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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai, August 2014

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

1. David Lynch The Factory Photographs

17 January – 30 March 2014

The Photographers Gallery, London

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

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

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

Tate Liverpool

28 February – 11 May 2014

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

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

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

Various venues Manchester

March 2014

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

 

4. British Folk Art

Tate Britain

10 June – 7 September 2014

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

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

5. Hauser & Wirth Somerset

Opens summer 2014

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

6. Manifesta 10

29 June – 31 October 2014

The Hermitage, St Petersburg

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

7. Liverpool Biennial

Various venues Liverpool

5 July – 26 October 2014

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

http://liverpoolbiennial.co.uk/

8. Fiona Banner new commission

19 July – 2 November 2014

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

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

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

9. Ryan Trecartin

Zabludowicz Collection, London

2 October – 21 December 2014

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

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

 

10. Asia Triennial Manchester

October – November 2014

Various venues Manchester

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

 

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

 

“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in Art world magazine, Shanghai

“A shadow strikes her side, on the other, a glowing highlight. Her profile’s electric. Arse moon white…”

The woman speaking on the screen, captured in scruffy footage, is the actor Samantha Morton.  She is visibly uncomfortable: in one hand she holds a microphone, the other hand grabs at her hair or the back of her neck. This affecting, contemporary, yet ‘kind of classical’ piece of performance art is by Fiona Banner.  Morton is reading from a script that Banner wrote while Morton posed naked for her in the studio; the actor didn’t see the text until she read it aloud to an audience.  Described as a ‘strip tease,’ this film is on display at the Summerhall venue in Edinburgh, in a small but powerful exhibition of the artist’s work that is part of this edition of the Edinburgh Art Festival.

I feel a bit sheepish writing this as I saw such a tiny fraction of the festival offer.  Strapped for time, I focussed on three things: Summerhall, No Foreign Lands – the major survey of work by Peter Doig at the Scottish National Gallery, and Gabriel Orozco at The Fruitmarket Gallery.  I’m dealing with Doig separately, so here I will describe what I saw – and also what I regret I didn’t see.

Summerhall was a revelation.   Filled with people and activity, centred around a jolly courtyard, most visitors on the first day of the festival were enjoying a beer and a bit of sun.  Yet concealed in temporary sheds, and inside the building in every available space, were visual art exhibitions, performances, films, talks and other events.

When I arrived I was charmed by the first exhibition I saw of site-specific, thoughtful constructions made from detritus.  Baseball caps found rotten on the beach, car suspension wrapped in umbrella fabric, pill packets and illustrations cut from charity shop-bought books had all conjoined like small parts of a bigger picture. The Coventry-based artist, Martin Green, explained that his work was an ongoing process: even in Edinburgh he was adding to his collection of materials. The other Summerhall, and in fact festival, must-see is Michael Nyman’s Images were Produced, a completely original and captivating installation/performance/cinematic experience.

Elsewhere, in the busy centre of the city, The Fruitmarket Gallery are holding one of their well presented monographic exhibitions. This time, using an unusual curatorial twist of taking one work by the artist Gabriel Orozco, and placing it at the centre of a ‘constellation’ of his other works, taking various ideas to their eventual conclusion. His work is a bit too boringly formal and abstract for my liking but I appreciate the curatorial effort that has gone into unpacking his lines of enquiry. For the festival, the gallery has also commissioned a permanent new public artwork by Martin Creed.

Sadly, I didn’t have time to see Peter Liversidge’s show at Ingleby Gallery or the outcome of Ilana Halperin’s residency at the National Museum of Scotland, and I was in the city too early to see Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s work at Jupiter Artland (that venue is also showing Sam Durant’s Scaffold – I saw this eerie gallows-based climbing frame in Kassel, its worth seeing).  There is so much, you could be completely unstrategic and wait and see what you come across.  There is plenty to suit all tastes but get up there quick as the official festival period ends on 1 September 2013.

www.edinburghartfestival.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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