“Do-its”. it rules.

A continuous scroll of two-word “do-its” on a small electronic LED sign encourages us to act – without knowing what “it” is referring to. It’s up to us, the viewer, to decide.

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At random intervals comic-strip exclamations stop the scrolling action for a second..

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seemingly to make you think about the doing of “it”.  Rose Finn-Kelcey’s evocative piece despite being only 19.7cm x 2.2cm has a presence beyond its actual size. It Rules can be left running while you get on with your life.”  Discrete yet powerful in its message – how often do we not do it through our lives and regret it later? What holds us back? Or what inspires us to go and do it?

Rose Finn-Kelcey very sadly died three years ago this month, aged 68,  from motor neurone disease. Her ability to combine irony and seriousness so effectively (like this work), her sense of purpose, her firm belief that a piece of art could be made of anything, the fact that no two works of hers are actually physically alike and her continuous desire to experiment (Steam inhalation) all combine to make one wonder what she would have been producing today? “omigod!” .  Her presence in the Collective is a special one.

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“it rules” Rose Finn-Kelcey 2002. Owned by the Collective

Two things happened last week that made me reflect on this work – both completely different and unconnected.  For as long as we have it in our household, I now return to it often and read the scrolling text. Previously unseen do-its always pop up.

The first was a video I saw of the first ever no-parachute jump successfully pulled off by veteran skydiver Luke Aikins from twenty-five thousand feet! Mad man? “thrill it” reads the digital screen, “breathe it” continues the LED messaging in green.  Whilst most of us would regard such an action as insane “omigod!’ or even “enough!” that was Luke Aikin’s “it” and he certainly did it.  Does it matter “why”?

The second was an excellent session I attended last week organised by the Digital and Social Media Leadership Forum [DSLMF ] on “women in digital”which was a chance to discuss the opportunities and challenges in leadership for women in the digital space. How can you “do it” ?- what are the obstacles that may be holding women back?  You didn’t have to speak coding languages to benefit from the session and there were a wide variety of careers represented whose common denominator was “digital”. But what really took it to the next level was the sense of support in the room for having the conviction to pursue the best route for you in your career irrespective of age, family priorities and responsibilities and the obstacles and pressures that may exist to put you off pursuing “it”.  To “do it” without compromise, “believe it” and “ok it”.

Rose Finn-Kelcey, despite her early death,  left her legacy  for us in all her art.  She once said of herself

I work in the belief – or dare – that I can continue to reinvent myself and remain a perennial beginner.”

You may not want to be a “perennial beginner”  – you might even become an expert! But working in the belief that you can reinvent yourself, continue to learn , start on new paths throughout your life is surely worth “it”.  “own it”, don’t “miss it”.  It rules

African vision

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Tanzania, Africa

2017 began in Africa .  This was not something I or my family ever believed would happen until we started planning the trip in early 2016. Nor was it something that we could fully imagine in all its detail, however prepared we tried to be.  We read, we had vaccinations, chose the anti-malarial tablets, studied the climate, the route we were taking, the planned itinerary  and packed as little as possible , not forgetting the insect repellant.  It all looked straight forward as we boarded the plane at London Heathrow on the 28th December.

Our destination was Tanzania but we could only get there via Kenya where we needed to pick up a second flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro.   A second flight that unfortunately never took off.  The cancellation was announced just before the departure time and threw us, and some fellow passengers, in to a degree of panic. This was suitably fuelled by the chaos at the airline’s transfer desk.  As the day dawned and with it our realisation that there was no guarantee we would get on another flight that day, or the next, we were advised that “by land” was our best alternative. ” By land??” We were in the wrong country, not just the wrong city!  This was not an African vision I had anticipated.

We were advised it was three and half hours drive to the border where we would be picked up by a rep from the tour company – followed by another 3 hours to get to our destination.  Long, but not impossible, and we would get there by the end of the day, provided there was no hitch with Kenyan visas or the border immigration. Thankfully there wasn’t.

It was a good plan that none of us regretted.  The drive across Southern Kenya to the border was our first introduction to East Africa and despite the fact all of us were exhausted the expansive landscape absorbed us whole heartedly – the vast open spaces, the trees, the villages, the colours, the roaming Masai , the waving children and the road side stalls and shops. Everything made was brightly coloured – painted shop fronts, fabrics, clothes and trinkets.  Kenyan locals sat under trees and by their shops alongside the road as we passed through the villages. Clusters of people were gathered around local bars as well as stalls and shops.  There were busy markets in some of the bigger centres but all activity happened along the roadside , the well trodden route to economic survival.

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The Collective is fortunate to have two “studies” by Kenyan born artist Michael Armitage, who works between London and Nairobi. He draws most of his inspiration from observations and memories of Kenya but interweaves his images with reflections on the deeper social problems associated with the effect of globalisaton on East African cultures. Michael’s main medium is oil painted on lubugo bark cloth, made from beating the bark for several days before stretching it out as a canvas.  The two studies we have in our collection are drawings – studies for larger oil paintings not yet done, but beautiful works in themselves.

Our first contact with Michael was during a collaborative project I ran between my employers UBM and Drawing Room, a Southwark based public, non-profit gallery of international reputation.  Michael featured in the exhibition “Connecting worlds” (held at UBM’s previous Ludgate House premises) which highlighted the diverse communities and cultures we live and work between.  The Collective visited most of the exhibitions over the three years that this project ran, and as the works were available for purchase we bought Michael’s two studies of “people by the roadside”  in Kenya.

 

I have always found the drawings compelling – their simplicity and yet their ability to capture  a scene, a way of life, a gathering, a community, a moment in time in a culture that interacts with our own and yet is so different.

Now when I look at these drawings multiple visions of Africa come to mind – not just the people of Kenya and Tanzania but the landscapes, the colours, the heat and the feel of once being there.  African visions that can overwhelm and are never forgotten.

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The Partial Declaration of Human Wrongs

The work stands tall, bigger than I remembered.  When I first saw it at Art Rotterdam its significance stood out despite the throng of people, artists and works. But not its size.

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The partial declaration of human wrongs by Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson.  Acquired by the Collective from the RAM Foundation at Art Rotterdam.

Now in a domestic space it speaks out louder and begs different conversations. The text lingers longer in your thoughts as you scan each article and contemplate its satirical and conflicting truths.

A Partial Declaration of Human Wrongs?  Trump. Syria. Poverty. Oppression. Injustice. Racism (to name a few) fill my head before I even start to read.  This year has witnessed a good share of political shocks propagating uncertainty and fear across the globe.  Have we become immune to the depth of human wrongs?

This remarkable work was the creation of three people –  a dialogue between artists, Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson with philosopher Nina Brown.  Addressing some of the turbulent political upheavals of our times they deconstructed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to rewrite 30 of the articles as the partial declaration of “human wrongs”.

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Castro and Olaffson live in Rotterdam and Berlin, but the work was first shown in the 2012 Liverpool Biennial as part of a wider project on the ThE riGHt tO RighT  .  Every article brings to mind current events we are familiar with, and are accustomed to seeing and hearing through the media.  There is a humour to the irony but underwritten with an acknowledged sense of humanity’s failings – what is right and what should never be acceptable.

For a text based piece of this size it has the ability to draw one in, to provoke, to explore our own beliefs and ask the question “are we going backwards or forwards?”

 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written on the 10th December 1948 in response to the experience of the Second World War, “as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations”.

It’s a timely moment to reflect how this Partial Declaration of Human Wrongs expresses what we still need to achieve, rather than what we have just become accustomed to assimilating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside HM Prison Reading

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A section of Victorian red brick wall at Reading Gaol

Travelling on the train going west out of London Paddington, one of my enduring childhood memories was the sight of the tall red brick walls of Her Majesty’s Prison as I approached Reading station.   It was an unmistakable landmark and often left me full of curiosity. I never imagined for a moment that I would find myself on the other side of those walls, years later, immersing myself in a very different experience.  This was Artangel’s latest project “Inside: Artist and Writers in Reading Prison”.  As a readily captive audience for those few hours it was an educational day out for the Collective!

Reading Prison finally closed its doors as a remand centre for young offenders in September 2013, but remains a Grade II listed building with its cruciform Victorian architecture and individual cells that have all been preserved. Opened in 1844 and designed by George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffat its layout was purposefully created to implement the Victorian “Separate System” where prisoners were locked in their small cells for 23 hours a day with no human contact.  Even when allowed out of their cells they were

made to wear hoods to avoid seeing or talking to any other human soul. This form of cruel isolation was intended to give prisoners time to read the bible and reflect on their crimes, in some cases for years.

By far the most famous inmate of Reading gaol was Oscar Wilde, sentenced to two years hard labour  in 1895 following his conviction for “gross indecency with other men”. Spending hours a day tied to a treadmill for the first year he suffered pain, poor nutrition, sickness and deep isolation.  By the second year he was allowed a few books and a piece of paper and pen to write letters.  Despite the fact the paper was taken away each night and inspected, the longest letter he wrote “De Profundis” (literally “from the depths”) was preserved in its 50,000 word entirety and published after his death.

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A cell viewed through the door window

But this was not a prison just given over as a gallery space. The high windows, the narrow small spaces in each cell, the feeling of claustrophobia when the door was shut leaving you with the thick yellowish brick walls on all sides, was enough to make anyone feel queezy. It spurred the imagination and encouraged questioning.

Wilde’s Ballad to Reading Gaol written after his release, speaks of the pain of incarceration

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky

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Cell C.3.3 : Oscar Wilde’s cell in Reading Gaol

Oscar Wildes’ cell C.3.3 was an exhibit in itself, with more light coming in through the window than one might imagine of the day. Wing C was also where the Dark Cells were – where prisoners were punished by having their small windows blocked up living a life of darkness and loneliness.

It was sometimes difficult to separate the sheer experience of the prison setting from the contemporary art installations that had become part of it. But that was the challenge that James Lingwood and Michael Morris, co-directors of Artangel, took on when they embarked on this project.  Nor are we meant to separate: Wolfgang Tillmans abstract video screened at the end of one wing symbolised a person trying to reach the light of a window in a truly evocative way – made more effective by the sound track of scraping movements along a wall.

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Separate System by Wolfgang Tilmans

With the light constantly blocked by bars and mesh the sense of restricted freedom and desperation was powerful.  Robert Gober‘s installation – looking through the floor to a model of a woman’s torso apparently prized open by latex gloved hands to see the inner workings of a body flowing freely with water, stones and twigs – left one feeling a combination of amused curiosity and “sinister goings on from the depths”

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Waterfall by Robert Gober

There were letters submitted by artists on the anguish of separation from loved ones in a world that seemed to speak of injustices to the innocent. Ai Weiwei‘s letter to his young son came with a beautiful audio version (provided in Chinese or English) describing the torment of his own imprisonment in 2011 where his every move was watched and nothing happened without the permission of three attending guards.  As I listened and sat in the small cell I was reminded of the injustice that people can suffer for just being who they are.

Some of the artists were responding to the theme of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment in Reading gaol : the American photographer Nan Goldin whose videos and photographic installation on the walls of one of the cells tackled the theme of homosexuality laying bare the reasons for Willde’s conviction.  The stark and haunted portraits of men – a

reminder of the distorted reflections of faces seen in steel made mirrors (no glass allowed) of more recent years were,strangely, some of my favourites.

Steve McQueen’s installation – a gold plated mosquito net draped over a stark iron bunk bed was a strange apparition, atmospheric and incongruous. A shroud to the weight of captivity, at once all encompassing to the prisoner.

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Weight by Steve McQueen. Inside Reading Gaolwas a strange apparition – haunting and incongruous – perhaps a shroud to the weight of captivity, at once all encompassing.

But one never escaped the bars, the walls, the heavy doors ,the metal steps up to other floors, and the mesh to stop you falling to the ground.

The art was like a reprieve from the physical surroundings, but at the same time an exploration of it – a reminder of a darker world, of criminality and the victimisation that innocents can endure in many parts of the world.

The connections between today and Victorian times was kept alive, not least by the portraits of some of the inmates shown on the ground floor – pictures of men and women stood beside a mirror with hands placed across their chests.  Who knows what crimes they claimed?

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Portraits of Victorian inmates

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
‘That fellow’s got to swing.’

Ballad to Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde

A remarkable project.  A remarkable ode to captivity.

An influence not to be dismissed

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The Parthenon © Chris Conway

I’ve always been proud of my (half) Greek heritage. As I was growing up I felt that it enabled me to think differently and see life through more than one lens, which I saw as something special.   And it didn’t stop there.

The more tenuous connection between Greeks today and their ancient forbears didn’t stop any additional thoughts I had of laying claim to a small part of all the best of their great Classical Greek heritage. What more proof did I need than the ancient Greek words I could pick up in modern day conversation? The remaining monuments themselves, testament to that great civilisation: the Parthenon, ravaged so many times by unwelcome pillagers and yet still there!  As I studied the ancient language and learnt about the civilisation I continued to make my connections from ancient to modern with a degree of satisfaction.

But that’s just my personal view. Well known to most is the legacy that the “Classical” Greek civilisation left to modern western thought and philosophy. A society that lasted at its peak for less than 200 years and yet continues to influence some of our thinking, our teachings and provided the foundation for parts of our modern western culture over two thousand years later. Whilst other cultures have certainly influenced our development what is most striking is the limited time and small scale that was “Classical Greece”.

There are other links too that are less acknowledged but equally remarkable for their sophistication so long ago. Take today’s communication through social media and the digital space it sits in?

In Classical Greece the “agora” (from the Greek “ὰγορᾱ” meaning gathering place or mil_northmarket2assembly) was the place where “citizens” including philosophers, artists, playwrights, artisans, thinkers and decision makers , met to demonstrate new skills, discuss and exchange ideas and information about the future of society. Every person in the agora was equal and “no-one subjected to another”  It was an open public forum that was democratic. All it lacked was today’s technology and digital social networks. But the concept was the same – it was a “common space” that could be accessed by all citizens on an equal footing and involved the sharing of multiple common beliefs or opinions (Πολυδόξα) both commercial, political and social. Whilst the link back to Roman times, where the written word became transportable on small parchments has been documented ,for me “social” communication started in the ancient Greek agora itself and rested on the principle of open and shared communication.

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Sculptural relief: Plato and Aristotle in heated debate!

Plato and Aristotle, two of the best known philosophers of the classical world, would have visited the agora regularly, standing in the shade of the colonnades espousing their views on different subjects. Their perspective on art and artists was well known and recorded [Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics].

Plato completely disagreed with his pupil Aristotle viewing art as merely “an imitation” or “mimesis” (μίμεσις) and “thrice removed from reality” that had no connection with those that possessed a real skill (tέχνη) – (like the medics, the builders and the mathematicians)

Both focused their attention on the theory of mimesis and the principle that all art was a form of it. But it was the “imitative function of art which promoted disdain in Plato and curiosity in Aristotle” [Stephen Conway 1996, Plato, Aristotle and mimesis]. For Aristotle imitation was good, how we learn, how we understand objects and how we can understand “an inner beauty” by viewing an object through art. All forms, thought Aristotle, should be subject to scrutiny and understanding – that’s how we learn.

For Plato the visible result of any human creation was “an indistinct expression of truth” (Republic X, 22), truth and knowledge being the ultimate objective in life. “Art as an imitation is irrelevant to what is real” and still worse Plato believed it could corrupt the mind of the viewer. He saw art as a threat to his ideal Republic because for him it widened the gap between “reality and appearances”.

Aristotle, however believed imitation was a creative and educational process, and that

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The 200 year old art room at the Royal Academy

skills required to do it well could be taught, learned and developed over time.  Some art schools today teach skills in drawing as Aristotle might have imagined.  How infants learn from the adults around them is through imitation.

But as I look at the art works around my house I often wonder what these philosophers might have thought of contemporary art forms? Imitation has become irrelevant in many ways.  Contemporary Art is more about reaction.  It can engender a feeling or a thought that may trigger a conversation. Imitation might be the seed for an abstract concept but to the viewer may offer a completely different interpretation to what the artist originally conceived. But that’s fine. We don’t seek absolute truth and knowledge like Plato.  What we seek is the reaction art

creates in ourselves as we look at a work: the emotion, the appreciation, the transcendence to something outside of the ordinary. And yet embedded in our everyday lives at home as we surround ourselves with contemporary art.

Perhaps Aristotle saw that capability in human understanding. Whilst he didn’t speak much about individual artistic expression he appreciated that skill and knowledge was required and that we could learn and understand about life by looking at art.

That’s not to be dismissed.

Portrait of a group as an individual

It’s been a longer summer recess from blogging than I imagined – or wished for! Though that shouldn’t be mistaken for inactivity . The opportunity to step back, assess and think can be the most active and creative of tasks and all too often swallowed up by the process of daily life.

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Simon Lee Gallery

One of the highlights for me in the last couple of months was an opportunity to talk to Ceri Hand, Associate Director (Institutions) at the Simon Lee Gallery in central London.  With 25 years of experience working in the art world  as a curator, arts manager, director, commissioner, producer and fund raiser (to name a few!), it was a perfect opportunity to ask how she saw The Collective. With our own method of collective buying and dialogue with artists , our interaction with galleries and yet our existence outside the gallery programme, gaining an experienced outsiders view on how we fitted in to contemporary art thought and practice was what I was hoping for. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Collective’s first meeting with Ceri was as Director of the Ceri Hand Gallery  where

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Mel Brimfield: On Board 2010. Owned by The Collective

we purchased Mel Brimfield’s “On Board” [2010] A bold and evocative print with suggestions of an antiquated notion of women and domesticity (or death of!) that has inspired many conversations amongst visitors and viewers in our homes.  Watching male members of my household iron always evokes an image of this work in my mind!

One of Ceri’s first remarks about the Collective was around the “the ethos of the collection itself” where the collection is in “the hands of multiple people in multiple houses who are having multiple conversations with multiple ideas and voices around one piece of work”.  This principle is then in dialogue with other works which creates an exciting dynamic that artists would naturally support.  “If one took a snapshot of an individual household at any one time and put it alongside the snapshots of five other household interiors, the kind of dialogue that is generated would be fascinating” 

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Bedwyr Williams: OO/HO model lamp post 2012. Owned by The Collective

Finding new audiences and expanding discussions on individual artworks can also stimulate a wider discourse on contemporary art and culture more generally.

I was interested to find out from Ceri what her experience was of the way in which individual collectors interacted with artists whose works they purchased?  Were they buying for investment? From favoured galleries and curators? Did they rarely meet the artists, or was there potential for a deeper interaction, which is so favoured by the Collective where we regularly visit artist studios? “Everyone is unique”, says Ceri.

Ceri explained that there was a lot of education and discussion by the gallery curators around an artist and their work, and some collectors do form very deep relationships with the artists and continue to buy their work through their careers.  For others however it is not about wanting “to know” the artist but about the significance of the work to the buyer, who may feel that by meeting the artist that “meaning” might be altered, and so shy away from any interaction.

This was a fascinating insight and a reverse process to many of us in the Collective.  As we are a mixed group of people with different tastes the purchasing panel may buy work that is not to the taste of every member.  By meeting and talking to the artist that perception often alters, combined with living with the work on a day-to-day basis so that what starts out as “unlikeable”changes to “likeable”.

The Collective is great in the way you encourage each other to look again” says Ceri  “and exciting from a gallery’s perspective in terms of bringing you in to see different works”. For Ceri, working with museums and institutions, any opportunity to open up conversations to a wider audience is a top priority.

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Susanne Treister: Obama with 9 eyes 2009. Owned by The Collective

I was very interested to hear Ceri’s view on our “what next” dialogue for the Collective and possible suggestions for a new direction.  Ceri felt that as supporters and investors of contemporary art thought and practice through The Collective that we have become, as a group, “patrons”. Viewed in this way we should look to other ways of making contributions that could support arts organisations and widen the audiences and dialogue around works, whether emerging artists or entry works from known artists that are rarely covered.

Loaning (or even donating) some of our works to regional galleries where there is less resource for acquisitions would be one such route.  At the same time programming talks around such loans would be a way to expand the idea of “the Collective” and draw on new regional audiences.  Partnerships with arts organisations where we could support research ideas in different areas through our own acquisitions was another idea (e.g performance art, women artists).

Despite the short amount of time I had with Ceri, it was idea intensive and very thought provoking.  I arrived quite drenched and anxious (thanks to a cloud burst at the moment I walked out) but left both dry and inspired by our conversation.

My favourite take away remarks was her view that the Collective was “a portrait of a group of people as individuals and as households” which held great potential with many multiples for an extended dialogue around art works.   How true.

Many thanks to Ceri Hand.

 

 

 

 

Looking in from the shadows

IMG_0802The last 10 days of political turmoil in the UK has plunged us in to an unprecedented period of apparent chaos.  We’ve ejected ourselves from our European counterparts, hurled our two main parties into leadership uncertainty and contest, highlighted major divisions across the nation and left 75% of our youth who voted for “Remain” feeling betrayed and deprived of a future they thought would look very different.  With three young voters in our family alone our collective shock on that dismal Friday was palpable. We tried to understand the enormity of the news as we heard it.

“What’s happened?” was a question I was asked by friends outside of the UK.

It was difficult to answer, and I don’t intend doing so now. Tireless analysis has filled our ears and heads, outpourings of all kinds continue to emanate from our national news channels. The day after the result I missed my bus stop transfixed as I was by the haemorrhage of opinion flooding through social media.  I was well on my way in the wrong direction before I even thought to look up.

Reactions in the art world are no different in their divisions –  “business as usual” say the global collectors and auction houses – whilst acknowledging volatility in the financial markets may cause some fluctuations and a “few jolts”.

“the world isn’t moving backward, ….. We are moving backwards. Yesterday little England got a lot littler” said artist Ryan Gander to Artnet news

Artists, curators and galleries have shared their views and worries publicly just like everyone else – additionally concerned by the possible threat to the flow of European grants that currently arrive in the UK for the arts.  European students help support our higher education establishments including the art colleges – with £3.7billion worth of revenue generated by EU students every year.

Still too many unknowns to know what’s next.

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The Life Drawing Room at the Royal Academy of Art, London

But a visit with various Collective members to the Royal Academy of Arts to see the final show of this year’s selected group of 17 post graduate students was a welcome reprieve from the ever gathering clouds of this unusually gloomy summer.  It was refreshing to see a slice of some future emerging artists, wherever their journey might take them.  For me, the video and animation was the highlight , and stood in stark contrast to the the 200 year old life drawing room that we stumbled across in the middle of the exhibition rooms. A great insight in to the long history of the Academy, now interwoven with techniques that bridge drawing with the digital age.

Elliot Dodd’s surreal animated heads on human figures having a conversation in their BMW in his 4K digital film Limpid and Salubrious, was so transfixing that one felt almost absorbed in to it.

Because of the need to make time to watch film, it is always difficult to see how they can best be seen and appreciated in a domestic setting for a Collective group such as ours. Art on walls or free standing sculptures you can absorb and walk around as part of daily living- but not so easy with film.  Nevertheless there was an attraction that I found compelling.

Two friends, two curtains – Molly Palmers two channel HD video with sound had me sitting in the room watching for a while . Not easy to understand, I didn’t think that was the point, but more the connection with movement, colour, shapes and sound and how they interact together on screen for the viewer to interpret as they will.

 

Gery Georgieva was my other top attraction with her multimedia installation. She uses her own Bulgarian roots to explore cultural identities and pop cultures, often using herself as the main subject on which she builds her creativity.  The main projection spilled over the screen to the wall behind whilst two other screens displayed different topics including the view from behind a windscreen as it was being washed.

Finally I must mention Kira Freije’s installation A Rapid Succession of Noises That You Confuse For Danger – in fact a room full of steel sculptures and structures, that had an eerie and sinister quality despite the bright white walls and fine steel parts.  Particularly intriguing was the kneeling Holy Woman  which brought a smile to my face as I thought of the life size sculptures we’ve had in our house and the reaction they invoked. I tried imagining how this might go down….sitting with us in the living room..

 

There was more, so much more from these 17 Royal Academy students.

As we left the academy at the end of the evening and headed off to have a drink I knew what the topic of conversation was likely to be.  But at least I felt some restoration of spirit as  I looked in from the shadows at some bright futures.

 

 

 

Stories about The Collective Founding group – a group dedicated to buying, collecting and sharing contemporary art in the home for the last thirteen years. Written by group member, Marie-Louise Collard, it is based on personal experience.

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