Monthly Archives: March 2012

I have just started a new column of interviews with artists for roves & roams.

Have a look at my interview with Mark Melvin, who currently has a solo show at the Cob Gallery Sunday, here:

Mark Melvin, It’s OK, Courtesy the artist and the Cob Gallery

And if you still want more, read my interview with Hanae Utamura, whose installation for the WW Gallery Patio Projects will be showing until the end of the week:

As roves and roams is now down, the articles can be read here:

Mark Melvin, Sunday at the Cob Gallery

Private Views are not necessarily sensitive to careful synchronisation and syncopation, the harmonies and discords, of a carefully curated exhibition. Which is why I am relieved when Mark Melvin asks me to come back to the Cob Gallery, to Sunday, for our interview.

The first word I throw at Melvin is ‘frustration’. He looks perplexed. I’m thinking of invisible feet which keep tapping, mirrors partly scratched out to obscure our reflection, scribbles on note paper we can’t make out. But under the influence of that first post-work beer I must have had some tuning issues, for it does seem subtler now, Sunday on a Sunday afternoon, with the Gallery to myself.

Perhaps asking his viewers the same questions throughout is “maddening”, Melvin admits, but referring to one of his neon works, not in the show, he explains how seemingly “frustrated gestures” transform into a philosophical reflection on the fluctuating ironies of life; in I’m Never Where I Want to Be (2009) letters are left unlit so that what we finally read is ‘Ever Here I Be’. In this exhibition the neon work Changes (2009), flickers and flashes from ‘when we’re hoping for changes’ to settle on ‘we all stay the same’. It isn’t hopelessness we feel in the face of this icy-warm light, just the bite of its dark comedy, the recognition that Melvin is right, this is the way life is.

The exhibition is an “extension of the self” and Melvin has found that friends recognise his own “attitude to life” in Sunday; his tendency to “pick things apart”, to make jokes out of the “treatment of tough subjects”. This is a show about a philosophy of life, which we might be in or out of tune with.

Is Melvin something of an existentialist? This provokes a smile. “If life is a journey it is not about where we get to”. The whole exhibition loops us into its various offbeat cycles of sound, repetitive themes, replayed videos and echoed gestures in order to lock us into the “now”. Melvin is interested in Derrida’s ‘différence’ in which repetition defers meaning. What we experience is not the “same” but the continual difference of an action which has not yet reached its meaning.

Even the clock (Time Piece –bury your head in the sand or bury the sand in your head 2012), whose face is the first to greet us when we walk in, ticks between ‘forget to remember’ and ‘remember to forget’, as though memory and amnesia are the essential composites of time, as though the only thing we can count on is ‘now’. This is a celebration of the absurdity of life, not an expression of frustration in the face of it.

The syncopation of the exhibition runs deep, a pulse that tracks us as an echoing throughout. The clock ticks, Wallbanger (2003)t “plays the Gallery wall”, and in A Pair of Jacks (2006) a man tapping his fingers mindlessly in the background provides another buried beat. Melvin tells me he has carefully designed the sound in the show so that it moves through moments of “synchronisation”, to awkward periods of dissonance. The sounds should carry through the space as we progress so that in equal measure we ‘forget to remember’ and ‘remember to forget’ the themes and persistent questions of previous works.

Melvin’s work has been described as “theatrical”, but the comparison with Samuel Beckett is something that has been offered by critics and is not an original influence. It seems to me that he is more of a musician than a playwright; his obsession with repetitions is reflected in his love of the “progressive loops of 60s minimalist music”. In the video Good Morning (2005) the characters from Singing in the Rain are played by Melvin like instruments in a three-piece band. His so-called ‘Beckett-like puppetry’ is a puppeteering of sounds, not of people, props or sets.

It is the soundtrack to A Pair of Jacks which is the predominant aural memory. One of the last questions I ask, an afterthought as I leave, is about this music still ringing in my ears. The track is a collaboration between Melvin and his brother, Adam Melvin, in which the sampling of a woman’s voice haunts us as it rings “again, again”. The power of this track deepens the unnerving ‘memento mori’ that is A Pair of Jacks, it is an important part of the piece’s genius.

This is one of the first times Melvin has shown his ‘sketches’; the illegible, endless repetition of lyrics on ripped out diary pages. These scribbles are a ‘memorial’ to Melvin’s original ideas; the frustrated ring of a coffee stain, the indecipherable mantras which Melvin won’t reveal to me.

Melvin is the orchestrator of the exhibition; “selecting pieces” from his corpus and “creating new works” in order to “curate our experience”. The Cob Gallery has become a “sacred place” through Melvin’s division of spaces. His “tombstones to statements” are visible from outside the Gallery through the generous glass windows, the exposed crypt. In the dark black rooms the benches, like church pews and the videos like stained glass windows, offer us a moment for reflection. It is here that the black comedy of “mortality” plays out again and again ushering us towards dark questions. Absurdly, we can’t help but leave with a smile, and a final glance at the clock on the way out.

 Hanae Utamura Construct Patio Projects

On the afternoon that I go to meet Hanae Utamura, the first ‘intervention’ into her WW Gallery Patio Project ‘CONSTRUCT: Fountain’ has just occurred. The wind and rain has brought her installation down; the fountain head resting on the patio wall, fragments of plaster scattered on the pavement.

Utamura is excited by the news, beaming beneath her apologies: ‘with this accident I feel the work finally starts to happen’. ‘CONSTRUCT: Fountain’ is a performative sculpture and installation with which Utamura poses and answers her own question: ‘What are we doing on earth, if not constructing and deconstructing something at the same time…’

With this violent outpouring of Hackney weather the process of seeking an answer begins. This is a work which will be in constant flux throughout March, as Utamura suggests, the only thing ‘set’ is the timeframe. Even the dried fountain of plaster remains fluid in the merciless grip of the landscape, redirecting its flow, shaping a new thing at every moment.

In its stark black and white, the ‘Fountain’ represents the struggle between opposing forces that exists in all matter. For Utamura the primary conflict is between East and West. In the West man tries to be the master of water, creating elaborate synthetic displays with its public monuments. In the East water always follows the natural flow. Utamura began by forcing her fountain of plaster upwards but gravity brought it down.  Nature will continue to chip away at her defiant attempt to be absolute master and creator of ‘CONSTRUCT’.

For Utamura the appeal of the WW Gallery’s Patio Projects was that ‘external force which is not in the gallery space’, the unpredictable ‘interventions’ of the environment.  Exposing her work to the ‘enormous power of nature’ Utamura finds the collaboration with, and negotiation of these external forces exciting and stimulating. The ‘fight with light and weather’, the shifting equilibrium of constructing and deconstructing, is a thing of beauty.

In Utamura’s work the continual performance of unanswerable questions frequently brings humour into play. She is left hopelessly casting a wave or throwing red dust to the wind in video-records which have a strange twist of comedy about them.

Is there humour to be found in ‘CONSTRUCT: Fountain’ too? Hanae laughs, everything is approached with brightness.  There is a ‘joke’ at play in the bathos of the viewer’s expectations. For all its ambition to be remembered as a landmark, the fountain is ‘fragile beneath its grandiosity.’ Utamura has shored her ‘CONSTRUCT’ against the anxiety of impermanence by bolstering its monumentality, but the wind can still pull it down.

The Patio Projects is also a collaboration with the public. The already growing oral history of local reactions to WW’s year-long outdoor art programme fostered a ‘sentimentality’ in Utamura towards her neighbourhood audience.

Inspired by her Japanese culture the ‘Fountain’ is in the tradition of a Shinto shrine, honouring the waterfall god. In Japan these shrines are often found at the side of the pavement, just as the WW Gallery patio is.

Utamura hopes to have created a shrine for passing pedestrians and curious neighbours: ‘outside is the most challenging location for a work art,’ here the work has to ‘demonstrate itself’. The Patio Projects reaches beyond the typical gallery-going crowd, it offers itself to local people. Shrine-like, ‘CONSTRUCT: Fountain’ vies for our devotion and our ritual return.

Much of Hanae’s work involves fleeting performances of provocation and poignancy; sweeping the Sahara desert, writing with water in Trafalgar square, lying on a lake of ice in Scotland. It is the records of these performances, the photographs and videos, which she believes are the ‘myth’ and ‘legend’ of her work. Yet the real heart of her work is the lingering memories, the testimony of witnesses and repeated stories. The March-weathering and physical deconstruction of her installation represents the subtle construction of an Utamura legend. If ‘CONSTRUCT: Fountain’ survives in the whispered memories of the local people Utamura will have found the answer to her question.


Hanae Utamura’s ‘CONSTRUCT: Fountain’ will be at the WW Gallery Patio Projects, Queensdown Road, Hackney, until the 1st April.



This is a copy of a review originally posted on The Flaneur.

At eighteen, lying on a carpet of cushions in the garden-summer after my exams. That would have been the first time I read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. ‘Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.’ Nabokov’s ‘tangle of thorns’ felt more like a saccharine web of salted caramel, one that I couldn’t resist sinking into.

Hisaji Hara’s photographs have the quality of sun-bleached pages in an old paperback we feel too guilty to go back to. Showing at the Michael Hoppen Gallery until the 31st March, Hisaji Hara has recreated in photographs the paintings of French-Polish artist Balthus. Balthus is famous for his luxurious paintings of adolescent girls which he insisted were not erotic, and here Hara has revisited the full charge of that original eroticism.

It is evident in this homage that Hara holds Balthus’s work as a thing of dreamy, nostalgic beauty but can’t bear to subject such visual poetry to the moral scrutiny it warrants. As I languished in the hot summer sun and in Lolita, if I succeeded in forgetting, I did not remind myself of the true nature of the story. I let myself fall in love with the enchanted nymphette, innocent of the fantasy. I played Nabokov’s game, just as Hara plays Balthus’.

Hara imbues his work with heavy sensuality in more subtle ways than Balthus. Bringing the dancing lovers off ‘The Street’, into the telescopic gaze of an endless corridor and this intimately enclosed interior space, suggestively reveals a sub-plot in Balthus. There is a natural sensuality in Hara’s medium too; the soft, dusky quality of the prints which recalls the light that escapes through curtains after languorous extended lie-ins. I can see the ghost print of the photographer’s hands on the stiff limbs of his models. In the flesh of Hara photographs, Balthus’ stiff poses become those of automatons, these are portraits of Coppelias quietly practicing their routine after school.

Hisaji Hara may have clothed the subject of “The Room” and carefully eschewed the recreation of “The Guitar Lesson”in which a woman holds a naked girl and plays her as though she were a musical instrument, but Balthus’originals leave their eerie sweep of light on Hara’s images. Despite those soft legs with their innocent white socks and hard black shoes, I can’t keep the instinct that these school girls aren’t wearing any knickers beneath their skirts, submerged.

As I walked away from the Michael Hoppen gallery, I remembered reading Lolita for the first time. In order to give myself over to the pleasure of Nabokov’s novel it was necessary to sink a frame into the salted caramel swamp of Lolita, to confine to shadow and obscurity the clear-cut figure of Humbert Humbert, and leave only the residual first enchantment of ‘Lo, plain Lo,’ ‘Lola in slacks,’ ‘light of my life,’ without all of the weight of suggestion.

Hara has deliberately narrowed his perspectives, holding us out of the image within multiple frames. Balthus’ questionable eroticism seems to lie just outside of our accusatory glance, but it is still there. The woman who throws the curtains open in a soft flood of revealing light in Balthus’ ‘The Room’ keeps her presence behind the blurred black of the door frame in Hara. The pictures swell beyond the shadows, back to the echoes of Balthus’ work and leave the viewer, not Hara, as the fleeting silhouettes looking in on private, domestic scenes. But it is cowardly of the photographer to have left us both inside and outside of the image in this way.

To separate pure aesthetic pleasure from subject matter feels bourgeois and archaic. The aesthetics of a work of art are no longer contemporary art’s first priority; Hara’s photographs seem shallow, despite all their atmospheric depth, for their neglect to challenge. To submit to the sensation of Hara’s work is certainly a pleasure, but once you walk away you begin to feel a little dirty about the whole experience.,current,2,0,0,0,155,0,0,0,hisaji_hara.html?link=exhibition%2Ccurrent%2C2%2C0%2C0%2C0%2C155%2C0%2C0%2C0%2Chisaji_hara%2Ehtml&searchString=_level0%2Erow_1&index=12&iD=1&targetButton=_level0%2Ebutton_1&targetCover=_level0%2Ecover_1&targetBackground=_level0%2Ed_1&targetLabel=_level0%2Eb_1&onRollOver=%5Btype+Function%5D&onDragOut=%5Btype+Function%5D&onRollOut=%5Btype+Function%5D&onRelease=%5Btype+Function%5D

To see Hisaji Hara in pictures go to The Guardian website: