“CRITICAL POWER LOSS”: THE SAMSUNG ART+ PRIZE

26 Jan

18TH-29TH JANUARY 2012, BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE, LONDON

The exhibition space at the BFI on London’s south bank, like a Samsung TV showroom, is a black box full of streaming, uncredited content. I can’t remember when I last saw such shoddy, lazy staging of video work by a major institution. I often castigate superfluous, anxious over-explanation of art exhibitions that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. Unfortunately at the BFI they’ve gone to the equally unproductive opposite extreme. Unless a credit or title is embedded in the work itself (which is rare), there is absolutely nothing to tell visitors what they’re looking at or who the artists are. The black box is the star here; Samsung gets all the credit, the artists get little or none.

Even the printed schedule taped to a wall outside was completely out of whack with what was actually being shown… and it was physically impossible to see the schedule and the exhibition at the same time. Both of the invigilators appeared to be asleep for the entire duration of my visit, which was about two hours long. One of the tablets used in Erika Tan’s installation was bleeping in a very annoying, disruptive manner and showing an error message about a “critical power loss” for about fifteen minutes before finally despairing of attention and switching itself off. Only by a lengthy, patient process of Holmesian analysis, deduction and elimination does one begin to understand what is being shown and by whom. The accompanying website is extremely basic as well, and I had to scour elsewhere on the internet for the names and authors of some films that were being shown but are not credited anywhere, not even on Samsung’s site and certainly not on the BFI’s. In short, the staging of this show is crap and there’s no excuse for it.

And again, what the hell is wrong with some video and new media curators? Have they ever actually tried watching video art in a gallery? Even experiencing two or three from the selection of videos available is a matter of perhaps half an hour or more and yet there are just two small, narrow benches to sit on. Again the scratchy, grimy carpet is the only alternative if you don’t want to (or physically can’t for reasons of age or disability, for example) be on your feet for long periods. Remember that we’re in the BFI, a complex full of cinema auditoria and dedicated to the cinematic arts, a place where one would imagine it would be blindingly obvious that people can’t watch long form moving image work properly when they have to squat on the floor. Come on, this is really basic stuff.

It would also be helpful to get some background information about how and by whom the artists were nominated, and how particular works were selected. Certainly the production values, stage of career development and quality vary wildly from artist to artist, and even between different works by the same artist, so it would seem that it’s the artists themselves who are potentially being given a prize rather than it being a reward for the excellence of anything in particular. But who knows? An online voting system was available, but again there was no indication of how many votes any particular artist attracted, how these votes were counted or if they were really being counted at all. All we know is that whoever wins the audience choice award gets a Samsung telly.

My parents sent me to art school, and all I got was this TV.

It may not be an intentional message, but what we’re presented with is video art as the mad, embarrassing relative who’s been temporarily left unshackled in the BFI’s attic for us to gawp at.

THE GOOD

The thing is, there’s actually some good stuff here if you can battle through all the obstacles they’ve put between you and your chance of actually seeing any of it properly. The good includes the mesmerising, poetic work of Semiconductor, profoundly influenced by science and quite possibly deeply in love with science, without being didactic or beholden to it. In the spirit of honesty and disclosure I should also mention that I know Ruth and Joe quite well because they lived downstairs from me when we were all doing the Berwick Gymnasium Artist Fellowship in 2004-2005. Even if I hadn’t been in a sitcom scenario with them, I’d still think they’re very deserving winners of the first prize.

There were also things I liked that weren’t by my friends, again proving me a slight anomaly in the art world. Thomson & Craighead’s ‘A Short Film About War’ is an extremely compelling, humane, ingenious and surprisingly moving compilation of found material from blogs, Flickr and the like. Bonus points for voiceover performances in an art film by people who can actually act.

Doug Fishbone’s work is often silly and in general I’m not wild about it either conceptually or in its execution, but I should imagine it’s precisely because there’s nothing in his work to scare the horses that he won the audience choice prize. That prize being the aforementioned television set. Coming soon, the Tesco Art+ prize: the artist with most votes from the audience is recompensed for their hard work, insight and investment with £100 of Tesco gift vouchers.

LuckyPDF won the second prize, but I can’t say anything about them because somehow they managed to escape my notice entirely despite me being there for nearly two hours. I’ve really got no idea where their work was hiding. Obviously they’re the Anne Franks of the BFI’s attic.

THE BAD

Erika Tan‘s installation of screens, mainly showing various artistic interpretations of Mount Fuji, is stunningly pointless. She also wins the WTF/GTFO Artbollocks+ prize for this steaming heap of rank bullshit from the Samsung site:

“The interpretive positioning of the audience as individual, specific and as multiple entities has always been a central concern in my work. The factual aura of a received narrative and its homogenizing affect or expectation of an audience creates the material with which I work. Sites of engagement are the various and multiplying formats in which knowledge is constructed and disseminated: from physical archives to the default collective construction of archiving on the web, museum displays, linguistic structures, filmic tropes, etc.

The Syntactical Impossibility of Approaching With A Pure Heart is a 9 to 13 channel video installation including LED signage, light-boxes, projection and screen-based work. The work engages with the notion of a-priory imaginings of landmark iconography and uses appropriated material, collections of drawings, real-time footage, and animation.”

Oh, fuck off Erika. This is absolute nonsense and you know it. At least I hope you know it, because I’d prefer to think that artists are deploying these linguistic smokescreens cynically and purposely to hide their artistic and intellectual inadequacies. The alternative is that artists like Tan truly are as idiotic as they make themselves sound and they’re merely squawking out strings of prestigious, multisyllabic words like a parrot, just because they like the sound of them and because they sometimes receive appreciative coos from equally uncomprehending curators.

I’m not even going to waste any more of my energy making fun of this claptrap, except to say that the term she was looking for is “a priori” (Latin, “from what is before”) and not “a priory”, which is a residential Christian institution for monks or nuns.

Torsten Lauschman’s ‘Digital Clock’ is exactly what it sounds like: a video that shows a kind of handmade readout of the actual time. I’ve said it before in relation to Tacita Dean, and I’ll say it again: this is a screensaver, not an art work. It’s high concept in the worst way. It’s such an easily, immediately graspable high concept that it doesn’t even need to exist as an actual thing in the world. “Handmade digital clock in real time” tells you everything you need to know about it. That’s all there is to it, nothing more. There’s no need to see it, nothing more to be gleaned or understood by seeing it, no need to make it in the first place.

THE UGLY

I’m predisposed to hate anything in 3D because the glasses you have to wear give me a headache within a few minutes and at the best of times I’m not sure I’m even seeing the amazing 3D effects that other people seem to be witnessing. Even bearing that prejudice in mind, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s interminable, pretentious ‘Radio Mania: An Abandoned Work’ is one of the worst art videos I’ve seen since Nathaniel Mellors’ pathetic effort at narrative and Edwina Ashton’s wanky tediousness in Venice last summer. Why can’t artists dip into storytelling without making stuff that looks like bad documentation of an undergraduate drama course?

Until I looked it up online I couldn’t even tell what was supposed to be going on here, not that I particularly cared. To the uninformed observer it just seems like being forced to stand and watch the first, worst read through for an extremely dull, stilted stage play. The gratuitous 3D simply adds the entirely unwelcome impression that one was forced along to these boring rehearsals having recently been hit on the forehead with brick and suffering from a vision impairment. Now I know what ‘Radio Mania’ is supposedly about and I still think it was like watching amateur rehearsals for an extremely dull, stilted stage play after being hit on the forehead with a brick.

I’m genuinely baffled that people like this keep getting opportunities or recognition as credible artists when their work and its intellectual foundations are so rudimentary. One suspects it only got there because Samsung needed something to show off their 3D technology.

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