Jeremy Deller: English Magic, Venice Biennale, 2013

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We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold

Jeremy Deller understands not only the dynamics of the Venice Biennale but also the criticality of contemporary art like nobody else, making him the ideal artist to shoulder the responsibility of representing Great Britain at this most prestigious of international art events.

The main thing we learned from Deller’s monumental retrospective, ‘Joy in People’, last year was that he is a great collector – of people, things, ideas and instantaneous magic. But he is not a hoarder; he chooses carefully with good reasoning and he catalogues every element with precision and love. Deller’s installations might initially look like desperate odes to a wayward fanaticism, but they turn out to be luscious songs for the beautiful and the ugly in contemporary life. They are always tinged with a romanticism and a nostalgia that betrays Deller’s ability to summon a lost past in an equally lost present with an unsurpassed affection that does not shy away from vital critique.

Deller, it has recently been said, is a political artist for a non-political age. He seduces his audience into debate by showing them what they hold dear and teasing out its political implications. In Venice, the politics can be about anything from pressing matters of international relations to squirming over the internal logic of the Biennale itself. It is interesting, for instance, that the Holy See has just opted to assert its statehood with a first time pavilion and that, since officially recognised by the Italian government, the Republic of Kosovo gets a turn. At the other end of the scale, France and Germany have swapped pavilions in a very European up-yours to the Biennale’s international pavilion system.

But Deller is doing something altogether more courageous by enacting a dramatic critique of the very country that bestowed the honour upon him. ‘English Magic’ contains the hallmarks of a Deller show, with a bit of Bowie in counterpoint to some drawings by prisoners and a delicious, refreshing cup of tea halfway through. But it is also a confrontational, frankly aggressive and often bitingly funny onslaught on British economic policy, the royal family, the Iraq war and everything else in between. Instead of celebrating Britain in the sickly, adorably eccentric manner of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, Deller has opted use his platform at Venice to tell the world just how vile we are.

The interesting thing is that it represents something of a departure for Deller. Political critique in Deller’s hands, such as It Is What It Is, has been an instrument for inciting intelligent and urgent debate, or, as with The Battle of Orgreave, a reminder of the lasting consequences of a historical struggle. In both cases, there is an element of carefully managed shock, but there is also an intellectual tenderness that softens a war cry to a murmur or furrowed brow. But in Venice there is suddenly an unashamed violence to the work, such as the hen harrier that grabs a range rover in incandescent rage at the alleged shooting of one of the protected birds by Prince Harry and a mate in 2007. Roman Abramovich’s colossal luxury yacht, a symbol of intolerable capitalist self-indulgence is hurled nose first into the sea by a menacing, giant William Morris. And portraits of Blair and Cambell by prisoners who served once as the very soldiers that these odious masters of spin sent to war on a web of lies fashioned from the remnants of the work of Dr David Kelly, another Deller obsession, who is also here depicted. Portraits, one imagines, scratched out from the last remaining beads of consciousness these men possess and lovingly handpicked by Deller for their resonance in an age when being killed in Iraq by the imagined enemy was preferable to the subsequent desertion by the state that sent you there.

This is not to say that the exhibition lacks Deller’s characteristic lightness of touch, charming honesty and good humour. Much of the work has been commissioned and curated, such as the murals whose creators are gleefully acknowledged; the Neolithic and Palaeolithic axes, borrowed from the Museum of London, are there to be handled by the public; and the scrap car which has become a cinema seat for watching another classic Deller film. All products of the artist’s own imagination but of other people’s hands, we have here another masterful collection of memories, associations and ideals that offer a snapshot of British life and culture with humour and ease as political conscience and pop culture rub shoulders like old friends. Throw in a steel band bashing out renditions of Bowie and endless cups of tea, alongside a frank diagnosis of the political and economic health of the country today, and there you have it – classic Deller.

There is no doubt that Venice is ready for Deller; it can handle the glint in his eye and the diffident but entirely sincere mobilisation of contemporary art as a vehicle of vital critique. The real question is whether Britain is ready for Deller; whether, that is, we are ready to see ourselves as we are right now, as players on the world stage dressed in rags of capitalism and traipsing through the ruins of war towards another cup of tea and another heroic David Bowie song. We might be left wondering, where is the magic? The magic, one suspects, is in the fact that we got away with it for so long.

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Gavin Turk: The Years

The years have been kind to Gavin Turk: his work is mature and yet provocative, he has made a living as an artist and not sold out, and the ideas retain an urgency from not being overstated. But who is Gavin Turk and why is he not more famous? This exhibition – a modest sort of career survey – provides a timely opportunity to unravel one of the forgotten stars of the YBA movement.

Turk’s practice has always revolved around ideas concerning authorship, authenticity, value and history, which are manifest in varied forms. ‘The Years’ reminds us that Turk is one of our foremost high-end conceptual artists: although essentially predicated on ideas, the work is warm and inviting, rather than stark and baffling; the ideas are handled with great intellectual subtlety and not manufactured to the point of sterility; and they are lusciously infused with a keen sense of history that neither gushes nor diminishes into obscurity.

This exhibition marks Turk out as an exceptional figure in contemporary British art. Value is important for Turk; not the rampant commercial artworld creation of value, but a continual critique of the very concept of value in art. Refreshingly, the value of art is a perennially open question and not an unassailable tautology. The famous rubbish bags, such as Refuse (2012), still have the power to enact their dual critique: on the one hand, a comment on the dreary complaint that modern art is rubbish, but on the other hand, a more intellectually generous rumination on the legacy of Duchamp. The joy of Turk’s work is precisely this wry counterpoint between a banal joke and a clever idea, where you never quite know which it is supposed to be.

This preoccupation with value is inherent in Turk’s flirtations with art history, where the line between critique, homage and plagiarism is fantastically vague. Pavement (2008) might as well be a Carl Andre and we would mistake it as such were it not for the whiff of tongue-in-cheek that emanates from it here. Unafraid of both art history and popular culture, Turk ran narrative circles around his contemporaries with his waxwork of Gavin-Turk-as-Sid-Vicious-as-Warhol’s-Elvis-as-a-Cowboy (Pop, 1993), which is here revisited in a screenprint that precisely replicates Warhol’s process (Triple Pop Black and White, 2011). And that is the thing with Turk – while the work shimmers with style, it is packed full of substance too, even if it is a substance of uncertainty and ultimately curiosity.

Gavin Turk has a confused identity in his work – he is only a name and a fluid point in art history. So we have the artist’s initials rendered in bullet-like holes on Technicolor eggs (Holy Egg, 2003), in reference to Fontana, or his signature rubbish bag on the surface of a gleaming mirror as a nod towards Pistoletto (Pistoletto’s Rubbish, 2013). The relentless appearance of the artist’s name, in initials and signatures, is essential to the strand of his work which holds authorship as a sign of value up to scrutiny. The most ecstatic version of which in this exhibition is the huge Pollock drip painting, The Nubians of Plutonia (2009), created by Turk dripping his signature over and over again. You genuinely wonder if it is Pollock and marvel at the brashness of a Pollock repeatedly signed by Turk as a statement of ownership or theft of intellectual property from history, as if authorship, authenticity and ultimately value meant anything at all. This, the most edifying joke in the show, is brilliantly curated so that, as you enter the gallery, you are so captivated by the glowing neon and shiny mirror ahead of you, that the Pollock eventually just creeps up on you as you make your circuit round the gallery.

This exhibition offers a careful selection of work that perfectly demonstrates Turk’s intellectual clarity and aesthetic prowess. Considering the ingenuity, humour and complexity of his work, not to mention the fact that he has made millions for Hirst by pioneering painted bronze, it is a wonder that Turk is not just a bit more famous than he is. Turk’s problem is that he has not been shocking or spectacular or gruesome enough for the YBA generation. Instead he chose to make art which constantly ensures that you never quite know – what the joke is or whether is one, whether it is a Pollock or not, and so on. It is this perpetual uncertainty, coupled with a conceptual programme that cuts against the grain of current values, that makes Gavin Turk an important and appropriately underestimated contemporary artist. 

 

[Gavin Turk: The Years, Ben Brown Fine Arts, London, 26 April – 14 June 2013]

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A Lecture on Damien Hirst, Capitalism and Religion

Uncertainty in the Age of Romance is a lecture I delivered at the Barnes Philosophy Club, London, on 10 April 2013. It explores two main themes: one, the status of religion in contemporary art at a time when the art world is embroiled in the infrastructure of late capitalism; and two, how Damien Hirst introduces a host of new religious icons to take a critical stance towards religion, art, science and capitalism as explanatory tools in the search for meaning in life. The lecture forms part of my book project, The Art of Spectacle, and is the first in a series of lectures on How to Stop Worrying and Love Damien. 

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Random International: Rain Room

The prospect of walking into a room that is filled with one hundred square metres of torrential rain is not one that most of us would relish, but the prospect of playing god and controlling the rain is another thing altogether. Random International’s Rain Room latches on to this dichotomy by creating both a challenge and a source of euphoria with a deluge of rain that you can walk through without getting wet.

 

As you enter the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, an attendant assures you that you will not get wet and advises you not to use any electrical equipment within the installation. This seemingly contradictory advice instantly builds trepidation, which is then instantly intensified by the descent into the darkness of the Curve. As if you are experiencing death as it is told by those who survive, you are compelled to edge slowly through the murky tunnel towards a light that glows ever brighter and clearer. The tension here is incredible: you know you have come to see the Rain Room, you have seen the press images of a deluge of precipitation indoors, but as yet you cannot see it; however, as you move closer you begin to hear the constant, somehow reassuring hum of falling water.

 

The first achievement of the Rain Room is this sense of intrigue and anticipation. It has been designed for the Barbican’s linear Curve Gallery, which is little more than a corridor, so that there is nothing to see for the first two thirds of the installation. Random International, a design collective that was formed at the Royal College of Art in 2002, uses the latest technologies to make viewers engage with the physicality of their bodies in space. Consequently, the feeling – indeed the knowledge – that you are progressing towards something which is simultaneously uncertain and known in advance makes you both proceed with caution and irrecoverably draws you in.

 

The eventual revelation of the rain itself has the sobering effect of a bump on the head. A glaring floodlight at the exit rips through the darkness, showing the glistening droplets of water cascade from floor to ceiling, where each individual droplet has its own moment of clarity as it splashes to the ground. The room has a misty, grey quality to it and the rain falls so heavily that it forms thin columns which are illuminated and yet remain in half darkness. In and of itself, the Rain Room makes a very decent visual installation: gallons of water contained within an enclosed, partially lit space that is flanked with metal columns and fixtures, with no obvious source or ultimate destination, creates the atmosphere of a rainy night in a deserted urban space.

 

Although you are told that the rain will stop as soon as you walk into it, there is a deep apprehension as you stand on the threshold of this storm. The Rain Room dares you to go against your instincts, to challenge your sense of self-preservation; the build up to wilfully walking into this field of rain is similar to that of walking on hot coals, perhaps, since all rational considerations must be suspended in favour of faith.

 

But once in the thick of it, the experience is magical, somewhere between god-like transcendence and Disneyland illusion. As if the heavens had smiled upon you, the rain stops wherever you stand; a dramatic sweep of your arms causes entire swathes of rain to clear, and yet as you look around it appears as if it is raining on everyone else. The experience is strangely addictive commanding the elements, which makes it all the more poignant to drag yourself back outside into London’s unstoppable winter. 

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And the Shadow that Danced was Cast all Across the Land

[Contextual Essay for the end of england by Richard Stone]

Somewhere between an excavation of a multilayered myth and a solemn monument to a lost past, there has to be a core concept of reality. Mythologies are rooted in reality insofar as they are efficacious in our commerce with the world of people and things; moreover, each layer of a myth will reference and impede upon a different layer of reality. The past, on the other hand, is always saliently disconnected from reality, since it is a figment of memory, but it is nonetheless preserved in relics which continually connect to the present reality of those who survive. In the end of england, Richard Stone creates an installation that clings to that fragment of reality on which everything hangs, as he performs a spectral dance between a romantic myth and a seemingly apocalyptic end which has not yet receded into the past.

The core reality here is the insidious sense of an end, construed as the destruction of consciousnesses, which binds a myth to a past in the sensuous present. When the only reality is purely eschatological, only objects hold any concrete meaning; this results in a curious materialism whereby narrative, identity and teleology only manifest in the objects which survive the catastrophe of everyday human drama. That is, under the constant threat of an end objects become relics the second they are formed because they alone possess a promise, however delusional, of eternity, since the human is perpetually obsessed with the possibility of its own annihilation. This embodiment of very human fears and hopes in inanimate objects could be called ‘existential materialism’.

The idea of identity, whether it is the identity of an individual, a culture or a nation is therefore a shadow that falters with every glimmer of human activity, since the idea only makes sense when rendered in objects despite its being sincerely and desperately held as optimistically transcending matter. The narrative that objects then construct constitutes the only reality there could be, since what is real is a matter of how existential notions, such as identity, are conceptualised in the objects themselves. In the world of objects, whether artistic or utilitarian, there is a serenity in the fact that things appear to be fixed, whereas in the world of the human mind, there is only chaos and fear, which is itself constantly mediated by those objects.

The philosophical backdrop to this existential materialism is found in Walter Benjamin, who characterised the players in German Trauerspiel as paralysed from action whilst they await some final judgement from the heavens. In the world of the Trauerspiel, objects play a symbolic role in expressing things the characters are incapable of meditating upon, a prime example of which is Hamlet’s famous scene with the skull. The baroque world, for Benjamin, was one which ‘knows no eschatology and for that very reason possesses no mechanism by which all earthly things are gathered in together and exalted before being consigned to their end’ (Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, tr. John Osborne, London: Verso, 2006, p. 66).

It is in this context that we should view the existential materialism of the end of england. England is a land that is populated, or even constituted, by mythology to such an extent that there is only a passing distinction between myth and reality, but simultaneously there is a sense in which all that myth has been dispensed with as if it is surplus to requirement, leaving a present in which an insufferable end seems to have taken place. There is, then, a celebration of the power of timeless icons to open a field of possibility through seemingly contingent objects in a world where an end is constantly feared and appears to have already happened but is constantly negated by the fact of the persistence of all things.

The wholesale reclamation of the past through objects, as both romantic myth and bygone reality, makes the occurrence of the end an existential illusion. In the service of narrative and posterity, objects defer the end with their promise to outlive us, so there is always the sense that, whilst some epoch or milieu has ended, we lack any real eschatology because we cling to a material eternity.

The sense of an end as a pervasive reality sounds religious, which it surely often is, but it is also a secular notion which gives a quasi-religious slant of authority to all human endeavour. The ordinary becomes heroic as the primal fear of the end drives every action, resulting in euphoria over survival; the seen becomes unseen through a series of obstructions that are the logical consequences of our commitment to the end; and the very basic fear of the end determines a series of smaller, theatrical ends which oscillate between the whimsical and the tragic. As for the characters in the Trauerspiel, religion becomes mysticism through an inability to see beyond an all-consuming reality, where objects are simultaneously symbolic possibilities, articles of faith and memorials.

Existential materialism tells us that so long as we truly believe in our destruction, we can continue to make objects as if they possess the eternity we desire, and it is this desire that blinds us to the end that we ultimately fear. The object thus embodies oppositions that depend for their sense upon notions of fluidity and solidity, certainty and uncertainty, all the time in an attempt to reclaim what has been lost, which has danced in the skies above us as a shadow passes. And as that shadow lurches ever further across our landscape, it is the objects that weave the narrative of our existential drama ever deeper into the fabric of a world that constantly threatens, and never quite delivers, some mythical catastrophe.

 

On the occasion of Richard Stone: the end of england

8-10 November 2012, Galleries Goldstein, London

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the end of england… is coming soon

Richard Stone

the end of england

curated by Daniel Barnes

Galleries Goldstein at Goodhood

20 Coronet Street, London N1 6HD

PREVIEW 8 November 6-9pm

Richard Stone’s England is a land of stilted possibility; it is a fable, shrouded in a monochrome fog that conceals a world of unfurling romanticisms. And it is reaching its end.

8-10 November 2012

richardstoneprojects.com/forthcoming

danielbarnes.org/theendofengland

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Uncertainty in the Age of Romance

[Abstract for a talk on Damien Hirst, Art and Religion in Late Capitalism]

Historically, art has been in the service of religion as a means of representing the manifold mysteries of the Divine and educating the masses on the Word of God. This paper examines the relationship between religion and contemporary art as a reversal of roles at a time when the commercial artworld is consumed by the massproduction and commodity fetishism of late capitalism. Taking Fredric Jameson as a starting point, it is argued that the fact that the adoption of religion by art occurs at a time of increasing secularisation and ever more rampant atheism in western intellectual circles belies three more general insights about the role of religion in the intellectual life of capitalist societies. First, it suggests there is some lingering doubt that our spiritual lives could be fulfilled without institutional religion and that the attempt to replace religion with art or science is, in the end, misguided. Here we see a Hegelian dialectic at work in the way that intellectual paradigms shift in the theory of art. Second, it is an attempt to add depth to artworks which are produced merely for commercial purposes by connecting the works to a timeless preoccupation of both art and humanity. This can be extrapolated with Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacrum constituting the only truth, since religion acts as a glaze over the capitalism of art. And third, it demonstrates the abiding power of religion to cut to the core of our basic existential dilemmas, as if art can ultimately never find a more pervasive way of investigating themes of purpose and mortality. This is seen to be a continuous theme in the work of Damien Hirst. It is argued that the role of religion in contemporary art is essentially redemptive, as if the commercial artworld looked in on itself and found its spirit lacking. Whether this is a cynical act of marketing or a sincere preoccupation with the human condition, it is claimed, is down to whether the balance between the aesthetic and the theory of these artworks transcends the demands of late capitalism.

[This lecture will be delivered at Barnes Philosophy Club, London, 10 April 2013]

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Essay on The Manual Caff

The Manual Caff is an exhibition by Omar Ghazal and Hugh McEwen.

And It Emerged on the Horizon of Appearance

Jean Baudrillard once said that the simulacrum does not hide the truth, but that it is the truth, meaning that ‘reality’ has receded and been replaced by a world of appearance. The Manual Caff represents a full-scale engagement with this blurring of the lines between appearance and reality by playing on the notion that, insofar as ideas are realised in any form, there is no longer any meaningful concept of reality.

The essential idea is that reality has been obscured by the proliferation of information, digital representation and electronic processes. Whilst things occur in tangible space, we only ever experience and engage with them in intangible time, rendering ‘reality’ at worst nonexistent and at best meaningless. Everything that occurs does so at the level of mere appearance with nothing behind it; it is only through this all-consuming façade that we can have any connection with the world at all.

The point, for Baudrillard, is that it hardly matters any more what is behind this façade, since reality is so irrecoverably obscured. He holds that the basis of experience is the simulacrum – the world of appearance – which, throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, perpetuates simulation. That is, in place of reality, we have only a series of references with no referents; a simulated, hyper-real enchantment of the world. The Manual Caff is an idea, but is no worse off for that, since its drawings, objects and the manual itself refer only to an idea, a concept; but the SSE itself is not in a privileged position of reference, for it only also refers to a conceptualisation of modern living. In both cases, the immaterial idea is the basis for any concrete object and is used to simulate a way of living that depends robustly on concepts without any essential referents other than those traces in appearance which are necessary to sustain the concept in the mind of someone living.

The totalising effect of simulation can be seen everywhere, from news bulletins to social media. A tantalising example of this is Baudrillard’s outrageous claim that the Gulf War did not take place: out there in the desert, an unseen invader and an unseen enemy exchanged not fire but heavily mediated images which constituted a media circus; a simulation of a war took place in virtue of both sides parading images of fire, prisoners and destruction in order to convince the world at large that something important was occurring in the desert. In real terms, the catastrophe that unfolded on the ground was overridden by its mere appearance.

As such, there are no boundaries around what can be thought to occur, since the appearance is constructed not from events in a world of things but from mere electricity – there is, to the philosophers’ dismay, something out of nothing. In this sense, The Manual Caff is a mirage on the horizon as much as the Gulf War, for it is only a well of endless possibilities which can be manufactured at will by the divine hand of the artist out of whatever materials are present to hand with vanishing indifference to whatever we might affectionately call reality. Ideas, it seems, have to be realised in concrete form, like colourful ashtrays and plush cushions, but they do not have to be born from events; the Caff will emerge at will just like the image of catastrophe.

The simulation of war is only an extreme form of a phenomenon that occurs at every level of the death of reality. It is more than merely desensitising a populace, more than simply packaging existential crisis for a mass audience; it is the murder of reality on an industrial scale. It is the construction of a hyper-reality in which nothing ever happens except the harmless flickering of images on a screen. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, nowhere was this crushing indifference better captured than in the television drama, Generation Kill, which focused not on military operations but on how the sheer absurdity of modern warfare is reflected in the boredom of the troops on the ground. It plays, with tongue in cheek humour, on the idea that whilst the media perpetuates the idea that a bloody war is occurring, there is nothing happening on the ground but the uninteresting lives of young men and women.

The Manual Caff, then, capitalises on this same hidden emptiness: as Jean-Paul Sartre said, ‘everything is always normal in cafes’, capturing the terrifying existential insight that just living, simply being in the world, is in itself uneventful; the events that occur are only those which we choose to paint upon the blank canvas of our experience. There is no more existential content to the ‘real’ SSE than there is to The Manual Caff: in both there are walls and tables and coffee, but all the content which makes them a real life experience is layered on through dressing up the appearance. A café simply emerges out of a concept of modern living, a way of life which has as its conceptual content an idea about how we would like to appear as functioning members of society: for Sartre that idea was as a thinker, for The Manual Caff it is as a radical design experiment. This takes seriously the death of reality by questioning how far the appearance can convince and at what point an appearance emerges with such zeal that we can no longer cling to reality.

The death of reality is all around us, as if we are constantly tiptoeing our way through the gruesome remnants of its corpse in order to get anything done. Social networking offers the opportunity to be the person one wants to be, to construct an ideal persona who goes to the right parties, plays the right sports and basks in a life of hilarity and achievement. Social media devotes itself to manufacturing the appearance of something happening, everywhere, all the time. The entire infrastructure of the media is geared towards presenting the world as we want it given to us or as interested parties want us to see it. Wherever the reality of our loneliness, insignificance, failure, helplessness or idiocy may threaten us, there is a simulation of something altogether more glamorous to fill the void, for everything else there is an app.

The situation is grim if it is analysed at anything other than face value, which reminds us that, as Zizek is so fond of quoting, ‘there is chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent’. For all its omnipotence and apparent malice, the simulacrum is not an enemy to be vanquished; it is not depriving us of engagement with reality, setting us at a conceptual distance where we lose crucial traces of ourselves, rather it is our friend protecting us, through the proliferation of appearance, from the stark emptiness that lies beyond the simulation. The Manual Caff’s central triumph is that it is a novel layer of simulation pasted onto an entirely quotidian simulation that we take for granted, raising the brutal question of how we choose to represent things as we do when there is such scope for alternatives.

The idea that there is some bygone age of social interaction and authentic human drama to which we must return is what Marxists would call the myth of the original fullness: just as there was never a fulfilling mode of production or economic system that capitalism usurped, there never was a better reality than this – the myth of the original fullness serves only to romanticise a former epoch as a digestible objection to this one.

The murder of reality is not, however, a perfect crime, says Baudrillard. This is evidenced by the fact that the appearance we have enables us to long for something else at the same time as taking primordial delight in the simulacrum. Hours spent on Twitter, the synchronisation of all your contacts, an aesthetic joy in Damien Hirst’s vast cabinets of synthetic pills, mass consumption of every form of information, everywhere, all the time, all constitute much enjoyment of modern life. But at the same time, eventually we are left wanting to be involved in real events, to see all the people we have ever known, to have a pill for every ailment and to feel, rather than just know, the happenings of the world. The crime cannot be perfect because it leaves traces: it leaves desire unfulfilled, even though there is no perpetrator, no victim, no weapon, the crime cannot be perfect because we are still able to imagine a world beyond. For Baudrillard, the only perfection in this crime is in its totality – in the unconditional simulation which consumes everything.

It is in the idea of the trace of reality left circulating in the appearance and the crucial duality between primal delight and the dissatisfaction of desire in the simulacrum that The Manual Caff does its best work. The central proposition of The Manual Caff is of a café within a café, where the actual space of SSE becomes amalgamated with the imagined space of The Manual Caff through a delicate integration of elements. The fabrics of the two spaces are merged as the project develops through drawing, objects, performance and intervention, bringing into question the identity of the appearance.

It begins with a trace of The Manual Caff encroaching upon the SSE, as if the desire for something more than that which is given cannot be escaped, and ends with The Manual Caff, detailed and documented to the extreme, usurping the SSE which itself becomes a trace of a former appearance. The trick, the sleight of hand that is here performed is in the fact that, from the very start of the narrative, The Manual Caff is just as tangible in its objective remnants as the SSE, all the while suggesting that there is not – and never was – any reality other than the mere appearance. Whilst the SSE is but a simulation of a life that one lives vicariously through the possibility of postmodernity, The Manual Caff is an alternative simulation.

There is, then, no concept of the real, but only the perpetuation of the simulacrum. On this view, there is no interesting difference between the SSE and The Manual Caff, except perhaps that one is already constructed in its totality while the other is at the start of a journey towards its revelation. In particular, the manual itself has a curious parallel with Baudrillard’s idea of the news media: it is itself an idea which gives scope for the construction of simulacrum that depends upon nothing more complex than the limits of logical possibility. And then, it is only moral decency that prevents it from transcending logic. The manual communicates an idea at the same time as drawing a wry parallel with any form of material realisations of ideas, which is that what appears is more important than what is. The limitation of the Caff or the café is not the idea or its possibility but its means of representation, just as there is no meaningful limitation to what the café can serve but only to how it could be represented on an exhaustive menu.

In the final analysis, it is not interesting that The Manual Caff is an idea, but it is interesting that any café is an idea – that everything we take as meaningful is an appearance behind which there is nothing. The Manual Caff does not, after all, hide the truth, it is the truth.

[The Manual Caff runs until 20 October 2012 at SSE Space, London]

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Chelsea 2012

Selections from the Chelsea BA degree show. Some promising work but not well annotated, so couldn’t tell you who the artists are.

These are works that particularly struck me.

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The Mystery of the Parrot

In Two Weeks One Summer, Hirst has grappled with what he calls the void of painting to humanise both himself and his art. These paintings are important works in the story because they are an attempt by Hirst to both humanise his art and to show something of himself in his work, to make art as an act of self-expression. Painting is the confrontation of a demon that has simultaneously eluded him and deeply haunted him for his entire career. The duality is an important device for Hirst, since it guides both the aesthetic and the meaning of his art wherein the work is a play on the collision between opposites. The paintings, too, employ a duality, which derives from a literal, embodied fact of the artwork. The duality of the paintings is a conflict between form and content. It is through this lens that the apparent mystery of the parrot can be solved: here form and content come together like never before, since the familiar ideas are slightly obscured by the novelty of their form. The result is that, on the one hand, the artist’s own emotional life is explored in the very act of painting, and on the other hand, this opens the path to an emotional engagement with the work…

…coming soon: a full analysis of The Mystery of the Parrot and the Infinite Void

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