Selected reviews and extracts from catalogue essays
01. Marion Coutts
extract from Responding to Rome, British Artists in Rome 1995-2005
The British School at Rome, 2006
I shot my first moving images in Rome and epic was the first edited work I made. It was filmed on a very basic Super 8 camera, no zoom, no light meter, bought on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The walk taken by the horse in epic was my usual route home from the Piazza del Popolo, up through the Borghese Gardens, past the Galoppatoio, and on to the British School. I walked a great deal during my time there; the city is full of horses, statues in squares, in fountains, glimpsed high up on buildings. The bearers of the horse were three historians at the School and a Roman artist. It was a very hot day and I ran after them, shooting what I could. Having the material meant I had to learn how to put it together. That came later.
02. Ian Hunt
Catalogue essay on Everglade
To be continued. . . British Council/ Hippolyte Photographic Gallery
Helsinki Kunsthalle 2005
Parks and galleries share certain paradoxical characteristics, being places of both tranquillity and circulation. Designed primarily for the public to move through, they also offer solitary resting points, allowing the illusion that what you see is for you alone. Although both changed their character substantially in the nineteenth century, the first parks and picture collections were founded by kings and princes. The untitled and unwashed were admitted only as a privilege, not as a right, and with an expectation of appropriate behaviour. Nevertheless, people very quickly caught on to the pleasures of parks, notably the offer they make for the use of undirected and unsupervised time.
Marion Coutts’ Everglade is a sculptural installation made up of several standard elements – the physical set-up is not meant to be invisible - but at its centre is a series of views of parkland. The London parks shown are well established with broadleaved trees all of which possess an eighteenth-century aspect, reflecting the period in which they were created.
Everglade effectively unlocks a naivety lurking in our response. We are familiar with the conventions of still and moving images, but by a simple trick of combining the two, the artist endows these landscape compositions with life, enabling them to become pictures that move. Something about the set-up – the tall stand for the projector, the free-standing screen behind which we might walk – emphasizes this naivety in our response by promising knowledge or a demonstration of exactly how the image was produced. (Not unsurprisingly, as Marion Coutts works primarily in three dimensions, her moving image work is often framed within a sculptural language.) The views themselves are isolated for study on a larger area of white screen. They also fade away to white for longer than feels quite comfortable. Sometimes the same view recurs, but on this occasion, empty of the figures previously spied.
Everglade is not an experience with a beginning or an end, other than the one the viewer makes. And frustratingly, there is nowhere to sit down. Nevertheless, it creates a place to be. You have to stand, your circulation around the gallery temporarily arrested, to find all this out.
03. Elizabeth Fisher
extract from Pattern Recognition
Marion Coutts, Kettle’s Yard 2005
Coutts’ new digital work, Mountain (2004) records the daily routine of staff setting the fellow’s table for lunch in the Combination Room at St John’s, where lunch is served for college fellows and their guests. In a performance that takes up to two hours to complete, the table is laid with the same precision every weekday lunch-time. Preparations for dinner in the Great Hall are even more elaborate. Seemingly out of kilter with modern dining arrangements, this meal time ritual is nevertheless part of a complex social system in which dining provides a social focus for University and College activities.
A characteristically simple piece, Mountain is shot in black and white, with the camera fixed in a position that renders a sharp perspective down the length of an extraordinarily long (20 metre) table, mirrored above by that of a vast stucco ceiling. Coutts has barely intervened in the footage beyond editing it down to an 18 minute sequence that is looped to run continuously, the end of the task forever begetting the beginning. As the name suggests Mountain presents the task at hand as an epic endeavour: two waiting staff move slowly and repeatedly up and down the table, becoming smaller and smaller in scale as they proceed further from the lens, methodically laying candlesticks, glasses, cruet and cutlery. The artist’s only other manipulation was to mirror the image vertically, so that one half mirrors the other. Symmetry is inscribed in the structure of the room to begin with, in the paired windows, the mirroring of table and ceiling, and patterns that echo from the stucco plasterwork and wood panelling to the etched glassware, while reflections and sculptural forms repeat throughout the scene.
In earlier works such as Assembly (2000), Coutts explored natural order and pattern as a metaphor for behaviour. In Everglade (2003), which uses historical conceits of landscaped parkland and the vignette format, and now in Mountain, Coutts takes the explicitly man-made conventions of order and pattern to examine the way we shape our activities and those of others. She builds symmetries, pairs and patterns with a craftsman’s skill. Teasing out the inherent, albeit embellished, order in both the room and the quotidian talks of laying a table, she melds image and action in a taut decorative schema. Almost everything is doubled, mirrored, repeated and multiplied to kaleidoscopic effect. Two staff lay the table; dressed in identical uniforms with their heads bowed so we cannot see their faces; they are a pair, each other’s double, and doubled again by the mirroring. Each place setting is mirrored and thus paired with another across the table from it, and the distances between knives, forks, spoons, glasses and candlesticks, one to another, are all measured out exactly. Coutts’ careful framing, editing and manipulation of this image push the room’s ornate formality further, to a point where it hovers between comprehensible and unreal space. Vertical and horizontal symmetries exaggerate the already sharp perspective, while the black and white film stock heightens contrasts in the play of light and reflections off the polished wood, silver and glass, creating surface patterns that seamlessly echo in the repetitive actions and mesmerising rhythm of the workers’ unfolding task.
In this, the mirroring provides a visual trick – Coutts has created a table that lays itself. As one side is laid, so is the other – the staff’s labour, and the epic scale of the task, is halved. The mirroring device, beyond its compositional role and perceptual illusions, also introduces another symbolic level of play. The sliced and mirrored tabletop makes the shape of an upright equilateral triangle that dominated the composition. It thrusts steeply away from the bottom edge of the image into the distance at the top of the frame, creating a dynamic element and recognisable symbol with a spiritual and metaphysical weight.*
Mountain is presented as a small rear projection in the large double height space at Kettle’s Yard. A jewel-like image suspended in the dark space, its material substance (equipment, hanging structures) is invisible. Despite its title Mountain is much smaller than life-size, although the strong diagonal lines of the table and ceiling project out of the luminous image to command the surrounding space.
A soundtrack adds an additional layer to this piece, playing quietly alongside the image but as if coming from another room. Coutts has incorporated music in previous works such as epic (2000), and No Evil Star (2002), and for Mountain she worked with the composer Adrian Johnston. The soundtrack was recorded on two pianos, one in the UK and one in France. Both pianos are upright; one is a Steinway, which gives a noticeably richer sound; each is tuned differently, and the two seem to play alternately with and against each other. The sound is not continuous, but the spacing and timing reflect the worker’s rhythm. Slowly playing ascending and descending scales, to a sort of summit and back, the pianos count out the knives, forks and spoons, making deliberate but fruitless progress.
In Mountain as in all her work, the subject or content of Coutts’ interest is balanced by rigorous formal concerns. Holding these in tension, she establishes unexpected parallels between what we normally consider superficial or decorative, and a kind of existential enquiry. Her approach recalls the mathematicians whose abstract formulae translate to visual images in fractal and fibonacci number patterns that are also found in nature. For Coutts, the order revealed is social and behavioural.
* The upright equilateral triangle is a symbol that represents, in various contexts, spirit, divinity, fire, life, prosperity and harmony. In Christianity and Judaism the triangle is often used as a symbol for God and the Holy Trinity.
04. James Hall
Artforum, Jan 2003
Marion Coutts Cult, Chisenhale Gallery
In her laconic sculpture and video installations, the British artist Marion Coutts mythologizes the mundane. With the insouciance and economy of a professional magician, she makes the one-dimensional multidimensional and transforms stale habit into compelling ritual.
This is evident in her works of the last few years. Fresh Air, 1998-2000, consists of three Ping-Pong tables shaped and marked with the asymmetrical layout of three London parks; the rules of the game were completely changed, inside became outside, private became public, and the mind wandered away. In Eclipse, 1998, a small garden greenhouse is periodically filled with artificial fog, which is then allowed to disperse. Meteorological white noise was thus imbued with an ominous rhythm and density: The conservatory was redolent of a gas chamber. Assembly, 2000, featured a blue-tinted film of aerobatic flocks of migrating starlings projected precisely from overhead Onto the top of a plain wooden lectern. This flickering mise-en-scene suggested a routine lecture, speech, or sermon in which the presenter suddenly ignores the script and lets instinct take over.
Coutts's most recent (and highest-profile) London exhibition was devoted to a single new work, Cult, 2002, in which she has wryly transfigured the domestic cat. The cavernous interior of the Chisenhale Gallery was dark except for a dim light emanating from nine video monitors mounted at head height on slender gray pedestals. Those at the corners of the cluster faced inward, while the others looked out in various directions. There was just enough space for a single person to squeeze between them. The screen of each monitor was only large enough to contain a life-size close-up image of the black face and white neck of a well-groomed cat against a black background. The footage plays on a forty-five-minute loop, made up of individual sequences of between three and seven minutes. The cat remains almost completely still, occasionally blinking its eyes.
Cult evokes prehistoric standing stone circles as well as hieratic Egyptian cat sculpture-in ancient Egypt, the cat goddess Bastet was the patroness of family happiness. Here, the emphasis is on distant admiration rather than domestic bliss. Cult underscores our separation from the animal world and the animal world's basic indifference. It keeps cuteness at arm s length and thwarts attempts to project affectionate feelings. The cat, multiplied nine times (no doubt in accordance with its proverbial "nine lives"), seems blissfully self-sufficient. It narcissistically basks in its own image, enclosed in its own charmed circle. Its egotism pricks the bubble of our own. I didn't even feel tempted to leave a saucer of milk.