David Steans

May 05

Two – A poem from the invigilator at the ICA to Ryan Gander, mediated through myself and John Baldessari

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When I go to Berlin to perform

I only need a knapsack and these (points to arms)

And these (points to legs)

You don’t know me, or the possible effects of my words

You owe me fifty pounds

I have a passion I feel is degenerated by

Unwittingly being a part

Of your practise which is characterised by

“Independence and eclecticism” at least according to

The literature provided for visitors, or my customers.

Or are you my customer, or they yours?

I told David Steans I didn’t really like the work

Al Held said “All conceptual art

Is pointing at things” and Baldessari responded


You do nothing if not point at things

But I missed my chance to point back

I probably don’t think your performative

Lecture Loose Associations

Is so hot

And News From Nowhere is a difficult book

So I read with a slouch

And talk to strangers about my big

And little political

Things. Which is interesting in

And of itself, after all

Utopian Modernism and Socialism

Are big political things.

One – A conversation which took place between myself and the gallery assistant at Beck’s Futures 2005, plus other related information and opinion

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Ryan Gander is pre-occupied with the perceived failure of Utopian Modernism. Gander’s childrens book The Boy Who Always Looked Up is an account of the final days of reviled Hungarian architect Erno Goldfinger, as told through the eyes of a young boy who lives in the shadow of his infamous Trellick Tower. Bauhaus Revisited is a chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in which the shape of each piece denotes it’s move, reproduced by Gander in blacklisted Zebrawood from the African rainforest – it’s never been put back into production after it was seized by the Nazis.
And it really does permeate throughout his whole entry, from his advertisement inserted in the catalogue calling for 15 writers to contribute chapters to a collaborative novel called The Grand National to be released under the name Keiran Aagard (death of the author indeed) to his insistence that the invigilator of the gallery read (presumably his own) well-thumbed copy of News From Nowhere by commited Socialist William Morris, one of the key English novels on the theme of utopia, I guess in the vien of Maurizio Cattelan’s dealer taped to his gallery wall, A Perfect Day, but without the caustic humour. You could imagine maybe Gander just really wanted people to read the book. I asked the invigilator how he was finding it.
“It’s tough.”
I asked him how strict his instructions were, and if he had been marking his place with a finger when he wasn?t reading it; the placard above his head said he should be. He said he hadn’t.
“I’m not sure how comfortable I feel being part of this guy’s work.”
“Why’s that?”
“I haven’t got the commitment to the work.” I wasn’t sure what commitment was needed, beyond reading a book all day.
“I’m a performance artist myself.”
“You feel that having been co-opted by this artist that…” he started nodding, and made a squirming motion with his arms.
“An awkward fit?” I said.
“Exactly.” He tentatively suggested that his objection, or discomfort, was a “political thing”. I wasn’t sure what he meant. He was eager to estabilish that he didn’t have “some big political thing” about the work, only a “little political thing”.
“It’s also an economic thing. I can charge fifty quid for a performance.” His day job is invigilating, not performing. I asked if he thought Gander had considered how individual invigilators could effect a person’s reception of his work, prone as they are to being badgered by people like me. The invigilator thought that he hadn’t, and bemoaned the fact that he’d not met the man – it’s ICA policy for their staff to meet the artists who are showing. The invigilator was on holiday when Gander was here.
“He’s a conceptual artist with no concept of the repercussions of his work.” I think this was probably unfair – I reckon Gander planned this element of chance, an actual live variable in a practise bursting to the seams with stories of odd and poignant historical junctions and missteps.

Mar 05

The special effect occupies a unique space, albeit an almost always pre-defined one which is rarely deviated from.

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The special effect occupies a unique space, albeit an almost always pre-defined one which is rarely deviated from.
Unlike other constructions of illusion and artifice, the job of the SFX maestro is never to actually trick. Their job is ostensibly to create an illusion as real as possible, yet only for window-dressing fictions which will never be seen as anything but. In the cinema, no right-thinking viewer is going to believe that they’re watching real zombies/murder/hurricanes, even if that was exactly what they were doing. It could be argued that the more convincing the fantasy, the easier to digest and therefore all the less affecting. I think this is because the brain has a smaller distance to travel. Conversely, we often find the cheaper and overtly ‘fake’ effects more unnerving, harder to swallow and ultimately more effective. It’s a crude slight of hand, engineering a situation in which our imaginations do the legwork. It’s Paul McCarthy’s ketchup and mayonnaise, it’s Romero’s orange paint, it’s Dr Who‘s whole menagerie of kitchen-sink grotesqueries.
The Life Aquatic‘s stop-motion sea creatures side-stepped many of the usual pre-requistes of the special effect, functioning as they did as some kind of spectacular non-spectacle. Anderson trod a thin line between creating an (admittedly visually) impressive extension of his film’s (all of his films) shaky internal logic, and violently preventing the audience from engaging with that logic whatsoever (it could be argued that it’s not only the film’s seahorses that are guilty of this). As it’s a Wes Anderson film, my point’s in danger of being hopelessly cluttered by other issues of artifice and fantasy linked inextricably to that director. I just found the creatures interesting as an example of special effects existing outside of their usual parameters. They could be used to pose questions about how and why these things are used – I’d give Anderson the benefit of the doubt (whatever else I think of his latest film) and merit him with tossing them over as well.

Dec 04

Miike again

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Miike again – surprisingly, Izo doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact since its UK premiere a few months ago. Unsurprisingly, it made quite the impact on me. Difficult, though not for the reasons one would have expected. The almost pathologically disgusting set-pieces of Miike films past are relatively sparse, with the fractured time-travelling anti-narrative and the relentless but far from flamboyant swordplay providing the bones of the viewer’s endurance. With Izo, Miike proves himself a deft collagist both literally (stock footage) and metaphysicaly. It seems almost misguided to talk of Miike’s best or worst films, intent as he seems on showing us his improvement as a filmaker in increments. His rapidly multiplying body of work is an exhilariting alternative to the cinematic equivalent of the perfectly planned and crafted ten track album; daring me to tentatively suggest his films as moving away from – or moving toward being able to be read as moving away from – the 2 hour-odd motion picture as a finished piece of work, as definitive. The finished film as unfinished, reflexive, a beginning rather than an end? Eager to get his or her ideas on celluloid, a filmaker uses the film primarily as vessel and means to explore and project tangents and possibilities, viewing the festival circuit premieres not as measuress of success or failure, but unpredictable and productive group critiques? Isn’t this romantic but exciting notion pretty selfish? It seems a nigh impossible balancing act, perhaps managed by Miike in a partly illusory fashion – I’d be interested to see how I’d analyse any sudden dips in quality, though if Gozu or Izo are anything to go by, the concern is purely academic.

Aug 04

This month’s Sight and Sound features a review of Takashi Miike’s new film

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This month’s Sight and Sound features a review of Takashi Miike’s new film Gozu, and tentatively calls 2001’s Visitor Q his masterpiece. The reviewer’s take on Miike’s prolific career (Visitor Q and Ichi the Killer are championed as the twin peaks of his 60-odd film oeuvre) jarred enough with my own to prompt the piece your reading now.

Now I wasn’t particularly enamoured with Visitor Q, but subsequent discussion (on ilx amongst other places) had interested me enough to wait until a second viewing; perhaps my initially hostile opinion was in need of a revision. Stopping to think about the things I’d said, I suddenly noticed a coincidence – my criticism of Visitor Q was astonishingly similar to the praise I’d lavished on his other work. Although I’d be the last person to say that he’s beyond criticism, Miike occupies a strange (and perhaps unique) position in that his champions and his detractors often use the same points. An inconsistency that can be both infuriating and exhilarating, a sense of humour that can be either sharp or broad to the point of slapstick, and a flagrant disregard for anything even approaching a notion of taste or, at his most extreme, restraint. This middleground only stretches so far; I can’t help wishing how a more controlling director would have handled the bizarre pantomime of The Happiness of the Katakuris, for example.

I’m not confident enough in my knowledge – or opinion – of Miike’s films to start throwing the word masterpiece around, but if I was held to it, my ‘twin peaks’ would be Ichi The Killer and Audition. Perhaps Audition isn’t as brave as Visitor Q. Or perhaps I just find it easier to engage with its slow-burning horror than the ultra-violent slapstick of Ichi and Visitor Q. Whatever the case, I can’t help thinking Ichi and Audition would make the most convincing argument for the man’s inconsistent, unpredictable, fascinating talents.

Jul 04

There is no shortage of adaptations that suffer from comparisons to their source material, but Uli Edel’s misguided Last Exit to Brooklyn suffers more acutely than most.

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There is no shortage of adaptations that suffer from comparisons to their source material, but Uli Edel’s misguided Last Exit to Brooklyn suffers more acutely than most. I’d hate to think that any novel is unfilmable, but perhaps I just like a challenge. Edel tries too hard to carve a more traditional narrative out of the wasted detritus of Selby’s oppressive Brooklyn, and the attention to detail which made the book so compelling/repulsive is drowned out almost entirely. The potentially explosive set-pieces culled from the book (such as Tralala’s final bout of drunken exhibitionism or Harry’s crucifixion) aren’t enough to sustain this scattershot view of 50’s hell as a story. They flounder as plot-markers, and it’s frustrating because you can too easily see how they could have retained their original power, had they been given room to develop.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is indeed impressive, only ever allowing the slightest glimmer of morality to shine through all the promiscuity and assault. Unfortunately this isn’t enough, in an adaptation that has failed to capture the book’s all-pervading sense of nihilism and anxiety. Without hitting the dreadful lows of the book, it doesn’t really feel like the film is about anything, at least nothing interesting enough to maintain interest and justify the violence. And the less said about the contrived ending the better. Although I suppose a contrived ending is the least that could be expected from a film that ties up a loose-end of a character by simply running them over.