On a humid London afternoon, the cold concrete space at Kate MacGarry offered some welcome refreshment… albeit with a sweating watermelon and various other surreal sculptures, installations and paintings which litter the gallery! The current ‘Dream Works’ exhibition is dedicated to four artists; two from the UK, one American and one Dutch who all explore ideas around surrealism, shape and form, and irrationality through a variety of mediums. The first of three concrete sculptures of oversized cucurbtia (google informs me this is a root vegetable akin to a squash!) is displayed on the floor as you enter, and a series of acrylic paintings by Luke Rudolf unified by their use of similar repetitive shapes in different colour palettes line the wall. As the corridor opens out into the gallery proper, a floor to ceiling wallpaper of a sweating watermelon and installation entitled ‘Bolobo Lamp’ both by British artist Jonathan Trayte dominate the space. These are joined by two prints of original watercolours by Dutch painter Madelon Vriesendorp and an oil on canvas work by American artist Jordan Kasey. Vriesdendorp’s piece ‘Flagrant Delit’ comes from an animation film made for French television and tells the story of the Statue of Liberty’s visit as a tourist to New York city, and her second work similarly offers an unusual take on city-scapes entitled ‘The City of the Captive Globe Revisited’. Jordan Kasey’s painting echoes the greys of the concrete sculptures and detail in both Rudolf and Vriesdendorp pieces, and zooms in on a small section of a staircase, making something mundane appear far more surreal. There is something overtly fun, arguably silly, and quietly challenging about all these works and I left the gallery smiling to myself as I re-emerged into the clammy city-scape of my own.
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Nestled between the Old Town Square and Vlatva River you’ll discover Josehov, Prague’s Jewish quarter. Turning off a street brimming with designer shops and boutiques, the cobbles are suddenly decorated with the Star of David – and six synagogues, the Jewish Town Hall and one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe all vie for space within a few streets. My first stop was the Spanish Synagogue, a Moorish revival style building which opened in 1867 with a double height gilded main hall surrounded by balconies and stained glass windows. The exhibition inside tells the story of Jews in Czechoslovakia since the emancipation under Emperor Joseph II through to the traumatic events of the 20th century. Five minutes’ walk away is Pinkas Synagogue, devoid of any interior decoration and instead the walls are covered in 78,000 names written in black or red ink representing Czech victims of the Holocaust. This powerful memorial was designed by the painters Vaclav Bostik and Jiri John and opened in 1960 but was closed eight years later during the Soviet occupation of the country, and only reopened after the fall of Communism in 1998. Behind this synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery, an apt location to memorialise the pre-twentieth century Jewish community with graves dating from 1400’s until 1768. A path leads you around the tomb stones to the Ceremonial building which outlines daily and special Jewish rituals and practices through a basic but informative display. My final visit was to Maisel Synagogue, a neo-gothic style building which resembled a church more than a traditional synagogue. Whilst it was interesting to witness such architectural variation in close proximity, their singular usage as museums felt a little unnatural and I was sad not to see a practising community within the synagogues, and ultimately the exhibition content began to feel a little repetitive across all five sites.
Barbican’s current ‘Boom for Real’ exhibition showcasing the prodigious works of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat has generated such a buzz that in order to see it, advanced timed booking is now essential. Upon ordering your ticket you are emailed a booking confirmation accompanied by a list of ‘rules’ including “no bags (including handbags)”, “no photography”, “no food or drink”… lets add “no fun” to the list and try and discourage as many potential visitors as possible! The queue for the cloakroom is epic – as unfortunately everyone needs a bag – and you are then informed which route you must take through the exhibition, starting upstairs. At this point my enthusiasm was waning, but the charisma of self-taught Basquiat quickly won me over. The exhibition is arranged chronologically, beginning with his witty New-York graffiti under the pseudonym ‘SAMO©’ and breakthrough exhibition in 1981, where he was singled out by nearly every art critic despite being an unknown artist in a group show. Throughout the late ‘70’s he and other graffiti artists were commissioned to create a series of murals and began selling postcards of their work for $1 outside the Museum of Modern Art. Basquiat even found the courage to sell one to his idol Andy Warhol in a SoHo restaurant which marked the beginning of an artistic collaboration and true friendship, as Warhol returned to painting by hand and Basquiat started to use silkscreen techniques which Warhol was famous for (many of which are on display). Downstairs Basquiat’s larger-scale and more renowned works, as well as lesser known pieces including brown paper envelopes to Lichtenstein and Pollack amongst others offering amusingly reductive summaries of their style of work! The exhibition highlights Basquiat’s knowledge across music; from hip-hop to classical, jazz and blues, western art, reading and historical referencing, as well as political comment on black history and civil rights. Much as a truly enjoyed the exhibition, I left wondering if its formality, works unnaturally displayed behind perspex, ropes and alarms would have jarred with Basquiat himself who seemed to fight against the traditional art world, however given his untimely death at just 27, we will sadly never know.
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The term ‘Museum-town’ would be an understatement to say the least to describe the old town of Split in Croatia and the area now dubbed Diocletian’s Palace. The name is slightly misleading in the sense that it does not refer to an actual palace, but 38,700 square metres of narrow, labyrinthine streets brimming with restaurants, tavernas, bars, shops, galleries, locals and tourists alike. Construction started in the 4th century under Emperor Diocletian with white stone transported from the nearby island of Brac as well as marble imported from Greece and Rome, and columns and sphinxes from Egypt. It has been extended over the subsequent centuries and now houses Roman, Byzatine, Croatian medieval and later Venetian, Ottoman and Hasburg architectural elements. Each of the four exterior walls has an ornately carved gate at its centre; the Golden Gate on the north wall, the Bronze Gate on the south, the Silver Gate on the east and the Iron Gate on the west which enclose a treasure trove of other buildings and substructures. At the heart of the palace lies the Peristil – a picturesque ancient Roman colonnaded courtyard where locals are dressed a legionaries during the day, and you can sit on the steps with a glass of wine and listen to acoustic live music being played by night. Nearby, the bell-tower looms above the courtyard offering amazing views across Split and its’ harbour if you can stomach the 180 rickety metal spiral stairs to the top! Back on ground level, the vestibule which originally acted as the formal entrance to the imperial apartments has a stunning brickwork domed roof open to the sky. The scents emanating from the fish market, fruit and vegetable market, countless traditional bakeries and coffee houses mingle in the air across the palace – and even the simplest activity feels pleasingly grand and extravagant amidst this stunning backdrop.
First impressions of Colombo are of a noisy construction site, as the modern capital busily reclaims land from the sea and erects new skyscrapers, five-star hotels and shopping centres. It seems a far cry from the tranquillity of the beaches on the south coast, the scenic hill country and tea plantations inland, and low-rise indigenous or historic Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial buildings dotted across the rest of the island. Head inland from the Fort district and coastline, and into The Pettah (bazaar) and you will find something completely different and far more seductive… the streets narrow, the humid air thickens, and there is barley room for pedestrians to squeeze through the buses, tuk-tuks, bicycles and manually pulled carts all sharing each narrow road. Following years of civil and religious unrest, it was also reassuring to see Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, Muslim mosques and Christian churches all sharing these tight spaces in much the same way as the various modes of transport do. The largest thoroughfare through the district is aptly named Main Street and houses the stunningly kitsch red and white Jami ul-Aftar mosque built in 1909. A few roads on brings you to both the New Kathiresan and Old Kathiresan kovils; Hindu temples which could easily have been taken from the set of an Indian Jones film, both dedicated to the war god Skanda and pyramid shaped adorned with innumerable colourful carved sculptures all the way to the tip. Finally you reach Sri Ponnambula Vanesvara kovil – seemingly inconspicuous from the street, but once you remove your shoes and make your way around the building to the main entrance, it again renders you speechless! Whilst it lacks the lively colours of its’ neighbouring temples, instead being constructed from stone blocks and carved columns it has a quiet, regal impact. Inside, ten shrines add hints of colour via painted wooden peacocks and mythical figures, all flickering in the light of ghee lamps and cracks of sunlight.
Sri Dalada Maligawa – or The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – as it is more commonly known is situated in the northern hill country of Sri Lanka, in Kandy. With only two weeks to see as much of the country as possible, I’d only allocated twenty-four hours in the cultural hub so had to be picky about what we visited, saw and ate! But this temple was a must, with its’ stunning location on the man-made lake that dominates the city. The temple is within the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy; the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings before falling to successive Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rule from 1600’s onwards. The structure you see today was built by Vira Narendra Sinha with later additions by Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, as well as extensive reconstruction following the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) bombing in 1998 during the country’s civil war. Historically it was believed that whoever housed the tooth relic (tooth of Buddha) held governance of the country, and today the temple continues to be venerated by local and international Buddhists, politicians, and tourists alike. Everyone is invited to remove their shoes before entering the sacred land, you then cross a moat littered with locals selling lotus flowers and other offerings, and enter via an archway flanked by elephant sculptures and decorated with vivid red, blue and yellow murals. An elaborately carved two-floor structure of wood and ivory bedecked with gem-stones, elephant tusks and traditional paintwork, topped with a gold canopy enshrining the tooth is breath taking. We were also fortunate enough to visit early and catch the morning Tevava ceremony with Puja drummers and pipes accompanying the ritual offerings to the tooth. The grounds add to the experience and are filled with the smell of incense, burning ghee lamps, jasmine and lotus flower – and a slightly tired but informative museum on the upper floors of an adjoining building helps give context to the significance of this temple.
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Despite Brexit, Trump’s victory, and the lamentable loss of David Bowie, Prince and George Michael, 2016 has been culturally rich. It has been a joy reviewing such a plethora of exhibitions across London, Europe and further afield – and it feels odd to now be writing my final piece of the year, but equally a pleasure to end on a high with William Kentridge’s ‘Thick Time’ exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery. The gallery’s spaces are utterly transformed by the South African artists’ six large-scale immersive installations, all recall early cinematography and theatre but explore different themes from the concept of time, to colonialism, revolution, exile and politics (with a notable interest in his native apartheid). Upon entering the darkened space you are greeted by his first creation – a metal megaphone powered by bicycle parts, with its silhouette painted onto the wall behind it. A mechanical cog and churning noise lures you further into the exhibition where you are immersed into a black white projected film of a procession containing choreographed dancing figures who move across each wall of the gallery. Beyond this, Kentridge’s imagination and creativity are palpable in an animated dictionary containing illustrations which evolve with the turn of every page, a mechanical and puppet inspired opera, and even the staircase which cleverly contains a male figure created from black electrical tape up each step! Hand woven tapestries depicting horses galloping across ancient maps of southern Europe, a tribute to French filmmaker George Melies where seven different films exploring the directors experiments all play simultaneously in one room (some played in reverse), and a satirical take on Trotskyist Russia depicting a secretary taking dictation from a megaphone against a backdrop of political slogans all add different layers to the fascinating world Kentridge has created for visitors to explore and moreover get lost in!
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