You may remember that I missed a couple of openings last Tuesday so after lunch and a few meetings at The Charles Lamb in Islington on Friday afternoon, I decided to head over to Victoria Miro and Parasol Unit to see their two, much-talked about new exhibitions.
Victoria Miro’s artist, Alex Hartley, has had his fair share of press recently – and not much of it positive – regarding his 2012 Cultural Olympiad Project, Nowhere Island. The sculpture is formed from six tonnes of rock cut from a Norwegian glacier and will visit numerous venues across the UK next summer. Hartley’s aim is for the project to highlight the dangers of climate change but the ‘island’ has been slated as a waste of public money. Rarely do all the different newspapers unite but here they found a common cause.
Alex Hartley’s Nowhere Island. Image via www.dailymail.co.uk.
However, Hartley’s current exhibition at Victoria Miro serves to remind us what a great artist he is. Presenting a series of mixed-media photographs, the exhibition seeks to explore his on-going investigation into dystopian architecture, secular habitation and the construction of a sanctuary. Not only do his photographs concentrate on built environments, but the works become built environments themselves as well, as Hartley constructs and transforms traditional wall-mounted photographs, turning elements of them into sculptural jungles.
Alex Hartley, A city in my mind, 2011. Own photograph.
The interventions are all scaled architectural models which come together to allude to the creation of something that has now become uninhabitable, a building or form of shelter occupying an uninhabited landscape. In some of the images, Hartley even digs crevices into the flat surface of the photograph – ingenious! From a distance they look like just photographs but up close they are sculptural landscapes.
Alex Hartley, I’m tired of travelling, 2011. Own photograph.
His works directly reference Drop City, the first rural hippy commune built in a desolate area of Colorado in the mid-1960s. Living in makeshift shelters, the radical artists and film-makers sought to create a live-in, and living, work of art. In practice, it wasn’t quite so successful and was disbanded within ten years. But, on Victoria Miro’s terrace, Hartley has made a Drop City dome, rusted, aged and out of time which he will apparently inhabit during the exhibition. I saw a pair of boots outside the tent mouth but didn’t spot him lurking inside, only a few hens pecking away at the water’s edge. Dropper is beautiful and so brilliantly brings to life the ideas in his photographs.
Alex Hartley, Dropper, 2011. Own photograph.
One other sculpture accompanies this exhibition. Upstairs, a work shows a life-size, one-man tent, partly submerged in a snowdrift. Is the inhabitant inside? Has he/she survived or escaped? Although the message reinforces that of the photographs the sculpture, in my opinion, was slightly unnecessary and seems a bit random placed by itself.
Upstairs at Victoria Miro showing Bivvy, 2011. Own photograph.
The project space by reception includes artefacts and objects from Hartley’s past two expeditions to the High Artic that relate to the controversial Nowhere Island. As this space is separate, it doesn’t distract us too much but I wish they hadn’t dredged up the Olympic debate here and, therefore, brought all of our doubts about Hartley to the surface.
However, regardless of your views on that, the mixed-media photographs are superb and deserve attention in their own right. Pretend Hartley has had nothing do with the Olympics and look at these stunning works afresh as he re-builds the photograph, forcing us to think about place, community, shelter and surroundings.
Alex Hartley at Victoria Miro. Own photograph.
Looking at the Hartley installation on the terrace, it’s impossible not to be struck by Parasol Unit’s installation by James Yamada. The summer shelter retreats darkly among the trees is a sculptural work addressing the phenomenon of light and is the first in Parasolstice – Winter Light, a series of outdoor projects on this theme.
Complementing Victoria Miro’s exhibition, Yamada’s work is a shelter but in no ordinary sense. Integrated into the roof are lights normally used in the treatment of SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Yamada is known for such ingenious constructions as this that merge nature and technology but here the main question is, is it art or therapy? The artist doesn’t want it pigeon-holed as either. Art is therapeutic for a lot of people and, regardless of whether you suffer from SAD (and I think we all do a little bit), after ten minutes of exposure, the lights are meant to elevate your mood and change your body dynamic. Yamada thinks that London is dreary in winter and wants the artwork to give people hope. We visited just as it was getting dark and, although I didn’t have time for my ten minute stint, it did make me happy looking at the warm glow emanating across the terrace.
James Yamada, The Summer shelter retreats darkly among the trees, 2011. Own photograph.
Inside at Parasol is an exhibition of two Swedish artists – Cecilia Edefalk and Gunnel Wåhlstrand – that focuses on time and memory.
Cecilia Edefalk at Parasol. Own photograph.
Edefalk’s work carries a strong Scandinavian haunting melancholy. Beautifully painted, her twelve completely different versions of the same nude (a Venus statue) focus on ideas of repetition, reproduction and historical memory. Although all the paintings concentrate on the same subject, they could not be more different. They allude to one another and form a complex exchange until all that remains is an abstracted, silhouetted image. The artist is heavily involved in the exhibition and the physical set-up is an integral part of her practice – some works are displayed at angles, some upside down and so on until the exhibition becomes a performance of the artist’s own sensibilities.
Cecilia Edefalk at Parasol. Own photograph.
Upstairs, Wåhlstrand’s work blew me away. Images do not do these justice – they are photo-realistic ink drawings, focusing on memory, that reconstruct her own personal history. Exploring motifs from the family album, Wåhlstrand re-approaches her family history and the harrowing story of her father’s suicide when she was only one year old. Although the images themselves are not particularly special by re-drawing them, Wåhlstrand gives them a poignant immediacy as she re-explores the past of her family that she never knew.
Gunnel Wåhlstrand, Walk, 2011. Own photograph.
As she approaches and moves beyond the stories they tell, the drawings are greatly enlarged from a normal family snapshot. The images are soft and lacking in resolution, showing the fading of memories over time. The softening dilutes the power of the photograph and the memory. Both artists’ works have a profound sense of loss and distance. We cannot get close to the figures depicted, we will never truly understand.
Gunnel Wåhlstrand upstairs at Parasol. Own photograph.
Three brilliant exhibitions and they’re next door to each other so what a bonus (I confess to having been in flats otherwise this would have been a perfect totter for me). All the works deserve attention in different ways and then, if you’re tired from an art overload, you can sit down in Yamada’s happy house and get some energising light. It’s a win win situation!
Alex Hartley: The world is still big is at Victoria Miro until 21st January 2012, www.victoria-miro.com. James Yamda: The summer shelter retreats darkly among the trees is at Parasol unit until 18th March 2012 and Time and Memory: Cecilia Edefalk and Gunnel Wåhlstrand is at Parasol Unit until 12th February 2012, www.parasol-unit.org.