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.