My tour of the Library of Babel show, 30 May 2010

On 30th May 2010, I led  tour around the Zabludowizc Collection’s 176 Project Space in London, looking at some of the works in the closing days of their Library of Babel show. After it, they said only Tracey Emin had got a bigger crowd! These are my notes from that tour…

This 176 Project Space gallery always has shows from the collection built up by Anita Zabludowicz. I love the shows here, not just because of her amazing collection, but because there’s always an extra star in every show- the space itself.

Most galleries present contemporary art in sterile white spaces, as if the works themselves were objects in a 3D white canvas. This venue is an 1867 neo-Classical church by forgotten architect Elijah Hoole, who designed Toynbee Hall in East London. It became a drama school a century later. When architects AHMM converted it to a gallery from 2005, they left most of it untouched- all the nooks and crannies and narrow stairs and odd-shaped rooms- and they focused instead on an airy reception. Wood panelling and rough, stripped-back walls define quirky, gloomy spaces, and sounds from some pieces drift as if haunting the place. The artworks here feel as if they live in these spaces. It’s completely different from the smooth white world of other galleries, which isolate the artworks like specimens in a deep freeze.

The Library of Babel is a mad show. There’s just too many things here- the catalog lists 217. There’s no common thread, it’s random. So I’ve chosen 11 works by artists who work in 3 dimensions. I don’t always know what they’re saying, but being a journalist, I use research to look for clues. Some themes that come out of the works I’ve chosen are architecture, the process of vision and seeing yourself from outside…

In the Main Hall (previously the church nave)….

Yoshimoto Nara: Crated Room No 4 (2006)

Nara is a Tokyo artist who studied in Düsseldorf. He came to fame with the 90s Japanese Pop Art school called ‘Superflat’, which span off imagery from Manga comics. He created cartoon characters with big eyes, the usual Japanese kawaii- cuteness- but they had a twist. Little girls might be holding a knife, for example. He actually illustrated a cover for the girl group Shonen Knife, but there was no knife in that.

This century, Nara started making a lot of dogs. Anita Zabludowicz saw one at the Frieze Art Fair called Your Dog and had to buy it immediately. Reykjavik’s Art Museum has some Crated Rooms also with dogs. Nara even wrote a book for children called Lonesome Puppy about a dog that’s so large no-one sees him. He looks rather like the ones you see if you look through the peepholes of this crate…

Yoshimoto Nara Crated Room No 4 (2006)

The space inside is totally white and minimalist, a bit like modern art galleries. So it could be a statement about modern art spaces, as if they are neutral crates containing commodities, i.e. the art. I think the dogs have the same sort of contented expression as when they’re sniffing another dog’s arse. Maybe artworks should feel happy that way, being near other artworks in white galleries…

Peeping into Yoshimoto Nara's Crated Room No 4 (2006)

(After my talk, I realised that the lower peepholes looked into a deeper level of the crate, where the dogs were in the dark! Well, if the dogs are metaphors for commoditised art, sometimes artwork is stored away in the basement!)

Michael Landy Semi Detached: John & Ethel Landy (2004)

Michael Landy is an English installation artist. He’s been in the news last week with something called Credit Card Destroying Machine in Louis Vuitton’s swank new Bond Street shop. His work can be intensely personal. In his 2001 work Break Down he had all his possessions dissembled on a conveyor belt in what is now Primark on Oxford Street. I was annoyed it wasn’t recycled- all 5.75 tonnes went into landfill!

Michael Landy Semi Detached: John & Ethel Landy (2004)

(Note: my photo of this work picked up reflections of the clerestory windows- they aren’t part of Landy’s work!)

Okay this is a photo, not a 3D work, but the subject is his installation in Tate Britain in 2004- a replica of his childhood house in Ilford, and here are his parents. His dad was a miner who was incapacitated in a work accident. This is the front of the house- note details like the Neighbourhood Watch sticker and wires. Landy reproduced the back of the house as well.

It’s a fantastic photo in two ways. First, it’s the ultimate family photo- not just parents and house, but also showing off their son’s achievement- an artist so successful he’s put the family house in one of the world’s great galleries. And that raises the second aspect- architecture. The contrast between the grand, neo-classical marble hall and the mundanity of an ordinary house, so ordinary it’s even pebbledashed. It’s the sublime and the ridiculous- but which is the sublime?

There’s suggestions here of a Potemkin village (a false village allegedly built in the Crimea to impress Catherine the Great in 1787), and also it’s the opposite of Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993)- a cast of the inside of a Victorian house that stood in Mile End. She cast the inside space of the house like a negative, but this is like a positive of a house exterior.

Matthew Houlding Silence in the Valley (2006)

This artist lives in Yorkshire but his childhood was actually in East Africa. I first came across his work last year at the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea- lots of what looked like 1:100 scale models of Modernist houses. He makes them from found objects and the likes of cardboard, MDF and Perspex. Modernism is a style dating from the 20s that came to define modern architecture in the 50s and 60s. MH has been compared to architects Gerrit Rietveld, part of the Netherlands’ De Stijl movement, and Richard Neutra, the Austrian emigré who worked in California.

Matthew Houlding Silence in the Valley (2006)

BUT his houses aren’t architectural models- they lack things like stairs and services and they’re totally impractical. They’re daydreams. There’s a sort of ‘fab’ 60s retro-futurism about them, as well a flavour of colonial Africa.

This is a tree house with added support from great cross-beam trusses. The swimming pool on the ground is a bit like a bird bath. But look also at this formica circle- is he suggesting the view of a mountain through a round window, or perhaps the Sun? Things can get mixed up in childhood memories.

José Damasceno Foto Crepe (2006)

This Rio de Janeiro-based artist makes installations often involving frames or balls. (Crepe means a gauzy fabric).

José Damasceno Foto Crepe (2006)

His photo shows the interior of a Modernist building- maybe in Brasilia, the Brazilian capital designed by legendary modernist Oscar Niemeyer in the 1950s. What is the ball doing here? Surrealists like Max Ernst or Paul Nash used spheres symbolically. But I think Damasceno’s ball isn’t symbolic.

Everything in this photo is a straight line, conveying 3D with geometric clarity but in 2D. Actually the ball, with no straight lines, is the real 3D. It’s not even perfectly smooth. So there’s a juxtaposition of the architecture’s smooth rectiliniarity and the rough roundness of the ball, and also a play with dimensionality. Dimensionality- is that a word?

Just one ball- if there were two, he might have been saying ‘balls to Modernist architecture’.

And now to the Back Room (that used to be the dance studio space)…

Gosha Ostretsov Dollar City (2008)

This Moscow artist graduated from the Bolshoi’s School of Theatre Design and that explains why a lot of his installations seem part back-drop and part sculpture

Gosha Ostretsov Dollar City (2008)

Here, the wall of cartoon is about a superhero in action. His bizarre head makes me think of Francis Bacon, but also Darth Vader-type masks.  This is in the style of classic US comic-book imagery, especially the Gotham City backdrop of 20s Art Deco skyscrapers (one has the massing of 40 Wall Street and the peak of the Chrysler Building, both buildings which took turns to be the world’s tallest skyscraper in 1930).

Skyscrapers in Gosha Ostretsov Dollar City (2008)

But here also are the sort of International Style office towers that arose from Modernism in the 50s and 60s. These orthogonal beams are like horizontal skyscrapers, confusing the sense of up and down, like an echo of the vertigo you’d probably have if you were swooping between skyscrapers.

Superhero-angel in Gosha Ostretsov's Dollar City (2008)

Note the damsel in distress with big breasts and the 60s party girls- good boyish retro-cartoon fantasy stuff.  The laboratory pictured is pure sci-fi 50s B-movie. But the flouro colour splashes are more modern, and give the work a kind of punky electric charge. So there’s something very contemporary going on here. And the initials on the superhero’s costume are NP in Cyrillic- who knows what they stand for. Maybe the title Dollar City refers to the crazy gangster capitalism of modern Russia.

David Burrows Mountainside Crash Site and Crash Site Flowers (2001)

This Birmingham artist was for a while part of the 90s satirical, controversial BANK artists collective. He once told Frieze magazine that his favourite book was one he hadn’t read, but was the one found on the body of French philosopher Roland Barthes, killed by a laundry van after having dinner with President Mitterand. His work is about debris and splatter, and he says it “addresses the relationship between mass media and events with particular interest in disasters and aftermaths”.

David Burrows Mountainside Crash Site (2001)

Note the shoe- shoes often get blown off in crashes. This is the aftermath, not the crash itself. There’s lots of colour, but the colour you don’t see is blood red. These splodges are pastel-coloured, the white a bit like a candy egg white. Perhaps the sugariness alludes to how mass media serve up disaster stories like goodies for consumption.

David Burrows Crash Site Flowers (2001)

And just nearby, isn’t this crash site flower like a fast frame shot of a splash?

And now upstairs to the Upper East Room…

Skafte Kuhn Licht und Blindheit (2006)

Kuhn studied art in Karlsruhe, Germany, but that’s a sleepy town and some websites say he’s now in Berlin. I looked him up in the German Wikipedia but it had nothing on him.

Licht und Blindheit means Light and Blindness, so this has something to do with our sense of vision…

Skafte Kuhn Licht und Blindheit (2006)

This dissolving silver cone- is it a light receptor or a representation of the light? There are two sorts of light receptors in our eyes- rods that read low light and cones that are less sensitive but respond faster and see colour- we have about 6 million in each eye and that’s what we’re all using now. The cones are about 20 micrometres long, excluding the root- about a twentieth of a millimetre. This is 2.8m high- or 100,000 times bigger! So maybe this is a representation of a cone. We can see that it’s seriously eroded.

There’s a sci-fi feel about this. The polyhedrons- what do they represent? Viruses? What are these letters? To be honest, I’m stumped. But I like the mystery of it, as well as the drama of the towering shape.

And now to the balcony, a fantastic stepped space above and around the old nave…

Terence Koh The Camel was God, the Camel was Shot (2007)

Terence Koh The Camel was God, the Camel was Shot (2007)

Koh is a Beijing-born Canadian based in New York City. He used to work under the name Asian Punk Boy. He works in lots of media and his work often addresses gay culture, sometimes overtly and sometimes he has a laugh. Big White Cock, for example, was a neon shaped like a cock- a male chicken, that is.

This is actually a cast of the artist himself, just like Anthony Gormley’s trademark men statues. But it’s quite unlike Gormley’s men who stand timelessly, solid and confident- this has shock value, plus this guy looks dead.

Initially I thought, is this a feminist sculpture? It makes me think of acid attacks on women. But Koh’s work addresses gay issues, not feminist ones. Then again, the title could refer to an Islamic story about a miracle camel that God made from stone that was shot dead with an arrow because a particular tribe didn’t want to share water from a well with it. What is clear is that it’s about sexuality. Maybe he feels people want to destroy his sexuality because they don’t want to share life with gay people. Maybe this is a fantasy of the ultimate harm of your sexuality being rejected- maybe it’s even the ultimate self-harm. Whatever it is, he’s looking at himself and seeing something different.

Barnaby Hoskins Untitled II (2007)

Yesterday, this local artist explained that when he was at the Royal College of Art, he wanted to make video more sensual and tried different surfaces. Velvet blurs out the pixels, and he usually projects onto it, rather than thru it as here. He also paints oil on velvet.

Barnaby Hoskins: Untitled II (2007)

Here, we see a model watching a video of herself being made. It’s on a plasma screen behind velvet and the skeleton is of resin. The hairpiece is a bone he got from a butcher in Dalston. I thought he meant the skeleton was from the Dalston butcher- woo, check your order in that shop! In fact the skeleton is resin, from a medical suppliers.

These are some of the things Barnaby Hoskins said…

There are ‘hidden intentions’ here… ‘A slight suggestion of aggression… a slight distrust of beauty’. He felt ‘something dark, sexual, Freudian’ making it. ‘I imagine forensic scientists would enjoy bringing to life something that’s dead, like a skull’… ‘Contemplating your own creation creates a sense of mystery’

I like it because of its beauty and its textures, but it’s another example of seeing yourself from the outside, and here literally looking deep inside…

Nam June Paik Beethoven (2001)

I first came across Nam June Paik in the Frankfurt Museum für Moderne Kunst – his One Candle (1988) is an installation with cameras trained on a candle and the images spectrally broken and projected. Then in the Leeum Samsung Art Gallery in Seoul I saw My Faust Autobiography (91)- an array of fast-forward vids in a gothic alterpiece. I realised that this guy was saying something by using electric and electronic elements to create art. His work is full of TVs, video, neon, robots etc. But who was this artist?

He was born in Korea and educated in Japan and Germany. Interestingly, South Korea become an economic powerhouse in part because of consumer electronics, but Nam June Paik moved to New York in 1964, well before that happened. He worked with avant-garde musicians like John Cage, and was part of the loose counter-art movement called Fluxus in the 50s and 60s that worked in all kinds of media and promoted a do-it-yourself ethos. Nam June Paik was also a futurologist. As long ago as 1974, he described the Electronic Superhighway, which we now rely on and call the Information Superhighway. But mainly he was a towering pioneering experimental artist using electronics as media. He died in 2006.

Nam June Paik Beethoven (2001)

Beethoven is a late work, half way in the decade between him having a stroke and his death. A sculptural montage of bakelite devices, bits from cars, a turntable & neon- this is distinctly retro. The screens are flat but the images could be on old TVs. It’s lovely to look at. My gut feeling is that by the time he made it, reality had caught up with his futuristic visions and he began instead to look back, a little nostalgically. Electronic devices grow rapidly out of date but hang on to them long enough and they will be chic again. Contemporary digital devices are clinically cool and aloof- this montage of retro gizmos is warm and fun.

Steve Bishop Staring at Cat Staring at Cat Staring (2007)

This Canadian artist is based in London. He likes using fluorescent tubes- he’s made clothes racks and mirrors with them. Saatchi has a sculpture of his that’s a stuffed fox impaled by white fluorescent tubes, called Suspension of Disbelief, also made in 2007.

Steve Bishop Staring at Cat Staring at Cat Staring (2007)

Two white cats with white neon connecting them straight through each other’s eyes. It’s a quite different take on seeing from Skafte Kuhn’s suggestion of a receptor cone, or Barnaby Hoskin’s work where a woman’s statue looks at herself being made. Cats can fixate their prey by staring, but here it’s like the cats are battling to see who will blink first. You can feel the power. And there’s a perfect symmetry, the cats are mirror reflections (note the tails), so the cat could be looking at itself.  I think it’s about the intensity of feeling when you are probing into your own head as if you were outside it.

Whatever, it certainly gives you paws for thought! (That got more of a groan than a laugh)

And now back downstairs to the West Room…

Yoshimoto Nara- I’m a Painter (2003).

And finally, here’s a cartoon by Yoshimoto Nara I’m a Painter (2003). It’s the dog again! If this dog is a painter, I’m an art critic! I think he’s saying, really, we don’t need to take art that seriously. And that includes anything I’ve said today.

About herbertwright

I am a London-based writer interested in art, architecture, the future and more. I am the author of three non-fiction books. Published articles online appear on
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