Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Cerith Wyn Evans in Black and White

In 1975, at the age of 17, Cerith Wyn Evans (above right, with Donald Urquhart, at the private view) came to see a show at the ICA by Marcel Broodthaers, called The Battle of Waterloo. This exhibition, Cerith's attendance, his subsequent visits to the ICA and his involvement with the institution over a number of years provide the basis for his own show at the ICA now, 31 years later, entitled 'Take My Eyes and Through Them See You'.
So this is a show about Cerith Wyn Evans, about his relationship to the ICA, about the ongoing history of the ICA itself and about history and, what we might also call, History.
It's big show, then, but with seemingly very little in it.
In the lower gallery he has removed, entirely, the right hand wall, exposing the original brickwork and windows and thus offering a view onto the Mall from the gallery itself. It's absolutely beautiful. This piece is called Decor (after the Broodthaers show). In the morning before the private view Cerith is standing in the gallery with all us staff, taking us on a small tour of the show. (click here to read Danny Birchall's excellent alternative piece on this morning talk). We walk in and the sun is streaming in the windows, casting the window frames across the floor. Cerith turns his back to the sunlight and, raising his arms, mocks a crucifixion of himself against the shadowed window frame on the floor.
Then he lets his arms drop, and turns, looks out the windows.
'I just wanted to open it up,' he says. He motions to the sunlight. 'Just look at that,' he says, 'Just look at it.'
We look.
'That's all,' he says, 'I just wanted to open it up.'
It is a disarmingly naive statement from a man whose work is usually loaded with vast intellectual learning and academic back story. Could it really be this simple?
Later that night, at the view, I am talking to Simon Tyszko about his Phlight project. This is the thing where he is building the wing of a Dakota airplane into his flat. He is talking to me about his father and him being in the Polish air force during the Second World War.
It seems somehow appropriate a conversation. I was thinking earlier that Cerith could've just walked out of the Second World War himself. He dresses in a sharp thin suit and sports a small moustache, speaking in a curious clipped,
not-quite-any-longer, Welsh accent. He looks like he just arrived back from the Front, having seen things that men should not have seen. He's like a ghost of a war he never experienced. There is a wearyness to him, that he carries in his eyes and face, as if all this around him has lost meaning when set against the atrocities he has seen on the battlefield...but maybe that's just what life can do to you.
Upstairs in the galleries, he is using Morse code. He's used Morse code before in his work (most notably with chandeliers) and it seems a favourite method of communication for him: archaic, increasingly less understandable, and with a solid history of employment in Second World War too. He did a piece at the Venice Biennial using, you guessed it, a Second World War searchlight to beam a text in Morse code up into the night sky. In the galleries here he is using specially constructed blinds to open and close, transmitting a morse code text that plays, slowly, across a monitor screen, into which they are programmed. The text makes reference to a piece written on astro photography and of photographs of the southern hemisphere where imperfections, dust or even dandruff, in the photographic emulsion resulted in false atribution of stars and star systems. 'It shows how the micro can be mistaken for the macro,' says Cerith as he walks us round.
The blinds open and close, sending a message out across the Mall and beyond. But it's unlikely that anyone will really notice this outside and even if they do, put the work in to trying to decipher what it might be saying. So what is he trying to communicate? Inside the gallery, with blinds opening and closing you are aware, really, that there is a lannguage being spoken, but not what it is saying. You are also aware that the blinds change, dramatically, the room in which you are standing. Light and then dark, light and then dark (it makes me think of Martin Creed's Work No.227: The lights going on and off). Open and closed, one and zero, yes and no, black and white.
In the other upper gallery is an enormous film projector (I don't know, but it wouldn't surprise me if this was from the 1940's too...). It is playing a blank reel of film, so that the screen shows it completely black. Black, other than the scratches and dust and other marks which are already begining to corrupt the celluloid. Even on this first day there are scratches appearing, like sudden flashes of lightning. There is also talk of another reel which may be played at some point, which is all white, where the scratches and dust would appear as black marks. The projector whirs away. As it plays, we are watching the film become more and more scratched and dusty. As it plays, so it will never be the same again, from moment to moment.
It is a film about film, and it is also a film, not about, but of death. The celluloid is decaying, dying, as it moves round the projector, picking up dust and wear and tear. Didn't I read somewhere that, like, 60% of dust is human skin, falling off us and falling into the air? I can't help thinking of the exposed brickwork downstairs in the lower gallery and of all the histories of dust and skin that must have been lodged into those bricks and panes of glass in the windows. This film is death, death now and death from a long time ago. Maybe even, in taking down that gallery wall, in pulling away some of the wooden plinths and cracking the bricks underneath, there is some infintely small particles of Cerith himself that date back to that visit in 1975. Dust, particles of almost nothing, the micro becoming the macro.
While we are standing watching the film, Cerith is talking. At one point he motions to the pot plants he has positioned around the gallery, or maybe to the flickering screen - or maybe to everything - and says, 'It's a love letter to Marcel.'
I think this is true. But I also think it is, in some ways a letter to himself, the 17 year old Cerith who came and visted this gallery over 30 years ago. It is a letter to that boy. It is an acknowledgement of the impact that the show had on him and to an acceptence that one can never not have ones own history, that what has happened to you has happened and can never not happen.
'You can never get away from who you are,' I say to Simon Tyszko later, after he has spoken of his dad in the air force and the wing he is now building in his flat. We are in the bar. And thanks to Cerith, walking to the bar down the conourse now means walking beneath a (stuffed) magpie, balancing on a branch. 'It's always one for sorrow when you are walking to the bar,' say Cerith. The magpie is black and white. The branch it sits upon is a real one taken from one of the trees outside the gallery, on The Mall - from the trees which we can now see through the windows of the lower gallery.
This magie piece is small flourish of melancholy. The show is deep with melancholy and sadness and of the passing of time. Of how personal history is also the history of an institution or a city or a place.
So maybe, in some ways this show is also a love letter to the ICA.
The whole show is black and white. I've always thought of the ICA as black and white. In physical as well as metaphorical terms. Those three big heavy black letters: I. C. A. They sum up years of intensity and extremism and relentless experimentation. They seem very seventies to me. Like the way history always seems to be in black and white.
So this show, in it's extremism and two shade palette is timely. The ICA is changing. From now it will be known as The Institute of Contemporary Arts. And it's logo will be in colour - actually, a whole range of colours depending on the activity it describes. The new website changes colour everyday. In this month's Art Forum, Jens Hoffmann is talking of his departure from the ICA and I lift this quote: ‘The overall ICA is planning to change, aiming to become more popular and maybe more mainstream. There will be a very different program once I have finished my exhibitions there.’
This show is a love letter to the ICA as it has been.
It is melancholic and filled with beauty and sadness.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Black and white pics


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