WINNER OF ART & CULTURE ART CRITICISM PRIZE VOLUME VIII ANNOUNCED:
We are delighted to announce that Rebecca Sykes, with her review of Jeannie Driver, When Contents Become Form at Arbeit Gallery, London is the winner of the Art & Culture Art Criticism Prize Vol VIII.
Erica Payet, with her review of Mark Neville, Deeds Not Words at the Photographer's Gallery, London is this volume's runner-up.
Christiane Monarchi, Editor of Photomonitor and Judge commented:
I would like to highly commend Erica Payet's review of Mark Neville, Deeds Not Words, as a runner up, because I like the writer investigating the commercial and interpretive implications of staging the show at The Photographers' Gallery, interesting points which may not often get raised in art writing.
For me the winner is the reviewer of Jeannie Driver's show When Contents Become Form at Arbeit Gallery. In this case the review text elegantly manoeuvres the complicated dialogue ensuing between Driver, whose work 'wishes to expel the cosily-confidential language that can typify art writing', and Driver's viewing (and reviewing) audience.
This writer commands a confident vocabulary to deliver visual and conceptual engagement, reaching back a few decades for a tasteful art historical snack as well as couple of current references to frame consideration of the present work, while letting welcome personal viewpoints emerge.
Finally, it is refreshing to engage even more senses as well as a touch of humour with the reviewer's description of his/her physical interaction in the space, the final punchy tag lines a welcome finish to a concise and engaging text.
Winner: Review by Rebecca Sykes
Jeannie Driver, When Contents Become Form, Arbeit Gallery, London
31 August - 26 September 2013
Click HERE for more information about the exhibition.
Like many contemporary art venues, the Arbeit Gallery must negotiate the display of art which seeks to challenge the logic and language of exhibitions. Housed in the centre of this particular White Cube - “a 85 square-metre open-plan exhibition space with white walls of varied textures” - is White3, an installation by Jeannie Driver. Constructed out of old gallery press releases that have been fed into a shredder and then rearranged to resemble a willowy white box, the work aims a blow at the bombast that dogs the display of contemporary art.
Driver wishes to expel the cosily-confidential language that can typify art writing from her studio: the paper used in her work is mined from a personal archive of ‘waste’ generated from years of art administration. The result is a milky cuboid-cloud of sinuous strips that blur to confuse the original message of art-world-speak, its patter now rendered mute and eerily still.
The silence casts the gallery-goer as spy; it is the audience who must piece together meaning. Or at least that’s the idea. It is Driver’s intention that her work will cause the press statements to “lose what authority they once held; as code breakers”: declassified by destruction. We learn that this is her object, however, from… a press release. Published on the artist’s website, I tracked this tell-tale text down before my visit. Consequently, my exploration of the exhibition space was buffered by the knowledge that edifying clues for ‘reading’ the work could always be found later with the help of some hermeneutic-homework.
Not all artists pillory the promotional texts which surround art exhibitions as distractions. During Conceptual art’s formative years, for example, an exhibition’s publicity material could become synonymous with the work itself: the catalogue-as-exhibition-space. Nonetheless, for an artist who wishes visitors to “experience rather than read”, a failure to withhold the explicatory apparatus of promotion from her audience can be interpreted as a lack of conviction.
The show’s title is a sardonic nod to the Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form exhibition shown in 1969 at the Bern Kunsthalle, which showcased a reimagining (rewording?) of artistic practice conceived as a ‘linguistic medium’. By positing language as one means among many with which an artist can create art, the original exhibition bequeathed a hugely influential legacy and went down in art history. Likewise, the photomontages on show in Driver’s exhibition are themselves retellings of past art events. Assembled out of partially shredded photographs taken inside various galleries, the images are layered to create/re-create scenes of contemporary gallery-goers. The reorganised fragments look like lamellophones: their splintered strips hang like tongues over the glossy lower-layers and hint at the discordant art-world chatter Driver finds so wearisome.
The symbolic violence inflicted on images of former audiences seems tame, however, when compared to artists who facilitate encounters that can render an exhibition space downright hostile. During Tino Sehgal’s recent occupation of the Tate Modern, the Turbine Hall witnessed visitors hurrying across the floor to avoid ambush by his actor-aggressors. In comparison, the large circular Witness to pondering in free space (Saatchi Gallery), patterned like the iris of an eye, is the closest I came to intuiting a critical gaze in the company of Driver’s montages.
What is curious, however, are the labels attached to the work. It is possible to identify the tinkered-with gallery spaces - the Saatchi Gallery, for instance - because the wall displays readily offer this information; I immediately strained to identify the original shows, appraising each box of text before surveying the images. The corrupting influence of instruction is evident once more and I’m left to speculate why an artist committed to dismantling gallery norms did not make space in the shredder for stickers.
Driver has spoken in the past about her reticence as a writer - “words are not my first language” - and it seems ungenerous to pick at the incongruous mix of work and words on display. Nonetheless, When Contents become Form falls short of meeting Driver’s desire to disrupt the polite codes of behaviour that still govern contemporary art display. Tellingly, throughout my visit I was self-conscious about the noise my shoes made on the gallery floor after I became aware that there were artists working nearby. As I’d been clip-clopping around, the sound of The Cure had drifted down from a rented studio parallel to the gallery space:
Monday, you can hold your head
Tuesday, Wednesday stay in bed
Or Thursday - watch the walls instead…
Instruction is impossible to escape.
Runner-up: Review by Erica Payet
Mark Neville, Words Not Deeds, The Photographers' Gallery, London
2 August - 29 September 2013
Click HERE for more information about the exhibition.
The first image you encounter in Deeds Not Words is a triptych showing a young boy against a black backdrop, as if in a portrait studio, bursting a red balloon. This violent action works as a (noiseless) wake-up call. The high-speed camera captures the exact moment of the explosion, allowing you to see it as if in slow motion and conjuring up a series of paradoxes: speed/immobility, noise/silence, surprise/reflection.
I didn’t notice the young boy’s two missing fingers until the third photograph. Not that his impairment is concealed in the previous images, but my attention was drawn elsewhere, as if the photographer plays a trick to let us see this boy first, without focusing on his disability. These prints come from the original book project by Mark Neville that aimed to document the Scottish community of Corby, at a time when a group of sixteen families were undertaking legal action after their children were born with disabilities caused by the old steel mills’ environmental pollution.
You find yourself searching for the trick in the other photos, but Neville never ceases to deceive you. He did not only photograph the sixteen families, but the whole community. His wide-angle camera captures scenes from low down or from a height, such as youths dancing in a nightclub. Faces emerge from these carefully composed and lit scenes, drawing you in the large format prints. Neville’s use of colour photography reminds one of Martin Parr’s: gaudy colours depict the happiness of leisure activities, but they are also uncompromising, letting the irony show right under the surface. Neville couples colour and black & white photography to represent the same scenes, creating a mental strobe light, which allows us to shift emphasis from the individuals to the social group.
Neville worked on the ‘body image’ and ‘beauty’ within the Corby community. For me, the motif of ‘dance’ is what comes out of his research. Some subjects have an obvious link with dance, such as the night clubbers, an elderly couple softly coming together and participants in the Corby Highland dance competition. But others offer a more subtle relationship to group choreography: the Corby carnival queens bowling in their fancy ball gowns, young boys hitting the Adrenalin Alley skate park. Evidently, it is the nature of the photographic medium to obliterate the sound of music that we imagine alongside these coordinated movements in space. Everything happens in the silence of the photograph, and yet the balloon detonations bring you back to the case at hand: the genetic disorders provoked by the mishandling of toxic waste.
The original photo-book was meant to underpin a socio-political battle. For the art theorist Dominique Baqué, politically engaged art usually fails to achieve anything. It “often proves to be naïve, ideologically weak, and still full of humanist illusions... [and] seriously obscures the extreme harshness of social divides” (1). However, she recognises a (partial) power to photographic and video documentaries in that they “show” and “reveal” things, acting as a catalyst to political action.
Mark Neville’s work falls into this second category, in that it conveys a message without overly aestheticising it or resorting to pathos. Furthermore, his artistic gesture goes beyond the image-making stage, as he put some thought in the way his message was to be disseminated. The book Deeds Not Words was distributed for free to local authorities, thus directly targeting the political decision-makers.
In the exhibition, large posters are given out to visitors. This functions more as a symbolic gesture reminding us of these alternative dissemination strategies, than as an effective way to act in favour of the Corby families, who set up a precedent when they won the legal case four years ago. It is therefore worth wondering exactly what the aim of this exhibition is, and whether it is still trying to act as an agent of political action (as the promotional material and media attention suggested), or if it really just functions as a retrospective on one of Neville’s projects.
Indeed, the fact that the project is shown in a London art institution undoubtedly contributes to raising awareness, but it also draws it further from selfless action by bringing added fame to the artist. It also sheds a different light on the images: as the large digital C-prints climb up on the display wall, they are dragged further from the community. Just consider that the book, previously given out for free, is now for sale in the bookshop for £300.00 (“out of print / very rare”).
1. Dominique Baqué, Pour un nouvel art politique (For a New Political Art), 2009, Champs Art Flammarion, Paris, p.35.