Innovations in exhibitionary practise

“In the 1980s a lot happened in China… But I was in America…

Everyone was travelling, including myself. As a curator I want to embrace that.”

This was Wu Hung speaking at his Slade lecture this week, in the new Andrew Wiles building of Oxford University. I travelled down to catch this one lecture, which was his “personal narrative” of Chinese contemporary art; although his entire lecture series concerned with the feminine space in Chinese Art History would have been fantastic background for my doctorate project. I am establishing a genealogy of women’s studies, gender and body discourses in the Chinese context and then using them as the basis for analysing the work of around twenty contemporary artists.


Wu Hung speaking at his Slade lecture, 29 February 2016. Picture courtesy of the author

I’m about half way through the first year of my doctorate, which seems a good time to reflect on the experience so far. The first semester was a bit of a blur of conferences, training, narrowing down the scope of my ridiculously large original research proposal – and reading. It seemed like every week I was learning something new about the way that I worked, as well as learning about the Chinese context in general and honing down what I wanted to ask about Chinese contemporary art. Every day the space of the unknown grew bigger, even as I was filling my head with new knowledge. I was immersed in a world of languages that I don’t speak – Mandarin, Chinese writing, a myriad of Chinese topolects, and ‘academic’ language in all its interdisciplinary forms.

Several times I have been reminded of an article I wrote a couple of years ago about the relationship between translation studies and curating Chinese contemporary art – and its content now seems portentous. I am not curating I am researching, but never the less, the concepts and practices of translation are constantly taking place. I am reading texts in translation and I am considering the content and meanings pieces of art that were made on the other side of the world, and from this situation far away I am considering their local implications.

This is where serendipity and subjectivity come in: however planned we are in our research methodologies, reading one source leads to another; a casual conversation changes everything; it is a pathway, a journey, and a personal one, peppered with coincidence and chance as much as it is crafted with care and intent.

Subjectivity alone cannot create meaningful research. I am challenging myself to think around the Westernized perspective that I hold – not denying the existence of this perspective, but realising what effect it has on my study of culture. In my career to date I have been involved with providing ‘access to stuff’ and in a sense my research now continues in this simple mission. I am contributing to intercultural understanding with a view to supporting the interpretation of Chinese contemporary art from outside of China.

Back to Wu Hung. His telling of Chinese contemporary art history is through his own experiences – subjective – he is keen to assert this. But at 71 this year, he has been present and active alongside the significant historical events of the second half of the twentieth century in China – even if he was sometimes in America – and contributed to Chinese contemporary art’s emergence into the mainstream within China in the 1970s, as well its globalization in the 1990s and beyond.

In terms of his identity, Wu studies art history, he says, writes about contemporary art and curates contemporary art. These practices have “different distances” to their subject matter. Writing and researching has more of a separation whereas curating you are: “working with the moment.” Making history I suppose.


Born with the Cultural Revolution, by Xing Danwen, 1995. Exhibited in the Transience exhibition curated by Wu Hung at University of Chicago in 1999

He touches on his own definition of the label “Chinese contemporary art” – he uses this expression for freely. For him it means art from the mainland; not the diaspora or ‘greater China’ i.e. Hong Kong and Taiwan. To include these areas he says is “problematic.” And working to define contemporary art – at least its conception in the American understanding, underpinned one of his early curatorial projects, ‘Transcience’ at the University of Chicago in 1999. Sub-themes within this show included ‘history and memory,’ ‘women’s art’ and ‘monuments and ruins.’ There was also a strand dealing with the ephemeral in art, or what he called the “mortality of images” as well as ideas around individuality, existential questions and the new Chinese middle class.

Another exhibition he curated at University of Chicago ‘Cancelled: Exhibition Experimental Art in China’ took on the subject of local government intervention in exhibitionary practice, i.e. shutting exhibitions down. His preferred methodology for curating is to focus in depth on one area – he compares this to an academic process. These tightly focussed thematic exhibitions as well as one-person shows are what he enjoys – more so than Biennales and triennials. He seems most interested in the concept of space and distance between audience and object.

Several of the solo exhibitions that Wu Hung developed are still touring, years on from their original presentation. He has mixed feelings about this; it is a mark of their enduring interest and value, but sometimes they can become too distanced from their beginnings. Song Dong’s ‘Waste not’ for example was originally laid out piece by piece by the artist’s family – at the request of the artist’s mother. This doesn’t happen anymore.

I can see Wu’s desire to offer people the closest, most ‘authentic’ (he didn’t use this word) possible experience in his book Primary Documents, which he co-edited with Peggy Wang. It is a generous book that wants to provide access to textual materials relating to Chinese contemporary art in their most unabridged form (translated, mind you). But I find this book’s analysis to be in its very selection of the texts. Curation, I am trying to say, always creates some distance.


Book cover Primary Documents, ed Wu Hung and Peggy Wang.  First published September 2010

Disappointed as I am that I couldn’t make every lecture in Wu Hung’s Slade series, I feel assured that he will provide access to this information some how in the future. What is interesting for me is that he is contributing to a wider, international project to reassess (art) history to find women’s stories.

But it has been useful to me to consider his motivations as an academic and curator in the field that I am working at the edge of – Chinese contemporary art. His interest in distance, and his emphasis on the personal both resonate with me right now. I am engaged in a process of finding traces of ideas – working with everything at a distance of geography, as well as time, and through the barriers of cultural and linguistic understanding. I am developing my own interpretive methodology that considers the meaning when ideas have travelled across centuries, been subject to all manner of interventions and translation processes.

One can’t read everything, see everything, attend every lecture; there is always a selection, a sifting, curation: serendipity will always play a role in the life of the researcher. I was fortunate to attend this lecture, which has given me a chance to reflect on the last five months, as I move forward into the next phase of my research.

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 and a_n news


Disklavier piano

Disklavier piano

Philippe Parreno makes his art from curation, production, direction and arrangement. His survey exhibition Anywhere, anywhere out of this world is the first to fill every space of the Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art venue not far from the bank of the River Seine that usually hosts up for four exhibitions at one time. Around his pieces, both old and new, visitors are choreographed, rather than left alone to ricochet from object to film to installation.  The exhibition itself is Parreno’s artform.

He is an artist comfortable in his historical timeframe: borrowing from 20th century art and history whilst looking forwards to the future.  Architecture, design, an automative drawing machine, a decommissioned Manga character, a premiership footballer, light and darkness – all can be Parreno’s subject, media or object. The artist described his 2012 film Marilyn (which invites the viewer into the hotel suite where the actress lived) as a ‘séance’, a good word to describe his own ability to make work that is greater than the sum of its parts.

From the entrance, framed by one of his light bulb marquee pieces, the artist uses the abundance of Art Deco concrete space to create a grand introduction to his 2007 film work, The Writer.  The space is layered with another installation, 56 Flashing Lights; a hint of what is to come later. Four Disklavier pianos play Stravinsky’s ‘Petroushka’ at intervals through the gallery, providing a haunting atmosphere and a musical backbone to the exhibition.

Now we enter a room that is dark. Florescent images float many metres up one wall, with the evocative title The Void, A series of Sculptures to be eaten; whilst opposite them a machine is busy producing hundreds of identical copies of a hand-drawn doodled note, and tossing them onto the floor.  The light in the room suddenly comes on. But what is this behind the bookcase? A secret gallery? A display of delicate drawings prove that Parreno can present with intimacy as well as drama.

In the basement there is a dialogue of light sculptures; mindlessly chattering, propositioning and responding.  When they all turn off at once, all that is left is the floating gleam of smartphone screens; when a sculpture flickers into life it reveals viewers sat mesmerised in all corners of the room.  It is not the only installation with a hypnotic quality; we linger as long as possible in the icy environment of his snowdrift and, when we try to leave the exhibition, we become transfixed watching a curved wall slowly circumvent a circular platform.

‘Collaboration,’ the buzz word of the 00s, is an important element of Parreno’s practise, and many of the works in this show involve his contemporaries and friends including Tino Sehgal, Doug Aitken and Pierre Huygue.  This exhibition is a home coming for the Paris-based artist described by academic (and former Director of the Palais de Tokyo) Nicholas Bourriaud as exemplifying his theory of Relational Aesthetics.

For some artists the retrospective or survey show feels like a dead end. But Anywhere anywhere… is a kind of collaboration between Parreno and the Palais de Tokyo, making use and sense of the venue’s rarely-used sub title: ‘Site de création contemporaine’ (site for contemporary creation.) What the artist has created is a site specific experience, which quite simply couldn’t have happened anywhere else.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai

Mark Leckey installation view

In the dark exhibition space I am stood thinking about how almost every object in this room projects a sort of human personality. Mark Leckey, the artist-curator, has described the selection of works he has made for this show as being like a ‘network of objects’; a kind of 3D Google image search but without revealing the search terms. Another visitor wanders in, “wow” he says to a pink gargoyle-esque Louise Bourgeois sculpture covered in tumourous offaly drippings and missing a head; he beckons over the gallery attendant and asks him: “what do you think this is made of? Resin? It looks like blancmange.”

The Universal Addressibility of Dumb Things feels like Leckey’s attempt to draw together many strings. The selection of objects pivots on his own audio visual work; he reproduces the green walls of his 2011 Serpentine Gallery show, Felix the Cat from his 2008 Turner Prize show makes an appearance, and in a sense what we see is an assemblage but made with objects and artworks instead of footage – his usual medium. Bluecoat curator Sara-Jayne Parsons says that Mark Leckey is an ‘artists’ artist’, he has also been called a ‘pop cultural anthropologist’. He describes himself as an autodidact, which may help to explain his intuitive curatorial approach.

The resulting exhibition is charming and playful; the interpretation is minimal, which gives visitors a chance to establish a relationship with an object on their own terms. One can enjoy a Coptic jar, mummified cat or one of Roger Hiorns’ beautiful crystal-coved engines, without having or gaining any knowledge. Each section does have a distinct yet surreptitious theme; taking visitors on a journey from humanoids to machines. The only slightly disappointing part of the exhibition is the gallery upstairs where three films are shown on a (perfectly nice) periscopic screen. The room is too minimal to be an appropriate climax.

The decision about how much personality to project through curatorial practise seems easier for artists; Leckey seems very present here. This is one of a series of Hayward Touring exhibitions curated by Turner-prize winners and nominees (in the past they have worked with Mark Wallinger and Tacita Dean, next they are working with Jeremy Deller). It is Leckey’s most significant curatorial project to date; however, in a sense everything he does is curated, from his films themselves to his Youtube channel. The show opens up a refreshing dialogue about the role of assemblage, curators and artists in contemporary art; his catalogue is very much an artists’ book.

A nice touch at Bluecoat is the talks programme, which is being delivered by locally-based contemporary artists. This is an exhibition that artists will enjoy but not at the expense of alienating other visitors. Leckey said upon winning the Turner prize in 2008 that he wanted to exhibit more in Britain and make an impact on contemporary British culture; with this exhibition he has done a bit of both. It is not the first time de-contextualised museum objects and artworks have been shown together, but Leckey delivers it with such a generosity of spirit as to make this exhibition a must-see.

The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, curated by Mark Leckey, is on show at the Bluecoat, Liverpool, between 16 Feb – 14 Apr 2013.

First published on

On a tangent from some research I am doing, I came across this video where Curator Phillip Tinari talks about some of the most exciting contemporary Chinese artists today, all of whom were born after 1978.  In particular, it was interesting to me because when I was in Shanghai I visited the studio of Madein Company.  This is the alias of artist Xu Zhen.  His moniker draws attention to the now-common mode of mass-manufactured, highly organised and resourced modern artistic production.

His studio was an artistic hub, where large scale installations were being assembled and a wide variety of creative practitioners operated.  His work varies from performances wherein assistants throw sculptures in the air from their hidden location within a white cube, to ornate ambitious constructions like the one in progress in the image below, that take teams of people working by hand to produce.  Madein Company is fast, caustic and exciting. One to look out for.


There is a bright winter sun on my face as I approach the Albert Dock on a February afternoon.  Tate Liverpool, which stands on the banks of the river Mersey, was the first Tate gallery outside of London when it opened in 1988.  Having this international brand within its midst is a vital part of the Liverpool art ecology and expectations for its exhibitions are high.  The shows are often thematic, although they have had monographic exhibitions here; generally the usual western canonical art suspects. What Tate Liverpool does with its new show Glam! The Performance of Style, is quite different; it is attempting to reposition the popular music style of the 1970s ~ glam ~ as an art movement.

Alight the lift on the 4th floor and enter gallery to the left. At first it feels like you might have taken a wrong turn and instead of a contemporary art gallery, you have entered a museum.  Borrowing a different kind of display methodology isn’t a good or bad thing; in fact it seems appropriate for an exhibition dealing with homage, artifice and appropriation. Tate coyly describes this presentation of books, posters, ephemera and stage costume as a ‘glamscape’ – in keeping with contemporary art’s recent obsession with the ‘scape’ suffix. But before it can get down to the business of assessing the era critically, the exhibition needs to introduce us to the style.

Glam rock developed simultaneously in the UK and the US before being exported all over the world by musicians such as David Bowie, Roxy Music and Lou Reed.  It was characterised by flamboyancy, explorations of gender and identity, glitter, flared trousers, hedonism, drama, glamour ~ the word abbreviated to christen the style ~ and an interdisciplinary approach.  Glam was a medium to explore the points where music, art and life crossed over, diverged and blurred.  The performance art of the ‘Nice Style Pose Band’ helps us to understand this idea; they look like a musical group but they are in fact just a group of art students appropriating the haircuts, costumes and props of glam without the music. From here we can see how Tate is able include artists Gilbert & George in the exhibition; if ‘glam’ is essentially concerned with ‘performance’ as the exhibition strap line suggests, maybe the term can describe ‘living sculptures?’

The exhibition is so vast and visually rich it is easy to be distracted from the critical discourse.  Many video and audio tracks play at once, with a familiar song occasionally breaking the surface of the noise.  In front of your eyes cherries, lipsticks, afros and leopard-print crash and clash into each other.  Tate could easily have included work by contemporary visual artists, such as Grayson Perry or Mark Titchner who it could be said are influenced by glam, but it deliberately doesn’t do this. The exhibition applies its microscope only to work produced in the 1970s, leaving it to the viewer to consider glam’s legacy. For me this includes reassessing the music I listened to as a teenager in the 1990s (such as Marilyn Manson and Rachel Stamp) and seeing the face of glam, thick with makeup, staring straight back.

In its attempt to reframe glam as an artistic ‘ism,’ the exhibition could have made more of the parallels with ‘Pre-Raphaelitism’, the British ‘anti-modern’ art movement. The leaders of the 19th-century group were the drug-taking, bohemian ‘rock stars’ of their day who ~ like the champions of glam ~ looked to the past and the future for references instead of dealing with the ‘now’.  In spite of this rejection of the present, both glam and Pre-Raphaelitism need to be considered in their historical context.  Tate explains that in 1973 the UK plunged into recession, glam providing a distraction from unemployment and hardship, while in the US, men used alternative lifestyles to help them escape the draft into the US army who were fighting a war in Vietnam. Like any art movement, glam is inextricably linked to time, place and social change. In David Parkinson’s photograph ‘Mr Freedom Seaside Shoot’ 1971 we can see a wide generation gap developing between young people and their parents.  Nearby, photographer Martin Parr turns his documentary lens on music fans who have customised their clothing with hearts and photographs of their idols; the images look humorous to the modern eye, but demonstrate the intensity of feeling that glam inspired.

It is possible to skim across the surface of this show, drinking in nostalgic sips and not taking it terribly seriously. But as I travel onwards through this story, I begin to feel troubled by the gender equality or lack of.  The boys seem to be having fun, but the women artists ~ including Cindy Sherman and Hannah Wilke ~ seem to be dealing sadly with the burden of their own existence.  Too many of the women in this exhibition are not cultural producers at all, they are visual material; breasts on display, appearing as geishas, prostitutes or adorned with a red phallus in the photograph ‘Polka Dot Pin Up’ 1972-3 by Karl Stoecker.  Margaret Harrison, is a lone voice critiquing the pornification of the female form: she makes her sexy ladies ridiculous, by having them straddle over-sized bananas and lemons.

Tate have commissioned many prominent writers  including Michael Bracewell, Mike Kelley and the curator of the exhibition, Darren Pih, to help convince us that visual artworks including Richard Hamilton’s skilled painting ‘Soft Pink Landscape’ 1971-2, Jack Goldstein’s electrifying film ‘The Jump’ 1978 and Jack Smith’s complex photographs belong within the critical framework of glam.  But as I stand in ‘Celebration?’ 1972-2000, Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s installation, with specs of light from a disco ball lapping at my feet like water, I think: there is so much style in this exhibition; can there possibly be any substance?  Whether or not you leave the gallery wholeheartedly convinced that glam is an art movement, the exhibition certainly helps to promote the idea that art history and history are essentially one and the same.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai

Dangerous Games is a powerful new video artwork by Marina Abramovic, and is a complete departure from the 1970s feminist, bodily work for which she is known. This new film was produced in Laos, Southeast Asia, and shows a group of youngsters dressed as soldiers pretending to kill each other; attacking each other as they sleep, shooting each other in the back with toy guns and filling up a bathtub with their tiny corpses. A reworking of the Lord of the Flies storyline with a cinematic debt to Bugsy Malone and Battle Royale, it addresses the very contemporary issue of child participation in war.

I am excited and want to talk about this new film as I am a huge admirer of Abramovic’s work. However, what is interesting about the art experience here is that I am not in the gallery; I am sat at home watching A Dangerous Game in my pyjamas on my laptop. Her film has been produced as part of Channel 4’s Random Acts short form video strand, which broadcasts 3-minute films late at night, and then makes them available on their website. Including artist films, performance, poetry and music, Channel 4 have partnered with creative hubs to find cutting edge practitioners.

Last week I attended the day of Random Acts Artist Interventions into Broadcast at FACT. The objective of the day was to promote and analyse Random Acts’ partnership with FACT (which has involved the commissioning of 25 new artist films for the strand) and put this work into the context of artists’ relationship with TV going back to the 1970s. Alongside performance art matriarch Abramovic, FACT and Random Acts have produced films by Mark Titchner and Richard Billingham, amongst others; prompting work that spins the artists off into new directions.

Random Acts’ predecessor ‘3 minute wonder’ in many ways anticipated You Tube and the resurgence of interest in short form film. The difference is that Channel 4’s short film strands “are not what viewers have ordered” and interrupt the TV experience by unexpectedly filling a slot usually occupied by a commercial, says Tabitha Jackson, Commissioning Editor for Arts at Channel 4. The idea of being able to broadcast directly into people’s homes excites artists, even (or especially) at a time when the format is evolving and viewers can ‘curate’ their own viewing schedules. The viewing potential of TV, compared to galleries, is huge – with upper figures of millions rather than 10s of thousands – and TV has a down to earth sensibility that galleries find it hard to compete with.

The story of artists’ interventions begins (for the purposes of this day) with Ant Farm, a group of former architecture students who in the early 1970s went on a road trip across the US in a camper van they had retro fitted as a recording studio. Blurring the lines between art and journalism, they would stop off at universities to screen their films along the way. Founder Chip Lord says that the group were reacting against the “optimism of the 1950s” which had come crashing down around young people as they were drafted for the war in Vietnam (an interesting connection to Abramovic’s film). The group were using new technologies and “the gesture of the spectacle” to give themselves a voice and an identity; in a way that perhaps the concurrent hippie counter-culture were trying to do with drugs and music.

Although the 1970s was still relatively early days for television, it had already become a symbol and a medium of capitalism. The hidden messages within the medium is a conversation that is still taking place both within art and the media; just last week I read an article on the Guardian website about how TV is not actually bad for children. In a similar vein, when Director of FACT Mike Stubbs said at this event that the distinctions between high and low culture no longer exist in our “post-capitalist world”, I was (as a regular viewer of dubious-quality TV show The Only Way Is Essex) relieved, if not wholly convinced. It seems that if it were that simple, there would not be a new generation of video artists taking the murky grey area between ‘high art’ and popular culture as their starting point – more about them in just a minute.

The next era in the chronology of artists and tv was the 1980s and the first wave of MTV, this part of the story represented by Judith Barry. Barry began her career as an artist filmmaker creating “bumpers” or “wraparounds”, 15 seconds of film punctuating music videos, where the only brief was to incorporate the MTV logo. Very relevant to the Random Acts initiative, Barry says that she has been motivated throughout her career by the desire to make “better popular culture”. Interestingly, she went from the gallery to TV and back again. At that time galleries were struggling with the logistics, and Barry described how even at the MoMA “videos were shown in basements and in corridors on the way to the toilets”; video was having a moment but it was still struggling to shake off its low cultural roots.

Lucky PDF brought the story of artists and TV up to date. My earlier mention of TOWIE was not totally flippant, as for one of Lucky PDF’s films, they invited TOWIE ‘actress’ Chloe Simms to an opening at the ICA and filmed her responding to the works on display. This was a critique of the ritual of the art opening, but also a test of the audience watching the film; could we divine which was Chloe and which was her TV persona? It also meant that the art work became part of mainstream culture. One member of the group, James Early, said that Lucky PDF use “What the fuck?” as a starting point and work backwards; their other aim he simply sums up as “blurring those boundaries” of art and TV.

The idea of parameters as the catalyst for creativity and experimentation permeated the day. There are two aspects to this. Firstly, without conventions it is hard for artists to intervene and disrupt: TV is steeped in ritual and collective experience and this makes it fertile ground for artists to investigate. Secondly, sometimes it happens that a defined framework can actually provide a focus for artists’ output and encourage exciting new work. The Random Acts platform is one example of this; by enforcing the 3-minute limitation it maintains a piquancy, where other arts programming or websites showing short film content can seem a bit floppy.

The idea of the ‘trusted guide’ is another theme of the day. This can be a curator, blogger or collector; a publication, an arts venue, website or brand. In fact, any person or organisation that filters the online world or the art world – or both – to reliably signpost us to great new cutting edge content. Random Acts may not use the expression directly, but they seem to aspire to trusted guide status.  They generate new arts content and introduce users to new practitioners and ideas, but ultimately want to be a first point of call for accessing the arts. FACT, too, is a filter of new media arts content for Liverpool and beyond via a number of strands of activity. The joining up of two guides can be a powerful entity indeed (see the History of The World series, broadcast on Radio 4 and fronted by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum).

The day concluded with a panel discussion entitled The Future, and a video artwork by FACT resident artist Jeremy Bailey called The Future of Television. Bailey’s short film appeared like a live skype call, but portioned up on the plains of his face were TV channels, allowing him to ‘share’ his likes, dislikes and interests with others in augmented reality. I am not sure when he was predicting that this new mode of viewing would happen, but I don’t think I’m ready for it. The panel stuck a little bit closer to now, with all in agreement that although TV is evolving, it still plays a big role in society, therefore artists will want to get involved. Panellist Jacqui Davies, who produced the 25 artist films FACT and Random Acts commissioned, pointed out that “good art is asking questions rather than telling a truth”. Art doesn’t always have as strong a message as Dangerous Games, but it is fundamentally about communication, and TV remains one of the best tools out there.

First published on on 5 November 2012

On a bright sunny afternoon we followed the map to a shabby building, went round the back, shuffled down a corridor and through a doorway. At this point we were plunged into darkness and separated. A little hand took hold of mine and guided me across the pitch black room. There were lots of people in the room – we could sense them, but not see them. A number of people were harmonising a spooky, hypnotic sort of song; mc-ing, speaking, humming and dancing.

This continues, becoming increasingly frantic and intense, the dancers jumping and pounding on the wooden floor. The lights began to strobe, revealing about 15 dancers in black costumes, and around 30 spectators looking on transfixed. The room went black again and the sweaty, exhausted dancers started speaking (in American accented English) about their childhood dreams and proposing that “the income derived from producing things of slight consequence is of great consequence”. This became a mantra, repeated over and over.

Even if you have experienced Tino Seghal’s performances before, they always surprising; whether they involve a little girl purporting to be a character from a computer game, or you are confronted by a person asking you the question: “so, what is progress?” Or, as in this case, comprising a choreographed song/dance delivered by whole troop of performers in pitch darkness. We went twice on that sunny afternoon and had a totally different experience each time. The title, This Variation, hints at an open-ended format, and people, participants and the audience, arrive and leave all the time, suggesting that they were working in shifts. Performance art tends to require a bit of thinking and processing afterwards, and luckily we knew just the right place to go and reflect with a cold glass of Riesling.

When we realised that dOCUMENTA (13) was happening in Kassel during the summer (having already thought about a German camping adventure), it was a no-brainer. Here was an opportunity not to be missed, as dOCUMENTA happens only every 5 years. This would be our first ‘biennial’ experience other than Liverpool – the UK variant. dOCUMENTA is deeply embedded in twentieth century history, emerging out of the cultural dark-ages of Nazism. The first festival, held in 1955, showcased the art of the day (Fauvism, Expressionism, abstraction etc) and aimed to re-establish Germany as a cultural force. 2012′s incarnation reflects on its own history – and art history – as well as trying to create an impression of today’s complex and constantly shifting international contemporary art-world.

We arrived on 2 July, 40 days after the opening of the so-called ‘100 day museum’. The website advises that visitors spend at least two days owing to the quantity of artists involved (over 160) and the geographical spread of the exhibits (and that doesn’t include the outpost in Kabul). We camped 30 minutes by train outside of Kassel in a town called Zierenburg. Like Kassel itself, Zierenburg was mostly rebuilt after the second world war, and its 1950s architecture is dated. Both city and town were scrupulously clean and occasionally, surprisingly, beautiful; however, the C&A in Kassel and the lack of commuters at Zierenburg station at 8.30am reveal the lack of prosperity behind the well-kept facade.

For anyone catching the train into Kassel in the near future, a good tip is to stay on past the Hauptbahnhof, whereupon the train becomes a tram and takes you all the way to Königsplatz – about five minutes away from the Friedrichanium, the hub of the festival. This will save a small amount of time and energy, which you will need to traverse the festival. Another tip for those after the full experience, is that food doesn’t come more authentically German than Kaffee und Kuchen; ideal for keeping energy levels up during a long day. Our favourite cake of the trip was an amazing Kirchkuchen at Jugendcafe, Treppenstraße.

We had to fight the feeling of regret, which started on day one, that we wouldn’t be able to see everything. If this is your intention, you are doomed to failure, as even if you stayed a week to see all of the exhibitions and interventions, you would not be able to see every film or artist talk in the associated programmes. Therefore, each visitor’s experience will be unique – shaped by chance encounters, desire to see the work of certain artists or a compromise with the desires and needs of your companions. Having said that, the Frieze documenta-special ebook has the following piece of rousing advice: “If you’re with a group, don’t walk around together but divide up and conquer.”

Whether we conquered the festival is up for debate, but we certainly had highlights from our particular dOCUMENTA experience. If we were to just recommend one thing to see it would be that Tino Seghal performance, but hard on its heels are Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden (a wild flower garden grown on a mound of rubbish); Goshka Macuga’s tapestry, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not (the partner piece of which is on display in Kabul); lovely paintings by Etel Adnan; the classification of human DNA by Alexander Tarakhovsky in his installation DNA sequencing of genes affected by fear; and Mark Dion’s museum within a museum at the Orangerie.

The Neue Gallerie is an essential part of a visit to dOCUMENTA (13) with some great pieces including Wael Shawky’s puppet-film Caberet Crusades, Andrea Büttner’s investigation of religion through film and printmaking, and Geoffrey Farmer’s ambitious installation of images cut from Life magazine (pictured).

Some of the artworks were more interesting when compared and contrasted with one another, and there were lots of interesting exhibits that revealed the process of curating the festival. A thought-provoking video directed by Khaled Hourani and Rashid Masharawi about the politics and logistics of loaning a Picasso painting to the International Academy of Art Palestine, exposed the sometimes fraught museum processes. It was interesting to think of this in light of the artworks borrowed for dOCUMENTA (including pieces by Lee Miller and Dali) and how curatorial decisions create meaning.

‘Museums’ was a theme woven throughout the festival; Halle Yan Lei explored this by densely hanging his paintings on 10 metre-high walls and showing yet more on roller-racking. As well as classifying and memorialising, a lot of the selected artists were trying in some way to challenge accepted narratives: Zanele Muholi’s photographs of lesbian and trans people in South Africa and Dinh Q. Le’s watercolour representations of the Vietnam war two prime examples. We talked a lot during our time in Kassel about guilt, memorial and remembrance and how connected we felt to the past – it was not clear whether this was prompted by the art or because we were seeing it in a city that had been bombed to pieces by the allies. A bit of both maybe.

From Kassel we drove on to Berlin – via Dessau to see the newly reopened Bauhaus school – and from there to Hannover. Some of the thoughts that we took with us from Kassel, about responsibility, regret and trauma resonated in Berlin, where WW2 is being constantly analysed and reflected on by successive tourists. This was off-set slightly when we saw a fun Haroon Mirza installation at Ernst Schering Foundation’s Project Space, visited Asterisms by Gabriel Orozco (classified and documented flotsam and jetsum) at the Deutsche Guggenheim, and in Hannover we walked the sculpture mile.

Northern Germany isn’t as pretty as the south and it is still deeply scarred by the past; but a visit will offer heaps of good quality cultural experiences, and not just in trendy Berlin. We are already making plans to visit dOCUMENTA in 2017 when it coincides with the once-every-ten year festival, Skulptur Projekte Münster. However, I am sure that Germany will tempt us back before then.

Linda Pittwood

dOCUMENTA (13) continues until 16th September 2012

First published July 2012

Fighting the Friday night traffic to escape from Liverpool, we battle through the rain and put our lives in the hands of the sat nav as we plunge into the darkness. It was worth it when we arrived at Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston, for the opening of A Private Affair: Personal Collections of Contemporary Art. No time to linger over the permanent displays – but they look to be worth a few hours lingering – although we did catch a glimpse of a vast ceramics collection from the balcony above an elegant atrium.

This new temporary exhibition was co-organised by the Contemporary Art Society and the Harris, a local-council funded public gallery. A Private Affair showcases contemporary art taken from private collections based in the north of England. The owners have been convinced to part, for a time, with some of their favourite objects, and also to reveal the personal stories behind their collections.  Collectors are important to the work of the Contemporary Art Society and were historically important in the creation of our public museums and galleries. We are reminded by Paul Hobson, director of the CAS, that The Grundy (Blackpool), the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool) and the Harris all bear the names of their benefactors. This exhibition is very timely, given the shift in focus from public subsidy to private philanthropy to support the arts. This project makes visible the incredibly important work of the CAS, whose mission it is to support the continued acquisition of contemporary art.

The art in this exhibition is displayed in satisfying quantity and outstanding quality: Gordon Cheung’s Neon Shadows (pictured) depicts a scene of cowboys on horseback in melding layers of neon paint on Cheung’s trademark strips of the Financial Times; Iain Andrews Mythopoela, an intricate landscape etched on to a school desk; Blaise Drummond’s Excerpts from the Western World; and Tracey Emin’s Little Owl – just a handful of the covetable things on display.

Some of the pieces are on a domestic scale, but others such as Laura Ford’s Boy Story II, are hard to imagine in a living room context alongside family photographs. Ford’s sculptural work is most commonly seen in biennales and exhibitions showcasing the best of new British Art, and she is represented in the Tate collection. Here, her sculpture of a life-size faceless child wrapped in army-green, pulls a bundle of wooden sheets as big as him across the floor. Growing out of his face a gas mask reminiscent of a small elephant’s trunk adds to the chilling surrealism and mystery of the moment.

This begs the question, what art could you live with and revisit day after day? Peter Woods and his partner Francis Ryan usually see the artworks in their collection alongside the antique furniture and objects in their Merseyside home. This gives them an opportunity to use contemporary art to create witty interventions, such as displaying their Lisa Milroy painting, Blue Plate, above their collection of blue and white china. Peter says that sometimes he and Francis start to take their collection for granted in a domestic setting and sometimes they “sit with their backs to it”. This exhibition is an opportunity for visitors to experience fantastic creations by Glen Baxter, Roger Hiorns, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili and others, but also for the collectors to reacquaint themselves with their own collections. The CAS will certainly be pleased to hear that one of the legacies of this exhibition is that Peter and Francis say the experience has given them the courage to buy more challenging artworks in the future.

Some, such as Catherine Braithwaite, do not have all of their collection on display all of the time.  Catherine, a marketing professional specialising in the visual arts, lends to exhibitions as often as possible. Like many of the collectors, Catherine has bought from Ceri Hand Gallery, Manchester Contemporary and the John Moores Painting Prize. A recent purchase is Samantha Donnelly’s Singapore Sling. This sculptural object combines the visual harmonies of a Naum Gabo mathematical piece with the punky spirit of a Linder Stirling collage, topped off with a suggestive bulldog clip.  Donnelly opened her first solo show at Manchester’s Cornerhouse Gallery in January this year, suggesting that the collectors here have their fingers on the pulse of the UK contemporary art world. However, the collectors are all in agreement that art should not be purchased as an investment; they recommend buying something only if you love it and it excites you. None of the collectors talk about regret or being prohibited by the cost of contemporary art; they talk passionately about developing long-lasting relationships with artists and how the process of collecting improves their quality of life.

Private and public are usually presented as adversarial and distinct, but this show demonstrates they can co-exist and are intrinsically linked. Collectors have been the unsung missing piece of the puzzle in an art market, which is dependent as much on dialogues between passionate individuals as it is on finance. This is the first of three exhibitions planned at the Harris on the subject of collections and this year the gallery will open a new Heritage Lottery-funded local history gallery. On the basis of this thoughtful and daring exhibition, I expect any future endeavour at the Harris will be worth a visit.

Linda Pittwood

Exhibition continues until 5th May

First published February 2012

Watching the rain out of the window again, I am kept from working on my garden for another day.  Being forced indoors has; however, made me think about the concept and meaning of gardens, and how their meaning is explored in contemporary art.

Back in June 2011, I met  Apolonija Šušteršič  (pronounced apple-ony-a shoshtershay) when I was visiting her home town of Ljubljana, Slovenia.  Our group was lucky to catch her there as Šušteršič’s international practise takes her all over the world.  We caught up with her in a community garden that she initiated for one neighbourhood in Ljubljana.  The garden occupied a former wasteland space, in a city where land is cheap and abundant, but the pace of rejuvenating run-down areas is slow – reminding me a bit of the situation here in Liverpool.  (Interestingly, we were visiting at a time when Maribor – the country’s second city – was preparing for 2012 when it would have European Capital of Culture status.)  Around 30 people participate in the care – and reap the rewards – of Šušteršič’s garden, which is surrounded by high-rise flats.  Each family or individual has their own raised bed and everyone shares in the hard work required to keep the rocky ground hydrated.

Ljubljana is a capital city trying to spearhead a new identity for its country, and move away from its pigeonhole as a former Yugoslav nation. Former architect Šušteršič wants her projects to help audiences to think differently about their environment as well as about the decisions and motivations of politicians and policy makers.  Urban gardens symbolise togetherness as well as responding proactively to the global food shortages and the anxiety around food miles and industrialisation. Ironically, Šušteršič revealed to us she isn’t actually that green-fingered and she learns gardening skills from the other participants.

I was reminded of Šušteršič’s garden recently, when I heard Fritz Haeg speaking at Metal, the arts venue at Edge Hill station in Liverpool.  Haeg is working on the Everton Park project, which will be part of Liverpool Biennial 2012.  Like Šušteršič, Haeg was trained as an architect; although he has moved away from what he calls ‘Art and Architecture with a capital A’, to create events, build gardens and teach yoga, using the lifestyle he has adopted at his home in Los Angeles as the starting point. In his project entitled ‘Edible Estates’ Haeg helps families to build vegetable gardens at the front of their houses; by being visible he hopes to encourage more conversations to start.

Haeg’s projects are about empowering people to find local solutions to globalised problems as well as, sometimes, introducing young people to gardening for the first time.  He has worked in cities such as Istanbul and Budapest, introducing gardens and ‘modest gestures’ to what he calls ‘the dystopian mess of early 21st-century urban life’.  At Everton Park, Haeg hopes to initiate a long-term project which may or may not involve ‘food gardening, cooking, tours, wildlife restoration, native wildflower plantings, archaeology digs, performances, and maybe even a pond’ in partnership with Field Operations and the National Wildflower Centre.  For more information keep an eye on his website ( and  Another interesting local project is, which is part of Manchester International Festival – hopefully I will be writing more about that soon.

Some of the time my own garden feels like a hard fought battle against weeds, cats, slugs, sciarid flies (a new and unwelcome resident) and high-winds to generate a modest amount of edible produce; and yet it is an important expression of my desire to impact as little as possible on the resources of this planet.  I say ‘as little as possible’ as it is hard in a world of disposable fashion and the expectation of international travel and tomatoes all year round. Sometimes projects such as those by Haeg and Šušteršič blur the boundaries between art, life and, well, gardening.  But I think that they are important in taking art theory and making art active and meaningful and embedded in daily life.  I am not making art when I am gardening, but by thinking about these issues and actively trying to make our planet more sustainable I hope I am taking on some of their spirit.