Born: Folkestone, UK in 1966
Jyll Bradley’s installations, drawings, and light box works express a deeply personal engagement with identity and place. Light is an important protagonist in her practice, and she talks of using it to ”bring things into the present”. Bradley’s work increasingly engages with architecture, site and community. Through unlikely pairings of materials and traditions, her installations invite reflection upon dualities at the core of self and modern life. For instance, her recent work Green/Light (For M.R.) for The Folkestone Triennial, UK paired the traditional wood, string and wirework structure of agricultural hop gardens with contemporary LED lighting, aluminium, and fluorescent Plexiglas. Built on a redundant gas works, Green/Light (For M.R.) created a dynamic space for considering possible reconciliations between past and present, rural and urban. This work, and Le Jardin hospitalier, Bradley’s new installation for a hospital in France, also reflect her long interest in the human connection to plants and the structures that are built to capture light for green growth.
Bradley’s unique works on paper, which she terms ‘light drawings’, are made through the manipulation of light from an old photocopier, itself a form of basic camera. These and her new wall reliefs made by pairing fluorescent Plexiglas with vintage wood are works in their own right, as well as essential to her thinking through of larger projects.
Goldsmith’s College, University of London
BA (Hons) Fine Art, First class
Slade School of Art, University of London
Higher Diploma, Fine Art
Jyll Bradley discusses her work for The Folkestone Triennial 2014. By Jared Schiller for The Folkestone Triennial.
Studio International film on Bradley’s Folkestone Triennial work. By Anna McNay and Martin Kennedy for Studio International.
Bradley drew on the dying tradition of Cornish flower farming to create a series of evocative posters shown on railway platforms between Penzance and London. This film explores the people, places and stories she encountered in the course of creating this work; uploaded in February 2011 to the ‘Culture shorts’ section of www.TheGuardian.com
A film by Rob Nugent on Bradley’s ‘City of Trees’ project, which was commissioned to help mark the centenary of Canberra in 2013.
Jyll Bradley introduces her new, permanent installation for Hopital Roger Salengro, CHRU, Lille, France.
By Maryline Migot for artconnexion.
Essay that accompanied Bradley’s solo exhibition The friend I have/is a passionate friend at Mummery + Schnelle, London, UK, 2014.
Interview with curator Gill Hedley on the occasion of Bradley’s exhibition of the same name at Mummery+Schnelle, London, UK, 2014
Essay that accompanied Bradley’s exhibition at artconnexion in Lille, France in 2012 (published by artconnexion, Lille, 2002; English translation from p.18).
Essay exploring Bradley’s recent ‘light drawings’ in relation to her light box works; written to coincide with the artist’s mid-career survey exhibition at The Exchange, Penzance in 2010, a show which then toured to the Bluecoat, Liverpool in the following year (catalogue published by Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange, Penzance, UK, 2011).
An in-depth interview between Bradley and Caroline Collier (Director of Tate National) on the artist’s life and work to date; catalogue details as above.
Centenary of Canberra
The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
Curated by Greg Hilty
Curated by the Bluecoat, Liverpool
Funded by the British Council
Part of the Artist Links programme, supported by the Arts Council England and the British Council
Nominated for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Awards for Artists
Nominated for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Awards for Artists
Nominated for the Beck’s Futures Awards
Artists’ Bursary Scheme, Artsadmin
European Broadcasting Union Award
Best Radio Script 1998 for Filet de Sole Veronique
Julian Sullivan Award, Slade School of Art
As well as belonging in numerous private collections, Bradley’s work also features in the collections of the following institutions:
The Government Art Collection, London, UK
The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, UK
The National Library of Australia, Canberra, Australia
Canberra Museum and Art Gallery, Canberra, Australia
The exhibition begins with The Exchange 2010, a vinyl text, which, as the exhibition’s overall title suggests, serves to name the place (the gallery was previously a telephone exchange) and set a scene. We read a part of a letter from Proust who advises his unknown correspondent: ‘You would do well to keep them in suspense… after a moment’s hesitation give in a bit yourself.’
Throughout the exhibition, Bradley has made careful juxtapositions of lightboxes, rich in colour and image, and accompanying white panels. These devices introduce a minimalist aesthetic, and implication of the unwritten page, and a sculptural sense linking floor to wall where they lean quietly, their blank virginal sides displayed but giving no idea what, if anything is hidden behind.
The most recent work in the exhibition include ‘Wordpairs’, a small series of works which feature old photographs from the artist’s personal archive. Bradley has laid images on white surfaces as if about to create a book or a poster, complete with the graphic registration marks. The correlations are hidden from the viewer but in Wordpairs (2) and (3), 2010, a family story is implied. A fine-featured man from several generations ago looks out at us; in the companion piece a small girl in a 1970’s photo taken on a Cornish beach fixes her sights through binoculars out to sea. Now she trains her gaze on him across the years.
The earliest work in the exhibition has been remade for ‘Naming Spaces’ and gives the exhibition its title. First made in 1989, three young women, full of glee and charm, are captured in two images, blurred to add both imediacy and transience. Overlaid are two texts from Proust as a memory trigger.
Epithalamion: Song for Cornwall, 2010, is a hymn to marriage. The major threat to the local flower trade is the intensive farming methods of the Dutch industry, which buys up flowers from Kenya, Colombia and now Russia., and flies them round the world to be delivered to supermarkets and specialist florists everywhere, including Cornwall. These large images are canvas pigment prints pinned to the gallery wall, making reference to fabric banners that advertise or protest or identify. However, their rich painterly quality also recalls tour de force still-life paintings in which, of course, the Dutch once specialised. Drinks, snacks, wellies, Dutch flower buckets and a sign reading ‘We make Bouquets’ place the setting of Bradley’s works in the here and now, but a bravura representation of a tall glass vase in the scene acts like the mirror in van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, though the artist in this case remains unseen.
The viewer stands in the middle of a 360 degree panorama of four lightboxes, the scene is an old flower barn on a farm near Penzance whose usage has now been revived by a local entrepreneur. Here, in the tableau in which wedding garlands are being fashioned, the florist has created a new project called The Cornish Flower Train, which is itself a marriage of marketing skills and the traditional flower farmer’s reticence. Bradley herself has made a work in acknowledgement called Flower Train a series of ten posters which will be displayed in railway stations on the line between Penzance and Paddington, marking the journey made by the legendary Flower Train which brought freshly picked flowers from Cornish fields overnight to Covent Garden. As befits a sequence that will be seen on a train line through spring, the images also succeed in their modest but powerful way to deal with time, light and seasons. Nine images are visible in the gallery from the street and the tenth, in an homage to Felix Gonzales Torres, is displayed as a large pile with an invitation for each visitor to help themselves, furl the poster and secure it with an elastic band, like the simple bunch of flowers. The last line of text on the giveaway is ‘the final choice was mine’, delivering the audience back to Proust.
This is an elegantly installed exhibition with clever variations of angles and corners, and combining intimate with more stage-like spaces. The lightboxes are seductive and the medium deliberately echoes advertising, glowing in an urban night scene. It is also a highly intelligent exhibition and a rare bird: one which brings the highly personal alongside the genuinely public projects and from which each gains substantially.
If there’s one exhibition you see this week…
Board the ‘flower train’
The Exchange, Penzance is currently full of surprises. For starters it has divided its main exhibition space into several different rooms, a move which surprisingly makes the gallery seem bigger rather than smaller.
Then too, there are the contents of these rooms, installations embracing photography and text by Jyll Bradley that add up to a major survey spanning some 20 years of her work and are not only surprising but stunning.
Renowned for her interest in gardens, in 2007/8 she was artist in residence in Liverpool’s historical but neglected Botanical Collection when she researched its founder William Roscoe. The book she wrote as a result of this Mr Roscoe’s Garden and her installation The Botanic Garden are a key part of this survey.
Another site specific piece, aptly entitled The Exchange is a take on the gallery’s previous existence as a telephone exchange. Centred on a telegram written by Marcel Proust, it reflects the artists long held interest in the French novelist, whose writing has inspired the title of the exhibition Naming Spaces. But as surprising and stunning as all these works are, the ‘photographic room’ which presents as it were, best in show, is that containing her Epithalamion; Song for Cornwall. The four huge canvases it holds, reminiscent of classic Dutch interior, still life and flower paintings, depicting in extraordinary, almost three dimensional clarity, the clutter found within an old Cornish flower farm barn, sing a hymn of praise to the activity that a forthcoming wedding would once have given rise to in such a place. Ironically enough, they are also a reminder of the difficulties caused to Cornwall’s flower growing traditions by the Dutch monopoly of the global flower markets.
An extension of this theme, Bradley’s new multi-site poster exhibition Flower Train a ‘first of its kind’ collaboration with First Great Western, mirrors the journey from Penzance to Paddington that the flowers once took to London markets. Intended as a train of thought for passengers, her images, photographs of the places and people of Cornwall’s embattled flower growing tradition are paired with poetic texts suggestive of mutable connectivity. The final destination of her train of thought is The Exchange where no less than 4,000 posters await passengers and gallery visitors to be taken away as a gift, rolled up and bound by the same elastic bands that draw the flower farmers’ flowers together.
This is a ‘must-see’ exhibition, as extraordinary as it is excellent.
Ask an artist to examine the history of any place, person or institution and the outcome is likely to be very different from anything that an art historian would produce. Jyll Bradley’s publication illustrates this magnificently.
Me Roscoe’s Garden was one of the key components of the Fragrant project, exploring the extraordinary story of one of Britain’s greatest plant collections, the Liverpool Botanical Collection. Significantly, Bradley is an artist based in London. Working as artist-in-residence in Liverpool she made a virtue of her lack of prior knowledge, for it has enabled her to share a journey of discovery with her readers. The images are an integral part of the project, and most of the book takes the form of a photographic essay examining the connections between plants and people, the images filling entire pages without any further interpretation. We must turn to the end of the book to see them again in miniature with their titles, dates and photographic credits. There are no page numbers, and the factual history of the Collection is revealed through a long essay composed of small discrete articles, rather than formal narrative. The writing is simple yet passionate, and the story told clearly and forcefully.
William Roscoe (1753–1831) was born in Liverpool, the son of a market gardener, and trained in law. He fell in love with Italy and its history, writing a life of Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1796 that made his reputation as an historian. He also pioneered the collecting of early Italian art in Britain, although he never visited Italy himself. When he went bankrupt in 1816 much of his large collection was sold; some of it was later acquired by the Walker Art Gallery.
Roscoe was elected Member of Parliament for Liverpool in 1806. Although he stood down the following year, in this short period he was able to cast his vote in favour of the abolition of the slave trade. Roscoe was a Unitarian, and his outspoken-ness against the slave trade – on which so much of Liverpool’s financial fortune was built – made both friends and enemies in his native city.
By 1803 Roscoe had founded Liverpool Botanical Collection. It developed into one of the finest of its day filled with the rare and newly discovered plants arriving through the city’s port from the growing British empire. In 1846 it moved to a larger site and it moved again in 1964. By the mid-twentieth century the Collection included the greatest collection of orchids ever amassed in municipal Britain. In the 1980’s it closed to the public in a bitter political storm that accompanied the other political upheavals in Liverpool at the time. Much was dispersed, a tragedy that contrasts all too sadly with a glorious past. Nonetheless, the orchids and many other plants still survive in glasshouses, some housed in Croxteth Country Park and some at Greenhill Nursery, where dedicated staff continue to nurture them. Dried plants are now in Liverpool Museum’s Herbarium and the books are in the City Library. Bradley draws together various themes: the plants and their collectors, the gardeners who have kept the homeless collection going, and the parks and buildings in which they have been located.
The wider Fragrant project included the re-emergence of the Roscoe Collection as an exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2008. it was the first Liverpool City contribution in several decades and one designed by Bradley with the gardeners to celebrate the city’s year as European Capital of Culture. Central to the exhibit was a small greenhouse, emulating the first botanic garden, and inside was a selection of Roscoea plants, the Himalayan genus named after Roscoe.
The Botanic Garden exhibition was held at the Walker Art Gallery (20 September – 1 March 2009) for which Bradley created an installation, a ‘virtual’ Liverpool botanic garden comprising an installation of light-boxes with panoramic images. In one light-box two botanists pressed an orchid in the herbarium; in another, two security guards settled in for a palm-house night-watch. This was a garden that did not exist, but which drew on the hopes of many Liverpudlians for the creation of a new garden. It was shown along with paintings from the permanent collection that once belonged to Roscoe.
Bradley’s Fragrant project was developed and produced in collaboration with London Artists Projects and curated by the Bluecoat in partnership with National Museums Liverpool, Liverpool City Council’s Library and Parks and Environment Service. Bradley has been quoted as saying that: ‘I hope we do Mr Roscoe proud.’ Indeed she has.
Art Historian, Edinburgh
It seems appropriate that the decision of Council to adopt ‘Plant Heritage’ as the umbrella title for our organisation should coincide with the publication of Jyll Bradley’s Mr Roscoe’s Garden. For this is the story of Liverpool’s Botanic heritage beginning with the garden’s foundation. In 1803 by Mr Roscoe and his fellow ‘Proprietors’. In time the encroaching city necessitated a removal to another site and in 1843, faced with financial problems, the garden was sold to the Corporation of Liverpool and thus became available for the unrestricted access of all its citizens. The story continued through the twentieth century when wars and politics led the Collections to fall on evil days and yet, despite all, remain intact.
Jyll Bradley approaches her subject with great sensitivity and has made her own the cause of those both living and dead whose portraits appear in these pages. Their devotion to the Collections over the years serves to remind us, that, thanks to their efforts of conservation, Liverpool’s Botanical Collections will live on and hopefully have a bright future.
This beautifully produced book opens with a series of plates which are a tribute to Ms Bradley’s photographic skill. There follows an extensive essay in which she traces the history of the Botanic Collections and the personalities involved. She feels at liberty to digress from the main story to visit the source of the orchids for which Liverpool was world famous and to give us an insight into her own horticultural philosophy.
All in all this is a delightful and informative book.
Stravinsky’s ballet score The Rite of Spring was inspired by his dream of a virgin dancing herself to death in a pagan ritual of self-sacrifice. The dance, a climax of transitory beauty and death, is demanded by the forces of nature to bring about a change in the seasons, from winter to spring. The ‘little death’ of the cut flower, sacrificed for an ephemeral display of beauty, mirrors this transformative moment of ‘becoming’ and is central to Jyll Bradley’s concerns and her latest project Rite van de lente (Dutch for ‘Rite of Spring’).
For over one hundred years west Cornwall provided Britain with a promise of spring through its early crop of flowers. The local trade is now pressurised by imports from the global flower market that is controlled by the Dutch, who grow under glass, so resisting the rhythms of nature. The relative cheapness of aviation fuel compared to that of diesel, compounds the problem, as does the demise of the flower train that once took West Country blooms to urban markets.
On a steep grassy slope at Tremenheere, reached via an ancient pilgrim’s route, a second hand transit van is parked and decorated with garlands of spring flowers, hybridising it into an object of beauty. The van faces east, over-looking St. Michael’s Mount, the traditional direction of pilgrims and migration of local people. The garlands, a west Cornwall tradition include anemones, bluebells, lily of the valley and late daffodils. Crowned with a headdress of strong smelling white lilies, the van represents the spirit of May Day, creating a visual metaphor for the migration of flowers and their cultures and communicating what the Romantic poet William Blake called the ‘two contrary states of the human soul’. After May Day, and the garlands transient display, the work will be undressed and transformed back into a van in a process of circularity.
The ‘Flower Power’ movement of the hippies, with its closeness to nature and resistance to Western Capitalism, is amongst Rite van de lente’s influences. The work can also be understood as heir to the Romantic movement. The Romantics regarded themselves as inspired facilitators, enabling others to see familiar things in a new way. Revolution, Nature and Transcendence were at the very heart of it, as they are in Bradley’s projects.
The exhibition’s title – borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s description of the angel of history as a depicted in a Paul Klee painting – has a resonance far beyond the work selected for this lively group show. For this exhibition marks the re-openign of Arnolfini after a two year closure for redevelopment. Although this is a rigorous selection of work with plenty of depth, the show has a justly celebratory air. There’s the exuberance of Jyll Bradley’s panoramic arrangement of cut flowers curving across the ground floor, filling it with scent and colour, but also the confident inclusion of a Turner (Norham Castle, Sunrise c.1845) to give some historical perspective on the notion of progress. A room of Martin Boyce’s work shows the artist recasting design classics into haunting fragments that seem to whisper mortality, while Lee Mingwei’s Letter Writing Project is housed in two eerilty tomb like spaces in the main gallery. These subtle references to the human cost of progress murmur in much of the work. Another highlight is Chen Chieu-jen’s film, Factory: a reminder that what we think of progress now will soon slither into obsolescence. A silent film, it shows women toiling in a Taiwanese factory abandoned as cheaper markets opened in other countries. What was once the future now looks tired and irrelevant. It’s a sobering thought.
Flower arranging, at least in Britain, is generally regarded as the preserve of nice, middle class ladies in genteel provincial towns. But there’s another, more complex side to our floral culture – witness the piles of rotting tributes in Kensington Gardens after the death of the Princess of Wales, or the eerie fashion for roadside shrines on the sites of accidents and murders. Its this un-reconciled cultural gap that attracted artist Jyll Bradley to the world of floristry and which led to her continuing work Fragrant, a mixture of performance art, installation and good old-fashioned flower arranging that’s about to embark on an international adventure.
‘I’ve always been interested in artistic practice that falls outside the traditional art work’, says Bradley. ‘Flower Festivals have this very uncool image, but they have enormous potential as art installations and I wanted to revitalise that in some way. Flowers are culturally significant around the world. they’re mediators of emotion – we use them in celebration, as tokens of love, or in the context of death. They’re used in religious practice, or they’re used simply as decoration or personal adornment, to impress or seduce.
Bradley’s interest in the performance potential of flower arranging prompted her to contact the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies (NAFAS), and to explore her ideas in a series of events that led to a full-scale London flower festival in September 2003. Fragrant started life as a small scale work developed for Duckie, the south London gay arts collective, in 2002. ‘We hired St Peter’s, a High Anglican church in Vauxhall, and staged a flower arranging demonstration there with Gillian Poulain, one of NAFAS’s demonstrators. I worked with her as dramaturg, and encouraged her to tell stories as she was doing the arrangements, talking about things she would never normally have discussed in a demonstration – a tragic accident that her sister had, for instance, and how Gillian raised her children. It was quite shocking to see a lady in her seventies talking about these things, and how they informed her work with flowers.’
Independent producer Bill Gee attended the event and was particularly struck by the range and diversity of the audience at St Peters. Traditional flower arrangers rubbed shoulders with the local Caribbean community and the regualer Duckie crowd, as well as a mixture of artists and theatregoers. The live art audience thought Gillian was wonderfully theatrical, the Carinbbean audience fell in love with theb flowers, many of which came from the Caribbean and provided a strong link with their history. And the flower arranging audience took the technical side of things very seriously. It was a totally uncynical event, at which a unique mix of people came together through flowers. That was its politics if you like.’
The success of the first ‘Fragrant’ led Bradley and Gee to join forces to create ‘Fragrant 2003’. This major flower festival brought together a team of top-notch flower arrangers to interpret personal stories sourced through the parish of St Peter’s. The theme was ‘Dreams Come True’, says Bradley, ‘a universal concept that people responded to very personally. Nine people from the local community told us stories of dreams and ambitions that they’d had in their lives, and the flower arrangers used them as the basis for nine large-scale floral pieces.’ The stories were as diverse as the Fragrant audience. The church organist who wanted to be ordained as a priest, the woman from Jamaica who trained to become a nurse, the man who travelled to India to meet an old woman he sponsored through Help the Aged – all these stories were retold through the medium of flowers. Flower arrangements crowded the sanctuary and the entrance until St Peter’s was full, and, indeed, fragrant.
The opening night featured floral demonstrations, a contemporary floral dance by local schoolchildren, live music and a personal appearance by Julia Clements OBE, the 97-year old doyenne of British flower arranging, who pronounced Fragrant ‘the best flower festival I have even been to.’ On the following Saturday, Duckie hostess Amy Lame led groups of clubbers down the road to join the floral festivities at the church – and this was when things really got interesting. ‘A lot of the people hadn’t been in church for years, and it was at a time when there was a lot of discussion about homosexuality in the Church of England. It was a chance to talk to the clergy, ask questions and confront issues. It turned into a very emotional and cathartic evening. ‘ Things came to a fittingly strange climax at the 11 o’clock Sunday morning service – a service of thanksgiving for the flowers, which had also been advertised as a theatre event in London listings magazine Time Out. ‘Being High Anglican, it was theatrical in any case,’ says Bradley. ‘There was a lot of incense and wonderful shafts of light coming through the windows. The flowers looked wonderful.’
Bradley and Gee are now looking to take Fragrant out of his original British context and re-imagine it as a work of infinitely adaptable international potential. ‘We don’t want this to be seen as a ‘touring version’ of the show,’ says Gee. ‘what we’re doing is exploring links with other countries where there’s a strong flower culture, researching on the ground and responding.’ As a result of collaboration with the British Council’s arts manager in Colombia,Fragrant will be part of the immense flower festival in Medellin, Colombia’s second city and the centre of the country’s enormous flower trade, in August.
‘I’ll be using the same process that informed the London version of the show,’ says Bradley, ‘except that we will be drawing on the stories from the flower community – from workers who are employed to pick flowers in the fields, to the heads of flower export companies. Then we’ll work with members of the Garden Club of Medellin to interpret these stories through flowers. There has been a good response because there’s a strong tradition of flowers in Colombia that people see as a positive balance to a lot of negative images about their country.’
‘Nightbird’ was a season of new work composed of eight pieces commissioned by Duckie producer Simon Casson from eight contemporary artists. They were to be a series of spontaneous, playful happenings taking place in non-theatre venues across London. The press release began by claiming the exercise to be a ‘live art laboratory exploring the potential of new theatrical interventions.’ A tautological claim which put me immediately on my guard, the sceptic in me raising an eyebrow at yet another promise of creative novelty amid the clamour of publicity and arts marketing throughout the capital.
It would be true to say that the season would tread a path from conceptual art through to entertainment. I was wary – these claims leaping from the pages of the press release could turn out to be another case of the emperor parading in his birthday suit.
And then I was dis-heartened – each piece was to be ‘disposable’ like the pop culture it is born out of’. I’m tired of pop culture being the hook that creativity hangs its hat on these days; it’s simply a way of dodging commitment to the belief that an idea will work or even that it has the capacity to transform. The inherent irony in this statement is also a cop-out for the product and the audience. It is allowing itself not to be taken too seriously and the audience not to engage. However as a fan of Duckie’s work to date I felt torn and so banished my grumpy alter-ego to a dark corner and cheerfully stepped out to various obscure venues to discover ‘Nightbird’ for myself…..(Contd)
…The treat of the ‘Nightbird’ season was Fragrant at St Peter’s Church, a flower arranging demonstration given by two women who actually are flower arrangers. I had initially suspected a parody but this was the real thing. Gillain Poulain is Area Demonstrator for the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies and both she and Margaret Canavan are members of the Woodford Flower Club, City Creations and Capel Designers.
On the theme of ‘Dreams Come True’ they created six arrangements, works of art in their own right, whilst relating anecdotal pearls about their husbands, children and holidays and giving tips on which flowers to use where: ‘If you feel in doubt, I say, leave it out; but if you want to win, stick it in’. Even the thorny issue of politics reared its head. ‘I always said I wouldn’t buy Colombia carnations, but sometimes our principals go by the wayside don’t they?’
Both women were brilliant speakers, natural entertainers with a real gift for timing, honesty and superb delivery – Alan Bennett couldn’t have written better. Fragrant opened new doors onto ways of seeing, be it theatre or, more poignantly, our own personal experience. Bradley gave space and time to lives well lived and in so doing raised them above the everyday. It would be good to see this kind of work progress further not to have it exist as or sold as interesting experiment that came and went as disposable tat. Duckie’s ‘Nightbird’ season was an experiment to be proud of with thought and integrity at its core – I hope there will be more to come.
“July 22 1978, Maidstone, Kent. This evening we walked to a glade in Mereworth Woods. We sat on pine logs and waited for the nightjars. As the sun went down, out they flew – whirling and diving about the trees. They seemed processed (sic)…their whirring song filled the air. One flew over our heads as if to say:’Who are you that have come to our haunt?’ Later we saw a barn owl and some deer. I felt that God was in the wood with us. As long as I live I will never forget this night.” From ‘My Journal’ aged 12 years, Jyll Bradley.
Last Saturday, Jyll retraced her steps to Mereworth Woods. A journey back in time – to puberty, the excitement and trepidation of entering the big, dark wood of adulthood. I can remember a similar rite of passage involving some foxes in a clearing (and feeding them Marmite sandwiches). My abiding memory of the day, however, is of spilling my Thermos flask on the floor of the school minibus (in the days when school had such amenities, as opposed to a mobile phone transmitter in the playground emitting Sizewell B levels of radiation). Jyll’s beguiling art happening/school trip was entitled Nightjar, part of Duckie’s Nightbird season – eight and a half alternatives to the gay disco. On Tuesday night, a long time collaborator The Divine David will perform The Divine David on Ice at the glorious Streatham Ice Rink. It will be his last performance as the Divine David, the Black Swan gliding effortlessly across the frozen sea into the flames of Valhalla. Engulfed in his own vermouth-fuelled funeral pyre David plans to destroy his alter ego before the grin-on-a-stick entertainment industry destroys The Divine David.
Fire and ice, self-immolation and rebirth. The Divine David and his mute psychic assistant Jay Cloth have always been a giant send-up of the avant-garde (A Blackpool version of German Expressionism). Hence, they became far more avant-garde than anything they were parodying: battalions of nicely cropped graduates from Hoxton University, recording heavy air for sound-scape installations at the Hayward Gallery.
Sitting on the 38 bus down Rosebery Avenue last week, I thought of Jyll and David when I noticed a piece of graffiti. It reads: LOG OFF LIVE LIFE. I thought of Rosebery Avenue’s illustrious tradition of discreet anarchism. The Anarchy Centre in the mid-80’s not an oxymoron, but a squatted meeting place for artists, bands and bored teenagers clutching Joy Division albums and immaculate suburban skateboards (I saw a band there called The Smiths who everyone said were shit and would never make it). I believe the building is now ‘luxury loft apartments’, just as Streatham Ice Rink will probably soon be a diffusion branch of China White. To my knowledge, this is the first piece of anti-internet graffiti in the western hemisphere. I wish its author well. There is nothing so dull as living through a technological revolution. Death to now and long live the avant-garde. We have nothing to lose but our ice skates.
It is curious that this country should be without any regular national survey exhibition of contemporary art. The British Art Show could hardly be said to makeup for this. The diverse work on show allied to a strong desire on the part of the curators, Caroline Collier (South Bank), Andrew Nairne (Third Eye Centre), and David Ward (Artist), to move along to a new group of artists has meant that they have opened themselves to a certain degree of criticism, especially in the national press. There is no real reason why the criticism should be so harsh. For example Nairne’s record at Third Eye Centre shows that he has always been interested in fostering a new art, of both local and national origin, in the international vein and style rather than the provincial worthy. From the outset the organizers stated that one should expect a diverse exhibition of artists under 35, many of whom have not shown much before. It would have been worrying for both the artists and curators if the national press had liked the British Art Show.
This is not to say that all criticism has been off the mark. If one sets out to create a ‘diverse exhibition’, it is essential that the work is treated sympathetically, given space, and on first showing at the newly refurbished Maclellan Galleries this has not been the case, (although at later venues both work and installation may change). The new galleries in Glasgow look as thought they have been refurbished by an over-eager interior design company which was never told that the rooms were to be sued to show art in. the walls have been covered in some kind of artex, and the woodwork has been artfully Smalboned, creating a space which is more pastiche than real. A bit like the room in 2001 where an attempted simulation of a familiar space has somehow gone awry due to enthusiastic misunderstanding of detail. It is as if those responsible for the refurbishment had only photographs and television pictures of art galleries to work from.
David Ward states in the opening paragraph of his essay:’ No themes were pursued in selecting the work, no theoretical stance preferred and therefore the exhibition as a whole embraces diversity.’ Making a big point about not having a big point to make. The curators have certainly succeeded in their aim to produce a varied display, within the unstated parameters of their own preferences which move from the fey to resistant. It is of course nonsense to claim that no themes were pursued in the exhibition, quite clearly the central theme is that which has characterized many international exhibitions of recent years: that of the high profile curator putting together an apparently diverse showing but one which essentially embodies an underlying theme, that of late Eighties euro-philosophy where modernisms’ reliance on notions of progression have been overcome by a new orthodoxy. David Ward appropriates the Parkett line, ‘There’s more under the floor’. This exhibition propounds a complexity of intention and interpretation appropriate for a time when standing with one camp or another has become faintly difficult. The attitude of ‘I am right so you must be wrong’ has been bypassed in favour of a kind of art land intellectualism where more is more in terms of general approach, yet the individual artists concerned often play out familiar themes towards a reiterative style which is really closer to the past than anyone really wants to admit.
Bethan Huws presents four plinths, all about one foot square and usual height. Each plinth is topped with a foot-square Perspex cover. Inside are carefully wrapped boatlets. Each a spiral of reed with the end tucked up to forma a kind of sail. They are one inch long with two or three arranged in each vitrine. The work has a disarming presence set against other hard-edged reworkings of consistent neo-minimalist themes. Huw’s art achieves a concise statement whilst avoiding grand gestures. As with the best wirk in the British Art Show, Huw’s questions the underlying conclusions of dogmatic formalism. Jyll Bradley presents two light-boxes, sitting on the gallery floor which, as in the past, bear blurred unrecognizable images of women together with an overlaid text. This time it is ‘Mousse au chocolat’. On the wall, in close proximity are two sheets of aluminium painted white. Also there are Rorsarch test papers carrying blotted ink symmetry. Beyond the shared symmetry of the elements there is an underlying confusion, a recognition of the complexity of relations. It is just such resistant work that seems somehow to push things in many directions rather than just sideways. Gary Hume’s paintings share something of this. His twin Magnolia Doors 1989, are unfortunately placed opposite each other with a Rachel Whiteread sculpture in between, one of the many problems with this hang which will hopefully clear up on tour. Hume’s intention in creating something which is ‘just’ a painting changes these works from formal studies which happen to be titled ‘Door’ towards an area between representation and the making of autonomous objects. His use of housepaint, something he shares with Ian Davenport, ensures that the pedantry of object-illusion play is weighted in favour of an elementary and obvious result. It is this desire to be sure of a look that characterises certain work here. Once set out, all intentions are followed through. Julian Opie has constructed something close to the cool gloss of an airport lounge or business show stand. Alternate glass and aluminum panels stand to form a small maze in the central gallery. Each smoke glass panel bears four painted discs at eye level. Where a company logo may usually be seen there is blank white, where clean lines are used as an aid to selling there is no product other than the construction itself. This work shares some of Dan Graham’s concerns with the apparent neutrality of corporate public space. Caroline Russell has taken the manifesto more literally.
Does it mean something? Does it mean nothing? Hard to say with a show such as this one. The Guardian
Things to complain about: Section 1/General. The British Art Show 1990 did us all a service by demonstrating conclusively that major art reviewers in British newspapers are without exception reactionary, ill-informed, sloppy and uncreative. Some reviewers dismissed the entire event without mentioning the name of a single artist. It should be stated publicly that serious contemporary artists are not being served by Marina Vaizey, John Russell Taylor, Tim Hilton, Brian Sewell, Andrew Graham Dixon, who know and care as little about contemporary British art as young artists do about them. It is a dull job churning out newspaper copy but they choose to do it. At this point none of the above is concealing his or her boredom. As we know boredom slides imperceptibly into cynicism, and cynicism and art don’t mix. Better no reviews at all than the maunderings of bitter, ignorant hacks.
Things to complain about: Section 2/Specific The wave of blandness that inevitably accompanies large exhibitions. Their committee atmosphere. Their titles which are not titles. Their catalogue essays which work so hard not to make a statement. (In this case the non-statement is that no movements are prevalent in Britain today, and how studiously unthematic the selection was meant to be, a position completely undermined by the author of the giveaway handbook, who, unknown to the selectors, proceeded to group everything under large general headings to ‘explain’ it). The fact that Arts Council money spent making elegant, well-designed catalogues does not include editing. Footnotes are not regularized, names of galleries appear with more than one spelling, T.S. Eliot’s rather famous essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ is mis-titled. Thomas Kuhn’s surname is easily fudged, perhaps. But Breughal’s ought not to be. All the selectors think that the plural of ‘medium’ (painting, sculpture, film…) is ‘mediums’. Wrong. ‘Mediums’ are people in touch with the dead.
One complaint needs a paragraph all to itself. At least three generations of Goldsmiths graduates were shown in the exhibition: Lisa Milroy and Julian Opie, Grenville Davey and a slew of recent graduates including Ian Davenport and Jyll Bradley. One of the selectors teaches at Goldsmiths and the selectors themselves were chosen by Goldsmiths guru Michael Craig-Martin. A quarter of the chosen artists had something to do with Goldsmiths. This is not the complaint. The complaint is why the selectors won’t come clean and announce this tendency as the important matter they obviously decided that it was. Not doing so leaves them open to accusations of bias, at most, or at least a serious case of milroyopia.
Things to complain about in future: The Triumph of The British Art Show is that it has succeeded in demonstrating two points. The first is the total aridity of art about art theory, which ahs reached a desert and pitched its tents. (How long it takes a position as a pose, how long a pose can be held, has become the only issue in work like Caroline Russell’s or Gary Hume’s, masochistic in their willful limitations). The second triumph is that it has show what we all knew before: that ‘British’ means not only white, but also black, yellow and brown and that ‘Britain’ means not only London. For the first time, perhaps, the work on show is powerful and sensitive enough to drive the point home for good. Shaffique Uddin, Vong Phaopahnit, Sonia Boyce and in particular Mona Hatoum testified to the loneliness, anger and separation of outsiders in Britain. One less point to complain about in future.
The laughable pretension of its title somewhat mitigated by the presence of a French artist, ‘Jeune 1’ presented three likely young talents represented by one work each. The French artist Serge Kliaving justified his increasingly modish reputation whole doing nothing to demonstrate talent. His piece, a series of panels juxtaposing art slogans, the details of violent incidents in Northern Ireland and various logos, failed to spark connections or stir outrage.
The genre is so familiar as to be respectable, but this work was sloppy, in thinking and execution. Thin ideas need at least competent presentation, and these canvasses were badly stretched and less than professionally worked. Those who lust after the confident surface of the New York political-conceptual axis, should learn that in order to subvert The Collector, your work has to be slickly made enough to hang on his wall.
Kliaving’s use of horrific events in Ireland seems shallow and ultimately obscene. In the context of the light-weight style, it is like any other entertainer tackling a serious theme, for example Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning.
By contrast, Michale Landy’s artificial grass sculpture, a series of peaksbuilt from this rather monstrous material, was both playful and rewarding, its casualness, its humbleness of intention and content, letting one look at it without pretensions to statement, rather as form in itself.
But the best reply to the pompous gesturing of Kliaving was the work of Jyll Bradley, rich in both surface grace and complex subtext. Two cibachrome boxes facing each other flanked by metal sheets adjacent on the floor, the work opposed blown-up snapshots of three girls at a party with sections of text by Proust. The text was concerned with the impossibility, yet necessity of making choices, especially aesthetic ones.
The idea of choosing, of selection, was echoed in the lit images,a s if these party photos had been chosen at random, their casualness, their apparent unsuitability for such grand display emphasizing the arbitrary processes of visual selection every artist and viewer undergoes. The blank metal sheets beside the lit-boxes suggested a further alternative, the final reponse to the burden of choice, the minimalist answer to endless questions of selection. A serious, intelligent piece of work, it was, both in text and format, formally beautiful, the sort of adjective whose threatened extinction Bradley’s piece ponders upon.
Jyll Bradley, Serge Kliaving and Michael Landy each show one work. Landy’s coup is his use of artificial grass – a material fascinatingly tactile but repellent, redolent both of domesticity and tackiness – to model in miniature something grand, a mountain range perhaps. The grass is wrapped and draped round nine cones – witty and intriguing social comment being muted. In Kliaving’s acrylic painted panels, on the other hand, the politics does battle with the art – deliberately. Nine panels record recent violence in Northern Ireland alternating with ironically sweet advertisements and arty statements. As a final comment, the tenth declares ‘ART CAN MAKE YOU LIVE FOREVER DISNEYLAND’ – a consciousness raiser. Jyll Bradley’s piece consists of two cinema style lightboxes with a photograph and text about a child whose parents offere to take her to one of two plays. She tries to decide by fantasising around the titles. Gentle, nostalgic, affecting but robust, its strategies – the suggestion of autobiography and the placing of the viewer between slightly different photographs of children happily agog at a spectacle – create a human presence and suggest ideas beyond those of the story. Bradley’s pairing of the physical and the psychological is almost perfect – delicious.
This intriguing exhibition offers diverse interrogations of consumer culture by five young artists. Caroline Russell makes a display, an ostentation, out of the apparatus of commercial display. Packaging exists to differentiate and highlight the product, but Russell chooses its blandest variants – previously paper bags, plastic containers, stainless stands – arranging them in minimalist seriality as indices of the (absent) consumer object. Display 20 is a strip retail device used to communicate price and product description. In her schema it is emptied of these signifiers suggesting that exchange value has not only occluded use, but has itself been eclipsed by the play of blank signs on the surface. Russell’s objects evacuate the real in a gesture of display (something akin to the contradictory strategy of the fetishist) and in so doing make visible the seductive and superficial dimension of consumer culture. In Display 18 and Display 19 this is presented metaphorically as the sterile products connote the barren and the disposable.
In her illuminated transparencies, Jyll Bradley exploits the ‘nostalgia’ genre of advertising, using similar misty images, frozen movement and historical stereotypes – here, ‘Olde’ London, a policeman on a bicycle, a horse-drawn cart, Big Ben. Whereas mythic advertising creates a false past in which we are invited to insert ourselves by consuming the product (so displacing the actuality of our present), Bradley’s images leave us in no doubt that they are constructed histories. Dickensian characters are actors, viewed behind modern glass, top-hatted horsemen wear cowboy boots; the past collapses into the present. Unstable historical identity combines with an ambivalence of sexual identity – figured in ‘Tiresias’, the voyeur in a supplementary narrative and in Bradley’s epicene, masquerading performers.
Never mind the leaflet blurb about consumerism; the mechanics of buying never make more than a peripheral impact on these five artists work. Its there if you want to look for it, but object based art will inevitability have to be read against a background of similar forms of display. The supermarket is in everyone’s consciousness.
Certainly Caroline Russell’s ‘Display 20’ actually came out of the supermarket, but it speaks more about the structure of the fitting – the strip of orange which runs along the shelf edge into which prices are clipped – than consumerism itself. Her other works reinforce this, surgical sheets opened out for inspection, for viewing as new minimalism. Forms of display are not enough of interest for Jyll Bradley, though.
‘Tiresias’ comprises four photographs mounted on lightboxes, but the motivation behind them is a complex theory of sexuality. There are three couples – lesbian, gay and straight – and a policeman mounted ona bicycle (!) all pictured as if participating in a piece of filmed Dickins. Lettering which is both title and location of the photographs adds to the sensation of fake Victorian. ‘Charing Cross Road, St. Martin’s Lane; apparently the photographs are contemporary and un-staged. Jyll Bradley roams the West End, the nostalgia costumes look to originate in the midnight world of clubbing. The lightboxes are slightly aged with tissue paper, but it takes little distortion to find the appearance of Victorian England in London now, and not just the obvious similarities like the beggars on Hungerford Bridge, but this reappearance of top hats and tails.
The complexity of the work overshadows that of her compatriots in the gallery around her. Cathy Watkins photographs of twee figurine which are not distanced enough from their subject and so, twee. The sculpture of Dean Whatmuff and Michael Landy is put together well and looks nice but doesn’t manage to go beneath simple appearance. The disturbing realism of Bradley’s lightboxes keeps drawing you back; they don’t need propping up with theory.