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Monthly Archives: August 2012

It’s hard to leave a Yoko Ono exhibition feeling miserable. Especially when you step out, past the ubiquitous wish tree, into the blazing hot sunshine in gorgeous Hyde Park. This Serpentine show, part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, seemed to be inducing much enjoyment from the crowds on my visit. I think that the kind of light-hearted life-affirming messages which Ono espouses could be just the antidote for the grey, post-Olympic fug the City is currently gripped with.

By now almost everyone over the age of fifty, or anyone with anything resembling a passing interest in art, will have an awareness of Ono’s key themes. She was one of the original anti-war brigade, promoting hope, peace and love in her art since the 1960’s. One might feel that her continued pursuit of these themes were trite or even slightly affected if it weren’t for the fact that she has remained universally steadfast for all these years. It’s hard to imagine that behind the public persona she could be a calculating business woman making a career out of peddling and re-hashing works created five decades ago. She seems so friendly and almost naive in her video interviews…

At Serpentine you can play giant outdoor chess on Ono’s Play It By Trust, add your beaming grin to the #smilesfilm, make a wish and affix it to the trees papered with other people’s dreams and ambitions….and that’s all before getting into the main exhibition space! Once inside things take on a slightly more traditional format. The opening room of the show takes an anti-war stance with three piles of dirt titled Country A, Country B and Country C highlighting the pointlessness of war. Soldiers helmets suspended upside down from the ceiling echo this theme.

Further on are confused autobiographical portraits of Ono’s formative years, cryptic in their reading, and videos of the Cut Piece performance work, where members of a studio audience have been invited to remove parts of the artist’s clothing with scissors while she sits silently. In this room I couldn’t help noticing a number of lingering middle aged men, perhaps waiting for the moment when they were rewarded with a flash of tits. Another popular wall of films simultaneously shows John Lennon’s smiling face, a couple of virgins embracing and the view of naked bottoms. Most curious here, in an ‘I don’t want to look but can’t tear my eyes away’ kind of way, is footage of a big, black, juicy fly navigating it’s way around a person’s naked body. I left the room as it was crawling around the lips undisturbed.

One of Ono’s vintage original pieces is here, the ‘yes’ at the top of a ladder written in tiny writing for which you need a magnifying glass to read. This famously brought Lennon and the artist together, so impressed by the positive message was the Beatle when he saw the work installed at a gallery in London in 1966. Lots of the elements like this can seem almost twee now; not least the labels informing us that the floor is the ceiling, and the ceiling the floor, and the nauseatingly childlike descriptions of invented rooms. I think the danger is in reading too much into these pieces. I’ve been to three of Ono’s solo shows now, and none has taught me anything new about her, her body of work or the wider world. Still, I’d recommend you come along to this one, if nothing else it’s a refreshing beacon of positivity, and the least it can do is raise a smile.

Curated by Kathryn Rattee. On display until 9th September 2012.

http://www.serpentinegallery.org/2011/03/yoko_ono_to_the_light.html

Zhang Huan and Daniel Turner

Visiting this gallery space for the first time is a challenge to the uninitiated.  I can’t think of anywhere else in London quite like it, and of course it’s been designed that way. The hub of Jopling’s White Cube empire, this vast building was a warehouse in a previous lifetime. Now it comprises three sets of exhibition rooms (collectively the ‘North’ and ‘South’), a diminutive bookshop, a slightly too pristine to be welcoming front desk, god knows how many rabbit burrows of staff space, and a handful of bewildered/nonchalant looking visitors (delete as appropriate).

On entering the building the giant open corridor concourse, which acts as the backbone of the public areas, creates an atmosphere of being in transit. Or at a very expensive high-tech private hospital. As you move around, peering into some of the galleries, you realise that there is giant space absolutely everywhere. It is the main component of this building. Everything, the works themselves, the minimal wall labels, the singular row of plastic seating, sits in an expanse of white and polished gunmetal grey. The resulting atmosphere (especially when almost empty as I guess it is regularly) is subterranean and futuristic. It feels like an under populated airport terminal for space flights a few hundred years in the future.

This August, the feel of the work on show adds to this impression. It is as though ‘White Cube’, as an all-powerful being, has an insight into our future. They have travelled forwards in time and unmasked an intimate knowledge of what relics of the present we should be keeping close and worshipping. They alone understand the art which will continue to intrigue and amaze us (and steadily increase in value). It is almost as though some of the current exhibits weren’t even designed for human eyes, so futuristic do they seem.

In the North Gallery, under the umbrella of ‘Inside the White Cube’, three of Daniel Turner’s works hang luxuriously in one large room. These mysterious objects could be created from ceramic, glass, highly polished metal or pooled oil as far as I could see*. They are basically smooth, liquid-like bends and folds formed into beautiful things. As you walk closer to them, to try and discover something more from their impenetrable surface, all you see is light and fragments of your face reflected back at you.

Further along, in the main South Gallery, is a solo exhibition of the work of Chinese artist Zhang Huan. This is an exhibition of monumental sized scenes being presented alongside military portraits and family photographs. The paintings as a whole resemble blurred movie stills or turn of last century photographs, fuzzy and familiar. Grit-like sandy ash sits on the surface of the works, some are visibly littered with larger chunks of the debris, and further reading reveals that they are entirely constructed from Buddhist ceremonial ash.

Looking at the whole show felt like walking around a pristine far-flung palace viewing the State art collection. The works seemed to speak of an older era, a dead epoch, or a faded dictatorial utopia. Prim and serious men in military uniform sit alongside beach scenes, and a portrait of a wizened old Chinese man wearing a traditional conical hat and a big smile. The scale is fantastic; I couldn’t imagine this show working as well in any other gallery I’ve been to, with the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin perhaps coming a close second, and especially not anywhere else in London.

I would urge people to visit this chapel of contemporary art, a very pure experience unhampered by textual interpretation and huge crowds awaits.

Interior view of White Cube Bermondsey

[*Later, reading through the notes for the exhibition, I discovered that they are actually made from bitumen emulsion encased between two sheets of transparent vinyl.]

Both exhibitions are on display until 26th August 2012.

http://whitecube.com/exhibitions/zhang_huan_the_mountain_is_still_a_mountain_bermondsey_2012/

http://whitecube.com/exhibitions/daniel_turner_inside_the_white_cube_2012/

Damián Ortega, Traces of gravity

Damián Ortega quietly waits for you in this small purpose-built gallery just a few strides away from Piccadilly Circus.  Don’t be put off by the rather empty promise of the upper floor exhibition room, it gets much better below.

Just one exhibit sits in the upstairs display, Congo River. This ‘river of tyres’ tumbling across the centre of the floor spoke of death, calling to mind heaps of discarded bodies in some terrible barren scrapyard. I couldn’t distinguish much else apart from a rather sad, sick fear; which perhaps was the intention. The tiny thin dividing band of salt trailing across the centre of the pile looked almost like the chalk on a dusty football pitch. The exhibition text speaks of this material as possibly symbolising cocaine, and of the duality of consumption and wealth.

Salt is the material which binds the three exhibits together. Salt, an ancient symbol of wealth, last substance of Lot’s wife and curer of meat. This substance has long played an important part in human power and development. As the exhibition moves to the cavernous lower floor the significance of this substance increases dramatically. Aloft in the ceiling of the cathedral-sized main exhibition space down there, a spectacle is waiting for you.

Here is the advertising image for this show, a submarine hangs, suspended at an angle, as if it has just crashed into some unknown obstacle and is beginning its slow tilt to the depths. In this gorgeous, cavernous sparsely lighted setting the sight is fantastic. Dramatic and richly theatrical shadows are cast all around the room, leaping and twisting as you navigate the space.  Closer inspection reveals that the silting sub is constructed from white food sacks, and a thin seam of its contents is continuously trickling out of the nose to the floor below. This narrow pillar of salt falls to join the delicately growing pile below. It looks as though, by the end of the exhibition, the sub will have belched out everything is has. The finite resource, once depleted, will leave a sagging carcass hanging limply and sadly behind.

It’s worth visiting the exhibition for Hollow/Stuffed: market law alone. It was an exhilarating experience to descend to the depths of the building and be confronted with this huge beast of a work. It felt like an open invitation to sit and watch, the artwork changing form by the second. I won’t go on to describe the third, and final, exhibition space, but I will tell you that yet again careful lighting, everyday objects and salt feature. An excellent job has been done in the curation of this show, and I want to leave you with some of the sense of mysterious expectation which it deserves.

Damián Ortega, Hollow/Stuffed: market law (2012), Biodegradable plastic sacks, metal and salt

On display until 8th September 2012.

http://whitecube.com/exhibitions/damin_ortega_traces_of_gravity_masons_yard_2012/

Antony Gormley, Still Standing

The Angel of the North in Gateshead, Iron:Man in Birmingham, Another Place on Crosby Beach…I’ve always felt that Gormley’s work sits most comfortably and sensitively outside. Nevertheless White Cube have put together a strong show with Still Standing, a two room show comprising of 18 new sculptures. These figures have been constructed from a series of cast blocks and are architectural in feel, creating a sense of imagining the interior workings of the body.

On the ground floor 17 rusted orange works populate the exhibition space. At first glance they look almost like they’re in movement, resembling CCTV videos where people have been blurrily blocked out into cubes. As you navigate the space these orange works almost shimmer and hum with a present energy. To me they seemed strangely more alive than the two blackly clad invigilators noisily reading the paper in the corner. Crouching, stopping, standing, stretching, turning and bending, the shapes they create are fantastic and the forms perfectly executed.

Upstairs in the small cloister room is one black figure, looking purposefully away from the windows looking out to the square. The invigilator told me that this cast iron figure is perfectly weighted; if you cut him in half exactly at the centre point each side would weigh precisely the same. This solitary figure contrasts with the group downstairs, cleanly set in the space in an almost stoic fashion.

There is humanness to Gormley’s work, a profound understanding of the meaning and power of the human body which touches on the spiritual. He transcends the role of artist, straddling the worlds of maker, engineer, architect, and almost shaman-like observer of form.  And, despite what I stated in the opening paragraph, this group of figures work very well in these pared down white cubes of rooms. A small but thoughtful show.

Antony Gormley, Still Standing (2010-11), cast iron

Curated by the artist. On display until 15th September 2012.

http://whitecube.com/exhibitions/antony_gormley_still_standing_hoxton_square_2012/