Fig-2: the last stamp

Around the art-world in fifty weeks

bensleyHarry Bensley was an English rake and adventurer who in 1908 set out to circumnavigate the world on foot pushing a pram and wearing an iron mask.

A surreal successor to Jules Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg, it’s said that he did it because he lost his whole fortune in a card game and accepted the extravagant wager of £21,000 as a forfeit, along with fifteen bizarre conditions including having to find a wife in spite of being married already.

These indecorous but hilarious terms suggest he did it not entirely for the money: the whole venture smacks of the most gamesome English eccentricity.

Nobody goes around the world in a metal mask like Harry Bensley, or in eighty days like Phileas Fogg, for anything so un-Romantic as a wager. An adventure must have drama, ambition, grandiosity, all for their own sake. There has to be a grand challenge to stir the senses. There has to be the strong likelihood of a spectacular and embarrassing failure.

I am pleased to announce that I am on the brink of a glorious, glittering, sensational failure!

cropped-photo-10.jpgFifty weeks ago on the 8th of January, one boring winter Thursday I messaged a friend saying I was going to swing by the ICA to check out this new project called Fig-2 that was going to put on a new art exhibition every week for fifty weeks:

“50 weeks. I’m going to *try* to go every week. I may even notate my thorts.”

The blog started off innocently, even hesitantly, with short-ish quite technical pieces in which I teased out the meanings of each week’s exhibition.

Contemporary art often presents you with a box of parts and no assembly manual. Whether you build a car or a sex sling says as much about you as it does about the work itself.

The blog rapidly got out of hand as my historical and theoretical sweep broadened, with the intellectual breadth of the exhibitions requiring hours of extra study in esoteric fields from anthropology to crypto-zoology.

fig2It took over my life, but I fell behind writing a long short story about an infinite library, though this made later writing a 600-line modernist poem about going blind seem easy. The pieces aren’t reviews, aren’t criticism. It’s experimental writing but it’s also documentary.

I’ve covered thirty-eight weeks (three ably helmed by Alix Mortimer) and four ancillary seminars, and today it’s Tuesday in the last week of Fig-2.  I have twelve write-ups to finish by Sunday. This is of course impossible. It was impossible from the start. Fig-2 is an intellectual banquet, and writing about each week takes weeks of research, thought and experiment.

fig2-finaltwelveI’m working on these last pieces all at the same time as if they were one monstrous dissertation, the last chapter in a terrible anti-thesis on Fig-2, the universe and everything. It’s taking up all my time, and I’m not even getting anywhere. People keep asking me if I’m going to things at the London Contemporary Music Festival but I just can’t.

I’ve got the usual chronic FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) but recently this has turned into a sanity-preserving energy-retaining JOMO — Joy Of Missing Overtiredness. JOMO is gonna be the big thing of 2016.

willy2At the end of every version of Verne’s Eighty Days there is a now ubiquitous cinematic trope. The heroes think they’ve won, everything seems brilliant, but then, no! It’s all gone wrong! There’s nothing that can be done, nothing. At least they tried. Everyone starts to disperse, but then, what’s this, wait! From the jaws of defeat is snatched the, I dunno, the salmon of victory. Joy, elation, and a happy ending for some reason.

It’s by no means certain whether this salmon will be forthcoming.

What is certain is that I have visited all fifty weeks. This blog is named after the Fig-2 loyalty card, which is a sheet of paper (pictured below) bearing the promise “Visit all 50 projects and endorse this loyalty card by each week’s unique artist’s stamp. Upon completion, you will be granted a copy of the fig-2 publication.”

There’s a small bunch of us with all fifty of these stamps, winners of the Fig-2 wager, each due one of these documentary books that will commemorate the year.

Set-of-50-stampsThe publication is currently being crowdfunded (check it out!) with rewards including personalised postcards, posters, VIP drinks, prints, tea with Bruce McLean, and the apotheotic grand prize of a box containing all fifty of the actual loyalty card stamps (pictured). The crowdfunder is unlikely to achieve great failure. The team already pulled off the fifty weeks with only mild onset chronic alcoholism and then only toward the end, and I imagine the book will fly (if books could fly).

The £995 box of stamps is obviously beyond my means but I have never wanted it so much as now, now that I’ve found out that someone else has actually gone ahead and bought it.

Perhaps we could discuss some kind of deal, maybe some arrangement by way of a wager…

FIFTY

 

With special thanks to Fatoş Üstek, Jessica Temple, Irene Altaió, Yves Blais, Alix Mortimer, Huston Gilmore, Adam and the other loyalty card heroes.

 

 

Fig-2 at Bicester Village – 29 October 2015

One cold October day a bunch of journalists and I and the whole of Gaggle were shipped off to the Baudrillardian Bicester Village where ’tis forever Christmas . . . 

12189644_10156188631880181_6023941664043227912_nFig-2 is a great project taking place at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA). For fifty weeks in 2015 an artist is selected each week to create a new exhibition that is only in place for seven days. It’s a curatorial ultramarathon that has seen the ICA studio transformed into a dizzying range of different uses and appearances from a paint-splattered art studio to a gleaming white cube.

12187835_10156188631540181_5435690224447651839_nOne of Fig-2’s sponsors is Bicester Village, and part of the deal was that four ‘Fig-2 artists’ would be asked to respond to Bicester Village in Oxfordshire and produce site-specific work there. From the forty-some Fig-2 artists so far the four commissions were a performance on October 29 by Deborah Coughlin and Gaggle (from Week 9 of Fig-2), a film by Annika Ström (Week 10), an immersive animation by Shezad Dawood (Week 13) and a sound and light installation by Vesna Petresin (forthcoming Week 46).

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Bicester Village, Oxford

Bicester Village is a kind of open air shopping mall in the visual style of a village in a Christmas movie. When we arrived it was even snowing! (Courtesy of a snow machine). Regular villages have post-offices and pubs, or used to, but Bicester sells luxury goods, mainly designer clothes. Each of the major fashion brands has a house in the village but you can’t get a drink anywhere. It’s busy too. Aspirant Brits and affluent tourists flood in via the purposely built station, getting their Christmas shopping done early. They’re served by staff dressed like bellhops to mimic the American retail experience’s visual class distinctions. At 4pm the bellhops entertain the village in a dance performance.

120322WearingDance_5968452Dancing and shopping have been paired before in art. In Gillian Wearing’s classic video “Dancing in Peckham” the Turner Prize winner dances uninhibitedly by herself without music in a London shopping precinct. It’s hilarious, but very few of the shoppers walking past even turn their head to look. Noone points and laughs.  Everyone is very British about it and ignores her. Presumably they think she is a crazy lady. There is a disparity between the unabashedness of the dancing and the refusal of the shoppers to step away from their purposive walking and shopping. The video is from 1994 so perhaps today everyone would be filming her with their smartphones, as they were the bellhops at Bicester.

02212012_EDU_1998.1.709_LargeFashion and shopping have been a source of fascination for artists, as you can see at the current blockbuster show ‘The World Goes Pop’ at Tate Modern where pop artists like Andy Warhol both celebrate and satirize modern consumerism and its obsession with the latest thing. Art itself is subject to the vicissitudes of fashion and the reputations of artists often rise or fall in parallel with the prices their works command at the auction house.

Sylvain_Deleu_Fig-2_10.50_-14Annika Ström’s work explores encounters between people. Just as Gillian Wearing’s video worked by dropping her into a public space, Annika Strom likes to set actors out into public spaces to interact with people. For Week 10 of Fig-2 she directed six actors to act in a lovely manner toward everyone they came into contact with. Her friendly film ‘Changing Rooms’ depicts two women who only meet at Bicester Village. Their friendship is in a sense based on the act of shopping, which you might see as a devaluation of their friendship or as an ennoblement of shopping!

12195975_10156188631710181_5276000071257545234_nShezad Dawood created an animation that you view through eyeholes in a colourful shed-like circular structure in the centre of the Village. It depicts digitally generated characters from the animation he made during Week 13 of Fig-2 and in watching it the viewer enters a kind of virtual reality. Is shopping also a virtual reality?

CSe__jLWwAA_HedWe are looking forward to Vesna Petresin’s week at Fig-2 (from 16-22 November). Her sound and light installation at Bicester is playful and challenging. You enter a white phone box and are immersed in pink light with flashing lights running up and down like Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator, soundtracked by a female voice sexily whispering. It was too much for a couple I saw who emerged after barely seconds slightly perplexed. Art can take you to another (virtual) world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like that world.

CSgt-IxWEAAdJAvDeborah Coughlin’s work with her all-female choir GAGGLE is also challenging, with an explicit feminist purpose of female empowerment. In Week 9 of Fig-2 they performed in between readings of classic speeches by great women including Virginia Woolf. In Bicester each member of the choir carried a rock made out of paper and wire and sang ringing harmonies to her source of burden, “I wish my rock.. were you!” The choir carried their rocks through the crowds along the whole length of Bicester Village.

10178099_10156188632215181_2974744521471714333_nWe fell about when we saw a dad successfully goading his children. “Those women must be so strong!” he said, provoking their incredulous reply “It’s fake rocks, Dad!

Fig-2 continues until December at the Institute for Contemporary Arts.

AJ Dehany is blogging about every single week of Fig-2 at fig2loyaltycard.wordpress.com.

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I was bad & I bought a suit..

Week 41 – FOS – October 12-18

ART WORLD BLAG
lets get drunk and trash the mallPeter Duggan's Artoons (Guardian)

IMG_1314“Do you wanna go in?” he asks.

“Yeah, I haven’t got a wristband though.”

The big guy clocks the worky lanyard round my neck and the notebook and pen in my hands, and leads me back to the ICA box office.

“Jessie was telling me,” I say to him, “There are two bands on separate stages facing each other playing simultaneously really loud.”

“Yeah it’s pretty loud.”

I’ve already had a word with the box office, who told me it was sold out. I’d gone back before unsuccessfully and was squinting through the doors at the event in the theatre space, which is when this fella noticed me.

“Can we have one guest list please,” he doesn’t so much ask. I’m given a red ICA wristband. What is going on here?

IMG_1331I wish someone had told me Bo Ningen were playing, the psychedelic noise rock favourites I’d seen headlining before at Raw Power when I was so ill with that ear infection. This was not a conventional gig, but it was substantially their characteristic onslaught, if dipped in art installation production values.

Lights flickering all over, on one side Bo Ningen jammed on a stage behind three huge revolving mirrors obscuring and revealing them. On the other side turntable artist Powell simultaneously scratched and spliced. Artist Zhang Ding has designed the space as a “mutating sound sculpture”. Sightlines are broken by the revolving mirrors, lights scattering all over like a walk-in mirrorball. The stage sound undulated through the spaces between the revolving mirrors while the bulk of the volume came from the overhead sound system.

IMG_1312Technically this was unique, but the aim behind placing two acts in such a confrontational cagefighting scene is, it says here, “to be cooperative, improvisational, experimental and self-reflective rather than competitive.” Hugely enjoyable, it was nonetheless hard to work out how to interact with the two stages. The confusion in itself was enjoyable too.

IMG_1317Zhang Ding has programmed two weeks of these pairings of artists and musicians playing against each other. I used to say that all poets want to be musicians and all musicians want to be poets, but the more contemporary interaction is between musicians and artists. This is like the return of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and all those art-music mashups that used to be so frequent before the milk-snatchers took everyone’s dole money away. Nowadays these intersections seem to occur more in sanctioned bankrolled fine art gallery contexts, but at least someone is doing it.

IMG_1323Zhang Ding’s ICA experience Bruce Lee-inspired Enter The Dragon is on from now until 25 October and looks like a hot ticket. It’s, as I say, inspired by Bruce Lee. Whether or not it reflects the philosophies that Bruce Lee sought to embody in his film work is an intriguing reflection. The beauty and popularity of martial arts films seems to owe more to the physical aesthetic of movement and incredibly fit blokes kicking each other than to the Eastern philosophies that underpin the martial arts as they are slowly practiced away from the frenzies of the silver screen. Perhaps the fracturing effects of the revolving silver screens of Zhang Ding’s ongoing installation indirectly reflect that ambivalence.

IMG_1366I know,  I’m supposed to be telling you about what’s going on at Week 41 of Fig-2, which was and is happening upstairs at the ICA studio. I’d been talking to Jessie and had a few gins and went into the main ICA to see what was going on. It’s Frieze London this week, the thirteenth year of the $Big$Art$Event$ that makes rich people get their knickers in a twist for five days once a year, and Art London has gone crazy.

It costs a fortune to get into the Frieze art-market-cum-pop-up circlejerk, but is easy to get into if you’re rich and buying, or if you’re writing. I’m not rich, but I write a bit. Typically, Frieze has crept up on me and I’ve missed my chance to attend as a scribbler or on one of the 5-7pm cheap tickets or to just pretend I’m a student. I could pay fifty thousand quid for a ticket, but really Frieze is like Pizza Express — you’d be mad to go without the vouchers.

IMG_1369Fig-2, however (the curatorial ultramarathon installing a completely new show every week throughout 2015), is gloriously free, with a continuing spirit of art for art’s sake without an outward reference to commerce. Germane to that, the continuing spirit of my free pieces about Fig-2 is the spirit of not writing about what it is I’m writing about. This is the spirit of modern critical engagement. Contemporary art is not supposed to be about what it is about. We love absence as presence, and art that doesn’t look like what it looks like. This is a post-cubist notion fostered by fashionable drugs.

Seriously this week London is insane. Tonight there was a Bill Viola private view in a car park, another one revisiting Gerhard Richter’s Colour Charts, Andy Beckett and Mark Fisher at Goldsmiths talking about the bloody eighties, hours of other shit I’ve forgotten, and of course the opening of Fig-2 Week 41, my first encounter with the Danish artist known as FOS.

IMG_1346His name is Thomas Poulson. His name is Thomas Poulson. FOS has interlinked practices in art and design. Finland seems to have traditionally had the edge on cutting edge design, ie. arty chairs. Sweden gave us IKEA, which ain’t bad. But Denmark gave us LEGO, that beautiful intersection of colourful playfulness and pedagogic utility. Denmark also gave us FOS.

IMG_1350At what point does design become art? When it is impractical. As Oscar says, all art is quite useless. Design has always been the blue-collar aspirant less-regarded younger sibling to art that actually improves our lives rather than just takes the piss out of it. But there is a long conversation about art that has tried to go the other way (from art to design) and become useful.

IMG_1349Carsten Höller’s Hayward show Decision recently sold itself on the practical application of interactive elements including helter skelter slides and 3D goggles. Which isn’t that useful, but it’s part of the interactivity zeitgeist. In Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture last week he vindicated the Thatcherite view that the arts should produce a financial proof of its worth while at the same time locking it down that art is anything we do that we don’t have to.

IMG_1360Maybe it’s not that poets want to be musicians and musicians poets, but that designers want to be artists and artists want to be designers. Steve Coogan points out in 24 Hour Party People in role as Tony Wilson, he says to designer Peter Saville who has produced a typically immaculate poster too late for the gig it was supposed to be advertising, “It looks fucking great actually – yeah, really nice. It’s beautiful – but useless. And as William Morris once said: “Nothing useless can be truly beautiful.””

IMG_1358The pieces that FOS has displayed for Week 41 of Fig-2 are an abundantly semi-ruly positioning of objects at the intersection between beauty and utility. Yes, I’m going to talk about Fig-2 now. Strap in.

IMG_1336Totemistically, on a very hard bench in the corner there’s a blanket and a copy of the huge edition of Leonardo’s Complete Paintings and Drawings. Leonardo was and is the master of making unlikely beautiful objects that have real world application, if only hundreds of years later. His flying machine never really took off, but his ideas are still an evergreen resource and an inspiration to everyone in art, design and Leonardo was even better at being gay than man of the moment Prem Sahib (who also currently has a show, Side On, at the ICA). Leonardo is my favourite ninja turtle, period.

IMG_1343FOS’s installation is very welcoming: there’s a mixture of kitschy seventies furniture – the glorious yellow carpet, a dresser, a chair, a glass table, a black sculpture that could be a vase, an intimidating triffid in a comedy pot – that were once utilitarian but have become art objects in the age of retro without abandoning their utility. Though you feel that when hipsters buy these sorts of things they’re buying them for their friends to look at rather than sit on.

CQy7V0IWIAA9Sr5On the walls the art-as-pointless-thing is represented by six small bronzes and two really huge and beautiful (if useless) metal works that seem to generate their own planetary orbits. A red free-standing metal strip balances on a couple of magazines, presumably a statement in itself, including a sketch with the legend “RELIGION IS ABOUT SPEED.” God, I’m typing as fast as I can here, Thomas. The central bronze sculpture is pure art out of the Henry and Barbara mould. It works as a beautiful piece in itself and in the living-roomy set up of the space as a reminder that works of art that we might consider important or meaningful are usually deployed as a way of making your expensive maisonette a bit more expensive-looking after a nice shopping trip at Frieze.

IMG_1370FOS has done a great job of mixing up his day job in design with his cachet in fine art in this show. It’s excitingly overflowing with ideas and a palpable love of materials and design as something to enjoy both aesthetically and physically.

If you’re quick you can still chill out in FOS’s arty living room setup upstairs at the ICA until Sunday, and kick off to Zhang Deng’s Enter the Dragon shows downstairs until the 25th. But forget about Frieze. If you need to ask, you can’t afford it. Console yourself that nothing useless can be truly beautiful. Stick to IKEA. The hotdogs are a work of art.

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Week 7 – Claire Hooper & Maria Loboda – 16-22 February

This week, guest writer Alix Mortimer discusses art and archaeology.

I’m still not sure whether I should have gone to see this with two archaeologists (proper archaeologists, that is, as opposed to a dabbler like me). Possibly one can either approach art in an experiential sense or an analytical sense, and you don’t get to make the same approach twice (not for the first time, at least) and that night, the night of the sloe gin with warmed apple juice, we were all wearing analytical hard hats.

Week 7 was a collaboration between Claire Hooper and Maria Loboda, apparently originally titled “Atheism”, which seeks to “capture the atmosphere of the archaeological dig” and examine the relationship between objects, human interpretations and reinterpretations of them and the elusive movement of all these things through time. As Hooper points out in her accompanying interview, it is our extraordinarily structured brains that allow us to conceive of past and future – the only thing that actually exists in our direct experience is the “Now”. What this means is simply that we can have no firm idea about the meaning an object held even last year, never mind millennia ago in eras when writing either did not exist or was used solely for recording the delivery of sheepskins. The reality in which an object held a particular meaning no longer exists, and is at best only partially recorded. Our brains irresistibly tug us towards the desire to know what we cannot know: how other (dead) people feel about Things. Archaeology, and art that plays on and is inspired by archaeology, is the ultimate optimistic challenge to this troublesome limitation of our tediously locked-down space-time dimension.

Space can also be tricksy. Experiencing the space where ICA holds Fig 2 several times over now, I am slightly more accustomed to what is the Art and what is not, but my friends were seeing the space for the first time. It occurred to me that in approaching the thing as archaeologists we were in essence trying to decode a space from scratch, exactly as you would in the field. Part of field archaeology is about making decisions, often snap ones really. What am I looking at? What else does this look like? What are the things that matter here? Nothing comes out of the earth labelled, and fine art exhibitions generally aren’t labelled either. In archaeology and in art therefore, your ability to decode a space grows with practice.

photo 3The whole exhibition is built around a sort of temple, Claire Hooper’s evocation of a “god storage unit”, a place for storing old idols that was created in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk when the great temple of Inanna was rebuilt with new statues and fixtures. Hooper’s re-imagination of the storage room is lined with watercolour wallpaper, elegant both artistically and archaeologically in that it is based on stratigraphic drawings from the site report, which have their own complex beauty. Hooper was intrigued by the idea of objects that were felt still to have some power, but which were no longer in active use. Nobody wanted to throw away these superseded objects which had once been so powerful. Against one outer wall of the God Storage Unit lean two paganistic-looking bound straw crooks. These are Inanna’s “Gates of the Underworld”, and to be precise one of them was leaning against the temple and the other was on its side, in a way I actually found faintly shocking once I realised what they represented. Is this the Gates of the Underworld “in storage” after a lifetime of use? What happens to the magic space between them, the entry to Underworld presumably, if one of them is lying on its side? Does the wave collapse? Is it dangerous? In this way, Hooper’s work gets elegantly at the idea of investing objects with power and narrative and then outgrowing that narrative and discarding the formerly powerful object, which is essentially what human beings have always done and what archaeologists seek to reconstruct.

fig2_installation_07-Claire-Hooper--Maria-Loboda_08Sylvain_DeleuAround the God Storage Unit, other artefacts littered the space. The lustrous brown plait peeping tragically and tantalisingly from under one of the shelving units was one of the objects that spoke most directly to archaeology – something half-hidden, newly exposed, waiting to tell a story, or rather have stories imposed upon it. The artists apparently spent eight hours wandering the British Museum in preparation for this exhibition and got a shock from the beautifully preserved hair of a young woman buried in the great death pits at Uruk. At intervals in the walls around the space and away from the God Storage Unit itself, Maria Loboda had set tiny dabs of gold, a reference to the gems set into the walls of the Alhambra palace apparently with the specific purpose of impressing distant future generations should the unthinkable happen and the Empire collapse. This is a ruler reaching forward in time, trying to avoid the fate of Ozymandias by facing the probability of collapse head-on. Loboda in her interview points out that there the actual physical works she has created are in some ways superfluous to the art itself – the story of the gems is what matters. Another piece that is pure story were her Samurai swords on a distant wall – stored as they were in Japanese households “for an uncertain future”. This is an evocation of what you might call living archaeology (or anthropology, as an anthropologist would put it), the study of objects that are used in a particular way contemporaneously. As archaeologists we can watch modern spaces and actually see objects being deployed to create meaning, and the fond idea is that this informs our practice in the field, where the deployment occurred millennia ago and is no longer visible.

10954581_614674401966352_1335988916_nOne of the things that blows your mind very early on as an archaeology student is the realisation that you find objects where they ended up. And that might be “in use”, captured in the act of being deployed so that interpretation seems deceptively simple – Pompeii is the classic example – but it might also be after several lifetimes of other use. It might be repurposed, and in fact I am being disingenuous about Pompeii, because plenty of the material and objects there will have known multiple lives. It might be curated – there is at least one example I remember of an Upper Palaeolithic “antiquarian” who collected and curated a set of objects dozens or hundreds of years old and stored them together, where they were found. It might be rubbish, and you might find it in a midden, in a context that says little about the life of the potsherd, or coin, or discarded tablet before it became rubbish. Or, like the objects in Uruk’s original God Storage Unit, it might occupy a space somewhere between rubbish, repurposing and curation.

In the sense that the works referenced all these possibilities, I felt the exhibition was a success. The artists’ point was that Things can (figuratively) outlast their own lives and (literally) those of their owners. People, and their views about their Things, are really pretty ephemeral. Recalculation and reinterpretation occur continuously and come up with new temples, new gods, new meanings. As such it was fitting that one outer wall of the God Storage Unit was painted with the Colour of the Universe (Erratum), the rather jolly turquoise blue that enjoyed the distinction of being the distilled colour of the universe for a whole week, before it was realised that there had been an error in the calculations, and the colour of the universe was reset tragically to a beigy off-white.

photo 2Hooper and Loboda have thought deeply about archaeology and become immersed not just in individual stories and sites, glittering and alluring though these are, but in the theoretical context. Being aware of the pitfalls of interpretation and the difficulty of reconstructing meaning is a core concept in post-processual (by which I mean, oh, the bit after 1982) archaeology. Did it teach us anything we didn’t know in theoretical terms, or prompt us to think differently about the things we did know? Nope. I wouldn’t have said so. If anything it was rather comfily reinforcing. And this is where the analytical hard hats come in, because I suppose what I was hoping for was to be shown something new. There is a whole seam of co-operation between art and archaeology which can be very fruitful and spark new approaches to “doing” archaeology. This exhibition didn’t make it into that category. Maybe it wasn’t quite for us.

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