Archives for posts with tag: contemporaryart

The Caged Bird’s Song


This is a magical display. Chris Ofili has created a watercolour which has been woven into a tapestry by Dovecot Tapestry Studio. The tapestry is enormous, a triptych covering a whole wall of the exhibition space, and it’s beautiful. Ofili’s image is rich and bright, reds and oranges bleeding into blues and turquoises and purples. The left and right panels show figures drawing back theatre curtains to show a mythical, watery, tropical scene. A couple sit at the centre of the work underneath a waterfall, him serenading her on a guitar with a still ocean behind them. She’s holding a cocktail glass, into which a nymph or god in a tree pours a sparkling liquid. This heavenly cocktail waiter, it turns out, is Mario Balotelli. The adjacent room shows Ofili’s studies for his watercolour, the most magical of which are those where Balotelli rises from cocktail glasses like a genie robed in smoke. The piece is titled ‘The Caged Bird’s Song’, referring to the first part of the great Maya Angelou’s autobiography. A caged bird is depicted in the right of the work but the whole piece is musical. 


There’s a calmness in the room – I could sit in here for hours, like in the Rothko room at Tate Modern. There’s also a happiness and serenity in the tapestry, as well as a heady tropical expectation in the black storm clouds on the horizon. I’ve never been to Trinidad, where Ofili is based, but there’s a flavour of Caribbean nature in this piece. The couple are under the waterfall, so I doubt the imminent downpour will bother them. The work is so rich, I want to hear the tale of these figures and the myth of this landscape. The medium of tapestry is itself mythical – maybe Arachne wove this. This display doesn’t need a soundscape. You can hear the water through the tapestry. 

Balotelli the genie


From afar, the tapestry looks like a watercolour. The pigments bleed into each other like watered down paint, mixing with the waterfall and the sea. The level of skill in this piece is phenomenal – the weavers have somehow managed to translate water into wool. 

This is a tapestry not a watercolour – how

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The Egyptian influence on Alberto Giacometti’s work featured prominently in this exhibition. Looking through books on Egyptology, Giacometti would copy the photographs, often sketching directly over the printed text. I found these drawings appealing – the mix of photograph, text, and sketch is very aesthetically pleasing. It might seem like Giacometti isn’t treating these books with their due deference – you shouldn’t draw on books amirite – but for me his additions liven up otherwise pretty dead-looking academic tomes. 

Across from the display of books are several of Giacometti’s tall, thin human forms with Egyptian-style heavy bases. This is visually different to the influence apparent in The Head of Isabel (the Egyptian), 1936, a white bust of a woman with heavy, structured hair. The visual link to ancient Egyptian statuary lends a serenity and nobility to the figure of Isabel, but the texture of the sculpture is completely different from his tall thin figures. It’s interesting to see how the Egyptian influence carries into Giacometti’s different styles.

This show is curated and interpreted in a way that opened my eyes to Giacometti’s practice; I now understand the work better and like it more as a result. I guess that’s one of the things that good curation can do. Three Men Walking, 1948, Four Women on a Base, 1950, and other groups of tall, elongated figures, are clustered together like a forest of silver birches. From far away they’re almost indistinguishable from one another, they’re melancholy, they somehow feel like they’re standing in the rain. The interpretation points out that these works reflect the post war melancholia of Europe, and his stretched, sad figures, and paintings in muted greys and browns, make sense to me for the first time. There are some visual links between his work and that of Francis Bacon – there’s a similarity in the brush strokes – but Giacometti’s paintings in subdued tones of grey and brown are much calmer, much sadder than Bacon’s red angry monsters.

A video shows Giacometti in action, making a portrait in paint and a sculpture in clay. This was a beautiful insight into the process of his practice, emphasising the time taken in his process. Many of Giacometti’s sculptures feel very energetic, with figures like Walking Man, 1947, striding purposefully forward, so it’s a surprise to see how slow his sculptural process was. His work is not an immediate creation, there’s a huge amount of labour involved. It’s very unpretentious.  

My favourite piece is Tall Thin Head, 1954, a bronze bust that face on is ridiculously slender, but see it side on and it’s a full, bigger than life-size profile. I saw this, or a similar piece, at Gagosian last summer and I loved it then too. I love the way this uses space and perspective – it becomes a different sculpture from every angle.

The Nose, 1947-9, is another highlight. I like a little bit of gruesome and this is very grim. A tortured looking head with a pointed, Pinocchio nose hangs suspended within an oblong box. The nose is superficially funny, poking out of the confines of the box, but when you notice the twisted, downturned mouth, and the cage-like structure within which the head hangs, it becomes more sinister, like a Grimm punishment for lying. Compared to the melancholy drudgery of his standing groups, The Nose is more harrowing, conveying a pain not present in his other figures. 

This show readjusted my view of Giacometti. I now get why he’s so revered, thanks in part to the curation and interpretation (props to Francis Morris and Catherine Grenier), but thanks mostly to seeing so much of his work in one space. God bless the retrospective.

The opening room places beauty and death at the heart of the American Dream. On the left is Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair, 1971, multiple screen prints of an empty electric chair, rendered in Warhol’s famous colourful style. Opposite is Warhol’s Marilyn, 1967, multiple prints of Marilyn Monroe, in similar scale and colours to Electric Chair. Warhol used press images as the basis for both of these series; the photograph of an electric chair standing in an empty room was taken after the last execution in New York, Marilyn’s photo was a press shot for one of her films.

Facing one another we have the face of American beauty and an iconic representative of death in America. And of course Marilyn killed herself, so death feels like the predominant theme here.

Across the back of the room is Rosenquist’s F-111, a print depicting an F-111 fighter jet, with images of mushroom clouds and of girls having their hair blow dried in a beauty salon. Making yourself beautiful seems futile in the face of the slaughter of the Vietnam War and the threat of nuclear destruction.

This is a pretty bold statement for the first room. Is this the American Dream – execution, war, suicide, with a thin veneer of beauty? These works are nice examples of Pop Art ridiculing and critiquing that which it impersonates.

I wasn’t that hot on Rauschenberg in his retrospective at the Tate Modern, but I liked the pieces from his Stoned Moon series on show in The American Dream. A bifurcated print shows in the lower left Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the sky reaching out above him, and in the top right an American farmer sits in his field, the ground stretching down below him. The split image emphasises the distance and difference between the space program and life in America, but the farmer seems as heroic as the astronaut, he is even placed higher in the image. This is deliverance of sorts from the bleakness of the first room.

I fell a little bit in love with Ed Ruscha’s Standard Station 1966 and Hollywood 1968. The Hollywood sign disappears in an exaggerated perspective, brownish sky and hills create an empty and vast landscape behind. Similarly, a red, white and blue gas station vanishes swiftly in strong perspective, with an orange sunset sky. The gas station, treated in the same way as the Hollywood sign, becomes as quintessentially American. These two works were for me the perfect illustration of Warhol’s quote at the beginning of the exhibition: ‘Everybody has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there…’ Hollywood and Standard Station depict images of my own myth of America (as formulated mostly by Neil Gaiman’s American Gods) – all empty golden sky and endless distance as shown through Ruscha’s use of perspective.


I have a bit of a problem with these enormous blockbuster exhibitions. I begin with over two hours until the museum closes and think this is plenty of time, scrutinising each work as I go along, then by the time I get to room 7 of 12 I only have half an hour left and have to whizz round.

So I had to whizz round the three final rooms. They addressed gender, race, and the AIDS crisis. I can see that placing these issues at the end of the show could drag you back from the sober artiness of all the minimalism/photorealism/art chat of the middle rooms (which were nice enough but they didn’t exactly call to me). There are risks though: a) you’ll be too tired/rushed from the previous 9 rooms and b) it can look smooshed onto the end as a kind of whoops we’d better include some women/POC. Both of these happened. I wasn’t impressed by the compression of women, POC and the LGBTQ community into the smallest rooms of the show after rooms and rooms of white men. But this is the BM and white men predominate blockbuster exhibitions anyway so it isn’t a monumental shock.

Anyway. I mostly came to this show for the promise of Kara Walker, having never seen any of her fantastic political historical silhouettes in real life.

Her No World from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters, 2010, depicts a black woman’s silhouette beneath the ocean, a slave ship held aloft above the waves by a pair of human hands, with a slave owner and slave girl dancing on land. Walker’s work unapologetically addresses America’s history of slavery and racism. The wealth of a slave ship is saved from destruction by the death of a black woman. Her hands could drag the ship beneath the waves, but only the future slaves will drown with her, and the slave owner would still be dancing safely in his plantation.

This is the first point that slavery is addressed in this show ABOUT AMERICA, and it’s in room 11 of 12. Room 1 was pretty blunt in its discussion of death and suicide and the falsity of the notion of the American Dream, but slavery is still somehow too taboo to address properly because it makes the (mostly white and middle class) audience of these blockbuster exhibitions feel uncomfortable. It’s particularly noteworthy that the British Museum, arguably the epitome of the theft of the British Empire, puts slavery as a footnote to the history of America.

I suppose it’s a step in the right direction that gender, sexuality and race are being discussed in such an old school establishment as the BM but it would be better it if these issues were dealt with as an ongoing and central aspect of life, not separate issues of relevance only to minority groups. It was a bit like ‘here is an exhibition of proper art, and also some black art, some queer art and some women’s art’, because these three ‘types’ of art are a) subplots within art as if e.g. women aren’t half the world’s population and b) these artists aren’t proper artists because they deal with their lived experiences life instead of things like the problem of form.

There was some sick pieces on show – I have now seen Warhol’s iconic Marilyn in the flesh – but the layout of the show emphasises the long way still to go for women, POC and queer folk to be appropriately valued in art.

This is a landscape photograph of the Iguazu Falls in Brazil. It’s a colour photo, but the muted grey of the flat water at the top of the image and the whiteness of the spray make it appear black and white. The muted tones belie the rushing activity of the water.

There are three sections in this image: the inverted triangle of falling water in the centre, framed by the spray at the sides of the image and the river and horizon at the top.

The high definition of the photograph picks out these sections in three distinct textures. The unfallen river is glassy and smooth, the spray is a soft, cloudy mist. Where the water pours over the edge, the very top of the waterfall, it has an intricate sculptural quality. The patterns of this central focus point are repeated elsewhere in nature – these shapes could be veins, or the inside of your iris, or a nebula. It’s an impersonal photograph, as I suppose landscapes often are, but in this universal structure there is a unifying quality. This shape could be anywhere in the universe, it could be inside you.

By photographing the waterfall, Tillmans has rendered movement still. Thanks to the camera, we are invited to examine the way the waterfall stands in one moment. It’s a very contemplative image. It captures three very different stages of movement; a seeming calm, a plunging rush downwards, and a soft, gentle rise. 

The power of the waterfall is almost lost in its beauty. Only the boats at the very top edge of the photograph recall the danger of the water, the fragility of the human world. Hung alongside photographs of shiny cars, this photo is a pause from urban life, a moment of meditation on something separate from humans. Without the boats, without Tillmans, Iguazu falls would go on falling. 

17 works by women photographers lent by the National Museum of Women in the Arts reflect the diverse, complex, and often shared experience of women worldwide.

Lying on a bed in a green dress, staring at the viewer with twirled hair styled and placed in a halo around her head, Daniela Rossell’s ‘Medusa’ is a better, more substantial precursor to Kendall Jenner’s most liked instagram pic. There is power here, and vulnerability and intimacy which, shockingly, is not present on Kendall’s gram.
Hellen van Meene’s photographs are like illustrations for a book of fairy tales. The text described them as looking natural but actually planned meticulously. To me they do look painstakingly curated and posed. To me there is nothing natural about the props and scenarios. Each subject seems to have an unclear but definite story – one girl is a bubblegum princess in a tower, another girl dead from a curse, a third girl blows magic dust to cast her spell. In this exhibition on the female body and the female gaze the fairytale element is unsurprising – fairytale women have very definite roles set out for them. Here there is some discussion of how real girls and women feel – bubblegum princess is bored, and the girl clutching the feather heart looks more angry and sad than happily in love.

Nan Goldin’s ‘Self-Portrait in Kimono with Brian, NYC’ has a melancholy intimacy about it. Partially clad on a bed in a rosy dawn or dusk light, this could be a romantic, post-coital scene, but the back to back figures seem to hold something from one another. Their tension and frustration is in contrast to Brian’s upfront sexuality that can be glimpsed in the photograph of him, cigarette dangling from lips, pinned in the top right corner of the work. This is an honest snapshot of a moment in relationship, and an almost universal experience.

It’s always a pleasant relief to see images of women through the eyes of women. Interestingly, there were no nudes in this exhibition – these were women’s and girls’ bodies without the sexualised male gaze. That’s not to say the women depicted were devoid of sexuality, rather that these women are more than simply sexual. There was an intimacy present in many of these photographs; the viewer is often invited into a bedroom, again not so much a sexual as a private place. But there were also grand scenes, such as Marina Abramovic as a peace warrior on a white stallion. Women can be everything, and there was a little bit of everything in these photographs.

Richard Mosse uses weaponry to make art. In this installation, he uses a heat sensing camera made in the UK and sold to militaries worldwide, transforming it into an artistic device to document the biggest worldwide movement of people since the Second World War. The opening scenes of life in a refugee camp have no plot and no real action. The screens blur, judder, and change direction. It’s tense and nauseating, a state of transition but also of stagnation. 

After this you have to walk through the curve in the dark, unable to see where you’re going or who else might be there. It’s immersive, a tiny taste of the fear and uncertainty that millions of people worldwide face as they flee into the unknown. 

You’re then met by a huge three screen video installation. The footage is always changing, you’re never quite certain what you’re seeing. The heat seeking camera reduces everyone to the same colour and renders everyone anonymous. Are the refugees being helped out of boats and into boats being rescued or damned? There are little touches of raw humanity, a smile or a tear, interspersed with footage of war planes in empty skies. Shots of people in life jackets with no shoes are shown against scenes of uniformed and armoured soldiers loading missiles on warships. There is no fairness – the perpetrators are safe, and the victims are vulnerable. 

Then you emerge from the darkness into the easy breezy life of the Barbican, and you’re reminded how safe you are, how different your situation is from that of the refugees you’ve just seen. You feel like you’ve somehow ended up on the side of the perpetrators of this violence. 

This is very serious art. It makes you assess your role in worldwide violence. It’s very relevant today as Assad’s chemical weapons and US missile strikes hit Syria. It makes you uncomfortable, and it should. Incoming forces us to stare the refugee crisis in the face. These people are people and we should not turn them away.

Rachel MacLean’s video and print study of social media and all its darkness is a glorious madness. Emoji-yellow Data presides as queen in a post-apocalyptic world, while her plague ridden devotees wait endlessly for her next upload. Ratty, wire-chewing trolls hack her and literally shit all over her feed. It’s not subtle, and it’s brilliant. 

The video installation was funny, gross, and completely disturbing. The scene where hacked Data masturbates using a touch screen while Scam fists her until she bleeds is a gory but accurate allegory for the self indulgence of the internet and the often unrecognised violence prevalent in online behaviour. 

I’m not sure what the printed images added to the installation, other than behaving like adverts for the film, and ironically they made a great Instagram snap. They fitted well but I can’t yet put my finger on why. 

The juvenile and sterile colour scheme of pink, yellow and blue lent an additional discomfort to the whole room – painted like a nursery, but with a sign outside warning parents not to bring their children inside. 

Video and edited photography are the perfect media to explore the phenomena of social media. The sickly brightness and a Disney-esque song sequence fit perfectly around the reference to the sinister, dark side to social media underneath all the airbrushed perfection. The artificial sweetness of the installation made it more palatable; it was bleak but funny. It didn’t offer any solutions – and why should it – but it was a clever addition to the contemporary debate around the safety and trajectory of the internet, while being a jokes way to spend a Saturday afternoon. 

This event was mad educational. I’m not particularly hot on my art history, but this 2010 film highlights how pretty much nobody is hot on women’s art history, and how women’s art is consistently undervalued and under-documented.

The At one point in the film, pundits outside an art gallery were asked to name 3 women artists. One of them managed to name Frida Kahlo, and everyone else drew a blank. A succinct summary of the state of affairs. 

Artist Sarah Turner’s introductory talk raised an interesting argument about the difference between women’s and men’s art during the feminist movement. Turner argues that female artists were outward looking, their art consistently relevant to and fighting against the real life conditions of the day, whereas male artists were concerned with their own legacy. She described this as women’s art being about content as much as form. This necessary outward engagement is the reason that for years there was a black hole in art history where there should have been women. White male artists’ privilege allowed them to focus on themselves and on art itself to ensure their own place in art history – they didn’t have to spend their time fighting for their bodies and their rights. Women had to address the real world in their art because the real world was treating them like shit.

I learnt so much about women artists and the feminist movement from this evening. The film discussed the art of Ana Mendieta, exiled Cuban American artist, whose work dealt with the body, feminism, and displacement. I had never heard of her. She fell to her death from a 34th story window, with her artist husband, Carl Andre, accused (and acquitted) of her murder. Her art was used by Andre’s defence as evidence that her death had been suicide. 

Liv Wynter, poet and representative of WHEREISANAMENDIETA, gave an enlightening and inspiring introductory talk. I got all fired up about her work making art available to everyone – she works with youth groups, reenacting performance works performed by Ana Mendieta, who herself had been reenacting another artist’s performance. There’s some beautiful rebirth in this.

!WAR does not shy away from the conflict within the feminist movement. There are tales of Judy Chicago making other women cry. B Ruby Rich is visibly and verbally angry at the Guerilla Girls’ lack of response to Ana Mendieta’s murder. The film shows that the feminist art movement was the most important art movement in the 20th century, but failed to solve the problems it raised. So it is down to female artists now to continue the fight. 

As I say, I learnt loads watching this. I would have liked to see more discussion of the role that race and sexuality played in the feminist art movement. Introductions by Club de Femmes mentioned queerness but it wasn’t raised at all in the film, and I think only two artists discussed their race, and that was briefly. From an intersectional perspective this film was missing those key elements. 

I feel like I have a whole side of art history to learn.