Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

Age of Terror: Art since 9/11 @ Imperial War Museum London

This is the UK’s first major exhibition to bring together a broad range of artists’ responses to the age of war and conflict which we’ve lived in since 9/11. It features some 50 works of art by over 40 artists, and so – quite apart from the fascinating subject matter – represents an interesting overview of the contemporary art world, from international superstars like Ai Weiwei and British national treasure Grayson Perry, to a raft of Middle Eastern artists who are exhibiting in Britain for the first time.

The exhibition also showcases an impressive diversity of artistic media including painting, film, sculpture, installations, photography, tapestry and ceramics.

A very brief history

The exhibition is based on the premise that the world changed on the morning of 11 September 2001, when al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes, flew two of them into the World Trade Centre towers in New York, and also attacked the Pentagon building.

The exhibition kicks off with the events themselves being depicted in a 57-minute-long video by Tony Oursler. Oursler was in his apartment just blocks from the World Trade Centre when the first plane struck. He grabbed his camera to shoot footage of the burning building and continued to record as the second tower was hit. He went out onto the street to capture the responses of New Yorkers  on that morning and over the following days.

Image result for 9/11 newspaper

A few days later President George W. Bush declared an all-out ‘War on Terror’.

A month later, on October 7, 2001, America invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government which had refused to hand over the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, who had claimed responsibility for the attacks, and ran training camps in the country for his terrorist network. The Taliban government was swiftly overthrown by Western forces, but bin Laden wasn’t captured. (He wasn’t tracked down and killed until 2 May 2011 when United States Navy SEALs stormed his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.)

Eighteen months later, after a prolonged standoff over the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction, in March 2003 the United States invaded Iraq to overthrow long-standing enemy President Saddam Hussein. the invasion swiftly led to looting and widespread chaos. Within a few months reports began to emerge of American guards carrying out human rights abuses on Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. The U.S. Army instituted its own investigation which ended up detailing the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, and was accompanied by photos of naked and tortured Iraqis which were reproduced around the world and became a rallying point for anti-Western anger.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq turned into a disaster which led to a prolonged civil war in which new Islamist groups emerged, not least the so-called Islamic State group (ISIS). ISIS took advantage of the final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011 to expand into a swathe of territory across northern Iraq and into Syria, itself the victim of a prolonged civil war.

Saddam is Here by Jamal Penjweny (2009–10) Courtesy The Artist and Ruya Foundation

Saddam is Here by Jamal Penjweny (2009–10) Courtesy The Artist and Ruya Foundation

In the years since 2001 there have been numerous further Islamist terrorist attacks in America itself and across Europe (there was one in the South of France on the day I wrote this post). They have become a fact of life in the modern world.

Set down briefly like this, these facts make a devastating and depressing narrative. But do they mean that we now live in an ‘Age of Terror’? And to what extent can works of art answer that question or explain the situation?

Themes

The exhibition is divided into themes including:

  • 9/11
  • Surveillance
  • Prisoner abuse
  • State control
  • Weapons
  • Home

To be honest, although the treatment was sometimes interesting, I found the choice and explanation of some of these themes a bit obvious.

‘9/11’

As well as Tony Oursler’s video, the 9/11 attacks are marked by a number of works. A long room/corridor contains no fewer than 150 front pages of newspapers from around the world which reported the attacks, gathered together in a ‘work’ by Hans-Peter Feldman titled Front Page. Like a lot of conceptual art, this is really a one-trick pony. You could, if you want to, examine every single front page to see how the selection and cropping of pictures and the use of headline text varies from country to country. In the event what this big display shows is how remarkably little variation there was between countries. The 9/11 attack was front page news and so… it made a lot of front pages. It would have been a bit more teasing and unexpected to make a collection of newspapers which didn’t lead with the attacks as their main story (if any).

A whole room was devoted to an installation, The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro, a spooky work which uses mirrors and lights to give the sense of a limitless hole extending infinitely down into the floor. As it happens, I myself visited Ground Zero in New York a few years ago and saw the enormous square fountains created around the base of each fallen building as a memorial. (In fact I visited the Twin Towers themselves back in the 1980s and took the superfast elevator to the viewing platform.) Navarro’s work is interesting but I found it clinical and clever rather than moving.

The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

Gerhard Richter is a German painter well known for creating large canvases of smeared paint. He was on a plane heading towards New York on that fateful morning which was diverted. He later created a characteristic smear painting which he later – according to the wall label – had second thoughts about whether to display or not. But he did. Here it is.

There’s a video of a piece of performance art, where an actor wore a dust-covered suit, as if he was a survivor of the attacks, and walked or stood at locations around the city a year or so later. The suit is hanging up next to it.

Video artist Kerry Tribe placed an advert in a Hollywood actors magazine for a role she described as ‘potential terrorist’. She then shot silent minute-long profiles of the men who replied, splicing them together into a 30-minute video, Potential Terrorist. Well, they all look a little sinister, given that the context, title and purpose of the film have put you in that paranoid frame of mind.

Grayson Perry was working on a large vase about the power station at Dungeness when he heard about the attacks. He modified the design to include crashing planes and terrified civilians.

Dolls at Dungeness September 11th 2001 by Grayson Perry (2001) © Grayson Perry / Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo by Stephen Brayne

Dolls at Dungeness September 11th 2001 by Grayson Perry (2001) © Grayson Perry / Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo by Stephen Brayne

‘Surveillance’

The room on ‘Surveillance’ explains the way we citizens of the West World are now more intensively surveilled and monitored than ever before. It contains arguably the two best works in the show – Jitish Kallat’s comical series of Action Man-sized models of people being searched and frisked at airport security; and Ai Weiwei’s brilliant marble statue of a CCTV camera on a plinth.

Surveillance Camera with Plinth by Ai Weiwei (2015) © Ai Weiwei Studio; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Surveillance Camera with Plinth by Ai Weiwei (2015) © Ai Weiwei Studio; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

‘Iraq’

Peter Kennard has been making fiercely political photomontages made from press photographs since the 1980s. (The IWM hosted an impressive retrospective of his work in 2015.) His contribution here is an enormous collage made in collaboration with Cat Phillipps, and using newspapers and black ink.

The basic image is a blown-up photo of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who decided to support George Bush in the American invasion of Iraq, against the wishes of a huge number of British citizens.

Head of State by Kennardphillipps (2007)

Head of State by Kennardphillipps (2007)

Since about 2010 American artist Jenny Holzer has been working on a series titled Redaction paintings. She uses official documents about the attacks and the two invasions, which have been released to the public but with sections blacked out or ‘redacted’, to indicate the scale of what is still kept back from the public, from us, the people who pay the wages of politicians and civil servants and armies.

In a corridor between rooms hang ribbons of black bunting, a work titled Black Bunting by Fiona Banner.

‘Prisoner abuse’

Rachel Howard has done a painted version of the iconic photograph of the Iraqi prisoner being tortured which went viral after its release in 2004. His name is Ali Shallal al-Qaisi.

DHC 6765, Study by Rachel Howard (2005) © The Artist / Photo Prudence Cuming Associates

DHC 6765, Study by Rachel Howard (2005) © The Artist. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates

Nearby is a room in which a 59-minute-long video titled Operation Atropos 2006 by Cuban-American director Coco Fusco is screened. Fusco worked with retired U.S. Army interrogators who, at her request, subjected a group of volunteer women students to simulations of POW experiences in order to show them what hostile interrogations can be like and how members of the U.S. military are taught to resist them. The documentary includes interviews with the interrogators that shed light on how they read personalities, evaluate an interrogatee’s reliability, and use the imposition of physical and mental stress strategically. It’s violent and distressing stuff but then… what did you expect an interrogation to be like?

Operation Atropos directed by Coco Fusco (2006) Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York / © Coco Fusco/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

Operation Atropos directed by Coco Fusco (2006) Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York / © Coco Fusco/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

Nearby is a painting, Bound by John Keane, depicting a figure in an orange jump suit against a stark black background and with no head, representing the civilians and prisoners which various Islamist groups have executed on camera and posted online over the past 17 years.

‘Home’

This part of the exhibition consists of four rooms containing works mostly by Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian artists. The idea is to reflect how the disastrous conflicts in their countries have shattered traditional ideas of a safe, secure ‘home’.

They include a work which is like an enormous tapestry made of cardboard egg cartons spliced together and which tumbles down the wall and onto the floor, Floodland by Walid Siti. Dominating one wall is My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah, made up of layers of burnt canvas arranged to create a tattered and scorched map of the Middle East, with only a few vivid highlights of colour.

My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah (2008) © Courtesy The Park Gallery & Roger Fawcett-Tang

My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah (2008) © Courtesy The Park Gallery & Roger Fawcett-Tang

There are a lot of videos in this section including one by the Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian which shows a scale model he made of the apartment block in Damascus where his family lived till he fled the city. The video then shows the artist smashing the model to pieces with a big hammer – Homesick, 11 minutes long.

Elsewhere White House is a video by Afghan artist Lida Abdul which shows a woman painting whitewash with a big housepainting brush onto the ruins of a palace in post-Saddam Iraq.

‘Weapons’

There are several pieces meditating on the rise of drone warfare. The first ever drone strike was launched from an unmanned and weaponised Predator aircraft on 7 October 2001. One of the most striking pieces in the show is a site-specific installation made by James Bridle. He was allowed to paint the full-scale outline of a predator drone onto the floor of the main atrium of the War Museum in a piece titled Drone shadow. Watching people walk across it, mostly unaware of its significance, is spooky.

Drone shadow by James Bridle

Drone shadow by James Bridle

There’s a dark room devoted to a 30-minute-long video of an interview with a now-retired ‘pilot’ of one of these drones, Omer Fast’s 5,000 feet is best. I was very disappointed when I discovered that the nervy unshaven dude in the film is in fact an actor. (The devastating power of these weapons, as well as the difficulties of using them without causing collateral damage, is the subject of the 2015 movie Eye in the Sky.)

There’s another video showing Afghan soldiers and civilians stripping, cleaning and rebuilding automatic weapons. The sound of the metallic clicks becomes steadily more oppressive the longer you watch, and follows you as you walk into other rooms – click, click, click…

Media

As well as by subject matter, the exhibits can also be divided by media:

  • painting
  • sculpture
  • photography
  • photomontage
  • video
  • rugs and tapestries
  • ceramics

The most unusual artefact is probably Grayson Perry’s big vase. A vase commemorating 9/11. OK.

I was also surprised at the half a dozen so rugs and tapestries made by different artists, some using tradition Afghan methods and motifs, others more overtly depicting automatic rifles or the 9/11 attacks themselves.

Some of the paintings are powerful, for example of the tortured Abu Ghraib man and the Gerhard Richter smear.

But two things struck me about the exhibition as a whole:

How many videos there were and how long they were. Tony Oursler’s eye witness account is nearly an hour long, the drone pilot is half an hour, the students being shouted at in the Atropos film is an hour long – that’s two and a half hours you’d have to spend in the exhibition just to see these three pieces. But in addition there’s also the stripping guns film, the man smashing a model of his house film, the woman painting a palace film: three hours minimum.

The best pieces were sculptures: the Ai Weiwei camera, a scary model by Jake & Dinos Chapman of small bodies accumulated into two great mounds of corpses (one for each tower) and Jitish Kallat’s toy people being searched.

Circadian Rhyme 1 by Jitish Kallat (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

Circadian Rhyme 1 by Jitish Kallat (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

And also a brilliant piece in the ‘Weapons’ section, a cabinet full of model hand grenades made in the kind of coloured glass that Christmas tree decorations are made from, by Mona Hatoum.

Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet) by Mona Hatoum (2012) © Mona Hatoum / Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet) by Mona Hatoum (2012) © Mona Hatoum / Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Thoughts

1. The new normal

I found a lot of the show a little boring. None of it moved me. 9/11 is pretty old news now. I was very moved by visiting the actual Ground Zero in New York, but not by seeing a wall of old newspapers about it, or even the clever piece by Iván Navarro. Similarly, a big photomontage of Tony Blair as hate figure is pretty old news now, as is the image of the man from Abu Ghraib. 14 years old.

2. Has modern warfare really changed all that much?

Similarly, when the exhibition claims that the nature of modern warfare has changed decisively, I don’t think that’s really true. What was striking about the war in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and latterly in Syria is how very conventional they have been – after the ‘shock and awe’ bombing, it still boils down to our guys going in and shooting their guys and their guys trying to blow up our guys. The misery of house to house fighting through densely packed towns and cities which was a feature of fighting in the Second World War (if not before) was also a feature of the fighting in Falluja and is still taking place in eastern Ghouta and other urban centres in Syria.

Atom bombs, neutron bombs, smart bombs – all the science fiction weapons of my boyhood turn out to be completely irrelevant in modern warfare. It involves air strikes like World War Two, and sometimes artillery bombardments like World War One, but always ends up with bloody street fighting – witness the numerous accounts of British soldiers patrolling Helmand or Baghdad and getting sniped at and blown up by improvised explosive devices, witness movies like American Sniper or The Hurt Locker.

The only real innovation seems to be unarmed drones, which are guided by controllers thousands of miles away in the States. This is new for the people doing it, but the result is pretty familiar – bombs fall out of the sky, sometimes on valid military targets, often on civilian bystanders, as they have since the First World War (as vividly described in Rudyard Kipling’s short story, Mary Postgate).

3. Art in the internet age

What is nowhere mentioned is that the Age of Terror has coincided, more or less, with the Digital Age, the Age of the Internet.

This means lots of things (al-Qaeda posted their videos on YouTube, ISIS has an effective social media presence, terrorists embedded in the West can contact each other digitally without even meeting). But in the realm of aesthetics it means that we are even more totally saturated with imagery and news than ever before.

In my opinion, this has had a seismic and catastrophic impact on art. After all, why care very much about ‘art’ images, displayed in ‘art galleries’, when there is such a bombardment of interesting, funny, shocking, comic, tragic, diverting and exciting imagery to be found all the time, everywhere else?

Most of the artworks in this exhibition are very slow. Very old school. Oil painting? Like Rembrandt and Turner did? Why on earth make oil paintings about the surveillance society or the war in Iraq? What on earth has painting to do with a world of suicide bombers and drone attacks?

A lot of the artworks here are conceptual in the sense that they are based on an idea which you either ‘get’ or don’t ‘get’ in much the same way that you ‘get’ a joke.

  • 150 newspaper front pages about 9/11.
  • Painting redacted documents.
  • Interview with a drone operator.
  • Jamal Penjweny’s idea to get normal citizens of Iraq to hold a photo of Saddam in front of their faces, photograph them and create a portfolio titled Saddam is here.
  • Painted versions of the photographs of prisoners being tortured at Abu Ghraib.

One-idea gags. They are a kind of intellectual embellishment of the perplexingly complicated historical, political and military events out there in the real world. None of them adds a lot to your understanding of the causes and effects of 9/11 and Iraq. They are another – admittedly sometimes rather demanding – form of entertainment in a world drowning in visual entertainment.

I think this helps explain the impact of the sculptures, the way they emerge as (I think) the strongest pieces. The most impactful three – the Chapman brothers’ piles of bodies, Ai Weiwei’s CCTV camera, Jitish Kallat’s searched action figures – all of them have an instant and powerful visual and conceptual hit.

The Chapmans came to fame in the 1997 Sensation exhibition of works collected by famous advertising tycoon, Charles Saatchi. Just about every critic of the time made the connection between Saatchi’s day job selecting instantaneously powerful images which pack a punch (the pregnant man poster, the Labour isn’t working poster) and his taste for the ‘shocking’ and immediate works of Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin or the Chapmans or Marcus Harvey or Marc Quinn.

I think Ai Weiwei’s work is smack bang in this tradition. He has mastered the skill of applying the ‘instant recognition’ techniques of advertising, to works of ‘art’. It is no surprise that the sculpture of the security camera on a plinth was chosen for the posters and adverts for the exhibition. Like Charles Saatchi Ai has a perfect eye for the iconic image. He is the leading examplar of the way the events of the last 17 years or so can be pillaged for images and icons which can be turned into ‘art’ and form the basis of a lucrative career.

But giving you a better understanding of the world we live in?

4. Understanding issues

No one in their right mind should go to a work of art to ‘understand an issue’. You should read a book, articles, journalism, cuttings and speak to experts in order to ‘understand an issue’. You should research and analyse an ‘issue’.

The commentary asks, ‘Does art have a place in helping to understand terror?’ to which the simple answer is, ‘No, not in the slightest’. What does Ai Weiwei’s stone camera or Mona Hatoum’s glass hand grenades add to your understanding of the causes and consequences of Islamic terrorism? Nothing. They decorate it.

Art is a luxury product, designed to enhance the lives of the rich, or be added to well-funded public collections – it is not history or sociology or anthropology. It is not the study of geopolitics or international affairs or military strategy or state security.

Turn the question round: which work of art has helped you understand the Syrian Civil War best? (Not to understand that war is horrible and violent and people get killed in it – any child knows that, though gruesome photos of victims being dragged from bombed buildings always ram it home. But they don’t help anyone to understand anythingmore than that people suffer and die in war.)

Which work of art has helped you understand why the people of Syria rose up against Bashar-al-Assad in 2011, helped you understand why Syria split up into different geographic units, helped you understand the mosaic of religious and ethnic groups which make up the Syrian population, helped you understand why the West was reluctant to send in troops or commit militarily to the war, helped you understand why Vladimir Putin stepped in and made Russia the main external player in Syria, helped you understand why – lacking Western support – the anti-government forces were soon outstripped by better-funded militant and Islamist groups, helped you understand why U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011 creating a vacuum into which ISIS quickly spread? Helped you understand why, after seven years of agony for the people of Syria, the chances are Bashar-al-Assad will probably stay in power?

Not only does no work of art do this, but no work of art could do this. Only a carefully researched factual account, in fact numerous such accounts, in-depth information about the country’s history and culture and religious and ethnic composition, a good grasp of the geopolitical interests of the local powers (Iran and Saudi Arabia) and the international powers (Russia, America), and a knowledge of the political and military strategy of the United States in neighbouring Iraq could even begin to help you understand the situation.

A painting won’t do that. A sculpture is no replacement for that. Even a video can’t convey that depth and clarity of information required for such a complicated subject. A woman painting a ruined palace is a good gag, a memorable riff, a nifty concept which can be worked up into a ‘piece of art’ which can be sold on to a willing gallery. But it is no replacement for sober, thorough and intelligent analysis.

If the community of galleries, curators, art schools and artists decide that art can be made from subjects, ideas and images in the news, that’s one thing. But pretending that art helps us to ‘understand’ social and political issues is a fond and futile delusion of the art-making and art-consuming classes.

Featured artists

Lida Abdul, Khaled Abdul Wahed, Francis Alÿs, Cory Arcangel, Fiona Banner, James Bridle, Christoph Büchel, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Mahwish Chishty, Nathan Coley, David Cotterrell, Dexter Dalwood, Omer Fast, Coco Fusco, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Mona Hatoum, Jenny Holzer, Rachel Howard, Shona Illingworth, Alfredo Jaar, Jitish Kallat, John Keane, kennardphillips, Fabian Knecht, Hanaa Malallah, Julie Mehretu, Sabine Mortiz, Iván Navarro, Tony Oursler, Trevor Paglen, Mai-Thu Perret, Grayson Perry, Jamal Penjweny, Gerhard Richter, Martha Rosler, Jim Ricks, Hrair Sarkissian, Indrė Šerpytytė, Santiago Sierra, Taryn Simon, Walid Siti, John Smith, Kerry Tribe, Ai Weiwei.

There’s quite a lot of art to enjoy and admire here, and I found this a very thought-provoking exhibition – but not necessarily in the way the curators intended.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The Bristol Museum & Art Gallery opened in 1906 with money donated by Sir William Henry Wills, scion of the extensive Wills family which had made its fortune in the tobacco trade and was also instrumental in founding Bristol University. Their contribution is commemorated in the inscription on the museum’s monumental neo-classical facade, and also in the vast, neo-Gothic Wills Memorial Building built next door. The university, art gallery and the nearby Royal Western Academy all owe their existence to tobacco money.

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The modern museum contains a bewildering variety of exhibitions and displays: it’s Bristol’s equivalent of the Natural History Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery all rolled into one. I walked through a display on the geology and geography of the Bristol area, past another on local dinosaur fossils, past the Chinese silver, ignoring the lure of the Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, and bypassing an exhibition about objects from the British Empire…

Because my focus was on climbing up to the second floor where a series of five rooms house a lovely collection of fine art. The gallery owns some 1,300 paintings and 200 sculptures. The selection on display is arranged chronologically in rooms covering the Renaissance to the Baroque, the 18th century to Romanticism, Victorian art, contemporary and modern art, with a room devoted to French 19th century art. Lots of beautiful pieces by a wide variety of artists over an immense period, touching on countless stories, ideas and issues. The art alone is a feast for the eyes and mind.

European Old Masters: From religious devotion to artistic discovery 1300 – 1700

There’s a vast difference between the still-cranky, half-medieval, exploratory art of the early Renaissance, and the full-bodied Titian and Rubens style from the 1600s, those artists usually referred to as the Old Masters. This one room shows the development from the early Renaissance to the full-blown European style.

Personally, I prefer the earlier period, and art from the Northern as opposed to the Italian Renaissance. I’ve explored this fully in my review of a book about Art of the Northern Renaissance. For me Northern Renaissance art still has its roots in the best of the medieval worldview: it is humane, its portraits are realistic and characterful, the North eschews mathematically correct perspective for compositions which foreground gorgeous patterns on tiling or fabrics, and in the background are sumptuously green and fertile north European landscapes, the kind of countryside I love going for walks in. All these elements are present in this work from the second half of the fifteenth century.

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

Compare and contrast with the works, especially anything with a landscape, of the Italian Renaissance. These tend to lack the gorgeous medieval interest in fabrics or tilework; the landscapes are harsh, barren, dry and rocky; the deployment of perspective and vanishing points may be more mathematically correct (as in the tunnel in the work below) but, in my view, create an arid perfection. It is psychologically more intense (the way Christ has his back turned toward us is very dramatic, as is the figure holding his hands over his ears to block the horrific trumpeting of the devils); but visually less pleasing.

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Age of Enlightenment and the Birth of Romanticism

The 18th century is the great age of ‘civilised’ behaviour, of polite gentility in art and culture, the age of China tea sets, coffee rooms where bewigged gentlemen debated a form of politics characterised by dominant characters rather than by the political parties we have nowadays, an age of royal scandals and almost permanent war against the French for control of the world. The heyday of historic paintings depicting thousands of naval and land battles which we have completely forgotten about.

For example, the Saints are a group of islands which lie between Dominica and Guadeloupe, where the Royal Navy won a famous victory over the French in 1782. This victory put us into a better bargaining position for the peace negotiations when the American War of Independence ended two years later – and it was considered a fitting subject for a history painter like Nicholas Pocock.

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

Sensitive portraiture flourished, the two giants of the mid-century being Thomas Gainsborough and the prolific Joshua Reynolds. Here is Gainsborough setting the unrealistically smooth complexion of his sitter against the luxurious folds of her expensive blue silk dress. The pearl choker gives definition to both face and costume. In her left hand, she is keeping the pink roses fresh by holding them in what I’ve just learned was called a ‘bosom bottle’.

Ann Leyborne Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Ann Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Further along the same wall is Gainsborough’s rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder and first president of the Royal Academy, with a frankly so-so portrait of Frances Courtenay (Lady Honeywood) and her daughter. White skin, rouged cheeks, big dress and – the great clichés of this kind of portrait – the hint of classical architecture in the background (here a classical balustrade, usually a classical column) and the sumptuous red curtain as if for a stage set. All the ingredients are here, but it’s not his best – the depiction of the little girl is poor, isn’t it?

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Places of desire: Victorian and Edwardian Art 1840 – 1920

I am a bit weary of modern curators and literary critics talking about ‘desire’: it’s a prissy, bourgeois, drawing room way of indicating ‘sex’ without being vulgar enough to come straight out and say so. It’s an easy term to attach to any depiction of the human body, as if you’re making an illuminating comment. It’s a dispiriting euphemism for an age which is obsessed with sex but hasn’t got the guts to confront it head on, which doesn’t want to face up to the ragged embarrassments of sex and libido, which wants to smooth messy human activities out into a polite term which is acceptable to the most prudish of academics. Whether or not you agree with my view, there’s no doubt that modern academics, scholars and curators often impose their bloodless notion of ‘desire’ onto the very different values and ideals of artists far removed in time and space from our sex-obsessed culture.

In fact, in this whistle stop overview of the Victorian room, I’d say there’s little or no actual desire in evidence – far more obvious is a lovely dreamy sensuality.

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

By this late stage of his career Burne-Jones had perfected the ‘look’ of his paintings which combined multiple copies of the same blank-eyed maidens with their rather triangular heads, apparelled in simple, chaste but sumptuously folded dresses, in settings usually drenched in flowers and natural imagery. Maybe there is ‘desire’ in this painting, if you’re determined to find it anywhere there’s a depiction of the human body – but, to my eye, it’s far more a depiction of the characteristically Victorian taste for simple, sensuous dreaminess.

Similarly, the most striking painting in the collection is of a knight being quite literally entranced and put into a hypnotic, dream-like state – La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

The Victorian room was quite empty so I had a go at standing with my hands in the same posture as the knight, arms outstretched, looking up. It’s a highly unnatural pose, it feels like a peculiar trance position as of a man, maybe as per the fictions of our own time, taken over by aliens or turned into a zombie.

It’s a massive painting and you can walk right up and see that his eyes seem to have become silvered over, like a man in a sci-fi story. The more you look the more you see the strange power flowing from the Lady’s eyes directly into those of the damned knight, bewitched and enslaved.

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

This was my favourite room. As I’ve grown older and soaked up more stories of the world’s empires, slaveries, holocausts, massacres and murders, of its endless wars and pogroms, of man’s escalating destruction of the planet and all the species on it – I feel less embarrassed about enjoying the good things, the beautiful things, the luxury and sensuality of life. It’s over quickly enough. Celebrate.

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

And late Victorian statuary achieved a perfection of detail which eluded even the ancient Greeks. I was in Bristol to visit my grown-up son and having a son adds layers of meaning and poignancy to this sculpture of Daedalus equipping Icarus because, of course, Daedalus is lovingly and carefully and unwittingly preparing Icarus for his death.

1895 was the year when science fiction arrived in England in the form of H.G. Wells’s masterpiece, The Time Machine. I took a Wellsian interest in the precise nature of the flying equipment Daedalus is tying to his son’s arms. Would it work? It appears to be eminently practical: the straps round Icarus’s (perfectly shaped) chest secure the majority of the wing equipment to his body, while the straps over the biceps attach the upper wings to the arms, and the hands grasp lanyards attached lower down the wing. What could possibly go wrong?

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

A shiny marble statue of a woman sleeping might be pressed into being an image of ‘desire’, but for my money is, again, much better described as an aspect of dream. Militating against the description of ‘desire’ is the simple fact that she is fully clothed. After all, much of Victorian poetry, under the influence of Tennyson, was similarly dreamy, escapist, seeking marmoreal perfection amid the filthy clatter of the Industrial Revolution.

<em>Sleeping nymph</em>(1850) by E.H Bailey

Sleeping nymph (1850) by E.H Bailey

This mood of refined and rather upper-class sensibility continued on past the death of Victoria. This late example from 1910 shows the influence of Whistler’s fin-de-siècle experiments in tone, making the palette conform to one register, depicting a soulful upper-class lady, such as drift sensitively through the pages of Henry James.

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

After all this richesse, these dreamy myths and lazing ladies, I myself was feeling rich and dreamy — but there were two rooms left to explore.

French art and impact

In the French room 23 paintings and one sculpture capture the development of French 19th century painting from salon and realist art towards the early days of impressionism, featuring less well-known works by Vuillard, Ribot, Boudin, Carriere, Daubigny and Fourain. There is a work apiece by the well-known Seurat, Corot, Sisley, Pissarro, Sickert and Monet. Having settled into a lazy late Victorian groove I warmed to A River Landscape by Karl Dabigny.

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

It reminds me of some of the haunting late landscapes set in Scotland by Millais. If you like Impressionism there are a handful of characteristic works, like The Entrance to the village by Alfred Sisley.

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

I think my favourite was the pre-Impressionist work by the great realist painter Gustave Courbet, a coastal view titled Eternity. A photo doesn’t do justice to the depth of colour and the ominous sense of cloud, sky and surf.

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Off to one side of these developments in what is, essentially, one genre – landscape painting – stand the experimental, highly symbolic paintings of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, vague and amateurish-seeming – the catalogue describes them as ‘fragmentary and intimate’ – but strange and hypnotic.

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Modern and contemporary art

Definitely feeling super-saturated with wonderful images, I stumbled into the final room, a survey of modern and contemporary art. This bright white room contains 15 paintings and five sculptures by big names such as Richard long, David Nash, Victor Pasmore, Howard Hodgkin, Spencer Gore. Barbara Hepworth was represented by a characteristic wired sculpture.

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Bringing us right up to date is a gee-whizz painting by Damien Hirst, aged 52 and said to be the richest artist now or who has ever lived, with an estimated worth of around £1 billion.

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

And everyone’s favourite Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, who is represented by A ton of tea shaped into a cube. Having visited Ai’s big retrospective at the Royal Academy, I know that Ai, like Hirst, works in sets or series, and so this cube of tea is just one of countless other cubes made from numerous other materials.

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

Summary

This is a really fabulous collection of West European art from the last five hundred years, including and referencing numerous periods and schools, traditions and histories. It is well worth travelling to Bristol to see, especially considering the fact that admission is totally free!

Beyond the rooms, the corridors and landings are also dotted with striking paintings and more sculptures. Probably the most popular is this work by Banksy, the street artist born and bred in Bristol. It is a Victorian stone statue of an angel with a pot of red paint thrown over its head.

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

According to the wall label:

The intention is to challenge what people expect to see in a museum like this and question the value we place on art. Banksy displayed this work amongst the museum collections during the 2009 exhibition ‘Banksy versus Bristol Museum’, after which he donated it to Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives.

Much more ‘challenging’ would be to explain to visitors the completely different worldviews, the cultural, social, technological, moral and religious values of historic periods remote from ours like the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the 18th century or the Victorian period – their anxieties, their moral panics, the values they admired and looked up to – but that would take time, a lot of time, a lot of study and reading, and sensitive sympathetic imagination.


Related links

Other Bristol reviews

Performing for the Camera @ Tate Modern

Performing for the Camera examines the relationship between photography and performance, from the invention of photography in the 19th century to the selfie culture of today. Bringing together over 500 images spanning 150 years, the exhibition engages with the serious business of art and performance, as well as the humour and improvisation of posing for the camera. (Press release)

This is a good exhibition to visit if you like arty photographs or bare boobs. Several points emerged:

Saturation

1) 500 images across 14 rooms is too many to take in: either you begin skipping whole walls of images in search of something, anything, novel and distracting, or you’d have to give each image and each set of photos a really thorough scientific scrutiny, but be prepared to come back on several visits.

2) This links into the broader thought that almost all these images come from the golden era before the internet. Nowadays, we are bombarded, saturated, awash in countless billions of images, as well as being able to take limitless selfies with our phones and tablets, to crop and treat them an infinite number of ways, to post them in a million places or send them to anyone, anywhere. The images on show here come from Before The Fall, from when taking photographs was an achievement, a distinction, and they carry a certain aura of privilege and authenticity.

Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism (1982) Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London. © Boris Mikhailov

Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism (1982) Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London. © Boris Mikhailov

People It’s fairly obvious but took a while to sink in that the exhibition’s focus on photography and performance dictates that the images are overwhelmingly of the human body, clothed or unclothed. No buildings, trees, landscapes, cars, architecture, nature, seas or forests. 500 photos, almost all of them black and white, of people people people. You can get a bit bored of photos of people.

Performance Also, strikingly, there were relatively few photos of what most people might first think of when they hear the word ‘performance’ – almost no photos of actual theatrical or film performances, no famous actors or performers.

Art stars, yes – Warhol, Koons, Beuys, Man Ray, Duchamp. But this is ‘performance’ defined in quite a narrow, art-school kind of way to mean 1960s ‘happenings’, Man Ray or Marcel Duchamp-style posing, and scores of ‘art performances’.

Take, for example, the African photographer who takes self-portraits of himself dressed as iconic black figures; the Japanese photographer who took a series of images of himself in the bath; another Japanese photographer who took a series of a young man almost naked who, in each successive photo, has an additional playing card stuck to his body until he is completely covered in cards; the women photographers who take shots of themselves naked with various props.

Performance in that sense. Performing for the camera.

Jimmy De Sana, Marker Cones (1982) © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana

Jimmy De Sana, Marker Cones (1982) © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana

Series And a bit more reflection made me realise the sheer number of images follows naturally from the way the photos come in series and sets. The photos recording performances and ‘happenings’ – a bunch of young people strip naked and are painted with psychedelic swirls and circles in some 1960s happening; Japanese art students carry placards across a road junction in Tokyo then trample them to the ground; some other Japanese students drop objects with small parachutes from a tall building – naturally require quite a few shots to convey the full action events, so it is not unusual to come across series of 20 or more photos, whole walls covered with images recording one ‘event’.

Naked women

1. There were quite a few images of naked women. Less than half the total, probably less than a quarter of the images, but still a steady stream of boobs and loins and shapely female bodies, which prompted a few thoughts.

2. Without exception these were young white women, ablebodied, in their 20s and 30s. There are shots of  two or three happenings taken by male photographers – notably the team of Harry Shunk and János Kender who became well-known for photographing avant-garde and counter-cultural performances. But most of these images of naked women are self-portraits of the photographer by herself.

3. The wall labels go to some lengths to explain that these naked ladies set out to ‘subvert’ conventions, raise issues of gender identity, and the other half dozen or so phrases used on these occasions. But what you actually saw was a lot of images of scantily-clad young women. In the first three rooms I counted 43 photos of naked women. Later highlights included:

Hannah Wilke made a number of 1970s ‘performative works’ of herself in which ‘she used her own body to challenge ideas of spectatorship and desire’. In the series, Super-T-Art (1974), we see 20 b&w images of her wearing a toga which, oops, slips off her shoulders and exposes first her breasts, then all of her. With the best will in the world I don’t see how this is challenging anything: it looks to me like it is wholeheartedly taking part in the opposite of challenge, in the marketing and distribution of images of naked women and, worse, of images of a perfect, very American, healthy young female form, precisely the kind of image which helps to create the general social environment in which most women feel some measure of guilt and anxiety at failing to live up to this kind of idealised image of femininity and sexuality.

Adrian Piper took 14 self portraits of herself – Food For The Spirit – some in a dress, some in panties, some butt naked – the twist is they are very underexposed so at first sight appeared to be completely black. Only on by peering quite close to the print could you start to make out the image of the artist – and suddenly realise you are looking at a skinny young naked woman.

In 1999 and 2000 artist Jemima Stehli asked male art critics to sit in her studio while she stripped naked in front of them. The critics had control of a camera which was placed behind her as she stripped, an angle which catches the critics full face, squirming with embarrassment or grinning with enjoyment and captures her slowly declothed body from the rear. Strip consists of 56 big colour images of Stehli taking off her jeans and bra and panties until she is standing splendidly naked, apart from black high heels which make her look exactly a Bond girl from a movie poster. Apparently this work ‘explores themes of voyeurism, spectacle and control.’ I admire the phrasing and the art school rhetoric of this explanation, but Stehli is also a stunningly shapely woman, and she chose to strip off, photograph herself and hang scores of images of herself naked on gallery walls. As my son pointed out, so she’s making a career out of selling naked photos of herself? Er, yes. In case you were disappointed at the way all these shots are of her rear, Stehli has thoughtfully published numerous photos of herself naked from the front as well.

Carolee Schneemann: Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963). The artist naked adorned with various props and paints found in the studio. The density and clutteredness and the abandonment of the poses (and the density of her pubic hair, something not seen so much these days) dates the images to an era when graphic full-frontal nudity still had the power to shock.

4. There were some naked young men in the 1960s ‘happenings’ photos, and some scattered elsewhere throughout (particularly young Japanese men). But it was a room dedicated to the way art superstars of the 70s and 80s used photos to dominate press and PR, in the form of posters and magazine covers featuring Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Joseph Beuys, that brought home to me the contrast between the naked women and the clothed men.

Contrary to all the claims in the wall labels that women artists taking their clothes off somehow ‘subverts’ convention, it in fact screamingly asserts and confirms society’s worst sexist assumption, which is that women, asked to be creative, to do or say something, can only start with their bodies, use their bodies, think of their bodies first. Whereas men asked to do something creative have ideas, insights, make things external to them, come up with gags or performances or plays or art works – and remain fully clothed throughout.

Warhol, Koons, Beuys, photographers Martin Parr and Lee Friedlander – all fully dressed, having creative, insightful, novel ideas.

Amalia Ulman, Jemima Strehli, Hannah Wilke – when prompted to do art – take their clothes off, resulting in the same tired old images of lovely, young naked women. Just a few score more naked women to add to the tens of millions of naked women who overflow the internet, newspapers, magazines, adverts, TV, film, everywhere.

I’m not saying this is true of these women artists actual practices and achievements. I am saying this is the unfortunate impression which this selection and this hang and this exhibition gave this viewer on this particular visit.

Fully clothed women

It was a relief to see the work of women photographers who had not got their kit off, such as the wonderful sequence Seven Twists by Dora Maurer, one of the standout pieces of the Adventures of the Black Square show at the Whitehall Art Gallery.

There was just one photo of/by Sarah Lucas, Fighting fire with fire, enough to convey her wonderful ‘fuck you’ attitude. Could have happily seen some more.

Cindy Sherman was represented by a number of photos she took of herself mocked up as stereotypical characters from fictitious movies; and a different series of her with no make-up shrouded in a dressing gown which was constantly threatening to fall off her naked body. Looking her up online I got a sense of Sherman as much more interesting than the selection here made out.

Some of the naked exhibits

Twenty two b&w photos of Yves Klein’s 1960 art event, Anthropometries of the Blue Period, in which several gorgeous women stripped naked in front of a po-faced audience wearing formal evening dress, and then painted their naked bodies and pressed themselves against canvases to create art.

Man Ray – Erotique Voilee. There were a few other tiny Man Rays later, one of his portrait of Marcel Duchamp dressing up as a woman. You’d have thought Man Ray’s entire oeuvre consisted of stunning ‘performances’ and so justified hundreds of entries here, but no – two was your lot 😦

The Anatomic Explosion i.e. 20 or so b&w photos of naked young men and women on Brooklyn Bridge in the heady 1960s, along with another sequence of young people getting naked at a party in a studio, both shot by the cool, avant-garde team of Harry Shunk and János Kender.

Jimmy de Sana’s sequence of stylised art photos of male and female nudes in odd poses from the 1980s.

A whole room was devoted to Francesca Woodman who started taking photos as a child and took reams of photos of herself as a young woman, clothed, half clothed or bare naked, often posing in derelict, empty rooms. To her, personally, this may have been a brave voyage of self-exploration – and I am sensitive to the eerie, disconnected atmosphere in many of the photos, which are genuinely haunting.

But to the viewer who has already seen several hundred bare boobs by this stage, Woodman risks, in a photo like Untitled, just falling into line with all the other nubile young women in our culture who seem so keen to get their kit off. Half of them do it for the Sun and ‘glamour’ mags and are looked down on; the other half do it for ‘performance’ and ‘art’ and have respectful feminist monographs written about them. The vibe I got off these photos of unhealthy self-obsession was joltingly confirmed when I read that she committed suicide aged 22. The more I looked at her photos, the more powerful I found them…

Orphée by Tokyo Rumando, a sequence of black and white photos of the artist standing in front of a mirror which ‘explore Anxiety and fear, dark desire and pleasure, decadence and madness, and then death and the void’ — but for which it’s important that she is often topless.

Whatever else they are meant to be ‘questioning’, ‘subverting’ and ‘interrogating’, absolutely none of these photos question the fundamental axiom that the best kind of body is young, white and female, a whole, taut, streamlined, slender female body with brown-tipped nipples and prominent pubic hair. The old, the fat and ugly, the disabled, the disfigured, women with mastectomies or C section scars or the countless other marks of time and disease – are 100% absent from this large selection.

The most contemporary work seemed to be Amalia Ulman‘s series including Excellencies and Perfections (below). Once more a woman photographer is ‘exploring’ something or other by taking countless photographs of herself and her body in all manner of costumes and poses, often very scantily clad. Probably this does reflect contemporary selfie culture which, more than ever before in human history, foregrounds and values and sells perfect young, smoothly unlined women’s bodies in unprecedented numbers – except the ones doing the posing, packaging, commodifying and distribution are no longer the male publishers of porn mags, but the young women themselves. Maybe that’s progress…

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) 2015. Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) 2015. Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

Exhibits with their clothes on

Eikoh Hosoe‘s b&w pictures of rehearsals for plays or films stood out because of their exotic setting and the foreign dress and faces of the performers. Also featured is his Kamataichi, a collaboration with the choreographer and founder of the Butoh movement Tatsumi Hijikata, from 1969. There are extraordinary shots of a male performer running wild in the rice fields, leaping in front of traditional houses, grimacing and leering into the camera. Incomprehensible but tremendously dynamic. What is the meaning of the man in make-up with a parasol on a wooden bridge?

Nadar, the most famous 19th century French photographer, active in the 1850s and 1860s. Stage performers came and posed in his studio, in an era when performance meant putting interesting costumes on instead of taking all your clothes off. The 20 or so photos here include shots of Charles Deburau acting out poses as the character ‘Pierrot’ and Sarah Bernhardt as Lady Macbeth.

A sequence of photos showing how Yves Klein’s over-familiar leap into the void photo was prepared, staged and manufactured.

Many of the performance sequences were shot by the team of Harry Shunk and János Kender, two of the most important photographers to have worked with performance artists. Their photos of various ‘happenings’ in the New York of the 1960s show how sweetly and naively young people from that time thought that taking all their clothes off said something or changed anything.

Chinese art superstar Ai Weiwei (beneficiary of a recent massive retrospective at the Royal Academy) is represented by the iconic trio of photos of him dropping and smashing a supposedly valuable Chinese vase. The prints are vast, over 6 foot tall, maybe 5 wide, as merits Ai’s outsize reputation. The only other images as large were those of Warhol and Koons and Beuys in the PR and marketing room, making you realise that Ai is the contemporary equivalent of those masters of press and marketing.

I liked Erwin Wurm‘s photos of instant sculptures, people imaginatively using household props to create unlikely poses e.g. lady on oranges. Tate invited Wurm to give two events explaining and showing visitors how to create one-minute sculptures.

Two of Wurm’s pics here were from a separate sequence using the supermodel Claudia Schiffer. They’re fun and creative and the best thing about them is the way she keeps her clothes on, so that she comes over as a person and not as a body. I like the orange motif. Who suspected that oranges could open up a whole new world of performance art?

Samuel Fosso’s African Spirits 2008, in which the artist photographs himself in the guise of iconic figures like Malcolm X and Miles Davis. The hang affects your perception of the images. These prints were a) very big, 203 foot tall b) hung as a regular grid (as opposed to a row of pics or an irregular patterning, as some others are). The effect was to give them a pleasing sense of order and symmetry before you even considered the subject matter.

British photographer Martin Parr (who also has an exhibition of photos, Unseen City, at the Guildhall Art Gallery) was represented by Autoportraits, a series of images where he’s superimposed his very English, slightly gormless-looking face onto a variety of the trite, kitsch backdrops found in photographers studios around the world. Charmingly eccentric. Note the way comedy or surrealness comes over better in colour.

In a break from the overwhelming majority of black and white photos, there was a series of sepia prints by Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism. The wall label was a bit difficult to follow, but I think these are simply photos of himself, wife and friends on holiday in the Crimea, during which they amused themselves by ‘posing’ as people on holiday, playing up to stereotypes of tourists and holidaymakers, performing for the camera. If anyone who plays up for the camera in their holiday snaps is an artist then the world is over-run with them.

I liked Keith Arnatt’s series of gardeners in their gardens  but I wondered what they had to do with the theme of ‘performance’. If you call gardening a ‘performance’ then almost any kind of activity can turn out to be a performance and the word ceases to have much meaning.

A wall of unsmiling self portraits by veteran American photographer Lee Friedlander. He captures himself in different poses, as anybody who takes a selfie does. Whether these qualify as ‘performances’ I couldn’t quite decide. Certainly he has an ‘eye’ for an arresting composition…

Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase is represented by a series of images of his wife in various clothes on various days seen from the window of their apartment – From Window (1974). I’d like to add something clever and intellectual but it did seem to just be a series of photos of his wife going off to work wearing a different outfit each day.

Masahisa Fukase, From Window (1974) © Masahisa Fukase Archives. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Masahisa Fukase, From Window (1974) © Masahisa Fukase Archives. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

He is also has a separate series of b&w pics of himself in a bath – Bukubuku (Bubbling) from 1991.  Very tight close-ups of his face, above the water, under the water blowing bubbles, half-submerged, and so on. I particularly like the one of him wearing a dapper hat, shades and smoking a fag in the bath. With art school pompousness his Wikipedia article describes these as ‘Fukase’s last great work, a whimsical if somewhat morbid game of solitaire that charts new territory for the photographic self-portrait.’

Niki de Saint Phalle appeared in the Global Pop Art exhibition in these very rooms a few months ago, represented by her shooting art works where she filled sacks with poster paints, tied them to canvases and covered the lot in whitewash. She then invited friends and fellow artists round to the shooting gallery at the rear of her studios, where they were given guns and told to shoot the canvases. The Pop Art show included some of the resulting whitewashed canvases covered with spurts of colour paint. Here we have a sequence of b&w photos of her making the canvases, shooting the guns, organising her pals into firing squads and so on. Everyone is wearing clothes. Odd, really, that these works were all about chaotic spurts of colour and yet all the records of it are dully monochrome.

Favourites

  • Charles Ray’s Plank Pieces I and II. Simple, clean, elegant and powerful.
  • Harry Shunk and János Kender’s sequence of 27 photos of Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe rehearsing and performing. Here the blurred or somehow treated outlines of the human form assume a science fiction otherness. Can’t find any of them on the internet.
  • David Wojnarowicz’s sequence Arthur Rimbaud in New York. Wojnarowicz printed out the French poet’s face from the iconic Étienne Carjat 1871 portrait of him, cut it out and attached elastic to make it a strap-on mask, and got various native New Yorkers to wear it in their everyday settings. Simple, funny, stylish.

Conclusions

The press release claims the exhibition ‘shows not only that photography has always been performative, but that much performance art is inherently photographic.’ OK.

It was possible to look at all the photos, read all the wall labels, read the programme and press release and assimilate all the information, insights, opinions and interpretations and still emerge with your understanding of the basic axioms of photography completely unchanged: Naked or scantily clad young women are artistic. Black and white is artistic. (Colour pics are less forgiving, more tacky, better suited to irony.) Men doing wacky things is artistic (jumping out windows, dropping vases, playing bubbles in the bath). The rule seems to be: Men do, women strip.

Oh, and the 1960s and 70s overflowed with avant-garde art most of which is now, frankly, embarrassing.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Ai Weiwei @ the Royal Academy

I like contemporary art at least in part because I find it light and frivolous, an airy alternative to the world which, as Wordsworth pointed out, is too much with us – more than ever in the brave new matrix of 24/7 social media and unstoppable information overload.

Thus Agnes Martin‘s variations on the grid format are open to any number of interpretations – the exhibition of her work at Tate Modern is full of pattern, space and light. Barbara Hepworth‘s sculptures at Tate Britain inspire new ways of seeing shapes and being aware of space.

By contrast I felt this blockbuster exhibition of work by world-famous Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is too heavily overshadowed by the glare of his own fame, his personal trials and ongoing tribulations with the Chinese authorities, too weighed down with ‘real world’ issues, to be enjoyable – unless you buy into the ‘artist as hero’ story.

Ai Weiwei bio and politics

Ai’s biography is long and eventful. He comes from an artistic family which suffered internal exile under Mao. He spent 12 formative years in New York soaking up the mood of modern conceptual and pop art, its interest in ready-mades, ‘found art’, junk etc, before moving back to China to establish his practice.

Through the 1990s and 2000s he was a consistent critic of the Chinese government, but this came to a head with his video and documentary exposure of the cheap, shoddy building materials which led to the collapse of numerous schools when the Sichuan earthquake hit in 2008, causing the deaths of some 5,000 schoolchildren. Ai took to social media and dedicated his prolific blogs and tweets to scathing criticism of the authorities who he – along with many others – blamed for the appalling death toll.

As a result of this and other fierce criticism of the government, in 2010 the studio he’d been building in Shanghai was declared illegal by the authorities and demolished. Ai organised a ‘crab feast’ party – a traditional festival of the riverside city – to ironically celebrate its demolition, but was himself arrested and unable to attend the party.

On 3 April 2011 Ai was arrested and spent three months in close confinement on what the government claimed were tax evasion and economic crimes. He was imprisoned in two small rooms and accompanied at all times by two guards, obviously subjected to intense psychological pressure, stress, harm. He has several medical conditions, including diabetes, which were exacerbated by the imprisonment.

As I write he is in the news again because Lego have refused to supply him the bricks he needs to make another ‘controversial’ installation, prompting a typical ‘crowd-sourcing’ flood of support from fans around the world who are being encouraged to donate him their Lego – Australia gallery collects Lego for Ai Weiwei.

Prison art

Thus, to a disconcerting extent, Ai Weiwei’s art is about himself, and this exhibition reflects that, big time. One huge room is full of skip-sized steel boxes with small windows cut into them. If you peer through the windows you can see a scale model of the cell Ai was imprisoned in, bed, lamp, chairs and the connecting toilet, complete with lifelike mannequins of him and the two guards posted to watch him at all times, even on the toilet.

The walls of this big room are covered with vibrant gold wallpaper bearing a pattern made up of handcuffs and CCTV cameras (bad) and the twitter logo of a chirruping bird symbolising – you understand – the power of social media to spread his message, despite the worst the authorities can do (good). On close examination the round chest of the twitter logo includes an image of Ai’s face curved and burnished, which I found more sly and cheeky than much of his other stuff.

Souvenirs of Shanghai

After the authorities demolished Ai’s workshop in Shanghai, he recovered a lot of the rubble and constructed this work, a room-sized cube of masonry with samples of traditional wood carvings embedded into the brickwork. The irony, you see: the rubble of contemporary life, wreckage of a repressive regime, juxtaposed with exquisite artefacts from a more elegant age.

No fewer than 800 supporters attended the memorial feast to ‘celebrate’ the demolition and this is marked by a pile of realistic life-size model river crabs stacked up in the corner of the same room. Apparently river crabs are a symbol of dictatorial government but also sound like the Chinese word for ‘harmony’. I wondered what would happen if I was ‘subversive’ enough to reach out and touch one. Or nick one.

The way so many of these works directly refer back to these ‘political’ events, for me, drains them of the ambiguity and lightness of fancy which I value in ‘art’. But they are also not all that impressive in themselves. A pile of model crabs. Yes.

Self congratulation

Ai Weiwei’s career, art, his self presentation and the promotional machinery of the western countries where he is an art superstar, allow us to feel good about the part we’re playing in the ‘struggle for free expression in China’ – namely, wandering round a big art exhibition in central London, then doing a spot of shopping.

Many of the works are striking but the whole show is dominated by his story, his biography, the account of his suffering and his heroism standing up to power – then flying out to London to do media interviews and arrange this show. I am not minimising the unpleasantness of his experiences. I am just saying such a weight of art so heavily reliant on his experiences makes me feel uneasy, and exposes – in its western audience – a raft of ironies, mismatches of meaning and hypocrisies.

Irony of technology

I couldn’t help noticing many people taking photos of the art works on their smart phones. Surely everyone knows by now that many of our shiny digital devices are produced in Chinese factories where conditions are little better than slavery, labour camps, the suicide factories. Ie by buying these products we prop up the economic miracle which keeps the repressive Chinese authorities in power. But the exhibition goes nowhere near this.

Nor does it tackle the glaring irony that for Ai, social media, facebook and twitter are all unalloyed goods whereas many of us in the fabulous free West are deeply sceptical and/or anxious about the extent to which these digital devices have penetrated every interstice of our lives, relaying our every move, thought, word and action back to vast databases which are ploughed by immensely powerful algorithms creating digital profiles which can then be used to sell us products wherever we go and whatever we do and are routinely, as Snowden showed us, harvested by security services and police forces who know more about their national populations than ever before in human history.

Irony of the Royal Academy

The guides, introduction, audio guide, wall labels and Ai’s quotes all emphasise what a rebel he is, always exploring and pushing the barriers, a subversive to his fingertips… It felt odd reading all this rock and roll subversion in the hallowed rooms of the Royal Academy.

Looking up at his chandelier made of strings of crystals hanging in a cunningly constructed lattice of bicycle frames and wheels, your eye also takes in the rich gilding of the RA’s covings and ceiling. If you’re an optimist maybe you see this exhibition in the RA as the art establishment’s ‘acceptance’ of Ai and his politics. If you’re like me, you see it as paradoxical that a man who prides himself on being such a subversive shows his works in such a sterile, formal, carefully patrolled setting, complete with close circuit cameras and security guards in every room. Does no one see the irony? Around every exhibit was a grey tape line which you mustn’t step over. If you stepped over the line a guard was quick to ask you to step back. It felt about as subversive as progressing around a cathedral from one Holy Relic to another.

Irony of the bourgeoisie

An enormous room is dedicated to the Sichuan earthquake and Ai’s response to it. The long walls are covered with an enormous grid or table recording the name of every one of the students who died in the disaster. I am a liberal, I think almost anything can be ‘art’, but the literalism of this made me think this is actually a memorial like, say, the Vietnam memorial in Washington. Because it doesn’t say anything more than it says: a list of the names of the Chinese students who died in the earthquake.

In a corner of the room is a video of a Chinese factory where steel cables for buildings are being made. The video screen was surrounded by a crowd of middle-class, white English people who have never been inside a factory, staring intently at the screen and empathising with the Chinese workers doing this demanding manual labour in a noisy dirty environment – before moving on to the shop and wondering whether to buy an Ai Weiwei poster or mug or apron or coffee table book, made by the same or similar Chinese factory workers.

Irony of the Great Thinker

On sale in the shop is a Penguin paperback of a series of interviews conducted with Ai Weiwei by curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist – Ai Weiwei speaks. The blurb says it is a marvellous insight into the thought of this Great Artist. That use of the word ‘thought’, the Great Man’s Thought, reminded me that this was the kind of adulation and even phraseology which surrounded the insights and writings of another great Chinaman, Mao Zedong – Mao Zedong Thought – who hypnotised the western liberals of an earlier generation. 50 years ago pretty much the same art-going classes would have been forming the same sort of respectful queues to enjoy the insights and thoughts of another Great Chinese subversive, radical and deep thinker. Uneasy.

Irony of Indifference

British Chancellor George Osborne spent last week in China drumming up trade with one of the strongest economies in the world. Maybe he did say a few words about China’s human rights record, about the Dalai Lama, Tibet, the imprisonment of numerous political protestors – and maybe he didn’t. Either way it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. China’s economy is vital to the West and we want a slice of their economic pie, we want closer trade and industrial ties with this superpower. Us citizens can donate all the Lego we like to the latest Ai Appeal, but in the tough-minded negotiations of the powerful we aren’t even dust on their shoes…

George Osborne’s epic kowtow to China

Ai Weiwei’s stance is obviously brave, there’s no doubting he went to prison and may go again, but still bravely refuses to stop exposing government corruption and repression where he sees it, there’s no doubting the authorities (foolishly) block his name and websites from the internet, demolish his workshops, harass his assistants and associates, but:

  • Despite this he was still here in London supervising this blockbuster show. In my boyhood dissident writers disappeared into mental institutes or died in the gulag – this one is jetting round the world saying whatever he wants in interviews with the world’s media, featuring in glitzy magazines, and collecting awards – it’s a genuinely bizarre situation.
  • And anyway, it doesn’t appear to make the slightest bit of difference.

Samples of the art

In the courtyard of the RA are installed a sort of avenue of ‘trees’ made out of lumber and spare wood. I should like this kind of thing, but… I didn’t. I go for regular walks in the countryside: I prefer real trees.

Ai Weiwei presenting his installation Tree in the courtyard at the Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei presenting his installation Tree in the courtyard at the Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Inside, one of the RAs’ rooms contains a vast assembly of rusting metal cables. I think the labels said the cables are arranged so that, from above, they form the shape of China as seen on the map – and then unravelled to lay on the floor. So far so, well, familiar from New York minimalists from the 1960s. Of course, when you learn that the cables are salvaged from some of the schools which so disastrously collapsed in the earthquake, then your reaction to them changes. They are no longer ‘art’, they are a memorial. It is impious, it insults the dead, to be anything other than respectful.

Ai Weiwei with his installation Straight, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei with his installation Straight, Royal Academy of Arts (2015)
Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

These three photos of Ai dropping a Han dynasty vase have become pretty widespread. The black and whiteness, the deliberate naivety of the images, the crude vandalism, bespeak experimental art of the 1960s or 70s. Or even Dada from the 1910s… The only novelty is that this is a Chinaman indulging in western art-vandalism…

In fact, a whole room of the show is dedicated to Ai’s ‘engagement’ with the Chinese ceramic tradition: which involves him taking genuine antique vases and painting them modern primary colours (as the Guardian puts it: ‘Ai dips ancient pottery into paint’) or with provocative slogans: one had Coca Cola emblazoned on it. Coca Cola. You see, it’s because Coke is an icon of American consumerism. It’s like it’s a comment on the contemporary world. Wow. — In fact they looked very like the kind of thing my kids used to get up to at their half-term art club.

Ai Weiwei taking a photograph of his installation Coloured Vases, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei taking a photograph of his installation Coloured Vases, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

The metal cables referred to earlier, seen from above.

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12) Steel reinforcing bars Lisson Gallery, London Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12) Steel reinforcing bars. Lisson Gallery, London. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Ceramic tiles forming the outline of China, each with a Chinese text about ‘freedom’. China. Freedom. It’s almost like there’s a message here somewhere.

Ai Weiwei, Free Speech Puzzle (2014) Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style, Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Free Speech Puzzle (2014) Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style,
Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

A lovingly-crafted copy of a video camera carved out of marble. State surveillance is bad, apparently – though the technology itself has a clumsy/spooky/slickly designed outline and shape.

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010) Marble Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010) Marble. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Irony of the dissident superstar

Art is now a global business, and deals in brands, assets and products. The international art market this year topped €50 billion. After a certain level of success a modern ‘artist’ establishes workshops and employs significant numbers of ‘assistants’, as well as the retinue of PAs, organisers, accountants, and probably brand managers, social media consultants and so on, some to create the ‘work’ but other, more importantly, to manage the brand in the global marketplace, to plan and curate the never-ending schedule of ‘major’ exhibitions, to co-ordinate sales at the major sales houses.

Eventually Ai reminded me of Damien Hirst, another ‘rebel’ become international superstar whose art has ended up about money. Like Hirst, Ai stumbles on a new concept and then milks it. So one room in the show includes samples of his ‘cube’ art. At some point he ‘discovered’ the attractiveness of the metre-cube and began to think of variations on the theme: a glass cube, a polished steel cube, a granite cube, a rusted metal cube, a cube made of traditional Chinese wooden panels which can be moved in and out and re-arranged like a Rubik’s cube. (Except that you cannot touch it, of course. God forbid the rebel’s artworks got fingerprints on them.)

This reminded me of Hirst’s animals in formaldehyde: initially it was a liberating, original idea but, at some point, after the first 4 or 5 years, became a formula, and then a production line turned out by ‘assistants’ in the Ai or Hirst factories. As with Hirst’s vitrines or spot paintings or butterflies, so with Ai’s painted vases or metre cubes or big wooden sculptures – what once had the shock of the new now has the feel of a showroom for Russian billionaires or Arab princes looking for sound investments to add to their portfolios.

Summary

The final irony is that someone who is undoubtedly a dissident in his own country, a threat to the authorities who are in turn a permanent threat to his freedom and practice, can at the same time be such an unparalleled success in the west, an art superstar, a mover and shaker, curator of international exhibitions, winner of countless prizes and awards, sitter on numerous panels of judges.

But for me his art is so heavily overwritten by the newspaper-type stories of his dissident activities, and then overwritten again by his bestselling super-artist status, as to lose the freshness, the space for idle interpretation and the free play of the imagination which, for me, is the main value of ‘art’.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: