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June 27 2012

Let's hear it for Bruce Nauman, sculptor of sound

In his new sound art installation, Days, at the ICA, Nauman sculpts the space with voices, giving sound a physicality that will open your ears to a whole new world of noise

Where are you and what are you doing? What does it feel like? Say you are in a hotel lobby waiting for a lift. You wait for the machinery to ping. Behind you, voices come from the reception desk.

Or you are on a boat on a rough sea. Waves crash against the side, a bird cries above.

Or you are in an English country meadow. It is raining. Water cracks on upturned leaves.

Sorry to wax poetical ... But in all these situations, the experience of being there is defined by sound as well as sight. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, close your eyes and sense the way sound shapes your location and contact with the world.

I am writing this in the ICA in London and when I close my eyes I can still hear Bruce Nauman's audio installation Days. No, wait – they have just turned on the music in the bar, drowning it out with light jazz.

Nauman's work is a room empty except for twin rows of white panels that are in fact funky speakers. What at first seems a babble of noise fills the place, but as you walk down the corridor of sound formed by the speakers, individual voices loom and fade. They are all reciting days of the week. Monday, Tuesday ...

Different voices with American accents, men and women, adults and children, all utter different samples of days of the week ("Monday, Wednesday, Sunday ...") on different schedules. The sounds merge and collide, the crowd of noise is overwhelming yet negotiable: it is a city of sound. Nauman's litany of days evokes a feeling of urgency. I picture the sidewalks of LA or New York, people going to meetings. Crowded diaries. Thursday, Monday ... Red letter days, ordinary days.

But most of all I am aware of Nauman's sound work as a sculpture. Its chronicle of time is mapped across space. The voices of absent people sculpt this room, give the air a solidity. Sound is literally physical, a wave moving through space. In this work, it creates corridors and tunnels to negotiate, invisible walls and roads. It is substantial. This physicality is the fascination of sound art. Nauman is a master of it, and Days works like all his pieces to make you aware of your own body and your ever-changing place in the world. It is calming and provocative at the same time. After experiencing it, I seem to be hearing every city noise more intensely.


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April 27 2012

Gallery as art: Moscow ruin lures Rem Koolhaas

Architect Rem Koolhaas and Russian socialite Dasha Zhukova have unveiled plans for a new space for the Garage art gallery

A ruined Soviet-era restaurant in Moscow's Gorky Park is to become the unlikely new home for one of Russia's hippest contemporary arts centres: the Garage, founded four years ago by the Russian socialite Dasha Zhukova.

Zhukova and the architect Rem Koolhaas have unveiled plans to bring back to life a 1960s prefabricated concrete building that would normally be pulled down. "It is the most exciting and biggest change the Garage has undergone," said Zhukova, revealing the plans at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts on Friday. "I think it will be one of the greatest examples of contemporary architecture in Moscow."

The hunt for a new building began because the lease was ending on the Garage's current home in the constructivist Bakhmetevsky bus garage and the site was due to be developed into a Jewish heritage museum.

"Finding it was a random chance," said Zhukova, the partner of billionaire Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich. "A friend of mine said there was a number of completely destroyed and damaged buildings in the park and that the city was looking to regenerate the park."

The Vremena Goda (Seasons of the Year) building has almost everything against it. Koolhaas said it was "a ruin, almost completely overgrown" on a heavily polluted site. It is also a rectangle, which is "currently not a very popular shape in architecture".

But the project fits into many of the themes and views Koolhaas has been expressing in recent years about modern architecture generally, and art galleries in particular. One thing he is fighting against is size, pointing to London's Serpentine Gallery as an example of small being good. "Art institutions are getting bigger and bigger, culminating in a building you all know [Tate Modern] but scale, for me, is not necessarily productive for art."

He is against the unnecessary destruction of buildings from the 1960s and 70s and does not like "the sterility of the white cube" in many galleries.

Koolhaas, who co-founded the OMA practice in 1975, said much of the neglect in the Vremena Goda was picturesque and he would keep much of the brickwork, tiling and mosaics. "The building is a ruin but it is not a very old ruin and there are still traces of decoration. We were able to convince our client to maintain some of the aesthetic and experiment – we have these traces of Russian history as a partner of the art."

That raises the question of whether non-white walls would fight or distract from the art on them. "That is a very long discussion," said Koolhaas. "I wouldn't propose it if I thought so." Having said that, all the exhibiting walls will be capable of becoming white.

The new 5,400 sq metre Garage Gorky Park is due to open next year with galleries on two levels together with cafe, shop and learning centre. Zhukova said the original plan had been to use a hexagon-shaped pavilion in the park, not far from the restaurant, but it would have taken too long to convert. That will now be phase two of their plans. "The Hexagon is in a much worse state and we've worked so hard over the last four years to build up a community around the Garage and establish an audience – we don't want to be homeless for two or three years."

Money for the Garage is understood to come from Zhukova's billionaire partner Abramovich but she batted away questions about the cost. "We don't talk about the finances," she said.

Zhukova is regularly featured in the British tabloids, probably not through choice, and despite the cynics there are plenty of people who would pay tribute to her achievements in establishing the Garage as a force in contemporary art. Artists to exhibit there include Antony Gormley and Christian Marclay, while at the end of last year it exhibited a major retrospective of the performance artist Marina Abramovic .

Zhukova said the Garage would still host exhibitions rather than developing a permanent collection and her "personal dream" was to have a show by the American sculptor Richard Serra, who makes some of the world's heaviest works of art. "He is an artist I am dying to bring to Moscow but nothing has been confirmed," she said. Whether the floors would take it is another question.


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January 17 2012

Damien who? Meet the new breed of YBA

The YBA days of pickled sharks and stardom are long gone, but as a new art guide shows, there is top talent for a soberer time

As Damien Hirst dusts off his £50m diamond skull in preparation for his Tate Modern retrospective this spring, a new generation of young British artists are working in a very different climate from the brash super-confidence of his 1990s heyday.

"Before I did an art degree I knew I wasn't doing it for financial gain," says Max Dovey, 24, who graduated with a first in fine art from Wimbledon Art College last year.

"At art school I was always telling everyone else that no one would be a successful artist, to make sure they had a skillset so they'd be employable and [not to] wait to be picked by [Charles] Saatchi because it won't happen."

Yet there are flecks of light for Britain's fledgling painters, sculptors performance artists and video installation-makers – not least from the Catlin Guide 2012, being launched at the London Art Fair on Wednesday.

The guide showcases what its editor, Justin Hammond, claims are the country's 40 most promising young artists.

Some art world observers say the guide is premature, as it is based on BA and MA graduate shows. But many of those chosen – from recommendations by tutors, bloggers, collectors and critics – have received recognition elsewhere.

Alison Stolwood's work was selected for the influential Bloomberg New Contemporaries show at London's ICA. That work, a photographic animation of a wasp's nest spinning back and forth, has been sold and will be exhibited at Preston's Harris Museum later this year.

Meanwhile, Royal College of Art graduate Jonny Briggs has defied Dovey's dire prediction and has sold work to Saatchi, But the days of Hirst and the Young British Artists (YBAs) – when this would have been a fast track to stardom – have long passed.

In October Briggs, 26, won New Sensations, a competition created by the Saatchi Gallery and Channel 4 to find Britain's most talented art graduate.

His work documents his attempts to "connect with his childhood self", and includes a photograph of him wearing a giant wooden mask made to look like his father's face.

This theme could be taken as making a virtue out of necessity; Briggs cannot afford to move out of his parents' home, though he does rent a studio in a former factory in south London "where Twiglets were invented".

Of the other artists picked by the Catlin Guide, Gabriella Boyd, a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art who was runnerup in the competition, has managed to fund her large-scale oil paintings through portraiture commissions.

Adeline de Monseignat, who makes disconcerting sculptures she accurately calls "hairy eyeballs", works as a nanny to pay the rent on her studio. But she has recently sold two works.

Catherine Parsonage, 22, considers herself "incredibly lucky" to have won a scholarship from the RCA, though, she says, she is "struggling – it's expensive to live in London".

Her portrait of her friend Charlotte was longlisted for the BP Portrait award at the National Gallery last year.

Few young artists are producing work with the in-your-face iconoclasm of classic YBA works such as Hirst's shark in formaldehyde or Tracey Emin's My Bed.

Dovey is a performance artist. Previous work includes The Emotional Stock Market, which recreated an exchange based on the "trading" emotions every time they were mentioned on Twitter.

He says that the bold individualism of the YBA years, when art schools encouraged students to create their own brand identity to make them stand out in the art market, has given way to more diverse, less easily digested work, as well as a more sober attitude. "The YBAs made art school a very cool place to be, and possibly a very golden route to stardom," he says.

"Slowly there are becoming more and more realists around the art school environment. "With the rise in fees, I hope prospective students looking at creative courses in art school will value coming out with an employable skills-set over a strong professional art identity.

"So the effect of the YBAs on academia is slowly wearing off, which – looking at the economics and the politics – is probably a really good thing."

Most of the artists say the tough financial climate has led to a greater atmosphere of collaboration and mutual support.

Stolwood says that her peer group from Brighton University "email if there are any competitions people should apply for", while Boyd's colleagues band together to try to stage exhibitions.

Though this year's students have to contend with increased fees, the British art market is still buoyant, outperforming the stock market by 9% last year.

De Monseignat says that while she will go and see Hirst's retrospective, the YBAs are now part of art history.

"At some point every artist has to be interested in them and understand what happened at that point in the UK," she says. "It's a very important period."

And despite Hirst's continuing presence, one that seems a long way in the past.


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January 11 2011

What Muir can do

With his connections to the elite of today's art, the Institute of Contemporary Arts' new chief can restore its former glory

The Institute of Contemporary Arts has apparently decided that it is a contemporary visual art venue first and foremost. This is probably true, both historically and today – and offers this much-criticised institution its best chance of future importance.

The way in which the ICA has declared a primary commitment to art is by appointing curator and writer Gregor Muir as its new executive director. Muir comes there from Hauser and Wirth, the successful commercial gallery, and has a longstanding involvement with the British art scene that he narrated in a book, Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, about his friends, the original Hirst generation of young British artists (YBAs).

Muir's knowledge of and connections with the elite of today's art will mark a change of tone in the ICA's exhibitions. If anything, in recent years it has tried to position itself as an alternative art space promoting lesser known artists and post-YBA factions. This goes back to 1997 when it put on Die Young, Stay Pretty, one of the first exhibitions to claim to find the next big thing after YBA art, and has recently even included an exhibition by former Stuckist, Billy Childish.

I suspect we are now more likely to see big names and hot global art at the ICA, a return to the days when it showed such artists as Gerhard Richter and indeed Hirst. This is a good recipe for this venerable home of the British avant-garde to reclaim its laurels. Congratulations, and best of luck to Muir.


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March 17 2010

The ICA must be saved | Jonathan Jones

The Institute of Contemporary Arts does what it says on the box better than any other public gallery I can think of at the moment. Its closure would be a terrible loss to creativity

This Thursday at the ICA in London's Mall, artist and musician Billy Childish will be talking to curator Matthew Higgs about his exhibition there, which has been extended until May 2. I enjoyed this show, and I can't think of any other important public gallery that would currently harbour such a subversive figure – well, maybe the Serpentine, which is brilliant these days. It's the second intriguing exhibition at the ICA in the last few months: the other one that I enjoyed being Rosalind Nashashibi's films.

This venue, right now, puts on interesting, worthwhile explorations of contemporary art that are a little bit more engaged with what's happening than you might get in, say, the temporary space on the Tate Modern's riverfront, which always seems to host the most God-awful irrelevant art to be found anywhere in the global art scene.

The ICA, in this critic's humble opinion (I've always wanted to say "in this critic's humble opinion") is doing pretty much what it says on the box. Institute of Contemporary Arts. It's still doing what it did when Richard Hamilton and the Independent Group were here in the 1950s: putting forward stuff you might not see elsewhere, with a certain courage and indifference to the mainstream.

But everyone is saying the ICA is financially doomed. The place appears to be erupting behind the scenes with Mark Sladen, responsible for the shows I've praised, leaving, and it seems fashionable to opine that it doesn't matter, that the ICA is past its prime and superfluous, and God, wasn't it always a pain anyway.

I disagree. Being imperfect is part of its heritage of supporting the new. But to dismiss it is ignorant, philistine, and dangerous. The ICA has a powerful character and a permanent purpose. It is a precious part of British culture. It would be a tragedy to see it close – a terrible loss to creativity. It is a great British eccentric. It should highlight, not change, what it is: a place where the new is always incubating in ways that no one expected.

Save the ICA! We would miss it badly.


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