Theaster Gates

I really like these tar paintings for their texture and their context. The fact that this was his family profession which he didn’t follow, but then did through his work is interesting. I’m fascinated by the idea that we can use materials ‘as painting’ to recreate sensations or methods even though they are in other media, but doing so in this context highlights mundane movements and moments.


Nina Canell

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” Nina Canell O Little Drops 24 APRIL – 1 JUNE 2013 Listen to the bonds fall off which hold you above and below. Guillaume Apollinaire, 1918 First energy, second heat, third water: O Little Drops, Nina Canell’s third solo exhibition made specifically for mother’s tankstation, bears witness to the single-minded focus of her work from its very outset. 1 With its recurrent attention set upon the themes of energies and forces, both visible and invisible, water has long been a preoccupation, with numerous and significant pieces that have explored its essentially differing forms and potentials: solid, liquid, vapour, life-giving, imprinting, eroding, soothing and wildly destructive. 2 Such pieces as Shedding Skin (perpetual current for twenty-four buckets), Perpetuum Mobile (283 Stone) and Anatomy of the Rising Tide, are historicised in international exhibition record. Half the pace of a given place, one of her earliest works, from the first mother’s exhibition (hers and ours), employed water as a weight, while Thermal Mass, 3 from her subsequent show, submerged a red emergency light in a small pale of water. At a point when we had still not seen the new work for the coming show, we requested a couple of pointers from the artist to help direct us in formulating a text. 4 Two enigmatically reductive ideas arrived. Firstly, a single line of poetry, re-composed (“…above”) horizontally, rather than in its original downward-flowing, vertical form, extracted from Apollinaire’s 1918 ‘Calligramme’, il pleut (quoted complete, “… below”. 5 I should note that ‘altitudes’ and gravitational pull might be considered as other substantially dominant and reoccurring themes in Canell’s work – “and the bonds fall off that hold you…”). And the second, the even more elusive suggestion of “less heat, more moisture”, scribbled on the back of an exhibition checklist at the end of brief meeting in Minneapolis, itself home to the great Mississippi River (then frozen) and her first solo American institutional exhibition. Hydrology may concur with Canell’s notion, but might incline towards a reversal of emphasis, more heat less moisture, as heat acts positively upon the mass of water, turning it into vapour. In Canell’s version, the absence or negation of event merely allows the constituent element to linger longer. Less heat does not, of course, increase the volume of water, but allows it to pool, as the coolness upon the surface protects its mass. Too much cold, of course, makes it almost a dangerous, slippery rock. Thinking about water, thinking about ice, thinking about a falling tear… The enigmatic, multi-talented and social-media-friendly Canadian astronaut, Commander Chris Hadfield, recently tweeted a YouTube video, Tears in Space (don’t fall) 6, apparently dislodging the central Newtonian axiom that anything that has risen or been raised up must eventually fall or return to earth. In a concise and playful pedagogical staging from onboard the International Space Station, Commander Hadfield illustrates that tears (here faked for ‘demonstration purposes’) exclusively form as “balls of water”, that drift around and just get inconveniently bigger the more an unhappiness expresses itself physiologically. Eventually, the evaporation process might occur, but given the cold that permeates two hundred and twenty miles above the earth, this is not going to happen in a hurry (the surface protects its mass). In the meantime, any such human unburdening leaves its physical evidence as a floating pool of salty ‘emotion’, biding its time, until the entire space station returns to earth, one way or another (along with the ‘fallen tear’). Perhaps even in space you can’t entirely escape the ‘altitudinal’, Newtonian law. Alternatively, absorption is always a practical solution to an unwanted moisture issue, and one that Canell enacts in the gallery, with the presence of numerous dishcloths, laid out, flat, like fragments of non-objective paintings, gravitationally repurposed for the floor. Thinking about crying, thinking about cold, thinking about gravity… Thinking about something, thinking about anything, makes me think about thinking about things? Gaston Bachelard notes the meditation upon a ‘thing’ is much like slipping into a daydream, in that you are subconsciously aware that you are in ‘it’, yet simultaneously uncertain why you are in it, exactly where or how it began, and where it is liable to lead or end. Perhaps the state of “intimate immensity”, as he describes it, is a productive state in or from which to ‘think’ about Nina Canell’s work? One might say that immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.7 Like Bachelard, like Apollinaire, Canell thinks about things outside of – or aside from – orthodoxy. Her visual ‘syntax’ alights gracefully upon lumpen (in the sense of dispossessed or uprooted) things, plumbing accessories, for example. Which in her hands are made to seem as if they are the weightless, phenomenological or philosophical expressions of much higher, but passing notions, elusive fancies that float away, like tears unfettered in space, free from the usual sorts-of-laws that bind us clods of earth (to earth). Forces that impact upon the expectations of material and rational behaviours are lightly brushed aside, the weight of a water drop seems equally light, or heavy, as a little lump of concrete, a ball of chewed-up gum or a hanging ‘droplet’ forged from iron. Having evaporated things with the heat of thought, a cohesive stain remains, a pattern (a memory of thought), while a cloud of impending meanings, a reservoir of other, many more unspoken but potent thoughts, forms above, waiting to rain down. Pooling, floating, eventually evaporating, rising again. “

Rosalind Nashashibi

Anton Chekhov famously observed that if there’s a gun in the first act, it’ll go off in the third, but he was talking about plays. Life has no plot. Much of it is spent eating, sitting around, wandering aimlessly along a street or, if you’re lucky, lazily enjoying the warm sunlight on your face. This is not the tale told by popular cinema or theatre. In life it is far more likely that the gun will be put in a cupboard and gather dust. In life the drone of traffic can be oddly companionable; music floats through the air from the open windows of passing cars; groups of people talk and don’t listen; conflicts are not resolved; conversations hum around you, and it’s a relief they mean nothing. A gentle contentment can emerge from such detachment, born of the realization that the world, despite its volatility, can occasionally ask very little of you.
Rosalind Nashashibi makes films that, at first glance, can seem a little ordinary – like home movies without the home, nothing much happens, and then they’re over. Occasionally they can also seem a little bleak: in Blood and Fire (2003), for example, old women eat lunch at a Salvation Army canteen that is both over-lit and bleached of colour; in Dahiet Al Bareed: District of the Post Office (2002) tyres burn amid the rubble of buildings beneath a blue sky; in The States of Things (2000) a scrum of elderly people hunt for bargains at a jumble sale. But I’ll state the obvious: no life, once examined, is ever ordinary, although its representation can be – details flattened or the nuances of individuality ignored. Equally, a life is only bleak if every shred of companionship, optimism or care has been wrung from it. None of which, by any stretch of the imagination, is true of Nashashibi’s films. She concentrates on scenes with the intensity of someone trying to still a lazy eye – her gaze wanders, lingers and then fixes on faces, textures and communications between people, dignifying the everyday with a curiosity that maintains a respectful distance even as it probes.
Her palette comprises the patterns and rhythms of the everyday, the non-event or the seemingly inconsequential. This might be in Palestine, Scotland or the US (born in England, Nashashibi is of Palestinian and Irish ancestry and lives in Glasgow). Her films are as self-absorbed as the people and places they explore; Nashashibi likes to train her camera on people so involved in the moment that they seem indifferent to her presence. Occasionally this introspection can drift into a limbic state of out-of-timeness. The bleached-out quality of some of her films lends itself to a vague atmosphere of free-floating nostalgia, assisted by her choice of medium – Super 8 and 16 mm film, which she shoots on a wind-up Bolex camera and then transfers to DVD.
As they do in everyday life, disjunction and humour have bit parts to play here: a shot of a beach as pale and lovely as a sea-washed pebble is interrupted by a voice-over of a woman saying, ‘there you are, lass, there’s your sausage’; a broken building is hung with a sign that reads, ‘Heaven Knows Video Pool Family Entertainment’; the sound-track to a Scottish jumble is a love song by the Egyptian singer Um Kolsoum; Palestinian men get their hair cut in the Sweet Love Saloon For Men. Nashashibi makes it clear that the only time people really laugh is when they are with someone else. She often focuses on the experiences that bring people together – food being prepared, meals taken, interests shared. In Midwest (2002) men break bread at Gaby’s Restaurant, and in Hreash Housing (2004) Palestinian women talk together while cooking for their families; Blood and Fire, set in Scotland, opens with a soup tasting. In Midwest: Field (2002) amateur model plane enthusiasts gather beneath a cloudless sky to fly their planes; in University Library (2004) Glaswegian students murmur and study as the camera drifts across the spines of books and a librarian daydreams.
These films tend to be brief – at 20 minutes Hreash Housing is by far the longest Nashashibi has made – and many are around three minutes. Brevity works well here – the films often function like extended snapshots of scenes, which, apart from the titles, explain nothing and, despite their duration, have no real beginning or end. Everything you need to know about this moment, she seems to be saying, is here in front of you. Importantly, Nashashibi never translates or subtitles. In an age of over-determined art experiences, pretentious explanations and dramatic news footage this is refreshing, an appeal to those aspects of our intelligence that are fuelled by empathy and recognition of common ground, despite geographical, cultural or linguistic differences.
Nashashibi is mesmerized by the minutiae of domestic life: by the symmetry of cushions on an ornate couch or a colander of freshly washed apples, by the twilight blue of a street seen from a window or the curved back of a woman bent over a bowl. In this she is as indebted to much still life and domestic painting of the 17th century as she is to recent developments in film and video. She reminds me of a story I heard about a Dutch painter who commemorated a victorious battle with the Spanish by making a modest painting of a beer keg. It is perhaps ironic that Nashashibi’s approach -– one that is less interested in disruption or innovation than in restoring a slowness, a thoughtfulness, to the way in which we navigate this seemingly very fast planet – would have been considered less radical 400 years ago than it is now.

Burden of Proof

Alphonse Bertillon was a French forensic documentarian who developed or improved upon several methods of identifying criminals and solving crimes. Some of those methods, such as the mug shot, are still in use today, while others, particularly anthropometry, were abandoned over time in favor of more accurate methods. Bertillon is considered by many to be the first forensic expert. Bertillon was a school dropout, and having been trained in no particular field other than that of a soldier, he went to work as a records clerk at the Prefecture of Police in Paris in 1879. The son and brother of statisticians, Bertillon was appalled at the chaos in the criminal offender files. In his spare time, he began to work out a better method. In France at the time, there was a concern over recidivists, or those who committed crimes over and over. Recidivists could draw harsher sentences, but they were difficult to identify, because arrestees were only identified by name and address, and sometimes a picture. But appearance and addresses change, and anyone could lie about their name. With the Paris criminal records system as it was in 1879, if you couldn’t ascertain a suspect’s name, you couldn’t find him in the files, and therefore the rate of recidivism was unknown. Suspected, but unknown.Bertillon tackled identifying criminals by anthropometry, or the measurements of man. Anthropometry has plenty of uses, in the fields of medicine, anthropology, and engineering, and Bertillon developed another: forensic anthropometry, for the purpose of identifying recidivists and keeping records of criminal offenders. His system, called bertillonage, involved measuring dimensions of the head, face, long bones of the limbs, and other body dimensions. Bertillion entered these measurements into file cards for each arrestee, and sorted them by the offender’s size. A suspected recidivist could be matched by these measurements, and then his name could be cross-referenced to his criminal record.The major flaw in bertillonage was the assumption that measurements were different for each individual. Bertillon knew, from the Belgian statistician Lambert Quetelet, that the chances of two people being the same height were four to one. Bertillon surmised that the more measurements of different body parts he added, the longer the odds were that two people’s measurements would match. However, several of the measurements he included in his system were directly correlated with an individual’s height.Still, Bertillion’s system identified recidivists better than any method used previously. In 1884 alone, 241 recidivists were identified when they were rearrested in Paris. The system spread throughout France, and then to other countries. An unsavory side effect was the idea that a “born criminal” could be identified by anthropometry before any crimes were committed, which fed into the eugenics debate

Bertillion’s anthropometry measurements were eventually replaced by the more accurate identifier of fingerprints, introduced into forensic science by Sir Francis Galton in the 1880s. But anthropometry wasn’t the only innovation Bertillon made in police record-keeping.

Mug Shots

Bertillon also had a system for incorporating face descriptions into criminal files, which he called “portrait parle.” This involved classifying the shapes of the eyes, nose, mouth, and other features into a coded lexicon that could be used as shorthand. However, the code was extensive and hard to teach to all the police in France, so portrait parle was abandoned in favor of mug shots.Police had been using photography to record criminal appearance since shortly after photography was invented, but it was Alphonse Bertillon who standardized the mug shot into the familiar full-face shot accompanied by a profile view of the same size. The profile view was added because Bertillon saw that the unique shape of the ear is an identifier. His method, adopted in Paris in 1888, was soon used throughout France and in other countries.

Bertillon was also a proponent of crime scene photography. Photographing murder victims was important for capturing the ability to identify them before their bodies decayed or were disposed of. He developed a standardized technique ofphotographing a murder victim from above, in order to record the body’s position in situ before investigators disturbed the scene. Forensic measurements could be taken from the images any time afterward.

Although not all of Bertillon’s techniques panned out, he brought a sense of discipline to record keeping and crime investigation that opened doors for further developments in criminal justice.