Monthly Archives: July 2013

What is it about the book The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald that has such broad appeal in the 21st century?  Last week, I went to see the Baz Lurhmann version of the story in the very appropriate Grade II listed-Art Deco context of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.

While I am not ashamed to admit that I think Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is excellent, the problem with his version of Gatsby is that the plot isn’t in need of his embellishment.  Shakespeare’s dialogue is, of course, evocative; however, the simple plot relies on support from performance and stage setting.  F Scott Fitzgerald’s text on the other hand is such a nuanced story that there is very little scope for the director and actors to do apart from endeavour to live up to the source material.  This obviously was the conclusion that New York theatre company Elevator Repair Service came to when they decided to inaugurate ‘Gatz,’ a seven-hour performance that involved a word-for-word reading from the book.

The decade in question was characterised by a boom for the US economy.  The contemporary resonance could be something to do with reassessing our values in a time of recession.  The mansions and extravagance perhaps bring to mind the individuals and organisations that got rich in the 80s and 90s and by all accounts continue to do so, while ordinary tax payers struggle and the gap between rich and poor widens.  Nearly one hundred years after the book was published, the rich still sometimes seem to live by a difference code of law and ethics.

These themes are combined in F Scott Fitzgerald’s book with a period of stunning visual culture and his amazing piquant dialogue: “For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.” His characters are believable although they are highly stylized.  Not an overnight success, The Great Gatsby became popular during World War II when it was distributed to the American armed forces to remind them of home.

As the book was released from copyright restrictions in 2011, we will probably see more adaptations.  It is hardly surprising that artists and directors want to tackle the material – often with very charming results.  Lucy May Schofield has produced an intimate watercolour (which, I must confess, hangs on my bedroom wall) and I also found this wonderful cover design – both would encourage me to read the book if I hadn’t already. Although not a perfect film, if Luhrmann’s adaptation encourages a few new readers of the original text, that can’t be a bad thing.

On a tangent from some research I am doing, I came across this video where Curator Phillip Tinari talks about some of the most exciting contemporary Chinese artists today, all of whom were born after 1978.  In particular, it was interesting to me because when I was in Shanghai I visited the studio of Madein Company.  This is the alias of artist Xu Zhen.  His moniker draws attention to the now-common mode of mass-manufactured, highly organised and resourced modern artistic production.

His studio was an artistic hub, where large scale installations were being assembled and a wide variety of creative practitioners operated.  His work varies from performances wherein assistants throw sculptures in the air from their hidden location within a white cube, to ornate ambitious constructions like the one in progress in the image below, that take teams of people working by hand to produce.  Madein Company is fast, caustic and exciting. One to look out for.


This week I went to the exhibition Life’s an Illusion, Love is a Dream at The Royal Standard curated by Frances Disley.  The artist-curator says that one of the most exciting things about producing the show was sending the text that she wrote to artists and seeing how they responded.

One of the artists that she approached was David Osbaldeston, thinking he would offer to lend her a billboard sized etching.  She was, after all, interested in the ‘epic in art’. However, he proposed that she exhibit two handmade buildings the size of architect’s models; each sculpture crafted from images of the other structure.  Disley describes his process as “a deceptive game of reiteration” and says that they like all the works in the show combine a sideways look at ‘the epic’ with “something extra… a spiritual quality”.

Other surprises came in the form of a brand new body of work by Kaye Donachie and a touchingly personal series of pieces from Roderick Maclachlan.  Donachie exhibits widely and internationally (including a previous Liverpool outing at the Walker Art Gallery).  Maclachlan is less well known and Disley hopes that “people will visit the exhibition and be introduced to Roderick for the first time.”  His cinematic-photographic-installations stand out in a show of extremely high quality work. I hope the images below whet your appetite, but they don’t do the exhibition justice – if you get the chance over the next two weekends I recommend you give the show a look.

The exhibition is open Friday-Saturday until 27 July 2013.  Frances Disley is one of the four outgoing directors delivering an exhibition or event at the artist led venue this summer.  Keep an eye out on their website (here) for details of forthcoming events. The Royal Standard is an artist-led studio and gallery at Vauxhall Road, Liverpool.

At first glance, Yinka Shonibare MBE is not an obvious candidate for an exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  The artist is best known for working in textiles (acknowledged in the title of this survey exhibition – FABRIC-ATION) a medium not typically shown out of doors.  But he is also known for weaving in to his work ideas about post-colonialism, multiculturalism and trade – taking as his starting point the way that people of African origin are regarded in the UK – and so the idea of exhibiting somewhere so very English must have had a perverse appeal.

Artworks have been temporarily sited outside at Yorkshire Sculpture Park since the 1940s and from the 1990s it has also had indoor exhibition space.  In the fields surrounding the visitor centre, sheep and lambs chew the grass next to artworks by Henry Moore, Andy Goldsworthy, Barbara Hepworth, James Turrell, Kwanho Yuh, Sir Anthony Caro, Sol leWitt, Richard Long, and Sophie Rider to name but a few.  To walk alongside the river and breathe deeply of the fresh air and beautiful vistas is affirming; however, this stunning context can diminish the impact of individual works of art.

Surprisingly, this is Shonibare’s largest show to date (he is still waiting for a full retrospective). Since 2004 when he was nominated for the Turner prize and awarded Membership of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) the artist has sat within the mainstream of British art. He is acutely aware of the apparent contradiction of these accolades and his role as spokesperson for outsiders, saying, “Yes, okay, I am here to protest, but I am going to do it like a gentleman. You are not even going to realise that I am protesting, you are going to invite me to your museum because the work is nice, and then when I am inside it is too late.” 

FABRIC-ATION is mostly indoors, but there are two exterior works. Wind Sculpture I and II are made of fibreglass and steel. They are painted to look like a flag or handkerchief made of the distinctive African fabric that has become Shonibare’s trademark, but instead of rippling in the wind, their dynamic forms are frozen stiff. They are attractive but probably the most trivial of all of the works in the show; they don’t manage to transport the audience to a new world and have none of the artist’s usual caustic humour.

Inside the gallery, the full spectrum of Shonibare’s output is on display.  There are mannequins with animal heads or running-water-taps for heads, golden guns, aliens, Americana, constellations made of circular canvases, canons, masculine posturing, overblown femininity, conflict, dancing, dreams, a wall of eggs, looping films and masquerade balls; all wrapped up in brightly coloured African batik fabric and bought to life by an artist who says, “art making is a type of alchemy, making gold from nothing.”

Shonibare has used African fabrics since he was at art school. He juxtaposes the fabric with costume styles that are reminiscent of 19th-century upper class Britain, prompting us to question the wealth and values of a period of history that is endlessly romanticised.  However, it is not simply the exoticism of the designs that attracts him; it is also the secret provenance of the fabric: it is not made in Africa at all but since the 1840s has been manufactured in the Netherlands. The fabric’s other charm is the use of figurative motifs, which become both character and set dressing in the artist’s hands and can include the Chanel brand logo, light bulbs, space ships, circuit boards, top hats or magic wands.

Less well known than his sculptures are Shonibare’s works on paper and short films.  Based on this exhibition, his works on paper fail to live up to his work in other media. The Climate Shit drawings, produced in 2008 from ‘newspaper headlines, collaged batik-fabric flowers, images of faeces, gold foil, hand drawn images and texts’  are like sketchbook pages – revealing a work in progress as the artist tries to reconcile his visual language with his concern about climate change and the international economy of oil. They do not have the poignancy of his Girl on Globe sculpture, which confronts the same issues.  Conversely his films are extremely watchable and feel as though they develop naturally from the theatricality of his installations.

Shonibare says it can be “difficult to separate what something looks like and what it expresses.”  The exhibition has been hugely popular – probably because the work can be marketed as colourful and fun, but once you are in the gallery it is impossible to escape his wit and critique.  He may have used politeness to secure a seat at the table, but now he is here he isn’t going to back down from the argument.

Article first published in Art World magazine, Shanghai June issue 2013

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Black Sun Horizon isn’t the first exhibition where all the artworks on display are also available to view online – in fact it isn’t even the first to be shown in Liverpool this year.  What does this trend say about seeing contemporary art in a gallery in the 21st century? Is this the beginning of the end of temporary exhibitions, or is there something they can offer that does not translate into the virtual realm?  We might not resolve this question today but keep it in mind.

The question du jour is boredom: what is it and how do we cope with it?  Artist-curator and Director of The Royal Standard Dave Evans has bought together four video artworks that relate to the phenomena of over and under stimulation in modern life.  The gender of the artists (all men) suggests that boredom is more pertinent to the modern male; however, Evans doesn’t intend us to read too much into this, explaining each artist was chosen because of what their videos reveal about “experiencing the passage of time and the changing texture of boredom.”

Samuel Williams has kept boredom at bay by producing the 5-minute narrative film Natural Habitat, using functional items from the home as characters and the English riverside as the scene. The resulting ‘video sculpture’ is an enjoyable cross between Huckleberry Finn and Batteries Not Included.  From this entertaining start the works become slightly more, well, boring; repetition and obsession their central concepts.

Dermot and Natasha by Dick Jewell is a montage of footage from BBC Breakfast News, distilled down to benevolent gestures, flirtatious blinking and awkward tension.  As the background track by soul group Imagination says, “No words are spoken, the only sound we hear is body talk, body talk.”  Viewing this for 43 minutes induces something akin to the sinking feeling of realising you’ve spent hours refreshing social media for updates.

Next up is Corey Arcangel’s Drei Klavierstücke op 11: a remake of Arnold Schoenberg’s landmark early 20th-century piano composition, produced by splicing together clips of cats on pianos and resulting in an interesting example of shared videos as material rather than distribution method.  After Arcangel and Jewell’s assault on your senses you might welcome the way the final work, Bill Leslie’s Perfect Geometry, coaxes the viewer into a kind of mantra meditation-induced trance using slow-moving retro computer graphics.

Undoubtedly the no-frills setting for the exhibition encourages the viewer to spend time with the artworks in a way that would be hard in the distraction-rich online world.  However, the real beneficiaries of bringing these artists to Liverpool are the members of The Royal Standard. This includes Evans himself who says participating in the mysterious world of curation, “helps me see artworks differently and understand my subject better.” Evans’ insights are vital to understanding the show, but you won’t find them written on the wall.  If you get the opportunity to visit the gallery in person, the best thing to do is find Evans or one of his contemporaries and discuss what you think about Black Sun Horizon face to face.

Article first published May 2013

The next outgoing director exhibition is opening shortly at The Royal Standard, Liverpool

Bay TV’s video is from May this year – I am really excited to be working on this project as part of my role as Exhibition Officer for Art Galleries at National Museums Liverpool. We’re bringing to Liverpool a unique selection of David Hockney’s early work from the 1960s and 70s.  The Walker’s painting and works on paper will be seen in a new light alongside works that chart the development of his style and examine reoccurring subject matter, such as his obsession with depicting water.