Hi Jamie. It’s very nice to meet you; I’ve been really interested in your work for a long time. How have you found Liverpool, and when did you arrive?

I arrived in April. I didn’t really know Liverpool, I knew Manchester much better. [The opportunity to come here] came at a good time, I had just finished a long project – Hiker Meat – that culminated in an exhibition at the Cornerhouse. I realised on reflection that project had lasted five or six years, although it changed continually throughout, and there was a moment when I realised that when I started it I was in my 20s, and I am now 36.

I’m a compulsive maker, it’s difficult for me to not do anything, but it was a good time for me to take stock and I needed some sort of change. I like the dislocation of coming here, not having a studio, not having a routine, not knowing a place, not knowing how to spend my time on a daily basis. So it’s been great. Starting [a new body of work] is always painful; I forget this when I am working on a project the strands of which started several years previous.

You have been the Bluecoat‘s 2014 Summer Print Studio Artist in Residence. Were you able to start something new during your time there?

The beginning of something often starts with a medium, an approach or a process that I am not familiar with. So screenprinting is what I did here. I have always been interested in screenprinting but didn’t know anything about it. I knew the basic principle of a mesh and image, but [I learnt] through practice and didn’t necessarily approach it in the most efficient way. That is essentially how I work, without much official tutoring or someone going ‘that’s wrong’ because sometimes those wrong things work out well with what I am trying to achieve.

There was no set goal of what was to be achieved in this period of time. The only stipulation was that you had to make an edition. I was conscious that I wanted to make pictures and I wanted to make them in a singular way as opposed to a repetitious edition-based way, which is the traditional way screenprinting is done. I wanted to interrupt that process.

I think I ended up making about 60 or 70 ‘things’, by things I mean outcomes, and about five of them were good. ‘Good’ is probably the wrong word, but there was some sort of bridge between the intention and the outcome. It took me a long time to build up my confidence in relation to the medium. It’s extremely exhausting. But that was important to me that labour intensiveness.

Will you be presenting the outcomes from the residency?

I had this show in Rome, which was scheduled to open the first week of October. The intention was that the work produced [at the Bluecoat] would go into that show but it all got so close to the wire. I was printing onto wood, to me they were the frontispieces of paintings and they were going to have a stretcher on the back. I ran out of time here so I shipped all the work and made the backs out there. That became the end point.

Jamie Shovlin at the Cornerhouse on Friday

[Also in that show I exhibited] drawings of hands that I produced here, using images of sculptures from the Renaissance, high Western art. These images are strangely aligned to Liverpool, even though they have nothing to do with Liverpool as a place, because as I didn’t have any internet access or anywhere to work when I arrived, I used to go to the Picton Reading Room a lot. And they have these oversized art books in there, really beautiful books, published largely in the ’60s… that are largely image based… and then this rather bitchy scholarship. Really judgmental. The drawings gave some context to what I was doing here [at the Bluecoat] where my hand wasn’t visible.

For the longest time I was engaged principally in process. Which at a certain point, thankfully, segued into something more conceptual, more compelling. I have never had an interest in historic sculpture, I am not sure if I do, but I do have an interest in history making.

Is the show in Rome a solo show?

It’s a two-person show [entitled C/O An alternate correspondence. It’s open now] at Unosunove Gallery with an artist called Philomene Pirecki, who is based in London. Her work is about continually reframing what she is doing. I was doing something similar, but she works directly in the space. I have liked her work for a long time. It’s a form of conceptual painting. It has this inherent idea of time and of place. Formally [her work and mine] work well together. It’s not something I normally think about — tone, colour scheme, we’ve got too much magenta on that wall, that sort of thing.

Naomi V Jelish  2004 mixed media

The old masters you are referencing would have worked with studios in a particular way, for instance, with assistants. Have you ever tried that?

I tried it! At one time I was making work that was more friendly to that way of working. But after a couple of weeks I was struggling to find work for them to do. [What I am doing now is] about contact with the thing whilst you are making it. Building up layers. They aren’t performative or purely durational, but time is very important. People often ask ‘how long did it take you?’ – it’s such a stupid question. Sometimes time does equate to value, but some of the best things I have seen took seconds to produce, even though there is no struggle in them; I am more towards the durational end of the spectrum.

When I was researching for this interview, words like ‘trickster’ and ‘conman’ came up often. I wondered how comfortable you are with this label? Does it refer principally to work you made a long time ago?

The word I dislike most is ‘hoaxer’; it reduces everything to that ‘ha ha I’ve got you!’ moment. Roughly speaking, I have done three projects you could call fake archives. The point of reveal has always been different. Naomi V Jelish (pictured, above) was my first ever show and there was the possibility to engineer an exhibition experience where the viewer wouldn’t know what they were looking at. The structure of the show came from the space; I knew I had two floors in the gallery to work with. One level was the archive of drawings, the ‘front’ of the story being told, and the other level was about the production of the story.

Then there is the Saatchi thing, which I am amused by…

The myth that Charles Saatchi perpetuated, that he thought the archive was real and the drawings were produced by a 13-year-old girl…

…This ‘myth’ as you say. I had never spoken to the press, I was talking to them genuinely and then they asked me ‘how do you feel about tricking him?’ I knew it wasn’t true but there was a game to play. It was my first show at a well-known gallery and Saatchi was there when I arrived, drinking a cappuccino. He told me [he was going to tell the press he thought the archive was real] and he said to me ‘this is going to be good for me and you.’ What was amazing about the experience, apart from the heightened interest in the work, was the insight into his PR umbrella. He gave a story about each artist in the show to a different publication — newspapers not magazines. My story went to the Telegraph. I now have in the archive genuine press clippings about the show alongside fake press clippings that I made myself. It’s like layers of an onion; he added several layers to the work.

Going back to my original question about Liverpool, I wondered whether place is quite important to how you work? I notice that Cumbria crops up a couple of times on your CV.

The North-West actually as a region has been quite key. I’ve done three or four shows in Manchester, Liverpool and Carlisle. With the Carlisle exhibition – at Tullie House – that project was all about context and site. I was working with the curator Fiona Venables who is amazing, one of the best people I have worked with. She was trying to bring closer together two disparate strands of what the museum was doing – the collections, the research, the historic museum and the very ambitious exhibition programming.

The curators of the collections were very wary because of my reputation. I was there for three years, mostly gaining trust. They would be wanting to show me their best things and I would be interested in a tuna fish under a tarpaulin or an ostrich egg in a toilet roll holder.

I like the edges of collections, museums with an archeology of their own history. I wanted to tell the story of how objects entered the collection. Everything we see has been processed through some mind or collective mind, or its been fictionalised. People put emphasis on different things. This is why I didn’t see working in the museum as that different to my other work [such as the fake archives]. Even if it’s the most verified historical account, it has been shaped by people who always have an agenda.

First published on thedoublenegative.co.uk

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 thedoublenegative.co.uk

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 thedoublenegative.co.uk

A non-profit, evolving, critical art collective hailing from Leeds, Black Dogs have been prodding and dissecting our ideas about the art world for the last ten years. The group — founded by Andy Abbott and Dave Ronalds in 2003 — approach art as a space in which to experiment with and question social, economic and political ideas.

Key moments include their 2010 exhibition for Tate Modern’s festival of independent art organisations, No Soul For Sale — which saw them ask, ‘How Not To Sell Your Soul At No Soul For Sale’, encouraging other exhibitors to visit their pop-up pub to share their experiences of receiving no pay or expenses — and 2004′s Arte Et Labore and Technically Wrong exhibitions at the Cloth Workers Hall — turning Pizza Express into a space for ’young’ artists in Leeds to exhibit, and having to take the entire space down on weekends.

Hi Andy. How do you think Black Dogs fits into the wider arts infrastructure in Leeds? (i.e. do you have any key partnerships? How do you complement the more mainstream arts activity in the city?)

Andy Abbott: We do less stuff in Leeds now than we used to. When we started out, there was much less in the way of artist-led spaces or initiatives, or opportunities/spaces in which ‘young’ or less established artists could show work. So we made our own opportunities, and did what we could with the means and resources available to us.

We took more influence from the DIY music, activist and squatting scenes in Leeds than the institutional art stuff. That said, things like Situation Leeds public arts festivals in 2005 and 2007, and the early Light Night festivals from 2006-2008, felt like exciting and inspiring things to be part of. At that moment, it felt to me that a different kind of art might have been brewing in Leeds, one that reflected the lack of a conventional Art World presence in the city; that was more socially-engaged and political.

No Soul For Sale, Tate Moder, Black Dogs

As the more prominent arts organisations have grown and developed I think the art scene in the city has become more standardised. I think Black Dogs works best in places that are marginal, a bit weird, unconventional and that have an alternative narrative to the (culturally driven) neoliberal city. In those places, art can still surprise and engage new audiences in different ways of thinking about and approaching the world. So we’re mostly doing stuff in Bradford and elsewhere now! There’s still some great stuff going off in Leeds but I think the sort of art scene that has grown in the last few years has made it a less interesting place for us to work.

Do you think that artists make a conscious choice between DIY and gallery representation? How do you see these two approaches working together (or not?) 

I don’t know much about the ins and outs of gallery representation, but there’s a minority of artists (some of us included) who prefer not to pursue a ‘career’ within the Art World and for whom the Do-It-Yourself approach and ethos is a political position. That minority is made up of people who might disagree with the commercialisation of art, the manner in which institutions are run, those who believe in a different form of organisation, and people for whom self-managing and self-organising simply suits them better. Of course there’re plenty of people out there whose approach to DIY is that it is simply a necessary first stage in getting in to the Art World proper and for whom the political inferences are unimportant.

Black Dogs Book Fair

What are the advantages and the challenges of having a non-hierarchical, loosely formed group?

I’m always a bit wary of the term non-hierarchical being used to describe how we operate. Hierarchies exist within the collective — some people lead on certain projects or elements of the collective — but we try to be conscious of these and shake them up when required. Likewise the open and loose membership is in actuality for the majority of the time the same few people meeting together and making key decisions about the direction of the group — but we try to disrupt this when things are in danger of getting staid and repetitive. Being non-hierarchical and fluid are challenges in themselves, things that we can’t achieve fully but that we aim towards without letting the manner in which the group is organised/managed overshadow the art we make/do together.

With that in mind, could you tell me a bit more about some of the art that you and the wider group produce?

In recent years, we have moved from putting food and drink and music into galleries, to organising parties and putting art into that context. Some of the group who are based in London are doing a research project looking into the politics of parties, party scenes and hosting in art; its called Wish You’d Been Here… In Bradford/Leeds we organise club nights with a critical edge under the name Bare Plume – these events combine food, cocktails, bands and films e.t.c. Quite a few of us are involved in playing music and being in bands as well as art production.

The idea of mapping occurs quite a lot in what I – and some other members of the group – do. It’s because we are geeky and we like maps, but also because in making participatory events that prompt a conversation is what is important to us, but then you want something to exist afterwards. Some examples of this are theFestival of Pastimes and the Saltaire Cat Map. They both invite people to look at spaces in a different way.

What have been Black Dogs’ key moments?

Arte Et Labore and Technically Wrong exhibitions at Cloth Workers Hall (2004)… there were no spaces available to ‘young’ artists in Leeds at the time so we turned the upstairs of Pizza Express into a gallery — having to take it down on weekends. Consequences at Whitehall Waterfront (2006, that then became Project Space Leeds)… Our worst exhibition that made us reconsider our approach and helped us realise bigger is not always better. And also in 2006: A Night Down The Pub and Black Dogs Panto. Two events we put on for a laugh that were much more successful than our ‘proper’ exhibition that year!

No Soul For Sale (2010). A project we did at Tate Modern that raised a lot of questions in the group. We ended up building a replica of the pub we met in in Leeds in the Turbine Hall. And Black Dogs Quarterlies (2013) — a series of publications that helped the group to operate across the UK.

Who is your audience?

We have different audiences for different projects, many of which respond to a specific area or community/communities whom we like to get involved in the development of that project as participants or agents. I think there’s another level of Black Dogs’ audience out there — those who have followed the group and are interested in our overall practice, as well as those that buy our publications — but I’d be hard pushed to say who they are, and we don’t really take that into account when making decisions about what we’re going to do next.

What is Black Dogs working on right now?

We’re working on a radio play of a project we did in Bradford last year. It started out as a few meetings gathering together people that had been involved in Bradford’s counter-cultural scene in the late ’60s and ’70s, especially those that had worked with or come into contact with Jeff Nuttall (who wrote a book called Bomb Culture and taught at Bradford College for a while). These conversations helped form a guided walk around an area of Bradford that had been earmarked as the city’s ‘cultural quarter’ in regeneration plans, which ultimately never happened. Hopefully we’ll have the radio version done in the next month!

How do you see the group evolving over the next 10 years?  In terms of projects, geographies and participants?

It’s hard to say. We’ve never had a long-term plan and I think it’s important to keep the option of ‘Black Dogs’ dissolving or changing beyond recognition open at all times. I think as long as people feel some affinity with what we’ve done in the (recent) past, however, and there’s the drive for participants to use their spare-time creatively and in collective projects, then Black Dogs will keep on keeping on.

First published on thedoublenegative.co.uk

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

Ribbons, Ed Atkins, Serpentine Sackler Gallery / Exhibition 2014

Sometimes I suspect that the art that I like isn’t necessarily the art of my era. I will have to wait until the future for history to confirm this. Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the new media art of, say, Haroon Mirza or Pipilotti Rist. But on occasion I wonder whether what we call fine art or contemporary art is actually quite backwards-looking. That the art of ‘now’ isn’t objects or performance, film, paper or canvas, but that it is digital – and we can’t quite accept that yet.

Then I see something like Ribbons at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in sunny Hyde Park, and it really says something to me about optimism, darkness and life in the 21st century. The protagonist is an avatar, the artist is Ed Atkins, and the result is eliciting strong and polarized opinions.

The video installation itself is prefaced by text works, which carry on from the interpretation’s artspeak poetry; printed typeface augmented with hand-drawn cartoons, gestures and photocopied body parts. The artist invites us to expect “old powder rooms, haunted by the phantom smell of gunpowder, paranoia and anticipation of violence.”  The term ‘misanthropic’ is used, along with ‘melodrama’ and, most intriguingly, ‘torettic injections.’ One imagines that all these words have been carefully chosen, given that Atkins was Whitechapel Gallery’s writer in residence in 2012-13.

The lead man, Ribbons, a CGI creation, sings of madness whilst his cigarette burns down to the filter, leaving a tower of ash. His head deflates amongst empty pint glasses, his hand squeezes a tumbler until it smashes into bloodless shards. The sound is arranged to lead the audience from screen to screen around the barn-like space. Semi-stand-alone videos of a head bouncing down stairs and a glory hole or two act as punctuation.

The aesthetic seems deliberately antagonistic. Ribbons is a skin-head Ken-doll, his body inscribed with ‘troll’ and ‘ass hole’ – homemade prisoner tattoos meet a teenage pencil case. His mouth opening and closing doesn’t always line up with the soundtrack – this isn’t a showcase of new technology for its own sake. There are allusions to aspects of homosexual culture, but he doesn’t appear to be judging, exploring or celebrating it. More using it as a style, or a means to take an idea to its conclusion, to present a lonely soul trapped simultaneously in the net and at the bottom of a glass.

The artist seems to delight in causing confusion. He re-tweeted one visitor who said: “Went to the Ed Atkins exhibition at Serpentine Sackler Gallery@SerpentineUK & had no idea what was going on at all!” and another who asked: “@Ed_Atkins what’s going on in his head? Is he a nutter or what?” To be shut out of the meaning on some level doesn’t ruin the experience for me: it works conceptually as he is dealing with navigating the, often dark and slippery, online world. Another criticism leveled at the piece is that it is somehow too masculine, or too extreme to be relatable. Whatever your view point, this is highly finished, ambitious work, which offers an antidote to too many works of contemporary art that are recycling old ideas, plain lazy or disappointing.

Atkins makes work for the modern world, but it belongs in a gallery context, due to its monumental proportions and inspired use of sound and space. He pulls us into a digital dystopia and the digital into the everyday. By using some familiar strategies, combining them with references to sexual subculture, a knowing use of typography, sound and pop music, he has produced a ‘new art’ – which perhaps only the future will find the words to describe, and perhaps only with hindsight we will completely understand.

Linda Pittwood

Ed Atkins’ Ribbons continues at the Serpentine, London until 25 August 2014, free entry

Originally published on thedoublenegative.co.uk and a_n news


Certain works of art embed themselves in the international consciousness, in a way that eclipses the artist’s life and transcends the circumstances of their making. In Piet Mondrian’s case, it isn’t so much one painting that does this as the ‘look’ of his mature oeuvre.

His legacy could be seen not so much as one of a painter but of a design style – appropriate given his affiliation with the De Stijl (Dutch for ‘the style’) group in the early decades of the twentieth century. This makes him stand out, even when compared to other extremely well known artists associated with one work, such as Edvard Munch and The Scream or Leonardo da Vinci and The Mona Lisa.

Much of what is written about Mondrian can be traced back to his essay Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art, which was first published serially in the Die Stijl journal in the 1920s. The term ‘Neo Plasticism’ loosely translates as ‘new art’, and refers to Mondrian’s pure abstract style and use of black lines and blocks of primary colour.

Perhaps the more interesting story here has been identified by art historians such as Nancy J. Troy, who says that to study Mondrian is to shine a light on the relationship between popular culture and the canonisation of art. However, for someone who had such a massive impact on the visual vocabulary of the 20thcentury – what do we really know about him? And what do we know about his art?

Mondrian’s paintings appear smooth, flat and graphic, but in the flesh even the white areas are textured with brushstrokes. His work appears to have a unifying look, but it was constantly evolving over his lifetime – earlier works demonstrate the influence of other modernist heavy-weights, including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Later work, whilst seemingly abstract, does contain references to the ‘real’ world.

"Mondrian" day dress, autumn 1965 Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936) Wool jersey in color blocks of white, red, blue, black, and yellow Gift of Mrs. William Rand, 1969 (C.I.69.23)

The painting Broadway Boogie Woogie, produced in in the last years of his life, refers to the grid-like formation of the New York streets and boogie woogie music. For an artist whose vision seemed so clear, his work can be traced by both his country of residence and various friendships and associations. Notably, towards the end of his fifty-year career, he became a mentor to the younger British artist Ben Nicholson, and he lived for a period in London.

His abstract paintings appear simple, but his extensive writings (first published together in an anthology called The New Art The New Life in 1993) reveal artistic aims and theories that are staggeringly complex. In an early conversation between Mondrian and a critic, the artist explains that all painting is about ‘relationships’ and his neoplastic work simply expressed relationships using only colour and line.

His earlier work was similarly about relationships but focused on those within nature – the problem with this, he said, is that “in the capriciousness of nature, form and colour are weakened by the curvature and by the corporeality of things.” He went so far in the end as to object to the very presence of nature, and even to the colour green, which is entirely absent from his later work.

Unbelievably, considering how well known he is now, Mondrian was not successful in his lifetime. It wasn’t until his 70s that he began to sell out exhibitions; before then he often considered quitting and taking up a more ordinary and stable profession. His perseverance won out, and by the time he died in 1944, the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and Peggy Guggenheim had both purchased pieces directly from his shows – a little over twenty years later his work was immortalized as a dress by the legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent and his influence on broader design culture was secured. Fast-forward to 2014, and Mondrian’s paintings are reproduced on iPhone covers, trays, sandals, candles, duvet covers, t-shirts and cake, whilst the originals sell at auction for millions.

What Piet Mondrian demonstrates is that an artist who seems very familiar can have a lot more going on beneath the (seemingly smooth) surface. The story of Mondrian that we know really started after the artist died – when he transitioned from an artist on the fringe, steeped in theory, to an artist whose name is attached to any combination of primary coloured blocks and black outlines.

How exactly this occurred is a question that is difficult to answer, and as a phenomenon it is as mysterious and fascinating as the artist himself.

Linda Pittwood

Mondrian and his Studios at Tate Liverpool continues until 5 October 2014

Image: ”Mondrian” day dress, autumn 1965, Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936). Wool jersey in color blocks of white, red, blue, black, and yellow. Gift of Mrs. William Rand, 1969 (C.I.69.23) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

First published on thedoublenegative.co.uk