Mark Dion: Whitechapel Gallery

Eccentric, fun, and an organised-hoarder are what spring to mind to describe American artist Mark Dion, having visited his retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery. Opening with ‘The Library for the Birds of London’, a new commission featuring live (yes live!) birds in an aviary with a tree at its centre and books littered across the floor and branches. This is surrounded by a variety of hunting lodges; each very different and filled with furnishings and belongings of their fictional inhabitants ranging from a librarian to a dandy. Several are off limits and you can merely peep in through the windows, whereas others allow you to climb the ladders and explore the miniature abode. Upstairs the idiosyncrasy continues with a recreation of a naturalists study complete with photographs, drawings, and prints as well as a unicorns’ horn half unpacked in a crate! The next gallery houses the ‘Bureau for the Centre of the Study for Surrealism’ mocking a museum curators office brimming with artefacts, archival material and ephemera which you catch snapshots of through office windows or the glass in the door. This is followed by a modern-day cabinet of curiosities where a set of wooden drawers is filled with neatly ordered bottle tops, discarded credit cards, broken plastic toys, bits of shoe, and other debris washed up by the Thames and collected by Dion and his team. As you push through heavy felt curtains to enter the last gallery, the dark space cleverly draws attention to the three glowing installations under UV light, each one filed with 3D sculptures of living and extinct animals, shells, bones and inanimate objects. After viewing a show which deliberately tries to classify animals, people and objects it would be interesting to hear how Dion views himself – as an artist, anthropologist, archaeologist, explorer, or a hybrid of all of those things. See what you think before the 13th May when the exhibition closes.

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Hassan Hajjaj: Somerset House

I was first introduced to the ebullient world of Hassan Hajjaj last year at an exhibition on dandyism and black masculinity at The Photographers’ Gallery which included two of his portraits – and was intrigued to see more when I heard that Somerset House were hosting a solo exhibition by the Moroccan-British artist. The Terrace Rooms in the South Wing of the building are entirely dedicated to ‘La Caravane’, an exhibition which features photographic portraits, video installations, music, an installation of a motorcycle, and pieces dedicated to humble socks and woolly hats! The first of a trio of rooms contains photographic portraits of sitters ranging from other artists to street performers, athletes and musicians, all beautifully framed with his typical repetitious tin-can or food packaging border. At the centre of the space, a motorbike bedecked in re-imaginings of the Louis Vuitton logo sits on top of bright red pallets, a green patterned base and mini cans of paint around the border which echo the framing of the portraits on the walls. The next room is dominated by a 1960’s inspired sofa facing multiple video installations of people who have sat for portraits playing musical instruments, signing, or talking to camera, as well as two portraits framed in Hajjaj’s ubiquitous style hung above the fireplaces at either end of the room. The final space contains more photographic portraits alongside three unusual works; one focusing on plastic sunglasses, one on socks and another on woolly hats. The vivid colours and customised textiles, furniture and household items utilised throughout the show evoke the street culture of Marrakesh where the artist was born and spends much of his time. Similarly his deliberate arrangements and careful positioning of people and objects in each shot shape the viewers understanding of each portrait, and question the relationship between “people” (or objects) and “place”. Vibrant, irreverent and full of personality this free – yes free – exhibition certainly put a smile on my face!

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Jeff Koons: Newport Street Gallery

I must concede I underestimated Jeff Koons until yesterday, and Newport Street Gallery’s current ‘Now’ exhibition happily opened my eyes to just how talented an artist (in particular a sculptor) he is. The show opens with some of Koons’ earliest work from the late 1970’s; a combination of his inaugural inflatables as well as a reconstruction of ‘The New’ exhibition from New York’s New Museum in 1980 showcasing five brand new vacuum cleaners and floor polishers taken straight from their packaging and placed in acrylic boxes affixed to florescent light tubes. The next gallery suddenly steps up a gear and the double height ceiling showcases the artists’ ‘Balloon Monkey (Blue)’ to maximum effect. This monumental sculpture looks like an enormous helium balloon twisted into the shape of a monkey, however is actually created from highly polished stainless steel with stunning attention to detail in each twist and the knot of the balloon. This desire to play with viewers’ perception and challenge the choice of material used is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition, echoed in the upstairs galleries with inflatable beach toys made from aluminium which look convincingly like plastic, and a huge ball of playdoh formed from twenty-seven individual pieces of cast aluminium and held together by their own weight! Impressive sculptures in their own right, the unexpected material and reflective surfaces make for an engaging experience as you see yourself and other visitors mirrored and morphed in each piece as you walk around them trying to understand their mechanics. To combat this playfulness, there is a more adult – indeed explicit – element to Koons’ work, evident in his ‘Made in Heaven’ series of erotic images of himself and his then wife (Ilona Staller) alongside an enormous bowl of eggs and other not so subtle symbols associated with love and sexuality.

balloon monkey
An above shot of Balloon Monkey (Blue) alongside visitors to give perspective to its sheer scale
playdoh
27 individual pieces of aluminium held together by their own weight to make this sculpture
balloon elephant
Highly reflective balloon elephant

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