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Frieze Writer’s Prize 2012

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frieze magazine is delighted to announce Alice Butler as the winner of this year’s Writer’s Prize. Alice has been commissioned to write her first review for frieze magazine, to be published in issue 152, and will be awarded £2,000. This year’s runner-up is Huw Lemmey, and entries from Joseph Audeh, Jennifer Burris, Emma Jones and Nicola Cecilia Wright were all highly commended.

Frieze Writer’s Prize was established in 2006 and is presented annually. The aim of the prize is to discover, promote and encourage new critics from across the world, and many of the previous winners and commended entrants have gone on to contribute to frieze magazine.

The judges this year were Bidoun editor Negar Azimi, writer Brian Dillon and frieze‘s associate editor Sam Thorne, who commented that: ‘With the seventh annual Frieze Writer’s Prize, we were proud to continue our commitment to discovering and publishing new critical voices.’

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Winning Entry – Frieze Writer’s Prize 2012

The Historical Box
Hauser & Wirth, London, UK

A hole is drilled.

Wait and see what shape it takes: male, female or maybe androgynous.
(The archive on standby.)

These are the forgotten tunnels of art history, where rats run across canvases. A blank page to be re-written, graffitied and assaulted. To be anonymous is to be unknown, unfound, available; there’s power in having your legs apart: screw me, but screw you also.

The New York artist Judith Bernstein knew this back in the 1960s. Horizontal (1973) is a violently powerful drawing and is the first work on display in ‘The Historical Box’. Its project is a demythologizing one: it looks to unlock the historical cabinet of curiosities, and let the unwritten spectres of ’60s and ’70s American (mainly feminist) art run free. (Screw the canon.) Bernstein’s charcoal work sets fire to imagistic censorship. It shows us how mark-making can make us come alive; how it can invite action; it shows us how the act of drawing – just as much as painting, writing and protest – can become a political event. It depicts a jet black, anthropomorphic penis, furry and funny. The joke is that it is also a screw, elongated and kinetic. Visual punning is at the heart of the ‘The Historical Box’: laughter can explode all that has sought to contain it. 

Hers is the same kind of abject, ‘cunty’ humour Kathy Acker was writing in The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula during the same year, or that was equally present in the Womanhouse space founded by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro a year earlier. But, in many ways, this is an exhibition that rejects references: Acker, Chicago and Schapiro were certainly influential (in fact they continue to be), but their names are not new, and this is a show concerned with the political potentiality of what is lost, a kind of art-historical amnesia. Context is deferred in favour of the unsaid, of silence. Wall panels bespeak authority and institution so none of that domestic bric-a-brac is to be found here: no punky period details. Sometimes you’re left wishing the party was a little busier but this is the point: reflection and critique emerges in solitude. Cultural remnants can be rescued for contemporary audiences, to be stitched back together in wayward shapes. This is not time as horizontal but time as a rebellious zig-zag – bumpy, physical – a ride with the unconscious.

Wally Hendricks’s The War Room is a bleak, cavernous structure that monopolises the main gallery space. It is a cube made up of bolted-together canvases, all facing inwards, their backs to the wall. I step through the opening like a curious Alice, but find no chequerboard wonderland, only the leftovers of an oil spill. The room is a haunting shadow of the past; a bucket of darkness: a wounded memento mori to America’s military past. The paintings have been re-painted three times: first for Vietnam and then, subsequently, to commemorate the two Gulf Wars. (The grim inevitability of death mechanized into ritual.) ‘The Historical Box’ rewinds visual histories, only to put them on fast-forward. What was political then is political now; it’s just a shame so many contemporary artists eschew such themes in favour of the memoiristic archive, the personal as opposed to the political. This exhibition celebrates a time when artists did both. Its mood is quietly revolutionary, still but insurgent: curation as intervention. 

In 1922, the building that Hauser and Wirth occupies was a bank. Its change of identity is made obvious when descending to the vault-room galleries in the basement; illicit funds have since been swapped for a running loop of Stan VanDerBeek’s collage films of high-kicking Modernist vaudeville and playful burlesque. His cut-up films are an orgiastic meeting of body and machine, Vogue advertising spat back at the voyeur. Drugged-up 16mm murder. The classical music adds to the Surrealist disjointedness; another instance of the temporal mishaps that wreak havoc in ‘The Historical Box’.

In the upstairs gallery, photographic documentation of Barbara T. Smith’s visceral feminist performances, and their floating archival ephemera, are packaged into vitrines of art-historical discourse. Cultural memory is delayed, mediated according to milieu. At times, ‘The Historical Box’ seems confused by what it contains; all the works are engaged with the women’s movement or ’70s political climate in some way, but there is such a variety in practice – some artists invoking Pop materiality and others engaged in post-material performance – that the show offers no thread of visual unity. These discordances got me thinking that ‘The Historical Box’ is really a metaphor for ‘discourse’ as a whole. Writing about art, or arranging its past, is a contemporary form of cultural mythmaking; it’s up to us to rotate the play’s characters. ‘The Historical Box’ is a retrospective. Its name could suggest a second-hand shop, redolent of a kitschy nostalgia. And yet, it succeeds in rejecting The Retro: time-travel curation interrupts the historical script and rearranges the furniture. You might find an old penny down the back of the sofa: rub the metal … her face will emerge.

Alice Butler

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Gladstone Gallery
White Cube
Gagosian Gallery
Hauser and Wirth
Marian Goodman
Chisenhale
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