Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Curse of the Curator

To the Serpentine with Don on a grey windswept afternoon to check out Derek Jarman curated by Issac Julien. Just the sort of dramatic weather that lends itself to Jarmanesque thoughts of sweeping English shingle, lonely power stations and beds on beaches surrounded by boys with flaming occult torches. No? Oh OK, just me then.

Oddly, I have been revisiting Jarman-world in recent times, prompted in no small way by TG's presentation of the super-8's at the Tate last year. In recent weeks I've dug out the old VHS's and re-read Dancing Ledge, The Last of England and At Your Own Risk. I also bought Chroma, Jarman's sensitive book on colour which was duly devoured in an excitable two hours while cursing myself for not buying it back in the day. I dug out my old cache of letters and cards from the great man himself. God, no wonder my parents were beside themselves. Worrying enough that I should be hanging out in the East End with Messrs Gilbert & George, worse still that I was in active prolonged correspondence with the bent maker of Sebastiane and Jubilee when I should have been out riding my bike. So in terms of my artistic exploration the show couldn't have arrived at a better time.

The highpoint is the very beginning. The first things the viewer sees on entering the gallery are the stunning, knock-out triptych of wall mounted beds, leaden with tar and twisted sheets like darkly sexual Rauchenberg combines. There is also a similarly impressive side-wall of a number of Jarman's small icon-like embedded-tar pieces, with their smashed glass, pendulums and scrawling texts on mirrored black, like multiple scrying mirrors paused in mid-reveal. I've always felt that of his painted work these small assemblage pieces were the most successful; a summing up of the underpinning that fuelled Derek's art. His Catholic concerns, anger at the injustices of the world and of his own mortality and his aching Middle Classness all cemented into gloopy tar tablets. A joy to see then, but this wall of small works should have been spread out around a big room rather than crowded together. It's difficult to see them properly.

Then one notices Issac Julien's lightboxes, decorative and unnecessary. They look like magazine spreads. Quite what these back-lit stunts are supposed to achieve I cannot think. And the curator's hand starts to loom over the show like a bad smell. Julien should be letting Jarman's work speak for itself not adding in 'a flavour of Jarman', with silly bits of Dungeness driftwood and rusty metal photographed against country cottage pine.

The exhibition continues with Derek's big, messy aids work: interesting, but so of it's time they almost need a specially curated show of their own to be meaningful. I'm thinking big blow-up pics of Outrage! snog-ins and earnest boys with flat-tops wearing t-shirts saying 'Criminal'... Then, rightfully given a room of its own, we walk straight into Blue, which fares somewhat better as an installation you can move around in rather than a film viewed in the traditional sense.

Following Blue is a large room of varying screens showing the Super-8's. They are Derek's best work and for such a hallowed legacy to be crowded in so that you only ever see snippets of the whole feels like a dumbing down or a sacrilege.

Finally the exhibition concludes with a further room given over to Issac Julien's documentary film Derek, featuring Tilda Swinton and already shown on TV and it has no place here. It is a TV film, made for TV or a cinema screening if you're feeling generous. It is a wasted room. In any event, I cannot bear Tilda Swinton's over enunciated reading voice. I accept she is a significant part of the Jarman story but I cannot bear to listen to the woman or her badly drafted observations (in fact, Burroughs night at Patti Smith's Meltdown was ruined for me by Swinton's singularly awful reading).

I left feeling disappointed. This show should have been a retrospective of Derek Jarman's paintings (he was celebrated as a painter long before he became known for his films). With the exception of Blue, which works, the filmic work should have showed at an accompanying cinema where it belongs and the Issac Julien TV film safely relegated to the telly. I wondered if the show would have been more effective curated by jobbing gallery staff then by someone with a public profile to maintain.

Now, where's my mallet!? I want to do some lightbox smashing in the name of Derek's ghost who in my minds eye I see whirling around the outer walls of the Serpentine in a fury, unable to bear the backlit horror of Issac's advertising spreads.


There's an interesting gallery of Derek's paintings can be found on the queer cultural centre site

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Dark Science in Paris

Hello, back in blogworld now. So what's been happening? Well I've been in Paris and one of the high points was a visit to the Palais de Tokyo, which I'm currently raving about to anyone who will listen.

It's next door to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The Palais is unremarkable on the outside, oddly industrial on the inside with an artistic bookshop and a bar full of bohemian types. It also has a lime green mobile home perched on the roof which is an artistic project by Sabina Lang and Daniel Baumann called 'Hotel Everland' in which it is possible for anyone to stay. You can book online. Venture inside the museum proper however and you'll come across Loris Gréaud's gloriously dark installation: 'Cellar Door'.

The starting point for Gréaud's show, which is a kind of mutating space opera you can walk through, is the artist's obsession with building a studio without ordinary accepted boundries. A place of continuous interactive development rather than somewhere objects are merely made and sent out from. But studios cannot function without having an idea to investigate, and Gréaud's idea is the development of a musical score. Such sonorous concerns bring us to the show's title: 'Cellar Door' is reputably the most beautiful, harmonious combination of words in the English language, apparently particularly so when spoken with an English accent.

The viewer is disarmed from the off, which is no bad thing, by entering the installation through a large industrial door like the entrance to an aircraft hangar, that opens mechanically and only occasionally, meaning you have to stand and wait. Suddenly the door lifts with a swoosh and a clank of metal, and you have about five seconds to enter the large dark chamber beyond with the uneasy feeling of imminent despatch. Once you are in there is another swoosh and the door slams down behind you and you are in semi-darkness.

To the right is a small ante-chamber with a mirrored floor filled with a mass of glaring white neon wires, to your left a small sound studio housed in a glass box with a mixing desk and a technician (who I liked to think was the artist) controlling the work. The air is filled with ozone from the glimmering neon chamber, and the low drones of antique Korg synths echo through the half-light like a Throbbing Gristle b-side. A small video screen flickers into life, the room fizzes with electricity. There are backlit perspex plaques detailing pages of musical notation. There is a large platform of chequered carpet in pop-art black and white. You are armed with your copy of a special edition of the in-house 'Palais' magazine (also black and white) containing much bolstering of ideas behind the work with articles on phonetics and brainwaves. You have also worked out that one is not exactly in Kansas anymore.

Further chambers open up as you move through the installation. In one, a forest of spiky black trees you can walk through and a hallowe'en moon, like a stage set by Tim Burton. Another chamber is arranged with photographic paintings of empty corridors and a melting mass of white orbs draped in slick black melted plastic like a huge melting dessert in the centre of the room. A further room houses a table of plants incubating under a shelf of neon surrounded by dimly glowing light boxes. And all around the inescapable soundscape eats into every inch of museum space. It seems to be emanating from deep within the dimly-lit space itself, rather than from anything as prosaic as a speaker. There is also a large caged paint-ball chamber (no-one was in it but there were signs of frenzied recent activity and a sign reminding the viewer to mind his clothes) and various vending machines dotted throughout the strangeness supplying multicoloured space-sweets, like gummy pills, for two Euros.

It's a very suggestive show: with no labels to read the objects and atmospheres bombard with ideas and pointers. There are frames of reference to be had, via the accompanying magazine, but I wondered how many people would plough through that document to get a handle on the show. But it's enjoyable whether you want to read about the ideas around the work or not, and I think most people were enjoying the sheer wierdness, the mesmeric sounds and the sense of out-there science. And while the atmosphere was futuristic, the paint ball chamber, although not in full conflict when I was there, and the interaction of the vending machines, seem to anchor the installation with us mere mortals on terra firma.

It's one of the best uses of space I've seen and similar to the late great Jason Rhodes' work (the architect of 'Black Pussy') in that respect. It also reminded me, in scale and ambition, that few single-artist projects on this scale are realised in the UK. Or if they are it's Anthony Gormley. Also, most people here in positions of power wouldn't have the balls to hand over this much space to a young artist not quite 30, such as Loris Gréaud.

'Cellar Door' is on until 27 April 2008.

Fotos courtesy of Crazy G.