On a cold, wet and miserable Saturday afternoon I decided to seek shelter from February’s weather at Lydia Ourahmane’s first solo exhibition in London. As a regular visitor to Chisenhale Gallery, I immediately noticed the difference to the main doors and entrance of the gallery space which are typically wooden but currently have a dark-mirrored effect achieved by covering silver doors in black sulphur (which over the course of the exhibition will revert back to silver as visitors and staff entering and exiting the space rub the black sulphur off). Another peculiarity is a wooden floor running throughout the space, which again is specific to this exhibition and embeds ‘Paradis’, a sound installation of audio recordings made by the artist in her native Oran, Algeria. Once these differences were noted, it became apparent that there is very little actually on display, and all three exhibits are concentrated in the right hand corner of the room, furthest from the door. These comprise a narrow display cabinet showcasing documents referencing the artists grandfathers’ resistance to military service under the French occupation of Algeria by extracting his own teeth, an x-ray of her own mouth showing a missing tooth, and a single gold tooth pinned to the gallery wall. As you read more of Ourahmane’s story and learn that she purchased a gold necklace from a market seller in Oran believing it had belonged to her mother, melted it down and cast two gold teeth from it, inserting one into her own mouth to replace a missing tooth and putting the other on display as part of this project, the exhibits resonate with each other and come full circle. Artistic soundscapes are often lost on me, and this was no exception, but despite not having a strong visual impact, Ourahmane cleverly manages to create a meaningful narrative using very few words, and raises pertinent questions about displacement, absence, family and place.
What more could anyone ask for than cacti with nipples, a mannequin dressed in a policeman’s uniform with his head under the floorboards, a pear rather than a bulb in a light socket and blown glass sculptural installations?! This is exactly what visitors to Herald Street Gallery are currently presented with in Klaus Weber’s eclectic ‘Kugelmensch’ exhibition which loosely explores erotic desire and society’s restrictions. The concrete floor of the galley is unusually replaced with rickety wooden planks (which despite a warning from staff, I still managed to trip over!) distorting the typical setting for artworks. You are greeted by a life-size mannequin dressed in a policeman’s uniform on all fours with his head hidden under the wooden planks and his helmet to one side, in an overtly sexual position despite representing law and order! Numerous cacti are dotted across the floor of the space, which are deliberately breast shaped and correspond with the two spherical glass sculptures which also share the space. Both are fragile and look as if they may break or topple over at any moment, and continue the sexual theme as the molten glass melts into each other and the concave versus convex components blend into one and other. One sculpture (‘Mechanics of Youth’) is distinctly androgynous but certainly phallic in shape whilst the other (‘Snow Woman’) is recognisably female with dried tangerine breasts. As you look up from this scene, the German artist presents you with a final simple yet surreal light fitting where the blub has been replaced with a pear. Accumulatively this creates a deliberately surreal scene, consciously evoking the anxiety and unease of the current political climate as interestingly 2016 saw Merriman-Webster Dictionary name ‘surreal’ their word of the year following a spike in the term following several acts of terrorism, shootings and the election of Trump. Provocative, humerous and thoughtful I’d suggest heading to Bethnal Green before the end of July when the show closes.
Tongue-in-cheek, intelligent and provocative, the ‘Natalia LL Probabilities’ exhibition at Roman Road Gallery poses questions that are as relevant today as they were when the artworks were originally created in the 1970’s. The two main walls of the gallery are dominated by two grids, each host to twenty black and white portrait photographs from the artists Consumer Art series – one is titled ‘Blonde Girl with Banana’ and the other ‘Blonde Girl with Sausage’. In-case your imagination has failed to conjure up an idea of what these images depict, allow me… all forty photographs feature the same blonde female, innocently framed with her hair in bunches, suggestively fondling, licking and biting either a banana or sausage (as their titles suggest). Far from cheap pornography, Natalia LL is making a feminist comment using phallic shaped objects to show men as a mere product consumed by the girl. This resonates further when put into context, as Natalia LL was a female Polish artist working in a male dominated Communist regime whose works were then used as a political tool to fight for equal rights and challenge masculine domination. These photographs are accompanied by two retro television sets playing different films, both depicting young, attractive females eating sexualised objects or writhing in their remains once they have been consumed! Finally a text based vinyl piece spanning the entire height of the gallery, plays with the artists own name ‘NATALIA!. Originally the letters were rearranged into over 5,000 new possibilities; a more succinct version is currently on display but still manages to achieve its’ goal of revealing that a persons’ name is just a fragment of their identity and the multiple variations of it highlight the subjectivity of women and how they are portrayed and indeed interpreted. Feminism is certainly having a moment in London galleries, and I’d advise a visit before it closes on 14th January.
Behind an inconspicuous door and adjoining metal shutter on Herald Street, you’ll find the aptly named Herald Street Gallery. Feeling slightly frazzled from a hectic work week and with absolutely no desire to head into central London, I embraced my local east end culture this weekend… and with Maureen Paley, Laura Bartlett and The Ryder Project gallery spaces all on the same street – there’s no need to venture any further! It was my first visit to Herald Street Gallery but certainly won’t be my last, as the current Cary Kwok exhibition spanning both rooms of the gallery provoked, entertained and excited me (as all good exhibitions should). Kwok is a hugely talented Hong Kong born, London based artist who specialises in fine detail drawing – explicit in the seven ink, pencil and acrylic pieces on display in this solo show. The overarching theme is homosexuality within a sprawling metropolis; one that could be Hong Kong, London, Tokyo or Manhattan and where the architecture makes reference to various historic styles from ancient Greece and Rome, to medieval castles, gothic-revival follies, colonial arches, brutalist high-rises, 1920’s art-deco and hybrids of every era in between. Within these buildings, oversized muscular men in homoerotic scenes ranging from two male figures with erections serving as fountains, a pink palace where the supporting beams are created by naked males in acrobatic poses, and shop signs full of camp innuendo including ‘Have a Cock’ in Coca-Cola’s irrefutable design are all embedded. Alongside these drawings is one sculpture, entitled ‘Arrival (La Belle Epoque), which looks like a beautiful art-deco lamp. On closer inspection you realise that the lamp-stand is in fact a wooden penis and what I thought was the melting wax light is actually spurting semen! So if you fancy some tongue in cheek humour with your art, get down to Bethnal Green before 25th September when the show closes.
Thursday 23rd June 2016 – and perhaps moreover the morning of Friday 24th June – will remain etched in the minds of current generations as a date that has left the UK indisputably divided. Though official statistics show the UK voted to leave the EU by a slim margin of 51.9% versus 48.1%, this figure hides the 28% of the population who failed to vote, the overwhelming majority of young people aged 18 – 24 who voted to stay, subsequent protests and calls for a re-vote, and indeed the resignation of our Prime Minister David Cameron. These current political circumstances made it an apt time to visit Wolfgang Tillman’s solo show; a German photographer who epitomises what it is to be part of the EU by splitting his time between Berlin and London, and an ardent ‘Vote Remain’ campaigner. This is his eighth solo show at Maureen Paley in Bethnal Green and displays new work focussing on the visible and invisible borders that define and control societies. Encompassing the entire building, the exhibition is curated simply yet effectively with work either hanging in plain white frames or unglazed and pinned delicately to the walls. The ground floor is dominated by a vast image of the sea entitled ‘The State We’re In’ capturing an intersection of the Atlantic Ocean where international time lines and borders meet. This focus point is bookended by images taken at both the Northern and Southern observatories looking beyond their country’s boundaries. This theme continues upstairs with Tillman’s ‘I refuse to be your enemy 2’ installation, a recreation of a workshop he gave Iranian students which explored the uniformity of printed communication through office paper from various different countries. The entranceway, stairwell and exterior spaces of the gallery are filled with incarnations of Tillman’s pro EU poster campaign, and in these uncertain times it is refreshing to see an artist using their creativity to heighten political awareness and take a firm stance.
I popped into Roman Road Gallery only a few months ago to see Thomas Mailaender’s humorous exhibition set against mock brick walls, and returned earlier this week to see the space transformed with bright white walls and deceptively high ceilings showcasing Anthony Cairns work. ‘OSC – Osaka Station City’ is a solo show by the British photographer following his residency at the Benrido Collotype Atelier in Japan, during which he visited Osaka. It comprises a series of five photographic images of the city’s train station, inventively printed on recycled computer punch cards. Four of the images are hung together on one wall, and one larger print is hung alone on the wall opposite. Each of the images is broken into several parts and printed on either twenty-four or forty-eight different punch cards, which Cairns carefully positioned on grey boards and glued into place. The images are all taken at night time in black and white, but are printed on either off-white, pale blue or pale green tinted punch cards – and despite their mono nature each image has managed to sublimely capture the light versus shadow within its composition. Cairns chose punch cards as the repetitive sequence of numbers on them echoes the patterns and recurring shapes and buildings in urban metropolises. This is in turn is nicely paralleled in the Gallery’s surrounding area, as Roman Road features uniform brickwork, shop façades and tower blocks down its entire length and beyond, following its quick reconstruction after the devastation of World War II bombing. A final vitrine displaying twenty-one images each printed on an individual punch card helps give a sense of the project as a whole, and enables you to focus on specific details and other aspects of the train station.
Having lived in London all my life it’s always fun to stumble across a new museum or gallery, and hidden down a side street a couple of minutes’ walk from Bethnal Green tube station is The Ryder Projects; a year old converted industrial shelter now promoting early and mid-career artists. Here I discovered Jaime Pitarch’s solo show ‘Time Matters’. Although modest, the space has enough height to have impact and the exposed brick, beams and pipework work sympathetically with the pieces on display. As you enter the space a recommissioned set of bedside drawers (part of the artists’ Momentum series) greets you at jaunty angle – now dysfunctional as a piece of furniture Pitarch uses a clever system of balances and imbalances to keep it suspended precariously. What looks like a simple grey woollen blanket is draped on the back wall behind this, however on closer inspection you realise that the green string has been unwoven from the blanket and is gathered in a ball; typically these blankets are used to transport artworks and so the piece introduces discussion about the economics of the art industry. Continuing with the economic theme, a mobile created from wire and small coinage hangs above the other artworks. It is entitled ‘Calderilla’ which is similar the artists’ native Spanish word for ‘small change’ (carderilla) but is also a humorous play on sculptor Alexander Calder’s name, who heavily influenced this piece. A final darkened area at the rear of the space attempts to make the concept of time more tangible, through a video projection and accompanying sound of a needle against a vinyl record covered in dust having been left in a studio over a period of time. All of the pieces are constructed from cheap or disused materials and it is enjoyable to see an artist exploring complex and sophisticated themes including time, value and productivity through simple, everyday objects.
On my way home from a frustrating meeting with my estate agent and surveyor on Saturday afternoon, I passed the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green and decided that a step back into my childhood and the alluring world created by Lewis Caroll would be the best antidote for my adulthood frustrations. I have been curiouser and curiouser to visit ‘The Alice Look’ exhibition since it opened on 2nd May and it was just the escapism I needed… split into 4 categories comprising Alice in Wonderland’s beginnings, follower of fashion, inspiration and global Alice, it explores Alice’s relationship with fashion since her inception 150 years ago. As a lifelong fan of these books, I was surprised to learn it was Lewis Caroll himself who created the first images of Alice in a handwritten manuscript that he produced for the real ‘Alice’ (Alice Lidell – the daughter of a family friend) minus the pinafore, striped stockings and hairband we now automatically associate with the character. In the first published version she continued to be dressed in a yellow outfit worn by many middle-class Victorian children, and it was not until Through the Looking Glass was published 6 years later that she gained her hairband and stockings. And she wasn’t dressed in blue – the colour most widely associated with her – until the Disney animation in 1951! The exhibition goes on to look at the various reprints and special editions over the last century and a half, her influence on designers, stylists and photographers, as well as her various incarnations across the globe including Swahili Alice in a local kanga dress, and a Japanese Lolita-style Alice. My only criticism is that it could and indeed should have been larger, calling five or six display cases an exhibition is a little misleading and I was left craving more.