Maggi Hambling’s Wollstonecraft statue

I’m currently locked down in London, so what better activity than to go to Newington Green and look at what the Guardian yesterday called ‘one of 2020’s most polarising artworks’. It is Maggi Hambling’s A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft. If you missed out on the social media furore about this sculpture, the main issue was that people were very, very angry that what was supposedly honouring and commemorating one of the founders of feminism had a naked woman at the top of it. In principle I agreed and plus, visually it didn’t seem that interesting. More figurative art? Still?

As I trudged up, I hoped that I might see some protest performance going on (it has been covered up at various points), but there was nothing except a LOT of mud on and around the plinth, which reads “For Mary Wollstonecraft”, i.e. it’s for her, not of her, which is important to remember.

The statue on a muddy Newington Green

Firstly though, some perspective. The figurine that caused such a stir is TINY. She appears at the top of a much bigger silver blob, and though I was standing right up close, the height of the sculpture means she’s far away. On twitter and in the media, all the photos I’d seen were deceptive: closely cropped and zoomed in on the female figure, emphasising the defined abs, perky boobs and a full, rather prominent bush. Some were cross that the female body had been idealised in this way, but in the context of the full sculpture, that critique strikes me as odd. For me, this muscular figure brought to mind soviet-era sculptures, in particular, Vera Mukhina’s Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Made in stainless steel, 24 metres high and created for the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, it is one of the most badass monuments ever. The diminutive size of the figure in Hambling’s sculpture works against this reading, but it still is a visual connection I find helpful when trying to place the work.

Vera Mukhina, ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’, 1937

To me the figure does not read as sexual in any way. But, maybe, because of our understanding of the nude, it’s not possible to see a naked woman without this idea being drawn into this debate. As Heather Parry explained on twitter at the time:

Yep.

The woman emerges from a swirling mass, which calls to mind another transformation, Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, the marble sculpture in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, made in 1622-25. It is based on the tale in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Apollo has been struck by Cupid’s arrow, and is lusting after Daphne, chasing her. Daphne cries out for her beauty to be destroyed, or for her body to be changed to save her from the impending rape, and is transformed into a tree. Bernini’s sculpture captures the exact moment when flesh begins to become bark. Her outstretched fingers transform into leaves, she is swallowed up as the natural form encases her living body.

Bernini, ‘Apollo and Daphne’, 1622-25

It feels strange to compare those works, because the Bernini is one of my favourite sculptures of all time, and the Hambling is certainly not. But perhaps we can see the Hambling sculpture as this metamorphosis process in reverse. Here, rather than being engulfed, the female figure emerges from the shapeless forms and looks powerful. The aesthetic of the shiny silvered bronze also acts as a reversal of the natural elements in Ovid’a tale. The sheer artificiality makes it look futuristic and alien and that is my favourite thing about it.

In its almost mirror state, it jars pleasingly with the muted, natural winter browns and greens of the mud and bark in its surrounding park. There’s no missing this sculpture, it is a beacon that demands attention and has definitely received it. Wollstonecraft has too, and that’s not a bad thing.

The take home for me is that artworks may be polarising, but art is not Marmite. You can simultaneously love and hate different things about it, you can sit with it and feel differently about it on different days. It’s a reminder that especially at the moment, when we’re consuming art on a screen and from afar, context is everything. It’s good to know if we’re getting a detail or the whole picture.

Top ten art moments of 2020

This year, it is needless to say that we’ve not had the art experiences we might have been hoping for. With travel restrictions, exhibitions cancelled, rescheduled and put online, the art world landscape has changed significantly, perhaps forever. I have just had pre-Christmas visits to see Artemisia and Titian’s Poesie at the National Gallery cancelled, as London crashes into Tier Three. I’ve been longing to see these once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions for years, since I first heard they were going ahead. So I began writing this with a sad heart.

Yet despite and because of what 2020 has thrown at us, the need for art and culture is stronger than ever, as a way to escape, to heal, to reflect on what is happening. Many people have used 2020 to have a go at making art themselves, with countless organisations sending out art packs for people to unleash creativity at home. What I’m now calling Self Portrait with Haribo was born of boredom and childishness (yes I’m 29 and I still buy Haribo), but looking back at it now, it captures a particularly cabin fever-ridden moment of lockdown. Marking moments like this is a good way of acknowledging time passing, in a year that has felt interminable but with very little to show for it.

‘Self portrait with Haribo’

You’ll be relieved to hear, this blog post isn’t about my own personal creative output. Rather, it’s a moment of reflection and reassurance, to look back at 2020 and realise it hasn’t been a total creative wasteland. As by now you may have guessed, my concept of what art is is very broad, and that attitude has helped me this year.  It helps me notice my surroundings, and to not feel culturally deprived, even when museums and galleries have been largely closed.

Art hasn’t gone away this year, we’ve just experienced it differently. So consider this an invitation for you to get out your phone, scroll through 2020’s photos and consider the past twelve months in a new light: there will be evidence of things you’ve seen that connect us, that have made life more interesting, that have enabled you to see or understand something differently. To me, that is the purpose of art.

10) “Please do not remove” sign, Fountainbridge

This comes under the category of ‘weird things I take photos of in the streets of Edinburgh’. I first noticed this sign in Fountainbridge in January. It was still there in June. I love random signs, posters and stickers that are woven into the fabric of our cities. Once you start noticing them, you’ll never be able to stop: there are whole debates played out on bus stops, sign posts, bins and streetlights. I like this one because it shows how people did what the sign said by leaving it there. Either the people Edinburgh are very law abiding, or, possibly more likely, it went unnoticed.

‘Please do not remove’, Fountainbridge, June 2020

9) A visit to Petworth House

When infection rates were low, I visited Petworth House for the first time this year. I’d known that the house had lots of art connections, having seen it in the film Mr Turner, but I hadn’t realised how many treasures are packed into just a few rooms. The National Trust’s webpage says that it is one of the finest art collections in their care. It includes The Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymous Bosch, a bust of Aphrodite attributed to Praxiteles which is over 2,300 years old, and The Molyneux Globe, the earliest English-made globe in existence, made in 1592. My favourite moment was seeing the beautiful marble sculpture of Saint Michael overcoming Satan by Jonathan Flaxman, created 1817-1826. When I was studying at UCL, the full-scale plaster model that Flaxman made in preparation for this piece was on display in the main library, so seeing the final result felt like the artwork had come full circle for me.

‘Saint Michael overcoming Satan’, Jonathan Flaxman

8) Apple’s iPhone X advert at The Hermitage

Ah, who knew an advert would play such an important part in my year. I actually am one of those people who enjoy TV adverts: the ludicrous fantasies of high-end perfume, the terrible, expensive sofas at DFS. An oven chip advert about family made me cry once. Yet this advert was not your usual one. It was five hours long, a slow-paced art house film with minimal dialogue, all shot on iPhone X, filmed in The Hermitage in St Petersburg. Each Tuesday in the spring, my friend Jane and I sat down, started a phone call and pressed play on YouTube together as we watched an installment. We discussed the paintings, the dancers, the architecture, the narratives, and sometimes, we just talked over the film about life. It was as close as I came to the real experience of trawling through a major museum while on holiday and I looked forward to it every Tuesday for over a month. I’ve written a longer piece which has a link to the advert here.

7) A specific frame in The Wallace Collection

From my trip to The Wallace Collection in the summer, one object is thoroughly wedged in my mind: the frame of Ary Scheffer’s Francesca da Rimini (1835). The painting itself is very dramatic, it depicts a scene from Dante’s Inferno, with the tragic figures of Francesca and her lover Paolo condemned with the souls of the lustful to the second circle of hell. The frame completely wowed me, I think it’s one of the largest frames I’ve ever seen. You can see a book in the bottom right corner, there are doves, chains, oak leaves and a scroll which incorporates elements of Dante’s text. It was created by a certain Félicie de Faveau for the painting’s third owner, Anatole Demidoff, Prince of San Donato, who owned the painting from 1853-70.

Ary Scheffer’s ‘Francesca da Rimini’ in the Wallace Collection

6) Graveyards of Edinburgh

Edinburgh is one of the greenest cities in the UK and I recognise my privilege in experiencing lockdown here for that very reason. Exploring the city’s open spaces has led me to encounter several of Edinburgh’s old graveyards for the first time this year. Being a fan of the Romantics, the more dilapidated and ivy-covered the angels, skulls and crossbones and shrouded urns, the better. Perhaps it seems morbid, but I’ve always found these places peaceful and interesting, and as someone who doesn’t believe in life after death, seeing nature flourish in these places has always been reassuring. Warriston Cemetery, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Dean Cemetery and Dalry Cemetery are some places I’ve found solace this year, as well a place to appreciate the art and symbolism in the carvings, sculptures and iconography.

A grave with ivy, Warriston Cemetery

5) Andy Goldsworthy’s Stone Coppice at Jupiter Artland

Jupiter Artland – I visited at last! Cycling with my sister out to Wilkieston on the canal path, this was one of the most perfect art afternoons of the year. We walked around the whole thing slowly, soaking it all up, and got a seat in the café just as the rain came down. I love so many of the artworks here, but my top one for this list is Stone Coppice by Andy Goldsworthy. You stumble upon this artwork in one of the more unkempt pockets of the sculpture park, you might not even know it was there at first. It’s the perfect balancing act: the way the trees delicately hold the rocks, how some seem composed in a tender embrace, how others seem crushed by the branches or vice versa. The artist’s positioning of the natural matter, which is then left to its own devices to grow and unfold over the years, is poetic.

‘Stone Coppice’, by Andy Goldsworthy, at Jupiter Artland

4) Rainbows – Colinton Tunnel

The cynical among you will perhaps raise your eyebrows at this… rainbows in windows everywhere were sweet at first, but as the grim reality and longevity of the pandemic set in, they started creating a backlash, with one of my favourite tweets of the year capturing a perfect counterpoint – a sign in Glasgow that simply said “This is shite”. But this huge rainbow, arching over me as I cycled through Colinton Tunnel stopped me in my tracks. Street art and bike rides have both helped me through the year.

Colinton Tunnel

3) Rediscovering Black Portraiture by Peter Brathwaite

Peter Brathwaite has taught me so much this year. His project to recreate artworks at home was born out of a light-hearted DIY art challenge started by the Getty Art Museum. But Peter’s project took on huge significance as he made it his mission to shine a light on Black portraiture specifically, and used objects in his home to explore his own ancestry and past. In the context of the Black Lives Matter protest movement this year, this exercise in sharing these portraits of Black people with the world was so important, reminding us that these figures do exist in art and history, we just haven’t seen them, we haven’t named then. The whole project showed how the personal is political. How art is a mirror that reflects history and society, flaws and all, and critical engagement with it can help us understand the world and ourselves. Scroll through Peter’s Instagram to have your mind expanded, or take a deep dive into five of his recreations as part of The Essay on Radio 3 – highly recommended listening.

2) Violet Chachki’s ‘fall reveal’ runway look on Ru Paul’s Drag Race

Though I was a fan of Ru Paul’s Drag Race before 2020, the antics of the queens, their talent, their silliness, their mental strength and their artistry has meant the show has been my constant companion through lockdown. Yes, one of the reasons I love the show is that it satisfies my craving for gossip and drama, which has been so utterly lacking in real life this year. But despite its highly formulaic reality TV structure, the show has done so much to expose mainstream heterosexual audiences like me to the art of drag. And what an art it is! It’s difficult for me to pinpoint an exact moment, but I think we can all appreciate that the two-in-one catwalk outfit Violet Chachki burst on the scene with, in the very first mini-challenge of season 7, is the most delicious balance between high fashion and performance art.

1) Leith’s historic mural, brought to life by Double Take Projections

There are some artworks that seem a little like magic and this is one of those. If you’ve ever seen Leith’s historic mural near Leith Theatre, you’ll know it’s not in the best state of repair. The colours have faded, the edges are eroding, it’s difficult to decipher. I wouldn’t necessarily want to change that, fading is part of a mural’s cycle of existence. Plus I’ve heard that the artists Paul Grime and Tim Chalk, who created the mural in collaboration with local residents in 1985-6, have resisted suggestions of the mural being restored. This decision then, to use projections, sound effects and music to bring different parts of the mural to life, is inspired. With the projection focusing on particular characters and animating different parts, we see a ship’s rudder gently rotating, children playing and soldiers marching. We notice the mural’s complex layers, and the installation restores what is a special piece of street art and local history in the city’s collective memory.

There you have it, my top ten art moments of 2020 so far. What have yours been? I would love to hear from you, so feel free to leave me a comment or DM me on Instagram or Twitter.

‘Florilegium: A Gathering of Flowers’ at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

There’s a new, free exhibition in town, at the Botanics. Ever a beautiful place to relieve your Covid-19 cabin fever, to feel the peace of looking at plants and be made to feel small by impossibly tall trees, now you can supplement it with a visit to Florilegium: A Gathering of Flowers. The first exhibition since the RBGE started its Climate House initiative, the exhibition marries what seem to be two very different ways of looking at flowers. 

The first is factual, scientific, research-based. Packed into the first room are depictions of flowers from the Garden’s collections, submitted by botanical illustrators from around the world. I love their precision, the sense that these drawings have been set to view in HD. Glancing at these densely stacked images, their uniform wooden frames fitting perfectly with the olive green of the wall, I’m convinced there would be enough detail here alone to make an entire exhibition. Enhanced by the ikebana style floral displays, it’s what visitors might expect, might hope to see. It’s beautiful, classy, and it’s about flowers. Tick.

Florilegium: a gathering of flowers, installation view. Photo by Tom Nolan

Up the stairs, we’re taken into a somewhat different realm by four contemporary artists, Wendy McMurdo, Lee Mingwei, Annalee Davis and Lyndsay Mann. While the immensely skilled botanical illustrators are concerned with depicting the flower exactly, and in some cases, the pollinators too, the artists upstairs are more concerned with what we cannot see. The emotions and meanings we as humans attach to plants, their embroilment in our colonial past, and the metaphor of life and death a flower provides so effortlessly, are all explored here.

Wendy McMurdo’s photographs from the Indeterminate Objects series from 2019 use gaming software to collapse the blooming/withering lifecycle of a single flower in one vase, an eye-catching narrative that makes you look twice. Her Night Garden series (2020), reflects on how her mother’s ill health and recent death was combined and synchronised with blossoming of a large, mystery, tropical-looking plant in her suburban garden. I loved the uncanny photo of seeds resting in the palm of her hand, which looked to me like the hand itself was punctured, decaying: a wound between the states of hurt and healing.

Wendy McMurdo, ‘Night Garden’, 2020, installation view, photo by Tom Nolan

There’s a pleasant chiming here with the work 100 Days with Lily by Lee Mingwei, which documents a performance created back in 1995. His grandmother died, and in mourning he lived with this plant for 100 days, carrying it everywhere. He projects his own grief on to lifecycle of this plant, but the presence of the banal activities of daily life (Eating with Lily, Sleeping with Lily, Shitting with Lily) overwrite and undermine this strange, solemn ritual. For Florilegium, Mingwei has planned a new work called Invitation for Dawn, where opera singers will perform directly to the recipient via live video call. It sounds weird, experimental and intimate, but in a great way. You can participate between 16 November and 11 December, email creativeprogrammes@rbge.co.uk for more details on how to get your ‘gift of song’.

Lee Mingwei, 100 Days With Lily, installation view (photo by Tom Nolan)

The work of both Annalee Davis and Lyndsay Mann anchors the exhibition in something deeper, bringing the role of the Botanic Garden, the collection of plants, the colonial ecosystem at the heart of RBGE’s existence, into view. Annalee Davis is a Barbadian artist whose studio is situated on what used to be a sugar plantation. Her practice investigates the history of that land, examining the power structures that have been tilled into the soil. Here, her series As If the Entanglements of Our Lives Did Not Matter (2019-20), is casually pinned up on the wall, unframed, unglazed. It immediately felt visceral and direct, denying the formality, poise and stiffness of Inverleith House. Pink, flesh-like depictions of messy clumps of roots are daubed over old payment ledgers from the plantation, which are intriguing, loaded documents in their own right. In a haunting portrait, she places two of her ancestors side by side, who though blood relatives, would have never lived together in reality, separated as they are by race and class. 

Annalee Davis, ‘As if the Entanglements of Our Lives Did Not Matter’ (2019-20), detail

Davis’ art works in dialogue with Lyndsay Mann’s A Desire for Organic Order (2016), a mesmerising film of 55 minutes which explores the RBGE’s Herbarium, where species of preserved plants are kept for study and research. Although most visitors won’t have time watch the film from start to finish, it’s a fascinating piece, which shines a light on the strangeness of it all: the meticulously categorised, catalogued, classified plants, sitting in row upon row of filing cabinets and box files, the collection expanding over the centuries as new species are found and brought to the RBGE, their final resting place. 

The violence surrounding these collections is examined at a distance, with the narrator’s voice dispassionately implying but never quite explaining what we know now, that far more care was given to these foreign plants than to the humans who lived alongside them. If you do have the chance to sit here a while, I’m sure it will make you see the exhibition, and the whole RBGE endeavour, in a slightly different light. You may not think you need this part of your world to be challenged, that you just want to enjoy the Botanics and not think too much about the difficult history and context. But it’s the ability of artists to show things you thought you knew in a new way, that is what makes them so vital to how we think about our past, present and future. That’s why we need the upper floor of the exhibition. We can’t just have a “gathering of flowers”, we need someone to tell us what they mean.

Flower displays at ‘Florilegium: a gathering of flowers’

‘Janet’ by Caroline Walker at Ingleby Gallery

Yesterday I went to see Janet, an exhibition of paintings by Caroline Walker. This was my first Edinburgh gallery visit since March, and it felt great to be back.

Caroline Walker, (born Dunfermline, Scotland), has created a series of works focusing on her mother, Janet, based entirely in her home. They document her mother moving from room to room, like the evidence of a childhood game. Caroline seemingly goes unnoticed, she spies on her mother, following her as she carries out chores: cleaning, gardening, cooking, dusting. We too, the viewers, spy, follow and peer in unnoticed, and it’s almost surprising when on one canvas, Janet looks straight back at us.

From left to right: ‘Bathroom Sink Cleaning, Mid Morning, March’, (2019), ‘Sizing Pillowcases‘, (2020) and ‘Dusting Pictures, Late Morning, March’, (2019)

These domestic activities are elevated, not dismissed, by the artist. The images are snapshots which combine immediacy of photography with the grandiose detachment of oil paintings. These daily moments are purposeful, meaningful, considered, deliberate.

Changing Pillowcases, Mid Morning, March’, (2020)

Yet they are also intimate. They capture the feeling of when you’re walking past houses in the winter when it’s dark outside, when you’re thrilled and somehow comforted by the warm glow within, even though you’re outside of that warmth. That feeling is especially captured by the jewel-like light in Making Fishcakes, Late Afternoon, December (2019), and Tucking In, Late Evening, March (2020). I loved looking in, indulging my curiosity. You can tell a lot about someone by what they surround themselves with. Janet likes animals. Janet seemingly also collects egg flips.

Making Fishcakes, Late Afternoon, December‘, (2019)

At Ingleby Gallery, the main exhibition space is on the ground floor, but upstairs in the Feast Room there are works by other artists the gallery represents. It’s like a special extra helping of art you didn’t know you were going to get, and was here where I found my favourite work by Walker, Hemming Pyjamas, Late Morning, December (2020). The darker palette of the room around the painting, the fact that the room itself is more domestic (with sofas and a dining table, albeit very grand), the placement of seeing it from afar as you come up the stairs makes it so utterly convincing and beautiful. Even though Walker paints on linen, which gives an overall matte effect, the warm light shines from the room, reflecting off the chest of drawers, beckoning you in.

‘Hemming Pyjamas, Late Morning, December’, (2020)

This is a wonderful show about light, home, warmth, the intimacy of people doing normal things. It’s what we want our homes to be, there’s a serenity about these paintings, a peace I’d like to carry with me into the next few months of winter at home.

Janet by Caroline Walker is on at Ingleby Gallery until 19th December, they are open Wednesday-Saturday, 11am-5pm. The exhibition is free but you need to book a timed slot via the website.

Among the Trees review

What does it mean to come to a place like the Hayward Gallery, the most concrete of concrete buildings in the heart of the UK’s largest city, to immerse oneself in images of trees? This isn’t a museum, a science hub, or a university, so it’s not a place dedicated to learning about trees, but for looking at them. It’s impossible not to hear strains of Big Yellow Taxi as you see the hoardings around the Hayward Gallery: “They took all the trees, put them in a tree museum/ and charged the people a dollar and a half just to see em”. The irony was particularly present for me, as I headed straight to a dark exhibition space to look at nature, having just arrived from the actual countryside (full of actual trees).

The outside view

In the first room, I began by wondering whether this was going to be a contemporary echoing of Romanticism. There were seemingly no signs of human life, except for the artists of course. The ghostly, delicate Untitled (2008) by Toba Khedoori, and Robert Longo’s Untitled (Sleepy Hollow) (2014) exposed what we forget in the height of summer, the intricacies of tangled branches. I wondered then whether the show was going to be boiled down to a central message: escapism through beauty. With Covid-19, Brexit, government incompetency, economic collapse and the US election for context, we crave escape more than ever, and nature can seem to offer some sort of way out of it all. That’s also what the Romantics thought too: the fewer humans in their landscapes, the better! But we know that’s not a true representation of landscapes. They are, and now always will be, shaped by humans – for better and for worse. In that context, what does it mean to imagine landscapes without humans? Is it eco-fascism, or just an overly simplistic, narrative of nature = good, humans = bad? The artists and artworks in Among the Trees put this idea under a microscope, reminding us that art can do both – be visually pleasing and profound.

Remember the iconic Simpsons episode where Lisa has her fortune told? It’s full of painfully ironic, insightful vignettes of how the near future might pan out. In a college campus quad, a plaque reads “In memory of a real tree”, but the tree is flickering like a static TV screen. An electrical malfunction exposes this simulacrum for what it is – until a passer-by boots it back into functionality, into looking natural again. That’s the image I couldn’t get out of my mind while at this exhibition. I was looking at a monument to something we are knowingly destroying; the monument was artificial.

Yet the highly effective use of artifice in conjuring the natural is what I found most interesting about Among the Trees. One of the first spaces is dominated by a huge video projection across the back wall, the work that is on all the posters. This is Horizontal Vaakasuora (2011) by Eija-Liisa Ahtila, depicting a huge native Finnish spruce in five video panels, each slightly out of sync. It’s mesmerising. We hear the wind in the branches, bird song, and watch the spindly, yet strong and flexible, living tree, dancing, creaking and swaying in on itself. There’s a kind of discombobulation that comes from seeing something this tall lying on its side. You’re not supposed to see the tops of these trees close up. There’s a feeling of privilege in looking without having to crane your neck, but also a foreboding in the position. Trees lie this way when they are felled.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, ‘Horizontal – Vaakasuora’, 2011

The other large-scale video work is Jennifer Steinkamp’s Blind Eye 1 (2018). It is wholly artificial, using animated computer technology to show a fake birch tree forest move through the cycle of all four seasons in a cool 2 minutes 47 seconds. I’ve always loved the visual effect of technology speeding up the forces of nature in a way that reveals how utterly miraculous they already are – time-lapse videos of plants growing impossibly quickly, sprouting leaves, buds, flowers, seeds and withering and dying all in a few moments. It’s all so heart-wrenching and magical.

Jennifer Steinkamp, ‘Blind Eye 1’, 2018

Revealing what is already there is at the heart of Giuseppe Penone’s work with trees. His Tree of 12 Metres (1980-82) is the most ‘natural’ of all works in the first room: a very tall tree has seemingly been divided in two, stuck into plinths and carted into an art gallery, it’s warm earthy tones juxtaposing with the smooth, cold concrete staircase behind. But this tree is actually a sculpture, fashioned from an industrially planed piece of timber that Penone painstakingly scraped away, in a reverse Frankenstein fashion, following the knots, lines and ridges in the wood, unlocking how the tree would have looked long before it was felled. He takes it back in time, back to nature, back to life.

Giuseppe Penone, ‘Tree of 12 Metres’, 1980

Death and life are here in abundance. Because trees can span many human lifetimes, they are presented as witnesses, as memento mori. Ugo Rondinone’s cold moon (2011) is a cast of an ancient olive tree in southern Italy, its hulking, twisted, wizened form reminiscent of the White Tree of Gondor, as well as calling to mind the Ancient Mariner, an old man sitting in a corner of a dark city pub, a man who has *seen things*. Steve McQueen’s Lynching Tree documents where countless African-American bodies were lynched, a site encountered while filming 12 Years A Slave. It is a tree that has, in its very shape, borne witness to and memorialised the worst of us.

Steve McQueen, ‘Lynching Tree’, 2013

Alongside this, you can see Plastic Tree B, created this year by Pascale Marthine Tayou, where plastic bags have become the bright, somehow beautiful blossoms of an Instagram-worthy sculptural tree. Simplistic idea perhaps, but still visually striking, and reminding us of how damn precious it all is, and how much it is slipping through our fingers because we are, by and large, terrible custodians. You can’t even walk down a street without seeing hundreds of disposed plastic masks on the ground, like scattered flags of surrender to the coronavirus age. The show could probably have pressed more on the climate crisis message. But I was reminded in a talk by Olivia Laing recently, that in the face of politics, art won’t make the change itself, but it’s a way of “galvanising, and grouping a response”. In other words, art can’t do the work for us.

Pascale Marthine Tayou, ‘Plastic Tree B’, 2020

The woodland I was walking in just hours before my trip to London is full of signs of human life. On a nearby bench, “Trump Out” is scratched into the surface, reminding us that our human politics infiltrate every part of our world, no matter how much we might wish to escape them. We have to acknowledge that, and not lose ourselves in the mesmerising beauty of nature and of art. That is appreciation, and it might give us space to become mindful, but that is only the first step. A moment of escapism is acceptable, but only if we emerge from it refreshed to re-engage, to take meaningful steps to do some damage limitation, to avoid the climate crisis that is unfolding before our very eyes. Otherwise we might find ourselves, in forty years, frustrated that our tree memorial isn’t convincing enough, wishing we had acted before it was too late.

Ugo Rondinone, ‘cold moon’, 2011

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.

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

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.