Archive

Contextual

A view of Athens from the Parthenon

A view of Athens from the Parthenon

I arrive in Athens after a 5 hour train journey from Thessaloniki which took us through a stunning mountainous terrain. Athens is warm, it’s late September and an energetic vibe encapsulates the city. We arrive on the opening of the 4th Biennale, which is also the same day it is announced that the Golden Dawn, a far-right wing political party, are officially classified as a criminal organisation and members of the party are arrested. There’s a tense feeling on the graffiti sprawled streets and large numbers of police officers on motorcycles whiz by. The 4-day stay is framed by political and social discussions with our host. A sense of the present moment surrounds us and one cannot ignore Greece’s current situation. Athens feels very much at the centre of the economic and social crisis, and the effects are visible on the streets. Yet as a first timer to the city, I am quickly drawn into its charm, energy and edge. I stumble upon ancient ruins scattered through out the city alongside modern ruins, decaying buildings, broken windows and graffiti stained walls. The Parthenon still stands grand presiding over the city’s blue skies by day and as a reassuring lit up glowing presence in the skyline at night. The view from the top provides a sense of scale of the sprawling city, whilst installing a wonderful sense of peace and elevation.

Back on ground level the city feels greatly divided, politically on the streets it’s become a war between the far left and the far right vying for the city’s space and attention, whilst all faith in the, often labelled ‘corrupt’ middle has turned to hatred and despair. Physically the city is divided in to safe and unsafe areas and we’re told which parts to avoid, against advice we wander through these streets which feel foreign to Greece but familiar to areas I’m used to in the UK, Asian hardware or bric-a-brac stores in run down buildings line the streets, a Chinese supermarket, groups of Pakistani men exchange conversation on the street, a wonderful Thai restaurant (we couldn’t resist a trip back to at night) and yes, we see a junkie passed out on the streets, but this is also the area where all the city’s art galleries reside. This is perhaps a strong example of cheap rents in a – labelled- ‘dodgy’ area often equal a vivid, exciting, art scene. I am aware of the problems with the spiraling immigration numbers in Greece but I cannot help that feel that fear itself is not helping the situation, we are told one story by a Greek friend of a terrifying encounter with an immigrant in this area of the city which installed in my imagination the impression of a far out zombie-esque encounter.

'What's next?' Graffiti in Athens

‘What’s next?’ Graffiti in Athens

AB4 Agora, the Former Stock Exchange, Monday 1 October 2013

AB4 Agora, the Former Stock Exchange, Monday 1 October 2013

And so, my original reason for visiting Athens is a trip to the 4th Athens Biennale (AB4). Appropriately housed largely in the city’s former stock exchange building, this years event entitled ‘Agora’ chooses to focus on not only the present situation in Greece but with eyes firmly looking into the future as it asks the question ‘what’s next’? Agora, in ancient Greek meaning a public open space for gatherings or markets reflects the Biennale’s dynamics, this year ran as a collective group of artists, curators, theorists and practitioners rather then a sole director, and the display, which was not to be a static exhibition but an evolving process of workshops, performances, collaborations and screenings, seeking audience participation as it explores new ways of thinking and imagining solutions for the economic crisis and the future of Greece. In this way the Biennale seeks to be a positive and constructive action, I admired this greatly, an ensemble of various fixed artworks span the building which put the situation in Greece into global context, but the heart of the exhibition, the agora, focusing mainly on Greece is located in the main hall. A former ‘market’ the Stock Exchange Building itself was wonderful to wander around, a building of crumbling grandeur, abandoned, and somewhat haunted by economic ghosts, the energy of the place, the decisions which would have taken place there.. the collapse.. all felt present in the building’s architecture. Likewise the private view carried an usual heightened energy, which felt more like a gathering than a traditional preview (in a good way).

I will just mention one of the works that sticks in my mind and I feel encapsulates the positive spirit of AB4’s Agora. The piece by artist duo DashNDem, ‘Reaching Re-birth’, consists of a circular workstation of video monitors in which the viewer is invited to sit in front of with headphones, encountering a personal experience with the screen. The viewer works their way around the installation receiving video messages from several top international life coaches who have been specially selected to participate. Each video provides a personal message to the Greek individual, centering on the idea of self-help in the current situation, message topics include; taking responsibility, overcoming anxiety, transforming pessimism and the individual’s actions. Sometimes told with personal stories relating to Greece or events elsewhere, analogies for the situation or more directly straight forward advice, the messages are told with tact and install a sense of hope and light. After my travels in Greece and speaking to various Greeks I noticed how easy it was for people to become engulfed in the situation and to sink into a sense of the country’s despair losing perspective of the world outside. I thought how great it might be for these messages, and too the proactive actions of AB4 to be received by the public.

This brings me to my final thought, as wonderful as AB4s intentions are, the buzz I felt on the opening and the aptness of the festival’s space, one niggling thought remained in my mind after leaving Athens. This was not whether the biennale would actually make any difference, as I believe that the nature of AB4’s active process is extremely important regardless of any outcome, but was the question of how much the biennale would actually be able engage with the general public of Athens, and not just the city’s artists and usual arts audience? In truth, this question hangs over most art festivals and exhibitions but feels especially crucial to the theme of AB4, and what it was trying to collectively achieve. I wondered if housing the exhibition in just two spaces in the city could be a limitation for the biennale and its potential for chance public encounters, and whether use of the city’s public space in some way would have been interesting – which, granted, is already a (no longer blank) canvas with graffiti slogans and protests. 

Athens, Greece, 28th September – 3rd October 2013

http://athensbiennale.org/

Advertisements

Paci_The column 2 Paci_The column

A large block of marble is excavated from a Chinese quarry; we watch it being transported onto a cargo ship. As the ship sets sail a number of Chinese workers begin to chip away at the rough gigantic material, firstly removing the sides from the block, and cutting the material into chunks before we see the marble begin to be carved and shaped further. What is being created on this journey in the middle of the ocean from this raw material is single classical style column. Beautifully filmed, we watch the transformation and journey of the marble, in a shot where we view the scene from above scale is distorted as the block sits small in comparison to its large vessel container, which, likewise, sails in the middle of the expansive ocean. On the ground the marble regains its grand scale against the Chinese workers who we watch skillfully carve the column. The camera follows the workers, in close ups we see the stones white residue covering one of the men, resting in the pores of his skin as he chips away at the marble. Too the voyage is viewed, from the highest point of the ship we look out into the never ending ocean, and the beautiful landscape at times turbulent and rainy and at others a peacefully sun drenched horizon. As the column is completed a large tarpaulin cover is erected across the ship and the ship continues its ongoing voyage.

Describing the idea of this journey as a ‘fairytale’ Adrian Paci tells this story not as a documentary but as a mesmerising and cinematic vision.  The classical style column derived from Ancient Greek and then Roman architecture is an immediately recognisable iconic structure familiar across Europe’s ancient buildings. Notions of history and memory collide with the present day realities of expanding economics, global industries and trading, in witnessing the columns construction by Chinese men on a factory-ship as it sets sail from east to west, our sense of familiarity slips between different states. The 25 minute video was made specifically  for Paci’s solo exhibition ‘Lives in Transit’ in Paris which is where the column itself ended up. Displayed horizontally outside the gallery, the column becomes a sculptural object in its own right.

I watched ‘The Column’ at the Museum of Byzantine Culture where the film is being exhibited as part of the 4th Thessaloniki Biennial.

This year’s Istanbul Biennial focuses on issues surrounding the power and struggles of public space, attempting to imagine concepts of democracy, freedom of expression, public and communal space and the relationship between urban transformation, art and politics. The title of the Biennial, ‘Mom, Am I Barbarian?’, taken from a book by Turkish poet Lale Müldür, explores the concept of the barbarian, which in Ancient Greek relates directly to ‘citizen’ and was applied to those who could not speak Greek. The Biennial questions what it means to be a good citizen today and looks at the idea of the barbarian in contemporary society as a  marginalized or excluded citizen, someone trying to debunk the system, a revolutionary, or perhaps an artist.

The themes of the Biennial relate directly to issues arising in Turkey over the past several years, and which are common place in many of parts of the world. The Biennial focuses mainly on South America, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, whilst putting recent events and artistic practice into context with modern history and artworks made in the 1960s and 70s in Europe and USA. It is impossible not to speak of the events that took place in Istanbul and across Turkey prior to the Biennial, in May and June, and the ongoing Gezi Resistance that has put into practice the Biennials entire concept and has, as a consequence, completely reshaped this years art festival. It’s these events which have also put the Biennial under controversy, following the Gezi Protests in Taksim, which ended in police brutality and forceful removal of protesters from public spaces, the Biennial organisers decided to pull out of using the much contested public spaces (Taksim Square, Gezi Park, Tarlabasi Bolevard etc.) which were originally planned as exhibition locations. Describing what was experienced in Istanbul and in cities across Turkey as “incomparable to any exhibition or art event”, the Biennial organisers decided that it felt wrong to negotiate with a government who was not even willing to listen to it’s own people, and moved the art festival to several indoor, private spaces and galleries within the city, with the exhibitions remaining ‘public’; free of charge to visitors. Whether this much debated decision was right or wrong, a festival about publicness moved out of the public sphere, the result of the Biennial is an extremely interesting, relevant and wide-ranging exploration of the global issues surrounding public space.

bangbangbang

I will first mention the only piece of work that remains in the public domain in Istanbul which is Turkish artist, Ayşe Erkmen’s ‘Bangbangbang’. ‘Bangbangbang’, a green ball controlled by a construction vehicle, stands outside the main Biennial exhibition space, the Antrepo building, and swings inwards once every hour towards the building. The installation which doesn’t seem out of place in Istanbul – a city where new developments and construction sites are regularly springing up – immediately comments on this. However it’s not just a comment on redevelopment, but a reminder of the brutal destruction that takes place prior to this, highlighting the recent demolishing and gentrification of several neighbourhoods in the city. Most prominently, its position in front of the Antrepo building (which has traditionally been used as a Biennial venue), directly relates to the imminent destruction of the building itself, which has recently been sold to developers who will be redeveloping it into a hotel or another sort of building for commercial use. The swinging pendulum represents a ticking time bomb, counting down the building’s remaining lifespan for cultural purpose.

 Annika Eriksson

Alike ‘Banbangbang’ several of the works in the Biennial directly comment and reflect upon the current situation in Istanbul. One of these is Annika Eriksson’s short looped video work ‘I am the dog that was always here’ which focuses on the street dogs of Istanbul and offers the viewer a look at the affects of an expanding city. Set on the outskirts of Istanbul the video visually focuses on the street dogs who have been moved out of the centre by the authorities into a no mans land , meanwhile a voice over gives a tour of central locations; Taksim Square, Talabasi Boulevard and the Grand Rue de Pera which are contested sites undergoing development. Parallels can be drawn between the dogs and fate of citizens in these areas. The looping of the film provides repetition and a circular narrative enhances the ongoing nature of issue.

 In another piece ‘Istanbul Diaries’, artists Elmgreen & Dragset enlist several young men to take part in a daily performance. Located in the Greek Primary School in a room full of lamp lit study desks the ‘performers’ visit each day to update their diaries. The diaries are left on the desks for visitors to read. The act of making the diaries public gives the men thoughts and opinions a public voice, which highlights issues of censorship and freedom of speech in contemporary Turkey.

Stepping outside of Turkey the Biennale explores similar issues in an international context. One piece that forms part of the exhibition is the video documenting the late Amal Kenawy’s performance ‘Silence of Sheep’ which took place in Cario, Egypt, in 2009. In this performance Kenawy led 15 people crawling on their hands and knees across a street, halting busy midday traffic. The video also documents the outrage of passers by who we see crowding around the artist questioning the performance’s validity as art, and her role in it as a woman, soon the argument gets out of hand and the police arrive. The controversial performance landed the artist along with most of the performers a night a jail and was pulled from the exhibition it was part of. Paradoxically, a year later documentation of the work was shown at the 12th International Cairo Biennial where it won the grand prize. The performance itself comments on the authoritarian system, poverty and powerlessness, however the unforeseen public reaction among other things raises crucial and ongoing issues in terms of public space in relationship with art, and social understanding and tolerance.

Amal Kenawy

Another piece in the Biennial shows documentation of artist Fernando Piola’s attempted public art projects/interventions ‘Red Square Project’ and ‘Tutoia Operation’ planned for Brazilian neighbourhoods. Piola is interested in the contradictions and socio-political tensions that materialise in urban public spaces and his projects often address episodes in recent Brazilian history that have been neglected. In ‘Red Square Project’ Piola focused on a recently gentrified neighbourhood, his plan was to adjust the urban vegetation in the neighbourhood to create a reminder of both the former neighbourhood and of the repression that existed under military dictatorship. Unfortunately the project didn’t go ahead, the authorities denied permission. Instead Piola began ‘Tutoia Operation’, this time he introduces himself as a gardener, rather than an artist, planning to upgrade the neighbourhood. Under this guise the Piola was successful and, plant-by-plant, slowly replaced the green vegetation with red foliage.

 Walter Osterholt & Elke Uitentuis

The concept of the monument in relation to publicness is explored in several works in the Biennial. Monuments are found in most cities, towns and landscape across the world, often large and sculptural and conceived for the purpose of remembering a person or an event of great historical, political or social importance. The ‘publicness’, ownership, limits of democracy and freedom of speech when it comes to creating national monuments is explored by artists Wouter Osterholt & Elke Uitentuis in their work ‘Monument to Humanity – Helping Hands’. This site-specific public project is based around the recent controversial story of the ‘Monument to Humanity’, which was created as a symbol of peace for Turkish and Armenian relations and as a reminder of the events which took place at the beginning of the 20th century. The monument, which stood on the Turkish/Armenian border in the city of Kars, displayed two figures with one extending a hand towards the other. The final part of the monument to be erected, the hand – was never attached, symbolising the demolishing of the monument before its completion after the Turkish PM President Erdogan visited the site and labelled the monument it as a ‘freak’. In their project ‘Helping Hands’ Osterholt and Uitentuis sought a way to record the public opinion on the issue, they wheeled a life size replica of the hand through the streets and asked for peoples views of the monument. These members of the public were then invited to cast their own hand in a position of their choice to symbolise their position on the subject. The result was 120 public hand casts, which became of temporary monument on a hillside in Kars, and a subsequent publication that documented the hands and reasons behind them.

 Gonzalo Lebrija

Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija’s sculpture ‘Lamento’, too explores the concept of the monument. ‘Lamento’ is a small white sculpture of a man leaning on his head on his arm which is raised in a position of sorrow. Originally conceived as a large scale monument specially for the city of Guadalajara in Mexico, the man represents sadness at the absurdity of mans modernisation of the city which led to the destruction and disregard for a lot of its important historical architecture. Unable to publicly realise this project Lebrija began to make and exhibit small replicas with the original intention of selling them through the private art market to fund the large scale statue. Lebrija eventually decided against the creation of a large statue, realising that it would become a monstrous addition to the cities surrounding modern buildings that the statue itself was mourning. In its small scale realisation ‘Lamento’ is a somewhat more powerful sculpture, capturing a moment of sadness between man and the world, the miniature man excerpts a monumental presence in the room, playing with the traditions and conformities of the size and scale of the ‘monument’. The idea that ‘Lamento’ can be replicated also presents the concept of a universal statue of sorrow whose relevance as appropriate in many cities globally as it is in Guadalajara.

Fernando Ortega

Some of the other memorable works for me in the Biennial reflect poetically upon its concepts. One of which is Frank Ortega’s ‘Music for a small boat crossing a medium sized river’. The story behind this piece is a short public boat journey crossing the Bobos River in Mexico. This short journey, duration only  a couple of minutes, is taken by a number of local people daily,  during which the boatman will play songs from a selection of CDs he has in the boat. Interested in the concept of this journey being accompanied by music and the fact that the journey was so short it was unlikely the full song would be heard, Ortega contacted musician Brian Eno asked if he would create a piece of music specifically for the journey. The song Brian Eno created was then put on to CD and given to the boat driver to keep in his collection of journey music. The work in the Biennial consists of a collection of photographs of showing the boat on its journey, framed letters to and from Brain Eno and a framed CD. Exploring the space between public and private, the beauty of this work lies in the fact that as the viewer you can not listen to the music, the resolution of the artwork only exists for the people who take the journey across the river if it happens to be chosen by the boatman during their journey.

Another piece focusing on music is Angelica Mesiti’s four-channel video piece ‘Citizens Band’ which documents the extraordinary performances of four different migrant musicians, exploring notions of migration, cultural ethnicity, performance in the public sphere and the unification of global citizens. Each player performs a distinct sound that reflects its cultural origin, however the public location of the performances reflect foreignness; a Cameroonian woman energetically beats out a rhythm in a Parisian swimming pool as if playing African drums; an Algerian man plays a Casio keyboard and sings using his voice in a melodic and emotionally stirring performance on the Parisian subway whilst fellow travellers look on, a Mongolian man sits on a Sydney street corner playing a horse head fiddle and throat singing as the world continues around him and a Sudanese taxi driver whistles a beautiful complex melody inside his car whilst the night time city traffic passes by. The videos are shot like portraits of the performers and for a few minutes the viewer is transported to their inner worlds. The short performances are shown on each screen in turn and culminate in one performance as the four surrounding screens transform into a blur of lights and an assemblage of sounds enveloping the viewer in a unique and beautiful audiovisual experience.

Violent GreenFinally I will mention ‘Violent Green’ a film made collaboratively by filmmakers Kaan Karachennem and Franz von Bodelschwingh with the Turkish poet Lale Müldür, of whom the Biennials title is borrowed from. The film, an experimental narrative, simultaneously acts as portrait, a social commentary and also even satire. Edited down from hours of footage, the resulting 20-minute film is a collection of bizarre and beautiful moments. The lines between filmmaker and subject are blurred and deconstructed, as both Kaan Karachennem and Franz von Bodelschwingh step into the cameras frame, in one scene we see one of them brushing poets hair, in another captured moment the three both supporting Lale as they attempt to walk across a snowy hill. Set in contemporary Istanbul and filmed mainly in a collection of public locations around the city, from the walk through Taxsim to an encounter by the Bosphorous, the scenes move in dreamlike sequence like a visual poem we are reminded simply of the poetry in the moment.

Angola 2013

Pavilion of Angola: Edson Chagas, ‘Luanda, The Encyclopedic City’

‘Lunanda, The Encyclopedic City’ plays on the title of the Biennale’s curated exhibition ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’, here Edson Chagas categorises Angola’s capital city Luanda through a series of photographic images which display scenes depicting a developing African city. Housed inside a museum setting, the Palazzo Cini, Chagas’s images have been mass printed and are displayed sculpturally as stacks of images on wooden pallets. The images themselves depict scenes of  deterioration and  poverty within the city, often containing a  disguarded item such as a burst football, a mannequin bust or a broken chair.. the objects and scenes create an interesting juxtaposition to the surrounding museum displaying ornate, rich, historical artifacts. The audience are invited to takeaway the images, extending the idea of the ‘gallery space’ outside of an institution and the participation of the viewer in selecting work. Trying my best not to end of taking too much paper home with me from the Biennale (though I must have failed as returned with a few kilos!) making a selection of my favourite images to take home became a part of viewing the exhibition. The question is where all of these images will end up, on the walls of visitors homes and studios? Will they even make it on the journey home? Become untouched with a pile of other exhibition takeaways, end up in the bin or become disguarded somewhere just like the objects within the image?

Mosse_Venice_01

Pavilion of Ireland, Richard Mosse, ‘The Enclave’

Collaborating with cinematographer Trevor Tweeton and  sound artist Ben Frost, Richard Mosse has developed his photographic body of work ‘Infra’ which documents the war zone in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, into an all encompassing video installation ‘The Enclave’. The installation consists of multiple screens hanging throughout the space, to fully engage with the work and watch the world unfolding in the room, the viewer must walk through the space to view the screens which cannot be watched all at once from one position. In installing the screens in such a way the viewer becoming immersed in the work. And what a world one is being drawn into; the camera pans across beautiful rich pink landscapes and blue skies; at first seemingly paradise yet soon terrifyingly brutal and tragic. Circling the beautiful lush landscape I feel a foreboding sense of sadness and unease, perhaps heightened by the soundtrack, constructed from real on site sound recordings. The camera begins to follow a group of young boys, they start to run through the landscape towards home curiously looking back at the camera every so often, this direct engagement with the camera is powerful, drawing the viewer into the scene, we see through the camera’s eyes. Suddenly we realise we’re in the middle of the the war zone, in one scene we watch a mass of coffins being built and bodies ready for burial; at another point the screens turn to darkness for a moment and then the sound of gunshots, before returning to the pink landscape and the people. Rethinking traditional conflict photography  ‘The Enclave’ is a powerful, unforgettable and important work. 

Demark 2013

Pavilion of Demark, Jesper Just, ‘Intercourses’

Jesper Just’s video installation ‘Intercourses’ comprises a multi-channel video installation, projected throughout the the spaces of pavilion. In the cinematic videos,  which seem to be set in Paris,  we watch the encounters of three men in the city. In one scene a man rides down a Parisian Street on a motorcycle, the camera follows the man, whist exploring the backdrop of the city. The videos themselves appear to be non-linear, an ongoing exploration of the city; the characters and their movements are intriguing yet they seem only to exist within the space, there is no narrative. Although the city has Parisian buildings, white  facades, pretty balconies and offers glimpses in the distance of monuments such as the Eiffel Tower, we are also presented with a wasteland,  and crumbling buildings on the edge of the city.  Is this Paris?  The pavilion itself too feels part of the outskirts of this city, with no apparently entrance or exit, the viewer slips into the space which feels almost as if it could be an abandoned building, inside bare brick walls and plants growing in a strange artificial pink light, we exit the installation through a workshop like room. This ‘Paris’ is in fact a suburb of Hangzhou, China where a replica of the French capital city  has been constructed. The paradoxical nature of replicating of a place within a foreign place mimics the Biennale itself and the site of the Giardini which houses  national pavilions representing a country within another country. In ‘Intercourses’ the site is the central subject of the installation the work explores a number of themes surrounding this; dislocation and duplication, and the experience of time, place in conjunction with memory, fact and fiction.

 

second sight

Extrastruggle, Second Sight, 2013

Brass and car paint on polyester / 27x27x52cm

Some days, in the early hours of the morning, a big black cloud appears- coming in from the north, progressing right above the surface of the waters of the Bosphorus, swelling even larger with the long sirens of cargo liners, enveloping the cormorants and once having reached the shoreline, climbing from the coast towards the hills, first towards the poor neighbourhoods and then towards the city centre. This thing is engaged in angst and sorrow; it influences events, it changes the direction of things that seem to be on the mend, it causes controversy, tension, accidents and fights, throws people off balance, tears close friends apart, and causes all sorts of trouble to lovers. Avoiding, if not completely disposing of this strange event of nature is not something that can be done by marking its arrival on the calendar beforehand. This unpredictable event can only be cast away with second sight. Those who would like to keep their spiritual worlds intact must anticipate certain events that will take place in the near future, and stay away from this mysterious dark mist and the troubles that it may bring.

http://extramucadele.com/en/isler/sculptures/second-sight

 

Reading about the ‘train effect’ in early cinema, the architectural space of the virtual screen and psychical cinema, I was reminded of the work of Savinder Bual’s which I saw in the 2011 New Contemporaries exhibition. The video below, ‘Train’, is made with a single photographic image.

Exploring the still and moving image and the cinematic space, the low fi, and playing with filmic techniques, Bual’s work  references the precinematic whilst drawing upon the digital.

Train from Bual on Vimeo.

Savinder Bual, Train, 2009

 

http://www.savinderbual.com