Writings

Chris Burden – Measured

In their latest show, Gagosian gallery is isolating two works from the Chris Burden retrospective at New Museum in New York in 2013, and presenting them together in their Brittania Street gallery. Entitled Measured, the show speaks of symmetry, bringing together two works that exist via the equality of weight between two opposing objects. In Porsche With Meteorite, a genuine nickel-iron meteorite counterbalances a restored Porsche 914.

Chris Burden - Measured

Porsche With Meteorite

This work is one which suggests immense, and yet dormant, power. The power of the sports-car is curtailed and it is left sitting idly, as if weightless, whilst the meteorite sits cold upon the opposing end of the fulcrums arm. These two objects have had past lives that were incredibly high-octane, for Burden’s restoration of a vintage car rather than the selection of a showroom floor model is not merely serendipitous. These objects have been imbued with an immense power, which through his transfiguration, have become impotent in their stillness. They seem to have lost their virility, and sit immobile, suspended in time.

The meteorite is only twenty percent of the weight of the car, and for this reason the beam that supports both is much longer on the meteorites end. It is a purpose-built structure that towers overhead, telescopic – although the lack of registration-marks on the uniform oxidisation suggests that this functionality is only for show; it has potential, but this potential will never be actualised. The vehicles have been painstakingly restored to their former perfection, whilst the oxidised steel components, display an artificial history that in the vehicles js genuine, but obscured.

The viewer is at once struck with the delicacy of the work, and yet feels insecure in the potential for danger. In many ways both works in Measured are redolent of his 1996 work The Flying Steamroller, in which a twelve-tonne steamroller is attached to a pivoted arm, counterbalanced on the opposite side. In the middle of the arm, there is a rotating fulcrum that allows the steamroller to lift off the ground and float in the air once it has reached a high enough velocity for the counterweight to elevate it. In this work the potential for unmitigated disaster is very real, and it is impossible to not be struck by the delicacy with which this immensely dangerous event is taking place. The steamroller glides serenely through the air like a bird.

Chris Burden - Measured

Chris Burden – One Ton Crane Truck

The other work in the show, One-Ton Crane Truck is a refurbished Ford truck counterbalanced with a purpose-built single tonne cube, which contrasts with and exemplifies the exotic nature of the meteorite. In this work, the vehicle is a rudimentary machine used for laborious work, which is diametrically opposed to the extravagent sports-car in the other room. This juxtaposition of the functional and familiar robustness of the crane truck and cube, with the exotic sports car and meteorite, seems to highlight the intrinsic qualities of each by playing them off against one another. The sports car appears all the more luxurious and fast, whilst the truck speaks of rigidity and strength. This piece is slightly less successful than its counterpart however, and as was suggested to me by a friend, a bit ‘cartoony’. The one-tonne weight is a rather arbritrary measurement, as the trucks front wheels are planted firmly on the ground. Were they to be lifted ever-so-slightly off the floor, the work would have been immeasurably powerful, but alas, that is not the case. Having the counterweight a purpose-built cube, as opposed to a magical, extra-terrestrial chunk of metal, diminishes this work somewhat. It does however, suggest that this work means something different to its opposite, in that here the work suggests industry and industrialization, grounded in the real, laborious world. The other has a magical, almost fairytale quality, and is suggestive of some kind of freedom (or its lack thereof). It is not that either work critiques or diminishes the other, rather that they both speak of similar ideas, in opposing ways.

Burden’s early work was chaotic and reckless, but never haphazard. There was a raw energy and freedom to his performance works that now, because of his untimely death, will never be seen again. This show has a somber quietness  to it, that when viewed after the artist’s premature death, screams of lost potential. The cars potential as a conduit to immense power and freedom is left suspended, and isolated from the very ground that gives it its meaning. In this however, it is imbued it with a newer, more abstract power. The meteorite appears as if lassoed out of the sky, hung upon a metal gallows and displayed in all its impotence, energy lost irretrievably.

In Burden’s earlier work, he put himself at great physical danger and exposed himself to actual bodily harm for his works. Towards the end of his career, he made works that placed the viewer in arenas of potential danger, with The Big Wheel and Steamroller, where there always seemed that chaos was ready to break free. In these works presented in Measured, the chaos and energy that could ensue has long passed, and now lays dormant within these objects, perfectly suspended to reflect that an equilibrium has been reached between chaos and calm. The gallery has a stillness that heightens the balance of the two works, both individually with the literal balance between objects, but also the way in which both works discourse with each other.

As Mark Rothko once said, “complete equilibrium is death”, and within these works, it is the perfect symmetry of both that each nullifies the power of its opposite. All ordered systems strive towards chaos, and these equal and opposing forces arrest this eagerness for disorder, creating a stunted equilibrium redolent of serenity. It is a stale serenity however, as each work calls to mind a lost potential, which when read in the post-Burden landscape, echoes of loss.

Words: Benjamin Murphy 

Chris Burden, ‘Measured’, runs through 26/01/19, Gagosian, 6-24 Brittanian Street

 

For more articles, look HERE, or HERE

And to see the article on After Nyne, look HERE

Santiago Sierra

An article about the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, that was originally published in After Nyne magazine.

 

Santiago Sierra is a Spanish artist who creates works that are seemingly morally bankrupt, and that initially inspire revulsion in the minds of most. The pointless menial labor of marginalised members of society is what Sierra uses as the raw materials with which to create his works, and it is this that people find the most distressing.

Previous works have included: paying illegal immigrants to sit under boxes in galleries for hours at a time; bricking a gallery worker inside a room for 10 days; and covering 10 Iraqis in hardening foam.

 

 

In one work 160cm Line Tattooed Four People – four prostitutes are paid in the price of a shot heroin, to have a line tattooed on their backs. The line is thin and straight, and spans the entire width of the back of one, continuing across all six. The tattoo machine needle echoes the needle through which the nominal amount of heroin will be administered, and the tattoo speaks of the permanency of the tattoo in contrast to the immediate and short-lived effects of the heroin.

 

In this work, the women involved have made a conscious choice to accept the tattoo for the recompense offered. The decision is theirs alone, yet to the viewer this is unarguably exploitative and insensitive. Heroin addiction is tragic in its banality, and this is something that Sierra exposes through his exploitation of these women, in an equally banal and tragic way.

For the individual women tattooed, this work is clearly exploitative and unethical, but — if by its execution the needs and struggles of the chemically dependent are exposed to a wider audience, then the work can serve some positive purpose. This work may serve society on the whole, as through its utter depravity it may encourage people to offer help to those affected by addiction in a similar way.

 

The problem here lies with a society that allows these people to become so desperate that they are willing to go to such lengths. Sierra himself explained the work saying:

 

“The tattoo is not the problem. The problem is the existence of social conditions that allow me to make this work.”

 

This exploitation of individuals in order to serve society on the whole is unpalatable, but it is this unpalatability that affects us so profoundly, thus creating a real empathy that would be unachievable through the use of mere statistics. The exploitation of a few to serve the greater good may be ethically ambiguous, but it is something that happens all across society and all throughout history, to varying degrees of severity.

 

The revulsion that these works create in the viewer can be incredibly powerful in the fight against social injustice. Sierra’s works expose exploitation that is already there, even inside the institutions in which he shows his work. Sierra may pay someone minimum wage to sit in a gallery for four hours per day, but just down the corridor a security guard is paid the same amount to stand for often longer amounts of time.

In many ways, his work is the antithesis of Maria Eichhorn’s most recent work 5 Weeks, 25 Days, 175 Hours; in which she spent the budget for the show on closing the gallery and paying the staff to take the full duration of the show off work.

 

By highlighting these issues in the way that he does, Sierra stuns the viewer into action like the shock of cold water, and through this we are compelled to alter these types of situations in our own lives. His works afford the subjects a physicality that promotes much more intense feelings of empathy than can be created by plain numbers, seen upon a white page.

 

This works in much the same way as the documentation of war by photographers such as Don Mccullin. In a way, war photography is exploitative of those depicted dying and desolate, but the way in which these horrors are documented can promote viewers to help is incalculable. In this sense, the ends more than justify the means.

 

The exploitation of marginalised workers isn’t something that often makes headlines; it is the type of issue that is easy to sweep under the rug, and one that isn’t likely to sell many newspapers. Those who are being exploited are often fearful or unable to stand up for themselves, and if they do, they risk losing their only source of income.

 

As a society we are programmed to exploit, always seeking the most high-quality product or service for the lowest price. Phrases such as ‘bargain’ and ‘great value’ suggest a victory for the consumer at the expense of the producer. Commerce and the payment for services is not an altruistic system, it is predicated on cynicism and exploitation. Menial wage exploitation isn’t a bold or particularly visible form of injustice, and it will never garner headlines like racism, sexism, or homophobia. By creating his works, Sierra is fore-fronting these issues and making them unavoidable; we are unable to ignore such horror, and therein lies the beauty of his works. There is no stronger way of compelling help from those who are able to give it, than by exposing to them their silent complicity in the injustice that they are so repulsed by.

 

Through inaction and acquiescence, we are all complicit in certain forms of exploitation; from the cheaply made items we consume and dispose of; to the sweatshop-made fashion we buy. We are constantly looking for the best deal: the highest quality with the cheapest price. This frugality when misdirected can fuel the exploitation machine, it pushes prices for products and services lower, and as a direct consequence it is the disadvantaged that suffer the greatest losses.

 

Things (especially art) take their meaning from the viewer’s cache of similar past experience. The viewer attains their perspective by evaluating their feelings and understandings, seen through the prism of memory and how similar events have affected them.

If the positions of the artist’s ethical sensibilities, or the way those are portrayed are too obvious, the viewer reads the work as propaganda and becomes automatically and subconsciously defensive; or worse, dismissive. Art created didactically is better described as an applied art, or a piece of design, rather than true art — an idea summed up accurately by Gilda Williams: “If an artwork’s message is self-evident, maybe it’s just an illustration, a decorative non-entity, a well executed craft object, hardly counting as ‘significantart at all.

 

This means that meaning and intent on the part of the artist must be vague, so as to be absorbed neutrally and thus ruminated upon by the viewer. The viewer can then decide through further consideration the ethical or philosophical undertones to the work, and can feel as if they have discovered them independently. This is the best way to convey ideas through art and produce real change. It leaves the decisions up to the viewer, and the gratification they receive when they feel like they have understood, or elucidated meaning from a work is profound.

 

Upon entering a gallery, the viewer is somewhat unguarded when it comes to political discourse, and is thus more easily affected. Certain media outlets, orators, and publications for example can be dismissed before they have had a chance to convey any information due to the viewer’s preconceptions about their bias, validity, or trustworthiness. This is less frequent in an art gallery however, which it is why the gallery setting is the perfect arena for information dissemination and discussion. The very act of placing an item or situation into a gallery setting opens it up to a level of scrutiny that the complexity of normal life suppresses.

 

What makes Sierra’s work all the more powerful is that it isn’t some grandiose attempt to topple governments or promote revolution; it simply shows how people can affect change in a very real and tangible way. The change Sierra is suggesting is the rejection of a system that isn’t working, and he is showing us exactly how to go about forcing that change. Upon seeing his work I cannot imagine any viewer not reevaluating how they see cheap labor, and changing their actions towards those less fortunate.

 

To borrow a phrase from Eugène Ionesco – “To tear ourselves away from the everyday, from habit, from mental laziness which hides from us the strangeness of reality, we must receive something like a real bludgeon blow.”

Conversation With Billy Childish

Ahead of his exhibition ‘The House At Grass Valley’, I met up for a conversation with Billy Childish.

 

 

Originally published in After Nyne Magazine.

 

BM – What relevance does the House at Grass Valley have, to both yourself and this body of work?

BC – Most of my paintings come from an immediate response to images, this was in response to a photograph of their house in Grass Valley California. My friend Johnny’s father built the house and I have visited there with my wife who is from California. My work is carried out very quickly, the response is very automatic. There’s little mental process, just this quick reaction – it’s how most of my work is undertaken. It’s not important that there is a real house Grass Valley. People might want to know the story but a painting is in another world that lives beyond the location. The ‘real’ almost becomes immaterial.

BM – Why did you choose to include the works of Russian Literature: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Gogol etc.?

BC – These people had a visceral engagement with life, and decent human integrity. I like people with moral depth and intelligence. All of these things are not bound in time; I believe a painting collapses time. That sounds grandiose in a way…

BM – You mean its universal?

BC – Yes, the paintings are difficult to place, you could place them anywhere in the last hundred years, but I would also counter that they are very modern. They acknowledge their history if you like, and wear their hearts on their sleeves. I declare my loves and celebrate my influences, which is something that artists used to do.

BM – I think the reason most artists these days are more reluctant to share their inspirations is because they are trying to claim that they have entirely original ideas.

BC – Yes, they want to pretend that they have invented everything themselves. We’re in this situation where art is tied to fashion. Art is almost trailing behind fashion, rather than leading from the front, so people are hugely worried about how to find themselves and how to be original rather than authentic. It’s very adolescent.

BM – A lot of artists don’t become relevant until long after they’ve died and society has had a chance to catch up.

BC – Absolutely, you can be so far ahead of the curve that you appear to be behind it – I’m one of those guys. It can be a problem if you’re career minded, but lucky for me I’m not. I paint the paintings that I want to paint when I want to paint them, I don’t do anything for an audience. There’s nothing more dated than the contemporary.

BM – Would you say you were an obsessive, is it a compulsion?

BC – I think that we’re all obsessive and compulsive. Whether it’s: somebody who’s obsessive about working in a bank; or tidying their house; or someone who’s obsessively creative.

BM – A lot of your inspirations (Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky, Munch) make works about isolation. I see that same isolation in a lot of your work, be it painting, prose, poetry etc. Is that a concern or an inspiration for you?

BC – I suppose I have been trying to work out who I am and what that might mean, it takes lot of introspection. I was not given a lot of good information as a young man, and I come from quite a fractured background. I was finding maturity and a path through all of that. I now know the value of being here and the value of integrity, truth, and honesty. It’s taken a long while, and its not through my cleverness or my abilities, its through luck and grace.

BM – You had a tough upbringing in certain ways; do you believe that artists who have suffered some kind of hardship are naturally better artists?

BC – I think a lot of expression, and trying to understand the world can come from dysfunction. If somebody is burdened with suffering it can be a very valuable tool for them.

I’m sure art encourages mad men, and I’m sure it helps some mad men.

BM – So would you say that these works are more autonomous than your early works?

BC – I’m in them, but I don’t use the same piece of brain as I used to. The hand that drew in the caves is the hand that draws now, there’s no gap. It’s primal, because its unconscious and it’s beyond time. Beauty is highly underrated, and so is craft and aesthetic. I often say to people I don’t make art I make pictures; I leave art to the artists.

BM – That’s the opposite of what a lot of contemporary artists would say.

BC – That’s because I’m being sarcastic and in fact they’re not artists. If something needs to be in a gallery to be recognized as art, it very possibly isn’t.

BM – With conceptual art, do you not believe that the crafting of an idea is enough rather than the crafting of a material?

BC – Anything can be enough; I don’t have any problem with conceptual art. I’m happy for Tate Modern to be full of conceptual art, for it to be a Sunday outing for families, and for it to be like an amusement park.

But I would also say that a lot of conceptual art has devalued its own language through overuse. The same can be said of abstract art. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t have relevance or value but if you have a diet of only chocolate it makes you sick.

Society and art are all so diabolically mundane is because it is very easy to big up rubbish and very easy to dismiss the real. Very few people can tell the difference. But the real will always survive and will eventually raise itself to the surface in good time.

When I talk about this stuff people think what a dark view, but I have a total optimism in this.

BM – Do you think that the art world nowadays is too celebrity-focused?

BC – Society is obsessed with celebrity, and there’s no reason why art would be excluded from that. It’s that adolescent trend, the decadence of the world we live in. The art world personifies that decadence. It’s all greed; greed is borne of a lack of confidence, and a lack of spiritual belief. It’s not because these people are bad but that they lack self-confidence. We feel that we’re in competition with each other, and that’s because we’re a spiritually bankrupt decadent society. But truth and goodness will always survive.

BM – A lot of your work is quite melancholy, would you agree?

BC – Melancholy is underrated; there is a very melancholic feel to the world. A lot of people misunderstand melancholy; in a way it can be an introspective and calm place. It’s not going to obliterate you, it just tones everything down – its not misery. We’re such a mixed bag of emotions, and we have to understand that we live beyond them. There are a lot of quite dark things in my poetry because one of my favorite things is a black humor. Often people are surprised that I’m quite lighthearted.

BM – Do you think that for you your work is a way of excising some past demons?

BC – I think it does happen, it’s all tied into this existential feeling of being lost and alone without god.

It doesn’t matter where the problem is it’s just how much you identify with it. And being able to not identify with those aspects of ourselves, just recognize them. The ones who find it difficult are the ones who get stuck in identifying themselves as a particular aspect or qualification; they become defined by events that have happened to them, or their abilities.

The things we are always looking for is freedom, either by controlling others or by greed and money and power. But we’re seeking what we already have, and causing mischief for others in the process by looking in the wrong places. It stems from a lack of confidence in ourselves and a lack of self-awareness. One of the main jobs in life is loving yourself; you don’t have to become some kind of saint, you just have to have the guts to get to know yourself, and realize that your problems and defects are perfectly ok.

 

Liam Gillick – the Thought Style Meets The Thought Collective

Originally published through This Is Tomorrow

www.thisistomorrow.info

The real beauty in Liam Gillick’s work is his unpretentious approach. His art is, in his own words ‘aprofound’. Taken to mean unprofound, this is a refreshingly original stance for an artist to take. Much like all Relational Art, his work is intentionally vague and undefined, and for that reason has many meanings.

Specifically, Gillick’s title is referencing the ways in which artwork is produced within collective artistic communities. Mary Douglas interpreted the works of the scientist and sociologist Ludwik Fleck, and this in turn inspired Gillick. Fleck was deeply interested in the idea of the ‘thought collective’, and how truths can only be called true when regarded in the thought collective that deems them to be such. Comparative epistemology and cross-pollination between thought collectives is the best way to share ideas and learn from other’s perspectives that your individual group may have missed. This way of sharing brings with it a new group of issues which when combined with the tension between group and individual, creates contradictions and intransigent positions that are unavoidable.

In the first room, one is greeted by two large text pieces that are similar to the show title, and a short-wave radio receiver. The radio is unassumingly placed directly on the floor, off-center and unevenly lit. The audio contains elements of the Marxist/socialist utopian science-fiction novel ‘Looking Backward’ by Edward Bellamy, in which an individual time-travels over a century into the future. Published in 1888, Bellamy predicted many of the political and social conditions of the then-future with surprising accuracy. The novel spawned many ‘Bellamy Clubs’, who debated and spread his theories religiously. This collective system of sharing ideas reflects the thought collectives developed by Fleck.

The second room is visually more interesting, containing a glittery floor, unlit bonfire, and three acrylic ceiling-hung assemblages.

Presented with this work is the set of artist-written instructions with which the work was created. Upon reading these instructions one learns that the swirls made in the glitter are the result of pouring a liter of vodka on the floor. (Vodka is incredibly flammable, and seems to tempt fate when spilled around an enormous unlit bonfire).

The bonfire reaches beyond the ceiling support beams and almost up to the very roof itself. Containing enough wood to destroy the building were it ever to go up in flames, this piece speaks of incredible potential energy and suggests the chaos that would ensue were it freed. It conveys feelings of tension in its seemingly innocuous raw material, and it is only when the wood is presented in this way that its true destructive power becomes evident.

This show is about communities and the potential perils that lie therein. Much of Liam Gillick’s work, and indeed much of Relational art on the whole, speaks to all. The beauty of this type of art is its universality, and its ability to be inclusive of all and any interpretations and readings.

Great art is art that promotes interesting discourse and encourages further discovery, and this exhibition does both.

Benjamin Murphy