Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Chess Art In Our Time

This year, for yet another year, Chess Art appears at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition - "another year" because we clocked this at the RA back in 2010:


© Mobile Studio.

Here the eternal themes of chess animated a contemporary debate, all done in "selective laser sintering nylon and acrylic". Chess Art for our time; materials à la mode.

At this year's exhibition there are no less that four Chess Art works on display. One of them appears in prime position in the stunning long hang in the main gallery.

Photo courtesy of John Bodkin

It's there, trust me, a bit left of centre in the photo above. In fact we've seen it in a previous blog. This is it:

© Tom Hackney

It is Tom Hackney's Chess Painting # 16 (Duchamp v Menchik, Paris, 1929), gesso on linen (RA Exhibit # 398).

By curatorial inspiration it is placed so that its curl orchestrates the wave of art flowing along the gallery. It is no surprise that it has caught someone's eye and found a buyer, as has Tom's second chess picture - Exhibit # 302: Spassky v Fischer, Game 4, Rejkyavik 1972 - it's in the exhibition as well. It is linked here (second down).

When we discussed Tom Hackney's work before we were intrigued by his chess derived images
(btw, so much better seen in the gallery) which are based on real games, although we wrestled with the theorising that informs them: that the artistic point is in the leap of the thought, not the imprint it leaves when it lands. But whatever one makes of his "conceptual art" rationale, and the artist's professed indifference to how the picture actually looks, we might be relieved that human minds created the moves, and human hands have been busy crafting the image.

The same goes for the next work in which Tom develops the move-trace theme.

Projection #3 (Koltanowski vs. Duchamp, Paris, 1929).
© Tom Hackney

This has just gone on show in Motion Capture an exhibition in Cork. In the earlier picture the black and white moves were plotted sequentially, overlaying one another, and we could see who had, literally, come out on top. In Projection #3 it is as if the moves are conjoined, the action pinned at nodal points, and the flux of the game frozen for geometric dissection. It looks like white is pushing black off the board up at f8 and g8. Double take. In fact it was Duchamp, as black, who crunched Kolti on the node (ouch!) at f2. See the moves (just 15 a piece, 0-1) here.

Look backward for art references if you may: Escher? Klee? But in its concept-spinning motivation this, too, is chess art de nos jours.

Now go one step, maybe several, further with Martin Abrams' Exhibit # 469: Chess Computer Program Playing Itself, which has also sold at the this year's RA (is there a modern chess art collector out there, hoovering them up?)

Martin explains how it is done:

"...a hand-made canvas...is placed onto a board inked evenly with black ink. I then start the computer playing chess against itself and follow the moves of the game using my own chess pieces on the reverse side of the canvas. The darkest spots are formed where chess pieces have moved onto that particular square multiple times during the game; whereas other squares remain empty leaving the canvas ground showing. The final painting is a composite image of all the moves played during the game, and the spots are formed from the direct pressure of the base of each chess piece."
So this, too, really is Chess Art of the moment: the footprint of computers taking lumps out of each other; and human agency applied only to dotting the moves onto canvas.

As with Tom's work, the method (or the very thought of it), i.e. the transformation of the "data" (chess moves) into a graphic plot, is the message. The final image is an epiphenomenon - though it is rather more interesting, and messier, when seen on the gallery wall (it's tucked in the right hand corner of the long hang), than Martin's reduced procedure might suggest. There is random ink seepage into the canvas clustering like iron filings to a magnet. Chess-wise there is also some reassurance. Those conflicted computers have played a decent number of moves on the central files, as if determined to imitate a proper game.

After all this "difficult" contemporary art we can turn to the fourth work in the Exhibition, a photo: Chess King, Brick Lane (E1). Except that we can't. You can't take photos in the gallery, the image is not on the web, and unfortunately I have been unable to succeed in contacting the artist otherwise. So apologies to all concerned, especially Ms Hathaichanok Julareesuk, as you'll have to make do with my inadequate sketches, made while wedged against the gallery door.

Sketches of Exhibit #1464: Chess King. Brick Lane (E1),
photographic Edition of two, by Hathaichanok Julareesuk.

A group encircles a chess board, huddled against the chill. Shot in black and white - there is no colour in any of this year's RA chess artworks - the photo (though not the sketch) shows the board in sharp detail: White's king side is rather exposed, his queen's side undeveloped, but someone has trousered black's QR.

For the conventional viewer, though, it's not about the chess per se and The King steals the show. He has more presence than I have managed to give him. His faux fur-edged greatcoat is his emblem of status. He is hustler-in-chief, master of the board, and lord of the ring. The image captures a traditional role of chess, culturally a would-be male preserve: escape from the grind, and respite from responsibility. This is chess, as played on the street, today.

So, four Chess Artworks in this year's Summer Exhibition showing us graphic plotting, computer-assisted spotting, and urban anthropology. Chess has lost none of its allure and fascination for artists, and continues to make art for our time.

With thanks to all the artists mentioned above.

Chess In Art Index

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