Archive | May, 2011

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.

Advertisements

Tramshed Transformed: Catlin Art Prize 2011

19 May

Walking down Rivington Street last September, I passed the huge open doors of The Tramshed and was brought to a standstill.  What an amazing space!  Originally an electricity generating station for the Shoreditch tram station, – by 1903 there were over 300 electric trams in London – this beautiful building dates back to 1905. 

The Tramshed. Image via www.londondesignguide.com

Last night this exciting hub with its high ceilings, original tiles and tram tracks was packed to the rafters with visitors celebrating the announcement of the 5th Catlin Art Prize.  Luckily the tram tracks are now filled in so no opportunity for getting my heels stuck down a hole. 

 The Catlin organisers know how to party.  Cut down from a long-list of 40 artists, there were five finalists in the running this year: Leah Capaldi (Royal College of Art), Darren Harvey-Regan (RCA), Russell Hill (Wimbledon), Noemie Goudal (RCA) and Juliette Losq (Royal Academy Schools). 

Juliette Losq.  Image via www.twitter.com/artcasual

 The long-list can be seen in The Catlin Guide, a beautifully designed book profiling all the graduates.  Housed in a slipcase, this guide to new artists in the UK is produced in limited numbers – 2,011 were printed this year.

Own photograph.

Organised and curated by Justin Hammond, The Catlin Art Prize isn’t just an exhibition but a support network for a small group of specially selected artists just out of art school.  The Catlin aims to celebrate all that they have achieved and all that they can go on to master.  Artists are selected for their potential to make a mark on the art world and, by presenting a new body of work for the prize, this is their first step in that direction.  Established in 2007, the prize is now a major fixture on the London art scene.  This year the prize money has increased to £5,000 and there is also a new prize of £3,000 based on a written proposal for a new piece of work for the Catlin collection.

Own photograph.

The exhibition is staged over two floors with downstairs showing the work of past winners including Brigitte Williams, Alex Ball and Sarah Lederman and keys artists from previous prizes such as Jasmina Cibic, Adam Dix and Will Martyr.  Careful on the stairs going down – I don’t know if it was the height of my heels or the number of Strawberry Woo Woos we’d enjoyed but watch where you walk.  Thanks heavens I made it down in one piece but luckily the friend I was with is quite accustomed to picking me up when I fall (as those of you who skated with me at Somerset House this year may remember)!

Own photograph.

The winner was selected by a panel of judges consisting of collector Richard Greer, curator Julia Royse and gallerist Simon Oldfield.  Last night, a delighted and overwhelmed Russell Hill was announced as the recipient of this prestigious prize.  Such a deserving winner!  Justin discovered Hill at his degree show and was struck by the clinical nature of his work which involves the re-appropriation of everyday objects.  He found the perfection and precision in these unusual sculptures to be very appealing.  The only finalist who hadn’t completed an MA, Hill is certainly one to watch and considering his age and immense skill, I expect big things from this artist. 

Russell Hill.  Image via www.spoonfed.co.uk

My other favourite was Noemie Goudal who focuses on the construction of spaces that enable new perspectives.  She looks at the invasion of man-made elements into organic landscapes creating simple, yet powerfully effective, imagery.  For the Catlin, Goudal travelled to Dominica to use the caves and rainforests on the island.  The photographs are mesmerising.

Les Amants (Cascade), Colour photograph, 111 x 140cm, 2009. Image via www.noemiegoudal.com

 The exhibition is only on show for a few days but it’s definitely worth making some time to see who Justin has picked out and what the artists have managed to achieve only a year after their degree shows.  Make a note of their names and see where they go next!

 The Catlin Art Prize 2011 is at the Tramshed from today until 22nd May, www.artcatlin.com.

Lost in China: The Absence of Ai Weiwei

13 May

On 3rd April, as he was about to board a flight to Hong Kong, Ai Weiwei was arrested.  He has not been seen since.  Ai has become the most high-profile victim of Beijing’s crackdown and heavy-handed suppression of political dissidents.  

Where is he?  Unconfirmed reports refer to his torture and the world fears the worst after the state-run newspaper wrote that he “will pay a price for his special choice”.  His disappearance has certainly made us more aware of the atrocities that occur in China.  Between 7 and 8 million Chinese are held in prison or camps, enduring torture or enforced labour with around 5,000 suffering the death penalty every year.  More than the rest of the world combined.  This behaviour is ‘impossible’ – a term Ai himself coined last year in his criticisms of China’s authoritarian government.

Ai Weiwei.  Image via www.frumforum.com.   

Recently acclaimed for his Turbine Hall installation, Ai is a polymath – an artist, architect, designer, activist and blogger.  His work at Tate Modern consisted of one hundred million porcelain sunflowers seeds all made and hand-painted in China.  It’s easy to read this figure and not realise the gravitas of such a number – one hundred million is five times the population of Beijing.  Each seed is unique, deeply symbolic, representing food, comfort and social interaction; sunflower seeds saved many from starvation and despair during the Cultural Revolution.  As in many of Ai’s works, the seeds explore ideas of mass production (we live in an era where everything bears a Made in China sticker) challenging traditional craftsmanship and the importance of individualism. 

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, The Unilever Series, 2010, courtesy of Ai Weiwei.  Image via www.tate.org.uk

When the work was first installed in the Turbine Hall, visitors could walk, lie, sleep on and dance in the installation but, ironically, after only two days, Tate was forced to cordon off the work due to lung-damaging dust, depriving visitors of all that the seeds represented.   Ai can now be compared to one of his seeds – unique as an individual who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, he has been ‘cordoned off’ for fear of the damage he may cause.  Before this work opened, the state police beat Ai for condemning the government’s reaction to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan resulting in a life-threatening brain haemorrhage that required emergency surgery.  Yet, Ai was never afraid.  As a tribute, Tate plan to create a giant stack of the sunflower seeds on the 5th floor of the gallery, in the way Ai used to display them.

In light of what has now become one of the Chinese regime’s most controversial arrests, the two exhibitions of Ai’s work that open in London this week are particularly provocative.

Own photograph.

Twelve traditional Chinese animal heads stand in the courtyard at Somerset House.  These oversized bronze replicas of the zodiac sculptures that once adorned the fountain clock of Yuanming Yuan, an 18th century imperial summer retreat of the Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong, are installed in an arc around the fountains, displayed in a close recreation of how they originally stood.  In my opinion, had the sculptures been placed within the fountains there would be a heightened drama but there is no denying that they look brilliant.  Through the oversized scale (the head and base together are approximately 10 feet), Ai focuses on the fake and the original and on issues of looting and repatriation (only seven of the original heads have been found).  These are hefty bronzes dealing with hefty issues and the works have a powerful impact.

Own photograph.

Since studying at The Courtauld Institute, I have always had a soft spot for the courtyard and, with this beacon in the teaching of art history just a stone’s throw away, the positioning of the sculptures could not be any more fitting.  This is the first contemporary exhibition within the magnificent, 18th century surroundings and the sculptures rise majestically alongside the spurting fountains, tranquil despite their somewhat alarming expressions.    

Own photograph.

The animals of the Chinese zodiac are thought to influence personality and destiny.  2011 is the year of the Rabbit – ambitious and confident.  A cultural insider and political outsider, Ai has never been afraid to speak out against injustice; confidence and ambition is needed by us in the campaign for Ai’s release.  Indeed, there has been an overwhelming response to Ai’s capture with worldwide protests, petitions, artworks, dedications (Anish Kapoor opened his Paris exhibition this week in dedication to the artist), demonstrations, and so on.

Own photograph.

The second London exhibition of sculpture and video is at the Lisson Gallery – the works fill both the echoing galleries perfectly.  The Chinese government’s CCTV cameras have monitored Ai’s comings and goings for years and a marble sculpture of such a camera is included in the Lisson exhibition facing a real surveillance camera on the exterior of the gallery.

Own photograph.

The theme of absence is omnipresent here; on entering the gallery, visitors are greeted by empty marble chairs.  Ai may have foreseen his fate, the chair awaits his return, and the question of where he is now is made unavoidable.

Own photograph.

His political opinions cry out from these deceptively simple yet beautifully crafted works.  Through saturating ancient Chinese vases with garish colours, he questions the opposition of commercialism to traditional values.  His works are subtle in their subversiveness, full of hidden meanings.  The extraordinary range of his practice blends traditions, cultures and media. 

Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, 2006, Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) and industrial paint, 51 pieces, dimensions variable, Courtesy the artist.  Image via Lisson Gallery.

At the Lisson private view, guests were given the opportunity to be photographed with a sign declaring ‘Free Ai Weiwei’, uniting us in our support.

Own photograph.

To show the art world’s solidarity and as testament to Ai’s stature all planned projects are going ahead.  Ai’s detention is illegal even under Chinese law but, ironically, he is probably more dangerous now.  The Chinese government have failed to be culturally aware and his arrest has shocked the world.

Would these exhibitions have such poignancy if it wasn’t for Ai’s disappearance?  It is hard to say but that Ai’s whereabouts are still unknown gives gravitas to his work.   He is an artist of great talent but now his art stands for something far greater.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is at Somerset House until June 26thhttp://www.somersethouse.org.uk/visual_arts/1326.asp.

Ai Weiwei is at the Lisson Gallery until July 16th, http://www.lissongallery.com/.

Sign the petition calling for the release of Ai Weiwei – http://www.change.org/petitions/call-for-the-release-of-ai-weiwei.

Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints: Michael Sandle and Fabian Seiz

6 May

Last night was May’s First Thursday and openings across London were calling out to me but I had to be selective and picked two to totter to.

Flowers on Cork Street has an exhibition of new works on paper and sculpture by the esteemed Michael Sandle.  Well-known internationally for his monumental public sculptures, a sense of heroic grandeur runs through all his works, yet, they often have a surprisingly intimate and profound feeling.

Own photograph

He is renowned for not following fashionable trends, criticising what he terms ‘the heroic decadence’ of capitalism through his work.  Themes of war, death, destruction, inhumanity and media-manipulation are rife in everything he does.  Even in the smaller-scale works, his distinctive sculptures display an energy and vigour emphasised through the evident strength of his craftsmanship.   

Seeing the sculptures alongside the works on papers is a joy.  I have always admired Sandle’s work and chatting to him at the PV was enlightening.  The tonal qualities and warmth of the watercolours really set these works apart. 

Michael Sandle, Another Broken Bridge, pencil and watercolour on paper, 2011.  Image via www.flowersgalleries.com

So, onto the Josh Lilley gallery.  Unlike my previous embarrassment of geographical ineptitude, this time I was able to competently clack all the way there and found myself in Riding House Street (see, I know where it is now) without any hitches.

Own photograph

I can’t imagine ever disliking anything in this space and, once again, the gallery has hit the nail on the head with a perfect, and beautifully curated, show.  The space has been completely transformed with a troop of assembled sculptures – a family of works – by the Austrian artist, Fabian Seiz. 

Fabian Seiz, detail of On/off II, wood, plastic and rubber, 2010.  Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

The sculptures respond to humanity’s need to leave a record on the world – a footprint or a stamp.  Illustrating this, the upstairs gallery contains an immersive sculpture.  The floor is covered with sheets of bitumen on which Seiz has marked the words ‘I was here’.  Viewers are implicated and implicit in the interactivity of the work, leaving their footprints on the floor and, therefore, their marks on the exhibition, and in turn, the world.  I wasn’t alone in thinking this was highly successful.  My stilettos left wonderful point marks on the floor – small, striking and precise.  The best imprints were caused by dirt from outside entering the gallery space, a mark of where people had been that day.  I wish some of the footprints could have been more emphatic and a tray of dirt by the door may have helped those who wanted to indulge their egos and really dominate the floor.  Like the hand and footprints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in LA, where stars have been immortalised, we too are given our ‘15 minutes of fame’. 

Own photograph

The title, The French Park, stems from the popular use of perspective in 17th century pictorial landscape where the vanishing lines converge in infinity within one’s natural surroundings – an emblem of man’s attempt to control and manipulate nature.  Seiz’s interest lies in our constant search for orientation as a means of defining ourselves.  The works in this exhibition convey the measured and well-planned ideals of the ‘park’, while exploring different systems and motifs.

Own photograph

Atlas consists of corrugated cardboard which flops around a central structure; in opposition to the rigidity of the wooden base, the tactile and scrappy cardboard fails to support itself.  Coloured splashes on the board reference our system of colouring countries on the atlas, in accordance with our colonial histories, in an attempt to create neat order.  Seiz mocks humanity’s attempts to measure and define everything we do.  In this humorous comment on today’s obsession with order and regiment, the use of materials such as the weak cardboard reveals our inadequacies.

Fabian Seiz, Atlas, wood and cardboard, 2009.  Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

Ein kleines Monument uses wood and fabric to create a monument that attempts to evoke grandeur through the use of red velvet (also seen in Prinz) that has been rolled out ‘red carpet’ style.  Exploring the notion of how ideas such as these are conceived, the work questions the constructs of celebrity that underlie today’s society.  This monument, made from only wood and fabric, gently mocks our often over-the-top constructions, suggesting impermanence.  The works have an endearing simplicity.  The difficult and skilled sculptures appear intentionally naïve; like the paintings of Busuttil, in Lilley’s last exhibition, where the simplicity was only powerful due to the artist’s highly skilled execution, these works show off Seiz’s intricate methodologies. 

Fabian Seiz, Ein kleines Monument, wood and fabric, 2009.  Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

The range of materials used by Seiz – bitumen, wood, rope, fabric, plastic, rubber, styrofoam, cardboard, card, balloon, metal, mirror – reminded me of Kurt Schwitter’s collages made from the waste materials he collected from the streets and parks of Hanover.  In them, he saw the creation of a fragile new beauty rising like a phoenix from the ruins of German culture.  Like Schwitter, Seiz gives all these unusual materials equal rights.  As you move around the exhibition, you are able to explore the sculptures, becoming involved with the pieces and their relationship to each other.  Sculpture is intended to be seen from all angles and that is particularly apt with these which have been positioned brilliantly so that you can circumnavigate the works.

Kurt Schwitters.  Image via http://www.superfundungeonrun.com

Magritte’s seminal Ceci n’est pas une pipe is recalled in Seiz’s Ceci n’est pas une problem.  Magritte’s painting seems to present a contradiction but, on closer inspection, is actually a truth.  The painting is not a pipe but an image of a pipe that cannot satisfy our emotional needs or fulfil the purpose of the object it depicts.  Seiz’s sculpture lacks a purpose so, while resembling a machine from afar, it is actually an object without purpose.  But this is not a problem and mocks our need for everything to fulfil a role – an idea echoed in other sculptures as wellThis link is made more overt by Seiz’s choice of the same typography used by Magritte.

René Magritte, La Trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), oil on canvas, 1929.  Image via art-related.tumblr.com

All the sculptures leave their mark.  By not serving a functional purpose, their role is to leave an imprint.  I Was Here ­– he certainly was, I was (as my stiletto marks prove) and you should be there too.

Michael Sandle is at Flowers, 21 Cork Street until 28 May – www.flowersgalleries.com.

Fabian Seiz, French Park/I Was Here is at the Josh Lilley Gallery, 44-46 Riding House Street until 24th June 2011 – www.joshlilleygallery.com.

%d bloggers like this: