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Yves Klein – The Void ’58

At least half of the people I spoke to about the Invisible Art Exhibition at the Hayward Gallery turned their noses towards the sky before I had even finished voicing the title. Quite astounding, seeing as it’s the most natural progression the art world could have taken. For as long as we can remember, art has been about the aesthetic. The visual. The wall/canvas/fresco/marble etc. As early as 1917, with Duchamp’s Readymades, we started asking why. Why should we not progress, invent, explore, move outside of the boundaries history has placed on art?

Conceptual art theory is inherent in this exhibition at the Hayward gallery. The belief that an idea is just as valid as the physical, is embodied in almost every piece in the show. It begins with Yves Klein, a champion of Conceptual art. His works on Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, and The Void ’58, are a challenge, a provocation, but also an exploration into previously uncharted territory. A brave venture into the white noise of a blank canvas. What is in there? The power of the void can be overwhelming, a fact exemplified by an infamous example, the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. A mass of visitors queued to stand and gaze at the space the painting had previously inhabited; the story behind its absence was thrilling enough to attract record numbers. Ironically, most of these visitors would likely have scoffed at  an empty plinth displayed as sculpture, but they were nonetheless uncontrollably enticed by the very same concept.

Empty space where the stolen Mona Lisa had hung

On arriving at the Hayward you are asked to enter the gallery at the usual exit point, and feel almost as if you are not in the Hayward at all as you walk the familiar course from back to front. Yoko Ono’s piece, Painting for Burial, 1961, consists of a short list of instructions on what to do with a canvas at dawn light. It is beautiful in its infinite potential. Each viewer’s imagination will take a unique turn at her suggestive poetry. Where is the place she speaks of? The physicality of the text is merely a reference to the idea, the main part of the piece, which is itself a non-physical thing; an abstract concept. Despite their physical manifestation ie. the text on paper, the work itself can be defined as ‘invisible’.

On the night of the full moon, place a canvas in the garden from 1:00 AM till dawn. When the canvas is dyed thoroughly in rose with the morning light, dismember or fold it and bury. The ways of burial:

1.) Bury it in the garden and place a marker with a number on it.

2.) Sell it to the rag man.

3.) Throw it in the garbage.

Yoko Ono – Painting for Burial 1961

Another example of this is Chris Burden’s White Light/White Heat ’75, in which he lay suspended on a plinth in a gallery above eye height for 22 days without food. Visitors could not see him there but reported a ‘sense’ in the room, a feeling of presence. Burden reported hearing a visitor say “He can hear us, and he doesn’t answer, but he can’t help listening…it’s like God”. Gianni Motti’s Magic Ink,’89 is a selection of works drawn onto paper in invisible ink. Knowing that the drawings were there drove me instinctively to imagine what they were and established me in the position of artist. Like Ono’s burial piece the make up of the work will change for each viewer, becoming essentially dependent on their imaginative participation. Motti’s drawings also provoke questions about the physical quality of imprints, as does Song Dong’s poignant Writing Diary With Water ’95-present. Dong began practicing calligraphy as a young boy with water on a stone, as a cheaper alternative to ink and paper. Years later he describes the process “Although it is just a stone, it actually has become thicker day by day, with my own thoughts added on it.”

Chris Burden – White Light / White Heat ’75

Gianni Motti – Magic Ink ’89

Song Dong – Writing Diary with Water ’95-present

Tom Friedman’s 1000 hours of staring, ’92-97, uses the process of staring as a medium for his work. Exploring why the transferring of emotion is often not considered to be a valid medium through which to create artworks, his Untitled (A Curse) ’92, a space above a plinth which has been cursed by a witch, is similarly thought-provoking and again explores our shifting perception of unseen forces. As human beings we both believe in and place primary importance on forces such as emotions. People instinctively consider love, intelligence, and empathy as having intrinsic worth. If in our daily lives we respect non-physical elements as significant, then why is this not the case in art? Consider the blind person visiting an art gallery. Their experience is through imagination, idea and verbally transmitted emotion through a third party. We don’t consider their experience to be worthless, so why do we think it of someone with sight who has the very same experience? We should be encouraging ideas, not devaluing them.

Tom Friedman – 1,000 hrs of Staring, ’92-97

Tom Friedman – Untitled (A Curse), ’92

After hurriedly shuffling out of the room in which Teresa Margolles’ cooling system installation, Aire / Air, ’03, circulated the vapour from water used to wash the bodies of murder victims, I noticed that observing other people going in and out of the room was fascinating in itself, provoking varied reactions of disgust, horror, intrigue, humour and distaste. The show concluded with an uplifting physical participation piece, Jeppe Hein’s Invisible Labryinth, ’05. Putting on the headset, which vibrated as you hit a ‘wall’ in the maze, I felt slightly self-conscious, but I was soon exchanging stifled giggles with approaching fellow explorers as we walked carefully around the room, occasionally stepping back and turning to find the correct path.

Teresa Margolles – Aire / Air ’03

Jeppe Hein – Invisible Maze ’05

The exhibition celebrated both our imagination and the strength in the power of suggestion. On a number of occasions I found myself questioning whether these things really were invisible; what if Warhol’s invisible sculpture was actually there? I managed to resist the urge to run my hand over that plinth and certainly wouldn’t have gone near the space which held the witch’s curse (just in case). In the end the show sent me on my way with a huge grin on my face, feeling like a child who had just stepped out of a (sometimes Grimm) fairytale.

Sketch of Damian Ortega’s Hollow/Stuffed:market law ’12 (c)Kate Withstandley

Excellent. Politician art again! But isn’t all art is political, though? As is pretty much everything, in fact. Even animals have their own hierarchy system, intrinsically political in nature. We can’t avoid it, particularly us human beans, struggling to cling to the vine. We need structure. For society to function we need be told what to and what not to do, often to unbelievable extremes. Unfortunately, as is regularly the case, the top of our self-imposed hierarchy mistreat and manipulate us and we in turn mirror their behaviour in our microcosmic lives, sometimes abusing others around us and even the planet on which we live. Damien Ortega’s work often deals with political issues concerning his native Mexico, but the themes he tackles in his new exhibition, Traces of Gravity, run through society and mankind as a whole and he explores them alongside and through, traditional human emotive characteristics.

Congo River ’12

Set in the ground floor gallery of the White Cube, Mason’s Yard, Congo River consists of a number of carefully placed (but seemingly chaotic) car tyres, spread around the floor and built up in piles. What appears to be white powder can be seen in places, but it’s nature is not immediately obvious. It is in fact salt, and has been spread along the tops of the tyres in a straight line. The salt indicates the snaking stretch of a river and, depicted as a line of white powder, could be addressing the topic of cocaine smuggling. It is interesting that the line of salt can only be seen as a dead straight line from two viewpoints – at either end. At any other point the line is broken into many as it crosses various levels of the tyre, possibly a comment on the continued damage to great rivers through industrialisation. The same broken/unbroken illusion is created by the placement of the tyres whereby they appear as carefully peaked mountains from each end, but a chaotic sprawl in the round. Although the physical set-up can clearly be a visual metaphor for a river running through landscape, other elements complement the intended notion. It spoke to me of disruption. The choice of materials; salt and rubber – natural elements refined by humans. The contrasting natures; chaos and order – line/broken line – our human chaos disrupting the order of nature. It’s also notable that all of the works in this exhibition are monochrome, or variations of black and white, invoking the traditional connotations of white as pure, black as impure – white representing nature, while black is humanity and industry. Contrast and juxtaposition emphasising the vast gulf of difference.

Hollow/Stuffed:market law ’12

In an empty darkened room on the lower ground floor hung what looked at first glance much like a whale or shark, suspended on hooks and bleeding white matter. Moving closer I realised that no, indeed, I had not mistaken this for a Damien Hirst exhibition, the suspended being was in fact Hollow/Stuffed:market law, a representation of a submarine made from industrial sacks. Salt is used again, flowing from a small hole at the underside of the front end; a reference to the use of narco-submarines in cocaine smuggling along the South American coast to Mexico. The lighting in the room is dramatic, with a quite literal and perhaps also metaphorical, highlight on the work and the issues it confronts. The steady stream of salt, piling up like the sands of an hourglass, seem to be pinpointing ongoing wastage; not in Mexico alone but as part of our global throwaway culture. Embodying the principle of interactive, living art, the installation is constantly changing. I wondered what it might look like when the salt runs out. When the belly of the beast, so to speak, is empty. Will it just hang there as a few empty sacks, signifying our failure and as an unsettling portent for the future?

Preserved ’12

‘Preserved’, in the final room, continues to use salt as a primary material. Creating a negative image, the salt gives the spatial void around the vehicle solid form, a technique also employed for the adjacent ‘Fossilised’, concrete casts capturing the space inside old cameras. Rachel Whiteread’s House, ’93 strikes me as a precedent; the exploration of unused and unnoticed space and its transformation from void to form ties in with Ortega’s preoccupation with change and adaptation. For ‘Preserved’ Ortega utilises alternated lighting, striking the installation with two spotlights and enforcing varied viewpoints upon the viewer, highlighting again the disparity between changes of perspective.

Fossilised ’12

Damian Ortega’s work is both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating. Like all my favourite art it made me work for the meaning, encouraging and challenging me to decipher its threads. Much of my interpretation may not have been intended by the artist, but was generated through themes within the pieces linking and developing with my own ideas. Although seemingly an impassioned plea inviting discussion and dialogue, Ortega’s work could also be seen in an instructive form; an offer of guidance to our political leaders. Perhaps even, in its most abstract form, a morality tale through salt.
All images (c) Damian Ortega unless otherwise noted

Last week, in the middle of Kentish Town, I could have sworn I was in in Egypt. Or Morocco. Or even Norfolk. Nevertheless, I was in the sun; albeit that reflected sun, which refracts like a kaleidoscope, emanating a patchwork of bold colour from the paintings of Birkin Haward. In the tiny Beardsmore Gallery, on what is, currently, a guaranteed rainy day, I gazed at these pieces as if seeing a glimpse of technicolor Oz from the grey of Kansas.

Salthouse Heath, Red Tarpaulin 290111 acrylic

Tilbury Power Station from Gun Hill 210212 acrylic

I feel lucky to be able to say I have worked with Birkin. Both artist and architect, he is outstandingly accomplished in each field. When I joined van Heyningen and Haward (the architectural practice Birkin founded in 1983 with wife Jo van Heyningen) in 2008, I was instantly aware of his artistic talents – his hand-drawn perspectives alone are legendary in the architecture world. However I was not privy to his personal artworks until summer 2010 when I assisted him in producing some prints for his exhibition at Salthouse Church in Norfolk. One look and I was hooked. I took the family up to see the exhibition, was warmly welcomed into the family home by Birkin and stunned by the atmospheric monochrome pieces hung in Salthouse church, most of which were markedly different to the current exhibition.

Old sea defences Happisburgh 2010 Charcoal

The contrast between the two styles of painting can in some part be attributed to his recent change of circumstance. In 2009 Birkin moved away from architecture to become a full-time artist; still keeping links with the architecture world by working as a consultant, but primarily focusing on developing his craft and producing exhibitions. This change has resulted in a subtle shift in style, infused with the ethos of Mondrian, Rothko and a pinch of Cezanne. These bold, dramatic statements move me in a different way to the Salthouse pieces.

Sizewell Beach – White Hut, 2011 acrylic on canvas

The traditional Birkin style is of course always there as the framework; his striking gift is the ability to create a scene and evoke the accompanying emotion from mere suggestion. Line and tone are intimately explored to draw out their capacities and fulfill their ultimate potential. Birkin can see how these pieces, elements of a whole, can be pared down to the most dramatic to create almost just a clue, for us the viewer to decipher: the fence designating the line of the field, the gradual shift in tonal range of an approaching storm. He sees it inherently.

Morston Harbour 111111 acrylic

The evocative nature of his pieces was most evident in pieces such as storm at sea. You get the sense that, in the manner of Turner, he  sat and created this picture right there, in front of that storm. As if he had been amongst that melee of the elements, had felt them overwhelm the landscape with their old magic and deep power.

Storm at sea 1 2009 Charcoal

In contrast, his newer works are less a record of a place and more an interpretation. A translation of scene through unique artistic vernacular and sense experience. Their joie de vivre bursts through the confines of the canvas and inhabits the room. Since moving away from the limitation and stress of the office, Birkin has been freer to travel. To expand his aesthetic language beyond the sometimes rough and raw Norfolk setting in which he grew up and to invoke the hue and light of foreign isles. The result is a juxtaposition of colour and abstraction of view through glorious and celebratory geometrical compositions. Even brooding Norfolk is awash with sunshine, reflected, as it is on the viewer, onto the formerly brittle scenery from climates afar.

Military Post Red Pyramid dashur 130312 acrylic

His father (Birkin Haward Sr.) was also an architect and artist and it is clear that creativity is imbued in Birkin to his very core. His skill in deciphering and analysing spaces and forms runs through both his artistic and architectural work; by inserting and interpreting, he conveys something entirely his own. What is certain is that there is plenty still to come. Birkin has certainly not yet finished making his mark.

Human beings thrive on arts and culture.This is evidenced not only by the huge swathes of visitors to museums and art galleries every day (Tate Modern counted nearly 4,000 visitors per day for the 2011 Gaugin show), but also by the abundance of organisations and activities related to the arts. If you attempt to type in to a search engine some vague term such as ‘arts uk’, you are immediately bombarded with millions of links to the seemingly infinite facets of the arts industry; theatre, dance, fine art, to name just the most obvious. So with all this huge wealth of resources in the arts surely our kids have more than they need in the way of access to them. Not so. A recent UNICEF report showed that, unsurprisingly, ‘in the UK inequality was…seen in access to outdoor, sporting and creative activities, with poorer children spending more sedentary time in front of screens whilst the more affluent had access to a wide range of sports and other pursuits’, and a new report by the Children’s Society shows that half a million children in Britain are unhappy with their lives.

Some of this must be a direct result of the elitist tradition of arts and culture for the upper classes which still abounds in the UK, perpetuated by rising costs of attendance and lowered wages, which completely prices out a whole chunk of society who couldn’t possibly afford to spend £60 on a ticket to the Opera. And what of your average west end show? You’re still looking at around £20-30 per ticket. More affordable for the so called ‘squeezed middle’ but still out of reach for the average family, except perhaps as an irregular treat. No wonder then that cultural activities such as these are seen as being ‘for posh people’ or ‘for university bods’. Having grown up in a working class town on a council estate, these are genuine descriptions I still hear regularly from both adults and children, which is depressing in its self-defeatism. Any one of the people on that estate could enjoy a gallery or theatre show just as much as a ‘uni bod’ if they could go with an open mind and the self confidence that comes with knowing these things are there for THEM. Cultural public ownership often doesn’t feel as if it includes the working classes.

With these entitlement attitudes being cyclically ingrained in kids at home and the government demonising the working class even more than usual, through a constant barrage of recession-approved negative association (welfare – they don’t deserve it, jobs – they can’t be bothered, health – they can pay for it themselves etc.) the middle and upper classes dominate the market almost entirely. This attitude has to be changed and to do that, prices need to drop to a reasonable level, as well as provision of far more free outreach workshops which take the theatre out of the west end and encourage parents and children to get involved. It is do-able if the funding were there. It’s investment in our children, and you’d think we’d jump at the idea. But this brings us squarely to the general British attitude towards children and childhood. To be blunt we just don’t respect it. This attitude leaches into the top echelons of many arts organisations, where children appear to be an afterthought. I’m not saying people don’t care, or that they don’t do their best; in fact I’m generalising in a big way, but I’m talking more about an overarching attitude and social manner. Our modern family zeitgeist, if you like. Capitalism and major corporative influence of a level never seen before, sees us now buying into the commercialisation of our own children, then feigning ironic surprise when they riot angrily and prioritise free clothes and shoes. The arts have been proven to have a beneficial effect on cognitive development, so why are we allowing this aspect of childhood experience to be pushed aside by a Gove-led education system concerned only with academic league tables and in churning out future business graduates from business-run Academies expected to ‘save the failing system’? We need to mobilise.

Action for Children’s Arts, a lobbying and campaigning arts charity for whom I volunteer, recently sent Freedom of Information requests to 20 major arts organisations in the UK, asking them what percentage of their annual budget was spent on producing work for children. The results were shocking. Children under 12 make up 15% of the population and yet rarely more than 1% of any organisation’s budget was spent on them alone. We should, in fact, be spending more than the technical 15% on them – like I say, investing in their and our futures. But as well as not being bestowed with extra, they are refused even their fair share. 1% funding for our children is a disgracefully poor representation of our public arts industry. ACA held a conference on 19th June to discuss how we can work together to change this. The conference was insightful and full of optimism for future policy reform, both within the government itself and individual organisations such as the BBC and the Arts Council, among others. We are continuing to discuss and gather ideas, via twitter and on the website, to inform a discussion group in the pipeline, whereby we aim for the outcome of a solid action plan and potential children’s arts charter.

      

Let us not forget how many organisations there are who do provide arts services for children and work tirelessly to keep our children’s imagination filled with fun and play and wondrous things: Unicorn Theatre, Polka Theatre5x5x5=creativity and Imaginate to name but a very very few. However, children as a whole section of society are underrepresented in the arts and are too often lumped into ‘families’ groups whereby an adult event is deemed suitable for children rather than being devised with children in mind.

The number of arts facilities provided just for children does in no way represent their percentage numbers in society and this fact alone does them a great injustice. It’s about time we started making children our priority, the future of this country. It’s about time we started taking responsibility for the fact that they feel angry and undervalued and not lazily blame the parents, but blame the culture. When art becomes truly art for all, for the whole of society, we will have achieved our goal. Until then, join us in fighting for an undeniable right for our children, the right to have access to the arts.

To join Action for Children’s Arts or to find out more about what we do and how we do it, see our website www.childrensarts.org.uk

The Artist and his Model 1919-21

It is rare that an artist can transform a space such as the galleries at Tate Modern; rarer still to transform you, within it, into an entirely different state of mind; and even rarer to achieve these with purely 2D media. But Edvard Munch, along with the curators at Tate, has done just that.

The new Munch retrospective opened last week, following the extremely opportune timing of The Scream 1893 auctioning, which propelled the painter to the forefront of current public interest. Not that Munch has ever really been forgotten; The Scream is endlessly parodied across all art forms. It is a shame though to think of the many disappointed faces when they realise that neither the scream is on show, nor the Madonna 1894-5, another classic Munch. However I feel quite sure that any initial frozen smiles will soon melt to real furrowed brows of concentration and absorption as visitors get whisked away into Munch’s dreamlike world.

Initially, in this William Blake-esque setting, where pronounced yet unstable verticals abound and focus refuses to submit to standard optics, you feel somewhat comfortable; as if a traveller in a pastoral narrative. Then you notice that the couple you spotted kissing tenderly is named Vampyr 1893-4, and the mother and child sharing an embrace is titled The Sick Child 1885-7. As if in a dream, comfort and menace intertwine; contrasting versions of works are displayed facing one another with you suspended in the middle, caught up in a fundamental struggle which permeates the rest of the paintings.

Vampire 1893-4

The Sick Child 1885-7

One of the most fascinating elements of this show is the photographic experimentation and documentation of Munch’s interest in the new pioneering visual machines. Photography was relatively new at the time; Kodak had developed the first mass-marketed camera in 1901 – the Brownie. The sometimes transcendental effect of the photographs, created through over-exposure and double negatives, tied in with Munch’s own curiosity about spirituality as well as giving him an outlet for self-reflection. Munch dealt with an inner struggle, a fact which is well-documented due to his breakdown in later life, and threads of these issues do seem to shine through in his work. Looking through his photographs I felt a sudden concern that these images felt inherently personal. Much like the public/private battle of Gillian Wearing, I was torn between the fascination of voyeuristic intrigue and the moral inhibition around questions of personal privacy. Did Munch want these to be on show? Some show him in strange poses, and even naked; were they intended for public consumption or were they an intimate exploration of self?

Rosa Meissner at the Hotel Rohn in Warnemunde 1907

Self-portrait on Warnemünde beach 1907

One theme which repeats throughout his paintings is that of the outward gaze. I call it a gaze, when what I really mean is a stare. Often threatening, sometimes unsettling, but usually menacing. Rarely does a figure smile at the viewer from the canvas. Paintings such as Workers on their way home ’13-14 portray frightening and aggressive stances towards the viewer. Was this how Munch saw the world? Are we the figure in the painting or is he? This motif continues in The Artist and his Model ’19-21, Murder on the Road ’19 and Red Virginia Creeper ’88-89 and creates an unsettling tension between viewer and painting. In Street in Asgardstrand ’01, the figure is there, albeit not so seemingly malevolent; but its very situation and directness still set the viewer on edge. In the background, roads and pathways regularly appear, perhaps signifying ways to escape from his own state of mind. A group of people are often nearer to the path, but the solitary figure in the foreground remains, fixed and looking out from the frame; the way is there, but only in the peripheral.

Murder on the road 1919

Red Virginia Creeper 1888-9

Street in Asgardstrand 1901

Throughout the exhibition I felt the overwhelming sense of an artist ahead of his time. Despite the obvious influence of the Impressionist movement on his work, with its veritable myriad of conspicuous brushstrokes and deep variation of tone and colour, Munch’s ability to communicate tension through style and medium is sometimes reminiscent of very modern day artists. In Self-Portrait Facing Left ’12-13, he uses woodcutting to create a representation of self-image through a series of disconcertingly violent scratches. The composition of the piece I found reminiscent of Francis Bacon, creating form and raw emotion with fast movements. No wonder they named him an Expressionist. His Kiss in the Fields ’43 is intrinsically minimalist; the natural texture and grain of the wood contrasting against the sharp, imposed scoring of the suggested coupling. This piece could sit quite inconspicuously in a modern art gallery. Another of his pieces which could easily blend into not just a gallery, but a specific exhibition, is Yellow Log ’12. Anyone who saw the recent David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy could not fail to spot the extreme similarity between this motif and Hockney’s newer works; the comparisons are there in colour, form, style and technique.

Kiss in the fields 1943

The Yellow Log 1912

I hope that both Hockney and Bacon, as well as many other artists, would happily admit their debt to this great painter (Hockney for one could hardly deny it). His skill in conveying memories and emotions as almost lost in that moment between dream and wake; his ability to pick out the sharp points in those hazes, whilst still rendering the featureless forms in the background with inherent purpose. Towards the end of his life these nightmarish scenarios became reality for a period during his breakdown, in this period his paintings became less concerned with faceless shadows in the peripheral and more of a confrontation with solitary mortality. His work continues to fascinate us, and not just because he provides an insight into mental illness, but because we recognise his universal struggle with the human condition.

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.

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.