Sometimes you can’t quite believe your own life, who and where you are. The other night in Peckham the air was still, September warm, and amid the industrial wasteland of its backstreets you encountered all kinds of electric, youthful and creative enterprise.
One huge warehouse had its doors flung open to reveal the strangely theatrical sight of a dozen tall, strong, young men and women heaving huge weights, as if on a high and in time with the motivating music. After a few minutes they all jogged off sweating into the night only to return soon after and complete the strenuous circuit-training loop.
All kinds of abandoned factory buildings and little purpose-built sheds are adapted, in the yard known as ‘The Nines’, to quick-fix cafes and bars. There are also a few galleries and artspaces, including David Thorpe and Oscar Mac-Fall’s Performance Studio.
You always tell your own students that they shouldn’t be afraid to make a work of art that isn’t ‘liked’ and that art isn’t necessarily about pleasing. First year undergrads, untuil quite recently, still came to college with only the default terms ‘beautiful’, ‘aesthetically pleasing’ and ‘interesting’ in their armoury of verbal evaluation, and found themselves quickly asked to think beyond these limiting terms, in search of other values, aims and other reasons for making art.
Nevertheless, your own experience with art remains extremely diverse and you have to admit you do enjoy a lot of it and even feel increasingly relaxed about using the ‘B’ word (though you would never, NEVER be caught saying ‘Aesthetically Pleasing’ – surely just the most insipid way of not saying the former, more established term.)
Mauve 2016 – Katrina Blannin
Last weekend you were invited to be one of the judges of this year’s inaugural British Contemporary Painting prize. As well as it being a true privilege it was also a great pleasure. the show was held in The Riverside Gallery in Richmond’s Old Town Hall.
It was a rich experience and a significant education as you became increasingly deeply involved in the 15 paintings and practices of shortlisted artists, not to mention the strangely magnetic way that four judges were able to converge on a single winner, Cathy Lomax,with her iconic-looking, culturally disruptive painting ‘Black Venus‘.
Cathy Lomax, Black Venus, 2014-15
There is a ‘quiet boom’ in British painting that (thankfully) most of the world doesn’t know about, but you have been regularly startled by its astounding diversity, heterogeneity, energy, wit and ambition in the past few years.
Aglaé Bassens,The Shirt Within, 2016
Meanwhile, back at the Peckham Performance Studio we were at what might be considered the other end of the contemporary art spectrum, in the field of cutting edge Performance. Here innovation and tradition might seem to play out their relationship in quite different ways to contemporary painting. Performance designers, their curators and hosts have, after all, and since the inception of this relatively new ‘genre’, always been searching-out and feeling for the very edges, not only of performance but of art per se.
Tonight John Costi first provided some pretty impressive and hard-won urban poetry in the bar outside the space. This strangely morphed into the same artist pulling strange objects out of boxes and bags and placing them carefully for our consideration.The impression was something like an impromptu and perverse pop-up museum of the everyday.The piece was titled: ‘Culture Mating and Memory Reappropriating‘.
The crowd then drifted inside and another event began. ‘Michel, ma belle‘ was: “a live performance by Paris-based artist Arianne Foks …”, but you won’t quote any more of the official blurb (you can find it here of course). You try hard not to read blurbs about art before, or even after you’ve witnessed it with your own open eyes and mind. therefore you are more likely to come to some kind of personal evaluation or interpretation, or even judgement, unguided by the relevant artist’s, curator’s or institution’s words.
The piece started in darkness and a smartly dressed, mature woman tap-danced her way noisily across the space in the dark. Only her dancing feet were illuminated, by an assistant who followed her with a shining smartphone. This remained the most captivating image of the evening for you. It even made you reconsider the quality of the concrete floor. In this ‘new light’ concrete suddenly seemed harder and flatter than ever.
Following this moment of clarity the rest of the piece seemed to you to break into numerous strands and narratives. The performers and audience shared the space informally but the performers constantly commanded it, often giving a strong sense that they knew something that the audience did not. This was slightly troubling as, in the more egalitarian atmosphere of much post-1990s art this very posture felt like a throwback to a lost era of avant-garde activities. It could of course also be valued as a kind of 21st century retro re-enactment, or an insistent reclamation historic avant-garde stance.
As the tap dancer repeated variations on her dance, sometimes flinging little firecrackers onto the hard floor to add extra percussion, another performer draped herself languidly over a bar reading short poetic and philosophical extracts through a microphone (Michel Foucault seemed to be either invoked or satirised here.)
Yet another performer (the artist Arianne Foks herself you suspected) took and uploaded selfies that were cleverly posed in front of posters depicting historic buildings. Meanwhile a live facebook feed projected on one wall ensured the audience were always aware that they were involved in a live documentation of the event they were attending. This surveillance feature increased a growing sense of imposition and possible entrapment which was then compounded by a young man and his ‘hench-woman’ who slowly circled the crowd, stopping at each guest.
The man whispered ‘eat or death’ in each person’s ear (at least that’s what he seemed to whisper in YOUR ear.) The woman pointed at your face gun-like fingers, smeared with (something-like) jam. If you ‘ate’ then you had to lick the fingers’, if you ‘died’ then your hand was marked with red. Some people managed to wriggle out of either choice. It was all quite uncomfortable, intrusive, provocative and fearsome, but it also passed quickly enough.
Nevertheless, the whole event proved too demanding for some members of the audience, including -your slightly ashamed to say- yourself. As 2-3 of your friends upped and quit you felt timidly inclined to join them, encouraged by the sense that, after all, you were NOT feeling great, and justified by the notion that,this might just be the intended or desired outcome of the piece.
Welcomed by the warm, comforting air outside, and drinking a free can of poor quality beer, you bantered with the very same friends about whether the piece ‘worked’; whether this ‘kind of art’ has value, if so what just that value is, and just what it may have or have not achieved in this instance – perhaps a critique of value, or certain values.
Having ‘slept on it’ you still feel a bit lame for quitting the performance, but think it was all a worthwhile experience. It reminded you that you may have been getting too comfortable with art lately and that it may be dangerous to do so. As we grow older we may feel a tendency creep up on us to simply try and ‘enjoy’ life – each day, each minute of life – a little more and as much as we can, but art should still sometimes put your nerves on edge and make you search hard for; make you find an evaluation (as you so often tell your students); a valuation and a vocabulary that is other than a simplistic, habitual or thoughtless affirmation.