Monday, February 23, 2015

Civil Occupation

Civil Occupation
Ibrahim Mahama
Ellis King Gallery, Dublin
5 December 2014 – 10 January 2015

Review by Georgia Corcoran

The art a city absorbs says a lot about its inhabitants. What the city nurtures from itself, but also what is invited in. As waves of trends of collectives and movements come and go, people can become jaded. Every now and then a show comes along that makes you review your art intake. 

The Ellis King Gallery has been open just under a year, so for anyone who hasn’t visited I will describe the gallery. It’s located on the outskirts of Dublin city, but is very much detour worthy; there has so far been an interesting selection of international artists shown. It is situated in a warehouse space on Donore Avenue, between Cork Street and the Grand Canal. The gallery entrance has double glass doors, a short corridor, sharp corner and then an open space with a high, pitched ceiling. Theres a pillar, it's not entirely square, but generally it is white and cube-like. 

At the opening of Civil Occupation I was expecting to walk in to Ellis King and find this chronic 'white cube'. Immediately my assumption was replaced by intrigue as I entered a transformative, all engulfing installation by artist, Ibrahim Mahama. I encountered what can only be described as a literal blanketing of the gallery space.

Only the trace of a gallery remained. The room was recast under stained, natural fabric; draped from the ceiling, cloaking the floor, pillars wrapped. Small tears revealed the wall beneath. The fabric was a repetition of raw hessian, or jute, sacks quilted together. The upended canopy, a patchwork of every imaginable earthy brown. Authentically 'second hand', and visibly worn, you have to ask 'where did they come from?’ 

In a previous incarnation in Ghana, these sacks were used to transport and sell cocoa, and then coal or maybe other wares. Mahama interrupted this pattern. Having them sewn together with sturdy threads by local, mainly female, workers. To amass enough jute sacks for a work as overtaking as this, Mahama traded new sacks for these old, worn ones in a direct exchange with market workers. They’re dirty from continuous use and many bear names and markings, telling of physical work, manual labour, ownership, and humble human use. In simply leaving the material as is, he is directly acknowledging the many previous labourers alongside the finished piece. 

The sacks are stained from their past lives. By perpetuating the lifespan of these utilitarian textiles, Mahama uses the fabric as a portal to shift perspectives.  And importantly, to move his audience to accept the existence of other situations. Aesthetically, Arte Povera is invoked. The woven hessian they started out as becomes a storied, archival document and the essence of this show.

Alongside the initials of previous owners, the sacks are significantly stamped ‘GHANA COCOA BOARD PRODUCE OF GHANA’ from their first function. Cocoa beans are not a native crop of Ghana. They were introduced in 1876 by Tetteh Quarshia, a Ghanaian agriculturist. An economically expedient choice, as the climate allows the crop to be harvested year round. The cocoa bean is Ghana’s main cash crop and the country is the second largest cocoa bean exporter in the world. Of course, in a classic hierarchal move the government has maintained tight control over cocoa production since 1979 (hence ‘PRODUCE OF’) and now runs a hybrid state/privatised system devoid of Fair Trade laws. Keep in mind that, incredibly, every stage of cocoa production is done by hand. The planting, irrigation, harvesting, fermenting and drying.

Although based in Ghana, Mahama seems to be travelling a lot with his work. He was in Dublin for his Ellis King opening and I was lucky enough to be invited to dinner after and actually wound up seated beside him. We talked about how this series is an extension of work drawn from his Masters research, and I got a behind the scenes tour of Civil Occupation via his phone. He showed me pictures of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, his college, draped in an earlier version of the piece. He showed me pictures of older, more traditionally sculptural work. 

He also showed me videos of the workers he hired to sew the sacks together. He told me how, by handing over control and allowing the workers to define the end appearance, the art retains its political energy. In this conceptual method of working, Mahama is left unburdened by any decorative baggage. Although, due to the work’s physical scale, it’s final realisation obviously yields an aesthetic statement. And aside from the the institutional subversion of this work taking over the gallery, I enjoyed that one singular piece was installed, rather than varous bits of art throughout. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an artist be given the opportunity in Ireland to have a show like this. That this art is being shown in a ‘young’ gallery is worth mentioning. 

Also aesthetically, the draping of this fabric is interesting. Drapery is a constant throughout Western art history. It is depicted as backdrop, discreet cover up, support; as clothing, adornment, a sign of wealth, a complimentary space filler. But here, in Civil Occupation, a shift in perspective happens. What has been kept in the background becomes the foreground, similar to how a spotlight is put on the labourer. I’m wary of having to discuss or relate African art in terms of Western art, but I personally enjoy this contrast. Like the sacks, there is another history of alternative reference points.

Before arriving I had seen his fabric pieces draped in public spaces such as markets, bridges, abandoned railways online and was curious to see how Mahama's work would be displayed inside a gallery. How would they physically inhabit the space? What sacrifices to the work would have to be made? How would the work hold up removed from its organic environment, where they reacted to social structures, rather than critiquing art world structures? On the one hand, this issue is avoided by the sheer scale. And on the other, this particular context allows it to be given the space for contemplative thought. In blitzing the gallery, Civil Occupation holds its own on first impression.

This is the kind of art that is bigger than the artist. It is political art. The wider themes approached are those of capital, commodities, labour, class. But specifically, Mahama is concerned with the layers of people who allow capitalism to happen. We can easily forget to be aware of the labourer, as often we do not see them, caught at the bottom of social structures. The way Mahama sees it, the process, and the labourers involved with the process, are the dialogue, and cannot be separated from the object.  It is the labourers who keep things in motion, allowing for development and transformations of raw materials, creating wealth for others. Civil Occupation is reminding us of their presence. Thus, he addresses social awareness, in this case a very localised example, but in a varied and adept way.

I genuinely liked this show and I’m very glad I saw it. Ibrahim Mahama’s integrity, process and strength of voice were gratifying. Civil Occupation struck me as a visually memorable and thoughtful show. I’m always going to be glad to see a gallery in Ireland show art that hasn’t been made by another overrepresented, middle-class caucasian person (yes, that is a dig), but that’s not always going to make me like the art. The point is that it’s important to see more, to step further away from the familiar and then further away from that when it too gets familiar.

Images courtesy of the Ellis King Gallery, video courtesy of the artist.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Out the hole, around the tree and back in again

Out the hole, around the tree and back in again, Graduate Exhibition 2014
Avril Corroon
National College of Art and Design, Dublin
14 – 22 June 2014

Review by Eoghan McIntyre

“There are times when even the most potent governor must wink at transgression, in order to preserve the laws inviolate for the future.” 1

– Herman Melville

Transgression alludes to a stepping over, going beyond, the breaking of a convention or boundary. In its most basic sense transgression is the rejection of perceived rationality, an attempt to reveal the absurdity of what is considered to be reason. Analysing the relationship between transgression and art presents the opportunity to examine art’s pursuit of renewal and the interrogation of societal constraints. In her 2014 degree show exhibition Out the hole, around the tree and back in again Avril Corroon plays the part of a parrhesiastes2: willing to take risks, for herself and for the institution she works within, as part of a refusal to automatically accept order and stability.

The work takes its title from the method of tying a bowline, a knot known for its strength and security. The knot’s resilience can test even that of a ship's sails – the sail will tear or split before the knot will slip. Corroon’s work is both figuratively and literally connected to its site of installation and, similarly, provides a test of the structures it is bonded to. How will the art school respond to transgression, tension and discord?

A blue rope, one hundred metres long, spans from a flagpole in the campus of the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), through an upstairs window of the nearby John’s Lane building (where graduating Media students exhibited) and is tied at the end of the room. The floor of the space is almost entirely paved with bricks, which is the work of another artist in the room – Kerry Guinan3. As the two artists collaborated in organising the space, I will briefly discuss how the works interact. 

The walls of the room are blue, and the reasoning for either painting or leaving them this colour can be found through looking at the two shows together. Both shows share dissonant sensibilities. Thus these blue walls can be seen as a refusal to yield to what Smithson calls “a submission to the neutral”4, what he believed to occur to art that comfortably is placed in the white cube.

Immediately it is noticeable that the rope is an impediment to the viewer’s ability to navigate the space; it must be ducked under to get from one side of the room to the other. Outside the room a video piece details the construction of the work (the tying of the rope, the securing of the flagpole) and shows previous antagonistic works by the artist. The viewer sees her climbing an off-limits ladder in NCAD and a previous project in which a rope was tied from the artist’s apartment to the NCAD campus. 

At just over four minutes long the video is brief but, through her narration and choice of footage, clearly details the relationship between student and art school. This relationship is marked by change, as shown by her two projects in which ropes are tied across the NCAD campus. Over footage that shows a rope tied from her apartment to NCAD Corroon narrates “one hundred metres of rope tied from the art student’s apartment…to the art school NCAD. But I’ll get caught.” At first she acts without the permission of the institution and an awareness of the consequences. Subsequently the work is taken down: “the rope gets caught-cut.” For her degree show piece “permission is granted to reach higher than the third floor…a mast is built.” Instead of operating outside the institution she plays by its rules so that the work is allowed to be shown.

These actions show an awareness of the difficulty of critiquing the art school from within. The art student is an agent operating within a structured system. Consequently the institution acts as an external force which both allows for and restrains certain actions. The student must create work, use the college space and engage with tutors. If these conditions are not fulfilled the student will find it very difficult to succeed in an academic system. This restriction can also act as a virtue. In an interview in 1972 Smithson called for an “investigation of the apparatus the artist is threaded through.” The art student then has the ability to begin this investigation at their very formation as the artist begins their journey through this “apparatus”5. This inquiry is executed through interrogating what makes up the art school; faculty and curriculum. 

In her video piece, Corroon shows a personal engagement with college staff, for example knowing the head attendant’s predilection for rock candy and purchasing some for him from Liverpool, and knowing which train a staff member on the third floor office gets every morning. When the artist climbs the off-limits ladder the attendant leaves his office and, instead of immediately telling her to climb down, he calls her first name repeatedly until it becomes clear she isn’t stopping. It can be assumed that the attendant thought that letting Corroon know that he had noticed her, she would stop. 

Herein is a site of discomfort in the work. Is the engagement with the institution shown and the relationships built purely in service of critique? For she clearly builds a relationship with the attendant, but her actions put them both at risk. This is a current running throughout the work. It is obligatory to use the college space, but the extant architecture that is out of bounds is used. It uses a sensual aesthetic, using azure as a repeated background motif. The use of this seductive veneer is jarring in juxtaposition with the antagonistic actions at play in the video. I would imagine this is not how the college would like these events documented. Corroon may not be granted approval for her actions, but she decides on their presentation. This gives the art student a sense of self-governance in a system that limits their freedom.

To make provocative works that antagonise the institution only later to exhibit a fully authorised show displaying them may create the idea that her actions were futile. Instead it is a part of a process of engagement and withdrawal that must, necessarily in an academic system, end in engagement. Her attempts to act independently of the institution are prohibited, but they are given meaning beyond being merely infringements as they become harbingers of the restrictions art students are bound by. Her actions (climbing the ladder, the first rope project) and the confines they break are dependent on one another for their meaning, as a limit does not exist if it is impassable and transgression is pointless if the limits it crosses are unreal. 

The art student is at the mercy of the faculty as they decide upon the curriculum and the restraints on student’s behaviour. In terms of the power they possess the faculty far outrank the student and, accordingly, some faculty seemingly demand of the student only what will allow them to maintain their elevated position. For the art school to function as a truly creative space there must be a modicum of dissension and discord, but this critique must necessarily come from within. The institution is in a position of power and, as Foucault puts it:

Power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate …which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another.6

Corroon’s show is a part of these struggles and confrontations. One purpose of the art school is not only the production of knowledge, which is compiled and displayed, but also the marketing of this knowledge. This show signals a certain discomfort with this situation. The static separation of tutor, students, attendants and staff is likely to be accepted and kept invisible as long as open conflict is not created. But for Corroon equilibrium is needed, that of opposition and conflict, with engagement and agreement. The American poet Anthony Hecht states that “controlled disorder labours to keep art from being too refined.”7 As a lucid investigation of an academic system that controls and supports artistic practice the show is convincing evidence of Hecht’s idea. 

Out the hole, around the tree and back in again is intrinsically bound to the art school and its success is in the stress, fissures and fractures that this connection causes. When her first rope project is taken down Corroon reports that a staff member says “There’s something umbilical about it.” Though her actions antagonize the college he is employed by they can still be aestheticized: a rope tied across NCAD and then being cut down becomes the nascence of a new set of limits, a new opportunity for the institution to redraw their boundaries and reaffirm their authority. But such a response is the aim of Corroon’s mischievousness: she has broken rules and then showcased it. As Corroon graduates and cannot continue this interrogation she leaves a permanent symbol of her dissension: the flagpole that is (as she states) “secured to the foundations of the art school.”

1) Herman Melville, The White Jacket, or The World on a Man-of-War (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007) 336.
2) “The Parrhesiastes is the person who says everything. Thus, as an example, in his discourse "On the Embassy," Demosthenes says: It is necessary to speak with parrhesia, without holding back at anything without concealing anything.” Michel Foucault, cited in Freedom of Speech: Importing European and US Constitutional Models in Transitional Democracies (New York, Routledge, 2014) 88.
3) A longer review of Kerry Guinan’s degree show piece Beneath the Paving Stones can be found here:
4) Cited in Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray (Eds.) Art and Contemporary Critical Practice (London, Mayfly Books, 2009) 24.
5) Cited in Ron Graziani, Robert Smithson and the American Landscape (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004) 141.
6) Cited in Stephen David Ross, The Ring of Representation: Negotiating Identities, (New York, State University of New York Press, 1992) 70.
7) Cited in Anne Whiston Spirn, The Language of Landscape (Yale, Yale University Press, 1998) 189.

Images courtesy of the artist.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Made by Whites for Whites

Made by Whites for Whites 
Nick Cave 
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York 
September 4 – October 11, 2014 

Review by Jim Ricks

Two new bodies of works spanned the two Jack Shainman locations in Chelsea.  Both formally related, but each very distinct in tack.  For the purposes of this review I will focus on Made by Whites for Whites at 20th Street, although the contrast made by the other, Rescue, at 24th, is interesting.

Nick Cave is primarily known for and has worked almost singularly on a body of work he calls Soundsuits.  These are fantastic costumes that have their finger on the pulse of Dadaism at its best origins and echo the Hopi Kachina dancers' costumes.  Silly and spectacular, they seem like they are not of this world.  They elicit joy on sight with their playfully bejeweled and colourful exteriors.  His knack for constructing light (weight and feeling), floating structures sharing much with the more outlandish side of the fashion world, but also jewelry making or even chandeliers, continues in both his new shows, but there is only this sculptural technique to connect these and past works.  

To some extent I question the exhibition's title: Made By and For Whites.  The identity of Blacks hasn't been solely defined by Whites.  Quite to the contrary, this identity has been one of the most resilient and the most challenging to the status-quo.  In my opinion.  And of course there is the Sambo Art itself.  It is a strange and foreign thing for me, a typically White, Irish-German American mutt.  While I know of these object's existence, they were by no means something I encountered until well into adulthood.  Coincidentally, after viewing the show and discussing it with a friend, he produced from his personal collection of stuff a cast iron mechanical bank Sambo art. "Made in China" was embossed under the base.  There is also that White is a colonial term really, explaining the common goals of these diverse, yet similarly pigmented European newcomers.  Indeed, the complexity of race in the United States cannot be discussed without touching on the active construction of a 'White American' identity (see Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White for instance), a convenient buffer for the ruling elite of European immigrants; another way to never talk about class.  I digress.

Upon entering the gallery, after collecting my free White Paper (with essay and images), a black rectangular low-lying horizontal platform cuts down the central corridor.  At it's head is a religious icon-like assemblage.  A black figure – figurine – has a dense halo of ephemera suspended around him.  At his feet lie dozens of heavy wooden boxes.  It is like some kind of typesetter's case for letters, but instead scaled up, containing samples of racially evocative objects and Sambo Art, some antiques.  It places us firmly in the past and picks away at preconceptions of African-American identity with what can only be deemed a racist cabinet of curiosities.

Just beyond lie three more similarly constructed pieces.  Miniature, impoverished looking black humans, the blackest possible humans, stand on chairs and stools backgrounded by a swarm, or a bush, of ceramic chachkas strung with innumerable beads.  One is a stool.  Titled End Upheld, the small black figure hoists up the seat itself.  The chandelier-esque abundance above is raised up with his efforts.  Birds and flowers flourish.  A room to the side draws me away.  In it is a high-to-the-ceiling stack of crocheted Afghan blankets.  Perched atop like it were a throne is a rare racist collectible indeed: a super sized hand-made doll of the 'comic' golliwog sort.  Bearing little resemblance to anything human, teeth clenched as vagina dentata, he is The King of the Hill.

Another work, Golden Boy, has again an impossibly black docile child seated on an old high chair.  He is surrounded by 40 or 50 electric holiday candles, filling in his aura.  A gold sequined sleeve covers a giant black dildo held in his lap.  On another wall a single wooden hand is outstretched from the wall.  It is over-laden with hundreds of white towels.  Faceless servitude.  It is this collecting combined with enormous repetition that gives the pieces muscle and volume, both conceptually and physically.  It is a methodology that runs throughout the show.

In the main room a shrine of sorts is created with the piece Sea Sick.  The figure head is an anguished black-face jug.  Two unrelated, yet matching hands are raised by his face.  A large golden ship made in relief is affixed above.  Cave has installed multiple variations of the 'same' nautical painting – an appropriated image of a say 18th century cargo sailing ship –  behind and tiled to fill the space.  Slave trade evoked.

Inexplicably, the few remaining pieces transgress the artists' stated purpose.  Staying on the subject of black identity to be sure, but not on the subject of an identity imposed hatefully, mockingly by... well the sort of White American that does that sort of thing.  Rather the remaining pieces push at other more contemporary stereotypes.  One such piece is an "indoor badminton net" made of piled up, impossibly long, gold chains spelling out an indecipherable message at its base.  As it turns out it reads as a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote.

Another, and I loved this piece, was closer in territory to Cave's Soundsuits.  It was a simple trench coat lined with watches and chains; bling.  But of course this 'hustler' stereotype isn't exclusively attributed to blacks, a trope impossible to place or date exactly.  I tried.  

Star Power, the third 'odd man out' began at the floor with a diminutising ascension of well worn stools.  A carved black solidarity fist was placed on top of the pyramid.  An Afro-centric-ly coloured quilt in the shape of a huge star was hung behind.  Semiologically speaking, it was well played.  But this clearly is about something else now.  

Cave's other body of work, Rescue, in the other Jack Shainman gallery two blocks away, was constructed much like the first pieces described above.  A nest of chachkas with a foregrounded figure atop furniture.  Yet these other figures were all life sized ceramic dogs.  I can't help but think of this as a mistake.  To present such loaded material alongside such wonderfully banal subject matter can only undercut the more serious of the two.  The incongruity diminishes the political.  An error no doubt perpetuated by the allure of the impossibly compelling market.  Indeed, a 'safer' body of work for the more cautious buyers would no doubt provide a fiscally sound safety net.

Cave, a Black American male, approaches the still challenging subject matter of racist Americana imagery.  I actually sought out a term for this and failed to do so.  Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s essay "Should Blacks Collect Racist Memorabilia?" is reprinted in the free White Paper (alongside selected exhibition images from the show).  He uses the term "Sambo Art", I have followed suit.  Interestingly, The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia elaborates with particular categories: brute, tom, picaninny, nigger, saphire, jezebel, mammy, coon, mulatto, golliwog, nat.

There is a certain foreboding dread and horror with which I write and read back these words.  Certainly a particularly, but probably not uniquely, American condition and sensitivity.  I shudder at the sound of them.  But of course, this is superficial.  It is what these words symbolise, what they are rooted in, and the past we have inherited that is so abhorrent.  Yet when confronted with them in a scientific, historical way it allows us to reflect and maybe to gain insight and to feel; a flicker of understanding.  And in the same way operate the sculptural assemblages of Nick Cave, most containing a leading role for a singular artifact of Sambo Art.  He has collected the physical embodiments of racial slurs. And with undeniable sculptural savvy Cave weaves, piles, accumulates, and arranges these into a beautifully, and expertly, complex system of symbols.  Challenging audiences with the very indisputable fact of their existence. 

Photos by James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York