Report from London
With the hedonistic grandeur of the World Cup (that month-long international festival of soccer) upon us, as well as the Basel Art Fair attracting art world consumers, the month in London seems more about the ephemeral than the epic.
Bas Jan Ader
The Camden Arts Centre
April 28–July 2, 2006
Since the Camden Arts Centre’s reopening after a long refurbishment, its appearance is that of a very elegant visual arts space; and no doubt its artist residency program is the first to benefit from a beautiful garden and increased facilities. Before the renovation it was a charming but slightly run-down old building, and although its current spare minimalism has taken away some of that charm, it provides a strong setting for the “shabbiness” of Bas Jan Ader’s aesthetic.
Ader (1942–75) is the art world’s own Richey Edwards, the gifted songwriter and guitarist of the Manic Street Preachers who disappeared in 1995. In 1975 Ader tried to cross the Atlantic in the name of art and was never seen again. It’s a shame that Samuel Beckett, a fan of Buster Keaton and the painter Jack Yeats, never discovered him; Beckettian tragicomedy seems ideally suited to the actions and manifestations of the Dutchman. Relocating to Los Angeles as a student in the early ’60s, his work could be connected to the witty actions of others maturing at the same time, John Baldessari and Chris Burden for example. Like their early work, Ader’s method is simplicity itself—short, simple films and uncomplicated, face-on photography all serve his funny little “acts.”
In this mini-retrospective, there are films, photographs and installations, as well as ephemera, on view. A whole room is devoted to the sailor shanties he wrote for his final ocean voyage; slides (not PowerPoint) and a recording of his students singing them play continuously. His films, however, are the most poignant: he cries—soulfully—in one, falls over like a Keystone Cop in another. In fact, Ader seems to fall over a lot in both his films and photography: rolling along a roof, falling over a barrier (a joke on the Neoplastic diagonal), out of a tree (hanging off a branch, he maneuvers his position carefully before dropping). Mostly he sways, then falls, usually somewhat in a straight line. An Ader fall seems like a failure, nudging in subtle ways at certain notions of Dutchness itself: small references to Neoplasticism, tulip culture and landscape dot his entire oeuvre. Since he’s gone to sea…perhaps it is really Ader who has taken Beckett to heart: “Fail again. Fail better.” Or maybe we should say: “Fall again. Fall better.” There is something remarkably touching here: maybe in these ironic, knowing and over-produced times, Ader reminds us of other possibilities.
June 9–July 15, 2006
Finally, in relation to the other shows, the efforts of Dr Lakra seem to be ever so slight. Having trained, and still working, as a tattoo artist in his native Oaxaca in Mexico, his pieces slip easily between popular culture and folk art. But his art really seems to be more a form of social intervention. Obviously the tattoo has strong cultural resonances in his native land, but Lakra, aka Jeronimo Lopez Ramírez, is actually exporting it from the flesh into its social representations, in which the tattoo does not quite exist except as a sign of transgression or as part of the historical past.
In the center of the room, twenty manipulated objects sit on a plinth with a mirror on its surface, and on the walls hang defaced works on paper. Mostly he has tattooed some children’s dolls or drawn tattoos upon found photos, turning these common, and thus often invisible, objects into more resonant cultural artifacts. They seem to be things from another time; in fact they’re very ’40s-looking. Yet, with these facial markings, they are transformed into strangely contemporary encounters. There are also some fake hands and shrunken heads sitting on the mirror, also tattooed. Inspired most likely by his own Oaxacan culture, they seem like shrine objects, but updated to our modern “tribal” times. Somewhat like the daily Buddhist reflection on death in preparation for the inevitable, Dr. Lakra reminds us that those tribal instincts exist in our lives regardless of whether they are drawn upon our surface or not. Here in Britain, their social poignance may be slightly lost, but a more humorous and anarchic charm emerges, as well as the appeal of his draughtsmanship.
June 4–July 23, 2006
The 21st Century no longer seems the time for “isms” or manifestoes. Yet Rob Tufnell, who is curator at Turner Contemporary in Margate (http://www.turnercontemporary.org) proposes a sort of phantom “ism” in “John Frumism,” which was inspired by a cargo cult in the South Pacific who celebrate an annual John Frum Day (short for “John frum America”) to commemorate the arrival of African American GIs mistaken for deities. Although this grouping does not refer directly to any cult, Tufnell has selected work according to themes of “transference, myth and transcendence.” The concept behind Hotel, the home of the proprietors, is a project space in which foreign artists temporarily reside and create. Unlike Camden Arts, Hotel is situated in a working class neighborhood and is a more spirited space, thus ideal for any displaced spirits to be found lurking in the work of Philip Lai, Mike Nelson (who currently has a show at Matt’s Gallery (http://www.mattsgallery.org) and will be in Richard Grayson’s “intense” group show, A Secret Service: Art, Compulsion, Concealment, touring outside London this fall (http://www.hayward.org.uk), and finally Paul Thek (1933–88).
Despite the presence of physical objects, “John Frumism” is full of “hauntings.” Mike Nelson’s installation, the first piece one walks through, is barely noticeable. At second glance, a spotlight shines on some nearly invisible “scratch marks” on the wall—or perhaps I missed something here—and in the gallery his homemade Turkish waterpipe sits unused, or maybe it’s not useable, as it is constructed from a motorcycle helmet attached to a water can via a hose, with a camping stool for repose. The narrative he’s constructed around these pieces imagines them as relics left by characters from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, who, in his mind, are lost and have created “vessels for intoxication” to continue their journey, albeit inwards.
It is Lai’s sense of materiality, however, that anchors this show. His L-shaped frame structure, with draped fabric, seems like a colorful, minimalist shanty, while on the floor a box of used, folded jeans appears entirely forlorn. Malaysian born, but London trained and based, Lai creates objects that seem sadly abandoned, as if awaiting human purpose, yet they engage in a nice contretemps with Thek’s lively and cartoony etchings on the walls. Though joyful, like much of Thek’s oeuvre, they are slightly odd and come at the viewer from left field; in fact, they recall the touching qualities of Bas Jan Ader’s show. In one, as a cake-shaped cloud has its candles blown out by other clouds, it says, “this is my body,” and in another a heart seems to rise over the moon. The Tower of Babel is upside down and looking very much like a whirlwind. As the dead member of this group, perhaps Thek’s spirit haunts the show. Tufnell’s selection, at first, seems entirely too physically insistent to be about the immaterial, but upon reflection on a hot sunny afternoon, the show’s forlorn spirit takes us in to a strange world.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.