Friday, 30 January 2015

THE PRESENCE OF ABSENCE






A Group Exhibition curated by Paul Carey Kent at BERLONI, 63 Margaret Street - Fitzrovia

30 JANUARY - 14 MARCH 2015

Private View Thursday 29 January, 6 - 9pm

Curator's tours 2 pm on Sat 21 Feb & 2 pm on Sat 7 March

Late opening Tues 10 Feb to 8.00


It’s often said that negative space is as important as positive shapes in a composition. The works in this show turn around a parallel feature of content, as opposed to form: namely, what is not present is at least as important as what is present  – and so it is that a key role is played by the paradoxical sounding ‘presence of absence’ in work by fourteen artists across a wide range of media. Films by John Smith and Liane Lang use buildings, outside and in, to animate our understandings of what we cannot see.  Maria Marshall’s films pivot on the removal of substantial elements of the action; while Giorgio Sadotti’s sculptural presentation of found images operates purely through removal. Stefana McClure gives us much the longest film – albeit, it could be said, without images or duration. A sound installation by Bronwen Buckeridge creates an illusory space in the midst of the Berloni Gallery itself. Nika Neelova presents a sculpture which seems to stand in for an absent other work, echoing Rachel Whiteread’s characteristic casting of the negative. Blue Curry’s found object groupings stand indirectly for people and for differing constructions of their self-images.  Alan Magee calls literal attention to two absences by filling them in.  Anni Leppälä and Jason Oddy exploit the uncanny ability of the photograph to freeze what isn’t there, as well at what is, into permanence. Two painters complete the line-up: Martine Poppe’s images come and go as we circle round them, and Ian Bruce plays with the absence and presence of people in their surroundings.

 FILM


 John Smith   (born Walthamstow, 1952, based in London) The Black Tower, 1987 - 22 min. film, starting on the half hour

The Black Tower animates a found object even as John Smith, well known for his films’ witty demonstration of their own structures, persuades us it’s a figment of the imagination. A complicated dance between what is and isn’t there starts from the simple device of filming a water tower from a number of different angles to suggest differing locations. Those images are retro-fitted to a tale of obsession which subverts the notion of a narrative, and yet proves oddly compelling. The depth of blackness on the matt painted surface of the tower particularly interested Smith, and the screen is often filled with it – or with darkness, or with nothing, or with dark thoughts…. A trope which Smith plays with through close-ups of other monochrome colours which are then revealed to have a basis in reality. 




 Liane Lang (born Munich, 1976, based in London) The Last Days, 2012-13 – 7 min. film on loop

The Last Days brings a disarmingly light touch to serious subject matter as Liane Lang focuses on the rooms and objects in an empty building with a forbidding amount of bad blood in its history. Lang’s note states that ‘15 Fontanepromenade in Berlin Kreuzberg was built in 1906 as an administrative building. Its history includes use as a home for neglected children and as the administrative centre of Jewish forced labour during the Nazi Regime. After the war it was used as a place of worship by the Church of Latter Day Saints and is currently standing empty awaiting re- development’. Consequently everything we see in its haunting stop motion – the film is composed entirely from still photographs – appears charged with those pasts, though we’re left to speculate on the link between what we see and the relevant happenings. Often Lang focuses in on what might be termed the signs of those absences, and either selects pareidolian details or else animates the scene – using only what is there – with touches of discordantly diverting humour.

 

Maria Marshall (born Bombay, 1966, based in London) Playground, 2001 (2.28 min. film on loop) and Playroom, 2015 (2.01 min. film on loop)

Playground and Playroom are thematically linked investigations of presence and absence in the context of religious authority.  In the earlier work, we see and hear a boy apparently kicking a ball against the wall of a church – and yet the ball remains invisible, leaving us to question the effectiveness of this ant-establishment act.  Marshall’s new film was commissioned by the Russian Government in association with Manifesta 2014, and this is its world premiere. A ball ricochets round inside a run-down Georgian church, but this time we don’t see its implied bouncer and kicker. We hear Ave Maria and Cantate Domino as well as the ball, on a sound track which suggests, says Marshall, that ‘even the music created to celebrate God is in this instant engineered to be competitive’.  Is there, then, a godly agency behind the ball’s movements as it makes merry, knocking over chairs yet not the table of devotional images? Both films might be read as attacks on religious hypocrisy which also draw baleful attention to football as the closest many people now get to religious experience.


SOUND

Bronwen Buckeridge (born Sussex, 1971, based in London) Mid Eye Long High, 2013 – 3.10 min. sound installation with steel stool, headphones, extended wire

This one person at a time installation is typical of Bronwen Buckeridge’s studies in how sound and memories shape our experience of place. Mid Eye Long High creates the illusion of spaces which are actually absent. I think I’ll let her explain: “Mid Eye Long High is constructed from a collection of binaural recordings made in libraries around London - places you might think of as silent but are actually teeming with the creaks and whispers of human presence. The library sounds are collaged together with snippets from film soundtracks which have been played out and re-recorded binaurally to give them a physical dimension and renewed sense of location; footsteps appear and disappear through unexpected doorways, a cat purrs close by and the film score briefly drifts in, hinting at some kind of dramatic event. Blended together this mix of real and cinematic soundscapes creates a model of an impossible architectural space”. The effect is startlingly convincing – so much so that it can be quite entertaining to watch the reactions of someone sat on the listening stool.


SCULPTURAL INSTALLATION



Nika Neelova (born Moscow, 1987, based in London) 2011-2015 (the practice of conscious dying), 2015 - packaging from discarded sculpture cast in silicone rubber, jesmonite frame, 115 x 80cm & 85 x 85cm

Russian-born Nika Neelova moved countries every five years until arriving in London to study in 2010. That feels germane to her creation of sculptures which derive from selected past and hypothetical future narratives, referencing the disillusionment of a future state of disrepair. Her latest castings are silicon rubber versions of the packaging from her own discarded sculptures: what normally holds the work, which we can only imagine, becomes the work itself, and the sculptural wrap also plays the role of a painting’s surface in a further twist. This refocuses her way of trapping the past in the present onto her own practice; and the play of possibilities in the unknowable work is echoed by the play of possibilities in the two part work itself, which can be shown in various different formations. 


                         


Blue Curry (born Nassau, 1974, based in London)   Untitled, 2014 - mixed media, dimensions variable

Bahamian-born Blue Curry makes sculpture by combining found elements. Here he presents tasselled T-shirts, cheap watches, feathers and hair extensions.  Here three Perspex plinths – which signal their art status – might stand in for people or for beach loungers on which the shirts and other items have been left, implying that the bodies in question are elsewhere. The shirts are tropical beach wear, so playing - perhaps less explicitly here than in most of Curry’s work - with such questions as: what is the difference between the native and the exotic, given that the exotic in one place is always local in another?  And how does such categorisation affect the way we see things? Emotionally, such components of an idyll seem naturally linked to the possibility of its loss. How long have those watches tracked their owners’ absence? 


Giorgio Sadotti (born Manchester, 1955, based in London) from the Illegitimate Hallucination Series, 2014 - magazine pages in vitrine, Vatican, 2014 - scent

One theme of the ever-mischievous Giorgio Sadotti’s art, seen to advantage in the major retrospective in Milton Keynes which he presented anonymously in 2010, is that two things together always seem to make a third. He has also said that he ‘wants things to be easy’ so that he has the freedom ‘to do nothing’. That’s almost what he does in his radically simple and sculpturally presented method of collage: Sadotti simply takes the staples out of magazines and extracts some pages to allow two previously distant pages to interact in surprising ways. The absence leads to a new presence, and though the effort does seem minimal, Sadotti actually buys and sifts through a huge number of magazines in order to find his combinations.  He’s also responsible for the gallery’s scent, suggesting an unseen event in Rome.. or maybe just another branding exercise..

 


Alan Magee (born Ireland, 1979, based in London)   Return to Glory, 2014 - plaster filled hula hoops, one on wall, one free-standing – diameters 76cm

Alan Magee’s wide-ranging practice often alters found objects, and he has talked of ‘a sort of existentialism of labour’ whereby much of his practice is about trying to find, and evidence, his place in the world through work. In Return to Glory Magee sort-of-repairs the holes in two hula-hoops by filling them with plaster. That is, of course, a repair which makes them functionally useless – but maybe, the title implies, the hula hoop can aspire to greater things than mere entertainment. After all, by turning their critical central absence into a visible presence, these become art: in which guise one hoop acts the painting, one the sculpture by virtue of their differing placements.


PHOTOGRAPHS

 

Anni Leppälä (born Helsinki, 1981, based in Helsinki)  Evening Embers, 2012 - 31 x 21 cm,  Mirror Painting 2013 - 30 x 41 cm and  Door (interior), 2012 - 29 x 21 cm

Anni Leppälä (born 1981, Helsinki) explores the relationship between the past and present, being drawn towards the 'possibility of being able to make a moment motionless, to make something stand still.' Here she suggest a world beyond a door with the absolute minimum of light to make an image and finds an apparent painting - maybe a Richter -  in a clouded mirror. Her characters typically appear absented in their own thoughts, and their hair often acts as a barrier to guessing what those might be – even when the face is viewed from the front. Evening Embers puts me in mind of Thomas Hardy. Take the opening of Night in the Old Home:

When the wasting embers redden the chimney-breast,
And Life's bare pathway looms like a desert track to me,
And from hall and parlour the living have gone to their rest,
My perished people who housed them here come back to me.

Jason Oddy (born London, 1967, based in London) three photographs from the series  
The Pentagon, Washington D.C., USA, 2003 - 102 x 163cm and 102 x 127cm 

Jason Oddy's work examines the relationship between humans and the built environment, typically in dissecting spaces with compositional rigour, but not showing their inhabitants directly. Here he has photographed rooms with an aura of power – the army section of the Pentagon – in a way which suggests that the absence of the actual generals, who were to convene around that table for their daily meeting just after Oddy’s image was taken, might stand for the increasing limitations on their practical power. The room with a picture of a plane is was itself hit by a plane on 9/11. Oddy took these photographs 18 months after the attack (by which time the room had been reconstructed) and a fortnight before the Iran war – set to underline those limits – began. 
 
OTHER WALL-BASED WORK



Martine Poppe  (born Oslo, 1988, based in London)  Analogical Change (Rubin’s Vase), 2015 - Oil on polyester restoration fabric 160 x 120cm and Hide Out, 2015 - paper sculpture,  105 x 60 x 60 cm

Martine Poppe disguises and half reveals what’s represented as the viewer moves around the soft opalescent fracture of her paintings. The title Analogical Change, she says, ‘stems from the linguistic phenomenon of inventing new words through misuse or a misunderstanding of the existing rules. It refers to my process of stretching translucent polyester restoration fabric over full-scale photographs, in order to record what can be discerned of the image directly onto the fabric surface. The resulting paintings balance between being analogies of their sources and records of the process of making’. Here Poppe has applied the technique to achieve an ambiguity similar to the well-known ambiguous depiction of a face/vase, then redacted half the image. The result is a complex investigation of different levels of remove from reality, added to by a sculpture made from – but concealing within itself – one of the photographic sources for another painting.  Palm trees, says Poppe, are so last year as an art fashion they ought to be hidden away. But you are allowed to look under her ship as you wonder: just what is here and what isn’t?


                
Ian Bruce (born London 1984, based in London) The Holding Room, 2014 - acrylic and oil on board, 47 x 63cm

Artist and musician Ian Bruce's portrait of performer and writer Rachel May Snider directly reflects one particular element of their conversations as he painted her. She showed Bruce a photograph of her father, who died when she was six, paddling off into an aquamarine sea. Bruce overlaid that landscape image onto the portrait by creating an intricate lattice of individually cut strips of masking tape, producing 1,665 squares on the surface of the painting. The masking tape remnants are cast onto the gallery floor, so that the association with Snider's father is fully present, but its legibility as such remains only in her thoughts.  The title is taken from Snider's upcoming novel in which The Holding Room is described as a place where everyone's personal narratives and memories are archived when they die. 

 

Stefana McClure (born Lisburn, 1959, based in New York) Suna no Onna (Woman of the Dunes): English subtitles to a film by Hiroshi Teshigahara, 2004 - wax transfer paper mounted on rag, 59 x 75 cm and South Pacific: closed captions to a film by Joshua Logan, 2008 - blue transfer paper mounted on rag, 59 x 77.5 cm

How do you draw a film? Well, Harald Smykla does pretty well as a performance by speedy renditions of each scene, but the Northern Irish born Stefana McClure, who arrived in New York via Japan, has an answer, too:  ‘Films on Paper’ is  an ongoing series composed of a succession of film subtitles  superimposed on coloured transfer paper. Here the Japanese tale of a man trying to dig his way out of the sand after being lured into a woman’s dune house is sized to the TV screen on which McClure saw it. You don’t get the images, nor can you read the dialogue, so meaning is cleansed. You do, though, get the trace of the film’s passing and a focus on the placement of the text. That’s a combination of what you can’t and what you don’t want to see, given that a subtitle-free film in your own language would be preferable - and yet it amounts to a delicately monochromatic musing on translation between media and cultures.

 


Rachel Whiteread (born London, 1963, based in London) Herringbone Floor, 2001 - laser-cut relief in 0.8mm Finnish birch plywood, edition of 450, 51 x 44 cm 

Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 negative cast of a house due for demolition may be the most famous work in which an absence – of the house’s own structure –  is articulated through presence – of the space it enclosed, with concrete taking the place of air. That itself, of course, is no longer with us, but she has produced a wide range of variations on the theme. One of her subtlest meditations on the domestic interior is this laser cut edition, based on a drawing of a parquet floor. The areas of tile were cut away, so that it’s the pattern of negative space between the tiles which delineates the positive image.





It’s possible to pick out alternative strategies from such a rich stream of works: the presence of absence is just one aspect. Found objects, of course, feature frequently in current art, and there are plenty here… but where Duchamp wanted to emphasise their status as objects, not as carriers of meanings – the stream leading to Judd, Andre and Ryman, for example – Smith, Lang, Sadotti, Curry and Magee and all play with and animate the meanings ascribable to such objects. And if it is an art object, then what category is it in? Poppe, Neelova, Magee, Sadotti and Bruce all blur the line between two and three dimensional forms.  The histories which places imply also recur, most obviously in Lang, Oddy and Buckeridge; and Leppälä, Neelova and Bruce also explore the relationship between past and present. Else one could look at removal as an artistic strategy in Bruce, Sadotti, Marshall and Whiteread. And one of the pleasures of contemporary art is to wonder what something is, and find that its deceptive initial appearance gives way to a satisfying inner logic: so it is in Whiteread, McClure and Poppe. Several works reference a critical question: is God present or absent? Wherever you stand on that, there’s no denying the charge which that brings to Lang, Marshall and Sadotti’s work, and there is also implication of world beyond in Lappala and Magee, an angel in Poppe’s painting and a cross to be found in one of Oddy’s photographs of the Pantagon.

But to conclude in absence… In addition to the fourteen in the show, I planned to include four additional artists. Normally, one would not mention that, but here it might be thematically apt to imagine them as present. The Approach would not lend one of John Stezaker’s Tabula Rasa series, in which the removal of a part of the image stands in for a screen and simultaneously implies the possibility of other presences; nor are Pace supplying one of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s cinema photographs, in which the effect of opening the shutter for the whole film is to return the screen to its original whiteness, rendering the film present only in its visual absence – an outcome curiously parallel to Stefana McClure’s. That explains why it was a Japanese film I chose from her, to make what is now an echo of absence, as well as referring to her own years in Japan. Thomas Dane did not respond to queries regarding Paul Pfeiffer, who is the artist best known for editing out parts of video footage to great effect – though actually his first works using that approach come from 2001, the same year as Marshall’s Playground.  Finally, Mungo Thomson didn’t reply to my requests to include The Collected Live Recordings of Bob Dylan 1963-1995, an audio work in which all you get is the applause. That proves oddly addictive, and would, I believe, have been a justified presence for those who did accept my invitation.