Mike Nelson – 500 Words in Artforum


Mike Nelson’s 500 words in Artforum (read the whole thing here):

LINEAR NARRATIVE HAS NOT always been important to me, but illustrating the sense of meaning and space beyond what is actually presented in a show is. As a child I was taught that if we want to see a figure moving in the distance as darkness falls, we should look to the side of him to see the movement more clearly. This idea resonates with the way I work: I try to draw the viewer in to focus on one thing in order to understand another. I hope that this way of working is becoming more pertinent in relation to our media-saturated lives. The constant mediation through technology that we face everyday leaves very little time or space for the unknown––no time to imagine or wonder what might be or have been. So few people have the desire or the patience any more to engage with work in this way.

Image: Coral Reef (2000)

Quote of the month: Gary Simmons

“Film plays a big role in how I go about making work. I’m reverent of film, filmmakers and film history. Our collective memory is contained and constructed by film.” – Gary Simmons to Okwui Enwezor in Paradise.



Gary Simmons – Mother Oh Mother 

On the Desperate Edge of Now: Joachim Koester

Part of an in-progress writing series related to an upcoming exhibition, On the Desperate Edge of Now, that looks at historical trauma and collective cultural memory in horror film and contemporary artists. These writings will eventually be published in volume four of Incognitum Hactenus and as exhibition catalogue. See previous post on Folkert de Jong here and Heather Cantrell here.

“Koester echoes in his investigations the magic at the heart of photography that fold the past into the future and the known into the imagined, a process that arrests time and captures possibilities.” – Lisa Le Feuvre

gJoachim Koester’s film and photographic work become persistent ghost stories that meld the historical with pop-cultural and fictional constructions. Seeming to gravitate towards the macabre, Koester inclusion of Charles Mason, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the occult, the opium trade, and speculative fiction writers such as Baudelaire and Dumas as well as H.P. Lovecraft result in a contextual montage that both familiarizes and complicated our understanding of the past.

Koester’s video Numerous Incidents of Indefinite Outcomes (2007) attacks the very concept of time in terms of mining the past and manipulating the present. This work processes textual fragments from the “weird fiction: of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Notes of Commonplace Book through a computer program that generates endless possibilities of speculative musings. This is a never-ending, never-repetitive, constantly morphing process is a theatrical word play visualized. Fusing new connections pulls the past into the present or as William S. Burrough’s observed, “when you cut into the present the future leaks out.”

Morning of the MagiciansThe video invokes the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft, an early 20th century writer who would, no doubt, be delighted to reach out from beyond the grave, manipulating his own words. Unlike his predecessor Edgar Allen Poe, who was more interested in the ghostly realm, the phenomenological writings of Lovecraft detail unseen worlds parallel to our own reality, often detailing an ancient monstrous civilization that exists on the liminal boundary between the past and the present. His infamous fictional cosmic entity Cthulu appeared in a series of stories as an ancient Elder God worthy of religious worship and capable of universal destruction while others, faceless and formless beings in The Beyond, threaten the limits of scientific and philosophical reasoning.

From The Beyond: “What do we know,” he had said, “of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects are infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, strong, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have…”

The-Beyond-Final-ImageKoester’s technologically regulated usage of this “weird realism” adds an additional layer on to the pile of memory, belief, cult structures, and an understanding of our existence being shared embedded in Lovecraft’s ouvre. Numerous Incidents of Indefinite Outcomes fragments and perpetually re-contexutalizes meaning while simultaneously releasing the ghost of Lovecraft (the utilized text was published posthumously) as well as the undead characters in these narratives and the generative ghost in the machine. It verbalizes to us that we cannot trust continuity, or technology, and that variance and change are inevitable. Most importantly it presents and represents an evolving past, playing out in the now and into the foreseeable future. 

Tarantism, 2007, 16 mm film installation
The Hashish Club
, 2009, 16mm film and B/W photo installation
Morning of the Magicians, 2006, 16mm film
Final scene in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, 1981


The Fall of the House of Usher

In celebration of Edgar Allen Poe’s birth:

FROM The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)
I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher. Yet I should fail in any attempt to convey an idea of the exact character of the studies, or of the occupations, in which he involved me, or led me the way. An excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all. His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears. Among other things, I hold painfully in mind a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber. From the paintings over which his elaborate fancy brooded, and which grew, touch by touch, into vaguenesses at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why ; – from these paintings (vivid as their images now are before me) I would in vain endeavor to educe more than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely written words. By the utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs, he arrested and overawed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher. For me at least – in the circumstances then surrounding me – there arose out of the pure abstractions which the hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his canvass, an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which felt I ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli. 

Read my ART OF FEAR essay on the Roger Corman version, House of Usher, and the role of artwork in the narrative.


On the Desperate Edge of Now: Heather Cantrell

Part of an in-progress writing series related to an upcoming exhibition,
On the Desperate Edge of Now, that looks at historical trauma and collective cultural memory in horror film and contemporary artists. These writings will eventually be published in volume four of Incognitum Hactenus and as exhibition catalogue. See previous post on Folkert de Jong here .

Founding-Fathers(Ivo)Los Angeles artist Heather Cantrell uses portrait photography as a means to construct and, ultimately, deconstruct singular and collective identity. Performative elements of her subjects as well as theatrical backgrounds function very much like a movie set in which the actions of her “characters” become exaggerated, solidified in an ever-static moment of the past.

In the very personal Corpus Battaglia (2004), Heather Cantrell set a cultural and personal stage as she identifies her familial history with the haunted battlegrounds of the American Civil War. The title itself references the “body” and “battle” and, presumably, the profound influence that one can have upon the other. As a photographic series, Corpus Battaglia entangles (our) national and (her) personal trauma by conflating public and private histories of the American South: the mausoleum-still landscapes of the Gettysburg, Antietam, and Valley Forge battlefields along with the iconic portrait assembly of the artist’s own southern “fore-fathers” (her mother’s four previous husbands).

Yankee-Bullet-HoleHere, the still landscapes of Civil War battlefields resonate with America’s collective past, now hauntingly placid tableaus but once the site of bloody horror, while the images of war memorials imbue trauma as remembrance. The Civil War, pitting family against family with cultural and political values at stake, lead to the formation of the United States as it exists today. Cantrell parallels our country’s upbringing with the turmoil of her own by juxtaposing these landscapes with representations of her four fathers who, by default, also symbolize her mother. Her biological father Ivo is the only human figure in the series, her other fathers are depicted through objects – a house, a semi-truck, and most eerily, an urn (one of her stepfathers, Sam, tragically committed suicide).

Founding-Fathers(Sam)Perpetually revealing one specific moment, photography itself is a conjuring up of a spectral past. Based on the historical usage of photography by scientists and occult practitioners to capture the presence of ghosts in “spirit photography” in the late 19th and early 20th century, the very foundational concept of the photograph can be seen as a spectral site, a place where the dead are re-born and re-placed back into the land of the living. Therefore, the idea of “medium” here is twofold: a physical medium (the photographic image) and spiritual medium (a channel between the living and non-living).  Corpus Battaglia is therefore a ghost, conjuring up America’s collective formative past when a nation was at war with itself along with the artist’s individualized experience of growing up; manifestations of America and a young American. 


The title of this project (and its inspiration) is the first episode of Adam Curtis’ blindingly good BBC series called “The Living Dead.” It’s about how the past bleeds into the present, how it cannot be ignored, and how our memory of current/past events is a construction. 


Ed Kienholz – The Ozymandias Parade

IMG-20121207-01225Confronting (and that’s what it is, a confrontation) Ed Kienholz’s The Ozymandias Parade at Pace Gallery is a wonderfully jarring experience. Profound and silly, meaningful through a montage of manipulated meanings, the installation is intensely dark and scary because, like all of Kienholz’s work, it hits way too close to the perverbial home. As always, the marginalized reflects us, our struggles and our history. Historical trauma manifested, shown in all its grossly entertaining forms. Kienholz is an utter master at revealing that which society prefers to keep under wraps but shoving it in our face – his works cannot be ignored. They are shockingly beautiful in their ugly honesty (with a big middle finger implied). 

From Pace…
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the incendiary large-scale installation The Ozymandias Parade (1985), an opulent allegory of the abuse of political power, with a parade of figures and symbols representing elements of society. The decadent, nationalistic “ship of fools” is capped with nearly 700 blinking lights, which change with each presentation to reflect the colors of the nation where the work is being displayed. Addressing the corrosive effects of fear and propaganda, the tableau depicts a chaotic world turned upside-down: an armed general rides on the back of a fragile female figure who is lured by the “carrot” of a crucifix; the vice president’s horse has toppled off of his roller skates; the menacing, headless vice president faces backwards, blowing a trumpet and waving the flag; the sinister president clings to the belly of his horse, a red phone clutched in his hand and a yellow rubber ducky on his head. Whether the parade’s president shows a YES or a NO across his face is the result of a poll conducted in the weeks leading up to the installation’s opening, comprised of just one simple question: “Are you satisfied with your government?”

Gary Simmons – Metro Pictures

Gary Simmons – Metro Pictures (November 29, 2012 – January 19, 2013)


Gary Simmons’ mini-survey featuring selects works of the last twenty years at Metro Pictures reveals a complicated history of race and culture in popular culture (cinema, sports, music, painting). That America’s culture industry can simultaneously perpetuate and challenge stereotypes, politics, and society through representation is the provocation here. I associate Simmon’s work with ghosts and it’s because they evoke the familiar, foreign, forgotten, but ever-present past. The power contained within this sort of representation can bring forth a critical understanding of the effects not only of occurrences on the scale of war but that of the everyday America; its contributions and confrontations. Like the horror film, this work is subversive in nature but revelatory in its origins.

Simmons_Install_030It’s not simply about popular culture but our complicated societal culture as well, including lynchings. The entrance gates, with an inversion of the racist connotations of the “law n jockey” by replacing the figures with the Klu Klux Klan, are an imposing welcome to Gary Simmons’ works that conflate popular culture imagery with their historical associations. Particularly on point is Fuck Hollywood, a row of shoeshine stands with beautifully embroidered towels of celebrity figures like Elvis. The entertainment industry is built upon the mining of others (an issue still very much relevant today) and this work bluntly pits the representation of the black working class against a system that simultaneously exploits and neglects.

c14006a6-lgSimmons’ ghostly, vibrating, cinematic paintings are a personal favorite of mine but when combined with other media, their qualitative power compounds greatly. His dark paintings that are static moving images, caught in an in-between state, in-between frames and movement, the haunting ghosts of American history reemerging and reconfigured as a critical reminding marker of where we have been and where we have yet to go as a nation. The erasure technique that he applies to create his simultaneously static and moving imagery recalls the smoke of ghosts, like faint hands from the past reaching out, through the scene, through the canvas, into the present. One painting screams “House of Pain” with skulls behind it while the painting of the cinema (Bonham Theatre, 2010) stilly spins; a static film still of itself. History never goes away in the promise of a new day.

The embalmed objects of our cultural past are on display as memento-mori: a moonshine set up, boxing gloves, and boom box with record crates. They are starkly white and completely immobilized relics of the last century. But it’s his latest piece, a multi-panel plywood sculpture mounted with drawings of 1930s fight posters, that near perfectly conflates all sorts of media (sculpture, paintings, Simmons_Install_060design, sports) and encapsulates the message contained within this exhibition. Significantly, this work includes a painting of a dangling old-school boxing microphone so elongated and furiously still. This mic looks like a backbone, in fact it is a backbone, a stand-in for the sport, racial and political history, and the artist’s oeuvre to date. To me, this look back at Gary Simmons’ own past is actually quite an exciting look into the future (his, ours, America’s).

Installation views, 2012. Metro Pictures, New York.

Sing Me a Western Song on MOCAtv

It’s no secret that Marnie Weber is much loved on this blog so it’s with great excitement that her 2007 16mm film Sing Me a Western Song (featuring another afterlife tale by the Spirit Girls) is available to watch on MOCAtv as part of their West Coast Video series. Includes a personal introduction by Weber to boot!

Marnie Weber – The Night of Forevermore

If it is said that Hieronymus Bosch draws with his brush, then Marnie Weber films with her sculptures.

Marnie Weber’s The Night of Forevermore is a static space housing monsters, demons, witches, human-animal hybrids; all of which come alive with slow, repetitive gestures and sound. It’s a Hieronymous Bosch painting brought to life, a haunting world with creatures familiar and strange, each with their own woe, purpose, and revenge. Bosch’s paintings are infamously crowded, layered with forms of life and death co-mingling in this liminal boundary between heaven and hell. It is an area of foretold ghosts. And retained within the picture plain and filmic frame, Weber’s animated sculpture remain spread across the entire tableau but firmly placed on an individual stage.

Of course, the activating power that elevates the concept of a painting into a moving image in The Night of Forevermore is the camera itself. Through the all-seeing eye of Weber’s lens, the viewer is shown this world of dreams and nightmares beginning with a static shot where movement begins individually, slowly, and then all at once. This overview pans away, purposefully, to show the action and the function of each creature – the musician, the crying pig, the riding witch, the executioner – giving the audience privileged mobility. It’s the opposite of Bosch’s chaotic evocation of confusion where our eyes dart maniacally across the surface. Weber’s calculated pacing lends the bizarre, gruesome, and monstrous scene an elevated other worldly aura. The strangeness becomes tactile.

Weber’s films themselves are like dreams, with images floating from space to scene in non-linear time as her representational figures suggest eternal ramifications for questionable deeds. The protagonist in The Night of Forevermore is a young and innocent girl (played by Weber’s own daughter, Colette Rose Shaw) shown her own dreamlike/nightmarish journey to escape the darkness. She is the only one with the freedom to move, her ability traverse through these alternate realms only being because she is still fighting the evil damnation the witch (played by Weber) has subjected her to. Hers is an unexpected reality, confronting a devilish figure, escaping the witch’s clutches, waking up in strange alternate universes. Similar to the horror film heroine (aka the Final Girl), her experience is a visualize metaphor living through life into adulthood. The Night of Forevermore is a late 15th century morality tale made contemporary through the influence of moviemaking.

However, as is typical with Weber’s tales, her monsters are not safely relegated to the spiritual (film) world. Instead, the gallery space functions as a portal through which Weber brings forth these beings through objects. The painting and collage on wood works (a first) provide a literal weight to what I’ve always associated as her unique version of film stills. Furthering the narratives in the film and withholding the freedom of movement the film provides, these collage pieces segues perfectly into the sculptural versions of select characters. Haunting us with their presence, the old witch sits still in a rocking chair while watching us watch the film, a bed of fruitless trees lurk nearby. One almost expects them to begin moving, just a twitch, as the film has shown us that even paintings, even creatures in the night, can come alive, seek us out, and steal our souls.

Marnie Weber’s The Night of Forevermore at Marc Jancou Gallery (New York, September 13 – November 3, 2012) 

Sinister walls: representation and repetition

In continuing the exploration of the slipages that occur between imitation and homage in contemporary creative forms, here is an interesting correlation of imagery from the new “home video discovery turns to haunting” film Sinister with Stan Shellabarger’s 2005 performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Paul McCarthy Face, Head, Shoulder Painting – Wall Black Line (1972). Shellabarger and McCarthy’s embodies these prolific similarities of reference between horror cinema and visual art as their work deals with repetition, endurance, and a relationship to the space that surrounds them.

Thanks to Scott Speh at Western Exhibitions.

Related in the series: Cabin in the Woods and Peter Doig’s 1990s cabin paintings.