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It’s always going to be hard to sum up the 20 year award-winning career of a photographer who’s enjoyed by tumblr as much as by Alisdair Sooke in The Telegraph and the high fashion brands of Marc Jacobs, Helmut Lang, Yves Saint Laurent, and Vivienne Westwood. But the ICA has managed just that by opening up their entire gallery space for Juergen Teller: Woo!. The show was recommended to me by a coursemate who was lucky enough to interview Teller a few days previously. Despite a horrible cold I made it along to the ICA and I can say it was absolutely worth it.

The exhibition is sharply divided along the lines of commercial and personal work. In an interview with the Guardian Teller states that “There’s very much a divide”, he seems to prefer the freedom of subject matter that personal projects allow, while recognising commercial work is important - it funds his personal projects, and allows him to meet new people.

This divide in his work seems to be reflected in the hang of exhibition. The grand downstairs and upstairs galleries of the ICA are dedicated to Teller’s personal projects. Here the photographs are all framed, hung sparsely, and some of the prints are vast, easily 3 metres tall. Its the downstairs gallery that houses the infamous 2009 nude triptych of Vivenne Westwood. Meanwhile the commercial work has been relegated to the small Fox reading room. Here the aesthetic is closer to his recognisable eclecticism, the walls plastered floor to ceiling with tear sheets.

Juergen Teller’s wide appeal and popularity comes from his distinctive anti-aesthetic: brightly-lit highly-saturated analogue photographs. But also from his ironic subjects; he photographs the absurd and mundane, as well as the sublime, sexual, and abject. Of course, his commercial projects are generally toned down, and I think that’s why my two favourite photographs of the show were both personal works.

One from the Louis XV series. A double portrait of his long-time collaborator and subject Charlotte Rampling playing a grand piano while Teller himself sits ontop of it naked and baring his anus.

The second, a snapshot of a dead octopus upturned on a bed, its tentacles and mouth pointing towards the camera, thoughtfully entitled Octopussy.

It’s been nearly a decade since Juergen Teller’s work has last been exhibited in a London gallery, so this show should be on the to-do list of anyone interested in contemporary photography.

Juergen Teller: Woo! is at the ICA, London until the 17th of March, 2013

@jclwilson

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Nobody should be surprised that I didn’t like Paul Emsley’s portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge. Still, in the interests of art and blogging I decided I better go to the National Portrait Gallery and see it. Some writers and viewers have said it looks better IRL, but it really doesn’t. I honestly have little more to say about it than it looks exactly like a reject passport photo.

Down the corridor in a separate room is a series of portraits by Humphrey Ocean that are infinitely more interesting and worthwhile seeing. Since 2006 he has made quick goache watercolours of friends, family, and visitors to his studio. He insists on only spending 30 minutes on each, to allow the spontaneity of the portrait to show. Ocean says that he wants to give the impression ‘I was there and I was with this person’.

It is this essence of personality, immediacy, and individuality present in Ocean’s paintings, that the Kate portrait lacks. Awkwardly posed, lumpy, and in thick vivid paint, Ocean manages to give more emotion in the two dabs of Rose’s eyes - shown above - than Emsley does in the whole of the Kate portrait. Then again, it was always going to be difficult for a warts-and-all painter to remove the warts and all from a sitter.

These portraits aren’t photographic reality, but their unreality makes them more real and emotional than Kate could ever be. If the choice was mine, I would much rather have my portrait done by Humphrey Ocean than Paul Emsley.

A Handbook of Modern Life is at the National Portrait Gallery, London until the 1st of September, 2013.

@jclwilson

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Before I travelled back to Manchester for the Christmas holidays I went to see Shoot! Existential Photography, currently occupying the top two floors of The Photographer’s Gallery, London. The exhibition was one of the clearest and most thought provoking I’ve been to in quite some time. It is a fantastic exploration of the intimate bond between the history of photography and the act of shooting, and the violence involved in each.

The works in the exhibition are varied, but the focus is on the photographic shooting gallery, a funfair attraction popular after the First World War: When the shooter hit the bullseye, they triggered a camera which took a photo of them in the act of shooting. The simple enjoyment of the shooting gallery at the funfair becomes an existential contemplation, the act of shooting the gun literally becomes the act of shooting a picture. The shooter, after they fire the gun and receive the picture, see themselves as their own executioner.

Of the whole exhibition, two artworks really stood out. First, the huge photographic collection of Ria van Dijk (pictured above), a woman who has documented every year of her adult life in shooting gallery photos since 1936. Her unusual autobiography shows the passage of time in her steady ageing and fashions - but in a very mechanical way. The slightly off centre angle of the photographs reminded me of a comment by Slavoj Zizek about the experience of seeing yourself from an odd angle. The confusion of realising that the idealised virtual image of yourself is not actually real.

The second work was Christian Marclay’s 2007 video installation Crossfire. A dark square room with full screen projections on each wall. A choreographed montage of what seems to be every single gunshot in Hollywood history. I stood in the middle of this room for the full 8 and a half minutes of this film. It was a very intense experience, with the pace of the action constantly changing with the flashes of light and rhythm of gunshots. The effect though was very different to that of the videos at Frontline: A Year of Journalism and Conflict of early 2012.

Shoot! Existential Photography is at The Photographer’s Gallery, London, until the 6th of January 2013.

@jclwilson

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The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh is currently a sanctuary away from the intensity of the various summer festivals. Last time I was there I saw Martin Creed’s playful exhibition. This year I saw the work of Dieter Roth (1930 –1998), a man who saw little separation between art and life and whose works drew on his own existence. This exhibition, Dieter Roth: Diaries, looked at Roth’s obsessive cataloguing and recording of his daily activities, in books, drawings, paintings, sculptures, assemblages and audio-visual installation works. This show is the first time Roth’s work has been seen in Scotland since Richard Demarco’s exhibition Strategy Get Arts at the 1970 International Festival.

The entire ground level of the Fruitmarket is filled with 128 Cathode ray TV screens forming Roth’s Solo Scenes (1997-8). The gentle curve of the installation allowed me to sit and observe every screen at once. In 1997, with knowledge of his impending death, Roth started to videotape nearly every aspect of his life. Each of the 128 screens shows a different video, in which Roth is the sole protagonist. However this isn’t simply a display of narcicissm - instead it feels much more voyeuristic. The camera is utterly still, and the videos are almost entirely silent apart from ocassional mutterings. Roth is being judged by the viewier as he is seen pottering around, drawing, naked after a shower, and sitting on the toilet.

The idea of a diary, of planning and recording was extremely important to Roth - he kept one throughout his life. The Fruitmarket displays a number of his diary books, some open - complete with delicate writing, drawings, scribbles - all dog eared. Upstairs another glass case displays the ‘copybooks’, facsimiles of diary pages, that Roth had made and bound, and gave to friends and relatives. Intimate and mundane articles, shared with others.

The upstairs room of the Fruitmarket also holds one of Roth’s more unusual forms of diary. Between 1975 and ‘76 (and returning to the project in 1992) Roth created a carefully catalogued daily archive of found objects less than 10mm in height. His so named Flat Waste (1975-6/1992) occupies rows and rows of lever arch files in storage cabinets. Contrasting with the meticulous record is the objects themselves which have an absurd Dadaist or arte-povera feel to them; receipts, napkins, letters, bits of fluff, boxes of film. A few of the folders are open and set up for visitors to turn through. The trust of behalf of the gallery reflects the openness of Roth.

Roth believed that by presenting his method to people he could act as a leveller, he abhorred the idea of art that would belittle viewers. This incredibly simple exhibition works because people can understand the artist, and his desire to share. It’s a shame Dieter Roth died in 1998, only a few years before the boom of the web. The art he produced feels very much like an analogue version of Twitter, and I am sure that he would have greatly enjoyed the micro-blogging and self-publishing tools available today.

Dieter Roth: Diaries is at the Fruitmarket Gallery until the 14th October 2012

@jclwilson

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'Damien Hirst is weird'

This is the reaction fellow contributor Laura gave when I said I was visiting the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern. Months ago when I initially heard about the exhibition I was unsure whether to bother seeing it. Damien Hirst is far from my favourite artist, and his key works are so well known and reproduced that I seriously doubted whether seeing them IRL would allow me to consider them differently. It was only when a few friends invited me to a late viewing that I thought I ought to go and see it.

Viewing the exhibition at 9pm on a Sunday night we experienced it in a totally different way to most people. A friend who had seen it earlier had described queues stretching into the Turbine Hall, and said that actually viewing the artworks was nearly impossible. For us there were no crowds, the few people who were there clearly had a significant interest in the arts and I imagine they genuinely appreciated Hirst’s work. My friend George was one of these enthusiastic viewers, and he recognised I was less so. I have various problems with Hirst, which this exhibition only confirmed.

Hirst has always seen himself as a conceptual artist, however much of his work is marked by a sheer lack of concept. The low level of thought which has gone into its creation means the viewer will very rarely be challenged or forced to think critically. Like Thomas Kinkade’s work, Hirst’s is a very comforting art, easy to hate and easy to like. It is this ease of viewing that George actually finds appealing, for me, art which fails to make us think is the worst form of kitsch.

Hirst repeatedly works on the same weak concepts. The retrospective lacked variety, it felt like a single exhibition, rather than an overview of a lifetimes work. In repeatedly constructing pharmacy shelves, Hirst isn’t increasing the concept, merely his market value. The endless dot paintings are the archetypal Hirst work, mass produced and articulating one thought. Comparisons could be made with Mondrian, who likewise turned out dozens of similar abstract works, however seven decades have passed since Mondrian, and Hirst only appears to have just caught up. Perhaps though we should consider Hirst in context, the vapid vacuity of his work more suited to those halcyon days where the end of history was truth, not ideology.

The greatest problem I have with Hirst is what I see as an almost complete lack of irony. Hirst imagines himself a punk-artist or troll, operating some sort of accelerationist programme within the artworld. Instead, all I see is a sincere pandering to the ruling class and its various structures, institutions, and the state. Towards the end of the exhibition there is a room where Hirst has ‘ironically’ created new bejewelled versions of his classics. However I felt sincerity hadn’t been entirely eclipsed.

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The few works I did enjoy were the ones involving living / dying animals - A Thousand Years (1990) and In and Out of Love (1991) - perhaps because they can’t be accurately replicated in images or videos. Even then though I felt that these works would be more suited to a Futurist exhibition in 1912 than 2012.

Ultimately it is the fame of Hirst supports and destroys him. The repetition of his works across all media is what has made him famous and justifies the obscene prices for his works, yet at the same time it devalues the art object. When I stood in front of the dead shark, it wasn’t the dead shark, but a dead shark, merely one of the hundreds of others I’ve seen in my life. I was glad that I went to the exhibition, precisely because it only confirmed my belief in the continual destruction of the artistic aura.

@jclwilson