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Guest blog post on Akabane Swords for Imperial War Museums

I have written a guest blog post for the Imperial War Museum’s Partnerships blog! Read it here.

“What comes to mind when you think of art looted during wartime? Or the kind of weapons used during the Second World War? In both cases, swords are probably not your first choice.”

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Women and swords in art blog post for Art UK

I have written a blog post for Art UK on the subject of women with swords in art! Read Femininity weaponised: a history of women and swords in art. A little extract here…

“Such images redefine what power can look like in the hands of a woman. The armed woman challenges the gender norms of her time or embraces them in ways that assert her femininity, leadership and power. This contrast endlessly captures our collective imagination.”

Saints, Sinners or Seductresses: their representation is double-edged…

A big thanks to Art UK for allowing me to write this article on a subject I have been increasingly fascinated with and focused upon!

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Queer Voices in Museums Symposium with Hull Museums

I was delighted to take part in the Queer Voices in Museums online symposium on exploring queer history and heritage, in a brilliant Thursday morning session facilitated by Dan Vo alongside Katie Cassels, Family Programmes Producer, National Maritime Museum and Jon Sleigh, Freelance Arts Educator and collaborator with Queer British Art.

This was my intervention in a nutshell:

How can we queer museums and heritage in lockdown, focusing on women’s stories in doing so? From YouTube drag and swordswomen podcasts to Anne Lister tweets, experimentation is key. Freelance educator Claire Mead explores how she adapted her practice to a range of digital formats.   

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Taking part in AKT Together Sessions – The World We Built

I am proud to have taken part in ‘The World we Built, part of AKT Together Sessions in support of AKT’s essential work in providing support for young LGBTQI people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness:

“Queer folklorist Sacha Coward is joined by Dan Vo, Claire Mead and
Ben Paites to help ‘queer’ a range of everyday objects in a whistlestop LGBTQ+ history lesson!”

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Living Beyond Limits Exhibition at MIMA

Living Beyond Limits: Art and the Limits of Language, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, 20 October 2018 – 3 February 2019 

This exhibition is the outcome of my 2018-19 curatorial residency at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, funded by Fluxus Art Projects, co-curated with MIMA and its constituents.

To be queer is to be erased from public space and to persist, nevertheless, in making yourself heard. This exhibition queers the museum by reclaiming it as a communal and political space within which marginal voices will not be silenced.

Originally the term queer was used as an insult against lesbian, gay, bi and trans people – and still is in certain places. It was reclaimed in the 1990s by activists intent on challenging norms around gender and sexuality, rather than blend into society, in terms of identities and politics.

Living Beyond Limits showcases works from the Middlesbrough Collection by artists whose life or work deviate from long-held norms around gender and sexuality. However, in this context, queerness is more than an identity marker. The focus of this show is political and activist, and it includes themes around racism, sexism and class inequalities.

Through a programme of public workshops, discussions and zine making during 2018, Living Beyond Limits has been curated through open dialogue with local people and members of the local LGBTQIA+ community. These constituents have contributed to queered re-interpretations of works from the Middlesbrough Collection and offered perspectives related to their own identities and narratives.

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Material Explorations: Waste Streams Programme at Makerversity

My first project as Programme Producer at Makerversity was the delivery of the Waste Streams Exhibition alongside its events and workshops, showcasing works by Makerversity members which aim to incorporate and re-use waste as part of their making and design process. You can read the full blog here!

Extract: “Making sustainable change possible can feel overwhelming when so many products we automatically use or consume within a few minutes can have a long-lasting negative effect on our planet. Yet, our long-term responsibility as individuals can only extend so far as the products available to us as consumers. Radical sustainable change also depends on many wasteful industries being prepared to change the way they work as cheap mass-producers of objects designed to be thrown and replaced. This requires listening to, supporting and working with creative practitioners who can approach a problem from a different viewpoint to change society’s behaviour and perception concerning waste – no longer as a given, but as a precious resource leading to creativity, innovation and social change.”

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Intimate displacements: The UK corridor of Art Rooms Fair London 2018

‘Intimate displacements’ was originally published within the catalogue of Art Rooms London 2018, January 2018.

You wake up and for a moment suspended in thought you do not know where you are in the world. The components are there – bed, sheets, sunlight streaming through, but their meaning is softly blurred like a smudged scrawl whose meaning you can vaguely decipher. This is not home. But where is home? Where does it begin? Then you wonder if all people have so many strange thoughts about hotel rooms, and whether those thoughts linger beyond the time they check out and return to the real world with its flow of information and people, never allowing us time to reconsider our place in the here and now.

Hotel rooms are sites of transition, in between familiarity and anonymity, intimacy and displacement. As we construct ourselves an ephemeral sense of home, we can paradoxically reconnect with our own bodies and relationship to an environment. We can acknowledge the need to change, experiment and make mistakes, to get lost in between spiritual ,virtual and physical realms. We can craft narratives through lost and found elements to make sense of our place in the world, our own sense of space within a vaster whole.  When you feel displaced or you feel at home, is it within a space or within yourself?  From the onset the artists of the UK corridor questioned their relationship to the hotel room as an ambiguous site of interaction and display, dispossessed of the autobiographical memory of a bedroom yet without the impersonal anonymity of a white gallery wall. To reclaim it both as a space and as a bedroom is to foster a special, intimate relationship with the visitor. Throughout the corridor, wandering from door to door and being invited inside for a short while reveals interrelations and fragments around the relationship to the space – and the relationship to the body.

Jodie Wingham explores notions of voyeurism and intimacy in her work, revolving around the notion of revealing what is usually hidden or left half-revealed in order to entice further. Through the staging of subtle signs of intimacy in her series Untitled (Intimacy) , images entice us like the act of peeking through a keyhole: the focus on a gap in an unbuttoned shirt, a fold of skin as legs cross and a skirt rides up slightly, glimpses of intimacy, embraces, touch, in illustrated buttons scattered across the bedroom, like the forgotten witnesses to an encounter we stumble across by chance but which sparks our desire to discover more. An open-ended narrative unfolds within the space, its intimacy and the images we associate from the experiences and memories we project upon hotels filling in the gaps. Through this careful and voyeuristic act of finding and intimating, our experience of the space is slowed down and made more deliberate, attuning the viewer to the particularities of the bedroom as a site of new discoveries, as a catalyst for new relationships to the body, to the space and to the way we evolve within them. As we peer even closer, another revelation – what appears as a photograph is in fact a screen-print, adding a layer of voyeurism to the encounter – a desire to reach out and touch. Here Jodie’s training as a printmaker, as a recent graduate from the Birmingham School of Art,  allows her to disrupt our expectations surrounding an image, creating a new sculptural and material quality, working from photographs while subverting our encounter of these works through their display.

These images are found, their initial context lost and attributed new, elusive narratives, like an erotic collage waiting for additional pieces to complete it. As Beth Horner explores the relationship between exterior and interior spaces, her depictions of domesticity remain intentionally ambiguous and fragmented in a similar way. Low-quality photographs snapped on her phone and reassembled through collage let her intentionally blur the boundaries between the physical and the virtual, with quick sketches and doodles adding humour and life to images such as Window Cat. Glimpses of kitsch imagery in Blue Man reflect upon the peculiar spatial identity of suburbia, while Static Field devolves into abstraction, any sense of home or place obscured through the obsessive reworking of the image. Her  process combines these digital snapshots with experiments on its surface, from printmaking to the addition of found materials. In collage works such as Red Room these physical surfaces are also “painted” over digitally, disrupting and confusing our physical experience of “real” painting – a medium Beth knows how to master in order to better subvert it, following her recent BA in Fine Art: Painting at Wimbledon College of Arts, University of the Arts London. Playing upon the ambiguities of surface in terms of forms mirrors the disruption of narrative and context in Beth’s work. Through autobiographical images of the everyday enhanced and collaged, finding intimacy is seen as a constant process and the interior we create for ourselves as an ever-shifting state. As surfaces and screens overlay and pixel and pigment interact, so do meanings about what it means to exist within a space and the way in which our experiences can be constructed and deconstructed in between physical and immaterial planes.

There is a sensitivity around drawing attention to the flaws, cracks and ambiguities in our relationship to physical and virtual states which takes centre stage in the work of Katie Hallam. Articulated and created around the notion of the beautiful error, her images are a elaborate exploration of a visual language unique to visual technology. It seems all the more fitting that she started developing her artistic practice by sharing her work directly to Instagram, adding a layer of meaning to these works initially displayed in an immaterial space. The glitches we usually take for granted or as an obstacle to the data we want to access are actively encouraged here, through the deliberate corruption of photographs. Element of play and experimentation define Katie’s work, each glitch and warp of the original surface creating a unique artwork through its haphazard nature. Her series TV addresses the particularity and strange beauty of layers of glitching and image transmission failure created by the television screen – bringing back memories of damaged VHS tapes and an awareness of our shifting relationship to media and technology across a few decades. Various stages of pixilation and corruption allow for an element of the surreal in her series People and Places as figures appear half-submerged in a new digital plane. In the meantime, other aspects of her work play with the effects of layering and pixellating subtle colour planes in order to create a poetic impression of digital brushwork, as in the series Clouds.  Other images push the notion of corruption to its limits, creating abstract patterns which would, paradoxically, almost appear as organic elements observed under a microscope. This is the case in the series Chemigrams, blurring our notions of print and pixel, physical trace and virtual fragmentation, abstracted code and organic mark.

The details of the organic made abstract are a vast component of Maria Macc’s artistic process, uncovering our relationship with the body by chartering its insides through an aesthetic lens. Using science as the basis of her practice as an artist and psychologist, her recent research on historical dissection and interventional surgery through her recently awarded Art and Science MA at Central Saint Martins’ and based on her study of pathology specimens in collaboration with Kings College Anatomy Society, including drawing cadavers and studying taxidermy, could read as dispiriting at first sight. However, this exploration is anything but, taking at heart (literally and figuratively) the notions of transformation, decay and regeneration to celebrate the inner dynamics of the body, sparking our morbid curiosity to encourage us to adopt a new perspective on our bodies and ourselves. The room effectively becomes a fragmented site to inner workings, through an installation using a combination of materials bringing up different medical and personal recollections and associations. Medical documents and sketches, born of her collaborations with medical professionals, remain scattered across the desk, providing a record and framework for Maria’s bodily reimagining. Latex and steel provide a framework for projections and wood panels on which organic and visceral textures are layered and laid bare, displayed dramatically but carefully like a crossing between a stage set and a pathology lab. The senses lead towards fragmented ideas of the body embedded throughout the room, through looking and feeling, experiencing a discomfort replaced by curiosity and a desire to become immersed in the biology we all share.

This exploration of the fluctuating and evolving body, and the way in which it may shape our identities and experiences is at the core of Suzann Kundi’s practice. Her autobiographical approach allows for an intimate immersion within a different kind of bodily experience, one related to fluctuating notions of illness, disability and sexuality. Displacement is a constant in her images and time-based media of the body fragmented, reframed and reinterpreted, becomes the site of conflicting feelings of intimacy and alienation, past challenges and future hopes. In For Personal Use Only, the photo etching personal photographs with medical care objects, with a feeling that one cannot be dissociated for the other, creating a space for narratives which go beyond our assumptions of living with a disability. With an MA in printmaking from the Royal College of Art obtained in 2008, Suzanne’s practice has continuously used the engraving while experimenting with and expanding towards new techniques. Her photography of fragmented and re-imagined parts of the body, are subsequently recreated into etchings and time-based media, while her use of sculptures as well as models in the Monster series defined her interest in provoking conversations around our own body images and perceptions. What is a “monstrous” body – and on whose terms? These interdisciplinary material process allow for a multi-layered visual approach to disability and illness. Their intimate and sensitive tone allow for a shift in perspective, challenging the viewer to emphasize with notions of physical displacement.

Creating an intimate conversation with the body as a site of struggles, complexities and differences extends into portraiture, meant to capture this interiority, frozen in a particular time and place. Victoria Heald’s portraiture is rooted in this notion of dialogue between viewer and sitter, while reclaiming oil painting as a medium which can draw from past traditions in order to be reinterpreted from a new perspective. Ignited at Chelsea Art College while studying for a BA in Fine Art, Victoria’s curiosity in reflective surfaces used in portraiture allowed for her practice to unfold around the ways in which the representation of her subjects could also provoke a direct engagement and immersion of the viewer in her pieces. Her paintings of figures on reflective backgrounds, seemingly devoid of a particular time or place allows the visitor to “reflect”, both literally and figuratively, upon the painting and the new meanings that can be related to it within a new space. After using aluminium as part of her process, the use of gold refers back to both modern and historical uses within art history, from the backgrounds of medieval religious paintings to the stylised and jewel-like portraits by Gustav Klimt. As the light and reflections shifts,  so does her methodology, as she both accepts portrait commissions and actively seeks out sitters whose attitude seems to convey a spirit and idea corresponding to her vision for a work. The flatness of the gold surface contrasts with the intricate and vibrant use of blue in Contemplation II, whose composition and palette construct an image drawing from religious and regal imagery alike, while capturing the sitter’s moment of quiet reflection. The reflected interactions of the viewer intersect with attitudes, gestures and states of mind captured onto the surface, testimonies not only to an artful painterly technique but also the crafting of a relationship between viewer and paintbrush. With a surface that would at first appear smooth and flat, Victoria creates a myriad of subtle experimentations in colour, form and composition, the life found in her representations surrounded by gold making them seem like poised religious icons for a new age and urban space. Her series of pen and ink architectural buildings across London seem to counter this carefully layered suspended animation with a sharp and spontaneous line, creating spaces which contrast with the gold-leafed emptiness of her portraits, as if her sitters had been displaced from these sites to sit in their own realm within spatial definition.

This experimentation with medium and surface to convey an organic and almost tactile notion of transforming bodies reflects Chris Horner’s process. Working hand in hand with the notion of chance and error as he currently studies for an MA in Fine Art at University for the Creative Arts, Farnham his work revolves around the creation of  elements which read as physical imprints of the body in all its vulnerability and intimacy. His Paulin series toys with the boundaries between textile, sculpture and image, creating playful and experimental topologies with a skin-like textural quality. In the context of a bedroom and of the presences and absences that pervade it, the creases of his crumpled structures in Towel Trace or Microcrystalline can become reminiscent of folds of skin, the crinkled crevasses of a discarded towel on a bathroom floor, playing with notions of the organic and the mineral. The body need not appear directly in order to become a constant, pervasive presence. Through these objects, Chris maps our relationship to our bodies and surroundings, the physical and mental imprints we leave behind as time edges on, materializing new forms and possibilities, new rituals for existing, changing and evolving. This obsessive means takes the form of a particular ritualistic approach to handling and deconstructing these textile forms, in a routine-like process which allows for an ever-changing long-term relationship with the material.

This sense of ritual and relationship to the space is contrasted with Alice Cooke’s approach, exploring the way in which a sense of belonging within a space is rooted in gendered differences. In her work, an strong awareness of the feminine body is put forward, as a shell formed by expectations and pressures of the outside world, a process fostering feelings of alienation and estrangement. “Is it that I cannot see myself without seeing myself being seen?” This question by Iris Marion informs her own practice around the conflict between interiority and exterior perceptions as a woman, and led to her series Is it that I cannot see myself? using photography and film, drawing upon her recent BA in Photography at the London College of Communication. What does it mean to take up space within the world? Displacement and disappearance colour her approach to the body, considering the way in which women are made to perform femininity and a defined acceptable presence within the space. How to reclaim and subvert a way of moving and expressing the body within a given space? Alice magnifies these patterns in behaviour and gender expectations through her work mingling performance, photography and film, highlighting the particularity of movement by reclaiming and subverting their meaning. Reclaiming this body within the natural landscape resonates with Alice’s concerns around the idea of returning to natural and autobiographical roots, the often animalistic movement and ritual pagan-like nature of her interventions perhaps reflecting a long-lost freedom. The landscapes represent those of the artist’s birthplace, Cornwall, returning to the roots of a sense of belonging, home and newfound intimacy with a displaced body. In doing so, a subtle and intense dialogue forms between the body and the land, both elements of the other’s presence, blurring boundaries and creating new spiritual and non-human connections. The mind transcends a physical shell in order to converse with the landscape in order to find itself rooted within the world again.

This notion of performance exploring the expectations of the feminine body also express through these animalistic, improvised movements its potential as a site of resistance. In EJ Major’s work, this sense of performance related to identity becomes intertwined with her process as a photographer and visual artist,  using both digital and analogue tools to manipulate photographs and construct a new image challenging notions of authenticity and historical “accuracy”. Image and language become means through which to create new stories and question why these stories are still asking to be rewritten and re-enacted. As a photography BA student and in possession of an MFA in Art Practice from Goldsmiths, her studies first began in the realm of social sciences. The intersection between this socially aware approach and her visual experimentation becomes all the more apparent in the series Shoulder to Shoulder, with the notion of reclaiming historical narratives in order to reinterpret them in a new space and social context. Its exploration of the Suffragette Movement leads to the reimagining and reframing of the slashing of the Rockeby Venus in the National Gallery through the set Venus Vanitas/Seriously Damaged by Attack/Self-Portrait with Slasher Mary while the Contact Sheet series re-interprets the Suffragette movement through the documentation of a Climate Change protest and chaining to the gates of Parliament dressed as a Suffragette prisoner. The archiving and presentation of the process intentionally blurs any feeling of authenticity or defined temporality, forcing us to make a double-take and question the images we are being given. This subverted history of feminist protest adds an additional layer of meaning to her series ‘love is…’. The phrase is a prompt whose blanks demand to be filled in, and were – by the strangers it was sent to via a postcard. Serving as a caption for each individual frame of the film Last Tango in Paris on her cards, a particular relationship is forged between the iconic film and participants’ response, either creating a disconnect or a meaningful moment, either displacing meaning or creating an intimate moment and vaster conversation between image and language.

As this exploration of femininity is laid bare in ways which parallel Alice’s work, her deep, physical engagement with the landscape also leads into the elements at the core of Charlotte Barlas’ work. In this instance however, her own spiritual immersion within the natural environment leads to a physical translation and reinterpretation of its effect through sculpture, a practice she refined during a BA in Fine Art at Leeds College of Art. Her use of material reflects a desire to remain both mentally and physically related to the earth she has derived energy and creativity from, with the use of stones and rocks combined with steel and copper. The contrast of this refined material with original mineral “brute” matter is at times left as a means of formal contrast between original states and their transformations, and in other works softened by letting steel and copper weather facing the elements, their oxidation and rust, usually seen as negative serving as a reminder of their earthly, non-industrialized origins. As translations of a shifting, transforming landscapes, the sculptures are anything but static: unfolding through the space, their shape shifts according to the viewers’ movement and perceptions, mirroring Charlotte’s own encounters of the natural world. This notion of carving out a space and engaging with a particular relationship with the viewer circling around it creates a strong interactive element, here heightened by the new context in which the works can be found. Usually exhibited outside, Charlotte wished to engage directly with the notion of bringing her interpretation of the natural and untamed landscape within a small and controlled environment. The result creates a dialogue performed in movements and shifts in perspective between sculpture and viewer around intimacy and motion.

This sculptural element related to an exploration of organic environments  finds itself in the work of Lam Ly under a variety of forms. Expanding from sculpture into other materials has only expanded and enriched her ideas around space, materiality and absence. After a break in her art practice following graduation in 1995 from a Fine Art degree from Newcastle University, and at her return to art in 2010, foam started Lam’s sculptural exploration around the representation of the sea, deconstructing and abstracting her relationship to its forms and manifestations across sculpture and drawing alike. In The Diver this takes the form of lines converging towards a figure immerse in water. The continuation of her exploration of drawing has led to formal exploration around geometric compositions, ways of situating ourselves within a space, to be immersed and eventually lost within it. Ultimately, the representation of the sea is fragmented and reinterpreted in the notion of the void – blurring boundaries between the feeling of absence and distanciation in the physical body and the in-between, ambiguous nature of a body of water. The relationship Lam shares with the sea and its expression in her work  has been expanded in her interactive sculptural work. Within the room, she invites visitors to participate in constructing, deconstructing and re-assembling blocks forming abstract structures, allowing them to form their own relationships with the sculpture, the space and the visitors they encounter. Attempts to reclaim a body and space can be to translate its experience into experiments with form, both material and digital. But ultimately, attempts to engage with the environment and the body relate with the need to connect with one another, throughout a hotel corridor space usually reserved for distant acknowledgement and familiar strangers rubbing shoulders but rarely taking the time to engage with one another.

Building a physical relationship with the sea draws a subtle relation between Joy Trpkovic’s practice in dialogue with that of Charlotte Barlas and Lam Ly. The sensitive translation of the sea’s organic elements into her ceramic works allows for an approach to craft which is nonconventional and playful, both drawing upon her education in fine art at Goldsmiths’ and Sussex University, and her ten years of experience focusing upon ceramics. Rather than base herself on a specific ceramic crafting tradition built around consistency and stability, she allows herself to experiment with the notions of error and chance, from the first formation of her creatures into clay to their final firing. A process of high fired porcelain creates risk and a challenge for every work which ultimately leads to an impression of lightness and translucency in her ultimate products. Each crease and crinkle becomes a unique trait due to unpredictable effects in the firing, very much like the glitches Katie is adamant upon celebrating or the inconsistent creases and folds Chris Horner creates in his textile works. Furthermore, this bending of craft’s rules is taken further by formal contrasts between the delicacy of porcelain and the roughness of black stoneware in many of her works. This fragile balance in terms of form and the fragile ecosystem based around crafting, timing and climate allowing for the creation of her works reflects her own concerns around the fragility of marine ecosystems.  The hybrid-like nature of the creatures which marine ecosystems inspire her is also a testimony to what we may so easily lose.

In the same way, Rafael Atencia’s ceramic work around texture and surface experiments with the challenges of the craft in order to stretch his limits, reinterpreting the decorative tradition of layering techniques and texture glazes to achieve his own personal visions. With a degree in Ceramic Design from Central Saint Martins’, his approach is collage-like, borrowing from various traditions and firing techniques in order to create a piece of craftsmanship which is both experimental and a sincere tribute to the traditions of craftspeople before him. Taking shoals of fish as his elegant subject matter, his aim is also to explore the fragility of ecosystems but from a different, rarely-explored viewpoint – that of the slow disappearance of local legacies, via the disappearance of the fisherman industry, within the South of Spain he originates from. This notion of absence and slow eroding of legacies is further explore alongside his series of fish, with vessels imitating the “tornos” found washed upon southern Spanish beaches, abandoned and left to slowly become incorporated into the landscape. Rafael’s work allows the natural ecosystems of the ocean and the traditional techniques of his homeland to cohabitate as a commentary on the way in which the industrialization of the industry rather than remain on a human scale is what is driving the depletion of marine resources as well as the creation of an environmental imbalance. Red becomes a colour linked to alarm, contrasting with the elegance and fluidity of his sculptures and stoneware and the cold tones usually associated with marine life in order to raise awareness on their waning existence. 

From room to room, these relational strands can be rooted into a specific intimacy and interiority often steeped in autobiography, unfolding from the insides of the human body (medically, erotically, painfully). They can map our links to the natural environment, drawing up tense and complex dialogues between nature’s impact on our inner balance and the way we disrupt fragile ecologies with our presence. They can unfurl into the act of looking and re-enacting, performing the body within a space like a ritualistic attempt to reconnect with a lost feeling of belonging, rooted in gender and sexuality.  The trace of the body expressed into material create new presences at the intersection of the organic and the artificial.

You wake up and you don’t know who you are. Perhaps it is home, perhaps another displacement.  Perhaps you never find out. Perhaps what matters is not how to seek out this perfect connection, but the experiments, tension, ambiguity and curiosity along the way.

Welcome home  and have a safe journey.

 

 

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Golem at Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme in Paris

If (as the Greek affirmed in the Cratylus)
the name is archetype of the thing
in the letters of “rose” is the rose
and all the Nile in the word “Nile”.

 And, made of consonants and vowels,
there’ll be a terrible Name, which
guards in precise letters and syllables
the ciphered essence of God and the Omnipotence.

The verses in Spanish recited in a low rumbling voice by Luis Borges himself invade the darkened space, a cryptic and lyrical introduction to our exhibition’s main protagonist as a video of Jakob Gautel’s performance Matière Première (1999) sees the slow modelling, perfecting and . The Golem is the iconic creature of Jewish lore, a mass of man-shaped clay which comes to live when the word EMET (truth) is carved into its forehead, and returning to a pile of dust and dirt as soon as a letter is removed to form MET (death). From the onset, however, it is obvious that this will not simply be a historical account of a legend, but rather an exploration of the ways in which its presence has trickled down into art, science-fiction, cinema and even video games. Beyond the fantasy of the creature coming to life, there are deeper-seated meanings. The Golem represents the tension between being animated and being truly “alive” as a person. Furthermore, like Frankenstein and his monster, a vast part of the Golem’s myth lies in relation to its maker. The most famous protagonist of the Golem legend is Rabbi Löw, the 16th century Maharal of Prague, who created the Golem of Prague to defend the Jewish ghetto from antisemitic pogroms. Beyond the myth and its power as a symbol of resistance, the tension between creator and creature, maker and object, have fed into the collective artistic conscience up until now.

Thirsting to know what God knows,
Judah Loew arranged permutations
of letters and complex variations
and finally pronounced the Name: the Key,

the Door, the Echo, the Guest and the Palace,
over a doll which with clumsy hands
he carved, to teach it the secrets
of the Letters, of Time and of Space.

1. Wegener.jpg
Paul Wegener, Le Golem, comme il vint au monde, 1920.
Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin © succession Paul Wegener

This is a peculiar exhibition which escapes any attempt to categorise by object, preferring a loose thematic which starts at the basics of the legends then unfurls into questions of personhood, resistance and artificial intelligence. Rather than being relegated to a special room, a sideline to the historical content, contemporary art is present from the very beginning. It is deeply rooted into the space of the exhibition with the work of Lionel Sabatté, Smile in Dust (2016) which uses the dust picked up in the museum itself to create a composite portrait of the Golem, highlighting the fragility of a creature born from dust and the poignant image of a figure born from a collective Jewish heritage and imagination. This is because the Golem has never been a fixed historical and legendary figure: his significance is as malleable as the clay he is made of. The expressive and dramatic films of the 1920s and 1930s reveal the Golem as a political figure but also a subjective one. It is inevitable to misread the Golem from Wegnerer’s Der Golem (1915) as anything but a figure of resistance against a dangerously growing antisemetic sentiment. The same case can be made in no subtle terms by Julien Duvivier’s Golem in 1936. However, Jean Kerchbon’s 1967 film chooses to portray the Golem as just another facet of the main protagonist, away from political concerns into the psychological. Both films use experimental camera work to convey the statue coming to life – shaky camerawork and plunging shots channeling a tense and erratic state of mind.  This feeling runs throughout the exhibition: the Golem is the reflection of what we create and what we fear to become.

8. Kiefer.jpg
Anselm Kiefer
Rabi Low : Der Golem, 1988-2012
95 × 95 × 58 cm
Anselm Kiefer, courtesy galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris-Salzbourg

The figure becomes a signifier for Jewish resistance in visual culture as well as an interrogation on existence and agency. Navigating throughout the exhibition, Joann Sfar’s comic on the Golem rubs shoulders with a Minecraft-style animation in which the creature comes to life to wreak pixellated havoc. Further away, Niki de St-Phalle’s golem is a strange but benevolent monster which children can use as a slide in a garden in Jerusalem. Anselm Kiefer’s interpretation, meanwhile, in Rabi Löw: Der Golem (1988-2012) is more abstract and solemn, the Golem trapped in its original form to which its creator’s name is attached. It is as if representation itself has become too much: the very idea and notion of the creature which would emerge from a mound of matter becomes enough. Kiefer’s particular work around German memory and pain, combines with his interest in kabbala lore, takes on the mythos of the Golem with purposes that are clearly understood yet never explicitely stated. In the space, its presence feels commemorative, like a space of prayer, a feeling heightened by the work by Christian Boltanski next to it. In Le Golem (1988) the creature is reduced to a silhouette, a play of light and shadow.  The main criticism of the exhibition could be that it had so many complex strands to play with that some may have become tangled along the way. The way in which the Golem was a part of comic-book pop culture alongside the Incredible Hulk feels slightly dissonant; so do the video-game interventions which feel more like a fleeting argument that a powerful statement. Far more interesting is the notion of what it means to animate an idea and to toy with this concept, playing God until it is taken too far.  Jan Svankmajer’s Darkness Light Darkness (1989) is a dark and funny take on a clay body defining and constructing itself into existence in a process that is both grostesque and engrossing.

The final part of the exhibition is compelling in and of itself and was perhaps what I was really looking for in the contemporary, pop-cultural references: the current feeling of unease we have when we face our own sentient but non-human creations. The iconic robot from Metropolis looms over the visitors as the Golem’s legacy updated into artificial intelligence is unravelled beautifully, from Hiroshi Ishiguro’s uncanny twin android to Lars Lundsröm’s series Real Humans about a society in which robots have developed emotions and a thirst for agency.  Fritz Lang’s Metropolis robot, Maria, towers gracefully over the proceedings as the golem of the new age. Our anxieties and fascination around robots and artificial intelligence shows that what the Golem represents has never disappeared. In fact, the Golem feels more powerfully conveyed through silicone and metal than clay. The exhibition does not attempt to attribute any moral or immoral commentary on artificial intelligence. Instead, it does exactly what the Golem does in the first place as an enduring piece of Jewish mythology trickled into the mainstream. It raises a mirror to the fears and hopes we have about creating animate beings, the anxiety and fantasy of looking up to powerful beings who could also destroy us if they spin out of control.

10. Metropolis
Walter Schulze- Mittendorff
Copie, réalisée par Moulages du Louvre en 1994, de Maria, le robot du film Metropolis
(1926) de Fritz Lang
Résine peinte, 190 × 74 × 59 cm
Paris, Cinémathèque française

 

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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

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BLU’s street art animation

Street art mocks permanence and stillness. Even though there may be a documented trace of a graffiti on a wall, nothing can predict the length of time it shall stay up, whether it will stand its ground for years or barely a night. It could stand the test of time or end up covered in countless other layers of street art or censoring paint. However, the power lies in its creation and its interaction with a space that remains unclaimed and untamed, without artistic boundaries. Perhaps, then, it made sense that street art would meet animation within Blu’s work.

Blu is an anonymous Italian artist, who has been doing street art for years, working with white housepaint and black outlines to convey monstrous, changing figures with social and political sharpness, adapting to the architectural space and political mood of the city to his murals, always created within a space for free. Even though Blu has been noticed by museums and galleries alike, collaboration has not always been successful: he was invited by the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Francisco to paint a mural for their “Art in the Street” exhibition which was promptly covered up the next day. Most recently, his animosity towards street art within the museum took a distinctly radical turn. Upon learning in March about the exhibition Banksy: Street Art & Co in Palazzo Pepoli, within his home town of Bologna, in which his street art featured amongst many others that had been removed from the street without their artist’s consent, he painted over 20 years’ worth of his street art within the city. The gesture was a defiant sign of protest against the commodification and hoarding of art that ought to remain within the public realm. He has also painted over his own work to resist an area’s gentrification because of it.

Resisting stagnation and fears of destruction, sometimes conducting it willingly in order to move forward, it perhaps made sense that Blu would look towards animation. The animated mural he worked on in Buenos Aires, MUTO, took him a year to complete, for seven minutes of film.

It is a disturbing and dynamic metamorphosis in constant evolution, which maps the walls of a run-down part of the city, spreading into rubble and derelict buildings. Just as one painting replaces another to create movement on the walls, the effects of this creation are left visible, through the white paint residue of erased artwork and the time-lapse of the sky, moving cars and passers-by. The effect is not “clean” or seamless, on the contrary letting us peer through all the cracks, breaking the illusion. In another animated mural, BIG BANG BIG BOOM, the painters themselves are left as part of the final effect. This only adds to the effect when the paintings interact with actual objects; here, Blu also plays with stop-motion animation on city objects and detritus of the everyday, as well as some passers-by turned actors.

Animation has no rules – except, perhaps, the constraint of expressing a succession of images in sequence. The original animations  were made on Ancient Egyptian murals so that charioteers riding past at full speed could see different images following each other at such a rate that persistance of vision would blend them into a movement. In the same way, Blu’s EVOLUTION OF MAN , while not a video in itself, would probably create an animated effect at a faster speed – or would slow the process of animation and change down into a thoughtful, contemplative walk alongside the walls of an anonymous street to follow the stories of an anonymous artist.

Blu’s animated stories have only one space in which their display reflects their true spirit: the street. Attempting to preserve a fragment of the story warps its driving creative force, the power it draws from the ephemeral, the city and its fleeting encounters.