Monthly Archives: December 2013

Disklavier piano

Disklavier piano

Philippe Parreno makes his art from curation, production, direction and arrangement. His survey exhibition Anywhere, anywhere out of this world is the first to fill every space of the Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art venue not far from the bank of the River Seine that usually hosts up for four exhibitions at one time. Around his pieces, both old and new, visitors are choreographed, rather than left alone to ricochet from object to film to installation.  The exhibition itself is Parreno’s artform.

He is an artist comfortable in his historical timeframe: borrowing from 20th century art and history whilst looking forwards to the future.  Architecture, design, an automative drawing machine, a decommissioned Manga character, a premiership footballer, light and darkness – all can be Parreno’s subject, media or object. The artist described his 2012 film Marilyn (which invites the viewer into the hotel suite where the actress lived) as a ‘séance’, a good word to describe his own ability to make work that is greater than the sum of its parts.

From the entrance, framed by one of his light bulb marquee pieces, the artist uses the abundance of Art Deco concrete space to create a grand introduction to his 2007 film work, The Writer.  The space is layered with another installation, 56 Flashing Lights; a hint of what is to come later. Four Disklavier pianos play Stravinsky’s ‘Petroushka’ at intervals through the gallery, providing a haunting atmosphere and a musical backbone to the exhibition.

Now we enter a room that is dark. Florescent images float many metres up one wall, with the evocative title The Void, A series of Sculptures to be eaten; whilst opposite them a machine is busy producing hundreds of identical copies of a hand-drawn doodled note, and tossing them onto the floor.  The light in the room suddenly comes on. But what is this behind the bookcase? A secret gallery? A display of delicate drawings prove that Parreno can present with intimacy as well as drama.

In the basement there is a dialogue of light sculptures; mindlessly chattering, propositioning and responding.  When they all turn off at once, all that is left is the floating gleam of smartphone screens; when a sculpture flickers into life it reveals viewers sat mesmerised in all corners of the room.  It is not the only installation with a hypnotic quality; we linger as long as possible in the icy environment of his snowdrift and, when we try to leave the exhibition, we become transfixed watching a curved wall slowly circumvent a circular platform.

‘Collaboration,’ the buzz word of the 00s, is an important element of Parreno’s practise, and many of the works in this show involve his contemporaries and friends including Tino Sehgal, Doug Aitken and Pierre Huygue.  This exhibition is a home coming for the Paris-based artist described by academic (and former Director of the Palais de Tokyo) Nicholas Bourriaud as exemplifying his theory of Relational Aesthetics.

For some artists the retrospective or survey show feels like a dead end. But Anywhere anywhere… is a kind of collaboration between Parreno and the Palais de Tokyo, making use and sense of the venue’s rarely-used sub title: ‘Site de création contemporaine’ (site for contemporary creation.) What the artist has created is a site specific experience, which quite simply couldn’t have happened anywhere else.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai

“Ladies. Ladies and gentlemen. Ladies. Thanks for coming…”

Two men in yellow high visibility jackets are bringing furniture into the room: comfy chairs, a long low table, a vase full of delicate beige and green flowers, bottled water and glasses. They are followed by a professional cameraman. The crowd is wondering, sometimes out loud: is this Gerry Bibby’s performance?  Is this it? Some of them declare that they are bored and leave before it starts. Thump thump thump. The soundtrack is a beating heart accompanied by the sound of seashells cracking under foot on a beach.

We’ll come back to this event in a moment. It is only one temporary ‘mise en scene’ within an architectural spatial artwork, within a curated programme, within an art fair, at one of the most important events in the international contemporary art world calendar.  Frieze London in Regents Park is the art fair: one long weekend that spreads its influence throughout the year. One element of an empire that publishes Frieze and Frieze d/e, funds acquisitions for Tate galleries, commissions work through Frieze Foundation, initiates talks and film production; and, in 2012, inaugurated Frieze Masters, a secondary fair for pre-year 2000 artworks.

This year is the 10th year that Frieze Projects, the curated programme financed through the not-for-profit Frieze Foundation will present its outcome at the fair. It is the first year that curator Nicola Lees is at the helm, following her previous post as Senior Public Programme Curator at the Serpentine Gallery, a public venue situated in another of London’s prestigious open spaces, Hyde Park.

Her public programme background is interesting. Another ‘mover and shaker’, Liverpool Biennial’s Sally Tallant came to the North of England following a senior role in the public programme department at the Serpentine.  It seems to suggest that the hierarchies that have defined free art events (talks, workshops, websites) as less critical and important than other modes of artistic presentation (exhibitions, film production, performances, publications) are breaking down. Or at least that this merge of seemingly separate areas is the future of contemporary art.

Back to Gerry Bibby. When the scene is set, it is an ordinary artist talk, chaired by Vivian Ziherl from the group If You Can’t Dance then I Don’t Want to be Part of Your Revolution – who are long-term collaborators of Bibby’s, based in Amsterdam.  One of the men, the one who kept thanking us for coming, takes off his jacket and joins the panel, revealing that he is the artist. Between Bibby and Ziherl sits Professor of Fine Art Adrian Riffkin.  The three speakers start to analyse Bibby’s work. They begin by drawing our attention to a pile of oyster shells in the park beyond the glass window.

The empty shells are the residue of a performance and research process. Years before Bibby was asked by Frieze London to produce an artwork, having not long come to the UK from Australia, he worked at the festival as one of the technicians who built the marquee and set up the stands.  For his commissioned work he wanted to draw on this past experience as well as long-term concerns. The soil of Regents Park, he had discovered when he was asked to dig a big hole in the ground, was full of oyster shell fragments, from an era when they were used as cheap protein to feed the working classes of London. Now oysters are exclusively eaten by the rich.  His spotlight on this story invites us to question value and how it can change over time. He tells us he creates his artworks by ‘exploiting the poetic potential of situations’ – and all the time he is talking, just metres away, gallerists are selling their products: artworks as luxury goods.

This isn’t the first year that Frieze Project commissions have explored the idea of value. In 2011, German conceptual and video artist Christian Jankowski presented a luxury motor yacht on one of the stands in the fair. He used a Duchampian strategy on an ambitious scale, but the twist was that the yacht was available to buy at two different prices, one to own it as a boat and the other as a Jankowski artwork. Conversely, in 2012 the most effective project encouraged us to find value in items made from basic materials. Within a wooden structure, artist Bedwyr Williams handed out slices of ‘Curator Cadaver’ (cake) with his apron stained with blood (food colouring). He was performing on behalf of Grizedale Arts, an international residency and arts agency based in a remote part of the Northern England country side. The home-baked ethic contrasted with the glitzy celebration of wealth and high-end cool of Frieze.

This year the platform for the projects is designed by architect Andreas Angelidakis.  On his website Angelidakis says that after his training he moved away from a traditional architecture practice, as “contemporary art seemed like a language more fluent in criticism and versatility,” so now he creates buildings but also, “urban experiments, workshops, publications, temporary inhabitations” and collaborative projects with artists and theorists.  An ideal candidate to design this pop up structure. The space is made of cheap materials such as polystyrene and balsa wood, and it adapts and changes each day to accommodate performances; it is part TV studio, part artist studio, part boardroom, part laboratory; in flux, messy, half-baked. To walk through it is to follow a trail of traces.

I walk down a corridor of Joseph Strau’s graphic-designed unintelligible poetry. “These works,” he writes, “collected for the exhibition are hopefully abruptly beautiful and appear incoherently intense in an aesthetic of disconnected individual gravities are combined for their logic of their ennui to constantly refusing certain normative appearances of production interests.” What meaning he wants audiences to take from this is not clear.  At the end of the corridor is Lili Reyanud-Dewar’s bedroom.  The artist has decided at this point in her career to only make bedrooms, in protest to the nomadic lifestyle that artists live: taking up temporary residence in a gallery and then packing up and moving on.  The bed in this room has an angry fountain at its centre, gushing with black water.

Leaving the bedroom I encounter an oversized game of Battleships, initiated by Rivane Neuenschwander.  The paper removed from each square falls softly to the ground, gathering in ever bigger heaps.  What is the point of this? I ask one of the participants – who is a member of Frieze London staff – what do we get out of this exchange between you are the other game player?  She replies that audiences seem to like watching the game, but that sometimes they take the squares off when the players have stopped for a break. I understand how they feel. Who wants to watch a game that you can’t join in?

Sat on a polystyrene cube, watching Bibby’s performance/artist talk, I am becoming more and more uncomfortable The poor sound quality reinforces the feeling that this isn’t intended for a live audience. Instead, it is merely part of the performance process: plan, perform, document. We are witnesses to the denouement, rather than valued participants.  And yet I learn more about Bibby’s work than I find out about any of the other projects – the invigilators seem as unsure and ignorant about them as I am.

Better informed are the staff in the Frieze Projects’ children’s zone. “The Temple of Play has lots of sources of inspiration from the built world and the virtual world,” I am told by one of the activity leaders, “we worked together with artist Angelo Plessas to devise activities at the same time as he conceived the structure.” One of the more successful commissions, the room is full of light and popular with both school groups and children who have come with their parents. It is centred on a maze, maximising the opportunities to hide and build mini sub-structures. Many of the children are wearing paper cube hats, a technology that seems analogue at first glance, but are decorated with designs that refer to the origin of digital emoticons.

“My name’s Casey and I am in the group that worked with an artist who said she wanted to spend the money on us… I want to do something fun so I have been thinking about castles, and how we could do something in the community…” In the Temple of Play I am told that the most talked about of the projects is by Pivli Takala.  Instead of making an artwork, the artist worked with a group of children, making them ‘the committee’ who decided how her commission fee would be spent. The project revealed that the children were mature enough to handle complex ideas about art, and it exposed the confusing world of art finance. Takala said in the Art Newspaper, “It wasn’t about whether it’s art or not. For them, art can be anything—and I think that is correct… they have never been to Frieze, and even if they went, they would not understand the position they are in within the art market. But I don’t know if that is a problem; I don’t know if I understand the position that I am in with regards to the art market.”

On your first visit to Frieze it can be a surprise that no-one asks if you would like to know more about the works on display – this is what we have come to expect from galleries where the staff provide part of the interpretation. Perhaps because of this silence, the talks scheduled throughout the day become a valuable way to learn more about the art world’s inner workings.  There are talks on the subject of ‘Migrating Modernism,’ ‘Sexuality, Politics and Protest’ and ‘New partnerships between art and film’.

With the feature film ‘12 Years a Slave’ by former Turner Prize winner Steven McQueen about to release in cinemas in the UK, it feels timely to listen to commissioners, producers and filmmakers discuss whether art and film are still two distinct industries. It appears the barriers are intact for now (“If I make a film with a beginning, middle and an end, I ask for a cinema… I believe in the screen,” says filmmaker and artist Khalil Joreige) but things are changing. While the voices of artists are welcome in the film world, it’s not clear whether filmmakers find the same openness in the art world.  Frieze London has yet to formally partner with a film festival, but it bravely allows itself to be examined by those from the film industry within its own institutional context.

Leaving the talk, I lean against a wall to think about this some more.  My thoughts are interrupted by a violent crash!  The wall is made of transparent plastic, covered in coloured splats from the inside.  I squint inside to see two robotic arms, which every few moments throw a ball of neon paint in response to the movements of the audience outside the chamber. This installation by Ken Okiishi is like a light-hearted and less phallic version of Anish Kapoor’s wax cannon, first displayed at the Royal Academy in 2009.  Okiishi describes the piece as being influenced by Niki de Saint Phalle; the result is an echo of other works, rather than a masterpiece in its own right.

The dynamism of the projects suggests inclusion, but this isn’t taken far enough. The visitor is consistently left on the outside, given a glimpse of a world they cannot inhabit.  But is this true of the rest of the fair? Beyond Andreas Angelidakis’ structure, familiar conventions endure. The abstract painting. The beautiful hand-made drawing. The white middle-aged male gallerist. Glistening white walls.  However, around and between this ridged framework, distributed among hundreds of stands, there are many boundary-pushing international contemporary artworks to view.

One of the most affecting is Marcus Coates’ video work The Trip, 2011. The artist, who has been described as ‘eccentric’ ‘warm’ and ‘spiritual’, has a skill for gaining the trust of ordinary people and making them his collaborators.  The Trip takes place after Coates has been to a hospice and asked if one of the residents has any unfulfilled ambitions.  The dying man tells the artist that he is disappointed not to have visited the rainforest. What we hear through headphones is Coates’ vivid description of the Amazon rainforest after he has visited on the man’s behalf. It is colourful, poignant, filled with humorous exchanges between the two men and worth every second of its 30 minute duration.

Another captivating film was by Korean video and installation artist Do Huh Suh; his architectural imagery in high-definition hyper-bright colours melts satisfyingly from frame to frame.  It shows a totally different Korea to Thomas Struth’s panoramic photographs on display elsewhere. Isreali artist Yehudit Sasportas effortlessly drew me into her world.  Mark Leckey helped his gallery – Cabinet London – win the prize for the best stand. Li Songsong’s paintings captured a universal nostalgia. The public old and young crawled inside the belly of Jennifer Rubell’s giant, naked pregnant odalisque, titled ‘Portrait of the artist’. Enrico David showcased his ever more abstracted work based on the figure. And Micheal Dean’s earthenware cabbage rolled on the ground by my feet.

There are problems and there are wonderful things about Frieze London – problems that the Frieze Projects programme fails to thoroughly interrogate. If you are feeling cynical about the art world, the fair will provide fuel for that disenchantment. If you are feeling open and optimistic, it buzzes with creativity and ideas being exchanged.  It is the equivalent of several years of visits to small commercial galleries, several weeks of searching online to find out what everyone is talking about in the art world. To bring you up to speed in a few sentences: last year they were talking about a pink walrus by Carsten Höller. This year they are talking about Rubell’s odalisque.  I am talking about Marcus Coates. And Gerry Bibby is talking about oysters.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai

Battle Company, 2008

Battle Company, 2008

Infidel. A person who does not believe in religion, or who adheres to a religion other than one’s own. The word has become synonymous with the so-called War on Terror: for many, war has become a religion in itself, requiring a belief in the ‘superpower’ of Western governments to fully support it. It is also the title of a book by award-winning photojournalist Tim Hetherington, from which Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery has taken work for a new exhibition, You Never See Them Like This.

For the first exhibition under the auspices of director Lorenzo Fusi, the team at Open Eye haven’t shied away from emotional and political intensity. “When I first saw Tim’s photos they had a very powerful effect on me,” Fusi says passionately. “They managed to shift my attention from the general political context to focus on the ‘human factor.’ He portrayed the US soldiers stationed in the Afghan outpost as human beings, not just as war professionals.” The Infidelphotographs show American soldiers at work, at rest, and off duty while stationed in the stunning but war-ravaged landscape of north-eastern Afghanistan; images of the soldiers asleep are especially – and unnervingly – tender. Hetherington gives them individuality and humanity despite their generic uniforms.

The Merseyside photographer’s work strikes a balance between gritty reality and his own personal expression. “Tim realised that objectivity in photography does not exist, there is always an editorial line and a context to take into account,” says Fusi. “He was fully and painfully aware of his role, that is, not to stop a conflict by means of his photos but to document a war that somebody else had started.”

There are further layers of meaning to this exhibition, and Hetherington’s personal story is as uplifting as it is tragic. Born in 1970 in Liverpool, he studied literature at Oxford University and photojournalism at Cardiff University before ascending to a bright international career as a photographer with positions at the Big Issueand Vanity Fair. Sadly, Hetherington died while covering the Libyan civil war in 2011 – and although this exhibition is a tribute, it does not intend to memorialise the photographer. “Tim was very busy experimenting at the time he was killed,” Fusi observes. “He had a lot questions and was still searching for the answers.” Hetherington died still committed to the pursuit of his task to document – and challenge misconceptions of – modern day warfare. You could almost describe the images at Open Eye using one of the messages on Tim’s tribute blog: “such a blow in my face, a hit in my heart and soul.”

First published in The Skinny

Mark Leckey installation view

In the dark exhibition space I am stood thinking about how almost every object in this room projects a sort of human personality. Mark Leckey, the artist-curator, has described the selection of works he has made for this show as being like a ‘network of objects’; a kind of 3D Google image search but without revealing the search terms. Another visitor wanders in, “wow” he says to a pink gargoyle-esque Louise Bourgeois sculpture covered in tumourous offaly drippings and missing a head; he beckons over the gallery attendant and asks him: “what do you think this is made of? Resin? It looks like blancmange.”

The Universal Addressibility of Dumb Things feels like Leckey’s attempt to draw together many strings. The selection of objects pivots on his own audio visual work; he reproduces the green walls of his 2011 Serpentine Gallery show, Felix the Cat from his 2008 Turner Prize show makes an appearance, and in a sense what we see is an assemblage but made with objects and artworks instead of footage – his usual medium. Bluecoat curator Sara-Jayne Parsons says that Mark Leckey is an ‘artists’ artist’, he has also been called a ‘pop cultural anthropologist’. He describes himself as an autodidact, which may help to explain his intuitive curatorial approach.

The resulting exhibition is charming and playful; the interpretation is minimal, which gives visitors a chance to establish a relationship with an object on their own terms. One can enjoy a Coptic jar, mummified cat or one of Roger Hiorns’ beautiful crystal-coved engines, without having or gaining any knowledge. Each section does have a distinct yet surreptitious theme; taking visitors on a journey from humanoids to machines. The only slightly disappointing part of the exhibition is the gallery upstairs where three films are shown on a (perfectly nice) periscopic screen. The room is too minimal to be an appropriate climax.

The decision about how much personality to project through curatorial practise seems easier for artists; Leckey seems very present here. This is one of a series of Hayward Touring exhibitions curated by Turner-prize winners and nominees (in the past they have worked with Mark Wallinger and Tacita Dean, next they are working with Jeremy Deller). It is Leckey’s most significant curatorial project to date; however, in a sense everything he does is curated, from his films themselves to his Youtube channel. The show opens up a refreshing dialogue about the role of assemblage, curators and artists in contemporary art; his catalogue is very much an artists’ book.

A nice touch at Bluecoat is the talks programme, which is being delivered by locally-based contemporary artists. This is an exhibition that artists will enjoy but not at the expense of alienating other visitors. Leckey said upon winning the Turner prize in 2008 that he wanted to exhibit more in Britain and make an impact on contemporary British culture; with this exhibition he has done a bit of both. It is not the first time de-contextualised museum objects and artworks have been shown together, but Leckey delivers it with such a generosity of spirit as to make this exhibition a must-see.

The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, curated by Mark Leckey, is on show at the Bluecoat, Liverpool, between 16 Feb – 14 Apr 2013.

First published on

All is still. A canoe drifts on tranquil water; in it is a person from the past or a memory of decades gone by. The figure stares straight at you. Not confrontationally, perhaps trying to communicate.  Across time, across space, through the canvas. Nearby, a woman stares into a shop window. Her feet are angled awkwardly. Her turned-away pose means that you are denied ever fully knowing what she is doing and what her motivations are. Is she crying? Both man and woman are from paintings by Peter Doig; paintings that are uncannily easy for the viewer to inhabit.

“There are no foreign lands, it is only the traveller who is foreign,” says Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson in his book The Silverado Squatters, 1883.  From this quotation Keith Hartley, Chief Curator of the Scottish National Gallery found the title ‘No Foreign Lands’ for this twelve-year survey of Doig’s work. The exhibition begins in the early 2000s and includes work finalised only a few weeks before the show opened in Edinburgh.  It takes you through the development of Doig’s paintings: demonstrating his starting points, often found photographs, sketches in paint; and final works that can include several variations on a theme – sometimes from years apart.

Hartley’s choice of title is appropriate for many reasons.  The artist was born in Edinburgh, and identifies as Scottish, but moved to Trinidad aged three.  He spent his adolescence in Quebec, Canada before moving to London in the 1980s to study art.  The migration didn’t end there; he returned to Canada temporarily to live in Montreal before settling in Port of Spain, Trinidad.  His works pick up both the South American heat and the frostiness of the Canadian landscape. He has never really painted London; because, the artist explains, his works are “forms of escape.”

Doig’s work has mass appeal and his success has endured. Why is this?  Having won some major prizes that helped to establish his career in the early 90s, he went on to command millions of pounds for each painting. He has stuck to the medium of paint even as its popularity has peaked and fallen. His success could be something to do with his ability to combine the autobiographical with the common experience.  Or do with the way he pulls together the threads of 20th century modern art and makes them relevant to modern life.

The Scottish National Gallery has high ceilings and a series of interconnected rooms.  Doig’s work looks good in these spaces – the scale of his canvasses seems to sit perfectly on these walls.  The curation focuses on grouping reoccurring themes.  The focussed expression of a man playing table tennis, a woman on roller skates disco dancing, a man walking covered from the sun by a parasol, groups of people in a boat, a canoe silently drifting on the water.

In vitrines, material from his archive is presented.  Photographs that provided the first spark of inspiration, early sketches on paper, details taken from one source or another that combine and alchemize into the final work – or series of works.  He has really laid himself bare.  The interpretation describes his painting is built up in layers, combining real locations, memories, scenes from photographs or re-enactments; sometimes resulting in paintings that are “doubly fake.”  Elsewhere this evolving process of working and revisiting the same ideas can produce work that is almost abstract.

Paintings such as Purple Jesus, which shows a contemplative Christ figure under an inverted rainbow, seem to possess a child-like spirituality. Others remind the viewer of a child wandering alone in the landscape, coming across scenes that they don’t fully understand.  This could be because the places that Doig lived as a child he revisited as an adult. It could also explain how as a European in South America he has avoided being criticised for being Post-colonial. It would be a mistake to consider Doig contemporary art’s Paul Gauguin, as unlike the French early-20th century artist he avoids applying erotic intrigue to his exotic surroundings.

Doig does; however, refer to the modern painters, Impressionists in particular, as influences.  His very pink Snow paintings he says were inspired by Monet’s “incredibly extreme, apparently exaggerated use of colour.”  He also seems to embody the Impressionist mission statement to focus on depicting light and everyday subject matter.  But there are some key differences between the Impressionists, or Post Impressionists, and Peter Doig. The first is that his landscapes shimmer and sparkle with a sort of fantastical unreality. And the other is that sometimes his figures, especially when they appear alone, seem to be experiencing an existential crisis.

The lonely or preoccupied figures are like protagonists in a feature length narrative that is only fleshed out in the mind of the viewer.  Doig is a passionate film fan and, along with local artist Che Lovelace in Port of Spain where they lived, set up ‘Studiofilmclub’ to screen movies. He told Frieze magazine in 2008 that the only image in his work to come directly from a film was the man in the canoe, which he said came from Friday the 13th, a 1980 film directed by Sean S. Cunningham.  However, many of Doig’s works have a cinematic flair or look like they were inspired by the scratchy appearance of a celluloid film strip in motion.

This exhibition should be seen by anyone wondering whether painting still has resonance in the 21st century.  Those sceptical about contemporary art in general may also have their views challenged.  His works possess a rare quality of hovering between transience and boldness, masculinity and femininity, childish wonder and an adult weariness.  Over a 12 year period the artist has told and retold many narratives in paint, produced many iconic paintings and created an impressive body of work. His pictures sparkle in the Scottish National Gallery – perhaps they feel they have come home.

No Foreign Lands continues until 3 November 2013 and will tour to Montreal in 2014.

First published in Art world magazine, Shanghai

Humphrey Spender Ashington – Washing in road between terraced housing, 1937/38 © Bolton Council, Collection of Bolton Library &Museum Services Courtesy of Mass Observation Archive

Humphrey Spender Ashington – Washing in road between terraced housing, 1937/38 © Bolton Council, Collection of Bolton Library &Museum Services Courtesy of Mass Observation Archive

The line between art and anthropology, if it exists at all, bends and breaks. Perhaps it would be too bold to suggest that all art is a study of humankind, but maybe not?  The recent exhibition at The Photographers Gallery in London, Mass Observation: this is your photo, gives us an opportunity to consider this question. It presented selected items from two phases of an anthropological study based in Britain, which was bound inextricably with the art of image making; producing sometimes hilarious, often poignant and always artistic results.

The first phase of Mass Observation was founded in 1937; its intention to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ through contributions from the public of diary entries, photographs, interviews and other material.  Britain in the 1930s was recovering from one world war and heading towards another.  The surprising thing is that the Britain in these images, and the photography techniques, look so modern. Graffiti on a wall could be the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Beach images look like the work of Martin Parr; a caravan shaped like a teapot a particular moment of “Britishness” and humour.

Artists often obsess.  Mass Observation allowed artists and the public space to pursue their own lines of enquiry, whilst building up a nuanced picture of Britain at the time. The first phase continued into the 1960s and the material ended up in an archive now held in the University of Sussex, UK, and the subject of ongoing research.  Its content is as open-ended as it is focussed; by turns intriguing, revealing, divisive, silly, boring, and anxious.

To bring the story up to date, the archive initiated a new round of data capture in 1981, which continues to this day (residents in Britain can volunteer to write at:  In the early days, many of the photographers were professionals; but in the 1980s they are amateurs, using snap shots alongside hand-written descriptions of ‘giving and receiving presents’ for example, or what happened to them on a certain day in August.  That day was both ordinary and extraordinary: fires raged, people drove cars, they went to the beach, crops were harvested, concord flew at 2000 km per hour and wild flowers were gently blown in the wind.

This project – in both the 1930s and its contemporary incarnation – demonstrates a keenness to divulge information about ourselves. It is closely aligned to the modern phenomenon of social networking and the practise of voluntarily ‘sharing’ the minutiae of our lives online. One woman describes how she is persecuted by her neighbours because of her sexuality. It seems to be cathartic for her to write about this. Like a diary entry written to the future.  A time capsule. A message in a bottle thrown out to sea.

For the most part, in the process of trying to tell us something about art, anthropology and photography, this exhibition binds them so tightly one cannot see where one discipline ends and another begins. The exhibition holds back from offering us any conclusions, allowing the images to speak for themselves; ideas to gestate in the mind of the audience. The exhibition is a defiant statement that the archive is living, breathing, ongoing and unfinished. It makes a passionate case for the importance of using multiple voices in telling a good story.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai

They say that some offices are paperless. But mine is not. Most of my memories are held in paper: photographs, books, the stubs of boarding passes from beautiful holidays, exam (and birth) certificates, drawings and letters produced by old friends. Paper has a way of folding history and memory over and over until they become an object with the strength of a samurai sword.

These are my feelings as we enter an exhibition which is not so much curated, as selected and placed. There are no long catalogue entries here, no panels of text on the walls, no narratives to be told. The gallery is full of humour, draughtsmanship, beauty, contradictions and conceptualism. The gallery in question is Saatchi Gallery in the West end of London, and it belongs to the infamous septuagenarian art collector and former advertising agency executive, Charles Saatchi.  The exhibition is called simply: Paper.

We step directly in to the durational spaces of Dawn Clements; annotated with time and other notes that help her capture the experience of living.  The artist uses pen and ink to create detailed, intense scenes across multiple sheets of paper, haphazardly strung together to architectural effect. We nod in agreement when one visitor says “these are incredible!” as he stands with chin in the air to get a better view.

Next we walk past Jessica Jackson’s sofa made of newsprint, sat on by a family of papier-mâché pots, into a gallery full of dark omens: a child is restrained so that another can scrawled his torso with hateful words, and imagery from the archive of a Nazi facility is transcribed in delicate pencil. In Tal R’s drawing, someone is giving birth to a primitive-looking mask borrowed from Picasso or Brancusi, with tiny cut-out eyes.  Scribble and scrawls all have currency here but it doesn’t mean that the subjects are trivial.

A consummate advertising professional: Saatchi understands that visitors to his galleries should experience no negative feelings. The walls are perfect and white, the floors impeccable. Natural light streams in wherever it can. You want to take a picture and tweet it? Go ahead. Modernity and pleasure are his languages.

The gallery keeps text to a minimum, but critically it has changed the preposition from works ‘on’ paper to works ‘in’ paper. In doing so it elevates the status of paper from the support (as canvas is to paint) to the medium.  The selection demonstrates the diverse properties of the material, but special attention is given to paper’s sculptural potential:  “Paper is becoming a token of lost physicality…” the catalogue says, “… the works in Paper underscore the force of the physical.”

Rebecca Turner’s paper pulp tumour grows out of the gallery wall and into a conversation with a giant crumpled paper bust by duo José Lerma and Hector Medera.  They are aggressively physical; however, we wonder if they are meant to be as silly as they appear.  In the next room Miller Lagos has made branches from newspaper; sliced so we can see how old they are, a hint that this retrograde material might one day exist only in archives.

Saatchi Gallery’s themes tend to be broad – in 2006 at its previous location it heralded The Triumph of Painting; in 2008 the inaugural exhibition at its current premises was The Revolution Continues: New Art from China, and in 2011 the gallery held Gesamkunstwerk New Art from Germany.  Sometimes Saatchi alights upon an area of the visual arts that has become unfashionable, other times he is ahead of the curve or just behind it.

In this case the latter is true as many organisations in the UK have investigated paper and drawing practise during the last decade. The Drawing Room gallery has been active in London since 2002, last year Paper Gallery opened in Manchester; Tate Britain held a blockbuster show called Watercolour in 2011, which was followed in 2012 by a survey of drawing at Tate Liverpool – a city that is home to a duo who produce a quarterly publication and regular events under the name The Drawing Paper.

But Saatchi Gallery does offer something unique. It bridges the gap between the mysterious art world of wealthy collectors and the public museum.  Using tremendous resources and 70,000 square foot of space it can gather the most freshly made artworks from all over the world (in Paper, 44 artists in total from the UK, USA, Belgium, Germany, France, Brazil, Spain, Puerto Rico, China, Austria, Israel, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Japan and Greece are represented) in one place.  The Paper exhibition is not the result of scholarship, but Saatchi has an eye for the interesting as well as the enduring; each work is powerful and accomplished and it’s hard to find an exhibition quite like this anywhere else.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai