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

Layers of a life

There are some artworks that become wedged in your heart. You carry them with you, and mostly they lay dormant. Then occasionally they will surface from nowhere, reminding you of something you saw, read, felt years ago. For me, one of those objects is something I saw at Found, an exhibition curated by Cornelia Parker at The Foundling Museum in 2016. I must have loved it at the time, because I bought the catalogue, and that hardly ever happens.

The piece in question is by John Smith and is unassuming and profound in equal measure. As someone who believes in the necessity of encountering art in the everyday, it’s exactly the kind of work that chimes with me.

John Smith, Dad’s Stick, c.1950-2007, wood and paint, 23 x 2.7cm

It’s difficult to know how to describe Dad’s Stick – it hovers part way between art piece, art object, tool, item, artefact. This stick belonged to the artist’s father and was used to stir paint pots for around six decades. Then, towards the end of his life, Smith’s father cut through the stick. This act revealed a cross-section of multiple layers of paint, each covering over the other, like the concentric rings of a tree. It’s a wonderful thing: documenting changes in taste, memories of rooms, snapshots of different projects, a humble memorial preserving a life story, or multiple stories. In the Found catalogue, Smith reflects that looking at the colours of the stick took him back to his childhood, “the greyish green of our 1950s kitchen cupboards and the bright orange that covered the walls of our hallway in the 1960s.” (p.122). Smith created a film to accompany the object which was also shown in the exhibition. You can see an extract of it here.

Perhaps this object resonated with me because my own childhood home had this layering too. My mum, a good seamstress with an eye for interior design, made our own curtains, and as I grew up, she covered over the childish Alice in Wonderland fabric in my bedroom with a more teenager-appropriate material. My parents don’t live there anymore, but I wonder if the current inhabitants ever puzzle over the faint colours and shapes they can see through the fabric in certain types of light. Or they may have got rid of the curtains entirely – I’ll never know.

The flip side of Dad’s Stick is the rooms themselves. Most houses have multiple layers of paint, wallpaper, and questionable decor that exists below our current surroundings. Buildings have stories, and ghosts, in their very walls. Their history is a layered patchwork of the different lives played out in their rooms.

This feels more prevalent than ever while we are all confined to our homes. I live in an Edinburgh tenement flat, part of an old stone block with one side facing the street and the other overlooking an enclosed courtyard at the back. Muffled voices through walls, the frenzy of a washing machine from the flat next door, the occasional footsteps in the hallway are all part of the daily routine. They were always there, but noticing them, and their closeness, is unavoidable now. I see people smoking out of their windows, they see me moving from room to room, chasing the sun as it graces different parts of the flat throughout the day, we watch people hanging out their washing and cats prowling in the overgrown backyard. 

Being at home all the time has reminded me of these layers of lives and histories we live alongside and we contribute towards. Artworks like this one can help us process these situations, reminding us we are all part of the layering process, reassuring us that people lived here before, and they will again once we move on.

Art and life at home (in the age of Coronavirus)

This is my first post since the Coronavirus outbreak hit Europe. Not for a lack of time – like all of us, I’ve had more time at home than ever before in my adult life. It’s not even for a lack of having things to write about. Rather, it’s because I haven’t had the will, or the inclination to sit down and focus. I often have vague waves of guilt around this – but then I remind myself that this is a pandemic, not a sabbatical. Having free time doesn’t automatically make this an opportune moment to hone my art writing, and that’s ok.

There are a million and one distractions (some would say excuses) that have prevented me from writing, or doing other productive things. The same is also true of engaging with art, the activity I love most. Galleries and museums have been closed for weeks, and they have scrabbled, been inventive and tried their best not to let years of work bringing exhibitions together go to waste. Switching projects to the digital realm successfully is not easy, and I would be interested to see the stats on reach and engagement for online content. I would hazard a guess that for the majority of us, while digital outputs are appreciated, quantity is overwhelming and we still don’t really want to go online to “visit” an exhibition. Even the idea of it brings to mind my least favourite gallery online content of all – photographs of exhibition previews where influential art people drink champagne and look thoughtful. No matter the quality of the exhibition, the virtual tour doesn’t sound appealing. It is more screen time that could be spent looking at things that are created for screens in the first place: telly, films, games. Even “doom-scrolling” through reams of information about the virus, though stress-including, is addictive and sometimes even mentally easier than engaging with something that doesn’t concern the virus at all. 

Art can be engaged with online. Some of the artworks I have studied in depth I have only ever seen via a screen. But there is a social and physical element to visiting exhibitions that is a necessary side-effect of the experience. Why else would the National Gallery have worked through years of negotiations to bring Titian’s poesie together into the same room? We could have googled them individually and seen them together that way if we wanted. But it’s not the same. The best exhibitions have a strength of narrative that enables us to enter a state of meditative curiosity which really absorbs us. That is simply not possible at this moment, and especially on a device, where we are accustomed to enjoying art in Instagram-sized chunks. There are too many other distractions, including our own boredom, to compete with. I doubt that a physical exhibition transported online could recreate that effect – though maybe I will be pleasantly surprised. My sister and I are going to tour the Royal Academy’s Picasso and Paper virtually later this week – will report back…

Despite the circumstances, against all the odds, people have been creative and productive. Far more relevant and fun than an online exhibition, is seeing the results of people making and imitating art themselves. The hashtag #tussenkunstenquarantaine reminds us that with a bit of inventiveness and improvisation, some of the best-loved artworks can be recreated at home. I am biased, but my former colleagues have done a fantastic Twitter thread recreating some of their favourite works in the collection. The results are totally heartwarming, and that’s what we need now. 

Projects like the weekly creative challenge run by OG Education (the learning branch of the October Gallery) provide a bit more freedom than creating an exact copy of an artwork – taking their artists’ work as a starting point for inspiration. Defying gravity, the theme inspired by artist Benji Reid, produced some daft and wonderful homemade results. 

The idea of creating artworks at home is of course, not especially new. The foremost example I can think of is Activities with Dobromierz, created by the Polish artist duo KwieKulik in the early 1970s. Having experienced issues with publicly showing their work, they made the decision to produce and exhibit art in their flat, working with objects they found. Their home, which they renamed Studio of Activities, Documentation and Propagation (PDDiU) became the site for art that blurred the boundaries of the personal and political. 

KwieKulik, Activities with Dobromierz, (1972-74)

We see the couple’s baby, Dobromierz, arranged in multiple surreal scenarios, surrounded by the miscellanea of domestic life. At the centre of a circle of onions, he is a cherub surrounded by stars, or a sacrificial offering in the midst of an occult ceremony. You can see more examples of this fascinating artwork here. There’s an absurdist symmetry and playfulness to these images which I find enchanting – if you can overlook the slightly dubious ethics around it (is it ok to make art by making your child the subject and placing him in a toilet? – I’ll leave that one to the psychoanalysts.) 

On my daily walks I am reminded of how much inspiration we really can derive from visual symbols and art marks left by other people. The name of this blog is inspired by my belief that art can (and must) be encountered in the everyday. Graffiti is, as always, the site for debate, discussion and seat-of-the-pants creativity. Seeing rainbows stuck against windows does give me hope. People are amazing, creative and inventive, and in the case of an iconic image of a sign spotted in Glasgow which reads “this is shite”, they are astutely acerbic. It is shite. There is as much truth and validity in that as there is in a rainbow.

Rainbows of all shapes and sizes adorn our streets now

We are all dealing with this situation differently: some things that appeal to you as a way to spend your time might not be fathomable to others. Some will create art, others will chuckle at their creations. There will be time to do life admin, and time to sit on the sofa. All are ok.

As we enter another week of lockdown, I miss the outside world. From the privileged perspective of someone who likes to write about art, I miss the solace of visiting exhibitions, learning new things, seeing weird and wonderful objects “in the flesh” and of course, sharing those experiences with others. But the restrictions on our movement have shown us that the democratisation of artwork is possible. Celebrating the joy of art is necessary. Humour and a spirit of accessible creativity are two tools with which we can counter the cultural shock of this pandemic. The challenge now is to bottle that spirit and carry it with us into the post-COVID 19 art world. We are going to need it.

Artist interview with Nicky Bird

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Nicky Bird, an artist who, among many exciting projects, has been undertaking a Land Mark residency with Art Walk Porty.

Her residency has focused on rediscovering and retelling the lost stories of the Buchan Pottery decorators, using found photographs and oral histories. The project is culminating in two weekends of events/exhibits, including an artist walk, site-specific artworks and a soundscape, which will be played in one of the pottery’s old kilns. Definitely worth a trip down to Portobello, if you needed any further encouragement to visit Edinburgh’s loveliest coastline.

We talked about artistic process, how Bird’s work treads the boundaries between art and heritage, and the importance of place and community in the project. You can read the interview in full here.

This is the first time I’ve interviewed an artist directly, and the process was fascinating. Though much of her work is site-specific, we met in Bird’s studio in Leith, where various projects and works-in-progress are tacked to the walls. She described how she doesn’t always manage to work in the studio – alongside her artist projects she teaches at Glasgow School of Art – but the images that surround her when she returns are good reminders that help her pick up where she left off.

I recorded the conversation and transcribed it into its interview format afterwards, and was reminded of how conversations jump around in a way the written word simply cannot. Though audio interviews, via the radio or through podcasts, are probably more personal and intimate, I liked the procedure of drilling down into our conversation and distilling Bird’s thoughts and motivations into a few paragraphs, though editing while keeping someone’s voice is always a challenge.

This is a new venture for me and I’m hoping it is the starting point for more interviews, written and recorded, which shine a light on the fascinating process of art making. I’m very grateful to Nicky Bird for her warmth and patience, and to Rosy Naylor, Curator of Art Walk Porty, for giving me this opportunity.

Nicky Bird in her Leith studio

Myriam Lefkowitz / Walk, Hands, Eyes (Edinburgh)

I have been wanting to write a piece about this for a long time. I regret I’ve been behind on my blog posts lately, but February is the month I’m going to write regularly. As my friend Kate put it, ‘perfectionism is taking a hit’. She is drawing every day, and I’m trying to do the written equivalent, whether on here, in my journal or on Instagram (@encounters_art).

What does it mean to meet a stranger, and within minutes, be expected to rely upon them for everything? To trust them to be your eyes, to guide you through the complex labyrinths of city streets, buildings, traffic, and other people? This is the question that lies at the heart of Myriam Lefkowitz’s extraordinary work ‘Walk, Hands, Eyes (Edinburgh)’, which was organised and performed by Talbot Rice Gallery, one of the city’s best places for engaging with contemporary art (art that is being made now, or has been very recently).

The work is a 45-minute 1-1 walk where the performer takes you by the hand and leads you through the city, with your eyes closed throughout. It is a silent experience, except for the occasional, whispered command by your performer “one step down… and another”. It was as intense as it sounds, and most people I have discussed the piece with have recoiled in horror, and asked me why anyone would voluntarily put themselves through that kind of thing. Was it even “art” if there wasn’t a object or thing you could look at as part of it?

Yet, I would go so far as to say it was one of the best art pieces I’ve experienced. Yes, it was intense, but in all the best ways. The childlike, gentle way the performer took my hand, and the way my body responded with utter trust (even though my mind fluctuated between embarrassment, confusion and hilarity) was a fascinating experience. It’s a simple concept when you boil it down, but for me as participant, it was and emotional and sensory rollercoaster.

People have always told me that when a person loses one sense, the others become sharper, super-senses. Temporarily ‘losing’ my sight for around an hour (I just about managed without peeking) demonstrated how accurate this is. I became aware of so much more in a way that was genuinely exhilarating: the frosty blades of grass crunching under my feet, the snippets of conversations, and even the atmosphere or feeling that you sense when entering a place. I did the walk on 12 December, and certain rooms we passed through vibrated with intense festiveness. In other moments I could sense we were in the deserted crevices of Edinburgh: alleys and corners where the sun barely ever reaches, the very quality of the air a telltale sign of pervasive damp.

There was an almost embarrassing sense of intimacy to it. As a rule, we only ever hold hands with people we know really well, who we feel affection for, who we know will not judge us if our hands are clammy or our skin rough. I found myself thinking about the performer (who was fast becoming my spirit guide through this new sensory world). I worried that her hand was cold: that prolonged connection with a stranger, though artificially created through an artistic concept, became a strong bond through a shared surreal experience. I had to trust her, because I had no choice otherwise. I also had to trust the other people we encountered in the streets not to hurt me, to take advantage of my vulnerability, my acute sense of which was counteracted with relief when nothing did go wrong. (On a side note, I have new respect for those who navigate landscapes with limited sight, by using a white stick or a guide dog. It really brought home the element of trust and bravery involved in that).

Experiential art, or art that functions through making us interact or participate with it in some way, is a big business. In our free time more and more we seek “experiences”, moments we can document on social media that boost our social capital in the process. Unfortunately, this can often lead to art experiences that are packed with gimmicks, but art vacuous at their core. By contrast, this simple action of two people walking together, with the city as their backdrop, felt minimalist and radical. Lefkowitz’s ‘Walk, Hands, Eyes (Edinburgh)’ reminded me that to make this kind of art successfully, you don’t need lights, big budget shows, music, bells and whistles.

For me, the best art can makes us as viewers/listeners/participants feel, perceive, experience and enjoy both reality and artifice in a way we hadn’t before, that stays with us. You can tell from the lack of images on this post that there were no visual tokens or takeaways from the experience, nothing to prove I was there. That’s because the best part of the work came from something intangible, from what I experienced within.

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.