Art and Music      
Chianciano Biennale


Grace is everywhere

WILLIAM McBRIDE: Outside the Vinyl Factory in Soho a little pantomime of practical necessity is being staged: bollards, red carpets, a smoking section, half-a-dozen security guards, an obligatory line up, and three lithe young women dressed all in black, armed with clipboards and enormous smiles; each is playing their part, all quietly thrilled by their involvement in this particularly bling Private View.

I have plans tonight, so I hadn’t rsvp’d to: “GRACE JONES by Chris Levine: Stillness at the Speed of Light,” but on realising it was 100m from my day job, I’ve decided to cruise by, and though be-back-packed, sweaty and shabbily dressed, at my brazen ‘Saatchi-mag’ name-dropping one of the smiling women on the door lets me through ahead of the line.

The entrance is through the Vinyl Factory record store – dimly-lit, ochre tones, with experimental music suggestions carefully laid-out on tables; for a moment I think this is it, but then I notice everyone else disappearing into a discreet back doorway.

I pass through that door and down the stairs, and there is a stark shift in atmosphere; the moody, faux-welcoming rugs’n’sofas of a trendy record store transforms into the glossy white paint-smelling cavernous ‘Industrial’ cement of avant-garde art spaces. The Vinyl Factory gallery, it turns out, is enormous, spreading out for days like a vast underground bunker.

For atmosphere, thousands of pins of red laser-light crawl slowly about the room like spots of blood dripping horizontally, and the music is that bass-heavy ambient resonance often used to depict the future in sci-fi movies. Corporate waitresses – chameleons; personal histories unknown, thoughts inscrutable – bear trays of glasses of chilled white wine. The well-dressed crowd spans a wide age range but a narrow sub-cultural affiliation – affluent, progressive – and their fashion is dotted with gestures of homage to the Great Lady – shining chokers of golden spikes, metal shoulder pads worn externally, bold eye makeup, tight blacks, men in bright colours. And tonight a behavioural crossroads confronts everyone: the tendency towards nonchalance in order to look your best is undermined by a palpable awe at the works on display.

There are about 30 pieces mounted on the walls – all images of Grace Jones, of her torso and face, with the only props or costumes being, variously, a mirror-ball bowler hat, a shoulder-less black top, green snake-eye contact lenses, a touch of lipstick, light and Jones herself: icon, artist, artist’s muse, artist’s material.

Chris Levine is described as a ‘light artist’ and the works are mostly back-lit wall mounted Lenticular images, about 1m x 70cm: in one piece, as you inch past, slowly, steadily, Jones’ eyes (snake-eye contacts in) follow you, slowly closing, in a theatrical onset of fatigue, a sleeping dragon. But then, in a flash, her eyes shoot open, and her piercing gaze returns – she’s always watching you.

And that’s one of the predominant effects of the works in this room: in most pieces Jones’ eyes are trained squarely on you, the viewer, giving a sense of her omnipresence. But also, your gaze is forcefully returned, slung straight back at you – you are free to gawk at this creation, this object, but her constant surveillance means your viewing experience feels mediated, permitted by Jones.

In several of the pieces Jones’ torso is bare, her arms resting up behind her close-cropped head of hair, her breasts and underarms in a full display. I am reminded of an excellent blog piece I read this week by Anwyn Crawford on Lady Gaga, that other avant-gardiste who now seems to pop up in every discussion of Grace Jones. Crawford commented on Gaga’s “brave – yes, brave – invocation of ‘ugliness’.” While it seems ridiculous to call these images of Jones ‘ugly’ (they aren’t – they’re extraordinary, and perhaps ‘grotesque’ is a more precise term, though they are also beautiful), or to even discuss lame notions of beauty in relation to someone like Jones who defies such banal classifications, it is, however, awesome how much these works – and everything Jones does – shuns the homogenous aesthetic of contemporary beauty that engulfs you, for example, in the streets of Soho – the demurring waif-babes in the new Levis ads, for example.

My favourite of the Lenticular pieces has Jones with her eyes closed, subtly hunching forward, as if savouring the warm bath of light that glows on her forehead. Jones’s once lean, geometric figure has thickened and rounded with age, and in this image she seems immense, immovable. The evocation is of an ancient stone bust discovered in some far-away land, a relic of some long-extinct civilisation. Her closed eyes give the impression of the secret dreams of all-time, of the deep past, and the limitless future.

Other pieces include dozens of tiny screens of either video, or sequential still images. Lined up together they again give the impression of Jones’ omnipresence, but seeing her as tiny and moving in real-time, renders her as disappointingly human, and, to some extent, it pulls you out of the otherwise prevailing sense of Jones as not-/post-human.

The most spectacular piece (both a spectacle and awesome!) – a one-off in this room – is a single vertical strip/strobe light that flickers at a blinding pace. To look at the work straight on is to see only blinding white light, so you get bored and turn away, but as you break focus Jones’ image suddenly appears in the space next to the light – for a millisecond: an apparition, enormous and flat. You turn back suddenly for a closer look, but see nothing – just the incessant flashing light.

I notice the people around me have already cottoned on, and are moving their heads compulsively from side to side like possessed extras in a Chris Cunningham video, a dumb grin on their faces. I follow suit, and realise that by a trick of the light, when seen in blinks or side-ways glimpses, this strobe throws an enormous image (2m by 2m?) of Jones into the peripheral space. I have never seen anything like this before, and I compulsively repeat the actions to recall the secret image. An irrational logic occurs to me: if Jones’ image can appear in this empty space, couldn’t it appear anywhere?

Some people pull out cameras, and try to film the piece – but how? – they first try moving the camera swiftly from side to side, imitating their own experience, next, they try holding the camera still and moving their eyes back and forth across its tiny screen, but neither seems to work. “Maybe when I get it onto a really big screen,” one guy says wistfully.

I wander about the space a bit more, trying to catalogue the people who make it into private views with wine this good; the novelty and spectacle of the pieces having prized off the social defences, everyone grins at one another, engaging in brief conversation like children in a playground.

I grab another drink, and scribble some notes. I’ve heard the excited whisper that Jones will be making an appearance later in the evening (“When she feels like coming…” confirms a circumspect woman behind the reception desk), but I must keep my appointment on the other side of town. In a great act of pop-culture sacrilege, I tear myself away. Unfortunately, this also means my story doesn’t have its just ending: I can’t give you the coda of the real Grace Jones. Apparently she showed up and performed poetry, but for me, at least, she must remain an unreal, inhuman presence, an apparition that can spring forth at any moment.

“GRACE JONES by Chris Levine: Stillness at the Speed of Light,” is now showing at the Vinyl Factory’s gallery, until 15th May, 2010.

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