Into the Archive: Duke and Battersby

Pain Shall Be No More

gallerywest, July 4-27 2012

By Ramona Heinlein

Mechanisms of exclusion and separation are an inherent part of our life. Themes, materials and substances that go against our ideals of closeness, normality and beauty get degraded as alien and dangerous – a normalized behavior that derives from social norms, taboos and necessities. Senses of shame or disgust are no natural occurrences. Their defiance is considered as the violation of a system’s rules and standards.

Even though the exhibition of the artists Duke and Battersby at gallerywest is titled “Pain Shall Be No More” several social norms get wounded as it contains various aspects of life, that are usually dismissed and denied – failure, fear and weakness, violation, disease, addiction and death run like a thread through texts, drawings, photographs, objects and a short film.

An arrangement of two skinned cats, animal teeth and a beetle carapace on a wooden plinth forms the center of the exhibition. These relicts of former life can be seen as dunning reminders of life’s fugacity and fragility, resembling old vanitas-symbols but also as an ode to the curiosity of life, its fascination and weirdness, its wonder and beauty.

The work of Duke and Battersby is ambiguous. Pain, loss and ugliness are opposed to hope, beauty and humor. The blending of dark radicalness and harsh humor with poetic tenderness lies at the core of their artistic language, where frangible bones are used to build the title “The beauty is relentless”, where fine stitches form the words “Daddy you fucked up again” or where two young boys chat about a girl that is said to “swallow” captivating the spectator through its unabashed directness and soulful energy.

The spectator finds himself in a climate that is both frangible and strong – a powerful undertow that visitors responded very differently to: spontaneous laughter, fervent enchantment, honest emotion and serious anger at all the pain in an exhibition with a title that seems to promise the contrary can be heard, felt and seen at gallerywest these days. 

The couple’s work is far away from asking for laborious decryptions.  It rather aims not only at our mind but at our feelings, the most existential ones – love, loneliness, joy, sadness and most important – empathy. Although the work is intriguingly personal, it contains a universal power: The spectator is not only confronted with the artist’s feelings, he actually feels himself – in the sense of becoming aware of the own pain and liveliness but also in the sense of feeling for other people.

“Looking outside of ourselves and experiencing other people and other things and trying to imagine being aside of them is what really separates us from the animals.”(Duke andBattersby, Here is everything, 2012)

This key set of the video “Here is everything”, a complex work of stunning images and important theses, which is considered as the trailer for a longer future version, describes a human ability that is both essential and neglected in our times. Mostly tending to go through the world in a focused and self-centered way we lose sight of our capacity to love other people, even strangers.

In a haunting way the couple pursues thoughts about fellow feeling as a means of ethical action, its groundbreaking power and the possible consequences in the case of its loss.

“We can’t do anything but be alive.” (Duke and Battersby, Here is everything, 2012)

Are the artists able to make a video about everything, such as the title of the trailer indicates? Can they provide a solution for this crazy struggle called life? Do they know a means to reach cure and redemption? No, they do not – a fact that they are totally aware of and that they do not hesitate to present as an inherent part of the artistic process and life itself:

“We know we are destined to mostly fail, but we believe that by simply representing our attempt, we will in some measure reach our goal.” (Duke and Battersby about “The New Freedom Founders”, 2005)

To take creative potential from failure, incapacity, sorrow and frustration instead of excluding those seemingly abject aspects of life both constitutes and relieves pain.

With this approach the artists succeed in creating repellent and moving, tender and hard images and thus reach to the core of what it feels to be human.

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Into the (recent) Archive: Steve Reinke and Turner Prize*

A Branch Is Too Big To Come Out Of A Twig

gallerywest, June 7-29 2012

By Ramona Heinlein

“When the world is as terrifying as it is now, you have to look at the art of the thirties. Surrealism is often the only freedom that remains, when no other kinds of freedom exist anymore.” (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, interview 31/05/2012, sueddeutsche.de)

Documenta director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev describes this year’s art spectacle in Kassel as a celebration of the power of imagination to react to the ecological, political and economic crisis of the 21st century. A brief look into the newspapers illustrates Christov-Bakargiev’s point: the inner freedom could barely be more in demand.

The freedom of thought and imagination is productive but also immeasurable, ineffable, inexplicable. And it is exactly this inconceivability of the subjective experience and the translation of this original, shapeless and unsystematic substance into the borders of time and space – into a video work – the art collective and dream collectors Turner Prize* chose as the subject of their collaboration with the renowned video artist Steve Reinke.

The exhibition “A branch is too big to come out of a twig” takes us into a surreal world, where pure imagination rules – the subconscious. Steve Reinke got himself into the role of the dreamer, totally focusing on his thoughts and visions while frequencies of light and sound produced a meditative state. Afterwards he edited the footage Turner Prize* created on the base of his dream description – a collaboration that could hardly be more interdigitate.

The result is weird and humorous – a comment on the gap between a dream and its reduced representation. The artist’s experience does not appear as a coherent storyline, but as a scattered collection of thoughts and visions. Two padded birds caressing each other, a fat fish in a bowl way to small, rocks that “come into focus”, glued plastic insects, explosions and an unpublished Neil Young love song. The ‘dreamer’s’ thoughts accompany these images, both absurd and simple like a stream of consciousness, a narrative mode typical for modernist literature. 

“Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impression — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel.  From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old. Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness” (Virginia Woolf in: The Stream of Consciousness. Technique in the Modern Novel, ed. Steinberg, Erwin R., New York, 1979, S. 154)

The author’s desire to examine the psychological pattern of people’s minds to create characters in the truest sense ends up in filling pages of day dreams, feelings and mediations – an approach that brings the reader very close to the protagonist, looking into his head, knowing what he is thinking of.

The ambition to use the complexity of the human mind goes ahead with engaging in the encrypted subconscious and is intensively to be found in the surrealist art and literature of the thirties. Especially Max Ernst, who developed new artistic techniques such as the frottage to come up to the conception of automatism – the idea of eliminating rationality and logic from the production of art to reach an authentic expression of the subconscious. Liberated from the brain the hand is able to create dreamy visions apart from any alienation through the consideration of theoretical rules. The outcome is haunting and dramatic.

For the concern of Turner Prize* and Steve Reinke not only artistic but also scientific means are needed. With the use of the ‘mind eye’, an antiquated psychiatric device exhibited in the showcase of the gallery, the artists play with notions of science while destroying its reliability by revealing its imprecision. Humanity tries to control the world but is even at the mercy of its own subconscious – a frightening fact that the artists are totally aware of.  But despite of the inaccuracy of their dream depiction the video still celebrates the fascination of fantasy, a world of its own – or in the words of the speaker:

“When you are asleep stuff can happen in your room, but nothing changes in the world.”

I hold on reading an article about the Euro crisis – with Neal Young singing in my head I close my eyes and think of the power of the inner freedom.


Into the Archive: Quixotic

gallerywest, May 2-30 2012

By Ramona Heinlein

Photographs by Joan Lillian Wilson

“For the first time he could see the wondrous beauty in the shape of her face; only her eyes seemed to him singularly still and dead. Nevertheless, as he looked more keenly through the glass, it seemed to him as if moist moonbeams were rising in Olympia’s eyes. It was as if the power of seeing were being kindled for the first time; her glances flashed with constantly increasing life. As if spellbound, Nathanael reclined against the window, meditating on the charming Olympia. A humming and scraping aroused him as if from a dream. “(E.T.A. Hoffmann, Der Sandmann, 1817)

In E.T.A Hoffmann’s novella “The Sandman“ Nathanael falls in love with the life-sized robot Olympia and her perfection when looking through glasses he bought from an evil man. The photography shown at gallerywest these days fully reminds me of this favorite story. Beauty and perfection, love and romantic can be seen everywhere, but there is something odd about it.

As Nathanael finds out, that Olympia, the love of his life, is not alive herself he falls in deep depression and finally commits suicide. Is the exhibition “Quixotic” doomed to a bad end, too?

Susan Bozic’s exhibited works belonging to the ongoing series “Dating Portfolio” show the artist herself playing the role of a girl  enjoying various romantic situations with her boyfriend Carl – an exact iconic description of the ideal relationship and dating practice as it is spread through television and advertisement. The artist examines collective narratives concerning happiness and lifestyle in order to create photographs drenched in perfection – concerning formal terms as well as social codes. Even though Susan Bozic scrutinizes ideals that reach far into our private, allegedly self-determined desires – a rather serious and unsettling issue – the reactions to her work are far away from any earnest frown- little wonder as Carl is no human being but an idealized copy, a mannequin. From my position behind the desk I could observe people grinning or laughing out loud, amused men commiserating poor Carl, who has to go through all this boring stuff and women smiling knowingly or wistfully at the perfect man.

But why doesn’t his girlfriend notice his artificiality, the artificiality of their perfect relationship? Why is she comfortable with her passive role as an adoring woman that is satisfied through jewelry and yachts?

Pale face, cheerless eyes, stiffness and blankness – it cannot be ignored, but she is a master in the discipline of overlooking reality. It is her facial expression, admiring, amorous, an ambiguous gaze at Carl on the tennis court, a sexy smile on the couch – the way Susan Bozic is playing her character is more than authentic and convincing.

Carl’s girlfriend and Nathanael, they both do not notice that their lover is not from flesh and blood, but we do, the parody is obvious. The artist confronts us with the hollowness of perfection, an ideal constructed through beautiful, materialistic images – she takes away the glasses television and advertising put on our faces every day. 

The use of mannequins is nothing new in the history of art. The Surrealists created some bizarre formations with these fake bodies and Cindy Sherman chose them for her latest shocking and horrible images. Whereas those artists present their mannequins as hurt or deformed creatures, Evan Tyler treats his girls way more friendly and caring. Entirely undamaged the mannequins can relax from their stressful lives as the ideal without losing their status. Lively hands massage their backs, which must be quite tense thanks to all the posing in the shop windows and odorant essential oils make them forget their bad conscience for giving thousands of people the feeling not to be beautiful and stylish enough just for a moment.                                                             Certainly this nice treatment is only a means to an end. It leads us to an essential awareness we might sometimes forget – the ideal is a doll, no spirit, no feelings, a cold mannequin.

When Evan Tyler took Amber and Natalia, two of “his girls”, to a spa to get them a full treatment, he and the irritated staff knew that the two ladies were out of plastic. Standing in front of the photographs that resulted from the artist’s trip into the world of beauty and recreation you have to look twice to notice their falseness – a realization that turns the perfect woman to a weird, fetishized object. Whereas Susan Bozic’s images depend on their obviousness, Evan Tylers photographs catch my eye due to their tromp l’oeil – character, which does not only refer to the mannequins themselves. The artist totally succeeds in capturing the special atmosphere of a spa through warm light and sensible close-ups. And you do not only feel as smelling the beauty products, you do smell them. With real, colorful moisturizers and crèmes Evan Tyler invites us playfully to participate in the world of the spa and triggers just as playful questions:

“What about his girlfriend, does she know about the girls, is she jealous? They are only dolls, are they?” 

“(…) They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. (…) Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. (…) They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission; don’t even start asking for theirs.” (Bansky)

Susan and Evan can’t be described as street artists in Bansky-manner, but they re-use and re-arrange something that is around in public space, something that might be seen as a symbol for unreachable ideals, for gender roles and societal conventions spread through television and advertising. Their exhibited images deal with urban rituals and socially constructed behavior we adopt to become Carls, Ambers and Natalias and demonstrate the area of conflict between privacy and self-image that emerges from this desire. As a voyeur I do not only feel accepted but wanted, even invited to this show of lifestyle.

Due to their perfection and materialism Susan Bozic’s images seem to be made for the public, even though the couple is shown in very private moments. And the spa that Evan Tyler sees as an intimate place with rituals of religious character is a symbol for luxury and status as well. Beauty and prestige as divinity, the spa or the yacht as temple, self-image as prayer – is that our urban religion?

A girl dating a mannequin and mannequins indulging themselves with a spa treatment – absurdity makes us laugh, but it also asks questions. That might be the end of “Quixotic” – certainly a happy one.

“To us – pray do not take it ill, brother she appears singularly stiff and soulless. Her shape is well proportioned – so is her face – that is true! She might pass for beautiful if her glance were not so utterly without a ray of life – without the power of vision. Her pace is strangely regular; every movement seems to depend on some wound-up clockwork. Her playing and her singing keep the same unpleasantly correct and spiritless time as a musical box, and the same may be said of her dancing. We find your Olympia quite uncanny, and prefer to have nothing to do with her.” (E.T.A. Hoffmann, Der Sandmann, 1817)


Into the Archive: Kristen Smith- Unearthed

gallerywest, December 1-29, 2010

By Evan Tyler

Kristen Smith’s exhibition, “unearthed”, presents a study of crypto-zoological forms that appear as both innocuous and menacing subjects.  Consisting of five large scale sectionalized charcoal and oil stick drawings of rhizome roots drawn on Japanese kozogami paper, nine panels are attached to the wall as a grid, using t-pins in each corner of the each square. The size and complexity of Smith’s drawings allow for earthly forms to be uprooted from their original contexts of environmental interdependence, re-established as isolated entities floating somewhere between life and death.  How the viewer perceives these forms, either as impermanent or potent, threatening or beguiling, may be the result of how the mind interacts with logic, imagination and subconscious associations.

As the viewer observes these works installed in the gallery space across three of the four walls, they appear grand in scale, yet visually minimal.  The raw and delicate material and presentation is accented through subtle shadows cast from the pins that appear on the gallery walls, which reference a specimen-like treatment.  Much like an illustration taken from a science textbook, the rhizome roots are removed from landscape/context and suspended in space. The images are strikingly beautiful, but what is it about them that differ from the pragmatic intentions and safety of a science or horticultural publication?  Is it the size of the images, the material, the gallery context, or some subconscious warning that threatens the psyche’s safety?

The images sometimes appear alien.  The viewer may begin to wonder what they are, whether they “come in peace” or if there is some intended threat.  The organic lines and soft tentacles suggest an aquatic life form, deceiving visual instincts in regards to the subject matter.  The jellyfish moves in a delicate and mesmerizing rhythm, but is in fact a lethal and deadly life form.  Whether or not we immediately arrive at the realization that the images as horticultural representations or alien life forms, the drawings hold the viewer captive in visual wonder.  Popular science-fiction films such as the 1979 blockbuster “Alien” have appropriated biological visual aspects from entomology to create fictional life forms that subconsciously mingle with charged content.  This is an interesting approach in a culture so dedicated to the image. Smith’s work plays on this ability to question one’s relationship to environment, line and form.  By nature, if the rhizome root is separated into pieces, each piece may give rise to another new plant.  They are commonly referred to as “creeping root stalks”.  Somewhere between biological science, life and death, imagination and the abstract, the fragile contortions of these roots creep from the paper and float through the gallery space, hovering far from their location of birth, into a kind of science fiction, scientific romance.


Into the Archive: Rowan and Sif- There is Nothing to Obscure Your View of the Sky

gallerywest, April 4-27, 2012

By Ramona Heinlein

Photographs by Joan Lillian Wilson

“I wrote my name on the back of the sky” (Yves Klein)

 

Boundlessness, infinity, unattainability– as the symbol of freedom, of the human desire to reach access to its power and magic the sky is characterized by its duality as the physical mirror of the force of nature and the place of human demand through technology as well as the spiritual realm of mythology and God, of utopia and dream.

Its face, beautiful, dangerous, puissant, can be seen from everywhere, looking out of the window of one of a big city’s high rise building or lying in the grass in the prairie – and it is never the same.

Under the heading „Rowan and Sif. There is nothing to obscure my view of the sky” the current exhibition shows three individual ways of treating their connection with nature. The imagery of the title already puts into words what is perceptible at gallerywest these days – a territory between the physical and spiritual of nature.

My experience of the exhibition – a tribute to Dough Hunter and the first time that his works are presented after he passed away in 2007 – started with getting to know Stewart Evans outside the gallery before I even saw the show. I only recognized that this modest and shy man was the artist of the work shining in the showcase when he started talking about the process of creating a light and its technical steps with the same enthusiasm in his voice which was noticeable as he had raved about the beautiful nature of Canada’s east coast a view minutes before.

Rather than serving any romantic clichés about the production of art, Stewart calls himself a “construction-maker”, distinct from “designer” or “artist”, and tells me about what he calls “the boring and annoying” part of creating a light. Even though I couldn’t follow all his technical descriptions I understood what is essential in his work: the material and how to handle it. The positive reactions of the visitors during the opening reception showed that Stewart’s nervousness before his first exhibition and the questions concerning his works was unfounded – a multiplicity pointed to one of his lights when asked for the favorite piece.

Even though his lights are characterized through their elemental and rustic look, certain fragility adheres all of them. Due to this duality Stewart’s works do not only glow for themselves but arouse a special, enchanting atmosphere in the rooms of gallerywest which could not be more suitable for receiving Dough Hunters woodprints.

During our conversation Stewart underlined the importance of establishing a connection to Dough Hunter to whom he refers with the largest piece of the exhibition – a work that lights some of the artist’s woodprints. With a “metallic border”, that adorns his light in the showroom, Stewart intended to create a link to the feathers of Dessa Harhay’s birds.

While the original and the technical meet in Stewart’s lights, it is the human and the animal, which  enter in direct contact in Dessa Harhay’s paintings on wood panel.

As the occupants of the sky birds, Dessa’s favored motif, seem to be very close to the freedom adored by the humans. But the detailed and delicate depicted, elegant animals – a symbol of the beauty and grandeur of nature – do not shut themselves off but appear to enter into a conversation with the human, with the viewer and let him be a part of this foreign, spiritual territory.

Due to their bizarre look and their piercing gaze the birds are surrounded by a mysterious and fantastic aura.

This unfathomable relationship with nature’s mythology as well as the original and rudimental vibrancy of Stewart’s lights both lead to Dough Hunters woodprints. Impregnated with a mixture of roughness and poetry his works exude the feeling of remoteness, originality and harmony with nature. As a viewer or even a voyeur I feel being drawn into a private world, reclusive and intriguing.

My experience with the exhibited prints of this artist is especially affected by two works.

With the first one – a work of strong color, which depicts a young woman – the artist provides insight in a highly intimate moment of physical sensuality, which seems not to be intended for the public. A friend of the family confirmed what the power of the work and the legend already indicated. The print that attracted me the whole evening of the reception opening is a portrait of the artist’s former girlfriend. One year later, in 1980, Dough Hunter generated another female portrait, which is absolutely different to the first one but not less fascinating.

It shows a beautiful woman presenting herself to the viewer with a self-confident pose and an open gaze. The similarity to Chala Hunter, Dough Hunter’s daughter and one of the exhibition’s organizers can hardly be overlooked. Little wonder as the depicted woman is her mother. That Dough Hunter is  an expert in the art of portrayal gets also proofed through the only self-portrait of the show. Whereas the artist’s features seem to be dure and strong, the background consists of the soft and natural grain of the wood, which even increases the power of the artist’s expression and his connection to nature.

But not only the energy of Dough Hunter’s woodprints filled the rooms of gallerywest – during the night of the reception opening a large amount of people came together to experience the show and exceeded all the previous numbers of visitors at gallerywest as Evan Tyler told me.

It’s the magic of art. It brings the whole family together, explained Chala Hunters boyfriend proudly.

As a coherent exhibition with all kinds of immanent references, gallerywest and the curator Colleen O’Reilly show the works of three artists, who express in very different ways but each with convincing forcefulness, their individual alliance with nature – their view of the sky.