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The Royal Academy of Art describes its annual selling show, the Summer Exhibition as: “the largest open contemporary exhibition in the art world” …and…”a unique showcase for art of all styles and media.”

How do you critique an exhibition like this? This is my dilemma. How do you avoid simply reporting? Writing a list? How do you read the exhibition? How do you listen to it? How do you identify the trends? Interpret what the show means? How do you look at 1,200 works of art?

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is… a mixture of memory and desire. Nostalgic is an unfashionable term, but this is nostalgia for another age of art. The salon-style hang. The neo-classical interior. The authority of the academy. There are some new patterns, commonalities and absences along with the familiar genres of the old world.

Yinka bows to greet visitors as they enter, his back loaded high with cake. Dumas and Joffee smile forlorn painted smiles. Strands of hair, heavy metal, an anomalous architectural model. “More poetry is needed,” says Jeremy Deller. “But when you are actually flying, to be honest its not that interesting,” concedes Bob and Roberta Smith.

Signage and slogans reoccur. Along with baboons: I think I counted four or five. The rooms are individually curated by Royal Academicians. Cornelia Parker’s room is black and white, against which the red dots stand out (she deals with this later).

There are no labels on the wall, each work is numbered; all our heads are buried in our price list books. Eight and nine have sold well. I have seen the work of 1193 somewhere before… I test myself to see how many of the works I can correctly attribute.

Screwing up modernism. Imprisoning brutalism. We have a lot to see, hurry up. A splash of red paint in your face. Wolfgang Tillman’s photograph looks like the inside of eyes when you rub them. Tim Shaw has created a host of fashionable folk. Ivor Abraham’s nurtured natural form grows up and spills all over the floor.

It’s the 21st century but we haven’t moved on from the art object. Visiting them, lusting after them, owning them. This isn’t where the cutting edge of art is happening. It may be in the Royal Academy graduate show, but it isn’t here. Here van Gogh and Marilyn Monroe are still present but now they are made from the heads of pins. Did we ever really get over Pop?

“When given a choice between mars black and ivory black I always choose ivory black,” says John Baldessari. I start to play games: inventing collective nouns: a kitsch of Raes, a fantasy of Shaws, a face of portraits, a drowning of frames.

“I wonder how they choose the works?” asks a woman stood next to me. That is the question. The Royal Academy doesn’t answer. However they decide what to show, the result is like speed dating with 1,200 art works. It isn’t a bad way to meet new artists – and I leave with about 30 numbers in my notebook, to follow up later with a deeper encounter.

The architecture room, curated by Eric Parry, is concerned with conceiving and designing. This runs counter to the fine art, which is about final product. Sub-selections and sub-curators give the whole exhibition a pleasant awkwardness. Some say that ghosts are simply vibrations trapped in an object like music in a vinyl record. If these walls hold a trace of all of the artworks that they have seen in 250 years, no wonder it is so loud in here.

In John Maine’s room there is a row of little maquettes. Something attracts me to a sculptural object that can be held within two hands. Maybe because I could pick it up and take it away. It’s all about ownership, again.

The humble canvas is pushed to its limits. To do more, contain more, become a sculpture. Do we even need a presiding style? Are we beyond this? Does the art of ‘now’ exist online anyway? What is the difference between this exhibition and a catalogue? Digital and print can’t give us scale and surface, perhaps we will always need these qualities. Or want them.

Scratches, drips, marks; over trees, interiors, portraits and pure abstraction, cityscapes, still lives and some cheeky green breasts. I feel like I have seen some of the works before… maybe because I glimpsed them through a doorway five minutes ago, or could it be because they are recycling an old idea? What is missing? There is very little film, no installation, no performance, little documentation, no audio, no avatars. Nothing that can’t be bought and sold.

A democracy of prints. There are fragments and ruins. Dodos and David Cameron. Puns. Suburbs. It’s all very Western. British, even. “Tracey Emin?” says a visitor next to me. “I don’t care for her stuff at all.”

A giant worm emerges through the trees. Sweets, bees, trapeze. “I like this nun on a bike…” says an elderly gentleman, “I think it’s … amusing.”

There is something… accessible in all of this. Permission to like and dislike, engage or ignore on a whim, without having to defend our choices. It’s a return to the emotional rather than the cerebral in art. The pieces have to work their magic in just a few seconds. Jennifer Dickson and Tim Lewis lead me to wonderful places, but I can’t stay there very long.

The final rooms are where the monumental work is found. Earthwork images, film, a pile of dish scourers. Work waiting to be bought by a museum. James Turrell’s Sensing Thought. Work that requires you to be slow, when you need to be quick, be greedy, see everything.

Have I given it all a chance? To be seen, understood, consumed? This show is a showroom. The individual works will never be a whole. Maybe the artists like it that way. “Its all so derivative” one man says. Maybe he has seen another baboon.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai, August 2014

Ribbons, Ed Atkins, Serpentine Sackler Gallery / Exhibition 2014

Sometimes I suspect that the art that I like isn’t necessarily the art of my era. I will have to wait until the future for history to confirm this. Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the new media art of, say, Haroon Mirza or Pipilotti Rist. But on occasion I wonder whether what we call fine art or contemporary art is actually quite backwards-looking. That the art of ‘now’ isn’t objects or performance, film, paper or canvas, but that it is digital – and we can’t quite accept that yet.

Then I see something like Ribbons at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in sunny Hyde Park, and it really says something to me about optimism, darkness and life in the 21st century. The protagonist is an avatar, the artist is Ed Atkins, and the result is eliciting strong and polarized opinions.

The video installation itself is prefaced by text works, which carry on from the interpretation’s artspeak poetry; printed typeface augmented with hand-drawn cartoons, gestures and photocopied body parts. The artist invites us to expect “old powder rooms, haunted by the phantom smell of gunpowder, paranoia and anticipation of violence.”  The term ‘misanthropic’ is used, along with ‘melodrama’ and, most intriguingly, ‘torettic injections.’ One imagines that all these words have been carefully chosen, given that Atkins was Whitechapel Gallery’s writer in residence in 2012-13.

The lead man, Ribbons, a CGI creation, sings of madness whilst his cigarette burns down to the filter, leaving a tower of ash. His head deflates amongst empty pint glasses, his hand squeezes a tumbler until it smashes into bloodless shards. The sound is arranged to lead the audience from screen to screen around the barn-like space. Semi-stand-alone videos of a head bouncing down stairs and a glory hole or two act as punctuation.

The aesthetic seems deliberately antagonistic. Ribbons is a skin-head Ken-doll, his body inscribed with ‘troll’ and ‘ass hole’ – homemade prisoner tattoos meet a teenage pencil case. His mouth opening and closing doesn’t always line up with the soundtrack – this isn’t a showcase of new technology for its own sake. There are allusions to aspects of homosexual culture, but he doesn’t appear to be judging, exploring or celebrating it. More using it as a style, or a means to take an idea to its conclusion, to present a lonely soul trapped simultaneously in the net and at the bottom of a glass.

The artist seems to delight in causing confusion. He re-tweeted one visitor who said: “Went to the Ed Atkins exhibition at Serpentine Sackler Gallery@SerpentineUK & had no idea what was going on at all!” and another who asked: “@Ed_Atkins what’s going on in his head? Is he a nutter or what?” To be shut out of the meaning on some level doesn’t ruin the experience for me: it works conceptually as he is dealing with navigating the, often dark and slippery, online world. Another criticism leveled at the piece is that it is somehow too masculine, or too extreme to be relatable. Whatever your view point, this is highly finished, ambitious work, which offers an antidote to too many works of contemporary art that are recycling old ideas, plain lazy or disappointing.

Atkins makes work for the modern world, but it belongs in a gallery context, due to its monumental proportions and inspired use of sound and space. He pulls us into a digital dystopia and the digital into the everyday. By using some familiar strategies, combining them with references to sexual subculture, a knowing use of typography, sound and pop music, he has produced a ‘new art’ – which perhaps only the future will find the words to describe, and perhaps only with hindsight we will completely understand.

Linda Pittwood

Ed Atkins’ Ribbons continues at the Serpentine, London until 25 August 2014, free entry

Originally published on thedoublenegative.co.uk and a_n news

 

Certain works of art embed themselves in the international consciousness, in a way that eclipses the artist’s life and transcends the circumstances of their making. In Piet Mondrian’s case, it isn’t so much one painting that does this as the ‘look’ of his mature oeuvre.

His legacy could be seen not so much as one of a painter but of a design style – appropriate given his affiliation with the De Stijl (Dutch for ‘the style’) group in the early decades of the twentieth century. This makes him stand out, even when compared to other extremely well known artists associated with one work, such as Edvard Munch and The Scream or Leonardo da Vinci and The Mona Lisa.

Much of what is written about Mondrian can be traced back to his essay Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art, which was first published serially in the Die Stijl journal in the 1920s. The term ‘Neo Plasticism’ loosely translates as ‘new art’, and refers to Mondrian’s pure abstract style and use of black lines and blocks of primary colour.

Perhaps the more interesting story here has been identified by art historians such as Nancy J. Troy, who says that to study Mondrian is to shine a light on the relationship between popular culture and the canonisation of art. However, for someone who had such a massive impact on the visual vocabulary of the 20thcentury – what do we really know about him? And what do we know about his art?

Mondrian’s paintings appear smooth, flat and graphic, but in the flesh even the white areas are textured with brushstrokes. His work appears to have a unifying look, but it was constantly evolving over his lifetime – earlier works demonstrate the influence of other modernist heavy-weights, including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Later work, whilst seemingly abstract, does contain references to the ‘real’ world.

"Mondrian" day dress, autumn 1965 Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936) Wool jersey in color blocks of white, red, blue, black, and yellow Gift of Mrs. William Rand, 1969 (C.I.69.23)

The painting Broadway Boogie Woogie, produced in in the last years of his life, refers to the grid-like formation of the New York streets and boogie woogie music. For an artist whose vision seemed so clear, his work can be traced by both his country of residence and various friendships and associations. Notably, towards the end of his fifty-year career, he became a mentor to the younger British artist Ben Nicholson, and he lived for a period in London.

His abstract paintings appear simple, but his extensive writings (first published together in an anthology called The New Art The New Life in 1993) reveal artistic aims and theories that are staggeringly complex. In an early conversation between Mondrian and a critic, the artist explains that all painting is about ‘relationships’ and his neoplastic work simply expressed relationships using only colour and line.

His earlier work was similarly about relationships but focused on those within nature – the problem with this, he said, is that “in the capriciousness of nature, form and colour are weakened by the curvature and by the corporeality of things.” He went so far in the end as to object to the very presence of nature, and even to the colour green, which is entirely absent from his later work.

Unbelievably, considering how well known he is now, Mondrian was not successful in his lifetime. It wasn’t until his 70s that he began to sell out exhibitions; before then he often considered quitting and taking up a more ordinary and stable profession. His perseverance won out, and by the time he died in 1944, the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and Peggy Guggenheim had both purchased pieces directly from his shows – a little over twenty years later his work was immortalized as a dress by the legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent and his influence on broader design culture was secured. Fast-forward to 2014, and Mondrian’s paintings are reproduced on iPhone covers, trays, sandals, candles, duvet covers, t-shirts and cake, whilst the originals sell at auction for millions.

What Piet Mondrian demonstrates is that an artist who seems very familiar can have a lot more going on beneath the (seemingly smooth) surface. The story of Mondrian that we know really started after the artist died – when he transitioned from an artist on the fringe, steeped in theory, to an artist whose name is attached to any combination of primary coloured blocks and black outlines.

How exactly this occurred is a question that is difficult to answer, and as a phenomenon it is as mysterious and fascinating as the artist himself.

Linda Pittwood

Mondrian and his Studios at Tate Liverpool continues until 5 October 2014

Image: ”Mondrian” day dress, autumn 1965, Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936). Wool jersey in color blocks of white, red, blue, black, and yellow. Gift of Mrs. William Rand, 1969 (C.I.69.23) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

First published on thedoublenegative.co.uk

In March this year, Intellect published the first issue of the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art.  The individual articles can be purchased individually here. This includes my article: The headless woman in contemporary Chinese art.  It investigates work by Liu Jianhua, Lin Tianmiao, Yu Chang and Wang Xingwei; below is the abstract:

Keywords
contemporary Chinese art,headless woman,identity,propaganda,Cultural Revolution

Abstract
In this article, selected works by four Chinese artists who emerged towards the end of the twentieth century are examined. The works have in common the motif of the headless woman. This motif is explored within the historical timeframe in which they have lived, trained, emerged as professional artists and produced these works; investigated in relation to the artists’ contact with the work of European and American artists using the same motif; considered in the context of the lives of women in the PRC following the end of the Cultural Revolution, and in relation to ideas about individualism and collectivism (and particularly the move from one to the other) in China.

Lin Tianmiao Mother's!!! No. 12-1 (detail), 2008. Courtesy: The artist

Lin Tianmiao Mother’s!!! No. 12-1 (detail), 2008. Courtesy: The artist

 

Chinese Gate from the series The Dark Ages copyright Jamie Lau 2014

Chinese Gate from the series The Dark Ages copyright Jamie Lau 2014

Earlier this week I went to see the new exhibition at Open Eye gallery in Liverpool. The gallery describes the show as an audio, visual survey of the history and changes that have taken place within the oldest Chinese community in Europe; it is curated by exhibition coordinator Jill Carruthers. Ebb and Flow presents a mixture of fine art photography, archive material, photojournalism and sound recordings.

The exhibition takes a reverse chronological approach, starting with newly commissioned work by artist Jamie Lau. Lau’s photographs show the glow of street signs at night, demonstrating his skillful handling of chiaroscuro, perhaps partly due to his mixed media practice, which also includes sculpture. Lau we are told is an outsider to the community (and the city – he is based in London). His work seems a bit detached – very beautiful and painterly, with shades of Edward Hopper or Ed Rusha.

Lau’s work is evocative of Chinatown as a place, but it doesn’t focus on the individuals and the personalities of the community. The other fine art photographer in the exhibition, however, does just this. Martin Parr has documented many aspects of Merseyside life during his forty-year career. His images in this exhibition are typical of his ‘intimate, satirical and anthropological’ style, resulting in work that is a bit kitsch, a bit funny; strong images that potentially say more about Parr than his subjects – so distinctive is his lens.

A very different anthropological approach is practiced by The Sound Agents. They collect aural histories, ephemera and archive material to preserve the personal stories of a community that dates back to 1834 and eighty years later is the city’s largest non-white ethnic group. In this exhibition, the outcomes of their research serve as useful context, rather than contributing critically.

The final section of the exhibition, on the top floor, comprises images by photojournalist Bert Hardy. What elevates this group of photographs is the note in the interpretation that they were not published by his employer, Picture Post, in the 1940s because they revealed the hardship of the Chinese seamen – who were paid less than their white British counterparts – and would have caused a scandal. It’s interesting to put this last, so we don’t read all the work as being defined by this inauspicious foundation.

What this exhibition demonstrates is how important the community is to the character and history of modern Liverpool. No one element of this exhibition can tell the whole account of the Chinese residents of the city, however, the different strands of the show complement each other well. The only thing that could be considered missing is fine art or critical content generated by the community itself.

Concept image by Li Xiaodong

Concept image by Li Xiaodong

There is nothing unusual these days about three Chinese contemporary artists having concurrent shows in central London. Or, for that matter, a Chinese practitioner from any discipline being included in a survey exhibition of their field here.  What follows are some thoughts on the current snap shot of Chinese art on show in the UK capital, through the filter of my current research focus: the relationship between translation and curatorial practise in the display of Chinese art outside the PRC.

The first exhibition was He Xiangyu at White Cube, Bermondsey.  The venue recalls The Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin. An abundance of space, a different scale to most comparable galleries. Doors so vast I assumed they were a loading bay rather than the entrance that visitors should use.  Xiangyu was one of three artists on show in separate solo presentations. His work requires space (in particular to accommodate a full size tank made from luxury Italian leather) but also brings our attention to the tiny and fragile. On this occasion to a pagoda made from his own wisdom teeth.

Wisdom Tower, 2013 by He Xiangyu

Wisdom Tower, 2013 by He Xiangyu

Xiangyu was born in 1986 and is based in Beijing. Like many of his contemporaries, he is concerned with the relationship between materials and the manufacture of goods. He used a factory of seamstresses to make his tank, which lies deflated in the gallery like a carcass.  He also makes reference in his work to the one child policy – represented by a single egg in an egg tray made from gold.  Manufacture and government policy are issues impossible to avoid in any discourse concerning China in the 21st century. Many emerging Chinese artists feel compelled to address them in spite of the fact that (or maybe because) they have an international platform.

Across town, where all the galleries are surrounded by symbols of extreme wealth, White Cube Mason’s Yard displayed the work of only one artist, Liu Wei. Wei’s work, in a comparison with Xiangyu that is unnecessary apart from within the framework of this piece of writing, lacks the latter’s humour.  His sculptures are monuments to urbanism. Beautifully made. Minimal. Dealing apparently with ideas of “structure and unpredictability, fixity and impermanence” using reformed building site detritus. These works are physically solid and conceptually impenetrable, my only hope is that one day I have the opportunity to hear the artist’s voice speaking on behalf of these strong, mute objects.

In this small section of the city I also found the last artist, and the architect under examination here.  For the architect we need to look within the prestigious Royal Academy of Art and the exhibition Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined (on display until 6 April 2014).  Each room is like a mission statement; a response to the Neoclassical interior of the RA, but also a showcase for the principles, concerns and style of each architectural practise.  The exhibition encourages a non-linear progression through the rooms, and the emphasis is on a multi-sensory visitor experience using movement, sound and touch, and if you are so inclined, potentially through attending a yoga class as part of their special events programme.

The Chinese architect making up one seventh of the selection is Li Xiaodong. As with each of the rooms, the information we are provided with at the outset is scant, details like: location (Beijing) founding date (1997) the key materials in this installation (hazel sticks, acrylic panels with LED lights, beech plywood, pebbles, mirror) and some health and safety advice (some visitors may find the LED lighting disturbing). There was no attempt at this stage to anticipate your emotional experience or introduce the character of Xiaodong.  This allowed me the freedom to respond in my own way – the sound of walking on pebbles evoking memories of walks on the beach – before finding out more about all the architects in a beautifully produced 16 minute film at the end. It was then that Xiaodong explained how he had previously used similar “twigs” to create a library  in rural China, and the pebbles at the end of his RA ‘maze’ were not a beach but a zen garden.

Behind the RA in Hauser & Wirth on Saville Row, the work of Zhang Enli represents the generation preceding Xiangyu.  Yet in his canvasses there is a melancholy, industrial thread that speaks to both the White Cube artists, as well as creating a space for reflection comparable to the installation of Xiaodong. Even when colours are used, their thin washes have a greyness.  Enli’s paintings are figurative but self consciously inaccurate, paired down and nostalgic. Perhaps because he is older and he has been with the gallery for some time, they have provided a confident press release; although useful to have, I don’t feel I need much help to find my way into these works.

The Cargo, 2012 by Zhang Enli

The Cargo, 2012 by Zhang Enli

My final thought is even if you don’t feel you need it, that being given more information is never a bad thing. If not explicitly told, for example, I would never have guessed that an egg represented a child with no siblings.  Although the convention in some contemporary galleries is to tell you as little as possible; as the RA demonstrates, audio visual materials can be sensitively and elegantly executed – it doesn’t have to feel like a museum. To see an artist’s body language, as well as hear their words, can enhance the experience of seeing their work (seeing an artist talk in the flesh is ideal but the opportunities to do this are often fleeting). Maybe younger artists of any nationality want to err towards saying less in order to let the work speak, but the risk in doing so is that some or all of the meaning is lost.

I’ve spotted some really exciting exhibitions and art festivals coming up in 2014. Here are the ten I am looking forward to the most…

1. David Lynch The Factory Photographs

17 January – 30 March 2014

The Photographers Gallery, London

Best known as a film director, David Lynch has had exhibitions of his pictures at venues including the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris.  This exhibition reveals his enduring interest in the sludgy, industrial environments audiences will recognise from his classic films.

http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/the-factory-photographs

2. Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain

Tate Liverpool

28 February – 11 May 2014

Having seen the first incarnation of this exhibition at Iniva, London I am really curious to see how the exhibition has evolved.  Based on the book Keywords by Raymond Williams, first published in 1976, the intention is to explore the connections between ‘word and image’.

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/keywords-art-culture-and-society-1980s-britain

3. Wonder Woman festival of feminist art, music and history

Various venues Manchester

March 2014

As and when details of the programme are confirmed, they will be listed on creativetourist.com.

 

4. British Folk Art

Tate Britain

10 June – 7 September 2014

This exhibition claims to be the first major survey of British folk art.  It will include: Toby jugs, ships’ figureheads, carousel horses, a larger than life-size thatched figure of King Alfred, maritime embroidery, shop signs and whirligigs.

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/british-folk-art

5. Hauser & Wirth Somerset

Opens summer 2014

Not much detail yet… but this interview with Director Alice Workman in the Guardian has whetted my appetite…

6. Manifesta 10

29 June – 31 October 2014

The Hermitage, St Petersburg

This is a wild card as it’s quite unlikely I’ll make it to St Petersburg for this edition of Europe’s roving triennial.  There is an interesting post on their website (here) about why it’s important to hold the festival in Russia whilst some commentators are calling for cultural and sporting boycotts.

7. Liverpool Biennial

Various venues Liverpool

5 July – 26 October 2014

The UK’s biennial has established a stronger year-round programme of talks and events, but their focus is still on the period of the festival when “newly commissioned artworks [will] interact with the urban landscape” and all the city’s key venues will hold their own exhibitions. More detail on the artists involved still to be announced.

http://liverpoolbiennial.co.uk/

8. Fiona Banner new commission

19 July – 2 November 2014

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The new commission promises to follow on from ‘Banner’s 2010 Tate Britain commission Harrier and Jaguar, an installation of two fighter jets’ by continuing her inquiry focussing on machines of war.  The commission will be augmented by related installation and film.

http://www.ysp.co.uk/exhibitions/fiona-banner

9. Ryan Trecartin

Zabludowicz Collection, London

2 October – 21 December 2014

Previous exhibitor of the Liverpool Biennial, LA-based Trecartin produces videos that investigate some of the more extreme manifestations of youth culture.  Excited to see his latest output.

http://www.zabludowiczcollection.com/london/exhibitions/ryan-trecartin

 

10. Asia Triennial Manchester

October – November 2014

Various venues Manchester

Not clear where to find more info about this festival as and when events are confirmed. Again, my advice would be to check on creativetourist.com

 

Check back here throughout 2014 and I’ll try to review one or two of them!

 

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