Friday, 15 February 2013

Review of Bruce Nauman / mindfuck at Hauser & Wirth London, Savile Row, North Gallery

Bruce Nauman / mindfuck
Hauser & Wirth London, Savile Row, North Gallery
30 January – 9 March 2013

According to the information accompanying Bruce Nauman’s current London show, its title, ‘Mindfuck’, is a slang term, both verb and noun, which can mean ‘to brainwash or manipulate someone,’ or describe ‘a distressing situation or incomprehensible event.’ A ‘mindfucker’, correspondingly, is ‘anyone who makes a living by playing with the heads of his clientele, be it a guru, a psychoanalyst, a prostitute, or an artist.’ And Nauman (born 1941) is certainly an artist who fits this definition. The exhibition, at Hauser & Wirth, which contains a selection of just five mid-career works, leaves the viewer feeling traumatised, disturbed, and yes, indeed, mindfucked.

The show’s curator, Philip Larratt-Smith, claims that this is the first time the artist’s heterogeneous output has been considered from the point of view of Freudian theory – surprising, perhaps, given its continual concern with the mind-body split, especially from the point of view of not recognising it, and the confusion of the oral and anal aspects – one of Freud’s specialities – in works such as Sex and Death/Double “69” (1985), in which neon figures are inverted and overlaid in a muddle of breasts, penises, cunts and mouths – gender fuck and literal fuck all at once, masquerading as an arcade machine where the visitor might expect to feed a coin into a slot in order to join in the fun. 

Still with the fairground theme, the larger work Carousel (1988) is a motley assortment of dogs and horses, strung up, some mutilated, and some with a grey chalk attached to their trailing limbs, screeching as it draws a circle on the ground beneath as the contraption rotates. The fragmented animal parts, which Larratt-Smith suggests look like ‘undigested fragments disgorged directly from the id,’ are caught up in a Sisyphean loop of suffering, replicating the banality and cruelty of life. Whether the imagery has to be quite so tasteless, however, I remain unconvinced.

The highlight of the show is Untitled (Helman Gallery Parallellogram) (1971), an installation in which the visitor must squeeze down a narrow, dark passageway to emerge into a room filled with bright green light: a parallelogram, or is it a parallel universe? Peaceful and troubling; a haven of disorientation, recalling, as Robert Storr suggests, Nauman’s own empty studio where, left to his own devices, he explored the limits of his consciousness.[1]

With the neon lights flicking on and off, and the continual clonking and scratching sounds from Carousel, the entire experience of being inside the gallery is more than mildly disturbing: it is like being trapped inside a nightmare. Larratt-Smith proposes that the experience of certain works by Nauman approximates a state of trauma, that his art is equivalent to the conversion symptoms of the hysteric, the utterances of the psychotic, and the repetition compulsion tied to the death drive. Excuse me if I remain somewhat sceptical as to how many of these states either man has ever experienced! One thing, however, is certain: these works have an effect at some deep level of the unconscious. Indeed, they leave me confused enough to wonder just who it is that is (being) mindfucked here: Nauman or his viewers? And who is it who is doing this mindfucking: Nauman or those who analyse him and his works? The visitors? The critics? Me? Am I, ultimately, fucker or fucked? Maybe, as in Sex and Death/Double “69”, I am both simultaneously.

[1] R. Storr, ‘Beyond Words.’ In Bruce Nauman, Walker Art Center, 1994


Installation views of Bruce Nauman / mindfuck
Hauser & Wirth London, Savile Row, North Gallery
30 January – 9 March 2013

Copyright © 2013 Hauser & Wirth

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Review of Gender Talents: A Special Address at the Tanks, Tate Modern

Gender Talents: A Special Address
The Tanks, Tate Modern
2 February 2013

As part of Tate Modern’s Charming for the Revolution Congress for Gender Talents and Wildness weekend, Saturday 2 February 2013 saw the Tanks host a full day symposium with presentations by a variety of artists, activists and academics, all seeking to investigate the contemporary status of gender politics, “ask[ing] what is at stake when questioning, collapsing, inverting and abandoning the gender binary.”

Brought together by Carlos Motta, the speakers each presented a short manifesto on the subject of queerness, be it in terms of sexuality, race, physical ability, or any other standard which society attempts to regulate, but focusing on gender. As Motta suggested, a manifesto is itself “a speech act of performance” which attempts to balance political subjectivity with political strategy. The location of the symposium was also significant: Tate Modern was chosen for its weight as a cultural institution, “a legitimising agent of culture” – a “central” place from which to speak to the “margins”.

Alongside a short film manifesto by Dean Spade, the capacity audience was also addressed by the medical doctor and Professor of Sexology, Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad; the pioneer of queer photography, Del LaGrace Volcano; academics J. Jack Halberstam and Beatriz Preciado; the speaker and educator, Terre Thaemlitz; the transvestite philosopher and recipient of the Foundation for Arts Initiatives grant in 2013, Giuseppe Campuzano; the feminist curator and art critic, Xabier Arakistain; and the film-makers, Campbell X and Wu Tsang.

Whilst some speakers took Motta’s words quite literally, and performed their manifestos, moving around the central Tank space, from one brightly coloured podium to the next, others read their words more sedately, and Thaemlitz, who expounded the idea that queerness need not necessarily imply talent, and that the contemporary celebratory approach to trans issues is somewhat flippant when one considers the struggles that still go on, sat, face-hidden by hair, back to audience, on the corner of the stage.

Following Pirelli Benestad’s call to abandon the “curse of dichotomy” and to celebrate a “gender euphoria”, Volcano did just that, with his poetic performance shouting out a manifesto for queer bodies, or bodies that queer, since, in his mind “queer” is not a noun, but rather “a verb in drag passing as an adjective.” Queer bodies, then, are “bodies that through the simple act of existence personify resistance.” A queer body “shows us how to love all that which we are taught to hate,” since “bodies that queer, are bodies we fear.” And through standing up and speaking out, demonstrating, and showing one’s body, (in Volcano’s case, his “hairy hermaphroditic breast and Barbie doll feet”), the limits and definitions of gender are gradually undone. Biology, after all, is not destiny.

Halberstam’s presentation showed us contemporary music idols Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and Jay Z, whilst Preciado cited Foucault, and Arakistain took us through the history of feminism. Campbell X, standing up for Queer People of Colour, showed youtube clips of young people speaking out, and finished with a clip, oft removed from youtube by the censors, from her own film, Femme, which opens with a “honey shot”, showing a woman engaged in autoerotic activity.

And that pretty much sums up the variety of the day: from Foucault to Hip-Hop; from hairy hermaphroditic breasts to naked girls self-pleasuring. Gender, and all it entails, certainly covers a vast spectrum, and cannot, and should not, be forced into a binary division. Despite Thaemlitz’s worries, the “talents” of the congress’s title suggest, as Motta pointed out, self-empowerment, and the semantic inversion of society’s imposition of “syndrome” or “disorder”. Perhaps Pirelli Benestad’s words sum it up the best: “We must rejoice in diversity, but we must not impose diversity.” But, we must continue to speak out, and, thankfully for the queer community at large, there are those, like Saturday’s panel, who do just this, and for whom, as Volcano stated: “Silence has never been an option.”

Review of Mela Yerka: What red blue is in? at Maria Stenfors

Mela Yerka: What red blue is in?
Maria Stenfors
11 January – 16 February 2013

“What red blue is in?” is clearly not a well-formed sentence. Syntax is one thing feral children – children who have been abandoned at a young age, and brought up by animals, or left to fend for themselves – cannot learn, if they are only “rescued” beyond a certain stage in their development. Another thing they struggle to establish is abstract thinking, in turn something essential to our enjoyment and appreciation of figurative painting, which requires the ability to see an image, or a representation, emerging from the canvas, rather than just to see the paint marks and canvas itself. Feral children might, therefore, seem a peculiar choice of subject matter for an artist who, herself, is keen to experiment with precisely just how different techniques and ways of making marks might lead to producing various representations of a real world thing. But in Mela Yerka’s case, it couldn’t have turned out better. This small selection of works, which takes the viewer on a trip through art, as well as societal, history, is at once thought-provoking, and, in numerous instances, quite exquisite.

Yerka undertook a lot of research at the outset of her work for this exhibition, but it ultimately led to her taking her own firm stance and route, and deliberately cutting off at a certain point, so as not to get too entrenched in the intriguing and morbidly fascinating case studies of these children. So keen was she not to weigh the exhibition down with too many connotations, that the working title of Forbidden Experiments was abandoned. This phrase has often been applied, however, to the protagonist of a number of the works, Genie, a girl who suffered a case of terrible abuse and neglect in Los Angeles before being discovered, aged 13, in 1970. Here she is celebrated in four beautiful works. One, Genie Wiley with family, is an oil on linen worked up from a photograph of Genie with her brother before the abuse began. It is eye-catching in its orange colours, with a heavy complementary-coloured blue shadow cast by her mother who holds the innocent toddler. The van Gogh style grass strokes perhaps suggest something of the madness that lies ahead, when Genie was to be left in the cellar, tied to a chair, for most of her first 13 years of life.

Two further works depict Genie as a teenager after she was found: one, Genie Wiley (younger), has been breathtakingly created by stroking a dry brush against deep green velvet, and then setting the resulting picture with fixative. Her face thus appears almost like a hallucination as you near the canvas and peer at it from a certain angle. The other, Genie Wiley (older), is a haunting grisaille from which she stares out, wide-eyed, and catches the viewer’s gaze, like the child everyone would want to take home from the orphanage.

Alongside the van Gogh grass, elements of great masters such as Piero della Francesca, Luigi Garzi, and Rembrandt are also featured in some of the other works, and techniques are explored as diverse as egg tempera on linen, oil on velvet, thread between glass sheets, and bleached linen, where the canvas is “painted” on to with bleach, so that the image is not immediately visible, but only appears gradually, thus necessitating a slow working process with many layers built up over time. As with the green velvet piece, there is a kind of presence emerging from an absence, the trace of an image, something which is not quite there. Perhaps this sums up the existence of these feral children, both in, of, and for themselves, with regards to what they have before and after they have been found, as well as once the public furore and interest has died down, and also with regards to the absence of humanity on the occasion of their initial abandonment or mistreatment. Either way, this suitably subtle exhibition, now taking as its title one of Genie’s attempted utterances, is well worth seeing.


Mela Yerka
Genie Wiley with family
Oil on linen

Mela Yerka
Genie Wiley (younger)
Green velvet

Mela Yerka
Genie Wiley (older)
Acrylic on linen

Mela Yerka
Finding of Moses after Luigi Garzi
Bleached linen

Friday, 8 February 2013

Review of Christina Mitrentse: Welcome to the Multiverse at dalla Rosa Gallery

Christina Mitrentse: Welcome to the Multiverse
dalla Rosa Gallery
8 February – 2 March 2013

Multiverse. Omniverse. Xenoverse. Hyperverse. These terms, and the concept they denote, have been the subject of much scientific debate for decades now, and, although no one can say how many parallel universes there actually are, nor what size, nor how they look, what is certain is that ours is not the only one.

Christina Mitrentse (born 1977, Greece) grew up surrounded by myriad books on this subject. Her father studied physics, and so, from an early age, she too was immersed in literature on cosmology and outer space. Brian Cox, Stephen Hawking: all these authors filled her head. “But they’re all very complex,” she says, and so, when she began to turn to art for her own career, she decided she would take these subjects but “make them more approachable and easier to understand for the general public.”

But it’s not all just science. Inspired by the works of John Latham (1921-2006), and, of course, having grown up in Greece, where she was exposed to orthodox Christianity, albeit not practising herself, Mitrentse’s work also seeks to explore how art, science and religion might be brought together, and how they overlap.

Mitrentse works primarily with drawing: 99% of her works utilise this medium, and even some of her sculptures are built out of graphite. “Drawing is so often a secondary medium in the history of art,” she explains, “rarely the final product.” But in Mitrentse’s case it is. She seeks to celebrate it as “an art form in itself,” as “an autonomous medium.” But her methods are not conventional. Mitrentse takes her pastels, graphite sticks, and charcoal and crushes them all to a powder. She then builds up the surface of a work using her fingers. For her, drawing is a metaphor for cosmology, and she seeks to create the illusion of entering space. She uses powder, she explains, because it is more like a gas. It is not static, and it gets everywhere. Her pieces are very technical, and not easy to make. Just as scientific theory doesn’t allow for any errors, neither can Mitrentse make a mistake when applying her powders – once there is a mark on the white paper, it cannot be removed.

One of Mitrentse’s larger pieces, Cosmogenesis or Virgin (2010) (270 x 270cm), exemplifies her style. Stark in its black and white tones, it mirrors the structure of a Byzantine icon with the central image repeated in each of the four corners. The title, referring to the birth of the cosmos, has both religious and scientific readings, and it is overlaid with sexual connotations too. The central shell-like figure, floating in a cloudscape so large that it draws the audience in, might represent a black hole or a vagina. And how are we to interpret the penetrating conic shape zooming towards the opening at speed? The work could be something straight out of a science fiction film. There is the impression of travelling in and out of these black holes. Following Hawking, who talks about the “bending of space” in the universe, Mitrentse’s images work solely with circles and curves; there are no straight lines anywhere.

Another of Mitrentse’s works is a series of four pieces, each 50 x 70cm, entitled Wounded Super Selene (I-IV, 2012-13). Again influenced by Latham’s work, as well as by Russian Constructivism and supermoon theories, these pieces, drawings with superimposed paper collage elements, show spherical moons being penetrated by books. This perhaps brings Mitrentse back to her roots, both as a child, being influenced by all these ideas of cosmology, but also to her ongoing Library Project, begun in 2005, for which she initially destroyed and recreated her own library, and later began to ask friends and colleagues for the title of their favourite (art) books, the cover page of which she then dismantled and reconstructed, juxtaposing titles with random unrelated images. In a later stage of this project, she turned to work with science books, and from this came the series Science Books (2012-13), including works such as Black Holes Are Not Just Holes and Chaosophy (“It’s a very interesting book, actually!”). In an unsurprisingly exacting manner, Mitrentse took to carefully studying different fonts, so as to recreate them perfectly freehand, rather than using stencils, as it might, at first glance, appear.

For her current exhibition, Welcome to the Multiverse, being held at dalla Rosa Gallery in Clerkenwell, Mitrentse has produced a screen print limited edition of 10 on mirror paper, and another 15 pieces on white paper, which is a diptych entitled Anomalous God Is Not Great No 1 (2013). Representing a dark and swirling cloudscape, the mirror light effect references an eclipse, where our experience of light to dark is blurred. 

Mitrentse’s work, then, is all about looking inside. She represents the macrocosm, but seeks to invite the viewer to penetrate to the microcosm within. Representative of science, religion, and the artistic borderland, her method of production is a science in its own right.


drawing & collage on paper
25 x 35 cm

Cosmogenesis or Virgin
graphite powder, pastel powder, ink and charcoal on paper
270cm x 270cm

Wounded Super Selene I
graphite & collage on 300gsm paper
50 x 70cm

drawing & screenprint on paper
25 x 35cm

Anomalous God Is Not Great No. 1
screen print on paper
50 x 70 cm

All images ©mitrentse; courtesy dalla Rosa

Friday, 1 February 2013

Review of Silvia Hatzl: A Fragile Existence at Rosenfeld Porcini

Silvia Hatzl: A Fragile Existence
Rosenfeld Porcini
18 January – 7 March 2013

For Silvia Hatzl (born 1966, Bavaria), “feelings” are everything. “My works are born through a series of stages, most of them sensual; touching, smelling, finding, joining, forming, impregnating, pigmenting, painting, moulding, scratching, stretching, drying, heating, burning and shaping.” And, as a result, their impact on the viewer is really quite visceral. Walking into the dimly lit gallery on opening night, there is a shroud of mystery hanging in the room, and, despite the flowing drink, the guests remain respectfully low-voiced. They stand between spot lit families of garments – transparent and flimsy, fragile and haunting, hanging on iron stands, and randomly arranged, irrespective of height – and starkly contrasting solid body parts – busts and heads, feet and masks.