Category: Dan Fox

An excerpt: Limbo by Dan Fox

Limbo for blog

An excerpt from Limbo by Dan Fox, published this week:

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I imagine limbo as an extraterritoriality without walls, without corners, windows, entrances or exits. I can also cast it as ocean and desert wilderness. Or a blind-black void that has swallowed all light and matter and threatens a sublime death. ‘’Tis a strange place, this Limbo!’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge imagines ‘Time and weary Space / Fettered from flight, with night- mare sense of fleeing / Strive for their last crepuscular half-being.’ (As Ridley Scott’s Alien warned audiences: ‘In space no one can hear you scream.’) Limbo might bring to mind a zone of white nothingness. A space of minimalist perfection that looks like a giant infinity curve or the interior of a contemporary art museum. In his essay ‘Inside the White Cube’, the artist and critic Brian O’Doherty describes the effects of the ‘unshadowed, white, clean, artificial’ spaces of the art gallery, in which art ‘exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of “period” (late modern), there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbo-like status: one has to have died already to be there.’ Limbo is at the apex of visual sophistication: an extra-dimensional loft done out in luxury-plain Jil Sander grey. Empty and placid, with not even a reproduction Eames chair to interrupt the anodyne tastefulness. No mess, no colour, no life. No hint of recidivist ornament – Adolf Loos would have loved limbo. In Harold Pinter’s words, a ‘No man’s land, which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, which remains forever icy and silent.’ (And full of dread: ‘Nomaneslond’ was the fourteenth-century name for execution sites to the north of London’s city walls.) No day, no night, no seasons. ‘Lank space,’ Coleridge called it. Or is it? By definition it stands for an in-between space. Limbo appears at the edge of daybreak and at dusk. It’s a cusp word used for conversations held in the golden hour.

Limbo; that corporeal first consonant, the symbolic, annular nothing at the end of its second, the deliciously dumb sound that both sing together. How do you define a secular nothing into which you can drop anything? This green zone’s permutations are many. For comics fans, Comic Book Limbo is where old or unwanted characters are dumped by their publisher, DC: Animal Man, Merryman, Ace the Bat-Hound, The Gay Ghost. In the final instalment of The Wachowski Sisters’ Matrix trilogy, limbo is anagrammatized into Mobil Avenue subway station, and in Christopher Nolan’s action flick Inception, it’s the name of an ‘unreconstructed dreamspace’ into which a pair of lovers retreat. The titular free spirit in Andre Breton’s 1928 surrealist novel, Nadja, announces: ‘I am the soul in limbo.’ When she is committed to the Vaucluse sanitorium, the narrator observes: ‘The essential thing is that I do not suppose there can be much difference for Nadja between the inside of a sanitarium and the outside.’ The Man From Limbo is a novel written in 1930 by Hollywood screenwriter Guy Endore, later blacklisted as a Communist; limbo is the poverty from which the book’s hero tries to escape, and where Endore later found his career had slipped. The Man From Limbo is also the title of a 1950s noir detective story by John D. MacDonald in which a damaged army veteran on his uppers, coerced by his shrink to become a salesman, gets caught up in a political corruption scandal – limbo is where the anti-hero’s war trauma has consigned his dignity.

For the Danish game developers Playdead, Limbo is a quiet, puzzle-solving videogame about loss. In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 film After Life, a drab administrative centre-cum-film studio processes dead souls on their way to heaven. Here, social workers help the souls identify their happiest memory. The dead wait patiently in limbo as this memory is recreated for them to experience for the rest of eternity. The subtitle to John Wallace Spencer’s Limbo of the Lost, written in 1969, promises ‘Actual Stories of Sea Mysteries’. Limbo District was the name of a a short-lived but influential band in Athens, Georgia, during the 1990s. I am told that in Marseille there is a neighbourhood bar with a sign in the window which declares: ‘Bienvenue dans les limbes.’ For the Long Trail Brewing Company in the US state of Vermont, Limbo is the name of an India pale ale. On the bottle’s label a skeleton sits beneath a blood-red tree, bringing to mind the one about the skeleton who walks into a bar and orders a pint of lager and a mop.

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Know Your Place

Dan Fox writing for Frieze
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From blue collar to new affluence, Dan Fox tackles the issue of social class in the art world, for Frieze magazine:

Hyde Park, London. It’s 5 July 1969 and the artists Gilbert & George are walking through the crowd at the Rolling Stones’ concert in tribute to band member Brian Jones, found dead in his swimming pool two days earlier. In a photograph taken for the Daily Mirror newspaper, the artists are captured wearing light-toned suits, shirts and patterned ties, with carnation buttonholes, as if they are attending a society wedding. Yet, they look uncharacteristically dishevelled: ties askew, hair blowing in the breeze. Leslie Woodhead and Jo Durden-Smith’s documentary of the day’s concert, The Stones in the Park (1969), shows hundreds of flower children basking in the sunshine under the fractious eyes of the Hell’s Angels security detail. Amongst them, Gilbert & George look like bankers from an alien planet, there to out-freak the underground freak scene. One detail makes them fit in: metallic body paint on their faces and hands, which looks like badly applied fake tan. Yet, their mimicry of conservative British masculinity still manages to wrong-foot expectations of how artists or other creative types associated with old-fashioned avant-gardism should present themselves.

Gilbert & George costumed themselves as urbane gentlemen of the upper classes, but lived in a then-run-down area of east London. Their suits afforded them invisibility: a cloak of conformity that allowed them to forge ahead with their extraordinary project to make their lives into a total artwork. It was a look that, paradoxically, made them stand out amongst their peers in Swinging London because it suggested that nothing could be more conformist than growing your hair and slipping on a kaftan. But, more to the point, in class-neurotic Britain, their appearance gave the lie to assumptions as to which social bracket artists should dress for. Gilbert & George punctured a self-flattering affectation of blue-collar solidarity that persists amongst certain artists: the fantasy that artists are workers in the same way builders, firemen or mechanics are. (In her 1977 essay ‘The Pink Glass Swan’, Lucy Lippard describes artists who are ‘persistently working “up” to be accepted, not only by other artists, but also by the hierarchy that exhibits, writes about and buys her/his work. At the same time, s/he is often ideologically working “down” in an attempt to identify with the workers outside of the art context.’) Were Gilbert & George rich or poor? Upper-class toffs on the skids or lower-middle-class clerks on the rise? It was hard to tell.

That was, I suspect, the point. George was brought up by a single mother and worked a number of jobs in London – in Selfridges department store, as a barman at the Players’ Theatre Club – before meeting Gilbert at Central St Martin’s School of Art in 1967. Gilbert came from a family of shoemakers in a village in the Italian Dolomites. Did that matter? Certainly, gaming the visual codes of the British class system was folded deep into their artistic strategies. It was a way of making us laugh when they called themselves George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit for their 1970 ‘magazine sculpture’, or when we watched them get tight on gin to the music of Edvard Grieg in their 1972 video Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk. For many artists from the UK, class is inescapable – a facet of work and identity. In 1990s Britain, artists such as Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas actively played up their backgrounds. Tabloid headlines were appropriated to redefine conversations around female sexuality. The British working-class seaside holiday or the souvenir shop were used as tropes to talk about ownership and independence: in 1992, Emin and Lucas bought a beach hut in Whitstable and, the following year, they ran a shop together.

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Dan Fox’s 2014 Highlights

In frieze magazine
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frieze co-editor Dan Fox, who is currently writing a book for Fitzcarraldo Editions, rounds up this year’s highlights in film, art, music, etc.:

As far as disgraceful social injustice and disgusting political corruption go, 2014 was a vintage year. So for me, two of the most significant works made by artists in 2014 were not artworks. The first of these, Laura Poitras’s film CITIZENFOUR, is an astonishing historical document, recording the days and weeks during which Edward Snowden’s revelations about electronic government surveillance became one of the defining political stories of our age. Whether or not CITIZENFOUR is a ‘good’ documentary in the aesthetic sense is neither here nor there. Since the film’s release in October, I’ve had numerous arguments with people who think that Poitras could have ‘done more’ with her footage. I think they are missing the point. (What do you want? A nine-channel HD video installation featuring the complexities of electronic surveillance explained through a Judson Church-influenced dance sequence, sound-tracked by Miley Cyrus, and accompanied by a collateral programme of talks and film screenings?) What CITIZENFOUR makes clear is how few documentary films actually record a story of global proportions unfolding in front of the director’s camera. Here is a subject that needs no embellishment, no artistic lace doilies. CITIZENFOUR will be seen in the future as an exceptional piece of primary historical evidence. I left the cinema stunned by the courage of those involved in breaking the story, and in the production of this film.

Perhaps CITIZENFOUR felt all the more urgent because 2014 was a miserably grim year in world news, and Poitras’s film was just one particularly explicit expression of our frustration at the current shape of power. Which brings me to the second notable non-artwork by artists this year: The W.A.G.E. Certification campaign by New York-based artist group Working Artists for the Greater Economy. In the organization’s own words, ‘Certification is a voluntary program initiated and operated by W.A.G.E. that publicly recognizes non-profit arts organizations demonstrating a history of, and commitment to, voluntarily paying artist fees that meet a minimum payment standard.’ In October, New York’s Artists Space was the first non-profit gallery to sign up to the scheme, an important gesture in a town held in the vice-grip of unchecked real estate greed and increasing economic disparity. (‘People like you lose all claim to respect the first time they pay anybody rent,’ remarks Crocker Fenway, a ruthless businessman in Paul Thomas Anderson’sInherent Vice. Both the film and the Thomas Pynchon novel it is based on are set in 1970, but that’s a line aimed right between the eyes of 2014.)

‘But c’mon Fox,’ I hear you cry, ‘we’re here to read about art not the price of eggs!’ OK, fair enough. 2014, for me, often seemed to have its gaze fixed on the past rather than the present, and notable retrospectives and surveys were thick on the ground. ‘The Heart is Not a Metaphor’, Robert Gober’s ‘this is your life’ moment at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, may not have been quite the immersive experience as his 2007 career overview at Basel’s Schaulager was, but I rarely tire of seeing his sculptures and installations. Gober’s work serves as a gentle and often moving reminder that Surrealism is the one art movement that never really disappeared or lost its power to disturb and entrance. I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed ‘Night and Day’, Chris Ofili’s victory lap at the New Museum, New York. In Britain during the 1990s heyday of Young British Art, Ofili’s work was so often reproduced in the media that it lost some of its pizzazz through overfamiliarity, so perhaps absence has made the heart grow fonder. (Protests erupted in New York when his 1996 painting The Holy Virgin Mary was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. In 2014, we’ve got far bigger problems to worry about than offending the sensibilities of a few iconodule Catholics.) Amy Sillman’s survey show ‘One Lump or Two’ at the Hessel Museum of Art/CCS Bard (which toured from the ICA Boston) was not just funny and imaginative, but a testament to the possibilities of painting, and ‘The Production Line of Happiness’ – a wonderfully titled retrospective of Christopher Williams’ photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and MoMA, New York – was as crisply milled as the glass on a Leica lens.

Many of the past year’s retrospectives were dedicated to the sadly departed. We had Sigmar Polke’s inventive mischief at MoMA, New York and Tate Modern, London; Sturtevant’s pioneering work in the field of appropriation – also at MoMA – and a moving exhibition of painting by Leonilsson at the Pinacoteca do Estado São Paulo. And I mustn’t forget the small but knockout selection of small paintings by US artist Albert York at Matthew Marks Gallery, New York; bucolic landscapes, still lifes and allegorical works suggesting what Giorgio Morandi and Odilon Redon might have painted had they lived on Long Island.

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