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Exhibition Review: Lorna Simpson

The artist’s first European retrospective at the BALTIC recounts the most significant moments of her professional and private life…

Installation view at BALTIC, Gateshead  Photo: Colin Davison © 2014 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

When she was eleven years old, artist Lorna Simpson performed at a ballet recital in New York wearing a wig and gold body paint. It has remained one of her most pertinent memories, not because she laments a lost career path but because she recalls stepping onto stage and being suddenly struck by the realisation that she would ‘prefer to be in the audience.’

This is revealing of the voyeuristic thread that runs throughout Simpson’s art, repeated in her 2010 video ‘Momentum’. Played on two giant screens, the video dominates the wide, open gallery space and is mesmerising to watch, as the eye is continually drawn back to the spinning, gold-clad figures. The dancers’ giant afros and glistening bodies are contrasted by the quietness of the blank white background and the un-moving focus of the camera lens. We watch as they form lines against the wall, looking bored, waiting for the dancing to begin. Then the twirling begins. The choreography is unspectacular, resulting in a feeling that comes close to disappointment and yet, it’s also hugely compelling, exposing the flatness behind the glamorous façade and humanising the performers by showing the mundane.

Alongside the video, a series of swirling, gold brush strokes line a portion of the gallery’s walls mimicking the fluid motion of the dancers and capturing a moment of creative spontaneity. A similar burst of energy is conveyed by Simpson’s collection of black and white photographs of female heads with colourful, painted hairstyles. Like much of the artist’s work it’s consciously playful and amusing whilst also addressing more serious issues of identity and race. The women’s billowing hair comes to express suppressed personality and questions culturally accepted notions of womanhood, beauty and fashion. This is a theme that runs throughout Simpson’s work as she explores the identity of the African American female.

The lower-level gallery space offers a very different side to Simpson’s work, presenting a more subdued and sombre atmosphere. The pieces are all black and white and incorporate text and images to create open-ended narratives that simultaneously illuminate and confuse the viewing experience.

Lorna Simpson  Momentum 2010   HD video, colour, sound   Duration: 6:56 min (looped).Installation view at BALTIC, Gateshead. Photo: Colin Davison © 2014 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

In ‘Stereo Styles’ (1988), Simpson again returns to women’s hairstyles, photographing the same woman’s hair from the back with accompanying text panels proposing adjectives such as ‘Daring’, ‘Sensible’ or ‘Boyish’. With her head turned away from the camera, the figure becomes a representation of femininity and a point of intrigue.

The figure in Simpson’s beautiful photograph, ‘Waterbearer’ (1986) is similarly unidentifiable; her back is turned as she pours water from two receptacles. The whiteness of her dress is startling against the black backdrop and evokes traditional perceptions of purity. The text below recounts the words of Phillis Wheatley, a slave who became a poet and the first black female author to be published in America: “She saw him disappear by the river. They asked her to tell what happened, only to discount her memory.”

The female focus again meditates on social perceptions of gender and reveals the insignificance of memory in the face of authority.

However, the most moving work in the exhibition is Simpson’s 2004 video installation, ‘Cloudscape’. Screened in a small dark, alcove at the back of the lowest gallery space, the video shows a single, spot-lit man whistling a hymn popularised by African American slaves during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. The man (recently deceased artist and musician Terry Adkins) is gradually enveloped in a thick fog so that eventually he disappears completely from view. His bird-like song eerily continues, until the fog diminishes and we return again to the opening scene. It’s intensely surreal and otherworldly, leaving you, as with most of Simpson’s work, feeling overwhelmed.

Lorna Simpson is showing at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead until 22 June 2014. 

This article was originally written for PORT Magazine: http://www.port-magazine.com/art-photography/lorna-simpson-gesturesreenactments/

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Interview with Akio Suzuki

Taking his lead from nature, the Japanese sound artist on his latest performance at the North East festival, which sees him finding ‘sound spots’ around Newcastle city centre


Akio Suzuki began experimenting with sound in the 1960s and is now recognised as a forerunner of the international sound-art scene. Despite of his numerous exhibitions and performances across the globe, Suzuki is a modest man modest who lives a humble life closely connected to nature. His gentle personality is reflected in the meditative nature of his work, which encourages listeners and viewers to experience an alternative perspective of the world.

This month, Akio Suzuki brings his work to Newcastle upon Tyne for AV Festival 14: Extraction. The biannual festival runs throughout March, and marks Suzuki’s first major solo exhibition in the UK featuring new work inspired by his visit to the North East coast. In keeping with the central focus of the festival, a re-imagining of the geologic through the exploration of the earth’s raw materials, Suzuki has created original artworks, both visual and aural, that make use of stones taken from the local pebbled beaches.


Millie Walton: When did you first begin experimenting with sound?

Akio Suzuki: Originally I was studying architecture, but somehow I gave that up and became a sound artist. I’m not really sure how it happened! [Laughs] As an architect I was always working in a space and developed a fascination with the relationship between sound and space – that’s really the foundation of my art.


Millie: All of your sound is created using instruments you have constructed by hand, the most significant of these being ‘Analapos’… how was the idea conceived?

Akio: I didn’t learn about sound in school, but from nature. Nature was my teacher. I would immerse myself in the surrounding environment and play around with natural sound phenomenons. For example, I would go to the mountainside or shout across the valley and listen to the way the sound came back. My interest in natural echoes then led me to start thinking about an instrument that could also create that kind of sound.

At the time I was collecting lots of junk in my studio, pieces of metal I found on the streets, and then one day when I was playing around with a metal can I attached a metal coil, and found that together they could create an echo effect similar to that of nature. So it was really by chance that I conceived the basic idea of analapos. I am always searching for these chance encounters and moments in life. It’s a bit like chemistry between objects, similar to that between a man and a woman. Sometimes there’s chemistry, sometimes there isn’t. If you just take a metal can it doesn’t make a sound but if you just attach a coil it creates a sound.

Millie: In the late 80s, for the ‘Space in the Sun’ project, you spent sunrise to sunset listening to the natural sounds of your surroundings. What was the purpose of this project?

Akio: I had no intention to become a performer, but in the 70s I somehow became one through people requesting live performances and exhibitions. ‘Space in the Sun’ was really about returning to my starting place, which was nature. I began learning from nature not as an artist, but just as a human being, and I wanted to be reminded of who I really was. I was listening to ‘La Mer’ a composition by the French classical composer Claude Debussy and I formed this idea that to create the piece, Debussy had sat on the beach for a day listening to the ocean. Debussy was actually inspired by Japanese print, but I was very moved by the idea that I had imagined so I started to build two red brick walls. It took two years to build the walls, which I then sat between for one day listening to the sounds of nature. In that time I didn’t create any other artworks but just channeled all of my energy into this one project. It was a way for me to reconnect with nature.

Millie: The AV Festival is very much centred around natural resources and landscapes this year. How is this theme explored in your solo exhibition at the Globe Gallery, and live performances?

Akio: I really love stones. I have a big selection of stones collected from beaches all around the world. When we [Aki and I] visited Newcastle last July, we went to a local beach and collected specific stones for the exhibition. I found ‘stone-flutes’, stones with natural holes in them, which I will be playing in our duo performance.

Millie: Your exhibition Na Ge Ka Ke meaning ‘to cast, to throw’ reflects on the general idea behind your artwork but also includes a collection of installations that are ‘of sound but are soundless’…

Akio: All of the pieces make sound but I have arranged them at the point before sound, the point at which I imagine the sound. I want visitors to imagine the sound before they actually hear it.


Millie: This interest in provoking other’s imaginations seems to be at the centre of your work: tell me about your oto-date project, which invites people to explore their cities in unique ways.

Akio: When I was in my 20s, I started walking around various cities looking for echo points and specific locations, which have interesting sound phenomenons. It started off as a personal project, a ‘Self-Study Event’ before it developed into something I could share with the public. On our visit to Newcastle last summer, I walked around the city exploring the different sounds, but I didn’t actually choose the spots for the oto-date project until returning this time. Newcastle is a great oto-date city because the geography and architecture is very complex. Especially around the centre, there are lots of layers of stairs, big wide buildings and unusual sound spaces.

Akio Suzuki’s solo exhibition runs at Globe Gallery for the duration of the festival (until 31 March) along with the oto-date project. To find out more about the festival, and the performances, click here

Words: Millie Walton

Translation: Aki Onda

Photography: Janette Scott, courtesy AV Festival

This article was originally written for and published by PORT Magazine: http://www.port-magazine.com/music/av-festival-14-extraction-akio-suzuki/

To properly understand Akio’s art watch this short film of him exploring the acoustic of the Walthamstowe Marshes railway bridge in London:

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