We are delighted to announce Jessica Clifford as the winner of the Art & Culture Art Criticism Prize Volume XI for her review of João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, Papagaio at the Camden Arts Centre. The judges were unanimous in their praise for Jessica's review, enjoying the way in which it engaged with the exhibition in a confident, lucid style which was both insightful and informative. It distilled the experience, design and concept of the exhibition with succinct clarity, captivating the reader with authoritative enthusiasm and knowledge. Nancy Webb is highly commended for her entry on David Altmejd, Flux, at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Her review was judged to be an evocative and lively piece, drawing the reader close to the art work.


We would like to thank our judges for this volume: Jan Dalley, Art Editor, Financial Times, Paul Hobson, Director, Modern Art Oxford and Alyce Mahon, Reader in Modern and Contemporary Art, University of Cambridge as the judges for Volume XI.

























Winner: Review by Jessica Clifford

João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, Papagaio, at the Camden Arts Centre

30 January - 29 March 2015

Click here for more information about the exhibition.


In the opening scenes of the film The Dreamers, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s paean to May 1968 in Paris, the protagonist Matthew describes himself as “one of the insatiables… the ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen.” Obsessed with cinema, he continues, “Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first, when they were still new, still fresh, before they cleared the hurdles of the rows behind us, before they’d been relayed back, from row to row, spectator to spectator, until worn-­out, secondhand, the size of a postage stamp, they returned to the projectionist’s cabin.” Matthew and his Parisian friends, Isabelle and Theo, act out scenes from films in their apartment; lost in themselves and their cinemania, they are almost completely oblivious to the revolutionary ferment in the streets outside their window. Nearly fifty years on, an exhibition of the films of Portuguese artists João Maria Gusmão (b.1979) and Pedro Paiva (b.1977) attests to this “insatiable” appetite for images, lush surfaces and aesthetic immediacy.


Gusmão and Paiva have collaborated since 2001, and for this exhibition, their first major show in London, the pair are showing twenty-­seven 16mm films and two camera obscura installations.  Focusing on quotidian scenes – eggs frying, a turtle, a man leading a donkey in a sleepy village – the films are shot in high speed but projected in slow motion, adapting the logic of 1960s and 1970s Structuralist films for the digital age, drawing attention to the analogue processes and material qualities of 16mm film. Multiple films are projected at different scales onto each wall; emerging from the inky shadows of the exhibition space, they function less as autonomous works than as an affective and hypnotic whole.  Heat Ray, 2010, acts out this accumulation: the rectangular reflections from multiple mirrors shimmer across a white canvas, then join together in a dazzling concentration of solar power. Meticulously shot, formal echoes abound between the works – the glowing circular shapes of 3 Suns, 2009, and Fried Egg, 2008, for example. Whirring projectors act out their own aleatory performance, highlighting the absence of sound in the films. Mounted on shaped plinths throughout the gallery space, they confront the viewer with their sculptural presence, impinging upon the aesthetic experience by making the dimly lit rooms hard to navigate. With the addition of multiple screen walls, the gallery spaces have been transformed into an unnerving labyrinth to rival any carnival house of mirrors.


Curator Alessandro Rabottini has written that by using 16mm film, the artists “look back to the image of early film, when it was synonymous with exploration and knowledge in anthropology and science. In doing so they recreate a kind of physical proximity, a tactile intimacy with the mechanism of projection.” This is undoubtedly true: a sense of past-­ness haunts the exhibition, both in the use of antiquated film apparatuses and the nostalgia redolent in the subject matter.  Mythological references, ancient statuary, the slow movement of a turtle and a donkey – the films signal a past that is opposed to the present, to a Rousseau-­ian duality of nature and culture, primitive and civilized. Here Rabottini’s invocation of the artist as anthropologist takes on a rather unsettling tone: a seemingly innocent appetite for images is thus transformed into a desire to possess them: to slow down time to hold it still, to capture through protracted looking.This sensorial disruption is particularly evident in the exhibition’s centerpiece, the eponymous Papagaio (Djambi), 2014. At 43 minutes, it is the artists’ longest film to date. The film was shot on the archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe, a former Portuguese colony in the Gulf of Guinea. It ‘documents’ the West African voodoo ritual known locally as D’Jambi, in which the spirits of the dead enter the bodies of the participants, themselves in a state of trance, in order to be healed. One-­third of the footage was shot by the participants – who, ‘possessed’ and deprived of consciousness, shiver, shake and walk over hot coals. The curation of the other rooms takes on the aesthetic qualities of Papagaio – as the figures appear from the dark night, lit by the camera’s spotlight and the glowing embers of a large fire, so do the films materialize upon the gallery walls.


The complicated authorship of Papagaio reinforces the persistent ambiguity of all the films.  Rather than melancholic, then, perhaps by forcing the viewer to endure their works in time and space, the artists draw attention to uncomfortable histories – in particular, here, the darkness of Portugal’s colonial past.  The slow motion worlds created in the films could indeed hold ameliorative powers lurking beneath their ambivalent surfaces.  

















Highly Commended: Review by Nancy Webb

David Altmejd, Flux, at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

27 September – 14 December 2014

Click here for more information about the exhibition.


Sarah Altmejd’s face has exploded. David Altmejd has replaced his sister’s countenance with saccharine clumps of jewellery caked in glitter to form a gruesome, yet tender portrait. The eponymous sculpture opens Altmejd’s mid-career survey ‘Flux,’ which features a non-chronological selection of the artist’s work, currently on view at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.


Le Désert et la Semence, a large-scale installation made specifically for this exhibition, takes up residence in the first room. Part zoological laboratory and part post-apocalyptic Surrealist discothèque, the work is entirely plated with broken mirrors. A Darwinian scene is unfolding, as balls of wet sand evolve into lupine heads. These human-wolf hybrids stare glassy-eyed into space, or shut out the world under crusty lavender lids. Flanked by Altmejd’s mirrored Minimalist labyrinth, The University I, and his diamond-scabbed mid-metamorphosis aggregations such as Untitled (Swallow), Le Désert seems to combine two former preoccupations: mirrors and supernatural transfiguration.  


The Lovers, one of Altmejd’s older works, retains an allure despite its scale – coffin-sized – which seems quaint next to the gargantuan pieces that populate the show. Two stalagmite-encrusted beasts, remnants of an archaeological dig, lay curled in an eternal spoon. Their decomposition is incomplete – curved lengths of exposed spinal cord anchor wedges of flesh, hair and crystal. Iridescent blue skin gives way to insides like gummy tuna salad or pink birthday cake icing, edged with sticky caramel. Altmejd has isolated two of the skeletal legs, rinsed clean of everything, in a mirrored box at the foot of the sculpture. This is a camp rendition of those broad appeal news stories about the perfectly preserved remains of lovers – ‘Skeleton Couple Still Holding Hands After 700 Years’. But because these lovers are literally tangled up in cheap glitter and fake gold chains, every shred of genuine intimacy is dipped and coated in lurid kitsch. Maybe these lovers died shopping in a bargain jewellery store in a suburban mall at the end of the world, debating the last item in a 3 for 1 deal.  


Aside from a handful of austere architectural pieces in the show, Altmejd stays true to his messy roots. In the audio guide he confesses, ‘I consider myself a trashy engineer.’ His works are not, and have never been, pristine. Smudged paint, greasy Plexiglas, congealed fur and heaps of rhinestones and wax all end up in a hodgepodge material choreography. The volume of materials used in Altmejd’s massive ecosystems is staggering; The Flux and the Puddle includes everything from glass eyeballs to domestic goose feathers. These works are detailed, not delicate. The Bodybuilders are rough-hewn plaster figures, bruised by finger trails and gouge marks – sculptures that seem to have made themselves. Disembodied hands multiply on their surfaces like bacteria, crafting their jagged bodies into being. Some of the pieces that seem to rely solely on technical ingenuity, for example the collection of epoxy clay and foam heads that inhabit an entire room of the show, begin to feel indecipherable from the prosthetics department on a sci-fi movie set.  


While the tributaries that feed Altmejd’s work are seemingly nutrient dense – his sculptures have been discussed in relation to a huge range of topics from alchemy to abjection – ‘Flux’ hits a muffled note. The show’s combination of Plexiglas and incarnate matter reminds me of Paul Thek’s Technological Reliquaries of the early sixties. Thek was similarly concerned with mutation, decay and the mystical realm of possibilities. His Reliquaries, or ‘Meat Pieces’ combined wax, paint and hair to form hyperrealistic slabs of glossy flesh, which were housed in bright vitrines. Like Altmejd, Thek was a Romantic, gorging on big metaphysical mysteries and beguiled by everything fantastical, wondrous, dark and dishevelled. Unlike Altmejd, Thek made abject sculptures in order to reject Minimalism’s hollowness and provide an emergency injection of flesh and feeling into an anaesthetized public. They were dirty, unsettling works in a sterile art world, so the contrast was pointed. Altmejd’s sculptures neither fully blend with nor provide a counterpoint to our cluttered, hyperstimulated moment. As I fix my gaze on two pineapples with gaping mouths, I can hear fellow Montreal artist Jon Rafman’s concurrent exhibition in the next room; Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’ blasts ironically in the distance. Context is everything.  

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