Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Dystopian Britain or harsh reality?

Britania Model Village, Ben Bucki
Ben Bucki
Britannia Model Village Project
Three White Walls: January 8th- 20th 2009

Reading like the script of a Steven Spielberg thriller, Britain is struck down by a catastrophe of world proportions and has been reborn under a new, oppressive regime as ‘Britannia’, a place where suspicion is a part of everyday life and everyone’s a potential terrorist. The year is 2013 and the master mind behind this dystopia is artist Ben Bucki.


Expanding upon a project Bucki began whilst at University in Carlisle, Britannia Model Village at Three White Walls presents model villages constructed and photographed to depict an uncertain view of the future of Britain. The basis of the work originates from a photograph of an old model village in the south of Britain with a miniature rotund village bobby in the corner, a jolly smile on his face. Bucki was fascinated by this depiction of a “policeman with no crime to fight in his perfect little utopia” and concluded it would be more interesting if “the bobby was wearing a stab vest and carrying an automatic rifle, watching passing citizens like a hawk whilst his riot van is parked menacingly nearby.” With this contrast forming the basis of the project, Britannia Model Village was born. Gone is the depiction of Britain as a happy land of thatched cottages and a cosy, sheltered existence and in its place is ‘Britannia’, where censorship and oppression are the norm and children are encouraged to report their parents to legal authorities in return for a teddy bear. It is evident that while political and perhaps intentionally controversial, Bucki’s work is clearly satirical which, according to the artist, makes his message “easier to digest, I don’t think people would pay it half as much attention if it was shown with a straight face.”

Each of the photographs depicts a scene constructed from the model village Bucki has created. These images are accompanied by text that explains aspects of the new ‘Britannia’ regime. One such image is Suicide Scheme where we are informed that ‘despite the best efforts of the Government’ if citizens felt the need to ‘end it all’ could they please do so at ‘specially designated sites’. The photograph shows a ‘man’ leaping off a platform into the ocean, all under the watchful eye of health officials. However, arguably the most uncomfortable work is the aptly named Terrorism where we see an explosion blowing out the side of a building. Perhaps what makes this work so unnerving is its relevance within present society, a society where the word ‘terrorism’ is never far from a news headline and people are all too quick to form judgements. With the accompanying text berating those ‘minorities in our population who do not recognise the benefits of their caring, protective Britannia Government’ and criticising their ‘misguided beliefs’, one cannot help but feel uneasy and perhaps slightly apprehensive that this degree of ignorance may be where society is headed.

The propaganda posters that line the walls of the gallery, forming part of Britannia Model Village, are reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and the efforts of Goseph Gobbels, Minister of Propaganda. This is also reflected in the work Art of the State which explains how all photography, painting and sculpture must convey content that is ‘censored and approved by the Government’. This work effectively reminds the viewer that we learn from the past to ensure that better choices are made for the future and to prevent mistakes from being repeated. Britannia Model Village acts as a warning and demonstrates just how close society is to repeating itself and the ignorant choices of our predecessors.

Naming Jake and Dino Chapman as a major influence in his work, Bucki hopes that audiences will find his Orwellian portrayal of Britain thought provoking and encourage them to consider the issue of “how our society is changing, how our liberties are slowly being eroded and how we seem to be sowing the seeds for a future with a more totalitarian Government.” Britannia Model Village prompts the viewer to question their society, authority and perhaps most significantly Bucki’s work forces people to question themselves, what they believe and how they view the world. However, the works obvious satirical element makes this process of self- evaluation much easier to accomplish. As Bucki comments, “If it does make people think a bit more about the world around them then it can only be a good thing.”

Britannia Model Village leaves an uneasiness with its audience- like the uncomfortable laugh that accompanies a joke you just don’t get- except this time not only do we understand the joke, it is unfortunately all too familiar.



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The China Trend

Totem Recollection, Tian Taiquan

Tian Taiquan
Tears of Eros
Three White Walls: November 20th- January 6th 2009

Something is shifting within the art industry in Birmingham. Over the last year we have witnessed an emergence of exceptional and innovative contemporary art originating from China. While in the past there may have been a tendency to associate art from the Asia Pacific with cheap copies and replicas, outstanding artists such as Tian Taiquan, whose first solo exhibition in the UK is currently showing at Birmingham’s Three White Walls, is effectively changing public opinion. Organisations such as Dr Catherine Raines Li Kailin are spearheading this change through the promotion of emerging artists from China, whose work is stunning audiences all over the UK with its skill and evocative connotations. This rise to prominence of art from the Asia Pacific has been gaining momentum throughout the last decade with exhibitions of remarkable work evident in galleries across the UK.


While contemporary Chinese fine art is about as far removed from pharmaceuticals as you could possibly get, for Birmingham born Raines, whose organisation Li Kailin promotes emerging contemporary Chinese artists and brings their work to the UK, it was a natural progression. By any stretch of the imagination Raines has had what most would label a very successful career, studying pharmacy, completing a PhD and ultimately working for a 26 billion dollar global pharmaceutical company. Her position saw Raines and her family travel all over the world from the United States to Sweden and ultimately to China.

While in China Raines realised her eternal love of art had not been stifled and seemingly overnight she made the decision to follow her dream. In less than three months Li Kailin was formed. Laughing herself at the speed with which her organisation came into being, Raines often jokes with people and calls it a mid- life crisis, however she explains, “it wasn’t a crisis- quite the contrary- it was something I really wanted to do and felt very passionate about.” While in China Raines came into contact with the visually arresting photographic work of Chongquing born artist Tian Taiquan at an art gallery in Shanghai. After negotiations with the gallery Director, now a business partner, and the artist himself, it was decided that Raines would organise Taiquan’s first solo exhibition in the UK, she comments, “instead of saying this is what I’d like to do, I began saying this is what I will do.”

Returning to the UK, Raines participated in the 2008 Manchester Art Fair at Urbis. By its conclusion she had been approached by four separate galleries who offered her exhibition space for her artists. One of these galleries was Three White Walls in Birmingham’s Mailbox who’s Director, Terence McDermott, identified the work as art that would enhance the already materializing art scene in Birmingham, commenting, “Taiquan’s work examines and critically comments on China’s past while revealing a certain hope for the future. It’s reflective of the high quality of art being produced in China and that is emerging across Birmingham. To be the first gallery in the UK to exhibit his work is remarkable. ”

Taiquan’s Tears of Eros officially opened at Three White Walls on November 20th 2008, as Raines comments, “When I think of all we’ve achieved it’s difficult to believe Tears of Eros opened just ten weeks after I’d returned to the UK from China.” Indeed, it is overwhelming to think that in just ten weeks Raines had launched a successful, international organisation, Li Kailin, participated in the Manchester Art Fair, sold into both public and private collections and mounted Taiquain’s debut UK exhibition, one can’t help but question- what’s next? Raines insists she is taking everything one day at a time. While it may appear as if all this has happened post- haste, it would be a mistake to presume that she hasn’t looked before she leaped. “It has taken me years to decide to do this but once I decided- that was it- and it’s progressed incredibly fast.” Essentially Raines aims to promote extraordinary contemporary Chinese fine art and to encourage new collectors. “I think there are a lot of people who would like to collect art but they’re reluctant as there is often perceived to be a wall of pretension surrounding art- I want to eliminate this obstacle.”

Taiquan’s Tears of Eros at Three White Walls may very well be the first step in achieving this outcome. Visually stunning and conceptually evocative, Taiquan’s digitally manipulated, Ltd Edition C- print photographs are centred around the atrocities that occurred with the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960s and 70s. Taiquan would have been seven at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, his youth inextricably defined by this period. The Revolution under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong saw the complete repression of an entire civilisation which included the censorship of art, music and dancing of any kind. Many traditional customs, such as fortune telling, paper art and feng shui were completely destroyed and the Red Guard was established to brutally enforce Mao’s policies.

Lost No. 17 (2008) displays an intense vulnerability. The figure of a woman dressed in Red Guard uniform, a theme which is continued throughout all his photographs, lies back on a gravestone, her arms outstretched. Situated in Chongquing, in what is believed to be the only preserved Red Guards’ graveyard in China, the figures head is thrown back revealing eyes that have been pixilated out by the artist, emphasising that she is faceless, nameless and disappearing, much like the culture she represents. With her arms open, it is as if the woman is offering herself up to something or someone, perhaps to the inevitability of China’s fading values. The figure’s hair falls in two braids either side of her head, giving the impression of youth, innocence and naivety and clutched in the woman’s left hand is a small, red book. This book represents the thoughts and teachings of Chairman Mao of which around nine hundred million copies were published during the Cultural Revolution. If a civilian was caught without a copy they risked being severely punished or imprisoned by the Red Guard. Essentially this document dictated the way in which people were expected to think and behave and defined every aspect of their lives according to Chairman Mao’s regime. This image is present in several of Taiquan’s prints and it could be argued that it effectively serves as a constant reminder of the restrictions that were enforced on the Chinese people during this period.

This is also apparent in Totem Recollection No. 04 (2008) which is arguably the most powerful work in the exhibition and possibly the most controversial. Submerged in a sea of red Chairman Mao badges, widely distributed during the Cultural Revolution, is the body of a naked woman. In her left hand is the red book of Chairman Mao’s teachings, his likeness completely covering her face. Similar to Lost No. 17 the figure’s face is disappearing, this time under the heavy weight of Chairman Mao’s regime. The woman’s breasts and genitals are displayed, omitting a sublime sexuality that would have been condemned during the Revolution. It could be said that Taiquan’s provocative work embodies a sense of rebellion as the figure refuses to become submerged and restricted by the restraints of the past. While acknowledging and reflecting upon this past through the display of hundreds of red Chairman Mao badges, Totem Recollection presents a sense of hope for the future through the freedom of the figures nudity. As the title suggests, during the Cultural Revolution Chairman Mao’s likeness was represented as a type of totem, an emblem believed by a society to adopt spiritual meaning and this work serves as a recollection of this period in history and what it represents for the people of China.

Tears of Eros at Three White Walls could be seen to symbolise a growing trend throughout the UK towards contemporary Chinese art. While the progression of Chinese art to western audiences has been slow, the last decade has seen art from the Asia Pacific gradually infiltrating the art industry in the UK through such exhibitions as The Real Thing, Tate Liverpool, 2007, China Design Now, V & A, 2008 and The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art, Saatchi Gallery, 2008. However it could be argued that it is in the last year that Birmingham in particular has witnessed the emergence of exceptional contemporary Chinese art with more prominence. In October 2008 the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery launched Beijing Map Games to coincide with the Olympic Games and the China Now Festival. Birmingham was the first city in the world, following Beijing, to show this exhibition which contained newly commissioned artworks inspired by the rapid changes that were influencing the appearance of Beijing city. This served as an addition to the already installed Aspects of China which is the first display of Chinese art to appear in the permanent collection. Both exhibits will be on show until January 2009.

Moving beyond the art gallery, the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design hosts the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) which aims to foster new perspectives of both practical and theoretical studies of Chinese visual arts in an international context. Organisations such as the CCVA and Raines Li Kailin serve to lend a degree of permanency to this rising shift within the visual arts in the UK, proving that Contemporary Chinese art is not simply a passing trend. With the current showing of Taiquan’s work at Three White Walls and upcoming exhibitions of outstanding art from China at the IKON Gallery, it is evident that the prominence of Chinese art in Birmingham has no intention of slowing down and is guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.


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Incredulous Creed

Martin Creed
IKON Gallery: September 24th- November 16th 2008

I must confess that when I walked into the Martin Creed exhibition at the IKON Gallery in Birmingham’s Brindley Place, the last thing I expected to see was a giant penis. For a second I forgot the golden rule of contemporary art: expect the unexpected. Perhaps assuming Work No 730 (2007) was commandeered entirely for shock value is doing the work an injustice. However, orchestrating the exhibition so that it is the first work that you see cannot be overlooked as a strategic move. By exposing a very private act into the very public domain of the gallery Creed effectively subverts many preconceived ideas about contemporary art. I became increasingly uncomfortable as I watched the work, seemingly unsettled in my new position as voyeur.


Living and working in London, Creed’s artistic practice has often been labelled as minimalist and systematic. True to form, Work No 126: a sheet of paper crumpled into a ball (2003) is just that- minimalist, elusive and ambiguous. Are we expected to wonder what is concealed within the confines of this crumpled ball? If unravelled what dark secrets would it reveal? Or are we reading too much into it. Is it simply a piece of rubbish, discarded and elevated to the status of artwork through its mere presence in an art gallery? But perhaps this is too cynical, after all if Marcel Duchamp can place a male urinal in a gallery and call it art, than who am I to judge? It is perhaps important to remember that in contemporary art the boundaries between the good the bad and the ugly are often ambivalent.

This survey of Creed’s work incorporates a wide variety of mediums from film, sculpture and sound to painting and drawing. While the artist’s practice is undoubtedly diverse, it could be said to be characterised by a deceptive simplicity. One cannot help but think there is more to Creed’s work than what is simply seen.

Work No 890: Don't Worry

Work No 890: Don’t Worry (2008) glowed like a beacon in a sea of ambiguity. The bright yellow neon words ‘Don’t Worry’, installed high upon the gallery wall, brought to mind the Bobby McFerrin 1988 hit ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ and the use of yellow omitted an overwhelming and uncanny sense of wellbeing . As I gaze up at the work, it was as if Creed himself was offering reassurance and perhaps making a statement about the state of a world consumed by worry and strife. When you consider how often this simple phrase is spoken to no avail- perhaps it should have been said with a neon sign.

Seemingly an exploration of interactivity, Work No 837 (2007) is a video installation across four monitors. Various individuals appear in rooms with white walls and floors and proceed to vomit continuously. There is no relief for these unknown individuals as they take a breath only to vomit once more. While the visual component of this piece is, in itself, unpleasant, it might have been made bearable had there been no sound. Listening to four people vomiting continuously is enough to upset even the strongest of stomachs and one can only imagine that it is this physical response to the very basic of human behaviours that the artist was aiming for. This visceral work is disturbing in its raw honesty and, similar to Work No 730, it exposes an often private act into the public arena.

Work No 837

While my feelings regarding this exhibition are mixed I am certain of one thing. Any exhibition that can make you feel such extremes, from disgust to a sense of wellbeing, deserves a degree of praise and is well worth a second look.


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Frozen at Frieze


Frieze Art Fair
Regents Park, London: October 16th – 19th 2008

It’s as if contemporary art has thrown- up on Regents Park in London. Frieze Art Fair is the artistic equivalent of bulimia with works from over 150 galleries throughout the UK and Europe amalgamating in a semblance of organised chaos. Currently in its 6th year, Frieze promotes itself as one of the major international hubs for the contemporary art world and is the only fair to commission works by artists. As I join the growing queue, ticket in hand, the sound of running water invades my thoughts. This otherwise tranquil sound, created by the artist Pavel BĂșlchelar, comes as an unwelcome surprise to someone who consumed five cups of coffee this morning. However, it does indicate that the weather is fine here is Regents Park, had it been raining outside the sound of birds would have been heard instead, evidence that the world of reality is being left behind as I cross the threshold into the ‘art world’.


It could be argued that the most interesting aspect of Frieze has nothing to do with the art and everything to do with the people who love (or hate) it. It would appear as if every aspiring artist, art enthusiast and budding gallerist has come to Regents Park today and I would estimate that at least half of them are sporting the stereotypical uniform of the eccentric art lover- thick framed glasses, beret and of course black, lots and lots of black. Armed with a camera, pen and paper, with only water and gummi bears to sustain me, I make my way round the enormous makeshift tent waiting to be inspired. Now, this being my first Frieze, perhaps my expectations were a little ambitious. Undoubtedly there is some outstanding work here, Elaine Sturtevant, Norma Jeane and Jeremy Deller and there is some not-so-outstanding work, Nobuyoshi Araki, and then there are the usual suspects, Andy Warhol, Tracy Emin and Cindy Sherman. It’s not that I dislike Warhol’s work, but when gallery’s use his distinctive and distinguishable style to attract an audience, it’s like unwrapping a chocolate but receiving a minty- it’s not what you were expecting and definitely not what you wanted.

While on the subject of lollies, Elaine Sturtevant’s (Anthony Reynolds Gallery) installation utilises hundreds of them wrapped in bright blue cellophane and placed on a sectioned- off floor space. Gonzalez Torres Untitled (Blue Placebo), relies completely on audience participation as people are encouraged to take the sweets, creating a sense of misconduct and mischief. Sturtevant’s work could almost be viewed as a study in human behaviour as I find myself observing others before selecting a piece myself. A few particularly hungry participants proceed to devour the candy immediately, leaving their wrappers nonchalantly on the floor to become, incidentally, part of the artwork.

It appears as if interactivity and performance make up a substantial part of Frieze, to the extent that the lines between reality and the art world are considerably ambiguous. The Spanish artist Dora Garcia embodies this through Los Romeos, a project based on the activities of East German spies who preyed on the lonely West German secretaries during the Cold War. Los Romeos takes the form of a group of handsome strangers who circulate the Fair, engaging with anyone who takes their fancy. From gallerists and curators to art students and artists- no one is safe from the charms of these unknown Don Juans. With the aim of generating a sense of permanent suspicion, Garcia’s project ensures that every chance encounter will not go unnoticed. Even with this increased possibility of a romantic rendezvous, the only person who approaches me is a woman distributing sheets of pink paper which I automatically fold and place in my bag. It’s not until later that I read what was handed to me and discover a compelling letter pleading for understanding. It feels as if I have walked in on an emotional outpouring and in my hands is a letter I was never meant to read. Such raw honesty seemed completely out of place in the fake and falsity of Frieze and it raised several questions- who wrote this and what is its purpose?

The Straight Story, Norma Jeane


As I reflect on this incongruous occurrence, I turn yet another corner and realise I’ve been here before. This is possibly the most frustrating aspect of Frieze, despite the abundance of maps and clear signage, getting disorientated is simply an incidental part of the day. I find myself once more at the performance- based installation The Straight Story by the artist known as Norma Jeane. Three clear booths are constructed as a place where smokers can sit, have a glass of water from the coolers provided, and smoke without leaving the Fair. People consent to participate in the performance, essentially making a public display of a private vice. There is something incredibly voyeuristic about The Straight Story and while the act of smoking is condemned as an addiction, here it is permitted in the name of art.

Speaking of things that should be condemned, the photographic work Bondages by Nobuyoshi Araki (Jablonka Galleries) appears to be following the age-old theory that gratuitous nudity equals shock value and is therefore good art. Sexual activist or glorified pornography- it’s a fine line- one that I would argue has been done to death.

Alternatively, Jeremy Deller (Art: Concept Paris) plays heavily on irony in the work The War on Terror 2008, which incorporates photographic images of various versions of public signage that essentially conveys the general message of ‘don’t leave your bike here’. Deller’s art is often described as ‘relational’, with an artistic practice that is layered and democratic.As I begin to make my way toward the exit I pass a large group of art students talking animatedly about a particular work. I am reminded of the conversation I overheard between two young girls as I waited in line this morning. As they discussed the day ahead one comments, “We should just go up to artworks and be all blah, blah, blah and totally pretend we know what we’re talking about.” In the end isn’t that what most of us are doing with contemporary art. And Frieze is no exception.


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