Yayoi Kusama @ Victoria Miro

October 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

The Victoria Miro Gallery on Wharf Road is situated in a vastly different location to its Mayfair counterpart. The surrounding area is predominantly residential and it appears to be lacking in luxury boutiques and swanky restaurants. In fact, you have to pass a petrol station and a McDonalds to get to it. Yet this unassuming space boasts one of the most beautiful hidden gardens in London that has currently sprouted several pumpkins in time for autumn.

The pumpkins that have emerged in the water garden have been ‘planted’ by Yayoi Kusama. Unlike the majority of the work that the artist is most famous for, these bronze vegetables are not brightly coloured. Instead of trying to grab our attention the squash lies unassumingly with no signs of any added artificial colour. The natural browns of the bronze compliment the brown decking on which they are supported, as well as the dark green leaves of the surrounding vegetation and the lighter shades of algae floating on top of the water’s surface. And, while Kusama has moved away from the bright colours of which she is most famous, the pumpkins are still covered with her trademarks spots, which serve only to compliment the silver orbs that already reside in the garden’s water prior to the growth of the marrows, having been left from an earlier exhibition by the artist in 2008. In short, no location could be better suited to these sculptures.

For us in the west, the pumpkin is eponymous with autumn, colder weather and Halloween. For Kusama however, it has a different meaning. The artist’s family made their living cultivating plant seeds and keeping nurseries. The squash has appeared in her work since 1948 in a variety of different forms, however the new crop at Victoria Miro are the biggest yet. The ones here are huge, almost human height with a much wider girth. In various interviews Kusama has described the humble pumpkin as having a ‘generous unpretentiousness’ and also of being a ’symbol of peace and the sacredness of the bond between nature and humanity.’ This seems to sum up perfectly the experience of being in the water garden at Victoria Miro, which has an air of serenity and calm.

For those looking for a taste of tranquility away from the hustle and bustle of inner city London life I highly suggest you sample Kusama’s pumpkins before they are uprooted at the end of December.

Yayoi Kusama: Bronze Pumpkins are on display at Victoria Miro until 19 December

Captioning portraits

October 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

While most reviews of visual art exhibitions write about the layout and presentation of shows, they very rarely concern themselves with critiquing the wall text and captions of the images on display. However, for this week’s post I am going to discuss the way in which captions are written, especially when it comes to portraits.

Last week, a friend suggested we go to the new Snowdon display at the National Portrait Gallery, which consists of a series of photographs donated to the gallery by Lord Snowdon in 2013, mostly of celebrities and royals. The exhibition was well presented and the compositions of many of the photographs were striking, yet, instead of commenting on this, the captions decided to inform the viewer about the lives of celebrity x, y and z. This is all very well and good, however, unless you have been living under a rock for half of your life, chances are you already know who David Bowie is and don’t need a paragraph to explain why he is such an icon.

Of 130 donated prints, only 30 or so are on display, the subjects of nearly all of which are celebrities. This poses many questions: firstly, is the gallery trying to show us merely the most well-known personalities in order to attract less artistically inclined viewers and secondly, are only famous people worth while being put on display?!

Unfortunately the format taken up by the National Portrait Gallery appears to be the norm for the majority of exhibitions concerning portraiture. The exhibition title is not ‘Snowdon, Maggie Smith, Barbara Hepworth and their celebrity chums’, so why has the concept of explaining and analysing what it is that makes these images art been taken out of the captions. The gallery fails to praise Snowdon’s photographic talent in favour of fanning over the well-known personalities featured in the display. The exhibition is not about celebrities therefore why should it matter if it is the King or an unknown off of the street within the picture.

You will notice that in galleries where the identity of the sitter within a portrait is unknown, the caption of the image will more often that not discuss the formal qualities of the picture instead of give an account of the life story of them. I don’t see why this format should not apply to images of celebrities. Yes, maybe give a sentence of two explaining who they are, but a whole paragraph seems a little excessive when image captions are already reduced to such minuscule word counts.

I am by no means saying that the relationship between artist and sitter is not important. However, I do feel that the artistic processes that go into making a portrait should be given more recognition.

That said, I encourage you to visit the exhibition and decide for yourselves!

Snowdon: A Life in View is on display at National Portrait Gallery until 21 June 2015

Marina Abramovic @ Lisson

October 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Marina Abramovic seems to me to be the sweetheart of the performance art world, despite being controversial, many remain captivated by her work, thus it seems fitting that White Space, the name of her current retrospective-style show at the Lisson Gallery, comes from a performance first realised in 1972, which has its focal point in a recording of the artist saying ‘I love you’, playing on repeat.

The performance was originally performed in Belgrade in a room filled with white paper and is now being repeated for the first time in over thirty years. Stepping inside the room alone was a somewhat relaxing experience. The white paper seemed to move and float around the room with the sound of the record player. The room is bright and light, and a contrast to the somewhat intense experience at the Serpentine earlier this year.

The rest of the work on display however, is not so light, or indeed bright. Other performances on display include two films that are shown in dark rooms. One of these is a film, also from the 1970s, where Abramovic lies down in the middle of a burning star, where the performance ends when the artist is awoken by concerned spectators after falling unconscious.

The other film on display is entitled ‘freeing the memory’ in which the artist is seen on black and white film listing every word she can think of for nearly an hour. This piece has a chant-like quality. Abramovic remains still and expressionless throughout and it is remarkable that she doesn’t seem to tire at all. For the time that I was in the viewing room, the artist listed all kinds of things from the Galapagos Islands to words about love and youth. These all appear quite nice and quaint, however, in other reviews that I have read, it has been noted that Abramovic also managed to recite the names of diseases and political dictators.

The wall art on display mainly comprise photographic stills of the artist during her most famous performances. However, also on display are a series of photographs in which Abramovic has ‘blacked out’ buildings with white correction fluid during her time away from Belgrade, which coincidentally were then literally blacked out by the NATO bombings during the Kosovo war. I found these images particularly moving. Unless you stand very close to the images, it is almost impossible to see that they have been altered then upon closer inspection the effect hits you like a bomb. The artist manages to say so much without saying anything. Also in the exhibition are drawings of plans for the performances on display in the gallery, giving the viewer the opportunity to see some of the thought processes behind the work.

For any Marina fans this show should not be missed – an opportunity to go back to the beginning of the artist’s career.

Can an image tell us about a person?

September 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Last week I made a trip to the Saatchi Gallery to view Sam Taylor-Johnson’s photographs of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s apartment. It is not a secret that I am a fashion fanatic and I was expecting the images of Chanel’s private rooms to give me a glimpse into the designer’s personal space, thus providing an enriched understanding of her character. However, I left disappointed.

At first, I blamed Taylor-Johnson’s images for my dissatisfaction with the exhibition. Having said that, after waiting a week to think about the display my thoughts have changed and moved away from Chanel altogether. Taylor-Johnson’s images are dark. All the colour has been sucked out of the space and there is more focus on the architectural elements of the apartment than its contents. From these images, someone with no prior knowledge of Chanel may get the impression that she was vapid and flat and that is almost certainly not the case. The photographs are Taylor-Johnson’s interpretations. Perhaps she has depicted the apartment this way to signify the lack of life now that Chanel’s physical presence has left. Nevertheless, it would be hard to argue that these photographs really tell us anything about Chanel herself.

The saying goes that a picture tells a thousand words, but does it really? Throughout my undergraduate degree (in western art history), my tutors always insisted that portraits were rarely an accurate likeness to the sitter. Yes, these images that would have been commissioned by the elite and upper classes would bring some resemblance. Yet they often came with stipulations from the sitter that the artist would have had to follow if he (or she) wanted to be paid. Artists’ log books throughout history show that everything from the way the sitter is dressed to their facial expressions and any attributes that they are holding would all have been discussed in advance. Most of the time, these portraits would have been made to flatter the sitter. Often these images would be circulated as prints and would be the only pictures of rulers that the lower classes would have access to, thus appearances had to be well thought out and complimentary. Taking all this into account, it is more than likely that such images were contrived, not showing the full persona of the sitter, rather what was expected of them.

In terms of artist’s self portraits many art historians would strongly argue that they too, would illustrate themselves in the way in which they would want to be seen. Much like ‘selfies’ today, the artist could alter the way in which they would depict themselves, perhaps by changing their state of dress to that of a wealthier status or by incorporating an emblem of their reigning monarch. Just like we literally ‘filter’ and edit the way we are seen on social media. Thus, in terms of portraits, it is arguable that the image gives a distorted view of the persona that it is depicting.

Consequently, I would like to argue that while an image can indeed tell us about a person, one would probably be best to think about the artist’s intention when producing the picture as the sitter only makes half of the story. It takes at least two to create an image concerning a figure(s), the sitter(s) as well as the artist.

Is Fashion an Art?

September 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

September not only means the start of the new academic year. While millions of children and students around the world are readying themselves for essays and lectures, the world’s sartorial elite cast their eyes to New York, London, Paris and Milan for a month of four consecutive weeks of fashion. What does this have to do with art I hear you cry? Seemingly little, but as you begin to look behind the surface, you will begin to see that is not the case.

This article was originally inspired by Miley Cyrus, whose name refuses to budge from the covers of tabloid newspapers and glossy magazines for her raunchy antics and questionable dress sense. However she has now delved into the visual arts, having just presented her first art collection ‘dirty hippie’ in collaboration with Jeremy Scott at New York fashion week. Her ‘artwork’ does not consist of the generic paintings one might expect, but accessories, which I suppose we could call sculpture. This leads to asking the age-old question: firstly, what constitutes as art and secondly, how should it be presented?

Surely (and conventionally) a museum or gallery would have been a more appropriate setting for Cyrus’s art, however given the name the singer has made for herself, nothing should really surprise us. Artist-fashion designer collaborations are nothing new. Marina Abramovic has previously collaborated with Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci as has Yayoi Kusama and Louis Vuitton. While this appears to be a new phenomenon, the recent Artist Textiles Exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum proves that these collaborations have been around for nearly a century (beginning their show from the 1920s). While one cannot go around wearing a Picasso painting, the artist did personally approve fabric to be made from his art that people could wear.

Fashion exhibitions are becoming more and more commonplace. While this may be a positive and indeed it must be for museum and visitor numbers, what does it mean for art exhibitions? While I am known amongst friends for constantly spending time in galleries and at exhibitions, it is seldom that people suggest accompanying me. However this is a very different story when a fashion exhibition opens, when I suddenly become very popular. The recent Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which opens at the V&A in London next year, saw record visitor numbers for the museum with people queuing round the block. Where previously very few fashion exhibitions were on offer there are now plenty to choose from and I have also noticed myself writing more and more articles about shows of clothes and style.

While fashion has successfully muscled it’s way into the art world by using its exhibition venues, it is still worth questioning whether it is in fact art at all. Miley Cyrus’s offerings at New York Fashion Week certainly could be argued favourably in this way as she had the intention of creating art. In spite of that, many garments that end up on display in galleries and museums were simply designed to be functioning items of clothing and not lauded over like masterpiece paintings. It is worth considering then, whether that vintage Chanel suit hanging in the museum is an artwork or a highly collectible antique.

A trip to the Fan Museum

September 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Even after having lived on the outskirts of London my entire life, as venues open and close, there will always be something new to discover. I recently made my first trip to the Fan Museum in Greenwich, which, despite opening two years before I was born, had alluded me until now.

The fan museum is small, sweet, quaint and petite. From the outside it does not have the appearance of a museum at all. However, its door handles that are adorned with fans hint at the content of the building. When I say that the fan motif is everywhere, I mean it. Even the bathroom, which really was very impressive, has been covered with them, even the soap was fan-shaped. I could see that I wasn’t the only fan (pun intended) as an award had been hung proudly on the mirror. I didn’t know bathroom awards existed until now, but trust me when I say; the Fan Museum definitely deserved it.

Moving away from lavatory decoration to the museum’s collection that tells the story of the origins and evolution of the fan throughout history. Though small, this is well displayed across two rooms on the ground floor of the museum. This begins with a series of fan leaves that have been taken and unfolded from their original supports. So intricate are these fans that one would be forgiven for mistaking them for miniature or small-scale oil paintings. In this first room the status associated with the fan is displayed with many fans being adorned with decorations of royal courts from all over Europe as well as other mythical and historical events.

The following room concentrated on the materials that fans have been constructed out of throughout time with fans made out of ivory, tortoiseshell and my favourite, mother of pearl. These are displayed adjacent to fans from all over the world from the orient to the amazon. The viewer leaves this room after being confronted by a cheeky nod to modern fans with the inclusion of a dyson fan.

Upstairs is space for temporary exhibitions, which currently focuses on the history of fans and advertising with the inclusion of fans made out of beer bottles.

This hidden treasure in Greenwich is well worth a visit. I am definitely a fan!

Seduced: Fans & The Art of Advertising is on display at The Fan Museum until 28 September

Why I Admire Artists

September 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

Given that this blog celebrates art and everything about it, I rarely write a great deal about artists. Most of my articles have been about works of art and the display of them, however the creators of these pieces are pushed into the background. Now however, I am going to explain just why I admire artists and why you might too!

Firstly, artists have a strong backbone. On a personal level they put themselves on the line. They are self-employed meaning that they have no one to hide behind, meaning they put themselves under huge risk concerning financial security, especially when trying to become established. Furthermore, being self-employed also means that if issues arise surrounding their work they do not have colleagues or corporations to support them, in short, there is nowhere to hide.

Another example of a strong sense of character is in the courage and determination in taking the decision to actually be an artist itself. Thousands of students every year go to study at art colleges; however how many of them actually decide to make art once they have graduated? Not many. It takes guts to decide to go against the grain and opt to make art instead of working in an office.

The act of being an artist also shows a sense of dedication and determination in a culture where there is so much competition and little room for success. This sense of fortitude allows an artist to withstand ignorant comments like the famous remark: ‘a five year old could do it.’ Where I might argue that if a five year is able to do this then why have you not done something ten times more spectacular? Yes a five year old may be able to make the same marks on paper, but would said five year old be able to approach a gallery, come up with a concept behind the work and market themselves to a public in order to bring themselves fame and fortune? No, I didn’t think so either.

The final reason why I admire artists is the way in which the most famous are still remembered throughout history. On a personal note as an art historian and as a point of comparison, how many people study or could name a famous art historian? Only art historians themselves, and very few at that. However, how many people could reel off a list of artists? Probably the vast majority. Even compared to the entertainment industry where we still remember musicians and actors throughout the past century, there are still more artists throughout time as famous and remembered figures within our own society. You would be hard pushed to name a singer or actress from renaissance Italy but it would only take a moment to remember the art of Michelangelo and Raphael.

Hopefully after having read this you will have a little more respect for an artist who has gained fame from what appears to be a squiggle on a piece of crumpled up paper.


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