Gormley and Eliasson: perception and perspective

At first glance, it might not seem that there is much that connects the art of Anthony Gormley and Olafur Eliasson. Two weeks ago I would have summarised Gormley’s work as largely figurative, heavy, often made using metal and other industrial materials, and sombre in tone, while I tended to think of Eliasson’s as abstract, colourful and using a range of substances, natural and artificial, to playful effect.

Eliasson’s Moss Wall (1994)

Before visiting their recent exhibitions in London two weeks ago, the only thing that connected them in my mind was the fact that both shows were exceedingly busy and popular. This was based on the huge volume of posts I’d seen on Instagram, combined with an article in the Guardian in which gallery-goers expressed their chagrin that other people were getting in their way of enjoying art (more on that later).

Both exhibitions surprised me, starting with the Gormley. Although I’ve always enjoyed his work when I’ve come across it, I’ve often thought of it as fairly repetitive (frequently based on his own body) and ubiquitous. His sculptures are scattered across the country, in high-profile installations from Gateshead to Merseyside. In Edinburgh there are six Gormleys standing in a short stretch of the Water of Leith. But the Royal Academy show demonstrated how his artwork is much broader and more varied than the ‘universal’ self portraits we are frequently exposed to in his public art. His best works challenge how we perceive space, and how we perceive ourselves and each other through art.

For instance, his Lost Horizon (2008), presents us with a familiar sight, multiple forms of Gormley’s body in cast iron, but in a different way. Bodies jut out at all angles and surround us, defying gravity and playing with our senses. The work isn’t ponderous, it’s fun. Seeing the exhibition on the last day meant that the room was packed with people, making it difficult to tell the sculptures from the live bodies that surrounded them.

Art and life intermingle in Lost Horizon I (2008)

Some of you might look at that photo and recoil at the number of people in the room. Yes, both exhibitions were busy. But part of experiencing art is noticing how others experience it: seeing other people react to and interact with art is one of the things I find most interesting about it. This aspect was what really made me see the connections between the two artists’ work. Humans play a major part in activating these artworks and making them resonate.

Visiting the Eliasson exhibition mid-week and during the day, I experienced it alongside a large school group of teenagers. Their interactions with Your Uncertain Shadow (colour) (2010), brought the work to life for me: they danced, flicked their hair, and had fun with it. One criticism that has been levelled at the show is that it’s a little gimmicky, but it is indisputable that this very quality makes it a good entry point for young people. And in turn, they remind us that we don’t have to be so serious all the time when it comes to art.

My fellow guests brought Your Uncertain Shadow (colour) to life

As well as having moments of levity and playfulness though, both exhibitions experimented with their visitors’ senses of fear and disorientation. Walking, sitting and lying beneath the Gormley’s colossal Matrix III (2019), 21 intersecting weighty steel mesh cages that contrasted satisfyingly with the Academy’s gilt cornices, felt genuinely daring. Cautiously making my way through the 39-metre fog tunnel of Eliasson’s Din blinde Passager (Your blind passenger) (2010), I wondered whether this immersive journey through colour and light would ever end (is this what they speak about when they say you see a white light when you die?!) Both were enormous, immersive, visceral and tinged with danger.

Walking underneath Matrix III – not for the faint-hearted

Alongside the colossal, statement-making art of these two big budget shows, there is also an exploration of vulnerability which makes them more than a bombastic celebration of these highly successful artists’ achievements.

Eliasson’s work is centred around the environment, focusing on absence as well as presence, and soberly examines the loss of elements of our natural world in an era of climate crisis. Installations remind the viewer of the magic of the everyday: rain trickling down a window in Regenfenster (1999), the different effects that occur when light and water meet are made manifest in Beauty (1993) and Big Bang Fountain (2014). The ghostly imprints left by glacial ice melting into thin washes of colour in the Glacial currents series (2018) were almost haunting.

Glacial currents (yellow, sienna), 2018

While Eliasson’s work focusses on the vulnerability of the planet, Gormley takes us back to ourselves once again. Starting the journey in the courtyard with Iron Baby (1999), at the end of the show we encounter ourselves once more, in Pile I (2017) and Pile II (2018). Stacks of simple, earth-coloured clay, huddled on the floor and without a plinth to protect them from the metal grates beneath, these small works are the hardest hitting of all in their unassuming fragility. We contemplate ourselves, our earthliness and our mortality.

Full circle: we encounter ourselves again as huddled lumps of clay

In very different ways, both artists are helping us to make sense of ourselves, our present, and heightening our awareness of our surroundings. That kind of lesson is worth braving a crowded exhibition for – and who knows – you might even feel inspired by those you have been thrown together with on your journey of discovery.

Belfast’s murals

Last weekend was my first visit to Belfast, and I spent some time looking at the city’s famous murals. I wasn’t there for nearly long enough – there are hundreds of murals scattered throughout the city and I only managed to walk around the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas for a short while. But what little I saw I know will stay with me for a long time.

A section of the International Wall, which addresses global struggles

I wouldn’t presume to even try and talk in detail about the context here, but the murals are deeply embedded in years of complicated and violent political history. Public art is always a reflection of power struggles: who is represented and who is left out is a political issue. This is even more true in the case of the murals, which have sprung up over decades, and are for the most part created by people who live in these communities, rather than by artists brought in from outside and commissioned to make work.

The subjects of the murals vary hugely, but many of them commemorate the victims of The Troubles. In a conflict fought at such close quarters, even the smallest of exposed façades becomes a canvas for stating the allegiances of the area.

Signs and symbols: the crown dotting the ‘i’ of Shankill denotes the area’s allegiances

I was shocked to learn that thousands of lives were lost in the violence, and perhaps just as surprising was that neither me, nor any of the people I was with (Scottish and English) had learned anything about the conflict in school, even though it is very much in living memory and an important part of both British and Irish history.

The Bobby Sands mural is the most photographed in Belfast.

It’s a moving and hard-hitting experience, but walking the streets and engaging with the murals as a tourist is one of the ways we can learn about the city’s difficult past in an accessible way. It’s also an important reminder that images, signs and symbols are always laced with countless different meanings, and it is worth taking some time to try and decipher them.

Images of solidarity using the colours of the Irish and Palestinian flags, situated on the International Wall

Nicky Bird & Art Walk Projects, Portobello

How much do we really know about our surroundings? Living in towns and cities, there are fragments of past lives and clues to how the environment has changed scattered all around us, if we look carefully. That careful looking, backed up by detailed research is how artist Nicky Bird is spending her LAND MARK residency with Art Walk Projects, based in Portobello. The starting points for her project are the two bottle kilns close to the shore (dated 1906 and 1909), the only fragments left of the large Buchan Pottery complex, which dominated the area close to the shore, but closed in the early 1970s.

One of the bottle kilns, an alien industrial fragment adrift in a sea of new builds

Portobello is a seaside town between Leith and Musselburgh, east of Edinburgh city centre. It’s a beautiful walk along the promenade, more a place of leisure than of work, but until relatively recently it was an important industrial hub – there was a paper mill and a chocolate factory all within easy reach of the Pottery.

Today a small group, led by Bird, helped to revive a memory of that recent industrial past, through a walk event which told the decorators’ stories. These were the women who painted the ceramics before they were fired in they kiln, who occasionally raked through the spoils to try out their own designs and have them fired on the sly. Like a band of investigators searching for clues we walked around the area and examined maps from different phases of the area’s history.

Classic Buchan Portobello pottery, set against the backdrop of the beautiful kiln bricks

We also looked at examples of the pottery the women had decorated, and two fellow participants told me they recognised the design – it used to be sold in all the tourist shops in the 1970s, but they had never realised it had been made in Portobello itself. It felt good to participate in reviving that part of the town’s story, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for pieces of Buchan pottery in Edinburgh’s shops from now on. Even the most everyday objects can be brought to life through giving a voice to their past, which is why art projects like this one, which evoke memories that have been lost, are so important, especially for communities that have changed as much as Portobello.

Nicky Bird’s residency with Art Walk Projects is culminating with an event in February, so this walk was really a launch for her project. The completed work promises to be one that shakes off the dust that has settled on Portobello’s recent history, and I’ll look forward to seeing what else is revealed.

‘National Gallery, London’, by Jean-François Rauzier (2018)

I keep on thinking about a remarkable work I saw as part of Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage at the Modern last week, which I didn’t include in my review. The work was made in 2018 by Jean-Francois Rauzier (b.1952) and is called National Gallery, London.

At this stage I will admit that I may have been predisposed to think favourably of the piece. I worked at National Gallery for around four years, and the bonds I form with places dear to me don’t tend to fade away casually. This work recreates some of the place’s grandeur, its abundance, then mashes it up and reimagines it in the most striking way.

Familiar architecture, reimagined

The composition is made up of thousands of different photos of the National Gallery, with around 3000 works from the collection digitally stitched together (hence being part of the ‘Cut and Paste’ narrative). The National Gallery’s architecture has been futuristically transposed, its famous long vistas and arches lined up across the base of the work, while the broad white borders that cut horizontally across the centre give the impression of a multi-storey building, packed to the rafters with paintings in a dizzying salon hang.

National Gallery, London is one of Rauzier’s “Hyperphotos”, which he began creating in 2002 and which combine the feeling of a panorama with microscopic detail. While it may not be evident from my own photographs of the work, snapped during an exhibition visit, each painting is reproduced with pinpoint accuracy, astounding detail and clarity. Getting up close to the work, the viewer can pick out any number of famous, recognisable and well-loved paintings. For me, finding some of my old favourites was like searching for the faces of long lost friends in a crowd.

I found George Stubbs’ Whistlejacket (1762), a painting I loved as a child, taking pride of place in the centre.

One of the special things about the National Gallery is that in the action of walking through its rooms, the visitor goes on a pretty comprehensive journey through the history of Western European painting from c.1250-c.1930. Within that broad narrative, each painting tells an individual story, and captures something of its own historical moment. With the help of wall texts, written by curators and educators, we as viewers use clues to decipher that story, such as the subject matter, the style in which it is painted, the life of the artist, or through the artwork’s history as an object itself (who it was painted for, who has owned it throughout the centuries).

Even though I am lucky enough to be familiar with some of the works photographed by Rauzier, I felt as though I needed hours, if not days, to look properly at this artwork and the paintings contained within it, just as when you visit an art gallery you know it won’t be possible to absorb everything before what a friend of mine calls “museum back” kicks in and you need to sit down in the cafe.

A wall of paintings by Titian (1490-1576). What’s not to love?

There is so much life packed into every single artwork, and the more you learn about the history of art, the more remarkable it is that here, Rauzier has piled a major chunk of that sumptuous and fascinating history into one single work, exercising his own curatorial and architectural choices along the way. He tells the story in way that would almost be legible in one glance, were it not for the sheer weight of all that’s packed into it.

As individuals, we create and take our own meanings from artworks, and our experience of art is informed by our own stories, which is certainly one of the reasons why I found this work by Rauzier so fascinating, and why I know I’ll keep finding things to say about it even after I’ve hit the ‘publish’ button for this blog post. Whether or not you are interested in art history, it is impossible to deny that Rauzier’s futuristic retelling of it is a visual feast, albeit an overwhelming one that is impossible to finish in one sitting.

‘Cut and paste: 400 years of collage’, National Galleries Scotland

There’s so much packed into this exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which connects radically different works of art by artists as diverse as Pietro da Cortona (Italian Baroque painter and architect, 1596-1669) and Linder (British radical feminist artist, b.1954) it’s difficult to know where to begin.

The exhibition is a chronological survey of just about everything connected to the act of cutting one thing and sticking/stitching it on to another, including the digital techniques used today by brilliant artists like Cold War Steve. So there’s a lot to get through.

It might sound as a though the whole concept is a bit broad (it’s true that the exhibition has so many works it almost falls into the ‘overwhelming’ category), but in the very act of broadening out the understanding of collage as art, the show opens up the narrative possibilities around the medium. By including works by amateur and anonymous artists, we see the informal side of collage, which became hugely popular in the nineteenth century, particularly among women. I’m glad of that because it exposes some of the many weird and wonderful constructions that resulted from the pastime of sticking one thing to another, one of my favourites being this monstrously ugly baby from 1890.

Anonymous, Baby, (about 1890)

By placing objects like this one alongside Picasso’s Old Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper (1913), the exhibition stressed some of the continuities of collage throughout the centuries. Yet though the wall text explained how the meanings of collage changed in the twentieth century, I still feel that more could have been made of how utterly radical it was when avant garde artists started to incorporate fragments of newspaper and other ephemera on to the canvas. It was a gesture that intended to break the mould and redefine painting altogether, which had huge repercussions on what later constituted art. It was for this reason that collage went on to be one of the go-to visual languages of satire, protest and activism.

Pablo Picasso, Bottle of Old Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper, 1913

For me, the political artworks were some of the best in the show. John Heartfield’s series of satirical photomontages for the left-wing German publication AIZ really fascinated me. One, depicting a Hitler with coins for a skeleton alongside the caption “Adolf the Superman: swallows gold and spouts rubbish” (1932) felt particularly apt to our current political climate. I just wish the series was placed somewhere more prominent, rather than in a walkway. The exhibition has so much to say, but there wasn’t enough space to say it. Better to cut down on the numbers of works and give ones like this the position they deserve.

John Heartfield, rotogravure, published in AIZ 17 July 1932

It seems that with works in collage, there’s a strong urge towards the uncanny, things that disturb and make the viewer take a second look. That was true of the works exploring the body by feminist artists of the 1960s and 70s, in one of the best rooms of the exhibition. I hadn’t heard of Annegret Soltau (b.1946) before, and her works made with black thread suturing together different photographs of her naked body were really striking.

Annegret Soltau, Schwanger II (Pregnant II), 1978

There are so many fascinating things to see at this exhibition and it throws a light on some of the challenges of dealing with such a broad theme. It is said too often, Qbut there really is something for everyone here, and I would really recommend you go and see it before it closes on 27 October.

‘My Own Private Bauhaus’, David Batchelor at Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

I first encountered David Batchelor’s work about a year ago, and I was so happy when I heard he had a show in Edinburgh, at Ingleby Gallery (free, ending 28 September). It’s not a place I’m familiar with, and being a commercial gallery, I wondered whether the space would feel welcoming. Though I had to ring a bell to be let in, there was no need to fear – I was welcomed by a friendly member of staff who introduced me to the gallery and some of the ideas behind the exhibition.

The building itself dates from 1834 and is settled in the heart of Edinburgh’s austere but beautiful New Town. It was originally built as a religious meeting house for the Glasites, a break-away group of worshippers from the Church of Scotland, who heartily disapproved of embellishment, decoration (or, it seems, joyfulness of any kind) in their places of worship. So it is with a delicious sense of irony that such a space has been transformed into a gallery, a dynamic that I’m sure Batchelor would have revelled in when planning the exhibition.

The ceiling of the main exhibition space

One of my favourite things about Batchelor’s work is that it is characterised by a sense of playfulness. It doesn’t seem to take itself to seriously: art is boiled down to its essentials – colours and shapes – reminding us that all of us begin interacting with the world through these two key sensory building blocks. Through his explorations, Batchelor invites us become children again, to see with fresh eyes and wonderment that art can exist within the banal and the everyday. He’s there to show us where and how to look.

Installation view, the piece on the floor in the centre is Dogdays, 2008-2011

The exhibition is full of all sorts of mundane objects made fascinating, mounted on their concrete plinths and transformed into abstract sculptures. There are tape measures, huge spheres made of electrical wires and cable ties, sheets of intricate mesh, plastic circles that look like bottle tops, all celebrating the vibrancy of artificial colour. There’s not much suggesting the natural world in here, though shards of glass stuck in concrete look remarkably like window boxes. Rather, it’s the things we have invented that take precedence, repurposed and reframed by Batchelor, the magpie-esque collector of all things shiny, bright and saturated.

Geo-Concreto 06, 2018 (left) and Geo-Concreto 02, 2018 (right)

Yet for all of their man-made qualities, the show is not about looking at the pristine perfection of these objects, but rather their imperfections. The paintings on the walls are made using spray paint, giving them a mechanical shine that seems totally devoid of the artist’s hand, yet the circles themselves are misshapen and pleasingly wobbly, with the occasional splodge of paint that may not have been intended, but remains present on the canvas nonetheless.

Part of the Concreto 1.0h series

Much more tactile than the paintings, however, are their partner sculptures, made by precariously stacking the lids of paint pots on to of one another, the paint crusty, wrinkled and stippled, crying out to be prodded and poked. Some sculptures are framed by fluorescent fabric backdrops, and the much maligned plastic bottle is transformed the ultimate 21st century chandelier.

It’s art that’s fun, accessible, and shows us the possibility of finding beauty in the most basic of everyday things, a skill we need more than ever at the moment.

Candela, 2016

Bridget Riley, National Galleries Scotland

This week, I finally got round to seeing the Bridget Riley exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery. A couple of friends had been telling me how great the show was, and the critics had been raving about it, so I knew I had to catch it before it closes (Sunday 22nd September), and moves to the Hayward Gallery in London for its second leg.

Riley was a key figure in the Op Art movement, which developed in the 1960s and used abstract patterns and geometric shapes to create optical illusions in art. You can see that straight away, with Cataract 3, in Room 1. The whole painting is pulsating and vibrating with energy, in a way that makes you want to reach out and check that the canvas itself isn’t undulating. It’s a dizzying experience and quite a shock to the system.

Detail of Cataract 3 (1967)

Some of Riley’s most famous works are the black and white pieces (Room 2), which seem, paradoxically, to be alive with colour. As your eyes scan the canvas, it flickers with pink and green, like looking at a TV screen when the channel isn’t tuned in, the visual equivalent of white noise.

I was familiar with the concept of Riley’s work and was vaguely interested in seeing it, but hadn’t been prepared for just how convincing it is when experienced in person. As the exhibition continued, I realised I had expected it to be fairly simplistic and one-note, but her work is a much more in-depth exploration of perception and sensation. It shows us how what we see is deeply connected to how we feel, not just emotionally, but physically as well.

Current (1964)

As your body moves closer to and further away from the paintings, or your eyes refocus as they try to figure out the mechanics of the brushstrokes, what you see shifts and morphs. It made me want to take off my glasses and lie down, to let the colours wash over me, the paintings becoming hallucinogenics and bringing a kind of playful blurring to the gallery space. It’s not surprising that Op Art was born in the 1960s.

My favourite room was at the heart of the exhibition, and displayed a number of Riley’s brightly-coloured monumental striped canvases. The way the pairings of colours create different effects, and can trick the eye, made me wonder how colour really works. In Paean (1973), stripes of red, white, blue and green seem to create flashes of pink. Riley’s work must be underpinned by a proper understanding of the physics of colour theory, and the fascinating room packed full of her sketches and studies show how meticulously worked out each composition is.

Detail of Paean (1973)

In 2017, Riley said that ‘the movement is created by looking’, which to me, is the key to her work. It suggests that it is the viewer, as a participant, who plays a pivotal role in ‘activating’ the compositions. As we move around the paintings and allow our eyes to drift over them, we help to bring them to life. It’s an experience everyone will react to differently, but one I would recommend trying.