the 2014 edition of the online journal Stigmart10 has an article about my work. The other articles are good too – have a look!
Tag Archives: video art
Thirteen years ago, he was an up and coming artist, spreading his talents across various media. Painter, graphic artist, film-maker, dancer, actor and performance artist – these are just the things I saw him doing. Handsome and charming, his performances in particular were intense and riveting. And sometimes – not always – he did them naked.
Like that of many young artists in the late 1990s and early 2000s, his art was often about the body, about its vulnerability, about movement, about endurance. It was not about sex or sexuality. For a brief moment there appeared to be a general understanding that nudity was not “dirty” or sexy. That an artist or actor or performer could be nude in the same way a statue in a museum could be nude.
Actually, in the world of art and art appreciation I’d say attitudes have not changed, but outside of those rarefied circles they certainly have.
In 2009 Richard Prince’s piece Spiritual America (1983) was removed from “Pop Life, Art in a Material World”. The Tate removed it after a visit by the police. This was unusual; in western society over the past fifty years or so outright censorship is very rare. Police are normally not involved unless there is evidence an actual crime. In Prince’s case the provenance of the work is both well documented and more than acknowledged by Prince; in fact the provenance is the whole point. The work is a 1976 Playboy nude photograph of a heavily made-up prepubescent girl (an actress) which was authorised by the girl’s mother as a commercial venture. To my mind it is an absolutely necessary piece of work to be on display. It tells us everything need to know about Western sexual attitudes in that era. (It tell us about the current British Light Entertainment scandal when Jimmy Saville and other entertainers have been guilty of rape and exploitation of children throughout the 60s and 70s.) It tell us that sexualisation of children, and the whole porno-cratic ideal, is not glamorous and clever but sad and tawdry. And about money. Spiritual America is an unpleasant art work but a necessary one. It forces us to look and then think. And so it was strange and horrible that the police removed it.1
This is important because Prince’s piece was made in 1983 after he appropriated the original photograph, and has been shown numerous times since then. After the removal it appeared on the web, where clearly it reached many more people than would ever pay to see Pop Life. What happened between 1983 and 2009? The picture was awful in 1976, vile in 1983 but by 2009 it is itself a crime? Did the Taliban take control?
Hardly. The New Puritanism in the museum has not been matched by any kind of reining in of social behaviour. The exploitation of children continues. Politicians and the media continue to score points for themselves with periodic self serving ‘crusades.’ Little has changed.
So, thirteen years ago it was perfectly all right and perfectly fashionable for an artist or an actor to appear nude. It probably still is. But this breezy assumption does not take into account what happens when for whatever reason you are no longer and artist or an actor. Thirteen years ago if you met someone who used to be an actor and did a few nude scenes, unless you had the video tape, you’d never get to see it. It’s hard to believe it but in 2000 relatively few people had the internet at home. It existed but it was expensive and insanely slow. Low grade videos, small photos and no interactivity. Broadband barely existed; it only became available in the UK in 2000, and this was far too expensive for most. Ofcom (UK Office of Communications) notes that “If you travelled back in time to 1999 and stopped the first person you met, it’s quite possible they’d have yet to try out the internet.”
Fast forward from 2000 to 2013. The dynamic young artist is now a middling-aged school teacher. Perhaps not his first choice, but Saatchi never came calling. Bills have to be paid. The Bohemian antics of thirteen years ago are long forgotten. And then comes the phone call. “It has come to our attention that there are salacious images of you on the Internet.” What? Our hero is bemused. He cannot think what they mean. He agrees to the meeting with the Governors, and rushes to his website to see what on earth it can possibly mean. No, the site is clean – just photos of his paintings, which he sells from time to time. Flickr – nope just family stuff. Picnics. Facebook? He has exactly two photos on it, one of a work party and the other of a particularly impressive burger. He doesn’t tweet and has no time to blog.
He goes to the meeting and is confronted with photos and video he had forgotten about – because they dated from 2000. Photos from obscure art festivals, and a short film in a film maker’s archive. He does not own these sites and has no control over the content. Do the governors understand that? No, they don’t. Children can find this stuff and can be harmed by it, is the line. He realises that even if they are not right about the harm (from a vague non-erect pixelated penis), the fact that this stuff has surfaced means that it’s going to be difficult for him to take control of the situation at work. The school does not seem prepared to back him up and perhaps making it a ‘teaching moment’. He promises to try to remove the offending images though he does not really know how.
With Richard Prince it was easy. The police came, threatened the Tate’s workers, who promptly removed the picture. Though no doubt the Tate workers were traumatized, it was a matter easily rectified. With the case of our man though, it was not. He is currently trying to get various websites around the world, none of which he has any relationship with, to remove or hide the images. Legally, none of them has to. Some of them won’t want to, since they are part of an institution’s archive and therefore are valuable to the institution. I know about this because he approached me, about one of my films. I was able and willing to hide my content behind a password but some of the images of my work are on sites that I don’t own, film festivals etc.
Now, trying to help him, I see that a particularly hideous situation is unfolding. How many artists from the late 90s and early 2000s have images of themselves in positions that today might be considered compromising? Huge numbers. Virtually every performer I worked with in that era used nudity. I look at my own back catalogue and I find several other cases where I used an actor or performer – and there they are, nude on the Internet. Still photographs, too; whole series. Some of these sites aren’t mine; they belong to the curator or the exhibiting organisation. Should I remove all the ones I can remove? After all, it’s my work. And the arrangement was entered into freely. And what of the performers? Are they just to erase their creative past?
The funny – ok, unfunny – thing is that despite this insistence that children not be harmed by fuzzy low quality images of their teacher as a youth doing performance art, despite this righteous prudery, nobody sees to give a crap about what the actual kids are actually doing. The rapes, the exploitations, the neglect; the coarse sexualisation of childhood, the brutalities of social media, the ever present sexual (and otherwise) bullying .. all of this continues with impunity. But if the teacher just gets rid of his web page then it will all be okay.
There’s no space for an honest in class discussion of things like, what is nudity in art? What is performance art? Even, how we do change as we go through the course of our lives? No, no time for that. Just a big bucket of snow white paint and a massive brush, thank you very much.
Even a criminal conviction is considered spent after a while, but Internet images, apparently, brand you a sinner for all time.
Today I got talking to someone about fantasists and I realised I’d come into contact with a few of those in my time and they all seem to revolve around art. In fact the worst fantasists I ever met suffered from curator fantasy, a peculiar tendency.
Let’s see, when I was starting my Film & Photography degree a woman I knew slightly from around and about told me she was organising a little show in a health centre we both used. She asked me for a piece of work and although as a first year student I didn’t think I would have anything worth showing I agreed. Then I heard nothing. Time passed. The college year was winding down. I had a few decent projects completed. Suddenly she appeared again with exciting news. It wasn’t a show in a little health centre it was to be a local art festival, taking over the whole High Street of the district, involving all kinds of venues and an important art TV channel was going to be supporting it. Not only that, but she has now an office and a business and was working full time on the project. I was impressed. But then she asked me for my work and I – mindful of what I still had left ot learn – said “Well, no. My work is far too undeveloped for me to show it in that kind of big event. Wait till I have finished my degree.” I didn’t hear from her again until much later I heard that it had all been a fantasy. Worse, she actually had rented an office and spent all her savings but had not actually organised anything still less got the TV involved. Even weirder, in my first group show after graduating she suddenly appeared again as an artist, contributing some bafflingly irrelevant drawings that the curator hid away in a corner of the show. It was all very odd. I never saw her again after that. Little did I know that Curator Fantasy is a real affliction.
The next instance of it came some years later in Berlin. A very colourful character, a sort of old-school style impresario,came to the studio where I was working and offered the studio group a big show in a venue he had acquired outside the city. A medieval building no less. We drove there and saw it, it was quite fine. He held court in his local winekeller, twirling his moustaches and talking about past glories and his new career as curator of contemporary art. We collectively shook hands on the deal. The following spring he confirmed that he had received a huge grant from the state arts fund and was ready to put the show into action. We drove there again and this time we did not visit the building as it was “under preparation” but we did visit his winekeller again where all arrangements were concluded. We then went back to the city; we sent him all the PR materials and he said he’d confirm the final dates. Time passed. I went back to London. Not long after my friends from Berlin called me. They had had no word from the impresario and so finally went down to the place to find out what was going on. They went first to the site of the show the medieval building. Still empty, but for an estate agent. Who told them that it was not rented and had never been rented. He recalled a funny old man who had come and talked to him about renting it but never got back to him. My friends made their way to the winekeller despite it being quite early and he was already there, enjoying a vintage. Confronted, he finally admitted there had never been a project, never a grant from the state art fund and never had he any authority whatsoever to offer anyone anything. He was an old retired man with a younger wife who fancied herself a bit arty so he wanted to seem a bit “with it” and have something to do. But he had no ideas and no resources to do any of it. Mystified, my friends had a glass of wine and then went back to the city.
The third fantasist is the weirdest. She was again nothing to do with art but was a professor of literature and she had received a grant to make a project to mark a particular occasion. Instead of doing what she knew, which was literature, she decided to curate visual art. I was invited by her assistant, to whom the whole job or organising fell. I made the work that was commissioned, based on the place and dimensions that were supplied to me, and I gave a list of materials that would be needed to install it (mainly a roll of light reflective colored gel). Ominously, soon before the show was mean to happen I learned that the venue had changed. Still I went there and tried to get to see the space. This was denied to me repeatedly. I hug around the city for several days waiting and waiting, till she deigned to see me. I had not met her by this point. When I did I found her very odd. First she invited me to dinner in a restaurant and even though I said I was not hungry and going to a party after, she ordered food and insisted I eat while she sat next to me smoking. SO not comfortable, on every level. This was made even weirder when, as we left she suddenly bent down and picked something small off the sidewalk and put it in her bag. I looked puzzled and she told me “I can’t resist anything I see lying on the sidewalk. I have to pick it up and take it. I keep the things I pick up in jars in my house.” I must have looked quite freaked out, which empowered her and so she confided further that sometimes if it was food, she was unable to stop herself picking it up and eating it. Now my gorge rose and I wanted to vom up the unwelcome dinner. Clearly she was enjoying this because she went on to on tell me that for many years she saved all her finger and toenail clippings in jars too. I was reminded of one of the worst things I read in my adolescence: Simone de Beauvoir’s account in her autobiography of discovering that her prim and proper neighbour was a coprophile. If I recall, they discovered it when the woman died. I was traumatised by this news that such people existed. Now I am not saying that my curator friend was coprophile but I had the same shuddery feeling of horror that I had had when I read De Beauvoir’s own account (which itself was still redolent with her horror).
We made it to the site of the forthcoming show. Now the worst unfolded. This so-called curator had in her unwisdom decided that an installation that was meant for a large space, two projectors and a wall of light reflective gel, was actually going to be a single screen projection onto a small window in a staircase. Worse: she planned to balance the equipment on a chair on the staircase. Asked her dumbfounded, what was expected to happen when people walked up the stairs. She pondered. I asked her if the system could be fixed to the celling. She didn’t know I went and got the site manager and he told us that no, in fact no fixings could be made anywhere. I realised that my work was not going to be shown in the way I wanted, and my best bet was to just give her the work and be done with it, which I did, the work and the invoice. I had no further dealings with her but needless to say she never showed her face as a curator again for any reason or in any capacity. One odd thing, a curious friend of mine did go to the show to see how she did end up screening the work, and found they were charging a hefty admission fee. I wonder what happened to the grant money? Fishy, fishy.
In the great scheme of things, these fantasists were pretty harmless, unlike the fantasists who think they are doctors and actually get jobs in hospitals or do dodgy plastic surgery on sad vain people (usually killing them). But it is a weird tendency.
(This is not be confused with the lesser bred, the technology fantasists. The ones who get an i-Phone and call themselves photographers, or buy a video camera and call themselves Cinematographers. I guess these are more victims of marketing.)
Rist’s website: http://www.pipilottirist.net
Video artist Pipilotti Rist had a huge show in London’s Hayward gallery this season and it is fabulous. I had seen bits of her work but was not prepared for the sensorial overload of delight that was “eyeball massage” a show that definitely lives up to its name.
I want to praise Rist for two principal things: she is the sole author of her work. In an era when so many artists, especially moving image artists, don’t take any technical control of the tools (cameras, editing etc.) Rist is fully hands on. She is in charge of her work, does much of the technical stuff and the result is a real singularity of vision that is complete and fulfilled. It is a heady, hallucinatory artistic space she offers us, one soaked in colour where the visceral realities of the body mingle with the natural world and the constructed environment into one strange and unsettling yet oddly – and paradoxically – comfortable whole.
The second thing I want to praise Rist for is her devotion to video art. Video is what she does, she is devoted to it and in her hands video is an ever expanding constantly enlightening creative medium. Her video is embedded in the floor, part of sculpture, immersive projection or tiny as a pinhead. Video art is often maligned and usually deservedly so (see my article https://gmc1ver.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/videoartmciver.pdf) but in Rist’s capable hands it is rich, thrilling and mature, a medium that creates wonder, delight, fright and the gamut of emotions. And it is utterly, unreservedly beautiful.
I was so astonished by Rist’s show that I will go and see it again before it closes, simply to soak myself in it and emerge inspired and refreshed by colour and light.
Here’s a really good review of the show by Anneka French