Gabriel Orozco at Tate Modern

The ornamental skull has become a familiar mordant feature of the artist’s box of tricks over hundreds of years. In the Western tradition, this can be traced back to Vanitas, still-life paintings that confront us with the irresistible trajectory of time, impelling all life towards mortality. More recently, Damien Hirst inimitably seized the enduring trope for an extended dialogue between art and money, by covering an anatomical copy with high carat diamonds, cut to fit the contours of the head. But several years before Gabriel Orozco had employed this subject when he was recovering from a collapsed lung. Spending many hours in recuperation, he purchased a real human skull in order to draw directly onto the surface (apparently there are two outlets in New York City where such an object can be legally sourced).
‘Black Kites is perhaps the most engaging object in Orozco’s retrospective at Tate Modern. Stripped of any individualising fleshy features, the ivory-toned skull now caries a chequerboard pattern of black squares that slip into elongated diamonds as Orozco moves with his pencil into the recesses of this bony head. The shock of standing before human remains, far from the catacomb or archaeological display, is upstaged by the skillful handling of the graphite two-tone effect by which the artist maps and probes this repository of human instinct, knowledge and experience. An evident uncanny, creepiness is overlaid with decorative excavation. Such a darkly humorous and ornamental approach to the skull returns to us Orozco’s native Mexico, to the religious iconography of Aztec heads and more recently the Catholic appropriation of pagan ritual in the Day of the Dead where skeletons are dressed up and decorated in an annual danse macabre.
Mortality takes on quite a different presence within the same room where large banners reproduce headlines from the New York Times obituary pages that Orozco has proportionally magnified by using the same fonts. A jumble of diverse lives is thus reduced to absurd summaries that clash and fight for prominence such as the ‘Actor Once Wed To Shirley Temple’ and the ‘Inventor of a Better Seat Belt.’
And so Orozco’s eclectic employment of differing sources and materials may explore a similar thematic interest.
La DS, a modified Citroen car, sits displaced from the street as a hyper-real object sharing the same distinctive profile but viewed from the front, it becomes clear that the artist has removed the engine, narrowed the body and welded together what remains to produce an uncanny alteration that leaves the viewer with enough information to read the object as a familiar product but shorn of its functionality. We are left with an exaggerated, streamlined approximation of speed and movement that is disconcerting.
A few metres away within the same gallery, Orozco places an irregular, stained ball of indeterminate material on the floor. We learn that it is in fact constructed of plastercine to match the artist’s exact weight. ‘Yielding Stone’ is an object that carries layers of experience and memory embedded in its crusty skin, for this humble, inconsequential blob has been rolled around as a witness to Orozco’s nomadic wandering in real physical environments. It becomes an autobiographical repository of multiple encounters and sin a subdued fashion articulates all that has shaped it.
In a series of photographs, the conceptual gives ground to a more lyrical quality: the moist residue of breath sits momentarily on top of a reflective, lacquered piano;  a squashed football hosts a rainwater puddle; a showerhead resembles a photograph of the comos taken from a satellite. These images play on the open-ended power of suggestion, which Orozco most fully realizes in a series of creased paper images conjured out of creased paper and oil based paint and begin to resemble ‘ink blot’ tests.
Elsewhere, Orozco reclaims the most abject and disregarded materials for the purpose of art. Stretched layers of fabric fluff, human hair and skin hang loosely on clotheslines. Formed around the drums of tumble dryers in New York Laundromats, these formless and indeterminate residues neatly summarise Orozco’s quixotic quest for revelation in the material world.
This bathetic teasing strategy is most explicit in his empty shoe box first exhibited at the Venice Biennale which feels firmly established in post- Duchampian tradition but instead of outrage induces little more than ennui. Orozco is capable of overreaching in his hunt for lyrical transformation. In a site-specific work made for the exhibition, ‘Chicotes’, fragments of left lying in the road after car tyres have exploded, which lacks either beauty or surprise. He over-eggs this pudding by dripping pools of liquid aluminium over some of these frayed rubber strips resembling melted wheels and car parts, so suggests the curator grasping at a viable interpretation for a piece that does not feel fully formed. But the work still manages to embody entropic inevitability within the material world and perhaps unconsciously reminds us yet again of vulnerable flesh for the piece is unavoidably reminiscent of animal parts and pelts found dismembered in an abattoir.

This ability to work in different media and scale articulates the artist’s hungry observation of the world. He seems tireless and constantly inspired, resembling an illusionist who draws gasps from a crowd. Showmanship runs through the exhibition but sometimes the work can consciously embrace bathos and deflation too. Orozco engages with shamanic illusions, transforming the familiar and banal into objects of considerable resonance and power. However, unlike Joseph Beuys, Orozco’s is more intimate, quizzical and less charismatic. A chopped up car and an ornamental skull entertain and surprise simultaneously but they are not invested with transformative social or political symbolism. Orozco remains attached to the wry gesture that operates with subtlety rather than mesmerisation. This is an art of interruption and alteration, momentarily shifting meaning gently along to a new position. We may stand before ‘Black Kites’ and feel entranced, but the broken jutting tooth returns us to its origins and the point of departure


Martin Creed’s ‘Mothers’ at Hauser and Wirth

It’s rare that a work of art entails genuine danger, but Martin’s Creed’s new sculpture is a billboard – sized, illuminated sign that rotates at increasing speed. Giant neon letters construct the word ‘MOTHERS’, which illuminates the surrounding space with a harsh light. To step into this space is to risk significant injury, confirmed by a sign on the wall anxiously imploring us not to touch. This work demands a tentative encounter. Elevated by 2.03 metres, there is sufficient height to stand beneath the beam, but it is still low enough to instill serious trepidation. 
The absurdity of this object on a scale suitable for a Los Angeles Freeway is evident. Squeezed into an interior, the sheer physical impact of the sculpture is shocking and yet undeniably funny. With all its universal significance, the word here becomes a menacing and mesmerizing obstacle. This maternal surrogate literally threatens to give you a smack round the head. Our filial ambivalence is given discomforting, concrete form and we are compelled to survive this confrontation. To Ed Ruscha’s questioning the size of words, Creed replies that they can be as large as you want to build them.
MOTHERS has an audacious self-sufficiency, but it is accompanied by work that might stem from another practice entirely. Creed paints geometric shapes and patterns onto small canvasses. Using wide brushes, he builds broad strokes of uniform or contrasting colours that narrow upwards like an stepped ziggurat. Elsewhere, he stacks thin and loose horizontal stripes in acrylic, enamel, ink, oil and watercolour pigment, meeting at varying lengths in a spectrum of blues or reds. Avoiding a finished quality, these small, raw paintings convey direct sensation and an aesthetic authenticity.
Incongruously, three large photographs of a big hound and a tiny lapdog suddenly appear in the hang and interfere with any hint of seriality. The dissonance is intentional. Furthermore, a silent black and white film of closely cropped female breast floats in a dark room without any apparent relationship to the adjacent work.
Creed’s disavowal of linked scale, subject and media is, he explains, a conscious enjoyment of freedom and a denial of expectations. However, such an exhibition strategy runs the risk of upstaging the value of the works themselves, which tend to embody a brave and playful artistic enquiry.

Decay and illusion

Recently, The Guardian published some remarkable photographs by two young French photographers, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre taken from their new book, The Ruins of Detroit ( Discovering images of the abandoned Michigan Central Railway online, they embarked on a spontaneous project involving several trips to Detroit over five years. What they have captured is a tragic collapse of civic life in the heart of one of America’s greatest industrial cities.
For anyone with an attachment to American history, design or culture, these images starkly illustrate pervasive decline in Detroit, which seems to characterise an irreversible loss of America’s legendary economic power and accompanying confidence.
Once a majestic terminus and the tallest station in the world, Michigan Central Station constructed in the architectural language of Ancient Rome, now stands as an empty shell, stripped of purpose and dignity. What ought to be a landmark building and an exemplar of civic pride, is now an architectural ruin, a memorial to an age within living memory of America’s immense industrial ingenuity and productivity.
Motown’s world beating automobile industry which pioneered mass production in the 1920s and in the 1950s made cars that became the ultimate embodiment of post-war aspiration, are now on their knees fighting off competition from newly emerging economies. But with the wilting of demand for American-made cars is an accompanying faltering of an entire city. The Vanity Ballroom, built in 1929, where Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman once played is also a husk. Only the wonderful Art Deco chandeliers, still hanging from the scarred ceilings illustrate how seductive this Aztec-styled pleasure palace was for up to a 1000 dancing couples. This is the type of room influenced by hundreds of Hollywood sets built firstly for the silent screen and then the early days of sound during what we continue to call the ‘Jazz Age’ .
There’s something inevitably melancholic about seeing great buildings decay before our eyes. It’s too close to the bone perhaps, reminiscent of mortality and the entropic collapse of fantasy and entertainment embodied within extraordinary buildings. Detroit’s historic place at the heart of the industrial Mid-West made it a popular destination for the great migration of African-Americans heading north from the rural south in the early 20th century. This huge demographic dislocation largely produced a distinct musical culture in the city, which came of age during the 1960s with the emergence of the Motown sound.
Another website I found called compiles even more extensive photographic archives documenting the social collapse of Detroit produced in a less glossy style than Marchand and Meffre but neverless as painfully haunting. Numerous schools, apartment buildings, churches, libararies, hotels and clubs stand empty and disintegrating. This blogger explains that Detroit lost a million inhabitants between 1950 and 2010 as if the energy of the city just seeped away. To see the structures that housed an entire society with all its aspirations simply abandoned is to experience some of the trauma of walking through Pompeii in the Bay of Naples.
At White Cube in the West End, Gregory Crewdson is exhibiting a new series of photographs employing a similar theme of decay and the irrepressible march of time. Instead of staging his now familiar theatrical mise-en-scene of suburban fantasies in lush technicolour, Crewdson has opted for the subdued subtlety of black and white prints. Furthermore, he now opts to take images on the outdoor sets at Cinecitta, Rome’s dream factory. These images austerely record the strange ambiguity of sets built to resemble either Roman cities or historical periods such as the 19th century. What may appear to be accurate reconstructions are persistently subverted by Crewdson’s exposure of scaffolding, ropes and props designed to facilitate a fantasy in the movie theatre. So the viewer is invited to participate in a simulacra of history while simultaneously being encouraged to appreciate the elaborate pretence that defines the entire process of film-making.

Titled ‘Sanctuary’, the series aptly demonstrates the artifice of film itself. On the one hand the sets are painstaking re-enactments down to the intricate details of brickwork, friezes and sculpture but on the other we witness the sheer flimsiness of these constructions shedding plaster and wood before our eyes as they sit devoid of activity. Entirely two dimensional and propped up at the rear, the sets are flimsy two-dimensional facades allowing the camera to skim across the surface but not to penetrate any deeper.
Of the 41 prints, only one illustrates any human presence. Hung on it’s own in a side room, this last photograph shows a female gate keeper at the entrance to the studio, oddly resembling one of those ticket sellers from the 1930s who used to sit outside the elaborately themed cinemas. Crewdson seems to link the process of film making to the history of its distribution in an era when film-making on the grand scale of Cleopatra and other movies made on this lot in Rome are being superseded by new technologies and audiences.
So this elegiac, nostalgic quality is present in both the Detroit and Cinecitta series. Photography is a superlative medium for evoking a profound sense of loss, of time washing irretrievably over buildings and places like a corrosive high tide. But we can enjoy the immense layering of information that both photographic practices achieve. We could spend hours isolating elusive and obscure details that appear to be literally fading before us.

Crewdson successfully captures that uncanny, mysterious quality of ‘make-believe’ intrinsic to film. Ironically these sets are built close to the authentic historic site of the Roman Forum. But only a set will suffice because it can be manipulated in a hyper-real fashion. While across the Atlantic twentieth century ersatz derivations of Roman architecture already lie in ruins little more than a 100 years after they were constructed.

Matthew Stone’s Anatomy of Material Worlds

London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts staged a series of live events this past weekend entitled ‘Against Gravity’ (November 26 -28) taking inspiration from Italo Calvino’s proposition that ‘lightness is a value, rather than a defect.’
For one evening only Mathew Stone staged a multi-media piece, ‘Anatomy of Immaterial Worlds’.  In a packed house, the work projected a film of computer generated imagery against the back wall of the stage.
At the outset, a grey orb like a planet swiveled towards us revealing a dark aperture through which we entered on a long and strange adventure. Stone took the audience on a what seemed to be an epic odyssey through a twisting, enclosed space that resembled a long tunnel. Largely dark, the gloom was illuminated by glowing patches of fluorescent colour like plankton attached to the walls of a sea cave. As the audience was taken deeper into this imprecise, allusive space, the electronic score became more urgent and throbbing.
The effect was to induce a trance like sensation that was neither unpleasant, nor uplifting but rather emphasised exploration and progression towards an unknown destination. Calvino’s ‘lightness’ seemed to take the explicit form of gravity-free and ‘immaterial’ travel so familiar from science fiction in film and literature, but this physical experience acted too as imaginative spur to a more metaphorical condition of travel.
This floating journey, which initially felt enticing, became insistently monotonous as if the dramatic denouement were being deliberately denied.  A state of weightless movement became rather banal through 30 minutes of repetitious images and sound reminding us of the endurance required by the processes of discovery. Eventually, the film faded and we were left in darkness while the original music written by Stone grew louder with more pounding bass effects, ramping up the expectation and an accompanying hunger for release. (Some used this blackout to impose their own ending by leaving the theatre).
Finally and to some evident relief, the lights came up to the sound of a Soprano singing accompanied by live musicians. On stage, a pair of dancers performed a very brief duet in costumes that appeared to be made from transparent stockings stuffed with rags that stopped abruptly. Whether this was intended to induce an elevating climax or an exaggerated bathos for the time we invested on the journey, the entire work concluded with a degree of confusion. ‘Anatomy of Immaterial Worlds’ had left the audience truly untethered from any certainty.

William Daniels at Vilma Gold

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As the visitor approaches William Daniels’ 10 new ‘oil on board’ paintings (as yet all untitled), the scale of these works becomes more surprising the closer you reach them. They achieve a disarming physical and visual presence. No picture is larger than 38 centimetres high or 29 centimetres wide,  but any initial, modest impact is radically changed by the exuberant descriptions of colour, tonality and geometry seen by the artist in the folds of crumpled metal foil.
Having previously exhibited paintings of paper maquettes,  inspired by iconic images in art history, Daniels now turns to an investigation of representation in painting. He explores how light operates on the reflective surface of these foil objects, which appear to sit against a backdrop of the same material to enhance the mirroring of ambient light. These ‘formless’ shapes first attract and then return the light in altered, complex patterns. Such closely cropped and intricate paintings invite sustained viewing to comprehend the detail held within them. Fractals of grey and yellow or red and olive meet awkwardly and fight for space. Colour and form are in constant flux producing a hallucinatory effect like staring through a spyhole into a fiery furnace.
Every facet and wrinkle made by compressing the foil sheets into solid, abstract forms is articulated with adroit brushwork;  flatter flecks of colour are separated by raised ridges of paint marking hard edges in the original objects. Daniels’ textured surfaces faithfully express the physicality of the material he studies. This act of turning flat sheets into form cleverly exposes and reverses the traditional act of painting itself, the translation of tangible objects into a two dimensional plane.
In Daniels’ quest for dazzling optical effects, the paintings achieve a theatrical trompe l’oeil character. However,  there is an ambiguous quality about these images, illustrating the curious status of painting itself. Daniels reminds us that painting is a lyrical resemblance,  a dialogue between the ‘real’ and the imaginary, which in this show produces an exhilaratingly giddy experience.


Returning to Provincetown by boat is a simple pleasure that never fails to meet my expectations. The sleek, slow boat has unfortunately been relegated to the Saturday service so the trip is now cut in half by the slightly banal high-speed catamarans that run the route between Boston and the Cape, but which still provide that magical contact with the sea as you head towards land’s end.
Reputedly, the first landfall for the Pilgrim Fathers, this small fishing community has acquired a mythic status as the first point of refuge for these fleeing pioneers seeking the freedom to pursue a life determined by conscience and belief. And so in turn the town has remained a place of hope and sanctuary to artists, writers, performers, gay men and women, immigrants and those too eccentric to conform to the expectations of their native communities. Rather like San Francisco, Provincetown acts as an inspirational idea and a rebuke.
As you leave the long elongated Boston harbour and its remnants of armed revolt, the boat heads out to what appears to be open sea. For an hour or so the horizon is filled with the grey-blue swell of the Atlantic. If you’re lucky, you may see a whale rise up in a brief, mesmerising leap to break the monotony. With patience, the feint edge of the Cape’s shoreline emerges to guide the boat towards the tranquil embrace of Provincetown’s harbour, allegedly the second largest in the world (the first remains obscurely unknown to me). As you arrive at the dock, it’s possible to discern landmarks that line the long high street: the wooden spire of the Universalist Church; the granite replica of an Italian campanile, built as a monument to the Pilgrim Fathers; the white belfry of the town library; and various wharves and jetties once used to unload fish but now the back porches of bars and restaurants that line the beach.
Every few years I feel a hankering, even an urgency to return. Little changes from year to year. Perhaps one clothing store has been replaced by another or a favoured lunch spot has closed, but it’s the local residents who endure such as the drag queens who stand outside their venues promoting their acts like hawkers selling clams. They hustle to earn a buck as they trade quips or fling provocative remarks at passing strollers. Later at twilight, Cher’s doppleganger will appear on a foot-powered scooter in fishnets and a thong .Outside the town hall, buskers take their turn to woo a crowd. Some have a semblance of talent while others battle to be taken seriously and try turning a buck by selling Cds laid out by their feet. Only a ‘moving statue’ raised my ire but the local paper gave her space to describe how she had built her career on the road from Ohio. This year ‘Emily’ a transsexual was belting out show standards with a handwritten sign saying ‘76 and living my dream’ in an ill fitting long wig, short skirt and high heels. Marrying this audacity to conviction was enough to force bicyclists and walkers to a halt as they stared in baffled astonishment. It is unseemly to mock or snigger in ‘P-town’. This is a community that is defined by eclecticism and it takes all sights in its stride.
What is truly astonishing is the arrival of day-tripping middle America into what some may term a contemporary Sodom and Gomorrah. But it’s gratifying that by the sea, at the end of the continental US, couples and their kids actually enjoy the theatricality and camp excess of street life here. They discover a summer-long carnival of performance and display.
Aside from this social conviviality, the town perches on the edge of the natural world. On three sides sits the ocean. Beyond a narrow strip of settlement, you can cycle into the dunes and forests of a seashore set aside for protection as a national park by a President Kennedy who grew up sailing this coast. It’s possible to follow the trails for miles up to Race Point lighthouse up and over shifting sand dunes punctuated by clusters of pine trees. Despite the need to navigate the crowds on the town’s narrow high street, the beach here is largely empty even in high season by comparison with the Mediterranean where swimming in summer can resemble membership of a seal colony.
The tip of Cape Cod sustains a microclimate shaped by the mercurial moods of the sea. This year it was so hot that it felt like crossing the Sahara simply to arrive at the beach where there was no shade to shelter from the sun. On my last day, the rain rolled in off the sea with a savage intensity. One year I was stranded for days by the aftermath of a hurricane. Living in London most of the year, Nature here beckons me to leave the hurly-burly of urban life behind and re-connect with elemental forces. When I must leave to return to life elsewhere, I carry an indelible memory of P-town that sustains me in the hope that I can return.
As I stood in the lashing rain waiting anxiously for the ferry to arrive and  hoping for a miraculous subsidence of the waves, an elegant, tall, middle- aged woman in a boiler suit with a broad Boston accent began to talk to me in that disarming American way that assumes familiarity and which makes many Britons so often uneasy. But she charmed me with her natural bonhomie and tales of spending summer in the resort. Susan worked as a psychiatric nurse for most of the year and between the lines I could read an annual quest for solitude and the chance of navigating the sea in her little rowboat that she kept tied up in port. She reminded me of Katherine Hepburn in African Queen; stoic, independent and a maverick. Susan might stand out in the suburb of the city where she lived and worked, but out on the Cape at the end of the world she was compellingly self-sufficient and content. In that momentary encounter on the point of departure, I found what makes Provincetown an irresistible destination. While the boat pulled out, I hoped to take as much of this spirit away with me, much as I might pack a jar with shells found in the marsh by the long stone breakwater where the tide brings in the salt water to animate the reeds and rock pools.

Ernesto Neto: The Edges of the World

As you enter Ernesto Neto’s new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, a sign asks you to ‘be gentle with Edges of the World’. This alerts us to the inclusive nature and fragility of Neto’s work, which seems to say that delight may be found in the material world and its inherent vulnerability. Neto transforms the Brutalist shell of the Hayward gallery using soft, yielding fabric to create organic, internal spaces. The hard concrete, functionality of the gallery is deliberately subverted. What epitomizes the Modernist, South Bank vision of reason and order becomes overgrown with a fecund fantasy of colours, textures and scents.
Entering Neto’s constructed environment is a return to the pleasures rather than the fears of childhood. Arching above our heads, ‘Horizonmembranenave employs a skeletal frame over which the artist pulls diaphanous fabric across wooden ribs that resemble dinosaur bones. A long twisting tunnel gently changes colour and beckons the visitor with the scent of Camomile flowers, which have been slipped into pockets sewn into the translucent skin.
Across the entire top floor with view over London, Neto has fashioned this environment by lowering a ceiling of his trademark fine mesh. Surfaces curve and slope in biomorphic uncertainty. Even the floor at one point is strangely altered so that you must tread gingerly across highly sprung fabric that resists your weighty footprint thereby gently lowering you to the firm concrete flooring below.
Scattered across the gallery are several staircases leading to viewing platforms that elevate you up through holes cut into the fabric ceiling like tree houses giving views across a rainforest canopy. Elsewhere, soft tubes like elongated stockings or gloves are inserted into this delicate wall providing proximity to other visitors who are constantly seen or heard around you.
This is a show that demands transitions through the gallery space mediated by abrupt physical changes. Installations become architectural experiences offering shelter and perceptual discovery.
Outside, Neto has made full use of Hayward’s large terraces even to extent of setting up a bathing pool with exotic, pointy-headed pavilions in saffron yellow obscurely titled ‘H2O-SFLV’ The evening I visited, two stately middle aged ladies bobbed around in their floral one piece swim suits as if on an expedition to Margate, but this time they commanded a view across London’s South Bank and an entire pool to themselves having duly arranged a reservation, as requested. Perhaps the necessary display of skin explains the polite request to refrain from taking pictures.
 On the other side of the building it’s possible to enjoy a low-rise concrete wall that leads you up and down a narrow gauge in an infinite loop. ‘Walking to the Future’ returns the visitor to the balancing games of youth. It also hints at a Medieval floor maze designed to elucidate meaning through physical movement and contemplation.
Ernesto Neto has become a Brazilian ‘Willy Wonker’ conjuring up remarkable transformations. By cutting and shaping cloth he simulates the wiliness and unpredictability of Nature. But this is not the natural world ‘red in tooth and claw’ but a softened experience of the material world. Even the looping wall that invites us to wobble around, as we search for our centre of gravity, gently catches our fall with a bed of bark chippings. Neto’s world is exuberant but any edge or menace is removed.
At the Hayward you will find temporary relief from the churning city beyond, where you will encounter unfolding stimuli without any disturbance. Unlike Wonker’s chocolate factory, the dark side of existence is adroitly trumped by sensuality.

A blog reviewing Modern and Contemporary Art.