The palpable scent of oranges and a reconstruction of Roelof Louw’s 1967 ‘Soul City’ (A Pyramid of Oranges) sculpture opens Tate Britain’s Conceptual Art in Britain exhibition. This sculpture not only immediately engages visitors’ senses, but also acts a microcosm for the ideas behind conceptual art as a whole; whilst some visitors looked quizzically at the pyramid and others played an active role in changing the molecular form of the sculpture by taking an orange. All of the artworks on display were created between 1964, the year Harold Wilson’s first Labour government was elected, and 1979 when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives gained power – yet despite nods to contemporary politics in certain works the exhibition failed to offer much explanation or context of the era these pieces were created. Noteworthy exceptions to this do appear in the final gallery with Victor Burgin’s ‘Lei-Feng’ which repeats a Vogue advert nine times with juxtaposed added captions relating to the ideological training of a Chinese soldier under Mao, and Conrad Atkinson’s photographs on the troubles in Northern Ireland. Outside that, the exhibitions’ strength for me lied in its ability to amuse, as I laughed out loud on more than one occasion! Keith Arnatt’s series of eleven black and white photographs entitled ‘Art as an Act of Retraction’ shows the artist with pieces of printed card crumpled in his mouth – symbolically almost eating his own words. Likewise Michael Craig Martin’s ‘An Oak Tree’ simply displays as a glass of water on a glass shelf alongside a series of questions and answers written by the artist in which he maintains that this particular glass of water has transformed into an oak tree with wonderfully hilarious conviction.
The impact technology – and more specifically the internet – has had on art is certainly having a moment. Having already visited ‘Big Bang Data’ at Somerset House, this weekend I explored Whitechapel Gallery’s investigation into this phenomenon at their current ‘Electronic Superhighway’ exhibition. Comprising work from 70 artists over the past five decades, it combines painting, photography, sculpture, installation, immersive video, and interactive ipad and visitor controlled experiences. The ground floor gallery impressed me by not only raising interesting questions and commenting on this topic, but by the quality of the artworks themselves; Douglas Coupland’s ‘Deep Face’ combined black and white photographic portraits with brightly coloured abstract shapes reminiscent of pixels, targets and text redactions obscuring the facial features, as a criticism of Facebook’s development of facial recognition software employed with or without user consent. Likewise Aleksandra Domanovic’s series of five 3D laser cast models of the ‘Belgrade Hand’ each holding a symbol of emancipation or peace were beautiful sculptures outside their political or technological connotations. I also appreciated Oliver Laric’s photographic series ‘Versions (Missile Variations)’ which questions authenticity following a photoshopped image of four missiles being launched rather than one, released as a military hoax by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 2008. The upstairs galleries present a selection of tech-heavier artworks chosen by Rhizome (a New York based online organisation and archive of Net art) and E.A.T (another New York based interdisciplinary group looking at experiments in art and technology from 1960’s) which explore the evolution of hardware and software – whilst I enjoyed the nostalgic element of seeing 1980’s and ‘90s television screens and computers used in various installations, it was a little niche and IT focused for me. The final piece on display allows the exhibition to end on an artistic high, as Peter Sedgley’s ‘Corona’ uses kinetic lighting to captivatingly alter the mood and feel of his two paintings.
The news of a balloon installation across Covent Garden Market was enough motivation for me to take a detour and see it on my way home last night… and I’m so pleased I did! The floating cloud created by hundreds of balloons measures 54 metres long and 12 metres wide, encompassing the entire ceiling of the South Hall Market building. Created by French artist Jean Charles Petillon, the installation is called ‘Heartbeat’ and incorporates a pulsating light that moves across the piece, creating a mesmerising effect by slowly lighting up different balloons from one end of the installation to the other. Whilst I was captivated by the delicate balloons floating against the hard wrought iron structure of the old market building, it was equally enjoyable to see that it didn’t detract from normal everyday life in the market as the shops, cafes, street performers and public all functioned as normal below it. This is not the first time Petillon has used balloons in his installations – indeed he has filled derelict houses, cars and basket-ball courts with them in the past – but this is his most ambitious balloon project to date. Each one of his ‘invasions’ (the artists preferred term for these installations) is metaphorical, and this one is intended to represent the dynamic nature of Covent Garden market, and how it has been the beating heart of the area throughout history and into the present day. Somewhat surprisingly, I had no desire to pop any of the balloons as it looks so fragile and beautiful; the mere sight of just one slightly shrivelled balloon was enough to make me feel a little sad. As transient and fleeting as a real cloud, this installation is only floating above Covent Garden for a short time so catch it before it blows away on 27th September!
The V&A’s current blockbuster exhibition ‘Savage Beauty’ closes with Alexander Mc Queen’s own words; I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible” which summarises what this exhibition has managed to achieve nicely. It is a lesson in how to take the museum visitor on a journey (when you’ve got a budget!) and immerse them in a world from Savage Beauty through to every form of Romantic (Gothic, Primitive, Nationalistic, Exotic and Natural), with a ‘Cabinet of fashion Curiosities’ and the designers vivid interpretation of Plato’s Atlantis thrown in for good measure. Each room not only showcases different collections but captures an entire mood; red, black, leather and lace from collections with evocative titles like ‘Nihilism’ and ‘Highland Rape’ immerse the visitor in Savage Beauty, a corridor of skulls and bones leads the visitor into a tribal space inhabited by mannequins with perspex tusks dressed in horse-hair and pony-skin with real crocodile heads used as shoulder pads, and expertly showcases a collection titled ‘It’s a Jungle Out There’, whilst futuristic silver horned mannequins on a white tile floor adorned with digitally created graphic prints and blaring techno music pay homage to Mc Queens last fully realised collection ‘Plato’s Atlantis’. The almost overwhelming double-height ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ focusses on the designers one-off pieces and with so many elaborate creations displayed side-by-side it is difficult for the visitor to know where to begin let alone maintain attention on one item without your eyes wondering. Clever use of Mc Queens own words to describe his collections and mirrors allowing visitors to view his expert tailoring from every angle make it a poignant tribute of one the UK’S most visionary and rebellious talents – and I’d highly recommend a visit!