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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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The Manchester School of Art 2012 Degree Show opened to the public on Saturday after a private viewing on Friday night. The art school, part of Manchester Metropolitan University, is known for the quality of its students, and high expectations are held of the annual degree show. I had visited the 2011 show with coursemates from my graphic design class and been blown away by the work on display, so I was glad to find myself in Manchester for the opening of the 2012 exhibition.

The show is divided by department and spread across four sites in Manchester; three on the MMU campus, with an additional exhibition space in Quay House on Quay Street. I set aside a day to view the entire show, though unfortunately I ran out of time to see the architecture exhibition.

The style of the work was mixed, but recognisably contemporary - It will be interesting to see how it looks in a decade or two. I was concerned though by the dearth of explicitly political or critical work, despite being 4 years into the global crisis. Most work appeared to be focussed on exploration of form rather than content or context; questions of what art is for and who it serves were left unanswered, the institution of the art school unchallenged. This isn’t an argument in favour of a restricted and uninventive form, but rather that radical form should be married with radical content. I assumed that art school graduates, knowledgeable of their precarious future, would speak about it.

Below is a list of works and artists which I felt deserved special mention.

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The illustration and animation department was one of the first I went to, as expected much of the work there was typically whimsical. Amy Victoria Marsh’s crude drawings and miniature Moore-like models (pictured above) were a favourite. Katie Lawes’ satirical beer mats comment on nutrition myths and branding, and could easily be hidden in pubs. Laura Nash Green’s playful models, heavily influenced by her trip to Utah and experience with Navajos, caught my eye - more drawings and film are featured on her website. Whilst Thomas Harnett O’Meara gives the impression of Aubrey Beardsley in his intricate pen drawings of Wayang Kulit shadow puppets.

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It was nice to compare the photography of the Manchester students with that of the London students I am familiar with. John Merrill’s surrealist photography and montage contrasts with the typically naturalistic feel of much contemporary work - pictured above is his Knife CutHollie Myles’ photographic and video portraits of people in thought are closer to the style I am used to. I also enjoyed Hannah Trampleasure’s voyeuristic series of photographs, particularly the hidden peephole animation.

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The breaking of boundaries between disciplines, e.g. sculpture, 3D design, installation, was notable throughout the show. Isaac Berbiers’ functional Desk Lamp and Concrete Table could easily be seen in style magazines and on blogs. Likewise, April Wernham’s practical and fantastically designed Creative Research and Play desk toys wouldn’t be out of place in a child or adult’s room. My recent obsession with Futurism was probably an indication I would enjoy Ryan Higgin’s Study of Movement; a glass globe suspended from a light fitting, filled with polystyrene balls and an electric fan; and James Lencki’s darkened room with electroluminescent wires and motion activated synthesiser - Video. Contrasted with this is the simple calming monochrome of both Conor Callaghan and Abby Mccracken’s black and white installations.

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It would have been good to sit down and watch all of the student films, however I only had time for the second half of Rebecca Gillespie’s beautifully shot Grandpa’s Girl. Documentation of the production is available on her blog.

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I found the sculpture students’ light and airy space in the Holden Gallery basement particularly enjoyable. My favourite work was Meiling Tse’s Untitled, a huge installation of wires stretched between three walls forming an optical illusion of circles - pictured above. Tse sees her work more as drawing in three dimensions than sculpture. Rebecca Sampson-Jorge’s stitchwork wall piece A CANVAS WHERE OTHERS SEE SKIN likewise eschewed the traditional features of sculpture. More conventional was Lucas E. Wilson’s Title for an Exhibition, two wooden tables covered in concrete cones with paper labels suggesting possible titles, andKeith Garnett Junior’s various solid concrete cubes scattered throughout the gallery and named according to their mass such as 1,139.022 Kg.

The show continues until Wednesday the 20th of June.

@jclwilson

Two German artists have successfully trolled the old media with a performance entitled Die Guillotine (the guillotine). Iman Rezai and Rouven Materne have built a guillotine and started an online vote to determine whether a sheep should live or die. This is no simple internet troll though, but an artwork that looks at the video on the Internet, ethics, and democracy.

Killing animals is nothing new, and killing animals for mass entertainment isn’t either. Since the invention of the moving image death has captivated audiences. At the dawn of cinema Thomas Edison made a short film entitled Electrocuting an Elephant, ostensibly to demonstrate the danger of economic rival Tesla’s AC electricity, but clearly also as a record of death on the new moving medium.

Today, with the Internet and increasingly more footage, people are still fascinated by both animals and death. Within moments you can go from watching puggles (baby platypuses), to seeing a hostages head being cut off, from a faux-vintage kitten to protesters being gassed and shot.

The key part of Die Guillotine though is not the killing (which in all likelyhood would never be carried out), but the vote. The killing of the sheep is a democratic choice, and surely despite turnout or voter intention the outcome should be honoured. The banal choice of whether a single sheep lives or dies has been given the significance of national independence or electoral reform. This is what forces liberals to question their unequivocal support of democracy.

This performance is concerned with festishisation of polls, the reduction of all political thought to a simple binary choice, the mirage of involvement and action that phone-in votes and internet petitions give. It also looks at the consequences of votes, the loss of an ethical or moral code in the face of the will of ‘the people’ - read, the electorate / lobbyists. The artists have described their role as that of, “the executioner, sacrificing their own desires and ethics for the good of the majority”.

The questioning of democracy is particularly pertinent given the Arab Spring, the IMF in Greece and Europe, and the recent re-election of Boris Johnson to London Mayor. There was disparagement amongst London liberals who complained that some people only voted for Boris ‘for a laugh’ rather than based on rational thought. Boris has previously called for a quorum on strike ballots of 50%, however the turnout for the mayoral election a few days ago was only 38%.

The absurdity of the responses from the media and commenters provides amusement, but also highlights the pointlessness of saving a single ‘innocent’ sheep. Animals are killed every single day, it is a fact of life that to eat meat an animal has to die, and that even if we were not to eat meat, animals would still die. Animal welfare should therefore be focussed on the life of the animal, not on its final few seconds.

The desperation of people to save the sheep reveals their hypocrisy when faced with suffering humans. Not just condemned people in the US, China, or Saudi Arabia, but the oppressed in every society. The economic crisis has brought to bear the facts of capitalism onto the relative few ‘doing well’ out of the whole thing: Violence and death are required and endemic in capitalism. When human beings are being killed by governments and corporations - in violation to the law they claim to uphold - purely to ensure the survival of a decaying and inherently unequal economic system, why should anyone care for a single sheep?

@jclwilson

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Tacita Dean’s 11 minute silent eulogy to celluloid at the Tate Modern presented a problem when writing this review; would it be categorised as a film showing or an art exhibition? By virtue of its title and medium the answer should be obvious, however the work is much more complex. I believe it would be better described as an ‘experience’; exhibiting qualities of both cinema and gallery installation.

The art object is defined by its physicality, whether it be an oil on canvas or bronze sculpture, in contrast the film is a series of projected images, the celluloid itself is of no concern, existing merely as a helpful medium for the recording of such images. Dean’s oeuvre however has been defined by its attempts to address the physical nature of the film. The labour of carrying rolls of film, of meticulously cutting and sticking and the time spent contemplating and processing, cause, in her words, analogue films to made and seen quite differently to digital.

Various features have been employed throughout the exhibition, as in Brechtian theatre, to deny the seduction of the viewers senses, here in order to remind us of the physical nature of film and the process by which it has been made. I was made constantly aware, by the tracking holes visible on the projection, that the images flashing before my eyes had been carefully thought about, captured, and edited. The lack humans in the film prevents empathy, the lack of sound forces us to listen to the environment around us, I was reminded that I was merely an observer, uninvolved in the narrative.

Further confusion as to whether this is a display or film was brought about by the work’s sculptural qualities. The vertical format film is projected onto, rather than a screen, a vast monolith which stands a few metres from the end of the hall. It gives the work a presence that flat screens lack. I walked entirely around the projection, and was prompted to consider the aspects of film behind the camera or screen, the physical objects and labour we often forget about.

Dean shows us that film is a physical process, she celebrates the virtues of the medium. However this is in the context of the waning use of film and rise of digital cameras, the entire intention of this work is to remind us of the dying art of sooting on celluloid. Dean asserts that this isn’t a piece of nostalgia, as the very act of creating it shows the art isn’t dead.

Dean is trying to inspire the viewer by pushing the limits of celluloid, by shocking us she hopes to attract our interest. I saw parallels here with the avant-garde soviet film directors. Indeed the flash cut montage interspersed with tracking shots of steps instantly reminded me of the Odessa steps sequence in the Battleship Potemkin. However, the similarities I saw with the soviet directors made me question whether, if all that contemporary artists can do is regurgitate tropes from the earliest days of cinema, then perhaps film is indeed dead, or at least, stagnant.

For Dean though, my concerns for the medium are irrelevant, the importance of celluloid lies in the fact that, ‘its a beautiful medium, a different medium’. Though with the recent fall of Kodak, I worry whether this medium will last long.

@jclwilson

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The realisation that one lives in a modern world comes about in many ways. For many the process has not begun, they move through life, feeling what Marshall Berman describes as the ‘terror of disorientation and disintegration, of life falling apart’, but unaware of its significance. If you want to see what modernity is, then few works express it better than the three pieces that comprise Euan Macdonald’s micro exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. The show is beautiful in its simplicity, and prompted a more intense contemplation on modernity than many books or articles I have recently read.

Macdonald’s work is very much concerned with the auditory experience, the exhibition space designed so that the cacophony of his short film 9000 Pieces (2010) is experienced long before you reach it. The work is a futurist-like nightmare, a looped five minute projection of a machine designed to hit the keys of a piano in order to push it to its breaking limit, in what is clinically termed ‘a repetition and responsiveness test’. The new piano, a piece of venerated craftsmanship, is thrown into a battle of machines, it is pushed to its limits, broken if needs be, by an automaton that plays not in order to create beautiful music, but to deliberately wreck the weak to ensure only the strong survive. It is the competition of daily life, in which the alienated worker is forced to engage. The noise produced is contradictory, seemingly chaotic yet arising from an instrument of order and harmony. Occasionally a melody filters through the madness, but it is soon lost in the utter confusion of the city, the noise of traffic, of relentless war, of the trading floor, of the disturbed mind. Imitating the factory and the process of mass production, Macdonald initially shows only the component parts of the machine, revealing more through montage, assembling the final product. Interspersed between shots of the frantic machine is a counting clock, which racks the tension to almost unbearable levels. I wished it to stop, yet it continued. As it finally and abruptly finished I walked into the adjacent room, aware due to the piercing screech that this next film had already started.

Brakestand (1998) is a fifteen minute looped video of the artist sat in a BMW with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake, the rear wheels spin helplessly, whining and burning as the car remains stationary. With this single motionless act dominating the entire film, Macdonald contradicts the purpose of both car and video. Instead of a narrative or journey he provides a meditative experience, I sat and watched and knew it won’t end for another 14 minutes, but sat anyway. The work is described by the artist as a comment on the economy and consumerism, made in 1998 it remains particularly relevant given the current crisis. I also took the film to be an attack on ‘common sense’, the fallacy that pervades all economic and cultural debate. We expect, we know, that at some point the car will rush forwards, but it never does. As with 9000 Pieces I was held in perpetual anticipation. What I knew was right was shown to be false.

As I exited I walked past Ritardando a poco a poco (2010), a long musical score of the earlier work 9000 Pieces, made by watching slow motion footage of the machine and transcribing the notes as best as possible. I had earlier rushed past this work, but looking at it again I now understood its significance. It is the position we find ourselves in, it is the inherently flawed and pointless task of retrospectively analysing what has happened. Based on fragmentary evidence it gives not a precise explanation of what occurred nor what will occur. The pointlessness of the score is the pointlessness of the many attempts to produce a single objective understanding of the world.

Leaving the gallery, the sounds of the films become a memory, and standing amidst the silent concrete of the south bank the truth of it all comes clear. Modern life is horrible; disconcerting, repulsive, vile to the ears and mind. We are immiserated, alienated, and the machines we are told will free us merely accelerate the process. We engage in the fruitless tasks of attempting to understand the past with fragmentary evidence, when only lived experience will provide answers. Our expectations that things will change is toyed with, and ultimately shown to be false. The only way the chaos will ever stop and things will move forward is if we take direct action, run at the screen, smash the factory, and grab the leg from the brake.

At the Hayward Gallery until the 14th of February.

@jclwilson