Tag Archives: Ai Weiwei

What a Year! A Summary of 2011…

24 Dec

Trying to pick my favourite exhibitions from this year has been quite a difficult task.  I’ve seen some rubbish but I’ve also seen an awful lot of amazing shows – 2011 has been a strong year for the art calendar.  In fact, reading back through Artista, I wonder how I have I managed to totter to so many galleries in the last few months.  But, there’s always so much to see…

My favourite exhibitions really left their mark, those I can still immediately recall that still delight me.  I’ve chosen the shows that weren’t just aesthetically pleasing but were also well-curated and academically interesting.  These are the ones that tick all the boxes.

Towering at Tate – The Gerhard Richter exhibition that is still on show at Tate Modern is breath-taking, looking at Richter’s diverse oeuvre as an unbroken panorama.  At Tate Britain, Vorticists win the prize – charting a short-lived movement, Tate aimed to place Vorticism in an international context, studying the impact of World War I on these artists.

Detail of one of Gerhard Richter’s Cage Paintings, 2006. Own photograph.

Rocking at the Royal Academy  – The Royal Academy’s upstairs gallery has to have one of the strongest exhibition programmes in London.  It’s a tie for the best show there this year between the recent Soviet Art and Architecture and Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography.

Martin Munkácsi, Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika, c. 1930.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk.

Knockout at the National Gallery – For me, Drenched in Devotion stole the show this year.  Looking at altarpieces in their context, the NG examined their structure and relationship to the surrounding architecture, following the formal, stylistic and typological developments across the period of focus.  One room was even turned into a chapel.

Room two in Devotion by Design. Image via www.independent.co.uk.

Leaving LondonRevealed: Turner Contemporary Opens was an extremely strong exhibition to launch another new public art gallery designed, of course, by David Chipperfield.  Highlights were from Daniel Buren and Conrad Shawcross.

Daniel Buren, Borrowing and Multiplying the Landscape, 2011. Own photograph.

Also with podium finishes were:

Going for Gold – Haunch’s Mystery of Appearance with some of Britain’s most important painters – Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Patrick Caulfield, William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Leon Kossoff and Euan Uglow.  Need I say more…

Upstairs at Haunch with David Hockney, The Room Tarzana, 1967. Own photograph.

Striking SilverThe Cult of Beauty at the V&A looked at art, from 1860-1900, created purely for its own sake to provide pleasure and beauty.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata, 1859.  Image via www.vam.ac.uk.

Bright Bronze – Future Tense’s Spectra I focused on colour – a simple concept but one that was wonderfully addressed with some of the best lighting I’ve seen this year.

Lee Baker, Refractive Monolith, 2011. Own photograph. 

and last but by no means least – Runner Up  – the brilliant Anthony McCall taking over Ambika P3 with his entrancing light works that combined cinema, drawing and sculpture.

Anthony McCall, Vertical Works, 2011. Image via http://www.dontpaniconline.com. 

Aaah… but there was also the shoes exhibition, Rembrandt and Bacon at Ordovas, Nicola Hicks and Mona Kuhn at Flowers, the many brilliant shows at Josh Lilley and the poignant timing of Lisson’s Ai Weiwei show.  What a year!  To look back at these exhibitions, use the categories or tags on the right hand side of the screen to make scrolling that bit easier.

Carla Busuttil at the Josh Lilley Galley.  Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

Let’s hope that 2012 can move on from the success of these shows and be bigger, better and braver than ever before.  I’ll be there, in my stilettos, doing the rounds.

In the meantime, thank you for reading Artista.  A Merry Christmas and a Happy Shoe Year to you all.

(Check back next week for a look at The Courtauld’s current drawing exhibition.)

Out of London and out of Heels – A Dreary Day Out in Colchester

17 Nov

I’d been getting restless so it was time for a day trip to visit another of the new contemporary galleries popping up all over the country.  This time it was Colchester, only a hop skip and a jump away by Mini.  My sat-nav, Sean with his gorgeous Irish accent, has a real thing for the M25 and by deciding to ignore him and following my own geographical instincts the journey took a tad longer than it normally would have done.  Sorry Sean.  My route, however, enabled us to enjoy the scenery and the pretty country lanes of Essex and we arrived excited to see what Colchester has to offer.

Colchester. Own photograph.

Colchester is a hill town with typically English characteristics – a castle, a river, a market place and a strict Roman grid plan surrounded by a town wall.  It’s very walkable – in fact, we easily managed to see everything within the day and still get out in time to miss rush hour!

Colchester Castle. Own photograph.

Our first stop was the town’s Norman castle, built during the reign of William the Conqueror.  The interior doesn’t do justice to the excellent condition of the building and its impressive build.  It is designed solely with children in mind; OK, fair enough, they are the museum’s bread and butter but, here it speaks down to them with patronising and dark displays and is done in a way that practically excludes adults.  Wasted opportunity #1.

Inside the Castle. Own photograph.

A neatly manicured park sweeps down from the Castle to the River Colne and rather non-descript Roman wall.  The boating lake had dried up and was rather smelly and we hurried on.  Although the park itself is pretty, this certainly counts as wasted opportunity #2.

The River Colne. Own photograph.

The town’s Natural History Museum, that we happened on by chance, is housed within a pretty church. Unlike the castle, entry is free so it’s worth a quick peek if you’re in the area.  The churchyard is overgrown and has been left to deteriorate, a common theme in Colchester – wasted opportunity #3.  It feels a bit like a town that time has left behind and is in desperate need of some TLC.   There are some English Heritage properties in town too but everything is so badly signed that you need a degree in orientation and a great deal of common sense to get around.  Oh yes, #4.

The churchyard of the Natural History Museum. Own photograph.

After lunch, it was time to visit firstsite, our main reason for this trip.  Dubbed the Golden Banana, firstsite (annoyingly, with no capitals or spaces) opened in September this year.  Designed by Rafael Viñoly it was originally scheduled to open in 2008 with a projected budget of £18 million.  It finally came in £10 million over budget and a few years late – not a good start.  Designed as an art gallery for purposes of display, it is the strangest shape building.  The curved walls do not lend themselves to conventional picture hanging and, rather than confront this ‘problem’ with ingenious ceiling hangings or sculptural installations, the curators decided to leave vast expanses of the walls bare (and boring).  This space could be interesting to play with but the gallery just doesn’t make sense.

On approach, the building does look impressive with its distinctive gold colour.  But, although great at first sight (excuse the pun), the building peters off into a bungalow-like extension that is tedious compared with the statement-making front elevation.

Firstsite.  Own photograph.

Their current exhibition is inspired by Colchester’s history as Britain’s first city.  While all the other new galleries across the UK have gone for something big to mark their openings, this exhibition gets lost in the space.  It supposedly considers how history is represented and re-enacted and how art and archaeology invite us to think about everyday, functional objects as sources of information or symbols of our cultures, past and present.  In this vein, the gallery will permanently exhibit the Berryfield Mosaic, in almost exactly the same spot where it was discovered.  This is a nice touch as it was originally part of the dining room floor in a Roman townhouse that once stood here.  But, the amount of existing museums in Colchester concentrating on local history and civic pride meant that firstsite needed to take a braver leap.  Despite its striking design, the gallery has managed to be bland – peculiarly, one work is already missing for conservation reasons.

An empty wall at firstsite. Own photograph.

They have all the big names in there but there’s no wow factor and no feeling of excitement.  There’s a nice Bill Woodrow narrative sculpture and a good Ai Weiwei column-like sculpture that combines the traditional Chinese materials of porcelain and bamboo.  The Barbara Hepworth on loan from Tate is pressed against a wall in a specially air-conditioned room.  Visitors can’t walk around it and it seems cramped.  Yet, the leaflet proudly proclaims that at 3,200 square metres firstsite will rank among the largest contemporary art venues in the UK.  What a waste of space!

Bill Woodrow, Car Door, Boot and Wing with Roman Helmet, 1982. Own photograph.

Mostly, the gallery seems to be filled with loos – I reckon we passed about eight different toilet blocks as we went round.  Maybe they’d have been better getting a few more works in and fewer toilets.  Firstsite is a wasted opportunity (#5) and not a gallery that I’ll be rushing back to.

Inside firstsite. Own photograph.

Onwards…  We headed to the Minories, the gallery that used to house what is now firstsite.  Built in the last phase of the Palladian style, it is another stunning building although most of it is now shut off.  Again, it’s so disappointing (wasted opportunity #6).  Colchester has so much potential but most of it has been allowed to fade away.

The Minories. Own photograph.

The nearby Holytrees Museum was the most engaging stop of the day.  Built in 1719 on the site of an Elizabethan house, Holytrees is a beautiful 18th century building whose collections focus on themes of domestic life and childhood in Colchester over the last 300 years.

The Holytrees Museum. Own photograph.

We had an amble around the town with the aim of seeing Jumbo, the town’s Romanesque water tower, built by Charles Clegg in 1882-3, and standing where the Roman Forum would have been.   Construction required well over a million bricks and Jumbo can hold up to 230,000 gallons of water.  Although it was decommissioned in the 1980s, it is a beautiful structure that dominates the town and was worth the stroll to go and see it close up.  It is partly consumed by the modern developments that surround it and I think this area could have been more sensitively regenerated (that’d be #7).

Jumbo. Own photograph.

Architecturally, the old town is quite pretty but it lacked excitement.  Although there’s a lot to see, there are very many more places where I’d prefer to spend the day.  Luckily, we passed the time gossiping and we had a giggle but that was nothing to do with the ‘delights’ of Colchester – a town that hasn’t quite worked itself, or the tourist market, out yet.

Camulodunum is at firstsite, Colchester, until 22nd January 2011, www.firstsite.uk.net.

Encounters in the Turbine Hall – Tacita Dean’s FILM

21 Oct

Pictures of the latest Unilever installation seemed to confirm my Turbine Hall pet hate; this has long been one of my favourite spaces yet, although some of the installations have been magnificent, no one really seems to quite master the enormity of this space at Tate Modern.  The Turbine Hall, which once housed the electricity generators of the old power station, is five storeys tall with 3,400 square metres of floor space.  The Unilever Series has been going since 2000 when Louise Bourgeois embarked on the first commission.  Since then many famous artists, including Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread and, most recently, Ai Weiwei, have undertaken the project.

The Turbine Hall. Image via www.tate.org.uk.

It is a daunting challenge.  Do you fill it all like Kapoor’s Marsyas did?  Fill it vertically? Use just a bit of it?  There must be a checklist –Olafur  Eliasson did light, Bruce Nauman, who played with the concept of empty space, conquered sound, Carsten Hőller even turned it into a giant playground.  There is often controversy or debate surrounding the installations and, last year, Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds famously had to be portioned for health and safety reasons.

Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds. Image via http://contemporary-art-blog.tumblr.com. 

Tacita Dean has decided to embrace the height of the space.  Her work calls to mind many forerunners who tried this too.  In 2006-7, Hőller’s Test Site (five spiralling steel Makrolon slides) descended from various levels of Tate Modern, culminating under the bridge of the Turbine Hall.  Visitors were able to interact personally with the works that aimed to release them from everyday restraints, questioning human behaviour and offering the possibility of self-exploration in the process.

Carsten Hőller’s Test Site. Own photograph.

This was the first installation, until now, to take real advantage of the tremendous verticality of the hall.  Test Site made viewers, or participants, look at the Turbine Hall and the slides from different perspectives and heights and to experience the sensation of descending through the hall.  No other commission had attempted anything to such an extent, although the three steel towers of Louise Bourgeois’ 2000 installation, I Do, I Undo and I Redo, encouraged its audience to climb the spiral staircases that ascended around central columns supporting platforms surrounded by large circular mirrors.

Louise Bourgeois’ I Do, I Undo, I Redo.  Image via http://poulwebb.blogspot.com

Like Test Site, Dean’s work neglects most of the available horizontal space of the Turbine Hall.  When you first enter Tate Modern, the piece is quite insignificant within the cavernous architecture and does not attract your first glance.  The entry to the commission is equally underwhelming, compared to the spectacle of its predecessors.  But, when you do arrive at the section given over to Dean’s work it is brilliant, atmospheric and near-perfect.

The entrance to Tacita Dean’s FILM. Own photograph.

FILM is an 11 minute, silent, 35mm looped film, that is projected onto an enormous monolith dwarfing all who approach the darkened end of the hall.  The work upends the usual landscape format of moving image. Taking the appearance of a filmstrip with sprocket holes, exposed onto the emulsion, it pays homage to the traditional analogue process, highlighting the threat to which film is subjected nowadays and the impact its loss will have on our culture.  The work often looks transparent, as if someone is hanging a film reel from the ceiling.  Rather than being an actual film, FILM seems to offer a portrait of a film shown in portrait format.  The work is about the importance and specificity of the medium.  The film itself is a montage of imagery – a Mondrian painting, hand-tinted pictures, the mountains of René Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue, a spurting fountain, the Paramount Studio logo, a giant snail, the Turbine Hall, a giant ostrich leg, escalators, pigeons, the sea….  I don’t think the content is the key factor here.  Dean has transformed this end of the Turbine Hall into a cinematic theatre where visitors sprawl across the floor, transfixed by the giant screen.

Tacita Dean’s FILM. Own photograph.

This response to Dean’s FILM reminds me of the climatic landscape that Eliasson’s large sun created in the Turbine Hall when a gigantic, illuminated orange disc was suspended from the ceiling at the far end of the hall.   The Weather Project, was, in actual fact, an illusion; in reality, a semi-circular, fragmentary mirror was hung on the lit ceiling creating the appearance of a full circle.  Visitors became immersed in the piece, lying on the floor of the Turbine Hall for hours in an attempt to find their own reflection in the mass of swarming shapes.  The Eliasson, the Hőller and now the Dean installations have initiated cults; filling the Turbine Hall with people and turning it into a meeting place for social interaction with art, leading to various interpretations of social activism where the pieces are not only sculptures and installations but performances and encounters.

Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project. Image via www.urban75.org.uk

I personally didn’t lie down – still exhausted from last night’s art exhibition at Chinawhite, I was worried I might have fallen asleep.

The Unilever Series 2011 – Tacita Dean: FILM will be in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern until 11th March 2012, www.tate.org.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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