Sleaford Mods have always, in their short career, precariously walked the line between fresh, new perspectives on the current music scene and lad culture nostalgia. Their stripped down electronic beats not really fitting in snugly alongside the other pop culture references of many of their 40s something (mostly male) audience (Paul Weller on the next Sleaford Mods track?), but at the same time, there’s obviously more going on than a lukewarm Britannia looking back in anger towards the 90s. Of course, this is part of their appeal. There’s something for the middle-class agit-pop intellectual and the chippy with a chip on his shoulder. But what Sleaford Mods aren’t is anyone’s fools.
If you think you’ve nailed down their schtick, you’ll find they’re already one step ahead of you. With lyrics like those of new single TCR (Total control racing), taking in everything from pregnant mothers, Ena Sharples and the dangers of being a wine connoisseur in a working class world (rioja, fact fans) and the cod-nostalgia of the Scalextrix game TCR of the title and what it means to be a real man, there’s something for everyone.
All of this presented in a deceptively simple video from Simon Parframent, that, like the bands’ lyrics, is more complex and stylish than a first cursory viewing would suggest.
Everyone loves a good blockbuster. And Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts from 19 September — 13 December, with a broad and evocative selection of works by the artist, does the job nicely. The curators have selected and presented the exhibition with a fine sense of the ebb and flow of emotions that the works provoke in visitors.
The first space that really resonates at an emotional level is the hall with Straight in it. If you’re unsure of the reason for Ai’s troubled relationship with the Chinese government, then this room’s video and installation explicitly lays that open for you. The twisted rebars (Ai and his team purchased over 200 tons of them, clandestinely) are the remnants of steel used in of sub-standard buildings that totally failed to do their job during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. They’re laid out in the hall (in fact, it’s just over 90 tons of them – the RA floors aren’t that strong). The video documentary that accompanies the work is about the earthquake and the corruption in local government that led to the deaths of so many people, including children in government built schools. There are images shown that will stay with you for a long time afterwards.
Elsewhere, A ton of tea* displays Weiwei’s more subtle nuances and his appreciation of texture and sensory playfulness. It smelled beautiful and I couldn’t help nosing in for a good whiff. Which got one of the already twitchy guards on his heels. But frankly I always have that affect on guardians of the gallery.
The range of materials is a joy throughout the well curated show, and there’s plenty of humour (sex toys!) along with the serious work. Each work serves its purpose well, and there’s never any doubt that the material and the form are serving the purpose of the message.
But then again, you could never accuse Ai Weiwei of a hidden agenda. Or subtlety. The videos and the installations (particularly the maquettes portraying his time in jail, under 24 hour surveillance) lay out the troubled relationship of communism and human rights violations in China, while his commentary on contemporary and traditional arts can provoke controversy for, frankly not always the best reasons.
Perhaps we get the contemporary artists that we deserve? Weiwei’s often ham-fisted commentaries have something of the 90s YBA about them: a single punchline that delivers a clear message to even the most jaded (jade: China –geddit?) gallery visitor. But it could be that we need our art to be this blatant and clear cut. We can all get behind his message and nod our heads, stroke our chins and really feel like we’re on the right side of moral outrage. Perhaps Ai Weiwei is art for people who don’t like Banksy.
*Fact fans: At ton of tea is in fact a ton of compressed Pur Er tea with dimensions: 100 x 100 x 100 cm and Art Fund grant of£132,896 [source: Art Fund website ]
Festivals can be lonely events. Whether you’re knee deep in the back end of a tight crowd of music lovers, or sitting listening to a band twisting electronics and drawing out notes that have no right to exist in someone’s throat. Ultimately, all you have are your own thoughts reflected back at you. So it’s important to make sure you find the right stimulation to trigger those thoughts. Resonate does the job, taking place in Belgrade, Serbia: a city with enough architectural glitches and emerging potential to please any digital creative with a passing interest in the haunted spaces of the future past.
Mixing hands-on workshops with talks and live music events in the evenings, it can feel like a hack-fest or hipster party at times. Like many parties, this one is often a slightly shambolic affair. A point that can both endear and infuriate attendees.
All that aside, this year’s festival showed some real signs of leaping forward and getting to grips with its place in the media arts landscape. For one thing, there’s the first official festival exhibition.
The workshops are the thing which gives the festival its focus on creators, rather than, say, curators or critics. Hands on opportunities to work with a range of the more well known figures in the digital world.
Joanie Lemercier and Juliette Bibasse’s workshop on manipulating light to transform reality, took attendees on a journey to discover the mechanisms of our visual perception, coupled with the possibilities of using coding to manipulate reality. In other words, transforming “physical 3D and 2D objects into canvases with an artistic approach.” Elsewhere in the elegant, slick architectural space of Belgrade’s Kinoteka, Andreas Müller was hosting his brilliantly named, “I am a one trick pony, come and learn my trick!” workshop. The blurb promised: “This workshop consists of concrete examples of how to use noise to achieve your dreams, or failing that, make things real pretty.” More power to humour in the digital arts.
Anything that name-checks Guy Debord wins my support, and so it goes with James George and Alexander Porter, with their Exquisite City workshop lasting a full three days. Students captured 3D data scans of buildings using photogrammetry. This information was then joined together to create an virtual city block. The Exquisite City idea, building from the ideas of psychogeography and the practice of Dérive to create a digital exquisite corpse ( an idea originally devised by the surrealists). The final result was like Heironymus Bosch had discovered World of Warcraft.
Curated by Nora O’ Murchú, the exhibition at G12 Hub gallery, The New Black presented pieces from Alexander Porter, Eva Papamargariti, FIELD, Isabella Streffen, NORMALS in collaboration with V3GA, Rick Silva and Sabrina Ratté. The work was a response to a narrative written by O’ Murchú, looking at the alienation of the worker, particularly in the creative industries, where there can often be a blurring of the line between work time and non-work time, when the tools for both are the same artefact. Some of the work in The New Black explores this potential psychosis. A thoughtfully curated exhibition, where the subtlety of work such as Kim Asendorf’s piece is a reminder that the digital doesn’t have to overwhelm and bombard the viewer, to have meaning.
On the official opening night, the music comes from, amongst others Lichen. Ricocheting his sonic sweeps and zen-like audio compositions across the cavern-like ceiling of Drugstore. One of the delights of Resonate is their ability to find the most obscure location for gigs. Drugstore is a seemingly abandoned venue, above what may have been a warehouse or a market place (the outside was almost pitch black on the night) entered up a long metal staircase on the outside. Senyawa deliver what could only be described as an invocation of demons from some obscure hell portal via Rully Shabara’s throat.
Dom Omladine, the city’s most formal music location, seemed incredibly tame by comparison on the other nights. Olga Bell and Emika taking up the cause for women in electronic music (is that even a thing worth mentioning still?). Both of whom also gave talks during the festival.
If you’ve heard Blixa Bargeld’s adverts for the German DIY company Hornbach knows the man has gravitas and vocal scope equal to any German actor (let’s not mention Klaus Kinski). So it’s no surprise that, as the headline act on closing night, the only instrument he has is his voice and a delay machine, and excellent sound man. Taking us out from Earth, across the solar system in a gradual building of Bargeld-made sounds, the result was impressive to say the least.
Fennesz & Lillevan, by comparison, felt like such a mainstream performance, despite the guitar work, electronics and impressive visuals. There’s a lot there but at times, and this is true of much electronica that makes use of guitars, it borders occasionally on prog-rock tropes. Lenhart Tapes, with a mixture of loops, muslim chants and again heavy-metal guitar tropes, is more fun and free, attempting to crash everything together and see what comes out.
Resonate’s development is also the growth and expansion of the digital arts scene. At times chaotically organised and under-funded, it still maintains an air of enthusiasm and self-awareness, always willing to embrace newcomers.
Resonate takes place every year during April, in Belgrade, Serbia.
How do we begin to discuss the black experience in Britain? Sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be a suitable, non-judgemental entry point. Does the discussion begin with racism? Or migration and the loss of homes in countries left behind? And so, we can sweep it aside and deal with it as an historical experience, father than contemporary one. Besides, aren’t other nations doing racism far better than we ever could hope to do? We can point and judge them while blanking out our own concerns.
Perhaps this is a side-effect of the American issues around racism occupying so much of our media awareness? We’re distracted and led to assume that modern day racism is a by-product of the ‘otherness’ we assign to American culture? Something in the post-empire arrogance of Britain that we can look across the water, feeling bemused at those oddities in such a familiar/foreign culture? It allows us to consider modern black culture and racism as something that happens to other people. Maybe the focus has shifted towards radicalism. Racism is always the outburst of confusion when dealing with otherness. And radicalism lends itself so well to that, as it stands outside of nearly all of our social constructs and we can all find something worth despising to justify this new, background hum of racism.
So what’s does Vanley Burke’s ethnographic exploration of British culture at the intersection of Black culture offer? If you want to make work that appeals to everyone, make work that is as personal as possible. It reminds you that we aren’t the unique snowflakes we’d like to be. It also brings a deeper connection between the artist and the observer of the work. By allowing the personal space of his Nechells flat in Birmingham to come into the public space of the gallery, Vanley Burke shares his personal obsessions and observations of several decades of Black/British history.
Burke’s obsessions in this public space, allow for varied responses amongst all the Saturday visitors when I was in the space. In particular a group of middle aged black women and their children. “Your Nan had a radio like that.” Or “look at all those 45s, like grandad’s.”
One of the most interesting things about the exhibition is how very British it feels now, in 2015. Everything belongs to an era when black culture (Burke makes no differentiation between different origins of black migrants, as he wants to only deal with their arrival in this country), rubbed shoulders with British 70s and 80s, feeling at odds, yet in hindsight really sets the aesthetic parameters of that time.
It’s important to understand the context of Burke’s work, and to realise that he was documenting from within the culture he was a part of, rather than being an outsider. His experiences and his work is the natural extension of his own attempts to integrate cultures.
The problem of course, is that there are still moments of racist attrition. Points when the two cultures don’t work with each other. He has photographed anti-racist marches. And of course, the Handsworth riots of 1985. The photographs of children playing aren’t of mixed colours playing together, they’re black children. Burke isn’t a Benetton photographer, after all. He’s exploring reality and allowing the work to exist and let historians decide what the work means.
In presenting Vanley Burke’s work and his own immersion in ‘our’ culture ( which is in fact, a shared blending of many cultures) Ikon gallery reimburses the optimistic racist who might hope for a differentiation of the cultures and a sign-post to alienation and eventual expulsion of the other. The kind that helps recruit each new generation to the shoring up of narrow, irrational viewpoints. At Home With Vanley Burke signposts the differences, while reminding us that we’re all trying to find a way to mix what we already know and understand about our world with the new and foreboding future.
If John Cooper Clark and The Streets had a baby that was raised by Mark Fisher-reading anarcho-punks, it would probably grow up to form the Sleaford Mods.
Sleaford Mods at the Zephyr Lounge, Leamington Spa put on a great show. There’s two support acts with enough distance between their styles to remind you that we live in an era where it’s okay to choose your music references and go on to create your own sound, without having to first decide which counter-culture tribe you’re going to fit into. Anyway, the first support act work the growing crowd. Of which, there’s enough people to remind you that Leamington has some good underground music fans that can get there early enough to enjoy everything on offer. Either that or there were only early buses? The second act, Purple are something entirely different. In a good way (aside: jailbait).
In the same way that to try to understand the riots of a few years ago as purely outpouring of political unrest, is to miss the basic attraction of pure chaos, so it is that focussing on the swearing in the lyrics of Sleaford Mods is to miss the point that there’s also some clever social/political observation shenanigans going on. Both exist in comfortable co-existence. Not necessarily layered, which would suggest that one builds on the other but intertwined and building each other up. Additionally, the swearing feels like a welcome relief and counterpoints the arch observational irony of the lyrics. Of course, lead singer Jason Williamson, in stage persona at least, would argue against any kind of analysis of the band as a critic just trying too hard. Unfortunately, this also makes the band brilliantly perfect for the second decade of the 21st Century. Music wise, you can’t help but dance along. The sound is familiar, but not sampled, with beats but not quite dance music.
A Sleaford Mods gig feels like a riot about to happen. There’s a blokeish tension in the air and plenty of middle-aged, ex-punks who know how to kick off if it needs it. Except they (we?) need to be fit enough in the morning to get up and go to work. These gig tickets don’t pay for themselves you know. But that’s okay, it’s a relief to know that there’s new bands coming along that can inspire that emotion. And for all the Red Stripe drinking, cocaine chopping, fist pumping masculinity that fuels the air, on and off stage, (it’s a timely reminder that blokeish doesn’t mean Jeremy Clarkson), there’s something for everyone.
No matter what you hear about a Mods gig, and no matter how polarising the responses are, it’s important to remember that they’re also sweaty, clean fun. You’ll leave deaf, danced out and laughing. They’ve got more in common with One Direction than they realise.
The current exhibition at Eastside Projects in Birmingham, looks inwards and backwards at the city and the artists it has given or nurtured before sending out into the world. Birmingham Show, running from 31 January to 11 April, casts a broad net across the art work of the city’s children, making for a compelling but not necessarily cohesive whole.
Curated by Ruth Claxton and Gavin Wade, the exhibition aims to connect the spaces between artists who ‘have lived, worked or studied within the city’ by bringing what might at first feel a disparate body of works into the one space, but begins to manifest into a cohesive meta-narrative about Birmingham, albeit eventually.
It’s a nice wide stroke of artists, includings Sofia Hultén, Tom Gidley, Antonio Roberts, Su Richardson, to name but a few.
Antonio Roberts shows one of his Pure Data-based glitch works; flashing randomly generated, sharp angled colours on a monitor which sits curiously against much of the static work on show. Alongside some of the paintings, it’s a good example of why these mixed artist exhibitions are worth visiting: any conceptual idea behind the work is free to breath freely beyond the weight of the medium used. So what of that conceptual idea?
Three key questions underpin the exhibition making – ‘What is the art of Birmingham?’ ‘Is there an accent to Birmingham’s art making?’ and ‘How is Birmingham useful for the production of art?’ – Exhibition notes.
Or perhaps: what’s the point of Birmingham? It would be easy to use the exhibition as a tourist brochure to encourage new artists into the city.Look at these artists, aren’t they doing great stuff? You too could be as great as them. But, even though Birmingham has a vibrant, continually evolving art scene, sometimes work can only come from fighting against the place you’re in. The best pop music came from rallying against the suburbs, rather than celebrating them. Some of the work feels like a cosy homage to art, some of it disturbs and challenges us to ask what art is (don’t you hate when that happens?). There’s something here for all the family then.
Sofia Hultén, is a child of Birmingham in a very particular way that so many people are. She was born in Stockholm, but moved to the city as a child. That duality of awareness reflects in her works, particularly her sculptures where she often uses ready-mades: turning industrial detritus into, as is the case with her piece in this show, from weighty, ugly artefacts, into something that appears to float in the corner of the gallery. Heavy chains, bobbing amongst the gallery visitors.
If Birmingham has one thing working against it when it comes to creating art, it’s that Birmingham knows who it is. There’s no challenge against the kind of existential despair you might find in the art coming out of (to name just one near neighbour), Coventry. At least not in any of the work on show in Birmingham Show. But then again, I think that may not be the point of it. Maybe you have to be from Birmingham to question the exhibition. For the rest of us, it’s a chance to enjoy a broad stroke of art works in a single location: challenging, responding to questioning, refusing to be bothered by what outsiders think. Hey, maybe that’s the voice of Birmingham?
31 January – 11 April 2015
86 Heath Mill Lane
Birmingham B9 4AR
+44 (0)121 771 1778
If you sat down with a large enough piece of paper, some pencils and available time, you could probably map out all the interactions that led you to that very moment you decided to map out those interactions. Everything begins small and leads to something greater. You could trace the moment you decided to leave the house at such and such a time and which train you went for, which job you applied for, which path you chose just like every other day, except you walked quicker that one day and then, by the thing we’ve all agreed to call chance, you found that one person that changed your life. Or that group of people who would influence your thinking and change the whole world. Change it forever.
Writer Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer, (currently at the RSC’s Swan Theatre from
15th January – 7th March) looks at the consequences of our macro interactions and plots them against the sub-atomic interactions being explored in physics at the beginning (and eventual end) of the Second World War. The play, delves into the psyche of those leading the research towards creation of the first atomic bomb and the people around them.
Oppenheimer doesn’t just chart dates, times and known facts. It wants you to ask yourself, who you would become, given enough pressure and circumstances. If you knew you could stop the death of millions of people on ‘your side’ through the death of some hundreds of thousands on ‘the other side’ would you do it? It’s a bit like the ‘would you kill Hitler’ questions or countless others that form the basis of simple philosophical questions. When it falls to you to make the decision, which way do you fall? And how free of bias and imperfection can you hope to be?
Directed by Angus Jackson, Oppenheimer is as much an opening up of (much previously unravelled) recent history, as it is an exploration of what kind of person does it fall to, to make such a decision to create a weapon. John Heffernan as J. Robert Oppenheimer gives us the full impact of what that decision might do to a man. By the end of the play we feel his suffering and are only returned to our own humanity when the stage dips to darkness.
The supporting cast of characters is like a who’s who of early Twentieth Century physics, including Richard Feyman, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller and even a snapshot appearance from Einstein himself. Such was the gathering of smartest people down in Los Alamos on the Manhattan project.
In Oppenheimer the man, we also see the changing nature of science in the modern world. As one character has it, all the chalk has been washed away with blood. It’s why, during the play, the floors are marked with calculations, atomic interactions drawn out and enhanced by digital projections. A blackboard constantly set out and written or projected on to. The stage is awash with chalk by the end of the play. It’s all over the cast’s costumes. It’s everywhere. And metaphorically, it’s then washed away. Scientists began to realise that their small band of brothers, tucked away in little understood corners of research, would make a difference to the whole world.
Who would you need to be, to decide to build a weapon that could kill so many people? Can only the perfect make those sorts of decisions? It’s a challenge for anyone to tackle this well worn path, but the creative team give it their best shot. In parts I was reminded of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, (back at the National from 24 June 2014 – 23 May 2015,) with the projected overlays of stage design and that feeling, when you leave the theatre, of having become broader in knowledge and assured that anything, could happen to any of us. In the case of Oppenheimer, though, we’d just need to be a genius. And a human being.
If you like your arts poncing experience to begin with a lesson in the juxtaposing of contemporary cultures, then you definitely need to spend more time visiting Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre in Cymbran. The small but always well curated centre occupies a 19th Century Victorian manor house resting in a small dip in the landscape, while alongside is a vast entertainment centre with cinema and all the shite detritus that encompasses. There’s some proper looming going on here, with the arts centre dwarfed by the huge side wall of the other. You could read it as a massive metaphor, I guess? Except it doesn’t have to be a metaphor. It’s right there, in front of you. Looming. Art ponces don’t stand a chance.
Anyway, once you’re in the gallery it’s nice, so calm down culture dicks, everything has a place these days, remember?
The current exhibition is of Katharine Morling’s ceramics, which draw you in and demand a certain attention and fascination that you might not expect of black and white works. To be a bit crass, they remind me of the early Paddington Bear animations by Anglo-French (lethal combination) animator and all-round children’s TV hero, Ivor Wood. As you stand before the pieces and even as you tentatively touch them, they seem to flicker from 2 to 3 dimensions. Can I say that they occupy an inter-dimensional flux point? Yes, I’ve had a lot of coffee, I can definitely say that and not be labelled a hippy.
This drawing out into the real world and actually, the aesthetic beauty of the pieces, really off-sets their weightiness. They have gravity to contend with and when you touch them: the ceramic ‘grind’ of the materials reminds you that they are in the space with you and, despite the lightness of appearance, could easily break (don’t worry, I didn’t).
This really comes to light with pieces such as Butterfly Drawers, where the delicacy of the thing represented becomes pinned down in the material used for that representation. juxtaposing the very thing we associate the object with, against the physics of the material. But that’s all art, surely? Maybe, but isn’t the point to be reminded every now and then? There’s not a great deal of weight to the butterflies themselves, but they’d never survive in the wild anyway.
Thematically, Morling’s focus is broad: moving from the domestic of Equipped, to the potential of a political piece like Shifting Diamonds. Sometimes, it feels as though it would be nice to draw out something politically deeper from the works, but that’s just modern critical theory demanding attention. Anyway, isn’t the personal the political? Sometimes the personal can be about the things that fall under the artist’s gaze and not have to be directly about motherhood, or unemployment or… well, other worthy subjects that are often hammered home at the expense of aesthetics. If that gaze is actually taking in the world around the artist and refracting it back to us, albeit with a playfulness, that’s something worth spending time with, isn’t it? Sometimes an elephant is just an elephant, except when it’s cast in ceramic and carrying a panda bear.
post script: This review was about juxtapositions. Just in case I haven’t laboured that point to death enough.
Great to see some Jan Švankmajer films at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery this week. The Czech filmmaker’s work was being shown as part of the Behind the Curtain Festival, currently running up until tomorrow (29th November), so you’ll have to be quick! I only made it to the Jan Švankmajer films, but they were great.
When you watch a selection of Jan Švankmajer films, you can immediately identify the strong influence he’s cast over animation. There’s the obvious Terry Gilliam influences, but there’s also that cultural influence that, if you’re old enough, I guess, you can feel that quirky stop-motion influence in so much of children’s animations from the sixties onwards. And of course, if you do get a chance to see any of them (away from YouTube) then don’t be put off by the idea that they’re surrealist works. They much less po-faced and fun than you might imagine art-house animations could be. We all laughed.
Also, Ikon, please put aside some money for heating the place in the evenings.
Living in space? Hoverboards? Robot housekeepers? They can all go fuck themselves. The future is now and it’s throbbing centre is the crashing of visual cultures from comic shop to art gallery. I’d rather live in a time when you can move from Nostalgia and Comics store to Ikon gallery and experience the same questioning of contemporary society, than live in the past, when those two might have existed in separate worlds, never to meet. Oh, the future of now.
The recent exhibition of the work of Korean artist Lee Bul at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery from 10 September — 9 November 2014, brought together a broad stroke of her work, tracing several concerns that appear to have emerged over time. It’s a sci-fi future-past that she explores, with the cybernetic enhancement of the human experience, whether directly through physical enhancement (she favours the donning of costumes, as opposed to the life-altering slice and tuck of Stelarc, for example) or through a consideration of the built environment. I found the references too sci-fi rich in the work, or maybe it is too ‘of the now’ to understand what the work is really saying about contemporary life, and to separate it from those references.
As a retrospective, the exhibition covers some real detail. You can trace the nodes along the journey from her earlier performance (where Bul wore the cyber-enhancement costumes) to the more recent cityscape sculptures. We get to see the concept art and the sketches, much as one would with a science-fiction movie, but I wasn’t able to find any documentary footage of her wearing the suits, which seemed a shame. Maybe they disappoint in the execution? The sketches meanwhile, are rich in potential.
All in though, to move from reading Judge Dredd to then see Lee Bul at Ikon is to be confronted with a view of the contemporary cityscape that must be true, just because they echo each other so closely, one might think. There were plenty of opportunities to reflect as the exhibition was packed with works. Somewhere, there are a lot of empty packing cases sitting ready for repackaging. In the exhibition write up, the curators suggest:
The sculptures reflect utopian architectural schemes of the early 20th century as well as architectural images of totalitarianism from Lee Bul’s experiences of military Korea.
Maquette for Mon grand recit 2005 is Adventure Time meets Sandman via Gulliver’s travels. Beautiful rich pinky flesh colours dripping across an imagined city. While elsewhere, there are scaffolding-encrusted works, hinting at a a city being broken down (to move to better climate?).
If Bul’s work seems like a beautifully wrapped gift from the future-past, to the now, then it’s a delicate glass ornament, broken in transit across time. Hinting at what could have been a breakthrough, but is more likely to cut you now.