25 Sep 2009 – 28 Nov 2009
Laura Bartlett Gallery is pleased to present British artist, Becky Beasley’s second solo show at the gallery.
So Bernhard, so Beasley
To begin with a choice: Liver Dumpling or Fried Crepe soup? Within German culture, these are classic, much loved soups and deciding between them is an everyday activity. However, within the context of Beasley’s practice in general, and this exhibition in particular, such daily choices are often proposed, albeit with quiet humour, at the level of life and death. So too for Thomas Bernhard, the controversial Austrian author who Beasley took for, what she calls, her ‘bad mentor’, during the process of developing this new body of work contained within the exhibition German Soup. Within Austria, a country with a historically high suicide rate, for Bernhard at least, everyday choices such as this can become a last straw. So many actual choices must be made every day that it is not so strange to occasionally dream of having fewer options. Or none…So Bernhard, so Beasley. Over recent years Becky Beasley has, in various ways, integrated the question of choice into the production and editioning of her hand-made photographs and objects: pairs of works within an edition are exhibited simultaneously; single works contain two parts; objects relate to images while being specified as having to be collected as a pair. The viewer or collector is propositioned and, thus, the essential ambiguity inherent in all choices, both the epic and the everyday, is leveled out and made visible.
One of the things Bernhard offered Beasley was the opportunity to reintroduce into her practice a specifically theatrical element. As well as being a novelist, Bernhard is generally better known as a playwright. It was in his play, ‘Der Theatermachen’, which translates into English as ‘Histrionics’(1), that the two soups first make an appearance in the form of an overwrought decision.
From the space of theatre, the curtain emerged as a potentially comic, mental (2)object that, within Beasley’s practice, could hover between the bodily, the theatrical and the domestic. Beasley’s Curtains I, II and III were made from printing only the borders of a single negative of a small, pale grey curtain. Each work is a seaming together of two photographic strips. The actual seams, whose positions vary in each work, become a moment of reality within the work. The narrow proportions of the final, framed photographs take on figurative dimensions. In fact, they are all based on the width of her father’s shoulder and, once framed and hung, his current height, which the artist figures to be about 9cm less than when in his prime.
4. Alter-Egos; Speaking in the First person
The titles for both the curtains and the woodworks series’ are made from single anecdotes which have been broken into 3 or 8 parts, each of which is attached as a long title to each single work. For ‘Curtains’, the anecdote is from a transcript of a filmed interview with the pianist Glenn Gould, and, for the woodworks, whose shorthand title is ‘Brocken’ (3), from a story about meeting Thomas Bernhard, recounted in a scholarly essay on his work. The first person anecdotes underline a performative potential, through which each series of works become a chorus – for the curtains a trinity, for the woodworks a mob – which nevertheless attempts to speaks in one, albeit broken, voice. The works are in an edition of two, the first of which must be collected individually (or in small groups), the other which must be kept intact as a complete series. The original mismatch between the titles and the objects – there is no real relation – followed by separation of the pieces within the first editions will mean that the sense of the complete anecdote becomes viciously fragmented, each long title coming adrift, further losing any possible previous connection to the work to which it is attached. In the curtain works, the pale green space of ambiguity underlines this extravagance.
5. Measuring Ones Own Grave
The average arm span of a child is shorter than their height, whereas in adolescents arm-span tends to match height. In adults, arm span exceeds height. Thus it is possible to deduce that a child cannot measure their own grave, an adolescent could, but the fit would be too tight, whilst an adult’s arm span would produce a size into which they would comfortably fit.
The length of Beasley’s new woodworks are based on the arm-span of her father. The brass hinges are positioned to relate directly to his joints. As a series, they enact five single movements – choreographed with the abilities of a stiff, recently retired man in mind – followed by three further movements towards potential erasure. In bodily language, this takes the form of a kind of amputation through which, simultaneously, the remaining parts take on a prosthetic quality. Unlike the previous hinged works, ‘Figure + Letter (A-E)’ (2008), from which a typographic, albeit illegible, code emanates, these semaphoric movements resist linguistic interpretation. Pared back materially and aesthetically, they are pitched at a limit in terms of the visual, rendering access to the work by reproduction impotent other than at a hieroglyphic level.
6. Correction, Suicide
In Bernhard, the word ‘correction’, also the title of one of his novels, has a double meaning. It refers not only to the procedure undertaken by a protagonist through which his life’s work, a huge manuscript, is reduced to nothing, but also, more nihilistically, to what Bernhard’s sees as man’s own self-correction, namely suicide. This conflation of text and death is crucial to understanding both the work of Bernhard, and to Beasley’s practice. In the same way that Bernhard took real alter-egos with whose creative and intellectual processes he closely identified- Gould, Wittgenstein, Loos. So too, Beasley. Given the brevity of the gap between the dates of Gould’s death and the publication of ‘The Loser’, his novel that is sort-of-about Gould, Bernhard must have begun writing almost immediately upon hearing of Gould’s death. This is just one example of how death is the primary catalyst for Bernhard’s work.
So Bernhard, so Beasley.
(1) The German verb ‘theatermachen’ can mean both theatre-making and making a scene, a perfect Bernhardian double-meaning.
(2) In 2007, Alessio Ascari described Beasley’s woodworks as ‘mental objects’. (Mousse Magazine, Milan issue?)
(3) The shorter, series title for the woodworks is ‘Brocken’ which seems to means ‘scraps’ (nutritional) or, in Bernhard, ‘mottoes’ (literary fragments): ‘Bernhard’s mottoes, or Brocken of the great and the famous, often taken from Pascal, Voltaire, Kierkegaard, but also Diderot, Novalis and Alexander Block, read like islands of mental tranquillity and firmness, that bode both ill and good for what is to come.’ ibid. pp98-99