Unwisely, I decided to see the Bill Viola show Frustrated Actions and Futile Gestures at Blain|Southern on Saturday. Positive: it wasn’t the very last day. Negative: I already had several social appointments for later in the day. Still, the idea of waiting around at home until 4pm seemed wanton, so I headed into town. Video art can be quite problematic in galleries, I’ve found, especially with longer pieces, when you don’t know at which point you joined. In the past I’ve noted with approval the extra documentation the Whitechapel provided, including specific show times. Against that, perhaps it’s an interesting wrinkle that people can experience something rather differently based on the timing of their gallery visit.
The first room held five different videos. Three were of different people walking along a stretch of the Mojave desert riven with heat haze and, in one case, a sand storm. There were gradual transitions as two of the groups walked towards and then away from each other and the camera. A fourth consisted of two screens, one showing a man waiting in a chair and the adjoining one showing his “soul”, rehearsing a range of vivid emotions, contrasting with the (mostly) impassive “body”. By far my favourite was the fifth piece in the room, with nine screens each showing loops of repetitive and often Sisyphean tasks, such as a boat in which one person baled water in while the other baled it out and a man emptying then refilling a wheelbarrow. I thought it was hilarious and the way it was presented made the viewing process more interesting, as sounds from the different screens interfered with each other and the viewer was able to play games with them.
The other standout piece was The Dreamers, downstairs. There were seven screens spread around the room, which also had an enveloping soundtrack of glooping and roiling water noises. Some people went up close to particular screens, while I preferred to stand in the middle and move my gaze around, wondering whether they were actually underwater. Bubbles appeared periodically from people’s noses and wandered upwards towards us and there would on occasion be a greater disturbance in the water that would gradually spread across the screen. This reminded me of one of the Thomson and Craighead pieces I’d seen the previous Saturday, in which people were holding their breath underwater, until the moment of release.
After another social engagement on Sunday, I travelled, impeded by Edgware Road weirdness and an impulsive journey of one stop in the wrong direction, to Westbourne Park and specifically the Trellick Tower, referred to in so many architectural documentaries and articles I’ve seen. What I’d come to see was The Ballad of Skinny Lattes and Vintage Clothing. Walking along the canal, there were kids hiding from each other while others skateboarded and played around. There was no sign relating to the event that I could see and the only salient indication of something happening was what looked like a clothes shop with people at the window:
An Italian couple went inside just in front of me. They were architects and wanted to explore the tower. The man at reception man told them they needed permission from the council to look around, so they left rather disconsolately. After I showed him my printed out ticket, he directed me to the lower ground floor. This little journey reminded me of my own time living in a tower block (there must be something universally frumpy about them). Outside I saw the same gathering of people by the “shop”. Hamfistedly I proffered my ticket again and to my relief that was the “event”.
People were milling around in the shop, which had a bar and a vintage stall, some others sitting on armchairs who had an air of involvement, while some were filling out application forms for shares in Skinny Vintage, and examining their receipts.
A few minutes later, there was a short satirical video about artist-led regeneration, with clever B.U.S.T. and B.O.O.M. backronyms. The artists referred to as having taken up residence in the regenerated area were replaced
with people who looked and behaved exactly the same, leaving them free to move on to new venues.
We were then led through into a larger area. A man in a suit with a cardboard box on his head:
was waiting and when all had arrived he rotated the small model on the plinth and the show proper started. Sounds emerged, then we followed him around the dingy space, which was in fact a disused car park, so there were bays set off to the sides, some of which had been customised. He would stop and deliver part of his story, then perform what sounded like a Hebrew chant, with sound snippets in between. There were references to the Futurists and noise as music. Best pun of the evening was when he produced a photo of himself as a child in a costume designed by his mother – a jockey covered in records:
That’s right – a disc jockey
This was after he’d shown us this bay:
The guide made references to the prevalence of anti-semitism in discussions of Big Finance and told some increasingly poor jokes,
More of which can be found at http://www.racistjokes.info
In one area, the first people to follow him sat at a table, were given drinks and asked to fill out forms. This reminded me, in a much more gentle form, of one of the stages in It Felt like A Kiss:
Prior to that we’d been ushered through a windy area plastered with hysterical money-related newspaper excerpts, which again reminded me of the Curtis/Punchdrunk piece.
After his speech, the guide picked up the wand resting on the cushion, and used it to both mix and trigger sound recordings and musical elements from the laptop.
We were led into this bay, where we were given a currency note:
The guide and some of his assistants held out their money and ate it. As you can see, I chomped the corner of mine, too well enculturated to eat the whole thing.
The rest of the show included a fireside book reading, replete with velvet dinner jacket and analogue tape material, a reggae song about Vintage Lattes and the like performed in the vinyl bay, which now had flashing police lights, and finally a sixties-style show song about Shoreditchification and Modern Gentrification.
I really enjoyed this unlikely walk around the entrails of a famous tower block. There was a tension between the actor’s words and his super-earnest delivery, which was very effective. A great performance from him and the whole thing worked rather well.
While I was there, I couldn’t resist taking a predictable photo of the tower itself: