The real theater on display at Christian Marclay’s exhibition

If you didn’t hear about it, the artist Christian Marclay’s The Clock was on show in New York recently. Essentially, it’s a 24 hour abstract film: Marclay expertly spliced together thousands of excerpts from movies old and new, familiar and foreign. Each shot is somehow related to time–and the whole thing plays in real time. So if you popped in at 4.30 pm, you’d more than likely watch clips about afternoon tea. Visit one of the late night showings and see rather racier clips. (That’s pure hearsay: I turned up at 10 o’clock one Friday night and the line stretched a two hour wait around the block and I wimped out and went home.)

The show has received raves pretty much everywhere it’s played. See reviews here, here and from the London show, here. And for what it’s worth, I agree with the experts. The film is totally mesmerizing. I watched, spellbound, for three hours, and only reluctantly dragged myself back to life’s more regular programming.

What was even more mesmerizing, however, was the behavior of the assembled masses. As I waited to get in, one of the security guards regaled me with some excellent stories of the tantrums people had tried to pull in order to jump the line. (Just an aside, but if you ever hear yourself uttering the immortal phrase, “Don’t you know who I am?” it’s time to have a serious word with yourself.) This guy wasn’t fazed in the slightest. “I don’t care if you know Miz Cooper, Mr Marclay or the Pope,” he said vehemently. “I’m not ruining your life. I’m doing my job.” And do it, he did.

There was some even more amazing theater on display once you actually got inside. You can see the layout of the space below. What’s not so clear is that there weren’t enough seats to go round. At least half the crowd had to stand or sit alongside the edges of the gallery. Initially, for instance, I got a spot sitting halfway along the right hand wall—and I quickly realized that the subplot of the film was going on in the room itself.

Whenever someone got up from a sofa, it sparked a quiet, fierce, intense and entirely mean-spirited free-for-all. I saw two women lose all sense of decorum as they pelted towards one spot, one of them throwing her bag onto the seat, the other throwing up her hands in silent disgust. I even got caught up in it myself. I moved to take a seat that opened up right next to where I was—but moved way too slowly. Suddenly, some guy came out of nowhere, skidded past me and plonked himself down. I stammered unintelligibly—I’m excellent in a crisis—and then he played a devilish joker card. “Do you mind?” he said as he settled in. “I don’t feel at all well.” (Later on, of course, I came up with all sorts of witty comebacks as to why he should clearly go home and I should get to sit down. At the time, I meekly slunk back to the wall again, throwing up my own hands in silent disgust.)

I’m not sure it’s quite what Marclay had in mind when he put together his masterpiece, but the additional elements of musical chairs and Benny Hill actually enhanced the experience. Not to mention provided a useful reminder: never hesitate.

Images © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Ryan McGinness: Black Holes

Last night, I went to celebrate artist Ryan McGinness’ latest installation, at Philips de Pury in Manhattan. Black Holes is an exhibition of work McGinness created from 2004-2010. The large round canvases are deceptive. On first glance they look like fairly simple spirograph-style images. But stand in front of them for any length of time, and get drawn in inexorably by the delicate, hypnotic shapes. Black holes, indeed.

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For this exhibition, McGinness added a neon flourish, adding delicate wisps of vinyl around some of the canvases and lighting them with fluorescent light. One long stretch of these can be seen from the High Line walkway, sure to confuse and delight late-night tourists. Somehow the effect transcends the usual gaudiness of neon and is bewitching, poignant, and glorious. As are the newest, black-on-black canvases, which are subtle but somehow defiantly perfect. Gorgeous.

Naoshima: The Island of Inspiration

This piece was originally written for Creative Review magazine. I’ve posted the beginning of it here, along with some of my own photographs of the island. (Ferry ticket machine pictured above. I took the first morning boat over to Naoshima. I was, it’s safe to say, super-over-excited.)

I’m standing in a hut in pitch darkness and a man is trying to tell me what to do. In Japanese. This is something of a problem, as I don’t speak the language, and he clearly doesn’t speak English. As he gently presses on my shoulders, I attempt to take a seat and promptly sit on someone’s lap. Whispered apologies and slightly hysterical, hushed giggles ensue before I find a space on the bench and then quiet falls. As we continue to sit there in the darkness, a faint glow begins to shine gently. It’s like the dawn of sight, and it’s all part of the masterplan. In James Turrell’s Minamidera, the perception of light is a matter of careful design. And in an age when ‘experience’ has become the focal point of so many advertising, branding and marketing campaigns, here the experience is all there is.

A modern art mecca
Light plays an important role in many of the galleries and installations on Naoshima, a small island off the south coast of Japan that in recent years has become something of a modern art mecca. Three galleries feature works by artists such as Bruce Nauman, Walter de Maria and Lee Ufan. The buildings were designed by Tadao Ando, the self-taught Japanese architect who predominantly uses cast-in-place concrete, with steel, wood and glass, in his structures. On Naoshima, light is his fifth element.

Read the rest of this piece here.

Yayoi Kusama's iconic Pumpkin sculpture
This is the roof of the public bathroom designed by Tadao Ando, in Honmura
The view from deep within Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Go’o Shrine
The sleepy fishing village of Honmura
Shinro Ohtake’s piece for the Art House Project in Honmura includes a replica Statue of Liberty punching her way through one of the floors of the building
A real life lily pond, mimicking those found in the Monet paintings on show at the Chichu Art Museum
The view from my hotel room
Gazing down into the outdoor gallery featuring photography by Hiroshi Sugimoto

YouTube Play rocks the Guggenheim

The other night I went to the Guggenheim for what can only be described as an Only In New York Night. It was the opening of the Play Biennial, a new initiative from YouTube and the Guggenheim to celebrate creativity and innovation in film. Of 23,300 entrants, 125 films made it onto the shortlist, while 25 finalists are now on show as part of a weekend-long exhibit. To kick things off, there was a big old party, with snippets of film projected onto a screen in the rotunda of the Guggenheim, as well as onto both interior and exterior walls of the museum. The projections (my footage of the outside of the building shown, above and a still, below left) were put together by Obscura Digital, which mapped the imagery seamlessly, transforming Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic museum into an epic dreamscape. The LXD performed a jawdroppingly athletic dance piece while YouTube folk heroes OK Go performed two songs while standing up ladders (below, right). The whole thing was truly magical. As my friend June involuntarily shouted at one point, “Look at that!” We all did, and it was good. See all the films that made the shortlist here.

In which I become a Badly Drawn Boy Chicken

Last week I went to Martha’s Vineyard, where my attempts to hang out with President Obama and his family were rudely thwarted by the terrible weather. Luckily, the first family wasn’t actually my reason for visiting. Instead, I went there to stay with an entirely different family, of musicians and artists, whose spare room is an old school bus (shown, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a(nother) storm) in their driveway in the middle of the forest in the middle of the island. At times, it was a bit like staying on a boat, as when the wind and the rain really got going I felt like I might simply float off, never to be seen again.

While I was there, I was co-opted into helping with an art project. And I should be clear, despite my many years writing about design, I myself can barely draw a stick man. So when I offered assistance to Sam, one of my hosts, who’s been commissioned to create an animation music video for the new single by British musician Badly Drawn Boy, I thought he’d realize I was just being polite.

Instead. he promptly said he “needed creatures”, and before I knew where I was I was being daubed in thick clown makeup and filmed against homemade green screen, blinking and trying to act like some kind of weird woodland being. (That’s me in the picture, trying to make sure we were filming correctly, as Sam wasn’t actually there to oversee proceedings, what with being too busy, you know, trying to create an actual animation video.) “Peck slowly! Like a slow chicken!” shouted my friend Mara, herself a fabulously accomplished singer and video artiste, who was fully immersing herself in the role of camerawoman (and who’d applied the make up that converted me into bizarre other world oddity). “Now… Teeth! Nothing! Teeth! Nothing!” The whole scene was completely surreal and ludicrous and hilarious… and try as I might, I couldn’t help but think that even as we’d tried our best and had a lovely time fooling around and laughing like maniacs, nothing would ever come of it.

Then I saw what Sam did with our amateur footage. And I really have become a chicken. A flapping, animated, completely weird chicken. And I couldn’t be more proud. It’s still entirely possible that I won’t make the Badly Drawn Boy cut, and I won’t be either sad or surprised if I don’t. (If I do, why, I’ll post here, of course.) But in my heart and for all eternity, I’ll now always be a Badly Drawn Boy Chicken. And I can’t lie; I think that’s pretty fantastic.

UPDATE: I made the cut! And, truthfully, I’m less BDB Chicken and more BDB-Blinky Bird. Still, see what Sam made below. I’m honestly less impressed with my own performance than I am with the beautiful, luminescent colors of the shots with singer Damon in them. Gorgeous.

The Artist is Present. Ish.

Seems like this summer is the age of the artist deigning to grace their public with their presence for more than just the private view. Ish. Continuing a theme I touched upon last year after seeing Antony Gormley’s “One and Other” exhibit, in which the artist handed over the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square in London to successive members of the British public to do with it what they liked, a couple of shows in New York this summer are similarly inclusive.

Marina Abramovic, for example, was heroic at MOMA, turning up from open to close every day from March 14 through May 31 to stare off a motley crew of assailants who included the moved, the confused, the uber-fans and, of course, the slew of celebs you might expect in Manhattan. Those attendees were the attention-grabbing but easily the least interesting thing about the piece, which culminated in a reunion between Marina and her former partner-in-life-art-love-hate-crime, Ulay. I was in France for the finale (for my brother’s wedding, which was a lovely and happy time so I can’t regret not being there, though I’d have loved to have beamed in for this moment) and so missed the former couple’s reunion, but I imagine it was impossibly moving. You couldn’t look at their work in the galleries upstairs and fail to be affected  by their fanatical sincerity and commitment to pushing any boundary they could imagine. It’s not a question of loving every moment of their work–I fair ’nuff ran through the gallery that showed video of Marina screaming herself hoarse, which I couldn’t handle at all. But the fact that she was sitting just a few floors below added to the pathos and impact of the whole.

Arguably less (self-) obsessive, but no less thought-provoking, is the current exhibit of Christian Marclay’s work at the Whitney. I’ve been familiar with Marclay’s work for some time, ever since my friend Jane excitedly dragged me to see a showing of his amazing sound/video piece, Video Quartet, which sadly isn’t on show here. But there’s much to admire. Marclay is a so-called turntablist who relishes in shattering expectations and  boundaries.

I settled down to watch a presentation of some of his older video work, including a piece called “Record Players”. The first shots show someone eagerly ripping open a new LP from its cellophane wrapper. He or she gingerly holds the vinyl in his/her hands… and then immediately scratches it violently. I literally gasped. It totally played with my expectations (I grew up believing in the sacrosanct nature of vinyl, and this was an unexpected, violent, totally shocking act.) The rest of the film shows a group of merrymakers defiling vinyl any way they can, music and rhythm coming from their actions. Towards the end, they take turns in breaking their discs and then stamping on them. Again, the noise is the soundtrack. It might sound a bit unlikely, but it’s intriguing and quite amazing.

Marclay is also interested in his audience. At the show here, one wall has been converted into a huge chalkboard, complete with musical staves. Attendees are encouraged to daub thoughts and notes (music and text). Another installation (image shown, top) is Marclay’s piece, Graffiti Composition, a seven year project in which the artist stuck up blank sheet music around Berlin, collecting it after it had been added to by locals. Now these images are used as scores for musicians to interpret, in performances that will take place throughout the duration of the show.

Honestly, I’m not sure what all this means apart from that remembering to be mindful that other people can have good, useful ideas too is a critical skillset we’d all do well to remember and develop more. For successful innovation to happen, alternative points of view have to be heard. That might happen by giving power to the public (Gormley) or it might occur by throwing yourself on your community (Abramovic). Alternatively, you might prefer to curate your audience (Marclay). All tactics have their merits. All are brave, deserve our applause–and have wider applications outside of the museum and in the world at large.

Image: Christian Marclay, Graffiti Composition, 1996–2002. Portfolio of 150 digital prints. Printed by Muse X Editions, Los Angeles, published by Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery. © Christian Marclay