It is our great pleasure to announce Gary Zhexi Zhang as the winner of the Art & Culture Prize for Art Criticism, Volume X, with his review of Ed Atkins, Serpentine Gallery (2014).  James Tabbush is highly commended for his entry on Anselm Kiefer, Royal Academy (2014 - 15).


Our thanks go to Volume X’s judging panel, Omar Kholeif, writer and curator, Whitechapel Gallery, Cornerhouse and Ibraaz Publishing, Jacky Klein, art historian and Executive Editor, Tate Publishing, and Jenni Lomax, Director of Camden Arts Centre. Their comments on the winning and highly commended entries as follows:


Winner: Ed Atkins by Gary Zhexi Zhang

The text is both descriptive and analytical and the author gives a good sense of the exhibition, often supported by strong and original passages of writing. References to other artists and writers feels relevant and give a broader context for the criticism being presented. A factual error at the start (the Atkins show did not inaugurate the Serpentine's new galleries) somewhat lets the writer down, and references to the Marina Abramovic show at the nearby Serpentine site are rather distracting, but the piece overall is very readable and includes some bold statements and clearly expressed judgments.


Highly Commended: Anselm Kiefer by James Tabbush

The text is well written with strong ideas and opinions given, both of the artworks themselves and the exhibition's setting and context. The writer dangerously assumes that their views are those of 'the British public' at large, which somewhat weakens the arguments, but the text is original, opinionated and well argued.
























Winner: Review by Gary Zhexi Zhang

Ed Atkins, Serpentine Gallery, London

11 June - 25 August 2014

Click HERE for more information about the exhibition.

*Small edits have been made to correct factual and grammatical errors*


The artist Ed Atkins works primarily in HD video, using CGI animation to create lonely digital protagonists whose reverberant voice, songs and flatulence fill the Serpentine’s new Sackler Gallery. A number of short videos and texts supplement Ribbons, the centrepiece film, three variations of which play across the renovated 19th century gunpowder stores, falling in and out of sync.


Over in the main Serpentine Gallery, Marina Abramovic’s 512 Hours offers a little monastic respite from the buzz of the metropolis. Here, Ed Atkins gives us the painting in the attic: a low, libidinal groan of life lived at the fag-end of technological capitalism. Using motion-capture, Atkins performs Ribbons’ narrator, Dave, a naked, drunk- and-steadily-drunker avatar delivering a soliloquy of tourettic ejaculations and flights of romance between theatrical drags on a drooping cigarette. Where the 3D imagery ubiquitous in film and advertising deliver slickly perfect takes, this performance is pathetically limp. Coughs, tics and wobbles punctuate Dave’s soul-searching narration, resembling a dodgy audition tape or outtakes from documentary. He gives us trembling renditions of Randy Newman songs, or the odd verse of Erbarme dich, Mein Gott. Other scenes are spent lingering listlessly by a glory hole, or pissing into a old-fashioned glass, an elegant golden display of fluid dynamics on the rocks. It’s an absurd, existentialist portrait of digital spectacle; it’s the gloomy logorrhoea of the Youtube troll; this is Nausea for 2014.


The filmmaker Hito Steyerl observes that the internet has ‘literally walked off-screen’; that is, its visual language, its modes of organisation, its phenomenological space, have become indistinct from ‘physical’ reality. A new generation of digitally native artists are exploring the terrain of what Steyerl terms ‘audio-visual capitalism’. Where bright young contemporaries like Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch revel in an Instagram-inflected psychosexual carnival, Atkins’ work sits somewhere in digital suburbia: his form more middle-aged, his stammering purple prose delivered with a modernist deconstructive impulse.


It’s a messy sight. Atkins’ use and abuse of digital and verbal language expresses the schizophrenic velocity of what critic Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist cyberspace’, where ‘no one is bored, everything is boring’. The virtual world is razed and its dislodged debris blow about the scene. A golden lens-flare swings in and out of view — a throwaway artifice; beeps, flashes, a low vibration — I instinctively reach for the phone in my pocket. It’s all gathered up in a relentless motion, with cryptic textual melodramas (‘BUT ‘I’ll hurt you til you need me.’’) hurtling past with the sensationalist momentum of action film trailers or kitschy DVD menus.


It’s all very seductive, luring us in with breathy palpitations until its reveal — flaccid, utterly insubstantial. At one point Dave literally deflates. The skin here is too skin-coloured, the stolid whites and yellows of his vase of tulips too smooth; there’s no hair, no dirt, no excess; and when the masks crack, there’s nothing beneath. Ironically, it is the lapses of song (surely the most contrived of emotional manipulations), which feel real, giving this empty shell a melancholic resonance. Atkins is a prodigious writer of nothing at all, skirting on the periphery of inaccessible feelings. The wet noise of a guillotine falling into meat and bone resembles a cry out for substance — for flesh, throbbing and venereal. There’s even a glory hole cut into the projection screen.


Atkins and Abramovic’s solo exhibitions are billed perfunctorily as perspectives on ‘performance, body and language’, but their shared concerns go further. Both artists reflect an anxiety towards the psychic implications of today’s social, economic and technological conditions, that is to say, the landscape of late capitalism. Abramovic, the elder shaman, implores us to be conscious of our minds and bodies; and Atkins, the ADHD schoolboy nihilist, is lost, exasperated and a bit horny, like if Beckett’s Molloy was set on Second Life.


Art should make us unhappy. At least, that’s the kind of art I’ve been missing. At some point in the last couple of decades, contemporary art got used to the glamorous life and started pulling its punches. There is a psychological violence and a brittle pathos in Ed Atkins’ work which holds a mirror up to our condition, finding us neurotic, impotent, and inauthentic. If we are sick, artists like Abramovic absolve us, depoliticise us, giving us a transitory happy-place. All the while, Atkins is compulsively scraping his fingernails over the sores until they weep — with quivers of joy.

























Highly Commended: Review by James Tabbush

Anselm Kiefer, Royal Academy of Arts, London

27 September – 14 December 2014

Click HERE for more information about the exhibition.

*Small edits have been made to correct factual and grammatical errors*


After all that’s been thought and written about Anselm Kiefer over these last strange decades, and as he has gone from controversial and outmoded, to collector’s darling, to the thinking sixth-former’s fine artist of choice, this Royal Academy show, neither retrospective nor display of new works, feels unnecessary. Unnecessary and weirdly minor, as if these twelve rooms of gargantuan stuff aren’t enough for the gross profundity of Kiefer’s entire oeuvre; as if the only way to go now is ‘Kiefer Takes Over London Sewers’ or ‘Kiefer Makes Giant Amphitheatre on Moon’.


It’s disquieting and funny just how far the works in the first room of the show are from what anybody wants today from contemporary art. What can we, living in a time of corporatised irony and internet gush, do with tear-obscured watercolour work, with overblown adolescent feelings, and with these embarrassing Sieg heil photographs and paintings? Where do these works, especially those which engage with the immediate legacy of Fascism, leave us, the British public, for whom Nazis are pretty much the guys from Indiana Jones rather than our uncles and schoolteachers? Again and again, from the first work about the theories of Velimir Khlebnikov to the last woodcut on which is written ‘Die Wacht am Rein’ in beautiful cursive, the audience are in a fog of missed allusions. Overheard: ”It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily mean anything to us.”


Anselm Kiefer has something in common with Turner, whose allusions we also mostly ignore. Turner can sweep us away with his painterly alchemy, turning lumpy and streaked oil paint into gold. Turner takes the long view, sees as if from heaven, considers details to be trifling. When he attempts control over detail, especially the human figure, it is awkward and bathetic. Kiefer’s watercolour of Virginia Woolf, in the first room at the Royal Academy, turns the author, who incidentally exemplifies many of the subtleties Kiefer is missing, into a sadly overinflated rubber doll. And he seems to have painted her for the same reasons many young people have kept her books by their bedsides; an unreflective morbidity. In fact, there is a vein of watery sentimentalism pervading much of this exhibition, including the limp ‘erotic’ drawings on plaster in the penultimate room, which the Royal Academy’s audience seem to find a little baffling, though welcome as an anomaly. But like Turner, Kiefer overcomes his limitations through tricks. He visibly learns over the ‘70s how to bring chance and nature into play, learns to move away from representation. And chance and nature bring with them their own realms of profundity - that of decay, of melding and splitting apart, of all those wrinkles and spatters and lumps.


The huge paintings still have the ability to induce awe. The combination of the chemical processes accompanying time and decay with the whiff of far away grand ideas is still intensely seductive. But I start to see a battle everywhere, between Kiefer and his materials. The paintings often feel like a field of chaos on which a child is desperately trying to impose a very simple drawing – see The Steps, for example. If Kiefer’s hand dominates, we get clumsy work as in the drawings of his youth. If chance is allowed the upper hand, we have a richly textured and meaningless field of sludge. Kiefer’s battle is always how much he can afford to lose control while keeping his stamp of meaning on proceedings. And this battle extends to the context around the work too.


Though Kathleen Soriano’s curation is perfectly efficient, the work is an awkward fit with the RA’s lugubrious classicism.  The gilt decorations on the ceilings bring down Kiefer’s own flecks of gold from their intended transcendental arena to a more or less decorative function. The diamond studded lead sheets that fill Room Nine would, within a Barjac cavern, be convincing synecdoche, each diamond its own celestial realm. Here they make me think uncomfortably of the ever expanding market for unique luxury goods. In these comfortable and bourgeois halls, Kiefer’s sublime never gets a chance to stretch its legs.


The threat to this show isn’t the over-grandiose nature of much of Kiefer’s work, but rather the opposite: the anticlimax created as Kiefer comes up against the formidable British public (”You call that perspective?”), the limits of the gallery space and the stain of economics. The failure of his work to cast its spell eventually comes down to a lack of control. Kiefer on the Moon will solve all of this.


Ed Atkins, Serpentine Gallery, London  11 June - 2 Anselm Kiefer, Royal Academy of Arts, London  27 September – 14 December 2014