This week I fluctuated around London – from Bloomsbury’s British Museum, to a church in Bethnal Green and back to Mayfair – inhaling the fluid nature of the performances and works I saw. I was so engrossed in this state of flux that I pushed my usual Tuesday column to Wednesday, to make room for Cárdenas’s opening at Almine Rech which took place last night.
Prior to that, on Friday evening I found myself in the Great Hall of the British Museum where several performers, wearing boiler suits, walked around, occasionally congregating at the very centre of the courtyard. The grey light flooding the space enhanced the piercing light blue they wore. Each of them carried an elastic mass of rising dough. They would at times hold it, almost maternally. One caressed the dough, yet another almost immersed her face in the substance. As they walked around the Hall, tourists unaware of Block Universe and Laura Wilson’s site-specific commission ‘You would almost expect to find it warm’ found themselves wondering why bread was being kneaded near classical temples.
Laura Wilson, ‘You would almost expect to find it warm’
Wilson’s interest in hand-made bread stems from a desire to highlight the infinite beauty of passing traditions from one generation to the next – directly in contrast with our technological impulses to decentralise, outsource and reduce the need for a chain of production in order to increase efficiency. The lineage of Wilson’s latest piece can be traced back to her residency at Defina Foundation, where with ‘Trained on Veda’, she looked at Northern Ireland’s Veda Bread and, in 2016, her Site Gallery performance ‘Fold and Stretch’ which saw dancers folding beneath working tables where they were stretching out dough. Here at the British Museum we see the performers sinuously partnering with the dough (forever the protagonist), gravity allowing it to roll down their surface, move past their joints. The colour of the mass recalls the Rodin sculptures (currently on view until the end of July) and the Parthenon marbles, thereby allowing the performance to be seamlessly woven into the environment, as if already a part of it.
St John at Bethnal Green
As I left what was to be my last Block Universe event, I then ventured to my old neighbourhood of Bethnal Green, where Boiler Room had organised an exhibition in collaboration with New York Public Library dedicated to Arthur Russell. This has been an incredible month for Boiler Room on the whole – it broadcasted live from Tblisi following the violent nightclub raids, demonstrating the strength, resilience and solidarity of underground culture. It also launched 4:3, a free streaming platform publishing video content curated by the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto, music videos, films and documentaries. In the latter category we find ‘Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell’ which was released on the platform following the exhibition in St John at Bethnal Green.
Swimming with Arthur Russell (Crypt installation)
If this week resulted in me exploring fluidity, Arthur Russell could not have been a better subject. As evident in the documentary and, most importantly, in the music he produced under his own name and a myriad of other projects, Arthur floated between genres, influencing one with another, adding more esoteric chords to classically country or pop compositions. St John’s, with its flaked pink walls, its echoes and presence not only as an open multi-faith church, but also as an art gallery (courtesy of Lumen), was the right environment to host archival photographs, posters, sketches that had never travelled beyond New York.
Swimming with Arthur Russell (Crypt installation)
These were found walking down the staircase into the crypt of the church, where I spent most of my time reading personal letters and observations made about Arthur. One in particular, from Pete Johnson of A&R, addressed to Dave Berson, noted that “usually a band with a drab vocalist and three horns would be a candidate for the instant discard file. But their songs are just strange enough to be interesting…this is really intangible eccentricity”.
Swimming with Arthur Russell (Andy Stott installation)
If this remarkable archival collection weren’t enough, in the bell tower, one of the experimental producers I admire most, Andy Stott, had created a site-specific sound installation. With a silhouette projected on the damp stone wall, immersed in different colours, Stott paid homage to Arthur’s more left-field side, creating a moving piece. ‘Swimming with Arthur Russell’ was an incredibly thoughtful and touching exhibition, capturing Arthur’s essence and the depth of his reach as an artist.
I was invited to see a very different archive at Almine Rech, during the opening of their Agustín Cárdenas show.
Almine Rech’s Cárdenas archive
Cárdenas has been the subject of numerous exhibitions and his sculptures are often selected as public works, as was the case for the Olympic Park in Seoul, the Musee de la sculpture en plein air in Paris, where he spent his formative years, and in his native Havana where I have seen his works as part of the permanent collection at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Cuba. Whilst someone acquainted with sculpture will immediately draw parallels between Cárdenas’s works and those of Henry Moore (yes, he continues to haunt my column even after my visit to the sculpture park), it is precisely this connection that makes him such a fascinating artist. Born in Cuba to a successful tailor, Cárdenas then studied in Havana’s Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes ‘San Alejandro’ under Juan Jose’ Sicre. Here his teacher introduced him to modern sculptures by the likes of Moore, Picasso and Brancusi. When he arrived in Paris, and taken under the Surrealist wing of Andre Breton, he was therefore already well-versed with more European sculptural practices. His distinguishing feature was imbuing his sculptures with animistic forces, as Paris allowed him to hone his identify further, becoming more aware of his African roots.
Cárdenas, La Negra (1947)
The show at Almine Rech allows to witness Cárdenas’s investigation of totems with Mon Ombre apres Minuit (1963) whose teeth and eyes become abstract features, creating a distorted figure. In working with burnt wood and bronze, the sculptor also plays with texture, which becomes key in rendering the works sensual. We see more figurative women in La Negra (1947) and La Femme au Chewing Gum (1950), with their fluid curves, appearing malleable yet exuding strength. The most seductive of all, in my view, is Forme Allongee (1991), a white marble piece whose limbs intertwine, touching themselves as they curl and curve on the slab acting as their bed.
Boiler Room’s Swimming with Arthur Russell was on from 30 May – 3 June, St John’s at Bethnal Green.
Agustin Cárdenas in on at Almine Rech until 28 July 2018.