Art: I Know What I Like Duncan Mclaren's Round-Up Of Other Galleries
Sunday 19 September 1999
Kenneth Goldsmith exhibits a 300-page book containing everything he said aloud during a single week. Nearby, Joseph Grigely, who is deaf, has installed a selection of written notes made by people while communicating with him. There is a huge gulf between these pieces, but in both cases only one side of conversations is presented. It is left to the visitor to use the extraordinary information to gain insight into everyday speech.
Text appears imaginatively in most of the works, for instance in Xu Bing's video installation. On the book-covered floor of a pig-pen, a boar whose skin is covered in a script made up of Roman letters energetically chases and mounts a sow covered in Chinese characters. The double debasing of communication - pages being torn underfoot and the imposition of one creature's language on to another's - comes over particularly strongly in the slow-motion sequences. During these, the words on the skin of the boar can be read, and prove to be meaningless.
Simon Biggs, with Stuart Jones, exhibits six touch-screen monitors in an imposing diagonal black wall. Kafka's story, The Great Wall of China, has been fed into a computer program which presents ever-changing combinations of the original text. Optimism at the prospect of the mingling of literature and high-technology soon fades as the work is engaged with. The screens produce streams of sentences bereft of any satisfying meaning. Eventually you slope off, beaten by an invisible authority, as the artists surely intend.
Next to this is a floor-filling raft built by Ruark Lewis and Paul Carter. The texts inscribed in various languages on the three uppermost surfaces of the narrow white timbers are a tribute to a German missionary. He translated the Bible into two Australian Aboriginal dialects, and then went on to reverse the process of cultural diffusion by compiling an Aboriginal dictionary together with seven volumes of myths for a European readership. Again, at first sight this work is visually confusing. But if the visitor persists, encouraged perhaps by the heroic example of the missionary, any pessimism lingering from the Kafkaesque scenario, or the pig video, may be dispelled.
As well as being the theme of this show, the success or failure of language to communicate must also sum up how the show is experienced. Many of the artists go to great lengths to create a visual babble in order to make clear their point of view. It demands - and deserves - a lot from the visitor.
`Babel': Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (0121 248 0708) to 7 November
Kim Lim/ Orla Barry Camden Arts Centre, London Kim Lim's sculpture consists of blocks - usually marble, but sometimes Portland stone or coarse-grained granite - set on lesser stones or plinths. The blushing and streaking of the pale marble matches the similarly-marked linoleum floor in the main gallery. It's pretty, then. But only classical materials and traditional hierarchies are on view.
The most obvious marks made are the vertical incisions in the sides of the chunks of rock, which proceed in a shallow curve, often the entire length of a plane. "Meditative stone carvings evoking natural forms and rhythms," it says in the hand-out. But for me the marks come across as most unnatural, the sculptor imposing her own inhibited, repetitive and predictable patterns on the rock.
Although many of the works - sculptures and prints - were produced in the 1980s and 1990s, clearly the sensibility of the artist was formed back in the late 1950s when she received her art education.
In another gallery is a video installation by Orla Barry. On a large screen, an actress performs the artist's text to camera. Staring into the viewer's eyes, she delivers a monologue at a level of intensity that is hard to bear. The first few sentences are: "It was good advice. Nectar on the sand. He received great applause as we uncurled our hands. They will go to heaven on condition that their expenses are paid." It? He? We? They? Clearly, the discontinuity is deliberate, but to what end?
The video lasts for 20-odd minutes. There is would-be poetical and philosophical talk of sex and drinking and life in rural Ireland, and the way that the stream of language is structured suggests that Samuel Beckett has been more of an influence than the current generation of video artists. This could have worked in Barry's favour, but doesn't because of the work's constant striving for effect.
Kim Lim and Orla Barry: Camden Arts Centre, NW3 (0171 435 2643) to 7 November
Katharina Fritsch White Cube, London Katharina Fritsch's Monk is a single figure made of polyester resin painted matt black. Black head, black hands hangingly loosely from flared sleeves, black cowl whose long pleats fall to the floor, and black waist-encircling cord. Because of the fineness of grain of the polyester, the cowl gives the impression of being a much grander garment. An academic gown, perhaps. No doubt this monk lives a life dominated by worship, study and self-denial.
"He" stands six feet tall in the middle of the white gallery. But he doesn't dominate the space because his eyes are half-closed and he is lost in a trance, presumably communing with Our Lord Who Art In Heaven. So the viewer feels in control, free to consider the introspective figure from up close and from any angle, as one would a Duane Hanson, say. Only from directly in front does the figure seem sinister. The eyes seem far less natural, more zombified. But take a step in any direction and this impression fades.
Between the black of the figure's head and the soft white of the gallery wall is a sizzling silhouette. Look at it for a few seconds and the figure's long Roman nose, his receding chin and the protruding bone at the base of his skull etch themselves into the memory.
The sculpture is of someone who has rejected material things, yet it is an exquisite luxury commodity, a perfectly finished machine-made figure that will be worth a lot of money on the contemporary art market.
Perhaps the figure represents a certain kind of artist, and contradictory impulses in his or her professional life.
Katharina Fritsch: White Cube, SW1 (0171 930 5373) to 9 October
Daniel Coombs Approach, London In this three-piece show, the viewer is taken from abstract painting to 3D assemblage. A white canvas is covered in a network of red and grey lines. The canvas has been slit here and there; lengths of blue-grey spongy foam have been nailed on; a bookcase has been incorporated. A large eyeball is perhaps something to do with the elephant of the work's title. Indeed this can lead to an uncomfortably literal reading of the piece.
Skipsville is also dominated by a grid. Much of the surface is a collage of bristling nail-heads, springs, scraps of text, wood-effect paper, and various references to people in their homes. A breezeblock rests on top of the canvas, clumsily attached to it by wire.
If both these works refer back to the combined paintings and sculptures of Robert Rauschenberg, the third seems to take a step forward. A complex structure emerges from the wall, chock-a-block with domestic grunge. Some of the component parts have been closely worked, others are ready-mades. Yet, when the assemblage is looked at from mid-gallery, it could almost be a painting. Another rough grid asserts itself, formed by pipes, window frames and cupboard shelving. And a great length of silver-grey air- conditioning tube - resembling an elephant's trunk - points you back to the first work in this restless show.
Daniel Coombs at The Approach, E2 (0181 983 3878) to 10 October
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