The artist Y.Z.Kami moves between abstraction and portraiture, drawing on spiritual traditions from his native Iran and Fayoum portraits made as memorials in Roman Egypt. He is exhibiting a series of large, paintings at Gagosian in London’s King’s Cross. The Art Channel takes us inside the exhibition.
What a pleasure it was to see an exhibition in King’s Cross that reinvigorates one’s love of art with its potential to engage the senses. Such a show has just finished at Gagosian on Britannia Street with a collection of Rauschenberg’s Jammers available to see as a group of sculptures largely made with textiles arising out of his travels and changes in his life. Taking inspiration from Jammer sailing boats in Florida and fabrics that he saw on a residency in India during the 1970s, the artist shifted direction from his seminal combine paintings.
These soft, draping sails dispense with Rauschenberg’s early humour found in the rather jaundiced and ironic assemblages. The Jammers feel more invested with romance and an unrestrained enthusiasm. As such, they seem more instinctual and less premeditated. The hand seems to determine the outcome rather than a thought process. Stemming out of twin activities of sailing and weaving, the works assume an autonomous quality without wholly dispensing with reference to practical activities. Essentially, these works possess an open inquisitive quality that invites you to simply enjoy their material richness of texture, colour, overlay, crease and rhythmic threading. By turns limp and taut, the Jammers cross the line between image and object. In assembling materials together such as muslin, silk, rattan, tin cans and mud, Rauschenberg begins to construct assemblages of spare rigour and aesthetic power. On a cold, bleak day in central London these Jammers hint at tradewinds and spice, of tropical life determined by movements of the sun and wind and colours derived from earth and plants.
Perhaps the most seductive piece shown in London was a ‘jammer’ made from moulded grass and mud that carried its organic origins in the scent gently emitting from the object propped against the gallery wall like a talisman. It hinted at farmyard dung but Rauschenberg has crafted this unidentified base material into a sculpture redolent of the elements of earth, wind and water that retain their raw presence in the gallery despite the sculptor’s intervention.
Fictional places have a strange allure. They will never be visited except in the imagination. Details must necessarily be invented and staged. Mike Kelley continues an ongoing project dedicated to Kandor, Superman’s birthplace, which he now keeps alive in artificial conditions like a organism on life-support. But Kandor presents a challenge to any re-enactment because the comic strip offers so many differing examples, embodying the multifarious and contingent nature of cities, subject as they are to infinite representation.
The centerpiece of this show is a grotto made of imitation black rock within which sits a resin model of Kandor emitting a rosy, seductive glow like a giant jelly. Sealed within the sustaining environment of a bell jar, fed a special gas, Superman keeps Kandor alive as a fragile utopia. His fortress is reminiscent of sacred shrines where our loss of innocence can be contemplated with sorrow but also where redemption may be planned. Kelley takes the Superman conceit and addresses it with theatrical relish. Kandor assumes multiple forms, sometimes resembling melting polychromatic glass orbs or erect columns of crystals pointing skyward in the style of Art Deco futurism. Superman’s idealism is perceptible but his physical absence is telling. He idealizes the past and projects fantasy into the future, but must constantly slip away.
Inserted into the Superman theme are some conscious but disorientating digressions. A film with characters inspired by Hammer House of Horror plays out sado-masochistic rituals involving corn cobs and whips. Titled ‘Vice Anglais’ after the reputed sexual repressions of the English, Kelley takes his audience on a sinister tour through human cruelty but links the film to the wider exhibition by staging the melodrama on a set using the Superman themed works. Another sculpture titled ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon’ creates a tableau of sentimental objects memorializing ‘S/andy’ to accompany images of both a Marine and young woman. Such an ambivalent gender echoes Superman’s own overlapping identities and suggests the performative nature of human relations.
Kelley’s interrogation of comic book values produces dazzling formal work but risks aestheticizing the source-material to the point of entertaining irrelevance. Unlike Roy Lichtenstein’s detached translations of graphic novels, Kelley’s appropriations are close to overreaching.
Douglas Gordon carves the title of his new show, ‘K.364’, into the soft, white plaster of the gallery wall. A chisel has chipped away at the surface leaving pronounced strokes like lettering on a gravestone. A residue of paint and dust gathers on the ground below this faint incision into the architecture. Nearby, an anonymous fist clasps a burning candle from which hot wax drips onto bare skin that might indicate an act of prayer or remembrance. Both works introduce a film that documents a train journey by two Israeli musicians through Poland in the footsteps of relatives who survived the Holocaust in what Gordon describes as ‘a battle between history and the fleeting beauty of music.’
Running on two large screens, which sit at oblique angles, the images are echoed back by several adjacent mirrors. The protagonists describe how Poland evokes memories of survival handed down within their families. Dark forests that line the tracks are linked to forced removals while simultaneously forming sublime landscapes today. Shots of railway tracks and signals allude to people shunted towards the camps along these very same lines. Subsequently, the musicians perform Mozart’s chamber piece K.364 in Poznan where their passion for the music achieves consolation rather than cathartic resolution.
The restrained narrative leaves us in a former synagogue converted into a swimming pool in 1939, which is still in use today. Shots below the water line of kicking legs suggest spontaneous pleasure but can any place so associated with tragedy be free of contamination?
The difficulty remains that this is well-worn territory loaded with problems for any creative enquiry and the film does not take us much further in comprehending a catastrophe for mankind that took place within living memory. Where Gordon is more successful is in asserting Art’s indispensability to human civilization and he skillfully links the consequences of history to life in the present. Staging this pilgrimage to ancestral roots through music gives concrete expression to sorrow but cannot ultimately remove the underlying horror. Gordon acknowledges this conundrum by framing 32 charred sheets of Mozart’s musical score against mirrored mounts. Destruction and creative endurance sit in suspended tension for perpetuity.