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Review | Focus Kazakhstan: Postnomadic Mind

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Stepping into Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, originally built in 1890 to power the machinery of industrial London, the similarities between the history of the space and the exhibition currently situated within it become immediately apparent.

With its spaces of former industry now playing host to bars and art galleries, it seems apt that London — the former ‘factory of the world’ — should be the starting point for an exhibition series where post-industry and a changing of national/cultural paradigms are the prominent themes.

The country in this case is Kazakhstan, a vast country which stretches across central Asia, taking up a land mass close to that of mainland Europe. Until visiting this exhibition I was unaware of this, my only ideas and imaginations of the country being deeply rooted in its former being, pre-1991, as a Soviet state.

“Postnomadic Mind” is the first of four exhibitions that make up the Focus Kazakhstan project, the others taking place in Berlin, New York, and Suwon in South Korea. Although the sense of the past life of the Hydraulic Power Station is prominent, the space, near the site of the former London docks, seems almost purpose built for the art currently exhibited within it, dealing with as it does the question of epochal change between the Soviet era and Kazakhstan’s identity post-independence.

A common theme of the exhibition is the mixing of motifs between an idealised vision of a nomadic, rural people, and the transition to a post-industrial nation grappling with the pros and cons of globalisation. This can be seen in the work of artists such as Syrlybek Bekbotayev, whose piece The Modernist Paradigm shows a naturalistic painting of a nomadic family painted on to a series of rotating wooden mechanisms, each with each rotation forming new abstractions of the same image.

While the more conceptual installation work is the most striking and dominating of the range of the art that sprawls through the various caverns of the power station — the felt tapestry piece Labyrinth by Gulnur Mukazhanova being a memorable standout — there is also a strong painterly presence, such as the work of Vladimir Eyfert, whose 1957 painting Blizzard captivated me with its depictions of barren industrial landscapes in the midst of winter, which creates a feeling that is equal parts bleakness and optimism.

But despite the obvious progressive ideas of the artists in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, it is the art which alludes to the victims of the Great Purge in the 1930s th era that give the exhibition its definition. In particular Asel Kadyrkhanova piece Machine, in which endless reams of red emit from a 1930s cyrrilic typewriter, which then pin up hundreds of copies of real arrest warrants from the era, which also line the floor.

It is a moving, tragic piece, but one that gives the scope of Kazakhstan’s development, or at least, the development of its artists. For in this, the first major international retrospective of the nation’s contemporary art, the overwhelming takeaway is the depth and future of its art culture, and the vast possibility for the new identities and histories that its artists are forging, both national and personal.

Focus Kazakhstan: Postnomadic Mind will be at the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, London, E1W 3SG until Tuesday 16 October. Tickets available here.

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Words by Robert Greer

Interview | Cradeaux Alexander

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American video and performance artist Cradeaux Alexander presents a mid-career retrospective this month at Bow Arts, London. Jemima Walter met him to uncover how theatre inspires his art practice and how performance art still disrupts the art world to this day.

Cradeaux Alexander’s practice explores the intersection between theatre and art and is known for his production of Picasso’s play Desire Caught by the Tail (2016), as well as RHINO (2017), a multi-media conversation with Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1959), which both also premiered at Bow Arts.

Entitled Scripted Bodies, this mid-career retrospective features both video works and documentation of performances which are displayed on HD screen and monitors including ‘PORN’ (2011), which sees the artist taking on the role of a lecturer, delivering a pseudo-academic lecture on the history of gay pornography. Alexander will also premiere as part of the exhibition his new performance ‘bluebeard’ (2018) in which he explores the French folklore character as an embodiment of corruption in a part theatre, part installation and part absurd spectacle.

How would you say theatre has had an influence on your practice as an artist?

Dramatic literature was my first art encounter and my first true engagement with my own theatrical practice. Later it became words and blueprints interpreted by bodies, placed in a ritualised environment for a brief period of time, and a certain kind of atmosphere that permeates live theatre encounters; all of this profoundly influenced my subsequent investigations in fine art practice. My own training and work as an actor in narrative film, TV and live media continues to be a skill and experience I draw from when I create my own works for camera or my own live solo works for a gallery. I write a lot, I explore existing text frequently, and I incorporate this directly into my works. My interest in pulling apart narratives and working with other humans as materials in works, and exploring how we know who we are through these means is a direct connection with my theatre roots.

Your new performance bluebeard (2018) inspired by Perrault’s fairytale has been preceded by multiple interpretations. How have these evolved in the lead up to this new performance?

Like a lot of my engagement with existing scripts or stories, I work in conversation with them; the same is true for bluebeard. I’m not keen to make another interpretation of the story. I want to look at its elements and see what is fascinating or wrong or worth working with in a contemporary context. The dynamics of power, thin-skinned vanity and privilege in Perrault’s original story sit in dialogue with current political figures (perhaps Trump) who hide their deep insecurity with bluster and pomp. Like Trump, Bluebeard has a noteworthy hair piece; there is some humour here of course, as well as a truly dark side to the beast who is found repellent but who desperately craves popularity and love. This is where the two characters meet, and it is one of the drivers that took me to this project. My bluebeard is ultimately a meditation on these ideas expressed through a range of media and collage performance styles.

Through your company LUXE, you often work collaboratively with other performers. How does this process influence the final work? Do you usually work with the same collaborators?

I actively seek new people to work with on new projects that are being developed, as it keeps me on my creative toes and introduces new ideas to the mix. There have been one or two longstanding partners I’ve worked with across a number of projects; we like to explore new ways of making and sometimes having an established few who I can work with in shorthand makes for a smoother ride. The finished work is decided by the mix of the collaborators to a large extent. I begin with some basic concepts, watch them develop organically and shape them with the performers. It is a sculptural process. I find what it is supposed to be often towards the end of the rehearsal process, which has been a dialogue between myself and my performers. 

Having worked in both New York and London, what have you found to be the key challenges artists face working in both cities?

Downtown New York had a strong experimental theatre/performance scene when I was there in the 90s, which grew out of practitioners established there in the 70s. This was my natural home and I was able to make it work in that setting. London is its own ecosystem, and my initial attraction to going further into fine/visual art was when I moved here in the early 2000s and saw that that was the space where artists were making the most significant creative strides. In both places money for artists remains appalling. The art economy rarely trickles down to the artists who make the work. There are a lot of artists working largely under the radar, often with expensive degrees, and still very few establishments to take them in. It creates a competitive atmosphere which isn’t good for art.

How do you find performance art’s position in the art world has changed throughout your career?

It has become mainstream to an extent, though it remains challenging to the established setup for exhibition and dissemination. When I perform in galleries or museums there is always the sense that something has been irritated. Even performance in video form remains complicated. I think it’s become a bit more flexible in its conceptual negotiations as well, departing from the rigidly body-centric and exploring other philosophies and presentations of culture and aesthetics, including increased access to technology.

What exciting things do you have coming up?

BOXE is a space I am developing which will utilise streaming technology to distribute and record live performance. It will also include conversations and virtual residencies with artists via an online webcast. Artists talking to each other is the best thing, for art, for audiences, and for artists. My interest in online spaces is its global potential, and the camera as a holistic environment for art-making. We have repositories and archives of historical performances, but we do not have a dynamic space for their creation and dissemination, so here comes BOXE…

Scripted Bodies is open from 14 to 23 September 2018 at Bow Arts, London with performances of bluebeard taking place on 14, 15, 22 & 22 September at 7pm.

Find out more here.

Words by Harry McDougall

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Event Preview | Face Value by The Lot 5 Collective

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CRAFT ISN’T A DIRTY WORD

The art world has been divided since the beginning of the twentieth century. On the one side, the rejection of craft has led to a proliferation of intellectually empty, derivative ‘art’ that most people don’t understand and don’t like; and on the other side, artists who do have technical skills frequently choose to create highly conservative, old-fashioned and unimaginative works. Both groups create work that can, frankly, be terrible.

Similarly, art education has split. Most art schools and universities attempt to teach their students ‘creativity’, but do not equip them with the techniques necessary to express their ideas and concepts. In contrast, the modern-day atelier movement, for all its many strengths, focuses almost entirely on technical skill and tends to neglect originality and creativity.

The Lot 5 Collective, a group of contemporary figurative artists, aims to bridge the gap between these two camps with their new exhibition, ‘Face Value’, to be held at the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery in November. Drawn from a selection of contemporary artists from around the world, the exhibition is organised around one theme: the many faces of contemporary portraiture. With artists working in a range of styles, from photo realism to abstraction, the exhibition aims to bridge the gap between skill and concept.

Lot 5 is a group of representational artists. That is, we create work that represents something: you see one of our paintings and can understand that it represents a person, or a landscape, or a still-life. But we don’t reject others forms of art: instead, we examine them them, discover what there is to admire in them, and try to include those qualities in our representational art. We believe that it should be possible to create work that has the emotional impact of abstract art, the cleverness of conceptual art, and the skill and craft of figurative art.

Take this painting, entitled Sienna, by Lot 5 artist Lucas Garcia:

Lucas Garcia, Sienna, 2018, Oil on Board, 24 x 18 cm

It represents something – Garcia’s baby daughter, Sienna – but the artist hasn’t simply copied what he saw in front of him. The painting represents a set of decisions: with every stroke, Garcia has decided what paint to put where, and how, and has thus designed a series of interesting shapes that interact to create a pleasing and harmonious, yet dynamic, image. It’s a picture that you can contemplate and admire for its formal qualities, much like you would with a painting by Mondrian or Rothko, but Garcia has gone a step further: not only are those shapes interesting compositionally in terms of the patterns they form on the canvas, but they also create a portrait of a baby. The painting can be therefore be judged, and appreciated, in terms of the quality of its representation as well as its visual impact. The painting is also conceptually intriguing. It’s a visual pun – the only colour besides black and white that the artist has used is burnt sienna. Lucas has thus managed to combine the strengths of representational, abstract and conceptual art in a single painting that can be appreciated on multiple levels.

For our latest exhibition, ‘Face Value’, the Lot 5 Collective has assembled a group of artists from the UK, Ireland and the USA, whose work demonstrates technical ability but also has the power to inspire and make you think. The show will consist of the work of the seven Lot 5 artists as well as invited guest artists. These include Felicia Forte, whose painting Time Traveler, (Matthew Napping) was awarded Second Prize at the 2018 BP Portrait Awards, as well as Simon Davis, Emanuela de Musis, Shana Levenson, Anastasia Pollard, Nicolas Uribe, Emma Hopkins, Sofia Welch, Milo Hartnoll, Scott Eaton and Hans van der Leeuw.

The Lot 5 Collective itself consists of seven artists:

Lizet Dingemans was born in the Netherlands and now works as a full-time artist and teacher in London. In 2018, Lizet was a contestant in Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year and was nominated for Artists & Illustrators magazine ‘Artist of the Year’ in 2016. Her work has sold in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and the USA.

Lizet Dingemans, Bacchus I, 2018, Oil on Board, 7 x 10 cm

SJ Fuerst was born in the USA and now lives in works in Malta. Fuerst’s beautiful and funny work mixes Pop art and classical painting, and is inspired by costumes, toys, and fashion photography.

SJ Fuerst, Uh-Huh Honey, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 122 x 122 cm

Lucas Garcia has exhibited multiple times at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and his painting Dirty Blond was highly commended by the de Laszlo Foundation in the 2018 exhibition.

Luca Indraccolo was born in Naples, Italy. Before pursuing a career in fine art, Indraccolo worked for 15 years as an art director with major advertising agencies across 3 countries, eventually serving as regional creative director at London’s Saatchi & Saatchi. His latest work takes inspiration from the fires that devastated the Vesuvius national park in the summer of 2017.

Luca Indraccolo, SMF•72•1821•12•18•25, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 140 x 70 cm

Stella Ishack enjoys the juxtaposition of creating intricately detailed, precise, representational portraits using unpredictable mediums such as charcoal and watercolour; harnessing the chaos in this way seems like a fitting way of examining human nature.

Stella Ishack, Mind Control, 2017, Giclee Print/Watercolour on Paper

Helen Masacz’s latest paintings draw on her passion for music, for which she has been interpreting album titles by well-known musicians. Her painting Technical Ecstasy (2018) is a portrait that reflects upon the current climate of paranoia and violence in the world and expresses how technology has created the means to destroy us.

Helen Masacz, Technical Ecstasy, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 80 cm

Harriet Spratt has exhibited at various shows in London, including the Royal Institute of Oil Painters where she won the Winsor & Newton Young Artist prize.

Harriet Spatt, Owen, 2017, Oil on Canvas, 82 x 138 cm

Face Value, Royal Opera Arcade Gallery, 8 – 17 November 2018

https://lot5collective.com

Words by Neil Davidson

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Review | Lee Bul: Crashing at the Hayward Gallery

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Lee Bul does not make art that is designed to comfort you.

Her latest collection at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank is a culmination of thirty years work. To step through each room is to follow Bul’s journey as she has explored the pursuit of perfection—and its potential pitfalls—through the last forty years.

Crashing is designed to transport the public into ‘another place, another time’ and succeeds in this instantly. As you step into the first room of the Hayward, soft light is cast from within the corner. Civias Solis II projects reflected and fragmented patterns of light across the pale gallery walls. You are submerged into a dreamlike state wherein Bul has peeled back the shallow surface of our world and revealed what lies beneath, and what could be yet to come.

In this surreal echo of our world, you are immediately brought face to face with Bul’s reflection of the self.

Amorphous shapes hang from the ceiling and sit directly in front of the entrance doors. At first, they are barely recognisable as people, but then you see the arms, and legs, trying to drag themselves free from inside the pieces, which are from the aptly named series: Monster. Despite the grotesque shaping, these soft sculptures are tantric, and their fleshy palette suggests—as Bul intended—that there is a ‘vulnerability’ to being human.

If Monster is Bul’s representation of the natural self, Cyborgs (1998) reflects how people try to build an image of themselves. Reminiscent of ancient Greco-Roman statues and yet also of anime from the early nineties, feminine forms are suspended from the ceiling. Though they are all headless, they watch you and stand guard in their cartoonish, extra-terrestrial armour.

One of Bul’s inspirations is sci-fi, and in this is evident in this room and throughout the exhibition. In the late 20th century and especially after the Cold War, bright utopian ideas of the future captivated the world, which was desperate to forget the horrific past. Despite these glimmering, chrome covered dreams, Bul was sceptical of these notions of the future, and creates art which reflects that.

Though some of Bul’s paintings, sketches and videos of her performance art are displayed on the walls and available to listen and watch, it is through the medium of sculpture that I think Bul creates the biggest impact. Despite the different mediums and subjects, each work is still identifiable as hers. To walk into room three of the Hayward is the greeted by two geode-like structures—they are separate pieces, but both are heavily influenced by the politics of South Korea, during the late 20th century when Bul was growing up.

Black beads spill across the floor, before pooling in a highly reflective puddle. They appear to be flowing out of a block of ‘ice’, which gives the piece it’s quite literal title: Thaw (Takaki Masao). There is a photograph buried beneath the ice from which the beads seep out: it is a portrait of Park Chung-Hee, the former president of South Korea, who was supported by the US but created a very repressive regime. He was eventually assassinated in 1979, and the oozing black from this crystalline sculpture is evocative of blood.

The other piece which welcomes you to room three is Bunker (M. Bahktin).  A cave like structure that is interactive. When inside, visitors to the gallery put on headphones and are encouraged to make a noise—clapping, tapping your foot, clicking— through the headphones we hear the noises we make distorted and amplified. If you were to shut your eyes, it could be easy to trick yourself into thinking that you were in a vast space.

When you are in inside Bunker Bul warps the world around you, and subsequently momentarily alters how we see ourselves. When standing within the bunker, I was very conscious of the noise my clapping and clicking would make, disturbing the other guests. In this sense, the sculpture is aptly named—Mikhail Bahtkin was a literary critic and philosopher who claimed that our identity is directly correlated by our relationship with the world around us.

The exhibition continues upstairs, and as you reach the final two rooms there is a slight change in atmosphere. Downstairs, there are at least five to seven exhibits filling every space. Upstairs, the rooms are sparse.

Stepping into room four, I was immediately anxious— Bul is known for incorporating the gallery space into her exhibitions, and this is one such example. The entire floor was foiled with silver, and while I was stood in the gallery, I felt the strange sensation that I wasn’t supposed to be there.

The gallery attendant smiled at me, and yet, I felt like I was doing something naughty.

At any moment, I was expecting someone to catch me. To tell me to leave.

It is interesting then, that the title of the focal sculpture in the penultimate room is Willing to be Vulnerable.

For this piece, Bul has created a large foil zeppelin. The argent exterior and exposed seams are recognisable as being from Bul’s retro sci-fi field of inspiration. Zeppelins were once a symbol of great scientific progress and were the first ships to be used for commercial flight. The title, Willing to be Vulnerable, references the Hindenburg disaster, where thirty-six people died when an airship caught fire whilst trying to land in New Jersey.  

Willing to be Vulnerable is perhaps the piece which most clearly conveys Lee Bul’s exploration of the dangers of perfection.

Following the foil-covered floor, you are lead towards Via Negativa II. It is through the names of her pieces that you see the influence of philosophy behind her work. The largely introspective pieces—which literally forces the viewer to reflect on themselves and the gallery around them—draws its name from the theory that it is impossible to describe God in finite terminology; the human mind is too limited to say what God is, we can only truly describe what he isn’t.

This is the climax of the exhibition.

After exploring the ideas of utopia, one of Bul’s final piece forces the viewer to look back upon themselves.  A mirror labyrinth which is unsettling to walk through—after all, it constantly feels as though someone is watching you. There is no certainty as you follow the path, as Bul angles the mirrors to feel claustrophobic and bounce their own reflections from each other to give the impression of pathways where there are none.

But when you finally make your way through the maze, a room lies in wait within the centre. The seemingly endless rows of lightbulbs feel as though are a giant standing in between the golden stars of an infinite space—and a comforting warmth radiates through the enclosed space. Unlike the rest of the installations, this is a piece which instils hope.

Lee Bul’s artwork is a reaction to the world around her—especially that of life within South Korea and the experiences she’s faced a woman. As a formal end to the Korean civil war is in sight, and women’s rights are thrown into the spotlight, I am eager to see what Bul creates next.

Lee Bul: Crashing is running at the Hayward Gallery is running 30th May – 19th August 2018.

By Phoebe Hedges.

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