Monday, February 23, 2015

Why "I don't like the art world"

The other night, eating at a Chipolte after an opening with a bunch of people,  I got into a spat with someone about art. It wasn’t an argument per se as they were so aggressive and rude that I actually refused to talk to them after a point but since then that minor incident has stayed with me. The spat started with me saying a throw away comment like, “I don’t like the art world,” or something along those lines and the other person then prodded me to explain that statement. That request in itself is a valid one but not something I wanted to be forced into in the manner of their questioning which became reduced to demands to “name names” of artists that I didn’t like. Regardless of the futility of that certain conversation this idea and statement of, “I don’t like the art world,” is one I find myself often making and it is worthy of unpacking.

There is not a specific thing for not liking it, it’s not some quotable, measurable or data driven analysis, it is more a feeling and a being within it (about a dozen years kiddos) that has created a series of moments, incidents, observations, and interactions. These have affected how I think about the larger ramifications in art, culture, living and human exchange. These incidents range from curatorial directions of major museums, artists being visible or not, how labor is conditioned from large-scale production to internship culture. They occur in public spaces, institutions, galleries, private dinners, openings, studio visits etc. They are the exchanges of communication in email, in books, in reviews and in person. It is about specific people’s influences as well as their ability to dominate or to supplant as well as other people’s passivity in the active maintenance of structures they may ideologically be opposed to but are conditioned out of need or want otherwise.

So basically it is just everything on top of everything that is involved with the creation of the art world but to get to the point of it, the thing that I think has bent all this everything into the idea of, “I don’t like the art world” is money. It’s not about not liking money, it’s about the scale and the influence money has on the art world that I think its impact is shifting things to such degrees that it feels like a strangle happening to art.

'Art' and the 'art world' are to me, two very different things. This I know is probably naive and deluded in its own ways but sorry not sorry I do think there is a difference and most people in this business will admit this. To me art is not just about what is the new as some want to expound upon but it contains the tingle of the contemporary. I am not using contemporary in the right here right now mode of use but in the having affect and import on the now. To further explain what I mean: something like a Giotto painting from the 1300s, something made by a kid in Idaho with MS Paint in the 1990s and something made by someone who would fit in with the New Museum Triennial are all capable and impactful in the understanding and influence of the contemporary/now. It is about accumulations but these accumulations manifest, come into vogue, and crystalize in the openness and the brilliance of actualization of creating objects, images, and ideas in this time. This to me is art and this is the reason why I am still here.

The art world is not this because it is an entirely different sort of structure with different objectives. It is a system like any other like the motor industry, food industry, banking, etc. It only functions with the exchange of product and that product is art. This is an obvious idea and one that isn’t deplorable as in its fundamentals there is an essentiality to the system and structures of operation. The problem, for me, about how the art world operates is how it is influencing and changing how art is being made. This change is not just in terms of scale and materiality but also in how things look and who is participating in that creation and purchase. It’s a simple thing of supply and demand but this is sprinkled with speculation, asset managing and basically a paralleling of stock trading. This is the current tone and language of art collecting today and you know what? Everyone is having a blast with it because unlike the market, which has some regulation (or a vague semblance of), the art market has none at all.

Yes, yes, art has been the leisure, hobby, and prerogative of the rich since forever but I don’t live back then, I live now and the way that it operates makes me feel equal levels of grossed out and resigned. The feeling, knowing that this is just the way things are is something that I have had to come to grips with (knuckles white) but that’s not even the saddest thing associated with all this. To me, the saddest thing is that art is now being pumped up, pumped out and shuffled around, as cultural playing cards and you know what? The house always wins. Who is the house? That’s people of privilege that are insanely wealthy. There are insanely rich people that are really amazing art supporters and its great when they buy art but to be honest most of those collectors are buying art for the market potential, bragging rights and the adrenalin of possessing. It’s of course not all their fault though, it’s the dealers, it’s the curators, it’s the artists, it’s the everyone and everything that plays along.

So what are the options when this is how you feel/this is how I feel? Are we all waiting with baited breath for the next Duchamp? Will we just wait till the noise of visual garbage dissipates? Will something happen like a market crash that will void most of the bad but also some of the good? There is not much that we/I can do about this and wishing and bitching and shit talking our way through it will get you nowhere (trust me and use me as example). The only way I can get through it mentally, morally, personally, is to keep searching, looking, contributing to and enjoying those moments of actual art, those brain tingle moments that makes me feel lucky to be living in this right here right now, even if it happens to be in the 'art world.'

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Complicated Thing About Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen, Etan / mint 21:00, 2013, Etan / mint 12:00, 2013, Etan / mint 15:00, 2013, c-print photographs

ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) London has a peculiar show currently on display and that is Viviane Sassen’s newly installed, Pikin Slee. It is a photography show and Sassen is a type of photographer that hinges on the art/fashion line with rare aplomb. She is hired by brands like Miu Miu and Stella McCartney but has also won the Prix de Rome. What does that mean? Well nothing besides proving that she is certifiably in the mix within these worlds and one can start thinking about how fashion vortexes contemporary photography, but this idea and bio-bites are not the thing that is complicated. Let’s forget I said anything about that and enter into this show with the vague blankness about context, which is exactly how I arrived to it.

This is a photo show, and a rare one at that, as it is shot with analogue film for the most part and I have to say, maybe it’s just my mind playing tricks on me but you can just feel the difference. Digital film will just never, ever have that embedded tone that analogue does. It is a different set of chemicals and processes and for me it is like comparing marble to 3D printing. Anyways, there is a suite of selected photographs that are of objects, barely discernable figures that are facing away and highly focused geometries of space, shadow and color. There is a subtlety to the works and a feeling of placement within each frame. This occurs even in those that include signs of nature like water, which one would suppose, is not so easily manipulated. Throughout the photographs there is sense of fixation, a staring gaze that looks so long it makes the eyes tear up. It is a mix of this intensity of gaze with a formal knowingness and imposed sophistication that makes these photographs so easy and desirable to look at. The strength of the photos should be duly noted as it is poorly installed in the lower gallery space. I have decided to not hold my breath for a well-mounted show at ICA for if I did I would have long ago been sent to the morgue.

That being said, what the photographs are taking photos of is another set of issues. Pikin Slee refers to a village in the Upper Suriname River within the Surinamese rainforest, which was a former Dutch colony in the Guianas and the current inhabitants, the Saramacca, are descended from plantation slaves from this area. Sassen first visited here in 2012 and was, “intrigued by the village and the inhabitants.” This statement is pulled from the show’s press release and reading this was the first indication that this was a show shot by an outsider and by a white person.

Now things get a bit more complicated and uncomfortable. As I previously said, I was not all too familiar with who exactly Sassen was upon entering the show. Her name was familiar to me, as I like both art and fashion, but seeing the photographs, which are beautiful and thoughtful in many ways, brought up a lot more issues then just seeing an art show.

The role of the photographer is one of authority and of outsider. There is a remove in the apparatus of the lens and of the camera, which positions the photographer outside of the presented focus even if they are in the shared space. This is a constantly intriguing concept and one that makes the form of photography such a compelling medium. Now, the photographer being this outsider but also director of the frame (in this type of photography) makes what is in the frame passive. You can see and feel this in the show’s images in the ways they are composed and styled. In these images Sassen has taken the “mundane” (again from the PR) everyday objects of the Saramacca people and captures and composes them into a poetics of form. She also does this with the people, creating silhouettes in some instances like that of Etan / mint (2013) which is the same person in three degrees of portraiture, or she has makes them nearly invisible sculptural pedestals like Vela (2013) where the back of a young boy is barely perceptible and has a white slash of tape diagonally across it and Alisi, (2013) in which you can barely discern a neck and head which has Cassava powder and palms stacked on top of it.

So what is happening here? One, these compositions create attractive and at times stunning images. Two, there is an unmistakable ethnographic gaze and purpose to these images. Is this second thing okay to do in order to achieve the first? I am not sure. To unwind this question, learning more about the subject and the photographer may be of use.

Sassen was born in 1972 in Holland but lived in Kenya for three years as her father was a missionary doctor. She returned to Holland when she was six. In various articles, most concisely this recent one in The Telegraph, this root experience with Africa is central to Sassen’s narrative. Actually reading this article and others like this made the whole ‘white women photographing former Dutch plantation village’ even more suspect but also lead me to other ways of thinking about this show.

It led me to think about ideas of authorship and permission. Sassen’s mere three years as a child in Africa has given to her, and hence her art, an expanded bracket in which her art is allowed to reside and explore which includes the retroactive colonial gaze. Her connection, attachment and sense of being and belonging to Africa is something she conditions and authenticates her work with and this presentation and framing of biographical/lived history amends as well as allows Sassen to be an outsider both in the Saramacca community and as a photographer. The more I think about it the harder it is to swallow but I am also very wary of knee jerk reactions to such massively complex issues.

Also, who am I to say or judge Sassen’s attachments and relationship to the subjects she is photographing? I don’t know so I have to give some leeway to this whole thing.  In addition, the way Sassen photographs is not even really about this village. In this series and in her more fashion-y works there is a muteness to the subjects and to the objects. It is all glorious surface and more then anything it is all really about Sassen and the tale she tells of herself.

This is possibly why I am not getting too bent out of shape about her declared investment and curiosity to the Saramacca community who, “are isolated from the outside world, living without running water, electricity, roads or the internet,” because there is a lack of any deep substance and that shallowness is not bad per se but it keeps it all so safe, so beautiful and so uninvested.

Monday, February 9, 2015

My Favorite Alley in Peckham, DKUK Salon, AYA café

DKUK Salon

There are times when one feels like there are just no options, no alternatives, no ways in which the ‘way’ things are will ever be not be that ‘way.’ This is a feeling that seems to be conditioned versus conditional. Call it postmodernism, call it neoliberalism, call it capitalism, call it the art world, call it whatever you want but this thing is so established that even sticks and stones won’t break its bones.

So what to do in the face of all that? There are a few options. One, is to just embrace it, love it, believe it, and ‘just do it,’ whatever that ‘it’ is whatever those goals are with whatever it takes. This route has the most success in a certain type of way and serves the conditioned goal model. Two, is to fake it till you make it, this meaning that you see what’s going and you do one thing day-to-day but in the background or private life you do another that counters these conditioned goal aspects of your life. This is a form of continuation of the conditioned goal but there is some sense, morally, egotistically or actually that counters one’s admittance and participation in the ‘hustle.’ Third, there is the option of the big leap. This leap can be a ‘fuck it I’m done’ aka cabin in the woods vibe. Or it can be a ‘fuck it I’m done’ which is like a slash and burn of one’s method and motivation of being. This can be idealistic and cliché in it’s own mannerisms but it can also be entrepreneurial and re-directional not just for a self but for the condition as well.

This is a very long introduction to my recent experience to an example of this third type of alternate condition in the face of our whatever we live in right now. A friend sent an email that brought to my attention a salon of sorts in my neighborhood, Peckham (specifically Peckham Rye). I was curious so I emailed a ‘let’s meet and chat’ message as I am wont to do and this past Saturday I did just that.

So those who don’t live or know about Peckham, it is in South London and it is a quaint assemblage of row Victorian houses on quiet streets that are not gridded in any manner but feel like paved meanderings. It’s the same tale here as it is in most cities with the buzzing word ‘gentrification’ which includes in this setting; generational families, investment renovators, students, artists, and a large mix of immigrant populations mostly of African and Caribbean descent. I am going into that because it matters in retelling of my Saturday findings.

One of the main roads in this neighborhood is Peckham Rye Lane and on this road it is a dense street of stores selling, veg, meat, fish, 99 pound stores, nail salons, hair salons, cell phone top up stalls, and a variety of other shops. It is bursting with a type of DIY entrepreneurialship that is familiar around the globe for the diasporic and it serves their own community while also mixing with their new home. Within this melee of shops and stalls there is a small alley, #135a, with open front arcade shops right before the Peckham Rye Overground station. It is in this alley some fabulous finds and examples of an invigorating demarcation of alternative can be found.

The alley is dimly lit and anonymous and walking through I was not sure if I was in the right place but then I saw the sign I was looking for, “DKUK” in neon green tape. The place is DKUK Salon and it is a hair salon run and envisioned by Daniel Kelly who is a highly trained hair stylist and also an artist. For a reasonable 35 quid (for women’s cut) you can get your hair dressed, tressed and chopped by these creative hands but the real added surprise is the setting in which this occurs. DKUK takes up two stalls which is about 8 feet wide by 20 feet long (I will never learn meters) and within there are all the accouterments for a salon; a hair washing basin, a swivel chair, blow dryer, shampoo, but then what is missing is the most notable and that is a mirror. The chair in which one sits faces not a mirror but a flat screen TV. On this screen is a video work of an artist’s whose name I don’t recall but it is of a fuzzy grey composite white noise screen and then there is a flash of a generated human head in the same position of where your reflection would be if siting in the chair. There are also two speakers on either side of the monitor and it creates a buzzing sound with a sharp tone when the face appears.

In addition to the TV monitor, on the walls, which are charmingly left with the interchangeable shelving planks, are works by Camille…(I also don’t recall the name in full and they don’t have a updated archive on their site). Anyways it is not the full show on view but the remainder of it which is large copy paper like posters that say “Man” in boxed out places. This salon, as you may have guessed, is also a gallery of sorts, one that uses the investment of time attached to getting your hair cut to being surrounded by and inhabiting art. There is a mirror of course which in the end you can gaze upon your visage and new 'do but I think it sheer (pun not intended) brilliance of using this type of time and focus to stare at a screen and to be within an installation.

So yes, things like this might seem vaguely familiar to you. Art gets sucked up by non-art settings in all sorts of ways. Subway cars, restaurants, elevators, bathrooms, etc. have all been site specified in one way or another but trust me, DKUK is not about co-option of this type of model as it is just too raw, weird and funky to be anything but sincere. I am not sure what is going up next or what will come or how it will change but it feels great to be inside it and it made me so happy that it exists. Talking with Kelly about the project themes of money, time, labor, exchanges of value were discussed but from this convo the thing that I appreciated more then anything was his forthrightness about the point of commercial exchange as well as his ideal intentions for the project. On the first count, the transaction of money for a very good hair cut to fund this experimental art and the setting is so one-to-one that full transparency is brutally at the fore hence compromises need not apply. On the second point, his desire for the salon to be a part of the neighborhood, to be a happened upon art experience by those that are not necessarily art world insiders is endearing albeit I’m not sure how maintainable. I commend that impulse though and there is an unassuming openness and flexibility of this idea, which I think, may promote this ideal.

After visiting DKUK I was nosing around and in this same alley are a variety of little shops. This includes a vintage clothing store, a record shop, a tchotchkes and small collectables stall and a brand new café which I fell absolutely in love with. It is called AYA and it is run by the talented and sweet Aya Abdrassilova. It is a similarly scaled space, narrow and small like DKUK but it has a vibe which meets its purpose which is serving delicious sandwiches, crepes, teas and ice creams. I have been watching a lot of food shows on BBC and the chefs/cooks on the shows often speak of food that is made with ‘care,’ ingredients that are treated with ‘love.’ A little hokey but I can’t think of any other words then these types when thinking about the food at AYA. It is very much made with care and love and you can just taste that in the food. The sandwiches are large and yummy with fresh made bread and they are perfect proportions of filling, greens and spread. There are savory and sweet crepes made to order and they are as delicious as they look and smell. There is a warmth radiating from this food nook although it is in this alley setting. You can tell people who are eating there are enjoying themselves immensely and that they feel they are in on some sort of secret. This is how I felt eating here the other day I brought friends along because I wanted them to see this secret too. It’s simple, yummy, comforting food and it is not pretentious or overthought. Also at 4.50 quid per crepe or sandwich it’s an absolute steal for the quality you get.

I rarely eat out because I have certain standards that are easy to meet but usually are not. This is not  the case for AYA which I will patron many times a week. In addition she displays and sells clothes by young local designers and they are actually really good and creative clothes. What can you not like about this place! Well maybe the only thing is that it is small, only one table which fits maybe 6-7 people so don’t come thinking you will have a restaurant experience but I think it's better that it's small. Come alone or with a friend or two and have private conversations while eating yummy, reviving food.

Okay, so I have been gushing about these two spaces, which you know is not something I normally do. I do not gush because most things either bore me or underwhelm me in their obviousness or their necessity. A salon/art space and a café/fashion stall are not world changing or mind-altering things but that’s not the point. These two spaces exist in a time when ‘living’ is considered successful if it is conditioned and meets a series of set goals. DKUK and AYA are clearly not about meeting goals in that type of way but are actualizations of other types of goals; personal, creative, dream type of goals. There is an investment of self, of time, capital, and resources. There is a leaping of sorts into an unfinished and unknown model of operating and being. It is a refreshing form of entrepreneurialship but not in the trendy start-up sort of way which is abstract, strategic and conditional. These are such personal and honest displays of small business creation that it makes you think, hey, capitalism doesn’t need to be that way.

Long meandering yelp like review later, I again give my stars, thumbs up, likes, what-have-you to these businesses and to this little alley in Peckham. The local, the personal, the doing what you love is the best types of places to support and to spend your hard earned money at.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Don't Feed the Animals: A Visit to Serpentine

Walking through Hyde Park this past Saturday I had one of those “now this is English” type of feelings and thoughts. You leave the tube, it’s gray, it’s rainy, it’s not that cold so you shouldn’t complain but it is that certain London cold that seems to seep slowly into your bones like tea in a pot. I head to the gates and voila; you are in a true-blue English park. There is grass, there are trees plopped about, there are fountains and ironworks and a certain open flatness that seems earned versus manicured. There are paved walkways that meander and there are polite directional arrows to lead you this way or that and it was by one of these arrows that led me to my destination, Serpentine Gallery.

The arrow pointed me to walk on a path near a pond/lake of sorts and near this lake there was an assortment of birds. Walking further along the bird cluster gets denser and denser and then I see why. There are some people feeding the birds what I think is bread or some other carbohydrate from a plastic bag. In front of these living human feeders is a spectacle of birds. Three adult swans, a gaggle of geese, mallards, birds with wobbles near their beaks, birds with orange streaks, small birds, stout birds, and screeching birds. There is a mass of birds and they are fighting and swarming for the carbohydrate delights. Okay, so it wasn’t a Hitchcockian level of birds but it was still startling to see. It felt akin to the rushing of stores on Black Friday or the frenzy of a free t-shirt being shot out during a sporting event. Regardless it made me very queasy and leaving that scene that queasiness stayed with me throughout the day.

Serpentine is less a gallery and more like an institution. It acts like, serves as and has programming that reflects these public versus commercial concerns. This Das Institute like feel has been largely out of my aesthetic radar because I just assume that it functions and is a necessary type of place that in general doesn’t actually concern me. Lazy I know but now that I’m in London I knew I had to get to know this space for real. In a funny way, going to a place like Serpentine or to other galleries, museums, art fairs etc. is like a strange blind date. You know it in this superficial, topical way. You have been looking/thinking about it from afar but alas, it is only when you are face to face with it, in it, surrounded by it, that all those reproductions of things you saw and all you associated with it becomes revealed and more personal.

Anyways, into the main gallery we go which is a lot smaller then I thought it would be and a lot more preserved in its Kensington Gardens setting. This I appreciated but the scale was really surprisingly small. Inside there are some sculptures by Reiner Ruthenbeck, which was basically forgettable, as I have a strict no upside down furniture art policy (sort of serious here because honestly, when have you seen good upside down furniture art?). Amongst this show was the main reason I came which was a performance by Beth Collar. Within the show, like actually in the current exhibition, there were people sitting and standing making a sloppy C formation and to the opening of the C were two women, one I am assuming was Collar; young female, white, brown hair, glasses, slouched body and another women; older, grey hair, glasses, straight posture. They were taking turns reading from a script and the performance was called, Like a Mellon Rolling off a Table: Part II. I arrived after it had started so maybe I missed a framing structure of the work but from what I did see I was not very happy with it. The “mellon” is I think referring to a head as by Collar and the other women on the floor are two silicon, flesh colored, cauterized, bald, male heads. They were talking about the heads and other ephemeral thoughts. Collar in a seemingly forced awkward mumble and stutter of words and the other women in a cool, firm, authorial voice. Collar said things like, “It is not a head, it’s the middle of a tree,” and her constant injection of the phrase, “Or something,” nearly had me rolling my eyes off a table.

It was not my cup of tea to say the least. It felt so familiar in its vague poetics and predictability of mumble-core Dadaism. Also, those heads on the floor I just could not metaphorically swallow especially in our current time when beheadings are televised and the separation of the body and humanity seems to have such theoretical popularity. The whole Deleuzian ‘bodies without organs’ is yes, an intellectually stimulating exercise but there is this line where heads and bodies and lives and rhetoric and trauma and real blood versus painted on blood is not a theoretical turn but an actuality. Anyways, the performance just did not do it for me and it added to my already queasy sensations and quickly lowered many of my expectations at the gallery.

Next across the way into some fresh but rainy air was Julio Le Parc’s exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler. Here was a moving, vibrating, strobing light show with direction white lights reflecting off motorized metal sheets. I think it was supposed to be hypnotizing and possibly meditative but I found it claustrophobic and cacophonous. That’s probably just me though. I have sensitivity to strobing light effects so this is obviously not a good situation for me. It was interesting though and the kids seemed to love it. Like toddlers and small children playing with, touching and running around within it. That is I think a big part of Serpentine’s vibe, the ‘for the public’ feeling, and here you can see that is well taken into account.

So lastly, off to the café for a wind down. It’s called The Magazine Restaurant and it’s associated with the gallery and that can’t be confused as it is literally a stones through away. It is white, futuristic and was designed by, you guessed it, Zaha Hadid. It is so Hadid that you just think ‘Hadid’ the entire time you are in proximity to it. It is very airy inside and has that money smell mixed with airport cafeteria holding zone vibe. The staff was punctual but robotic. The pastries, lemon poopy seed cake and chocolate sponge, were dry and clearly not made with love. There was an Artforum waiting at the table and luckily free wifi so all in all it wasn’t a bust but sigh, I have been sadly convinced again that the art/restaurant model is not a good partnership.

Leaving the restaurant I passed some dogs, a black and a brown Labrador.  They were lounging around in the grass and they seemed like permanent fixtures of the grounds. They had a disinterested laze about them and the unfruitful preoccupation with digging a hole in the ground with their nose. Seeing these dilettante dogs, walking back through the park, thinking about the heads being kicked around like soccer balls, remembering the nausea in the light rooms, and tasting the residue of the dry cake in my mouth I had only this one thought: Don’t Feed the Animals. I’m not sure what and why that’s a flashing sign but it somehow makes sense in reacting to a day at the park and in visiting Serpentine.