1. I’ve been to Frieze a couple of times before, and whilst down on my luck elsewhere, was lucky enough to win tickets this year. **thank you to Frieze Art Fair **
2.The tickets were for any one of the four days of Frieze.
3. Bridget Riley is of extreme importance to my early development as an artist.
***4. Bridget Riley is speaking on Saturday 16th October.*** I’m off.
I’ve had this tape (one of two) since 1992 when I taped the Dialogues on Art, interviews with Bridget Riley orchestrated by Neil Macgregor on Radio Four.
These interviews came at a time when I was desperate to be at art school. Apart from the life school drawing I did in evening classes at Glasgow School of Art, and the course in Etching I did at Glasgow Print studio, these interviews formed the basis of my thoughts upon creative practise. In a way Bridget Riley was my only art teacher at that level until I did my MFA in 2005. I once lent the tapes to my artist cousin Ben, so I let him have one of my tickets so we can go along together.
So aside from all the debate about the artistic and economic politics surrounding the Frieze Art fair (something along the lines of the disproportionate gap in earnings somewhere/ the value of art vs the price of art) I was feeling very excited. As an artist who lives a fairly isolated life in the North of England, Frieze is a chance to see what the galleries of the world are doing, who they are representing, what is being said and done in the global here and now. I know there is a debate raging about Capitalism, but guilt aside, I have to admit I am always thrilled by the prospect of an international art fair in London.
As it is I came to attend the talks this year so I had little time between them for browsing the gallery stands. Annika Strom’s 10 Embarrassed Men shuffling around the show is very funny, but it makes me self conscious about being an embarrassed female, and I’m trying very hard not to be. This is not helped when I ask who the artist of End is at Team Gallery (New York), who say a name in such a lethargic under breath that I can’t hear it. Rather embarrassed, I ask them if they can spell the name out for me, it is spelt out in a tone that a Nazi might use to a retard. The girl doesn’t give a shit. It’s sad really. I’m sure my ideal situation wouldn’t talk like that, in fact on the numerous occasions I’ve visited my ideal situation the staff have been so sweetly enthusiastic about all that is around them, one feels, perhaps naively that the whole thing IS actually driven by love and not money.
Reference vs Reverence 12pm
Chair: Jan Verwoert
Matthias Poledna, Silke Otto-Knapp and Paulina Olowska
So first off, I go to the talk that is being hosted by Jan Verwoert, a curator who seems to have done some interesting stuff. Of the three artists here I have only heard of Paulina Olowska, through her collaborations with Lucy McKenzie and Bonnie Camplin. Jan Verwoert begins with an introduction to explain his thematics. He is depressed by a certain set of attitudes towards historicity by various artists. This he describes in a rather precarious analogy with a dart board, where he likens some artists’ practise of referencing the past as being like darts thrown to try and hit the mark. The artists he has included in the talk have referenced the past in depth, that is they have pursued a thorough investigation into what they are referencing. (This opposed to what Jan Verwoert describes as Capitalist, supermarket type “shopping” for images and references which then hit or don’t hit the target (dartboard)). I begin to worry that Jan Verwoert would condemn my references as hit and miss, but then I think of all the work that I’ve done during my education researching my subject matter. Whilst the references might seem arbitrary and far apart (Donkey Kong Junior was my leitmotif in my series of philosophical paintings/ I recently did a distorted image of Ophelia to comment on contemporary culture) but they are potent signifiers communicating something I’ve been trying to get a handle on for twenty years. I am also troubled a little by the new short-hand for evil: “Capitalism”. I suppose it’s what you define as Capitalist. Owning your own home? Going to a supermarket? Starting your own business? (Anyone self employed has done this). The free market? I’m hardly a determined Capitalist but even I find such automatic assumptions, prejudices and preconceived ideas of absolute evil pitched beyond discussion as something close to bigotry. On reflection I decided to look Capitalism up on Wikipedia, and the definitions are loose and indeterminate. If we mean hatred of monopolies (tick), or greedy consumerism (tick) we need to say that. I just think people need to be more careful and less judgemental with this word, since many are caught up in a system the by-products of which they might abhor.
The structure of the discussion begins with a presentation of a relevant example of each artists work.
Matthias Poledna (U.S.A.)
As Matthias describes his work, which I can relate to as it is informed by certain aesthetic structures put in place by previous generations of Modernists, I notice that Jan V. is almost continuously stifling a laugh at what Matthias is saying. Having studied English literature and often being aware of wry narratives and fictionality in creativity I begin to wonder if Matthias presentation is serious at all, or whether the conceptualism he utilizes is part of a tongue in cheek subject matter. It is almost as if the structures of the previous generation of Conceptualists are being investigated too, as I suppose they are. If Reverence is being discussed here, Jan Verwoert is demonstrating some irreverence to something and I find it all a little beguiling.
Siebe Otto-Knapp (U.K.)
Siebe presents work that references the performance art of an artist from the 1970s as well as the studio and work of Florine Stettheimer, whose work interested Marcel Duchamp. She and her sister created a dolls house that once inspired me to create a Fluxus Dolls House that references confusing & opposing strands art history as I saw them in 1996, (complete with a chapel to Joshua Compston). However I can only see this artists work as a poor shadowing of what others have divined for themselves. The case is not just for Reference, but wholesale lifting of subject matter. In painting a performance artist you do certainly raise questions about the politics of painting, but this effect is diffused by the other work shown. Silke Otto-Knapp paints Florine Stettheimer’s studio interior, versions of Florine Stettheimers paintings as well as a copy of a photographic portrait of Florine Stettheimer; she paints photographs of a 1970s performance piece and exhibits the paintings alongside a re-enactment of the original. I would define reference as oblique insertion into subject matter, a kind of intentioned intertextuality, but this is more than that, the reference is her entire subject matter. In this instance it is a Reverence that seems to be double edged: the reverence is such that the artist obliterates their own work in instancing the referenced artist.
My one burning question which I was too embarrassed to ask (see above), was where these artists positioned themselves in regard to their referents. Did they see themselves as superior, as a documentary film making team might, or did they see themselves as inferior, and not worthy, as overwhelmed by what they referenced, their subject revered to such an extent, that they and their contemporary scene was diminished by the legendary status of the past?
Paulina Olowska (Poland)
was the last artist to present her work. She is the only artist here whose work I am familiar with and I’d been looking forward to hearing her speak. She presented three main pieces of work, a public work of art, where she has had images painted on the sides of a Puppet Theatre building in Mszana Dolna, a Spa town for children in Poland, what she rather sweetly terms ‘one of the miracles of Socialism’. These images are taken from 1960s linocut designs for posters for the puppet theatre and are rather like the Tove Jannson Moomin illustrations. These are just enlarged and exactly reproduced on the side of the building. This directly refers to and reveres the Communist history of the theatre and area that informs Olowska’s work so heavily. Next she spoke about a neon sign project that she has worked on in Graz. The idea that advertising a business such as a milk bar might be Capitalist doesn’t come up. In the talk she claims they also advertise reading and other morally superior activities to buying things. The neon shapes are from a design by somebody else in the 1960s of a cow and a piece of clover I think. It’s very cartoonish and I can see that its graphics resonate with the theatre, it reminds me of fashion and design, of Capitalism actually. Applied Fantastic is a body of work Olowska is working on and refers, or reproduces postcards manufactured for a set of women called The Kittens. The Kittens were Polish women who were discontented with their overalls and donkey jackets and would piece together older clothing to produce fashionable attire. The cards featured a photograph of a woman (not a model) modelling the clothing and on the back were instructions as to how to make the clothing. By this time, much as I like the work, and I really do, I am struggling with the political stance of Paulina, as she seems to be embracing the most Capitalist part of the art world, a gallery in New York? Her work is a commodity there isn’t it? The irony is that Communism sells.
* * *
By the time the talk finishes I have only a few minutes to look around the fair before meeting up with my cousin Ben. Ben is also an artist, although his credentials are probably a little more credible than mine, having initially studied at The Slade, then at The Prince’s Drawing School; he teaches kids on a Saturday morning at The Saatchi Gallery so he doesn’t reach Frieze until the afternoon. We decide that it’s a good plan for him to grab some food outside the fair and bring it in as the queues and prices are off putting inside. Koenig books has a stand right next to the entrance so we arrange to meet there. Wafting around the books on sale I spot a cabinet at the back and my heart misses a beat as I realise that the cabinet contains full boxed sets of Dieter Roth’s books, as well as some of the home made collage, cut up and plastic variety, and a tiny little plastic box containing paper mysteries. I’m just in mid goggle when a chap comes to look as well, oh gosh say I: it is Sir Nicholas Serota himself…; heart by this time missing every other beat, a chap from Koenig books comes up with keys. I’m lucky to be pulsing one in five by this time as he reaches in and fishes out the plastic book (with some melted substance in the pages, being Dieter Roth this is likely to be wax or cheese or worse). At this moment Ben arrives. I manage to squeak out the words “Look, Dieter Roth books”, whilst Ben is gesticulating a bit too much about “Do you realise who that is” and mouthing in a rather exaggerated fashion “Sir Nicholas Serota”. I try and remain calm. We linger to stare at all the other Roth collection on sale for some time after Sir Nicholas has left.
We don’t have much time before the next talk so we take our lunch to the queue for it. Susan Hiller seems to be a popular choice and no wonder. Ben has bought sushi,
and we eat in the queue. Just as I finish, the queue starts moving and we pass a bin on route, so far everything has slotted into place.
* * *
Susan Hiller speaks confidently with a well rounded, American accent. I am struck within minutes of her speaking by a deeply considered knowledge and intuition. This lady only seems to shy away from the praise and credit given to her by the chair in his warm up speech. John Welchman is a nicely opposed speaker in that he is English but teaches History of Art at the University of California, Susan Hiller is an American artist and lives in England. John Welchman begins by talking about An Entertainment which he saw at the The Tate Gallery in 1990. This was a film installation on violence as curried by A Punch and Judy show. I can see her point, but have always had some queer affection for this removed, fictional violence, as in the terrifying mad cook in Alice in Wonderland who throws pans about: we play with what we’re scared of. John Welch goes on to talk about artists investigating dreams such as Dali and brings up Jim Shaw’s multi referential work. However the distinction he makes for Susan Hiller is that Dali’s (and other surrealists) work encounters the emotional landscape that the individual mind explores through dreams. Dali’s enquiry is, he says, more psychological, one based upon emotions. Susan Hiller, who very subtly and instantly gets across the idea of collective subconscious, begins to say, with profuse apologies to John Welchman, as a professor of Art History, that she doesn’t believe in Art History. That is, that she believes in convergence of ideas. It is the market and art historians, she argues, who determine who did what and in what order. In dreams, Susan Hiller’s practise is to explore an area where the boundaries of self hood are examined, with the exploration of a space that we all share. Her work examines the discovery of shared references, such as the documentation of a collective subconscious in Dream Mapping 1974. In this she sees a microcosm for politics as the dreams overlap, it seems we are all molecules in a collective.
This is followed up with a very early piece of web-based art from1996 called Dream Screens, which you can still experience online. Dream Screens sought to reflect the mass media and the individual consciousness, an evolution towards convergence, towards a synchronic development of ideas. John Welchman talks of scientists, writers etc, finding the catalyst for discoveries in dreams, and they discuss the concept of the Zeitgeist and waves of progression across populations.
Very interestingly the conversation progresses from here to the Paranormal which Susan Hiller regards as a misnomer: it is just the normal, but it is a part of reality that is suppressed as people are too embarrassed to admit they experience it. This I have to say is my experience and it is rather comforting to hear her say this. In Proposals and Demonstrations at Timothy Taylor Gallery in 2008 she explored this area of experience. This dealt with tape recordings which even to me, with my strange experiences sound improbable, of the dead apparently broadcasting and being received and recorded by a psychologist in Latvia. The exhibition also proffered strange photographs taken through a rattan filter which enables human eyes to see the tiny resonance of light that surrounds people, their auras. It is with great honesty that Susan Hiller presents her case. I am absolutely riveted because she states her perceptions clearly: she both appreciates the case of the Latvian, but acknowledges the vast case for doubt. There is a definite acknowledgement of the loopiness in the whole thing, but she draws few conclusions, and for this she has my utmost respect. They go on to talk about automaton writing within the arena of conceptual art, which is essentially an arena of proposition, and how as such automaton writing falls outside this intentionality. Psi Girls follows this theme with excerpts from mainstream films using special effects to include the (para)normal. Hiller says the films normalise the paranormal by lending it the same distance as normal experience. It is a question about contemporary society that I had not really thought about, but in some ways I disagree, I think it fictionalizes the paranormal experience as an illusion or special effect.
They go on to discuss the bureaucratic systems adopted by artists to investigate reality. As it is the job of the artist to explain the world these systems of understanding need to be examined and perhaps exploded. The epistemological, the “what is real ? What is understood to be true?” areas of artistic practise seem to take on the archival, library systems of ordering knowledge(s) and subverting them with the nonsensical, the arbitrary or purely by imitation. This leads the talk to the boxed exhibition of items From the Freud Collection. These boxes were the type used by archaeologists to protect their findings and contain various artefacts from the Freud collection. It is such an eloquent piece of work as Freud, the original possessor of the items drew so many conclusions about so-called universal traits from the clues in behaviours of individuals. It goes along with ideas of the collective yet it somehow disturbs ideas of behavioural patterns in psychology. It condemns, like the D.H. Lawrence quote she mentions, a “snap shot” view of reality, you have to travel around the back of the sculpture to see the whole thing.
* * *
After this, we are quite mind blown and stagger about the gallery stands. It is at this stage I have my run in with The Team Gallery of New York. The End does remind me of the roller blind I painted with That’s All Folks on it; it is and isn’t a work. We only get so far into the aisles and aisles of galleries. Frozen City convinces me, but it is an artwork by Simon Fujiwara. One of Ben’s Slade mates seems to be all over the shop with his mock Baroque (mocbroc?) architectural paintings in old frames (Pablo Bronstein), and afterwards I see a performance piece of his is included in the new Hayward Gallery show, Move: Choreographing You. We also bump into Ben’s old teacher, who is Head of Painting at the Slade. A couple of years ago we bumped into everyone I knew from Up North, this year it is the other way around.
We look for refreshment before Bridget Riley, but run out of time, and it’s too important to me.
* * *
Bridget Riley in conversation with Michael Bracewell 5pm
As I’ve listened to those tapes innumerable times I don’t take many notes except when a new connection is made. Michael Bracewell, has I feel, been well chosen to interview this delicate yet robust figure of contemporary art history. It is a talk beset with opposites and parodoxes as much as one of her black and white Op-Art pieces.
Michael Bracewell looks at some of her contempories, suggests Andy Warhol as one of the undertakers of modernism/ modern society, remembers the pessimistic philosophies of T.S. Eliot, and posits Riley in opposition to these negatives, as a more positive and forward looking voice. Bridget Riley is quick to dismiss Warhol’s work as “superficial”, as coming from a “fashion background”. When she was introduced to a gathering of New York artists in the 1960s BR recounts how of them all, Warhol remained silent and did not speak to her. (Warhol was quite shy I believe).
MB also refers to her previous quotations of Beckett writing of Proust, that an artist is a person with a text to decipher. This comes up in the Dialogues as does her love affair with the work of Titian, and the Poetics of Stravinsky. Music is completely analogous with her work, and the rhythmic colour painting that is hung up behind them for the talk perfectly illustrates a lot of what they are talking about. Bridget Riley has ploughed a wider and deeper furrow than many artists, and perhaps Warhol does seem, in some ways more superficial. It is a completely different ball park, even if all the difference in the main stream is the “P” added to OP.
The trouble is that from this distance we tend to level out the Art of the Sixties. Bridget Riley’s Op-Art paintings have become synonymous with Pop, with the look of an era, when in actual fact she was on a completely different train track. The very superficiality that Bridget Riley abhors (notice her fury at her work being prescribed as print for 1960s dresses) has become part of her widespread public appeal. The Op-art still crazes the eye, still confuses our physical reactions and somehow inexplicably (like music) plumbs depths of our consciousness, but only if we know it already do we draw up Proust or Beckett or Stravinsky.
Is it as M.B. suggests, the translation of something personal and particular to the universal? Or is it rather some unseen or hitherto unrecognised, elusive truth that she nets, filters and represents as the universal it always was but given form.
They finish with a quote from Ruskin
The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion,— all in one.
Modern Painters, vol. III, part IV, chapter XVI (1856) – Ruskin
* * *
It is beyond my self control to resist and despite my prevalent embarrassment I find myself surging forward amidst a crowd of autograph hunters, finally to meet my virtual art teacher of so long ago.
(thanks to Ben for the photograph).
 I had taken a year out from my degree at Glasgow University in 1991-2 in order to reapply to art school. Sadly nobody told me that I would not be entitled to an additional First Year funding at a different establishment. I thus had to relinquish the place I was offered at Camberwell and decided to return to Glasgow to complete my degree there. My advisor of studies there said I could pursue my practise “as a hobby”, I was furious.
 Ben Barbour see http://www.benbarbour.co.uk