Axis Open Frequency aims to keeps its audience in touch with new developments in contemporary art practice from across the UK. The artists are selected and profiled by leading curators and writers, presenting the work of significant emergent artists. The following essay was written by Mead Gallery curator Sarah Shalgosky for Axisweb.


In what is widely heralded as a new age of austerity, strategies to develop a practice independent from market forces are relevant to many young artists. Ben Long makes ambitious, large-scale work with limited resources. His work deploys appropriated images, materials and craft skills to create art that simultaneously references art history and working class experience within an urban context. His central concerns are evident in the scaffolding sculpture 'Art Work' (2008) which simultaneously disconnects and unites the labour involved in making a work and the work of art itself.


In 'The Great Travelling Art Exhibition' (2001 – present), Long subverts street art with highly accomplished drawings on the backs of dirty white vans that transport these images across cities and up and down the motorways of the UK. The technical skill of these drawings commands immediate interest, recalling the detailed engravings of Thomas Bewick who also created images by tracing lines on a dark ground and signed his work with a fingerprint. Long expands the positive reception of his work through carefully chosen images that reference cultural archetypes with mass appeal, ranging from the 1960s print of white horses emerging from the sea to the stags of Victorian landscapes. And like Bewick, his primary impulse is not to reference a lost Arcadia but to develop new models of distribution that give his work as wide an audience as possible.


Audiences are important to Long. He cites the Beatles as an important influence – simultaneously experimental, progressive and popular. His 'Scaffolding Sculptures' deliberately employ icons like Stubbs' Whistlejacket and Landseer's Monarch of the Glen that have become commodified through popular appeal and today are almost indistinguishable from the brand images of Lloyds Bank and Glenfiddich whisky. Like 'The Great Travelling Art Exhibition', 'Scaffolding Sculptures' are an equally ephemeral series, installed and then, after a number of months, dismantled before being remade in an ever increasing scale. Long speaks of works having their ideal duration which helps to keep them relevant and current. Ephemerality has its own power, the memory of an experience that can become part of a community's mythology. The sheer labour and skill that is involved in this series of works dispels public distrust of a ready-made, while the artist's apprenticeship in this craft is evident. Scaffolders working on the same site point out where the clamps are put in wrongly or the braces could be more effective, and each new sculpture has technical refinements that structurally improve on previous works.


Working in series, Long is able to move between projects, to keep a critical distance from his own work. However, he regards the physical attributes of each project as the 'emollient' for the real work, the encounter with the audience. Ultimately, 'The Great Travelling Art Exhibition' was not the drawings but the encounters with the van drivers whom he joined on their journeys. The almost performative installation and deinstallation of the 'Scaffolding Sculptures' on building sites foster conversations about the nature of art practice with other workers on the sites and passers-by.


Interactions with audiences are prioritised within contemporary culture, both as a curatorial practice to foster local social cohesion and cultural entitlement, and as an artistic strategy that proposes new social models. In his latest series of works, Long is less concerned to use images that already have a prominent place in audiences' repertoire of art. As public space in city centres is increasingly privatised and occupied by art that seeks to endorse rather than upset public sensibilities, Long has sought to develop projects that move away from complicity with his audience towards a more disruptive iconography.


'Poubelle de Jour' (2007-2009) is a vast collection of prostitutes' calling cards, retrieved from phone booths across the city and poured into a red telephone kiosk until it is completely filled. In gathering the cards over a two year period, Long became implicated in this commerce - viewed either as a customer or as someone who was seeking to interrupt the sex industry whether for a moral or economic reason. The work references Arman, one of the Nouveau Realistes of the early 1960s who examined the possibilities for art and artists within the context of the new, consumer orientated society but his work is not instantly recognisable by a mass audience. The art historical reference becomes covert, less a way of seducing audiences and more a way of complicating the references within the work. 'Poubelle de Jour' is uncomfortable viewing; it asserts a more complex reading of urban regeneration to that traditionally purveyed by public art. It positions the viewer as both voyeur and customer of the sex industry as it moves into the relics of the twentieth century telecommunications industry.


'Level Structures' is Long's latest series of works. He draws on Sol LeWitt's Open Geometric Structures that the artist devised to limit his own involvement in the work. Constructed according to plans, they are made by assistants and do not require the artist's physical presence to come into being. Long directly addresses many of the issues raised by LeWitt. He enhances the impersonal quality of Lewitt's structures with his introduction of the ready-made spirit level, and simultaneously blows it apart with the sense of labour required to assemble the levels in an accurately balanced cubic structure. The result is an incredibly satisfying image of absolute perfection, made explicit with breathtaking economy. As in all Long's work, he requires the viewer to examine what they expect from an artwork and, in disrupting these expectations, brings them face to face with its potential.


Sarah Shalgosky, July 2010