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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Lydia Ourahmane: Chisenhale Gallery

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.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat: Barbican

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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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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Hannah Black: Chisenhale Gallery

The smell of paper, and more specifically warm paper going through a shredding machine is the first thing that hits you as you enter the doors of Chisenhale Gallery. Situated by the canal in east London, it’s not the typical scent of a cavernous warehouse, but a surprisingly welcome one at that! The introductory text on the first wall helps explains the smell, as the current exhibition is a new commission titled ‘Some Context’ by Manchester born – but now New York based – artist Hannah Black featuring a pile of 20,000 copies of a book and multiple shredders. Inside each of the copies of the book (entitled ‘The Situation’) is a different interpretation of a conversation between the artist and her friends about ‘the situation’ which will all be shredded at the end of the exhibition. The floor of the gallery is littered with a carpet of already shredded copies of ‘The Situation’, eight shredding machines, various small sculptures created out of modelling clay, and several “transitional objects” which look like cuddly toys. Through reading the accompanying exhibition notes, I learnt that the toys are also going to be shredded at the close of the exhibition – however I still failed to grasp their relevance beyond that. Black argues that the show “gestures towards the various potential uses of art’s uselessness” and so perhaps I (somewhat ironically) picked up on that in my view of the ‘useless’ cuddly toys. On a more positive note, a programme of events including a series of conversations where the public can come together to discuss a situation of their choice will also be taking place throughout the duration of the exhibition, complementing the commission nicely. On display until the 10th December I’d certainly suggest poking your head into this interesting commission, and seeing if you appreciate the inclusion of the cuddly toys any more than I did!

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Evans, Janssens and Ortega: White Cube, Bermondsey

Three exhibitions for the price of one! In fact three exhibitions for the price of none if you head over to White Cube Bermondsey who offer free admission and are currently host to three different artists across their north, south and 9x9x9 gallery spaces. The first space you enter off the main corridor contains Cerith Wyn Evans’ huge neon installation ‘Neon Forms (After Noh IV) which is suspended from the ceiling and almost reaches the floor, combining single lines of light amidst chaotic overlapping assemblages. The north gallery space compliments the first show, as Ann Veronica Janssens’ sculptural works similarly play with light and perception; including halogen lamps, venetian blinds covered in gold leaf, reflective and mirrored surfaces and a spillage of glitter across the floor. The final (and largest) south gallery space is dedicated to Damian Ortega which again includes large-scale sculptures and installations alongside two-dimensional pieces. Orange infographics are pinned to the white walls, and although the imagery relates to a camera manual, the workings of a gun, or the planets within the solar system, closer inspection reveals that the labels are philosophical and comment on the impact technology has had on people’s faith and belief. Within these two-dimensional works are a series of industrial and mechanical sculptures such as the coliseum created from concrete blocks in concentric circles, and the clever ‘Deconstructing time’ sculptures which comprise the inner workings of a watch enlarged to an enormous scale and separated across the floor or stacked in free standing towers. The weather may be turning grey and miserable as autumn sets in, but the change in season also initiates the opening of several inspiring exhibitions to keep you indoors and happily distracted from the weather outside – and White Cube’s current offering certainly falls into that category!

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Contact Zone, air blob-no bones: L’etragere Gallery

On a weekend where London’s hosting Fashion Week, Design Week and Open House activities, there is something delectable about escaping the crowds and enjoying some quiet culture rather than squeezing your way through an overcrowded architectural gem, enduring a contrived tour of an institution, or spending so long in a queue outside a venue you fail to see anything at all! So that’s exactly what I did… hidden down a cobbled street off Old Street you’ll find L’etrangere gallery showcasing a changing programme of contemporary art exhibitions. Currently a trio of artists (two from Germany and one from Hungary) are on display in a group show entitled ‘Contact Zone, air blob-no bones’ which mixes sculpture and painting through delicate glassworks alongside industrial ceramic installations. Marie Jeschke and Anja Lager have created a series of glass plates which are balanced against the black floorboards and white walls of the gallery, with sharp irregular edges and decorated with shots of painted colour and small objects. The third artist, Istvan Szabo’s ceramic creations are displayed on the floor enabling visitors to view them from above, and combine pieces of brick, metal, nails and an assortment of other materials found on London streets and scrapyards. The glass plates and ceramics mingle throughout the gallery in much the same way as different materials coalesce within each artwork. The exhibition is certainly challenging for the viewer, but I appreciated the simplicity of their display and the tactile quality of each piece. Fragile materials are fused with durable elements and you find yourself getting closer to the artworks to try and identify what object has been fired, glazed or melted into the original material. Nothing is framed or has straight edges, and this further increases your interest in the process behind how these works are created.

Museum Lapidarium: 8th International Festival of Visual Arts

I was a Novigrad newcomer until last month (and embarrassingly must confess to thinking it was a town in Russia rather than Croatia) however was utterly charmed by the Istrian town. Old Venetian city walls from the 13th century enclose a space littered with historic bell-towers, churches, a colourful harbour, and narrow streets decorated with bright umbrellas and other artworks! I was also fortunate enough to be visiting during the 8th International Festival of Visual Arts, breathing additional life and activity into this small but progressive town. This years’ theme was ‘Let there be… bicycle’ to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the invention of bikes and incorporated modern and contemporary art, a photography exhibition, performances, film screenings, workshops and other activities emanating from the Museum Lapidarium – the nucleus and organiser of the festival. Outside the museum you were greeted by a large-scale installation by Italian artist Marco Milia, created from interconnected blue plastic circles. Its site-specific nature, lack of clear boundaries and circular rhythms forced viewers to interact with the space differently; kids explored, locals and tourists were absorbed, and the sun and wind played with it throughout each day and evening. The museum building itself was animated with sculptures of cyclists hunched over their bikes created by Croatian artist Vasko Lipovac, Braco Dimitrijevic’s bicycle themed artwork ‘Tryptichos Post Historicus’ decorated a nearby window, and a selection of vintage photographs of cyclists was displayed in the Gallery around the corner. As night fell, festival activity stepped up a gear as films were projected in the main square, performance art took place in small parks and on street corners, and visitors were able to both watch or help with a workshop led by London’s Bamboo Bicycle Club to build a rideable bike out of bamboo from start to finish in just three days. With both a permanent archaeological collection and changing programme of contemporary art exhibitions, I left eager to return to Novigrad and see what future exhibitions hold.

Gregory Crewdson: The Photographers’ Gallery

‘Cathedral of the Pines’ conjures thoughts of religious buildings carved from pine trees, but instead is name of a forest trail in the American rural town of Beckett, Massachusetts and the inspiration behind Gregory Crewdson’s latest body of work currently on display at The Photographers’ Gallery. It is the first time the Gallery has dedicated all three floors to one artist and contains all 31 large-scale images from this series, allowing visitors to view the entire body of work rather than just selected pieces. At first glance the exhibition as a whole can feel a little repetitive; with many images featuring bleak landscape scenes or simple domestic settings, however on closer inspection you begin to appreciate the detail and atmosphere created within each one. These details are often a little sinister; footsteps in the ground, an unexpected reflection in a mirror or window pane, or items that seem out of place in their environment. The people and settings in each frame also contradict each other, with figures standing still but naked in the snow, or on a riverbank, or as a couple in the back of a truck within a dense forest, making you question the narrative that has led up to each scene or ‘moment’ captured – and indeed what might come next. Credwson’s photography is famously likened to film as he creates cinematic-style sets and hires actors or models to pose within these sets, however this series recalls film in a more climatic capacity creating visual suspense in much the same way as directors Alfred Hitchcock or David Lynch. Unusually this series includes natives to Beckett as well as some of Crwedsons friends and family rather than actors or models, and he describes it as his most personal project to date. On display until 8th October it’s certainly worth escaping the crowds of Oxford Street and spending some time exploring the oddly calm dystopia of this exhibition!

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Klaus Weber: Herald Street Gallery

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.

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