Amen” at the Center for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, he appears to have risen from his ashes. Although none of the pieces on view had been made specifically for this show (all were featured in the Guggenheim retrospective), the particular context into which they have been inserted—that of a still predominantly Catholic Poland struggling to come to terms with the traumas of the past century—gives these familiar works a new resonance. In contrast to the monstrous retrospective in New York that, in its aim to be exhaustive, brought together 128 pieces, “Amen” assembles a small but well-judged selection of works made between 1999 and 2011.

Spread across two gallery rooms and outside of the Ujazdowski Castle, with a coda in a tenement house at 14 Próżna Street, the eight works included in the exhibition are thematically interconnected. Religious symbolism predictably dominates this show, whose shock value will not be lost on its intended audience. Yet the Christ figures visible here—in Untitled, 2007, a life-size resin cast of a crucified woman with her back to us, and in Untitled, 2009, a taxidermied horse in agony with a sign displaying the acronym INRI sticking out from its flank—also speak of domestic violence perpetrated against women and evoke Polish patriotism associated with the horse in an iconographic tradition that includes Rembrandt’s Polish Rider. Patriotism and the need to protect the most vulnerable members of family and society, namely children, are again gestured at in two more Untitled works, dated 2004 and 2007, featuring respectively the effigy of a child hanging on a pole in lieu of a flag and two taxidermied dogs guarding a chick, placed at the start of the exhibition.

Him, 2001, the chilling epilogue in “Amen,” moves beyond the confines of the galleries in which the piece is typically displayed, instead occupying the ground floor of the dilapidated Próżna Street tenement house, in what was once the Warsaw Ghetto. Seen in this setting, Cattelan’s instantly recognizable Hitler in the guise of a supplicant child challenges us to ponder afresh the meaning of that most Christian of virtues: forgiveness.

Postcard from the Belfort Film Festival

This report appeared on the frieze blog.

Une vraie jeune fille (Catherine Breillat, 1975)

Programmed alongside features and shorts shown in the international competition at the ‘EntreVues’ film festival in Belfort, now in its 27th year, retrospectives and themed sections have long been a staple of a festival that prides itself in linking emerging filmmakers to the rich history of auteur cinema which has shaped them. One of the themed sections in the 2012 festival, which took place from 24 November to 2 December – ‘Art press: 40 ans de regard’ – was exceptionally curated by art press editor-in-chief Catherine Millet. To mark the 40th anniversary of the influential contemporary art monthly that she co-founded in 1972, Millet was given carte blanche to choose the films she pleased. Her selection of 15 visually ravishing and often sexually explicit films by Catherine Breillat, Bertrand Bonello, Bruno Dumont, Peter Greenaway, João César Monteiro and Pier Paolo Pasolini, among others, was meant to reflect an art magazine’s take on auteur cinema from the 1960s to the present, proved worthy of the author of the best-selling memoir La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M (The Sexual Life of Catherine M, 2001).

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

In the discussions following some of the screenings and at a roundtable that brought together artists, filmmakers, curators and critics who responded to yet another selection of (this time) brief, artist-made video and film clips, Millet readily admitted to being a visual person. This predominantly visual sensibility comes across in the films she chose, some of which were made by filmmakers who are also painters or artists in their own right. Unsurprisingly, pictorial and art historical references abounded in such films as Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), referencing Christian paintings and sculptures across centuries; in Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), whose candlelit scenes evoke Caravaggio and Georges de la Tour; or in Alain Cuny’s 1991 L’Annonce faite à Marie (The Annunciation of Marie), with its stunning sets and gorgeous costumes designed by Tal Coat. As Millet points out, each take in Cuny’s film (and the same can be said of the other two) could, and indeed should, be viewed as a tableau.

An adaptation of Paul Claudel’s play-poem by the same title, L’Annonce faite à Marie was emblematic of the theatrical, somewhat affected diction that was another recurring feature of the selected films. Jean-Marie Straub’s 15-minute L’Inconsolable (2011), the first film he has made since the death of his partner and collaborator Danièle Huillet in 2006, features two elderly characters sitting in a forest, amid ferns, declaiming lines from Cesare Pavese’s Dialogues with Leuco, recounting Orpheus’s loss of Eurydice. In Eugène Green’s Le Pont des Arts (2003), which subtly weaves together the destinies of two young couples with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a backdrop, the slow pace of the delivery is matched by rigidly frontal views of the actors’ faces. The combination is deliberately unrealistic, hieratic, even stilted, in keeping with the rarefied atmosphere of the film, whose protagonist, Sarah, sings in a baroque music ensemble.

A comedia de Deus (João Cesar Monteiro, 1995)

A certain baroque sensibility underpinned the heady mixture of ritual, eroticism, death, and aesthetic refinement that permeated these films, perhaps best embodied in critic and poet Monteiro’s A comedia de Deus (1995), which sees the lustful aging manager of an ice-cream parlour, João de Deus – a recurrent figure in Monteiro’s films, played by the film director himself – sexually initiate his apprentice Rosarinho. In their frank and at times graphic depiction of sexuality, many of the selected films conformed to what the magazine’s long-standing film collaborator Dominique Païni aptly labels as ‘pornographic experimentation’, in connection with Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus (1996). Dumont’s award-winning début feature, whose protagonist is subject to occasional bouts of epilepsy and engages in decidedly un-Christ-like behaviour, from copulation to sexual assault to murder, features close-ups of penetration. The same holds true of Catherine Breillat’s first film, Une vraie jeune fille (A Real Young Girl, 1976), starring Charlotte Alexandra as the bored and sexually precocious teen condemned to spending the summer holidays in her family home. Based on Breillat’s novel Le Soupirail, the film was banned until 1999 on account of its obscene portrayal of Alice’s erotic fantasies.

La Vie de Jésus (Bruno Dumont, 1996)

If we can speak of ‘pornographic experimentation’ in relation to these films, it’s more to do with their transgressive subject matter than with formal experimentation as such – with one notable exception. Jean Eustache’s Une sale histoire (A Dirty Story, 1977) consists of two short films, a fictive and a documentary account, filmed respectively in 35mm and 16mm, in which a man confides to a largely female audience, rapt in concentration, how he became a voyeur after discovering a hidden hole in women’s toilets that offered a direct view of female genitals. Thanks to it, the protagonist comes to realize that there is no obvious equation between the outward appeal of a woman and that of her sexual parts, which in the end is the only thing that matters. In an unprecedented move, the original tale is retold almost word for word in the second, more stylized version, using a cast of professional actors. There is nothing quite like this doubling effect in the history of cinema.

That Millet should evince an interest in all this was hardly surprising given that, by her own admission, La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M. draws on the methods of pornographic films, when it comes to the framing and close-ups of sexual organs in particular. In fact, Jacques Nolot’s La Chatte à deux têtes (Glowing Eyes, 2002), appropriately shown at one of the late screenings which, courtesy of art press, had more than their fair share of X-rated matter, depicts the closed world of a pornographic cinema near the place Clichy, catering to a homosexual clientèle. What Millet particularly admires about the film are its autobiographical elements and the risk-taking involved in publicly baring oneself, no doubt an implicit comment on what she regards as her own achievement in the literary domain. Nothing if not coherent, the choice of films made by art press for the 27th edition of Belfort’s film festival amounted to a self-portrait.

Vlatka Horvat

This interview appeared in the ‘Brand New’ section of Flash Art.

From left: Vlatka Horvat, Or Some Other Time, 2009. Installation view at The Kitchen, New York; Hammered Out, 2011. Installation view from “Vlatka Horvat: As Opposed to the Front, Back, Top and Bottom,” Bergen Kunsthall, Bergen. Broken double-pane window, chair, tape. All courtesy the artist.

 

AGNIESZKA GRATZA: Am I right in thinking that there has been a shift away from the representation of the human body in your recent work? Your own body has become less present in it, at any rate.

Vlatka Horvat: That’s absolutely right. Coming from a background in performance, I’ve always been interested in the human body, figure or presence, in relation to the built environment, to objects in space. A lot of my early work in photography, video and collage came at these interests directly — figuratively — but in 2009, for my first solo show at The Kitchen in New York, I began to wonder if I could deal with the same kinds of questions and issues without actually showing the body. I began working on installation and sculptural objects, and instead of representing a body I started to make work that made a problem of the spectator’s body in space. The presence of the spectator — as a subject negotiating space — became really important to me.

AG: So is that what you’re exploring at the moment?

VH: The way I’ve worked on pretty much all the shows since The Kitchen has been to approach them as rooms. I tell myself I’m working with rooms as opposed to making pieces that go into rooms. That distinction allows me to consider how a body fits in there, how a person who enters the space negotiates trajectories and animates the relationships between objects and elements of space. A lot of my work in the last couple of years has explored notions of frames and borders of space, approaching them as sites whose physical properties can be reconfigured and reorganized. I’m drawn to the idea of edges and peripheries in two-dimensional work as well — the point where one thing meets another. So in my works on paper I’ve been working with gestures of folding, cutting and merging. For a while I have been thinking about this idea of making a room that would be entirely reduced to the edges.

AG: Ground Coil, the spectacular floor piece that colonizes most of the walking surface in the main gallery space at Zak / Branicka in Berlin, does just that. It is made of coiled cardboard strips, 600 meters or so, bound with tape in places. What’s the appeal of paper and its byproducts as an artistic medium?

VH: I like paper as a medium because it’s so ubiquitous and commonplace. I’m also drawn to it because it is flimsy, disposable and unprecious. As my work has been developing I’ve been increasingly working with paper as a three-dimensional material rather than just a surface to make pictures on. I think that has to do with the shift I was speaking about before — the shift from representing something to trying to make something happen in the viewer’s experience of space and time. My works on paper have become more performative, spaces to be reconfigured and reorganized. They invoke process and demand a different, more embodied relation from the viewer. They’re objects, rather than images.

Frances Stark: Osservate, Leggete con me

This review of Frances Stark’s show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, appeared in ArtReview.

If there’s an art to virtual conversation, as there used to be an art to letter writing, Frances Stark is a past master at it. The latest of her shows to probe the format’s conventions, Osservate, Leggete con Me comes hot on the heels of the artist’s critically acclaimed digital animation My Best Thing (2011), in which she turned the modalities of sex-chatroom exchanges into artistic gold. The new works keep the episodic structure but dispense with the plastic Playmobil dolls clad in fig leaves or briefs that made for much of My Best Thing’s appeal. Pared down to animated texts that spell out, in the manner of subtitles, the spoken exchanges between Stark and her wouldbe lovers, the two pieces making up this show, the eponymous Osservate, Leggete con Me and Nothing Is Enough (both 2012), arguably leave more to the imagination – but not a whole lot.

In keeping with the show’s title – quoting from Don Giovanni’s gleeful ‘Catalogue’ aria, to which the longer of the two digital video projections is set – the experience of viewing the work effectively amounts to reading the writing on the wall. A carefully orchestrated, if deliciously unpredictable, audiovisual parkour spans two adjoining gallery spaces: the first is fitted with an off-white couch for viewers to lounge on as their gaze travels from screen to screen and wall to wall with every new instalment of Stark’s salacious Chatroulette romance; the second holds two rows of prim black benches that match the more sombre and contemplative mood of Nothing Is Enough, conveyed through rather plodding piano music that is scored by one of several partners the artist dallies with in the first one.

The contrast between these two timebased pieces, which last around 30 and 14 minutes respectively, is underscored by the inverted blackand- white colour scheme that makes one look like a negative image of the other. Whereas in the first gallery italicised white characters in the ornate Apple Chancery font (calling to mind a schoolgirl practising her calligraphy) appear on either side of a black screen, in the second gallery, black letters alternating between the aforementioned font (reserved this time round for Stark’s persona) and the more rigid Calibri font (given to her virtual lover) are projected against a white backdrop.

Taken as a whole, the discrete chat sequences involving nine or so partners – mostly young Italian men whose broken English contrasts with Stark’s idiomatic and incisive turns of phrase – read like a Dangerous Liaisons adapted to these social-media-savvy times. Brevity being of the essence, snippets of conversation fade in and out of view at the speed of instant messaging in a ceaseless back-and-forth tit-for-tat, one liberally sprinkled with exclamation marks, Internet slang (omg, lol, rofl, wtf and the like) as well as the odd onomatopoeic outburst that would do Rabelais proud. Such delicate moral issues as virtual betrayal or jealousy are raised and just as soon brushed aside. In the final episode of Nothing Is Enough, Stark jokingly boasts to her partner in crime, for once linguistically her (near) equal, of having ‘so many people to keep satisfied’. Not least her readers.