John Russell: Doggo

John Russell: Doggo

Kunsthalle Zürich
Limmatstrasse 270
CH-8005 Zürich

Tel: +41 (0) 44 272 15 15
Fax: +41 (0) 44 272 18 88

DOGGO on Vernissage TV; review by Aoife Rosenmeyer in Frieze

Kunsthalle Zürich presents DOGGO, the first institutional exhibition of John Russell outside of Great Britain. It includes six newly rendered paintings, all between 8 and 17 meters in length, and specifically adapted to the gallery space of Kunsthalle Zürich. Also shown are nine new sculptures, a series of drawings and a newly produced full-length feature film. The exhibition is accompanied by DOGGO, John Russell’s new book published by Miami-based press [NAME]. The works shown at Kunsthalle Zürich, as most of Russell's activities, are hard to pin down. One is overwhelmed by this oeuvre, without being able to quite figure out why (similar to Marguerite Duras describing her experience of watching Robert Bresson's film Au hazard Balthazar).

Let’s have a look back. 2000 saw the publication of BANK by Simon Bedwell and Milly Thompson, the catalogue summarizing the British collective BANK's numerous activities taking place in the 1990s. Looking back, the authors introduce themselves with the following assessment: “The beginning and end of this story is that we wanted to PLAY and not JOIN IN with the DRYGOODS CULT; the corporate blanket is WARM, we chose the COLD, idealistically and romantically, to try something more COMPLICATED, breathless and vertiginous; something NOT professional, NOT career; something that was all for ART but as fun, messy and stupid as LIFE.” They wanted it all and were pretentious. They celebrated the alternative as the non-alternative and “made shows that were our ART.” Obviously, this attitude had to collapse one day and it did by the end of the decade. By “January 1999 we'd done EVERY SORT of show we could think of.” Probably they ended up hating or boring each other.

In 1988, after having finished Saint Martin's School of Art, Simon Bedwell and John Russell “dealt with boredom and invisibility”. They decided to stage a series of fictional shows being convinced “that it didn't matter if you were actually having shows so long as people thought you were.” Some of them did happen in reality, but usually were not attended by many people. In 1991, together with Dino Demesthenous, they organized the exhibition BANK in a former bank building on 239 Lewisham Way in Southeast London. BANK showed their works along those of Carole Smith and Chris Winter. BANK, the collective, was finally formed by Simon Bedwell, David Burrows Milly Thompson, John Russell and Andrew Williamson (Burrows eventually left the group in 1995). Its multiple activities have to be seen in the context of an emerging scene of artist-led initiatives, of which Damien Hirst's exhibition Freeze in 1988 was the ‘glorious tip of the iceberg’. BANK stepped into a fast developing game of post-Margaret-Thatcher-Pre-New-Labor UK discovering contemporary art as a way of life, if not lifestyle. They were low and loud, angry and cartoonish, political and pretentious, but obviously they were having fun. BANK (the show) was followed by many others with memorable titles such as Space International (1992), Natural History (1993), Zombie Golf (1995), Cocaine Orgasm (1995), or Fuck Off (1996). They included artists such as The Cabinet Gallery, Martin Creed, Peter Doig, Matthew Higgs, Chris Ofili, Bob & Roberta Smith, John Stezaker, Gavin Turk, Rebecca Warren, and very often BANK itself. In 1996, BANK “was thought of as a curatorial unit rather than a group of artists”, as they wrote 2000 in BANK. By the end of the 1990s, things seemed to have gotten more aggressive and there were reasons for it. The playfulness turned into a cynical game, yet some of BANK's best projects came out of it, notable the legendary Fax-Bak, started in 1998. It consisted of faxes received from galleries and institutions, which BANK corrected and commented and then faxed back to the sender, marked by the stamp “Fax Bak. The Bank Service. Helping You Help Yourselves”. They would come back with comments like: “I haven't seen his piece of work but this sounds ridiculous.” or “This is all basically ... meaningless.” Some directors and curators were not pleased to read the truth and called back, and let their rant be recorded by BANK's answering machine.

So what was this all about? – Besides being “talentless, moronic, bullying, rude, obnoxious, self- righteous, pathetic, grungy, facile, ungracious, idiotic, childish...” according to BANK's self- description in their catalog. Together, they perform, film, curate, publish, and paint, using strong gestures to celebrate transgressive vocabularies. After leaving BANK, Russell starts to collaborate with French artist Fabienne Audéoud. One of their performances, The Social, was staged at Maccarone Inc. Gallery in New York for the opening of After Shelley Duvall '72 (Frogs on the High Line), curated by Bjarne Melgaar. In 2003, John Russell publishes Frozen Tears I. The Word Is Flesh, an 800 page “Theory/Horror Bestseller Book and Exhibition”, published by Cabinet Gallery in London, with texts by Art & Language, Fabienne Audéoud, Paul Buck, Jake Chapman, John Cussans, Martin McGeown, Ulrike Meinhof, Lucy McKenzie, and others. The collection of texts is inspired by Paul Bucks seminal 1970s magazine Curtains. Frozen Tears I is followed in 2004, by another 800 pages of Frozen Tears II (The Sequel), launched at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, Jack Hanley Gallery in San Francisco, Maccarone Inc in New York, and Moonlighting Night Club in London. Frozen Tears II is a collection of transgressive literature notably containing the first publication of Dennis Coopers' The Sluts. 2004 also sees the production of the possibly notorious The Thinking* commissioned for the exhibition Romantic Detachment at PS1/MoMA. Frozen Tears II is then followed, in 2007, by the 900 pages of Frozen Tears III. New 100% Prophesy. Already in 2005, Russell starts to present large prints as paintings, first at Norwich Gallery in Norwich, then at Transmission in Glasgow (“Transmission Gallery are pleased to present an exhibition of images by the subject position often referred to as John Russell ... The experience of these works is the equivalent to that of floating in the sun across a lake trailing your hand in the water.”) and, in 2007, at the legendary Matt's Gallery in London. All exhibitions are accompanied by texts treating subjects from pizza to Jesus to porn to Marx and questions of retirement. These texts come as if spoken by one person in different mental states, deeply involved yet disconnected, but linked by a will to always give too much information and not enough. In 2011, Russell, together with an anonymous co-writer, launches the Head Gallery, located at 165 East Broadway in New York. It squats the address of Reena Spaulings Gallery and organizes shows that do or do not exist. Its history is recorded and published in 2015 by Mo-Leeza Roberts under the title Head (Book Works, London). From 2008 to 2015, Russell works with Mot International in London, in 2016 he joins the Bridget Donahue Gallery in New York.

Today, at first glance, it appears to be Russell’s strategy to keep the space open and to escape from the territory of interpretation as fixed by art history, the market, the critics, and the institutions. This was the strategy of BANK, which ultimately ran out of steam. Russell's recent art stipulates a different doing. It is not against or for something, it is not symbolic or realistic, it is not cynical, ironic, or serious, it is not painting or sculpture, it is not figurative or abstract, it is not apocalyptic, romantic or dystopic. Whatever words you will choose to describe his works, they are the opposite as well. This becomes even more evident when reading critical reviews dealing with his exhibitions and art: You are confronted with an avalanche of contradictory adjectives as the reviewers struggle to describe not only what they see, but what it possibly could mean. His art invites us is to figure out how to approach art beyond these useful but worn out dichotomies. We get lost in order to invent new languages for understanding and are invited to work out how art might 'do something' and have some force, aesthetically and/or politically. That is ultimately the intention of Russell's art.

Since 2007, Russell is teaching at Reading School of Arts, 30 miles west of London. Today, Russell (*1963) lives and works in London.

Daniel Baumann, Director Kunsthalle Zürich

On the occasion of John Russell's exhibition at Kunsthalle Zürich, Doggo, a book with texts by the artist, will be published in collaboration with [NAME] in Miami.




A large crowd is standing in a seductive and infinite ocean
IN THE THROES OF ECSTASY. Some of these have bulbous
cartoon features, limbs grafted with flowers, terminal
diseases, stained skin or bodies covered in insects.
These are people saying ‘YES’ to life, caught in the thrall
whether these poses are the result of free will or fixed as
narrative or compositional elements within a wider
philosophical or political scenario; that is, whether this
free will is predetermined by someone else’s idea of freedom,
or whether it is somehow more spontaneous. But, anyway,
these questions are subsidiary to the performative or ILLOCUTIONARY
FORCE of the event, happening at this
moment, second-by-second, as the staging of a staging,
matter anymore who wrote the script originally because
this is an expression, or embodiment, of the fiction of an
artwork-as-event-as-prophesy and/or curse of the unleashing
of THE POWER OF THE FALSE which anyway does not
have to be ‘unleashed’ because it is always the only movement
of things beneath the appearance of generality

(resemblance and equivalence). As Fred Moten puts it, ‘Ante-
normative ... when I say ‘ante’ its with an ‘e’. It comes
first. The normative is an af ter-effect, it’s a response to
the irregular’.

A vast projection of the Aurora Borealis twists across the vaulted
ceiling of the museum, swirling purple, red, yellow, green and pink;
calibrated chromatically to track the demonic circulations of algorithmic
capital. Visitors lie on the floor to contemplate the spectacle
– a sublime scale that escapes our understanding and yet inhabits
and shapes our bodies. And beneath this, technicians have constructed
a ruggedly enchanting Landscape, complete with riverbed
and rocky earth, studded with jewels and stones and juxtaposed
with organic shapes and fungi’. A bubbling brook runs through
the middle as a format of ‘fluid negotiation between figurations of
Nature and the pastoral.’ Flowing down the shallow incline, so that
when you close your eyes the augmented sound of splashing and
lapping water relaxes your thoughts, mixing with the rhythm of
bird and insect song.

In this respect the shimmering, sun-soaked plane of the
ocean is equivalent to the illuminated surface of the image/
art object, or the lustre of a snail shell, computer
screen, star-ship exterior, missile casing, desk laminate,
sweating skin and so on. Pitched superficially at the surface
of things (abstract/virtual) as an incorporeal realm where
forms, passions, shapes and rhythms might slip and explode
as ideas, states of affairs, shapes, bodies and forces
in the real world - a world from which THEY ARE ANYWAY
multitude of phenomena that might always have been
otherwise, tied contingently to their (cultural) ‘location’
(as for instance ART) and anyway-always reconfigurable by
the shifting forces of History and POWER.

Rounding the corner our breath is taken away by ‘Ravine,’ 2017,
which is a one mile deep gash down through the gallery floor int o
the granite substrate, falling away from us in breathtaking detail,
of crumbling rock and cracked slab, sliding into the darkness
below - which is, in fact, an exiting out through an anti-matter
portal (installed below the gallery floor) onto the brutal vacuu m
of deep space, collapsing the notion of depth across the outward
sweep of infinity and folding radical interiority onto its annih ilating
exteriority. In the distance we see glimpses of interstellar
space cruisers moving past.

This ‘distinction’ between located-ness and unlocatedness
is (for instance) already internal to Kant’s conception
of the aesthetic. Developing, in part, as a response
to the philosophical problem of how to mediate between
the generalities of reason and the ‘particularities of sense’
(roughly the distinction between rationalism and empiricism).
In this configuration the ‘particularities of sense’
can be seen to be located (or contingent) and the ‘generalities
of reason’ un-located (or ‘abstract’). As such the
aesthetic is staged as a vital bridging component within
Kant’s wider philosophical system, whereby a proper understanding
of the faculty of judgement provides a connection
across the ‘immeasurable gulf’ that lies between
the sensible realm and the concept of freedom. The
structuring of the aesthetic is therefore presented as an
autonomous domain, as if coordinate with man’s cognitive
and moral faculties. In Post-Kantian philosophy (and associated
categories, art history, art theory, etc) the apprehension
of the sensuous content of the artwork stands in for
‘the loss of reciprocity between humans and the world’;
imputing to art ‘the metaphoric power to reconcile sensuous
experience and conceptual reason. And the restoration
of the antinomies of consciousness of nature, subject,
object’. This is aesthetics as a kind of empirical or experiential
‘proof’ of the existence of something that is missing.

The valorisation of the ‘gap’, ‘space’, ‘functionlessness’
or ‘abstraction’ that is given, or ‘refused’ by art (and that
might complete other philosophical and political systems).
Or alternatively as the presentation of the bankruptcy of
this idea as a new kind of ‘gap’ or institutional or political
located-ness, and so on.

The scene stretches out left and right across the vastness of the
plane, which is in fact an augmented reality projection throughout
the first two floors of the gallery. To the right is a fibre glass
sculpture of ‘Snow White and the Seven Snow Whites’. The sun
stains the grass pink like Grumpy/Snow-White’s face, with a few
trees scattered across the washed out backdrop like sea sponges.
Surging across the pseudo-horizon the ‘white working classes’
move towards us like antelope. A smaller group come to rest on
some raised ground to the right as the multitude surge past, the
Snow White sculpture is swamped—Snow White juxtaposed to
Sleepy, Sleepy to Grumpy, Grumpy to Sneezy…

The art object becomes a ‘stand-in’ for something that is
not there, for something that is missing. Any object can
occupy this position, as ‘marker’. If the artwork is INFINITELY
SPATIALLY EXPANDED, which is not to say it has
become freed from any material determination but that
it has become freed from every particular material determination,
then the artwork can be anything but somehow
has to be something. A familiar claim. The site of the work
of art can be anywhere - the totality of cultural sites within
which it is mediated and consumed. Recognition (of the
art object) is subject to political, cultural, educational, algorithmic
and various other mechanisms that determine
who will and will not have the opportunity to encounter
the object as art. Either staged finitely (located) strategically
and/or politically in relation to institutional definitions,
critical limits, censorships and validating mechanisms.
Or staged infinitely (un-located) as transcendent of these

structures that create and position it as art, and allow it
to be recognised as such. A third alternative, is that it is
pitched as art/non-art but incorporating the mechanisms
of recognition within its processes (for instance, recognition-
or-not as institutional critique). This dialectic of
limits is therefore staged across ideas of location and unlocation,
or site and non-site, between the finitude of the
institution and the infinity of the universe.
These limits are always transforming. ‘It’ can never reach
its conclusion. This is ‘its’ purpose or institutional remit.
The Good Conversation must continue to allow for the continued
existence of the space in which the conversation
is staged - and the administration thereof. As a protected
zone for the joyful flux of ideas, money and careers. The
Good Conversation must flow seamlessly (like the glide of
capital) ‘merging into the wall and then, gradually into the
general text. With respect to the background, which the
general text is. It merges into the work which stands out
against the general background.’

Drone vultures circle the gaudy panorama, alighting on the dead,
picking at their flesh, then flapping away across the plains. To
the left is a huge herd of wildebeest, shaking matted heads, fur
catching in the red light of the sinking sun. And further back, we
see the jackals stalking them, a hunched pack moving slowly forward
seeking out the old and sickly, a story older than time itself,
‘the strong shall prey on the weak’, a vast bewildering meat-feast
spectacle of raw life, red in tooth and claw.

John Russell was a founder-member of the London-based artist group BANK, from 1990 to 2000. BANK would require their own article (or book), but for the sake of brevity here, BANK practiced their own unique form of a kind of anarchic "institutional critique". This involved, among other activities, staging aggressive, immersive and polemical group shows with titles like "Zombie Golf" and "Cocaine Orgasm" in temporary warehouse spaces around London (re-named BANKSPACE, DOG and then Galerie Poo-Poo). These sprawling installations often lampooned the contemporary art scene and satirized the popular culture of the '90s. In Zombie Golf, for example, the work was placed within a miniature golf course installation populated with wax figures of the undead. Their most well-known project "Faxbacks" involved taking other galleries press releases, correcting them and sending them back.

Russell parted ways with BANK in 2000 to take up his own multifaceted practice. Often collaborative, this included staging performances with Fabienne Audeoud, (most recently in one of Bjarne Melgaard's curated group shows entitled "After Shelley Duvall '72" at Maccarone), working (in collaboration with Mark Beasley) with the underground cult film director Damon Packard (Lost in The Thinking, an on-site commission for MoMA PS1 that culminated in the museum locking them in a room), producing three 800-page anthology books (Frozen Tears) featuring writings from prominent underground authors including Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker and their historical antecedents (Baudelaire, Bataille) while also finding time to produce paintings, posters, public sculptures, animations, gifs, fonts and gigantic backlit digital prints that are somewhere between magical-fantasy ad billboard and body-horror expressionist painting. Recently, he gave a talk at Artists Space, a psychedelic-theory lecture that linked the writings of Belgian feminist Luce Irigiray to space travel and Bruce Willis.  (from Cameron Soren, "Custom-Produced for Imbeciles of Some Sort: An Interview with John Russell" on Rhizome, April 10, 2015)


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