Votive (2009)

Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow 5th December -30th January 2010

Curated by Sarah Lowndes

‘Every event is an object anyway and every event has object-like quality’ George Brecht

Votive examines the idea of object as event, addressing the idea of performativity enshrined in the votive offering. A votive offering either expresses a wish or is given in thanks for a wish fulfilled. It is thus both sculptural (existing in space) and performative (existing in time, as an event, and thereafter as a memory). Many of the objects included in the exhibition have qualities similar to amulets, charms and talismans, which work by magical and not physical means. Johan Huizinga, in his important study of the play element in culture, Homo Ludens (1940), observed that ‘[…] in giving expression to life man creates a second, poetic world alongside the world of nature.’ This activity, the act of representation, the creation of a second poetic world, is the focus of the Votive exhibition. The offering of votive objects sets in place a contract, whereby the object becomes a physical marker of something imagined which could yet become real.

Chris Burden, Bed Piece (1972) on display in Votive (2009)
Chris Burden, Bed Piece (1972) on display in Votive (2009)

The Super 8 documentation of Chris Burden’s seminal concrete performance piece Bed Piece (1972) is a cornerstone of the Votive exhibition. He described some of the underlying motivations of his early performances by explaining, ‘…there are considerations like the myth and the reality, fantasizing something and having it be real – the early pieces were apparitions.’ Apparition can be interpreted in two interconnected senses – a ghost or ghostlike image of a person, and the appearance of something remarkable or unexpected. The word derives from ‘the action of appearing’. This idea of the action of appearing is significant in thinking about all of the works selected for inclusion in this exhibition. The ghostlike quality of the documentation of Burden’s work is also present in Torsten Lauschmann’s film installation Dead Man’s Switch (2008), which depicts a single candle burning on the kitchen table in the artist’s home. This vision of almost stillness elides the temporary and ephemeral nature of the live event, to fix the flame in an eternal present. The phased action of appearing is converted into the plenitude of the appearance itself, stripped of both preamble and aftermath.

Richard Wright, No Title (2009) on display in Votive (2009)
Richard Wright, No Title (2009) on display in Votive (2009)

The notion of an apparition recurs in considering Richard Wright’s wall paintings, which often take weeks of tremendous physical effort to produce, yet manage to transcend the painstaking method of their production to transmit an experience of clarity and lightness to the spectator. Wright explains, ‘I always say that painting is a physical act; it is about touching matter, but paradoxically painting is essentially immaterial. It is a projection.’ This aspect of projection is evident in Wright’s practice, in which his meticulous and highly complex wall drawings articulate muted or unspoken aspects of the architecture. The predestination of the work (which is usually destroyed at the end of each exhibition) means that in an important way it becomes itself through disappearance.

Devotional objects effect a bridge between sculpture and performance which resonates in the work of George Brecht, a key member of the Fluxus group, who developed John Cage’s Eastern philosophy derived ideas of chance alongside colleagues such as George Maciunias and Yoko Ono. Brecht’s work demonstrates the possibility of sculpture as a prompt to action, whether actual interaction with the objects (as was the case in the early years of his work) or the imaginary acts his work now inspires in spectators. His seminal Chair Event works of the 1960s, in which objects such as a lit candle, or a walking stick and an orange, are placed on a chair, generate a sense of preceding action or an event that has yet to occur.

Thea Djordjadze, Untitled (2008) on display in Votive (2009)
Thea Djordjadze, Untitled (2008) on display in Votive (2009)

The idea of event as object / object as event is handled differently by Thea Djordjadze – she composes nuanced arrangements of forms, using pliable, fragile and ephemeral materials and techniques that foreground the hand of the individual, such as knitting and moulding. Her process-based sculptures possess similar properties to amulets, charms and talismans, in that the manner of their handling gives them a second existence beyond their everyday status. Although amulets, charms and talismans are real objects, their magical properties operate as ‘acts’: their magic inheres in things done and said rather than in the things themselves.

Glasgow Museums have generously loaned twelve objects from their world-renowned World Cultures Collection to the Votive exhibition. In many of these objects, the natural world and the poetic world co-exist: as for example in the turquoise bead, used in decorating headdresses, from a collection of ethnographical objects from Tibet which, for traders in salt of the Himalayan region, had an amuletic function, in averting sickness on journeys. Similarly, the trumpet conch-shell, from Tibet, used in worship along with cymbols and also placed on altars is a natural form that has a symbolic, cultural meaning and function. The other objects selected are man-made, but similar to the turquoise bead and the shell trumpet, their use or significance may not be immediately apparent to the observer. Several of the objects possess a duality, being both functional objects and also possessing symbolic meaning, for example the wooden bowl, with red interior, used for tea and food, from Tibet, which was used by pilgrims both for ordinary meals and for making offerings, and the holy water bowl, made in Lhassa, from a collection of ethnographical objects from Tibet, which perform both a practical and a ritualistic function, both containing water and symbolizing the cycle of life. Similarly, the bone figure used by the natives for tightening the skins on their drums, from a collection of ethnological specimens from the Marquesas, South Pacific, is not only a musical tool but also a fetish.

Objects from The World Cultures Collection of Glasgow Museums on display in Votive (2009)
Objects from The World Cultures Collection of Glasgow Museums on display in Votive (2009)

A number of actual votive offerings have been selected for inclusion in the exhibition, which serve no practical function, other than their use in specific rituals, such as funerary rites. These objects include acone shaped mould for marking votive stupas, from Tibet and a small terracotta votive stupa, from Burma. Also on display will be a figure of a human head and two miniature masks of terracotta from Mexico, found near the Pyramid of the Sun, San Juan, which are believed to be either funerary figures or votive offerings. The exact significance of the Mende or Sherbo Nomoli figures in soapstone is also unknown, although it is believed that they are either fetishes or votives. The mysterious nature of these objects means that they hold great potential in terms of interpretation, particularly in the context of the Votive exhibition, where their performative and sculptural qualities are highlighted.

Nerea Bello performs at the opening of Votive at CCA, Glasgow, December 2009
Nerea Bello performs at the opening of Votive at CCA, Glasgow, December 2009

Abraham Cruzvillegas’ silk-screened works on paper are based on political protest posters, and are both documents of historical struggles and reflections of what the artist calls ‘real experience: subjective, warm, live.’ The message of resistance and of hope communicated through these works provides another instance of an object that may also presage an event. On the opening night of the Votive exhibition there was a live song performance by the Basque singer Nerea Bello, Bello’s remarkable vocal range and mastery of different song idioms generates song performances that are suspenseful and captivating – a recording of her opening night performance can be heard at one-hour intervals during the exhibition. Bello uses objects in her performances such as a radio, a tambourine or a spinning top, that become a means of moving through both physical and imaginary space, much as the ex-voto offering of a gold ring or a burning candle is but the concrete marker of activity emanating in the realms of the imagination.

Sarah Lowndes.

Torsten Lauschmann, Dead Man's Switch (2009)
Torsten Lauschmann, Dead Man’s Switch (2008)

Description of works:

Nerea Bello, accompanied by Shane Connolly (2009).  A recording of a performance made on the opening night by Basque singer Nerea Bello in response to the other works in the exhibition. Bello has a ‘passion for voice, the broken voice that carries bad news, that of a distant argument, of protests and after dinner songs, laughter, whispers, breaths, howlings of labour, sadness, joy. Voices tuned to train sounds, to radios crackling, to a baby’s cry, a toy, a bread maker, thunder, car horns, anything is an excuse to experiment with voice’. The recording will be played at one-hour intervals in the exhibition space.

George Brecht, Chair Event (1969).This important and rarely seen sculpture consists of a whitewashed chair, on the seat of which are placed a walking stick painted with black and white stripes and an orange. Brecht’s work demonstrates the possibility of sculpture as a prompt to action, whether actual interaction with the objects (as was the case in the early years of his work) or the imaginary acts his work now inspires in spectators. He once described his art as a way of ‘ensuring that the details of everyday life, the random constellations of objects that surround us, stop going unnoticed.’

Chris Burden, Bed Piece (1972).The Super 8 documentation of Chris Burden’s seminal concrete performance Bed Piece, in which the artist undressed and remained in bed for 22 days, is problematic because it can never fully convey the power of Burden’s vigil-like performance, which he has described as the ‘strangest, most powerful piece’ from his early career. Burden described his body as generating a force-field like ‘a repulsive magnet’ during the performance, an effect reversed in the Super 8 film, which onlookers cluster around to observe the supine body of the young artist.

Abraham Cruzvillegas, Ink & Blood: 1968-2009 (2008-2009). For Votive, Cruzvillegas sent from Mexico City to Glasgow a portfolio of screen-prints based on political protest posters – as a gesture of faith and an acknowledgement of the ideas implicated in the postal art of the 1960s and 70s. A different poster from the portfolio will be shown at ten-day intervals throughout the exhibition in vitrine two. Cruzvillegas has donated his fee for participating in the exhibition to Amnesty International.

Thea Djordjadze, Untitled (2009), Untitled (2009)and Untitled (2008).The Georgian-born Berlin-based artist Thea Djordjadze has selected three works for the exhibition. There is a quiet insistence on a relational rather than absolute idea of time in Djordjadze’s works: in the modernist referents of the framing devices and supports, the ghosts of the real objects that the plaster casts take their imprint from and in the history of making that is knotted into the weave of the nomadic carpets.

Torsten Lauschmann, Dead Man’s Switch (2008). Torsten Lauschmann’s film installation, Dead Man’s Switch was commissioned for the ICA’s Nought to Sixty series and depicts a single candle burning on the kitchen table in the artist’s home: the film image appears and disappears at timed intervals. This work alludes both to votive offerings and to Gerhard Richter’s painting Kerze (1983) which appeared on the cover of Sonic Youth’s 1988 Daydream Nation album – but like Lauschmann’s earlier films of ‘almost still’ subjects it also reveals the tension between the absent contingency of the real and the static, endless quality of representation.

Richard Wright, No title (2009).A new commission from 2009 Turner Prize nominee Richard Wright, who makes site-specific wall drawings which respond to both the emotional and physical qualities of architecture. Working predominantly with paint and gold leaf directly on walls, his work relies upon intensive and laborious processes, yet the clarity of the finished work reveals none of the commitment required to render the immaterial concrete.  Most of his work exists only for the duration of a given exhibition, but thereafter may appear to haunt both the space and the spectator’s memory.

Objects loaned from the World Cultures collection of Glasgow Museums.

Lent by Culture and Sport on behalf of Glasgow City Council

Vitrine One    

Holy water bowl made in Lhassa.  From a collection of ethnographical objects from Tibet.

Figure of a human head (bald head, female) in terracotta from the neighbourhood of Mexico City. From a collection of Prehistoric Implements from Mexico.

Figure of a human head & Mask of terracotta (bald head, male) and mask of terracotta (torso) found near the Pyramid of the Sun, San Juan, Mexico.

Nomoli figure in soapstone, Mende or Sherbo.  The head has nose and mouth thrust forward and ears placed well back.  Flattened nose with wide nostrils, teeth bared.  Attached by brass peg to rectangular wooden plinth.

Small fragment of a nomoli figure in grey soapstone. Mende or Sherbro with a pair of arms with hands at one end, either side of a large piercing.  Above the arms is a worn s-shaped section, possibly the remains of a head.

Thea Djordjadze, Untitled plaster and watercolour. 2008

Vitrine Three

Wooden bowl, with red interior used for tea and food. From a collection of ethnographical objects from Tibet.

Turquoise bead used in decorating head dresses, flat triangular shape.  From a collection of ethnographical objects from Tibet.

Trumpet – conch-shell, used in worship along with cymbols and also placed on altars.  From Tibet. Gifted by Mrs. Thomson

Mould – cone shaped, for marking votive stupas.  Shows band of inscription near rim and on head of mould around square pin top.  From Tibet. Gifted by Mrs. Thomson

Small terracotta votive stupa – Buddhist, from Burma.

Bone figure used by the natives for tightening the skins on their drums.  From a collection of ethnological specimens from the Marquesas, South Pacific. gifted by C.M. Stuart

There was also a series of events related to the exhibition, including a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) on the 13 January and a talk on the theme of Object as Event with curator Sarah Lowndes and artists Richard Wright and Torsten Lauschmann on the 28 January.

Votive, CCA (2009) Installation view
Votive, CCA (2009)
Installation view

Reviews

Ken Neil, “Votive”, Map #21, February 4th 2010.

Writer, academic and curator Sarah Lowndes has gathered a variety of subtly poetic artworks and arranged them as if according to the uncanny logic you might meet at the heart of a dream. Votive is an economical exploration of three central themes: the intrigue generated by those carefully fabricated things which have since time immemorial supported magical narratives; the awe that even secularists can register when close to the minds and manners of humans capable of extraordinary devotion; and the idea of ‘sculpture as event’ – matter fixed in the moment it is beheld but which inspires imagined episodes, post and ante.

A grainy black and white filmed recording of Chris Burden’s eerie ‘Bed Piece’, 1972, is a powerful mood-setter for the show. Burden, on public display in a Californian gallery, stayed in bed for 22 days, speaking to no-one. In one shot the camera hovers over Burden’s face; he’s sleeping, like a doomed convict. In another he seems to express a monkish contentedness and in yet another, he is seen from afar, his performance symbolically miniscule against the role of expansive nothingness played by the studio wall.

Burden’s asceticism lingers in mind in the space of Torsten Lauschmann’s ‘Dead Man’s Switch’, 2008. Projected onto the wall of what feels now like a darkened transept is a mesmerising window of colour. With something of the nostalgic richness of a Vermeer and the contemporary look of a Richter, the projected image shows a lit church candle on a kitchen table next to breakfast condiments. The zone of light is magnetic after Burden’s monochromism; but as pious beholding turns into viewing pleasure the gallery light comes on and the projection pales. The wick issues a wisp of smoke as trace of its extermination. A hand appears, relights the candle, and darkness conversely returns to real space. The dead man’s switch, that morbid safety feature which anticipates the demise of a human operative, and covers for it, appears to have been activated by us.

Into the nave – at each end Richard Wright and George Brecht present signature pieces. Thea Djordjadze and Abraham Cruzvillegas make offerings in between. In addition, two vitrines display actual votive objects selected by Lowndes from the Glasgow Museums’ World Cultures Collections. Some have been identified as components of funerary rituals, others remain now distant from original use, so the primed viewer begins to place them in sequences of events in an invented narrative.

Georgian artist Djordjadze’s surrealist works of materially contrasting artefacts – woven nomads’ rugs, smooth plaster, wooden supports – are quickly anthropomorphised by the conditioned mind; skin, cranium, skeleton, appear in place of the inanimate. The invoked transubstantiation parallels the scripted transformation to follow those acts of religious communion which are structured around symbolic objects as markers of faith.

Brecht’s ‘Chair Events’, 1960s, most clearly signal the role of sculpture-as-event, and by now one is attuned to speculate on the before and after-life of the chair the cane and the orange. Although the telegraphed surrealism doesn’t match Lauschmann’s poeticism or Djordjadze’s idiosyncratic invention, the peculiar tension between Brecht’s items-as-things-inthemselves and items-as-signs-of-actsunseen is worthy of contemplation.

Looking back from Brecht towards what is convincingly the apse, the delicately unnerving wall drawing of Wright comes into its own. Wave-like patterns in red gouache are spread up the height of the architecture and perpendicularly to that axis. The wall work is engagingly hard to account for: might this formation be cruciform, or is the aesthetic that of a cardiograph?

The eye is taken up and out of the main gallery space by the verticality of Wright’s composition. Indebted to the prompts and hints of the surrounding works our eye is trained through the skylight to the firmament. But as the apotheosis dawns, and our attention to the earthly prefigurings of other worlds is on the verge of some great reward, we meet the jagged geometry of the man-made metalwork above the roof of the CCA. This is no accident I think. From this observation, a return to Lauschmann’s haunting film is enacted. For if our commitment to Wright’s devotion to his craft moves us upwards but back down to earth, there is parallel thinking from Lauschmann: it is we who control the dead man’s switch by being alive and attentive, but when it does switch, on our demise, the divine light, which is of our worldly making, will snuff and join us in the tomb.

Talitha Kotze, “Votive”, The List, 9th December 2009.

Curated by Sarah Lowndes, Votive offers a well considered exhibition showcasing the works of international artists George Brecht, Chris Burden, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Thea Djordjadze, Torsten Lauschmann and Richard Wright. It also includes artefacts from the World Cultures Collection of Glasgow Museums and a recorded performance by Basque singer Nerea Bello.

The image of the votive offering – an object placed in a sacred space for ritual purposes – encapsulates the idea of object as event as this exhibition takes a lead from Fluxus artist, George Brecht’s seminal Chair Event in 1969. Brecht, who died last year and whose work has rarely been seen in Scotland, said: ‘Every event is an object anyway and every event has object-like quality’.

Also addressing this idea of performativity is the documentation of endurance artist Chris Burden’s 1972 performance ‘Bed Piece’ where he remained in bed for 22 days.

Both sculptural and performative, Torsten Lauschmann’s film installation ‘Dead Man’s Switch’ projects a moving still life of a burning candle onto the wall. As the flame gutters and blows out, the event continues in another dimension. A nod to lighting candles as an act of invocation and to Gerhard Richter’s painting ‘Kerze’, this work brings together the old and the new, extending the tension between the real and the static.

Turner prize -winner Richard Wright, whose work is meticulous and labour intensive, has made painstaking wall drawings on the far back wall of the CCA ‘chapel’. Here too the act of making is a sculptural event as the artist responds to the site-specific architectural conditions.

Alluding to amulets and talismans, the objects in this exhibition work a certain kind of magic. In an attempt not to take for granted the history of the last century of Western Art, but rather to revisit ideas and play with questions that have not yet fully been answered (and this is why people still make art), the objects work together to transcend that philosophical, intellectual and even poetic explanation of what is on display. It is open ended, but covers all corners; it is disconcerting, yet compelling; and it is truly beautiful as it puts us at ease while it supersedes its own premise.

Notes:

All photographs of Votive exhibits are by Alan Dimmick, except the photograph of Torsten Lauschmann’s Dead Man’s Switch which is by Colin Davidson.

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