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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Maison de la Photographie de Marrakesh: Marrakesh

Amidst the buzz of the north medina on Souk Ahal Fassi Street, go through the doors to Maison de la Photogrpahie and you immediately enter an oasis of calm; clean white walls bedecked with balconies dripping with plants, and curtains gently billow in the breeze protecting the photographs in the galleries which surround the central courtyard. Bold monochrome portraits of Berber women in traditional dress and heavy jewellery hang on the walls of the ground floor space and introduce you to some of the earliest images in this collection (spanning 1879 to 1960). The archive comprises photographs, glass plates, postcards, newspaper articles and other visual paraphernalia documenting Marrakesh as well as Fez, Tangier, Casablanca, the Sahara and Atlas Mountains – offering a rare insight into what captured past visitors to Morocco’s interest. I enjoyed being introduced to photographers I had previously been unaware of, notably Arevalo who shot a moving portrait of a young, black male with a bald head and piercing sad eyes, wearing an oversized cotton garment, as well as Marcellin Flandrin’s 1920’s images of Casablanca, and various photos of the Berber people, their houses and landscapes throughout the 1940’s by Jacques Belin and Pierre Boucher. The riad building with its intricately tiled floors also added to the experience, offering a space to view a photography collection perfectly framed and hung in a different context – outside of a typical contemporary gallery setting – which complemented the works. As such a wealth of Marrakesh’s architectural history has survived, many of the archival images of the city capture the Bahia Palace, Saadiens Tombs, El Baddi Palace, Medersa Ben Youssef or everyday activity in the souks, just as my contemporary photos did, and there was something comforting about appreciating the same things as explorers at the turn of the last century did.

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Musee Yves Saint Laurent Marrakesh: Marrakesh

After exploring the southern medina and its breath-taking palaces and tombs on my first day, and the museums, galleries and souks of the northern medina on my second day, I hesitantly left the old town and ventured into the New City on day three. The streets are wider, the architecture blander, and a sudden sense of calm exudes – as traffic lights and order replace humans, mopeds, bicycles, donkeys and carts vying for space in the narrow hubbub of the medina. Not far from where the designer owned a home in the city, you’ll find the Musee Yves Saint Laurent Marrakesh. Only in existence since 2017, the museum is housed in a stunning purpose-built terracotta brick and pink stone space commissioned by French architects Studio KO who echoed the couturiers fascination with slight lines and curves. The vast 4,000 square metre space comprises the Yves Saint Laurent Hall, a temporary exhibition space, a gallery space, an auditorium, library, bookshop and serene café and outdoor terrace. The main hall displays fifty pieces from the archive collection (spanning 1962 to 2002) including the Piet Mondrian inspired dress, the infamous ‘le smoking’ jacket, the pea coat, and several garments where the Moroccan influence and its vibrant colours, nature and heritage shine through, most evident in the bougainvillea cape and Berber inspired dresses. The temporary exhibition space compliments the main hall showcasing sculptural dresses created by Noureddine Amir, suspended against a black background and mirrored walls. The auditorium helps enliven these clothes further by displaying a montage of the designer at work, YSL catwalk shows and photo shoots, as well as past controversy including Yves Saint Laurent himself posing naked for the labels’ debut aftershave in 1971! The gallery space contains a series of photographs of Catherine Deneuve modelling a YSL collection utilising Marrakesh’s carpet shops, spice souks, decorative tiling and bustling main square as a sublime backdrop, and reinforcing the affiliation between the designer and this city.

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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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Musée national Picasso: Paris

Having attempted to visit the Musée national Picasso-Paris on a couple of occasions but defeated by queues, it was third time lucky for me on a drizzly Saturday afternoon pottering around Le Marais! The museum is in the old Hotel Sale building dating back to the 17th century and listed by The Historic Monuments department. It opened as a museum in 1985 following extensive restoration, creating stunning modern gallery spaces whilst being sympathetic to the original architectural features and surviving furnishings. The collection comprises over 5,000 paintings, sculptures, ceramics, prints, engravings, illustrated books as well as an archive of newspaper articles and personal documents associated with the Spanish artist. The vast majority of the collection was acquired through two large donations from Picasso’s heirs, and is currently host to an additional body of work on loan from the Pompidou Centre as part of their 40th anniversary celebrations – offering a full spectrum of Picasso’s myriad styles and techniques. The lead exhibition focusses on the year 1932 during which Picasso dated every painting or sculpture he created, highlighting the strong biographical element in his work. This was also an interesting year with regards the artists’ personal life as many of the portraits painted depict variations of just two women; Dora Marr and Marie-Thérèse Walter, the former a photographer and surrealist artist who was Picasso’s mistress leading to the demise of his marriage to Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, and the latter a seventeen year old additional love interest of the forty-five year old artist! The variable and often contrasting portrayals of these two woman is a good analogy for the multifarious nature of Picasso as an artist, embracing innumerable different styles throughout his career. Ultimately that was what I took away from my visit to this museum – that Picasso was far more than the surrealist painter I was familiar with, but a far more complex and talented creator unafraid to provoke.

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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.

Rob Lye: Dye House 451

Situated on the ground floor of an old Permanite factory down in a side street in Hackney Wick you’ll find Dye House 451, a contemporary art gallery still in its inaugural year dedicated to showcasing works by emerging artists. You enter the current ‘Mute Ottakes’ exhibition by Rob Lye through the side door – a conscious decision by the artist so that the glass doors at the front of the gallery become a window to see the exhibition. Once inside, the floor is covered in black sand which unifies the different rooms within the gallery and also adds both an “audible trace to the spectators movements as they walk through the space” as well as a “visual trace, there is a history imprinted into the sand of previous visitors”. As the show’s title (specifically through the use of the word mute) suggests, this exhibition has been curated around a series of works that focus on sound, or indeed its absence. There is a silent outtake from BS Johnson’s TV programme ‘Fat Man on a Beach’ as a starting point accompanied by a looped piece of music made through degrading tape, three speakers which play a real time feed of the electromagnetic frequencies generated by the wireless router, empty beer bottles on the balcony filled with liquid to differing levels which play the theme tune to ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ if you were to blow over them, and less explicitly the main image ‘Hania swimming’ depicts a woman in a pool distracted by something audible but out of shot. All of these intermingle with the sound of the sand underfoot and are crucial to this exhibition, as the artist puts it “music, sound, silence, the act of listening, etc. it’s everything really”. On until 19th February, I’d strongly recommend a visit for a dose of east London culture.

With thanks to Fred Howell (Director of Dye House 451) for taking the time to meet me, and to Rob Lye (the artist) for kindly answering my questions.

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William Kentridge: Whitechapel Gallery

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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