Archive | January, 2013

Take Two at firstsite – Henderson and Paolozzi

27 Jan

Nearly a year after my first visit to firstsite, I boarded the train at Liverpool Street to head back to Colchester for a second look.  Everywhere has teething problems and the calibre of their latest exhibition sounded as if it was worth a return trip.  For some reason, I’d managed to convince myself that the train journey into Essex was going to be a wonderful experience but the tiny train really let us down, not even having a café to serve the usual railway tea that barely catches a glimpse of the teabag.

First Site, Colchester, Essex.

The impressive façade of firstsite.  Image via www.firstsite.uk.net.

Getting into a cab at Colchester station, we struck gold with a driver happy to fill us in on the cultural and civic developments in the town which has been the recipient of several grants and is currently ploughing ahead with ambitious renovation plans.  The main road is being partly pedestrianised, the castle is shut for an overhaul and two new hotels will shortly be gracing Colchester’s streets.  Colchester really is working to pull in the crowds.  But, this particular driver had never taken anyone to firstsite before and has only actually been once himself.

Many of my previous issues with firstsite remain and they are not going to go away in a hurry.  Still proudly ranking as one of the largest contemporary art venues in the UK, firstsite is so full of dead space that at times it grieved me to walk past these missed opportunities.

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The Potential for mezzanine levels is everywhere.  Own photograph.

The main exhibition galleries are only a tiny part of the overall space and the current show focuses around Hammer Prints, the partnership between Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi, charting the firm’s history with extensive previously unseen material that includes their original screens, photographs and test sheets.  During 1954-1975, nine Hammer Prints were manufactured as wallpaper by Cole & Son and textiles by Hull Traders and went into production, becoming celebrated worldwide.  The collaboration was not to last but the designs have become immortalised, instantly recognisable; the exhibition follows the development of these.

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Some of the original screens used in making the prints.  Own photograph.

This is the first time since the company’s dissolution that the history of Hammer has been explored.  While people are fully aware of Henderson and Paolozzi in their own rights, most will have never heard of Hammer Prints.  Although the exhibition opened in December, a catalogue will hopefully be available from next week that will enlighten the research developments further.  Products for the gallery have been created using the original images, including beanbags that seem to be receiving a lot of attention and use, but unfortunately nobody took advantage of the merchandising potential and none of these is on sale!  Due to the size of the space, the show obviously only covers a very small section of Henderson and Paolozzi’s output but it’s very well-conceived and pitched coherently to an audience who might otherwise be unaware of the techniques or the company.

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Installation view of the current exhibition.  Photo via Andy Keate and www.firstsite.uk.net and courtesy of the estate of Eduardo Paolozzi.

I’m not going to go into the architectural design of firstsite again but I must touch the thing that I feel is the most fundamental flaw of this gallery.  Due to the banana shape, there is one huge curved wall and I have previously commented how this could be tackled with ingenious ceiling hangings or sculptural installations.  I am assured there have been some impressive murals in place over the past year but, for this exhibition, the curators decided to print a few stencils of the Sea Beasts on the wall and leave nearly the whole expanse bare and boring.  Seeing that this wall dominates the entire building the sparseness baffles me.  The exhibition designers apparently wanted to create something really immersive but I was left speechless when I saw what they had produced.

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The curved wall.  Own photograph.

Yet, at the start of the exhibition, they had wallpapered the flat walls on which they could easily have hung more art.  Surely the wallpaper would have been more engaging on the curved walls.  These particular illustrations come from a series of plates found in an 18th century French encyclopaedia – the engravings were then photographed and made into a set of transfers that were applied to various ceramic objects.

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Installation view of the current exhibition.  Photo via Andy Keate and www.firstsite.uk.net and courtesy of the estate of Eduardo Paolozzi.

There is a permanent room in the gallery called ESCALA which is the Essex Collection of Art from Latin America.  Currently on display is David Pérez Karmadvis’s photography and video work broadly exploring the predicament of Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republican and the issues of border politics.  The works are very powerful and the accompanying exhibition guide provides a thorough and interesting explanation of the thought-process.  For the work Identificaión, Karmadvis contracted a tattoo artist to brand people’s names and identity numbers onto their inner lower arms, where prisoners would have had a serial number marked.  Therefore, in case they disappear or their features become unrecognisable, this tattoo will remain to identify them.  The harrowing ideas at play here pack a fairly hefty punch.

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David Pérez Karmadvis, Identificaión, 2007.  Image via www.escala.org.uk

The events programme at Colchester is to be applauded – they have talks and tours (the enthusiasm of the guide who showed us around was infectious), art courses, dance classes, family days and a film programme that includes Picturehouse screenings from the Royal Opera House, Met Opera and National Theatre.  There is also a community art space and a schools programme which is going from strength to strength.  firstsite get a fair amount of visitors; in their first year, they welcomed 172,000 people .  How many of these, however, are schoolchildren or people solely there for the events?  For me, it isn’t really a gallery – it’s currently a local community centre housed in an impressive building but there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.

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The ‘reading area’ with the beanbags.  Own photograph.

In terms of the art, it really doesn’t take long to get round the space and it’s certainly not yet offering enough to merit a full day out.  The new director, Matthew Rowe, is starting any day and maybe he will herald a turning point for the gallery.  I so want this space to work but there’s still a lot of work to do.

After wandering round firstsite, it was time to visit to The Minories Galleries – a site run and managed by the Colchester School of Art with some rather lovely studio space in the upper rooms.  Their current show is a three-room exhibition of works by Ron Sims – in actual fact, the exhibition extends discreetly over the whole building and the staff are happy to open up officially closed areas for anyone to have a peek.

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Ron Simms at The Minories Gallery. Own photograph.

The exhibition works well alongside firstsite and the two organisations seem to be working collaboratively and existing in happy partnership.  Sims produces groups of clearly defined shapes and forms that create boundaries and define dimensions.  His works have strong structural compositions, seemingly constructed by manipulated surfaces and visual planes.  Although only small, this space is working well and really utilising the whole building.

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firstsite seen from the garden at The Minories.  Own photograph.

I’m pleased to say the train home had armchair-like seats and the much-desired restaurant with tea as expected.  The countryside whizzed by and before we knew it we were back in London and I was off to see the state of the Waterloo tunnels after they’d been cleaned while we were out of town.

Nigel Henderson & Eduardo Paolozzi: Hammer Prints Ltd, 1954 – 75 is at firstsite until 3rd March 2013, www.firstsite.uk.netRon Simms: Visual Genetics, Human and Animal is at The Minories Galleries until 9th March 2013, www.colchester.ac.uk/art/minores.

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Don’t Dwell on Death – the Wellcome Collection

22 Jan

I don’t get down to the Wellcome Collection nearly enough yet it’s a gem.  So, having battled through the snow to make it into town I decided to pop in after brunch on Saturday.  How I was walking round with one boot cuff turned up and one down is still slightly beyond me – no-one mentioned it so perhaps people thought I was making a new fashion statement!

Death: A self-portrait is an exhibition showcasing the collection of Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer based in Chicago.  The exhibition itself is an unusual portrait of Harris’s collecting and includes approximately 300 objects from his strange and unique collection devoted to death.  It is incredibly diverse – there are paintings, drawings, artefacts, sculptures, photographs, anatomical illustrations and much more.  His entire collection comprises over 2,000 objects and I’d love the opportunity at some point to get to see the whole of it.  The collection is growing all the time and Harris regularly finds and commissions new items.  It’s probably even expanding as I write this piece.

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Advertising Death.  Image via www.londonist.com

This is a truly fabulous collection showing comic portrayals of death alongside the more serious and harrowing.  The Wellcome hasn’t been precious about separating out the categories and they have celebrated its diversity.  Rare prints by Rembrandt, Dürer and Goya are displayed alongside anatomical drawings, war art and antique metamorphic postcards; human remains are juxtaposed with Renaissance vanitas paintings and twentieth century installations celebrating Mexico’s Day of the Dead.  There’s a group of Incan skulls alongside Jodie Carey’s In the Eyes of Others, a chandelier made from 3,000 plaster-cast bones.

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Jodie Carey, In the Eyes of Others, 2009.  Image via www.happyfamousartists.com

One room focuses on the art of violent death communicating the dehumanising effects of war and the brutality of death on a gargantuan scale.  Here, we find Goya’s The Disasters of War displayed alongside Otto Dix’s The War.  Dix’s memories of fighting as a soldier provided the source material for these 51 prints, showing the depravity of war.  He was wounded a number of times and the horror he illustrates is no doubt in part related to his own experiences.

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Otto Dix, Stromtroopers Advance under Gas, 1924.  Image via www.ottodix.org

The John Isaac sculpture was getting a lot of attention – a life-size sculpture of a semi-dissected man missing both arms and one leg sitting on a packing case.  In a room that focuses on our fascination with the disturbing or morbid, this work seeks to highlight the rawness of anatomical investigation and, coupled with some of the surrounding anatomical studies and engravings, reminds us that doctors first learnt about prolonging life through the study of death and the dead.

Death: A Self-portrait collection at Wellcome Collection

John Isaac, Are you still mad at me?, 2001.  Image via www.huffingtonpost.co.uk

The whole exhibition is a giant cabinet of curiosities.  Harris never intended this to be a private collection and always planned for everything to be exhibited to ‘capture the essence of Death through its iconography’.  I gave up writing down which works particularly intrigued me as the list grew and grew and we’d have never got out of there.  There was a series of anonymous photographs from the 20th century showing people, in backyards, classrooms and studios, posing with macabre artefacts that perhaps foreshadowed their destinies.   They are certainly worth very little commercially but together they make a wonderful and fascinating group – some comic, some serious, all engrossing.  Three of these photographs conclude the catalogue – a beautifully produced small album of objects in the exhibition.

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Unknown photograph, 20th century.  Own photograph.

The thing that’s really great is that this exhibition isn’t morbid or depressing.  Maybe I am alone in this opinion but, strangely, the exhibition didn’t make me dwell on death – of course this is the subject the objects all relate to but they’re so absorbing that we don’t have time to ponder our own morbid curiosities.

Ironically, my only criticism highlights the strength of the show; there’s actually too much to take in and I would have needed a good couple of hours to study everything properly.

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June Leaf, No stomach for death: Gentleman on Green Table, 1999-2000.  Image via www.standard.co.uk

I don’t think the exhibition is trying to say anything particularly poignant.  It’s not trying to look at what we think about death or about the experience of death.  If they’d wanted to do that then this exhibition wouldn’t be a self-portrait of Harris.  Maybe it’s making us think.  Maybe it’s showing us the different ways in which death can be portrayed and considered.  Or perhaps, as the pamphlet claims, it’s investigating the value of art in communicating ideas about death and the body.  Whatever it’s up to, I’m on board.

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Death: A self-portrait is at the Wellcome Collection until 24th February 2013, www.wellcomecollection.org.

The lights are on but nobody’s home

15 Jan

Burlington Gardens has currently been taken over with a solo exhibition by Mariko Mori, the first museum exhibition of her work in London in nearly 15 years.  It’s nice to have the RA back in the Burlington Gardens’ space.  They will be using this building in a regular exhibition programme over the next six years before David Chipperfield excitingly joins this with the main building on Piccadilly.

Mariko Mori aims to inspire people in a new consciousness that celebrates our existing balance with nature, and reflects on universal themes of life, death and rebirth.  Fittingly entitled Rebirth the exhibition will start and end with the death and birth of a star, raising questions about the cycle of life.  Poignantly, the show opened when the Ancient Mayans had predicted the world was coming to an end.  So, the exhibition was aptly timed to mark either the end of the world or the birth of a new era.

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Mariko Mori’s Rebirth at the Royal Academy.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk

This exhibition certainly makes an initial impact.  Popping in late one afternoon, I was guided by an attendant with a torch into the first room where I was confronted by an amazing globule of light – a five-metre high glass monolith, standing in isolation in a simple white space (I believe the colour of the light changes).  Another visitor was interacting with the object, moving closer and then edging back, seemingly unsure as to how the light was working.  He seemed convinced that he was activating it as he pranced around the room.

But, Tom Na H-iu is lit from within by hundreds of LED lights and is operated in response to real-time data from an observatory at the University of Tokyo.  Now I’m not really up with the scientific lingo but apparently the observatory detects neutrinos emitted by the sun, the earth’s atmosphere and, during a supernova, the work reflects these, in constantly changing light patterns.  As my fellow visitor showed you can still enjoy this work without any understanding of Mori’s principles.  The pieces are mesmerising and the fading light captivates us but we can make our own decisions and assumptions about rebirth and the universe.   This powerful start raised the bar for the remainder of the exhibition.  Then nothing quite matched up to my expectations.

Tom Na H-iu, from The Times

Mariko Mori, Tom Na H-iu. Image via www.thetimes.co.uk

The exhibition was practically deserted and my stilettos reverberated on the wooden floors.  I think the silence and lack of people helped to create a mysterious atmosphere and the dim lighting enhanced the supernatural feel.

The paintings and drawings fall short throughout; it is the installations that are fairly impressive.  Transcircle is Mori’s own Stonehenge with nine totemic objects arranged in a circle.  The glowing colours of the stone are seen at varying levels of brightness and the colours change depending on the position of the planets in the course of the year.  We’re meant to be made to feel something, to have an experience; other artists have been much more successful in moving me though.  There’s not enough power here.  Let’s be honest, people like this kind of art because it’s aesthetically pleasing and a bit twee.  In terms of comparing it to things I’ve seen recently, it’s not quite there.

from Ultra Vie

Mariko Mori, Transcircle 1.1.  Image via www.ultravie.co.uk.  

There’s an optimistic feel to the spiritual reasoning behind the exhibition.  The RA hopes this exhibition will make people slow down and contemplate our responsibilities.  Mori wants us to stop and think.  We’re Londoners – are we really going to slow down and give these sculptures the time they deserve?  Probably not.  I know I wasn’t able to spend more than a few minutes with the light sculptures.

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Mariko Mori, White Hole.  Image via www.u.tv/ 

For me, Mori’s works and this exhibition are lacking.  The works are aesthetically beautiful but they do not have the roughness and awe that I get from seeing the real Stonehenge.  There’s no sense that I’m viewing something truly incredible.  This exhibition is a bit too neat and clinical.  The works are pretty and leave us smiling; I did enjoy it but possibly not for the right reasons considering how serious Mori wishes to be.

We leave the exhibition past Ring, a Lucite circle which hangs above an artificial waterfall.  The work has a meditative feel and maybe we do slow down and walk back into the madness of Mayfair a little bit calmer.  However, maybe that feeling was down to knowing it was time for a Friday evening glass of champagne.

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Mariko Mori: Rebirth is at The Royal Academy until 17th February 2013, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

Two in One at Tate

7 Jan

Tate’s current ‘blockbuster’ brings together the works of William Klein and Daido Moriyama, exploring modern urban life in New York and Tokyo from 1950s to the present day.  The exhibition seeks to demonstrate the visual affinity between their urgent, blurred and grainy styles of photography and also their shared desire to convey street life and political protest, from anti-war demonstrations and gay pride marches to the effects of globalisation and urban deprivation.

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Heading into the Tate Modern exhibition.  Own photograph.

The exhibition doesn’t so much juxtapose the two artists as present two completely separate exhibitions that run parallel to each other and interlock in the middle, like a nicely fitted jigsaw.  We are meant to be able to see the influence of Klein on Moriyama.  Yes, there are no doubt obvious aesthetic similarities but wouldn’t the influence be easier to trace if the two artists were shown side by side?  The exhibition fails to present a dialogue between the two – the shows are just too separate but there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that as both, in their own right, are fabulous.

Tate Modern opens William Klein + Daido Moriyama exhibition

Klein + Moriyama exhibition.  Image via http://pcruciatti.photoshelter.com

The exhibition opens with Klein whose work, for me, has a more inherent power.  Maybe this is because I was blown away by him in the first half but I don’t think I’m that fickle.  The several rooms of Klein’s powerful images are mind-blowing to say the least.

Klein’s enormous prints knock us sideways.  They are clear and crisp and the images are juxtaposed one after the other after the other. It’s a beautifully curated exhibition on almost-white walls (thank heavens that Tate’s grey hasn’t reared its head).

Born in New York in 1928, Klein was an art lover from a young age and came to photography after a meandering path where he touched on design and painting (room four of the exhibition includes some of his early abstract wooden panels and it is nice to see his origins).  His early experiments with photography were so impactful that he was offered a job at Vogue and his career as a fashion photographer kicked off with great momentum.  Concurrently, he began documenting the city in a photo diary that eventually formed the basis of his first book.  There was no stopping this man.  Unusually, Klein wanted the viewer to be aware of his own presence at the scene and provoke a response.

William Klein, Candy Store, New York, 1955 from Indy

William Klein, Candy Store, New York, 1955.  Image via www.independent.co.uk

Perhaps because Klein has worked in so many forms, he has always been versatile when transferring ideas from one medium to another and the exhibition progresses to show his experimentation with techniques such as photograms and enlarged photographs graffitied with enamel paint.

Klein is not just a photographer but a documentarian, graphic designer and filmmaker – sections of his film are looped throughout the exhibition.  Klein works in the present.  His works are very powerful and this is an all-encompassing exhibition; this is Klein’s photographs as they are meant to be seen.

thewomensroomblog com

William Klein, Piazza di Spagna, Rome 1960. Image via http://thewomensroomblog.com.    

And then halfway through the exhibition turns to Daido Moriyama. The two artists are so different yet they sit alongside each other seamlessly.  I think this level of harmony is rare.  Tate hasn’t compared or contrasted, they haven’t commented – it’s up to us if we do that.

Moriyama does not go for such a polished aesthetic – his photos are grim and gritty.  They lack the passion that we came to expect from Klein in the first half of this double retrospective.  Moriyama’s works are much more introspective, playing with light and dark, abstracting his scenes so we have to search within the image in a bid to reveal its subject.  He claims his approach was simple – he wanted to show the truth.

Daido Moriyama, TOKYO, 2011 from Indy

Daido Moriyama, TOKYO, 2011.  Image via www.independent.co.uk

His early works can be seen as coming from a Japanese documentary tradition but even at a young age this artist stood out.  He continually questions his subjects and his images explore and seek to understand the very nature of the urban experience.  Many of his photographs present a cross-section of society, looking at anonymous passers-by one alongside the other.  Moriyama uses photography as a form of investigation – both into city life and into the medium itself.  In the third room we see his series Farewell Photography from 1972 where the images are dominated, and often obliterated, by blurs, grains and scratches.  We see a mass of abstract grey.  His images often have deep personal meanings, relating to his own experiences and sense of place.  These grainy grey-scale works appear like fleeting memories that could fade away at any point.

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Looking at Moriyama’s works. Own photograph.

This is Tate Modern’s biggest photography exhibition since its inception but it’s not really one exhibition. There is no evidence that these two artists are properly connected which is possibly why the dialogue fails – it’s unclear how well they knew each other and how much inspiration they took from one another’s work.  But, they are both sensational photographers who produced revelatory work. The monochrome works of both artists push photography to its large-scale limits.  Whether it’s one or two exhibitions, it’s overwhelming and highly enjoyable.

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William Klein + Daido Moriyama is at Tate Modern until 20th January 2013, www.tate.org.uk.

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