Adventures of the Black Square: 100 years of Abstract art and society at the White Chapel Gallery

Almost ironically I found this exhibition to be a visually and intellectually overwhelming display of a genre of art that began by simplifying perspective into geometric forms. This notion of abstraction as a universal language felt absent in the curation here as I fought my way through a bombardment of imagery and descriptions in my own adventure of the black square.

Kazimir Malevich – Black quadrilateral (circa. 1915)

Opening with Kazimir Malevich’s visual representation of utopian ideals through the compositional balance of ‘Black quadrilateral’ (circa. 1915) we witness the birth of abstraction, and with it the notion of revolutionary art. From here on the exhibition traces the development of artistic abstraction over the past centaury, observing its on going relationship with an ever-changing society. We are followed by Malevich’s paintings and those he closely influenced until we are introduced to Piet Mondrian’s painting; ‘Composition with Yellow, Red and Blue’ (1937-42). The exhibitions curation suggests the influence of Malevich’s black square in Mondrian’s foundations of neoplasticism. Yet here we see Mondrian’s visual practice of the dynamic equilibrium theory coming together with the abstraction of natural perspective into primal shapes that influenced a movement of aesthetic design.

Piet Mondrian – Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red (1937-42)

This tangent of abstraction that talks about consumerism in the Western world was the easiest for me to follow due to my own reality. Following Mondrian’s composition I was struck by the lack of colour in both Dóra Maurer’s ‘Seven Rotations’ (1979) and Hassan Sharif’s ‘Drawing squares on the floor using a cube’ (1982) that seemed to continue Mondrian’s message. Both are similar in their process of squashing 3 dimensions into 2 dimensional representations but I think it is their suggestion of the endlessness of both art and abstraction where their strength lies. The presentation of Maurer’s photographs was worth the trip to the gallery itself. The transformation from the initial image to the last exploits the audience’s process of image reading. Demonstrated by the simplicity of the first image of Maurer holding the emptiness of the white square alongside the complexity of the final photograph, where the audience is asked to mentally deconstruct the image to understand it’s origins.

Dóra Maurer – Seven Rotations (1979)

Upstairs this theme of materiality and disorientation in abstract art lead me to Gunilla Klingberg’s video piece ‘Spar Loop’ (2000) where I began to see evidence of contemporary abstractions perception and interaction with society. Klingberg’s kaleidoscopic animation of logos explores the abstract of the everyday in Western society by mimicking the spiritual capacity of consumerism. In some ways this piece echoes the realization that Roland Barthes had that; ‘the cultural work done in the past by gods and sagas is now done by laundry detergent commercials.” Spar Loop demonstrates the way that the general public is exploited by capitalist structures of society that allow advertisements to excite us in a way that was once done by transcendental powers.

Still: Gunilla Klingberg – Spar Loop (2000)

This is not the only place in the exhibition where Barthes theories seemed relevant. For an exhibition that explores the liberation of abstract art I felt that too much emphasis was put on the authors. Alongside each piece was a lengthy description citing the authors past inspirations, although useful, this meant that it was easy to spend more time reading than looking. As Barthes points out ‘To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing.” This is precisely what I felt happened here, although the artists exhibited used abstraction as a universal language to cover a variation of themes and mediums, the emphasis put on Malevich’s realization of the Black Square meant that all focus was on the fact that the work was abstract. In this space the works cannot individually grow or adapt to their audience as they have been forced into a curated timeline where there only purpose for display is the fact that they were in some way inspired by a black square, all other purposes are cut off within the walls of the White Chapel Gallery until the 6th of April.

History is Now: 7 Artists take on Political Britain

Christine Voge’s ‘Untitled (Three Children and Woman)’ (1978)

Christine Voge’s ‘Untitled (Three Children and Woman)’ (1978) 

As a 20-year-old student I am statistically set to boycott the general election in May alongside 2 million other young people. As a nation we are constantly concerned with the fact that young people are not engaged with politics, and that we can’t determine why. The Hayward Gallery’s most recent exhibition ‘History is now: 7 Artists take on Britain’ attempts to highlight the inadequacies of our recent political history, whilst accidentally mirroring the tediousness of understanding and engaging with British politics.

Between the honesty of Christine Voge’s photographs of London’s first women’s refuge centre from 1978, the accumulated documentation of the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common from 1983-84 and the loneliness in Mona Hatoum’s film “Measures of distance” from 1988, the general consensus of Jane & Louise Wilson’s section was that politics has failed women. Or at least it would have been had the curators thought to focus their space rather than overwhelm the audience with such a broad history of British politics. In some ways including the multitude of unconnected narratives was effective at highlighting the spectrum of political failures but ultimately this was too much to tackle in such a small space. The shame is that the pieces that focused on women created such a strong narrative, which was only compromised by the inclusion of too many others.

Mona Hatoum – Measures of Distance (still) 1988

The selection of black and white arts council collection photographs presenting dark truths of the 70’s to the 90’s in comparison to the colourful columns of advertisement collages from the same era in Hannah Starkey’s curation made for an obvious

John Hilliard – Cause of Death 1974

comparison. It was strange that John Hilliard’s quadrant of photographs “Cause of death” (1974) was tucked in a corner, or that it was shown at all. This piece concisely proves the objectivity of photography as a medium, demonstrating through 4 examples that the way images are cropped, shot and composed can completely change our interpretation of a narrative. Showing this powerful statement next to so many other photographs was jarring, as ultimately Hilliard’s piece renders all other images around it as objective depictions, so therefore it is impossible to read Starkey’s desired curation of propaganda vs. truth in this space.

Despite coming from the madness of Roger Hiorn’s mad cow disease research, it was actually John Akomfrah’s curation that finally made me give up on the exhibition. Consciously choosing to show 17 films with a total running time of over 500 minutes, Akomfrah effectively cuts off communication with the audience before a conversation can even be started. Although inconvenient and aggravating, this does feel rather appropriate. This unrealistic demand echoes in concept what is asked of young people when it comes to politics, where we are asked to vote into a system that time after time proves to us that it doesn’t work.

This exhibition, in parts, does uncover the failures of recent politics and the fact that it coincides with the lead up to the general election is interesting, but if this is so important, where were the politicians? Addressing the public with such an overwhelming depiction of political failures seems pointless when the over riding sentiment of the exhibition is that politics needs to change, not the people.

Freeze and Thaw

After experimenting with my intaglio etching photocopies in a grid format I started thinking about how they would work as a video piece, as if each photocopy could be shown as a frame in its series, it could almost be an animation of the ice melting away. This inspiration also came from watching videos of John Cage’s print making processes, because his prints are so down to chance the videos of him making the pieces almost because more interesting than the work for me. I also found myself very interested in working with the audio that came out of documenting the ice being thrown to the ground.

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Original Intaglio print made by dropping ice from quite high onto a waxed plate.

My first experiment didn’t work as I only used the 6 photocopies that made up the left to right diagonal through the grid. This meant that the print didn’t really fade away but instead jumped from one photo copy to the next. I also experimented with slowing down the ice smashing audio here, this worked well I think as it gave the impact emphasis. I also liked how the audio softened as the photocopies got lighter, giving the impression of ice melting.

From this initial experiment I went on to scan in all 36 of the photocopies, so that the transition would be much smoother. This worked much better than I had anticipated, with 6 frames per second the black and white print fades smoothly away until the viewer is left with strange white and grey marks from the photocopier moving on the screen. I also decided to experiment with using the footage of me dropping the ice, as I liked the way that Dora Maurer’s piece ‘Throwing a plate from very high’ can be displayed alongside the photographs of her throwing the plate. As the video was much longer as it contained more photocopies this allowed me to play with the audio a little more. I decided to start the audio as I cut to the photocopies so that the audio and impact of the ice smashing can be experienced together, but the actual impact is still not seen conventionally.

I found the correlation between the audio and photocopies the most interesting part of this piece. The inclusion of me dropping the ice at the beginning made the piece too obvious, the audio with the photocopies on its own carries much more ambiguity and is much more exciting. So I then played around with only using the photocopies and manipulated audio, duplicating and flipping the sequence so that after the audio and visuals fade the process starts back up again.

I feel that this is the most successful out come of this combination of media as it for the way it visualises an impact through different ways, without ever letting the audience see this impact normally. Reversing the audio was really interesting, it completely changed the tone of the piece and I find the potential for this piece to be played on a loop very exciting. Ultimately this outcome successfully gives this sense of water freezing and ice melting I think, it explores natural cycles and changes whilst also thinking about the distortions that technology has on our society.

Photocopying photocopies

For the second unit of the drawing project I have been working with using photocopying as a means to manipulate and expose images. In my initial experiment using a close up photograph of a canvas painted with ice I found myself making 3 photo copies out the original image using a particular technique and then choosing the most ‘visually successful’ image and repeating the process with that image.

When I realised that I had subconsciously been doing this I became very excited about how this process could be used in part of a bigger sequence. So I continued with more experiments where I consciously made 3 photocopies of each image using a particular technique then chose the one I felt was most successful and used another technique. I felt excited about this because I realised that the possibilities of this process were endless, you could continue to photocopy photocopies stemming from one image repeatedly, so the piece itself could be infinite, or at least suggests its own infinity. I felt a sense of evolution when looking at the series, and thought about how it could talk about the natural evolution of our planet into present day. The photocopier here would act as a symbol of man’s modern day immediacy warping our perception of the world around us, removing us from our human nature. I felt that the way I was presenting this, as a diagonal so that each set of photocopies was seen in relation to its original, showed this. But when speaking to a tutor he recommended I think about using a grid, as the current presentation was too decorative. On trying this I found this form both allowed more photocopies to be shown in the same space, and made the transitions between images easier to read.

After researching John Cage’s printmaking techniques I realised that my process was too objective to present something so based on chance. So like John Cage I experimented with using a random number generator in order to get my head around the process before applying it in a different ways to this photocopying work. I realised that to be able to use the random number generator I would need to categorise all the different techniques I have been using to make the previous photocopies so that I could assign them a number. I found this difficult to do as there are so many variations of techniques so I had to be really concise about how this would work, making strict categories and sub categories. It was also around this time that I came across John Hilliard’s piece ‘camera recording its own condition’. This piece too aimed to expose the inadequacies of it’s own process of making.

John Hilliard - Camera Recording its own Condition (1971)

John Hilliard – Camera Recording its own Condition (1971)

At this stage I realised that I the image I was using was as important as the process itself. I had mainly been using pictures of natural forms as a visual representation of nature being warped by technology, but I felt like I needed to find a ‘pure’ (non-objective) image for this process to really work. This really hindered me as I felt like I couldn’t start categorising my techniques until I had a ‘pure’ image. In the meantime I started doing small observations of bananas and passion fruit shells decaying, focusing on making forms and patterns with them. Then I experimented with photocopying these 3D objects and moving them whilst being scanned. From this I got an image to work with to realise all the categories, I decided to get a still image of the fruit as I felt this was more truthful, but not yet a pure image as the composition was considered aesthetically.

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From this I finalised my Categories to; Wiggle, Holding away from the scanner and back down again, circular motion and left – right, and a sub category; portrait or landscape. I found an image to work with by cropping and enlarging natural textures found in Tomas Marent’s collection of Rainforest Photography. I then made a set of 9 to start practicing with this technique. I didn’t feel entirely happy with this outcome but I think that is due to my struggle of finding or realising a pure image to work with.

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I still feel that this pieces process is not fully resolved. Afterward I experimented with dragging the image across the photocopier left to right at the same time as the photocopier. I then alternated between photocopying landscape to portrait with the image. I found the outcomes of this to be much more exciting than the ones using the random number generator, so maybe experimenting with using only this could lead me to a resolving piece.

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I feel now that I need to leave this photocopying process alone and feel eager to get it resolved, but I have had an idea of possibly resolving the piece using the intaglio print process. Thinking about how I could manipulate a plate one stage at a time (using processes and co ordinates selected by a random number generator), taking a print after every action for x amount of times and using the final image to make the same amount of photocopies using the random number generator to decide what process will be used to manipulate it. Although this does not really talk about the manipulation of nature that I wanted the piece to talk about it does expose two separate printing processes in different ways.