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Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

You could almost miss it – a small house-like structure, whitish-grey under a pale January sun, like a shy guest in Tate Britain’s front yard. Rachel Whiteread’s Chicken Shed (2017) is one of the many outdoor structures which the British sculptor has chosen to cast from the inside out – recording its absence rather than its presence, making it a ghost of its former self. She calls these works from this recent series “shy sculptures” – usually located in remote landscapes that are far less accessible than a museum in Pimlico – an endearing term that gives them a personality and life while also establishing their relationship witin a space. There is a paradox in showing a “shy” sculpture in the gardens of Tate Britain, as an opening note to a major retrospective of Rachel Whiteread’s works. Yet, in many ways that is precisely the point – showing the way in which a shy idea, a shy presence (or absence) can create a quiet murmur in our head, calmly question and make us reassess our relationship to objects, their presence and the way they relate to our own memories.

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Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Yellow Torso), 1991, Private collection (c) Rachel Whiteread

Curated by Ann Gallagher, Linsey Young, Helen Delaney and Hattie Spires, the retrospective exhibition is a testimony to the power of a single idea to be broken down and turned up on its head…or in this case, inside out. Starting with early domestic experiments in the late 80s, the artist’s fascination with the nature of the plaster cast is established from the very beginning is established ; so is her obsession with casting not the presence of an object but filling in its negative spaces. Her takeover of domestic objects and those she finds in junk shops or on the streets soon expands to take over a variety of materials such as resin and rubber. The power of such a simple but perfected experimentation is shown with series such as the Torsos series. Aluminium, wax, concrete or rubber poured into a “torso-like” structure are laid bare in their cast final form. It feels very weird to say that you spent twenty minutes in front of the casts of the insides of water bottles or enemas (yes, enemas) but…somehow it works. There is something immediately attracting and satisfying about the way these structures play off each other with their change in colour and texture while retaining the same basic shape, one that Whiteread has described as resembling “headless, limbless babies”. In any other body of work (pun intended), that would be ideal nightmare fuel, yet Whiteread makes it work and throughout the display manages to create this visual tension between the material used, the industrial processes of filling and destroying and the organic elements it reminds us of. An obsession with the material to convey the body but also its immateriality, its absence, its ghost.

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Rachel Whiteread, Stairs, 1995, Private collection (c) Rachel Whiteread 

Whiteread’s works on paper provide a rare insight in the way in which these sculptures take shape, showing her dissection of the structures whose presence we take for granted : houses, staircases. As a response to these small sketches, two monumental results : Untitled (Room 101) (2003) and Untitled (Stairs) (2001), both white, hollowed out fragments of two fragments of literature and history. The first is the cast of a room of BBC’s Broadcasting House in which Orwell was said to have found inspiration for the Room 101 in 1984. The second is a cast of the stairs of an East London warehouse repurposed into an old synagogue in which she moved her studio. One immortalises the legacy of a room on modern literature, the other the life of a building reflecting the life of London itself, made of repurposing and transformation. The monumental is contrasted with the minimal – in the case of a small selection of composition presented on neat shelves, small still life composition cast from mundane objects like loo rolls. Here shape counts as much as colour coordination, a rare splash of colours together in a room of plaster whites and green and pinkish resins. In a display that at first sight looks so polished and neat, ghosts and remnants of memories abound and surround the objects. The cast boxes in a corner may seem like another formal experiment ; yet they indicate a childhood spent moving around, box to box. The power of everyday objects to convey memory and make us reflect upon the spaces we live in – and how we live within them – is never drowned out by the monumental sculptures around. Among these is an arresting fragment of the process behind the public commission of the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna (2000) – a cast of books in a library, a library that cannot be opened or perused, walled into silence and commemoration.

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Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Stairs), 2001, Tate (c) Rachel Whiteread, Photo (c) Tate (John Humphrys)

While the plan indicates a loose chronological narrative which can be experienced counter-clockwise, the immense room breaks down any notion of chronology and fragmentation in its very format. Its layout without walls or partitions means visitors are left to wander around, either free to follow a loose sense of chronological order around the room, abandon it halfway through or ignore it entirely, creating erratic patterns that lose the obsession with a timeline or “progression.” The curators and designers of the exhibition may have anticipated the way in which Whiteread’s works creates latent ripple effects that often produce their first effect after you have wandered away ; you feel compelled to return, look closer, look again. You also probably want to bite into some of the resin. I’m sorry, but we were probably all thinking it, especially with sculptures as mouth-watering and beautifully executed as Hive (2007-8) below. One of the highlights of the exhibition was actually to see it work on so many levels, with many children within the space taking full advantage of this experience of sculpture conveying so many different sensory impressions and recollections. Touching with the eyes is a passé expression, but it works here, for a series of works which feels so sensuous and tactile at times. For a popular and crowded exhibition which did actively welcome such a free pattern of wandering around, it never felt claustrophobic – proof that the response to the increasing popularity of museums is not to limit entry or hike up fees, as some have unconvincingly argued lately, but to adapt your exhibition design accordingly. As people took the time to sit on the vast bench at the centre of the room, rest and talk amongst themselves within the vast negative spaces between works engaging with that very idea, and as the space became visibly more accessible to people with pushchairs or wheelchairs, the experience felt a lot more restful than it usually does, without the sensation of being shepherded through a succession of corridor-like rooms on to the next decade, and the next, and the next.

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Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Hive), 2007-8, private collection (c) Rachel Whiteread

Furthermore, this could not be more fitting for a body of work which many have often qualified as repetitive, but which, in the artist’s books, is intentionally embracing this by responding to an issue whose variations and possibilities are endless. The white room does literally respond to the idea of an impersonal white cube, but in this case it beautifully fits the very spirit around which Whiteread’s work finds its sources of inspiration : an immaculate shell encompassing upside-down casts, fascinating and unearthly in their pristine nature. Yet in some ways this could be seen as an issue : too white, too clean and too polished in contrast with the artist’s process and her sources of inspiration rooted in a very real, dirty, organic world. The elements of this inspiration and process can be found outside the ticketed entry to the exhibition space, in an interesting corridor display that displays a collection of eccentric found objects. It feels odds to have such a strict seperation of these in contrast with the finished work inside  and it would have been interesting to compromise with a few more sculptures on display in this freely accessible corridor with, in exchange, a few more found objects inside. However, the format of an exhibition spreading beyond its ticketed  room is interesting and shows a willingness to acknowledge not only different ways of experiencing an exhibition within a museum space, but also a conscious effort to have new, free alternatives for visitors outside of shifting collection display for people who understandly find the price of exhibition admission too steep.

This is the same corridor which displays a series of her public commissions – also questioning whether or not the cast bookshelves within the main room could have been shown here in some shape or form. While her works such as Monument for Trafalgar Square (2001) or the Holocaust Memorial are documented through photographs, perhaps one of her more famous projects, House (1993) benefits from its own film to replace the work itself destroyed back in 1994, a step by step exploration documented by the artist herself of the casting of an entire Victorian-style house within an East London park. It is fascinating in its uncovering of the « messiness » of her process in contrast with the pure, finished results. The vacant home she takes over for the project also shows something of the violence in stripping down and hollowing out not only a historically relevant piece of housing but perhaps one that could have still been lived in. An arresting moment in the documentary shows Whiteread filming a set of clothing drying on a hanging line near the boarded up house just before it is to be emptied and expressing concern because the house is “meant to be unoccupied.” The owner of the clothing is not found nor is the incident mentioned again ; a ghost and a visible absence within a documentary about making a house a shell of its former, lived-in self. The finished result is arresting, disturbing : seeing the process of upturning an object full of context has almost more impact after marvelling at the neatness of the translucent shells within the room.

Documentary of Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) (Online version via Artangel)

Wandering outside of the corridor, the Duveen Gallery is invaded by two displays facing off on one another. There is Whiteread’s installation Untitled (100 spaces), translucent, gelatin-like resin casts of the underside of chairs, glistening as they are walked around (okay, my first serious art critic thought was actually “Gummy bears”, and I stand by that). Facing it, another fascinating sidenote to the exhibition : a selection of sculptures from the Tate collection selected by Whiteread in collaboration with curators. These are fascinating in their lack of an obvious narrative linking back directly to Whiteread’s work, instead allowing for a look at sculpture’s play with monumentality, texture and perception, playing with what we think we expect from sculpture and what it makes us discover instead through experimentation and risk-taking. This is a great idea, one that allows to link back a temporary exhibition to a wide-ranging experience of both the collection, British sculpture and contemporary sculpture as a whole.  Modern British sculpture such as Barbara Hepworth rubs shoulders with Sarah Lucas and Rebecca Warren, a casual fragment of sculptural art history seen through the eyes of one of its contemporary pioneers.

The exhibition is strong through its fluidity, perfectly reflecting the way in which Whiteread’s work has articulated itself through a single, shy but persistent notion : inner lives, presences and absences. She shows a vision of the world in which we should question why we preserve things, how and why – and does so in a way which always feels deeply intimate yet casual, like a quiet but engaging conversation. Shyness sounds underrated. Rachel Whiteread’s expression of the quiet but magnetic power of objects over the past few decades shows that it is anything but.

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Rachel Whiteread, Chicken Shed (2017), the artist and Galleria Lorcan O’ Neill (c) Rachel Whiteread, photo (c) Tate 

 

Rachel Whiteread, Tate Britain, 12th September-21st January

 

 

Categories
Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY, at Palais de Tokyo

The refugee crisis seen through the lens of contemporary art has been a recurring source of debate in the past year. What can the art world could do to raise awareness around refugees’ travelling and living conditions? How can artistic engagement change our society’s relationship with migration? Where do we draw the line between awareness and emotional exploitation, education and pathos? Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Green Light’ participatory installation working with refugees at the Venice Biennale attracted both praise and doubts about the efficiency of such a manoeuver, at risk of instrumentalizing a crisis in spite of good intentions. Similarly, Ai Weiwei’s political artistic initiatives made headlines and provoked debate about the limits of art’s activist efficiency. These works revolving around visual impact and participation contrast with focused documentary work, such as Daniela Ortiz’s recent exhibition ABC of Racist Europe   at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. In a series of interviews with refugees and grassroots activists she explores the nature of migratory control systems and European states’ hypocrisy in waving a public “Refugees Welcome!” flag while secretly organising deportations.

Artistic reactions and involvement are therefore wide-ranging and diverse in nature. However, while there are no right or wrong ways of educating and raising awareness or support, there is a recurring sentiment artistic and charity organisations do not neccessarily have a shared network allowing for productive exchanges around the subject. This is why initiatives such as WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY are essential, providing a framework for collaboration between two systems sharing the same ideals with different tools at their disposal. The charity auction, precededed by an exhibition till the 21st at the Palais de Tokyo, will be organized by Christie’s at the Gallery Azzedine Alaïa. Its proceeds will benefit five NGOs working directly with refugees and migrants to advocate for their integration and rights. The initiative is led by Julie Boukobza, Chantal Crousel, Blanche de Lestrange, Niklas Svennung and Marine van Schoonbeek, in direct collaboration with the NGOs La Cimade, Migreurop, Centre Primo Levi, Thot and Anafé. Charity auctions benefiting refugees in Paris and throughout France have thankfully already existed – involving contemporary art but also photographs taken by refugees themselves, as well as the locks from the Pont des Arts. However this is first of its kind in Europe to involve an internationally recognised selection of contemporary artists with strong museum and gallery representation. 

The exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo showing the donated works of 26 contemporary artists should not be mistaken with an exhibition specifically about or illustrating the refugee crisis. While many of the works do reflect some of the artists’ concerns with political and migratory themes, others do not neccessarily draw an immediate comparison, nor are they required to. This is not a show in which the refugee crisis become the direct, quite literal subject of works so much as part of an underlying, broader theme. As Chantal Crousel indicated in her speech during the exhibition’s opening, the aim is to show how refugees’ situations reflected concerns artists harbour about identity in a context of displacement and doubt. In this particular context, this approach gives space for many of the works to reflect broader aesthetics and feelings around the theme of migration, identity and society.

24 HD Rirkrit Tiravanija
Rirkrit Tiravanija untitled 2017 (we dream under the same sky, new york times, january 26, 2017) 2017 Peinture à la main sur papier journal / Handpaint on news paper 228,6 x 185,4 cm / 89.7 x 72.8 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled (we dream under the same sky, new york times, january 26, 2017) (2017) is a new work created for the exhibition which immediately responds to migration and xenophobia by directly painting his statement on the pages of the New York Times announcing Donald Trump’s devastating “Immigration Ban”. A comparison can be drawn with Wade Guyton’s work Untitled (2016), using screencaptures from the same newspaper to challenge the way in which migration is being represented by the media. Oscar Tuazon’s Reading bench 5 (wild ways/services for nomads) (2016) is a bench through which the pages of the magazine Vonulife by an Oregon collective in the 1970s can be read. Standing for VOLuntary Non vULnerable, the collective advocated freedom and nomadism in a refusal to interact with state structures. Its presence in the exhibition allows for the work to take on new meanings around nomadism, freedom and identity.

18C HD Anri Sala 3
Anri Sala Le jour de gloire 2017 Encre sur papier minéral, triptyque / Ink on stone paper, three parts Chacun : 40 x 29,7 cm / Each: 15 3/4 x 11 6/8 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

A beautiful and sensitive triptych by Anri Sala explores his work practice working directly with refugees in relation to his exploration of sound. Le jour de gloire (2017) is the result of a three-day workshop with refugees in which each of them produced images, drawings and objects related to their experiences. The tonality and rythm of Le jour de gloire corresponds to the layout of the apples in the triptych while presumably challenging the integrity of French republican values facing the welcoming of refugees in terms of our hymn and, implicitely, the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité. This subtle approach relying on several layers of interpretation and viewing also applies to Adel Abdessemed’s Chicos (2015) for whom migration and violence are recurring themes. His use of porcelain to represent two smiling children refers to kitsch decoration and imagery, subverted here to refer to the plight of child soldiers and the loss of innocence.

11 HD Mona Hatoum
Mona Hatoum Afghan (red and orange) 2008 Laine / Wool
 107 x 180 cm / 42 1/8 x 70 7/8 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris © photo : Florian Kleinefenn

Abraham Cruzvillegas’ new work specifically conceived for the sale, Self Constructed Upside Down Shelter (2017) associates his interest in the dynamics of craft and reclaimed materials with the theme of migration, with a copper-plated, reversed world map on which all borders have been erased. The world map reclaimed and reinterpreted outside of a Eurocentric or American world view is a common theme in Mona Hatoum’s work, while letting domectic and socio-political issues confront and collide as part her practice. Her work Afghan (red and orange) (2008) reprises this subject. The eroded shape of a world map on the traditional carpet reveals a view of the world based on the Projection of Peters,  rendering each country to scale and thus allowing for a more realistic representation of the African and Asian continents. Danh Vō ‘s work Promised Land (2017), created for the sale, relates to the themes of migration and cultural identity present in his work. His gilding of the lettering on a piece of cardboard seems to poke fun at the expectations and ideals we can ascribe to objects and the countries they are associated with. Its light-hearted but intimate message reflects Vō’s practice, which often resonates with his experiences as a Vietnamese-born Danish artist.

The abstract and multifaceted nature of the works does not soften the project into a feel-good, do-good initiative without any hard facts on migratory policy in sight. On the contrary, an integral part of the exhibition and week-long initiative leading up to the sale on the 27th is to raise awareness around each of the beneficiaries’ works by letting them have centre-stage. Every evening, free and open conferences take place in the exhibition space during which each NGO has room to launch conversations and debates about their activities and the condition of refugees in France. The fact that this is happening in Paris is all the more important. The refugee crisis here is not an abstract concern but a tangible and shameful reality in which individuals in seek of asylum or a better life are denied basic human rights and living conditions. Xenophobia and racism have not died down since Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential elections. “No room for homeless people, but at the same time centers for migrants continue to open,” declared journalist Jean-Pierre Pernaut earlier this month, on privatised and most widely watched French television channel TF1. This is only one example of the way in which the refugee crisis is either scapegoated or normalized. This was notably the case for a recent French maths textbook using the increasing arrival of refugees to teach children about percentages. (The manual has since been withdrawn to be reprinted).

Thus, the involvement of five NGOs with five different priorities is all the more essential, raising awareness about what needs to be done on so many levels and educating exhibition-goers about many unhealthy assumptions we may have internalized (such as picturing refugees as more worthy of being welcomed than migrants coming for economical purposes). Migreurop are a network of activists conducting research on the EU’s exclusion policies, raising awareness around detention and deporatation as well as the closure of borders. The Centre Primo Levi focuses upon refugees suffering from trauma related to torture and political violence, while Thot is a school for migrants and refugees, teaching French and facilitating their inclusion into society. While Anafé concentrates on human rights at borders and “waiting zones” with dire living conditions, La Cimade deals with asylum and integration rights. The focus on different needs for refugees and migrants alike is all the more important to give the visitor increased awareness of what needs to be acheived, beyond a blanket “refugees welcome!” statement. It is genuinely rare to leave an exhibition with so much activist information at your disposal. At the door as I arrived, peaceful protesters were holding placards with a familiar name – that of Cédric Herrou, condemned for his help towards refugees as a concerned French citizen. While grassroots activism and individual involvement are admittedly not a part of WE DREAM’s activist representation, it is difficult to leave the space without considering our individual responsability towards the people we welcome into our countries.

Art and activism must form more networks and initiatives to work together, to balance ideals with calls to action in spaces geared towards information and debate. This exhibition and its charity sale is important for a number of reasons, beyond the financial support and social awareness it will raise. It shows what can happen when artistic and charity networks merge to bring their individual expertise to the table for a dynamic and solidarous exchange. It would be sadly optimistic to think we’ll need less of these initiatives in the future. Nevertheless, these projects bring hope that the art world will know how to anticipate, mobilise and organise with increasing skill, passion and commitment to relieve further suffering and injustice.

WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY, at Palais de Tokyo till the 21st of September, charity benefit sale at Galerie Azzedine Alaïa on the 27th September

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions Uncategorized

The Japanese House at Barbican Centre

A chaotic queue of people leaving their luggage at the cloakroom and half blocking the doors to the exhibition entrance created a strange contrast with the calm and minimalistic atmosphere I found there when I made it past the doors. As a display text unfurled on the right, a white staircase awaited ahead, underneath which I noticed a neat little kitchen, as though I was about to intrude on someone’s breakfast. It takes a few moments to adjust to the clever and artfully executed premise of The Japanese House: an exhibition and an installation rolled in one, both explaining the particularities of Japanese postwar architecture and showing it through an impressive to-scale reconstruction. Ambitious, sleek and beautiful, the exhibition is as flawless in design as it is dense in terms of information, providing an insight into the newfound creativity of architecture as an extension of Japanese art, traditions and ways of life.

Indeed, the display works best when objects and models give us an insight into the tension and harmony between tradition and innovation, continuity and change exemplified by the post-war years. Kiyoshi Seike’s furniture and design is compelling in its use of the codes of Japanese craft interconnecting seamlessly with modernist minimalism. Less is more, but is no less complex and multi-layered in its approach to Japanese history and international contemporary trends. However, another aspect of Japanese architecture and design is revealed, revolving around a messier, more organic approach to the home. Concrete may be associated closely to urban spaces but in Junzo Yoshimura’s Mountain Lodge A the concrete foundations raising the wooden lodge up to counter the risks of humidity and create a continuity with the forest floor. The lodge was for Yoshimura’s own personal use to fulfill his wish of living “like a bird atop a tree”. Further along, a surprising but welcome fashion element adds itself to the mix, as we encounter Kosuke Tsumura’s Final Home unisex coat, a transparent plastic trenchcoat covered in pockets which are padded with cloth and newspaper for insulation. The designer describes cloth as a protective element, creating a “mobile house” for the urban wanderer (surprisingly, issues relating to homelessness are not taken into account.). A particularly insightful room gives the usually dry experience of viewing architectural models a new twist, in a spectacular display showing experiments in house forms as a form of playfulness, experimentation and spirituality. Yuusuke Karasawa’s s-house, for instance (below), attempts to absorb and emulate references from the computer and cybernetics in order to incorporate them into a housing design. The result is a small, delicate and thoughtful masterpiece, presented like a jewel-like relic in dramatic lighting in a dark, immersive environment. The house appears as the site for not only an established way of living, but as part of a wider network of proposals for new, utopian lifestyles.

3. The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945, Installation, Miles Willis, Getty Images (1)

The main talking point of the show, however, is not its content but rather its design. The Barbican Centre acheived the impressive feat of reconstructing the rooms from the Moriyama House designed by architect Ryue Nishizaw on a 1:1 scale. The meticulous care taken in recreating the house’s atmosphere extends to every tiny detail, every book or trinket placed with delicat, minimalistic care. Walking through these rooms at the centre of the display is oddly soothing and satisfying. The exhibition’s greatest acheivement is the way in which it seamlessly managed to navigate between this experience of the Moriyama House and the information on display about post-war Japanese architecture. Circling around the space makes the visitor alternate between reading the text and viewing the displays and models, and looking down into the garden with glimpses into some of the rooms, as the lighting subtly changes from dawn to dusk. This allows the notions to distill quietly and reach their full potential when you walk throughout the space.

6. The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945, Installation, Miles Willis, Getty Images (32)

The installation is impressive, smart and unapologetically Instagrammable…not that there is anything wrong with that. I was happily snapping away with other people and was already reimagining my quaintly minimalistic lifestyle, complete with a nonchalant pile of Jean Cocteau poetry books next to a potted plant, beneath a Nouvelle Vague poster. It almost tempted me to pick up Marie Kondo’s The Magic of Tidying, before I realised I would never commit to keeping only the items which “sparked joy” and would instead commit to keeping countless quantities of years-old museum tickets and used-up pens as I do now. The immersive act of living and walking through the house is strange in its familiarity and remoteless, like a space half lived-in but somewhat unattainable.

The exhibition has pulled off a second ambitious installation with the presence of Terunobu Fujimori’s teahouse, custom-made for the purposes of the space. It is a strange liminal space in the display, navigating between its function as a ritual space for tea and as a dream-like bubble made for dreaming and silence. The sensitivity and sincerity of the space is palpable in the behind the scenes snippets Barbican Centre have provided on their blog.  People must queue, remove their shoes at the entrance (only six people at a time). A boy is staying there and playing on his phone, as people come and go. I feel as thought he has probably accidentally grasped the concept of passing time and contemplation inherent to the Tea House better than most other visitors have. The paradox of a queue of people waiting five minutes for one minute of serenity in a small designer teahouse is not lost on me (flashbacks from the overclogged cloakroom return). Perhaps this is the main issue. It is difficult to appreciate these spaces as a user rather than a fleeting visitor. I do not feel as though they could be lived in or experienced as anything other than a exhibit without a single object left out of place. Ironically, it felt as though the aesthetic of the exhibition left no room to consider its potential or intended inhabitants. There is more “architecture” than “life” in the display as a whole.

12. The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945, Barbican Art Gallery, photo by Ben Tynegate

Furthermore, while this unique and ambitious installation and design made much to recreate the experience and aesthetic of “the Japanese House”, it became difficult to grasp its deeper meaning and emotional reach. It even ran the risk of vehiculating stereotypes about Japanese culture based on an incomplete stories and a few fleeting assumptions, whereas the house itself was quite one-of-a-kind. The Moriyama House was a special commission for a hermit-like owner, so the house is quite a unique reflection of his contemplative and seculuded life. Yet, there is no information at hand in the exhibition itself to explain the kind of conversations and changes that may have taken place between the architect and the homeowner. It does have the advantage, however, of making an architecture exhibition feel more accessible and less dry: seeing children play and enjoy the garden and changing lights while their parents read the information is the best argument for the installation alone.

The exhibition’s main argument is that there is not a “single” Japanese House however the access to information about other housing types is not explored sufficiently in-depth for this to become the main point to carry away from the display.  Kosuke Tsumura’s coat and Junzo Yoshimura organic lodge are in fact good examples: they both spark curiosity in their singularity but there is too much to cover for a focus on the slightly stranger examples of architecture, design and its cultural impact on visual culture. The best way to navigate the exhibition is to cater it to your intersts, jot down as many names as possible and construct a strong basis for further research. This said, the full extent of architecture’s impact on film is excellent, with two separately screenings showing live-action and animation sequences respectively (viewing Miyazaki film extracts in a zen-like artificial garden was just as serene an experience as the tea house – if not more so). Great length are taken to explain the social and political symbols behind architecture in terms of openings, enclosures, entrapments and shifts in the structures and their use on screen.

With a fascinating range of design and architecture, the exhibition shines through its flawless design and aesthetic but experiences issues when it comes to condensing its selection, which could have provided more information with more focused examples. As the architectural stars of the exhibition express all too clearly after all: less is more.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, at the Barbican Centre until the 25th of June.
Between 14 and 25? Check out the free Young Barbican membership for exhibition discounts. I essentially signed up in five minutes on my phone and got in for five pounds. 

Credits for all images: The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, Installation View, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 23 March – 25 June 2017, Photo by Miles Willis / Getty Images

Categories
Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Uncategorized Yorkshire

Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield

You could be forgiven for not knowing about Wakefield, but not about giving up on visiting one of the most visually stunning museums inYorkshire, if not the UK, just because it’s about two hours from London by train. That’s almost as much as it takes to cross London during rush hour, and the destination will yield far more surprising and satisfactory results. The gallery was created purposefully to house Barbara Hepworth’s gigantic, spectacular plaster casts, with an architecture opening up the building to the light. At the turn of a nondescript cluster of outlet stores, coming across this serene block moored in the midst of the river is like coming across a strange alien structure fallen out of the sky. It is all the more arresting in this particular context, after a long pilgrimage from the station, with a suitcase and 9 hours of travelling behind me. This is a space which has the rare quality of being as breath-taking on the inside as it is compelling on the inside, its functionality and openness making the works breathe and live within the space with complete effortlessness, far from being a sterile white cube. There is something unique about gazing upon the river below through a Hepworth as evening falls and the light changes. I fell in love at first sight. And as if that were not enough, Hepworth Wakefield then reunited me with a long-lost love – fashion and art curated together.

It’s not that I do not like fashion exhibitions or the complex and fascinating ways in which art history has informed the design, history and evolution of fashion. It’s purposefully because I do care deeply about fashion that I feel dissappointed when art-and-fashion juxtaposed together do not do each other justice. Art inspiring fashion is more than a Mondrian dress, just as fashion inspiring art is more than Jeff Koons’ “Fashion Loves Art” line with H&M (or his more high end collaboration with Vuitton only recently). None of these elements are bad in themselves, but they barely skim the surface of a entire range of possibilities and issues. These are the issues which the designer JW Anderson manages to sum up with a simple premise unfurling into a range of beautiful visual questions: the human body through 20th and 21st century  fashion, design and art. It reads like a love letter to the transformation, sublimation and subversion of bodies, beyond the beautiful or the aesthetic.

Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield Photo Lewis Ronald Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield
Installation shot of Disodebient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates the Hepworth Wakefield. Photo Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

While ambitious, the exhibition never seems to work too hard for anyone’s approval. The prestigious selection has Henry Moore, Louise Bourgeois and Sarah Lucas alongside Rei Kawabuko (Comme des Garçons), Jean-Paul Gaultier and Christian Dior in strange, quiet conversations allowing you to work and question juxtapositions rather than face anything too literal. Design is not left out of the equation either, as Eileen Grey’s chair rests faces Jean Arp’s S’Elevant (Rising Up) sculpture expresses the fluidity and ambiguity of human bodies, and earthenware by Mo Jupp reacts to Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig Zag chair. It’s not always neccessary to search too far for answers sometimes. Henry Moore’s Reclining Nude irreverently leads to an iconic pointy-breasted bodice by Jean-Paul Gaultier. A cluster of Sarah Lucas’ eerie ragdolls draped on chairs is juxtaposed with JW Anderson’s trio of elongated knitwear jumpers (above). Softness and transparency, protective armour and movement form categories whose boundaries blur into each other. The text is limited to a simple booklet to allow the visitor to wander through rooms thinly delimitated by Anderson’s vintage fabrics, structuring the space. I usually take it upon myself to only read the booklet after visiting the exhibition, and it’s refreshing to feel as though the display can work as a free association of ideas around the body, without the explanatory text. Interestingly, the rooms are divided up in themes shown in the booklet like “disrupting classicism” and “casting skin. exposing and protecting” but these are not followed by lengthy room texts, simply regrouping a cluster of works and allowing for an extended labels for each. This was excellent in creating some kind of narrative thread without drowning the reader with heavy-handed thematics. There were a huge amount of creators I did not know and learnt from in the exhibition; the booklet still provides a stable resource for me to lean on. I learn from the same booklet that the architectural conception was meant to evoke “an intimate social gathering in someone’s home”. While I’d be absolutely terrified to discover a Hans Bellmer doll (above) in my home, I appreciate the sentiment. It’s all the more interesting to remove art from its stately pedestal and remove fashion from the runway in a display that craves intimacy rather than glamour. There is only one installation in the exhibition: JW Anderson’s 28 jumpers, creating an odd forest of soft, colourful knitwear to wander through.

Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield Photo Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield 7
Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo: Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

Maybe the influx of names can sound a bit intimidating, but that feeling is quickly overtaken by curiosity. In a display of the unpredictable, inhibitions are dropped in favour of discovery. Rather than name-dropping, the exhibition allows us to encounter new names and see familiar works in a new light, like old friends talking about a seldom-talked aspect of themselves. This quote while encountering the fabric and steel work Untitled (1998) by Louise Bourgeois stood out for me:

“Clothes are about what you want to hide. Garments can hold memories and they become specific to a certain time and emotional connection.”  

This exhibition is the first that made me think sincerely about the idea of motion and stillness in looking at clothing – the sense that these are shells waiting for life to be breathed into them by the wearers, for a performance and attitude, and that every choice in tailoring and textile will modify and inform the body it covers. The desire to touch was strong, in order to grasp the power of textile to transform and enhance this sense of motion and create a particular vision of the body.  It was the first time that I stopped seeing fashion items in an exhibition as “exhibits”, and started seeing them as living, breathing entities, interacting with the world around them. In short, I started seeing them as works of art outside of the gallery space, meant to interact in motion. Motion is also at the forefront of Anderson’s concerns in portraying the human body within the exhibition, since a powerful range of videos complete the display and infuse it with particular purpose. Merce Cunningham’s Scenario from 1997 (below), shows the immense influence of the choreographer on modern art as well as fashion (his work was also shown in the recent Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern, as the two men collaborated extensively in terms of staging, clothing and set design).

It would have been interesting to see some of the fashion display items in motion via videos for instance. However, this would have made it a historical fashion exhibition, which was neither the case nor the intention. The exhibition did not neccessarily feel like a fashion history or an art history lesson, nor a design one…and that’s a good thing. Too much encompassed within the intimate space, and too much context weighing down on powerful objects would have overkill. This also has the added purposes of letting contemporary art, design and fashion dialogue peacefully, neither overpowing the other.

Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield Photo Lewis Ronald Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield 2.jpg
Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo: Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

More than an art-and-fashion exhibition, this is an exhibition with a sincere and powerful message in allowing for us to experience powerful and experimental interpretations of the human body. More than a learning experience it is a unique journey into being aware of the power of object and design to extend our own bodies and reflect them. Like Anderson’s interlocking jumpers, it draws connections in ways you would expect the least, tweaking and subverting expectations. I do feel that in more ways than one this exhibition did change a certain awareness I had about my own body and my relation to it, in its presence, transformation and absence. Being able to create this awareness and experience is the sign of an exhibition which will stay with you for a long time. After a long, physically demanding pilgrimage to a museum as unpredictable as it is beautiful, this experience seemed more than fitting.


Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates the Hepworth Wakefield is on till 18th June. Free entry 

Also in Wakefield, The Art House provides an excellent visit, with opportunities to discover emerging artists’ practices, and a Migration residency initiative on at the moment seeking to explore issues related to the refugee crisis. This coincides with Juan DelGado’s installation Altered Landscapes. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is also not that far away via a bus or a car if you want to encounter a beautiful open-air gallery to experience sculpture outdoors, as well as discover the current Tony Cragg exhibition.  More culture and contemporary art in Yorkshire.

 

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Eli Lotar (1905-1969) at the Jeu de Paume

The first photographers of modern life did not only have an entire realm of subjects and spaces  at their fingertips waiting to be captured on film for the first time . In more ways than one their angles of vision created an entire new language in order to grasp, understand and reflect the world in a new medium. When this language is channelled with enduring sincerity and intensity, its message seems ageless. In a period of crisp smartphone snapshots capturing the energy of places and people, Eli Lotar’s analog black and white photographs from the 20s through to the 60s keep the same timeless power.

“Eli Lotar” might not be a household name in terms of modern photography on the same level as Man Ray or Henri Cartier-Bresson. However, the Romanian photographer’s importance and vision as one of the first photographers of the Parisian avant-garde cannot be doubted. His first retrospective in the 90s at the Centre Pompidou, two decades after his death, started a new reappraisal of his legacy. While the level of knowledge and expertise is apparent throughout the display, it operates extraordinary restraint and clarity, managing to operate an overview of Lotar’s work which is complex yet accessible through a hundred photographs from the Centre Pompidou’s archives as well as private and public collections worldwide. The co-curator of the exhibition, Damarice Amao, completed her thesis on Eli Lotar at université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), adding particular strength to the narrative of the exhibition in which different projects and pathways undertaken by the photographer intertwine without ever tripping us up as readers or visitors.

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Eli Lotar, Untitled, c. 1930-40, donation by M.Jean-Pierre Marchand 2009, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar

In a setting of greys and whites with space for the black and white works to breathe and for the visitor to wander, we encounter Lotar’s modernity for the first time through his photographic reports for different magazines since the 1920s. As a student of the photographer Germaine Krull, Lotar shares her avant-garde vision: one in which through the photographic lens, the photographer transforms the city into a living, active system of shapes and people.  The “New Vision” titling one of his photographic reportages is one in which the viewer redefines the world through his viewpoint. Nothing could be clearer through the creative angles and compositions Lotar creates, adding to written narratives and creating his own silent stories. This vision is steeped in everyday social life and the streets; despite a few  The most notorious series of magazine photographs is a report on the slaughterhouses of La Villette. More than any other imagery, it captures the eery in-between gaps between the realistic and the fantastical buried in the mundane. A picture of a young man staring down at a pile of entrails rubs shoulders with a series of cows’ legs lines against a wall. Surrealism and a certain strand of the supernatural is shown as a particular viewpoint, not only on a street corner but in relation to the world.

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Eli Lotar, Quinze-Vingt Hospital, 1928, purchased through the patronage of Yves Rocher, 2011. Ancient collection Christian Bouqueret, collection Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar
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Eli Lotar, At the Slaughterhouses of la Villette, 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (c) Eli Lotar

It is rare to see an exhibition which manages to strike such a good balance between its contents and its design, making the discovery of Eli Lotar’s complex and consequent life work readily accessible to the visitor by breaking down different parts of his life and career expertly. There are many inconveniences that slightly pollute an exhibition’s enjoyment which, here, are solved with simplicity. The simple case of getting rid of archival casings to present facsimiles of magazine cuttings on the wall is perfectly adapted to the exhibition. Purists might not enjoy the fact that the original documents are not on display, but the clutter of documentation in cases which you crowd around and lean over awkwardly is avoided here, to go to the essential. In this context you actually have time to read the cuttings and understand the context in which Eli Lotar’s photojournalism operated. Similarly, the secion of the exhibition related to Eli Lotar’s documentary work is treated with skill, allowing for a cinema space in the midst of the display rather than a separate room, managing to srike a balance between the darkened cinema space with benches and time to reflect and the meanderings of the visitor.

The large screen displays his documentary on Aubervilliers in collaboration with Jacques Prévert in the 1940s; the shots and narrative manage to mingle lyricism with realism, popular songs about the children of Aubervilliers punctuating a scene in which they play and barthe alongside dead cats in the river and the ruins of working-class homes. On the side, a bench and headphones allow for a more intimate experience of Tierra sin pan, the documentary of the Hurdes region in Spain by Luis Buñuel in collaboration with the photographer. The shots were in black and white, but remembering them makes me feel as though they fully captured the sun-drenched colours and lights of the region. The extreme poverty of the people portrayed is emphatic and prompts for revolution rather than voyerism, as their stories mingle with legends and customs lost between pagan rituals and Christian values.

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Eli Lotar, Las Hurdes, c. 1935, donation of Anne-Marie and Jean-Pierre Marchand 1993, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar

The thematic choice of the exhibition as allows for a clear overview not only of Lotar’s versatility but also the way in which connections unfurl beween his different projects. These subjects and themes loosely flowing into each other show a problematic at the heart of Lotar’s work floating between documentary and poetry, the objective and the subjecive in order to eventually choose or compromise on neither. From surrealist photomontages, we then encounter his set collaborations with absurdist and satrical playwrights such as Alfred Jarry. A photojournalistic voyage to Greece shows his attention divided between the portrayal of the Greek landscape and its inhabitants and the representation of Cycladic statues. At the very end of the exhibition, we then encounter a particular sculpture staring back at us. Few exhibitions escaping traditional chronology would have chosen to end rather than begin with a spectacular bust of Eli Lotar by Giacometti, yet here it was by the exit, in a silent conversation with a strange self-portrait: a photograph of the bust by Lotar himself, somehow infusing it with his own presence and viewpoint. Lotar was Giacometti’s last male model, and in return Lotar would confer a particular vision upon the sculptor’s work, made visible in the exhibition through contact sheets exploring his workshop. The relation between the sculpture and the photograph taken of it merges with that of the sculptor and his model. The writer Giorgo Soavi described the complete immobility of Lotar, captured in sculpture:

“[Giacometti’s] gaze shone with a strange glimmer, his body vibrating from head to toe, only able to follow the impulses guiding his hands, his arms, his legs: he was in ecsasy. Observing closely the two faces, I understood the secret allowing Lotar not to breathe: Eli was the perfect model for this sculpture because Eli was dead. He did not breathe, he did not think, remained concentrated till the very end. An electric current linked the artist to the model, uniting them in true complicity. They played together, without a ball, or a racquet, or a net.”

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Eli Lotar, Giacometti, bust of Lotar, 1965, donation by Anne-Marie and Jean-Pierre Marchand 1993, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar
In many ways it takes this outsider’s insight on Eli Lotar himself to start to understand who he is as a person raher than a photographer. The particular aura around the bust itself is elusive, his gaze vulnerable yet mysterious. Like Lotar’s own work it promises the opportunity to look back again with a new insight and interpretation every time. The “New Vision” lives on.

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Alighiero Boetti at Tornabuoni Art Paris

You might be forgiven for considering that many commercial gallery spaces look the same, however the perfect antidote might be a venture down to Tornabuoni Art in Paris. Like many Parisian galleries, it has perfected the art of hiding itself in plan sight. This one in particular can be found in the Passage de Retz courtyard within the Marais district, a few steps away from the National Archives and the Centre Pompidou. A cobbled courtyard leads us to a series of compelling art spaces; in the case of Tornabuoni Art, entering the building cases the traditional vast white cube space of the gallery to unfold, with its own peculiarities nonetheless – a winding metal staircase, a glasshouse glimpse of the sky, and a small garden, oddly intimate in proportion to the momentous space. There, I discover and rediscover Alghiero Boetti, and the shifting, exacting, myriad aspects of his work. Tornabuoni has a 20-year relationship with the Italian artist and it clearly shows: this exhibition presents itself as one of the most impressive retrospectives put together by a commercial gallery, drawing upon a previous exhibition at Tornabuoni London, and building up to a major exhibition at the Fondazione Cini during the Venice Biennale.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

Alighiero Boetti was an Italian conceptual artist whose legacy is complex and multifaceted. His initial allegiance was with the Arte Povera movement, a group which attempted to address and deconstruct the art world’s obsession with costly, inaccessible materials by relying on objects considered “poor” from a material viewpoint, or unconventional, with simple, everyday objects and concepts. It encompassed the idea that art was part of life and nature, intertwining into the everyday. This definition is most likely to change in relation to the major artists who became part of the movement, such as Jannis Kounellis, who passed away recently, or Giovanni Anselmo. Boetti started to delve into Arte Povera with a variety of “unconventional” industrial materials, while also focusing on creating monumental works on paper from the simplest materials. However, this part is not quite explored in the exhibition, privileging what Boetti did after distancing himself from the movement while keeping some of its key values and aims.  Mettere al mondo il mondo, 1972-73, a work using a blue ballpoint on paper laid onto canvas (below), creates a stunning example you get lost into within the display. What comes out of this is the sheer diligence and discipline in Boetti’s work, led by a concept which was then executed by others (in this case, friends and family), and rife with codes and puzzles centred around the alphabet.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

The fact that the exhibitions is classified by different works and mediums rather than a strict chronology allows for several small pocket displays to wander around before visiting the more monumental rooms. One of these includes a series of “Postal Works” (Lavoro postale (Permutazione), 1989, below) consisting of enveloppes with postage that Boetti has sent to various friends and family repetitively, with variations in writing that create a strange pattern as they are displayed side by side, creating art out of everyday habit and process.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

The most visually iconic example of Boetti’s works are his embroidered world maps, and this exhibition definitely does not disappoint. A vast selection of them are brought together, allowing for a contemplative insight into the way the maps reflect political change across the globe in a collaborative embroidery process, carried out of 500 Pakistan and Afghanistan artisans over a period of several decades from 1971 to 1994. Their lo-fi, artisanal quality emphasizes the “arte povera” ideas of simplicity that Boetti hung onto but also capture the human, intimate side of this mapping in the face of vast geopolitical changes beyond a single individual’s control.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

Surprisingly, however, the maps are not neccessarily the main focus of the exhibition – or rather, their familiarity comes as a visual comfort or reminder, rather than a first shock-encounter. For me, this shock encounter occurs in front of Tutto 1992-94 (belowan immense embroidered, multicolour accumulation of shapes, objects merged into a dizzying tapestry.This effect is only strenthened by the light spilling in from the overhead windows, giving the impression the work is glowing from within.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

Venturing upstairs in a spiral metal staircase, both oddly charming and out of place, pursues this encounter with a series of embroideries combining basics colours, letters or numbers to create a coded, crypic patchwork in which phrases and proverbs in Italian can sometimes be deciphered (Alighiero Boetti, Untitled, 1984 ca., marker pen on lithographic print, below). They draw the eye as beautiful material objects as well as conceptual objects of design used by Boetti in an attempt to classify and catalogue the world, an exploration of the gap existing between design and execution with its beautiful flaws, changes and perumutations. This exhibition allows for a quiet breathing space to come to terms with Boetti’s work and grasp its enduring significance. More than anything, it reminds us that outside of the often intimidating and confusing lingo surrounding conceptual art is a simple aim through simple means: to connect collective ideas and emotions like the many pieces of a patchwork embroidery.

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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
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Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

Alighiero Boetti at Tornabuoni Art Paris, till the 8th of April

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton

The Louis Vuitton exhibition on the Shchukin collection reveals the ambiguity of art collecting in its form as well as its content, through its attempt to reconcile the personal quirks, contradictions and passions of a Russian collector with the immense role his collection came to adopt within modern art history. This rich textile merchant amassed an impressive collection of art for his Moscow palace between 1898 and 1914 at a moment during which collecting outside national, traditional painting was frowned upon in Russia. Considered scandalous at the time, Serguei Shchukin only fanned the flames by allowing young Russian artists to view this work and draw inspiration from it. The rest is art history: the exhibition’s aim is to not only show this fascinating, ground-breaking collection, but to portray it alongside the works of Malevich, Rodchenko, Tatlin and Popova. Just as Shchukin provided an exceptional opportunity for a glimpse of Western art introduced to Russia, the reverse dynamic is now taking place in Paris with a rare look at the contents of the Ermitage and Pushkin collections, amongst many others.

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Installation shot (c) Martin Bureau/AFP

The display starts off with a bang – a series of portraits and self-portraits, Derain’s Man with a Newspaper facing Cézanne’s Self-Portrait,  a gripping Van Gogh adjacent to Wan Krohn’s portrait of the collector himself, a celebrity art history who’s who enticing us foward.  In a darkened room, the commissioned art work “Shchukin, Matisse, dance and music”, by Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke is an immersive multimedia installation which imagines a conversation between the collector and Matisse, subverting the idea of an introductary documentary with a larger-than-life touch of kitsch, humour and energy. The history of his commission of the painting “The Dancers”, followed by “Music”, touchingly captures Shchukin’s own boldness, contradictions and earnestness as he commissions, relents, censors and finally goes through with his presentation of the work alongside the rest of his collection to a new generation of Russian artists. With theatrical kitsch and colour, the work comes to life, as does Shchukin’s whose actor transcribes his words with poignant emotion despite his stutter: “Art must be a psychological shock” – a “sharp blow”.

After this vibrant first encounter, the rest of the exhibition reads like a stroll through Shchukin’s mind to understand this emotional and spiritual shock to the system he descrives, as well as a lesson in influences and tributes in art history. From portraiture to landscape and still-life through to nudes, it’s impossible to predict Shchukin’s tastes, as they seem to vary wildly from the slightly boring pastel Maurice Denis paintings or Burne-Jones tapestries through to daring bursts of colour with Gauguin and Matisse. The exhibition masterfully weaves a journey from Impressionist landscape through to Fauvism and Cubism in order to explain how this diverse selection of works, from traditional choices to daring ones, inspiring a revolution within the Russian artists Shchukin invited to view his work. Their works appear, bold and bright, in the last rooms, their sharp abstract shapes reflected vividly in Daniel Buren’s multiclolour shapes on the Louis Vuitton Foundation by Frank Gehry. The avant-garde experiments in colour and form are a rush of blood to the head, increasing in intensity and pushing boundaries, creating silent conversations and interconnections across rooms.

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Installation shot (c) Martin Bureau / AFP

Despite the fact that it presented a huge selection of 160 works over 14 rooms, over three stories of exhibition space, the exhibition itself never has the length or exhausting effect that these blockbusters usually have on my feet and mind. The exhibition scenography is designed around the idea of an airy, temple-like space of suspended time, in glowing grey walls, subdued lighting and arched doorways. It regulates the flow of people and allow for a leisurely, contemplative pace, with room to sit and even stand next to a Picasso for awhile without having to shuffle to leave space for more people. The Matisse room is serene yet bubbling with energy, with enough space to stride, wander and dream amongst masterpieces.

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Matisse,  Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908, Hermitage Museum (c) Succession H. Matisse. Photo (c) St-Petersburg.

The selection of works is breathtaking in its sheer amoung and diversity, making a quick summary neither possible nor desirable. Amazingly, in spite of this, there are some gaps, some understandable and others more complex. It would have been optimistic to assemble more than 130 items from the initial 274 works that composed Shchukin’s collection, to recreate this initial “psychological shock” – even though we would have loved to see Matisse’s “Dance” and “Music”, their very rare removal from the Hermitage Museum is justified by the iconic status they have gained. It is impossible to recreate the astounding accumulation of works of Shchukin’s original palace in a single exhibition – for instance, the original “Gauguin” room also had a few Matisse works and the Edward Burne-Jones tapestry. This website in the link above is an impressive summary of the original display as well asa compilation of the entire collection in collaboration with FLV as well as museums and archives – sadly, only in French and Russian yet intuitive enough for a clear encounter of Shchukin’s curatorial decisions.

Sadly, this is a resource I find only later – and whose pedagogical clarity seems to be missing from text panels and resources. Amongst varied opinions on how to pronounce “Shchukin”, I also hear vague confused mutters about the wall text which is, sadly, not quite accessible to a non specialist audience. Unfortunately, this does not improve as the exhibition veers away from representations of lanscapes and picnics into Malevich’s black squares and Popov’s abstract shards. “What is pantocrator?” “What is iconostasis?” “What is suprematism”? “What is postcubist ambiguity?” As an art historian, I spend my time explaining (and looking up “pantocrator”, because I’m not a latinist). I can feel that some of this lingo is muddying people’s instinctive, empassioned response to the artworks…and worse, intimidating. The panels read like a exhibition catalogue extract, with a very academic tone which could be easily amended by a glossary and a few explanations. These terms are not easy to understand for people with some understanding of modern art, let alone novices…and this is a recurring complaint when I visit French exhibitions with friends and family alike.  French museums are not yet on par with the level of attention given to learning and interpretation in the UK or the US. At least, these texts are all assembled within a beautiful booklet that can be brought home and deciphered – often useful when you want to focus on the works first and the explanations later. The audioguide file is also freely downloadable and accessible on the Louis Vuitton Foundation app, a refreshing change from the traditional clunky and expensive devices. The amount of videos and presentations by the curator Anne Baldessari on the website, as well as a free symposium on the exhibition were also welcome additions that perhaps needed to be exploited more in the display itself.

Another lingering feeling is that we never quite get to glimpse the person behind the legendary collection, or capture his personal rather than artistic intentions between his works and the theatrical portrayal in Greenaway’s commission. The eccentricity and contradictions become muted by concerns about intentions feeding into a clear pattern and design. It’s hard to work out to what extent he is truly a “collector-hero” and “collector-experimenter” (in the Russian critic Alenxander Benois’ words) who devised a very precise fresco of modern art, or the extent to which he was an eccentric and empassioned amateur who sometimes went all out and sometimes played it safe, following his own heart and instincts. Perhaps this is only a feeling we can grasp wordlessly through his paintings, with the rush of adrenalin at the glimpse of a Cézanne or a Picasso followed by quieter pauses facing a Monet or a Courbet. Audiences’ reactions and preference vary and diverge amongst themselves, creating a mix and match effect where some visitors will glance over some artists and spend ages in front of others. Ultimately, despite some questions left unanswered and some answers perhaps made too complex, the initial rush of excitement and passion constantly beats below the surface. As I hear mutters of delight and scorn amongst the audience, I believe the “blow” Shuchkin described still resonates, challenging contemporary artists and collectors to remain unpredictable, daring and provocative in spite of the status quo.

“Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection” is on display at Fondation Louis Vuitton till the 5th of March

The Shchukin Collection website

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Picasso/Giacometti at Musée Picasso

Two stern avant-garde gazes in black and white overlook the stubborn queue forming outside the Musée Picasso in Paris on a cold autumn morning. In the newly refurbished Musée Picasso, which opened once more to the public a few years ago, the new permanent collection alone is usually sufficient to draw loyal crows. Add the name of the Swiss modern artist Giacometti and curiosity mingles with excitement outside. How do you compare and contrast the works of two masters of modern art? How did their paths crossed? How do their works speak to one another?

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Giacometti, Man (Apollo), 1929 and Picasso, Figure, 1928

How? Beautifully so. The selection of works is absolutely breathtaking, as are the dialogues between Giacometti on one side and Picasso on the other, an effortless relation of form and facets which does make me wonder: why did no-one show their works together before? The missed opportunities are vastly made up for here, in the endlessly surprising hôtel particulier housing the Musée Picasso. There is something about the way in which this space mingles both stateliness and luminosity that makes it just right for the Picasso works, and enshrines the Giacometti works beautifully. The juxtapositions are stunningly crafted, as the eye slides effortlessly from form to form, from curve to sharp angle. Whoever conceived the display has a strong and intent eye for the silent correspondences between objects that bring them to life in a new way, without being heavy-handed or hasty. Most importantly, this is an exhibition with enough space to sit, wander, think and stroll. The main reason for this is that every temporary exhibition occupies the space of most of the permanent collections, save a few floors, an important point in terms of flow and time. Popular exhibitions can often become a tiring and back-aching business of shuffling and queueing to see a work stuck in a corner within a jam-packed room, which was far from being the case here.

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Giacometti, l’homme qui marche II, 1960 and Picasso, The Shadow, 1953

However, the beauty of the works could not always make up for the themes they were organized within. I felt as though some topics, such as “death”, “love” or “women”, made a good job in distinguishing particular interests within avant-garde scenes at the time, but little to focus specifically on topics directly relevant to both Picasso and Giacometti, like two fascinating people brought together under vague premises but nevertheless creating a beautiful conversation out of the situation. Then again, the tone is universal, and does not force itself to peer too deeply into the content in order to let the form breathe. The nudes and skulls feel like a surface concern for the deep concern about the human form, personhood, identity.

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Giacometti, Femme qui marche I, 1930 – Picasso, Nude in red armchair, 1929

As much as I loved the stunning formal juxtapositions between Picasso and Giacometti, I felt as though something was lacking: their viewpoint on each other, and historical proof of what sounded like mutual influence and conversation. I would have preferred more substance and less style, in the most literal way possible, or perhaps simply a more subtle balance between the two.The beginning of the exhibition thoughtfully ponder upon the fact that their work has never been curated specifically together yet avoid historical reasoning or sources. I therefore spent most of the display confused about whether or not Giacometti and Picasso ever crossed paths, or if this is a beautiful and creative reinterpretation of a fictional relation.  Both cases are just as interesting and valid in my opinion, but the vagueness is not, and it does feel a little strange that it is only revealed towards the end of the exhibition that they did, indeed, cross paths in 1930s Paris, often meeting at one of these mythical little cafés where artists remade art history in their image, one drink at a time.

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An enthusiastic and friendly guide is leading a class visit, with completely absorbed children who are eagerly participating; the discussion is about value judgement, realism and beauty in art and how Picasso and Giacometti aimed to change the “traditional” viewpoint at the time. They make the full creative impact of their juxtaposition come to life, showcasing the works as relevant keys towards understanding how artists departed from established, surface-deep notions of “realism”, and why. It suddenly becomes obvious that beyond the duel between the two artists and beyond the art historical sources, this is what truly matters: two paths intertwining, often crossing yet never clashing, searching for a new means of expressing reality, ugliness, beauty and the sublime.

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Persona at the Musée du Quai Branly

This is a fair warning and confession: I am not the bravest person as far as the “horror” genre or at the very least the uncanny is concerned. The latest embarrassing example dates from just this Halloween when I finally decided that one of the oldest horror films of all time, Nosferatu by Fritz Lang, could hardly faze me as much as, say, the trailer for The Woman in Black. I subsequently slept fitfully without being able to get the 1920s vampiric visuals out of my mind.

All the same, despite my much-mocked inability to sit through The Exorcist, I am convinced that the exhibition Persona at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris has been one of the most disturbing exhibition experiences of the year, with a creeping sense of unease which could be felt within visitors all around. The fact that the range of the unsettling varied from a computer programme to a ouija board as well as a 19th century wax anatomic model followed by a robotic gesticulating statue of a Buddha also makes it one of the best interdisciplinary exhibitions I have seen this year. Its blend of anthropological artifacts, historic and contemporary art, popular culture and historical documents make it a stunning and bizarre exploration into what makes us animate entities and most important, how this status can encompass a variety of other objects, such as machines, objects of devotion and artworks.

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The exhibition requires an attentive ear and at the very least an open-minded spirit, since from the onset it pulls us into strange new territories about personhood and presence, starting with hallucinations and invisibility, macrocosms and microcosms. What does it mean to exist? Can people exist while being minuscule or invisible? The selection becomes slightly odd at times, with for instance the juxtaposition of a video of a “flea circus” next to a NASA video of infinite space. However, the exhibition never forgets its roots at the centre of the permanent display of the Quai Branly, letting the artifacts from African, Asian, Latin American and Oceanian countries and cultures speak most eloquently about the fragile line between inanimate objects and receptacles for spirits and souls. Most importantly, these objects and their relation to presence, hallucinations, spirits and the relation to the animate is never condescending or a prop for a point. Roseline de Thélin’s Man Homo Luminoso (2015) made of optic fibers, above, talks to Ernst’s the temptations of Saint-Anthony, a BBC documentary on hallucinations following sensory deprivation, and an Oceanian mask.

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© musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, photo Gautier Deblonde

The exhibition manages to skillfully tie in our fascination with spiritualism and detecting the invisible presences around us with the fascination in creating or imagining this artificial presence through robots both fictional and imaginary. A display of Edison’s documents on a machine capturing the frequencies of ghosts leads to a showcase of chilling ghost-hunting equipment (including a medium hand with a broken index found next to the body of the medium show-runner ‘s husband and a revolver), and Artaud’s “Radio Momo” – a contraption by Jean-Jacques Lebel involving a real skull, a radio and antennaes to capture the dead playwright’s presence. HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey sings in a screening in the background while we interact with ELIZA, one of the first artificial intelligence program from the 60s. By this stage, it is sufficient to say that everyone is understandably spooked, but the exhibition decides to take it up a notch with the uncanny valley corridor, a true horror-trove exploring how and why we express disgust and fear when an inanimate object resembles an animate body too much, but without the spark and soul of life, including robots, sugar skulls and theatre puppets. Moving onto the sole question of robots veers into bizarre, amusing and often oddly sexual territory concerning attraction, companionship and increasingly hybrid organisms.

If the exhibition would have a main advantage and drawback, is that it addressed such a vast range of subjects and concepts that I immediately wanted to write down everything and read anything on the subject as soon as I left. However it also means it was quite wordy and also had the ambition of sifting through millenia of anthropology, art and history around personhood and artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, this exhibition is haunting in more ways than one: much the content it addresses is intentionally conceived to disturb and subvert our traditional concepts of personhood and asks open-ended question which we may only be able to answer in a century, with nothing to calm the existential dread about a robot takeover in the meantime. However, asking these questions forces us to shine a light upon our perception of what it means to be a person, altering our vision of the world and placing us in a strange space between the supernatural and the factual, wonder and understanding. Beyond the spiritualism and science-fiction undertones, we are face to face with our own limitations and potential as living, thinking, feeling entities. And I’m left with a few Pink Floyd lyrics:

Hello,
Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone at home?

Persona is at the Musée Quai Branly till the 13th of November

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions Uncategorized

Georgia O’ Keeffe at Tate Modern

Georgia O’ Keeffe must be spinning in her grave: even though she actively protested against the interpretation of her close-up flower paintings as sexual organs, the easiest way to make someone’s face light up with recognition at the mention of her work is usually by adding “you know – the vagina-flower painter”. Tacky, perhaps, but a memorable selling point – furthermore, a feminine selling point that the artist Judy Chicago wanted to add to her work in establishing a list of notable women artists for a long overdue feminist reinterpretation of art history. However, this is a tagline Tate Modern forcibly brushed away with an exhibition which focuses on her entire legacy and her desire, at heart, to represent two recurring obsessions: the American landscape and the intense contemplative nature of still life.

The exhibition starts with a historical reconstruction of her Whitney Museum retrospective in 1946 in which O’Keeffe presented her work during her lifetime, complete with sightly kitsch showroom-like curtain-tables. This had the advantage of setting the tone for the rest of the exhibition – a reappraisal of her work without additional reinterpretations and frills – but falls slightly flat visually in such a large opening room. It then leads on to little-known abstract works from the early 1910s, working towards representing music through abstract colour and form. The vibrant colours and organic shapes are captivating and mysterious, drawing us into contemplation of the flat, yet infinitely expressive surface. Of course, they seem to announce the future, worldwide famous flower paintings but less with the nature of these “sexual” or “feminine” soft folds and colours, and more with a way of looking. As we move from cosmic colour-music to tulips, jimson weeds and orchids, a quote by the artist is particularly strong and resonates through the display of flowers, their delicacy made monumental and contemplative.

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1
Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932, Oil paint on canvas, 48 x 40 inches, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

O’ Keeffe herself commented upon the risks of her union with the photographer Alfred Steiglitz overshadowing her own work and recognition and it seems strange, therefore, that so much room would be devoted to his photography as well. There is certainly a risk in making his work and its influence on her such a large part of the exhibition, while including so many photographs of her as his “muse” in an exhibition meant to give O’Keeffe’s work room to breathe. Nevertheless, the photographs are striking, powerful testimonies to their relation and evade any risk of O’Keeffe becoming a passive subject in any given scenario.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II, 1930, Oil on canvas mounted on board, 24 1/4 x 36 1/4 (61.6 x 92.1)Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

The most captivating elements of the display were not the ones I expected nor the ones I knew about at all. O’ Keeffe spent a vast amount of her time painting the dry, warm, rocky landscapes of New Mexico. Heat and visions of a wild, untamed America rise from the canvas in bold yet subtle shaded of black, grey, orange and pink. Another striking surprise: the paintings of animal skulls which mingle with depictions of desert flowers. O’Keeffe, once again stubbornly rejecting Surrealist or symbolical readings of her work,  celebrates instead the vitality of these bones she considers as more alive than the animals themselves through their surface and formal dynamism. They are strange and compelling fixations, like O’Keeffe’s strange obsession with the doors of houses from New Mexico and the semi-abstract shapes they create. As far as symbolism or states of mind go, the rocky landscapes are often far more telling but also more ambiguous, with warm folds which can also become menacing chasms.

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Georgia O’Keeffe’s From the Faraway, Nearby, 1937. Photograph- Georgia O’Keeffe/The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence (c) DACS

Yet as frustrating as it may be for the artist, interpretation and symbolism is inevitable. The exhibition does not aim to guilt us into rejecting any way we may consider O’Keeffe’s work whatever she may think, but simply gets rid of any pre-conceived notion that we have had before finding ourselves in front of the work. Ultimately, whether or not O’Keeffe’s work is to be analysed in terms of sexuality or femininity is not primarily relevant to who she is and why she paints. The fact that her work was not intended as a celebration of  a restricted version of “womanhood” does not make her work any less feminist and revolutionary in the way she bares a raw, unadulterated and complex vision through a unique way of painting and looking. As O’Keeffe herself said, in a quote far more memorable than any ire about flowers being compared to vaginas: “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”

Visit the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern until the 30th of October