Category Archives: Contemporary Art

Anish Kapoor – Royal Academy – Autumn 2009

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Shooting into the Corner, Royal Academy, 2009

His little piles of powder are intensely beautiful in colour. And yet …

The reflective perfection of the mirrors is a joy to behold. And yet ..

The buzz of expectation in waiting for the cannon to eject its barrel of bloody wax is palpable. And yet …

And yet I’m not quite sure what is all adds up to. I can’t deny that there is a sense of wonder in walking around the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Royal Academy. But what I struggle to find is some lasting argument within the exhibition, some defining narrative that makes me alter how I see the world. The works are full of allusions, but have very few reference points. One can feel the exhibition, but what do you take away? It’s clear that the the body, sex, defaecation, the universe, the self and the art gallery itself are all part of the thematic make up of his oeuvre. He makes us aware that sex is ubiquitous; and that the spiritual is just the flip side of the scatological.

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Svayambh, Royal Academy, 2009

Is that Kapoor stretches too far, whirring through an endless panoply of tricks, without ever stopping to work through the deeper ramifications of what he is saying. Or is that that we are tricked into such reactions? The artist’s hand is often non-existent (all metal and mirror in the larger works) and the exhibition therefore leaves a sense of dislocation between the atmosphere of philosophical eloquence and the mechanical, soulless way in which such a sensation is created. Do we yearn for a voice to shine through the light?

I doubt, of course, Kapoor will care. He may indeed point to entirely different genesis for his work, drawing on traditions far removed from the sources that inform much western art. Kapoor’s oeuvre is more closely aligned to a Buddhist world where everything and nothing is said; where life is perceived rather than interpreted. There is little of the fetishising of intellectual complexity that Christian art, and much of the western art tradition, demands. Kapoor may occasionally reference other texts or myths, but the creation of the huge abstract gestures that fill and take control of the Royal Academy galleries negate the need for such contexts.

I think Anish Kapoor is great for the art world. He produces grand, spectacular art that draws in believers and non-believers. He gets attention. He makes art exciting. Yet I would fervently insist that he is not seen as the pinnacle of achievement. There is much more that art can achieve.

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Seizure – Roger Hiorns – a disused apartment block, Southwark – Winter 2008

I heard great things about Roger Hiorn’s site-specific installation, Seizure. Glowing crystals, an alien presence, an unnamed threat – all placed within a damp, decaying council house. It sounded like the alchemy of Anish Kapoor, with his pure geometry of colours and the exploration of strange architectural space of Rachel Whitehead, Mike Nelson or Christian Buchel

Seizure

But alas the space was small, the queue long and the weather miserable. I spent a Saturday and a Sunday morning waiting to get in, but the polite, well-mannered collection of culture vultures moved with sloth-like pace. Other engagements called me, and the now the house will go to the wrecking ball.

Seizure - Queue

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Work No. 850 – Martin Creed – Tate Britain – Autumn 2008

Work No.850 - Francis bacon

Why does art need to be reserved for tormented geniuses, revealing hidden truths, displaying grand passion and exhibiting miraculous skills?

Obviously, it doesn’t really. 

Martin Creed’s suitcase of numbered works happily punctures all of those received ideas. Effervescent, jokey and nagging, they don’t demand lengthy attention, but do enough just to make the viewer notice something different is happening. Little packets of viral art that are simple and stupid enough to lodge themselves in the brain.

After a largely humourless and uninspiring visit to the 2008 Turner Prize exhibits, Martin Creed’s Work No. 850 was a breath of fresh air. Professional runners sprint down the Tate’s spacious Duveen gallery, with metronomic regularity. You hear the patter of feet first, then pick out a forceful figure picking out a route through the often unsuspecting visitors. A blur of lycra, coloured cotton and flesh then flashes past and disappears. The process repeats itself.

As well as running concurrently with the Turner Prize, Work No. 850 can be seen after the Bacon exhibition. I grabbed some images of the runners shooting past – their contorted elasticised shapes seemed familiar.

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Louise Bourgeois, Tate Modern

The logic of the Tate Modern’s recent exhibition divides Louise Bourgeois’ significant works into two convenient categories – objects and cells. Both categories of artwork are laden with allusions and enigmas; chock-a-block with references to distant half-remembered sensations and memories. They spark off a parade of associations, providing enough frisson to keep an battalion of psychoanalysts occupied. Bourgeois is one of those artists that gets scholars salivating – clambering to theorise her art will require a surfeit of monographs, articles and conferences.


Louise Bourgeois, Cumul1

After a detour through her earlier work, the sixth and seventh rooms at the Tate exhibition revealed her objects – glistening blocks of latex, rough-hewn slabs of wood and sensual, polished lumps of marble, all looking like inexplicable alien objects with the seductive power of succubae. The marble Cumul1 is perhaps the most evocative. What starts off as a polished moonscape then proceeds to conjure up some of the suggestive parts of the body. Sleepy eyelids awakening? An army of breasts? Erect phalli being unveiled? And are these body parts hostile in mood or something more playful? The extreme polishing, the perfected roundness suggest a fetishist’s love for playing with the object; but there is something aggressive about such works, like anatomical parts breaking off from the human body and forming their own independent union.


Louise Bourgeois, SleepII

Each of these hard objects are threaded with confusing ambiguities, tracing a line between the feminine and the masculine, the figurative and the representational, the pleasurable and the painful – issues any old school therapist will come back to time and time again. It is these psychoanalytic issues that trouble Bourgeois’ human subject and her sculptures represent this magnificently. Bourgeois’ work touch upon areas of the psychological spectrum that few sculptors had thought to explore before; earlier sculptural forms with organic tendencies, say work by a Hepworth or a Moore, are reduced to decorational ornaments when placed next to the canny intelligence of Bourgeois’ work. The pleasing but unchallenging forms of early modernist sculptors (and you could include Arp, Brancusi or many others) create a distance between art object and appreciative spectator; there is none of this cold-eyed connoisseural distance in Bourgeois. Here is what the human enjoys but also what the human fears.

For the spectator, Bourgeois’ objects are the perfect playthings for nudging strange long-vanished sensations back into focus. These are objects you want to touch and caress, bringing you back to some old object of desire or some blissful state of mind that exists as nothing more than a tiny bubble of memory. But, of course, it’s a little difficult to test out such fantasies. Adults visiting galleries are well aware that giving into such desire might seem rather odd and will invoke a telling off from the security guards spying for the merest hint of tactile transgression. Never has art so well delineated the line between childish desires and adult repressions.

Whereas the objects are little psychological renderings portraits in stone, the cells are recreations of the chiaroscuro stage sets of her (and maybe our) dreams.

Bourgeois draws heavily on her own history here, her overbearing father and his work in textiles, the English nanny taken as mistress, the assortment of family traumas, but her special skill is neither to demand the viewer responds to the particular narrative of her childhood nor expose the viewer to a set of objects so ambiguous that they could mean anything. The rich set of interpretative possibilities give a living vibrancy to Bourgeois’ work which others dealing with dreams, notably the surrealists, fail to attain.


Louise Bourgeois, Red Room (Parents)

Taken together, the suite of cells in rooms eight and nine of the exhibition demonstrate a tangled pattern of motifs and techniques that evoke a range of emotions relating to the dream state. Often the initial emotion is a negative one, of terror just passed, or terror awaiting. The sense of uneasy expectation as one witnesses the dormant giant spider hovering above its prey in Spider; the claustrophobia of the metal cage trapping the people and objects of Dangerous Passage; the obvious symbolism of blood red, seeping into objects and clothes in more than one of the cells. Elsewhere, there is sense of comfort lost and destroyed – the shards of shattered mirrors, the luxurious chairs fallen into disuse, spilling teardrops of gray stuffing or the patterned rugs worn threadbare. And while the profusion of glass bottles in the cells may suggest the presence of the softer, less roughened feminine form their thin fragility and, even more tellingly, their similarity in form to the ventouse cups (once used to invoke blisters in infected hospital patients, but also used in childbirth) invoke something much less comforting.


Louise Bourgeois, Ventouse

Above all, Bourgeois seems to be conjuring up the child like sense of frightened wonder caused by the stolen observation of a bedroom episode that makes no immediate sense. Red Room (Parents), in which the viewer has to enter a bedroom through a wooden spiral and only gets a restricted view of the bed via a mirror, in particular seems to be trying to conjure up memories of that Oedipal (or Electra-ian?) moment when the young child pulls open the bedroom door to be confronted by the confusing parental entanglement.

However, one should not let the Freudian weight of Bourgeois’ work obscure the artfulness of her oeuvre. She may be a thoroughly modern artist but she shares a love of materials that even the most churlish traditionalist could not deny her. Some good curatorial imagination meant that room seven demonstrated this beautifully; no two of the visible artworks exploited the same materials. There was the contrast of polished bronze sheen of Arch of Hysteria, located next to the solid granite of Ventouse; or alternatively the refined marble of Sleep II sitting on two rough wooden railway sleepers of outsized proportions. Equally, the creation of her cells has a baroque flourish of theatricality. Striking lighting, staged openings, an abundance of richly textured props. Just as the objects have a tactile beauty, so the visual beauty is cells revealed to the visitor with an array of dramatic gestures.

For all the Oedipal fear lurking in her cells, there is defiant pleasure-seeking in her manipulation of objects and materials. Her artworks may focus on mental terrors or psychological ambiguities but such passions are accompanied by an artistic delight in their form of expression. It is almost as if the aesthetic power of the Bourgeois oeuvre is the method for resolving, or at least attempting to resolve, the troublesome ideas which bubble furiously underneath – the pleasure of style overcoming the trauma of content.

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Christian Büchel, Simply Botiful, Hauser and Wirth Coppermill

Installation from early 2007

Christoph Büchel’s Simply Botiful is the most involved, engaging and creepiest piece of installation work I have ever seen. Taking over a massive warehouse in London’s East End, Büchel has constructed his own universe – a cheap, nasty hotel for prostitutes and desperate asylum seekers; a shop, decorated with terrorist propaganda, selling fridges; and a huge, gloomy industrial space, full of discarded electronics, broken fridges and crammed with portakabins and haulage wagons serving as cheap, dismal accommodation. Visitors have free access and can wander anywhere, clambering up stairwells and ladders, descending tunnels, adjusting TV sets and picking up and casting down the myriad objects littering the space – diaries, leads and wires, letters, bibles, newspapers, korans, bras, invoices, calculators. The space, built over three of four floors, is of football-pitch proportions. It takes perhaps two hours to walk round everything, and even then there is still plenty left unseen.

Christian Büchel, Fridges from Simply Botiful

The experience is more akin to playing a video game than viewing an artwork; certainly it is nothing like visiting a museum. There’s a strong echo of first person shoot and strategy games (e.g. Thief or Splinter Cell) where the character is dumped in an alien surrounding and must explore a location and its objects, trying to forge a geographical and a narrative sense of the space around them. The lack of information presented to the player / user and the lack of people with which to communicate and understand the space add to the sense of eeriness and disorientation in both types of medium.

The sense of evil pervading Büchel’s universe is palpable. Büchel touches on a host of contemporary and perennial fears – death, child abuse, immigration, religion, terrorism, capitalism. Or rather he does not touch on them, he gives evidence to the fact they have actually happened – we see unmade bids littering the hallways, bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms of the hotel, a rainbow of bleak pornography and graffiti, tapestries celebrating September 11th, copies of Mein Kampf in Arabic, a call-girl’s filo-a-fax, a warren of stinking fridges, evidence of inhumane living conditions. The suggestion of pain, perhaps also torture, is strong.

At the same time (again here is a connection with the video game) there is a childish pleasure to be had in walking around the installation. Photographs of the installation on Flickr show grinning faces dropping down tunnels or posing in front of pornographic images. The museum is normally a place of prohibitions as regards the artistic object; Simply Botiful is precisely the opposite – curiosity, investigation, exploration are positively demanded. But this innocence doesn’t last long. The griminess of the artwork contaminates such innocence, and soon one reads a discarded letter, flips over a postcard or rifles with a diary with a fear that will reveal something more traumatic.

Like a good video game, you’re never going to finish Simply Botiful off at the first sitting – it requires multiple attendances. But will turning up again and going through the artwork lead anywhere? Is there really a message or set of ideas that a visitor can extract from the work? Or is it simply an intellectual jumble sale, an array of provocative objects and ideas scattered around without any coherence?

Well, wait to find the two hidden rooms. On busy days, I imagine they are actually not that hidden – there will be a queue of visitors clambering and crawling towards them. But while not providing a resolution they provide a hook that makes it a little easier to add some focus to the artwork. I’ll mention the first.

A wardrobe in one of the hotel rooms (seemingly decked out like Freud’s consulting room – don’t ask) hides a narrow hole, punched through a flimsy wall, through to another room. On hands and knees one penetrates the hole and into another room, this time cleaner, less cluttered and more brightly lit.

Christian Büchel, Toys in bags from Simply Botiful

The burnt husk of a scooter stands, Damien Hirst-style, in a huge glass case, purveying some kind of totemic significance. Aggressively loud heavy metal thrashes out from a chunky stereo. What on earth is this about? Whereas the rest of the installation is dirty and random, this room is tended to, cared for, and replete with inexplicable objects. The motorbike sits silently in its case, a shrine of some kind. A video-camera whirrs in the corner … this place seems to be guarded, watched over, like a warped sanctuary. Then one notices the large transparent bags of rubbish collected in the corner. What’s inside them? A child clothes, some other toys, some dolls. Are these discarded for a particular reason? Are these the objects of a child no longer with us? Was she perhaps involved in a motorbike accident? Is this room the work of a grieving father, pushed to the depths of infernal despair? One cannot tell. But whilst most of this installation is dismal, this room is tragic. Here, with dark, inhospitable music of satanic assailing your ears, the room stands as a home of pain, being nurtured and then spilling out to the rest of this astonishing piece of art.

Christian Büchel, Burnt scooter from Simply Botiful


Thanks to Saw2th for the great pictures. There are more of the installation on the Flickr site.

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Colour After Klein, Barbican Gallery

Exhibition held in Spring / Summer 2005

Colour’s an easy choice for a hard-up curator. There’s a lot of it going around in painting, sculpture etc. And even by restricting yourself to a certain period, say, from after Yves Klein, there’s still no shortage of the stuff in installation, video, and performance art. And everyone likes colour. Bright colours, dark colours, shiny colours, scratchy colours. Primary colours. Zig-zag strips of colour dashing from left to right and back again. The kids will like it too.

That’s why I was a bit suspicious of Colour After Klein at the Barbican. Just throw any old stuff together and pretend to make a show of it. An exhibition gathered from whatever could be got on the cheap from other galleries closed for refurbishment or in need of some kudos by exhibiting in London.

But heck no. This worked well, although not in the expected fashion. Most exhibitions work by bringing an artist’s works or a theme together, gradually establishing an overarching narrative for the exhibition a whole. Colour after Klein had no real truck with this method. Instead colour was framed as a technique rather than a theme, something that can be vividly exploited to create myriad effects that jut off at wholly different tangents. On walking through, it was obvious there was no real detailed thesis about colour – the exhibition’s sum conclusion was something like ‘colour is powerful and can induce lots of different effects’. But this didn’t stop each of the works demonstrating how powerful these effects were.

Isolating the works and providing a splendid diversity of media was part of this process. In the central downstairs foyer of the gallery, one saw the juxtaposition of the grey sheen of Richter’s Mirror Painting (Grey) and Bruce Nauman’s kite-shaped pattern of neon lights (White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death). One working like a glassy marble coated with a reflective oil, all natural materials giving subtle hints of the spectrum; the other all mechanical and seemingly transparent, until the bubble-gum neon colours burst into light to reveal their seemingly commonplace slogans.

Beyond the materials, the works’ messages don’t have too much in common, Nauman, in this instance, having a much more clear social agenda than the opaque aestheticism of Richter,. But colour vitalises them both; Richter in the way that colour disturbs and enlivens the seemingly grey surface, and Nauman in exploiting of the expectations, messages and pleasures that different colours convey.

Bruce Nauman, White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death, 1985

Other contrasts were emphasised via different media; Louise Bourgeois’s claustrophobic installation Red Room (child) used a single colour to hem the viewer in while James Turrell’s Zennish experience allowed a room slowly pulsing with a spectrum of glowing colours to allow the mind to escape.

Most effecting of all was the video (Dammi I Colori) Anri Sala had made of the Albanian capital of Tirana. Sala’s video camera had been hoisted on to a lorry cruising around the night-time streets of the city. With the aid of some truly high-powered spotlights, the camera panned along the facades, walls and roofs of the housing and offices Mayor Edi Rama had, as part of a massive regeneration scheme, painted in joyous slabs and patterns of bright colours. The long strips of fresh colour, juxtaposed against the black of the night and the dirty, scarred roads below, served as a life-affirming statement of how the country is attempting to recover from its Communist past. While the rest of the exhibition focuses on colour as an aesthetic element, here it was elevated to a lofty, if perhaps slightly superficial, social position, an ingenious method of adding a little joy to a city sadly deprived of colour of many years.

I’ll finish at the start. Yves Klein’s set of seven or eight Monochrome paintings greeted the visitor on entering and provided, in what was essentially an exhibition stuffed with conceptual art, a little lesson in painterliness. To the untutored eye, it was not too much – cheap paint slapped on to canvases with no skill but a lot of a cheek. But to the more aesthetically minded, a modernist essay in the application of paint. Seven or eight paintings, of different sizes and textures, with subtle adjustments in tones and hues (despite the promise of monochrome in the titles), using different paints on different surfaces, showed how much can be achieved, and how much the observant eye can be rewarded, even in the absence of narrative and polychrome.

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Turner Prize 2005, Tate Modern

I’ve wondered for a few years whether the Turner Prize has run its course. Most of its success in the 1990s was based on cunning, calculated and highly successful attempts to goad traditionalists and tabloids with provocative conceptual art; art that was ready made to prick the sensibilities of those who swore in the skill of the craftsman. Let the shouters whip up a storm, sly curators reckoned, and then let the gallery bask in the publicity and subsequent rush of inquisitive visitors. The actual art may have been of variable quality, but there was plenty of legitimate excitement surrounding the event that allowed the flag of contemporary art to be one of the most visible on the cultural landscape.

But this process couldn’t last forever. The clamour and the success of the Turner Prize (and the more general absorption of contemporary art into the cultural mainstream) has abated the fury of the traditionalists, with the result that there is no longer the frisson of excitement surrounding the prize. With less hoo-ha about the “is this art?” question, there is more time for the more pertinent “is this good art?” question. Seen in this light, the Turner Prize’s once-fluttering flag begins to droop more than a little.

The suite of works by Simon Starling, the first nominee, was of no visual interest – a shed, an electric bicycle, a set of five identical prints of a quarry. I later learned from the Tate website that the process behind the creation of his works was supposed to inject them with meaning. The shed, for example, had been dismantled and “turned it into a boat; loaded with the remains of the shed … paddled down the Rhine to a museum in Basel, dismantled and re-made into a shed.” But for the visitor in the Tate, hardly a trace of this process was obvious from the artwork and the whole thing seemed rather pointless. Knowledge of the process that creates a work can be interesting when they enhance the more immediate aspects of an artwork. Yukinori Yanagi’s Pacific, where ants dug into the coloured sand representing a network of flags, is an excellent example of this. But when the process becomes the entire raison d’etre of the work (and also when the process is one of breathtaking mundanity) then I move quickly onwards.

Installation view of Simon Startling's work at Tate Britain

Installation view of Simon Startling’s work at Tate Britain.

Jim Lambie’s set of painted birds was intriguing yet mystifying. The two-foot tall plastic sculptures, coated with household paints, had an immediate visual appeal, as did the shiny diagonal stripes covering the floor. As with Starling (an appropriate name in the context), Lambie raised Duchampian issues relating to the discovery and aesthetic use of banal, everyday objects. But beyond this, I couldn’t quite see what Lambie was getting out of it. There was a mixture of messages at work, as Lambie seemed to revel in high art being swamped by more popular artforms. Jeff Koons tipping paint over Frank Stella perhaps. But how it all tied together I could not quite fathom. Is it really just about the visual potency of the shiny stripes laid on the floor, the black blots on the wall and the pools of seeming coagulated paint? Or is there a larger unifying theme that Lambie wishes to entice us with. From the symbols paraded, I really couldn’t tell.

Installation view of Jim Lambie's work at Tate Britain

Installation view of Jim Lambie’s work at Tate Britain.

In deploying four video screens of varying sizes around a darkened room (If I Had You),
Darren Almond perhaps had an effective means of creating a worthwhile piece of art, but the execution was sentimental, almost kitsch. The subject of two of the four screens was pleasingly elliptic. A neon outline of a Moulin Rouge-type windmill was projected onto one, and a suitable scraping noise could be heard as the mill followed its clockwork path. The other screen, placed at foot-level, showed an everyday garden fountain spouting its water in a never-ending loop. It was interesting to see the glamorous symbol of the Parisian nightclub and a cheap item purchased from B+Q united via the notion of circularity.

But the other two screens were pretty cheesy – slow-motions shots of an old woman, perhaps a deceased grandmother, looked like nothing more than a clichéd Hollywood-style rumination on old age and death. And pseudo-grainy shots of the dancing feet of two ballroom dancers was a too simplistic way of evoking times gone past. Ally this to the worst aspect of the room, a cloying sound track of a nostalgic piano tinkling away and the piece really seemed like some kind of excessive multimedia weeping. It may have been an accessible piece of work, but it conjured up a horrifying future where next-door neighbours lovingly parade, instead of tedious photo albums, never-ending multimedia collections.

Gillian Carnegie’s black paintings of trees and foliage, such asBlack Square, were the highlights of the show, indicating an artistic sensibility that should please both traditionalists and moderns. These large monochrome paintings, built up with heavy dollops of impasto and strategic use of the palette knife, illustrated intimate knowledge of painting as a representational tool and as a means of abstraction, a factor that immediately recalls someone like Frank Auerbach. But in concentrating on trees and nature rather than the city, and yet denying the possibility of any other kind of colour, Carnegie showed herself as to operating at a tangent to Auberach’s urban grittiness.

Her other paintings, of backsides, dancing men in lederhosen and other portraits of trees, were not so impressive. The rather simplistic tree paintings looked like lesser versions of the nature paintings done by Mondrian during his journey towards De Stijl. But one could sense a set of ideas emerging that could bear fruit in the future. In short, Carnegie was the most promising of a pretty poor bunch.

I finish with a coda. Downstairs, past the queues for the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, sat a work from one (or rather two) of the previous year’s Turner Prize nominees, Langlands and Bell. We went to see this just after the current exhibition; its content clearly highlighted the deficiencies of the current crop of Turner contenders. It shows a video of the trial, in Afghanistan, of Zardad’s Dog, a Taliban-sponsored bodyguard who had allegedly bitten his victims before killing them. Immediately gripping, with little stylistic decoration or attempt to inject an artistic sensibility, the video manages to engage viewers by, in contrast to the hermetic worlds conjured up by the Turner Prize nominees, providing a seemingly more obvious path to narrative understanding, yet without ever becoming didactic or lapsing into pure documentary.

The video has no subtitles, and there are only brief explanatory panels shown between episodes of the court case. This does not matter. The familiar props of a trial – a courtroom, the oaths, the witnesses, the questions – provide a meaningful context. Then universal traits such as facial expressions, body language and tone of voices provide a further sense of narrative to the trial. So we see the sullen defiance of the accused; the nervous, darting eyes of the court guard, clutching his outsize rifle; the phalanx of journalists pressing tape recorders into speakers’ faces. A vivid family of characters is presented.

However, it’s important to note that one never manages to grasp a complete understand of what is happening. The lack of subtitles block definitive understanding, and so while the familiar settings and gestures provide a frame of reference, the viewer is left to interpret the artwork and inject her own meaning. This seems an approach that has not only artistic merit but speaks volumes about broader cultural issues. How does the western world understand and interact with the Islam world? Can the western world do anything more than observe Muslim life? Langlands and Bell’s simple video encapsulates a range of issues of immense cultural and political importance. It is given further potency by the fact that later news reports that the trial was not conducted in a fair fashion. Is the observer of the video neutral, or weighted down by prejudices that might also have provoked the judge? Like many good artworks, the narrative seems immediately obvious but it begins to become fuzzy once you get close. There is an easy way in, but not easy way out.

Zardad’s Dog is a short piece, maybe around twelve minutes long. And yet still there is plenty in the piece with which the viewer can engage, at both a poetic and a political level. It was this immediate sense of engagement that was almost entirely lacking in the Turner Prize upstairs.

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