Category Archives: Exhibition

‘Tis the season to be …at an art Biennial

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Couple on Venetian bridge by Tim Eastop

Venice has the ability to conjure up a wide variety of imaginings from romantic trysts to historic and cultural forays. With its numerous canals winding their way between the small islands of the old town and joined by little bridges under which the famous gondoliers guide their mesmerised visitors, its magic reputation over-rides anything else.

It’s historic stage also plays host to the largest and most well-known theatre for contemporary art – the Venice Biennale.  The juxtaposition of old and new is a fascinating one and seems to point more to the history of internationalism that Venice built through its history.  As a centre for trade across the Mediterranean reaching toward the eastern markets of Constantinople, the Venetian Republic attracted

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18th century view of Venice by Canaletto.  Wikipedia commons

traders and dazzled visitors for many centuries.  It still does.

Held every odd year and begun in 1895 to celebrate the silver anniversary of the accession to the throne of King Umberto I of Italy and his consort, Margherita of Savoy the Venice Biennale now attracts around half a million visitors for the six months it is open . Showcasing the latest trends in art, architecture, film and dance and the best representative creators for their country – it’s an honour to be asked to participate knowing that curators from far and wide, millionaire collectors, celebrities, dealers and gallery owners are pulled by its legacy magnetism.  This year the Venice Biennale boasts 86 country pavilions with 28 in the Giardini and the rest in the Arsenale, the city’s former shipyard, with the curated main show, titled “Arte Viva Arte”, showing works by 120 artists from 51 countries.  The scope seems unimaginable to most.

Whether it is the scale or the masses who patiently wait in queues to attend the shows and pavilions, it puts a completely different perspective on the art world from our own domestic adventures with sharing contemporary art in our homes. For The Collective it is like looking through a telescope at a vast universe expanding in front of us and yet with definite links and opportunities back to our earth.

It is from the biennials that trends may be set, artists emerge, names are established, think tanks initiate discussion and large sums are circulated in the future global art market determining market prices.  Names of artists whose works we have in the Collective have featured in previous biennials (Chris Ofili and Tracy Emin). Despite the fact biennials are not about the exchange of money for works and the Venice Biennale banned the actual selling of art works in 1968 – the event remains an integral part of the global art market and its increasing commercialisation.

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Untitled by Chris Ofili. Owned by The Collective

The Biennial Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation set up in 2009 as a platform for art biennials around the world, lists a huge global network  – with the crowning event being the Venice Biennale.  Documenta in Germany, not a biennial, but an equally important event is held every five years and runs concurrently with Venice this year.  As the two most eminent art events in the world there is definite competition and curators often come under scrutiny from the art critics for the artists they select.  Other biennials in major cities (eg Sao Paolo, Istanbul or Moscow) compete for well-known artists and established curators understanding their value in terms of their own national art cultures and attracting tourism.

The art world has never been bigger or more international and it’s a good season to get a taste of it if you happen to be travelling to Venice or Kassel.  But at the end of the day it’s also about what works we chose to live with on a daily basis and the journey we go on with the artists to acquire them, and later share amongst the households of the Collective.

Workplace Gallery: The Collective goes public

 

The Old Post Office in Gateshead, a 19th century grade 2 listed building that is now home to WorkPlace Gallery, was appropriately built on the site of the studio of the 18th century British artist and naturalist Thomas Bewick, so maintaining the location’s dedication to art.  Founded in 2002 to promote artists in the north-east, Workplace Gallery has now become an established part of the British cultural art scene with an additional gallery in Mayfair London opened in 2013.   For The Collective, founded in the same year as Workplace, it was a unique opportunity to open up a part of our collection to the public and introduce the idea of collective buying and sharing of contemporary art for domestic spaces to new audiences in the north-east of England.

As we entered the Gateshead gallery on a brilliant sunny afternoon in May, the first thing that struck me was the effect of seeing the works in a gallery space, rather than surrounded by the trappings of our various domestic existences.   Suddenly the diversity of our collection seemed all the more pronounced and intriguing with Gallery directors Paul Moss and Miles Thurlow quizzing us on possible themes within the collection.  This is usually difficult to determine as most works are bought on an individual basis by different buying panels within the Collective and the works then spread across six households.

Given this exhibition represented only half of the Founding Collective’s collection it was an eye-opener to see how far we had come with a limited monthly investment over the last 15 years. Artist names, once less known – now well-known!

As I looked at the works on the gallery wall what I began to see more vividly than before was the different acquisition “stories” behind each one, the different Collective members, the research, the learning, the gallery and studio visits with the artists.  Was it possible to determine, not themes, but the characters and influences of different Collective members over the choice of certain artists and works?  And then there were the memories of reactions to the art works within our households and the history of anecdotes that go with many of them.  Each work seemed to have a life of its own, now brought together in a single gallery space to an unsuspecting exhibition audience.

Workspace Gallery talkThe opening was preceded by an informal discussion chaired by the Gallery’s Co-Directors about the Collective, how it began, how it worked and expanded, and where we had got to today. Bob Lee and myself spoke about every aspect with contributions from members Tim Eastop and Paul Tanner.  The questions that followed were often focussed on the practicalities of the Collective objectives, the constitution, the insurance, succession, our families – all of them important elements in the success and longevity of such a co-operative way of collecting between households. Investment, however modest will always be a source of anxiety across a diverse group of people.  The individual discussions with participants after the panel discussion were equally illuminating often with very frank remarks about what they would find acceptable in their homes and what they would not!  I didn’t hesitate to remind them that having a work that was not to my taste was often part of the learning curve inherent in being part of a collective  – seeing how my relationship would change by living with the work over a period of months. It usually did.

Over the course of the evening the steady flow of visitors was impressive ranging from those working in the arts, fine art students, curators from Baltic and interested art collectors. This was especially gratifying as the exhibition was not about a represented artist(s) but about a different way of collecting amongst a group of households bound together by an interest in buying and sharing contemporary art at home.

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The Workplace Gallery start to fill up as the evening progresses

Towards the end one of the visitors said to me “I can tell how much you enjoy it from the way you talk about it” .  Fifteen years on that wasn’t a bad place to be!

Many thanks to Paul Moss and Miles Thurlow for all their hard work in putting together the Collective exhibition (on until the 3rd June) and ensuring its success at the wonderful Workplace Gallery, Gateshead!

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A view across the Tyne that bridges Newcastle with Gateshead

 

 

Things to remember

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“Witness” by Tom Dale. Owned by the Collective.

“So you’ve got a new one up” says my son’s friend as he passes from the kitchen and through the dining room.   “it’s got wheels.. what is it?”  A shrug of shoulders as they disappear out pondering what it brings to mind.  Tom Dale’s work “witness” is an eye-catching work for any audience but placed on a domestic wall it tends to attract more comments than usual. Witness to a mix of people both transitory and permanent as they pass through our house.

Growing up with changing art in our home is something our children have got used to – and their friends too.   Sometimes they just nod in acknowledgement, other times they may ask a question about it, but usually they take a quick moment to have a brief look with little more than an “interesting”! But they don’t forget .  However they remember equally, if not more clearly, what I served up for tea – asking my children years later if they can come back and have that meal again!  Tea and art, art and tea – things to remember as you grow up.

One game that was never part of our children’s repertoire of favourite pastimes or memories was “hangman” – the simple pen and paper game where you guess the letters of your opponents “word” suffering a ‘hanging on paper’ if you don’t make it in the number of guesses given!  I remember as a child the feeling of victory when I hanged my opponent who failed to guess my given word, drawing in that final limb to the picture to signify their demise. Or the feeling of defeat when they escaped the gallows and the endless paper we got through to pass the time on a slow afternoon!   Why on earth did we find it so pleasurable?  Perhaps our children had more sense: “death on paper” the punishment for failure to get the word or the spelling right? Is that the best way to encourage our children to become successful wordsmiths?

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Hangman by Mark Wallinger. Owned by the Collective.

Mark Wallinger’s work “Hangman” illustrates the steps needed for the game to be completed.  A victim hung for failing to guess the very name of the game. Taken from Wikipedia’s text description of a strategy that uses the most frequently occurring letters in the english language, Wallinger illustrates how the victim is not spared his punishment, with his simple drawing.

London-based with an international reputation and winner of the 2007 Turner prize for his exhibition StateBritain, Mark Wallinger is perhaps best known as the first artist to be commissioned to do a work for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – Ecce Homo

Wallinger is not a stranger to social commentary or political statement. But it’s the combination of the sometimes playful exterior of his works combined with undertones that invite much deeper speculation that make them so memorable.   First seen by members of The Collective on the walls of the Drawing Room Biennial exhibition and auction we were drawn to the simplicity of Hangman and the fact its creator was Mark Wallinger – so we put in our bid.   Safely acquired and looking at it everyday on our wall at home I found myself compelled to find out more about the origins of the game.  Why hangman?

Apparently created in Victorian times when hanging was not only commonplace but a form of established “entertainment” that could draw huge crowds (the more famous, the bigger the crowd) hangman was first referenced in 1894 in Alice Bertha Gomme’Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland .  Entertainment that could clearly be replicated on paper in a simple spelling game format for children!

The strange thing is, is that I had never considered the game in any other way than an easy way to pass the time with pen and paper.  If having seen the work in a gallery we’d left it there, I’m not sure it would have engendered the same reaction. But living with it has become a different experience altogether.   As Hangman sits on our wall it reinforces Wallinger’s suggestion that an art work can have the effect of seeing

how far we can get in to the consciousness of someone or something other…”

It was certainly doing just that.

In his video work “Sleeper” Wallinger appears dressed as a bear in the Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, alone and late at night running, walking and surprising passers-by chancing upon this unusual spectacle. You can’t help but smile at the vision of this light-hearted “prank” in an empty museum at night! But its actual meaning is intertwined with disguise, espionage, surveillance, the history of Berlin and its physical division before the wall came down.  Wallinger suggests the art work was triggered by a childhood memory of “The Singing Ringing Tree” a story about a prince who was transformed in to a bear which originated in East Germany, but was unknown in West Germany. A symbol of a divided country. So perhaps not the first time haunting childhood themes have played a part in his art.

So for me at least Wallinger’s Hangman has become more of a statement, a piece of history, a symbol of an act that impacted our culture here in Britain until August 1964 when the last hanging took place.  But dressed up as it is as a simple word game for children that I played a long time ago.

Things to remember that are often unexpected.

 

 

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.

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.