November 1, 2015
Last week I had the privilege to interview Gerry Judah in his studio in London.
Gerry Judah’s background has roots from Baghdad. Born in Calcutta and raised – until the age of ten – in West Bengal. At the age of ten his family and siblings moved to London. What affected his artistic development was the dramatic landscapes of India, the theatrical rituals of the synagogues and the deeply historic architecture of its temples. Having experienced post-war Britain and austere London led him to the need in finding inner peace by conjuring imaginary landscapes and architectural pieces along with futuristic unconventional cars and thus explored himself into art schools. He is a graduate of Goldsmiths College, University of London and Slade School of Fine art, UCL. Judah was not satisfied with conventional galleries when it came to exhibit his own work. Working in innovative design – film, television, theatre and museums as a set designer, installation artist, sculptor and painter his knowledge is very broad. Interestingly he created sculptures for Ferrari, Porsche, Audi, and Jaguar, etc at the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed. He even designed bridges in London, Cambridge and Sheffield. Judah was asked by the Imperial War Museum to create something about the Holocaust Exhibition and it was then when he began t make art born of his reflections on historical events. He created large three-dimensional paintings exploring the devastation of war and the ravages man has made upon the environment.
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1) We all know that you are an installation artist, painter and sculptor. What do you think conceptual art is? What is the purpose of it in the world?
My original understanding of conceptual art was way back when I was at Goldsmiths College. Artists like Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement were highly influential, when they focused on the concept of art rather that what it looked like and so we were all attracted to it, during that period. In a sense, conceptual art for me is something which puts across the significance of what we are looking at, in relation to art and the history of art. That for me is how I see the purpose of art. When someone like Damien Hirst breaks into the scene there is a strong connection between what he does and Duchamp in a sense that he is playing with the history of art and those of it which I find particularly interesting.
2) What is the purpose of it then? Is it far from the being part in ‘history of art’?
I don’t think it needs to have a purpose really. I tend to differ my point of view. As an artist I want to address on a wider public realm and when I went to study Fine Art at Goldsmiths and Slade of course there was a strong connection between art history and what we were doing in relation to art history. But when I went to the big wide world on the commercial arena, I found that art was way beyond art history. It was about how you connected with the public, how you entertained the public. I worked in theatre, film, exhibitions and museums and so forth and we were dealing with a much wider audience than art history. So on that level, I don’t feel I owe to the history of art to do what I do. If it makes history, if it doesn’t make history – it doesn’t mean a thing to me. What means to me is what is says in the “now” and to whom I am talking. So I take on issues such as conflict, religion, climate changes, which are present to what, is going on in the world today. I feel as an artist that is where my boundaries lie and I don’t feel I owe it to conceptual art, to the art world and I certainly don’t feel I owe to the history of art. Same thing with film, I love films that entertain me. That speak to me that connect to me about the story they are saying. So I like to tell stories. My paintings are about telling stories. They are related to geopolitics, my history, and my spiritual upbringing that are far more important to me than the history of art. Of course though, I owe to art history on one level because it gives the intellectual facility to be able to be far more critical about what it is that I do and what I see. But that is as far as I take it. To be honest, a lot of artists try very hard to link themselves in that world, but I think they could take themselves a lot further. I often find that connecting art history all the time is a bit boring because it doesn’t go beyond its own limitation. Sorry if I sound dismissive.
3) Not at all. We have seen through your work that you tackle motifs of destruction, the portrayal of war, climate change, religion and so forth. I want to know whether these choices are conditioned by political and historical considerations rather than by artistic ones.
To be honest, they are primarily connected to artistic considerations. I use politics, religion and war as concepts purely to create a structure upon which I can approach how I am developing my language as a painter. My canvases are 3D-canvases and they are connected to people like Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, which were a massive influence on me. Artists like that that took themselves further from the canvas and played with installations and how far you can take a painting. So when I have buildings emerging out of my canvases they are really three-dimensional paintings. When I saw warzones in Beirut, Gaza and Baghdad – which of course I am connected to them because of my historic background- my reflections of them were big white texture canvases. I saw shadows; light and these are things that strike me as a visual artist. So my responses to these issues are more visually artistic responses. Yes, I am trying to work within the regions of history, social history and geopolitics but primarily I connect on the language of the painting. So, going back to what I said previously, I think there is a strong connection to history of art and what I do but not on a conceptual level but more on a level of artistic practise. It is all connected. As human beings we are trying so hard to connect all our histories together, from wherever they are come from because they make us who we are. So my artistic, social and religious backgrounds are intertwined. In this way, I tell my own stories and places. When I did the Holocaust in the Imperial War Museum; that to me was an epic painting. It was flat, a model but it was telling a story of the days of people back then, stories of death and I managed to create a shimmer that draws the audience in it. That shimmers with light, emotion. But when you go more to it is simply a painting.
4) So why do you use white in most of your pieces?
Colours tell you what to see, I use white because I don’t want to tell people what to see. I want to show something people will see for themselves.
5) Is there a life event, something that triggered you to focus on the issues you address through your work?
Yes – I was particularly taken by the wars between Palestinians and Israelis. I am Jewish so seeing the big landscapes covered in dust, remains of towns and streets and they were all leveled by light and shadow. That feeling strikes me in something very powerful. That historical connection as a Jew; I felt that sense of who is the victim who is the perpetrator. History has set me off on a path. So I felt it was time for me as an artist to go back to my current geopolitical considerations – and on what is going on in he world today.
6) While producing a piece do you ever improvise both in the concept and in practice as you go along?
I constantly discover all the time. I know what I want to do – sort of. I am interested in wind, the fragility of wind, destruction and all these are barons of buildings in Baghdad, Lebanon and Gaza. I sort of knew my recurring themes in my work. I know the format I want to work with but so much of my work is peeling away. The pieces I do with buildings are complete structures and I destroy them on the canvas. I take an entire settlement and destroy it. I do that until I get what I want to see in my work. A painting is only finished when you stop looking at it and it looks back at you.
7) Should art be something aesthetically pleasing? Or should it deliver some deeper meanings?
It can do whatever it wants. I don’t care.
8) Okay then, how about your own art?
Art is what you make of it. Its like music, you can’t say music should be like this or like that. It’s a place you go and say what you want to say. Some art is beautiful, some art is challenging, some art is moving. What I don’t like in art especially in galleries, is when you look at a painting and there is a panel next to it telling you what the artist is saying. I’d rather enjoy art for itself. Sometimes is good to get the issues on which the artist was preoccupied with. That I can relate to. But I don’t like telling what I should be looking for.
9) How do you approach your work? Does it require extensive research or do you simply focus on your personal reflections?
All of my projects have something in common – they all commemorate something. The car sculptures I do commemorate the history of those car companies. I suppose the piece on St. Paul’s Cathedral was a particular example of taking commemorating on a different level. When I was asked to put my canvases on the walls of St. Paul’s I thought I should do something particular. They wanted to commemorate the First World War so I thought I’d rather take the main images of the First World War, which was the white cross. So I contemporized the war that still goes on today. Note the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the current conflict of ISIS, Syria, Iraq that are all fought now because of the boundaries of the First World War or its aftermath. So in that sense, the buildings on the white crosses are reflections of Gaza. In a sense they made me make a statement in St. Paul’s Cathedral. So yes, I do research to make all these historic connections. I also saw how the cross has been a symbol of violence. A structure upon people sacrificed their own lives. So expressing this vigorous violence required research. The Bengal pieces from my latest exhibition came out due to my visit in India. I was in India to study some things about climate change and I went to Bengal where I grew up and during the period I was there, it was the Durga Puja Festival. They built these temples all over the country, in villages and towns, which were filled with amazing internal structures and panels and intrigued me to start working. Also, while I was there I was looking at the power stations that were burning coal and they were polluting the environment; more specifically the chimneys that destroyed the environment. So, I took the power stations and translated them into my work. My pieces were preoccupied with these power stations with the internal structure of Puja and the typical rituals of India. Such things are the embodiments of what I like doing, from the visual and iconic perspective to the entire emotion of India. I also did temples out of ashes and dust to indicate pollution, with electric candles, the Jewish ones. I am trying to mix all the cultures I was exposed to. So, there is a personal touch in what I do.
10) I would like to ask you about your presence in Goodwood Festival of Speed. It is something entirely different than what I am looking at here in your studio. How come that you produce sculptures of futuristic unconventional cars?
Well it pays for this (laughter). The problem is that people usually tend to get typecast. The feeling of “how you can do this and yet do that?” One of the things I enjoy when I left art school is that I went out to the big world, worked in theatre, photography film and big museums. An artist should constantly be challenged to do something different. The problem with a lot of artists is that they very much hold into their practice. I like to be completely open. All of my pieces (whether they differ visually) – they are all connected. They are part of me as an artist. My practice is to constantly change what I do. I don’t want to be known as the artist who designed all these futuristic cars but these are the people paying me to do what I do. I am constantly exploring. So these sculptures of cars have more to do with the language of sculpture rather than cars. Cars are embellishes to me, to know what the sculpture is really about.
11) Describe yourself both as an artist and as a person.
I don’t think there is an answer to this question. I love being in my studio, enjoy this one-to-one relationship with my canvas. When I was a child, my father took my everyday to the synagogue because he was a very spiritual man. Everyday I would sit amongst these men and watch them pray. Somehow I felt that that prayer, and the constant facing they did with God was part of the building and that was a very profound and moving to me. But for some reason, I never connected to it on religions terms, but I feel very spiritual about it. These men that were able to pray every day had some sort of connection with God and that in that way I was connected too but not in the same way they were connected. So, I had to find some other way to reach that sense of prayer and expression, and it was then that I wanted to become an artist. I wanted something to transcend me. So, when I come to the studio, I feel as if I am coming into my own temple, in the place I pray in my own way. I relate with my pieces, emotionally and historically – the languages of art, history, politics. I am a very spiritual person therefore and this is where my work lies. This has an intrinsic power to it, which does not rely on art history to guide it. It relies on what I feel, my own sense of prayer. Don’t get my wrong. Not the traditional way of prayer. I didn’t connect with that traditional sense of prayer. I was connected as a kid and as an adult today, with that sense of spirituality, the sense of real devotion. I don’t like that that devotion which tells people what to be devoted to. The word that guides me through everything is devotion. I am devoted to what I do, as I am to my family, to my people, to my friends, to my culture and society. This is another level of devotion.
12) I completely agree with you, history has a dirty background. It requires devotion to be able to translate all your histories as a human being in your pieces. It’s a big thing to do so masterly. So, on this level, I want to ask you, how do you see yourself professionally?
How do you see yourself in the future? Still breathing I hope. I don’t know. I don’t see the future. I cannot answer that. Ambition? I don’t have any ambition. I never had any ambition. I strive for excellence in what I do. That is good enough for me. I leave ambition for others.
13) Finally, what are the messages you want to deliver to the youngest generation, especially those that aspire part of the art world?
Don’t ask me about the art world, I don’t have any relationship with the art world. I like the world. What I would advice young people are: you just need to keep doing it. Get up and be devoted in whatever you do. Don’t be afraid reinventing yourself; don’t be afraid in doing something different. Be fearless in what you do.
It’s probably necessary to let you in on my state of being before describing my reaction to the current display at The Photographers Gallery in London. Prior to my visit, I had donated my tenth pint of blood, my deca-donation if you like. This is no mean feat when you’ve spent most of your life putting a blanket ban on films that contain gore and violence and feeling faint at the mere mention of blood. On this occasion I had decided that it was finally time to look at the needle and blood bag. Unsurprisingly, this left me cold, clammy and white as a sheet with the nurses huddled around me trying to keep me from fainting. I’m sure you can then imagine my wobbly disposition when entering the The Photographers gallery shortly after.
Noémie Goudal’s top floor presence contains a collage of realities. The vast photographs, hung low to fill ones gaze, are inspired by the ‘human fascination with the sky.’ Goudal presents landscapes, interrupted by printed digital imagery, each photo contains another photo, and the execution is such that at first the placement of one image inside the other appears seamless. Upon closer inspection, the construction of the images becomes much more obvious. Goudal positions the somewhat crudely cut out photographs in front of the lens, creating a simple extra layer on top of the background landscape. She allows you to see how the image has been constructed by including the brackets and wires holding it in place, making allusions to a theatre-like stage where the intention isn’t to fein realism but to evoke a willingness to understand a new idea or narrative. Her influences described in the accompanying text are communicated in simple visual language and avoid the art world faux pas of merely illustrating a concept. This floor is an absolute treat.
Walking down to the subsequent level, my mood had been settled. Goudal’s works have a subtle, therapeutic effect and allowed my somewhat giddy mood to mellow. This next floor contained what I later found out to be the second part of Burden of Proof, an exhibition demonstrating the historical lineage of the introduction of photography and moving image into criminal investigations.
The exhibition is extensive so I’m just going to pick out a few pieces that struck chords with me. The first piece I came across was a film demonstrating how video footage can be analysed to understand, in impressive detail, the impact of a drone attack. In the case shown, forensics rely on footage filmed by a citizen in a neighbouring building to determine where the building was situated, where the drone came from and whether there were fatalities. The process is disturbingly fascinating.
Richard Helmers ‘face-skull superimpositions’, on the same floor, were realised by placing stock footage of Josef Mengele’s face over the top of images of a skeleton found in the suburbs of São Paulo. This process allowed the researchers to determine that the skeleton in question was in fact Mengele – the ‘executioner of Auschwitz.’ The images themselves reveal a disturbing dichotomy between life and death – ‘face wrapped over skull, subject over object, an image of life over an image of death.’
The star piece of the show is a short documentary film that describes the first moment moving image was used in a court room and the case in hand happened to be one of the infamous Nuremberg trials. The narrator details the build up and context of the case and demonstrates how the courtroom underwent a structural make-over in order to display the film. It then moves on to show parts of the moving image used in the trial. The footage is nothing short of harrowing and unlike most gallery housed films, where the viewers come and go, no one left the room until the credits ran. I felt glued to my seat. It is one thing to see still images from the second world war, it is quite another to see the victims of this regime walking around like living skeletons with the guards standing in stark contrast next to them.
The atrocities displayed in this exhibition feel as though they should belong in some well crafted dystopian timeline, not one that represents the true historical lineage of the relationship between image and criminal behaviour. I would highly recommend visiting, but please do so with all the blood in your body.
October 16, 2015
Every October, the Frieze Art Fair attracts crowds of collectors and art-lovers from abroad and paint exciting events and exhibitions on canvas of art scene in London. It is certainly an exciting experience to go visit Frieze London, one of the most important contemporary art fairs nowadays. The 13th edition of this international art fair features 164 galleries from 27 countries. This personal selection attempts to provide you with a glimpse of the fair and help you feel the vibe surrounding Frieze.
- Galerie Eigen + Art (A12)
The installation made of cardboard, acrylic paint and wood by Birgit Brenner looks subtle but intriguing. The artist takes ideas from the banalities of daily life which is then expressed by using collage of raw materials such as brown cardboard, tape, staples and markers. They resemble pieces and parts of information that randomly coincide, overlap or complement each other in our current human existence dominated by means of modern technology and information. The gallery also exhibits works by conceptual artist, Olaf Nicolai who explores the relationship of idea to image or idea to object.
- Galerie Perrotin (A16)
This well-established French gallery is gathering fascinating works by various artists, including poetic minimalist series of Meditation by Korean artist, Chang-Sup Chung and Studies into the Past by French artist, Laurent Grasso, who recreates human and natural phenomena set in surreal time and space. The most eye-catching piece is Cierra, the superrealist sculpture of a nude woman posed like a muse for classical painting, by John de Andrea. You do feel you are staring at a nude lady so close and right in front of you. I like Ivan Argote’s see?, it’s true which examines propaganda in the history of several countries.
- Pace (B6)
The gallery has put up a new installation by Adam Pendleton alongside works by a group of artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt, Lee Ufan and Wang Guangle. Pendleton’s work is now in place in the Belgian pavilion of Venice Biennale. I was mainly attracted by the rarely seen Salvage works of Robert Rauschenberg, which will offer an historical precedent for Pendleton’s silkscreen work according to the gallery.
- Gagosian Gallery (C3)
There is solo show of the artist Glenn Brown, whose drawings are the focus this time. Through lines, shadings and strokes, Brown revisits the tradition of copying the historical subjects as a learning process while the effects of gesture are emphasised. The artist is known for the use of appropriation that he would work on other artists’ works by changing colours, forms, or texture in the case of sculptures.
- White Cube (D4)
Here you can see works by big names, such as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Mona Hatoum. The gallery was a pioneer in exhibiting works by Young British Artists (YBAs). I was quite attracted by the mirrored sculpture Puzzle by Liu Wei, a Chinese artist who often uses unexpected materials in surprising configurations. Its mirrored surface interacts with fair-goers and other artworks displayed at the booth.
- Galerie Buchholz (D8)
The inflatable Felix cat by Turner Prize winner Mark Leckey at the Galerie Buchholz booth is the largest artwork exhibited inside the white tent, and is reported to be sold early on the first day of the fair. On the other hand, I was rather intrigued by Wolfgang Tillmans’s realist and intimate photograph of Arms and Legs (2014).
The London-based gallery was awarded the Stand Prize at Frieze London 2015 for its two-artist presentation, praised by the jury on the ‘impact’ of the stand which instigate ‘intellectual and formal dialogue between the two artists.’ The sculptural installation by Yngve Holen made with washing machines, model airplanes and plexiglass was playful and attention-seeking. When it is surrounded by pixelated Rothko paintings by Mark Flood, the visual effects are elevated and make the stand difficult to be avoided by almost every fair-goer.
- The Modern Institute (E5)
The 23 Granny Smith apples hung with transparent strings lining in a v-shaped form immediately drew me into the booth of The Modern Institute from Glasglow. With this artwork, Urs Fischer makes use of found objects –real apples, and the v-shaped line looks like the trajectory of an apple falling and bouncing back on the ground. It is in dialogue with the installation at the back of the booth by Martin Boyce who likes to explore modernist design and how time affects our understanding of design objects.
This is a visually fascinating booth guaranteed by works of Olafur Eliasson including Panetary Lovers (2015) and Polychromatic attention (2015). The 24 partially chromed crystal spheres have attracted many smartphones and cameras for photo-taking. Draped Marble (2015) by Analia Saban, which examines the inherent quality of the material, was minimalist, finely made and neatly presented.
- P.P.O.W. (G2)
Always adoring blue and white china, I was truly enchanted by Ann Agee’s porcelain and stoneware installation, Lake Michigan Bathroom (2014), a re-creation of her original work from 1992. Agee often uplifts utilitarian objects to the level of artwork while seeking to replicate and mimic pre-existing forms. With this piece, she replicated industrial china by hand as porcelain and stoneware, in a way to examine reproduced objects’ position in culture.
Last advice for the fair includes: i) going to the sculpture park before entering the white tent of the fair because it gets too dark for appreciating sculptures outdoor after 6pm if you only go after all the booths; ii) do not miss out some “Live” sessions or “Projects” scattered around the venue, such as Misako & Rosen’s Portrait Session (2015) by Ken Kagami, fun guaranteed.
If you have also been to the Frieze Art Fair already, what are YOUR picks? Leave a comment to exchange ideas!