Nam June Paik

Tate Liverpool  and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) Liverpool

Untill 13th March 2011

As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, it appears as if “media art” is finally being accepted as a high art form. It has been nearly 60 years since Nam June Paik’s first experiments with sound, television and video emerged into the international art consciousness, and so reaching a point of major institutional recognition highlights just how far ahead of his time he really was.

Perhaps more profoundly, this first major retrospective since his death in 2006 signifies how so many of his ideas predicted our present day multimedia world, which is saturated with technology, information and interactivity.

Exhibited across both Tate Liverpool and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Tate does what it does best with a grand narrative retrospective, while FACT does what it does best with a focus on examining Paik’s use of video and cutting-edge mediums from the 1970s onwards.

Paik began his creative work with music. The first section at Tate examines, how his relationship with the radical composer John Cage informed all his later work and how, despite not considering himself a “visual artist”, he began to move into new mediums saying: “I knew there was something to be done in television and no one else was doing it.” Despite this, in his later work, he retained many of the concepts he learned whilst composing avant-garde music; chance, interaction and pushing the limits of technology.

From his earliest works Paik wanted to break down the boundary between artwork, artist, and viewer and viewed. The great hulk of Video Synthesiser 1969 (1992), developed by Paik and engineer, Shuya Abe, to allow participants to manipulate images on a screen without specialist technical knowledge, is startling. A lump of knobs, dials, leads and CRT monitors, it allowed, the general public (perhaps for the first time) to do what previously only broadcast engineers could do and what today any kid with a basic computer and internet connection could do.

As with so much retrospective documentation of performance and experimental work, the old televisions and tape machines detailing early works can only hint at the experience of witnessing or using them at the time. It’s hard to imagine when these common devices were cutting edge pieces of technology that were being used in a radical way, particularly now, because analogue TV sets and tape machines look like nothing more than junk-shop relics.

The best of Paik’s work though, transcends this. TV Garden 1974-77 (2010) one of his first large-scale installations, a series of televisions placed among a myriad of tropical plants each showing a mesmerising television mash-up Global Groove (1973) that could be a proto-YouTube video. Its continual, rhythmic flickering colours and sounds are beautiful, illuminating the foliage in the darkened room, and a prominent example of how Paik wanted to break down the barriers between the natural and technological.

Underpinning this were Paik’s Zen Buddhist beliefs. Often highlighted as his signature motif, his collection of “TV Buddhas” epitomises much of his art and philosophy. The ancient Buddhist symbol, in a variety of guises, sits watching a TV screen, displaying clearly, the interaction between humanity and technology and the contrasts he so loved; the Eastern and the Western, the old and new, the technological and the spiritual.

The contextual information in the gallery further highlights Paik’s desire for global human connectedness through technology. He is credited with coining the term “Information Superhighway” back in the 1970s. His foresight is also highlighted in 1994’s Internet Dream, a video wall displaying a constant stream of rapidly changing garishly coloured scenes to hypnotic effect shows his early awareness of our move towards information saturation and his celebration of its constant expansion with every shift forward in technology.

At FACT meanwhile, the cavernous Gallery 1 is entirely taken up by the spectacular installation Laser Cone 1998 (2001). A tent-like structure you lie beneath and experience an overwhelming, intense laser show. Like Internet Dream, it seems to reflect Paik’s interest in subjecting the viewer to the beauty inherent in visual overload.

Gallery 2, by contrast, is set out like a chic lounge where, armed with remote control, you’re invited to flick through hours of Paik’s video works. Some of Paik’s riffs on the potential of the medium and his love for pushing it to its limits look retro, in some cases, just boring, compared to today’s potential for intervention and experiment with media. However, their influence, on everything from MTV to Skype and today’s video artists, is clear and profound.

This retrospective is comprehensive, but not overwhelming, and, even spread across two venues, it’s easy to navigate through the artist’s life and career. This enables visitors to clearly see how his work morphed and changed with the times and advances in technology.

Paik was a pioneer of “media art”, yet it seems he always wanted what we have today. Not only did he realise the potential for technology to be used in art, but its potential to allow the viewer to take a more active role, for mediums to merge, and for anyone to make or manipulate the content. Paik understood that technological art needed to move beyond the medium, and like all great art, to be about humanity and its relationship to the world.

By Kenn Taylor

This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine December 2010.

The Land Between Us: power, place and dislocation

Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Untill 23rd January 2010

The Land between Us combines a variety of landscapes from the Whitworth’s fine collection with a selection of more recent and contemporary works, examining landscape as a genre and the places and power associated with it.

In Olafur Eliasson’s The Forked Forrest Path, Birch and Sycamore branches are woven into dense forest, creating an entrance to the exhibition that is both playful and unsettling. Beyond this is a diverse selection of works ranging from a Rembrandt etching to Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs.

A key theme is change; both in the landscapes themselves and who is representing them. William Holman Hunt’s idyllic Holy Land portrayed in The Plain of Rephaim from Zion, Jerusalem contrasts sharply with Larissa Sansour’s video work Soup over Bethlehem which examines the complex politics of contemporary Palestine.

Equally striking though are the continuities. J.M.W Turner’s rendition of Conway Castle, Caernarvonshire, a structure built in the 13th century to control and monitor local people, sits adjacent to Donavan Wylie’s South Armagh, Golf 40, West View 2007, a photograph of a British Army watchtower in Northern Ireland constructed for a similar purpose in more recent times.

By placing these works next to each other, the exhibition forces the viewer to confront the tensions between them and to look beyond to the power structures that influenced them. It’s a simple idea but creates a context for a radical re-examination of these works that manages to be both subtle and intellectually challenging whilst remaining accessible.

The Land Between Us is a curatorial marvel that should be viewed by all interested in the art and politics of land and landscape.

By Kenn Taylor

This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine December 2010.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2010

A Foundation, Liverpool

Untill 13th November 2010

Bloomberg New Contemporaries is an open-submission showcase for art students and recent graduates, which takes emerging artists and their works out of the educational realm and places them within the framework of the “real” art world. The exhibition has a long-established pedigree, having been in existence in various forms since 1949, and it provides a rare opportunity for early career artists to get their work shown in a professional gallery context.

In 1996 the exhibition premiered in Liverpool, before touring to London and other venues across the country. Part of this year’s Liverpool Biennial, the show is once again airing at A Foundation, consistently one of Liverpool’s most satisfying contemporary art spaces.

Inevitably, with such a variety of work and artists on display, the exhibition feels like a graduate show, albeit a high quality one. This is however, not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s a refreshing exhibition. A Foundation’s huge Coach Shed Gallery is large enough to give generous space to each of the 49 artists featured.

A highlight is Sam Knowles’ series of works, which utilise the aesthetics of space. In Field (2009) star systems are painted over dozens of pages from books: novels, works of anthropology, philosophy and science. Elsewhere A Sectional View of the Endless Immensity (2009) is a complex map laying out an outline of both the mind and the universe. Reflecting on how we attempt to reduce the enormity of existence to technical diagrams and descriptions, it’s a complex, understated and arresting series of works.

Kiwoun Shin’s Dis_illusion_Coin_Faces (2010) features close-ups of various international coins being ground down. It is a particularly memorable piece, because it is simultaneously straightforward and yet uncompromisingly epic. Dis_illusion_Coin_Faces is continuously fascinating to watch, as symbols of power and wealth are repeatedly and relentlessly reduced to dust.

Another stalwart is the time-based work of Greta Alfaro. In Ictu Oculi (2009) unfolds as a static camera documents a flock of vultures descending upon and devouring a lavish banquet laid out on a table in barren countryside. The film is both engrossing and disturbing to watch, as domestic subtly is subjected to brutal animal reality.

Nick Mobb’s large photographs of sofas stuffed in doorways make the ordinary and industrial seem organic and uncanny. Elsewhere, Joe Clark’s mixed media piece Somewhere in West Virginia (2009) requires time in order to understand exactly how the “Mousetrap-like” set-up produces the image on view. Technical quality aside, the vision is atmospheric, but might have benefited from a darker, more isolated location.

Chris Shaw Hughes’ carbon drawings of aerial scenes, from petrochemical plants to housing estates are technical marvels, creating a shift in perception that makes the mundane monumental. At the opposite end of the drawing scale, Naomi Uchida’s Doodles on National Treasure Project (2010) is a surreal and finely drawn amalgam of fiction, fantasy and folklore, with the look of an ancient scroll created by an oddly contemporary hand.

New Contemporaries is a timely survey of upcoming talent, and it is encouraging to see the work of new artists given a decent platform, demonstrating that there are plenty of raw, talented artists to watch out for in the future.

By Kenn Taylor

This review was published by Aesthetica magazine in October 2010.

Liverpool Biennial 2010







Various venues 18 September – 28 November 2010

The Liverpool Biennial, now in its sixth incarnation, is the largest festival of contemporary art in the UK. It’s a huge undertaking that can only really be appreciated by walking around it. Every two years the city is literally filled with art in every conceivable place. Virtually every type of medium is represented by hundreds of artists from all corners of the globe.

The core of the Biennial is the International Exhibition, programmed by a myriad of curators to a singular theme, which this year is ‘Touched’. More specifically, the festival’s stated intention this time around is to showcase contemporary art that can allegedly transcend boundaries of culture, language, identity et al and move those experiencing it on an emotional level.

Bluecoat, the city’s oldest and perhaps most diverse arts centre, is as good a place to start as any. Some works hit home, like Nicholas Hlobo’s Ndize an enchanting and engulfing tactile installation which highlights the Biennial’s ability at its best to transform the city’s spaces and your view of them. However, others like Daniel Bozhkov’s Music Not Good For Pigeons, an uncomfortable amalgam of football, The Beatles and political militancy, highlight the Biennial at its worst – international artists attempting to respond to Liverpool and coming up only with cliché.

Tate Liverpool, usually the only Biennial venue to charge entry, is thankfully free this year. On entering Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Embryology, a large collection of different sized textile ‘rocks’ is visually pleasing and invites, well, touch. Unfortunately, as it’s now accessioned in the Tate collection, we can only look; a great disappointment to the children who run in to play on it. It seems touching has boundaries.

In the main gallery, Jamie Isenstein’s furniture and flame installation Empire of Fire left me cold. Better was Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan’s model boat-building project with local community groups Passage which looked like it had been a great deal of fun for all involved, if not revelatory to look at. Tate’s is a diverse exhibition but not as strong as in previous years.

This year Open Eye Gallery has decided to focus on three works by Swede Lars Laumann. New commission Helen Keller is multi-layered and complex but ultimately not as rewarding for its considerable duration as 2006’s surely self-explanatory Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana, which manages to be equal parts engaging, amusing and thought-provoking.

FACT, frequently Liverpool’s most radical arts institution, this time around has two of the best works in the Biennial. Gallery 1 contains a recreation of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980 – 1981, which consisted of the artist getting up on the hour, every hour, for one year. Documentation of performance is frequently boring. This however is both aesthetically arresting and emotionally moving as the thousands of images and clock cards he used to prove it display clearly of all the ups and downs of his commitment laid out across the gallery.

Upstairs meanwhile is Yves Netzhammer’s Dialogical Abrasion, an installation which transforms the gallery into an uncanny, fractured environment; part Ghost Train, part Alice in Wonderland, part Michel Gondry outtake. Heightened by an accompanying animation and jarring sound and lighting effects, the work makes you question your own perceptions and, despite its alienating effects, you’re compelled to stay to explore its many different layers and moods.

One of the most exciting elements of the Biennial is its utilisation of the city’s abandoned and forgotten spaces. The focus this year is the former Rapid Hardware store on Renshaw Street. The store is vast but seems underused, attempts at theming different sections fall flat and works lie cobbled about here and there between not so old posters for bathroom fittings. Nevertheless, for the gems the building is worth taking the time to explore. A highlight is Ryan Trecartin’s Trill-ogy Comp – a trio of garish videos filled with extreme characters sliding through even more extreme situations, made all the more disturbing by being placed down the empty corridors of the shop’s the labyrinthine basement.

Elsewhere, in the former Scandinavian Hotel, Alfredo Jarr’s We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know, an uncompromising filmic account of the genocide in Rwanda is a reminder that sometimes the unvarnished truth is the most moving thing of all. Less good however is Emese Benczùr installation on Lime Street’s abandoned Futurist cinema, now emblazoned courtesy of the artist with a slogan over the middle of it ‘Think About The Future’, an intervention considerably less poignant than the cinema’s own faded signage clearly illustrating its past glory and now insecure future.

For almost as long as there’s been a Biennial, there’s been an alternative fringe uniting under the banner of ‘The Independents’. This year though, a new initiative apart from this has seen most of the city’s major independent arts collectives come together under a new banner called The Cooperative. Taking over another abandoned shop, this venue serves as both a temporary gallery and event space and a central showcase for the exhibitions in each of the group members own galleries. It seems there’s always a fringe to add to the fringe.

Even then, there’s so much more. Outside of the main Biennial there are dozens of other exhibitions, events and initiatives which link to it. Even if you stay in the city for the festival’s duration and had unlimited free time, you’d be bound to miss stuff.

That’s not really the point though. Despite pulling in all sorts of different directions, there’s something admirable about the fact that, somehow, it all comes together, and this critical mass of art in a relatively small and still very poor city has to be appreciated. For every action of the Biennial there is a reaction and Liverpool, never one to have anything imposed upon it, becomes a hotbed of competing creative voices shouting to be heard and I can’t see it working in any other city in the UK.

But, bringing everything back to this year’s theme; did all of this work touch me? The idea of showcasing contemporary art that can overcome boundaries and communicate deep transcendental truths is admirable. But the word ‘Touched’ is suitably vague that curators have inevitably taken it to mean whatever they want. Even some of the best works seem only tenuously linked to the theme and many others are as obtuse as any art you can see anywhere. This is unfortunate, as the show could have been more radical and revelatory had it stuck more cohesively to this original intention. Despite this though, there’s enough work that shows, in the right hands, yes, the best art can shatter all of the bullshit that surrounds it and move you.

Perhaps then, this Biennial especially, is best appreciated by not trying to see everything, not reading the guidebook or the curatorial musings. Instead, just wander through the city, the art is everywhere remember, and see, what, if anything, touches you.

By Kenn Taylor

An abridged version of this review was published by Aesthetica magazine in October 2010 and can be viewed here.