NOTHING LIKE SOMETHING HAPPENS ANYWHERE
FRANCIS ALŸS, STAN DENNISTON, ANDY HOLDEN, BEN RIVERS, UGO RONDINONE, MAAIKE SCHOOREL AND GEORGE SHAW
Curated by Hannah Firth
Review by Cherry Smyth
Chapter, Cardiff 6 July- 2 September 2012
The title of this ambitious and satisfyingly circuitous group show is a line taken from a Philip Larkin poem called ‘I Remember, I Remember’ written in 1954. In the poem, Larkin arrives by train back into his hometown of Coventry, but as he searches for a visual hook for memory, he delivers a wry and ironic catalogue of anti-memories – things that didn’t happen, thereby dismantling any hint of nostalgia. The grim cynicism ends with almost a note of sympathy for the city as the narrator says, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’.
This exhibition asks what are the challenges of portraying insignificance and what uses do artists make of the materiality of nothingness. It presents a fascinating amalgam of seven artists, most of whom use very different materials and aesthetics, woven into a critical conversation around broader philosophical concerns that transcend the disparate genres of film, performance, paint and sculpture.
The site of Larkin’s Midlands city is taken up in the work of George Shaw – the super-realist painter whose work evolves from photographs taken on the Tile Hill Estate in Coventry where he grew up. Like Larkin, Shaw is dealing with the lure and fake promise of nostalgia for place. More than any other work in this show, Shaw’s detail a British urban anywhere, where nothing appears to happen but once may have. ‘The Age of Bullshit’, 2010, is the extraordinarily familiar portrait of a utopian Modernist white house that has been converted for commercial use, fitted with car parking and now fenced off and left to decay. The severe dilapidation includes a streak of rust from the gutter, a wooden pallet propped against a wall and half-burnt roof-beams. Some would argue that a photograph would serve Shaw’s purpose just as well, but there is something in the painstakingly smooth brushwork and meticulous visual accuracy that bestows an undeniable redemption. The tragedy of the neglect and destruction of Britain’s pioneering architectural heritage is quietly and beautifully rendered.
Another study of the overlooked, ‘The Assumption’, 2010, shows the locked gates of a public park or cemetery in some down-at-heel suburb. The words ‘KEEP CLEAR’ are almost erased from the ragged asphalt in front and the railings are bent for after-hours’ access. Shaw’s stretch of cool milky sky suggests a Dutch bucolic scene and one wonders if his attentiveness to an older sense of harmony and aesthetics can rescue the attention of city planners. It is a site of failed transfiguration and Shaw endows the mundane with a measure of all we can manage of the majestic. ‘The Assumption’ of course suggests the Virgin’s ascent into heaven, but also the supposition that this sort of place is too much of a non-place to feature in a landscape painting. It is precisely at the moment when the site is designated as uninteresting that Shaw steps in and we follow.
The idea of the Assumption makes a bizarre kind of link to Ben Rivers’ short 16mm loop ‘The Coming Race’, 2006, in which he films a group of straggling and struggling pilgrims climbing an unnamed slate mountain in overcast and blustery conditions. It could be Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s largest Catholic site of religious ritual. There is no human sound. The wailing wind sweeps around the mountain, swathed in mist as Rivers captures something about the ancient practice of finding and transcending emptiness in a task of collective endurance. Despite the graininess of the black and white footage, their endeavour is palpable, their reward unseen.
The film recalls ‘When Faith Moves Mountains’, 2002, a piece made in Peru by Francis Alÿs, in which he asked 500 volunteers to move a mountain of sand by ten centimetres, raising questions about religious faith, migration, national boundaries and map-making, as well as demonstrating the creation of community through art. In ‘Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing)’, 1997, Alÿs’ piece in this show, the artist pushes a large block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it melts to the size of a white suitcase and later down to a pebble he can kick along. People barely notice his labour which subtly plays with ‘the idea’ becoming ‘the product’ in conceptualism: do the years of training, looking, reading and making that go towards defining an artist’s practice leave a trace in the final work, especially when that work is merely a record of a melting process or a mere breath, as in ‘Artist’s Breath’, Piero Manzoni’s balloon piece of 1960?
What defines the faintest mark that can be left and still carry art’s gesture, is the dilemma that Maaike Schoorel exposes in her superbly delicate abstract paintings. Here four portraits of her friends and family and one self-portrait tell the outline of the body with the faintest of smears, smudges, points of colour on a monochrome ground. Language itself it too solidifying for Schoorel’s work with its half-smidgen of green, a hollow bend of red, a rough suspicion of gold, a bluish feathery stain…. In ‘Emma-Louise on her bed’, 2008 it looks as if the model has lain on the canvas and left nothing but a skin stain, as on a used bedsheet. These reduced marks force the viewer to bring their own narrative to the painting – is that a visible nipple, a distinct thigh or simply my imaginings? You feel your eyes breaking as you peer and try to distinguish what the title promises.
‘Self-Portrait: Looking at Myself in the Mirror’, 2009, is the most uncomfortable of all. It brings to mind Sylvia Plath’s little, four-cornered god where ‘faces and darkness separate us over and over’ and the young woman has been swallowed and ‘rises like a terrible fish’. We try to make out the surface of a mirror, the profile of a face but the image swims away, forcing us to acknowledge how the eye is schooled in applying meaning to feature-recognition and it strains, sees itself written here. Schoorel’s paintings are not only questioning the impossibility of achieving a figurative likeness but also how driven we are to assimilate, categorise and move on after one glance. They are also wonderful depictions of longing: longing to know, be known and to discover how to know. Like poetry, they take time and slow, deep re-readings.
How we read and define our past and our present from what gets left behind guides Andy Holden’s installation, ‘The Cookham Erratics’, 2011, which is the most complex and content-driven piece in the show. Rather than focus on ‘the nothing’ of the title, Holden presents ‘the something’, enquiring how to build a body of intriguing layers of history, geology, literature and philosophy from a family anecdote. The piece consists of a large family of six knitted boulders that look like unraveled 70s jumpers reknitted to suggest lumps of rock in ginger, cream and orange, or in black, grey and white wool. From each boulder issues an audio recording that ranges from Virginia Woolf and the composition of glaciers to a discussion of Stanley Spencer’s painting ‘The Resurrection’ and the influence of John Donne’s sermons. Did Holden’s uncle really throw pebbles at Stanley Spencer as he painted in Cookham churchyard and does it matter? Was Holden really given, as he professes, a copy of John Donne’s love poems when he was eighteen, collaged with photos of himself taken by a girlfriend? Are these facts nothings or somethings? Isn’t that the artist’s job, to build a coherent self that an object can hold and a viewer’s eye can rest on and brain realign itself to ponder?
How apt that an erratic is also the name for a rock that has been carried by a glacier and deposited in an incongruous spot. It is also fascinating that Holden’s interest in glaciers and landscape erosion can feed back to the melting ice in Francis Alÿs’ work and the urban archeology of signs in George Shaw’s paintings, creating and sustaining a provocative and enjoyable multi-strand dialogue among the artists and us. On the day that it has been confirmed that the Arctic ice-cap has melted beyond its terrifying 2007 levels this summer and we cannot guess what weather extremes this interference with the polar Jetstream will bring, the concerns in this show seem deeply and sadly pertinent. Holden’s installation feels like leaning in to hear what a be-cardiganed, eccentric uncle might have to tell us about the history of the world, and it is worth listening.
Ugo Rondinone’s work ‘Still Life’, 2009, consists of a bronze cast of a thick sheet of cardboard leant against the gallery wall, casting back an echo to the pallet leant against the wall in Shaw’s painting ‘The Age of Bullshit’. It makes us think about the packing, sale, distribution and exhibition of artwork and the unseen and unsung labour the art world relies on. My fingers itch. It is almost impossible not to touch its surface to confirm that it is indeed metal and not cardboard. A kind of King Midas has passed this way, rendering the lowly valuable. Nothing is acknowledged as something: a bed for the homeless, a box for all your possessions has become a costly commodity. It’s just a matter of scale, aesthetics and income.
The sculpture also acts as a landscape painting with its indented creasemarks seeming to suggest the outline of a mountain that splits off into associations with both Ben Rivers’ film and the glacial boulders in Andy Holden’s installation. As in Schoorel’s paintings, form and function are disengaged: with Schoorel, the traditional portrait is undone through abstraction, and in Rondinone’s piece the traditional still life is reconfigured both as interpretation of a landscape painting and an enhancing, witty parody of the found object.
The final piece in the show is ‘Los Soñadores’, 2010, by Stan Denniston – a nine-screen installation of stray dogs sleeping rough in the streets of Havana, the smallest surviving socialist country in the world. Again, there is an echo of Francis Alÿs, the lynchpin of this show in many ways, and his earlier piece ‘Sleepers’, 1999-2006, that documents sleeping men, women and dogs in the streets of Mexico City. The short filmic loops capture the bliss of a sleeping dog, let lie, anywhere, anytime, slack and unaware, and as the dogs are woken and chased away by something off camera, we sense how awful the sudden imposition of tense alertness that homelessness and the vulnerability of being moved on at anytime to anywhere deliver. Each loop is repeated on a different monitor each time so that the stories of each (under)dog seems to begin anew in a different position. Thus Denniston gently evokes the ongoing shifting state of the millions of refugees and homeless people all over the globe, moved on in search of work, peace, plenty and forced through the hardships of immigration laws, detention and deportation.
The skill and scope of ‘Nothing Like Something Happens Anywhere’ is to bring together artists who seem to have little in common and create a lively and unlikely space for conversation. This is an intelligently curated and involving show whose resonances are profound and lasting.
Cherry Smyth is a poet, critic and curator, born in Ireland and now based in London. Cherry writes regularly for Art Monthly, Modern Painters and Art Review. Her latest poetry collection is Test, Orange, available from Pindrop Press. www.pindroppress.com