After a chilly but beautiful autumnal stroll on Saturday afternoon, I sought warmth at The Barbican and turns out I wasn’t the only one… as the queue for their current exhibition ‘Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde’ suggested! Spanning both floors of the gallery, it examines almost fifty artistic couples from Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin who were in a relationship from 1882 until 1892 through to Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer whose relationship lasted from 1953 until 1970, and various heterosexual, homosexual, artistic threesomes and friendships in between. It explores “artists” in the broadest sense, including painters, sculptors, photographers, textile makers, musicians, writers, publishers, furniture designers and architects – and more interestingly the impact they had on each other and society by taking a stance on various civil rights issues. Each section comprises a short summary of the couple alongside a portrait of each artist individually or together as a couple, with Virginia Woolf making two appearances – on the lower level with Vita Sackville-West and on the upper level with Leonard Wolfe. The show includes big name artists such as Salvador DalÍ (and Federico GarcÍa Lorca), Pablo Picasso (and Dora Maar), Frida Kahlo (and Diego Rivera) and Wassily Kandinsky (and Gabriele Münter) but also introduced me to artists I was previously unfamiliar with or highlighted relationships where one partner has certainly hogged the limelight – often unfairly – over the other. The exhibition is certainly tinged with sadness and a sprinkling of madness; numerous tales of forbidden love, age-gaps, and mental health issues as well as Oskar Kokoschka who created a life-size doll of the composer Alma Mahler after jealousy brought an end to their relationship, Marcel Duchamp who sculpted miniature casts of Maria Martins genitals after their illicit affair came to an end, and Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt whose relationship came to a horrific close when the dancer and costume designer shot Holdt and then herself.
As an insomniac you make a decision, either you embrace the night or resent it, and I have embraced it. I appreciate everything from London’s night skyline, to nights out in different areas of the city, catching rare quiet moments where you are the only person on an ordinarily busy street, spotting a bold urban fox running across the road, and the general sense of calm after 11pm… so a photography exhibition dedicated to ‘London Nights’ easily caught my attention. In a wonderfully contrary way I visited this exhibition at an early morning private view, and had the pleasure of starting my day by viewing these 200 images captured by over 60 photographers. The exhibition is displayed in the museums’ basement gallery, and is dimly lit with grey walls and dark floors, adding to the nocturnal atmosphere. One of the things that struck me most was a feeling of familiarity, and appreciating how little the city has changed over the last century, as so many of the buildings and streets were immediately recognisable and only the fashion or adverts captured within each image gave away the decade they were taken. This was most evident in George Davidson Reid’s 1920’s photographs of Trafalgar Square, images of Liverpool Street station during the Blitz, Bob Collins’ 1960’s shots of Piccadilly Circus, numerous iconic images of St Pauls Cathedral from almost every decade, and contemporary photos of a night out in East London and West London displayed side by side. Broadly split into three categories; ‘London Illuminated’ which focusses on the capital’s landmarks from both familiar and unusual vantage points, ‘Dark Matters’ which explores the more sinister side of the city and how darkness can evoke fear, threat or isolation, and ‘Switch On Switch Off’ which observes Londoners who inhabit the city rather than the city itself. On until mid November the show is certainly worth a visit – incorporating architecture and portraiture, moments of resilience and shared acts of exhilaration, as well as exploring social issues and current threats to London’s night venues.
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.
Directly across the hallway from ‘Performing Sculpture’ at Tate Modern is ‘Performing For The Camera’ – a photography exhibition spanning fourteen galleries and exploring the relationship between photography and performance. Taking a thematic approach the exhibition looks at how the camera has been used as a tool for exploring identity, gender and sexism, race and politics, and manipulated in advertising and by society’s portrayal and construction of themselves from its invention in the 1800’s to contemporary social media. It comprises over 500 images and several stand out; three large black and white images of Ai Wei Wei holding a 2,000 year old Han dynasty urn, dropping the urn, and the urn smashing on the floor, as well as Tomoko Sawada’s ‘ID400’ showing a collection of passport photographs taken by the artist over a 4 year period highlighting her diverse looks and identities yet still being the same person, Jemima Stehli’s ‘Strip’ which depicts the artist taking her clothes off in front of six different subjects who control the camera and timing of photos being taken, and Romain Mader’s ‘Ekaterina’ which humorously discusses Ukranian mail-order-bride tourism through a series of nine staged photographs. Another highlight of the exhibition was being introduced to Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe whose collaboration with the dancer Tatsumi Hijikata are documented in wonderful black and white images densely hung against bright red walls. With such a large volume of photographs on display there were bound to be some notable images, however the exhibition as a whole lacked something, and in contrast to the Calder exhibition across the corridor I felt that sculpture ‘performed’ much better than the camera on this occasion.
Five clusters of vintage projectors are littered across the 4th floor of the The Photographers Gallery, initially looking more like an art installation than a photography exhibition. Once inside the space you quickly realise that they are projecting images directly onto the gallery walls; moreover as a visitor you are encouraged to activate the projectors yourself and control how the various images appear and disappear, and are layered over one another. The images were all taken between the late 1950’s and early 1970’s by the Uruguayan photojournalist Aurelio Gonzalez, who hid 48,626 negatives from the press archive of the country’s Communist newspaper El Popular ahead of the dictatorships’ censorship in 1973. Gonzalez ensconced the slides in a wall cavity in his office building in Montevideo for decades, only recovering them in 2006! The Centre de Fotografia de Montevideo subsequently restored, classified and digitised the archive, and in 2011 the Brazilian artist Rosangela Renno created this exhibition in response to the images. Obviously some heavy editing needed to be done with an archive approaching 50,000 photos, so Renno chose a small selection of images which best depicted the economic decline, protest and civil unrest that preceded the coup, and manipulated the archival black and white slides into digital images we see in this show. Little of this uprising survives in historical or photographic records, and Renno endured similar conditions herself during the military repression of Brazil during her lifetime – making her an apt artist to tell this story. Small red plastic tags attached to the projectors list search terms from the archive’s cataloguing system, offering insights into how the archive has been organised and increase your level of engagement with the photos. Likewise the constant clunking mechanisms of the old projectors intermingles with the Communist Internationale music playing in the background, making the images appear even more powerful.
This years’ annual Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize elicited 4,292 submissions from 2,201 photographers and provided a refreshing mix of famous faces (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Obamas and Peter Capaldi) as well as informal portraits of photographers’ friends and families, and spur of the moment images captured by street photographers across a wide range of global locations. I didn’t personally agree with the 2015 winners and found David Stewarts’ ‘Five Girls’ first prize portrait of his teenage daughter and four friends sitting at a table unduly posed, unnatural and a little stiff. Similarly, the runner up prize ‘Hector’ – a portrait of a naked baby inspired by Caravaggio’s 17th century ‘Sleeping Cupid’ by Anoush Abrar, simply left me cold. The exhibition did nonetheless include some wonderful portraits, and a personal favourite was an inkjet print of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kasuma by Noriko Takasugi which much like its subject was full of character and bursting with colour. Similarly ‘Happy Pupil’ by Mark Chivers captured a genuine and heart-warming moment when a Ugandan boy called Owen smiled infectiously across his classroom (as his education is funded through the charity Lessons for Life). At the other end of the spectrum, hard hitting issues were addressed by Lithuanian photographer Viktorija Vaisvilate Skirutiene in a portrait of her four year old neighbour naked in the window holding up his toy gun, shot in solemn black and white, producing a powerfully disturbing image. Closer to home ‘Constable Robling and Fintab’ a portrait of Britain’s first female UK policewomen to become a dog handler by Adrian Peacock captured an aggressive Fintab (the Alsatian) with gnarled teeth and visible tension on his lead, all humorously explained by the dogs’ hostility towards photographers! As always, I left feeling excited about next years’ prize and what 2016 will have to offer.