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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Poor Doris Salcedo. Like the injustice of a serious musician permeating the public consciousness for the appearance of just one of their songs on a car advert, Doris is a household name mainly as a result of her Turbine Hall installation Shibboleth ’07. Not that the installation was commercial or of less quality than her other works, but recently someone actually referred her to me as ‘that crack woman’. I think Doris deserves more. Her name should be bigger than it currently is outside of the artistic inner sanctum that is the world of collectors and academicians. But I get the impression that Doris isn’t much of a self-publicist, likely more through choice than inability. Her work portrays a character at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Hirsts and Emins and even Picassos of this world.

Shibboleth ’07

I never got to see the famous ‘great crack’ as it has been named by some, although I felt deeply disappointed that I didn’t, after listening to Roger Lloyd-Pack read Adrian Mitchell’s poem The Song of The Great Crack aloud at a Stop The War meeting and almost reducing the audience entirely to tears. The poem records the writer’s emotional reaction to the installation and though it is too long to recreate now, I shall cite a short piece and strongly recommend you buy the book and read it in full:

and the great crack / is Lethe the river of forgetfulness / which the mass media drinks each night / to wash away the past

and the great crack / is the cry of massacred innocents/ poor hungry raped or murdered /

and the great crack / is the handwriting of an alien / whose love letter to the human race says: / meme meme tekel upharsin / you have been weighed in the balance / and found wanting

and the great crack / is despair / that useless emotion / which sometimes threatens / to flood the mind

As can be fairly easily gleaned even from this small extract, Doris Salcedo’s work deals with life, death and the politics in between. Unlike someone like Damien Hirst, however, her message is understated. The power is in the restraint. Dignity and strength of mind deal with mortality, not through morbid curiosity but with a quiet despair and grim anger. Less is more here.

Shibboleth ’07 – Detail

Approaching that wonderfully compact and minimal White Cube outpost, hidden away down an alley in Mason’s Yard, I was intrigued to see what Salcedo had created next. The first piece on the ground floor, A Flor de Piel ’11-12 surprised me straight off. Having seen detail photographs of the work in reviews and such like, I had somehow imagined it as a wall hanging when zoomed out. I’m glad it wasn’t. The piece is intended to give the impression of a giant shroud and consists of thousands of Rose petals, waxed and carefully stitched together to create an undulating mass covering 2/3 of the floor in the ground floor gallery.

A Flor de Piel ’11-12

On passing through the doorway and seeing this, my first thought was actually not of a shroud but of a landscape, mountainous and vast. The wax used to preserve the petals gives the material a leather-like appearance in texture; when bunched and folded this works with the variations in colour and tone to create a scene resembling a bird’s eye view not dissimilar to that of South American desert regions. This may not have been the intention of Salcedo, but I liked her interpretation too; the death shroud created through careful manipulation of the fragility of life, to speak for those whose lives were also carefully manipulated, although without the care which went into this work (Salcedo took inspiration from the concept of offering flowers to a victim of torture). It has a certain poetic irony to it.

A Flor de Piel ’11-12 – Detail
A Flor de Piel ’11-12 – Detail

The lower ground floor housed her newest work, Plegaria Muda and was an altogether appropriate place to situate it. I wasn’t immediately sure what to make of the numerous tables laid out one on top of another, but I was struck by the aesthetic uniformity of the upstanding tables, which put me in mind of large dead insects with their legs reaching in vain to the heavens. On closer inspection I saw flashes of green protruding from the underside of the top table and as my eyes scanned downwards, discovered a layer of carefully placed soil in between the upright top table and the bottom one standing.

Plegaria Muda ’08-10

The connection with burial and coffins was immediately clear (the work is an homage to Colombian victims of army-sanctioned mass murder) but the overwhelming message portrayed through this installation is of the triumph of life over death. Salcedo seems to be making a fierce statement – you can kill and maim us, break our families and communities in the name of unjust wars, but out spirit will live on through them and others we connect with; we will not be forgotten.

Plegaria Muda ’08-10

The exhibition is on until 30th June so hurry yourself down to Mason’s Yard. Don’t miss this.

Sitting on the bus in traditional Central London traffic, I mused upon my recent visit to the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition at Tate Britain and tried to decipher what had transpired to be a distinctly underwhelming experience. I already knew of course; I had been feeling it build as I walked around, like a volcano preparing to erupt situated deep in my soul. I was filled with frustration and annoyance at the disjointed narrative portrayed through the curatorial choices. The exhibition has been laid out as a study of Picasso in relation to other artists and historical context. In principle, as an art history student, you would think this is completely up my street. Seemingly not so.

Whilst walking around the show I had a strong sense of emotive deja vu and was struck by the realisation that this exasperated sensation was not a new one. Indeed, I felt like this throughout much of my degree course. A word of warning for those preparing to step into the art historical world – being interested in art and interested in history does not necessarily mean you will be at all interested in art history. For me personally, my flame of interest was extinguished when a large proportion of the subject began to revolve around collectors, collecting habits and the so-called connoisseurs and critics; tales of rich aristocrats spending their limitless stash of spare money on new art to show off to their peers and the celebrated elitism of a select few who really know what art is about . As someone of socialist values I found the whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth.

Unfortunately, the Picasso exhibition revived my distaste for this capitalist academia and it did rather put me off. To make matters worse the text was not only captioned for the room summary but also for each individual image and I was heartily encouraged to hire an audio guide – thankfully I had the insight to decline. Had I not, I do believe my brain may have exploded on a white minimalist wall somewhere between Bacon and Moore, through sheer insipid fact overload. I do realise a good many people will disagree with me on this. In fact, everyone at the Tate seemed blissfully submerged in their audio-guided universes as I gaped, incredulous, at their baffling zen-like calm.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the exhibition at all. I found the links with other well-known artists, often significantly different to Picasso in style, quite engaging and was not aware of many of the connections beforehand. However, I think one room would have sufficed to explore this point. From Picasso to Duncan Grant to Ben Nicholson to Francis Bacon to Henry Moore (and others), all the while referencing back to Picasso in fits and starts, resulted in a decidedly stilted journey through British art history. On the other hand it was intriguing to see how Picasso experimented with and played with different styles, often in relation to contemporaries he admired; never before had I seen Flowers ‘1901, an unusual foray into Impressionism.

Flowers 1901

Of the Picassos on display, three in particular shone through the dreary narrative and proved yet again what an astounding communicator of emotion he is; The Frugal Meal ‘1904, Nude Woman in Red Armchair ’32, and Weeping Woman ’37, (which, once viewed, usually turns me into just that). The frugal meal is a beautiful and understated etching, the restraint of colour and medium mirroring the sparsity of the situation depicted – a poor and starving couple with only a small piece of bread to eat. The form of the figures echo works from his blue period such as The Blind Man’s Meal ‘1904 and Old Man with Guitar ’93.

The Frugal Meal 1904

The Blind Mans Meal 1903

Nude Woman in Red Armchair ’32 is at first glance a total contrast to this, however the two pieces both utlise Picasso’s ability to convey high emotion through form, structure and colour (or lack of it). Sweeping curves and pastel shades speak to me of sexuality, fertility and femininity, channelling the African influences often favoured by Picasso, and could be seen to represent the womb, the life cycle and the moon. It is an astounding piece which still looks like nothing else I’ve ever seen. The first time I saw Weeping Woman ’37 I accidentally stumbled across it whilst coming around a corner in a small gallery and was metaphorically floored by its impact. Picasso has used his unique device of depicting a viewpoint from many angles to maximum effect in this piece. The juxtaposition of different perspectives create the illusion that the piece is moving; the woman looks to me as if she is actually weeping in front of our eyes. The force of the painting is intensified through the sharp angles and almost garish colours, which convey extreme, mixed emotion and grieving hysteria. The painting bleeds anguish.

Nude Woman in Red Armchair 1932

Weeping Woman 1937

If you had a desire to categorise them, I’m sure there are infinite gradations of art lover types, but for this exhibition it seems prudent to pinpoint just two. Neither is better or worse than the other, just different. The first likes to understand the context and background to a piece; what the artist meant, what they were experiencing. The history and life of the work since its creation has primary significance and interest to them and having this knowledge serves to enhance their experience of the artwork. The second, in contrast, create stories and feelings in their mind as they take in works of art. By using the artwork as a starting point, the end point is wherever they want it to be. The thoughts, feelings and intentions of the artist sometimes matter and sometimes not. They define the work according to how and if it touches them and to define it by the opinions of another person, critic or artist, is to lose all joy from its observation. I know for sure now that I am one of the latter. Which are you?

I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds ’06

I find the witchhunt against Damien Hirst odd in its singling out of just one man. The nature of the art market is for as much money to change hands as possible, in order to invest for a higher sale in the future. It’s fat cat gambling, basically. Stock market politics. The industry is responsible for germinating the notion that the more grossly overpriced a work is, the more worthy it must be – a fallacy which fills my bones with anger and disgust. So if Hirst’s works are not Art and not worth anything, then surely it’s the market who’s the fool in this situation? I’m not sure how that is more Damien Hirst’s fault than any other artist. Maybe he played the system. Well, don’t shoot the messenger. Not half as many column inches have been written about arms dealers who make billions from selling weapons to violent dictatorships, yet somehow people see that as less of an affront than Hirst whipping off spot paintings ten to the dozen. Remarkably, people seem genuinely offended, as if our very nation has somehow been tarnished by this so-called ‘charlatan’.

Making my way around the controversial Tate retrospective, I found the legendary Spot Paintings  difficult to deal with. Having grown up in the 90s, the spots are, to me, synonymous with modern British art and to look at them objectively and try to provoke a response was surprisingly onerous. Too much has been said and written about them already. My head was full of Saatchi and Sewell and Guardian Arts. I don’t dislike the paintings, although I found them rather tiresome after the third or fourth piece, a feeling which also covers my response to his Medicine Cabinets ’89. To decipher the message he was trying to portray through the choice of medicines in each cabinet and on each spot-covered canvas seemed just too much like hard work. So how about the much-discussed fact that a lot of these pictures are produced by assistants in his studio? Well, so what? Leonardo did it, Michelangelo did it, blah blah blah. What is wrong about it is that the other artists in the team are not credited for their contributing work. Maybe the lead artist should take the main credit, for the concept and design, then the team receive listed credits and a share of the royalties.

lodomethane 13c ’99-01

As everyone must now know (unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 20 years) Hirst’s work is strongly themed around the life cycle; birth, death and mortality. Earlier works, such as Away from the Flock ’94, evoke the spirit of a young Hirst searching for meaning and using his own place in the cosmos to ask those very same questions he had seen tackled in countless works of art throughout history. Vanitas symbolism is explicit in Hirst’s works; skulls, butterflies, decay, but depicted in a unique way. Had Hirst followed tradition and produced gloomy oil paintings containing these connotations of mortality (see Pieter Claesz) his work would not have broken boundaries and become so representative of modern British art. In A Thousand Years ’90, a symbolic sculptural piece expressing the nature of the life cycle, Hirst manages to create a poignant visual language which references the Vanitas movement whilst placing his work within the modernist, technological zeitgeist.

Away From the Flock ’94

A Thousand Years ’90

His later pieces, in comparison, seem to radiate a dark, bitter and violent hysteria; they play out the cliched tale of optimistic, inquisitive youth morphing into the vitriolic older man resigned to his fate.The pieces seem to spit death at the viewer like venom. In contrast to the curious anatomical element of Mother and Child Divided ’93, for example (at which I heard someone whisper ironically ‘eww that’s disgusting…ooh is that bit a rump steak?’), his more recent pieces I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds ’06 and Black Sun ’04 (hundreds of thousands of dead flies glued to resin on a perfect circle) portray a deeply disturbing and gruesome cynicism. The latter in particular seems to just revel in repugnant mass destruction and provoked images in my mind of blood spattered murderers grinning at their spoils.

Mother and Child Divided ’93

Black Sun ’04

Black Sun Detail

Both Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II ’06, and  Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven ’07, are aesthetically beautiful whilst hopelessly morbid. Hirst disassembles the pure artistry of nature, in the form of millions of butterflies, and reconstructs them to fit the human idea of beauty; that of order and tessellation ie. stained glass windows. He appears to be mocking the chaos and non-conformity of nature by forcing it to yield to his power; that of his life over their death.

Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II ’06

Doorways to Heaven ’07

This theme continues in the installation In and Out of Love ’91, possibly the most controversial work of the whole show. I, like many others, found the work distasteful. These creatures are not already dead like his other specimens, but living and trapped inside a white-walled room. It was extremely sad to watch them fluttering at the walls and floors trying to get out. But perhaps this is one of Hirst’s points about mortality and the human response. It’s interesting that we can be so horrified by the carcass of an animal we are happy to eat every Sunday with our roasties, and that we don’t mind sticking a thousand chickens in less space than the dimensions of their body from the start of their short lives until they are on our plate, but we shy away from butterflies having a restricted lifespan. Maybe because they’re pretty? We have been de-sensitised to cows and chickens over the years, but butterfly beauty wins the awards in the commercialism stakes. Our response to death is so varied depending on how it is presented to us, it smacks of hypocrisy.

In and Out of Love ’91 / ’12

With his later works becoming increasingly acrimonious, in an ironic way Hirst is himself becoming a symbol of the decay which so fascinates him. Alas, he cannot join his cows and sheep in suspended animation…although, well, you never know.

The Studio at Islington Arts Factory

Last September, after a valuable tip off from an acquaintance, I found myself at the inaugural exhibition of Artbox – a charity providing art workshops in Islington for young adults with learning difficulties. Held in the foyer of the Prince’s Foundation in Shoreditch, the evening showcased some astounding works. As I wound my way through the pulsing crowds, I absorbed the aesthetics and the range of styles and techniques being displayed and (even after promising myself this was purely window shopping), soon found 3 or 4 pieces I wanted to buy. But this was a silent auction, and the competition for each piece soon became clear, as a suited man stood territorially in front of his favourite choice proclaiming ‘none of you want this picture, I’m telling you, you don’t want it!’ After eventually finding a work for which I hadn’t already been outbid, I swiftly put my name down and ticked the box ‘would like to volunteer’. 10 months later and I’m the proud owner of a screenprint ‘Owl’ by Gary, and am a helper at the weekly workshop sessions in the Islington Arts Factory.

Students hard at work

Since working with Artbox I’ve been utterly amazed. Not just by the fabulous work being produced week in, week out, by a group of talented and previously unrecognised artists, but by the relentless hard work and dedication committed to the enterprise by Madeline and Jenny, the charity’s directors. It is astounding that small charities such as this go relatively unnoticed. As with other sectors, people generally notice the big daddies. The Oxfams and Greenpeaces are all well and good and do fantastic work, but they overshadow the little guys – fighting to be noticed, to get funding, to get support and interest, for work which makes a huge difference to people’s lives.

If you hadn’t already gathered by now, I’m a big believer in art for all and of the benefit of art to the individual as well as society as a whole. With Artbox I’ve seen first hand the effect it can have on people, particularly those with learning difficulties, as we watch their exploration, confidence and independence develop in leaps and bounds. There is understanding here, as well as respect. Madeline Alterman, the founder of Artbox, has a brother with Down’s Syndrome and has worked with people with physical and learning disabilities. She felt, rightly, that disabled people are under-represented in the art world and not viewed on an equal footing with those whom are able-bodied, which is both a shameful injustice and also a great loss to the general public. Then came a stroke of genius. Rather than merely hanging and displaying the works, how about selling them? The resulting exhibition and silent auction was a resounding success. 60% of the sale was given directly to the artist, and 40% put back into future funding for Artbox.

Madeline with a student

I started helping out just after this first exhibition and remember being told by one young man, with total belief in his eyes, that he will be a professional artist. I believe him. His work is a combination of graphic design and illustration through mixed media. It is astounding in its emphatic expression and fluid production. Artbox provides him with a space free from the bureaucratic levels and targets of traditional learning. His only target is to produce what he considers his best work.

The spirit of the charity and it’s inclusive, engaging, and sometimes very entertaining ethos (flashback to dancing wildly around the room to Michael Jackson with one of the students) was captured recently by a local school taking part in a film-making competition. They were asked to showcase a small charity doing important things and wisely chose Artbox. Thanks to their expert skills, and the photogenic nature of our students and volunteers, their film won the competition and landed Artbox with a well-deserved boost in funding, meaning more materials for the group and potentially some more sketching day trips.

The next Artbox exhibition will take place on 20th July at Mazars, Tower Bridge, with works for sale. If you would like to attend you will need to put your name on the guest list. You can do this by emailing madeline@artboxlondon.org.

If you would like to help out, get involved or donate to Artbox please visit their website www.artboxlondon.org.