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Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Anthropomorphism and The Absurd; so much to learn from William Kentridge.

Universal Archive (12 coffee pots) by William Kentridge 2012
Things linger with me and if I am ever in doubt about what is important to me I just ask myself what has been hanging about in my subconscious for a few weeks or months. Important things stand the test of time. 

Back in January last year I visited The Tanks at Tate Modern. William Kentridge’s 8 channel video, 'I am not me, the horse is not mine', was the inaugural show at The Tanks and it made quite an impression on me.
Surrounded by 8 huge screens in The Tanks at Tate Modern.
I was most likely drawn at first to his appreciation of the absurd; something which has always interested me. The idea of a man’s nose taking on a life of its own and then the nose's life becoming more important than the man’s is definitely absurd and strange and interesting too.
(This storyline makes up much of, 'I am not the horse, the horse is not mine'). 

I did make a short video of it however this one by erased culture is a better snapshot than mine. 

 Later in March 2013 I went to see 'A Universal Archive: William Kentridge as Printmaker' at The Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham. The show is a Hayward Touring show (Southbank Centre London) and it’s next venue is Aberystwyth Arts Centre 8th March- 16th May 2014.

The show is a fantastic overview of William Kentridge’s (printmaking) career and includes over 100 prints from 1988 to the present. However his work is almost completely monotone and I personally need colour in my own work so I was still a bit puzzled as to what it was exactly that was drawing me to this artist’s work. 

Throughout the prints, drawings and etchings in the show there were some recurring visual motifs including: typewriters, telephones and the very classic Bialetti facetted metal coffee percolator. 

'Self-Portrait as Coffee Pot' 2012 says it all. For me it is a perfect combination of the concept of the anthropomorphic and also a wonderful enjoyment of the the absurd.

Self Portrait as a Coffee Pot by William Kentridge 2012
It has been said that my own sculptures (Frillip Moolog beings) have strong anthropomorphical qualities and I also have to admit to really liking the faceting on this style of coffee pot. Maybe I also enjoy seeing a solid shape sectioned into similarly shaped components?

Hooty 2012 by Kirsty E Smith 
While walking round the show at MAC (Midlands Arts Centre) I got a strong sense of the absurd. And this is something that is given special mention in the excellent learning resource which accompanies the show.

The Nose gets ideas of grandeur; here it is on the horse. 
The Nose as a ballerina. William Kentridge
“Many of Kentridge’s works make reference to the idea of ‘the absurd’. Explored through literature, theatre, and art, absurdism was a philosophical movement linked to surrealism and existentialism, based on the idea that beneath the logic and structure by which we attempt to live or lives, there is meaningless to human existence. As well as exploring the idea that tragedy and disaster can befall us all, absurdism also makes evident the ridiculousness of the habits and structures by which we exist. Kentridge’s explorations also extent to the absurdity of apartheid; a system that had become brutally lost in its own ridiculous logic."
Absurdism also plays with coincidence chance and possibility. An aspect of this is the process by which meanings are created when random objects are put together.”
Excerpt from Education Pack written by Fiona Godfrey

Kentridge says that objects have suggested themselves to him (there is no political intent) and he and the audience project their own meanings onto these objects. 

Putting my own work in situations which might be interpreted as absurd is also of interest to me. 'Mi Wawa with Cows' and 'Hurgle Lenz: donkeydays'; do these photographs have absurd qualities?

Mi Wawa with Cow. sculpture and photograph by Kirsty E Smith 
Hurgle Lenz: donkey days. Sculpture and photograph by Kirsty E Smith 
In the show there is a huge print of a woman with telephone in place of her head. 'Telephone Lady' (2000) At the time I didn’t realise that it was in fact a lino cut print; one on a very large scale 216cmx 120cm. 
Anyone who portrays a woman with a telephone as her head is definitely very interesting to me! 
Photograph: © the artist and David Krut Fine Art, New York and Johannesburg
As I walked through the multitude of prints what became very evident is that William Kentridge is fantastic at story telling and so that was another big reason why I was intrigued and interested. 

“Kentridge's prints are a theatre of the mind: you see his imaginary world performed on a small stage, with all its familiar characters – Ubu, Felix, Soho; even the objects that feature in his work amount to recurring characters. Soho's Bakelite telephone morphs into his neglected mistress, waiting for his call. The studio coffee pot doubles up as the artist's own buzzy head. And the film camera strides the landscape on its tripod legs, a heartless, if watchful machine.” 
Laura Cumming The Observer 25.08.13

Although the show is a show of William Kentridge’s prints (and he himself says that whether it is his work with ballet, opera, theatre or animation, always at the heart of his practice is printmaking) what I see is a storyteller who has a strong sense of the theatrical in his work.

I am especially interested in this as I too am very interested in the theatrical but at present I am struggling to find ways to introduce more performance into my practice.

But I should not be too hard on myself; William Kentridge’s practice has developed over many years and things didn’t happen over night for him either. In the 1970’s he spent five years acting and directing theatre in South Africa and then he spent several years studying mime at L’Ecole international de Theatre Jaques Lecoq in Paris before returning to South Africa in 1985. His practice became truly multi disciplinary when he started to work collaboratively with Handspring Puppet Company in 1992.

There are various videos online of his presentations, some which feature snippets of his animated drawings projected behind him and others which which actually feature himself having a conversation with himself. These videos give a brilliant insight into an artist who enjoys the creative process, who has refused to restrict himself, who keeps an open mind ... even to the extent that while making his animated drawings he develops the story during the drawing process. He says that the the story unfolds (even to himself) during the physical process of drawing. Ideas develop and evolve during the short walk between the camera and the drawing and these then dictate what he draws or rubs out, re-draws or amends.

"Kentridge’s art is an extended thinking process; a fluid intelligent and playful reflection on the world, a constant capturing of experience, of making connections. In his printmaking process this journeying occurs from the initial creation of the plate, to what arises in the printing process, to where this may lead next. In the animation process this journeying occurs from frame to frame, while over his lifetime we see it evolving from art work to art work”. 
Excerpt from Education Pack written by Fiona Godfrey

If my enthusiasm has resulted in me writing a blog post which seems a bit confusing then just watch this 3 minute video where the artist speaks very eloquently and engagingly himself. 

William Kentridge as Printmaker continues at Aberystwyth Arts Centre 8th March -16th May 2014

Thursday, 31 October 2013

55th Venice Biennale - even more recommendations of what to see before it closes

I did promise a second blog post about our exploits at the 55th Venice Biennale and as it nears its end I though I had better get a move on.
Sunny skies, relaxing canals, and plenty to see and do; what more could you want from an art holiday? It also helped that our apartment was fairly central and also being 600 years old it added to the atmospheric Venetian experience. As mentioned in my previous blog post we did get lost often and so my advice is to allow time for everything to take a bit longer than you expect. 

Our perfect apartment in Venice, home for 5 nights in July 
In my first post about the Biennale I mentioned the artist and artworks that sprang immediately to mind when people asked about my favorites and in this post I will continue with more from other memorable biennale experiences. 

Arriving at our apartment at 2pm we still had time to walk through the city to The Giardini and buy tickets in readiness for a full day of art the following day. I was also very pleased  that we were able to hop onto Joana Vasconcelos’s pavilion Trafaria Praia on time for the 5pm sail around the lagoon. Having watched online updates of the Portugese ferry boat being renovated over the previous months I was definitely focused on experiencing it for myself. The gentle sail around the lagoon sitting on Portuguese cork stools and then getting up close and personal with her luscious textile glad grotto below deck were very definitely worth  it.

Detail of the luxurious, textural and sensual delight that was the below deck 'grotto' on Trafaria Praia
The next day we did our best at ‘doing’ The Giardini. The Encyclopedic Palace exhibition which has been curated by Massimiliano Gioni is split in half; half is within The Giardini and the other half in The Arsenale. 

The first item of the Encyclopedic Palace show that you encounter in The Giardini is Carl Jung’s famous Red Book. Photographs of this weren’t allowed but you can see selected images here. However experiencing it was absolutely fantastic; with theatrical lighting and luscious pigments the illustrations in his book are really quite breathtaking and it all felt quite wondrous. The book is especially important as it was during the period in which he worked on this book (1914 - 1930) that Jung developed his principal theories of archetypes, collective unconscious, and the process of individuation. 

His illustrations are records of the visions that he achieved through what he called 'active imagination' - a process that helped inspire his concept of the collective unconscious. It is said to be possibly the most influential unpublished work in the history of psychology. 

Massimiliano Gioni has curated an exhibition which tries to show the amazing breadth and variety of art that has been made by artists (worldwide and over many years) in an attempt to discover what the world really is about. He has selected works by both artists and outsider artists all of whom have tried, or are still trying, to find a way to make sense of the world. And then the question is, "Is it 'The' world or their world?" There are many many possibilities and a sense of the cosmic very definitely runs throughout the show. Some artists seem to take a fairly systematic approach to their explorations where others tackle the subject from many angles at once. They all have incredibly idiosyncratic views of the world; and isn’t this precisely what makes humans so interesting? 

Eva Kotátková’s installation, Unsigned (Gugging), is a visual presentation of the parallel worlds of psychiatric patients, prisoners and people held in (and who feel trapped) in educational institutions. She is interested in their own inner universes. 

Just a few worries as recorded during Eva Kotatkova's research
Faced with such a concentration of visual stimulation as you are in the Biennale you do start to respond by listening first and foremost to your instinct. I fell in love with this painting by Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern, my personal name for it is, 'A bit bitey', (a favourite phrase of mine from the film Shaun of the Dead) but I didn’t read the entry in the guidebook until months later when I noticed that a cousin who is currently at the Biennale was also sharing images of his work online. I decided to find out more- I had assumed that he was an outsider artist and I was right but there is much more to know about him including: that he created his own mystical cult, was admired by the Surrealists and also worked as a dairy farmer and a circus performer during his very strange and eventful life. 

'A Bit Bitey' is the perfect name... in my opinion!
I turned around in the gallery teeming with other Biennale visitors and was drawn to a collection of small dolls house like models; intrigued I inspected them more closely and I observed that each drab and dingy model room seemed to be supported on small funnels. This art required that I open the guide book straight away! So this contemporary artist, Andra Ursuta, has made these in an attempt to purge herself of, "past physic trauma”. These are models of her childhood home in Transylvania where her family made a living from rendering down pig fat to make soap. For me the funnel shaped pedestals/ legs represent the draining away of this fairly repulsive material. Not pretty but very personal. 

The amazing collection of 387 model buildings made by Austrian insurance clerk, Peter Fritz and presented as an artwork by artist Oliver Croy and architecture critic Oliver Elser is very definitely pretty, but for me it is especially of interest because of the story behind it. I personally love the homemade aesthetic of models (flowery wall paper and (now) vintage DYMO tape sign writing) but I would prefer to put more emphasis on and celebrate the creative endeavours of Peter Fritz. What I feel uneasy with is that simply by discovering it and presenting them collectively in an art situation should that give the discoverer of the models (Oliver Croy and the architecture critic Oliver Elsner the elevated importance that they seem to have been given - their names are at the head of page 66 of the Biennale Guide Book. Does discovering work (admittedly after it’s creator had died) and going to the bother of presenting it give you any amount of artistic ownership? 

Spot the DYMO tape sign-writing on this one 
Back out in the Giardini we appreciated not only the art but also the variety of pavilion buildings themselves. 
I have no idea which country this pavilion belongs to but I do love the roofline.

I have no idea which country this pavilion belongs to but I do love the roofline
Talking of roofs, Simryn Gill, representing Australia this year, took the roof off of their pavilion completely. This building was designed by Philip Cox and built in 1988. A new building has been commissioned and will be completed by 2015. This one has done very well as it was only intended to be temporary and has lasted 25 years. 

The building has very appealing curves and also a certain 'open-ness' now
Sadly we just missed the last entry to the Republic of Korean pavilion so I wasn’t able to experience the, much talked about, immersive experience. All I have is this tantalising glimpse into something kaleidoscopic, etherial (and sparkly!)

However we did time it just right for the Polish pavilion. Once an hour you hear the very impressive sound art of Konrad Smoleński. Smoleński has composed a symphony using traditional bronze bells, full-range speakers and other sonorous objects (metal lockers with doors which reverberate) and the guide book explains, “By using a delay effect, Konrad Smoleński offers an insight into a world where history has come to a standstill, thereby approaching the radical propositions of contemporary physics with its perception of the passage of time as an illusion”. 

That’s the ‘art stuff’ and now for my description- From outside it doesn’t seem all that loud, then while I sat at the entrance preparing my ears for the thundering, booming, buzzing, vibrations I watched as people exited (some of them with hands over their ears and looking in pain). So I took the plunge and stepped into this magnificent wall of sound; it completely vibrated through my body and felt extremely powerful. Sadly this video does not do it justice at all and when I tried to record it myself my video replayed completely silently as it is beyond the limits of most small electronic recording devices. 

One of the two cast bronze bells, speakers and metals lockers , all part of the Polish pavilion sound art
Sometimes art can be a bit too clever well too clever for art tourists which have a lot of art to see in a limited period of time. We later read that the front of the Danish Pavilion had been modified so it’s no wonder that we failed to find the entrance and so sadly didn’t get to see Jesper Just’s video pieces. This Designboom article shows more pictures of what I was up against and explains that the work was both video and also an architectural intervention playing with the architecture of the space. 

But if you can’t find the door within 30 seconds I’m afraid we had to move on; Pavilions to go to and Art to see!

I really can't find the door!
Would I be blowing the British trumpet too loudly if I said that Jeremy Deller got it just right? Art should be refreshing so serve your weary art visitors tea, show them something really old (and of course present it well) and then give them a chance to make their own souvenir print to take home. He ticks a lot of my boxes!

Neolithic flint axe heads .... and of course beautifully presented. 
I think Jeremy Deller would be happy to know that every time I use my downstairs toilet I am reminded of him and his 55th Venice Biennale show. A do-it-yourself souvenir always wins support!
I still haven’t mentioned all that is worthy of mention so my advice is to either hop on a plane now and catch the 55 The Venice Bienalle before it closes on 24th November 2013 or alternatively plan ahead for the next one in 2015. 

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Venice Biennale, a much easier art holiday than you might expect

The Grand Canal looking just as it did in Canaletto's time
Going to the Venice Biennale is much easier than you might expect. Yes there is an overwhelming amount of art that you can see and at times feel that it is your duty to see, but actually it is all in Venice, which is just such a gorgeous place. The water all round is the perfect antidote and de-stresser if the challenge of ‘doing it all’ becomes too much.

Ah and relax.....
My daughter Bryony and I booked our flight and accommodation back in January and then put it to the back of our minds until we made the trip at the beginning of July.
However it was good to do some preparation and research in the weeks leading up to our trip. There are reviews and must see lists published by Axis, Artsquest, Designboom, a-n and others but really the advice from Nicola Streeten in her Axis video interview of 2011 was the most valuable: Take comfy shoes, (even if you are used to walking, you will be on your feet all day and if it is hot you will need comfy shoes even more) and buy a 3 or 5 day travel pass as getting on Vaporettos (water buses) will speed things up a lot. 

Also my own top tip; buy a decent map in the UK before you even leave home. Get a detailed one and even get one in large print if you can. You can try and rely on a Google maps app on your smart phone but we crossed paths with so many people who are completely lost in the tiny labyrinthine streets that I don’t believe smart phone apps can be that reliable anyway- belt and braces is the way to go. 
A typical 'Where on earth are we?' moment. 
Things don’t need to be expensive either; stay somewhere where you can do some of your own cooking and also make packed lunches. This means that you will have spare money for the necessities like afternoon drinks and evening ice creams.

My daughter Bryony and I

Carlo Pistacchi, ice-cream maker extraordinaire, stands in the doorway of his shop Gelateria Alaska. He makes the MOST incredible ice cream and stays open until 9.30pm

The 25 Euro Biennale entrance ticket covers entrance to the Giardini and the Arsenale. You will definitely need a day for each of these venues and even then it is impossible to see it all. We spent time looking at, pondering over, taking photos and reading blurbs of much of the work and then ended our day at the Giardini with only 7 minutes left to literally run into and glance at the final three pavilions. But then when these venues close at 6pm you can just sit and relax and soak up the atmosphere, drink wine by a canal and watch the gondolas go by. There are still a few venues Like The Museum of Everything that that stay open a bit later. 

A friend said to me that there must have been, “lots of wow! art, lots of yawn art and other stuff that just didn’t speak to you”, and she was right. No one blog post can do it justice and already I feel a follow up post will be necessary. 

So which works to talk about in this post; what springs to the top of my mind? 

Humour- I need it! There is so much clever art, making intelligent statements but wow can it make you yawn a lot! So, what an absolute delight to come across Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s large scale collaborative piece, Suddenly This Overview (1981-2012). Every little scene (all made in unfired clay) was a winner. ‘Albert Einstein’s parents in postcoital repose, having just conceived their genius son’, ‘Home from work’ and ‘Small, medium and large potatoes’ are just three of my favourites. 
People were wandering amongst the works and there was such delight on their faces. It was perfect. 
'Home from work' by Peter Fischli and David Weiss

I really enjoyed being in the midst of art that makes us see the world in a new and less egocentric way. 
In the words of the guidebook, “From the start of their collaborative practice Fischli and Weiss’s work has been marked by a playful disregard of all things high-minded. Instead they valourised the childish, the banal, and the wondrous- often to poignant effect.” and it concludes that, “Suddenly this Overview, Fischli and Weiss’s idiosyncratic anthology, celebrates the world in all its ungraspable variety and profusion.” 

After our day in the Arsenale I was feeling quite overwhelmed and in need of an artistic pick-me-up so we returned to experience Bedwyr Williams’ 'Starry Messenger' for a second time. (There is lots more art outside of the Arsenale and Giardini; various collteral events are scattered all over the city and Bedwyr Williams, representing Wales, is just one of them). 

Starry Messenger is an installation and video piece which defies description; starting off celebrating shed-man in the form of amateur astronomers and culminating in a fantastical surreal film which has various tangents and a narrative with no obvious beginning nor end. A film where there is a fluffy cat up on a table licking perfect period gelatine-stiffened Seventies party food (complete with garish piped decoration) which is very up-my-street. And then throw in some bondage costumes, fake leather and Bedwyr’s deadpan voiceover and I’m in love!

The false teeth on Bedwyr Williams' mosaic encrusted forehead; a perfect over-the-top touch

Bryony and I realised that we both really enjoy immersive experiences and the piece presented by Israel was another outstanding piece of art. The pavilions in the Giardini are a whole range of interesting architectural spaces in themselves and Israel's pavillion was built in 1952 (Zeev Rechter) was a surprisingly modern building and also a very interesting space.
Israel's pavilion in The Giardini
Open plan and on three levels you might think it a challenging space to fill with artworks which include physical works, film and in particular sound but what artist Gilad Ratman has achieved for this 55th Venice Biennale is a perfect combination. And the experience doesn’t rely on being explained with text as it reveals itself as you spend more time with it. 
'The Workshop' by Gilad Ratman is a multi channel site specific installation which plays with time sequences and references utopian pre-lingual communities.

Pre-lingual is a concept that I am interested in personally as I prefer to listen to music with lyrics in imaginary or foreign languages (Mi Wawa by Dabe Toure is one such example). In my own art practice I often draw on memories and emotions from my own very early years, from a time before I had the necessary vocabulary to express myself; from a time before words. 

In 'The Workshop' Ratman uses the primal groans, moans and generally very strange noises uttered by the workshop participants (these were recorded while they modeled their own clay busts). He then worked with a DJ who remixed these sounds into something which sounds completely articulate in a musical sense. (An interview with the artist is here.)  It is an artwork that you want to spend time with and walk up and down the various levels of the pavilion more than once.

The curated exhibition of the biennale is The Encyclopedic Palace named after the fantastical museum that Marino Auriti a garage owner and amateur artist designed and proposed building way back in the 1950’s. His architecture model of this crazily ambitious museum (to hold all of humanity’s achievements) is at the centre of the Encyclopedic Palace exhibition (curated by Massimiliano Gioni).

Marino Auriti's model of his proposed Encyclopedic Palace
The Encyclopedic Palace exhibition is across both the Giardini and Arsenale sites and there is so so much to see but if you stay relaxed about it you will be wonderfully surprised. Yes you will definitely miss things but you won’t be disappointed as you can’t help but come across plenty that intrigues and interests you. 

Ron Nagle’s small ceramic sculptures which make up Sleep Study were perfectly placed alongside a selection of Tantric paintings from Rajasthan. I also love the entry in the catalogue which says, “He models them from drawings that he makes almost every night before bed, usually while watching old Charlie Chan movies. In his state of distraction Nagle has observed that the images pop into my head almost like visions.” 

These works are very definitely intriguing and they do feel both personal and universal at the same time. This is something which I aspire to in my own work so they very definitely resonated with me. 

There is another blog post to follow this one which will include more that I couldn't squeeze into in this one. But for now a couple of funny moments; 
A student steals one of the paper boulders from the Sarah Sze installation in the United States of America pavilion and perches it on his windowsill elsewhere in Venice. 

Art collectors come in pairs, wear straw panamas and never carry cameras!

Visiting the 55th Venice Biennale is the perfect combination of holiday and art. I would highly recommend it.
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