Posts Tagged ‘exhibition’

It is better to be beautiful than to be good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly.

–         Great words from a great man.

Holding back from writing a blog comprised entirely of Oscar Wilde quotations (very tempting), I’m going to sidestep towards an upcoming show to raise a few questions. The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement in Britain 1860-1900 at the V & A is going to delve into an unexpectedly unconventional ethos. Art For Art’s Sake? Or Art For Beauty’s Sake? The latter, I feel, would be the case in point here. Under the figureheads of such artists and creatives as Gabriel Dante Rossetti, William Morris and, of course, poster boy Oscar Wilde, beauty became fashionable in the high Victorian period. Sounds obvious, and not exactly newsworthy, but the late 19th Century really was a high point for vice over virtue. It would be wrong to say that opulence was a completely new thing – just look at the Elizabethan or Medieval periods for proof – but it was used for a different purpose, that is, no purpose. Before the Victorians, decadence was often a glorification of the religious and spiritual, in iconography, ceremonies or lavish cathedrals. Decadence in the high Victorian era – not only in fashion and jewellery but also architecture and interiors – overshadowed the grim reality of life just simply because. As the V& A exhibition will showcase, there was no place in the Aesthetic Movement for any lowly chimney sweep or maid. This was a time for the house proud to let rip, and indulge in the fanciest designs in town. Before our times of rebellion and idiosyncrasy – our Raindance Film Festivals, Edinburgh Festival Fringes, Anti Design Festivals…. – let us not forget that there was a time when  perfection was everything.

But let the porcelain skin and rosebud lips not fool you – there’s a big HOWEVER here. Two words: Dorian Gray. It’s often noted that the death of Oscar Wilde was the death of the Aesthetic Movement. True, to a certain extent. But surely anyone who reads Wilde will know his distrust of surface beauty? Quotations from his novels, short stories, essays and articles are everywhere, and we all love them:

“A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.”

“All art is quite useless.”

“Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.”

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

“I can resist everything except temptation.”

….and yes, I could go on. The point is, when we read them, we have a little chuckle to ourselves. Because they’re ironic comments on society’s ridiculousness. You’re not supposed to take them at face value. Oscar Wilde’s tragedy was his obsession with a decadence which he very well knew was full of vice. He wrote about it again and again.

Let me tell you, in brief, the story of The Young King:

Once upon a time, there was a Young King. A veritable Adonis in appearance, nothing pleased him more than to simply gaze – at his own appearance in the looking glass, his coronation robe of tissued gold, his ruby-encrusted crown, his rich tapestries representing the Triumph of Beauty….and then back again to his reflection, the polished mirror held up by a laughing Narcissus made of green bronze. One night, following his coronation, the Young King had a dream. He came, in his dream, upon three scenes: a pearl diver, killed by exhaustion as he returns on the ship with the pearl for his own sceptre; gaunt weavers with sunken cheeks, at the looms in a darkened room, working on his own golden robe; hoards of men searching for rubies for his own crown, while Death and Avarice watch over. When the Young King awoke, and his servants prepare to put his robe on his back, he refused, remembering his dream. And the courtiers were amazed, and some of them laughed, for they thought that he was jesting. “There is Blood in the heart of the ruby, and Death in the heart of the pearl,” he said…..this is Wilde’s own commentary, his thoughts despite his contrary lifestyle choices.

And then, of course, there’s Dorian Gray, who sold his soul, and every bit of good in him, for everlasting youth and beauty. We know what happened next.

So it’s interesting to think of beauty in art. Oscar Wilde, in the height of the Aesthetic Movement, expressed (often ruefully) how “All art is quite useless,” because all art, in their eyes, should be beautiful and only beautiful. Nowadays, we’re supposed to engage in art beyond its surface impression – look into the concept behind, experience the process, question it and let it make us question ourselves. Beauty is pretty much bottom in the pecking order in the list of priorities. Strangely, anything ‘beautiful’ now is labelled craft, and often thought lesser because of it. Now, we prefer ugly. One example: the 2009 Turner Prize winner, a gorgeous gilt decorative wall by Richard Wright, intricately patterned in traditional and decadent style. People were mildly surprised – and why? Because it was so beautiful they couldn’t imagine it could possibly have sufficient conceptual depth to be a Turner Prize winner. In-keeping with the Wildean ethos, beautiful and good became, for a moment, mutually exclusive – they (the Victorian Aesthetes) chose the beauty (“It is better to be beautiful than to be good….”)….I guess we like to think we choose the good. And to prove this point further, we also like to value ugliness.

This October, for example, The Future Can Wait, an edgy alternative to Frieze, will be taking place in the eerie basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, in trendy East London. Its disturbing works, from performance and video to site specific installation and painting, all share a definitively un-pretty aesthetic. The grotesque and the sinister, dispelling the glossy allure of the traditional art fair, all come to the forefront in this year’s line-up of 30 artists, including The Future Can Wait stalwarts Tessa Farmer, Sam and Luke Jackson, Gavin Nolan and John Stark, as well as newcomers Dale Adcock, James Howard, Jasper Joffe, Nika Neelova and Wendy Mayer. Check it out for a taste of something different this Autumn.

Over in Piccadilly, the ominous and eerie will again reign supreme in Maurizio Anzeri’s exhibition The Garden Party, which will be set in Q, a new gallery space converted from an old-fashioned bookshop, dusty shelves in tact. Maurizio’s sculptures, made of synthetic hair, are menacing yet weirdly alluring, creating the kind of garden party to have the Victorian Aesthetes up in arms.

If the creatives of the late 19th Century were the Cult of Beauty, what does that make us now? The Cult of Ugly? Does that make us more ethical human beings? I fear not. Though an unshakable fan of Oscar Wilde and all his writings (well, most), there is one thing I have to disagree with him on: beauty and morality are not mutually exclusive. Neither are ugliness and sin. Nor are sin and morality, even. I’m afraid you just have to look past the surface, and, sometimes, step out of your comfort zone. Never judge a book by its cover, and never judge an artwork by its exterior. Even if it’s an ugly one.


Lady Lileth, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Picture of Dorian Gray

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (c) Stark

(c) Maurizio Anzeri


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Curiouser and curiouser…..as I type, I am looking around my desk for things that are no larger than my head. Not for the purpose of some brain-circumference-related ego boost, I assure you – I’ve got something much better lined up.

Between the 12th and the 19th October this year (most probably the 12th – I’m really very excited about this one), I’ll be heading down to the Wellcome Collection with my ‘thing.’ Artist Keith Wilson, creating and anthropology of the here and now, is inviting the public (that’s you) to donate an object (any object, rare or mundane, as long as it’s 1) no bigger than your head, 2) not wet, 3) not explosive and 4) not containing any human remains) to be part of a temporary exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, titled, aptly, Things.

It has to be said, collectors can get a bad name – across the spectrum from stamps and miniature eggs to McDonalds toys and Spice Girls memorabilia, there’s an assumed owner behind the scenes….one who is weirdly obsessive and unnervingly introvert. But there’s a different kind of obsession that Keith Wilson talks about in conjunction with this exhibition – a fixation with other people’s things. This isn’t some form of kleptomania, but instead an intrigue concerning stories, connotations, and links between an object and a thought, and what happens once an object is taken out of its natural context. If I take this beautiful cup and saucer in front of me, which is filled with wax and made into a candle, from my desk and give it to be placed in the Wellcome Collection, it could be put in a glass case beside a trainer, a ring, or a book on English hedgerows. Who’s to say where that teacup came from, or why it became a candle? It will be removed from its contextual anchor and completely reconsidered, most probably inaccurately, but that’s no bad thing in this case.

When contributors come and deposit their chosen object, behind the scenes each object will be catalogued, photographed and labelled, allocated a specific date out of 365 days in 2011 and placed on public display in a system of metal shelving and museum display cabinets. On the 19th October, people can reclaim their loaned objects or leave them as gifts. Those objects that have been gifted, rather than loaned, will be kept by the artist, and may become part of a future artwork, ‘Calendar’, to be shown as part of The British Art Show in 2011.

Things is a pioneering project reflecting Henry Wellcome’s own position as an entrepreneur, philanthropist and compulsive collector, and it’s something everyone – and (almost) everything – can be part of. I can think of only one question: why not?

Top image: Periodic Table (c) Keith Wilson

Bottom image: Skull Mask, Bhutan (c) Rama Knight (from the Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Man gallery)

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Photography’s arrival originally meant that the privilege of having your portrait painting was no longer reserved for the commissioning nobility. It was all about reporting simple fact. But the rapid popularisation of photography to capture life had two significant implications. The first relates to the art of painting, which, beaten in speed and price by the photograph, turned to conceptual abstraction and symbolists, in movements spearheaded by the likes of Monet and Seurat, and then Picasso and Braque. The second relates to photography itself, as we see in the Tate Modern’s major summer show this year, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. What the camera could do which painting could not was capture a moment instantly, and discreetly – the photographer was driven, then, to explore this difference, and expand it. This makes for some intriguing voyeurism. Featuring snapshots from all walks of life, from the iconic to the anonymous, the exhibition reveals how there really can be no way of escaping the watching eye – or at least the camera in front of it.

One thing to note is that the show is, well, pretty huge. Sprawling through 14 rooms, it needs a good morning or afternoon to fully absorb. Adding to this is the fact that the pictures are in general small, often tiny. It’s not exactly a one-painting-per-wall situation – it’s a visual archive.

Often the unavoidable case with large exhibitions, the pigeon-holing of images into rooms, with names like “The Unseen Photographer,” “Voyeurism and Desire” and “Celebrity and the Public Gaze” seemed a little forced. But it did serve to draw attention to the question of the purpose of the image. The issue of the show is largely whether what is really photojournalism, or the handiwork of paparazzi, can be seen as art. In its fundamental intentions to adorn front pages perhaps not. The images of Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Burton taken by Felice Quinto, hailed as the world’s first paparazzo, were hardly “intentional art,” just as those of Princess Diana on holiday with Dodi Al Fayed prior to their deaths were not. But as a comment on today’s society – its unshakable concern with celebrity, spectatorship, surveillance and voyeurism (why else would there be a need for Heat, Hello or OK?) – is the purely documentary transformed into art? A photo may not have been born as art, but it may be transcribed as art – which probably says a lot more about us, now, than them, then. It’s rare to find a contemporary artist these days who is not making a statement, however subtle or restrained – that is what the market calls for.

Some of the comments made through Tate Modern’s show are shocking – lurid scenes captured by Mitch Epstein and Yoshiyuki come to the forefront, alongside Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows series and Jordan Crandall’s unnerving film art.  The guilty pleasure of celeb-watching, demonstrated in images of stars from Marilyn Monroe in that famous white dress to a tearful Paris Hilton on her way to court, is extended to include a strange intrigue into gritty reportage. A man about to leap from a building, the same man mid-fall, the view of an execution chamber from the family viewing room, a woman being simultaneously groped by four men, a teenaged boy snorting drugs from a dirty bathroom….it’s all there, shot, framed and put on display for the viewing public until October. You may need a few trips to take it all in.

Having said that, there were some real gems that stood out. Among the Henri Cartier Bressons, Helmut Newtons, Man Rays, Lee Millers, Walker Evanses and Robert Franks (the exhibition does seem to cover everything it should cover) are new and fresh images by contemporary photographers printing on larger scales and using imaginative methods. In the first room, Walker Evans’s Subway Passengers, taken of unsuspecting subjects on the New York underground in the 1930s, are juxtaposed with Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads, photographed in the same city 70 years later, and yet blown up into adversely vast proportions. Here comes an interesting fact: when one of diCorcia’s unwitting subjects took legal action against the photographer, a landmark ruling came down, asserting the precedence of the artist’s right to self-expression over the subject’s right to their own image. In essence, the image was literally ‘captured’ – trapped and no longer belonging to its original owner. As did the widespread support of the I’m a Photographer not a Terrorist! campaign and the gathering in Trafalgar Square, this ruling was yet another sign of public re-evaluation of photography, now widely considered a legitimate art form.

Another contemporary piece, Oliver Lutz’s installation piece The Lynching of Leo Frank, was one of exhibition highlights, implicating the viewer not simply as spectator, but as part of the scene. Positioned within the frame, we are forced to imagine ourselves as part of the throng witnessing the 1915 hanging of Leo Frank, a Jewish man accused of murder but now regarded innocent. The work reminded me of another young artist, Reynir Hutber, whose Catlin Art Prize winning piece, Stay Behind the Line (a piece of video/performance art using looped video footage) allows the viewer to engage with a curled up figure in the room, when in fact the installation space is empty. Similarly in Lutz’s piece at Exposed, the encounter (determined by the audience’s interaction) prompts the question of responsibility – what part do we really play as the spectator?

In my eyes, this was one of two stars in the show. The other was the Minox Model B from 1958, a miniature camera in a size comparable to the niftiest designs today. This was something to wonder at, as were the old Leicas and Kodaks, glistening authoritatively in their weighty metal casing. Other artefacts from the 40s and 50s included mens shoes hiding cameras in their heels and miniature cameras designed to fit inside walking sticks and shirt pockets. Very James Bond. If James Bond were a photographer.

I could go on and on for hours – so you really should go see it. There will be things that excite, intrigue and offend, that cross lines of privacy and propriety. The images will provoke you and prompt you to think – which is what, after all, if we are to call photography a contemporary art, it should do.

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Somewhere between asleep and awake, in the moments where story time ends and dreams crystallise…..that is where you will find the worlds of Anni Leppälä and Susanna Majuri. Apparently everything Nordic is in Vogue these days- de rigeur, a la mode – but these images defy trends.

Both women, recent graduates from the prestigious Helsinki School of Art and Design, have been causing a stir with their thoughtful and provoking photographic narratives. Leppälä has just been voted Artist of the Year in Finland; Majuri was winner of the Gras Savoye Award at Les Recontres d’Arles in 2005. Both are currently on display at Purdy Hicks Gallery at Bankside, and I really do think you should all go and see the exhibition. I don’t often get this carried away.

As much as I try to find some suitably abrupt truism to fit the images, it’s Majuri who puts it best: “I want to narrate feelings like in novels.” Not meaning to bracket the two artists together- their processes and theologies are quite different –this is one thought where they agree.

By capturing the moment, and by interrogating it, Anni Leppälä’s work exposes what is lost by the photograph: moments, those precise objects meaning to be preserved. Stilling time, she explores the relationship between the past and the present, often using children as her subject to convey what are both temporal instances and potential geneses of stories. In Reading (2010), the girl’s red hair covering her face as she reads allows the viewer to question – what is she reading, what is her expression, and what is she thinking? The same goes in Light (2009) and Yearly Growth (2009).

When I look at Susanna Majuri’s work, it’s a little less playful, a little more muted. Something unnerving hits deeper than the impression its characters give out through the pre-Raphaelite poses, the pseudo-Victorian dress and the Classical settings. Yes, on the face of it, I see the drenched florals of a girl’s dress in Vesiputous (Waterfall) (2009) as a reminder of J.W. Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott and even more so John Everett Millias’ Ophelia. But what strikes within is somewhere in-between that feeling you get in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (click here if you haven’t read it, though you really shouldn’t ruin the ending for yourself) and the one surrounding Cathy’s final moments of madness in Wuthering Heights. Little Father Time and Wuthering (“Withering”) Heights seem aptly named in this context. Even figures embracing together under the pools seem dissolved in utter isolation. The painterly light Majuri sheds on her subjects is at once tranquilising and disturbing, her figures ethereal yet completely suffocated.

Side-by-side, there is a juxtaposition between the works of the two artists which can be understood in reading their statements for the Helsinki School:

Majuri: “I throw myself into a fictive reality in the shootings. My heart beats wildly when I can feel the presence of surprises.”

Leppälä: “…when you try to conserve or protect a moment by stopping it, by photographing it, you inevitably lose it at the same time.”

And yet the final lines of each sing a similar hymn:

Majuri: “The language is a map and draws around us, unknown and familiar. I believe in a single image. It breaths strong.”

Leppälä: “How to stop a feeling, a memory? By binding it to visible objects, facades of material things, attaching it to a room’s walls, the surface of photographs. Like translucent skin with unforeseen memories beneath.” Here you can see what they both find so exciting in the stillness: the possibility of a narrative, which speaks directly to the viewer.

Finding a link in their faceless subjects – Leppälä’s children shrouding their faces with thick red hair, hands, ears of wheat; Majuri’s figures stilled beneath rushing waters – both interrogate the moment. What is found is both loss and promise.

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At 6:30pm (approximately), a male nude walks through the crowd. Champagne sippers replenish their glasses once more and gather as the artist approaches the stage.

Other Criteria, on Charing Cross Road, was the scene last night for the launch of Fiona Banner’s new book, Performance Nude– and the accompanying ‘performance.’

For half an hour, the model stands in one corner of the platform as the artist applies her candid observations to the surface. But the marks on the dividing plane do not make up your ordinary sort of life drawing. The marks are letters, the figures are words, the sentences, flowing, all culminate in a narrative that is (at times) almost poetic:

“Floor slightly scuffed, feet turned out, toes red…” she begins, as instinct dictates the narrative chain.

As the story progresses, and as she bends lower, eventually kneeling with her neck curved down, it becomes a humorous take on the conventional depiction of figurative gestures:

“…bollocks rest dark in shadow, scribble of pubes, and cock, quiet at the tip, blinking a shadow onto his hairy thigh….”

That said (and novelty aside), it’s hard to watch without that niggling thought rearing its ugly head: is this really art? Without the artist’s oeuvre constantly in the forefront it’s hard to see the display’s artistic merit. Anyone to come without knowledge of Banner’s previous achievements would leave very confused indeed. Her past projects have included sculpture, drawing, performance and film, and since the early ’90s her focus has not strayed far from the tension between private, internal worlds and public spheres. Language- Banner’s “word-scapes”- has remained through this the chosen device. The written word poses problems, but also presents possibilities.

The experience of the show was, on the whole, underwhelming. Perhaps this was because I was caught in a corner at the front- a great view of the artist at work, but with the nude completely blocked by the board. Then again, perhaps this was beneficial in terms of the work’s intentions- I was witness only to the artist’s translation. Was this the real performance?

Performance Nude may not inspire, but Fiona Banner’s Duveens commission at the Tate Britain, to be unveiled on the 28th June, hopefully will. Between you and me, a little birdie has sung high praises of the future installation…

….but that’s another spectacle (and another blog) that you’ll just have to hold out for.

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Alright, so there is no Ode. I am just feeling more poetic in anticipation of the long-awaited Sun. With the Spring in my (no longer booted) step, I have rediscovered an appreciation for the fun, funny, and downright silly. Art and design at its most light-hearted (“light-arted,” you could call it). Here a few from the last few days:

Jessica Atkinson’s ‘Lonely Glasses’ have not yet been swept up by highstreet stockists, but they ought to be. By Summer-time, you mark my words, everyone will be donning a pair.

Little People is a tiny street art blog.

“Little people, left in London to fend for themselves.”

How cruel, and yet how wonderful!

My favourite is the little man sailing in the milk puddle-

I would like to put him in my pocket:

Urban Screen’s 555 Kubik at the Hamburger Kunsthalle takes on the title, “How would it be, if a house was dreaming?” Dissolving the strict architecture, the story is re-narrated through the aesthetics of graphics and movement. The building beats and breaths, musing on itself and drawing you into its self-perception. Check. It. Out.



If you are really after a poem, here is one of my favourites, by one of my favourites. Frank O’Hara brought a refreshing spontaneity to poetry to a culture bogged down by the staid Modernism of T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings and Ezra Pound. O’Hara made moving verse out of the conversational or delirious at once.

A True Account Of Talking To The Sun At Fire Island

by Frank O’Hara

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Waiting for Ackermann

Coming in from the cold into a White Cube opening night had my head in a whirl already. Then there were the paintings. Some of them looked like they were spinning- but was that just the brain-freeze?

No. There were wheels. On the floor and on the wall. Spinning in all their neon glory. Franz Ackerman- a regular feature in trendy art fairs and a Saatchi favourite- is an artist more admired (and often grudgingly so) than actually enjoyed. You see, like an alternative rock band touring the unis, it would be ‘uncool’ not to like it. Even if it does give you a bit of a headache.

Ackerman’s latest show, Wait, at White Cube in Mason’s Yard, welcomed me (or not) with a geometric precision countered uncomfortably by off-kilter, clashing bolds. It was dizzying to say the least. I was either drunk or hungover. Or both all at once.

In the ground floor space, met by a large painting, Citizen, I was stared down by a goggle-faced pilot. He seemed to be the disembodied guard of the entire floor. He made me feel unstable- under observation and yet not knowing what to observe myself. This is a feeling that sets the tone for the whole show, which offers you, at every turn, shifting focal points, all competing for your attention. As I found out afterwards, the space itself had been painted to complement both the paintings and the moving installations. The whole experience is, then, immersive and completely- intentionally- overwhelming.

Upstairs, surrounded by these goliath canvases, you find yourself caught in one of those modern-art-moments where figures and objects elude you. You are subconsciously searching for- and really hoping for– a tangible subject.

In this state was I drawn to the video: a scythe-bearing skeleton is being turned in front of me on a block, before the scene shifts to that of a train moving behind a metal grill fence interlaced with padlocks. Hypnotising, but only for a moment.

Because yet again, of course, I am called back to my peripheral vision, where a round, flat platform lies in the centre of the room, painted in neon and piled high with pieces of timber. And it’s spinning. Covered in shapes that seem at the same time both mechanically interlocked and organic, Ackerman’s divisions prove both formal and thematic. As Ackerman alludes to architecture and engineering, and from the urban to the wild, the brains behind the seeming madness become a little clearer. A space is created in which his themes of globalisation, travel, and the crossing of borders becomes manifest. Within this, the internal dialogue of each painting address the rift between the glamour and scarring associated with global cosmopolitanism.

Downstairs, there is the same eerie mix of flat, bold, geometric shape and shaky depth. But I had a little more room to breathe. The canvases were not so packed as to prevent me from seeing them. I could almost appreciate the photography and collage interwoven among the (neon- of course) paint.

In the lower ground floor lobby, there is one painting, Crossing 1, which stands separate. Here, in a quiet corner, you can experience the work alone. You might even get lost in it. If the rest of the exhibition could be like this I am certain I would have enjoyed it more. If you could remove the masses for one moment, please, Mr Security Man, that would be much appreciated.

Why the exhibition is called Wait I’m still trying to figure out. Had I stayed longer, would this visual abundance- or overload- have crystallised into some simple clarity? As I consider this, even now as I try to give you some kind of rounded conclusion, I find it even harder. In one sense, it would be easy to box Ackermann’s work into the ‘altermodern.’ Yes, it is concerned with travel, globalisation, and the crossing of boundaries – so in that way (if only to make it easy for us to categorise it) it typifies altermodernity. In another, however, I feel that Ackerman’s work does not just bear the theme of travel as a hallmark. It really forces itself upon you. When you stand in front of a piece, dizzied by the push and pull of the colour and geometry, you are drawn here and there, drawn in and repelled all at once. The only solid ground you can be sure of exists in the uncertainty: there is no solid ground.

Order from chaos?

…or just chaos?

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