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Last of the Summer Time

9 Oct

Finally, I’ve found some time to write a blog post and I’m ashamed to see how long it has been since the last one.  I’ve been gathering catalogues, notes and bits of paper from the inordinate amount I have seen over the past month but now there are far too many to tell you about them all.

At this time of year we’re all looking ahead to Frieze week – in fact, LAPADA in Berkeley Square already heralded the beginning of art month.  But, to look over some of my highlights I have to journey back to Edinburgh and an exhibition at Talbot Rice Gallery showing works by Korean artist, Nam June Paik.  I have to confess, that I wasn’t at all familiar with his work even though he is dubbed the founder of video art.  Born in 1932, Paik had a remarkable insight into the ways that technology would change everyday life and our approach to art.  Unusually for Talbot Rice this is a posthumous retrospective; Paik died in 2006 but the gallery saw this as the perfect opportunity to celebrate this artist’s work – art and technology was the theme of the Edinburgh International Festival this year so this could not have been a more fitting choice.

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Nam June Paik at Tabot Rice Gallery.  Image via www.journal-online.co.uk

It is a confusing exhibition as there is so much going on around the galleries that at times it becomes hard to digest – the main floor exhibits a survey of Paik’s video works, sculpture (including two of his handmade robots) and documentary pieces, while the upper gallery shows objects from his important debut solo exhibition in Germany that took place 50 years ago.  Whatever direction you turn to Paik’s works include old-fashioned television sets whether in their entirety, showing montages of found documentary footage, or included in strange sculptures.  The works are often noisy and at times almost aggressive in their crude aesthetics.  Paik was intent on getting his message across and there can be no denying that he succeeded in conveying his overflowing ideas that combine television with contemporary art.

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Nam June Paik at Tabot Rice Gallery.  Image via www.re-photo.co.uk

In contrast, was Franz West at Inverleith House.  In all my years in Edinburgh I don’t think I’d ever visited the Botanic Gardens and I had most certainly been missing out.  Aside from the incredible glasshouses, which I’d definitely recommend particularly because of the sculptures dotted around them, the Gardens and House are free of charge.  Walking around this space is like entering another world, particularly in August when Edinburgh is taken over by the Fringe.

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Sculptures in the glasshouses at the Botanic Gardens.  Own photograph.

It is rare that we enter a gallery and are encouraged to touch the works on display.  Here we’re not just asked to gently touch but to play full on with West’s pieces that are solely in collaboration with other artists.  This exhibition contains more than 50 examples of these mad collaborations.  The list of artists in the press release shows quite how influential West is for all these artists to want to work with him – examples are Sarah Lucas, Michelangelo Pistoletto or Douglas Gordon.  Although there are some serious works the exhibition feels exciting and fun – if you don’t participate with the pieces you won’t get very much out of them.  West allows us to escape the conventions of gallery-going where many feel constrained, forced to whisper and look from afar.  The gallery staff make sure we’re doing it right as well – “Have you laid down here yet?” one young girl asked me as I walked through a room, “You can’t see the piece properly unless you do.”  Well, that told me and before I knew it I found myself prostrate on a work of art.  Thank you Franz West.

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Franz West at Inverleith House.  Image via www.rbge.org.uk.    

Inverleith aren’t attempting to exhibit the sculptures that many of us would normally associate with West – their exhibition is solely about the creativity of collaboration.  Sometimes West integrated works by other artists with his own, sometimes he invited artists to ‘complete’ one of his works and sometimes the collaboration began with him asking an artist to provide him with something.  West was, however, always the conductor of these exchanges, the master of collaboration and of artistic harmony.

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Franz West at Inverleith House.  Image via www.rbge.org.uk.    

The Edinburgh Art Festival spans the whole city and there are always wonderful installations dotted around in the most unusual o places.  One such example is Peter Liversidge’s work where he was invited anyone in the city with a flag pole to fly a white flag which bears the text: HELLO.  Hello is a word so commonly used in everyday life – to express a greeting, answer a telephone, attract attention and so on.  Liversidge aims to remind us that a flag is also a way to say hello and, here, they wave at us from across the city’s public buildings, blowing their greetings across Edinburgh with each gust of wind.

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A collective greeting in Edinburgh.  Own photograph.

When I was at school aged only 7 or 8, one of the first artists we studied was LS Lowry and he has always had a special pull for me.  Now Lowry’s time has come with a huge exhibition at Tate Britain.  For me, Lowry’s works don’t work well in bulk so this exhibition was always going to be difficult in that regard.  But that was never any doubt that no matter what Tate did I would be instantly won over.  Even ignoring my own personal love for Lowry, this is a very important show and one that is curated by two senior curators who give it an immediate element of gravitas.  But, both are art historians who live in America; they aren’t specialists in Lowry or British art and perhaps this is why they have decided to mix things up a bit, not always successfully.

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Lowry at Tate Britain. Image via www.telegraph.co.uk.  

The exhibition offers direct comparisons between Lowry’s work and that of 19th century French artists tackling the same subject which is the big let-down of the exhibition.  Why have Tate not let Lowry stand in his own right?  Nor is the exhibition hung chronologically so it is very hard to see the developments across more than 60 years of work.

Lowry’s depictions of England and his acute powers of observation are still something special.  His depictions of modern life hold a simplicity and rusticity to them that capture the true feeling of the town – some of the scenes haven’t even changed that much since Lowry painted them in his work.  Although the poverty and hardship of the times is there, he often idealises his scenes to make them more palatable for his audience.  He is often criticised for the almost one-dimensionality of his tiny stick figures but look closely at the work that has gone into them.  This is Lowry’s unique record of changing times – his very own texture and timbre of the world in which he lived and the specifics he chose to see.  Love or hate Lowry this is a must-see show.

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Walking through the exhibition.  Image via www.demotix.com

Idris Khan was one of the artists included in our East Wing VIII exhibition at The Courtauld but his latest show at Victoria Miro marks an important departure from the photographic based work he then showed.  Beyond the Black comprises a suite of black paintings, a monumental site-specific wall drawing and a series of works on paper, considering the metaphysics of creation.  Using a mixture of black pigment, rabbit-skin glue and slate dust the paintings’ darkness shines from the walls.  Whereas previously Khan has used the writings of famous philosophers in his pieces, here he incorporates his own writings in response to his readings of Nietzsche, building up strands of text applying densely one on top of the other until the words disappear into the saturated surface, slipping away from us beyond our understanding.  The further we try to look into the works, the less we can comprehend.

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Idris Khan at Victoria Miro.  Image via www.londonist.com

The wall drawing upstairs consists of more than 120,000 lines of text forming a giant radial form.  It’s possible to get lost within this work for hours and I do mean get lost as we are incapable of following the complicated overlays of words at play here.  Throughout the exhibition we are offered glimpses of words that may, or may not, give us a window into Khan’s thinking.

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Complicated overlays. Image via www.fadwebsite.com

Edel Assanti’s latest show (and one on which I have worked) is of Alex Hoda’s incredible new sculptures where the cutting-edge technological processes of 3D-modelling are applied to traditional sculptural materials to create sublime forms.  Alex’s work is an investigation into how discarded objects can provide a valid starting point for wider discussion and critique of contemporary society’s ‘throwaway’ culture.  He sees chewing gum as the perfect embodiment of this area of consumer culture. The chewing gum undergoes a metamorphosis when translated into Carrara marble, imbuing the final piece with an importance that is more often exclusively reserved for classical iconography. The bronze works undergo a comparable transformation, only the source objects are delicate hand-sculpted maquettes formed from entwined dry banana skins.  Despite the medium of bronze, the ‘banana skins’ have an incredible delicacy and tactility that defies their medium and recalls the source objects in a beautiful way.

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Alex Hoda’s new works at Edel Assanti. Image via www.edelassanti.com

David Zwirner is currently showing Philip-Lorca DiCorcia’s East of Eden, a large-scale body of photographs ranging from strangers, family members and pole dancers.  He takes everyday happenings and pushes them beyond the realms of banality and normality asking the viewer to question the truth of the image.  The works, partly inspired by John Steinbeck’s book of the same name and the Book of Genesis convey a sense of disillusionment, with lone figures contemplating their surroundings and remaining beyond our reach.  While some are compositionally stimulating and powerful others don’t quite hit the mark for me.

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Installed at David Zwirner.  Image via www.davidzwirner.com

Finally, I was lucky enough to visit Stanley Spencer’s Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere just before it closed to the public for a long programme for conservation and renovation.  Words cannot do justice to the feeling of walking through the modest chapel doors and being overwhelmed by the inspirational scenes that Spencer created, a series of large-scale epic murals that honour the ‘forgotten dead’ of the First World War, inspired by Spencer’s own experiences both as a hospital orderly in Bristol and a solider on the Salonika front.

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Approaching the Chapel.  Image via http://en.wikipedia.org

Peppered with personal and unexpected details, they combine the realism of everyday life with dreamlike visions drawn from his imagination.  His recollections, painted entirely from memory, focus on the domestic, rather than combative, and evoke everyday experiences – washing lockers, inspecting kit, sorting laundry, scrubbing floors and taking tea – in which he found spiritual resonance and sustenance.  The poignancy of the works is powerfully emotive.  The main 16 panels from this English ‘Sistine Chapel’ are journeying to Somerset House for an exhibition next month.

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Inside the Chapel.  Image via  www.siue.edu.

This is by no means a survey of all I have seen but a taster of some shows that are currently on.  The winter programme across London and the UK looks particularly exciting and I’ve recently bought a host of new heels in which to enjoy them.

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Transmitted Live: Nam June Paik Resounds is at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, until 19th October 2013, www.ed.ac.uk/about/museums-galleries/talbot-rice.  Mostly West: Franz West and Artistic Collaborations was at Inverleith House, Edinburgh.  Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is at Tate Britain until 20th October 2013, www.tate.org.uk.  Idris Khan: Beyond the Black is at Victoria Miro until 9th November 2013, www.victoria-miro.comAlex Hoda: D-Construction is at Edel Assanti until 26th October 2013, www.edelassanti.comPhilip-Lorca diCorcia: East of Eden is at David Zwirner until 16th November 2013.  Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War will be at Somerset House from 7th November 2013 – 26th January 2014, www.somersethouse.org.uk.

The Surreal World of a Spellbinding Genius

24 Dec

Somerset House has been transformed into a veritable fairyland, a surreal world belonging to the magical stylings of Tim Walker.  Walker has always been fascinated by the make-believe since as a 19-year old intern at Vogue he established their Cecil Beaton Archive.  After completing his studies at the age of 25 he shot his first Vogue fashion story; the rest, as they say, is history.  He was the recipient of the second ‘Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator’ at the British Fashion Awards in 2008 and the following year he received an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in New York. His photos are instantly recognisable including many famous fashion campaigns such as those of Mulberry (who are supporting the exhibition), Hèrmes and Valentino.

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Tim Walker, Giant doll kicks Lindsey Wixson, Eglingham Hall, Northumberland, 2011.  Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

The extravagant and dazzling exhibition seeks to replicate the photos.  The first room contains a life-sized Spitfire, a prop used for a 2009 Burberry shoot for Vogue starring Lily Donaldson.  Here, it has crashed and erupted through the fireplace.  There’s no slow start.  This is Walker – take it or leave it.

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Tim Walker, Lily Donaldson and Blue Spitfire, Glemham Hall, Suffolk, 2009. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

The exhibition guides us through Walker’s collaborations with some of the biggest names in contemporary fashion and culture: Alber Elbaz sporting a pair of rabbit ears (fairy tales are frequently referenced); Karen Elson up against it with a giant crocodile; Agyness Deyn in the sand dunes of Namibia; Tilda Swinton in Iceland; Alexander McQueen and a memento mori of skull and cigarettes; Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton turning an Essex garden centre into a danse macabre; Stella Tennant in a pink cloud among the rhododendrons of an English country garden and a visitor from outer space who surprises a foxhunt in Northumberland.  Some of the scenes are a bit bizarre to say the least but they are not scary – in fact they are mesmerising.  Walker’s images are characteristically British – from the models and design to the background.

© 2009 Tim Walker. All rights reserved. Moral rights asserted.

Tim Walker, Stella Tennant and pink powder cloud, Eglingham Hall, Northumberland, 2007. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

As with the Spitfire, props from the photographs are brought into the gallery.  I, for one, love bringing props into exhibitions and so they were onto a winner here with me but, when busy, this can make the display seem cluttered.  In particular, the room with the giant swan is very difficult to navigate especially as all the cold skaters from the Somerset House ice rink are migrating inside, seeking warmth from anywhere, even an art gallery.  The wall labels are also quite amateurish and some are even peeling off – a shame considering how the rest of the show has been thought out.  The wall labels and quotes are printed on corners making you move with them – the photos aren’t straightforward and the display follows this.  Despite these flaws this is a really fabulous show where the new East Wing at Somerset House has truly found its feet .

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Skaters at Somerset House.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk

In this exhibition, we are transported to Walker’s world where his imagination comes alive. And what a world it is!  Walker shoots entirely in film – for him, the easy part is pointing and shooting and the camera ‘is simply a box put between you and what you want to capture’.  The magic, and his genius, lies in the designs of these amazing sets that show off his models and all their couture finery.  The team involved here includes hair and make-up artists, fashion stylists, costume fitters, model makers, set designers, builders, producers, painters, prop suppliers and models with Walker at the centre waving his magic wand.

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Tim Walker, Olga Shearer on blue horse, Sennowe Park, Norfolk, 2007. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

Somewhat surprisingly, Walker’s preference when looking at this show is his portraits, favouring the stripped back contrast of the faces to his previous flamboyance.  He feels it’s time for something new but I find it very hard to believe he’s going to leave all this behind.  Who knows?  Let’s see.

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Tim Walker, Alexander McQueen with skull and cigarettes, Clerkenwell, London, 2009. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

Looking at Walker’s photographs feels as if we are somewhere else, in his own surreal land.  The soft focus, framing devices and clever lighting enhances this.  It is, in fact, the experience of viewing the photograph that stays with us longer than some of the specific images.  The works are an incredible cross between fashion, theatre, design and art.  They don’t have to come down in one place as they encapsulate all these things; and they encapsulate them faultlessly. 

And so it was time for me to journey to my own winter wonderland and don some skates at the Tower of London to be whisked away once more, this time onto the ice.

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Tim Walker: Story Teller is at Somerset House until 27th January 2013, www.somersethouse.org.uk.

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.

Contrasting Cultures at Somerset House – Amazon and Dazed & Confused

10 Dec

I’m particularly interested to see what’s going on in the new East Galleries at Somerset House as they will be hosting the London show of In Conversation with Stuart Sutcliffe from July 2012, with which I’m very involved.  Well, I wasn’t disappointed.  Aesthetically, the new galleries look stunning – with their 18th century features and-low level lighting, the space is wonderful.

Amazon in the East Galleries at Somerset House. Own photograph. 

For the inaugural exhibition in this space, Somerset House is showing Amazon,  in aid of Sky Rainforest Rescue, showcasing works by award-winning photographers, Sebastião Salgado and Per-Anders Pettersson.

The exhibition is intended to draw awareness to the plight of the Amazon which covers over 6.7 million km2 and comprises 40% of the world’s remaining tropical forests.  The information panel at the beginning states that every minute, an area of Amazon rainforest the size of three football pitches is lost to deforestation.  The statistics continue.  The impact is immediate, this exhibition is designed to shake us and make us realise the severity of the situation.  The Sky Rainforest Rescue is a three-year project that aims to save one billion trees in the State of Acre. 

Per-Anders Petterson, An aerial view over the rainforest in Amazonas state, Brazil on June 21, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.somersethouse.org.uk.   

Pettersson presents photographs from his recent visit to Acre, documenting the shocking deforestation in progress as well as showing those who are benefitting from the Sky Rainforest Rescue.  His images aim to show the stark reality – both ‘beautiful and heart-breaking in equal measure’ – and the effect that these changes are having on local communities.  His recent trip to the area gave him ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the work that is being done firsthand and to help showcase it’, looking at how Sky, WWF and Acre State Government are helping the area. 

Per-Anders Petterson, An aerial view as sun rises over the rainforest in Amazonas state, Brazil on June 21, 2011.  Image courtesy of the artist and via www.somersethouse.org.uk.   

In striking contrast, Salgado’s works, from his on-going photographic essay Genesis, portray Amazonian landscapes in their most pristine state and give a rare insight into the lives of two Amazon tribes.  His often-monochrome images try to show the environments that remain intact despite the scale of destruction, aiming ‘to highlight the beauty that must be preserved.’  His works are beautiful, reminding of us the rich habitat that can still exist in this area. 

Sebastião Salgado, The State of Amazonas, Brazil. 2009 – fishing in the Piulaga laguna during the Kuarup of the Waura group.  Image courtesy of the artists, Amazonas and nbpictures and via www.somersethouse.org.uk.   

It always bothers me that charitable organisations produce such elaborate and OTT promotional material, like the lavish book being handed out here.  Are they getting enough of a return to make this worthwhile?

However, it is a very moving exhibition .  The two photographers could not be more different in their styles but, between them, they highlight the severe scale of devastation.  It’s always good to get these issues into the public eye and Amazon succeeds in a breathtakingly beautiful manner.

Sebastião Salgado, The State of Amazonas, Brazil. 2009.  Image courtesy of the artists, Amazonas and nbpictures and via www.somersethouse.org.uk

Just next door in the main building of Somerset House, stretching across the courtyard and terrace rooms, it could not get more different, with an exhibition celebrating the 20th anniversary of the magazine, Dazed & Confused.

Dazed & Confused has been gracing our bookshelves since its inception in 1991.  Dazed aimed to strip away artifice and show ‘real’ life.  They weren’t a normal fashion magazine; they were shocking and, at times, alarmingly honest, in their portrayals.  The magazine is not to everyone’s taste and has provoked controversy and polarised opinions over the years.  Although it started in one room, 20 years later a measure of its success is that about 65 people work on the Dazed team.

Jubilee, October 2000, photography by Paulo Sutch, styling by Katie Grand. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk

Jefferson Hack, co-founder of the magazine, deserves an exhibition about his extraordinary life. But, in a way, I suppose this is his life – the eccentricity, excitement and wildness of the magazine is Hack on paper.   Hack met Rankin on a journalism course at the London College of Printing.  Rankin, on a break from a photography degree, was running the student magazine and, together, at weekends, they began producing this.  Untitled won three Guardian Student Media Awards and they took their vision and passion over to Dazed, the magazine which became a ‘social scene …  a conceptual thing for young creatives’.

Pulp – It’s a Wrap, 1995, Photography by Rankin.  Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk

The exhibition presents highlights from a new book about the magazine.  Curated by Jefferson Hack and Emma Reeves, it features a range of work that includes ground-breaking photography by Rankin, Nick Knight, David Sims and Terry Richardson; specially commissioned projects by artists Jake & Dinos Chapman, Damien Hirst and Sam Taylor-Wood; cutting edge fashion pages by stylists Katie Grand, Katy England, Alister Mackie and Nicola Formichetti; and specially selected designs by fashion giants Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Gareth Pugh.

The curation of the exhibition reflects the nature of the magazine, immortalising its most infamous visual stories.  Dazed sought to publish unheard voices and new talents – quirky, fashionable, extraordinary and different.

20 Years of Dazed & Confused magazine at Somerset House. Own photograph.

The exhibition is surprisingly extensive but, then again, Hack has never done anything by half.  It celebrates what Dazed is all about and what makes Dazed so wonderful is that it doesn’t fit a mould.  Hack and Rankin have never tried to conform.  When they started, they didn’t really know what they were meant to conform to.  The magazine took off, people loved the freedom of expression it allowed and, as they connected, the creativity burgeoned…and still does to this day.

Amazon is in the East Galleries at Somerset House until 18th December.  20 Years of Dazed & Confused Magazine: Making It Up As We Go Along is in Somerset House’s Terrace Rooms until 29th January 2012, www.somersethouse.org.uk.

Cancan at The Courtauld: Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril

19 Jun

Those of you that know The Courtauld well, will know you need to be fit to reach the exhibition, unless, of course, you chicken out and take the lift.  Running up the stairs in stilettos is only for the ‘highly’ experienced!

Own photograph.

I always find the exhibition galleries at The Courtauld warm and calming, rather like this well-thought out and researched exhibition, examining the identity of the famous dancer, Jane Avril, looking at her both as a private individual and as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s muse.

Own photograph.

Most of us know of Jane Avril because of Lautrec.  Born to a courtesan mother, Jeanne Beaudon had a troubled and distraught childhood.  After running away from home, she was committed to a mental hospital with female hysteria.  Nervous mannerisms were always present in her frenzied dancing and her unique style became apparent at a hospital fancy dress ball, a bal des folles.  When she was discharged, at the age of 16, she headed straight to the Latin Quarter to follow her dancing dreams.  Although she danced at many venues, she is perhaps most famous for her time at the Moulin Rouge who first hired her in 1889; within a short period she became one of their headline dancers under her stage name, Jane Avril.  She met Lautrec in the early 1890s when they were both in their twenties.  In 1895, Avril replaced Louise Weber, Paris’s most famous dancer, and soon became a star.

Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

The exhibition starts with, and rotates around, Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge (1892), a work from The Courtauld’s own collection.  The strength of the exhibition is that The Courtauld takes one of its own works, draws it to our attention and enhances our understanding by shaping the exhibition with prestigious loans from collections around the world.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge, 1892.  Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

One of the first pieces you’ll see is the most iconic pose captured by Lautrec: a gouache on paper of Jane Avril Dancing (1893).  This pose could have been based on a publicity photograph of the dancer but the vivacity and fluidity of Lautrec’s brushwork suggest parts were worked from life.  It is not just a study, it is a work in its own right.  We can feel Avril’s movement as she raises her leg, balancing on her heel (my heels are slightly higher than hers, so I won’t give this a go right now).  Although her quadrille naturaliste is a provocative dance, Avril’s action somehow lacks sexuality and there is a dark undertone; her facial expression is hard to read but she seems sad, far older than her years.  The pose recurs in the lithograph, from the same year, Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, lent by MoMA and exhibited to the right of the gouache.  A darker, more faded version of the poster appears in the second room of the exhibition, this time loaned from the V&A – I told you the extent of loans was impressive.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, 1893 (MoMA).  Own photograph.

The internal frame of the lithograph is created by the double bass of the orchestra.  I’d never read this poster as a sexualised work until I read Waldemar Januszczak’s review of the exhibition where he talks about the hand grasping the double bass as an image of male masturbation, the double bass as a penis and Avril as an object of desire.  And he has to be right – this clever reading certainly changes how we regard the work.  He was a very sexual being and his diminutive height never hampered Lautrec’s lively libido.  He is known to have bragged “I may only be a small coffee-pot, but I have a big spout.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, 1893 (V&A).  Own photograph.

The poster was an instant hit – its strong colours and eye-catching design guaranteed that people would stop to look.  The importance of a carefully-crafted publicity image was key to a celebrity status in the entertainment industry of Montmartre.  The sophistication of Avril’s image contrasted with the explicit styling of some of the other dancers.  Lautrec’s works were landmarks in the history of art and of advertising.

The exhibition has clear progression, revealing new stages of research about the lives of the artist and his muse.  A sense of their relationship and friendship is revealed through the sketches shown alongside his paintings and lithographs.  Lautrec not only created Avril’s commercial persona, he understood her as an individual.  He was closer to Avril than to any of his other Montmartre subjects and the two remained loyal friends until the artist’s death at the age of 36.  One photograph on display even shows Lautrec wearing Avril’s hat and scarf to a fancy dress party in 1892.  While the lithographs show her as an exotic cancan dancer, the painted portraits and sketches show her as solitary and withdrawn.  They were drawn together by their differences, both outsiders in the seedy world of Montmartre.

One such highly intimate sketch is Jane Avril: Back View (1892-3). Apparently before a sitting, the artist and model would eat together on the Boulevard de Clichy allowing Lautrec to study Avril’s expressions and gestures while at ease.  Maybe this was the product of such a meal.  Wherever it was executed, there is a relaxed intimacy. The tense raised shoulders and delicate hands seen here became signature traits of Lautrec’s depictions of Avril.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril: Back View, 1892-3.  Own photograph.

Another work that caught my eye was Jane Avril (1899), made just a few weeks before Lautrec suffered a breakdown.  Though famous now, the design, showing Avril in a different light to most of his portrayals, was never used.  As she stands with parted lips, a serpent coils round her body stopping at her breasts.  Lacking the subtlety of the earlier poster, this is an unusually obviously sexualised image and was probably considered out of keeping with her established image.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1899.  Own photograph.

Although there is no evidence they were anything more than friends, it is clear that Lautrec was infatuated with Jane Avril.  Avril wasn’t your normal dancer – she was elegant yet solitary, confident and intelligent.  Her mixture of sensuality and detachment captured audiences and artist alike.

The second room includes works by the likes of Munch and Biais as well as newspaper articles, photographs and books, following Avril’s extraordinary life and career.  I would have liked to see some more Lautrec’s in room two and did feel that The Courtauld diluted its focus by including so many other pieces.

Photographs in the second room.  Own photograph.

Lautrec’s enduring friendship with Jane Avril was different to his seedy portrayals of other Montmartre dancers.  Alongside his striking portraits, The Courtauld has presented the exuberant Lautrec posters that we know and love as pieces of artwork rather than just the iconic PR tools that made Avril famous.  This is a good lunchtime visit before relaxing by the fountains in the courtyard of Somerset House and enjoying the sun (if it ever re-appears).

The Courtauld only has a small exhibition space to work with and for it to stand a chance of being effective, as it is here, it must tackle small subjects that allows it to focus on a narrow body of works.  This exhibition celebrates a unique working relationship and brings both the artist and his muse into the limelight.   Jane Avril headlines once again!

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge is at The Courtauld Gallery until 18th September 2011, www.courtauld.ac.uk.

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.

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