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Installation View. Photo: Stephen White

Installation View. Photo: Stephen White

I’ve always liked Sarah Lucas. I both envy her clever creative wit and admire her ability to piss a lot of people off just through honest artistic communication. To offend meaningfully can be an inert skill in itself, often misused and derided by many but undoubtedly a significant catalyst in the creation of conversation, dialogue, debate and sometimes venomous expulsions. Tracey Emin, whose very name has become a dirty word among some cliques, is a contemporaneous example of this type of artwork; honest, too honest for most, but her works are the results of sad and poignant catharsis, sifting chaotically and urgently through the memories of a troubled childhood and beyond. Sarah Lucas, although addressing similarly taboo notions of sex and society, does so with far less heart-rending effect. Her works intend to provoke, flinging an upturned middle finger at critics and misogynists. Viewing them feels a bit like how I would imagine watching the Sex Pistols live would; a vicious, funny but unsettlingly serious piss-take.

Lucas’s recent retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery placed many older, familiar pieces alongside her current offerings. Well-worn but still fabulous classics such as Au Naturel quietly stole the thunder of recently completed wall prints, but in general the work continues with the subject matter and treatment she became famous for in the 80’s and 90’s during her time as a key member of the YBAs. Lucas treats her materials as punk musicians treated their lyrics; their presentation harsh and biting but ultimately forcing you, the recipient, to confront uncomfortable representations of a very everyday thing: sex, sexuality, the human body (or in the punks’ case, political and societal affairs).

Au_Naturel, 1994

Au_Naturel, 1994

It’s interesting what still makes us gasp today. In a tale as old as time (even beauty & the beast were at it in the end) it’s still sex which raises eyebrows and fuels the raging psychotic fury of Tea-Party loons, with half a second of nipple at the Superbowl inciting the blisteringly outraged complaints of half a million Americans. So despite our entirely natural urges and the booming global porn industry indicating that perhaps we should just give in to this one, it’s still, amazingly, a prime subject to ignite controversy. In some pieces Lucas uses skulls and teeth to represent the vagina, tapping into a commonly held belief that men are in fact afraid of it and highlighting the fact it is rarely positively portrayed. She’s certainly not the only person to call attention to this, feminists across the world have been saying it since the 60’s and actress Evan Rachel Wood recently made a similar complaint about public attitudes to the vagina following the editing out of a scene from her new film in which her character received oral sex “Accept that women are sexual beings, accept that some men like pleasuring women,” she said. “Accept that women don’t just have to be f**ked and say thank you. We are allowed and entitled to enjoy ourselves”. Facebook reactions to my sharing the artwork of avant-garde artist Casey Jenkins proved to be similar, consisting of a surprising (to me at least) mix of disgust, shock, anger and hilarity at the use of the vagina in art. Lucas challenges and mocks our repressed and discriminative stereotypes of sexuality through often brutal parody. Teeth as vaginas; scared of it now? A huge wall of penises; shocked yet? She cleverly references the insulting colloquialisms of popular culture with objects such as fried eggs and kebabs, transforming the slang from verbal to visual. Through forcing us to confront images which may embarrass us or which address negative stereotypes through distasteful representation, such as the sloppy fish for a vagina, she desensitises us to the very ordinary reality of our own bodies. Her less explicit works continue to explore sexuality, with humour abounding in pieces such as the headless self-portrait, which I at first took to be a balaclava, the exposed nipples staring brazenly at the viewer like the squinty eyes of a post-party raver.

Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992

Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992

Self-portrait

Self-portrait

My trip around the exhibition concluded with overhearing a fellow visitor whisper ‘is she a lesbian?’. I was (perhaps naively) surprised to hear this as her sexual preference had not even come close to crossing my mind, although the fact it came up at all serves only to hammer the point she is making about sexual stereoptying and association. Because although her work deals with this topic, it is not, unlike Emin’s work, primarily concerned with the emotional aspect surrounding sex, or even about relationships in any way. It is almost primeval in its exploration of our sexual selves and speaks to me virtually exclusively about social stigma and attitude. The day a carefully situated kebab fails to cause offence is the day our society will have finally learnt a valuable lesson. But what would Lucas teach us then?

Extract from Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher's Lady of the Sea at The Wapping Project

Extract from Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher’s Lady of the Sea at The Wapping Project

I’d heard of the Wapping Project before. As someone interested in the arts in London, it was almost hard not to. Exclamation at it’s evident all-round brilliantness gushed from every source, über-cool reviewers and members of various ‘in-crowds’ chattered excitedly about its innovative programme and siting. But inevitably, like a million other must-sees in and around London over the years, I had always failed to actually get there and consequently, regrettably, allowed it to drift from my subconscious to-do list. In a sadly ironic twist it’s impending closure means that I did finally manage to visit, after receiving last week an email from the project’s deputy director Marta tempting me with the sale of various jugs/bowls/glasses at bargain prices. The reason for the kitchenware sell-off being that the renowned restaurant based there, along with the rest of the project, will be no more after 22nd Dec, with reports claiming that complaints from residents about noise levels has forced the shutdown. Complaints about the complaints have also been voiced in increasing number, with creatives across the city mourning the looming date of its disappearance. On a brighter note of self-interest, this situation did mean that moi managed to swiftly baggsie myself a few cut-price treasures for my kitchen cupboards (every cloud and all that).

And so it was that I found myself, on a damp, dark Thursday eve in December arriving at Wapping, it being an attractively strange place oozing history and character in that nouveau-classy manner of much of the east docklands area; the palpable taste of new money ‘a la Shad Thames refurbed wharf architecture, but it’s modern flashiness still unable to conceal that dark undercurrent, the sense of unease a residue from centuries of rough riverside streets; crime, murder and the nearby Execution Dock instilling an aura of menace in the fabric of the historic maritime area. The breeze from the Thames feels old, almost as though it has been carried along from 1750, the spectre of Jack the Ripper lurking behind each corner, hidden on the dark and wet almost deserted streets which glisten under the subdued glow of the streetlights. I must admit, I loved it.

A 5 minute walk from the station along Wapping Wall brings you to an initially underwhelming industrial gated entrance opposite the famous Prospect of Whitby pub, but a tentative peek through the door reveals the dramatic facade of the old Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, windows emitting that syrupy phosphorescence of low candlelight and allowing just enough contrast with the dark night to give an initial glimpse of the restored machinery-clad interior. Once inside, I immediately enjoyed just being in the space (I’m a big fan of old industrial architecture) gleefully eyeballing the structure and revelling in my dreamy rose-tinted imaginings of its past days. Kitchenware collected, I reluctantly prepared to be on my way, the sense of foolish missed opportunity dawning on me and regret beginning to seep into my consciousness, when deputy director Marta eagerly pointed me towards a small door just off the main hall – “go and see the last exhibition” she said, “before we close for good”.

Stepping through into the dark entrance of the Boiler Room I was struck instantly by the unmistakeable smell of damp and cold; wet on metal and the past still hanging in the air, the pungency of childhood adventures spent exploring places where perhaps you shouldn’t be. Coming to the top of a staircase I saw below me a partially constructed wooden structure set upon a bed of sand, snow and gravel. Shafts of brilliant white light poked through what appeared to be window holes, illuminating the surrounding area and inviting me in and out of the dark cold gloom. Stepping inside felt a little like an intrusion; I was in that rather rare position of being the only person at the exhibition, meaning the suspension of disbelief was thrillingly heightened. It could well have been someone’s house, inside were benches covered in sandy blankets, the accompanying soundtrack intensifying the effect of the drama as you entered the space. One whole wall of the shack consists of a screen projecting the photographic essay shot by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher in Svalbard and (I discovered later) inspired by Ibsen’s play ‘The Lady from the Sea‘. The inside/outside setting of the installation parallels with the movement of the story through interiors and exteriors as it follows the Nordic couple, the quality of photography and direction recording their emotional turmoil visually whilst also relating it to us via physical atmosphere and sound.

Interior of the wooden shack at the Lady From the Sea installation by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher

Interior of the wooden shack at the Lady From the Sea installation by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher

I sat there for a good fifteen minutes; a record for me I think. When it comes to moving artworks I usually find myself less engaged than in those which are static, maybe the controlling and over-independent facets of my personality find it jarring to be forced to look at something else, to be told when I have to move my gaze on. This set of photographs however, succeed in delicately achieving an unforced flow, lingering long enough on each image to make you eager for the next, but not so much that you get bored of it; adeptly sufficient in length for the viewer to drink in each lovely drop of it. The direction and curation utilise cleverly our brain’s ability to fill in the blanks; leaving the little shack I felt inherently that I knew the characters well, understood their respective positions, sympathised with both viewpoints and even hoped that they sorted their troubles out in the end. All that emotional response gleaned from 15 minutes in front of a set of still photographs.

On the way home, feeling extremely lucky to have had an unexpected private view of such a beautiful new exhibition, I mused on how I had ended up there. Fate? Was I meant to see the Wapping project at some point, a spurious roundabout kitchenware errand leading me there all along? I like to think that chance is a better bet than fate. Sometimes there occur poignant moments in life which materialise entirely through random fortuitous happenings and, like a cyber-finger enacting the proverbial Facebook poke, never fail to make me acutely aware of the importance of chance incidents within the bizarre rollercoasters of our daily lives. It was a circumstantial moment such as this in which I found myself last Thursday evening; unexpectedly sitting alone inside that cool, damp, wooden shack and revelling in my good fortune.

The Lady of the Sea by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher runs until 22nd December 2013 at The Wapping Project, Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Wapping Wall, E1W 3SG 0207 680 2080.

For more information on The Wapping Project in its final days contact marta@thewappingproject.com

Extract

Extract

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Wall projections outside the wooden shack in the Boiler Room

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Interior of the shack with projection extract

Extract

Extract

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(c) Cristina Boyton

Commuting in London is almost always a chore. A necessary means to get from a to b via the quickest possible route, the quality of conditions usually sacrificed to save those precious extra 15mins. Some days it’s bearable, some days it’s fun (usually post-alcohol consumption) but other days, like last Thursday in fact, conspire to unravel your generally good nature until you reach a twitchy, hysterical, borderline murderous state. 33 degrees outside, god knows what temperature down in the bowels of the London tube network. On a day like this a swift service is surely expected. Extra effort made to ensure things run smoothly; to reduce fainting, dehydration, sweat-transferred pandemic inception etc. No? No. Delays on every line. Well, every line I needed, anyway. An hour and a half later I emerged, blinking into the sun like an overawed mole, grateful for my escape into freedom like a rescued miner.

On arriving, shortly after this, at the Gallery Cafe in Bethnal Green, I was awarded for my struggle a little slice of cool calm, a haven of friendly vegan relaxation amongst the heady chaos of the area. One much-needed Pinot in hand, I turned to look at what I had come here to see. Cristina Boyton’s photographs of the Circuit in Nepal are immediately striking, before the subject matter even comes into focus. The blue hits you first, contrasted sharply against grey and stone. Saturation vs monochrome; a visual language which runs throughout the set of images and seems to link with the concept explored in the subject matter. Rich vs plain, luxury vs poverty. The Circuit is a now-famous hiking route in Nepal, renowned for its stunning scenery and ticking every ‘perfect trail’ box. Obviously, as are our wonderful human tendencies, when we find something of stunning natural beauty we tend to either hunt it to extinction, westernise it to extinction, or in this case, are so desperate to each have a piece of it, that we end up exploiting and destroying it.

This is potentially the fate of the Circuit and it’s indigenous inhabitants, who carry on with their daily grind alongside kids kitted in Berghaus on their gap year, the latter blissfully unaware of the damage they may be doing just by being there. A rich, commercialised, western contingent trampling loudly through this quiet, agrarian landscape. Gaudy vs restrained. To this end I must admit I was slightly disappointed that the sizing of the photographs wasn’t actually reversed. The mountainous landscape images, though very pretty, were less compelling than the human studies, although those which captured the town in the foothills succeeded in exemplifying the dramatic sense of scale which must surely dominate these views in the flesh. The shot of the pensive young boy is undoubtedly the strongest image, a nod to the innocence of this area and the modest lifestyles taking place in the shadow of the mountains. A woman in the next image counts beans, engrossed in her work, the bright tones of her clothing picking up the blue of the majestic landscapes. Shots of villagers milling about the dusty streets instinctively drew my gaze deeper, closer, to see more clearly their expressions and perhaps decipher a dialogue through a meaningful look.

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(c) Cristina Boyton

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(c) Cristina Boyton

It’s no surprise then that Cristina’s forte is documentary photography of a social nature. With a background in media and photography, her projects focus upon relationships; people, places, routines and tradition. Her usual “style and preference is to spend time with people”, getting to know her subjects closely before and during prolonged shoots, often over months at a time, and so capturing certain aspects of their individual lives and personalities in specific detail. This particular set of photographs however, were necessarily immediate, with shots caught at sudden and opportune moments on a journey through the region. It adds a certain magic. The honesty of the images are what makes them so appealing; no studio, no set-up, just the reality of life in this spectacular, yet threatened landscape.

Within the surroundings of the small, endearing Gallery Cafe, with its large windows at the back overlooking jungle-like greenery, the smell of baking wafting from the kitchen and service with a very friendly smile, the exhibition was given an interesting twist, evoking certain sensations it may not have, had it been shown in a traditional white-walled gallery setting. One customer pointed out that the images made him feel ‘cool on a hot day’, the moist blue tones and high-altitude scenery projecting the sensation of a swift fresh breeze sighing its way through the cafe table legs. And indeed, the life of the place; the chatter, the laughter and the clink of bottles, somehow make you feel as if you really are there, as if you are sitting in this rustic little cafe not minutes away from the clamour of Roman Road, but high-up in the Annapurna Mountain range, gazing out over this endangered community for perhaps the last time.

The Circuit is showing until 31st August at The Gallery Café, 21 Old Ford Road, Bethnal Green,E2 9PL www.stmargaretshouse.org.uk

All photographs are copyright Cristina Boyton / www.smallfontphotographer.com

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(c) Cristina Boyton

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(c) Cristina Boyton

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(c) Cristina Boyton

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(c) Cristina Boyton