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Ribbons, Ed Atkins, Serpentine Sackler Gallery / Exhibition 2014

Sometimes I suspect that the art that I like isn’t necessarily the art of my era. I will have to wait until the future for history to confirm this. Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the new media art of, say, Haroon Mirza or Pipilotti Rist. But on occasion I wonder whether what we call fine art or contemporary art is actually quite backwards-looking. That the art of ‘now’ isn’t objects or performance, film, paper or canvas, but that it is digital – and we can’t quite accept that yet.

Then I see something like Ribbons at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in sunny Hyde Park, and it really says something to me about optimism, darkness and life in the 21st century. The protagonist is an avatar, the artist is Ed Atkins, and the result is eliciting strong and polarized opinions.

The video installation itself is prefaced by text works, which carry on from the interpretation’s artspeak poetry; printed typeface augmented with hand-drawn cartoons, gestures and photocopied body parts. The artist invites us to expect “old powder rooms, haunted by the phantom smell of gunpowder, paranoia and anticipation of violence.”  The term ‘misanthropic’ is used, along with ‘melodrama’ and, most intriguingly, ‘torettic injections.’ One imagines that all these words have been carefully chosen, given that Atkins was Whitechapel Gallery’s writer in residence in 2012-13.

The lead man, Ribbons, a CGI creation, sings of madness whilst his cigarette burns down to the filter, leaving a tower of ash. His head deflates amongst empty pint glasses, his hand squeezes a tumbler until it smashes into bloodless shards. The sound is arranged to lead the audience from screen to screen around the barn-like space. Semi-stand-alone videos of a head bouncing down stairs and a glory hole or two act as punctuation.

The aesthetic seems deliberately antagonistic. Ribbons is a skin-head Ken-doll, his body inscribed with ‘troll’ and ‘ass hole’ – homemade prisoner tattoos meet a teenage pencil case. His mouth opening and closing doesn’t always line up with the soundtrack – this isn’t a showcase of new technology for its own sake. There are allusions to aspects of homosexual culture, but he doesn’t appear to be judging, exploring or celebrating it. More using it as a style, or a means to take an idea to its conclusion, to present a lonely soul trapped simultaneously in the net and at the bottom of a glass.

The artist seems to delight in causing confusion. He re-tweeted one visitor who said: “Went to the Ed Atkins exhibition at Serpentine Sackler Gallery@SerpentineUK & had no idea what was going on at all!” and another who asked: “@Ed_Atkins what’s going on in his head? Is he a nutter or what?” To be shut out of the meaning on some level doesn’t ruin the experience for me: it works conceptually as he is dealing with navigating the, often dark and slippery, online world. Another criticism leveled at the piece is that it is somehow too masculine, or too extreme to be relatable. Whatever your view point, this is highly finished, ambitious work, which offers an antidote to too many works of contemporary art that are recycling old ideas, plain lazy or disappointing.

Atkins makes work for the modern world, but it belongs in a gallery context, due to its monumental proportions and inspired use of sound and space. He pulls us into a digital dystopia and the digital into the everyday. By using some familiar strategies, combining them with references to sexual subculture, a knowing use of typography, sound and pop music, he has produced a ‘new art’ – which perhaps only the future will find the words to describe, and perhaps only with hindsight we will completely understand.

Linda Pittwood

Ed Atkins’ Ribbons continues at the Serpentine, London until 25 August 2014, free entry

Originally published on thedoublenegative.co.uk and a_n news

 

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Certain works of art embed themselves in the international consciousness, in a way that eclipses the artist’s life and transcends the circumstances of their making. In Piet Mondrian’s case, it isn’t so much one painting that does this as the ‘look’ of his mature oeuvre.

His legacy could be seen not so much as one of a painter but of a design style – appropriate given his affiliation with the De Stijl (Dutch for ‘the style’) group in the early decades of the twentieth century. This makes him stand out, even when compared to other extremely well known artists associated with one work, such as Edvard Munch and The Scream or Leonardo da Vinci and The Mona Lisa.

Much of what is written about Mondrian can be traced back to his essay Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art, which was first published serially in the Die Stijl journal in the 1920s. The term ‘Neo Plasticism’ loosely translates as ‘new art’, and refers to Mondrian’s pure abstract style and use of black lines and blocks of primary colour.

Perhaps the more interesting story here has been identified by art historians such as Nancy J. Troy, who says that to study Mondrian is to shine a light on the relationship between popular culture and the canonisation of art. However, for someone who had such a massive impact on the visual vocabulary of the 20thcentury – what do we really know about him? And what do we know about his art?

Mondrian’s paintings appear smooth, flat and graphic, but in the flesh even the white areas are textured with brushstrokes. His work appears to have a unifying look, but it was constantly evolving over his lifetime – earlier works demonstrate the influence of other modernist heavy-weights, including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Later work, whilst seemingly abstract, does contain references to the ‘real’ world.

"Mondrian" day dress, autumn 1965 Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936) Wool jersey in color blocks of white, red, blue, black, and yellow Gift of Mrs. William Rand, 1969 (C.I.69.23)

The painting Broadway Boogie Woogie, produced in in the last years of his life, refers to the grid-like formation of the New York streets and boogie woogie music. For an artist whose vision seemed so clear, his work can be traced by both his country of residence and various friendships and associations. Notably, towards the end of his fifty-year career, he became a mentor to the younger British artist Ben Nicholson, and he lived for a period in London.

His abstract paintings appear simple, but his extensive writings (first published together in an anthology called The New Art The New Life in 1993) reveal artistic aims and theories that are staggeringly complex. In an early conversation between Mondrian and a critic, the artist explains that all painting is about ‘relationships’ and his neoplastic work simply expressed relationships using only colour and line.

His earlier work was similarly about relationships but focused on those within nature – the problem with this, he said, is that “in the capriciousness of nature, form and colour are weakened by the curvature and by the corporeality of things.” He went so far in the end as to object to the very presence of nature, and even to the colour green, which is entirely absent from his later work.

Unbelievably, considering how well known he is now, Mondrian was not successful in his lifetime. It wasn’t until his 70s that he began to sell out exhibitions; before then he often considered quitting and taking up a more ordinary and stable profession. His perseverance won out, and by the time he died in 1944, the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and Peggy Guggenheim had both purchased pieces directly from his shows – a little over twenty years later his work was immortalized as a dress by the legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent and his influence on broader design culture was secured. Fast-forward to 2014, and Mondrian’s paintings are reproduced on iPhone covers, trays, sandals, candles, duvet covers, t-shirts and cake, whilst the originals sell at auction for millions.

What Piet Mondrian demonstrates is that an artist who seems very familiar can have a lot more going on beneath the (seemingly smooth) surface. The story of Mondrian that we know really started after the artist died – when he transitioned from an artist on the fringe, steeped in theory, to an artist whose name is attached to any combination of primary coloured blocks and black outlines.

How exactly this occurred is a question that is difficult to answer, and as a phenomenon it is as mysterious and fascinating as the artist himself.

Linda Pittwood

Mondrian and his Studios at Tate Liverpool continues until 5 October 2014

Image: ”Mondrian” day dress, autumn 1965, Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936). Wool jersey in color blocks of white, red, blue, black, and yellow. Gift of Mrs. William Rand, 1969 (C.I.69.23) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

First published on thedoublenegative.co.uk

In March this year, Intellect published the first issue of the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art.  The individual articles can be purchased individually here. This includes my article: The headless woman in contemporary Chinese art.  It investigates work by Liu Jianhua, Lin Tianmiao, Yu Chang and Wang Xingwei; below is the abstract:

Keywords
contemporary Chinese art,headless woman,identity,propaganda,Cultural Revolution

Abstract
In this article, selected works by four Chinese artists who emerged towards the end of the twentieth century are examined. The works have in common the motif of the headless woman. This motif is explored within the historical timeframe in which they have lived, trained, emerged as professional artists and produced these works; investigated in relation to the artists’ contact with the work of European and American artists using the same motif; considered in the context of the lives of women in the PRC following the end of the Cultural Revolution, and in relation to ideas about individualism and collectivism (and particularly the move from one to the other) in China.

Lin Tianmiao Mother's!!! No. 12-1 (detail), 2008. Courtesy: The artist

Lin Tianmiao Mother’s!!! No. 12-1 (detail), 2008. Courtesy: The artist