Monday 29 November 2010

Matthew Stone's Anatomy of Material Worlds

London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts staged a series of live events this past weekend entitled ‘Against Gravity’ (November 26 -28) taking inspiration from Italo Calvino’s proposition that ‘lightness is a value, rather than a defect.’

For one evening only Mathew Stone staged a multi-media piece, ‘Anatomy of Immaterial Worlds’.  In a packed house, the work projected a film of computer generated imagery against the back wall of the stage.

At the outset, a grey orb like a planet swiveled towards us revealing a dark aperture through which we entered on a long and strange adventure. Stone took the audience on a what seemed to be an epic odyssey through a twisting, enclosed space that resembled a long tunnel. Largely dark, the gloom was illuminated by glowing patches of fluorescent colour like plankton attached to the walls of a sea cave. As the audience was taken deeper into this imprecise, allusive space, the electronic score became more urgent and throbbing.

The effect was to induce a trance like sensation that was neither unpleasant, nor uplifting but rather emphasised exploration and progression towards an unknown destination. Calvino’s ‘lightness’ seemed to take the explicit form of gravity-free and ‘immaterial’ travel so familiar from science fiction in film and literature, but this physical experience acted too as imaginative spur to a more metaphorical condition of travel.

This floating journey, which initially felt enticing, became insistently monotonous as if the dramatic denouement were being deliberately denied.  A state of weightless movement became rather banal through 30 minutes of repetitious images and sound reminding us of the endurance required by the processes of discovery. Eventually, the film faded and we were left in darkness while the original music written by Stone grew louder with more pounding bass effects, ramping up the expectation and an accompanying hunger for release. (Some used this blackout to impose their own ending by leaving the theatre).

Finally and to some evident relief, the lights came up to the sound of a Soprano singing accompanied by live musicians. On stage, a pair of dancers performed a very brief duet in costumes that appeared to be made from transparent stockings stuffed with rags that stopped abruptly. Whether this was intended to induce an elevating climax or an exaggerated bathos for the time we invested on the journey, the entire work concluded with a degree of confusion. ‘Anatomy of Immaterial Worlds’ had left the audience truly untethered from any certainty.

Monday 22 November 2010

William Daniels at Vilma Gold

As the visitor approaches William Daniels’ 10 new ‘oil on board’ paintings (as yet all untitled), the scale of these works becomes more surprising the closer you reach them. They achieve a disarming physical and visual presence. No picture is larger than 38 centimetres high or 29 centimetres wide,  but any initial, modest impact is radically changed by the exuberant descriptions of colour, tonality and geometry seen by the artist in the folds of crumpled metal foil.

Having previously exhibited paintings of paper maquettes,  inspired by iconic images in art history, Daniels now turns to an investigation of representation in painting. He explores how light operates on the reflective surface of these foil objects, which appear to sit against a backdrop of the same material to enhance the mirroring of ambient light. These ‘formless’ shapes first attract and then return the light in altered, complex patterns. Such closely cropped and intricate paintings invite sustained viewing to comprehend the detail held within them. Fractals of grey and yellow or red and olive meet awkwardly and fight for space. Colour and form are in constant flux producing a hallucinatory effect like staring through a spyhole into a fiery furnace.

Every facet and wrinkle made by compressing the foil sheets into solid, abstract forms is articulated with adroit brushwork;  flatter flecks of colour are separated by raised ridges of paint marking hard edges in the original objects. Daniels’ textured surfaces faithfully express the physicality of the material he studies. This act of turning flat sheets into form cleverly exposes and reverses the traditional act of painting itself, the translation of tangible objects into a two dimensional plane.

In Daniels’ quest for dazzling optical effects, the paintings achieve a theatrical trompe l’oeil character. However,  there is an ambiguous quality about these images, illustrating the curious status of painting itself. Daniels reminds us that painting is a lyrical resemblance,  a dialogue between the ‘real’ and the imaginary, which in this show produces an exhilaratingly giddy experience.

Wednesday 1 September 2010


Returning to Provincetown by boat is a simple pleasure that never fails to meet my expectations. The sleek, slow boat has unfortunately been relegated to the Saturday service so the trip is now cut in half by the slightly banal high-speed catamarans that run the route between Boston and the Cape, but which still provide that magical contact with the sea as you head towards land’s end.

Reputedly, the first landfall for the Pilgrim Fathers, this small fishing community has acquired a mythic status as the first point of refuge for these fleeing pioneers seeking the freedom to pursue a life determined by conscience and belief. And so in turn the town has remained a place of hope and sanctuary to artists, writers, performers, gay men and women, immigrants and those too eccentric to conform to the expectations of their native communities. Rather like San Francisco, Provincetown acts as an inspirational idea and a rebuke.

As you leave the long elongated Boston harbour and its remnants of armed revolt, the boat heads out to what appears to be open sea. For an hour or so the horizon is filled with the grey-blue swell of the Atlantic. If you’re lucky, you may see a whale rise up in a brief, mesmerising leap to break the monotony. With patience, the feint edge of the Cape’s shoreline emerges to guide the boat towards the tranquil embrace of Provincetown’s harbour, allegedly the second largest in the world (the first remains obscurely unknown to me). As you arrive at the dock, it’s possible to discern landmarks that line the long high street: the wooden spire of the Universalist Church; the granite replica of an Italian campanile, built as a monument to the Pilgrim Fathers; the white belfry of the town library; and various wharves and jetties once used to unload fish but now the back porches of bars and restaurants that line the beach.

Every few years I feel a hankering, even an urgency to return. Little changes from year to year. Perhaps one clothing store has been replaced by another or a favoured lunch spot has closed, but it’s the local residents who endure such as the drag queens who stand outside their venues promoting their acts like hawkers selling clams. They hustle to earn a buck as they trade quips or fling provocative remarks at passing strollers. Later at twilight, Cher’s doppleganger will appear on a foot-powered scooter in fishnets and a thong .Outside the town hall, buskers take their turn to woo a crowd. Some have a semblance of talent while others battle to be taken seriously and try turning a buck by selling Cds laid out by their feet. Only a ‘moving statue’ raised my ire but the local paper gave her space to describe how she had built her career on the road from Ohio. This year ‘Emily’ a transsexual was belting out show standards with a handwritten sign saying ‘76 and living my dream’ in an ill fitting long wig, short skirt and high heels. Marrying this audacity to conviction was enough to force bicyclists and walkers to a halt as they stared in baffled astonishment. It is unseemly to mock or snigger in ‘P-town’. This is a community that is defined by eclecticism and it takes all sights in its stride.

What is truly astonishing is the arrival of day-tripping middle America into what some may term a contemporary Sodom and Gomorrah. But it’s gratifying that by the sea, at the end of the continental US, couples and their kids actually enjoy the theatricality and camp excess of street life here. They discover a summer-long carnival of performance and display.

Aside from this social conviviality, the town perches on the edge of the natural world. On three sides sits the ocean. Beyond a narrow strip of settlement, you can cycle into the dunes and forests of a seashore set aside for protection as a national park by a President Kennedy who grew up sailing this coast. It’s possible to follow the trails for miles up to Race Point lighthouse up and over shifting sand dunes punctuated by clusters of pine trees. Despite the need to navigate the crowds on the town’s narrow high street, the beach here is largely empty even in high season by comparison with the Mediterranean where swimming in summer can resemble membership of a seal colony.

The tip of Cape Cod sustains a microclimate shaped by the mercurial moods of the sea. This year it was so hot that it felt like crossing the Sahara simply to arrive at the beach where there was no shade to shelter from the sun. On my last day, the rain rolled in off the sea with a savage intensity. One year I was stranded for days by the aftermath of a hurricane. Living in London most of the year, Nature here beckons me to leave the hurly-burly of urban life behind and re-connect with elemental forces. When I must leave to return to life elsewhere, I carry an indelible memory of P-town that sustains me in the hope that I can return.

As I stood in the lashing rain waiting anxiously for the ferry to arrive and  hoping for a miraculous subsidence of the waves, an elegant, tall, middle- aged woman in a boiler suit with a broad Boston accent began to talk to me in that disarming American way that assumes familiarity and which makes many Britons so often uneasy. But she charmed me with her natural bonhomie and tales of spending summer in the resort. Susan worked as a psychiatric nurse for most of the year and between the lines I could read an annual quest for solitude and the chance of navigating the sea in her little rowboat that she kept tied up in port. She reminded me of Katherine Hepburn in African Queen; stoic, independent and a maverick. Susan might stand out in the suburb of the city where she lived and worked, but out on the Cape at the end of the world she was compellingly self-sufficient and content. In that momentary encounter on the point of departure, I found what makes Provincetown an irresistible destination. While the boat pulled out, I hoped to take as much of this spirit away with me, much as I might pack a jar with shells found in the marsh by the long stone breakwater where the tide brings in the salt water to animate the reeds and rock pools.

Ernesto Neto: The Edges of the World

As you enter Ernesto Neto’s new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, a sign asks you to ‘be gentle with Edges of the World’. This alerts us to the inclusive nature and fragility of Neto’s work, which seems to say that delight may be found in the material world and its inherent vulnerability. Neto transforms the Brutalist shell of the Hayward gallery using soft, yielding fabric to create organic, internal spaces. The hard concrete, functionality of the gallery is deliberately subverted. What epitomizes the Modernist, South Bank vision of reason and order becomes overgrown with a fecund fantasy of colours, textures and scents.

Entering Neto’s constructed environment is a return to the pleasures rather than the fears of childhood. Arching above our heads, ‘Horizonmembranenave employs a skeletal frame over which the artist pulls diaphanous fabric across wooden ribs that resemble dinosaur bones. A long twisting tunnel gently changes colour and beckons the visitor with the scent of Camomile flowers, which have been slipped into pockets sewn into the translucent skin.

Across the entire top floor with view over London, Neto has fashioned this environment by lowering a ceiling of his trademark fine mesh. Surfaces curve and slope in biomorphic uncertainty. Even the floor at one point is strangely altered so that you must tread gingerly across highly sprung fabric that resists your weighty footprint thereby gently lowering you to the firm concrete flooring below.

Scattered across the gallery are several staircases leading to viewing platforms that elevate you up through holes cut into the fabric ceiling like tree houses giving views across a rainforest canopy. Elsewhere, soft tubes like elongated stockings or gloves are inserted into this delicate wall providing proximity to other visitors who are constantly seen or heard around you.

This is a show that demands transitions through the gallery space mediated by abrupt physical changes. Installations become architectural experiences offering shelter and perceptual discovery.

Outside, Neto has made full use of Hayward’s large terraces even to extent of setting up a bathing pool with exotic, pointy-headed pavilions in saffron yellow obscurely titled ‘H2O-SFLV’ The evening I visited, two stately middle aged ladies bobbed around in their floral one piece swim suits as if on an expedition to Margate, but this time they commanded a view across London’s South Bank and an entire pool to themselves having duly arranged a reservation, as requested. Perhaps the necessary display of skin explains the polite request to refrain from taking pictures.

 On the other side of the building it’s possible to enjoy a low-rise concrete wall that leads you up and down a narrow gauge in an infinite loop. ‘Walking to the Future’ returns the visitor to the balancing games of youth. It also hints at a Medieval floor maze designed to elucidate meaning through physical movement and contemplation.

Ernesto Neto has become a Brazilian ‘Willy Wonker’ conjuring up remarkable transformations. By cutting and shaping cloth he simulates the wiliness and unpredictability of Nature. But this is not the natural world ‘red in tooth and claw’ but a softened experience of the material world. Even the looping wall that invites us to wobble around, as we search for our centre of gravity, gently catches our fall with a bed of bark chippings. Neto’s world is exuberant but any edge or menace is removed.

At the Hayward you will find temporary relief from the churning city beyond, where you will encounter unfolding stimuli without any disturbance. Unlike Wonker’s chocolate factory, the dark side of existence is adroitly trumped by sensuality.

Thursday 24 June 2010

Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs at The British Library

The achievements of the Victorian age still appear prodigious from the distance of the 21st Century. This particular ambition still shapes our cities and national institutions. Much of what we know about the Victorians is found in the extraordinary visual documents we now classify as photography, a very particular Victorian legacy that continues to determine our experience of the world. In an extensive display of the British Library’s photographic holdings, the exhibition ‘Points of View’ illustrates that very distinct hunger for innovation and exploration.

Initially pioneered by a gentleman amateur William Henry Fox Talbot on his country estate, the medium became by the 1850s a booming industry feeding on the aspirations of a thriving middle class keen to record their growing families and status in photographic studios located in many of Britain’s large towns.

From the simplest of images derived from exposed plants on light sensitive paper to sophisticated panoramas, the exhibition carefully lays out the technical development of the medium.  It shows too how a fleeting moment could be suspended in time on paper. Many images are so articulate in their accumulation of detail that they feel very contemporary and yet the precise features of buildings, clothing and objects recorded here appear simultaneously strange and distant. These photographs become keystones of historic experience connecting us to a lived past. This enables proximity to such significant events as the Great Exhibition of 1851 or the Great Durbar of 1903.

On a more intimate level we may stare in wonder at the farmer carrying a hoe in the Norfolk Broads as if he were a character from a Victorian novel such is the weight of facts: his preoccupied expression, the shape of his hat, the simplicity of his clothes, in fact a whole way of life predicated on living off the land when manual labor was still required to feed the nation. And yet the poise struck by the young man is as knowing as that of a model today affecting to work on the land in order to sell fashion. What each shares is a consciousness of being watched and recorded, that the camera will seize every facet of their physical presence and demeanour.  This has become the photographic moment, a very modern consciousness of being watched in perpetuity.

Angela de la Cruz: After and Anna Maria Maiolino: Continuous at Camden Arts Centre

Instead of a rigid, taut surface, Angela de la Cruz’s canvases buckle and overlap as if the stretcher had been snapped in two over the knee. One of this year’s Turner Prize nominees, this Spanish artist based for the past twenty years in London subverts the notion of illusion built up in paint that constitutes the western tradition since the Renaissance. True, other artists since the second world war like Fontana have deliberately punctured the trompe l’oeil fantasy of painting while some artists, most notably Jackson Pollack, have emphatically asserted the material factness of paint applied to a supporting (canvas) surface. But De La Cruz radically deconstructs paintings to suggest their inherently premeditated nature.

‘Ashamed’ sits astride a corner of the gallery wall but is doubled up upon itself as one half partially covers a lower panel that together had formed one flat panel. This doubling effect through forceful manipulation of stretcher and canvas begins to form a crack or bodily cleavage as the light casts a shadow over the point where the two panels meet. An unnerving creamy crust is formed out of the painted surface. This small painting sitting unobtrusively in a far corner introduces ideas of rupture and collapse and which characterises several canvases that produce a sculptural rather than painterly presence in the gallery.

On a larger scale, a work titled ‘Homeless’, resembles a life size canopy that might function as a shelter on the street. Here the loose canvas is freed from tension and hangs limply from the stretcher uncannily resembling malnourished folds of skin that hang from a broken body. This conceit of the painting as corporeal proxy is employed again in ‘Deflated IV’ where the remaining horizontal arms of the stretcher slope downwards in a poise reminiscent of a crucifixion. As if to hit the point home, the red canvas folds released from their frame hang like a flayed body against the bleached gallery wall.

In the centre of the room, the legs of a collapsed chair splay outwards horizontally on the floor pulling the seat firmly to earth with a bump. Perhaps this structural surrender refers to the artist’s recent illness, which has confined her to a wheelchair. Material certainty is consistently questioned in these pieces and this essential fragility produces inevitable bathos.  The expectation of a painting functioning as a servant to artistic intention is subsumed by a physical autonomy that speaks of both exhaustion and defiance. What we encounter is a teasing exploration of painting’s symbolism and its intrinsically constructed nature.

Concurrently, Camden Arts Centre hosts a site-specific work, Continous, by the Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino which demonstrates a dedication to the handmade and to group participation. Her work originates in the urgent struggle against military dicatorship and the call by Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark amongst others for a democratic art employing sensual engagement and for a sense of wonder in work made from humble materials.

Here Maiolino has built an entire environment of repeating clay forms that she has rolled and shaped by hand. Long coils rise, fall and turn like tangled piles of elongated sausages. Pieces resembling sliced swiss rolls or doughy buns are laid out on a long table as if they were merchandise in a bakery. Other more elemental processes are deliberately invoked and are reminiscent of ingestion and expulsion. This scatological allusion is subtle but unavoidable.

Maiolino has reduced the making of art to its bare bones ­– kneading, rolling, coiling and cutting – she suggests the myriad ways hands construct and express basic forms. Assembled together these odd, but repeating shapes made of earth without decoration connect us to the arc of a material journey.  But unlike de la Cruz’s hybrid painting/sculptures, Maiolino’s installation of precise but simple shapes articulate the human impulse to craft work out of formless, organic material and returns us to primal urges in prehistory and childhood..

If there’s any doubt about the piece, it lies in its incompletion, as if these blobs of shaped earth require some kind of resolution. Laid out en masse they impress with symbolic possibility but the project is rather anti-climactic, echoed by the wire mesh that runs along the wall into which some plugs of clay have been randomly inserted. Large areas of fence remain unfilled – did the artist run out of time or is this a deliberate nod to every artist’s unceasing quest?

Thursday 3 June 2010

Venice of the North

Amsterdam with the possible exception of Venice, is probably the best preserved city in Europe where it’s still possible to imagine a world before the car. History is constantly evoked in the details of houses that defy the Netherlands’ waterlogged geography. Walking in the canal belt leads one back 350 years to the Golden Age following the Dutch Republic’s final defeat of Spain. That 80-year struggle produced a self-sufficient society keen to explore and trade with the rest of the world.

As you pass the tall, narrow houses that buckle on soft, soggy ground, you appreciate how a mercantile society spent its newfound affluence on domestic dwellings,  which continue today to convey elegant order and precision. If you look up above the eyeline, you’ll see how each house has subtly different gables. Some are stepped like the crenellations of a medieval castle and some employ curly plaster  in the  Baroque fashion of the 18th century hiding the steeply pitched roofs behind. These gables function as the decorative icing on a cake, hiding the more banal details of structural construction though cccasionally it’s possible to see how the attics that extend behind meet the fa├žade at a sharp angle. These grand frontages disguise functional loft spaces of which the only visible clue is the ubiquitous pulley hooks used to hoist up food, furniture and fuel into the houses because the staircases were built so steeply.

On a winter visit it’s possible to wander across canals leeched of colour by Jack Frost, but the city is largely quiet as the residents dash through the cold that seeps into the skin like a contamination. On a previous visit at Christmas we were so chilly that in order to stick to our sightseeing we found some long underwear to avert frosbite-induced amputation. But at Easter the famed Dutch skill at gardening becomes evident. Canal boats become impromptu roof gardens and almost every house proudly supports window boxes or pots that spill down the steps and onto the street.

Nowhere else in the world encourages cycling as much as Amsterdam. The quays become flashpoints for tourists on foot encountering sanguine cyclists who duck and weave around the dozy visitors taking their eyes off the road to read their maps. But this dodging game becomes an admirable alternative to the familiar process of avoiding trucks and cars in other cities.

What I’ll remember from the recent trip is the enjoyment of wandering late at night away from the main tourist arteries and looking into the homes of local residents as they came home from work to cook, socialize and put their feet up. In Amsterdam, life has a communal quality that quietly discourages the drawing of blinds or curtains. On the contrary, the cosy interiors are illuminated and left open to view. For a nosy flaneur, this affords an unprecedented sense of access to the lives of random strangers at home even to the point of seeing a naked Amsterdammer sitting nonchalantly at a desk, in all probability doing the weekly shop online. Residents of this city are somehow closer to nature, perched as they are above the briny deep that washes all around them.

Legal Highs

The overriding memory of a recent trip to Amsterdam involves the pungent, sweet smell of grass lingering on the streets of this remarkable city built on water. The coffeeshops sitting on almost every commercial street lure tourists in for an experience legally denied at home. It’s peculiar  to see and smell grass being openly smoked in public but, on balance, an indication of Dutch maturity in their approach to the inhalation of what is essentially the smoke from a plant. Politicians elsewhere are so muddled in their attitudes that clear paradoxes are set up. Is Marijuana intrinsically any worse than alcohol? I certainly didn’t see weed fuelled aggression on the streets. I’d rather sit with a crowd of stoned people than drunks any day.

The problem arises with the way in which the plant is quite removed from what you might have smoked in the 1960s. Cultivation now takes place on an industrial scale and to meet demand unscrupulous growers seem intent on producing ever stronger highs so that it is reputedly becoming more dangerous particularly for the young and those susceptible to mental illness. A gentle trip to the moon that my parents might have enjoyed 40 years ago has been replaced by the effect of being shot into space on a rocket, which is not a pleasurable experience. One British resident of the Netherlands also told me that it was difficult to warn his children of the dangers since they were surrounded by coffeeshops selling freely available grass. It’s a fair point, but frankly having seen the Dutch solution in action, I suggest it’s still preferable to the absurd criminalisation and hypocrisy we see elsewhere in the world.

Don’t many of us simply share a common desire for honesty where we can discuss the merits and dangers freely without feeling condemned or complicit in something that’s been considered wrong because it’s labelled a ‘drug’? What’s not desirable is the almost global current state of affairs where politicians and police treat alcohol as a tolerable anomaly but bully and criminalise anyone wanting to puff a joint at home. 

Thursday 1 April 2010

The Arcelor Mittal Orbit: An Olympic Eyesore?

Not content with spending £9 billion to stage the Olympics, about which we can debate the merits of potential social and economic regeneration of a poor and depressed area, Boris Johnson and Tessa Jowell have now decided to spend a further £19 million to create a landmark on the site of the Olympic Park in Stratford, the grimly named ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit’. Apparently this is designed to draw visitors to what is implicitly feared will become another Olympic white elephant. Almost every Olympic site has become neglected and virtually redundant after the two-week games have finished. Does this Stalinist scale folly reveal that this vastly expensive project will become an abandoned wasteland without a fair ground ride to draw in visitors? Computer generated images suggest a tower made from Meccano, which I remember from childhood that allowed you to make fantasy structures from bolted together strips of painted steel. Rising above a large, windswept piazza, the ‘Orbit’ might well become a bleak and isolated destination.

This giant folly, taller than Big Ben will apparently act as an observatory. But offering a view over what exactly? The new shopping centre at Stratford? Empty sports arenas? Post-industrial garbage dumps and clogged canals? This is a vanity project once familiar from Soviet occupied Eastern Europe. At least the London Eye has one of the best views in the world across the Thames to historic Westminster. The ‘Orbit’ resembles Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower, another council-led attempt to build a ‘landmark’, but bereft of ideas.

Anish Kapoor is capable of making some sublime sculpture that explores our bodily encounter with materials and space but this helter-skelter, kitsch Tower of Babel commissioned by bureaucrats and named after multinational is an unworthy mistake. It has none of the suggestive power of Kapoor’s ‘Marsyas’ formerly installed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Imaginative and engaging public sculpture is a necessary feature of our shared civic space but this awkward, outsized and confusing fair ground attraction seems a serious waste of money even if most of the costs come from the pockets of a benefactor. What’s more troubling is the apparent confusion about how to create a valuable legacy for the Olympic Games and how to commission public art of genuine and enduring value.

Wednesday 31 March 2010

Lost London

Visiting ‘Lost London’ at Kenwood House in Hampstead reinforces how this city is an accretion of buildings constructed over hundreds of years. English Heritage has mounted a display of its photographic archive of buildings and streets that were brought down to the ground by bureaucrats and developers or destroyed under aerial bombardment. To see this accumulation of loss is to suffer a pang of sadness at the immense scale of unnecessary damage in the past 150 years. It’s true all cities are constantly remade, Paris being the ironic exemplar, so that buildings inherited from the past are occasionally superceded by better designs, but whenever a historic structure is lost all the traces of activity contained within it evaporate at the stroke of the wrecking ball. We lose contact with people who once inhabited or worked in these structures, the embodied of their values and experiences and which provided some form of access to the past.

Now we can never experience the grandeur and grime of the old Columbia Market built in Gothic splendour on a scale to rival St Pancras Station. Photographs remain a documentary record but are a poor substitute for strolling its market stalls. Such irresponsibility illustrates an extraordinary lack of appreciation of London’s legacy, it’s inhabitants and the value of their labour. That such a remarkable testament to the Victorian age could be cavalierly ripped down is frankly an assault on the spirit of anyone who values the legacies of history.

But what this exhibition staged by English Heritage demonstrates is the slow but concrete progress towards conservation in this country, that our past can be preserved while continuing to remain relevant to our lives today. You only need to think of Covent Garden’s brilliant transformation from redundant market to its respectful adaptation today to appreciate how we might regenerate London without ruining our collectiveinheritance. With its archaic sounding name, the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London was founded in the 19th century to use the new technology of photography in order to hold onto to something that might endure of London’s history.

Later in the 1950s and 1960s  a slow reassessment of Modernism’s utopian impulse for shaping the future from the ground up, real conservation gradually took root. Too much of London’s fabric suffered destruction during the war, but the exhibition uncovers how bomb damaged structures provided the rationale for widespread post-war flattening of entire streets. Georgian King’s Square in Finsbury and Swedenborg Square in Stepney suffered the inevitable degradation of war but nevertheless survived largely intact. Instead of refurbishment, they were swept away in the rush to modernize housing. It seems so obvious today that renovation is so often preferable to wholescale demolition. Not until 1971 did listing buildings require prior consent before being altered or pulled down.

This is an exhibition that doesn’t simply focus on the lost artistocratic townhouses or great landmarks but also highlights slum housing and mundane, rickety commercial structures that accidentally survived the Great Fire of London. But the humble coaching inn, the tenement, the pub and  the parish church lost to the wreckers are irreplaceable features of the city that once connected us tangibly to the lives of our ancestors and those subtle aspects of history embodied in brick and stone. Our losses in the past serve to impress upon us today that we needn’t carelessly allow the pressures of development to destroy the fabric and character of London or indeed any other city. ‘Progress’ requires a responsible negotiation with and respect for history.

Thursday 11 March 2010

The Hoerengracht by Ed and Nancy Kienholz

The world’s oldest profession presents considerable challenges to an artist. Selling the body has a long history in art but in the past it has sometimes been alluded to subtly with a wink and a nudge. Visual codes were employed by artists like Jan Steen whose ‘The Interior of an Inn’ acts as a prologue to ‘Hoerengracht’ an installation by Ed and Nancy Kienholz made during the 1980s exhibited at the National Gallery. Steen depicts three men lewdly leering at a serving girl in a 17th century Inn. One grabs her dress while she lays her hand on his arm. Is it to reproach him or indicate that there are some ground rules to be observed? Another suggestively fills a long pipe with tobacco.  But ‘Hoerengracht’ relies less on suggestion and more on full disclosure of the game of arousal and illusion employed by prostitution to lure punters into a snare.

By adding one letter to ‘Herrengracht’ the artists translate the name of one of the city’s best addresses into ‘Whore’s Canal’ in Dutch,  a simulation of a district notorious for its honest marketing of women’s bodies. The Kienholz’s worked jointly on a project that took 5 years of labour to simulate the observed details of Amsterdam’s red light district and its working conditions. Using casts of real bodies, the Kienholz’s stage an uncanny simulation of prostitutes at work. There is no disguised allusion here as the visitor enters a murky, mocked up street scene faintly illuminated by red light bulbs and partially revealed rooms. Women loosely dressed for their trade either stand alert beckoning to potential street trade or appear languidly bored reading magazines or listening to the radio to pass the time of day. This installation plays with the revelation and discretion employed by prostitution. One disembodied head floats within a tiny window frame while around a sharp corner a woman sits slumped in stockings and underwear.  Each mannequin is finished with clear resin that runs down the figure suggesting both tears and the glossy surface of seduction. Their faces are framed by cigar boxes, which imply the commodification of their bodies.

‘Hoerengracht’ is characteristic of other installations made by Ed and Nancy Kienholz that deliberately entrap us in a voyeuristic complicity. As the visitor wanders through this uncannily accurate re-enactment, we become participants in a game of hide and seek, drawn by the hunt for flashes of their bodies and faces performing in tiny spaces as stage sets for fantasy. Obscure but necessary details of domestic life intrude, ashtrays, grimy sinks and drying laundry which capture the banal details of long pauses between  the main event. This is yet another variant of show-business and these grotty waiting rooms bear a strong resemblance to backstage dressing rooms of West End theatres.

But what this meticulously observant work fundamentally pleads for is a generous acceptance of the world’s oldest profession and a understanding of its rituals.

Friday 26 February 2010

Miroslav Balka's 'How it is' - Tate Modern

Coming down the slope that leads into Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, Miroslav Balka’s giant steel box remains hidden by the permanent bridge that cuts the space in half. A dark, mysterious object gradually appears in view at the far end of the building, which demands a journey to fully explore and comprehend. An inaccessible rectangular box comes into focus, but on walking it’s full length, you discover a slyly concealed ramp on the far side that guides visitors into a dark chasm. Climbing to the mouth of this void requires more exertion than courage, but poised on the threshold to enter, all our fears of darkness, reminiscent of childhood, induce a profound anxiety about proceeding any further.

Having summoned enough determination to walk into the box, you’ll discover a velvety darkness that admits a low level of light from the hall much like sunlight filtering down to the seabed.  It’s an unnerving experience summoning up one's deepest, primal fear of the unknown and destabilizes the vision normally employed to guide you through an unfamiliar environment.

Balka’s Unilever commission assumes a magnified geometry that diminishes the human visitor. Metallic, functional walls embody the modern age of mass-produced parts bolted and welded together without concern for aesthetic appeal beyond efficiency and economy. A giant box resembling a container used to ship much of the world’s goods lies stranded, stripped of any functionality. However, its contents of air produce a baffled disappointment, for this is not an Aladdin’s cave.

Initial shock soon gives way to something much more disturbing and tragic. This empty structure begins to assume historical associations. While children shout with pleasure and run around, those familiar with 20th century history may well associate this sculptural installation with the transport of human cargo in the Holocaust. More recently, refugees fill similar containers in desperate flight from other life-threatening persecutions.

Balka’s work directly addresses the experience of his hometown in Poland where an entire section of the population was deported and murdered within living memory. His over-arching theme is the impact of history. In the moment we suppress our hesitancy about entering his large box, the deep abyss arouses our instinct for survival by playing both on the imagination and by undermining our sense of well-being.

With its overt historical allusions, ‘How It Is’, becomes the most politically charged commission in the Unilever series. Above all, the sculpture becomes a solemn warning of our capacity to harness mathematical reason and base materials for wholly destructive ends.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Launching the ship

My hope for this blog is  to write forthright but still informed pieces that may spur debate and provide some entertainment. In childhood my father would describe me as 'opinionated', a term I would wear with defiant pride. Sometimes this tendency to take a firm postion has landed me in trouble even to the point of provoking a surprisingly hostile response. I don't aim to be needlessly offensive but simply want to use this forum to make a case, build some arguments and engage a readership.