Week 35 – Amy Stephens – August 31-September 6

12096235_10156151170120181_8789224296981707273_n“I left my heart in San Francisco,” crooned Tony Bennett. I once left my cashcard in Llandudno. There is also an artistic tradition of people deliberately leaving things in art galleries.

Duchamp perfected the objet trouvé, inventing the “ready-made” by exhibiting unaltered everyday objects designated as art. It’s less clear who if anyone invented the objet déposé, or objet abandonné, or whatever you might choose to call those works that are left in a gallery as a comment or as an intervention.

11700957_10156151169670181_469298560441831057_oBanksy has crept into the Tate and National Gallery in disguise and covertly stuck to the walls a number of satirical works. Another kind of intervention found Brian Eno peeing into Duchamp’s urinal, which seems much more sympathetic than the idiot who went to jail for defacing a Rothko in the name of his own ‘artistic movement’ Yellowism. Curiously, of these three instances it is Banksy’s that isn’t vandalistic, in spite of the larger part of his canonical stencil works being strictly speaking acts of vandalism.


During Week 35 of Fig-2 someone left a postcard depicting “The Falls of Leny, Callander” though I’m still can’t quite convince myself it wasn’t actually part of the show. The rock formation within rushing water and an external overlaid shape left by a sticker perfectly matched the themes and techniques of the exhibition around it.


Amy Stephens uses sculpture, drawing and photography to explore relations between geological, architectonic and sculpted forms. She plays with the intersections between objects and how we represent objects. In her show two-dimensional representations turn into three-dimensional objects and vice versa via interventions in the forms by introducing synthetic elements to organic forms and organic elements to synthetic objects.

fig-2_35_50_3The room had been split into two exhibition spaces: one large and a smaller one in the corner which at first I missed. It was lucky they told me it was there because without the second room the show didn’t seem to work. Together the whole show suddenly came to life as the totality of the pieces resonated. The two-dimensional forms first encountered in the large space suddenly spring off the wall into full sculptural form in this second semi-hidden room. Considering all the works together let them ring out together like an orchestra. It was literally an object lesson in curation, and proof that the ‘art of curation’ isn’t just an amusing turn of phrase.

fig-2_35_50_8I loved the slippage between media, the way that a geometric shape would be presented in the big space on a photographic surface and then you’d find yourself confronting the same shape turned into a sculpture, the way the colours yellow, cyan and red would pass between sculptural objects, photographs and across the walls of the room.

fig-2_35_50_4Solid and outline shapes in yellow overlaid the two silkscreens “Freeze-Thaw I & II”. A yellow line led along the length of a wall and continued inside a picture frame as if it had thrown itself off the wall, and finally found itself embodied in the yellow perspex lozenge of the spindly-legged sculpture teasingly entitled Silence.

fig-2_35_50_9The same thing happened with the blue waterfall roll of heat transfer foil “The First Dive” spilling back into the blue shape digitally overlaid over the rock form photography in the c-prints “Rock-fall I & II”.

12138351_10156151169685181_8429118969511032606_oThe digitally overlaid blue shape then turns white and emerges as the flock-covered lozenge-on-legs sculpture “Tethered Object”, and the heat transfer foil reminds us through artificial means of the great violence of slow geological processes to shape valleys and mountains from solid rock.

fig-2_35_50_6The rocks emerge from the flat plane of photography into the gallery in the form of “something. anything. everything. I, II & III” in which there are three rocks. I tell a lie, they’re minerals. Jesus, Marie! They’re minerals! Specifically the mineral ilmenite, a weakly magnetic black and grey ore of titanium. These minerals have been wrapped in red tape: line interacting with shape, then the line wanders off and finds itself as a red flocked fabric line going up through clear Perspex in the large sculpture “Unicorn”, where it looks like either the broadly ascending line of a rising company or the descending fortunes of a failing one. What it is in fact is not dissimilar: it is a representation of the Palio horse race in Siena, Italy created through extreme simplification of a horse or a person stripped to essential forms and motifs.

12108055_10156151169350181_6377449736809568949_n“Unicorn” seems at first a curious title for it. Just like “Tethered Object”, it isn’t tethered, just as a unicorn can’t be tethered. Being mythical it either doesn’t exist or it exists as an absence (like silence, maybe even the yellow lozenge sculpture “Silence”). A unicorn is strong, being a beast, and fragile, in terms of its mythical rarity. Similarly the sculptures all possess this simultaneous stability and fragility. Untethered, you could knock them over easily, and people always walk into things.

tumblr_inline_moaej6xV3d1qz4rgpUnicorn (Leocarno) is actually one of the seventeen contrade (city wards) that compete in the Palio di Siena, so we even find here slippage between language and form: the name unicorn becomes a thing unicorn (just as James Joyce had made a cork frame for a photo of Cork city). The emblems of the district are the same reddy-orange as the lines of “Unicorn” and “something. anything. everything”.

Mention of Palio reminds me of a point raised by Douglas Hofstadter: Chi dice Siena dice Palio — to mention Siena is to bring up its famous horse race. Which would go for Wimbledon too: you think of tennis (or wombles?). In any word, many concepts are sous-entendus: there, but whispered. Inherent. A tethered object.

10350629_10156151170070181_7459507364983449044_nEven the striking rock and mineral forms in the photographs have been created by the eroding action of water: stable and fragile, hard and soft. “Tethered Object” looks inscrutable and monolithic, but its hardness is balanced by its spindly legs and its covering of flock, the lustrous velvety fabric that is Amy Stephens’s signature material. Flock draws the eye and light in: it’s soft but it’s also highly synthetic. Black flock is used like bark to wrap a piece of wood, giving it a synthetic but somehow warm edge.

AS26In “Birch In Space” we encounter a branch of Icelandic birch wood that has been cast in eight pieces and welded together and suspended from the ceiling: the shape is organic and natural but the material is metallic and synthetic and the suspension gives it a lightness that offsets the weight of the metal. The pitching of the one against the other characterises all of the work. The shape of the cast birch also echoes “Unicorn”.

12107094_10156151170370181_6704806387226526579_n“Pulpit” shows a photo of a clifftop, a famous Norwegian tourist destination formed of ilmenite and rock. You can imagine Moses standing at the top and declaiming his fifteen ten commandments, telling us how to live our lives. The Tetragrammaton YHWH (Yahweh) is derived from the verb that means “to be”, “exist”, “become” or “come to pass”: another slippage between language and form, another unicorn: words cast in stone.

12122856_10156151169695181_5496369759480006322_n“The First Dive” is inspired by David Lynch’s book “Catching the big fish: meditation, consciousness and creativity” and the idea of diving in when creativity takes over: jumping in at the deep end and submerging oneself in that danger rather than remaining sat in the shallow end.  You need to take risks to move on. Any act of life worth living is a naturally occurring artificial intervention.

I found Amy Stephens’s work thrilling in the way it exchanged colours and shapes between natural and synthetic forms and between two- and three-dimensional realms. It’s like a daytime Nights At The Museum, as if the non-living things all come out and cause trouble in real life.

Causing trouble in real life is what artists tend to be good at, from Banksy’s interventions to Stephens’s more personal artistic challenges in developing her play with forms and materials, and so on to that troubling and mysterious postcard The Falls of Leny, Callander” . . .

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You can listen to the Fig-2 audio interview with Amy Stephens on Soundcloud

Week 33 – El Ultimo Grito – August 17-23

“Genius is an error in the system” – Paul Klee

photographs by benjamin cosomo westoby

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe Birth of the User is two inflatable sculptures in one: a figure, called the User, within an outer womb: a space within a space (within a space). As the outside structure inflates with air from the machine the pressure of the environment compresses the User and a struggle occurs between them which is only resolved when the mechanical air inflow switches and the structure within starts to inflate, which causes his uterine environment to start to collapse around him. This creates a glitchy ecosystem of one against the other: fighting for air, or fighting because of the air. Balance is not consistently maintained.

People going into the gallery can’t help but touch it, which adds another feedback loop. You can feel the inflatable structure resist your hand as the air pushes back against your fingers or when it bucks and yields to your prodding.

Fig-2_33_50_1Design duo El Ultimo Grito is Rosario Hurtado and Roberto Feo, who have created this sculpture The Birth of the User during Week 33 of Fig-2. Rather than displaying finished works at the start of the seven day show, they set the ICA studio space up as a workshop in which to improvise and develop ideas and create a unique Open House setting in which the public could interact with a production environment.

ultimo_mexico_04A fantastic illustration of their working methods is their account of creating a public seating installation in Mexico City. It’s fascinating to see the skeleton-and-muscle structure made of bubblewrap and foam taped over plywood that looks like junk (“when we left the first day [they asked] ‘are you going to leave this here? for how long? what is this for?’”) transformed by the addition of a skin of circular stickers into something bright and brilliant.

ultimo_mexico_03Their spidery fantastical sculptures are colourful and tangly and semi-organic looking and are often designed to be sat upon and interacted with in public spaces. The use of ‘packing materials’ comes from a decision they made to create a design and manufacturing system free from “traditional methods of production” using their hands and bodies and readily available inexpensive materials: a DIY aesthetic or rather a design aesthetic with a DIY implementation.

File 17-10-2015, 18 41 39‘El Ultimo Grito’ apparently means ‘all the rage’. Literally translated it’s ‘the last cry’ which I think is from the phrase ‘the last cry of fashion’ which makes ‘all the rage’ make sense: this season’s show-stopping be-all-and-end-all (until next season). Their use of ‘El Ultimo Grito’ as a moniker is clearly an ironic comment on the transience of fashion.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westoby“It was a week of work in progress. Mainly to develop ideas and works that explore the idea of glitch, glitch as a malfunction in the system that allows you to see the structure in the system, how the system works,” El Ultimo Grito explain in their audio interview with Fig-2. There is a day-by-day written account by El Ultimo Grito on the designboom website.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe show included a number of digital prints developed from images created by encountering ‘glitches’ in Apple Maps while walking around London. This is similar to Clement Valla’s project documenting ruptures in Google’s Universal Texture mapping system: those images of melting bridges when the texture mapping has gone wrong. We encountered this in Fig-2 Week 12 (part 6) and one of Valla’s ‘Postcards from Google Earth‘ was on show in Week 29. The phenomenon has clearly struck a nerve.

valla-5In Clement Valla’s work ‘glitch’ exposes the algorithmic principles involved in how our digital realities are constructed. El Ultimo Grito are more interested in the political and social factors exposed by ‘glitch’: the historicity of glitch. We are in the middle of both a housing crisis (caused by our rich keeping supply of housing down to boost what they can charge us to buy or rent) and a migration crisis (caused by our rich selling weapons to indiscriminately arm every side of every conflict worldwide, which leads to people trying to flee these places to survive).

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe construction and reconstruction of our cities is a document of political will. There’s no social housing, but ugly cheesegraters keep springing up in the city. Estates are knocked down, and spring up again as megastructures of gentrification. Sometimes our maps won’t update in time, and we will experience ‘glitch’: an uncanny sense of displacement, walking through two different realities at once, two different periods of history.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyWith the accretion of vernacular building in a city we in fact find countless levels of periodicity simultaneously. A new glass structure bolted to a medieval wall dominated by a prefab made of ugly. Each layer reveals the ‘ultimo grito’ of its period. Currently everything is glass that is largely flat, the next fashion will probably find this bending and twisting as new technologies develop, and then there’ll probably be some rage for sixties style stone cladding.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThese architectural paradigms (fashions) are temporal but internationally uniform, and part of El Ultimo Grito’s method in their week was to render a number of different but recognisable styles together to create the forms and surfaces of a single United Estates conflated from images of London’s ‘iconic’ Brutalist housing block Trellick Tower, other buildings in Montevideo, and London housing estates. The United Estates sprang up over the week as a number of structures representing a glitched dystopic city that you can’t live in, just as you can’t live in a city without housing or a country refusing to accept immigrants.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyEl Ultimo Grito‘s fictional character The User is intended to represent “when the consumer becomes a citizen”. The sculpture’s rise and fall that dramatizes the pressure of an environment over the individual. El Ultimo Grito developed their DIY approach to the construction as well as just the design of their works. If each of us is ‘The User’ it is up to each of us to try to take a more active role in it, becoming a citizen rather than a consumer Otherwise the larger structure will crush us all.

The Fig-2 website gives a day-by-day photographic account of the work in progress, in which you see the elements of plastic and wood used to make the nascent sculptures. When I visited on Friday night there was a smell of paint so strong that even I could smell it, Rosario and Roberto working and another guy making things in the fire escape. They had just about finished making a camera obscura, which they demonstrated to me.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe camera obscura projects an image upside down on a screen. Vermeer probably used one when he painted and there’s a good one in Bristol that let’s you look at the Avon Gorge and Clifton Suspension Bridge without having to go to the effort of looking directly at them (you have to go to Bristol though). It’s another form of mapping, another way of projecting a 3D reality onto a flat screen.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe camera obscura is a kind of ‘real time cinema’ in which a moving image is antique Chinese erotic porcelain depicting a couple rutting, which doesn’t look dissimilar to the Birth of the User sculpture. In the logic of the show it bridges between the scale of the third day’s large inflatable sculpture and the comic strips they made on the final day in which they synthesised all of the glitch mapping of the digital prints and the three-dimensional sculptural forms of the United Estates, with the User character ultimately triumphing and creating a new reality: “If you control the glitch, you control reality itself” — el ultimo grito!

In Iain Sinclair’s lecture Blake’s London: The Topographic Sublime the earnest psychogeographer describes how there is “a love of the fabric of this multidimensional city and also a cynical despair at the changes now being wrought … New enclosures, blue fences and razor wire topped with surveillance cameras, have sealed off enormous tracts of terrain along the eastern margin. We see the dominance of the virtual over the actual, the computer-generated version over the particulars of locality … What you are creating, in effect, is an electronic Golgonooza. A system predicated on affectless gazing. Therefore Los stands in London building Golgonooza,

Compelling his Spectre to labours mighty; trembling in fear / The Spectre weeps, but Los unmov’d by tears or threats remains. “I must create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s. / “I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.”

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POSTSCRIPT: I made a mistake and accidentally posted this while I was tagging it with “glitch” with the result that the title came up as Week 33 – August 17-23 – El Ultimo Gritoglitch, — a meta-glitch I’m tempted to reinstate.

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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