Monthly Archives: September 2006

Moi, l’artiste

I have four pieces in the ICA ‘PRIVATE: Staff Only’ show:

IV. The New Republic

X. Points of Transit

XVIII. The Man Without Qualities

XXIX. What People Argue About in Heaven

Watching this go up around the building has been a real treat. Every weekend, new works have appeared: on the narrow stairwell, in corridors, and even in our offices. Déva has her films running on a monitor by the photocopier; Emma has her dirty washing in the kitchen. Little surprises popping up everywhere.

Though there have been mutterings about some of the work being ‘a bit GCSE’ (usually from people who don’t have anything in the show), I’m really surprised not by the talent that’s on display, though there’s plenty of that, but by how many of my colleagues are (unlike me) day-to-day working artists. While Jens rather patronisingly wonders what it must be like to be a mere gallery assistant when you’re ‘actually an artist’, I’m struck more by the way artistic practice is a part of so many people’s lives. Though it’s also notable that the show belongs to the ground floor and mezzanine a lot more than to the second and third floors, and inasmuch as work refers to the quotidian ICA, it refers to the ICA below Carlton House Terrace rather than above.

The show’s also at least as conceptually rigorous as Cerith’s empty gallery: a hidden secret gallery behind the walls draws attention to what and who it takes to keep the white cube, the cinemas and the theatres, running: the wires behind the scenes. Welcome to the ICA, now please move along, there’s (literally) nothing to see here…

Please pay attention motherfucker

Please pay attention motherfucker is the title of Cerith Wyn Evans’ stuffed magpie, perched on a branch in the concourse leading to the ICA bar. Some people are having a hard time dealing with its intimations of bad luck; the magpie is oblivious, its wings fully flung as if about to leap into flight, its beak dark and glittery, unaware it’s an omen of any kind. It’s hard to get a photograph with any detail against the bright white walls and ceiling.

Staff have the usual morning bar talk on the day of opening, and Cerith turns up to apologise for his work if it embarrasses us. He’s dapper in a grey suit, a band of transparent beads around his left wrist and a grey soup-straining moustache. He asks for a light. When he starts talking, his voice at first sounds odd, foreign, until the cadences fall into place as properly Welsh. He doesn’t say much at first, and so Jens tells us a joke that Cerith has told him.

Cerith interrupts a film crew and leads us all into the lower gallery, which has been stripped bare for the most controversial work in the show, Décor, named after Marcel Broodthaers’ 1975 exhibition (a formative experience for Cerith) and the centrepiece of a show that’s essentially a homage to the ICA itself. The work itself consists of the lower gallery with its stud wall removed to reveal the original arched Nash windows, allowing natural light to flood in, and making Westminster visible outside. As if on cue, as Cerith is talking, the Queen’s Life Guard go by on their horses, all feathers and funny helmets, quite an odd and beautiful sight. I ask Cerith what he thinks of the view itself, because I hate this part of London. He says it’s all human, that the guards aren’t actors, they all have their inner lives.

Upstairs, Cerith takes us into the first gallery, in which motorised venetian blinds spell out in morse code an academic text discussing errors in early astronomical photographs of the southern hemisphere caused by imperfections in the photographic plates and process. How, as Cerith says, ‘a scrap of dandruff became a galaxy’. He points to where Marcel Broodthaers had arranged cannons pointing at the sites of power and tradition in Whitehall. The whole exhibition is a love letter he says ‘a love letter to Marcel Broodthaers’.

In the other upper gallery is the show’s title work, take my eyes and through them see you. It’s a big projector running a continuous loop of fully-exposed film. Throughout the course of the exhibition, the film will pick up dust, scratches and tramlines, gradually adding to the projection of monotonous black with green scratches and white sparkles. It’s both direct film without the artist’s agency, and a film work that it’s impossible to preserve. It reminds me at first of Malcom LeGrice’s White Field Duration, but in the gallery, it seems to be about the projector as much anything else: rather than being hidden away behind another wall, it obtrudes itself on you with its fat cakestand and inky loop of film. It has a mirrored plinth, something Cerith seems particuarly happy with. If a film projector has ever looked sightly camp, it’s this projector.

Later I hear second-hand that at the members’ talk the same evening some were outraged with Décor, and someone called it ‘degenerate art’. It made me laugh. Richter and Grosz are company anyone can be proud of keeping. Some were less amused.

And why the magpie? Because, says Cerith, when you head to the bar at the ICA, it’s always one for sorrow.

Cerith Wyn Evans’ joke about Jesus, as told by Jens Hoffmann to the staff of the Institute of Contemporary Arts

Walking around heaven, Jesus passes the pearly gates, where Saint Peter is on duty. Peter’s busting for one and he asks Jesus to watch the gate while he pops off for a while. “But I’ve never done the door before”, says Jesus. “It’s easy”, says Saint Peter, “someone comes up, you just ask them about their life and what they’ve done and then either let them in or not”. Jesus agrees, off goes Saint Peter, and Jesus waits awhile, until an old man with a long beard and white hair comes floating along on a little cloud. He floats up to the gates, and Jesus asks him what he was in his life. “I was a carpenter” he says. “Ah”, says Jesus, “and, er, tell me something important that happened to you.” “Well”, says the old man, “towards the end of my life, someone put nails through the hands of my son.” Jesus looks at the old man and says “Papa….?” The old man looks back, teary-eyed and asks “Pinocchio…??”

Questions and Answers

I’ve been nursing a minor, and so far inexpensive, addiction to AQA recently. It’s not just wanting to know the answer to a question when I’m not online, it’s not just being too lazy to look something up myself; it’s more like wanting to know what someone else thinks the answer is.

After the usual ego-boosting questions, to settle an argument with Rebecca’s Jonathan I asked…

Where was Captain Cook Killed?
Captain James Cook was killed on 14 Feb 1779 by the natives of Sandwich Island, now known as Hawaii. Captain James Cook was also a mapmaker.

Factually correct, and with a bonus piece of info too. (you only pay for the questions… the answers are free). Jonathan still technically owes me a pound for this. Jonathan says he asked AQA whether he was gay, and the response was something like: people who ask that question are more likely to be gay than people who don’t, and so on balance of probabilities, yes.

In a reflective state of mind, I asked…

How can I tell right from wrong?
AQA suggests that to tell right from wrong you should always ask yourself if you would want someone to do the same to you. If not, you’re probably wrong

Hmmm. Less the categorical imperative than ‘do unto others’. I wonder if AQA is a ‘faith-based’ question-answering service. I reckon it should be possible to triangulate AQA’s philosophical position in ten questions or less, but I don’t quite know where to start.

Once I’d noticed there was a viewing terrace at the top and doors at the bottom of the Duke of York’s column, I became annoyed that the latter weren’t open to provide access to the former (there is not enough access to tall things in London, generally), and I asked…

Why is the Duke of York’s column closed to the public?
Admission to the Duke of York Column & ascent to the summit should be accessible between 12pm & 3pm in winter & 12pm & 4pm in summer. Admission 6d each.

Uh-oh. Out of date information. But er… out of date information in pre-decimal currency? This is sloppy work.

I was once again reflective, when I asked…

What is the difference between contemporary art and modern art?
The term ‘contemporary art’ generally refers to today’s art whereas the term ‘modern art’ applies to art from the late 19th century until the 1970s.

Which was a very predictable answer indeed. That might be the trouble with MOMA.When Ruth was delayed on her journey home by a person in front of a train, we briefly discussed our own preferred methods of suicide and then asked…

How many people commit suicide by jumping in front of trains and tubes each year?
Around 50 people commit suicide by jumping in front of a London Underground train each year (200 from all trains in the UK); around 1 every week.

Which was many more than I’d reckoned. And a disproportionate number (a fifth of all of them) are in London. Is this because of the improved efficiency of London Transport? Are Londoners more depressed, or do people head to London to kill themselves as well as find themselves? This could be an expensive line of questioning.

And late one night & maudlin, I asked it, only slightly ironically…

Why do fools fall in love?
Fools fall in love because they do not recognise the signs of mutual attraction. However, some bitter folk would argue that all people in love are fools.

Fair point, & cute, if a little faux-cynical. But I spot a small logical error… AQA appears to be answering why fools fall unrequitedly in love, not in love at all. Surely it’s possible for fools to be in love, have that love requited and still be fools. What I was asking is why? But on further reflection, it’s a sensible answer, and I’m beginning to think that maybe Diana Ross was asking the question wrong in the first place.

I’ve read that AQA keep a record of the questions asked by individual users. Looking back at these questions, I’m beginning to worry they’ll send social services round to my mobile phone. There are vacancies in the UK once again: I wonder how much they pay.