Anthony Pym said in his keynote, “we all live in multicultural, multilingual societies… with lots of lines running over… you can have the values of a culture but not the language – that is quite common. [But a person] with one language and one culture doesn’t make a great translator… they’re not translators.” Everyone laughed. It seemed so obvious. But I sank down in my chair a little.

The chair in question was in a screening room being used for a symposium called Cultural Translation in theory and practice, which was convened by my peers in the school of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies at University of Nottingham. Most of the students in attendance were studying translation. My PhD is in Cultural Studies, the discipline I use to study Chinese contemporary art. I don’t speak Chinese, or any other language than English. I don’t, by Pym’s definition, translate between languages. I am the bad translator with one language and one culture.

Translation affects me acutely. For the last three years or so I have regularly written for a magazine based in Shanghai, who translate my English text and publish in Chinese. I used not to write for translation, but over time I have become aware that, by including extra explanation and information that I wouldn’t have to write for a British art specialist audience, I am providing more cultural insights and local knowledge for my Chinese readership. You can see one of my articles here, courtesy of Art World.

In my studies, I read a lot of material that is either translated from Chinese or written by a Chinese person in English – a kind of self-translation from mother tongue. The latter was one of the forms of translation talked about at this symposium which I had never considered – Wangtaolue Guo, an MA student at China University of Hong Kong, used the example of diaspora author He Jin who actually expresses his otherness through his use of the English language. The implications of this, as well as the implications for meaning when writers knew they were writing to be published bilingually, I will need to take into account as my studies progress.

There are some other questions that arise from what I have written so far. What is Cultural Translation? (That is probably the most important one!) Do I do it? Does translation have to have a ‘product’ or can it be spoken, or a thought? Where does adaptation fit into this (translation from one media to another)? When is a translation an interpretation (in an artistic sense)? What is the relationship between curatorial practice and translation?

Some of these questions I will have to leave hanging. A year or so ago I wrote an essay for Modern China Studies journal called Parallel Realities, where I explored some of the cross-over between the cultural turn in translation studies and curating contemporary Chinese art outside of the UK. In the process of writing this I articulated to myself, and I still think, that contemporary art is a language – understandable to some but not others. On reflection, I was probably one of the writers who used the term ‘cultural translation’ without really explaining what I meant by it – which was the starting point for Dr Sarah Maitland’s talk at the symposium.

Using some excellent hand-drawn Power Point slides, Maitland offered a definition of Cultural Translation that departed from the ‘key’ literature that is oft quoted and which, she pointed out, was almost opaquely confusing. (I’ll have to go back to the particular Butler material she mentioned though… because there is a lot about uneven modernity and difference that is interesting for the scholar working with the female subject in the context of a country still classified as ‘developing’ according to the UN in their 2014 report).


The theories that she drew on most in her definition were those of Paul Ricœur, who proposed that what happens between a reader and a text is the same as between a human being and other cultural objects. To paraphrase: Maitland said that leading on from Ricœur, we can say that there are multiple ‘guesses’ or ‘interpretations’ – as many as there are readers or human beings encountering cultural objects and texts (so far so Barthes). Crucially she said that in communicating these ‘translations’ we have to display humility – they are simply one guess, or one interpretation, and by broadcasting them we subject them to scrutiny. – And further translation.

She used the quite brilliant example of the Hillary Clinton Women’s Card. Donald Trump, who was translating Clinton’s campaign, said something to the effect of “she is using the women’s card” – meaning that her campaign hinged on and exploited her gender. The Clinton team ‘translated’ Trump’s comments into a physical card that her supporters could buy, to show their allegiance. It raised her team millions of USD and was used as a hashtag on social media.

Woman card

The question of whether translation requires a product, i.e. public broadcast, physical object, other cultural or performative offering was not really dealt with. Closely related though is the question: is cultural studies a methodology? This was touched on in the presentation by Klaus Mundt, a tutor on the Translation studies programme, who argued that translators could be taught to practice cultural translation. In effect, he seemed to be proposing detailed literary analysis strategies, in particular focussing on the emotions evoked and the ‘cultural items’ in the source text. These items would then require a process of research before the translators attempted to find something that evoked a similar meaning in their ‘target culture.’ His method was a definite move away from linguistic equivalence. But from a cultural studies perspective it seems a bit problematic to change, for example, ‘greasy spoon’ in the English to Taiwanese 24 hour breakfast café. It really would depend on the purpose of the text.

I suppose this is where Cultural Studies and Cultural Translation meet: in collaboration we can talk about the meanings that slip and shift between cultures as we produce or analyse cultural products, both source ones and translations. But more than that, I think I do participate in Cultural Translation – and translators participate in Cultural Studies. Interestingly on my way home I saw an article about the Man Booker International, which for the first time split its prize money between the winner, Korean author Han Kang for her book The Vegetarian, and Deborah Smith – who translated it. It was a great signal of recognition for translation as an art.


Large metropolises have some common tones, textures and feelings whether they are New York, London, Shanghai, or Paris. However, each is a product of its own geography, socio-political history and of the culture from which it emerged brick by brick, by tarmacked road, by work of art, by happening, by government, individual and collective of people.

Culture, incidentally, is a complex word, linked to place but also practices. I enjoy Clifford Geertz’ description of the relationship between humans and culture: “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”

Cities could be understood as supporting structures for webs of significance or be seen as webs themselves; holding and facilitating material objects, transient moments and histories. They inevitably share commonalities with other large concreted, concentrated areas of human dwellings, but each has properties and feelings exclusively its own.

I have just returned from the German capital, Berlin. A city I have been to several times but it still intrigues me. What defines and distinguishes it? What does it mean to live here? How much does the language barrier here prevent me from knowing? Without fully understanding its significance and its relation to these questions until I got inside, this week I visited the Buchstabenmuseum (Museum of Letters) for the first time at its current location in an old supermarket between Mitte and Friedrichshain.


What the Buchstabenmuseum demonstrates is that ‘language’ isn’t only in the nature and selection of words and use of grammar, but in the way that words and even individual letters are presented. For in Berlin, typography, signage and graphic design are not only used distinctively they are hugely important. The Museum of Letters collects, documents and preserves letters and whole words from signs and architecture. Some efforts are made to re-contextualise the letters, elsewhere they sit within their own dioramas, or are de-constructed to reveal their manufacture.

The prominence of lettering within the architecture of the city is in no small part due to the Bauhaus school, established in 1919 by Walter Gropius in the German city of Weimar. Bauhaus translates as ‘construction house’ or ‘school of building’ – the full impact of the school is explored in another Berlin venue, the Bauhaus Archiv. Typeforms, product design and architecture were all overhauled by the school’s teachings and the legacy of what we now interpret as the modernist style can be seen across the post-war German urban landscape.

In the Buchstabenmuseum modernism’s sans serif style is everywhere. But also present is lettering influenced or directly using the ‘Fraktur’ font. Originating in Rome in the 15th century, it became popular in the German speaking and influenced regions, who persisted in using it even when the conventional font for books and newspapers changed elsewhere in Europe. Its popularity persisted until the early 20th century – and it was championed by the Nazi regime (the cover of Mein Kampf uses a hand drawn version). Partly it was a rejection of the associations of the past, including Fraktur-stype scripts, that was enthusiastically taken up by the teachers and students of the Bauhaus. We see its legacy today though in situations such as Oktoberfest event marketing.


Back in the museum, an E is presented as though on a stage, spotlit with theatrical curtains behind. The effect is David Lynch meets Sesame Street. We are given torches to read the captions as the neon signs are best displayed in the half dark. It is an immersive experience as well as an educational one with a pleasing balance between quirky displays, interpretative explanations and just letting the letters speak for themselves on open display in rows and stacks which reveal their weight, variety, proliferation, signs of use and even deterioration.

The letters require space, (re)interpretation and careful management – as with any collection – and the museum’s impending closure and campaign to find a new home for the letters is sad but understandable. The website suggests that the museum wants to acquire more items, however; so, though nomadic, the museum is not likely to completely disappear any time soon. Although not as well known or publicised as other venues such as the Bauhaus Archiv or the Deutsches Historisches Museum, this collection – a web of significance drawn from the fabric of the city itself – is arguably as important in telling Berlin’s story, and a good starting point in the process of understanding the city.

For more information:

Before we begin looking at Harmonious Society in detail, first a few thoughts on perennial exhibitions. Why do they occur? What do they mean in relation to other kinds of exhibition production? Obviously these are huge questions, and to answer them fully would take more time than we have here, but we will consider a few ideas.

When dOCUMENTA inaugurated in 1955 in Kassel, Germany, it had a healing mission: responding to the way that culture had become politicized in the Second World War.  Venice Biennale on the other hand, founded in 1895, similarly to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, was more concerned with national pride: announcing to the world what a nation is capable of using examples from fine art or industry.

Latterly, perennial exhibitions lead the way in setting trends and presenting artists that will then inspire other exhibitions. Curator, artist and writer Paul O’Neill describes them as: “interfaces between art and larger publics – publics which are at once local and global, resident and nomadic, non-specialist and art-worldly”, and explains that contemporary curatorial practice occurs: “on an increasingly inter-national, trans-national and multinational scale, where the ‘local’ and the ‘global’ are in constant dialogue.”

With this in mind, we now travel to Manchester City Centre for Asia Triennial 2014, and specifically to the six-venue sub-strand, Harmonious Society. It is a 30 artist-strong exhibition of Chinese contemporary art, led by the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA). Chinese content dwarfs the rest of the Triennial programme: even some of the events that sit outside of this sub-festival involve it. The emphasis given to China is likely because we are 14 years into the ‘Chinese century,’ but also very possibly because this country’s contemporary art has matured in the UK as an area of academic focus and curatorial concern.

When I spoke to Dr Jiang Jiehong, curator of Harmonious Society and Professor of Chinese Art at Birmingham City University, back in February, he touched on the curatorial processes that were underway to create the show. He impressed me with the rigour and the sensitivity with which he had approached the task of lead curator on the project, as well as his acknowledgement that what he was undertaking was an exercise in cultural translation.

In the four cultural centres – Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei – he initiated four different approaches to facilitate new artworks and curatorial endeavors, including workshops and symposia. But how have these curatorial structures translated into an exhibition experience?

Liu Jianhua Boxing Times (2002), Harmonious Society (Asia Triennial 2014), photo courtesy Tristan Poyser

It is not obligatory but it makes sense to begin Harmonious Society at the CFCCA venue on Thomas Street. The two artists selected for the show here make the point that the ‘harmonious society’ (or ‘societies’) to which the title refers are both Chinese and non-Chinese: that the artists of modern China are self-reflective as well as outward looking. Liu Xiaodong’s output is the result of four weeks in Israel. His diary entries are in some ways more poignant than his canvasses, documenting intimate encounters and observations. In contrast, Pak Sheung Chuen’s project, Resenting Hong Kong Series: Resenting My Own History, takes a lighter vox-poppy approach to the subject of transfer of Hong Kong sovereignty from Britain back to China in 1997.

To navigate the six venues, visitors are equipped with a map, beautifully designed by Hong Kong-born, Manchester-raised artist and illustrator Stanley Chow. Leaving Thomas Street, my next destination was the National Football Museum, where the works have been chosen or commissioned to relate to ideas of sport, games and power. A piece by Shanghai-based artist Liu Jianhua, Boxing Time (2002), is my highlight. Liu has produced a huge variety of work in ceramic, often exploring the tension between the hardness and fragility of the material. It’s a real bonus to have films here of the artists talking about their work.

The other artwork of interest here is Kan Xuan’s Man with Balls (2005).  In it she explores the relationship between golf and business: how sport can so often be masculine and exclusionary. This is resonant within a venue that attracts a principally male audience. Whether many of the traditional visitors have taken the lift to the third floor to see Harmonious Society is unclear (conversely visitors coming specifically to see the exhibition need not encounter a great deal of football as they trace their way to the show), the invigilator admits that the younger visitors love it; which is to be expected, as I find the exhibition here is the most fun of all the six venues.

In an extreme but not unpleasant change of tone, my next destination is Manchester Cathedral. Both the works here are new commissions. Zheng Guogu’s Brain Lines consists of 13 retro-looking units with a periodic table aesthetic, one to represent each of the twelve apostles and Jesus. Li Wei’s sculpture, however, responds to the cathedral architecture; he has chosen to create an ornate and ‘mystical’-looking frame around a full height mirror. Whilst both are sensitive to their surroundings and have a contemplative quality, they tread too softly for my liking and in the case of Li especially, feel a bit tucked away.

The works that best exemplify curator Dr Jiang’s mission to translate the culture of China for UK audiences can be found at the John Rylands Library. Wang Yuyang’s Breathing Books is, in my view, the most effective but subtle work from the entire selection of 30 artists. Having visited the library and taken photographs and measurements of the Chinese books, Wang returned to China to produce a silicon sculptural facsimile of them all piled on a table. Presented in the reading room, responding to a motion sensor, the books inflate so as to appear to breathe as one. This gesture embodies the importance of recording and exchanging knowledge, and is rooted specifically in the relationship between China and the UK. Most importantly, it is a wonderful, surprising work.

The next venue on the map, Artwork, is a few minutes walk into Salford, and is scruffy and a touch unwelcoming. However, it is the only space big enough to accommodate large immersive works. Pairing Zhang Peili’s Elegant Semicircles with Wang Yin’s joyous dance paintings on the top floor is particularly effective in such an industrial context. The works here are a catalogue of familiar artistic strategies (some ready-mades, a hint of Joseph Beuys) but together they form a distinctively Chinese lens with which the artists have interpreted their experiences.

Wang Yuyang, Breathing Books (2014), Harmonious Society (Asia Triennial 2014), photo courtesy Joel Chester Fildes

Curator Dr Jiang made reference to one problem that it is worth bearing in mind when visiting Harmonious Society, that: “an artist who has put 100% effort into their work when it is shown in one cultural context may find that only 20% will be understood in a new cultural context.  This is a two-way process which also affects British art shown in China.” A decision has clearly been taken not to overload the displays with interpretation; however, as I walk around Harmonious Society, there are some questions without answers, some intrigue without resolution, some meanings and messages that elude me.

The venue where I felt most alone was the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), my last destination of the day. Tonally this section of the exhibition, mostly video work, felt the most mournful and perhaps pessimistic. Some of the works begged for more explanation. Chen Chieh-jen’s four-screen exploration of a Taiwanese leprosy hospital, Realm of Reverberations (2014), in particular deserves substantial attention, befitting the artist’s thoughtful and intensive research process. Those visitors with the luxury of revisiting the exhibition might find it worth approaching this venue as a trip on its own.

On reflection, and similarly to its first big ‘expo’ exhibitions (some of which became perennial fixtures in our artistic calendars), this strand of the Asia Triennial Manchester first and foremost is concerned with showcasing some of China’s exciting artists. However, we are invited to reflect on China itself, not just Chinese contemporary art. Dr Jiang suggests that the exhibition is “a platform for audience, artists and curators to discuss this era of extraordinary social, ideological and cultural transformation.”

The title Harmonious Society appears politically loaded, suggesting a tension between the internal and external perception of a situation, and even hints at the use of propaganda. Assessing the exhibition alone, and not the extensive public programme, I find that the artists who are outsiders offer the most insight, whereas some of the pieces that directly deal with politics inside China — such as Yang Zhenzhong’s Long Live the Great Union and Wang Yin’s dancing paintings — are less forceful. However, I would exclude Chen Chieh-jen’s Realm of Reverberations video from that statement.

In a sense, all the artworks are outsiders in their current context in Manchester, although they are all part of the international art world; as mentioned at the start of this article, they are what curator Paul O’Neill calls ‘interfaces’ between one culture and another. We have a fantastic and time-limited opportunity to view them here, where some of the meaning may be lost but new meanings are made.

First published on

Hi Alnoor. Firstly, can you describe the circumstances around the founding of the first Asia Triennial Manchester (ATM) in 2008?

The main reason was that the climate leading up to 2008 was changing. There were several exhibitions on the theme of Asian art in the UK and beyond, there was the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) in Brisbane, Australia. And these were showcasing artists that I considered to be producing innovative, interesting work that was really different from the YBAs in Britain and the artists that followed them.  There was also the historical significance – trade links between Manchester and Asia meant it made sense to start bringing artists from that part of the world over to the North-West region.

What is the significance of holding the ATM outside of London?

London is seen as a cultural and economic hub — obviously there is the National Gallery, Tate, and artists settle there. But the North-West — Manchester in particular — has a lot to offer culturally. The Commonwealth Games were held in Manchester in 2002 and that event really let the world know what Manchester had to offer. The ATM is a continuation of showcasing Manchester to the world.

Street artist, Shamsia Hassani

How does this year’s festival move on from the first two versions?

The first two festivals took place under the umbrella of an organisation that I founded called Shisha [an international agency for contemporary South Asian crafts and visual arts]. The organisation lost its Arts Council England funding in 2011, so the festival this year is organized completely differently, with much stronger links to universities, drawing on their international work and research.

All three festivals have been thematic; the 2014 theme is ‘Conflict and Compassion.’  This idea is timely in terms of the global political situation and what we are facing. We are at war. When you listen to the radio, watch television or pick up newspapers, the idea of conflict and compassion seems very resonant. The festival explores how these ideas impact on ordinary people and how artists respond to them. There is also the backdrop of the WW1 centenary, which brings a different and poignant dimension to the festival this year.

There are links both to MIRIAD at Manchester Metropolitan University and to Birmingham University — via Dr Jiang Jiehong (Professor of Chinese Art, CFCCA’s lead curator, and a former curator of Guangzhou Triennial). Do you think this academic basis strengthens the festival?

The academic basis works on many levels and has many angles. The festival relates to my own research on Asian Cultures, and myself and other academics and curators contributed to a publication that followed the 2011 edition of the festival entitled Triennial City: Localising Asian Art. There is an academic agenda, but the festival also acts as a curatorial laboratory.  The festival takes a wider learning approach to showcasing what is happening in Asia and the UK.

In terms of the benefits to students, many of our undergraduates, MA and PhD students are researching in Asia and are interested in perennial festivals — so the ATM is fantastic for them. It is also great to be linking to Birmingham City University this time.

Alinah Azadeh, Burning The Books. Image courtesy Katja Ogrin

There are many exciting, high-profile, contemporary artists involved this year. Could you talk about one or two of them, and some of the projects that you are most excited about?

Yes, there is Alinah Azadeh,  a British artist of Iranian descent working internationally across media. Often involving the public through gift, ritual and dialogue, her works are collective meditations on loss, longing and human connection. Alinah will be presenting Child’s Play (2014) and Burning The Books: The Book of Debts, Volume IX (and remains of previous Books) (2011-15) at the Imperial War Museum North (IWMN). Both works shown here focus on the role material culture and language play in our relationship to conflict, as well as acting as gestures for peace amid the cycles of conflict currently intensifying globally.

Also showing at IWMN is Bashir Makhoul, who will present an installation of 3000 boxes. They are like cities in the Middle East, cardboard boxes representing overlooked dwellings, decayed places. This will be a new work but based on a piece he made for Venice Biennale… He will also show paintings concerned with similar ideas of displaced people, painted in fine detail at the Manchester Contemporary Art Fair.

Many of the key venues in Manchester are involved this year, including the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art [CFCCA] which is producing an ambitious multi-site show. Harmonious Society will showcase over thirty exceptional Chinese contemporary artists from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China, across six city centre venues: CFCCA, ArtWork, The John Rylands Library, Manchester Cathedral, Museum of Science & Industry, and the National Football Museum.

Harmonious Society will be the most significant exhibition in the UK to date of contemporary Chinese art, featuring new commissions and UK premieres; curator Jiang Jiehong has focused on the current socio-economic vision presented by the government of mainland China, which seemingly presents ‘no conflict’ but rather, almost poetically, 天下無事, a ‘Harmonious Society’.

Hardeep Pandhal, Untitled (Camp Coffee study) (2013)

What has the process of coordinating the festival been like?

The ATM has always been about relationships with key partners. We are lucky that all the partners share a similar approach.  I don’t think there is another city in the UK where the arts organisations have such a shared, collective vision. Manchester is probably unique in that way. Working on a festival like this will always be challenging because it is ambitious.

Can you tell me more about the new business strand of the festival and why it’s been introduced?

The festival this time has four main strands: the exhibitions, at Imperial War Museum North and other venues; a symposium for artists, academics and curators on the subject of ‘Conflict, Compassion & Resolution’; a business event and the collaborations programme.

The business event will centre on a knowledge exchange and a conference in November. This will bring keynote business entrepreneurs to speak in the context of the artworks at the IWMN; it will act as a bridge between the business and artistic communities.

Hsiao-Chi Tsai (Taiwan) and Kimiya Yoshikawa (Japan), Bury Art Museum and Sculpture Centre

What impacts did the previous festivals have and what do you hope will be the impact of ATM 2014?

What we did after the festival in 2011 was conduct a substantial economic evaluation and audience evaluation and we were encouraged by the results. It bought £7 million to the economy of Manchester and there were over 350,000 visits to both the 2011 and 2008 festivals.

We are hoping to build on both the economic impact and audience numbers this time.  Triennials take place every three years and between the festivals we continue the collaborations programme: local artists working with diverse communities in Greater Manchester. The ATM is the focal point, but we use the ideas from the festivals to continue our education strand between festivals and engage local communities.  This year one of the education outcomes will be a procession around IWMN using banners that respond to the idea of commemoration and conflict.

Last question! Could you sum up for me in a few words what visitors to Asia Triennial 14 can expect?

Visitors will be spectacularly mesmerized by world-class artists challenging their minds and moving their emotions.  From the CFCCA to the cathedral, IWMN and all the partner venues, there will be a diverse cluster of artistic activity in all media. It will celebrate what Manchester can offer culturally and present a powerful message about how art can challenge, move people and transform lives.

First published on

Britain Sexology ExhibitionAre the public here because they are interested in the history of the study of sex? Or are they here because any mention of sex in our culture is titillating, tantalizing and taboo? That is my question as I stand waiting to queue, with a timed ticket that I cannot redeem for twenty minutes. The Institute of Sexology is the most popular exhibition I have seen at Wellcome Collection, ‘a free destination for the incurably curious,’ in central London, which explores different elements of the human condition using science and art.

The lights are low and the layout of the gallery compels you to walk in a single line, peeking into each showcase of objects to see phallic amulets, Japanese sex aids, or a sepia-coloured photograph of a Victorian transvestite. The environment suggests that you are engaged in an illicit activity, the opposite of a large white space with the freedom to draw your own desire pathways from one item to another.

The exhibition is divided into sections, highlighting the different spheres of sexual study: the library, the consulting room, the classroom, the laboratory, the home. Artworks and artifacts complement data, variously visualized. An etching of dismembered male genitals apparently fallen from stone sculptures is followed by an erotic Victorian post card, which precedes a camel rendered in copulating couples produced in India in the 19th century, then onwards to a survey into female sexual responses.

The practice of studying sexuality and cultural responses to sex has, as you might expect, been historically controversial. We are told the story of physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld who was targeted by the Nazis. His library was burned to the ground in 1933, ending his promotion of social justice for sexual minorities and the lively debates between intellectuals who congregated at his ‘Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft’.  Photographs of his library are all that remain.

This is the study of collections: collections of data, collections of objects, and an examination of the fluxuating fates of the collectors. One of the collectors is Henry Wellcome (the philanthropist whose activity led to the creation of this venue) whom we are told had a “fascination with the theory of ‘phallic worship’.” One wonders whether scientific advancement was always the main motivation for sexual study, how or whether these individuals were able to shut off their own desires?

Sex concerns the body and the mind. Sigmund Freud is in the consulting room. He was one of the first psychologists to ‘lift the veil of silence’ and make the connection between neuroses and sexual emotion. Institute of Sexology reveals the invisible studies and their proponents, who enabled very visible social change; contraception or rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people. But it is artworks like Zanele Muholi’s black and white photographs of black lesbians in South Africa that wield the emotional power. From a wall of over 20 portraits, the artist has removed images of women who died since their photographs were taken, often from targeted violence.

The exhibition takes a turn for the zany with a series of photographs by Timothy Archibald. They are the outcome of three years spent travelling the United States documenting people and their home-made sex machines. The images have titles such as ‘Dan and Jan Siechert, The Monkey Rocker, Bakersfield, California.’ Even though they don’t depict sex, they bare witness to some of the most intimate sexual acts. Archibald says, “I wanted to let men tell their story about trying to navigate sex and relationships.” He was surprised to find that the machines tended to be built and used by committed couples.

“The history of sex research is not a progressive march toward enlightenment, and contemporary art interrupts that narrative,” says co-curator Honor Beddard. Carolee Schneemann, for example, with her work Ye Olde Sex Chart (Sexual Parameters Chart), 1975, cuts through the Western rhetoric of 1960s and 70s sexual freedom. The detailed list of her own sexual experiences mimics the methodology used by the sexual researchers elsewhere on display. The age and nationality of her lovers, the duration of their encounter, frequency, the size of their genitals. Her works are always deceptively simple: grabbing the male gaze, turning it on herself and holding it there until viewers are forced to confront her sexuality and their voyeurism.

Would you step inside the Sex Box!? Shouts a headline in a review of Institute of Sexology. The sex box is a box with no special qualities, made to the dimensions specified in a drawing by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in the 1930s. Reich called it the ‘Orgone Box,’ and apparently used it to collect and store a naturally occurring “sexually potent” energy possessed with health benefits. In reality it is an empty box, simply a means to attract attention for his wider agenda of sexual liberation.

One of the developments in sexual health that cut through British life the most deeply is the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s. This story is oddly placed here within the sphere of ‘the home,’ represented by leaflets posted through letterboxes at the time that read: “AIDS – Don’t Die of Ignorance.” However, this slogan is sadly resonant as recent figures show an increase of new persons infected in the UK, who believed that it wouldn’t happen to them.

This segues to the final note of the exhibition. A video, Pedagogue, 1988 by Neil Bartlett, which reminds us that sometimes ignorance is institutionalized. In this case referring to Section 28, a law banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools; leaving a generation of young people without support as they came to terms with their sexuality.

For those who came for the sex, the show isn’t that sexy. It is about how studying sex – or not talking about sex – can have deeply felt consequences for society. When the exhibition engages in these kind of discourses it has a profound message about the importance both of sexual freedom and the freedom to examine sexual practices; the way contemporary art interplays with this notion is worth the visit alone. I can tolerate the sex machines but don’t have much time for the sex box – it has done its job attracting crowds of visitors.

First published in Art World magazine, 2014

Piet Oudolf's plan for the garden at Hauser & Wirth Somerset courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo by Alex Delfanne

Piet Oudolf’s plan for the garden at Hauser & Wirth Somerset courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo by Alex Delfanne

Almost 40 years ago, Brian O’Doherty wrote in his essay ‘Inside the White Cube’: “We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first.” He went on: “This gives the space a presence possessed by other spaces where conventions are preserved through the repetition of a closed system of values. Some of the sanctity of the church, the formality of the courtroom, the mystique of the experimental laboratory…” He said nothing whatsoever about the farm.

Hauser & Wirth is an international brand with ‘white cube’ style galleries in London, Zurich and New York. They represent some big names of international contemporary art: Pierre Huyghe, Martin Creed, Paul McCarthy, Ron Mueck, Zhang Enli, to name but a few, and some significant artists’ estates including Eva Hesse and Dieter Roth. But now to add to its portfolio it can include the 100-acre Durslade farm in the English countryside outside the pretty town of Bruton in Somerset.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset is a vision for a new kind of art gallery. It supports artists’ production and experimentation; however, unlike most commercial art galleries, it places importance on the visitor experience. To do this, it reinforces their lifestyle and values: audiences can see contemporary art, eat good food and know that the butter was churned on site. In the decades since O’Doherty described the meaning and importance of the white, neutral space, there have been many attempts to reimagine the gallery but nothing has fundamentally shifted the paradigm. Perhaps this is it?

“I’ll meet you by the bucket,” I say down the telephone to my guide, Associate Director Lucy MacDonald, who is yet to arrive. We are meeting on a hot summers day the first weekend that the gallery opens to the public, although it has already been host to some fruitful residencies. Artworks themselves, temporary and permanent, some for sale, others not, have been central to the farm’s transformation; woven into the fabric of its new identity.

The bucket, which is actually and more appropriately, a milking pail, is ‘Untitled’ (2008) by Delhi-based Subodh Gupta. Stainless steel, seven foot high and prominently positioned outside the former farm buildings, it is a utilitarian counterbalance to Paul McCarthy’s whimsical ‘Ship Adrift, Ship of Fools’ (2009). On the ship-shaped sculpture, charcoal-black dolls’ heads silently slur and cry. Across the grass, on the old farmhouse, Martin Creed’s ‘Work No. 1086 EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT’ (2011), asserts its eponymous, reassuring message.

To cool down, my companion and I go inside for a drink at the bar. The bright sunshine makes the interior seem dull for a second, but as we blink the scene before us into focus, we are assaulted by a cacophony of objects: industrial, domestic and painterly. The Roth Bar and Grill is an installation in its own right by Björn and Oddur Roth, the son and grandson of Swiss artist Dieter Roth. Re-appropriated lockers, paint cans and their brand of New York-meets-Scandinavian interior design continues through the shop and cloakroom.

The idea to position a gallery such as this in the English countryside was conceived by Iwan Wirth, but it is now under the directorship of Alice Workman. Alice says she was attracted to work at the gallery because of the unique opportunity to live in “a rural environment [whilst working] for an internationally acclaimed gallery.” This dichotomy is present in all of the activities at Durslade farm. The first major exhibition here is ‘Gig’ by Phyllida Barlow whose work tumbles, drips, hangs and stands in the ‘Threshing barn,’ a series of workshops and outside in the ‘Pigsty’ and the ‘Piggery.’

Barlow has filled the Threshing barn with oversized, multicoloured fabric ‘pom poms’ from ceiling to floor. They beg to be touched (of course you can’t.) Their density and volume almost make the generous proportions of the barn seem small. Alice characterizes Barlow as “a real artists’ artist with a wonderful capacity to make everybody feel totally engaged and inspired” and describes the new work she has produced for Hauser and Wirth as “vibrant [and] celebratory.” Lucy enthusiastically recalls the textile pom poms arriving fully assembled hanging in an enormous box, and how the artist and her team fabricated other parts of the installation on site from sections of wood and plaster, making final decisions on the work’s appearance in response to the space. The result evokes machinery (perhaps from farming activities past), combines elements of architecture with echoes of art school or some other institution, and suggests chance through a million deliberate gestures. One can sense both that Barlow’s sculpture is rooted in drawing practice, but also that the artist understands her work will be seen in the round. She has an intuitive understanding of material, movement and the power of scale.

Barlow in her 70th year is having a bit of a moment. It was a clever decision to launch the gallery with an exhibition of work by someone who is an art world insider (she was a professor of art at the Slade School of Art, London for more than 40 years) but makes work that is tactile and jolly. Concurrently, she is showing previously unseen drawings at Hauser and Wirth Saville Row and has a major commission at Tate Britain. The artist started work in Bruton immediately after finishing her piece for Tate in London’s west end.

At the back of the gallery we exit into the sunshine. Here the internationally renowned gardener and nurseryman Piet Oudolf has planted an extensive garden, complemented by Louise Bourgeois’ ‘Eye Benches II (1996-1997) and Anri Sala’s ‘Clocked Perspective’ (2012). It hums with the siren call of crickets, but we cannot explore it, yet. Officially, the garden is not ready: it is in the process of growing and will launch in September this year.

Oudolf’s gardens are art and life in four dimensions. They are meticulously designed to look good in all seasons, even when the plants die or dry out in the winter. The artist (although he doesn’t identify as such, preferring gardener) has planted gardens all over Europe and the US including at Palais de Tokyo, Paris and Venice Biennale. Lucy revealed that Oudolf is deeply emotionally invested in each project and feels hurt when the commissioners do not maintain them after he is gone. The garden is a significant statement of the gallery’s intention to care for its immediate environment and to employ the manpower to do so (it will require one full time gardener and a part time assistant.)

Back inside, Oudolf’s garden production process is explained in an exhibition of his preparatory drawings. They build up in translucent layers from concept design to detailed planting instructions; every sheet of white paper suspended in a white vitrine is covered with annotations in his native Dutch and a personal code of symbols. The drawings have never been displayed as artworks before. They are an insight into Piet Oudolf’s professional activity and also his soul.

Before we leave, Lucy asks if we would like to take a walk to Bruton Dovecote, a sixteenth-century watchtower and residence for doves and pigeons, positioned on a hill overlooking Durslade Farm and the town. Walking up the steep field to the stone structure, we pass a community garden full of vegetables, sunflowers and violets. By this point in the day, the distinction between art and gardens has dissolved completely; leaving a sense that at their best both involve time, collaboration, beauty, compromise, ambition and commitment.

Standing by the Dovecote we can see the town beneath us: pink, yellow, thatch roofs and sandstone, clean and shining in the late afternoon heat. You can appreciate why artists like Pipilotti Rist not only want to exhibit at the gallery, as she will do in November this year, but are willing to move to Bruton for an entire year, as she did in 2013, enrolling her son in the local primary school whilst she created a permanent piece of art at the farm. The town and the fields that surround it are a lung breathing energy into the gallery. The access to Hauser and Wirth’s artists should act as an oxygenated vein, ensuring that the gallery maintains the quality, complexity and ‘edge’ of the offer, and does not succumb to the lazy and bland style of art that rural British towns typically favour.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset has been described as the ‘slow’ alternative to the fast pace of the international art world. Many synonyms for slow are negative: lethargic, lackadaisical, sluggish, stagnant. But I find a gallery that is better described by words such as: considered, self-possessed and unflappable. ‘Slow’ can describe the process of a museum developing a collection for future generations. Or an artist taking time to produce a new work. It can describe a garden growing. Or a gallery that challenges the orthodoxy of the white cube and demands to be revisited as it changes from season to season, year after year.

What follows is a very personal list of exhibitions that have caught my eye, coming up in 2015 in Liverpool and beyond. Most but not all of them fall in the first half of the year.

  • Listening

Hayward Curatorial Open Exhibition at Bluecoat, Liverpool

24 Jan – 29 March

Endeavouring to help us distinguish between hearing and the more deliberate activity of listening. Includes the work of Haroon Mirza and Laure Prouvost.

  • History is Now

Hayward Gallery

10 Feb – 26 April

Artists curate sections of the show in response to recent history.

  • Magnificent Obsessions: Artist as Curator


12 Feb – 25 May

Objects from the collections of Hanne Darboven, Damien Hirst, Sol le Witte and others.

  • Whitworth Art Gallery re-opening

Cornelia Parker / Thomas Shutte / Cai Guo-Qiang

14 Feb

Opening weekend of events

  • Leonora Carrington / Cathy Wilkes

Tate Liverpool

6 March – 31 May

Concurrent exhibitions of prolific surrealist Carrington and Turner Prize nominated contemporary artist Wilkes.

  • Ahead of the curve: New china from China

Potteries Museum Stoke on Trent

14 March – 31 May

Touring show of contemporary ceramic and glass, developed by the Two Cities Gallery, Shanghai.

  • Venice Biennale

Launches 9 May

56th edition

  • Maya The revelation of an endless time

World Museum Liverpool


400 objects from museum collections and Mayan sites in Mexico

  • Manchester International Festival

2-19 July

Ballet, theatre, music and secrets of the universe.

  • Ai Weiwei

Royal Academy of Arts

19 September – 13 December

First significant survey of the artist’s work in Britain.


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

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.

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’.

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


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.

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.

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.

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.


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


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


“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