Thursday, 2 March 2017

GUSTAV METZGER (10 April 1926 - 1 March 2017) - Auto Destructive Art*

Gustav Metzger at Trafalgar Square, 1967.
R. Keshvani archive
Gustav Metzger died peacefully at his home in Hackney yesterday at the age of 90. He is an artist of overwhelming stature and certainly among the most important of this past century. His practice, teachings, insights and approach are critical for all students of art everywhere. We have only begun to uncover and experience the impact of this artist.  His oeuvre is vast, comprising work, writings, lecture-demonstrations and unrealised projects. His immovable resolve to resist the art market and his deep and unyielding belief that art is and must be politically and socially engaged are commitments from which he never wavered. His life work combined with his gentle yet tenacious personality will no doubt ensure that he becomes one of the most profound influences and models for future generations.

I first met Gustav  in May 2011 at the opening of Roy Ascott's exhibition at SPACE Gallery on Mare Street just a few blocks from the artist's home. It was an overwhelming moment, serendipitous yet seemingly preordained. I had only two years before become an avid student of Gustav's output, poring through what I could find of his closely guarded writings, searching for any opportunity to experience what even then seemed rare and often privileged manifestations of his work. Gustav was tireless and unyielding in every aspect of his life, always seeking perfection, never looking backward, yet filled with a unique imperative toward action. He was also an intimate and gentle man, possessed of a sly wit, yet always capable of penetrating into deepest regions of the human condition, unafraid of its manifestations, however beautiful, however awful.

To understand his work, one must look to the man, his life and the experiences that drove him to become an artist. He felt these were critical to his life and he shared them so we would see his work in its true context and meaning. For if he sought to uncover the transcendent, it was in the hardcore stuff of existence that he would look.

Auto Destructive Art

Gustav Metzger, First Manifesto on Auto Destructive Art, London, 
4th November 1959, (detail). 
 Archiv Sohm, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Metzger was of German-Polish origin and lost both his parents in the Auschwitz death camps. Orphaned and alone, he escaped the terrors of Nazi Germany with his brother and was brought to London as a child in 1939 under the Kindertransport refugee scheme. His life has been profoundly shaped by his experiences of war and human conflict. In his twenties, he had toyed with the idea of becoming an activist and revolutionary. He was studying theories of anarchy and involved in vociferous debates, even temporarily residing with an anarchist commune in the early 1950s. Metzger came to realise that he could not follow the path of revolutionary anarchism. However these early conversations were nevertheless formative and would inform his first manifesto on Auto-Destructive Art, first conceived in 1959, and supplemented by further manifestos until producing his final iteration in 1961

These influences and explorations finally came together in his November 1959 manifesto on Auto-Destructive Art which he exhibited together with his first realisation of ‘machine-made’ auto-destructive art -- Cardboards, a work consisting of six flattened cardboard television packing cases at Brian Robin’s Coffee House at 14 Monmouth Street’, London.[i] 

John Rydon, “It’s Pictures from Packing Cases” in the Daily Express 12 November 1959
In a splendid account of his eureka moment, Metzger recalls an exhibition earlier that same year at Robin’s café of some small paintings he had etched in metal in his studio in Kings Lynn, Three Paintings by G. Metzger (30 July 19 August 1959). The show also featured a junk sculpture created by two young neo-Dadaists. Sitting in the cafe, Metzger overhead the artists discussing ideas for their next exhibition in which they proposed to show paintings and then burn the entire exhibition.[ii] The idea inflamed Metzger’s imagination, summoning his developing theories about black holes and igniting a new vision -- to create a sculpture which would itself disintegrate (and which he would eventually realise at London's South Bank) using acid and nylon. 

Auto Destructive Art is structured through three principles. 


Principle one concerns the duration of time in the work. The work must have a life span not exceeding twenty years; at some point the work must return into itself. This idea of returning to its origins, although essential, is often misunderstood in relation to Auto Destructive Art and distinguishes Metzger’s theories from other forms of destruction in art. In a sense, that which originates from idea must return to idea. In this way, auto-destructive works are quite literally auto-destructive and resist commodification and aestheticisation. Metzger is not concerned to leave beautiful ruins. Instead Auto Destructive Art reflects man’s power to accelerate the disintegrative process.

An art of technology. Auto-destructive art is an art of the self-executing technocratic process: 

The process must be self-executing and self-completing. Once the artist has initiated the process or effected a set of rules to initiate the process, the auto-destruct process requires no further guidance and is freed of the artist’s hand. Authorship is truly cast into doubt. Auto Destructive Art is a work that disintegrates or falls apart under the effect of a physical-chemical process. Its inherent logic must be self-fulfilling and unfold free of the artist’s hand. 

The final form of an auto-destructive work is always subject to chance and cannot be predetermined. Most significantly, inasmuch as the auto-destructive process is subject to the logic of chemical and machine processes, it emphasises the degree to which humanity has forsaken control of its destiny to the machine and the technocratic processes which become entirely independent of the human being.  Like Cassandra, Auto-Destructive Art warns of potential catastrophe says David Toop. iii  And as Justin Hoffmann concludes, “Auto-Destructive Art has a foretelling character; it demonstrates the suicide of the world of machines.”iv 

Participatory art: 

Auto-destructive art is public participatory art. Though initiated by the artist, it transpires in and through the public forum. Its design is anathema to private consumption and to the art market. 

It is created to be freely and fully available and accessible to the public at large, freed from the canvas, removed from its frame and operating without the intervention of the gallery. The auto-destructive process is, as Metzger has repeatedly stressed, anti-capitalist.It belies a logic, which is anti-object and anti-market. it may be seen as preeminent of conceptualist theories on the dissolution of the object of art, but is more essentially involved in a process that reveals an inherent destructive tendency within human civilisation.

Metzger’s manifestos on auto-destructive art articulate the artist’s polemical intentions, particularly the aim to incite the viewer to respond and to act. They aim to bring about the possibility of an art in which the practice of the artist and political action become one, allowing the artist to emerge from the studio into the world.

ADA Manifestos, South Bank demonstration, Courtesy Gustav Metzger archive at Tate.

* The above discussion is drawn from my research of Metzger's archives, from conversations with Gustav Metzger and previously published materials cited below.

Metzger's Liquid Crystal environment is currently on exhibit in the Materials and Objects Room at Tate Modern.

i See handbill accompanying exhibition, copy contained in Wilson’s Third Text article, in which Metzger explains that the discarded cardboard probably came from television packaging.
ii Metzger recounts this story in a delightfully forthcoming discussion with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 1997 at the Cosmo Cafe. See Obrist, ‘Gustav Metzger / Hans Ulrich Obrist’, Videotape cassette; shortened version of interview is published in Conversation series (Köln: Walther König, 2008).
iii See Blow Up: Exploding Sound and Noise (London to Brighton, 1959- 1969), Flat Time House, 24 June-25 July 2010, curated by David Toop and Tony Herrington (Exhibition Catalogue), (at 4).
iv Hoffmann, ‘The Invention of Auto Destructive Art’, (at 27).

Further reading:
Adrian Glew, ‘The Mad Messiah’, Don’t Tell It, October 1995.
Andrew Wilson, ‘Gustav Metzger’s Auto-Destructive/ AutoCreative Art: An Art of Manifesto, 1959-1969’, Third Text, 22, Issue 2 (March 2008), 177-194.
Justin Hoffmann, ‘The Invention of Auto-Destructive Art’, in Gustav Metzger: History, History, ed. Sabine Breitwieser (Vienna: Generali Foundation, 2005), 19-39.
Gustav Metzger, ‘Earth to Galaxies: On Destruction and Destructivity’, in Earth to Galaxies (Glasgow: TRAM lines, 1996), 7- 12.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, ‘Gustav Metzger / Hans Ulrich Obrist’, Videotape cassette; shortened version of interview is published in Conversation series (Köln: Walther König, 2008).
John A. Walker, 'Message from the Margin.John A. Walker tracks down Gustav Metzger', Art Monthly, no.190.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Writing of Art - Inspired by calligraphy

by Rozemin Keshvani

First published IBRAAZ 010_06 / 29 November 2016

Hanieh Delecroix, Soulmate (2016)
Presenting six contemporary artists – Graham Day, Hanieh Delecroix, Parastou Forouhar, Farnaz Jahanbin and Katayoun Rouhi – whose work is inspired by traditional arts based on Persian and Arabic script, The Writing of Art explored the plasticity between word, idea and image, traditionally juxtaposed as discrete systems of the visual and the discursive to pose a challenge to the simple notion that globalisation destroys cultural identity. The exhibition, presented at London's Ismaili Centre as part of the Nour Festival of the Arts, repositioned struggles associated with the loss of language and cultural assimilation to present a kaleidoscope of geographies and practices in which cultural identity is not so much lost as it is redistributed through de-territorialization and distance.

Two paintings from the Paris-based artist Hanieh Delecroix refract both her former practice as a clinical psychologist working with trauma patients and her interest in the power of language, both written and discursive. Influenced by her father who, having left Tehran with his family during the 1979 Revolution, shared with her his passion for Persian poetry when he could no longer practice law, Delecroix became aware of language's power as a vehicle of culture, identity and loss from a very young age. The artist, though enamoured with the lyrical and visual beauty of Persian, never quite achieved her father's command of the language.

The works on show offer a kind of Rorschach text in response to this background. In Ashegh, the artist employs multiple iterations of script laying the word 'amour' atop a fervent torrent of sweeping strokes of black and blue acrylics to cover a two metre stretch of free-floating translucent paper, chosen for its fragility and symbolic skin-like quality. The work's title, Ashegh, is the Farsi counterpart to 'amour'. Hung next to, and partly overlapping, Ashegh was Soulmate, a painting of similar colour and temperamentin which the Farsi word 'ashegh' is repeated again in acrylic on paper. Together these works present counterparts: imperfect translations that inform and provoke one another. Years of being occupied by the language of another has, metaphorically, caused the artist's native tongue to become the 'soulmate' of the other, the French informed by the Persian, the Persian likewise layered by the French... Continue reading

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Pip Benveniste (1921-2010) -- portrait of a forgotten artist

by Rozemin Keshvani

Pip Benveniste needs to be part of the story of 20th century British art. When we think of Modernist Britain, we think a long list of men such as Lucien Freud, Richard Hamilton, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Victor Pasmore or John Piper. Benveniste was all the more singular within her generation in committing herself to being a full time artist. The price that all artists pay for their singular purpose is, I suspect, visited more painfully upon women artists…She clearly had a context, and as happens with many good artists after their death, a deeper and more rewarding revisiting of their legacy and struggle reveals refreshed pleasures and new insights that allow us to validate again their journey and their place in history. - Professor Andrew Dewdney

Pip Benveniste is a tremendously important British artist whose dedication to her art can be seen at every stage of her long and involved career, spanning every media from paint to printing to her most innovative works in film and photography. Her output was prolific as was it experimental and often radical. Her involvements and collaborations with contemporaries place her among the most avant-garde of British artists who were searching for new ways of responding the experience of life during and after World War II.

the pink house

Pip Benveniste was born in 1921 at Myrtle Cottage, a large pink-washed 18th-century house in Newlyn to a family of artists. Her mother Kay Earle, was a painter out of the Newlyn School. Her father Alec Walker co-founded with Tom Heron, Cryséde, a company producing hand printed wood block designs for fine silks.

Pip’s upbringing was hardly typical. She lived among community of artists and writers with whom she studied and learned painting. She was immortalised in Dod Proctor’s painting Kitchen at Myrtle Cottage. She freely roamed the countryside, developing an intuitive appreciation of nature with its harmonious interdependence of forms and its patterns of degeneration and renewal. These early childhood experiences grew into a love and understanding of her physical surroundings which would continually inform her work and shape the artist she would become.

Pip Benveniste, Cornish Woman, 1952 (oil)

a journey begins…

On the outbreak of the Second World War at the age of 18, Pip left home to join a pacifist experimental community grounded in organic agriculture. After the war, she moved to London. She became friends with Lilian Wolfe who introduced her to anarchist philosophy.

Benveniste began reading every book she could lay her hands own and meeting the London underground literati and activists associated with the Freedom Bookshop in Red Lion Street.

In 1949, Benveniste headed for Paris. Here she became familiar with bohemian artists, poets and writers associated with the Bar Verte, among them the writer James Baldwin then exiled in Paris with whom she would become close friends, Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst and two publishers of Zero Magazine, Themistocles Hoetus and the poet Asa Benveniste with whom she would begin a long period of artistic collaboration and together establish Trigram Press in 1965.

Pip Benveniste, Asa Benveniste, 1953 (oil)
Eager and youthful, Benveniste was captivated by her new environment, absorbing the avant-garde Paris art scene, attending literary events, painting portraits and creating work from the surrounding landscapes. After Paris, Benveniste travelled to Tangiers and New York studying colour and painting landscapes which grew progressively expressionist in colour.

She returned to the countryside, this time settling at Dutch Cottage in Tenterden, Kent, where she embarked on a study of the space of the canvas, looking beyond its representational field. Working with landscape, au plein air, she discovered that the ‘spaces in between’ were never constant but were rather influenced in colour and texture by what immediately surrounded it -- by its neighbouring subject, as she demonstrated in her work, Cherry Orchard.-- leading her to begin a life-long investigation into colour and medium.
Pip Benveniste, Cherry Orchard, 1956 (oil on canvas)

By 1957, her paintings embodied bold movements in colour and lengthened brushstrokes, reflecting time spent in New York and her experiments with abstract painting. On her return to Britain, she aspired to expand the field of her practice, and to move beyond servitude to the canvas.

She returned to London making her home in West Hampstead where she became part of London’s emerging avant-garde artist scene influenced in part by Paris’s avant-garde and beat counterculture. Benveniste collaborated with poets, writers and artists who sought to make art relevant to life by moving out of the studio and on to the street.
Pip Benveniste, film still (John Latham) from EVENTUAL, 1967
As an artist, Benveniste was fearless. She befriended the ‘bad boys’ of the London art scene, collaborating and learning, while experimenting with multiple media which took her practice far beyond the studio. This period of unparalleled experimentation and collaboration that lasted throughout the 1960s and would prove an extremely influential and important period in Pip’s development. These experiences would deeply affect her subsequent work and have far-reaching implications to her development as a painter, contributing to her unique understanding of colour and time in painting.

Benveniste had her first solo show in May 1965 at the dynamic and defining New Vision Centre at Marble Arch, London. Her work was controlled but explored delineation of energy in space. She was now fully immersed in abstraction and concerned to eliminate superfluous details and break free of representational painting. She was determined to move beyond oil painting, her medium for over 25 years, and she began experimenting with acrylic. This lighter medium allowed her to work to take on calligraphic and gestural qualities. She even began to make her own brushes, smashing bamboo to a fringe and then elongating the brush with a broom handle to create these gestural paintings in her Camden studio.
Pip Benveniste, Untitled, 1967 (acrylic on canvas)

painting and poetry

Benveniste’s practice was deeply influenced by poetry. She collaborated with poets and writers throughout her life and her paintings often expressed a poetic form. In the 1960s, at her Camden studio, Benveniste began to develop her own unique style of an abstract non-representational painting. She was studying Taoist philosophy through the I Ching, and also took inspiration from the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho leading her to incorporate poetic forms and build calligraphic strokes into her work in order to strive beyond representing the material in her work.
Pip Benveniste, Exploding Line, 1966
(ink on paper) caption

She worked on mastering the hand & arm gestures with large brushed marks in black paint on white canvas. A very hard way of painting as just one or two large marks had to be completely acceptable to herself, and needing a lot of peace of mind and well being with the large white canvas surface which incidentally could be ruined in a second, costing a bit too.

- Jasper Vaughan

As a painter, she was concerned to excavate the form of landscape, its idea, its energy. She was unmoved by ‘abstraction’ as such, which she viewed as overly mathematical and out of tune with the truth of the landscape she experienced. Instead, she sought to work with a more organic form of abstraction, and to re-evaluate her understanding of time in her work, making a study of Jung’s theories of ‘synchronicity’ as meaningful coincidence and the relativity of psychic time.

Benveniste began to create a series of works in which the line meets poetry. Sensual and calligraphic, these monochrome works present an idea of abstraction that challenges the traditional canon, alluding to landscape through a process which Benveniste felt to be more organic and alive. She achieved these abstractions through a continued and systematic sketch of a single scene or concept.

Pip Benveniste, repeated sketches
leading to her Breakwater series
(two of numerous sketches), 30th July 1965

Benveniste would repeatedly draw her subject using a process of successive abstraction in order to deconstruct and overcome mimetic form, being careful not to treat this exercise as a form of reduction, but instead to focus on the poetry within and between. She sought to paint the raw energy of her subject matter as idea, as concept, by reaching into liminal, non-material space, exploiting chance and accident as part of her imaginative manipulation of paint. Drawing was essential to Benveniste’s compositional technique and process in painting. She took inspiration from Klee, of whom she often spoke, allowing the pencil to wander and flow until becoming one with the line. The artist was principally concerned to draw negative space. Benveniste interpreted positive space to be subordinate. It would follow once negative space was comprehended.

Pip Benveniste, Breakwater 5, circa 1965
When speaking with her students, she would encourage them to view a piece of furniture and then imagine the piece vanish, leaving only the surrounding negative space. It is this negative space she would encourage them to then paint. Benveniste sought to push the line to its limits.

abandoning the studio

By the mid-1960s, Benveniste like many of her fellow artists felt a deep need to move the making of art from the studio to the street. For her photography and film-making became the ideal medium through which to experiment with time and exploit the context of the street itself. Her first film EVENTUAL collaged and montaged footage she shot from performances by each of John Latham, Stuart Brisley and Jeffrey Shaw (Event Structure Research Group) together with scenes from the 1968 Hornsey Collge of Arts sit-ins to create a psychic reinterpretation through film of what she understood these artist's were trying to achieve in their event-based performance works.

Pip’s camerawork reveals the revolutionary nature and time-based structure of the cinematic experience and the medium’s direct relationship to these event-based performances. The soundtrack is atonal, disturbing, industrial. Her camera reflects and amplifies the fluxus nature of these happenings and her own investigations into time as an essential factor in her work.

Pip Benveniste, film still (Jeffrey Shaw, Stuart Brisely,
 Barbara Steveni, John Latham) from EVENTUAL, 1968
Pip Benveniste, film still from EVENTUAL, 1968
Pip Benveniste, film still (Graham Stevens) from EVENTUAL, 1968
Pip Benveniste, film still  from EVENTUAL, 1968

A forerunner of experimental film-making, Benveniste used the camera to explore ideas about the relativity of psychic time through her study the effects of non-linear composition and juxtaposition of random interpolations. As with her drawing, repetition combined with nonlinearity became a means of progressively abstracting an object’s inherent force. Awareness of the subject is thus replaced by an awareness of essential energy.


a study of the canvas

Pip Benveniste, Transference, 1977 (acrylic on canvas)

Working with film gave Benveniste a renewed appreciation of the possibilities within the canvas, colour and the grid itself. She began to make a study of the canvas as more than mere supports for her painting to discover that the canvas was potentially more significant than the painting it supported.

No medium was passive. No support could be neutral. The canvas itself was an active force in the work, governing the mode and structure of presenting work. Focusing on primary geometries and reflecting on the two dimensional flat surface of the canvas itself, Benveniste began to apply paint so as to force the canvas into an act of self-disclosure that structured the work and allowed it to take on a new and even revelatory aspect.
This new way of painting allowed Benveniste to incorporate the knowledge she had gleaned from her studies of colour and temporality, and from practice outside the studio.
Pip Benveniste, Untitled (Alternate Rectangles), 1978

By the 1980s, Benveniste began to work more and more as a print-maker and eventually became accomplished with etching and biting plates. The print became a new way of interpreting her theories of colour and the dynamics of relatedness. The artist set up her own print studio at Barrington Road in Crouch End, producing aquatints and etchings. Etching provided Pip with the means to embark on a deeper, and more precise, structured, and systematic study of colour.

a return to painting

In 1996, Benveniste returned to the coast, this time settling at a cottage in Dorset. Here she would once again re-focus her efforts toward painting, bring her mastery of colour to the medium of watercolour. For her, watercolour made possible a return to her roots and an encounter with landscape that would allow her to integrate her now vibrant and exploding palette with her ideas about time, organic abstraction, dimensionality and drawing.
Pip Benveniste, Dorset Coast, 2001
Benveniste had been interested in opposition throughout her practice. She viewed negative and positive forces as coming together to create each moment. She sought to find the harmony between the active ocean and its seemingly passive recipient, the coast. She was interested in the flux and flow of nature. The natural balance of light and dark and achieving a balance between two opposite poles, revisiting her ‘groyne’ series, this time through watercolour.
Pip Benveniste, The Sea, 2005

the influence of the coast

The artist’s childhood in her coastal home of Newlyn was a continued source of inspiration throughout her life. And the coastal landscape of Britain became a subject through which to explore her obsessions. The poet Tony Ward has noted that Benveniste’s move to Dorset in the late 1990s was of profoundly significance to her final years of practice, representing a return to her spiritual roots.

Her art changed significantly. Maybe she imagined she was back in Cornwall, a place in which, I believe, her heart always resided, as her work made a very brave move back to her own origins in Newlyn, Mousehole, Penzance, St Just and St Ives. In these later watercolour paintings on handmade papers, the colours became translucent and the images more rural, with frequent references to the landscapes of her youth.Water in all its forms would repeatedly appear in her work to depict emotional energy and the idea of the landscape she experienced. She was incredibly prolific, creating a vast and varied oeuvre. She would continue to produce marvellous work until her death in 2010.

-Tony Ward

further information

Rozemin Keshvani represents the artist's estate and manages the Pip Benveniste archive. If  you are interested in learning more about the artist or accessing the archive or  films of Pip Benveniste, please email here.  We are collecting information on the location of Pip's work for an exhibition and catalogue raisonne, and if you have any works by the artist, we would be very grateful to hear from you.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Brian O’Connell, PALOMAR


LG London 27th February 2016 - 16th April 2016

by Rozemin Keshvani

Los Angeles-based artist Brian O’Connell has a new show at Laure Genillard Gallery that reflects a philosophically rich and technically sophisticated voice. PALOMAR stages a dialogic with Italo Calvino’s novel Palomar, continuing an investigation into the act of looking that is at once a study of the gaze and the quest for knowledge and an analogy for modern day cosmology as presented through the lens of physics.  
Brian O'Connell, The Loves of Tortoises, 2011

Calvino’s Mr Palomar, like his namesake the Palomar Observatory, is an observer who seeks to unlock the mysteries of the universe through observation, but whose experiences evidence a succession of  failures that tour the problems of epistemology. The novel begins with Mr Palomar observing the waves at the beach, seeking to isolate and read the wave. Palomar, we are told, seeks first ‘simply to see a wave – that is, to perceive all its simultaneous components’.  He vainly waits for an exact repetition of a single phenomenon, but while some forms and sequences repeat, they are irregularly distributed in space and time. Palomar thus turns his attention, first observing the naked bosom of a female bather, then two tortoises in an act of coitus. He tries to decipher the whistling of birds and makes an attempt in giving words to silence, then finally directs his attention to the sky, contemplating the stars in the night sky and lamenting the unobserved beauty of the moon in the afternoon:

Nobody looks at the moon in the afternoon, and this is the moment when it should most require our attention, since its existence is still in doubt. It is a whitish shadow that surfaces from the intense blue of the sky, charged with solar light; who can assure us that, once again, it will succeed in assuming a form and glow? It is so fragile and pale and slender, only on one side does it begin to assume a distinct outline like the arc of a sickle while the rest is steeped in azure. It is like a transparent wafer, or half-dissolved pastille, only here the white circle is not dissolving but condensing, collecting itself at the price of gray-bluish patches and shadows that might belong to the moon’s geography or might be spillings of the sky that still soak the satellite, porous as a sponge.[i]

Taking note of Calvino’s reflection, O’Connell does precisely this through his film, Palomar, a 16mm cinematic study of the moon during a partial solar eclipse visible in Southern California in 2014. Rather than positioning a stationary camera to film the eclipse directly, O’Connell created a unique apparatus in which a telescope performed as a camera obscura, allowing the artist to film a real time image of the eclipse as it metamorphosed through its various stages. 

The irony of course is that in observing the afternoon moon through an eclipse, we observe an inversion of the norm. We do not observe the moon (as lit by the sun) during the day, but instead its shadow as it progressively obscures the sun causing the sun to imitate the changing phases of the moon. O’Connell passes these images through a combination of filters, representing the primary colours red, blue and green, to create a moving drama whose origins though derived from nature are unashamedly mediated through the instrument of observation, the colourful shapes, the whirring, hissing and irregular clicking of the film as it feeds through the projector, the cone-shaped stream of flickering light that gives rise to an image on the wall.

The film which we see projected on the wall is of course not the eclipse, but a representation of the eclipse three times removed, first mediated by the camera obscura and then by the process of filming and colourisation, and finally by its projection onto the wall, in each case, a transposition of the electromagnetic waves that form what we experience as the light from the sun. Light travels in waves, a form of electromagnetic radiation with the impossibly unthinkable velocity of 300,000,000 metres per second.  The question of what is a wave and the relationship of waves to seeing and thus knowing is a central theme in Calvino’s Palomar which O’Connell further problematizes throughout this exhibition.We cannot look at the sun directly. Our knowledge of light is always in some sense mediated, through the sun’s illumination of other objects, such as the moon. Moreover, not all forms of looking involve light.

PALOMAR, 2015, 16mm color film print from colour 
negative printed from black and white original
Aluminium, brass and Plexi-glass looper, (2016)
Palomar, O’Connell’s film, like the novel, offers a tripartite structure through which to consider experience, beginning with the act of looking. Calvino hypothesizes three categories of experience. These are reflected in the structure of his novel which he describes as corresponding to three themes, three kinds of experience and inquiry that, in varying proportions, are present in every part of the book. Visual experience, whose object is almost always some natural form, is expressed in descriptively.  Anthropological or cultural knowledge involves, besides visual data, also language, meaning, history. This text tends to take the form of a story.  The final category involves more speculative experience, the cosmos, time, infinity, the relationship between the self and the world, the dimensions of the mind. Here we move from description and narrative into meditation.  This tripartite structure is again reflected through O’Connell’s use of the three processes: moving image in the form of film, the stationary image in the form of photography and the awaited action or speculation which takes the form of sculpture, while the three primary colours, red, green and blue reappear throughout the works.

O’Connell’s gum bichromate prints, The Eye and the Planets, employ a photographic process that engages a relationship with light, much like that of the photogram.  To create these, the artist rolled nine 3-inch balls into a chance position within the boundary of a circular hoop laid upon a stretcher coated with gum and light sensitive dichromate mixture to which he added a single pigment of green, red or blue.  This composition he then exposed to direct sunlight. After washing the canvas, he repeated this process a further two times to produce a monoprint whose indexicality, like the moon in Palomar, is dependent upon the direct trace of the object through its interference or shadow rather than its reflection of light per se.  The presentation of light here is direct, seemingly unmediated, yet again subject to accident and like Palomar’s experience of the wave, unrepeatable.

Brian O'Connell, The Eye and the Planets (2016)

The third type of knowledge may be likened to O’Connell’s sculptures, which here perform as processes, the unfolding of which the objects may only anticipate.  Again the artist alludes to the idea of the wave, this time in the form of radio waves.  Like light, radio signals comprise electromagnetic radiation which travels in waves, these waves being significantly larger than those of light.  Though outside the visible spectrum, radio waves may be rendered into images through a process known as radio interferometry using massive dishes designed to collect the radio signals, a process most often used to render visible the phenomena of the cosmos, such as galaxies, black holes and other disturbances which may not otherwise be photographed through ocular telescopes. It is these dishes which the artist creates using various materials, each a potentially operable radio wave-gathering device. 
Brian O'Connell, The World Looks at the World, 2016

The World Looks at the World, is a large dish formed of 85 individually cast coloured glass hexagonal tiles, the artist’s use of glass, a potentially transparent material, perhaps a nod to Calvino’s suggestion that the "I," the ego, is simply the window through which the world looks at the world and a humourous aside on the more traditional use of the dish. Utilising radio waves rather than light to create images, these radio signal gathering dishes pose a subtle challenge to the idea of a ‘visible’ universe, suggesting perhaps a search for knowledge that looks beyond the use of instruments. Fragmented by the burden of a plethora of individual egos, how can knowledge be possible? And even were the ego to be set aside, whose eyes then would be doing the looking? 

O’Connell’s sculpture Model of Models offers a possible trajectory.  Also a model for a radio interferometry dish, this work is composed of individual hexagonal pillars each angled so as to produce a perfectly parabolic dish arranged atop a mirror plinth. Model of Models is a capable receiver of radio waves and, if fitted with an antennae, may well one day generate images of hitherto unknown celestial phenomena. Here placed atop a mirror, the artist seems to invite reflection. At the moment, I lean over to gaze upon the radio dish, I also see myself, a reminder that however powerful the instrument through which information is mediated, it is I, the viewer, who is the final arbiter.  Palomar failed in his attempts to apprehend the world through the powerful lenses of scientific inquiry and instead returns to consider his own inner geography. His conclusion - the only true knowledge available to him is self-knowledge.

We can know nothing about what is outside us if we overlook ourselves," he thinks now. "The universe is the mirror in which we can contemplate only what we have learned to know in ourselves."[ii]

Brian O'Connell, The Model of Models, 2016

Perhaps O’Connell has himself experienced Palomar’s crisis.  For he has, through PALOMAR, taken us on a journey that, however seductive, ends not with an offer of certainty but instead returns us to a world that begins with ourselves. And when we leave the gallery and walk onto the street, however much we may seek a vision of the stars and planets navigating in silence on the parabolas and ellipses of time, like Palomar our gaze is met with scenes of the everyday, “streets full of people, hurrying, elbowing their way ahead, without looking one another in the face, among high walls, sharp and peeling. In the background, the starry sky scatters intermittent flashes like a stalled mechanism, which jerks and creaks in all its unoiled joints, outposts of an endangered universe…”[iii]

[i] Italo Calvino, Mr Palomar, trans. William Weaver (Harvest Books 1985), ‘Moon in the Afternoon’.
[ii] Ibid. ‘The Universe as Mirror’.
[iii] Ibid. 

All images courtesy the artist and Laure Genillard.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Silent Explosion: Ivor Davies and Destruction in Art, National Museum Wales, 14 November 2015–20 March 2016

by Rozemin Keshvani

Silent Explosion, currently on show at the National Museum Wales, is an ambitious exhibition of the work and life of Ivor Davies set against the backdrop of the artist’s meticulously assembled archive, the jewel of which is unquestionably Davies’ exceptional collection of materials from the 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium.  Through archive, film and creative installations, the exhibition pieces together an extraordinary series of performances and happenings staged by Davies in Edinburgh, London, Bristol and Swansea between 1966 and 1968 and explores the artist’s longstanding concern with the destruction of Welsh culture.

The first room contains a selection of the artist’s recent paintings and assemblages, providing an appreciation of the deeper ontology of destruction and transformation ever-present in Davies’ work. Certain pieces stand out, such as the relief, Yr Ysgrifen ar y Mur 1 (The Writing on the Wall 1). Davies formed this piece in 2001 after being presented with his grandfather’s gun on his death, first breaking the gun into pieces and then reassembling it on the hessian canvas, a material ubiquitous during the war.[i] The gun affixed to the top half of the canvas tears through three Welsh books, including a family Bible, as a bullet might drive itself through the spoken word, the voice of a people, or entirely obliterate a people and with it their language and culture. The Welsh Bible, a particularly poignant marker, for its role in preserving the Welsh language. The symbolism here is palpable. Yet Davies’ half empty canvas suggests an unfinished narrative, a space for the viewer, for reflection, for doubt and perhaps even contribution.

Davies is a ‘thinking’ artist. His work, passionate though it may be, unequivocally engages the intellect, establishing an aesthetic means to a Socratic process. Black lettering just visible across one corner of the canvas recalls the noted Welsh proverb taught to every Welsh schoolchild “Gorau arf, arf dysg” (The best weapon is the weapon of learning), the work thus reanimating what is perhaps now a rarefied tenant of Welsh culture.

Ivor Davies speaking on Yr Ysgrifen ar y Mur, 2001, National Museum Wales, March 2016

Throughout Davies’ works, language becomes coterminous with Welsh culture, heritage and communities. The destruction of language entails a destruction of culture whose remnants may perhaps only remain in memory. Remember! -- A dictum deeply embedded in the Welsh psyche, occupies much of the work in this first room.[ii]  Constructed from the debris of memory, ochre in their appearance, organic in their apparel, these reliefs immerse us in a space resonating with lost voices and fragmented recollections. Torn pages from a book, damaged instruments, aged and broken string, rusting tools, a human skull, archaic cottage keys, stained newsprint, fading photographs and even food crumbs, liquids and broken egg shells are continually layered to deepen liminal space, triggering lost memories and providing glimpses into past events.

The role of memory is again addressed in Ysgrifen ar y Mur II, 2001, a multimedia work that uses oil, cement, egg tempera, photographs, books, string and debris to depict a significant act of resistance in Welsh history through an act of graffiti.[iii]  JG Williams, a conscientious objector during World War II, was among several people who refused to take up arms. In 1939, Williams did not attend his physical, painting the words “Ymwrthyd Cymru â rhyfeloedd Lloegr” (Wales rejects England’s wars) on the walls of a ruined chapel Moriah in Llanystumdwy.[iv]  His subsequent imprisonment (during which time he was denied a copy of the Welsh Bible) laid the foundation for nationalism in Wales.  The message though covered with cement, with time has reappeared, the past reasserting its presence.[v]  In Davies depiction of the chapel, an overturned organ can be seen through one window, while in another the newsprint image of the jurors is overlaid with string to which is attached bag of chalk with an invitation to viewers to add to the graffiti to the work. Engaging the viewer in this way transforms both work and viewer. The viewer is empowered through realising the power of graffiti, the viewer’s own act of graffiti reaching into and merging with the past action of these original conscientious objectors.  Simultaneous with this transformation then is a transformation in the work itself which now takes on the role of an archive, acting as a portal, connecting acts of past resistance with present circumstances.  Memory thus becomes both action and archive.

Ivor-Davies-Ysgrifen-ar-y-Mur II-2001-installation-view-National-Museum-Wales-March-2016
Ivor Davies, Ysgrifen ar y Mur II, 2001, installation view National Museum Wales, March 2016

Perhaps the exhibition’s greatest achievement is the multiple ways in which it presents an interpretation of Davies work through the prism of the archive, combining the canon of documentation, film and sound using traditional stand-alone vitrines, wall mountings, screens and monitors with more radical and creative forms of presentation that might properly be described as ‘performative installation’.

The installation revisiting Davies’ 1968 Swansea performance piece, Adam on St Agnes Eve, highlights the artist's pioneering work to establish a creative and transformational form of performance art, one which was capable of transforming the participants themselves. Here the performers themselves engage in a process which investigates the act of looking, challenging ideals of the human body within art and anatomy, and the more invidious and continued instrumentalisation of the human anatomical form. Using archival footage and ephemera, together with sound and voice-overs, Davies and co-curators Nicholas Thornton and Judit Bodor have choreographed a creative intermedia installation that performs as a ‘total artwork’. The archive thus becomes a tool through which ‘to blur the boundaries between history and mythology’.[vi]

Relics from the original performance combine with new material to offer insight into an experience of the original piece that is at once emotive and immediate, yet contextualised as an event which took place in the past.  Resting on wire plinths are two human size rectangular boxes first used in Davies' performance work Still Life Story, 1967, suggesting male and female archetypes, the female figure layered with magazine cut-out lips, the male a panoply of eyes, while opposite sits a piano on which another visitor to the exhibition is playing.  Plain white cardboard constructions resembling rectangular mannequins occupy the room. Together with the roaming visitor, they form an ever-changing topology, receiving and interrupting the projections of archival footage from the actual performance of Adam on St Agnes Eve to create an expanded cinema installation in which the viewer once again becomes a performer in the work.

Adam on St Agnes Eve, partial installation view, Silent Explosion, National Museum Wales, March 2016.

The penultimate rooms of the exhibition re-engage memory yet again, but this time through the phenomenon of collecting in which Davies' extensive archive of the Destruction in Art Symposium takes centre stage, occupying the better part of the second floor of the exhibition. For the archivist and student of DIAS, this exhibition is unmissable, making available to the public, for the first time, countless treasures of documentation, photographs, records, correspondence and other ephemera. The final room allows us a privileged view into the artist's own memories, offering a deeper understanding of the man and the artist, for here we see childhood paintings and other works of juvenelia depicting the artist's most personal encounters with destruction during the Second World War as a child.

Silent Explosion is most certainly an exhibition that will be remembered as standing out from the crowd. An explosion it may well be. Silent it most certainly is not.

[i] Stephen Bahn, 'Paths of Experiment in the Art of the 1960s', Burnt Poetry: Ivor Davies and Destruction/ Creation in Art and Word, Conference, Cardiff University (26-28 February 2016).
[ii]  "Cofiwch Dryweryn" being an example of this dictum.
[iii] For insightful discussions on these works, see Andrew Wilson, 'Engaging Thought and Action: Notes on the Work of Ivor Davies', Silent Explosion: Ivor Davies and Destruction in Art (Occasional Papers, 2016).
[v] ‘Arddangoswr:Ifor Davies’, BBC Wales eistedsfod celf achrefft 2002.
[vi] Judit Bodor, 'Silent Explosion: the Making of an Exhibition', Silent Explosion: Ivor Davies and Destruction in Art.

All images courtesy the artist and the National Museum Wales.