Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art 22 October 2016 – 19 February 2017
“ Each thing and space had belonged to particular worlds of their own before they were hand picked up by the artist and in these worlds they all had preconditioned orders labelled by nature or by people. Orders here mean ranked situations or hierarchy, whether they have certain parts in the place or not, their values, demands, qualities or quantities…my final point in making artworks is to introduce ways to see and learn about things, to perceive an existing space differently so that viewers can experience a new kind of order. If they can apply their experience with art into their daily life, the new order may find settlement there. I would like to introduce a new way of reacting (to situations) in all viewers.” Kishio Suga, essay Between ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’ (2005)
The pairing of Glasgow based artist Karla Black (b. 1972) and Japanese artist Kishio Suga (b.1944) is inspired in terms of the questions raised about how we experience the world and the entire arena of Contemporary Art. A New Order is the first in a proposed series of exhibitions placing the work of Scottish contemporary artists in an international context. It is also the first major exhibition of Kishio Suga’s work in the UK, coinciding with his solo exhibition at the Dia Foundation in New York and his retrospective at the Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Part of the informal, pioneering, and experimental Mono-ha (“School of Things”) movement in 1960’s and 70’s Japan, Suga’s work incorporates everyday organic and industrial materials including stone, wood, iron, wire, glass, zinc, earth and paraffin wax. “Rejecting representation” and the “illusionism” of Western Art, he presents the viewer with “situations” where materials are placed in a specific location to explore the relationships between them, the surrounding space and the human mind perceiving them.
It’s easy to be dismissive of the plethora of contemporary artists now working with the assemblage of everyday, found objects/ materials and forget that not all Art evolves out of the same ground of intention as that which the 21st Century Art market made fertile. Although they have become synonymous the business of making Art and the Art World business are not the same thing and this exhibition provides a good opportunity to reappraise expectations of how full, empty or poisoned the Contemporary Art chalice might be. Historically Suga represents a different generational, ground breaking spin on re-assembling the world, a “New Order” of seeing, which I think is at odds with how many viewers today may initially approach this work, having been lulled into material familiarity. The best works in this show from both Black and Suga arguably have their origins in a ground of understanding beyond an instantaneous, fleetingly bright idea or the desirous draw of certain materials. Connections are made holistically through the senses and with the dynamics or tensions of seeing present in each room. This is particularly true of singular works which effectively command the space they occupy.
Kishio Suga’s Left-Behind Situation (1972/2012, Stone, steel plate, brick, wire rope) is a very good example. The first thing that hits you is the smell of timber which is powerfully evocative, pieces in natural states contrasted with veneered, manufactured fragments, placed at intersections in a complex matrix of suspended wires. The primary sensation is physical rather than intellectual, which is unexpected in what might seem like purely conceptual territory. Often when encountering art installations we walk in –get the idea and walk out again; there’s nothing to imaginatively reveal itself and its game over once we read the explanatory label beside the work. What made me smile; standing on the threshold of the doorway to this work and my own curiosity was feeling slightly off-kilter. I like it when Art isn’t easy, when it intrigues or disarms me in ways I don’t expect. I don’t want to hear the punchline first or be told what to think or feel about a piece of work, which is why I avoid all text labels in the first instance to see what the work itself has to say. What I discovered in Suga’s Left-Behind Situation was a pleasing sense of precariousness in play, also seen in Interconnected Spaces (2016, Rock and rope) where the weight of a stone contained in its shadow pins down four ropes, tethered to the gallery walls. It’s strangely beautiful in its simplicity and pregnant silence. The placement of this work in the bare room made space for me to stop and pay closer attention to what was around me and where I stood in relation to the work on various levels. I began to notice circular marks on the floor, whether accidental/ residual or intentional it was impossible to say. It felt as though they were stains around where other placed stones may have stood, or perhaps they were marks left by a different artist from an entirely different show. The point was I was curious about everything in that room, including the marks on the wooden floor. The form and texture of the boulder with its aged erosion and dirt expanded my focus, framed by the tension of ropes. When I first stood in the doorway, seeing this work from a distance, I felt as though time had stopped; a moment before the possibility of ropes snapping to potentially fling the stone across the room, so where I stood in relation to it became a question mark. The large boulder felt like a living entity rather than a dead object, an opportunity for the viewer to pause and imaginatively grapple with their relationship to the raw, natural material and the surrounding man-made space. There is something very Zen about this work which doesn’t stand upon words but the dynamics of perception as an infinitely fluid process. The Art work acts as a point of reference rather than the end product representing, describing or symbolising a certain meaning. In many ways Suga’s work strips Art of its Western preoccupations of attributing value and describing meaning, reassembling materials from the real world so that the viewer can compose their own New Order.
In a similar way I remember very clearly my first encounter with Karla Black’s impressive, resonant installation works in the barrel vaulted Hall of GOMA back in 2012 which floored me with their formal structure and fragile delicacy. (See “Writing” tab of archived reviews)There was so much more in play than just an idea or materials extracted from the mundane domesticity enshrined in an empty white space. The raw material of Black’s Art provoked a multitude of questions and associations, engaging all of my senses in a powerful, unanticipated way. Her painstaking, mindful construction inside that particular architecture naturally spawned layers of interpretation and went a long way to dispelling what I usually see as the Turner Prize nominee curse of endorsement. Ideas or technique by themselves are never enough, nor are they very satisfying for the viewer when seen consistently in isolation. Just watch people in contemporary art spaces the world over reacting to the work and then attempting to marry that response to the labelled attribution of value and meaning beside it. Be assured -your guts are never wrong! All Art stands or falls all by itself, regardless of what may be written alongside it.
What my guts told me about Black’s work in that moment was to pay attention- not to the branded ego of the artist (thankfully not present) which is often the only thing on display, but to the very tactile qualities of the chosen material and my relationship to them as a human being standing in that space, as part of a wider world of imagination. There is something very freeing and also grounded about Black’s approach and intentionality, aligned with the meaning of play in human development, drawn from the unconscious. In a low, horizontal work like Better in Form (2016, Cotton wool, kitchen towel) she encourages us to psychologically get down on the floor in terms of the inner child and move into a different state of sense recognition. Part of this derives from the artist’s own memories of play as a small child; contact with water and sand, but that tactile discovery of the world is universal in all human development. The colour, texture and smell of materials are potent triggers, providing immediately tangible ways into works which resist classification; what the artist describes as “almost” sculpture, painting and performance art, “pulling back” the work before it becomes the label. In Black’s own words; “I think of language as an inadequate, primitive tool. The primary function of the work is aesthetic, formal and material. What comes first is colour and form, composition and scale and then a very firm and separate second comes language.”
Before we learn hierarchies of class, culture and attributions of value, as children we all naturally respond to what we can see, hear, touch and smell with spontaneity and desire. Black’s materials; cellophane, ribbon, sellotape, plaster, chalk powder, soil and dominant palette of pastel baby blues, pinks, yellows and greens are non-threatening, comforting invitations to the viewer. They’re not visually or emotionally cold as they anchor the aesthetic to what is tacit. The shimmer of eyeshadow, lip gloss, petroleum jelly or the softness of cotton wool, polythene and powdered paint exist in Black’s pre-gendered world of exploration and discovery. What convinces is the physicality of material as an emotional touchstone, rather than its intellectualisation through language- it’s about human creative process rather than product or the artist as a brand. Black’s work is refreshingly real in that respect; only abstract in the sense that we are preconditioned to regard Art as something belonging to somebody else, divorced from daily life and the instinctual base of learning that is what we are as a species. Having unleashed my Id standing in the doorway of Gallery 3 viewing Black’s Too Much About Home (2016, Cotton Wool, powder paint, plaster powder, cellophane and sellotape), was frustrating because her work invites closer inspection through touch. The installation is grounded on the floor, extending to the ceiling and one wall, inhabiting the space like a growing organism and creating a topography of feeling in the gradated, low relief rise of teased out cotton wool and scattered pink, yellow, blue and green pastel pigment. You can see the imprint of the artist’s footprints into the middle of the work, still fresh from construction. It’s a soft, cushion of an island with a triptych of paint suspended on cellophane above, hung from a pliable framework of sellotape, reawakening child-like curiosity, instinct and traditional painterly awareness of composition. Crisp, transparent material is contrasted with comforting hues and cloud-like cotton wool, evoking memories of childhood when we weren’t afraid to make anything. In the corridor outside a series of Black’s hung compositions present evolution of mark and form; progressing from the defined structure of cotton wool balls, flattened into a ground for gestural paint marks, Abstract Expressionist-like fields of overlapping pastel colours which then morph into singular sculptural forms; relatively small in relation to the space around them, but quietly commanding all the same. There’s a sense of play and experimentation with the base elements of Art making; colour, form, line and texture within a subtly equal tonal range.
The sculptural form Actually Mark (Cotton wool, balsa wood and eyeshadow) isn’t monumental in the way we might expect; with a totemic pink plinth of modest scale occupying a room all to itself, the certainty of its edges ambiguously fluffed in cotton wool and coloured by impermanent makeup, attended by a smaller familial blue form on guard near the threshold. The way the works speak to each other in terms of form, scale and colour is an imaginative trigger and although the artist denies gender or cultural associations with colour, they are unavoidable in the mind of the viewer; perhaps saying more about human conditioning than the artist’s intent. Other Civil Words (2016, Polythene, powder paint, plaster powder and thread) is another example where pink and blue pigmentation isolated in knots are collectively suspended above the floor like a silent pause in an opaque web of relationships. The gentle tensions of the material pulled and knotted into formal opposition is fragile, equally poised and tethered inside a still room. There’s a feeling of slight unease, with the possibility of movement should the slightest breath of air or atmospheric change enter the space. It is a surprisingly human and emotive work made from ethereal, mundane materials and elevated; in physical height and by the act of display in the gallery space. Permanence, commemoration and monumentality isn’t the aim or trajectory of Black’s Art. Instead the focus is on the plinth upon which we place our own expectations and constructs which she encourages us to abandon for something arguably more experientially real.
The felt sense and physicality of the materials speaks when standing in the space that Black’s work occupies because the viewer’s imagination is free to fill it. There are no prescribed meanings, although it could be argued that titles dance along that tightrope. Similarly Suga’s use of Japanese ideograms attempt to resist the descriptive labelling of his Art, although in the context of a Western Gallery space arguably there will always be translations and explanations present. (Interestingly a resources room has been provided in this exhibition.) However Suga’s work is essentially about “Activation” in that what is intended is for the “viewer [to start] to think about what it means”, presenting the possibility of multiple layers of human thought and action without spoon fed conclusions. What said this better than any text ever could was the grainy profundity of Suga’s photograph of one of this fieldworks, Condition of Perception (1970, Silver gelatin print). This documentary image of the residual mark left by a stream of water down a residential Tokyo Street is, even in its spilled state, eternally fluid. That line of water invites your eye deeper into that fixed, two dimensional, but ever expanding space. In that moment captured on film there is something incredibly moving and humane about that vision, even though it is one step removed in being a record of a human action with a natural element in play. My immediate response to this photograph was overwhelmingly emotional. Significantly I felt the possibility of what was being said and the difficulty of communicating a temporary action or art work was overcome by the eye/ mind composing the image and activating the shutter. What shone through the image was intention, openness and hope, placing trust in the viewer to find what they will in that fluid movement between an element of Nature and human nature, which is hardwired to seek understanding.This is an exhibition which challenges the viewer; “I’m looking but am I really seeing- what could that element be? I want to unravel it.”