Sunday 26 August 2012


New leads, new director... in that situation it makes sense to look back to the source. That's pretty much what happened in the comics all the time.

But does that really warrant a fomalised reboot?

Of course not! The whole retelling of the origin is completely redundant. Anybody in the audience will either know all that already or not be bothered. With every Tarzan film, did they keep going back to his origin? James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, both have had reams of films made about them over the years. Did either of them even have an origin? Did anyone ask for one? Did anyone look at Holmes and say “but how did he get the deerstalker and the enquiring mind?” And not “okay, master detective, enquiring Victorian mind, let's go.”

But you're probably better off just going with it. They do come up with a new take, with Peter finding out about his father now made the motor of everything. (Okay, new to Spider-Man, if a direct steal from Harry Potter.) The great weighting weakness of the first trilogy was their insistence each new adversary had to be tied into Uncle Ben's killings, with increasingly absurd and convoluted results. (Maybe the Sandman did him in, with a gun lent by the Green Goblin, but under the orders of Doctor Octopus, based on an original idea by Kraven the Hunter... no, no, NO!) Here the killer is exactly who he should be, a no-hope nobody who holds up dimestores. The whole Daily Bugle strand is also unceremonially cut out, and you find you don't miss it at all.

If you're after a proper review you could do worse than check out Roger Ebert, who correctly calls it - better than the initial instalment of the first series, not as good as the second. Which may be partly because they can use the first films as trial runs. If, for example, their predecessors got into awkward fixes with the all-over mask and audience identification, they can find good reasons for him to remove it. (Well, most of the time.)

But the scene where they show they actually get Spider-Man is the one in the basketball court. Superheroes, a genre all about wish fulfilment, right? Where you can suddenly get super-strong, act cool and out-bully the bullies? Except Spider-Man is all about a world where that doesn't work, where solving problems are not as linear or straightforward as throwing a punch. What if you got those coveted super-powers, and they just made the whole thing worse?

And while I'm no fan of romcoms, getting a director like Marc Webb in shows nous. Spider-Man is a teenage romance story which ups the ante on intruding teachers and interfering parents by bringing in raging super-villains, the teenage romance is still very much at it's heart.

Even the part of the film which doesn't quite work, the villain, still feels like a stab in the right direcion. Fittingly, the Lizard's bad deeds all stem from good intentions. But his character's simultaneously too undeveloped and, in it's schizo duality, too similar to what's already been done with the Green Goblin.

But then, right at the end, it has to bring in that line. Where the English teacher all-so-metafictionally tells us “we're told there's only ten stories in the world. But there's really only one. Who am I?”

And this is supposed to be an English teacher saying this? An English teacher who has either never heard of 'Jason and the Argonauts', 'Hound of the Baskervilles', 'Animal Farm', 'The Maltese Falcon' and so many others, or who imagines they can be reduced to that small-minded schema!

But of course it's not an English teacher. It's a Hollywood scriptwriter, fresh from reading all that noxious New Agey Christian Vogler claptrap. Dude, it's you who only knows one story! And just like you confuse the world with yourself, you're taking your myopia for insight.

And that's why superheroes now have to be constantly bound and re-bound to their origin stories. Because the world is now just some backdrop, some adventure game scenario for you to carry out your own personal ego mission. Because the idea of doing public good can only be made sense of if filtered through the prism of some self-discovering crusade.

It's the most telling line from any of the modern superhero films. In some ways its even appropriate that it comes from one of the better takes, because that marks all-the-clearer that this is the point they all reduce to.

Who are you?

I'm afraid I can't answer that question in polite company.

Monday 20 August 2012


Only a couple of months ago, I took in the Melvins and Sunn 0))), two bands so similar and yet so dissimilar it proved impossible not to play compare and contrast with them. And then what should come along last week but..?

The Albert, Brighton, Sat 11th August

”Sometimes... when I'm going backwards... I feel like I'm going forwards.”

I'd commented in an earlier post on the motley assortment of folk that were The Men They Couldn't Hang, but their line-up has nothing compared to the Cravats. We have... a singer who looks like he should be securing the door, in fact considerably more so than the chap who is actually securing the door. (And who, holding to this role, frequently tells us to “calm down, please.”) A guitarist who arrives attired as a World War Two flying ace. (And somehow retains this attire, despite the extreme heat.) A bassist who looks like a Guardian journalist, perhaps initially sent to review proceedings but now drafted in. A sax player who looks.... er, a little strange. And to top it all a spiky-haired youth on drums, the only person present who at all fits the punk stereotype, and (as events transpire) knows everyone in the mosh pit personally.

I ask you, with everything so gloriuously askew - what could possibly go wrong?

This recent reformation was my first chance to catch the Cravats. (Though I did see the Very Things, their more psychedelic offshoot, sometime in the Eighties.) They had done the whole punk thing, self-releasing their first single in '78 after a loan from the singer's mum, using John Peel airplays as lifeblood, even managing a release on Crass records. And yet it was clear from the outset their run was not of the normal mill.

When most punk songs were about hating your parents, your teachers or (at more of a stretch) whoever the Prime Minister happened to be, the Cravats pitched in with a single titled 'I Hate the Universe.' Which was their whole schtick, absurdist black humour given a backbeat, Dada antics mixed with English tomfoolery. (Though the early band member whose on-stage task was to watch TV does not, alas, part of the reformation. Unless he's still rehearsing.) At the height of the Year Zero rule, when the Sixties were struck out of musical history, they took from it's more sinister side. 'Who's In Here With Me?' and 'Ceasing To Be' are like younger cousins to 'I Am the Walrus' and 'See My Friends', with the air of menace not so much thickened as stewed.

The Shend's vocals are a mixture of plummy yodels and screeches, like an after-dinner speaker gone through the looking glass. (With perhaps a nod to the Karloff-styled narration of 'Monster Mash'.) Rick London's sax is used less as a rock'n'roll instrument and more a sound generator, sometimes injecting nigh-on white noise into the mix. (After the gig, a friend avidly shows me how he possesses more effects pedals than the guitarist.) The band seem simultaneously on the edge of turning to free-form noise, whilst remaining as tight and powerful as any punk band could wish to be. You can hear klezmer or cabaret in there, not paraded as a set of look-at-me influences but thrown into the whirlygig of sound.

The systematic deragement of the senses you can dance to. What's not to like?

'Rub Me Out' live from London a couple of years ago...

...and 'In Your Eyes', from the gig above. Lower sound quality, but then that's punk, innit?

Brighton Concorde, Thurs 16th August

John Lydon (aka Rotten) was not just the poster boy of Brit-punk and arch-stirrer of media shit-storms, he was also a key ingredient in one of the finest albums in the history of everything.

Of course, anyone who knows their music will know of what I do speak.'Never Mind the Bollocks' is a pretty damn fine rock'n'roll album. But it was after the Sex Pistols, when Public Image Ltd released 'Metal Box', that punk became post-punk and the rules of the game were well and truly changed. Okay, so perhaps both changed music. But with so many no-hopers taking 'Bollocks' as their starting gun, only 'Metal Box' did it for the better.

Of course since then Lydon's increasingly fallen back on his chief career of being a TV personality. He hasn't really made a great album since 1986's 'Album', in fact he hasn't relased anything at all since 1997. Instead his chief occupation has been appearing on TV documentaries about punk in order to put everyone else down. (“Be a punk. Join the army!”) Well, that and advertising butter. He was always entertaining, and somehow you can't help liking the self-aggrandising snotty taunter. But it seemed the more a self-caricature he became, the more often he got hired.

...which is hardly surprising when you come to think about it. Like Damo Suzuki, Lydon has a natural talent but plays no instrument, so is more-than-usual reliant on talented collaborators. Yet he's too egotistical to stick collaborators for long. The better they are, the shorter thy last. Famously he had ejected the bassist from the Pistols, overlooking the small matter of him writing all the music. Then replaced him with Lydon's personal sidekick overlooking the small matter of him not being able to play the bass. That really set the tone for his subsequent career. The classic line-up of Public Image lasted twice as long (ie they made two albums instead of one), but that seems something of a record.

And on the rare days when he did perform, changes in his voice seemed to work as a barometer. Just as he swapped intense glares for gurneying, his sneering put-downs became more elaborate and theatrical, trilling consonants and stretching vowels, like an elocution teacher on bad drugs. Ironically they're in some ways not dissimilar to the Shend's, but it did seem to dampen the threat element and make them more of a self-caricature.

Nevertheless, though he brazenly continued using the name Pil for what were essentially solo albums, announcing he'd 'reform' the band was a signal for those with ears to listen. He'd decided to cut back on the TV punditry for a bit and get serious about music again. The Pistols reformation involved the full original line-up, and I didn't even bother to listen when they played live on the radio. Pil has precisely one original member, Lydon himself, and I bought my ticket as soon as they went on sale.

And they were good. They were really, really good.

Barring the new stuff, 'Metal Box' is the most visited album. In fact early on they launch into the most 'Metal Boxy' of all tracks - 'Albatross.' If it's a more rocky version than the original, it's still a chip off the 'Metal Box' block – in fact it sets the tone for proceedings. While the earlier, punchier numbers lie unplayed, tracks are stretched past any kind of shape or structure. They have the same relationship to songs as instillation pieces do to pictures, they become places to hang out in. 'Flowers of Romance' started life as a single. With this version I started to wonder if the very conception of linear time had been an illusion all along. (Alas they don't play my two favourite tracks from 'Metal Box', 'Poptones' and 'Memories', but it's scarceley a greatest hits set they're doing.)

As 'Metal Box' is the album on which Lydon sings least affectedly, making it's recipe post-dub trance-outs plus emotional intensity, his more recent style of singing doesn't always work out. 'Death Disco' in particular seemed to lack something. Yet had 'Religion' been any more intense, it would most likely have provoked a war.

I am probably doing the show a disservice and giving vent to nostalgia by not saying more about the new songs, which are strong and distinctive. The deranged 'Lollipop Opera', which I'd seen on the TV without quite getting... well it would be wrong to say it made sense but somehow it clicked with me. I found myself wanting to hear the new album, which wasn't something I was expecting. The new band work well together, with the guitar of Lu Edmonds (who's played with the Mekons and 3 Mustaphas 3) particularly notable. (Probably meaning Lydon will fire him first, so get in while you can.)

“We do this because we love doing it,” Lydon tells us before leaving the stage. “Remember that.”

And against all odds, the rentagob persona, the guy who denounced all other punks as fakes while making butter adverts, you find yourself believing him.

Punk was always at it's dullest when it started chasing some spurious credibility, ranting in mockney about being unemployed in a bus shelter or sniffing glue against the system. (The Exploited managed to rant in mockney despite being from Scotland, surely the ultimate in self-caricature.)

Punk was always at its best when it was creative and arch, aiming to stay in rock'n'roll just enough to explode and expose it's absurdities, but mostly heading out of it - into the unexplored. That two bands could come along in a row, both from the classic era of Brit-punk, who are interested in neither the nostalgia circuit nor in holding to some illusory musical fundamentalism... if that's not an encouraging sign, I can't imagine what is.

I should probably link to either a 'Metal Box' or a new track for the customary vidclip, but for no good reason at all instead here's 'Rise'...

In other news... find yourself missing other founder members Keith Levine and Jah Wobble? Wondering, if there can be two competing versions of Hawkwind, why can't there be for Pil? In such a spirit, Levine and Wobble have formed Metal Box in Dub. With the singer from a Pistols tribute band and Levine's Beatles T-shirt, this is surely staged at least in part as a fuck-you to Lydon. (Whose antipathy to the Beatles is legendary.) But the music is... wait for it... genuinely great, and I might even have been tempted to London to see them had I known of it.

There's actually odd similarities to New Pil's take on the tracks, they're not so much re-entacted as used as the basis for bendy, stretchy workouts, less trance-out than the originals, more free-form. And, while Wobble's bass was a key ingredient in the classic band of yore, both are notably guitar-dominated. This is their 'No Birds Do Sing'...

Tuesday 14 August 2012


My review of 'The Dark Knight Rises' is now up on the FA Comiczine site! (Brief summary: everyone else was right about it. Even the people who were wrong were still sort of right...)

Monday 13 August 2012


Okay, so another great from the classic era of American comics is gone, the like of which we won't see again. Are we really at that point where only Ditko is left?

Classic Kubert anecdote, being told off by Carmine Infantino for not wearing a tie to the DC offices. Everything you need to know about his art style is in there. I mean, just look at some, the seeming roughness which gives everything a vibrant urgency, yet not a single stroke out of place. He was one of those artists who could make it all look so easy, until you actually tried to copy him.

More about his career here from Tom Spurgeon, as if you needed it.

Sunday 12 August 2012


Once the Hayward seemed a hitter on the London gallery circuit. But since the high of the much-celebrated 'Undercover Surrealism', I find I haven't been back in some six years. Admittedly, partly because I saw the John Cage show in Bexhill before it transferred to London, and (alas) missed the Rodchenko photography. But mostly because they seemed to be becoming more and more mired in Brit Art. And frankly I sometimes wonder if even disliking Brit Art betratys too much of an involvement with it. What would it take to tempt me back?

The answer, it transpires, is an exhibition of invisible or otherwise unseeable artworks, described by curator Ralph Rugoff as “the best exhibition you'll never see.” Perhaps he should have pre-empted the inevitable heckles and called it 'The Emperor's New Clothes.' Needless to say, many scoffed. But is the result gimmick, folly, one-note joke with stretch marks or actually something worth taking in? Take that poster image (above), is it of a man heading into infinity or just stepping himself into a corner? But even if it just is a series of empty rooms with an entry fee, that already sounds better than Brit Art, so I decided to find out...

(And yes I did think of posting a blank review, broken up by empty frames for the illos, of a review in white-on-white text, and all the other variants...)

Anti-Art Was Just the Start

Things kick off with Yves Klein's video 'Propositions Monochrome', from the 1957 Paris exhibition of blank space. (Commonly called 'The Void', though that was theoretically the title of an empty vitrine within the show.) The concept was that the artist had passed through the space, influencing it with his personality, a parody of the great artist and his heightened sensibilities. I wasn't sure whether the smart-suited figure (actually Klein himself)was the artist inbuing the place with his special presence, or a gallery-goer carefully inspecting these empty spaces. I don't suppose it matters. It provides the vital spark needed by every gag – the straight man.

He went on to even more direct critiques of art as a commodity, selling “zones of immaterial sensibility” for gold, a short-circuiting of the artist's relationship with wider society, doing something pseudo-mystical for the wallets of the wealthy. Purchasers received certificates modelled on cheques, some of which are on show.

Similarly, Tom Friedman's '1000 Hours of Staring' (1992/7) is a piece of white paper he simply stared at for that set time, ostebsibly taking those years to create it. Of course it doesn't work, it's just a blank piece of paper, the supposed superior hyper-intensity of the artist is not magically transmitted. (In fact we don't even know if he actually did it, as he refused to document anything.) Meanwhile in 'Untitled' (1991) Maurizio Cattelan reported the theft of an invisible work of art to the police, then exhibited his copy of their crime report. Something out of nothing.

Such Dada anti-art antics, aiming to fail and to take down with them the whole of the rest of art, of course these remain vital. It's not just a joke, it's a joke with the sting of the truth. We have a straight choice. We can either forget about art, feign that it somehow magically transcends capitalism's ability to regulate our social relations, or embrace anti-art. And what better place to show this stuff than today, and at this temple to Brit Art? Those conspicuous consumers who buy pickled sharks from Damien Hirst, they don't really like the work, do they? Any more than a Rolex owner thinks it tells the time better than a more regular watch. They just want to own a Hirst. They buy the price tag and the work comes free.

Yet twenty years ago, and full of piss and vinegar, I would have wanted the whole exhibition to stay like this, repeatedly hammering the same point home. After all, in Richard Hell's phrase, I belonged to the blank generation. But it isn't so one-note, and today I'm glad of that.

Pure Dada is a bit like stripped-down, three-chord punk tracks. Music generally goes back to that when it starts getting lost. But, for all that both are negative sentiments, both are starting points. You remember that essential lesson as you move on. They're not intended as places for you to stay. Having quoted Richard Hell, let's follow up with X Ray Spex: “anti-art was just the start.”

As things turn out, there's more to invisible art than straight provocation. When the exhibition states boldly “works that share a similar blankness can convey remarkably varied content,” it's notable how fully it can live up to that promise. Though it would be an exercise in folly to imagine that whiteness could be categorised or the invisible boxed, let's run through just a few of them.

Art Needs No Objects

If conceptual art can too easily be conflated with anti-art, there is of course an overlap between the two. The catalogue correctly sees in it “a form of resistance to...the increasing power of the martekplace to determine the significance of works of art.” With no artworks to grasp, there were no items to trade. Simples. But conceptual art is more an attempt to reset the priorities of art than a fist-pumping attack on it.

Lucy Lippard calls it “a dematerialisation of art” while Laura Cumming in the Guardian comments “it's only the thought which counts.” Take Robert Barry's 'Inert Gas Series' (1968) in which he released inert gases into the air, to allow them to travel slowly but inexorably around the world, me and you inevitably breathing a little of them in. It's perhaps the comsummate conceptual artwork as its a mteaphor for conceptual art itself, or quite possibly art overall. Art is about the release and dissemination of ideas, with the rest either accoutrements or obstacles.

Hence conceptual art doesn't set itself up as a type of art, as another ism, but as the purest form of art, stripped of it's unnecessary appendages. The sinking stone was only ever a means to get the ripples going on the pond. If you can create them without the bother of the stone, so much the better.

However, 'Air Conditioning Unit' (1972, above) by Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin of Art and Language gives conceptulism a different spin. A room is empty save for two air conditioning units. The outside wall is covered by a text explaining all this, in dense and fairly incomprehensible language. There's also a poster avdertising an early showing of this, which is itself almost all text. (In fact the room existing at all was something of an afterthought, it was not set up until four years after the work was conceived and the idea disseminated.)

It would be easy to take it as a skit upon the theory-heavy world of Modernism. (Even the catalogue suggests they “set out to question and subvert the basic tenets of Modernism.”) But their point would actually seem to be a wider one – to render problematic the supposed discrete reality of an art object. Language inherently involves a cultural filter, I can't write “air conditioning unit” in a way that will keep you cool, I have to write it in English or some other culturally specific language, and so on. Art can feel free of all that. A sculpture of Winston Churchill is simply a scuplture of Winston Churchill, surely.

Yet as the catalogue says art was never about “the inherent characteristics of an object... but with how it is positioned within a larger symbolic network.” A statue of Winston Churchill in the park may look straightforward enough, but actually is just the tip to the iceberg of whole set of cultural assumptions. The artists are attempting to invert things and show us the iceberg.

The Invitation of Incomplete

Surround white with other colours and it stops being a blank canvas and immediately becomes a vivid foreground colour. (I've used that trick with my own comics.) Equally, silences in music can be arresting or even profound.

Similarly, some works here use the unseen as a trigger for the imagination, with the works as pointers, giving the audience just enough of a framework that their minds can start to fill it. Perhaps the majority of works fit this caregory to some degree, for even the all-white works are framed, not empty spaces on the walls.

The mosty clear-cut example might be Carsten Holler's 'The Invisible' (1998, above). Asked to design a racing car for an art project, a kind of modernist 'Wacky Races', his contribution was an “invisible car.” We see it's starting block laid out on the gallery floor, but that is all. Being a natural-born cynic, I did not imagine an invisible car had actually been built and now sat there. But somehow, I found I couldn't walk over those lines.

It's not that each of us constructs a working model of what that invisible car might look like, and so ends up with their own personalised artwork. It's more that the space becomes a focus for thought, and your mental assumptions come to inhabit it. It's like those horror films that avoid showing you the monster, figuring whatever is formless in your imagination will always be scarier than anything on screen.

Taking a Chance

We've all long since turned against any notion of art as didactive, a fixed object transmitting a set meaning into the audience's mind. We recognise it as a collaborative process between the transmitter and the receiver's ears. But the interchange, the radio static is still often seen either as a simple passageway or an obstacle to be overcome. Yet that game of Chinese Whispers is just as much a part of the magic happening. Once you start to think in this way, chance becomes a method of creating art just like a paintbrush or a camera.

Bruno Jakob released a series of 'Invisible Paintings', where the paper or canvas was subject to rain, snow or other elements which would corrode or undulate the surface. The catalogue tells of a Venice exhibition in 2010/11 in which he left the paintings outside for the elements to 'paint' as the show progressed.

These probably stretch the show's theme, they're more ultra-minimalist than actually invisible, in the manner of John Cage's visual art. But they provide a useful contrast. Particularly when put in the context of pristine white works, they show how the brain needs very little suggestion to start seeing the work as a painting. See a sheer white sheet in a frame and you think “art statement” and check out the indicia to see what the artist was thinking of. Add just a few pale indications and you think “art work” and look at the canvas.

Art As Impermanence

We're always being told great art is timeless, which must be the highest form of visibility there is. A corollary notion is that art must always be kept in its original state. Works are preserved or restored, with any failure to do so presented as a tragedy. But of course nothing lasts forever, putting (as they have done in Brighton) a piece of Banksy graffiti under glass is just staving off the inevitable. So what happens not just when you make art that is impermanent, but is about that impermanence?

Take Song Dong's 'Writing Diary With Water' (1995-present, above), in which he kept a diary by writing with water on stone. Of course the water just evaporates.

As a diary represents a life, they also contain the concept of sedementary layers. A conventional diary is a record of progress, a moving from one state to another. This diary accumulates, as if our memories are not a series of events, but a set of pictures each superimposed on the ones before, not advancing like a career but growing like coral.

Oddly, there's no attempt to explore the overlap with auto-destructive art. Chance creation of art is all very well, but should the processes stop there? Could they actually start after that point? Gustav Metzger's (semi) recent show explored the way it's erosion and decay could become the subject matter of a work of art.

Significant Absences

But also, and in a paradoxical reversal of everything above, art can also be used to make visible the otherwise invisible. The invisible can be used to represent the ideological, the stuff you don't notice because it's become so naturalised in your mind.

For example, in 1974 Michael Asher took a wall out of the Claire Copley gallery in Los Angeles, to expose the gallery offices and “put on display issues related to labour and the selling of art.” (Unreproducable here, of course, but mentioned in the catalogue.)

And of course there's also a political dimension, where history and even geography render some events and people invisible. In the German city of Kassel a a public fountain, erected by a local Jewish businessman, was destroyed by Nazis. To simply rebuild it would be to remember its original donor, but also wipe Nazi crimes from the record. Horst Hoheisel's 'Ashcrott Fountain' (1987) instead rebuilds it but upside-down, sinking into the earth, “a funnel into whose darkness the water recedes,” thereby marking both the original fountain and the attempt to wipe it out.

Perhaps I am just a romantic but I imagine an America who had held to the 'Tribute in Light' commemoration of Ground Zero would have been less likely to invade Iraq.

Invisible Walls, Invisible Bridges

There are always works which don't fit your clumsy categories, and the invisible inevitably does not take well to an imposed order. Fitting nowhere above but a welcome addition to the show is Jeff Hein's 'Invisible Labyrinth' (2005, above), where headsets vibrate a warning whenever you hit an unseen wall of his virtual labyrinth. This work is fun, involving and charmingly site-specific. It's fitting that they're vibrations not verbal instructions, as it makes them feel more like a 'sense', and less a command. Alas in this less-than-blockbuster show there was only one other person trying it when I got there, when it really needs a small crowd, but you can't have everything.

The steward opening a section of a clear white wall to adjust controls was presumably just performing a function, but it still felt like an integral part of the piece - a glimpse of the hidden world of works behind the smooth passages we traverse.

However the blurb is surely getting carried away by claiming it “disrupts conventional patterns of behaviour.” Already that day not only had I been unable to step on the starting pad of Holler's invisible car. I'd seen a Tube station guard challenge people who'd walking in to an 'out' section of the station, surely the equivalent of a buzzing headset. Surely we follow invisible walls all the time, sticking to lines marked on the floor, standing to the right on escalators. I've been to that Tube station frequently, and probably now consider those floor markings as impermeable as an actual wall.

But this seems more like the success of the piece than the failure. Foregrounding a sublimnal activity, renewing our awareness – that feels like something art should be doing.

And talking of making use of the gallery space...

No Art Here, Let's Look at the Gallery

Bethan Huws comments that attendees “tend to pass from one work to the next, as if the artworks were little islands, and the seas – white walls/ concrete floors in between – go unnoticed. They pass from New York to San Francisco to... so to speak, without noticing the surroundings.” Of course this is similar to John Cage's infamous silent piece, which aimed to bounce us into noticing the ambient sounds of the performance space. Huws' means to get us to reaquant us with our surroundings was to hire an actor to pose as a gallery-goer, but do nothing out of the ordinary for the role.

Now me, I'm one of the contrary types who always notices the layout of galleries, just like I take in the typography of books. And the look here is quite vivid; vast white spaces, with what works there are spread apart, the indicia on see-through perspex or faded grey. (You can't even see these from a distance, so spied from a distance other attendees look for all the world like they're staring at bare walls.)

Of course the gallery space affects us, perhaps more strongly if only taken in subliminally. In 'The Air Conditioning Show' I got all the conceptual backstory about art-as-text, but mostly just found the room a calming space to hang out in. Sitting down, I started tuning into micro-details, such as the way the two air conditioning units had different hums. It was actually hard to tear myself away, I had to focus on the promise of the rest of the show and other errands I then had to run. The whiteness of the gallery became, for me, a vivid foreground colour. Notably Glenn Ligon's 'He Tells Me I Am His Own' (2003) names an all-white print after an evangelical hymn, riffing off religions usage of “white light” as a metaphor for the holy.

...which is perhaps unsurprising. Due to the accursed Olympics, London was more-than-usual cloged with crowds, cops and flags (not necessarily in that order). Even the more enjoyable stretches, such as the South Bank, are stimulating rather than relaxing. Compared to those teeming streets, the show felt like a little slice of heaven. (Think of the all-white heaven in 'A Matter of Life and Death.') It even seemed designed to evoke this, inverting the normal flow of rooms, so you came to the cathedral-like space of the biggest, whitest room last. (A sacrifice for this payoff being they couldn't get you to exit through the gift shop, normally the gallery equivalent of chocolate by the supermarket tills.)

It feels reminiscent of how I felt about the Brian Eno exhibition at an Old Church in Brighton. Galleries are fast replacing Churches, as the place we can indulge our less worldly feelings yet also keep them combined with our fix for personal comsumption.

It also brought to mind two colliding quotes. Alan Vega' said of the notoriously confrontational punk gigs put on by his band Suicide in Seventies New York, “people were coming in off the streets... hoping they’d be escaping and all we were doing was shoving the street back in their face again.” While Peter Blegved, interviewed in the Sound Projector, once commented on his changing tastes in middle age “I'd pay more for silence now than music.”

The problem of this show with nothing to see isn't that it doesn't work, that the blank walls bore, it's that it works far too readily. It presents itself as something radical and challenging when its actually something of a chill-out space. What we can't see, was that ever going to hurt us? In the video below Rugoff talks of “forego[ing] the complacency of seeing”, yet also of the show as “a pallete-cleanser, at a moment when London is having an endless series of spectacles.” Does this show want to keep its Dada roots and eat them?

Let's be upfront, I can recognise some of myself in that Blegved quote and enjoyed being in that serene space. Purging the mind of clutter and instilling a zen state of calm, that's a credible purpose of art and invsiblity seems a likely means towards that end. But should it over-rule all the others? Weren't we told near the start that there could be as many forms of invisible art as any other? The antagonistic anti-art that kicks off the show, should that just be kicked out from there-on in?

A Slice of Darkness

As if acknowledging this, some of the more recent works try to spice things up a bit. For example, in Tom Friedman's 'Untitled (A Curse)' (1992, above), a witch has hexed the space above an empty plinth. While with his afore-mentioned '1000 Hours of Staring' the failure had been the point, this time the failure seems just that. For it to work we would need to be transported back five hundred years, when we last believed in such stuff. After being unable to step on the starting block of the invisible car, my first reaction was to stick my head just where the curse would be. I am, at the time of writing, not feeling any ill effects.

The most clear-cut attempt to inject a bitter undertaste was Teresa Margolles' 'Air'(2003), at first sight a straight replication of 'Air Codnitioning Unit'. But the air is from humidified water previously used to wash down Mexican murder victims. Yet again the effect seemed insufficent. On a daily basis, we consume stuff based on the crippling exploitation of others. The clothes we wear might well have been made in a sweatshop where workers were beaten or killed for trying to form a trade union. There's nothing strong enough here to bring any of those repressed thoughts home. (Perhaps we should initially be told it's mountain air from outside a Swiss sanitorium or some such, and encouraged to breathe deeply, before being told the truth.)

The catalogue mentions a 1974 Warhol invisible scuplture surrounded by burglar alarms of different pitchces, primed to go of as soon as visitors approach them. Something like that would have been warranted here, to shake up the calmness a little. (And certainly it would have been better than the Warhol piece they do show.) Another possibility would have been to include an empty room, unmarked by signage or any other indication whether it was another artwork or simply a space left bare.

There's precisely one piece which actually does succeed in unsettling. James Lee Bryar's 'The Ghost of James Lee Bryars' (1969) is nothing but a jet-black room to commemorate his inevitable death. (And restaged after his actual death in 1986.) It's the yang to the yin of 'Air Conditioning Unit', the dark to... oh wait, you saw that one coming. After all that gleaming white, plunging yourself into the pitch black is startling, like diving into icy water from a hot day. A woman before me visibly had to marshall her efforts before she could enter. (In a smart move, you haved to pass through that room to reach the rest of the exhibition.) It feels closing not opening, and I felt none of my earlier desire to hang out in there. It's stark and unfunerary, with none of those flowers, shared memories or talk of “better places”, just a stone-cold fact. Some things, there's just no escaping.

Of course it's possible that the black room only feels so dark from all the whiteness everywhere else. An artwork reliant on a cultural context is an inevitablity. But in this case, this work might have been reliant on the context of this particular show for it's powerful effect. In, for example, a show devoted to death it might fit in far easier. That might be thought a step too far into relitavism.

Invisible, The New Visible

...which is perhaps what we should expect. Unlike his earlier-discussed works Klein seems serious about his proposed 'architecture de l'air', with buildings held in place by jets of air, to “dissolve social mores and conventions.” He even tried to patent them. But that liberating open-ness now doesn't seem that far removed from the glass-and-steel constructions that dominate the modern London skyline, such as the near-completed Shard I passed on the way in.

A credit card company I once worked for were working feverishly on a transparent card, which they clearly saw as a kind of holy grail. Apple have virtually trademarked the colour white with their branding. Once gold or blue were the signifying colours of status. Now, especially since the banking crisis, every corporation is aiming at this 'open' look. Even the idea of the show as a kind of Zen refuge from the London streets, perhaps even that can be criticised. Perhaps it's actually their epitome.

One argument would be that presenting all this as a gallery show at all was an inveitable diluting of the concept. The programme talks a lot of invisible art as a with-holding. Perhaps they should have copied a trick used by Barry and just released the programme, tied to a non-existent gallery complete with unreachable map instructions.)

My natural reaction was to bask in this exhibition as if it glowed. Presented with an all-white room, my heart was briefly at peace. But my brain had nagging questions for both the show and my heart. Whether that was some dilemma purely of my own, which I merely projected onto those vast white walls... well, if an empty plinth can be termed a piece of art, to encourage a more active response from the viewer, then so can a review. It's up to you to decide.

Coming soon! More out-of-date exhibition reviews...

Tuesday 7 August 2012


Royal Festival Hall, 6th August 2012

Between availing myself of my ticket and placing myself in my seat, I realised I didn't have very many expectations for this gig.

Needless to say, I've always adored Fraser's mellifluous voice and loved her original band the Cocteau Twins. To this day, 'Treasure' is one of my most cherished albums. But as time went on they seemingly turned more and more into the outfit their detractors had always claimed they were, something shiny and ornate but substanceless, musical bling. A later album was called 'Heaven or Las Vegas', as if they'd started out pretty close to heaven but had inclined further and further towards Las Vegas.

Moreover, not only do we have this long performing gap but there's also the absence of Fraser's long-term musical partner Robin Guthrie. Besides, there was always something mediumistic about their music, as if they were channelling something they weren't really in charge of. Was there any actual basis for expectation? I even started to wonder that, if I'd seen the actual Cocteau Twins back in the day, I might not have bothered with this latter-day reappearance at all.

And at first, I managed to keep true to my inner curmudgeon. There were new tracks apleantly but they seemed too much like photocopies of the old, similar in form but more pallid.

But as things went on it all started to mesmerise me. The audience adoration she received may have been a little overstated, perhaps more down to their being glad to see her back than what she was actually doing. (She was presented with numerous bouquets of flowers like she's our generation's diva. Which I suppose she is.) Not everything worked. There were moments of AOR-style trebly guitar. A duo performance with Steve Hackett on acoustic, clearly signposted as a showstopper, didn't really convince.

But ultimately things turned about, and the old tracks started to reshap themselves in the shadow of the new. This was most definitely the case by the two encores, first a jawdropping version of 'Pearly Dew Drops Drops.' And then...

Though people were shouting for it I hadn't really considered that she'd even play 'Song to the Siren', much less close on it. (It not being an actual Cocteau Twins song, it being a cover and so on.) As it was, she reworked it to such a degree that we didn't know to start clapping until the opening lines.

In the original, and unlike Tim Buckley's own version, the song to the Siren is sung in a Siren-like voice. I've never been sure why that works so well but it does. The original is sung resplendently yet strangely, as if really the voice of some actual otherworldly creature. I'm not sure if it's sung in an actual open tuning but with the held notes it resounds, like those Bulgarian folk choirs we were only just talking about.

The new version is in the best sense of the word solo, like those missing Cocteau Twins aren't really missing after all. The backing music is stripped back, throwing the emphasis on her voice just as it becomes less flamboyant, less dramatic. You no longer feel like you're being called to, more like your ears are eavesdropping. Yet there's something murky going on under the surface of the music, like submerged rocks.

It's perhaps an odd thing to say about such a delicate performance but it's more mature, more assured. It's not someone looking back, hoping they can still do what they did. Liz Fraser is looking forward.

But, with the magic of the interweb, you don't need to take my word for it. Here's the original version...

...and the new...

Coming soon! Some much-promised out-of-date exhibition reviews...

Friday 3 August 2012


It's that time of year again when I take a few of my favourite pieces here and compile them into a print digest format, which you can then pick up and read just like we did in the old days, pa. These are put together by a team of top-notch graphic designers then compiled using the latest cutting-edge laser technology, and anyone who saw me at the copier in my local shop just now... that's purely a co-incidence, honest!

These worth... I mean priceless items will be available for public perusal at tomorrow's Alternative Press Fair, the impending alt-comics convention Caption, Comics Friends United and possibly even other places.

(I first started doing these as calling-cards for the blog, but as far as I can figure out there seems to be little or no audience overlap, like print and pixel are just two different channels. But I keep doing them out of some inner peversity.)

...all of which seems as good a time as any to remind ourselves of the tag-lines used for the original Olde Printe Versions of 'Lucid Frenzy'...

“The world's not impersonal perzine”
“Despite popular demand!”
“Too young to live! Too dull to die!”
“Raising the bar on lowering the tone for... oh, about a year or so now.”
“Not dead! Just not smelling too good!”
“Too damn stupid to know when to lie down and die!”
“It's back! And it's baaaaaaad! (The term “bad” is not used here in the “wicked” sense.)”
“Make way for more age without wisdom...”
“Nine instances of neither use nor ornament!”
“Never knowingly understood.”

...finishing on my personal favourite...

“Who will stem this flow of ill-informed outpourings from the pen of the stalk that walks?”

Incidentally there is no point asking for copies of the original print 'Lucid Frenzy.' Not because I don't have any left. There's just no point...

Coming soon! Some new stuff, honest!