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Amy's Column 03 - Sculpture and Smoke

Sculpture and Smoke
London and Rotterdam June 2010

The pairing of sculptural works by Nairy Baghramian and Phyllida Barlow in a recent exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London, went beyond pointing to the contrast between the practices of each artist (put simply, Nairy Baghramian makes neat sculpture, and Phyllida Barlow messy sculpture) and allowed an opportunity for the artists to create a series of appealing sculptural gestures which collectively answered the old yet fundamental question – how sculptural objects should deal with occupying architectural space. The Serpentine Gallery is not large, and the two installations pushed and billowed into every part of the space, with a clunky tower reaching high up into the gallery’s central vaulted space and slick curves of metal blocking doorways.

Nairy Baghramian uses the vocabulary of industrial and domestic design, and the materials associated with such genres - metal plates and cast iron.  She pushes at the common uses for such materials: wire is not used to strengthen but becomes flicks in space; transparent jelly-like substances are cast into slabs. Placed around one room were a series of tablesque forms, with distorted angles and legs so tapered and skeletal that it seemed unlikely they could hold a teacup, let alone a meal. When looking at these works viewers were asked by gallery staff not to approach too closely - apparently the breeze created by moving viewers is enough to topple the objects. These delicate prancing forms hovered tentatively upright while other pieces of her work were firmly attached to the walls and doorways of the gallery space. 

The scale and slickness of both the anchored and freestanding works specifically recalled the aesthetic of mid-twentieth century modernist furniture. The works call to mind the moment when form and function combined to become a dominant design ideology. Yet Baghramians’ pieces while nodding to the power of this ideology have themselves been emptied of all function. No sitting body could be held by her sculptures. In their presentation of form without function the works speak precisely to the act of anchoring refined materials, and material combinations to a site that we as viewers physically share with the objects. Contemplation on such a seemingly simple experience as this seems to me increasingly pertinent at a time where the most desired technology is a ‘desktop’ on a ‘pad’ and ‘3D’ experiences are all the rage.

Phyllida Barlow’s works included a series of sculptures made up of stout, squat shapes, masses with scabby textures, whirlwinds of surface made up of a matted materials including tapered wooden sticks, plaster, paint and hessian. She uses a Where The Wild Things Are palette – furry greys and bandaid pinks, colours that are muted and speckled. Inserted amongst the collections of organic flavoured works sat a geometric ramp of lime green and a scaffolded structure of red struts. The pieces seemed like a flurry of materials, momentarily paused in a form that seemed ripe for conjuring up a dynamic set of associations. The towers in the central vaulted space recalled structures that an ancient civilisations might have built up into the sky in order to pierce a divine atmosphere, while the giant fleshy spheres forms seemed solidified at a moment between something degrading from injury and reforming through growth.

A move away from the tactile and solid towards meanings created from sound and situation characterised the best works in the Act:IX of Let Us Compare Mythologies, a ‘Performance Cycle’ or weekend of performances put on by Witte de With gallery in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. My visit to the city coincided with this performance weekend and one of the advantages provided by the series of events was access to different spaces in the city that would otherwise be unknown or closed to tourists such as myself. Performances sites included the Nordic Seamen’s Church, a beautiful structure of dark wood, stained with murals of wildflowers and seascapes where audiences were treated to waffles with jam, a Norwegian speciality.

The brief performance ‘Love in Uganda’ by Roy Pilgrim was also held in a church, taking place on a Sunday at 2pm. Four a cappella singers sung a composition. For a long time the only lyric I could make out was ‘love’. The harmonies resonating in the church’s acoustically ripe environment at first seemed in keeping with the kind of beautiful contemplative and calming experiences that can take place in a church on a Sunday afternoon – experience that are relatively hard to come by for an atheist. Promising a space to consider the nature of love, through interlocking and harmonising tones of the voice created the initial beauty and success of the piece, but the final phrase of the performance, pointed to a more problematic set of relationships which are engaged through performing in a religious space. The composition ended: ‘Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender love. We must protect all love.’

Roy Pilgrim spoke later that day in the Het Dorpshuis Community centre, a community centre largely used by the immigrant community near the Witte de With gallery. Locating the conversation in such a site is typical of the inclusive agenda of a progressive institution such as the Witte de With, which is an important and active voice in the continual debates over what it means to be ‘Dutch’. Questions of religions and racial integration and immigration policy are ever present in the Netherlands. Anti-immigration graffiti spotted on a Rotterdam street corner translates to ‘Holland = a full land.’ Sitting among the hookahs and rugs, Pilgrim outlined the complex background to his piece ‘Love in Uganda’. The work was a direct response by the artist to the proposed introduction of anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda. After writing the composition, Pilgrim contacted a number of Anglican cathedrals around the world asking if they would perform the composition within their walls. Pilgrim’s proposition was almost unanimously rejected, with various churches offering a range of excuses from the practical - that they could not gather together the right singers to preform his piece - to blatantly acknowledging that they did not agree with the ‘morality’ of the piece’s sung statement. Pilgrim stated that the lack of support for the performance of the piece, and a telling analogy for the lack of support of gay rights, highlighted discrepancies between the Anglican church’s official line in Britain and the issues they are willing to engage with in the former colonies where the church still has some degree of clout.

The performance cycle ended with a party, advertised as 'Body Xerox', an event conceived by Simon Denny and Yngve Holen. Body Xerox, consisted simply of ten or so photocopiers, a smoke machine, and a perfect DJ set, which combined to coax a key forth element, dancing, into being. A darkened dance floor space was continually punctuated by dashes of sweeping green light, and puddles of blue from the copiers’ display panels. All night light continually swiped across faces, squished cheeks, fuck you fingers, the contents of purses, and anything else people could think to place the copier glass. Dancing amongst the chaos of mounting mountains of paper was joyous but in a distinctively nihilist naughtily sense that could only come from having fun doing something you know you shouldn’t be doing. Having such a good time while wasting so much paper seemed to make the good time better. It was the antithesis of the paperless office, which all eco-minded institutions - especially hyper-aware contemporary art spaces - are forever striving for. Everywhere there were art people trying to capture and copy, their poses and piece of their bodies in an image, all culminating in giving the event a strangely outdated vibe. I asked if the copiers were old?  No, they where brand new models. Why then did it feel like I was standing in piles of the past? And then I remembered the iPad. ‘Body Xerox’ seemed successfully to say something about this certain cultural moment. This was the month the iPad bill boards had infiltrated every city I had travelled to, the strangely empty images of the warm and god-like pads floating between disembodied knees, and photo-shopped nails. Standing in the paper, I also remembered months of art world discussion about the re-emergence of performance, and how to represent historical performance, all the talk around Marina Abramović, ‘being present’ and Tino Sehgal asking viewers in an empty Guggenheim to describe what they think progress is. After all this, ‘Body Xerox’ seemed the perfect ‘light’ event, illuminating all the problems that arise in between the shabby and the sleek, the bulbous body, and new flattening technologies. There is a forever accelerating drive in our culture to be able to record and replay every entertaining or controversial moment of our bodies moving in space.  An event that can bring to light the emotional inaccuracy embodied in this drive, while reveling in it, has a particular excitement.


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