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June 12 2012

Fantasy art school: artists reveal their dream teachers

As London's Hayward Gallery launches its month-long alternative art college, Wide Open School, Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley and others tell us who their dream teachers would be. Who would you like to be taught by?

This month, more than 100 artists from 40 countries are heading to London's Southbank to host workshops as part of the Hayward's alternative college of art, Wide Open School. Subjects in the timetable range from dining and singing sessions and sushi-making performance art classes to the Sundown Schoolhouse of Queer Home Economics, plus explorations of time and space, forensics and Freddie Mercury.

As the college swings open its doors, we ask a selection of artists who their dream teachers would be.

Tracey Emin

I would like to have been taught by Simone Weil, Daphne du Maurier and Louise Bourgeois. I think it would have made a wonderful trio of art, literature and philosophy – at school, that is all I needed to be taught.

Tracey Emin will be in conversation with Jeanette Winterson on 26 June.

Michael Landy

I was never taught cricket at school and I've never played it, but I do listen to it on the radio. So I would nominate Geoffrey Boycott, ex-Yorkshire and England cricketer, to teach me the basics about batting and bowling. He would tell me to keep my eye on the ball, and to move either forwards or backwards depending on where the ball pitched, and to keep my head still. We would discuss the finer points of the "corridor of uncertainty" and when I played a bad shot, he would tell me that his mum could have done better than me.

Michael Landy is running a workshop on destruction

Bob and Roberta Smith

I wish I'd been taught by Theodor W Adorno and Walter Benjamin, and at primary school by Michael Rosen, who could have warned me about the dangers of too much entertainment on the 1970s TV programme Play Away.

Bob and Roberta Smith is creating a symphony for the public realm.

Marlene Dumas

Joseph Beuys, because of his postcards with Klaus Staeck and his smile!

An evening with Marlene Dumas takes place on 5 July.

Antony Gormley

David Bohm, the inspirational physicist who developed the implications of Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity. He could have involved me in the participatory activity of holomovement in his understanding of the implicate order of phenomena.

Antony Gormley will be talking to critic and writer Michael Newman about time in art.

Jane and Louise Wilson

We have a great admiration for the teaching profession: it would be difficult to find any other profession with as many valuable, dedicated and creative thinkers who, despite the lack of government support, continue to brilliantly inspire future generations. We attended the same comprehensive school in the 1980s and although they no longer exist any more, reflecting back to that time we would find it really hard to agree upon only one artist we would have both liked to have been taught by. Essentially, there are too many. It would have been fascinating to attend a talk by Professor Mary E King about her book The Power of Nonviolent Action (1988). The book is timely on so many levels despite being written before the collapse of the former Soviet Union. It describes the successful use of non-violent strategies to bring about political change, from the pro-democracy movements in the former Soviet Union to the present-day pro-democracy movements in the Middle East.

Jane and Louise Wilson will be in conversation with Caroline Wilkinson on 13 June.

Thomas Hirschhorn

Joseph Beuys, because he accepted everybody in his class – and would accept me. And because he asserted that every human being is an artist, because he included everyone in his work, because he never "made school" in the sense of creating followers, because his teaching was part of his artistic mission, because of his decisions about his materials, because of his work in public space, because he understood art as something which needs to confront social, economical and political issues. And because he makes me love art.

Thomas Hirschhorn is running a class called Energy: Yes! Quality: No! on 3 July.

Mark Wallinger

Great teachers are those that have such a revelatory impact on their students that it might shape their future destiny. Keats's sonnet, On first looking into Chapman's Homer, expresses his passion for poetry by using imagery of exploration and discovery, which never fails to thrill me. And how exciting would it have been to witness Filippo Brunelleschi demonstrating linear perspective for the first time in his baptistry in Florence. But above all, I wish I could resurrect my junior school teacher Mr Holland, even if he might recognise his idea for parent's open day in my upcoming show at Baltic in Gateshead

Martin Creed

I don't believe in teaching. I think people learn things. Nobody teaches them.

Who is your dream teacher?

Tell us by posting a comment below


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January 30 2011

Susan Hiller: 'I've had just the right amount of attention'

On the eve of a major Tate survey, veteran radical artist Susan Hiller talks about her uncompromising journey from anthropology to art

In London, the radical artist Susan Hiller is represented by the super-smart – you might even call it Sloaney – Timothy Taylor Gallery in Mayfair, a place I find mildly intimidating. You need an extremely fat wallet to shop here, and even to look, you need a certain kind of chutzpah – or at the very least, a good handbag. Its gallery spaces, merrily waving two fingers at rents in the area, are vast, white and cool; its basement offices are populated with glamorous young women whose desks are designer-messy, stacks of shiny catalogues always threatening to topple onto cups of green tea, but never doing so. Cross its threshold, and you feel like a blob: a poor blob, in a bad coat.

Oh, well. If it's an odd hangout for me, it's an even stranger place to find Hiller, a bracingly earnest and intellectual artist who, although garlanded with critical acclaim in a career that has so far lasted four decades – Nicholas Serota called her a "hugely influential figure for a younger generation of British artists" – is neither a household name, nor a fashionable one. Hiller's big problem, trend-wise, is that she does not turn out the kind of work that looks good in a flashy loft. Nor is she willing to court publicity by means of cheap autobiography ("I may have had as many abortions as any other female artist," she once said. "But I'm not going to make that part of my CV"). Her installations and sound pieces, photo-montages and combines, are complex and uncategorisable, and tend to work best in a gallery, where they demand thought, as well as a keen pair of eyes. As for the artist herself, she looks like Simone de Beauvoir, sounds like Susan Sontag, and when you ask a question, there is a moment of silence before she answers. This is not disdain; she's thinking. Still, it's quite scary.

We are meeting at Timothy Taylor because her major new show at Tate Britain is not yet hung, and her studio is unhelpfully crowded with a substantial work in progress, Homage to Gertrude Stein. This piece, one of a series of homages to artists (others are to Yves Klein, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys) consists of a curvy art deco desk adorned with books about automatic writing – an interest of Stein's until she became a famous modernist writer, at which point she furiously distanced herself from it. "She always denied that her work had anything to do with automatic writing," says Hiller. "But of course she learned things from it, and my piece is a succinct statement of something I feel about that, which is that I don't think it denigrates an artist to reveal her sources." Homage to Gertrude Stein will be shown here, in Mayfair, but some of the other homages will be in the Tate show, notably the largest of her 10 tributes to Beuys, which consist of wooden boxes filled with bottles of sacred water collected by Hiller over many years. What's the connection between Beuys and water?

"It's to do with the way he sacramentalised – if that's a word – materials: felt and fat and wood. He was retrieving the ancient idea of the artist as a shaman. It's a celebration of him, but also a critique, because collecting sacred water is a very common practice. It's a domestic ritual. I've always been interested in the connection between the artist who is considered special, and celebrated as a genius, and ordinary people."

Is she also nodding in the direction of those who find Beuys's work highly suspect? It occurs to me that most so-called sacred water is anything but (the owner of the souvenir shop simply fills his bottles from the tap). She smiles. "Yes. But you've put your finger on something that is at the root of all art: is this artist serious, or is he pulling my leg? That's the continual enchantment of this project for me. I'm not debunking Beuys, but nor am I saying he's a shaman." For Hiller, all water is holy, in a way, just as all collections are art, at least for the person who assembles them.

Hiller is now 70. Does she feel the Tate show is overdue? She bristles, just a little. "No. It's just that everyone is so London-centric. I've had several other big shows. I think I've had just the right amount of attention: enough that I didn't live in a state of total despair, but not so much that every piece would go straight into someone's collection, [thus] forcing me into constant repetition, which is what has happened to almost all the successful artists of my generation. Go to their retrospectives, and you'll see that all the interesting work is at the beginning [of their career], and that the bulk of it is just more of the same. It's a terrible trap: when art becomes an identifiable commodity. It's one of the ways our society kills art. It's actually rather hard to encapsulate me in a show. It's hard for people to form an opinion about me at all unless they think very carefully."

The Tate show promises to be rather exciting. Among its highlights will be Witness, in which a cloud of dangling audio speakers offers the visitor the sound of people describing encounters with extra-terrestrials; From the Freud Museum, 50 archaeological storage boxes filled with mementoes, personal relics and talismans; The J Street Project (2002-5) a video piece documenting the 320 streets that record the Jewish presence in Germany (Judenstrasse, Judengasse, and so on); and, my favourite, Dedicated to the Unknown Artists (1972-76), an arrangement of old tinted postcards of heavy seas at British resorts.

"I don't make singularities," she says, as we contemplate a silently running video – one of the glamorous gallerists has put it on for us – in which no less than three curators can be seen worrying about how to hang From the Freud Museum. "I work in series. It's a political commitment. There's a non-hierarchical principle of organisation in the work." She pauses. "I combine a minimalist aesthetic with a surrealist sensibility, and that's consistent through everything."

Hiller has lived in London for more than 40 years, and carries a British passport, but she was born in Florida; she grew up in Tallahassee, a steamy, segregated, small-minded town, where her father ran a construction company (when her grandmother sold her house to a black family, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on her front lawn). A corner of her bedroom was devoted to drawing and painting and, aged eight, she won an art prize which led to her appearing on the local equivalent of Blue Peter, a "wonderful" moment. As she grew older, however, she began to have doubts about art.

"It was a gender issue. Every time I discovered a woman artist, people would say: 'She's so second-rate', or 'Oh, she married so-and-so'. It was very discouraging. But then I saw a pamphlet in the school careers office called: 'Anthropology as a Career for Women'. It was by Margaret Mead. I was so excited by that: to think that this exotic profession could be addressing me.

"Margaret Mead was very famous in those days, and her generation of anthropologists were almost all women. They were advising the government, they were on television, their books were everywhere. Mead was talking to Americans about their puritanism, and that was fabulous as far as I was concerned." She duly decided to become an anthropologist.

A degree and graduate work followed, but then disillusion set in. "The Vietnam war showed me that anthropology was not an innocent practice. The information was being fed back to the government. Also, the information came only from men in other cultures. The women weren't interviewed. We were a radical generation, and this was impossible for me. One day, in a lecture on African art, I started drawing images, instead of writing, and that was it. I felt that art was value-free in a way that anthropology wasn't."

She began taking art classes, and followed this with both a year in New York, where she studied drawing and photography, and a year in Paris, where she studied print-making. Thereafter, she wandered Europe, visiting museums until, finally, in 1967, she settled in London, where she married an Englishman (the writer, David Coxhead; they have a son, Gabriel). "We were lucky to get here at such a wonderful time. You could call anything art, and a great burden was lifted. That's why we stayed." She toyed with the idea of studying for an MA at the Royal College, but her interview was conducted by several "lecherous old men". "So I had a series of jobs – I worked in a Skoda car factory as a secretary – all of which I thought were fantastic and fascinating, and meanwhile, I worked as an artist; I committed to it." She had her first proper exhibition in 1973.

Her first London review compared her work to the contents of a handbag. Was it tough in the beginning? She thinks so, and not only for reasons to do with money. "I was one of the first generation of feminists in the art world, and I was told it would ruin my career. I had a profile as an interesting conceptual artist, and then after feminism, my position upset a lot of opinion-makers. They weren't helpful." Has her feminism influenced her work? "Definitely. I wouldn't have developed such a core of persistence if I hadn't come to realise through feminism that I wasn't the only person with all these doubts and ambiguities and conflicts. There were reasons I had been constructed in a certain way, and I needed to think about that. Once you could see these things clearly, then you could forget about them. It wasn't an aggressive attack on men, it was a question of working on yourself."

She has come to believe that an artist's best work is often – as the writer Dorothy Richardson once pointed out – that which is most disliked by the critics. This is why success in the art world is not only to do with talent. "Having nurtured many artists who have become quite well known, I can tell you that success is purely a matter of luck. As well as talent, you need persistence, and the kind of personality that can deal with the whole thing."

It frustrates her that such importance is still attached to her background in anthropology – "lots of artists did other things first! [Anselm] Kiefer was a lawyer, and [Antony] Gormley also started out as an anthropologist" – but I think that its influence is very clear, and regard it as a wholly good thing (one piece, The Last Silent Movie, is explicitly anthropological, consisting of the sound of extinct and dying languages); most conceptual art is so lacking in intellectual content, it's embarrassing. She considers the point for moment, and finds she cannot disagree.

"There is a lot of neo-dada around, and a whole tendency to talk about art that doesn't mean anything, as though this were a good thing. I personally find it rather frightening, because it reflects something in society as a whole." She sighs. She seems slightly exasperated – not with me, I hope, but the world outside. "Artists have a function. Otherwise we wouldn't be here. We're part of a conversation. It's our job to represent and mirror back the values of the culture in a way that people haven't seen before." She flashes me a droll look. "I don't necessarily aim for my work to be comforting to people who are already very comfortable with themselves."


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November 29 2010

Germany wins in the art world

Is Germany the greatest European art nation of the 20th century?

Which country leads Europe in contemporary art? Britain, of course, you answer. Look at all those people flocking to Tate Modern. Wrong. The best artists in Europe today are German. The towering geniuses Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer radically contrast in how they conceive art yet both, from their divergent perspectives, one super-cool, the other romantic, achieve a profundity that makes most British art look trite.

But to widen the question – which was the greatest European art nation of the 20th century? France? Wrong again. It was Germany. Only Germany has been at the forefront of modern art from the early 20th century right up until today. Paris declined as a creative capital after 1939, but German artists have been revolutionary for 100 years without missing a beat. The passion of expressionist painting and cinema, the fragmentation grenades of Dada, the idealism of the Bauhaus and realism of Neue Sachlichkeit – these German art movements of the early 20th century did not give way, as in France, to cultural decline but instead burned on into the 1960s and 70s, when Joseph Beuys showed that art can still reach into myth and memory to renew the world. Beuys and his legacy – continued by Kiefer, rejected by Richter – coincided with a great renewal of German cinema: for one aspect of the German genius is that fine art and film have merged there since the days of Murnau.

And a final question – who created the Renaissance? Well, Italy did, but Germany was the first northern country to adapt Renaissance ideas to its own culture, and the only land north of the Alps to produce one of the masters of the High Renaissance – the towering figure of Albrecht Dürer, whose genius is celebrated in a timely new book by Norbert Wolf. It was Dürer whose readiness to embrace the new technology of the printing press – his prints are as great as his paintings, or greater – set the modernising, forward-looking, and productive tone of German art right down to today, when new art flourishes in a Berlin that is the worthy heir to the cosmopolis portrayed in Kirchner's painting Potsdamer Platz. Anyone who spends a couple of days in Berlin's museums and galleries will come to the conclusion that the Germans really are better at art.


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March 18 2010

Joseph Beuys: Make the Secrets Productive / PaceWildenstein, New York

During his lifetime he was controversial, but now the German performance and installation artist, sculptor, graphic artist, art theorist, pedagogue of art and politician Joseph Beuys is regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His words “Every man is an artist” are cited again and again, not only by art art lovers.

Currently, PaceWildenstein in New York presents “Joseph Beuys: Make the Secrets Productive”, an exhibition of twelve sculptures, dating from the 1950s through the end of his career. Over 90 black and white photographs taken by Ute Klophaus, documenting eleven of the artist’s “Aktion” works, will be shown alongside four of these iconic happenings on film. The installation will also feature a separate screening room showcasing rare footage and interviews with Joseph Beuys.

In this video we have a look at this extraordinary exhibition and PaceWildenstein President Marc Glimcher and Director Birte Kleemann tell us how this show came about.

Among the works are Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler (Make the Secrets Productive), a 1977 text-based sculpture painted on wood paneling with Braunkreuz, an earthy-looking substance Beuys created by combining household paint and hare’s blood. This important work of art indoctrinates each visitor with the Beuysian ideology that “every man is an artist” and its message is the anchor for the larger exhibition, which features a number of unique sculptures that have never before been presented in the United States. Among the sculptures are Feldbett (1982), OFEN (1983-85), Tisch mit Aggregat, Tisch 2 Pole, and Doppelaggregat. For more information visit PaceWildenstein’s website.

Joseph Beuys: Make the Secrets Productive at PaceWildenstein, 25th Street, New York, runs until April 10, 2010.  A catalogue with essays by Heiner Bastian, Prof. Dr. Joachim Pissarro, Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, and Prof. Dr. Eugen Blume, head of the Hamburg Bahnhof, Museum for Contemporary Art, Berlin, will accompany the exhibition. Currently, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has dedicated one of its fourth floor galleries to an ongoing exhibition dedicated to Joseph Beuys. The focus of this installation centers on the museum’s recent acquisition of five vitrines created by the artist, with works dating from 1942 and 1982.

Joseph Beuys: Make the Secrets Productive / PaceWildenstein, New York. Private View, March 4, 2010.

PS: See also VernissageTV’s coverage of the exhibition mentioned in this segment, Joseph Beuys. We are the Revolution / Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin. Other Beuys related videos.

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February 03 2010

'You can't imagine Rembrandt boxing'

Joseph Beuys was odd all his life; he was outlandish in the pure sense of the word – a man from another planet. It was no surprise to see him boxing, as he was always acting in unusual ways. I took this during the Documenta 5 art exhibition in Kassel in 1972. It was a kind of performance event: Beuys had set up a fight with another artist, Abraham David Christian, at the office of the political party Beuys had founded, the Organisation for Direct Democracy through Referendum. (The posters on the wall are by French artist Ben Vautier, who was also at ­Documenta.) Politically, Beuys was on the left of course, like everyone else, but he was not connected to any other group. He didn't take it seriously – it was fun.

I was a reporter for Stern magazine at the time. Stern did not consider Beuys a serious artist: to them, he was just a man with a funny hat. They sent me to do stories on him, and I used the opportunity and the ­expense account to follow Beuys for two or three years. We became very close. I went to his home, photographed him cooking, sleeping, everything. This body of work is now important, because it shows Beuys as a person – all that very indiscreet stuff people normally keep out of sight.

For this shot I was up on the stage, at Beuys's level. I never used a flash, just available light. I'm a very discreet photographer – I don't look or act like one, and that's the reason Beuys tolerated me. I doubt I would have been invited into his family home if I had used a flashgun. I think there were television cameras there, too, which explains the harsh floodlighting.

I have to report that Beuys won the fight: look at him sweating. He is really attacking that young man; he beat him up. It was perhaps not as bloody as a proper boxing match, but it was fun and serious at the same time. Back then, nobody ­considered him a ­serious artist, but he was very clever. He could sell very well, which led to the painful fact that his widow had nothing left to sell after he died. He sold everything. I bought a lot myself, when it was dirt-cheap in the early 70s.

You can't imagine Rembrandt boxing. But Beuys did not behave like a normal artist, and that is what this photograph is saying.

CV

Born: Berlin, 1940.

Studied: "Never. I just picked up a ­camera, liked the idea of ­being a photographer, and managed to get a job at Stern."

Inspirations: Ansel Adams, Don McCullin, Bill Brandt, Cartier-Bresson.

Dislikes: "When ­photography is treated in an artistic manner. For me, ­photography is a ­window on to reality."

Top tip: "Take a strong interest in the world around you. If you are not interested in what you see, drop it. Do something else."


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