Friday, September 29, 2006

The Long Bad Decade

Harold Shand has become my favourite fictional Londoner. As part of the Time Out London On Screen festival I saw The Long Good Friday for the first time on the big screen and also at least 10 years after my last viewing.
The passage of time has set this film further into context, documenting the pre- Thatcherite impending docklands property boom and the now quaint IRA terrorist threat, the tension of the modern world is harder and higher than in the late ‘70’s. The 1970’s were a dark time, the mid to late sixties prosperity had passed and by the mid seventies London was a grey, dark and casually violent place. The old fashioned London criminal community headed by the Kray or Richardson type gangster was a dying breed, as a small child of these times I remember no glamour, the world seemed a depleted place, for most of my contemporaries and their families being working class Londoners meant a return to lesser means, despite the potential improvements in the standard of living and the belief in a prosperous future in the sixties it seemed like that time had never happened and we had regressed back to the fifties.

So with these thoughts in my mind I was fascinated by the unfolding of the story of Harold Shand and the events that unfold on the Good Friday of the title. I have heard Shand described as a Thatcherite icon, the film was released in 1979. At the same time as Margaret Thatcher came to power, many people saw a new vibrant force for change and improvement in the country, to some this heralded an opportunity that the common man could succeed and prosper with assistance from a supportive prime minister. The economic deregulation, the removal of seemingly overly powerful unions driving unnecessarily burdensome employment laws and loosening the reigns of planning constraints on town planning regulations meant that for some a golden age of prosperity was predicted. The Docklands was of course a major site for this future prosperity.
In the cinematic landscape of ‘The Long Good Friday’ this was Harold Shand’s time, for ten years he had carved up London for a variety of gangland bosses, if they stayed in their ‘manors’ and brought no fuss to the bosses of other parts of London then peace would continue for this unprecedented period of time and beyond, including his territory of East London. But just as he was negotiating an investment deal with mafia investors from New York and with a council planning official in his pocket something was brewing to potentially scupper his plans, as his American partners arrived for final negotiations the quiet world of the past 10 years was unravelling in front of him. The deal would harbour more peace in the criminal world of London and for Shand and his associates the opportunity to go legit and very wealthy in one fell swoop. Unbeknownst to Shand forces had been unleashed that not even he could contain, one of his gang had skimmed money from a deal with the IRA and in the unlawful world of the terrorists and the gangland boss guilt by association was enough to jeopardise not only his plans but his life.

In hindsight the metaphors in the film come heavily signposted, but in the early months of the Thatcher reign John Mackenzie’s film impressively predicted the decade that was to follow. Through the 1980’s the economic reforms of the Conservative government changed the political landscape, for some deregulation of many facets of the economy and its affect on associated governmental policy changed peoples lives, some for the better but many for the worse. The gap between rich and poor widened and accelerated and continues unchecked to this day. The face of the North Eastern banks of the Thames changed from one of docks in decline or in most cases lost forever to a river view haven for the wealthy and newly wealthy. The IRA moved from being a solely terrorist organisation into an illegal business with criminal interests outside of its core activities and links with international crime organisations. The European union was foretold as a counterpoint to the economic power of the USA. Most importantly for me was the death of the London working class, Shand has been portrayed as an arch-Thatcherite but on watching the film again I might disagree. Shand is the metaphor for enforced cultural change under the long Conservative reign, as a traditional working class figure he represents the go getting, money obsessed model of social improvement through economic opportunism that Thatcher was trying to create but this is slightly wide of the mark. Harold Shand is a proud man, he realises the world is changing and he wants a part of the opportunities before others can get there, it is necessary for his survival to pragmatically take control of the changing face of London. But this working class icon is not as one dimensional as you may first think, his pride and fear of the future means that he intends to use everything in his power to go legit and survive in the new Thatcherite world, for those of his class who were really faced with life in Thatcher’s Britain the choice was stark, stay working class and stay poor or become socially mobile and become wealthy. In the past Britain had self supporting working class communities, you served your community through your trade or business and maybe through other more marginal or illegal activities, nonetheless you were proud of your roots and saw no need to remould yourself in the image of a culture that was not your own. For most who prospered improvement meant social mobility and mobility meant becoming middle class, for those that wouldn’t or couldn’t partake of this mobility we now see the affects of Margaret Thatcher’s reign. Sustainable working class communities hardly exist in Britain nowadays, small business have been priced out and undermined by global competition, the homegenisation of our high streets can bear witness. Home ownership increased but for those that bought council owned properties there is a realisation amongst many that they have been duped, compare the disparity of prices of ex-council housing stock and the traditionally privately owned properties, not to mention the continued leasehold situation and the crippling bills enforced by local councils for work to common parts of the buildings, what freedom of house ownership exists there?.

Shand was fighting to retain his pride and integrate his working class culture into the new Britain and just like his real life counterparts was crushed by global forces too big for him to take on. The parting shot of the film is immensely powerful, his subtly changing expressions on realising the inevitable consequences of his actions show fear, defiance, strength and resignation in equal measure. It’s a face I recognise only too well and this was the face of many through the 1980’s, it’s a face I rarely see anymore though.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Designers Block

This weekend at the Nicholls and Clarke Buildings on Shoreditch High Street was the design fair called Designers Block. A large variety of young designers creating weird and wonderful products and using varying styles were invited to showcase their designs and products for sale or just to promote their practice during this months London Design Festival.
Back for a second year were hulger with their adapted classic style telephone handsets that can be used by plugging in to your mobile phone, not only do they look retro they mean you can save yourself from some brain irradiation.
Freshwest Design brought their one-off furniture items and ceramics all the way from Pembrokeshire, particularly impressive was their oval dining table that looked like an old classic wooden surfboard, heavily varnished with a mixture of dark and light woods.
DIY Kyoto were showcasing their environmentally conscious Wattson, the Wattson is a subtle, clean looking, stylish box that can tell you through a glowing display just how much electricity you are consuming at any given time in your home, either in watts or in the amount of money per year you will be paying in bills for the current usage. Only the heavily eco conscious would buy this for their home but perhaps businesses could use this simple gadget to monitor electricity consumption to see what impact their energy consumption is having, apparently it can be set up to create an alarm when hideous amounts of energy are being used.
An energy blasting but nonetheless impressive gadget was the prototype of the oculas, this fibreglass egg shape pod is the ultimate loft dwelling city boy gadget, at a projected cost of £25,000 you can lounge inside, press a button and enclose yourself in the pod whilst accessing a multimedia unit with mouse controls. Films, playstation, music, whatever you like can be accessed through the screen inside the pod. Or if you live in a particularly busy or raucous housesharing situation you could just hide from housemates by closing the lid, plugging in your headphones and hiding from the nasty world outside.
Just don’t let your housemates connect a wattson to your oculas pod or the £25,000 could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Friday, September 22, 2006

If You Smelt It You Dealt It

I am heading up the stairs to the opening of the show ‘Silent but Violent’, I am at the The Empire on Wadeson Street, the show is called ‘Silent but Violent’ it is child slang for fart, guff, trump etc., heh heh heh.

So as you can guess I am armed on this Thursday night with the awareness that I may need to be on my guard for some pranks or certainly prankish art. At the top of the stairs I pass the gallery office, I peer in, why is the door open?, the room looks plush, in the semi industrial wasteland of this side of North East London it looks incongruous. The office has a big Manhattenesque cityscape poster on the back wall, there is an eighties-retro-yuppie feel to the room, all red and purple-nightclub-flock wallpapered- shag pad-live work style. The title of my next interiors book that will make me rich will be ‘Manhattenesque Eighties Retro Yuppie Red Purple Nightclub Flock Wallpapered Shag Pad Live Work Style - Offices’. I cant decide if this office has been commandeered by an artist participating in the show with this as an installation or the office holder has a sense of irony and a real eye for playful fun workspaces, either way I like it, its cool.
Further into the main space I stroll around waiting for my eyes to be grabbed, tonight I feel it’s a struggle, something feels a little unsettling, the office experience, although fun and cool has left me slightly skewed. There is a temporary bar for the opening manned by a guy in ill-fitting evening wear, is this for real?, A youngish guy strolls past me with a self centred smirk, he has a mullet and leather bomber jacket two sizes too small. Concentrate you fool! I tell myself.
The work is deemed to be about absurdity according to the press release, I am baffled the work leaves me cold and the healthy turnout of people visiting the opening is distracting me. Good for them though, they appear to be enjoying themselves, many people are purring about the work , some appear to be the mums and dads of the artists, occasionally there seems to be a potential buyer checking out prices and looking intently at a target artwork. Yes, look at the work, you fool, says my inner voice whilst momentarily breaking from its usual humming of the tuneless blues that normally plays in my head. A clunking, clanking kinetic absurd machine is clanking and clunking in a corner of the large gallery, more distraction, it’s bloody hard work this absurdity I can tell you.
I look at a tree, a bit of nature separated from its environment and adorned with tiny doodled paper and pencil drawings, I am not sure what to think. On the wall a few feet away is a drawing by the same artist, Joseph Richards, it is of a group of fantasy creatures in an elliptical zone, they appear to be ambling around in a splodgy alien styled manner, one eyed critters, pumpkins, trees that drip gloop and jellyfish walk around in something that looks like a dazed slow dance or melancholic chanting ritual, I cant vouch for any of these with certainty but whatever their state they don’t appear particularly happy.
Some of the pieces are still not working for me but maybe the absurd world present this evening in the empire is beginning to make sense, or does absurdity just make nonsense, anyway I’m engaging with the work now. On the far wall is William Waterhouse’s epic amalgamation of tapestries, these found works from a variety of unknown sources have been stitched together to form a massive wall hanging, the sheer effort taken to produce these by the original makers is something I find disturbing, the imagery is kitsch and in some cases dated. It certainly contains some idealised views of Britain and Britishness that certainly never existed in my early life and perhaps nowhere else either, occasional images of other lands can be seen, jarring colours and images of geishas side by side with red coated huntsmen on horseback and pheasants. Despite this imagery and clashing colours this is a fun but honest, perhaps affectionate, view by Waterhouse.

More kitsch Britishness abounds with Charlotte Bracegirdle’s altered Victorian scenes, ‘scallywags’, scores of Victorian urchins play in idealised cartoons. Some of these images are barely altered, but in the scenes of childish play the occasional 7 year old boy turns an innocent game of kiss chase, or some such, into something altogether darker as his small female playmates scatter from him whilst he runs around with his trousers round his ankles. Other even darker scenes can be observed with the odd machine gun and a naked leering character watching scrumping kids.

I’m grabbed now and well into the absurdity.

I bump into Russell Herron and at the same time almost bump into Kaoru Tsunoda’s sculpture, luckily I miss it by a whisker and that is a good thing as the most absurd thing would be asking my bank manager for the loan for breakages to a sculpture priced at £1,500. We chat for a while but I am on my way out and he is on his way in, this is normally the way for the two of us, our paths cross occasionally and sometimes we are at the same show on the same night but at different times and never meet but end up writing about the show. Russell’s blog is a great read and he seems to know everyone, his blog is the best London art world commentary and exhibition review, it sometimes has me scratching my chin and pondering and other times roaring with laughter. It’ll be interesting to see his views on this show and somehow I think he has a healthy eye for the absurd so it should be a good read.
The almost accident with Tsunoda’s unmarked, white, never ending roulette wheel has me really taking notice of it. The wheel spins continually in never ending motion, the ball rolls and jumps around the un-numbered and uncoloured wheel in a game of un-winnable gambles. It is easily the most engaging piece in the show.

I descend the stairs and leave the madness behind, back out on Wadeson Street the sun is dropping out of sight behind the gasworks on the canal, the sky looks great. I make my way home and back to normality.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


A sheet of water is sitting in front of me, it is black, still and shiny. This is no ordinary body of water. Bound on three sides by the walls of the disused chapel of Dilston Grove is the tank constructed by designer Michael Cross that contains his latest mechanical experiment. It is an act of trust, faith or resignation to the effects of failure coupled with boldness in accepting the consequences of your actions.
Directly in front of me is a ramp centrally located to one edge of the tank of water, somebody ascends the gentle ramp and with trousers rolled to mid calf and bare footed steps onto a small disk that barely breaks the surface of the water in front of their feet, they step onto the disk and as the pressure of their weight bears onto this small step another gently rotates to the surface of the water allowing their other foot to step in front. This action is repeated for many steps as they gently, quietly, calmly and with small modifications of balance make their progress walking out into the middle of the water. At the final step the person turns slowly and returns along the disks to their point of embarkation.

This is the scene observed by the many people entering this quietly impressive but calming space, it is cavernous but welcoming, dark with gentle evening sunlight breaking through the high windows that intersect the walls. The black pigmented water shimmers and the ripples created by the movement of feet soon subside into stillness on the water as the person walking stops, balances and contemplates their next step.

Michael Cross has created an installation that embraces the site. Initially all viewers and participants in the experience unfolding in Dilston Grove are slowly induced into tension, contained excitement and expectation. Once the first few steps have been taken we are all tuned to the movements of the person in the water, our senses pick up every signal being sent back across the water to us, every twitch of muscle in their neck, every small balancing motion transferred through their arms and out to the fingertips and every minor shuffle, lift and lowering of their bare feet. For the person exposed on their steps out into the water the viewing public fade as their concentration on their task allows other stimuli to recede, they continue the process of emotional and physical isolation the task demands. The consequence of failure is to descend into the water, of course this is never going to happen. This is the small child in the playground pretending to do the high wire walk whilst still on firm ground, the act and action becomes real, the fiction becomes fact. In the water the outward journey is complete and they return and with their slow walk back we and they begin to reconnect, out of the water the relief becomes complete, they are back, the isolation is over, the water is still and the act complete.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Above the Clouds

It is another Thursday night Hoxton/Shoreditch circuit. White Cube, Seventeen, Studio 1.1 and Standpoint are on my intenerary this evening, I have the company of Liz for the White Cube but then she has other plans and heads off up Kingsland Road. We go briefly into the White Cube before she goes and look around at the new Katerina Fritsch exhibition.
Fritsch’s work never really hits me, too clean, too precise. I like my art to have some rough edges, finely crafted is fine but it needs a little something somewhere that feels grubbily real, it could be materially with a few rough edges to the finish, a smudge of fingerprint or a slight drift on symmetry. Or it could be the roughness of thought, maybe a little sense of the artists unknowingness, maybe slightly off kilter with the concept. Either way Fritsch produces a lovely looking show but for me, once again too slick, too clean, maybe the artists hand looks to far removed from the production. I know Fritsch has an edge because I know that friends find her work very disturbing but if I am to be disturbed I don’t want to know in advance or have the bitterness sweetened, lets just fall headlong into the madness quickly, lets get grubby, bloody or break out the straightjacket!.
We go upstairs but maybe our collective concentration is a.w.o.l tonight because Neal Tait's paintings and bench sculpture doesn’t grab me either. Liz sums it up as we leave the gallery “what is this guff? am I missing the point or something?”. Perhaps we are, maybe our critical faculties are missing or maybe my intellect won’t keep up with the subtle messages in the work. More importantly, however, I don’t care.

Outside with Liz having left for the evening I load up on free beer courtesy of ‘the Cube’, they can afford it more than the other galleries and I think having principles when grubbing freebies is always worth bearing in mind.

Next up is the increasingly interesting Seventeen Gallery for David Ersser’s sculpture, compared to the previous show which was rammed it is a quieter turnout, I have said before that I like what the Seventeen does and Ersser’s work keeps the standard going. He has created his studio environment in the gallery, everything is constructed from balsa wood as 1:1 scale models of the originals, in one corner are wood shavings and a broom, in the other his L shaped desk and workbench complete with drill. Beside that sits a box filled with offcuts of wood and in the middle of the floor is his camera atop a tripod, adjacent on the floor is a circular saw, the electric cable snakes away to the plug further along. It is nerdy, compulsive stuff, all this hand crafted using balsa, Ersser comes across like some strange model making fetishist, the humour of the work and the effort in production is captivating, you cannot pull your eyes away from this scene, despite its mundane nature you want to look at how every piece of balsa has been constructed into the variety of objects. I have visions of Ersser hunched over his latest modelled creations, out of sight he is quietly remaking whole rooms, buildings and cities without our knowledge, one day we will wake and find the whole of London is turned to balsa.

On Redchurch Street I look in briefly on Oliver Bancroft’s show at Studio1.1, many small, highly worked, unpretentious paintings and a multiple screen film. The film is pieced together from a row of projections, several rows of trees are being filmed and then a composite panorama is constructed. There is a slight jarring motion of each film and the changing light quietly shimmers and shakes side by side with the other, the experience of seeing each in isolation but also combined as whole with its filmic partners is a strange experience. I like it, I don’t know why, I think perhaps this combination of individual and collective, isolated and combined appeals.
I return to Hoxton and stop on the way at Rivington Street for the opening of Markus Hansen’s ‘Other People’s Feelings…’ at Bischoff/Weiss. Hansen and the gallery team are networking, there is some serious reputation selling going on here and I try not be distracted as a variety of people move seamlessly through multiple languages and introductions. I always feel a fraud at these type of openings but no matter, I stop practicing my ‘French by eavesdropping’ and look at the changing projections of Hansen’s portraits.
Hansen has photographed a variety of people, male and female, differing ages. They gaze at the camera and on the left hand side mirroring their expressions is Hansen, he has laboriously studied the expressions and by trial and error and no doubt some patience recreated their expression with his own features. This is amazing, it draws you in, the diversity of sitters is wide but somehow Hansen manages to recreate himself in their image, we no longer see difference but similarity. Despite the difference in facial structure, skin, eye and hair tone and colour, age and sex Hansen becomes similar through empathy rather than physical resemblance.
It seems simple but Hansen’s photographs contain a quiet strength and hope.

The final stop on my itenarary is Mark Tanner Award winner Kevin Osmond’s show at Standpoint. Osmond’s sculptures are made from small, mundane, generic objects, objects of the same dimensions such as ping pong balls, pieces of polystyrene or tile spacers.
His sculpture with tile spacers is in the small side room of the gallery, on tall thin columns sit spheres constructed from the spacers, the cross shapes are pieced together to create the spheres. Multiple spheres fill the room and remind me of the heads of alliums, like a sea of huge onion flowers.
At the back of the main gallery space is a fractal type sphere constructed from over 6000 chopsticks. Osmond’s sculptures are fragile looking, light, with use of implied and negative space, most of the work on show relies on negative space to create the form, the lighting is integral to this and the multiple harsh lights of the gallery projects a variety of shadows on the surrounding walls and floor. The size of these works is prodigious considering the small materials used in the construction.
The piece I enjoyed most was Osmond’s cloud relief, one is a simple cloud sculpture using polystyrene, these are conventional cloud shapes such as might be drawn by a child, however the crafting of these appears not a simple task. The other cloud sculpture that I particularly enjoyed was of vapour trails, the type you see some time after a plane has flown past in the summer and has begun to split, spread and lose its structure as it is absorbed into the atmosphere, I guess with these modest materials Osmond is doing the opposite. These insignificant things would be lost to landfill and in some cases are not biodegradable but instead of allowing them to spread and thin out into ever increasing environmental junk he collects and condenses them back into impressively beautiful facsimiles of existing natural forms and human constructions, forgotten and discarded they are brought back to life.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Little People

Friday, September 08, 2006

Beastly Beauty

The problem of large group shows is the muddying of the works when combined with too many others, even in a show where the curator’s intentions are clear and their choice of artists impeccable. A week prior to the opening of the new show ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at the Fieldgate Gallery I saw curator Laura White’s exhibition at the Transition gallery, Laura has produced one of the best individual shows I have seen in some time and I have no doubt that her skills as a curator match her skills as an artist, however this group show appears mired by the numbers of works on show. With co-curator Richard Livingston she has invited 29 artists to contribute to the show on themes around the classic tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’, Livingston and White also contribute a piece each.

In the expansive space of the Fieldgate Gallery the number of works are many and therefore not swamped by the building, unfortunately the sheer variety of work on show might break the curatorial thread, the eye is too distracted by the surfeit of visual information. However, there are some great pieces, maybe the vagueries of personal taste get in the way with those that failed to grab me. Considering the scale of the task with this show White and Livingston have pulled together a group of artists who have produced work of great quality. It would be churlish of me to complain about the work that failed to attract my attention, in fact once the distraction of the numerous works had subsided I began to really enjoy some of the pieces. With the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ analogy ringing through each piece the question of ‘attractive’ artwork is a sticky point, too much art seems to fall too heavily into the function of decoration and Livingston and White kick this away with the curatorial aims of this particular show.

Angela Bartram’s video makes you want to wince and laugh at the same time, a woman is licking an Alsatian dog on the lips, this repeated licking is reciprocated by the dog. To watch this immediately brings a vast array of questions to mind, with another human this action would be either sexual or brutal, between dogs this is obviously a bonding experience but between the two different species this raises questions about the exploitation of the animal in the context in which the viewer sees the film balanced with the complicity and agreement of the animal in the action.
A quieter and less disturbing video piece is Giles Perry’s short video involving a spider, a small decoy is used to attract the spider and gently pulled in an arc whilst the spider follows out of frame. The spider is chasing not following, its aggressive nature is being used to create this action. The question of the used and the user in this interplay is once again a strong theme.
A great coup for the curators is the inclusion of Phyllida Barlow’s larger sculptural piece, an enclosure has been created with large slightly offset panels of wood, they are nailed together with other smaller blocks of wood, it is an enclosure you can’t enter but its human scale is reassuring, each panel is covered in lumpy, glossy paint. It makes you want to look at it, it even has a scale you feel comfortable with but the manner in which it is made and finished is rough and unattractive. Two pieces by Max Hymes also play with the ideas of construction and the finish of the materials. Two plinths have been created, one is painted black, is a vase shape topped with a form reminiscent of a skull, the black painted finish of the main plinth is matched by the same colour of the skull shape, it is pieced together with beads and also has the appearance of an overgrown blackberry. The other piece is yellow, the plinth is topped with a spinning top shape and above that a pineapple constructed from yellow beads. I am not sure where Hymes is trying to lead me but once again these highly crafted sculptures have elements that have overlaps and appear to have been left somewhat deliberately unfinished.
The final piece to catch my eye was Amy Hurst’s balloons sculpture, two black balloons inflated with helium have been released from a length of rope to rise to their full extent, one sits against ceiling unable to rise further, the other has risen to join its companion but is unable to reach the ceiling as its progress has been stalled by the inclusion of a black plastic sack which envelopes it, the weight of the sack continuously holds it from its final destination. They are both in a state of imprisonment but somehow the differing states of their imprisonment disturb me, why would I be happier to see them suffer the same restrictive state rather than the individual states they currently occupy?.
Despite my reservations about the scale of this show it has crept up on me, from the initial point of distraction with the numbers of artists and variety of work on show to the final pleasing feeling induced by the more successful works, and all this achieved with some very disturbing ideas and imagery.

I am in no doubt the selection of artists for this show by the curators was inspired, if the overall feelings I am left with after seeing the show in its totality were intended and manipulated by the curators then they really are geniuses.


Last night saw the opening program from the Bicycle Film Festival at the Cochrane Theatre, a full crowd packed the cinema space and as you would guess a fair amount of bikes were locked outside and an equal amount of hollow cheeked faces could be seen settling down for the start of the collection of films for the evening.
Some great short films were aired including a heart stopping 7 minute spectacle, ‘Monster Track VI’, from Lucas Brunelle as he films a group of some of the craziest fixed wheel riders dice with death and taxis around New York, squeezing through gaps between moving lorries and buses, dodging pedestrians, speeding through red lights and negotiating obstacles both on road and pavement. Think of the vibe of an extreme ski or surf video with bikes on streets. This was followed by Brazilian film featuring some highly skillful BMX flatland riders and then a Niestat brothers film as they filmed themselves stealing their own bike from various parts of New York City. We laughed out loud at the singular disinterest from the public and police as one of the brothers appeared to steal the bike using a variety of tools including boltcutters, angle grinder and hacksaw, I know that London is no different so make sure you use some heavy duty security on your bike as no-one will intervene when someone attempts to shift your metallic two wheeled friend. In fact I have heard that the best advice from police is that if you go to Brick Lane at the weekend you will probably be able to buy your stolen bike back for £50 anyway.
Before the main feature was a documentary of a Bike Kill event by the Black Label Bicycle Club and a spoof comedy of American sitcom ‘Taxi’ with couriers/messengers. And then came the main feature we had been waiting for the 2001 doc ‘Pedal’.

Peter Sutherland filmed a variety of characters who earn their living as bike messengers in New York, he has previously worked as Director of Photography on the skateboarding film ‘Stoked:The Rise and Fall of Gator' and this skate aesthetic seeps into this film. The influence of subcultures in the States on filmmaking always gives any documentary in which such people participate an edge. This non mainstream vibe is carried by the messengers, they know they exist outside the norms of the city but still retain that NYC pride and edge, for a gentle Londoner this can grate, we are not prone to such outburts of patriotic hyperbole for our city. However, there is a charm about all the messengers that Sutherland follows and he literally does follow them. With camera in tow he cycles around, one of the messengers who calls himself Skeletor proudly announces his 15 year experience and warns that due to his speed around the city that the camera may not keep up. With a shout of warning to cars and pedestrians he flies round the streets jumping red lights and slaloming through people crossing the roads, his distinctive cries must be familiar to residents of the city and no doubt this vocal but strangely reassuring approach to safety has probably kept him unscathed for all these years. Some are not so fortunate, Dexter is originally from Trinidad and has been riding bikes for as long as he can remember, it is logical for him to earn his living as a messenger, but one day whilst saving someone from a collision with a car was hit himself, he subsequently lost his right leg but with his crutches strapped to his bike continues to ride and work as a messenger with his self adapted bike.
Many people are interviewed, from the taxi driver and police cycle team who obviously do not agree with the necessary breaking of the road laws required for the messengers to make enough deliveries to earn a decent wage to the messengers and their bosses. Good, fast messengers make a good living and many on the margins of society turn to this work, immigrants of varying backgrounds are attracted by the accessibility and relative freedom of the work. A young Eastern European girl only resident in New York a few years values the wages but questions the longevity of this career choice due to the death of some of her colleagues and friends on the road. The main character that Sutherland follows during the course of the film has recurrent bouts of drug abuse, homelessness and is now recovering from a foot injury incurred by overwork in the latest harsh winter, with children to support and with his age against him and no other skills to offer he recognises his future looks bleak.
Something holds messengers in this work and it is the obvious love of cycling, the community spirit amongst messengers and the pride in being fast and smart. One messenger prides himself on his speed but knows others can ride harder, he explains in a toungue in cheek manner that if you can ride hard you could earn better money in the Tour De France but the thing that makes him better is his knowledge of the streets. He knows routes round the city better than most and that gives him the edge when racking up the number of deliveries necessary per day to build your wages.

It is an incredibly dangerous way to earn a living, it is guessed that a messenger can ride 80-100 miles a day in the course of their deliveries, that amount of time spent on roads built for motorised traffic with a minimum of safety equipment builds a confidence bordering on arrogance, an ability to conquer great fear, a pride in ones fitness and strength and a respect and love for fellow messengers.
It is such a strong subculture that many cant understand why or how the cyclists do what they do on the road. But it is such a unique culture that you can’t help but admire the hard work and risks needed to continue working as a messenger.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


It’s 6.15pm, I’m stuffed in more ways than one, I’ve cycled all the way from my studio in Hackney in the unseasonable heat, I’m sweaty from my cycling and I’m stuffed because I’m knackered from the journey. My fingers are covered in dust and grease after fixing a puncture and there are some unsightly greasy patches from the bike (and possibly a breakfast mishap that until now has gone unnoticed by me) on my t-shirt so I’m stuffed because I look a shambolic mess. To top it all I am also stuffed because I skipped lunch and having an early dinner has left me with an uncomfortable, slightly overfull stomach.
So in this shambling state I pay a visit to the opening of the second show at the recently opened Madder Rose gallery on Whitecross Street. And guess what, I look a mess and this is one of those openings where the well turned out and well heeled are hobnobbing in their sartorial splendour. Yes, this evening I am well and truly stuffed. Still, never mind, eh!.

I take a deep breath, but not too deep as my dinner has still not settled, and gently jostle my way into the gallery. Oh, yes you would think with my sweaty, greasy, queasy appearance would part the hordes but this evening the Madder Rose gallery is also stuffed. I try to look at the art, I hold out no hope of bumping into a familiar face, also no beer just wine, not that I can find the glasses anywhere even if I wanted. Anyway, there are other glasses to pay attention to with Jason Shulman exhibiting a series of sculptures involving glasses of water and painkilling pills, the press release says “analgesia, loss and the delusions inherent in perception” etc. Shulman’s sculptures are finely crafted assemblages created to portray memories and memorials and comment on the battle between perception and reality. However, I am distracted from these delicate sculptures by the wine sipping throng.

Oh look a glass with alka-seltzer like fizzing going on, and over there is a pill dropping into a glass suspended from a huge arcing metal arm, there is a target with a mirrored bullseye with another glass reflected in it that sits a few inches in front of the mirror.
Two people are playing with one of the sculptures, one presses a button as the other peers at himself in a mirror, “can you see anyone?” she says to he. Whoever he can or cant see is academic as the room is full and there is little chance of me taking part in this mirrored flashing light piece due to the stripy shirted and flowery dress wearing punters that are strolling around. Two Italian guys are talking animatedly about the sculpture on the stairs but I cant actually see it because the staircase is not wide enough for the three of us. Downstairs is quieter and one interactive piece is closed for the evening due to its fragile nature and the gallery staff not trusting the grubby fingers of such a huge number of visitors on this opening night. In the corner of this slightly darkened room is a column of coloured dust, this is the sculpture made from the ashes of the artists dead father. He has extracted iron from the ashes and then carefully filtered and sifted them into their variety of colours, they are then enclosed in a glass column with the colours in placed in lines from top to bottom
This is powerful stuff, some of the sculptures upstairs no doubt speak of the journey to the final episode that is this particular piece but this has that extra something. Somehow the finality and honesty of this piece is all that the show needs. The other sculptures upstairs are slick and nicely produced but feel slightly hollow. There is a hollowness that is something else with this final piece. It is how it should be, the hollowness of melancholy, sadness and that time when grief subsides.
I intend to return to take full account of the show in the quiet manner it deserves but for now I’m stuffed, the galleries stuffed and it’s one of those shows when my mood and the masses of this section of the art world need to be removed from the private view context and the show seen in the normal world of the gallery in the quiet days outside of the opening night.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Bicycle Film Festival

Finis Terrae

illustration taken F Communication Records 'classic and rare-La Collection chapter 3' booklet

On the windswept and sea battered Breton coast two young sailors make their livelihood collecting seaweed, on an offshore island they burn the seaweed to harness its chemicals. On their return to their coastal village they sell this raw chemical product to factories on the mainland to be used in industrial processes.
Isolated on the island of Bannec with only a handful of other workmates the two young men, Ambroise and Jean-Marie, have a petty squabble over a bottle of wine, during the course of this argument Ambroise cuts his thumb with a piece of glass from the smashed bottle. No longer talking to Jean-Marie after their argument Ambroise works silently on his own as his infected thumb begins to slowly poison and weaken him over the following days. He descends into ill health and with the weather worsening and alienated from his workmates his chances of a return to the mainland and recovery are jeopardised.

This is the scene of Jean Epstein’s 1929 silent film 'Finis Terrae' and on Saturday night was also the basis for a live soundtrack performance by premier French club DJ and electronic music artist, Laurent Garnier. Garnier originally performed his new score of the film at the Louvre. Invited by Noise of Art to perform this score once more at the NFT with the assistance of pianist Benjamin Rippert they bring a modern interpretation to this classic of French silent film.
Garnier’s music could have so easily clashed with the film but a sensitive matching of music with scenes carefully interplay with Epstein’s use of characters and epic views of the Breton land and seascape. For a film of this period some scenes come as a shock, on the screen the ferocity of the sea is just as arresting without modern film technology and techniques. Garnier sensitively weaves improvised electronic styled music with sampled voices, classic French songs, ambient music, deep basslines and beats that shudder in the manner of the crashing waves. The soundtrack develops conventional electronic music to pared down ambient sounds allied with passages of Rippert’s distinctive piano. Occasionally the music is stalled by the more abrupt scene changes of the film but on the whole the transitions between scenes and the tempo of the soundtrack flow nicely.

The final scenes of the film take us on the treacherous journey from the island to the mainland as Jean-Marie realises the extent of Ambroise’s ill health and single-handedly attempts to return his friend to medical assistance back home. Unbeknownst to Jean-Marie the local villagers have sensed something is wrong on Bannec and a small fishing vessel with the trusted village doctor is sailing to their aid, due to the difficult crossing and unpredictable weather and sea conditions the two ships are under serious threat. The resolution of the film leaves us in no doubt that in this harsh environment whatever happens life goes on and survival is never guaranteed but community, teamwork and the strength of individuals are small but important factors when faced with the ferocity of the natural world.
Epstein’s film may not hold 21st century viewers used to fast paced action of modern film but with Garnier’s score the beautiful location photography and use of untrained, local people as actors the film has an authenticity that captures the imagination 75 years after its original appearance.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

ICA's Private Staff Only

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Moving Shadows

I am warned at the door that the gallery is virtually unlit and to allow my eyes to adjust to low light levels. I push the black curtain aside and step inside, in front of my feet are a spaghettoid amalgamation of electrical wires, television tubes and assorted bulbs and electrical ephemera, amongst this sprawling mass spreading across the gallery floor are projections of changing coloured lights. The television screens and other surfaces of the sculpture contain the flowing, changing movements of jellyfish projected onto them. The coloured emanations from the projectors imbedded in the body of the sculpture create ever changing levels of light and colour, the phosphorescent creatures project their coloured glowing light onto the assembled sculptural items and through the gaps of these onto the walls with shadows of changing intensity.

In the Transition gallery artist Laura White has created her ‘Into The Cold Light’ project as the first part of the galleries ‘Supernature’ series. In this beguiling, restful but also unsettling darkened room White quietly allows us to reflect on issues of nature’s impact on the human world and our human impact on the natural world. Will these creatures whose natural defences repel us, despite their beautiful light, survive humanity’s crass impact on the world?. Our advanced science has propelled us into conflict with our own environment and the other creatures that share the world with us. We can light our houses, towns and cities, we adorn our human festivals with artificial displays of light and colour but this cannot compare to the beauty of this naturally occurring display of light in darkened seas.

If Laura White questions the fundamental impact of humans on the world Ben Cove’s ‘Practical Mechanics’ comes closer to home with a look at the built environment, in the Cell Project Space his exhibit of an oversized pantograph and associated drawings show potential absurdity. The Pantograph is a tool used for rendering reproductions of images, the scale drawings he has produced show modernist style buildings, the linear elements of the drawings break and waver as if under an unsteady hand. The intended modernist order and formality is cracking under the strain of its own precision.

His sculptural piece ‘Decoy’ shows skulls wrapped tightly in coloured twine and pierced by large sharpened sticks. Decoratively sculptural but highly brutal imagery asks more questions than I can guess at, from the cultural connotations of the who to the what, where and why?. In the final darkened room at the end of the gallery sits a screen of a film of a record player, the LP is still but the player and its mounting are rotating at 33 ⅓, the spoken words of this record come from interviews with the leading modernist architects of the ‘50’s. The LP is entitled ‘Conversations Regarding the Future of Architecture’ and features the words of Mies Van Der Rohe and Walter Gropius amongst others. Cove’s video relays the same words 50 years later, the words are the same, the mechanism is the same but it has literally turned round on itself.