Artists in Context

'Gaps, glitches and speed bumps' by William Mackrell - Dave Beech by Claire Mander

William Mackrell,  Gaps, glitches and speed bumps , Thursday 10 September - Sunday 13 September 2015, photo by AK Purkiss

William Mackrell, Gaps, glitches and speed bumps, Thursday 10 September - Sunday 13 September 2015, photo by AK Purkiss

"we understand space as the sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality; as the sphere in which distinct trajectories coexist; as the sphere therefore of coexisting heterogeneity." - Doreen Massey

Performance is often described in terms of the body, spectatorship, duration, the spoken word, narrative. In art institutions it is included among what has come to be known as time-based practices or live arts. Amelia Jones, for instance, notes that performance has been “privileged precisely through its ephemerality and immediacy”. The current anxiety about the documentation and reenactment of performance confirms the perception that performance is impermanent in a strong sense. Everybody knows that performances occur in spaces but typically the performance is seen as something separate that is brought to the space and disappears from the space once it is over. In this way, performance has been theorized as primarily temporal rather than primarily spatial.

William Mackrell’s work combines sculpture with performance (including print and photography too) in a way that not only adds a temporal dimension to the sculptural sphere of objects, but adds a spatial element to it, as well. Not the kind of spatiality that animates installation art (a sort of extrapolation of the ‘spaces’ within paintings and sculptures) nor the bounded concept of space that attaches site-specific art to physical spaces. Mackrell’s work traverses the spatial dynamics of geography. I am not thinking of the traditional conception of geography as the study of territory or the poststructural misconception of space as the “domestication of time”, to use Ernesto Laclau’s words. Mackrell’s works respond to place and space through an embodied reflection.

Deux Chevaux (2011-2015) consists of a Citroën 2CV harnessed to two horses and driven, or ridden, through various specific places. Given its original purpose to supply motorized transport to farmers still using horses and carts in 1930s France, Mackrell’s montaging of these two modes of transport into one functional vehicle is an historical conundrum. If conceptually it is a temporal folding of history upon itself, it has a strong geographical significance in its realization. A great deal of Marckrell’s time was taken up in negotiating with the local authorities to obtain written permission to take the horse drawn car along specific routes at specific times.

His walking piece, Going to the Gallery (2013), is a spatial study. Writing the words ‘going to the gallery’ on a roll of paper as he makes his way on foot from the studio to the gallery, Mackrell links two places not only through his action but through his mantra. While still outside the studio he writes ‘going to the gallery’, as if the two spaces were already, through his intention, bridged and bonded. As well as the movement of the artist from one place to another, a roll of paper, now absent from the studio is left in the gallery. This work thus transposes the experience of space into what might have once been called a piece of text art, which appears in the gallery as a little heap, not unlike Robert Morris’ iconic piles of felt, of displaced material.

At least since the early eighteenth century a man who walked from his studio to a gallery would be a bearer of spatial displacement. Daniel Defoe celebrated this in his panegyric to trade: “The cloth for the man’s coat comes from Yorkshire;… the waistcoat … from Norwich. The breeches are … from Devizes, Wilts … His yarn stockings are from Westmorland. His hat is a felt from Leicester. His leather gloves come from Somerset, his shoes from Northampton”. Today, David Harvey asks where your breakfast comes from (sugar, coffee, milk, cups, etc), saying that these products link you with millions of workers around the globe. He calls these ‘spatial linkages’. Mackrell’s works create spatial linkages that make visible the invisible threads that connect places together.

Gaps, glitches and speed bumps commissioned by RBS for the Ambulatory category of Sculpture Shock 2015 makes its way, eventually, to the gallery but it takes place largely on public transport. Sat upstairs on the bus, Mackrell draws lines that are scattered by the swaying, stopping and swerving that jolts all the passengers. He draws on a print of sheet music in which the rows of lines have been bent into a circle. At the same time, four singers chart the journey with improvised sounds, stopping abruptly whenever the bus reaches a stop or a red light. Fellow travellers turn to listen and look, pointing and whispering, giggling and smiling.

“The real import of spatiality”, critical geographer Doreen Massey says, is “the possibility of multiple narratives”, or what she calls “coevalness”. Gaps, glitches and speed bumps is Mackrell’s most coeval work to date. The bus has a fixed route and is timetabled according to a semi-rigorous schedule, but the people who jump on and jump off have their own destinations and their own narratives. Buses are public not in the Habermasian sense of places where opinions are exchanged and public opinion is formed collectively, but in the sense of a zone in which people come together temporarily and share space, like a park, a zoo or a shopping mall. Like the scenes portrayed by Manet, then, the bus is a conspicuous reminder of the city as a place of coeval existence. Mackrell’s intervention in the bus, by adding just one or two new narratives to the scene, highlights the fact that there were multiple narratives here all along.

Mackrell did not hire a private bus to realize his drawings and improvised singing. It would have been reasonable to do so but if he had then the work would have remained spatial but would have been far less coeval. The route that the private bus took would have been determined solely by the artist and the fellow passengers would have been there to witness the work. By joining a public bus on its regular journey, carrying passengers to their individual destinations, Mackrell’s work inserts itself into the space that others occupy for their own purposes, mid-stream so to speak. The work belongs in the same space, in the same intersection of journeys and narratives, that any passenger would encounter walking down a busy street, catching a train or stepping onto the bus.

Taxi drivers famously enjoy the full benefits of coevalness but taxi passengers do not. If we do not typically experience the coevalness of bus journeys in full, this is because our journeys are shaped by the polite avoidance of fellow passengers. In fact, coevalness is generally not something that we experience directly. It is a background feature that structures contemporary life. Like the spatial linkages that pins your breakfast to the world without you necessarily having any idea about what these linkages actually are, coevalness is structural not phenomenological. Mackrell makes coevalness phenomenological by assigning the movement and noise of passengers to the score of the work.

James Clifford roots the practice of traveling in the Greek term theoria: “Theory is a practice of travel and observation, ... a product of displacement. To theorize, one leaves home.” Aesthetics is the result of a similar process, applied to objects and subjects alike. The modern institutions of art - including the public museum, the emergence of an art public and the publishing of art criticism - were unprecedented but can be understood best as based on the modern experience of Greek and Roman artefacts displaced from their original contexts. Art and aesthetics are born when crafted objects left home, or, more precisely, were seized by foreigners. Art is in a perpetual state of leaving home. What Gaps, glitches and speed bumps demonstrates is that the displacement of the aesthetic from the museum does not return it to a pre-aesthetic function or utility, but percolates the aesthetic through small pockets of the everyday.

By Dave Beech


William Mackrell in Context - Deciphering Duration by Claire Mander

Allan Kaprow, Fluids, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963

Allan Kaprow, Fluids, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963

Art can explore the concept of time and humanities’ relationship with time in a variety of ways, artists having often chosen to engage with ideas of time through the nature of the medium itself. 

As performance art happens in real time a connection with the audience or participants is made as they are fully immersed in the experience of the piece. The fact that, in pieces such as Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, the art existed in a temporal rather than physical sense served to elevate the experience as it itself became the art, as opposed to a physical product produced by the artist. Kaprow developed his performance art as a medium explicitly engaged with time, describing his intentions to move away from ‘making pictures as figurative metaphors for extensions in time and space’, making the relationship between art and time more direct. 

In Tehching Hsieh’s piece ‘One Year Performance 1980-1981’, also known as ‘Time Clock Piece’, a literal relationship was made between art and time, as the piece entailed the artist punching a time clock every hour, all day and night for a year. Hsieh’s passing of time with such a repetitive action without tangible product meant that the meaning of time was lost to a certain extent. The piece invited consideration of the meaning of ‘wasting time’, as an action associated with productivity, punching a time clock, prevented outside productivity in the artist, through its strict demands. 

‘One Year Performance 1980-1981’ was one of six durational art pieces performed by Hseih, five of which took place over a year. The choice of a year was explained by the artist in Mousse Magazine, as he stated that ‘One year is the basic unit of how we count time….It is about being human, how we explain time, how we measure our existence.’ This sheds light on both the piece’s consideration of human quantification of time, and how it has made a physical marker of the division of time.

Time based art is often created in mediums other than performance art, however, as it regularly takes the form of media art.  Video art often involves the idea of time, as the nature of the medium allows techniques such as looping to be used, allowing pieces to be potentially infinite, possibly to provoke a reduction in the perceived importance of time on the viewer. 

Fischli and Weiss’ piece for the 1995 Venice Biennale, for example, invited a consideration of time and its value as they presented 96 hours of footage of car journeys that had taken place in Zurich. In describing their intentions in the work Fischli said that the piece allowed the viewer to place value on different aspects of the work, by choosing a particular monitor and moment to pay attention to, and deciding how long to remain looking. The artist stated in an interview with Frieze Magazine that “They have to ask themselves the same question as we do: what shall I waste my time on? And by giving them this time I enhance the value of these things”. 

William Mackrell’s piece ‘Going to the gallery’ (2013) engaged with time as it made a physical representation of time and the artist’s experience travelling from his studio to the gallery, as he continuously wrote ‘going to the gallery’ on a roll of paper, the used material accumulating and bearing a physical marker of the journey as it became dirty or torn. This piece thus translated time and experience into a physical medium, displaying another way to develop the relationship between art and time. For his forthcoming Sculpture Shock AMBULATORY intervension Mackrell will continue this theme as he plans to reflect the live journy of a Routmaster bus through automated drawing and sound. In this way the physical journy, and therfore time, will once again be reflected in different forms, as well as becoming a shared exsperience for the passengers. 

By Octavia Young 

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song by Lynn Dennison - Dave Beech by Claire Mander

Lynn Dennison,  Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song , Sculpture Shock Subterranean May 2015, The Brunel Shaft, photo by AK Purkiss

Lynn Dennison, Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, Sculpture Shock Subterranean May 2015, The Brunel Shaft, photo by AK Purkiss

Nature is shrinking, but the signs of nature and the natural are multiplying, replacing and supplanting real "nature" Henri Levebvre

The transition from agriculture to industry, from rural living to urbanization, brings a chronic shrinkage of nature, and, at the same time, a proliferation of images of nature. Advertising sells cars, deodorant, detergents, air travel and financial services by associating products with spectacular mountainscapes, natural springs, animated swarms of petals, montages of sea, dessert, sky and forest, and lush green fields. The TV schedule is peppered with documentaries of everything from deep sea creatures to storm chasing, printed textiles are almost synonymous with pictures of flowers, and nature is treasured in the backgrounds to millions of selfies, postcards, jigsaw puzzles, greetings cards, and website stock images. 

Lynn Dennison’s new work for Sculpture Shock, Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, divides up the surface of the Rotherhithe Shaft, an impressive underground monument to Brunel’s engineering prowess, with large video projections of the river looking like a calm sea. Nature is restored to the industrial setting, here, but it is not only nature that has been reduced to an image: at the Brunel museum heavy industry itself survives only as a sign. Buildings, bridges and tunnels continue to be constructed on an ever increasing scale, of course, but the classic opposition between industry and nature, captured by Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of the ‘dialectic of Enlightenment’, has been replaced with ecological crisis and ecodesign. If Dennison’s work is a eulogy to nature, a paean to the river under threat, then it is equally a eulogy to its old adversary, the industrial. 

The transition to industrialization is mirrored in a fetishism of nature: the sentimental love of nature in modernity is an effect of the industrial revolution and an expression of it, insofar as it results from the rift between city and county, progress and tradition, work and leisure, that capitalism unbuckled. Romantic artists such as Friedrich, Constable and Wordsworth, on the cusp of industrialism, modernised culture by drawing on the semiotics of nature. Realism opposed elite cultural codes of meaning by asserting that ‘the forms of Nature speak directly’. At the end of the eighteenth century, coinciding therefore with the period of the bourgeois revolution, nature appeared as the uncoded code of emotion and feeling. Not only could a painting of leafless bushes  in the snow signify death in an apparently immediate, unlearned way; the experience of nature itself, in hillwalking, hiking and mountain climbing, for instance, became one of the central modes with which the bourgeoisie learned to feel deeply. 

Nature was the centrepiece of the modern concept of aesthetic experience. Whereas the classical theory of beauty had modelled itself on the bodies of beauties and secondarily on artworks that replicated their proportions, the revolutionary bourgeoisie turned to nature as the basis both of its theory of judgements of taste and its theory of the sublime. Nature is the utopia specific to industrialisation. This is why, like Dennison’s videos, nature was projected into the very heart of modernity by radical romantics, both as a corrective to its instrumental, calculative and exploitative industry, and as a confirmation of its democratic, subjective and expressive freedom. One of the first things that William Morris says about industry in a future Socialist society, in his essay 'A Factory As It Might Be’, is that the factory should be surrounded by vast, beautiful gardens. Each room, we might add, should look out to the river or have the river run through it.  

Landscape painting has traditionally inserted simulated windows into domestic rooms so that the interior can be blessed with views unavailable though the actual windows. Dennison’s digital installation is scaled-up, like the spectacle of an aquarium in which visitors stand face-to-face with sea creatures. Facing the wall, looking at the river, the viewer is momentarily a figure in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, turning her back to the world in order to face nature and thereby to feel. One of the most profound legacies of romanticism is the belief that this encounter is the paradigm of feeling, or at least of refined aestheticised feeling. It is the experience of nature modelled on the experience of Greek statues ripped from their original architectural, cultural and religious setting. The modern love of nature is the result of a cut, which is both a spatial dislocation from nature and a framing of nature dislocated. Putting nature in a dirty industrial setting, albeit one as refined in its own terms as the Rotherhithe shaft, is to experience that cut as an embrace.

In the era of regeneration, Brunel's shaft seems as endangered as the Thames. The shaft itself will remain in place but its setting is likely to be gentrified, as no areas of London appear immune from this monetising and cultivating process. The industrial is to be nothing but a tourist attraction and its architectural relics are bound to be repurposed for the leisure of the incoming tide. Dennison’s lapping water of the Thames will be followed up, it might be assumed, with a flood of fashionable events. Modernization eats itself, naturally, and at the moment between one crisis and other it is only proper that we should contemplate, reflect and try to feel something. Regret, perhaps, or hope, might be acceptable responses, but then so is anger, fear, love, resignation or delight. Aesthetic experience, heightened by the yoking of industry and nature, is a realm of freedom only if we can feel pleasure in the vicinity of threat. The sublime was an aesthetic experience invented by the bourgeoisie in its revolutionary phase in order, primarily, to address the pleasure felt by those protected from the deadly effects of nature or the unnatural deaths of others. 

Dennison’s work is not sublime. Can nature be sublime in the era of ecological disaster? Nature is no longer conceived primarily as simultaneously the source of life and harbouring the forces inimical to human life; nature today is conceived primarily as a victim. The closest we come to a contemporary sublime is the image of total ecological collapse that brings all human life to an end in a narrative in which technology reaches a limit in its destructive exploitation of the world. Nevertheless, Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, despite the title being taken from a line in TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, is not a modernist grievance against modernity. Nature, here, is not a ruined, barren place. The river is soft, relentlessly soothing or even happy. Dennison has created an oasis. 

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song is utopian in Henri Lefebvre’s sense, which he ascribes to parks and gardens: ‘they refer to a twofold utopia: absolute nature and pure facticity’. He explains, ‘they suggest an absolute and inaccessible nature - grottos, wind, altitude, the sea, islands - as well as facticity - the trimmed and tortured tree that serves as pure ornament’. Absolute nature is made possible by pure facticity: only when nature is cut off from use and other meanings (food, farming, real estate) and is therefore conceived as pure facticity (water, field, hill) can it be fully enjoyed aesthetically, that is as nature in the abstract. Utopia, therefore, is the experience of dislocation, like Greek statues which appear freer and more beautiful when they are carried off from the Parthenon to the museum. Nowadays the cut of utopia doesn’t require chisels and a fleet of ships, only a video camera. Utopia has been let loose: nowhere is everywhere, and it still calls on us to make the world anew. 

By Dave Beech