Wednesday, November 7, 2012
"The Unexpected Guest"
Liverpool, as you may know, is my hometown, and being as I am in the North of England this week I felt that missing the UK biennial of contemporary art hosted there would equal an act of treason. Coincidentally it coincides nicely with Bette Bourne's performance of "A Right Pair" at the Homotopia festival, a piece I thought would punctuate the outing perfectly. Sadly for me, but true to form, Homotopia printed the wrong date in their brochure...which means that yes I missed the show, but also that I have the evening free to write out this shizz. Win some lose some.
I saw seven shows at six venues in five hours, possessed in equal measures by the relentless spirits of Edith Sitwell and Stevie Hanley (who is not, by the way, dead). It was indeed a ghostly day, full of startling, colliding visions, in keeping with the biennial's title, "The Unexpected Guest." The moniker put me in mind of Sarah Waters' novel "The Little Stranger" and it's magnificent predecessor, Henry James' "The Turn of The Screw". The pieces I saw were haunting (Zaatari), Romantic (Attia), spectral (Yoshiyuki) and occasionally macabre (Morrisroe), a full phantasmagoria of possessive contemporary art. It was also unbelievable fun, rediscovering recontextualized classic works by the likes of Sophie Calle and Mark Wallinger, and unearthing new favorites in Ming Wong and Akram Zaartari.
At 28-32 Wood St, three works riffing off of the movie "Chinatown" fill the space with a restrained camp of identity dislocation. With video, movie memorabilia and oversize cut-outs, Ming Wong throws Hollywood a curve ball, with clever, clear wit and a meticulously executed deconstruction of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and the glamours they encode. On multiple screens we see Wong reenact key scenes from "Chinatown", playing all of the lead roles himself. Undoubtedly funny, massively engaging, maddeningly disorientating, one cannot but feel like Wong has slipped them a psychedelic as the overlapping scenes of Wong-as-Nicholoson and Wong-as-Dunaway babble away, part soap opera, part YouTube parody, all sparkling. The hazy movie star cut-outs, again featuring Wong, only add to the fun house effect, proving not only uproarious in their pointed ridiculing (and apparent simultaneous adoration) of Hollywood, but also loaded with a definite eroticism.
Wong-as-Dunaway sports deco arched eyebrows, drawn over tape that masks his originals. They stood out for me as some wild sort of punctuation, foot-noting the experience, and referring me always back, in an endless feedback loop, to some fictionalized "real body". I suppose Wong-as-Dunaway's eyebrows are something akin to Barthes' idea of the punctum, but in motion, seizing my attentions, anchoring my understanding in those frenetic images. Constantly removing himself from and replacing himself in the work, Wong conjures up some supernatural absences, only to fill them. The work is like a very clever game of Guess Who, only we already know who, but enjoy the playing all the same.
Another marvelously playful, willfully subversive and almost panic inducing experience was to be had at Open Eye Gallery, where Kohei Yoshiyuki provided extreme eroticism. Admittedly I went to the gallery to see Mark Morrisroe's punk Dada photo collages of x-rays and other ephemera, which was disturbing and beautiful, but it was Yoshiyuki that really got me. "Love Hotel", a video screen installation of multiple grainy images from the titular establishment, was just the opening shot. Next, visitors are given a flashlight and shown into what can only be called a darkroom, both meanings of the word come into play when encountering "The Park". Fumbling a little in the dark, a little apprehensive (both of gimmicks like this and of embarrassing myself by tripping over the art), I shone my light into the deep, inky darkness. The torch picked up photographs on the wall and I moved closer, discovering each of the voyeuristic prints for myself, with an audible gasp. The images depicted the nocturnal fuckings of couples and groups in 70s Japan, at once alarming and exciting. There was something of a Pompeii to this high art wall art smut, something rich, captivating, illicit and unforgivable. At certain points it was unclear if the sex depicted was entirely consensual, and alone in that darkness, disembodied in amongst those silent fornicating bodies, I felt a definite shudder. The shadow of doubt passed fleetingly through the beam of light thrown by the torch. The work forces the viewer to acknowledge themselves as a voyeur and a participant, whilst placing one amongst the writhings and the moanings of these late night deviants. Scenes of desire and release are played out in eerie black and white, it's an intense experience, stumbling towards something great, a metaphor for life.
At Tate Liverpool, the group show "Thresholds" takes up an incisive dialogue with how we shape our identity and how that identity shapes the space we inhabit. Coming out of Yoshiyuki's dark room and into the Tate's cavern of family friendly, jolly-good-time curating was jarring to say the least. The show was however packed with ideas and brilliant bits of connection. Sophie Calle's "The Hotel" has lost none of it's provocative humor or it's power to investigate presence mediated through absence, and the relics left behind. Layla Curtis' "United Kingdom", was as snappy as ever, but seemed to take on a gruesome quality with it's decapitated Great Britain, England deprived of her Scottish head. The cardboard soldiers in Thomas Hirschhorn's "Drift Topography", reminding me of Ming Wong's cut-outs, malignantly obscure our view of the artwork's very centerpiece. Turning themselves inwards, and their backs to us, we are both pushed out and, horrifically fenced in by the manner in which the sticky taped, behind-the-scenes nature of the soldiers suggests we are in fact hemmed inside it, in some horrible gothic walling-up.
For me though, the highlight of the show was Kader Attia's "Oil and Sugar #2", a miniature epic on video, which glistens with savage decline for its full 4 minutes. Saturated, resplendent, a monumental stack of sugar cubes collapse with intense, jeweled beauty in a slick of blue black oil. Not since Poe's "The Fall of The House of Usher" has such a horrifying crumbling been captured so beautifully. Casually evoking 9/11, colonial destruction and condemned council blocks, Attia captures with poetic, effortless grace, the inevitable demise and destruction of all things known, in captivating, luscious simplicity, sublime as Schopenhauer meant it.
I would have loved to have seen "Council House Movie Star", but I proved myself a real life unexpected guest by arriving at 16.55, and terrifying a half dressed performer, obviously ready to clock-off, who told me, with all the charm of a greengrocer owed a month's worth of credit, "Well, it's 5 o'clock, and you can't come in." What I saw of the installation (this de-wigged matriarch, a lot of white streamers and an upright coffin) made me wish most definitely that I hadn't lingered over that choc-pot in the Tate cafe, but had rather rushed to the impossible to find bur aptly named, Camp & Furnace, to witness what looked like a manic spot of something special. Ho-hum. The Gallery, Liverpool was likewise closed so I missed the Duggie Fields retrospective, which was a double whammy of annoyance.
I did however manage a few more shows, the most remarkable of which (maybe even the most remarkable of the whole day) was Akram Zaatari's immersive exploration of images, image makers and image making at FACT. Centered around an extended interview with an elderly maestro of photography (Van Leo) in Cairo, Zaatari weaves a slightly sardonic web of reconsiderings. Sparked by the discovery of some racy pictures of his grandmother in her 50s heyday (lovingly bringing us back to Barthes' "Camera Lucida") the interview is in fact with the photographer of said granny himself. He talks of his 300-500 self-portraits, his disgust towards photographers who don't create artworks for their studio clients, and the struggle to make good work in the face of commercial pressures. Slide shows of Van Leo's glamour girl photos swipe across the screen, showcasing his technical excellence and his old school glamour, in stark contrast to the out dated studio, with it's peeling walls, in which the interview takes place. Van Leo himself takes on the quality of a set of prints made from degraded negatives (are also on display), at once tangible and yet disintergrating before our eyes. It is a heartfelt portrait of a portraitist as he and his techniques disappear, and those pin-up snaps of grandma disrobing (also on display) shine with a whole new brilliance once the fragility and transience of it all is underlined, when we are confronted with the sheer cliff face fact that all we can hope to leave behind are souvenirs, and even they are only temporary.
Zataari also reworks a series of goofy found pictures of children, using adults to reenact their accidentally suggestive poses, which take on an idiotic sexuality of their of their own when transferred to grown bodies. Zaatari works and reworks his images, dislocating and reassigning meanings, in a complex but exciting way, which climaxes in four huge video screens which show Arab men in internet uploads, flexing their muscles, racing their cars, creating themselves as the want to be created, for an unknown, unexpected audience. It is cacophonously erotic, a great big glistening, discordant surround sound, wide screen appropriation of male iconographies and identities, stalked by the spectre of desire. Questions of authorship, spectatorship, self-reflexivity abound, as the bodies drive home their quest for self-determination, unaware that they have now become part of a matrix of other contexts. The men are not expecting guests, they are not expecting to be hosts, and yet he were are in a balletic back and forth creating each other with our gazes which can never meet.
I was that unexpected guest, wandering alone like the prodigal child, around the city where I grew up, and hardly recognizing it. I found the experience exhilarating, engaging, erotically charged and prophetic. It was a dense day of visions and realizations, transcendent, disturbing, challenging, accessible even, but never for a moment lacking content or gusto. I feel like I have taken a roller coaster through a hallucinatory landscape of dissipating figures, other worldy and yet defiantly visceral. It is as though, I stumbled upon fragments from the future left to a past that hasn't yet happened.
The biennial runs until November 25th 2012: http://www.biennial.com/