Ceal Floyer, born in Pakistan, studied at Goldsmith's in London, lives and works in Berlin and currently has an exhibition that fills the four floors and annex of DHC/ART in Montreal.
This work could not be more minimal, more delicate, more gentle in its humour. Like Duchamp, there is a visual pun and then an unspoken onslaught of art history, contemporary theory and pop culture. It is as metaphorical as all get out; it is also as simple as can be. Whatever references are stirred by each piece, it is all to be found in the mind of the viewer – previous knowledge we bring to the work, rather than written on the surface of the work itself.
There is quite a fierce clamp on the images, so cannot show here Door (1995) which brings tears to the eyes. An existing steel door in a dim corner has a projector on the floor in front of it, humming away, projecting a bright bar of light at the very bottom of the door One registers the mechanics of the piece, as I just did, and then in a flash it becomes magical: there is a sunlit room beyond this too-short door, inaccessible to us, but clearly so brilliant, so hopeful, so illuminated. It is like being ill, as a child, in a dim room, aware of the bright strip of light at the bottom of the blind telling you that the world outside continues on without you, an elysian field.
Things (2009) is a gallery of 30 white plinths about 5' high with a white speaker grill inset in the top. The plinths are more or less evenly spaced but not gridded: a field of posts. Each speaker erupts with the word 'thing' cut from a wide range of pop songs at irregular and unsequenced intervals. There is nothing else but these blasts of things that never continue. It is very funny, not just because the wall of sound in most pop music is so absurd when you only get a split-second of it, but because the set up is so immaculate, so formal, so white-wall gallery, the modern gallery itself is so very gently mocked. Then, again in a flash, the deep connection between all the galleries one has ever been in, all the installations, all the music that ever accompanied your life are concentrated in a single moment, in a room full of white posts.
Deceptively simple, again, is Working Title (Digging) (1995) which is set in the opening of a small bay: you hear the sound of a shovel hitting a pile of gravel from one speaker, and then farther into the bay from another speaker you hear the gravel landing. Having done a lot of shovelling in my time, the speakers are too far apart, the gravel would land sooner than the tape tells us it does: the landing is delayed, so somewhere in the bay and in the time within the bay is a suspension, an interregnum unaccounted for. The space between the speakers – a physical distance on the floor – is paradoxically stretched by the space registered by the sounds coming from the speakers.
I haven't seen such beautiful work for many a year, nor a show that restored my sense of humour, sorely tried recently.
Vivienne Koorland works in New York, is currently showing in London at East Central Gallery and grew up in South Africa, leaving it before the end of apartheid. Her mother was a hidden and smuggled child in Poland during WWII, ending up in a Jewish orphans home in South Africa in 1948.
Koorland's work is characteristically complex where everything from the kind of marks made, the material they are made with, the canvas or burlap or bookcovers they are made upon is heavy with historical memory, from her own conflicted childhood in Africa to her mother's loss of childhood and family to her own exile and homesickness for an impossible childhood that cannot be revisited.
It is not just Germany, or just the holocaust, or just apartheid, or just the unfairness, or just the loss of material goods, or talents, or love; it is all these things, constantly jostling on the crowded historical surfaces of her work. Letters, writing, ledgers, sheet music, popular songs, maps – they all lie together.
Her working method reuses her own rejected drawings and paintings, burlap rice bags are stitched together to make a full canvas, their printed labels worked into the content. Her work is constantly being remade and re-referenced.
Although nominally about the past, it is the present that is often discussed: a magnificent gold map of Africa is so simple, yet so complex in reference to gold mining, to a shimmering beautiful potential and a hateful process of extraction. This is work that sinks in complexity rather than skimming on a too easily grasped surface.
So, is this weather, or the result of a war with the land? Literally tons of soil blew east from the centre of North America dropping on the east coast and the Atlantic Ocean during the 1930s: a drought combined with very poor farming practices that stripped the prairies of the indigenous grasses that held the soil and moisture in place with their roots.
It made excellent mulch, evidently. Of course it would; fine topsoil, perfect for planting seedlings. The process of getting it spread all over your fields however was catastrophic.
There is a new exhibition at the Wellcome Library about dirt and our changing views of cleanliness. A very good write-up by Christopher Turner is on today's Guardian website.
Dirt is also the theme for the upcoming Fall issue of On Site (see the call for articles here).
The exhibition at the Wellcome, a medical library, is based on Virginia Smith's book, Dirt: the filthy reality of everyday life, a historic survey of our attitudes to dirt and propriety that affects every corner of our dusty lives, our buildings and our cities.
Living on the prairies is characterised by a fine black dust that blows off the land and settles on windowsills even at the heart of the city. One is always dusting, sweeping, shaking out mops. Our streets in Calgary are washed once a year, a great production of fleets of street sweepers, water sprinklers and then another pass by the sweepers. There isn't a lot of rain here, so the streets and consequently the air are dusty again almost immediately. Now, on the coast, where it rains all the time and one has to work hard to find dust, even fine dirt in the gravel bed that is the back vegetable garden, these streets are washed 4 or 5 times a year.
It seems that this is an issue of perception. On the prairies, dust, gumbo, mud, grey film, clouds of dust off unpaved roads and city alleys – that's okay. Blowing grit on city streets that gets in your eyes, your hair, your collar – no problem evidently, until you go to a very clean city where the sidewalks are clean, the air is rain-washed, your white dog is actually white, then you realise how slapdash the cleanliness factor can be elsewhere.
This was one of the entries into the Shell World Challenge last year. It is very clever: a flat coil of hardened aluminum alloy, like a flat skillet, that sits between the fire and the cooking pot. What looks like a handle is attached to water, cold or contaminated which circulates through the coil, is heated and comes out of the other end of the coil hot and boiled.
Although in use in South Africa, Kenya and India, in theory it is the same as the hot water on demand burners which are slowly replacing the elephantine hot water tank that lurks in most basements. The Jompy is much more minimal however, and consequently more adaptable to different conditions and uses.
David Osborne, a plumber and gas fitter from Troon in Scotland was on his honeymoon in a water-challenged part of Africa and figured out this inexpensive way of boiling water with fire already doing some other task such as cooking food.
The website, celsiussolar.com is a bit cumbersome, but all the information is there, plus various videos, including the World Challenge introduction.
The Sarajevo survival tools project is both an exhibition and a virtual archive of the tools, implements and re-inventions from the Sarajevo siege of 1992-1996.
Seige, whether by war as in the 3-year seige of Leningrad or by sanctions as in the last forty years for Cuba or by environmental disaster as is now unfolding in Japan, means a lack of everything: food, water, medicine, fuel. It shouldn't be that total deprivation makes people creative, but it does.
Sarajevo survival tools run from the watering can made out of a cooking oil tin delivered as humanitarian aid, to a sat phone left behind by fleeing UN workers and quickly appropriated. There is a double-barrelled rifle, minimal in the extreme, and a hand crank flashlight made out of a bicycle lamp. This isn't a return to primitive technology, many of the materials are taken from electronic equipment and re-engineered with considerable sophistication. However, even making an oven out of an aluminum drum results in an object that sustains life and therefore is necessarily beautiful.
Prague Spring: January 5 - August 21, 1968
Hungarian Uprising: October 23 - November 10, 1956.
Benghazi: February 21, 2011
Irving Cotler wrote about Libya and R2P in the New York Times (28 February 2011): The situation in Libya is a test case for the Security Council and its implementation of the RtoP doctrine. Yet it remains the case that, as the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, put it, 'loss of time means more loss of lives'. The Security Council must do more — and fast. It is our collective responsibility to ensure RtoP is an effective approach to protect people and human rights.
And when, in all the news reports, did Libyan anti-Gadaffi protesters become 'rebels', semantically removing the sense of peaceful protest in favour of a word that has such violent confrontational references? A civil society has been established in Benghazi, the first they have known. Can one have rebellion against a rebel? For surely that was both Gadaffi's history and his present: violent confrontation in the pursuit of power. We should be careful with our words. Gadaffi supporters are advancing on and quelling supporters of civil society. Would that make the responsibility to protect a little clearer?
Dan Cruikshank danced around Mexican pyramids and an 1851 Colt 6-shooter last night in his Round the World in 80 Very Very Special Places and Things, ending with the Statue of Liberty, which was unfortunately closed to both visitors and potential terrorists. It reminded me of several of the peripheral features of the statue often forgotten in the glare of its iconograpy. The broken chain at her foot, the Emma Lazarus poem inviting the poor huddled masses to leave their countries of birth and oppression and come to America, where all are free. Just before Liberty, Dan went to Monticello, the dark side of which is that Jefferson had 5,000 slaves while writing the constitution that said that all men shall be free. Dan's taxi-driver was very explicit about what he thought about that.
In Yasmin Khan's book about the Statue of Liberty she describes the skin as a curtain wall in theory, attached to an iron structure which has, built within it, a certain flexibility between structure and skin that protects the skin from stress. Eiffel and Koechlin designed the structure, rigid enough, and a system of straps that connect the copper skin to the iron armature. It is this system that allowed the statue to be built in France, disassembled and sent to New York and then reassembled there.
There is an element of the fairground and the exposition about the making of this statue, a kind of political hucksterism between France and the US that involves the building of the Panama Canal, the revolutionary identification between France and the US, the potential for the US to be a military ally of France in its war with Prussia. Perhaps it is always this way, but what remains, with this particular project, is a reminder of the deep contradictions at the heart of the USA.
Marlene Creates, Newfoundland artist, has long photographed signs by the road, in the woods, attached to telephone poles, assembling the images into visual maps that indicate the emptiness of space in this country, whether they are in downtown Victoria or the outskirts of Hamilton.
Her early work shows influences of both Ian Hamilton Findlay and Richard Long: marks on the landscape, minimal reorganisations of nature that document that one was there. More common are the highway signs, enigmatic markers of the edges of the city, or the edges of acceptable urban behaviour found in 'no parking' signs.
Ian Toews did a segment of Landscape as Muse on Creates – The Tolt, the Droke and the Blast Hole Pond River; including, memorably, a project where she holds a camera under the blast hole pond and takes photographs looking upward, through the boiling water to her own face.
Of Entering and Leaving St. John's Newfoundland, 1995, she writes,
'The City Limits signs that first caught my attention are the pair across from each other on the Trans-Canada Highway. When approaching St. John’s, one comes upon a sign announcing the city’s limits, but then there’s another 30 km of driving by woods and bogs before seeing any evidence of the city. And when leaving St. John’s, one drives those 30 km before coming to a sign that tells you that you really hadn’t even left the city yet.
Most of the landscapes surrounding these signs do not correspond at all to the image one might have of St. John’s. This creates a disconnection between the label announcing the city, the actual surrounding place, and the idealized image one may have of this city. St. John’s is larger than whatever idea we may have of it, including for those of us who live here. And Newfoundland, too, is and is not the Newfoundland of the imagination. Which is why my work may or may not be what one expects of a Newfoundland artist.'
Jean-Paul Goude sliced the outline of Grace Jones into something sharp and brittle 30 years ago, and architects have been making photo-collages of buildings and cities for the last 50 or more. The techniques are not new, but the diligence of Nishino's dioramas for example, or David Hockney's polaroid collages of the 1970s, is.
The difference between architects and designers who pick up lots of techniques for presenting things and artists who make those techniques into 10-year long projects, is one of duration, and intent.
Blake's universe in a grain of sand: one must concentrate to do this, not dash about scatter-shot, cramming quarts into pint pots and throwing metaphors all over the place.
Sohei Nishino walks cities, photographs them and assembles the photos into vast cognitive maps. He states that this is 'the re-imagined city from my memory as layered icons of the city'.
Spectacularly unsuited to looking at on the screen, they are large, black and white pieces, 4 x 4' more or less. Knowing the process, one can imagine what they might look like, as unbalanced and as true as all cognitive maps, studded with fragments of startling detail.
The detail of Istanbul, below, shows something of the method: like small narratives in the topography of memory complete with sky and ground, some buildings and spaces are made special by their disconnection from the logic of a conventional map. This is what google maps has liberated us from: the misleading veracity of the aerial view.
Right, it is the beginning of a dreary month, a storm is raging outside, the ferries can't run, the east is blanketed in snow, the international news is truly ghastly and Gillian Findlay's documentary last night on police actions during the G8/G20 in Toronto last summer was altogether too shocking.
Here is a little diversion:
A rather more adult version of Dorothy and Toto.
Amazing to think this sort of thing was standard children's viewing in the 1950s. From 4-5 each afternoon was old cartoons, serialised David Niven movies and Gene Autry.
This explains everything about the baby boom lot.
Armelie Caron, in Anagrammes Graphiques de plans de villes - 2005 / 2008 , takes a figure ground map of a city and classifies all the blocks by size and shape. Of course Manhattan is numbingly regular, and Berlin has lots of triangular blocks as axes slice through quite regular fabric. Paris is a surprise, the axes are wider than the blocks, which as a texture are very tiny indeed.
Re-organising pattern is always quite entertaining, sort of visual puns where a letter is out of place and it throws out a whole new, absurd, meaning. These city blocks are re-arranged according to visual rules, rather than urban or historical relationships and says quite a lot about the scale of collective life each individual block in each city. Paris has so many infintesimal blocks, probably the size of one building. These are the blocks of Kieślowski or early Truffaut where there is a very fine line between apartment and street, where private life is small and public life is all.
The Canadian Centre for Architecture holds the photographic archives of George Hunter, a photographer who, in the 1950s, photographed Canada's towns and cities from his light plane. There is a series of mining towns, of which Flin Flon, above, was one. As many of these were company towns, the series of eight images on the CCA website might be interesting to anyone who is working on our OIL: a new town competition/exhibition.
Housing in such places is always laid down with zero concern for personal identity. Is this to do with company priorities, or was there little concern for personal identity in the 1950s in general. This dreary subdivision from 1958, Mayfair, is now quite a good Calgary neighbourhood. We have the luxury of thinking about identity as we, in Canada generally, are wealthy and peaceful enough to think of such things.
Gaddafi expelled all Italians from Libya in 1970. Libya had been the North African staging post for the Italian-German axis in WWII, as Libya had been under Italian control/occupation since the 19th century.
On Al Jazeera last night there was a map of the north coast of Libya with Tubruq on it which, when it was known as Tobruk, was the site of a major and extended battle during WWII. Rommel held Tobruk for 240 days and then lost it to the Eighth Army.
On the maps we are seeing on the news, one realises just how close Tunisia and Libya are to Sicily. Lampedusa, a miniature and bleak little island 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia is still part of Italy and until 1994 had a US Coast Guard base on it, used to monitor Libya and fired upon by Libya after the US bombed it in 1986 killing, among many others, Gaddafi's daughter. Lampedusa is the main entry point for African refugees/ illegal immigrants / economic migrants to Europe. Although closer to Tunisia, Libya is the easier country to leave from, evidently.
During WWII Tunisia and Libya were simply known by the Allies as the Western Desert. Strategically important, it was the launching point for the Italian invasion which began with the landings on Sicily. In On Site 22: WAR, Aisling O'Carroll wrote about the use of camouflage in the desert where whole dummy armies were installed in misleading locations. This was a North African war conducted, it seems, without local involvement, something that seems difficult to believe now.
At the time the google satellite took the picture of Green Square in Tripoli, this week the site of an emergent genocide, it was used as a parking lot. it is across the street from a vast museum and archaeology complex, on the other side, to the south east is an immense stretch of parks and squares. Directly south and south west is a bit of city – shops and offices, directly north a large pond, a divided highway and the Mediterranean with a built up edge – all gardens and plaza.
Green Square isn't a place of compression, it leaks all over into adjacent flat spaces. One can read urban patterns only so far. Tripoli has an unused traffic circle, it has larger open spaces, it has spaces adjacent to more powerful government buildings than the National Museum, so why Green Square?
Ah, on a tourist site I find (from 2009): 'The square is one of the most important celebration places in Libya. Muammar Kaddafi addresses his speeches to the nation from here on the most important days such as 1st September Revolution anniversary. . .. Traffic circles the square and it is full of speeding cars day and night.'
So it has been made a potent urban site by association with the reiterated revolutionary origins of Gaddafi who came to power in 1969 with a coup against King Idris. He was 27, Gaddafi was.