Archives for posts with tag: exhibition

I was early to meet a friend for this little art trip, so I lurked in the bookshop. I picked up a copy of Matt Houlbrook’s ‘Queer London’. The blurb contained the following line:

He also describes how London shaped the politics of queer life; and how London was in turn shaped by the lives of queer men.

Queer men, everyone. Not queer people, or the queer community, you’ll notice. This level of erasure of queer women (hello) and non-binary folk did not instil me with great hopes for the exhibition. I was livid before I’d even got through the door.

So I went in thinking it’d be a bit shit and fall short of what the British Queer community deserve. Tate seems to be aware of how easy it is to mess up shows like this. The wall text set out a lot of boundaries and caveats – the show looks at the specific time period 1861 – 1967, the dates of the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy and the partial decriminalisation of sex between men respectively. These dates don’t refer to gay women and it was highlighted throughout the show that gay women were largely ignored by the law. This isn’t the Tate’s fault, obviously, but it irks me nonetheless. The text did contain this nice little phrase ‘this is a history punctuated by bonfires and dustbins’, which succinctly encapsulates the violence experienced by the queer community throughout history. But they’ve also claimed that there is ‘little surviving material’ for some aspects of queer life, which increased my apprehension about whose perspectives the show would platform.

Simeon Solomon’s ‘The Bride, the Bridegroom and Sad Love’ 1865

Like queer history, the show focuses mostly on gay men. Tate did well to try to show a diverse view of queer identities, including two lovers identifying as one person, and various relationships of three people or more. But it is largely a show about white cis gay men.
Diversity of experience aside, the multiplicity of feeling in queer life is shown well. Aubrey Beardsley’s uproarious, erotic and high lols drawings depicts men with massive cocks literally bigger than them. Homoeroticism, sex and humour are at the forefront of these images. Compare these to Simeon Solomon’s The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love, a devastating drawing showing the heartbreak of a homosexual entering into a heterosexual marriage, and leaving behind former lovers. There’s a richness of sexuality and emotion in the works on show.

Aubrey Beardsley ‘The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors’ 1896

Rooms 3 & 4 are nicely juxtaposed, showing two opposite sides of queerness living side by side. ‘Theatrical types’ in room 4 showcases the camp and the glam of queerness, our love of feathers and tiaras, how the theatrical arena has long been a safe space for queer people. This room, with its costumes and photographs of Vaudeville cross dressing stars, is the art historical equivalent of Pride and Drag Race.

Leaving behind the glitz and glamour, the next room, ‘Bloomsbury and Beyond’, is filled largely with images of domesticity, of afternoon tea and vases of flowers. Ethel Sands’ Tea with Sickert shows a warm domestic scene with the table laid for tea, and is hardly an explicit or erotic depiction of homosexuality. Here is the deeply mundane, sheer normality of queer life. In the words of comedian Susan Calman, it’s not all sex swings and dildos.

Ethel Sands’ ‘Tea with Sickert’ 1911-12

A blockbuster show of Queer Art in a major institution is quite something. Undoubtedly it demonstrates the relatively new openness that surrounds the LGBT+ community, and is something to be celebrated as a mark of ‘how far we’ve come’. It’s also easy to get wrong. Tate has managed OK, there are numerous portrayals of non gay-cis-white-male aspects of queerness, and Tate has addressed some shortfallings directly, such as pointing out Edward Wolfe’s racist exoticisation of his black male models, but failed entirely to reference any gay women of colour. Filling the last room with Hockney and Bacon underlined the prominence of white cis gay artists on the queer art scene. Perhaps this is why I found the show a bit dull. If the remit of the show extended past 1967 maybe Tate would not be able to hide behind history as a reason for omitting aspects of queer life.

 

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

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.

I first saw this exhibition drunk and I loved it and had to go back. I imagine I’ll be going again.

Kwade’s installation is like an eery sci-fi museum. The room is dark, and the pillars in the space create shadows, turned into places to hide behind.

Around the space are placed three bronze sculptures on plinths. They’re somewhere between figurative and abstract – they could be objects from space, they could be melted bones. One looks like a figure in a shroud. They are still and they seem to be watching you. 

The exhibition backdrop is a screen showing an asymmetrical mass floating and turning on a background of TV static. I thought it was a comet, and it reminded me that analog TV static is an echo of the Big Bang (this is legit: https://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/starsgalaxies/cobe_background.html). The whole room was very other-worldly.

The central installation is a mobile of mobile phones (I absolutely lapped this up). A motorised hanging installation of GPS tracked smartphones show images of the Milky Way. As they spin and rotate, the images change to show the part of the galaxy which the phone is currently facing. All the while a mechanised female voice reads excerpts from the book of Genesis. From where I stand, this is genius. 

The Copernicus-esque image used on the media for this exhibition doesn’t actually feature within the space, but it fits very well. The exhibition text asserts the importance of mapping and location within the universe. It’s also an interpretation of humankind’s constant endeavour to understand their metaphorical place in the universe. Kwade uses advanced modern technology to display highly scientific images all with a biblical soundscape. There are both religious and scientific ways to understand our place as humans, and Kwade’s work suggests that the two are not incompatible.