Week 40 – Una Knox – October 5-11

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fig-2_40_50_2When you enter the room the first thing you see is that all of the walls have been drawn into the centre of the space and bound together. The Fig-2 mobile wall structures and book shelves that usually delineate a space within the room have been wrapped up together, and there is nowhere to hide.

fig-2_40_50_4Whether deliberately or intuitively Sylvain Deleu’s photos don’t zoom in on the the central structure but show it surrounded by the exposed space of the studio — balancing the tight compression at the centre with the openness around it. This arrangement has an unsettling effect. Artist Una Knox notes that in drawing things together you illustrate the potential for, or the inevitability of, the opposite: all things will break apart.

unaknoxpvThis is the context of coming to Fig-2: these shows are brought together for seven days and then blown apart. For Week 40 of Fig-2 Una Knox has bound together elements of film, photos and sketches within a specific spatial configuration that introduces specific tensions into how you perceive the work.

“In previous works the question has come up: how does a particular architecture have the potential to dictate a conversation?”

Una_Knox_fig-2_teaser_image_2015Whether it’s an elevator shaft or a small room full of tape and paint like the ICA studio, depth of field (the distance between the nearest and furthest objects you can perceive) has a profound effect on you. In cities we can get wound up and depressed by the closeness of everything, and feel relief and elation at emerging into a wider perspective like a park. Conversely, in the countryside we can feel overwhelmed by the distance of everything and long for our homely corners.

fig-2_40_50_6In Una Knox’s Fig-2 installation the objects are brought into intimate relation with each other through proximity, and looking at them all cramped together feel like we’re clambering through them, unearthing them like old manuscripts in a library.

fig-2_40_50_7The small monitor screens play video archives of the artist’s father David Knox, himself an artist, at work in the 1980s. He’s making ‘surface studies’ in which he introduces cuts to large pieces of paper. This work doesn’t survive except in these grainy flickering video documents.

There is also a notebook hidden away that contains preparatory work from both father and daughter, work you wouldn’t normally see when looking at a final work. It presents us with one dynamic of a relationship we can only imagine, and sketches for works that might or might not exist. If there’s a depth field of meaning we’re coming towards a wall here.

CQkwUroWEAMYwXwExploding the plane is the most colourful part of the exhibition, the three large trichromatic images, semi-abstract photos of Una’s own absent cutouts. You see these from the outside, from the open space of the room, whereas with the other works you have to almost clamber into the central structure. These large photos are made using pre-colour photography processes, with three sequences shot one after another and different tones of grey creating different densities of red, green and blue.

fig-2_40_50_2This paradoxically creates much more vibrant colours out of gray than using colour does. You’ve seen films shot in Technicolor. Their rich saturated image palette comes from using three separate film cameras each with a different filter to capture red, green and blue. It’s nostalgic and also, such complex methods of image creation are akin to the workmanlike methods of artists. So there’s another connection between the processes of Una’s photos and David’s physically cutting into paper.

fig-2_40_50_8It’s about “history and how things taken from the past are modified and reshaped and retain something of what they were and become something else and how two things that are the same can become unique.”

Cutting into paper breaks the two-dimensional plane, which is quite a radical act in artistic terms. It’s violent. Interplay between two and three dimensions is an abiding feature of op art, which creates three-dimensional effects through manipulating and tricking the cognitive processes that read the information of the world: optical illusions. The vase keeps popping into a face.

“I was interested in the way that we look back in history and what we see through these different layers of media, these practices of artists who we can only see through documentation and what happens in that filter, so I wanted to bring those filters to the foreground, in accentuating the quality of this old video but also in the photographs splitting apart the materiality of photography but also of vision and how these things come together, sequences in time collapsing in and becoming dense. So you see that in the structures and also in the materiality asking you to look through the shelves.”

There’s nothing on the internet about David Knox. The show is about someone we as strangers can’t hope to know about. When you click on @UnaKnox in @fig2london’s tweets it says “Account suspended” — the correct handle @unannox has protected tweets. In the absence of the internet, or getting to know Una Knox, all we can know about the relationship between the two is mediated through the work.

This seems to echo a psychological truth that sets up an unresolved ambiguity in the work. Sometimes we can fail to understand something because we are ‘too involved’ as well as too far away: ‘clinical distance’ is another kind of knowledge. It’s a problem of perspective, of depth of field: everything is either too far away, in time or space, or so close up to you that you can’t see it. Art breaks the surface plane so we can try to peer through.

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All quotations from Una Knox are taken from her audio interview with Fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek.

POSTSCRIPT

The Sipsmith gins at the show opening were apparently a “Trichromaticism mix” but I have a photo in which it’s distinctly referred to as “Smoke & mirrors”. Smoke and mirrors: certainly I’m now beyond confused not only about David Knox, but also Una Knox, and even the drinks.

One artist bio of Una Knox says “She is inspired by instances where an absence defines a presence” which we certainly encounter, or don’t encounter, or do we, through her work. It’s also a central idea in contemporary art practice that I’ve had hours of fun mocking. For once I’ll just leave off the jokes and think about Jazz. Simpsons did it:

PUNTER: Sounds like she’s hitting a baby with a cat.
LISA: You have to listen to the notes she’s not playing.
PUNTER: I can do that at home.

Week 9 – Deborah Coughlin with Gaggle – 2-8 March

This week in Kabul, Afghan artist Kubra Khademi was forced into hiding after publicly wearing a metal suit featuring exaggerated breasts and buttocks. The suit was so designed because “this is all that men see of women”, to highlight the sexual harassment of women. After only eight minutes a mob of men shut her down.  On the 20th anniversary year of the Beijing Declaration on gender equality, a new United Nations report finds that violence against women around the world “persists at alarmingly high levels.”

On Sunday 8 March civilization celebrated International Women’s Day while a depressingly familiar male sub-class complained about it. Sunday was also the last day of fig-2 Week 9, in which Deborah Coughlin with Gaggle (her all-female experimental choir and performance group founded in 2009) presented Yap! Yap! Yap! — “a celebration of women’s voices. Uncovering the great things that women have said throughout history and also saying new things, now, very loudly, with a roster of incredibly special guests. It’s like the Vagina Monologues only not just about fannies.”

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In the same week that Gaggle were in residence at fig-2 I went to a number of different shows that made me aware of the diversity of approaches within fine art and performance that are concerned with gender, or explicitly feminist in theme or intent, or that made me think about the unprecedented number of female artists working today in the UK.

Are there more women involved in and interested in fine art than ever before? The group show Eccentric Spaces (selections from Deptford’s Bearspace Gallery, curated by FutureCity, exhibited at Foyles) featured eight women to four men. Similar ratios seem to apply with the artists chosen for fig-2, and at the Eccentric Spaces private view (perhaps the Yap! Yap! Yap! opening too) there were more women than men.

I suspect that it is the case that at a lower profile women abound but as you go higher up the women disappear, and men predominate. There are some Emins but few. There is a similar case with acting, I believe, with many female actors and few female roles, and I see it in science with many female postgraduates but few female professors. This might chime with examples we find in sociology of the feminization of the workplace in which initially spaces such as the workplace (or by extension fine art practice) are proletarianised at a low level and the work devalued; following on from this devaluation women are suddenly allowed to permeate. I cross my fingers that this analysis is just me being cynical, and that the increased numbers of women creating work at this level will be replicated in time higher up.

One theme that seemed to predominate in the shows I went to this week was space, and spaces, in which women in particular can be, perform, and collaboratively imagine new worlds.

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The Eccentric Spaces show seemed to take off from architectural imaginings of space. Similarly, at Mirrorcity at the Southbank in December 2014, Tai Shani’s Dark Continent was an installation and three-part performance taking the structure of an allegorical city of women, exploring feminine subjectivity and experience, complete with a commissioned theme song.

Best of all though, in the same week as Gaggle, was Fannying On, a weekend of installation and collaboration in a reclaimed office space off Chancery Lane. Kayleigh O’Keefe has founded an imaginary country called Gash Land (of which I am a Citizen – apply here!), or imaginary cuntry, that is also a real ongoing collaboratively generated art project, a “Utopian Cunt Wonderland”. Fannying On included Psychedelic Menstrual Huts (where men can learn about what it’s like) and a strongly in-your-face emphasis on female physicality, which, in keeping with the prevailing paradigm of inclusivity, was welcoming of everyone. Radical feminism’s ‘Angry Snatch’ has become the ‘Laughing Gash’. Kayleigh O’Keefe’s videos about flab, fisting, big labia, queefing, pissjaculation, and menstruation, are hilarious. And very NSFW.

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What Gash Land, Dark Continent, Eccentric Spaces, Yap! Yap! Yap! have in common is a concern with creating new spaces for female engagement. This relates back to Woolf’s ‘Room of One’s Own’ and female self-determination, and forward to the notion of ‘safe-space’ where gender and sexuality can be freely expressed, but also has a uniquely modern performative element that spins metaphor into reality without ever losing its ideality or its applied real world seriousness: it is ideally political.

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This duality was well captured by Deborah Coughlin. Over the week the ICA studio space was used to create a “collage of pop and ideas, great nobodies and brilliant nobodies, clever words and weird noise” with performances and installations. When I arrived for the opening night the space felt the most excitement I’d experienced there yet. The bulbs had all been changed to pink and green, and the space very quickly filled up with people (a queue remained all the way up the ramp until the end). On the walls were quotes from feminist writers from Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf to Andrea Dworkin and bell hooks. Speakers blasted riotgrrl bands and anthems, such as the Raincoats’ version of the Kinks’ classic transgender anthem Lola. A drum kit had been set up, and mini stages made ready for the twenty-piece choral force of Gaggle.

It felt like something subversive could actually happen in a gallery space, which was unusual. Perhaps it was the club vibe and my age, or the effects of the free gin cocktail, which this week was called LADY PETROL, and which was INSANE (it involved triple sec, angostura bitters, London dry gin, lemon peel, and, for all I know, petrol).

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Across the space the imagery had a hipstery edge to it, garish and a bit gross, familiar from the look pioneered by political-conceptual-theoretical-performative-musical duo The Knife, who must be a touchstone in the intellectual background to Gaggle. The open-mouthed motif that was scattered around Yap! Yap! Yap! is familiar as the Rolling Stones logo from when they had some counter-cultural cachet, as well as having been co-opted by the 1980s kids TV programme ‘Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It’ and is broadly symbolic of freedom of expression and the rebellious speech act.  The hooded members of Gaggle rolled in wearing thick black lip makeup that seemed a defiant reclamation of makeup and dress from traditional uses of these to service and please the male gaze.

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Between the Gaggle choir’s songs, Ruth Barnes introduced readings. Charlotte Church read from Mary Wollstonecraft a passage part of which was excerpted on the wall: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces.” Paula Varjack read from Virginia Woolf’s essay in which Woolf discusses ‘killing the Angel in the House,’ that tormenting self-sacrificing phantom coming between her and her writing.

Ama Josephine Budge and Dana Jade performed two recent dialogues between transfemale actor Laverne Cox and feminist thinker bell hooks, discussing “liberatory images” in the Normativeheteronormativeimperialistwhitesupremacistcapitalistpatriarchy and whether Beyoncé is a feminist; and the notion of ‘safe space versus risk’ in terms of (trans)gender and love.

Wollstonecraft and Woolf are both pioneering figures of First-wave Feminism, which is concerned with the basic emancipation of women, while Cox and hooks’ concerns are more those of Third-wave Feminism’s focus on queer theory and ethnic experience.

In Week 5 of fig-2, Rebecca Birch’s ‘Lichen hunting in the Hebrides’ studied a women’s community choir who preserve Gaelic women’s work songs. In Week 6 Young In Hong’s ‘In Her Dream’ referenced Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), a classic work of rediscovery of female artists from history. Such acts of rediscovery of historical female figures and practices are familiar as a process of late Second-wave Feminism.

While Young In Hong used these references, the work itself centred on a more third-wavy exploration of the intersection between Western and Korean female experience. Similarly, Deborah Coughlin’s work Yap! Yap! Yap! seems to telescope generations of feminist thought, but with an emphasis on the performative, the socially constructed nature of women through images, that is associated with postmodern feminism, such as you find in the work of Cindy Sherman, where female images are deconstructed but there is also a certain joy in ‘dress-up’.

Too many isms? Too much theory? Near the gin, across one wall the following lines were painted up:

Timing…
When can I stop
on the wave?
Different place might
be the right time

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Overly rigid historically overdetermined delineations of feminism in the arts, such as I’ve employed in separating various impulses out into First-, Second-, Third-wave and Postmodernism Feminisms, don’t seem as helpful as they have been in the past. Structuring the discourse may have hardened it. Perhaps we are moving into a different place, a new space, a kind of feminism in art that includes all the best of the previous waves: emancipatory, historical, multicultural, queer, militant, dadaist, absurd, imaginary, real… This would make it a more postmodern (that is, decentred) kind of feminism than postmodern feminism itself, but with a renewed militancy. Fourth wave feminism? Post-wave feminism?

On another wall, Coughlin spelled it out:

Speeches

Past – forensic
Present – ceremonial
Future – political

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The struggle for equality varies wildly across the world, and we can’t describe one simultaneous female experience, other than a broad inequality with men, which is still a universal truth.  Much of the Middle East area still practices sexual apartheid in 2015, which means that feminism occupies a complex position there, directly suppressed but also, where possible, informed by conceptual advances imported from places where human rights have made greater advances, or where they have not been pushed back to the middle ages.

In certain areas, what this simultaneity of intellectual experience and disparity of political position between women across the globe means is that in some places feminist activity and activism has skipped a few steps; if you can imagine the Suffragettes in England over a century ago employing the imagery and means of Pussy Riot. Perhaps the next steps in developing feminism in the arts are characterised by not just the Third-wave’s “ceremonial” inclusiveness and congruence with respect to gender and ethnicity, but also to the First- and Second-wave’s “forensic” means, theories and strategies we employ to move humankind forward: perhaps even, however problematically, a new “political” unifying feminist modernism.

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The last word goes to Ruth Barnes: “Let’s have a dance — set yourselves free!”

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POSTSCRIPT: One of the Gaggle opening evening’s special guests, Dana Jade, is the founder of Clit Rock, created to raise awareness and funds to combat FGM. The next fundraiser is on March 27.

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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