By: Eva Mak

Last week an exhibition of new work by acclaimed conceptual artist Michael Joo opened at Blain|Southern’s brightly-lit space in London’s Mayfair. The show consists of a dozen or so objects, mostly canvases, that delight and disturb in equal measure. In the gallery’s first room, a series of works depict what looks like cooking experiments gone horribly wrong, with the contours of blackened, shimmering commercial metal baking trays staring back at you, framing your golden reflection with a dark halo of char.

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Adjacent to the trays, a slab of roughly textured marble mounted on a steel frame depicts the coloured strata of compressed earth, a build up of land over millennia. Treated with Joo’s preferred chemical compound—silver-nitrate—one side of the billboard-like slab shimmers, reflecting the light and space of the gallery; a sculpture meets painting meets otherworldly window. In the second room, the intrigue of textures, chemically layered materials and shimmering surfaces grows, with floor-to-ceiling paintings mimicking deep, reflective pools of solidified liquid. Upon vast spans of alluring surface quality you detect paint drips, brush strokes, sculptural grooves, bubbles of silver and, your own silhouette hazily reflected back at you.

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These mysteriously reflective yet intricately textured surfaces do not let themselves be taken in easily. Needing more than a casual glance or fleeting thought, the works display the enigmatic conceptual complexity, a layering of both material and meaning meaning that Joo is well known for. Addressing common themes of identity, nature, science, politics and experience, his art is not governed by an adherence to one particular medium or form, but ranges whimsically from video and performance to readymade natural objects, to installation work. Consistent in his oeuvre however, is a deep engagement with the idea of process, with transforming materials and dissolving boundaries – whether physical or conceptual, social or natural (“With the best of art, some of the boundaries between I and we and you dissolve”). Originally trained as a scientist, his chemically treated surfaces and material experiments seem more suited to the realm of science than art. Yet without being required to conform to scientific guidelines, Joo is free to give whatever form he wishes to his most experimental ideas.

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At Blain | Southern, the multifariously layered paintings articulate Joo’s consistent interest in the transformative processes of energy. Both its modes of transference, its effects and its more mystical, philosophical dimensions pop up throughout his oeuvre, but have here found their most pertinent expressions. The tray paintings for example, directly address energy as the source of human activity; they attempt to capture it, represent and embody it.

As found ‘readymades’, the ordinary trays were each stamped with a numerical value representing the number of calories individuals would expend performing various human actions, such as lie, stand or drive for a single second. The resulting image was then transferred to canvas to create Warhol-esque silkscreens, upon which Joo enacted a number of subsequent painterly processes. In a play upon subjective experience versus quantifiable ‘objective’ data collection, each absurdly specific number represents an individual second of energy transformed. Joo’s artistic process has digested, melted these values inside the second-hand baking trays, each of which has its own history associated with the transformation of ingredients and energy expenditure.

Beyond our scientific, factual understanding of its processes, energy can take on magical proportions in our collective imaginations; a mystical power with flows that govern the potential for alchemy, for divine miracles and spiritual transformations. Two darkly shimmering canvases on either side of a floating wall embody this. Although also revealing precise caloric values indicating amounts of energy transferred, they reference more the sublime than the mundane. Based on Joo’s average measurements of artistic representations, the artist worked out a basal metabolic rate for The Buddha. Using the calculated weight and height — keeping in mind the tradition of Buddhist ascetic monks starving themselves — Joo then gauged the number of calories used per millisecond as a human body either consumes itself (the canvas entitled ‘Give’) or is offered up as sustenance (the canvas entitled ’Take’). The result is a mixture of visceral morbidity with spiritual exaltation, death represented as both the metaphysical journey of the spirit up to God and the plain physical decomposition of the body.

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Interestingly, the title of the current show is Radio Halo, after the geological phenomenon that describes spherical areas of discolouration on natural rocks, caused by radioactive isotopes. This is more than a casual reference to nature. You only have to google the term to discover that radio halo’s have come to be of particular interest to supporters of creationism, who call them ’the fingerprints of creation’, supposedly evidence of the myth of a ‘young’, almost instantaneously created earth.

What to make of this reference remains unclear, which is presumably how Joo intended it. Clearly, there is more to his art than meets the eye, although what meets your eyes at Blain | Southern is more than enough to make you want to keep looking. As testimonies to the complex processes carried out upon their surfaces, the visceral works show Joo blurring the lines between nature and culture, science and religion, experience and myth. His enigmatic references lead to extraordinarily open-ended questions; what is the relationship between ‘objective’ measurable data, our subjective human experiences and the ultimately intangible mystery of our final purpose and destination? Joo’s evocative materiality is both the result and the embodiment of these conceptual meditations; his art the physical expression of things we struggle to even give form to in our minds.

 

Tonight marks the launch of London’s first ever festival of light, Lumiere. In a few hours time, when another long shivery evening will fall over the capital, a multitude of installations – some impressive and spectacular, others intimate and mysterious, all of them dazzling with light – will illuminate many of London’s well-known landmarks. Places like Westminster Abbey, Piccadilly, Oxford Circus, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square and various sites in Mayfair and King’s Cross will be adorned, transformed, and made strange by the inventions of leading artists, art collectives and design studios from all over the world. The festival originates in the city of Durham, where creative producers Artichoke have staged Lumiere Durham biannually since 2009. Durham locals have grown both accustomed and attached to their beloved festival and might not feel that enthusiastic over its move to the capital. Luckily there’s plenty of art, love and light to go around which is why I’d like to give a taster of some of my favourite Lumiere London pieces, all of which you can expect to encounter every night after dark until Sunday 10:30 pm.

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The purpose of Lumiere is to bring joy to the streets of London at a time that is infamously miserable and generally marked by debts, depression and darkness. To this end, Portuguese collective Ocubo has created an amazingly cheerful piece: an imaginary circus, staged with 2D and 3D light projections on the side of Central Saint Martin’s Granary building. Inspired by local school children’s drawings that tell the stories of classic circus characters, Circus of Light will make you jubilate with delight over a burlesque and playful light show filled with jolly tricks and capricious stunts. Accompanied by a hilarious soundtrack, the piece is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. On King’s Boulevard you can get involved in literally painting the town red – as well as every other colour. The ingenious technology of Stockholm based arts production company Floating Pictures allows you to colour the asphalt with either the torch on your smartphone or one of the gigantic glow sticks handed to you by the lovely volunteer on site. I’ve had the chance to preview the Light Graffiti, and trust me, it’s so fun you’ll find yourself embarrassed to have made those children queueing behind you wait so long. Less merry and lively than ghostly and entrancing are French-Korean artist Tae gon Kim’s dazzling Dresses that you’ll find along this street as well as Stable Street. These beautiful shimmering LED gowns look like eerie shells encapsulating invisible phantoms, frozen elegantly as if on their way to a fairytale ball in some wondrous different dimension. You’ll find a final glamorous guest trapped in a Liberty shop window over on Regent Street.

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Regent Street undoubtedly features as a focus point in the Lumiere footprint, physically connecting the two hubs of Westminster and Mayfair. Starting at the top, at Oxford Circus, you’ll first encounter one of the festival’s most eye-catching works: a gigantic jellyfish-like net sculpture entitled 1.8 by artist Janet Echelman, suspended from the surrounding architecture drawing an exquisite radiating silhouette of light against the night sky. A little further down, you’ll find French collective Groupe LAPS’ glowing stick-men rebelliously overrunning the façade of Liberty house. These skeletal figures dance with delight as if the city’s architectural environment is their own personal jungle gym, almost like a real-life realisation of Walt Disney’s 1929 Silly Symphony Skeleton Dance. Further down, opposite famous Carnaby Street, you’ll find another cartoon figure in motion. British ‘post-pop’ artist Julian Opie has installed Shaida Walking in busy Soho, a work created especially for Lumiere in his instantly recognizable, signature style. As in much of Opie’s work, the piece explores the tension between the general and the specific, the masses and the individual. The artist asked random people off the street to walk on a treadmill while being filmed and used the resulting hours of footage to come to a generic graphic rendering of someone (anyone, everyone – Shaida) walking. He subsequently placed her in a billboard-like LED display box ‘like a bronze statue of a civic hero’ intended to ‘stride endlessly as a living drawing and as part of the crowd.’

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Meanwhile, at the bottom of Regent Street, a character appears that will definitely stand out from the crowd: a majestic 3D elephant, which – projected onto the canvas stretched inside the Air street archway – will emerge from a cloud of dust stomping and trumpeting its way into its strange new surroundings. Created by the studio of French artist Catherine Garret, the Air Street Elephant echoes Artichoke’s very first intervention in London in 2006, when it paraded Royale de Luxe’s 20 feet high The Sultan’s Elephant through its streets. Lumiere allows a myriad of other animals to invade the city environment, from Sarah Blood’s songbirds hidden in twelve illuminated cages in Brown Hart gardens, their presence only betrayed by their song (which, I can reveal, is actually produced by people) through to neon balloon dogs à la Jeff Koons on the Strand. Finally, tropical fish feature as dreamlike silky sculptures swooping through the Piccadilly sky, and, over in Mayfair, they swim around in a London telephone box, leading you – once you grasp the odd redeployment of the familiar red object – to dream of tropical travel and an escape from everyday reality.

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Creating a temporary alternative to the urban everyday – the daily bore of making a living, commuting, working and so on – is one of Artichoke’s key aims. So beyond the purpose of lifting people’s spirits – although entirely worthwhile in and of itself – Artichoke’s projects intend to radically reimagine the purpose of a city. They question what a city’s spaces can hold, and who they are for. What can they accommodate other than the perpetual movement of people and products, the smooth flow of funds and vehicles? How many streets and tube stations can be closed in order to momentarily create a pedestrian playground and give the streets buildings and infrastructure over to dreamlike shapes and figures, imaginary performers, liberated animals? Reinventing a city as a large-scale outdoor gallery, a canvas for the imagination of both artists and the public, Lumiere disrupts the productive routines that characterise world capitals across the globe.. and it makes for a very worthwhile spectacle. Make sure to enjoy it while it lasts, from tonight (Thursday) through to Sunday night, 6:30-10:30 pm.

Last week it was London’s annual Frieze week. This meant a week of hectic art fever in the capital. Not only did two gigantic white tents – as well as a sculpture garden – take over Regent’s park, but all over London galleries and museums organised events to coincide with Europe’s most exciting commercial art fair and ride the wave of all-round Frieze-mania. Besides openings, artist performances, talks, huge auction sales and ‘art marathons’ (see the Serpentine’s ‘Transformation Marathon’ that occurred past Saturday), there was also the occasional alternative art fair. One such fair is SUNDAY.

Set up as a low-key, low-budget satellite site to Frieze in Regent’s park – a 10 min walk away – SUNDAY has a reputation as the cooler addition to the frenzied art fair week. Staged in Ambika P3’s subterranean space on Marylebone Road, the fair attracts its visitors and evokes their intrigue with a few hundred playful, funky, experimental artworks in a wide range of media as presented by a set of relatively unknown, young, up-and-coming galleries from Europe and North America.

SUNDAY is difficult to compare directly with the big money, big business violence of Frieze, happening just down the road. Upon arrival you were led – instead of past glamorous VIP booths and expensive-ticket queues toward security-manned gates – through a windy outdoor corridor of what felt like an industrial carpark, with unassuming white A4’s pointing the way towards free entry to the fair. The obscurity of this slightly mystifying walk was resolved as the fair’s entrance opened up onto an indoor balcony from which visitors had a direct overview of most of its interior, a set of metalwork stairs leading down into the large, open-plan main room.

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Its relaxing realising you can enjoy and explore SUNDAY at ease, since its size is nowhere near as daunting and stress-inducing as that of big daddy Frieze. This means you can take snaps of all the art you love before your phone’s battery juice inevitably seeps away (a common frustration among large-art-fair-goers). Different to Frieze’s regimented segmentation of galleries in Ikea-like booths, SUNDAY’s use of space is also much more relaxed, the displays of different galleries bleeding into one large floor and wall expo. You could wander freely through the space, stumble upon, step over or move underneath the works of art with a beer in hand, giving SUNDAY as a whole a much more chilled, down-to-earth, if not slightly chaotic, vibe. Another difference of course is that the art featured, on average, is of a totally different financial status than that shown at Frieze. SUNDAY is in fact so accessible that there might even be some prints or drawings you’d consider buying, with some works going for prices below 100 pounds.
 

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What is not that different to Frieze, is the sense of excitement and wonder you feel discovering new and intriguing artwork. The buzzing energy of SUNDAY in many ways matches the Frieze vibe, regardless of the fact that the art on display is visibly less polished, less luxuriously presented and, of course, less valuable. Visitors of its opening night still included important art world professionals – among whom Beatrix Ruf, director of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, who obviously realise that an absence of swanky presentation or big-name-fame hardly implies inferior quality. After all, any artist exhibiting at Frieze must once have started out at the sort of gallery SUNDAY shows and allows a piece of the Frieze-week action. And in a city as expensive as London, I’d say SUNDAY is in fact invaluable; it presents an exciting alternative addition to the capital’s most high-profile art week.
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