Friday, 20 April 2012
A six foot chicken hangs upside down from the ceiling by a meat hook. Its throat has been cut and it's body plucked of feathers. It's bald flightless wings hang morbidly at 90 degrees, mimicking the effects of gravity upon it's tragic frame. The opening between its legs, through which it's innards have been pulled, falls slackly open, speaking mutely and eloquently of its vulnerability and the indignity of its end. Tufty white hairs form a ruff around its scrawny neck, like the wayward stubble of a bent old man unaware that he can no longer see clearly enough to shave himself clean.
Ron Mueck has titled this piece Still Life and in so doing has relieved the viewer of any ambiguity that might have remained as to the issue he is addressing with his gargantuan dead bird.
Mueck is speaking to us on the theme all artists eventually come around to speaking to us on, the theme that in many ways lies at the heart of life and art and everything we are. Mueck is speaking to us about death. Still Life is the classic momento mori.
The instruction to the viewer to contemplate our own imminent and inevitable death is the same one that invites us to investigate what our lives might be about. It is the trope that Hirst engages in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Only Hirst does it much better.
The problem with Still Life is it isn't credible. The viewer can't possibly believe this chicken ever lived. For one thing it's 6ft tall. 6ft is a common height for a human being, not for a chicken. Once again Mueck is using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. It's about us. We get it. Thank you.
For another thing its skin is shiny. Shiny like a cheap special effect, not shiny like a greasy carcass. The object looks the way you might expect a ginormous dead chicken to look if it were preparing to appear in pantomime, not the way you might expect a ginormous dead chicken to look if it were preparing to appear in the lexicon of art history. Which might sound petty, but the point is, if we're to contemplate death it is crucial we're able to believe that life prefigured it. Otherwise the whole thing becomes meaningless theatrics. What is death without life? Which point Hirst understood and played on to such profound effect. The shark looks uncannily life-like. Even hanging in a glass box in an ocean of chemical stabiliser we feel the life it once owned. Call it skill if you will.
Three other works join the chicken to make up Mueck's first solo show with Hauser & Wirth and his first major solo presentation in London for over a decade. A smaller than life-sized, naked, middle-aged woman struggles to carry a bail of twigs far too large for her to reasonably manage. She bends backwards almost to breaking point in her battle to keep the thing aloft. The wood that makes fire that sustains life also threatens to expunge it. Somehow Mueck manages to take an archetype and make of it a cliché and a self-pitying cliché at that. My feminist sensibilities bristled. So too did my existential ones.
And Drift, again a smaller than life-sized depiction, this time of the sort of fellow who wears Vilebrequins and Raybans and drifts about a swimming pool on a lime green lilo. The sort of fellow who can't sit still for a moment and who will, at any second, be laughing too loudly into his Blackberry, even as he relaxes in the pool.
But here he is, pinned to the wall, immobilised, stranded forever in his own private hell with, ironically, only his own demise to think about. He's alive, but in so many ways he's deader even than the chicken.
Hauser & Wirth
Savile Row South Gallery
19 April to 26 May
Written for Spoonfed
Wednesday, 4 April 2012
On a cold Saturday afternoon in March a group of teenagers sit noisily around a memorial in St Philip's Square, Birmingham. They all have black hair or semi-shorn heads. They are the Emo generation. Twenty or thirty feet away a middle aged lady corrals a mass of waist length wavy grey hair into a pony tail. She stands beside a microphone that looks oddly out of place, as though forgotten, overlooked in front of this vast cathedral. Eventually she begins to recite, sonorously and from memory, sentence after sentence, article after article, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Occasionally she appears to be struggling with herself to recall the words. Once or twice she trips over them and at one point she declares: “everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed guilty...” before correcting herself with slow, poignant dignity.
A ragtag of people, about ten in total perhaps, stand apart from the 'audience', the small group of people who have come to witness this event. These are the co-recitors. Sporadically one of them will take to the microphone and recite a sentence or two, some in English, one in French, another in an Arabic language. The co-recitors have been recruited from Birmingham for this event so the piece is projected specifically from and to it's immediate context.
The Acts of Memory series began in response to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menzes by police in Stockwell, London in July 2005. It was launched by artist Monica Ross in 2008 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Declaration. It is her aim to achieve a minimum of 60 recitations. To date more than 400 people have taken part in over 50 languages.
Monica has memorised the entire Declaration. She has literally taken into her body the world's most translated document, carrying it with her everywhere. In some ways it could be said she lives it.
Acts of Memory, in its quiet, humble utopianism, in the willingness of its participants to so completely reveal their own vulnerability, in it's extraordinary ordinariness, evidences humanity at its best, bringing to the fore that which is always present but not always apparent - the will of the individual to feel and share love, respect and tolerance for themselves and for their fellow beings.
At the end of the performance Monica lets down her hair to symbolise the end of this act. She has vowed not to cut her hair until the project is completed some time in 2013. It has become a symbol of the endurance.
Throughout the performance the teenagers had been moving closer, seemingly wanting to listen without wanting to appear to be listening. One of them, a tall boy, approaches Monica and speaks to her. Her gentle grey eyes light up and her body is immediately eloquent of enthusiastic affirmation. She again approaches the microphone, this time with the boy following. He is caught between bravado and nerves, between self belief and self doubt, his desperate longing to connect palpable alongside his agony over that connection.
Monica gives him a piece of paper and into the microphone he hesitantly reads, in a broad Midlands accent: “Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” He slowly lowers the piece of paper. His face breaks into a broad grin as he raises his arms above his head in victory.
Monica Ross and co-recitors
Acts of Memory
Saturday 31 March
Fierce Festival, Birmingham
written for and reproduced by kind permission of This Is Tomorrow
Tuesday, 3 April 2012
“Italy's checking out where the action's at,” chuckled one voice in the crowd. “France is rather yappy,” observed another. The square outside Ikon Gallery in Birmingham was agog with obvious but irresistible gags yesterday as Australian artist Bennett Miller broke the first rule of theatre working with 47 dachshunds in a live art meets architectural installation experiment.
For Dachshund UN Miller had built a large scale model of the famous United Nations office in Geneva, Switzerland. Where normally one would expect to see the great and the good of international politics battling it out for the benefit of the world community, we instead saw a kaleidoscope of West Midlands based sausage dogs. Dachshunds of every shape, size and colour fussed about behind tiny dachshund sized microphones and miniature country name plates.
The set was cleverly designed so that doting owners hovered below remaining clear of the audience's view but very much in sight to the dogs. Clear of the audience's view in the loosest sense - hands popped up here and there, heads even, when little Fido needed a spot of reassurance or encouragement to face the cameras rather than showing them his arse as China was wont to do. And when dogs became uncomfortable or fidgety they were moved. The notably oversized United States popped up in Pakistan at one point. In such a scenario the symbolism of the inadvertent was bountiful.
Notions of chance and control, free will even, were raised. On the surface of it owners were puppeting their pets. But as the degree to which a sort of charming chaos was revealed to be the order of the day, the question of who was puppeting who loomed ever larger. Or if anyone was even really puppeting anyone. Cracks began to appear in the illusion of control. And not just in a canine 'discipline' sense.
Even as the definition is ever expanding it might be said that Dachshund UN stretches the boundaries of what might be considered live art. Perhaps it stretches even the boundaries of theatre, tottering occasionally on it's short little legs towards the realms of circus. But for all that it was not without its serious side. A sort of community spiritedness necessarily built up around the event. A sense of convivial interdependence was evident between the artist, the owners and their pets. A joyful, trusting group mentality prevailed, that hinted perhaps at something world politics might do well itself to embrace.
As well as being a tonic, humour has the capacity to be a powerful philosophical and intellectual tool. It is a tool woefully under used in a contemporary art world keen to be taken, and to take itself, very seriously. Dachshund UN treads a fine line though. Once humour descends into farce it risks becoming impossible for it's audience to see beyond. It risks becoming, rather than engaging, a joke.
Saturday 31 March
29 March to 8 April
written for and reproduced here by kind permission of This Is Tomorrow
Monday, 2 April 2012
Sunday, 1 April 2012
Thank you to all the wonderful Ms Worlds: Gabriela Belard, Angine Bines, Terri Bryan, Rachel DiBaiso, Natasha Chamberlain-Kent, Veronika Chapman, Rebecca Coates, Olenka Cogias, Tamsin Cotsell, Michelle Egan, Jess Ettridge, Kate Fidczuksterry, Amy Forrest, Liepa Grigaite, Kelley Griffiths, Holly Hardy, Laura Heckford, Holly Howe, Emer Hutton, Kayleigh King, Isabella Lopez-Smith, Adriana Martinez, Alisha Palmer, Katy Pike, Madeleine Scott Cree, Lisa Selby, Nikita Todd, Sarah Vero, Thaires Vicentini, Irina Yordanova. Also thanks to Tom O'Dwyer, Marguerite Horner, Nicky Wasserman, Jamie Harrison, Aisha and to La Scatola Gallery.