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A Very Eventful Evening with Eight London Galleries

9 Mar

Today (well yesterday by the time you are reading) was hectic and ridiculous even for one of my mad private view evenings.  Even before I began the openings, I’d been at Somerset House, where the courtyard is currently being turfed for a brilliant-looking art installation, and visited Michael Ajerman’s studio where I was allowed a look at his amazing current work.

Somerset House. Own photograph.

His studio is only a five minute walk from Flowers on Kingsland Road.  With some of the PVs opening at 4pm and with such a long to-see list, I popped into Flowers for an early sneak peek while they were still setting up and plugging in the works.  The artist very kindly got everything going for me so I could have a look.

I first met Tim Lewis at another Flowers opening and had only seen one of his works first-hand before this show but they are hypnotic.  Mechanisms takes over the downstairs galleries at Flowers with a huge range of Lewis’s works, bringing together some of his most progressive and challenging pieces.

Tim Lewis at Flowers, Kingsland Road. Own photograph.

His kinetic sculptures are a marvel and require great skill and dedication to make; the electronic programming and physicality entails an extensive period of development for each individual piece.  This is Lewis’s passion and he has been making mechanised works since the age of eight so no wonder his ideas are now so advanced.  All the works are mesmerising but two stood out for me – Jetsam, a large mechanised bird-like creature, fixed to a robotic arm, is programmed to attempt to build a nest.  The creature picks up objects which it stumbles upon moving them to a specified point.   It is not affected by human interference and must work within the limits set by the artist.  I could have stayed and watched this sculpture on its heart-wrenching, continuous journey for hours.

Tim Lewis, Jetsam. Own photograph.

Pony is one of Lewis’s more well-known works; an ostrich-like form, constructed from three mechanical arms, moves across the floor towing an empty carriage.  It is an independent entity, slightly alarming but beautiful and reminiscent of a scene from a fairy-tale.  Lewis’s works capture a spirit unlike any other – they are fun yet wistful, pondering on the transience and difficulties of life through self-contained forms on pre-determined journeys.  Fundamentally, they are just beautiful.

Tim Lewis, Pony. Own photograph.

I was loathe to leave but felt I should let them finish setting up and I had eight galleries to get to.

My next stop was White Cube, Hoxton Square.  All three London White Cubes were opening tonight with LONDON PICTURES by Gilbert & George.  The series consists of 292 pictures in their largest project to date.  It is typical Gilbert & George and if you don’t like them (I do) then it’s too late to be converted.  Although using their expected formula, these works are approached from a new angle.  They make use of nearly 4,000 newspaper headline posters which the artists stole, collected and classified over a period of ten years.  Using the language of the media, they present a survey of modern life making us aware of its violence, destruction and terror.  Of course, Gilbert & George appear in all the works, staring at us, watching the world go by, haunting the streets of London.

Gilbert & George, Tube. Image via www.timeout.com

They are huge, striking works using predominantly black, red and white.  They do not show a pleasant London but one of which we should be fearful.  It was somewhat strange seeing the beer buckets outside in the square during the afternoon  but, by the size of the crowd gathering, everyone was quickly adapting to this new style PV.

Gilbert & George, Money. Image via www.hubmagazine.co.uk

I continued to White Cube in Mason’s Yard to see some more of the exhibition where the harrowing topics continue – brawl, kill, deaths, jail, paedo.  Gilbert & George themselves were at Mason’s Yard chatting happily to visitors along with Jay Jopling and the usual White Cube celebrity crowd.  The works are more ‘in your face’ than usual; however blunt the truth is present in every work.  Brooding and violent, they show what contemporary society is really like in a collective portrait of London.  All this does sound very depressing and while the works may give a powerful message I think it’s important to remember how lovely London is and that we don’t need to fear every step we take.  Not that this is the intention of the works, but it’s easy to get weighed down by the violence.

Gilbert & George, Burglar Straight. Image via www.whitecube.com

As I was running to schedule, I hopped in a cab to the Josh Lilley Gallery to see their Sarah Dwyer exhibition which opened at the end of February.  Dwyer’s works have incredible painted textures where the surfaces resonate with movement and energy.  Through painting in layers and constantly revising her compositions, Dwyer pulls together inchoate shapes and ambiguous forms to suggest something unknown, a manifestation of her subconscious in other-worldly scenes.  Her mark-making echoes the stream of consciousness writing of James Joyce with its lyrical forms and ambiguous allusions.  Obviously, all art is subjective but these will speak to different people in very different ways as the shapes are open to so many interpretations.

Sarah Dwyer, Saudade. Own photograph.

Her works hold many influences and the shapes of Soutine and Gorky are evident but the list is endless.  Seven large canvases are on show downstairs – the gallery isn’t overloaded but cleverly filled so that the works are allowed room to breathe and space to speak.

Dwyer’s paintings are very powerful, fighting for attention with their bold colours and intriguing shapes.  This is another winner at a gallery who are consistently showing great talent.

Sarah Dwyer’s Falling into Positions at Josh Lilley. Own photograph.

It was already proving a good afternoon/evening and I was finding the art energising.

Next up was the new Haunch of Venison on Eastcastle Street, another area that is becoming a new art hotspot.  This is quite a small space with only two main rooms.  We are so used to Haunch’s mega-spaces that everybody kept looking for more but with the crisp Haunch-style aesthetic that we’re used to it’s a great second gallery.  Their opening exhibition is Katie Paterson’s 100 Billion Suns which presents a selection of her recent projects where, using a series of sophisticated technologies, she transforms distant occurrences in the universe into objects that we can comprehend on a human scale.  One such work is The Dying Star Letters; every time a star exploded, Paterson wrote and posted a letter to communicate this.  Through a range of everyday formats, Paterson reduces these distant occurrences into a medium we can easily understand.

Katie Paterson, 100 Billion Suns. Image via www.haunchofvenison.com

This is a very subtle exhibition and one that was slightly lost tonight due to the heaving crowd celebrating Haunch’s opening.

The new Haunch. Own photograph.

Initially, I decided to give Paradise Row a miss and headed to the station.  But, after 20 minutes of waiting outside Oxford Circus, due to overcrowding, I decided to walk back to Paradise Row to see Birdhead’s new large-scale black and white photography.  The artistic duo are known for looking at daily life in Shanghai; their snapshot-like images form a passage of thought and we are able to follow the artists through their day-to-day activities.

Birdhead take over Paradise Row. Own photograph.

Downstairs, is an exhibition of work by Justin Coombes.  In complete contrast, these are colourful over-saturated images that fuse the fantastical with the everyday.  Lots of people seemed to be moving from Haunch to Paradise Row, happy that they only had to walk round the corner for a second helping of art.

I did pass other openings in the taxi on my way to Gagosian but, although I tried, I had to admit that I couldn’t manage every gallery opening in London tonight.  Britannia Street is showing new works by Thomas Ruff.  Ruff seeks to test the limits of photography and, over the years, his subject matter has varied hugely as has his form of image-making.  But astronomy has always been a source of interest and this latest body of works contemplates Mars using images sourced through the public Internet archive of NASA.  Ruff transforms the fragmentary representations with saturated colours that alter the feel of the landscapes.

Thomas Ruff, m.a.r.s. 15, 2011.  Image via http://blakeandrews.blogspot.com.    

He has also worked with 3D-image making and on entry to one side gallery, you can pick up a pair of specially designed 3D glasses.  All these did was make me rather dizzy and I preferred the viewing experience without them.  These are not photographs as we would expect.  The works are impressive, transforming strange and foreign landscapes into a minefield of even more distorted scenes.  We are encouraged to look from both near and far, studying the pixelated colour patterns as well as the scene as a whole.  As impactful as they are, I didn’t find them particularly exciting – I could take them or leave them and they certainly weren’t as moving as some of the exhibitions I’d just seen.

Thomas Ruff’s new works at Gagosian. Image via www.artlyst.com

Gagosian on Davies Street is also showing Ruff’s work but a series of unique monumental nudes.  I had to admit defeat and accept this wasn’t one I could squeeze in tonight, unless someone knows how to teleport me from place to place.  All galleries now seem to be using their multiple spaces as a whole which means I will probably spend many more nights running across London to get the proper atmosphere of an exhibition.

It was time to shrink.  All the walking was taking its toll and I had to sacrifice my stilettos for some more practical footwear so that I could get to my final stop in one piece.

I couldn’t end my evening without seeing the third London White Cube – Bermondsey was packed.  It was important to visit all three spaces to get a full sense of the scale of the project.  Only visiting one of the galleries felt like walking into a blockbuster show and only bothering to look at one room.  The scale of LONDON PICTURES, as always with Gilbert & George, is mind-blowing.   Yet, the exhibition at Bermondsey only uses the South Galleries, flowing between three connecting rooms, which shows quite how enormous this gallery is.

Gilbert & George, Schools. Image via www.whitecube.com

Like me, Gilbert & George were moving between the different White Cubes but they looked more awake than I did.  I was ‘done in’ and it was time to buy a weighty, but great, catalogue and limp back to London Bridge to call it a night.  I could easily wax lyrical about many of these exhibitions and there are truly some gems here.  The brevity of some of the reviews certainly does not reflect their quality but more the quantity I crammed in to one evening.

If I’m going to have another night like this I may need to sacrifice my stilettos for skates!

Tim Lewis: Mechanisms is at Flowers, Kingsland Road, until 14th April 2012, www.flowersgalleries.com.  Gilbert & George: LONDON PICTURES is at all three London White Cubes until 12th May 2012, www.whitecube.com.  Sarah Dwyer: Falling into Positions is at the Josh Lilley Gallery until 30th March 2012, www.joshlilleygallery.com.  Katie Paterson: 100 Billion Suns is at Haunch of Venison, Eastcastle Street until 28th April 2012, www.haunchofvenison.com.  Justin Coombes: Halcyon Song and Welcome to Birdhead World Again are at Paradise Row until 7th April 2012, www.paradiserow.com.  Thomas Ruff: ma.r.s. is at Gagosian Gallery until 21st April 2012, www.gagosian.com.

Same Old, Same Old: Tracey Emin at The Hayward

27 May

I think I picked the worst day weather-wise to visit this exhibition. Yesterday, disregarding the weather forecast, and with eternal optimism, I hadn’t dressed for what was to come – after all it hadn’t rained for ages.  The wind blew my dress like Marilyn’s in The Seven Year Itch and I tried hard not to flash the whole of London. As I ran through London’s streets, squelching around in my stilettos, avoiding flooded drains, the driving rain made me look like a drowned rat.

What better refuge than the Hayward, or so I thought.  I have always been an Emin fan.  I remember writing at school about the re-emergence of feminine crafts in the visual arts with an in-depth discussion of Emin’s quilts so now that she is a ‘grande dame’ I was eagerly anticipating this mid-career retrospective, the biggest show of her work to date.

The show starts strongly, opening with 12 of Emin’s quilts, hung two deep on the lofty Hayward walls.  If you aren’t altogether familiar with Emin’s work, you’ll quickly get the idea – they are real, dirty, rude and explicit.  In my opinion, these are the best works on display, the beautiful blanket stitch framing the sordid content surrounded by delicate appliquéd pattern work. 

Emin’s appliquéd quilts.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The room is dominated by Knowing my Enemy (2002), a derelict wooden pier with an unstable hut at the end; the structure seems precarious, reminiscent of the Kent coast line, teetering in a by-gone era.  The room is illuminated by a pink glow from one of her neons, Meet me in Heaven and I will wait for you.  Alas, the strength of this spectacular installation was not to continue. 

Own photograph.

Next, her amassed neon works create a corridor of smut.  Neon is commonly associated with advertising – indeed, Emin first used this media to advertise her own shop. Now she uses it to advertise those things that are unadvertisable, gesturing to clubs and amusement arcades –  a barrage of abuse attacking the Margate she left behind and now claims to love. This method no longer shocks; it has become staid and kitsch.

Neon works.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Music from the film The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, accompanying one of Emin’s video works, resonates around the entire gallery.  Sadly, I do indeed mean entire.  At first this is effective but, after a while, when the theme is drumming in your head around the whole exhibition, it becomes annoying, and apparent that it is far too loud. 

Tracey Emin has never been one to hold back, in fact we know everything about her life – her art is about revealing herself.  Through this exhibition, however, we swiftly realise that Emin has never been able to cast off the negative shackles of her youth.  Her film Why I Never Became A Dancer (1995) recalls her bid to leave Margate by winning the British dancing championship.  While she danced, a gang of local boys she had slept with began chanting ‘Slag Slag Slag’ so loudly that she ran from the dance floor – her dancing career finished, she became an artist.  This video ends with Emin dancing triumphant saying ‘Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard…this one’s for you’.  But there’s nothing triumphant about the work or this dedication.  In fact, it’s rather sad.

Why I Never Became A Dancer, 1995.  Image via www.loveiswhatyouwant.com.

In whichever of the many media that Emin has worked, she has always been self-absorbed, self-obsessed and self-pitying.  In the works of her masturbating she is even self-satisfying.  Emin’s spindly drawings, watercolours and embroideries are dotted throughout the exhibition, the majority featuring her favourite subject of a woman (most probably herself), legs spread-eagled, masturbating.  For me, one work takes her self-aggrandisement a step too far.  Presented in glass cases are a series of hospital nametags, pregnancy tests, plasters pills and…old tampons.  Emin herself has said that she’s a little bit embarrassed by this work and now thinks she should have cast them.  Maybe this would have helped but, as it remains, these disgusting memorials to Emin’s troubled journey bear more comparison to an over-flowing sanitary bin in the ladies’ loos than art works to gaze upon and contemplate. 

The History of Painting, Part I, 1999Image via www.dailymail.co.uk

The second half of the show, upstairs and outside at the Hayward, presents works from the last decade and these are particularly weak with no real impact. 

Sculptures on the outside terraces.  Own photograph.

There can be no doubt that Emin is a pioneering female artist but she’s made her point.  This mish-mash of work may have once been shocking but repetition has weakened the effect.  We’ve seen photos of Emin touching herself, we’ve seen the intentionally badly-spelt and hurriedly-scrawled expletives, we’ve seen all of Emin before.

Emin wants the show to focus on love but the only love we see is her narcissism.  The exhibition acts as a confessional, looking at the young slutty girl from Margate who became a celebrity, the queen of the British art world, suffering abortion, rape, alcoholism and various other trials along the way.  We have been there throughout.

Tracey Emin. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Individually, some of her works are exciting and controversial but putting them together like this makes you sigh at their repetitive nature.  Has Emin only had one idea in the past 20 years?  There is nothing more to many of these works than shock and shock is a quick reaction, one without long-lasting resonant impact. 

No doubt most people will love this exhibition; Emin is a celebrity artist and people will flock to it.  I wanted to like the show but I left disappointed by this boring exhibition.  Tracey Emin’s work is about Tracey Emin.  It is about revealing herself.  But sadly, she revealed herself long ago and doesn’t seem to have done much with her time since.

Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want is at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre until 29th August 2011, www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

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