“I am LIVID over this news.”
I’m not really livid. But someone, somewhere is, or was. Livid about something most of us would consider unimportant. They announced their anger to the world and it has been hijacked. Online video platform Youtube was where they first announced their anger: in response to a temporary localised media storm such as pop-star Beyoncé lip-syncing or cyclist Lance Armstrong taking performance enhancing drugs. Their fury was stolen, has been digitally re-presented by artist Cally Spooner and now intervenes in the historic permanent display of Leeds City Art Gallery. Quoting another Youtube commentator (presumably talking about Beyoncé): “if you can’t trust her, who can you trust?”
Cally Spooner, Damning Evidence Illicit Behaviour Seemingly Insurmountable Great Sadness Terminated in Any Manner, 2014.
Trust. Now that is a question. Illusion, tromp l’oeil, performance, fiction: these are just some ways that art can deceive us, seem to be one thing but be another. Before we even encounter any artworks, who can we trust to guide us through the art world, find works and tell us about them with authority?
British. Art. Show. 8. (BAS8). This is the eighth edition of a touring exhibition that attempts to be our guide through the British art world, offering a five-year summary of contemporary practice in Britain. The parameters appear to be clear: a selection of recent work and new commissions by British artists. But maybe they are not so simple. International artists live here, British artists live outside of Britain and artists with no geographic or national link converse with artists here, enrich and input into the British art world.
And who is making these decisions? Considering these nuances of place and deciphering these works of fiction? Two curators: Lydia Yee of Whitechapel Gallery, London and independent curator Anna Colin; American and French in origin. In reference to her curatorial partnership with Yee, Colin says,
“BAS8 is a false marriage… but it’s gone pretty well.”
She goes on to say of their research process: “we didn’t go everywhere but we travelled a lot. We didn’t have an agenda, we didn’t have a theme…” She estimates they visited 130 artist studios in eight months. And she is pleased to say that the impact of this is a selection of 42 artists that is not so London-centric. She adds, “if we compare to previous editions there are more artists from outside of London and Glasgow [the main centre for art in Scotland, UK]… a better ratio.”
If the first task is to expand the field of ‘British art’ to at least the whole of the UK, perhaps the next is to test the boundaries of British art identity in the context of globalization.
Referring to this, Colin explains the reasons for including Turkish artist Ahmet Öğüt. His practice involves a worldwide investigation (and, naturally, international conversations) of social and political issues – including art education. The Silent University, his project which launched in 2012, called on participants to:
“stop waiting in limbo, and to take the initiative right now using their imaginations.”
Goshka Macuga, In Debt View, 2015. Courtesy the artist © the artist.
His BAS8 contribution is part of the project Day after Debt (UK), 2015, a collaboration with Liam Gillick, Susan Hiller and Goshka Macuga. He asked his fellow artists to design public donation boxes for a student loan debt relief campaign. Linking to his earlier work reimagining art education, this work refers to a hot political topic right now – how changes to the way university education is funded will affect social mobility and engagement in the arts by those from less well off backgrounds. The money donated in the bespoke boxes will be used for its stated purpose.
They didn’t start out with an agenda, but through the process themes and patterns emerged. The most prominent theme, explains Colin, is an engagement with the material world – or the agency of objects. Sub themes not necessarily introduced by the curators, but apparent to me as I reflect on the exhibition include: surveillance, systems, pedagogy, challenging the hierarchies of art and social justice. It is not possible to profile all 42 artists, but already mentioned, and continuing below are some examples of works that represent these trends.
An artwork relating to the theme of ‘social justice’ is the work Hello, 2015 by Simon Fujiwara. This artist is possibly best known for his installation Rebekkah in the 2012 Shanghai Biennale. That work was the product of an engagement with one young woman following her involvement in the 2011 London riots. In this new film, he weaves together the stories of a Mexican litter picker and a computer professional who was born with no hands. Hands are the linking motif. Spookily, Maria talks about finding body parts in the lawless borderlands of Mexico.
Linder Stirling, Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes, 2015
Bringing some different interdisciplinary texture to the exhibition is former punk, Linder Stirling. Her sumptuous rug titled Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes, 2015 was produced with the support of Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh, UK. It is spiral in form; part sculpture, part costume, backed with gold lame. Referring to both Surrealist artist Ithell Colquhoun and 20th-century British artist Barbara Hepworth, who favoured a curvy modernism abundant with negative-space, the rug has also been used in performance. A departure from Linder’s 1960s punk record sleeve designs, she now collaborates often with Ballet dancers. Interestingly though, her former aesthetic has been appropriated by Anthea Hamilton for a series of pop-cultural Perspex ant farms in BAS8.
Apart from the room where Cally Spooner’s Youtube commentators vent their rage amongst historic artworks, all of the permanent collections have been removed from Leeds Art Gallery for BAS8. This shows a real commitment to the project and allows the artworks to interplay with the architectural details of the Victorian art gallery. Pablo Bronstein’s architectural drawings look at home here – and make an interesting counterpoint to Jessica Warboys Sea Painting, 2015, which hangs opposite and above the marble staircase. Warboys will produce a new sea painting (made by scattering pigment on the water and capturing it on a large canvas) at a location near to each of the four venues that BAS8 will travel on to over the coming months: Edinburgh, Norwich and Southampton.
The nature of a long tour means sustaining performative projects throughout the run is hard. The emphasis is on ‘tourable’ (durable art objects including the traces of performative work). Alongside examples of traditional media, there are many audio-visual offerings in BAS8, that despite the limitations of the gallery are stretching and testing boundaries. Many are the outcomes of in depth research projects. Some of these use sound and film to capture and present hidden stories, others question the role of the technology itself in our lives.
Always comical and insightful, Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams fits into the former category. Here he exhibits Century Egg, 2015, produced in partnership with several museums to highlight the enormous range of museum narratives from the extraordinary to ‘the completely banal.’ Elsewhere, Rachel Maclean’s video Feed Me, 2015 is darker in subject but still uses film for its potential to uncover and reveal. She contrasts the sexualisation of childhood with the “growing infantilisation of adult behaviour.”
The outcome of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s work with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the US seems innocent enough but has sinister potential. This unnerving new research offers the possibility of capturing sound using ordinary everyday objects, such as a box of tissues. Anything and everything could be listening to you. On display nearby, and resonant in topic, is Melanie Gilligan’s video work The Common Sense, 2014. She uses the format of television drama to explore a device called ‘the patch’ – which “enables bodily sensations and emotions to be communicated directly from person to person” man-made empathy which creates the potential for an “exploitative economy of emotions.” A deeply unsettling notion.
And of course a contemporary survey exhibition would not be complete without an avatar/cyborg/artificial intelligence of some kind. In this case Abake, a graphic design collective, have produced an artificial intelligence project, titled Fatima, who will learn from the people and objects it encounters throughout BAS8.
Aaron Angell, Bottle Kiln – Receiver; Peach – Portcullis; Molybdenum Bell Courtyards and Dalmatian Spoon & Three Torcs, all 2015 © Aaron Angell 2015. Installation view: British Art Show 8, Leeds Art Gallery, 2015-17. Photo © Jonte Wilde Photography 2015
A world away from these actually noisy or at least confrontational pieces, there are quiet works, no less keen to cross categories and disciplines. Aaron Angell presents clay objects both as sculptures and also as spiritual objects – they sit on a table that evokes a shrine – very far from the more common treatment of ceramics as ‘decorative arts’ or ‘craft.’ Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s series of portraits in oil on canvas are an invitation to ‘look’ ‘see’ and ‘read’ across the group. The artist produced the paintings from memory – not real people – and in a short time frame. Yiadom-Boakye’s works demonstrate both the enduring power of her chosen medium and refer to the on-going desire to use the visual arts to explore individual and collective identity.
As I draw this all too brief tour to a close I ask, were good choices made? Colin refuses the verb “select” and to be called a “selector.” Presumably because she feels that the best quality work will rise like bubbles to the surface and all Colin and Yee did was provide a method to capture these bubbles. But I dispute this, because curation requires selection – and is as much defined by what is left out as what is present. As an introduction to the British Art World though, my feeling is that this is a good one, including many of the artists who have been making a big impact over the last five years.
As I am writing, the Turner Prize, the UK’s flagship contemporary art prize was won by a collective of socially engaged architects. This seems to contrast with the emphasis in BAS8 on the art object. Debating ‘the object’ could be seen as old-fashioned compared to works that test the boundary between art and science, art and performance, or art and social justice activism – although, of course, none of these debates are new.
BAS8 demonstrates that there are many new territories for this conversation about the art object and the role of material culture in our lives to move into, even as many of the interactions of our lives are moving online. Precisely because, if a box of tissues can listen to your conversation, I again ask the question: who can you trust?