Art is so much bigger than me

Over the last six months, I’ve missed a certain feeling that being in a gallery or museum gives me. Before lockdown, I knew that looking at art made me feel calm and curious, slowed me down, gave me space. But my return to visiting a couple of places which house art (in London – Scotland’s major galleries are still closed for business) has made me realise what I particularly like about it. Experiencing art makes me remember I am part of something bigger than me.

This realisation hit home most clearly when I went to Gagosian Grosvenor Hill to see Crushed, Cast, Constructed, a show with a wholly grey palette, featuring only five works. These are sculptures made in metal by John Chamberlain, Urs Fischer and Charles Ray. The three works by Fischer dominated the show: they started out as lumps of clay moulded by the artist’s hand, and then were scanned, enlarged so each model was over 3 metres high, and cast in aluminium. It’s like they are the product of a kindergarten for giants, that have been dipped in a vast vat of bubbling of metal and then returned to our world as serious, grown up objects. They are alien, they are too big, the Guardian’s critic Adrian Searle found them overbearing.

Installation view showing the vast scale of Urs Fischer’s aluminium sculptures

But that feeling of being overbourne (not a word) is actually pleasant after being the biggest thing in your same four walls night and day for six months. It’s the same reason I like big skies, mountaintop views, the sea.

Even the mechanisms and processes that created these objects and made them possible as art – the ideas, the funding, the training, the supplies, the gallerists, the agents, the transportation, the curation and a million steps in between are too big and complex for me to get my head around – especially after being separated from this ecosystem for such a long while. We, the viewers, are the very end point, the final cog in the machinery of the art world. Sometimes it’s actually nice to feel like a cog, while at the same time knowing you are the privileged recipient of all the cumulative hard work of others. It takes you out of the mundane minutiae or dramatic highs and lows of your personal existence and allows you to just be, for a brief moment, an uncommitted observer. You don’t even have to like the art you’re looking at to get this feeling.

In an era where we’ve all had so much time to sit with ourselves, in our sometimes messy, sometimes directionless lives, it was somehow restorative to spend time in this clean box of a gallery. With its white walls and dark, smooth floors, architecturally it is the polar opposite of a home, where each object is imbued with personal meanings or tasks yet to be completed (laundry, cards to respond to, bikes needing a service). To be an anonymous person in this quiet room, looking at these weird objects, is to abdicate responsibility. I owe nothing to them, they owe nothing to me.

Charles Ray, Tractor, (2003-4)

They are weird objects. Alongside Fischer’s gigantic clay-as-metal lumps, there is a crushed box cast in galvanised steel and zinc by John Chamberlain and an old tractor that was painstakingly taken apart by Charles Ray and each piece cast in aluminium before being put back together. 

Some might say this kind of art is pointless: it’s difficult to imagine who might even collect such objects, once perhaps useful and functional, now rendered inept by their recreation. But here, in their very pointlessness, in their mere taking up of space for our perusal, they signify everything we’ve been denied in these serious Covid times: fun, playfulness and even a kind of detachment from the chaos of the world unfolding around them. That shift in perspective was like a tonic to me. In their metallic, alien coldness, these sculptures restored my understanding of the world as something far bigger than me, a realisation I often find reassuring.

John Chamberlain, Untitled, (c.1967)

My two-year-old nephew taught me how to look at art after lockdown

Last week I spent a really nice chunk of time hanging out with the youngest member of my family. My nephew is two and he’s great company. He’s how I want to be: curious, reflective, eager for fun and a sponge for new information. With his wide-eyed wonderment, he has taught me how to look at art again after a long, enforced break (otherwise known as lockdown).

We read books together and looked at the pictures (me reading, both of us looking). Illustration is amazing, and I think a severely underrated form of art. I’m extremely lucky that in my day job, I interact with children’s books on a regular basis. Children’s books are some of the most accessible, universally loved and widely appreciated ways we experience art. The stories fascinate us, but the images are what portray and communicate the joy and terror of the narratives to young minds who cannot yet read or form sentences themselves. Fearfully gazing at the Gruffalo’s long black tongue and terrible teeth, or admiring the crisp and clear (read Scandi) aesthetic in Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, we carry the pictures with us long after the words have faded from memory.

Some of the most memorable books from my childhood were about looking at details. I was raised on books by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, searching for the characters and minuscule, meticulously written lost letters in The Jolly Postman was my delight. Later, The Most Amazing Night Book by Robert Crowther was my favourite. My nephew is also seemingly enthralled by the details. His favourite thing to do is to ask “Who’s dat?”, pointing excitedly at tiny ladybirds, trees, rocks, main characters, random piles of hay, clothes and anything else that catches his eye. Anyone who has interacted with children regularly will tell you they are incredibly perceptive and observant. Sometimes surprisingly so. They can see and sense things adults can’t.

A household favourite: The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

Last week, along with hanging out with my family I also went to a gallery for the first time in six months. After trawling the internet and realising most places in London had been booked out long before by far better-organised art lovers, I managed to get a midday slot at the Wallace Collection, one of my favourite places to see art, as well as admire luxurious furnishing (and pretend I’m part of eighteenth century aristocracy). I would probably go to see the silk wall hangings alone.

Blue wall silks and golden frames in a dense salon hang

I was so happy to have a slot, but despite really friendly staff and the safety measures that had been introduced, it wasn’t the most relaxing experience. It was a pressing reminder that we’re all still working through the anxieties this pandemic has produced. That the new normal isn’t going to be as good as the old normal for quite a while.

A one way system was in place and there were capacity limits on all of the rooms on the route, which created the slightly unpleasant feeling of being on a conveyor belt. Somewhat obliged to wait for those in front without pressuring them, but not wanting to take too long, disrupt the flow or be left behind, stuck in a swirling eddy without being able to rejoin the main current of my fellow gallery-goers. Not the best atmosphere for being absorbed by and for absorbing art.

I spent the first part of my visit worrying about the choreography of my movements between my fellow observers, concerned I was getting too close, getting mildly annoyed with pushy people behind me. But then I saw an oil painting, Still Life With A Monkey, attributed to Jan Jansz de Heem (c.1670-95), that made me stop in my tracks. I thought about my nephew, how much he would love looking at the cornucopia of riches in the painting and examining all the elements, individually interrogating their form and purpose. I stepped off the conveyor belt and just looked.

Still Life With A Monkey, attributed to Jan Jansz de Heem (1670-95)

The spiral of lemon peel, the oysters, the mushrooms scattered on the table, the oozing pomegranate, the jug on its side, the tankard on its side, the bright white cloth, the monkey?! This kind of artwork demands your time, forces your eye to wander. We understand that still life paintings are often laced with double or even triple meanings (broken column = transitory nature of human life), but just looking at the surface level composition of what is there, without any further knowledge of iconography or semantics, is a pleasure in itself. The brightness of the lobster, the chaos and excess of it all, the way the food packs 7/8ths of the entire canvas, the needlessly dramatic sky behind. The above is my photo taken on the day, but there’s a brighter, slightly yellowy version of the painting here if you want to look more closely at the details.

Much of what drives my blog and my Instagram is a need and a wish to celebrate the everyday, to encourage others to read the notes in the margins, to slow down and enjoy colours and contrasts, patterns, eccentricities, particularly of city life. We can apply this attitude to great paintings in grand houses too. We think we know still life paintings. I imagine they’re the paintings most readily walked past without so much as a second glance because they are rarely super-famous showstoppers — but let’s take this opportunity to recognise how very bizarre and beautiful they are.

When we return to art galleries, they might not be the same as they were. But if we remember to approach art with curiosity, to take time, and notice the details, even if we haven’t got the brain space to work out what they mean, they can bring us both joy and a little peace. As from now, I’ll be adopting the “Who’s dat?” philosophy of close looking. That’s how I want to return to engaging with art as lockdown lifts. I’ll encourage you to do the same, but if you’re not feeling ready just yet, you can always start with The Gruffalo.

Public art, statues and identity

A few of my friends, who know I’m interested in public space, memorials, statues and public art (because I’m constantly banging on about it) have asked me what I think about the debate raging over statues in Britain. In order to try and express this, I’m going to draw on something I wrote during my MSc at Edinburgh College of Art last year, which takes two case studies from the USA as its main examples. 

I want to show that public art, including performative rituals such as protests, can usefully inform debates around our identity, and that a frank discussion of visual culture in public spaces remains vital for understanding the public sphere we operate in today.

The essay was written for a class called Art in the Creative City, run by Harry Weeks (now at Newcastle University ). I’ve taken out large chunks, removed the footnotes and edited it fairly heavily in the interest of making it more accessible. If you want to see my reading list or access the original essay, send me a note in the comments, or DM me on Instagram. Events are changing so fast. ‘Statue defenders’ are holding protests at London’s Cenotaph as I write this. I’ll try and keep up with the momentum. Asterisks mark the start and end of the essay section, before sharing some of my thoughts on the situation in Britain.

***

The question of who is commemorated and who is erased in public space is one that is charged with different interpretations of history, politics and the concept of identity. Historically, public art has reflected the power of the dominant forces in society, because having a presence in public space, being deemed worthy of representation, is a signal of power, status and money.

Statue of Robert E. Lee, Charlottesville, VA., (1924), bronze and granite, (7.9m × 3.7m × 2.4m including plinth)

The turbulent history surrounding the equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, is indicated by the renaming of its location three times over the past three years. Formerly Lee Park, it was briefly to become Emancipation Park, and now is known as Market Street Park; the difficulty of finding the right name for the space directly connects with the controversy around the statue of Lee. The monument was erected in 1924 as part of the wider movement known as the ‘Lost Cause’, which intended to frame the participation of the Southern States in a Civil War narrative of heroism and gallantry, with similar monuments erected in nearby Richmond, Virginia and further afield. In Charlottesville, city councillors took the decision to remove the monument in the spring of 2017, though its removal was delayed pending a legal challenge. During the delay between March and August of that year, the statue became a rallying point for far right groups, who protested against its proposed removal. Over the summer, a number of protests and counter-protests for and against the removal of the statue culminated in August, when violence at a rally for ‘Unite the Right’ resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, a peaceful protestor. The event was reported widely on national and international news.

As a piece of public sculpture, this statue and its interpretation as a symbol of either hateful racism or historic pride by different sides of the debate, is at the centre of these political events. The visual symbolism of the statue and the differing aesthetics that emerged around it, are therefore highly relevant. As embodied rituals, protests, marches and vigils can be read as forms of performance, which use visual tools to enhance their legibility and potency. The rallies both for and against the Robert E. Lee’s removal were no exception. 

During a rally in May 2017 protesting against the removal of the sculpture, the leader Richard Spencer was heavily criticised for promoting the use of torches, which were interpreted as an symbolic visual invocation of Ku Klux Klan gatherings. Spencer’s response was to deny that the torches had any reference to the KKK, but justified their use on the basis of their ‘beautiful aesthetic’. This argument, highly doubtful given Spencer’s overtly white nationalist views, attempts to justify the use of a controversial symbol of terror on the basis of an aesthetic effect. It shows the extent to which aesthetic and political strategies are interlinked, and highlights the ways in which public art and aesthetic gestures can be (mis)used as tools for political agitation, whether progressive or regressive.

Scholar David Harvey has convincingly argued that cities as public spaces are constantly in a symbiotic relationship of shaping and being shaped by their inhabitants, through their political, intellectual and economic engagement. It is therefore no surprise that public art is persistently at the centre of debates about identity, collective memory, history and politics, and a whole range of different ideas about right and wrong, who is represented, and who is erased. The case of the Charlottesville statue of Robert E. Lee shows this in action. So far, the statue has been analysed as a magnet for far-right politics, but there are other tactics at work too, interventions that successfully question its validity as a supposedly heroic symbol.

On a purely formal level, the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, raised up on its stone plinth, works within the visual language of dominance and power: gazing up from below, we see nothing but galloping hooves. In 2015, prior to the council’s vote to remove the statue, the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ were sprayed on its plinth, and although removed soon afterwards, the outline remains vaguely visible. While many might categorise graffiti as anti-social behaviour and vandalism, Lucy Lippard has framed these kinds of gestures as ‘wake-up art’, and assigns them a significant role within the field of public art, with the capacity to call attention to problematic places and to galvanise communities into action. The political resonance of the graffiti gesture in this context, proven by the groundswell of support for the campaign to remove the Charlottesville statue, is indisputable. In February 2019, further graffiti covered the statue’s plinth, and it is likely that these gestures will continue to be enacted on the statue until its fate has been decided in the legal courts. In this context then, the graffiti acts as a kind of reframing mechanism, reminding passers-by and the media that the debate has not gone away. Statues and monuments commemorating military leaders who fought to defend slavery remain unacceptable to swaths of American society, and especially painful to the African-American community. The debate will continue in public life as long as these contentious symbols remain standing in shared, supposedly equal-access public spaces.

By existing in public spaces, public artworks and their interpretation are fundamentally unpredictable, just as people themselves can be unpredictable. Instead of being confined to the space of a gallery or museum, where artworks are constantly under surveillance and accessible only to a minority of people, public art is out in the open. It is exposed to all passers-by and, while this means it may exist completely unnoticed, equally it can also function as a site of intervention, either in the form of graffiti, or by being used as rallying points within performative gatherings, such as protests and vigils. It is through this very unpredictability and spontaneity that these public works can attain their meaning, and spark debate about what kind of society we wish to construct. Public art in all its forms can help to inform our debates about who is visible, who is represented in our public spaces, and can help us to articulate our equal responsibility in building our shared ownership of them.

Though the graffiti intervention on Robert E. Lee’s plinth effectively brings the sculpture back into the discursive realm and questions its validity, ‘wake up art’ is not the only option for diversifying public spaces. The right to be officially recognised in public sculpture and represented within the ‘symbolic public landscape’, to use Magdalena Dembinska’s term, is also important for the assertion of minorities’ identities.

Branly Cadet, A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial, (2017), bronze, granite, and stainless steel, statue height 3.6m

Branly Cadet’s 2017 monument A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial, which is situated on the southwest corner of Philadelphia’s City Hall, is a useful example. The memorial is comprised of multiple elements which together form an impressive monument to an extraordinary figure – a Civil War-era activist who campaigned for the rights of African-American citizens – who is clearly deserving of recognition in the public sphere.

The monument operates strictly within the confines of the traditional aesthetic of monumental public art, through its figurative use of bronze, and its position outside City Hall. From a formal perspective therefore, it does not push the boundaries or challenge its viewers aesthetically – it is clearly designed to avoid provoking controversy. Yet this is perhaps the very purpose of the Catto monument: it allows African-Americans to assert their presence and validity within the mainstream tradition of monumental forms. The sculpture’s title, A Quest for Parity, specifically refers to Catto’s campaigns for equality. Yet the monument itself is also a reassertion of that quest for parity within public art and representation in the public arena more broadly. The monument therefore is an example of how traditional forms can also help to raise visibility of minority communities, and that their presence in the public arena need not only be represented by avant-garde artistic strategies or counter-monumental interventions. 

Public art is embedded in a political landscape. In whatever form it takes, in both its inception and its interpretation, it is informed by differing ideological positions and political beliefs: what remains standing and what is removed from our parks, squares, and the façades of government buildings reflects the societies in which we live. Artworks can be deeply divisive, and can expose latent divisions within societies in ways that can be traumatic and will require healing. Art has the power to spark and intervene in public debate.

What was revered, relevant and what was commemorated in the past may not always be admirable and appropriate in the present and future, which is why those who manage public spaces need to enter into dialogues with the communities and individuals who use them. Artworks that evolve and change help us to question the notions of one fixed ‘public’, and can encourage us to embrace flexible visions of the public sphere, and recognise multiple viewpoints, helping to make those who had been invisible and unheard part of the many voices that make up public life.

***

Fast forward a year and after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, a wave of social activism has swept the US and Britain. In Richmond, Virginia, the government has pledged to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue. Images on Instagram of black ballerinas posing below the monument, now covered in graffiti, depict a significant historic moment and show the power of activism. Neighbouring Charlottesville campaigners are relieved that their state authorities are finally acknowledging the hurt these monuments have caused, and hope it will hasten the removal of Lee’s statue from Market Street Park.

In Britain, the argument over who is permitted representation in public space seems to be right at the heart of the nation’s identity crisis. There are a few thoughts I have to add to this debate, which is constantly evolving. Firstly, it is a good thing our public monuments are under scrutiny. They have remained invisible in plain sight for far too long. 

The statue of Edward Colston that was forcibly removed by anti-racist protestors and symbolically dumped into the River Avon, where his ships that carried slaves across the Atlantic would have docked, was a momentous and powerful act. The act of its removal has done more to educate people about Britain than the passive existence of the statue itself ever has. As historian David Olusoga has said, rather than the erasure of history, this was the writing of it. Removed in this way is actually far better than had it been quietly taken down by the city’s authorities. It was a moment of activism, a kindling of hope that change could be possible. 

For this reason, I don’t believe the statue should have been retrieved from the water so hastily, and I don’t believe it belongs in a museum. As stated above, museums are accessed by a small proportion of the populace, whereas the public space, city squares and streets, are used by us all. (Or were, until coronavirus forced us back to the private sphere, an act which though necessary and in the interest of public health, will serve to entrench the inequalities already prevalent in British society). Rather, Bristol City Council could commission an art piece which works in dialogue with the local community and their city to respond to Colston’s removal: an artwork which shows the journey of the statue from its plinth to the waterfront. Leave the plinth standing empty –  the equivalent of an empty chair at a political debate. Leave up the graffiti. Use the landscape and the statue’s journey within it to teach people about Colston, about the legacies of the slave trade upon which Bristol and Britain’s wealth was built. 

Graffiti on the Meadows, Edinburgh, 13 June 2020

For far too long have the British seen themselves as the “goodies” of history, an idea that has been perpetuated by an education system that doesn’t include the British Empire or colonial rule. I had to do a history degree before I was really exposed to these aspects of our past. If we need inspiration, our European neighbours have examples of public art that helps passers-by work through the traumas of the history. The Berlin wall is commemorated by a copper line which traces the footprint of where the barrier once stood, an artwork woven into the urban fabric which educates but doesn’t erase. Britain could learn a lot from Germany when it comes to acknowledging the past through the use of public space and visual culture.

Understandably, the movement to reassess our statues and monuments has now gathered significant momentum, and other historical figures have come into focus, which has exposed some uncomfortable truths that many would rather sweep under the rug. I think, or would hope, that the vast majority of people agree that slave traders like Colston should have removed long ago. Meanwhile, figures like Winston Churchill and Robert Baden-Powell attract both support and denouncement. Many see these men as heroes, while others reject them for their support of ideologies which, while perhaps common in their day, are not to be celebrated in 2020.

I personally know that the Second World War was not won by one man, and believe that it is possible (and more constructive) to celebrate the now inclusive and welcoming Scout movement without glorifying its founder. However, when I ‘read the room’, and see who is in power in the UK, I think we may have to concede the impossibility of removing all contentious historic figures from view in this current climate. If that is the case, then we need to level the playing field by following the example of Brandy Cadet’s Octavius V. Catto Memorial: let’s commission artists to create monuments to those who have been forgotten, the historically powerless and marginalised. Edinburgh infamously has more statues of animals than of women. If we can’t topple the statue of Henry Dundas in St Andrew’s Square, let’s set up a sculpture that counteracts the ridiculous, phallic intrusion of his monument on our city’s skyline. Let’s insert the narratives of the witches who were publicly executed, the Windrush generation, the LGBT+ community, working class voices, immigrant communities and all who have built our cities into the diverse and interesting places they are today.

Public art can help to articulate and inform our very understanding of who we are, and how we operate in the public sphere, as both individuals and within the groups to which we identify ourselves as belonging. Britain is a deeply divided society, so a proper exploration of our art, which acts like a mirror, can be a way of working through and understanding these divisions. It’s not going to be an easy task. It’s not going to be pretty. There will be lots of feathers ruffled, tears shed, arguments and fights in the process, but asserting our public spaces as sites for activism and debate will be a necessary catharsis, and will enable us to ‘build back better’ in the imminent future.

‘Wake up’ art at a bus stop in Edinburgh, seen 13 June 2020

Communities, connections and growing things

Adapting projects to fit our ‘new normal’ has been the concern of many of us over the past few days, weeks and months. Artists have had to rethink entire proposals, final year degree shows are being reimagined so they can be exhibited online, and there have been lots of virtual gallery content for us to connect with. But how do you adapt a project that is about physically being present in a place, without being able to access it in person?

This was the challenge facing artists Felicity Bristow and Susie Wilson, who have been carrying out a Landmarks residency with Art Walk Porty. The project is based around a plot at Craigentinny Telferton allotments. After months of planning, preparing the soil, connecting with other plot holders and discovering what they had inherited from the previous owner, they were just on the cusp of beginning to plant, run workshops and kickstart the project in earnest when lockdown and the coronavirus crisis changed all that.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Felicity and Susie about their project, to find out how they have adapted and changed their approach to suit new surroundings. The interview has just gone live on the Art Walk Porty website. You can access it here.

Plot 55b, like all of Art Walk Porty’s residencies, is a place-centred project based in the local Portobello community. It is about process and engagement as much as, if not more than, about presenting a ‘final product’. In that way, the artists have discovered that although separated from the allotment itself, the process of growing things, of documenting their progress, could be carried out from their homes. They have set up a seed exchange and have been prompting each other with ideas, artworks and games sent in the post. They also discovered that the almost meditative act of sewing seeds and looking after plants has been beneficial to their mental health over the lockdown period. This is something that I can relate to even without access to a garden: managing not to kill my two houseplants over the last twelve weeks has been a source of great joy.

The recognition that connecting with the natural world can contribute positively to our mental health, combined with our need to avoid enclosed spaces in the coming months, will hopefully lead to more imaginative thinking in art projects, community engagement ideas and education as we turn to face our ‘new normal’. Plot 55b is a really lovely example of how that process can come to life.

The plan for Plot 55b – once Felicity and Susie can get back to it

Art in lockdown: The Hermitage, St Petersburg

Each week for the past month, I’ve been going to Russia. To the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, specifically. A close friend and I have been watching something we wouldn’t have considered engaging with before lockdown: a five-hour iPhone 11 advert, which explores the museum in an extraordinary way.

Even in lockdown, five hours is a bit too long. It’s far longer than I would be able to spend in a museum before fatigue, overwhelm and “museum back” set in. So we watched it in bite-size chunks. It became a little ritual. Every Tuesday at 9pm we would call each other, and press play at the same time to experience the tour together. It sounds bizarre, but it’s one of my favourite ways I’ve experienced art in lockdown.

The tour is meticulously curated. It is in one take, but isn’t a film that simply drifts past the museum’s many artworks (there are three million objects in the collection, including paintings, sculptures, textiles, porcelain, jewels, armour, coins, etc., so we only see a snapshot). This is a focussed journey that pays attention to the architecture and the interiors of the building. Dancers, actors and musicians all feature. They activate the space in vast corridors and lavish rooms, enliven the collection, and act as ciphers for our own bodies which, in normal circumstances, could be travelling through the rooms, pacing the floors, gazing at the ceilings.

I’ve long enjoyed watching people engaging with art: imagining what they’re thinking, and wondering why certain artworks speak to some people but not to others. My friend and I were now observing a false version of this in private and at a distance. We discussed the characters’ hair and clothes, speculated about their relationships with each other, puzzled over what the experience of making a film in an otherwise empty national museum, on the precipice of a global pandemic might have been like.

Gossiping with my friend, analysing what we were seeing together, was one of the best parts of the experience, making the surreal normal, as if we were actually touring a museum together. The mutuality of it, my friend watching in London and me in Edinburgh, spurred us on, and time slipped away quickly. Sometimes, the film became the backdrop to our conservation, sometimes we just watched and our words left us.

The physicality of the camera moving through rooms, doubling back, going in circles, helped make the experience lifelike. We commented on different works we liked, we discussed the merits of the decor (she hated the white curtains), I tried to show off some biblical knowledge to help interpret some of the Christian paintings, to varying degrees of success. There were moments when I craved a few clues about the paintings’ narratives, who made them, their titles – without explanation or context, lots of artworks are VERY weird and tricky to interpret – but providing additional information on screen would have made it too educational. The experience was more about wonder than learning.

The Garden of Earthly Delights prior to ultra zoom

The entire film is shot on iPhone 11, which is where the advert side comes in. The detail it captures is really extraordinary. The ultra zoom is one of my favourite digital tools through which we can experience art differently. Our capacity to see intricate close-ups of paintings is mind-blowing, and something to be celebrated. Zooming in on The Garden of Earthly Delights by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch (1556-1568?) – the original is in the Prado in Madrid – we could see more clearly than had we been standing before it. There are people cavorting on/with animals, giant birds, bodies inside clam shells, people with flowers sprouting from their bums, fruit the size of humans. If you want to pick three minutes of the whole thing to watch, this carnival of a painting features from 1:09-1:12.

The Hermitage film played with light in interesting ways which warped time, creating uncertainty over whether it was day or night. Towards the end the use of a white torch light on white marble sculptures plunged everything else into darkness, and we were floating in a monochrome world.

Marble sculptures floating in a monochrome world

The museum at night is a creepy, exciting prospect, and one the film makes use of. There were several allusions to the presence of history, and the ghosts that live within its very walls. After all, it is a building which began as a private palace, its first collections were amassed by Catherine the Great in the 18th century. It has ridden the waves of Russian/Soviet/global history since then: wars, revolutions, political regimes, the Siege of Leningrad, and this pandemic. That it is still here today, for us to enjoy, even only as digital ghosts from a distance, is something we can all take comfort in.

I found some old photos

I recently found an old hard drive I’d stored photos on for many years, dating back roughly to 2009 – pre cloud storage and Instagram. Back then, I was getting ready to leave school and move out of the family home I’d lived in for most of my life. Finding these photos now, I’m struck by what you can learn about yourself by seeing what you’ve carried with you, and who you’ve journeyed with, over the years.

I never thought I’d taken that many pictures, and yet here they are. A selection of moments documenting around 8 years of my life. Over that time, what did I decide to photograph? Is this curation, of a sort?

Of course, my favourite photos, the ones that give me the most pleasure, are those of people. Family and friends, people I’ve held close, literally, over the years. My appearance has barely changed, I’ve never had an interesting or drastic haircut. But despise the lack of intrigue provided by my personal aesthetic, these pictures of people together show moments of joy, some of which feel so distant now – a packed Shangri la at Glastonbury in 2010. Look how many people are in such close proximity!

Shangri-la, Glastonbury, 2010

There are a couple of art photos, but not that many. Before formally studying and writing about art, I don’t think I took many photos of paintings or sculptures. In fact, I thought that was lame. That it was a distracting side quest which got in the way of the true purpose: engaging directly with the art, without intermediaries. Yes, I was a censorious undergrad. Now of course, photography is one of the prime ways I engage with and consume art.

Themes start to recur. There are photos of old buildings, the backs of houses. The patchwork aesthetic of cities, their layering, has always appealed to me. I like seeing things in multiples, billboards that repeat themselves, tiny bricks, signage, squares of different colours and textures that make up a whole.

Drummond Street, London, as a patchwork quilt

It turns out that the idea which underpins Encounters Art, of finding intrigue or humour or beauty in the everyday has been there for a long while. There are more photos of graffiti, ephemera, what I call ‘notes in the margins’ than there are of Art™, and each of these is loaded with associations and place-memories. My photo library treasures are a bin in Berlin that screams “HATE Gentrification” and an annotation on a signpost in New Haven (the home of Yale University) that advises, “God = 1st / College = 2nd).”

Bin graffiti, Berlin, 2012

Some of the photos that unexpectedly chimed with me were of a different kind of ‘everyday’, not in the city but at home. There aren’t many of these – clearly we don’t document where we live as much as the special, occasional, noteworthy moments in our lives. There’s a photo from my childhood bedroom window which I must have taken to preserve the delicate lattice of snow and frost on trees and buildings, but now it’s everything else, the normality of it, that resonates.

The view from my bedroom from 1992-2010

Looking back at the somewhat unremarkable picture, I realised that the view I saw every day for nearly 18 years (the apple tree in the garden, our neighbours’ grand conservatory they never used) had been forgotten. Or rather, it was covered in memory-dust that had gathered over years without me realising, which I hadn’t bothered to wipe away. Even my basement room in university halls of residence, a place I hated, seems interesting at this distance, captured in blurry photographs, hastily taken and packed away until now. Artists who work with found objects (a genre I, perhaps predictably, love) have understood that things don’t actually need to be our own to feel intimate, to resonate. Certain feelings, moments, memories are almost universal, though drawn from vastly differing actual experiences.

Perhaps these images of home interiors and window views have taken on a new significance since lockdown began. Looking at these photos didn’t feel simply like a trip down memory lane. I felt more like an archivist with the task of retrieving and reviving the forgotten. Unraveling continuities and disruptions in relationships, places, things my eyes have been drawn to, was a task which felt like the psychological equivalent of traveling. It gave me reassurance I think I needed, that this period of staying at home doesn’t have to be a vacuum because nothing has really happened. That memories can be made out of and despite boredom, via the simple act of taking a photograph from your window, or failing that, just looking out of it.

One of the exhibitions I did photograph, Gabriel Orozco,
Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, 2012

Glasgow International part 2: Alberta Whittle

It is often said that the two prime events that modern Britain’s identity is founded upon are victory in the Second World War in 1945, and the founding of the National Health Service in 1948. With the 75th anniversary of VE day on Friday, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been thinking these things through lately in the context of British identity. 

I’ve been helped on with these thoughts by a film by Alberta Whittle, presented as part of Glasgow International’s Digital Programme. The film is called business as usual: hostile environment (2020), and it was made especially by Whittle for the Digital Programme, adapted from a longer commission she had been working on.

Firstly I need to tell you, that if you want to watch the film you have to do so now, because today is the last day of Gi’s Digital Programme (though hopefully Whittle’s work will be added to her website soon afterwards). I wrote about two other Gi works in the previous blog post, but I needed to sit with this one for longer, because it’s more political, and therefore by nature it is harder to write about.

This is art as activism. It encompasses huge issues, from the treatment of immigrants and the hostile environment, to the Windrush scandal, to the lack of PPE available for frontline staff because of the government’s sluggish reaction and mismanagement of the unfolding COVID-19 crisis. I’ve read it as a reflection on British identity, and the holes in the narrative of that identity. That’s a lot to fit into one artwork, a 16-minute film which pieces together archival footage, news reports, computer generated images and home-movie style footage of a family’s day out on a boat. 

Despite the difficult issues broached, its juxtapositions are delicately balanced, so the imagery is not overtly violent or traumatising to watch. Painful subjects are contrasted with some beautiful footage of couples dancing from the archives of an early 1950s Britain, which then sit side by side with brief snapshots of racists marching, and National Front graffiti covering a bridge. Whittle makes use of the split screen to heighten these contrasts: a very grey-looking Britain is paired with what we assume is the clear, beautiful Caribbean sea. Towards the end, a long duet with vocals and drums raises the tension and serves to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. That’s ok though: art doesn’t exist for pleasure alone.

The film persistently subverts the romantic ideas around the images presented. It is partly a response to Visit Scotland’s theme for 2020, Coasts and Waters. What we (and Visit Scotland) might expect from that theme are artworks that respond to and promote Scotland’s amazing coastlines, images of peaceful landscapes with lochs reflecting mountainous scenery. In contrast, Whittle’s work looks at the role water, specifically the Glasgow Forth and the Clyde Canal, have played in the movement of people. There is one image that captures the cleverness and poignance of the film for me. A young black girl is having fun on a canal boat, smiling and knocking on the window, but a passing reflection makes it look for a moment like the window is barred, that she is imprisoned. That sent chills down my spine because of the other images I know of black people incarcerated on ships. It is the unsaid aspect which hovers over the film, including the hopeful images documenting the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948.

A still from Alberta Whittle’s ‘business as usual: hostile environment’ (2020)

There’s a lot that can be achieved by subverting, questioning and exploring the ideas that nationhood is based upon. Frankie Boyle’s Tour of Scotland, broadcast on the BBC earlier this year, is another example of digging beneath the surface of ideas of who we are. It’s no longer available on iPlayer but clips are online. The section where he talks to Councillor Graham Campbell about Glasgow’s ties to the slave trade was fascinating and, like Alberta Whittle’s business as usual: the hostile environment, works toward educating us about aspects of our past that are often swept under the rug – an ignorance that has allowed for the hostile environment to develop and the Windrush scandal to happen.

Multiple commentators have pointed out that the British government have tried to tie modern Britain’s founding ideas together with its approach to this crisis. Coronavirus has been likened to an enemy, using the language of combat, which isn’t always appropriate, effective or clear when it comes to responding to a medical emergency. The semantics of sacrifice and loyalty are invoked to try and bring us together – though clearly the extent of lives lost could have been limited, had the situation been better handled. Whittle’s film is a reminder that no amount of metaphor should be allowed to submerge that truth.

This work made me think again about how grateful I am to the artists, writers, comedians and journalists who encourage us to look deeper. The ones who question the myths, probe the difficult areas, who remind us to ‘stay alert’ to the situation unfolding around us, to the ideas and the language used to mobilise us. This has been a time of reflection and introspection for many of us, and there are some beautiful, human stories of solidarity that we can take pride in. But after it’s all over, we need a new consciousness to emerge and I want art to be at the forefront of imagining that to be possible as, to quote Whittle, “we try to live in hope” for a better future.

A still from Alberta Whittle’s ‘business as usual: hostile environment’ (2020)

Glasgow International is happening online, right now

The art festival Glasgow International (Gi) had to cancel and has curated a set of seven different artworks available online for the duration of the festival (until 10th May). Some are special commissions, some works were made long before the pandemic hit, but all artists would have been taking part in the festival itself, and the works represent a taster of what would have been available to see. While I understand that Gi want to mark the period when the festival would have taken place, it feels needlessly restrictive to have made this very interesting set of works available only to take them down after two and a half weeks. Time seems arbitrary now. I barely know what day it is, let alone the date. Why not leave them up until the end of lockdown or the end of May at least?

I was a bit late to the party but I’ve just finished watching/listening to them all and wanted to highlight two that resonated with me.

The first is Yuko Mohri’s Everything Flows – distance, 2020. Mohri has taken Yasujirō Ozu’s 1953 silent film Tokyo Story (which I haven’t seen), and has spliced together scenes devoid of human presence. What we are left with is a ghostly compilation of images which suggest humans through their absence. The city continues to function, ships move through water with purpose, but seem to be operated by remote control. Robotic railway station signs indicate platforms and train times to no one. Clothes on washing lines blow in the breeze and shadows on the walls of cramped interiors hint at human life, but each time, the film cuts out just before the figure comes into frame. It’s a tantalising series of almost-moments, which chimes well with having experienced a quiet, deserted central Edinburgh over the last month or so. There’s a strong sense of people watching the goings on from the high viewpoints over the city. Lanterns look like eyes. A moth bashes against a light, a fragile reflection on the futility of existence in this silent world.

Victoria St, Edinburgh looking empty on 25 April 2020

Urara Tsuchiya’s Give us a Meow, 2019, is my other pick of the bunch. This one surprised me – from the cover image and the title I didn’t think I would like it. But the 9 minute film is captivating. It tells a fragmented story, set in the rural idyll of a cottage and the countryside around it. We follow the escapades of a glamorous Asian woman who dons an impressive range of sexy outfits including animal print catsuits, fluffy negligee, powder blue and baby pink fur coats. The costumes are all made by Tsuchiya and are highly influenced by drag, adding to the fascinating confusion around the identity of our protagonist. She dances, applies makeup, takes selfies and does the ironing. It’s a surreal and humorous mash-up of the extremes of femininity, typified by one excellent shot which briefly flashes up, showing a pair of legs clad in high-heeled boots, sticking out from behind twee floral curtains. I took a screenshot which is probably not allowed, but who knows the rules of a digital art festival. Maybe this is part of a process of the democratisation of image-making, taken to a new level.

Still from Urara Tsuchiya’s ‘Give us a Meow’, 2019

For me, in a time of lockdown, it seems as though the character in Give us a Meow is attempting to recreate the experience of being in a nightclub within a completely incompatible setting of ‘home’. She dances like no one’s watching. She even has a little cry in the bathroom, picks herself back up and heads out again, an experience I’m sure we can all relate to. Seeing her vulnerability when navigating a cattle grid in heels is beautiful and moving and funny.

There’s also a fascinating, sinister aspect reflecting on the voyeurism of the film. She appears to be alone, but is not – she breaks the fourth wall repeatedly to interact with us, casting glances directly at the camera, creepily/seductively waving at us from the toilet seat. In the moments filmed outside, with her dancing by the side of the road, the film is shot from the perspective of someone watching from a car window. We are there, but it feels like someone else is there too. This also resonates particularly now – we rely on our cameras more than ever for interaction and attention, but constant rumours circulating about hackers in Zoom calls and sessions on Houseparty make us paranoid about who else might be watching. Tsuchiya created the work last year, but it feels more relevant than ever now.

So, that’s my take. I know there’s so much content out there at the moment, it can be overwhelming. I know that digital art events don’t appeal in the same way as the ones in ‘real life’, which can take you to different corners of your city and have a physicality to them that can’t be recreated on screen. But these artists have created something really interesting. What worked for me may not work for you – see what you think and let me know in the comments, or DM me on Instagram @encounters_art. I’m always here for a conversation about art!

Year 3, Steve McQueen

Yesterday ArtAngel ran a live Q&A with artist and director Steve McQueen, following their most recent collaboration for his vast work, Year 3. For this artwork, McQueen arranged for 76,146 kids, from 3,128 Year 3 classes (ages 7–8) to be photographed in the timeless, traditional, and I would even say iconic format of the class photo. It’s something most of us can relate to. Bodies arranged in rows, taller kids standing, some sitting on plastic chairs or old wooden gym benches, and others cross-legged on the floor. What has emerged is a rich tapestry, a beautiful, huge patchwork quilt of thousands of photographs that document the present and, as McQueen emphasised in the talk, the future of London. What an incredible concept for a piece of art. I’ve heard it described as a giant portrait. But it feels far more dynamic, participatory and meaningful than that word implies.

I knew that the work was being exhibited at Tate Britain (I was due to visit in April, and am gutted that now I’m unlikely to see it at all), but from photos the installation looks impressive. The messy brightness of 1,504 schools packed into the grandiose space of the Duveen Galleries would always create a delicious juxtaposition. I hadn’t realised that for the ArtAngel side of the work, some 600 of the photos were created into billboards, situated across all 33 London boroughs, in November 2019. An ephemeral facet of a monumental artwork. It’s the stuff Encounters Art was made to write about – my only regret is to not have seen and documented them myself. In some ways that’s the beauty of these pop up artworks though. They aren’t supposed to be sought out, they mix and mingle with the everyday and you don’t know it’s there until you stumble upon it. If you did see a billboard in London back in November then I would love to hear your thoughts – leave a comment or DM me @encounters_art.

Installation view on Camden Road

Subverting a space that is usually used for adverts by filling it with a school photograph which is simultaneously strange (because we don’t know these children) and familiar (because we’ve all been children) is such a strong, engaging idea. One of the best moments I’ve come across by searching online for #year3project is a BT advert on Camden Road announcing “Technology will save us”. It is a timelapse video of BT’s billboard being surmounted with a photo of smiling kids in bright red cardigans and summer dresses in an old school hall. Here the children aren’t being prepped and presented as the consumers of the future. They are the future. They will save us. (Though I suppose ironically I owe my thanks to technology for preserving this moment for me to find months later.)

I love seeing these images interwoven into the London landscape. In tube stations, framed by carriage windows, this array of smiling young faces must have cheered up and intrigued countless commuters. Even in the gallery display, away from the urban fabric, it feels like a very London-based artwork, because it celebrates the city’s amazing diversity. McQueen chose Year 3 because for him, that is the moment we start to gain perception of our identities. Our classroom becomes a window on society and a crucible of the nuances of race, class, privilege and opportunity, all of which are explored in the work.

I found the London aspect particularly intriguing so I decided to ask a question using the hashtag #artangelisopen and I couldn’t believe it when it was picked for McQueen to answer. I was so excited, cheering and jumping up and down that I almost forgot to listen to his response. He said that for him, London was the clear choice, but it didn’t have to be limited to that – it could be carried out anywhere – and he seemed to be encouraging people to take up the project and move it on elsewhere. I would love to see that, particularly somewhere like Nottinghamshire (where I grew up) where there are rural and urban childhoods playing out. I wonder if it would click in the same way the original project does.

Installation view at Tate Britain Duveen Galleries

Listening to McQueen, the work was also understandably rooted in London because that was his experience – despite its scale, there is a highly personal context to the artwork which draws on his own boyhood engagement with art: a primary school outing to Tate Britain was the start of his journey. But it’s also about visibility. According to TIME magazine, Steve McQueen is one of the 100 most influential people in the world. For Twelve Years A Slave he won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and became the first black filmmaker to do so.

By creating this work, displayed in the gallery he visited as a child, he has come full circle. What an amazing thing, to provide an opportunity for the children in Year 3 be able to visit that same space, and see themselves, and others who look like them, on the walls. It fills me with hope that the project will be the spark that ignites countless artistic explorations and adventures. I can’t wait to see what they create when they’re fully grown.

Performance Live: The Way Out review

It’s raining heavily outside, and a soaked through, frightened, hooded figure stumbles upon a grand pair of wooden doors. They open automatically, and seem to offer an alternative to the storm, and whatever else is lurking outside that troubles our protagonist. This is how The Way Out, Battersea Arts Centre’s offering for BBC Culture in Quarantine, begins. I promise you that if you like imaginative, surreal adventures and need an escape from this covid-consumed world (as I did yesterday) you will fall down this creative rabbit hole and not look back.

There are a number of references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and in many ways this is a modern retelling, one that celebrates the talent that Battersea Arts Centre has to offer as well as the transformative power of creativity. But before we make our way to experience the performances, we first encounter the enigmatic Omid Djalili, our guide and master of ceremonies. His existential musings on pathways, growth, entrances and exits hover between philosophy and riddle. As our journey through this old town hall with crumbling walls and labyrinthine corridors continues, he is increasingly likeable and intriguing.

The work incorporates some of BAC’s art installations, such as Hope, by Caroline Russell (2019)

We begin as curious but detached observers, audience members, pondering how it is possible for a body to become fluid in the way that Botis Seva’s does in his performance of Quick Sand, performed alongside what seems to be a broken hourglass, its sediments hardened to the floor. As we venture further into the warren, we enter different worlds, a deep sea chamber where drag artist and opera performer Le Gateau Chocolat reigns supreme, singing a lonely siren song to the luscious, pulsating backdrop of a string trio. As the journey continues, its sinister edge, probably imagined by our own suspicions and scepticism, slowly gives way lightness and joy. We enter the cabaret world of the Cocoa Butter Club and we realise we are now participants in the show. There’s a performance of “Young Hearts Run Free”, one of my favourite disco classics which is poignant and joyful in equal measure. It’s a party and a crazy one at that, the kind of night when time warps and you don’t realise how late or early it is, or how it got to be light outside?

Botis Seva working magic with his movements in Quick Sand

The building is in many ways my favourite part of the show. It transported me, kindling memories of similar places I’ve been or known – art venues like Summerhall in Edinburgh (which is currently crowdfunding), nightclubs, the backstages of theatres, the burlesque house from The Simpsons, Shangri-la at Glastonbury, and even certain dark, decrepit corridors of my Midlands secondary school. The film is about 40 minutes long and is taken in a single shot from around head height, making it as close to immersive theatre as TV can get. You are the one journeying through the maze. And wow, it feels good to be traveling through and exploring a hive of creativity and weirdness. While watching I vow to myself not to take these experiences for granted again.

Come As You Are is a heartfelt poem written and performed by Sanah Ahsan, resplendent in a bright yellow suit and standing in centre of what seems to be a yellow brick road. It’s a nod to another memorable, psychedelic adventure into another land – except it is made from flowers and not bricks. A road made of flowers sums up the paradoxes of this wonderful piece of theatre, this story. It’s bizarre, fun and seems impossible and yet it works because of all the paradoxes woven into it. It is a beautiful escape, so perfect and so utterly needed for these times that it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t planned for a quarantined world (it was filmed in January). 

This flight of fantasy took me out of myself for a moment. Hopefully, on the other side of this stationary journey we are all undergoing, we can emerge, like the character from The Way Out, with our hoods thrown back, ready to embrace the world, each other and ourselves.

Through the labyrinth