Category Archives: Artillery

DESERT SHINDIG: Shenanigans at Shangrila, Artillery Magazine, November 2013

Like its Himalayan literary counterpart, Joshua Tree’s Shangrila is a utopian vision; part dream, part tourist destination. Concretely, it’s a one-bedroom residence on Shangrila Lane, overlooking a seemingly endless expanse of undeveloped, government-owned desert. It’s remote enough to seem completely isolated, yet close enough to civilization that you can feel the earthquake-like blasts from simulated bombing raids at the U.S. military fake Iraqi training village in neighboring Twentynine Palms. Originally a homesteader cabin built in 1947, the Shangrila lot was decrepit when artist and curator Drew Dunlap purchased it in 2005 while enrolled in Otis College’s MFA program. In addition to envisioning his future home as a vacation rental, Dunlap also wanted to establish a sporadic artists’ residency where one could create works inspired by epic surroundings. Today Shangrila resembles a mid-century modernist spec house with a swing set and three conspicuous shipping containers in the back yard.

In 2008 Dunlap executed his plan, inviting a few dozen artists for a weekend of experimentation and imaginative planning. They planted the seeds for what would become “Shangrila”: the art event, which debuted in June of 2010. For this first weekend event, Dunlap curated art and performances investigating questions of utopia. I participated in this show as an artist, and again the next year (which, in the spirit of full disclosure, probably dulls my critical edge a little). While there were many fine works on display in that 2010 show, Rob Faucette’s intervention stood out as particularly poignant. Faucette invented Girlfriend Beer, a fictional company that “sponsored” the event. The artist stuck DIY labels on cheap beer cans, posted roadside ads, and distributed free branded koozies to visitors. I couldn’t help but take his work as a preemptive inoculation by satire against corporate sponsorship.

As the perennial art happening matured, Dunlap shifted his role, co-curating “Shangrila: New Moon” with artist Michelle Chong in June of 2010. During the day, Veronica Duarte’s iconographic self-guided tour relayed meandering information about Joshua Tree and its history, while at night Taylor Tschider’s galaxy in a cardboard box beautifully echoed the Milky Way above. In early fall of 2011, Dunlap turned the event over to the collective Durden and Ray, who put on “Shangrila: Oasis.” I missed out on this iteration, but stories of naked BBQ cooks, stalagmite campaign signs by Elizabeth Gahan, and Brian Thomas Jones’ glowing super-phallic inflatable tube confirm that I should have been there.

Unlike other desert art events like tech-yuppie Burning Man, or the more elite High Desert Test Sites, Shangrila remains emphatically emergent and wonderfully unpredictable. Somewhere in between the blazing Friday sunshine and the hungover Sunday drive home (after a transcendental visit to the Integratron sound bath a few miles away), Shangrila morphs from nervous art opening into a temporary autonomous zone where people transform in strange ways. I’ve witnessed buttoned-up academics get shit-faced and near-naked with people navigating in and around in-situ artworks pursuing nocturnal trysts.

This year, the curatorial team of Steven Bankhead and Jesse Benson organized “Shangrila: Burrito Deluxe,” which included 50-plus artists. To manage the expansive undertaking, they enlisted other curators. As Bankhead notes, “Jesse and I both distinguish ourselves more as organizers… We weren’t so interested in curating specific types of art but rather organizing a group of artists that are doing interesting things.” On Friday, Calvin Phelps hosted “Supper,” a performance/gourmet meal inspired by the desert. The collective Elephant created an impressive temporary stage resembling their LA outdoor space. And with the help of Michelle Chong, Elephant scheduled a series of performances throughout the night, many of them by members of the LA sound art organization, SASSAS.

One of the greatest things about Shangrila is the ability to encounter work in the surprising desert landscape. As Benson puts it, “While some works were immediately recognizable in the environment, others were more difficult to ‘discover.’ Stumbling through the desert at night with a flashlight and encountering a work is of course different than seeing a work in a gallery.”

This experience is a welcome invitation to create site-specific installations, exemplified this year by Fatima Hoang’s small inflatable sun, which kept rising and falling throughout the night, commenting on the promise of new beginnings while comically punctuating Joshua Tree’s picturesque vista.

Like any event incorporating lots of artists with multiple agendas, Shangrila always has hits and misses. While some works fall flat in their new desert context—especially those that cling to the safety of the property’s shipping containers, which mimic the white cube—others remain indelibly memorable because they reimagine our relation to the desert landscape. In the end it’s the strange weekend-long event that creates the critically important space for contemplation.

CHARLES FRÉGER at FotoMuseum Antwerp / Antwerp, Belgium Artillery Magazine, September 2013

At first glance Charles Fréger’s “Wilder Mann”—an exhibition filled with photographs of furry giants and frolicking monsters—may seem inconsequential. Yes, the work is fluffy and intentionally entertaining on the surface, but it goes much deeper. After one fully understands Fréger’s overarching project, it becomes apparent that there might be a productive critique lurking behind the photographer’s spectacle.

In 2010 the French photographer began traveling to rural farming villages in over a dozen European countries to document people, pictured mostly alone, out in the wilderness, wearing homemade costumes used in celebratory events marking the solstices, the harvest and coming of winter—calendar dates that, after millennia and the “civilizing” of Pagan populations, eventually mutated into Christmas and Easter. The costumes referencing human/animal hybrids are cobbled-together, yet visually astounding.

Charles Fréger, Cerbul din Corlata, Romania, 2010-2011

In one characteristic photo, Peluche; Evolène, Switzerland (2013), a figure in a snowy landscape wears waterproof pants and mounds of animal pelts piled high like a football player’s shoulder pads. His tiny badger face and gigantic lumbering body creates a funny juxtaposition. Dozens of other creatures in more framed photos create a similarly strange cast of characters. There are awkward straw men, farmers with ballooning marshmallow bodies, demons on parade, and totemic figures covered in hair. Fréger photographs each subject like a fascinated anthropologist, collecting documents of the strange and unusual from distant lands. But these subjects are closer than they seem, some living just beyond the city. It is Fréger’s ability to render the “rural European” into a cultural oddity that creates a startling, perhaps unintentional, critique, dependent on the exhibition’s position within the museum’s larger curatorial framework.

Charles Fréger, Babugeri, Bansko, Bulgaria, 2010-2011,© Charles Fréger, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

One floor down from “Wilder Mann” was the exhibition “Camera Exotica: Selections from the FoMu Museum,” an exhibition filled with an abundance of unsurprising photographs of indigenous peoples from the Congo, India and other “distant lands,” all taken before the 1960s. While this exhibit did pay lip service to the racism of European colonialism, it did so only in short wall texts, re-inscribing colonized populations as exotic “others.” Such a display immediately reminds one of Hal Foster’s observation that the under the Eurocentric anthropological gaze, “Relationships between parts of the world…can be understood as temporal relations…. ‘Over there’ became ‘back then.’” In this schema, the Western explorer sees remote cultures as facilitating a symbolic “return” to the “primitive.”

Charles Fréger, Ursul (Bear), Palanca, Romania, 2010-2011, © Charles Fréger, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Fréger’s photos in proximity to their 20th century “exotic” counterparts create an extenuation of Foster’s analysis, a complication of European identity in relation to an imagined exotic other. If we see Fréger’s work as collapsing the physical space between the civilized and uncivilized, then does this also disrupt the temporal space of “now” and “then”? In Fréger’s photos the European is made “primitive” through costuming like his colonized counterpart. While this contrast is perhaps superficial, in no way speaking to the destructive legacies of exploitation and racism that colonization left in its wake, perhaps a show like Fréger’s can, if only momentarily, deconstruct the European mythology of cultural supremacy, which is itself a truly terrifying monster.

Charles Fréger, “Certi,” Czech Republic, 2010-2011. All Images © Charles Fréger, Courtesy of the Gallery at Hermès.

Charles Fréger, Caretos, Lazarim, Portugal, 2010-2011, © Charles Fréger, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Scratching The Surface: Christopher Russell

“Scratching The Surface: Christopher Russell,” Artillery Magazine, June/July. Vol. 6 Issue 5.

by Tucker Neel


I’VE FOLLOWED CHRISTOPHER RUSSELL’S work for some time now. Like his polymorphous art practice, which pushes the boundaries of photography, drawing, text, performance, sound and installation, Russell is filled with many pleasing contradictions. As a person, he’s disarmingly polite, has a piercing wit and an unabashedly dirty mind. One of the first works of his I remember seeing was “Landscape,” a 1996 series of black-and-white images captured using a hidden camera, of men having anonymous sex in brambly cruising spots. The photos are spectral and voyeuristic, addressing bodies engaged in intimate contact on the periphery between public and private. Another project, Russell’s Bedwetter zine from the early 2000s—filled with libidinous text that had to be destroyed and ripped apart in order to be read—heightened the feeling that one must always accept lost purity in exchange for desired experience. While his newer work has avoided the intensity of earlier abjection and sexual explicitness, to an extent these devices always linger close to the subject at hand.

Many of Russell’s images grow out of his written texts, which engage themes ranging from psychosexual experiences, the romantic, politics, violence, to sites of deterioration and innocence in revolt. Alongside these narratives, which often take the form of books (but have also manifested as wallpaper and audio tracks), Russell creates photographs that speak to the story’s setting, the characters involved and mental and physical states at play. In many pieces he uses a knife to scar the printed surface, or etches-in intricate images that contradict their surroundings: a grand sailboat over a deteriorating abandoned living-room wall; a flowery pattern veiling a yellowed photo of a young man. The work is at the same time both devastating and seductive, referencing imaginative decadent aesthetics and escape in the midst of impending ruin.

When I recently asked Russell what he’s interested in now he responded by discussing a new text he’s writing, informed by how insane the current political landscape has become.

“The text works through a number of political ideas such as free will and opportunity, forces operating upon one’s identity that are beyond one’s own control. But I get there in circuitous ways, using the 19th-century mystic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, while thinking about Alan Sekula’s photo theory, end of an era paranoia courtesy of the McMartin preschool. [trial] The book ends with a satanic prayer to ward off the Tea Party.

I’m drawing, by scratching into photos, pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge in varying degrees of ruin, coupled with crumbling bits of deco architectural design. I just want to see the exuberant promise of industry, the role of the corporation in the promise of America, reduced to rubble; overcome by forces outside its control. It’s less politics and more like revenge.”

Considering the poignant intimacy and haunting depths of his previous works, Russell seems aptly suited to poetically reframe dominant narratives of American exceptionalism. He will no doubt do this by unraveling truths we hold dear, revealing the contradictions that lurk on the fringes, outside and beyond the conventional frame.