LE BAL is located north of Paris’ city centre in the 18th arrondissement, slightly away from the bustle and colossal national museums such as The Louvre, Musee D’Orsay, Pompidou Centre and Grande Palais, yet has had a significant impact on the photographic community in the three years it has been open. The building possesses an interesting history and feels an apt home for the image-based exhibitions it now hosts; originally ‘Chez Isis’ a 1920’s drinking den, before becoming the city’s largest betting shop, and then a ruin rescued in 2006 and transformed into LE BAL gallery. I visited a couple of weeks’ ago to view the ‘Provoke: Between Protest and Performance’ exhibition examining Japanese photography between 1960 and 1975. This era witnessed an unprecedented rise in Western consumer society, huge transformation of cities, an increase in American military bases – and consequently an identity crisis across Japan manifesting in a protest movement. The focus of this show is on the subversive magazine ‘Provoke’ which only published three issues and was heavily influenced by the emergence of Japanese performance art and protest at this time. The exhibition also introduced me to lesser known but highly influential photographers including Takuma Nakahira, Yutaka Takanashi and Daido Moriyama who not only documented the era but “thought of the camera as a weapon”. The black walls of the ground floor gallery space create an oppressive staging for images depicting protests against the construction of Narin airport, student occupation of universities and local girls mixing with US troops near military bases. The basement gallery in contrast is painted white punctuated with strong vinyl images. Each page of all three publications of Provoke is on display alongside contemporary examples of performance art and film, which help put the magazine into context. All share blurred compositions, abrupt framing and sequential imaging which by the close of the exhibition felt a standardised element of Japanese photography of this era.
A “pop” of colour was just what I needed on a grey afternoon as autumn truly begins to kick in… and that’s exactly what ‘The World Goes Pop’ gave me. Each of the ten large galleries in this exhibition is painted a different bright hue; from red, to pink, green, orange, blue, yellow, turquoise and numerous shades in between. Refreshingly all of the big names typically associated with pop art (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Blake, Hamilton and Hockney) are noticeably absent, and instead the focus is on exploring how different cultures and countries such as Romania, Iran and Bratislava contributed to this phenomenon throughout the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Many common pop art themes are present including the use of mass produced imagery; most notable in the last gallery which is decorated floor to ceiling with Thomas Bayrle’s ‘The Laughing Cow’ wallpaper and displays a series of instantly recognisable logos by Yugoslavian artist Boris Bucan such as BMW, Pepsi, IBM and Texaco amongst others where the brand has been replaced with the word ‘art’, questioning how far art itself has now become a consumerist product? All of the artists on display have utilised popular global imagery to subtly address tougher issues including war, the role of women and sexual liberation, protest and civil rights. Intelligently any political message does not detract from the works as pieces of art in their own right, and I was particularly drawn to three lacquered car bonnets decorated with shapes evoking female genitalia by Judy Chicago, the only woman on an auto-body course of 250 male students. Whilst some of the pieces were not to my taste, and several are now looking a little dated (particularly those created from plastics and polymers), I certainly appreciated the exhibitions’ efforts to widen the publics gaze at pop art and present previously uncelebrated works.
The Royal Academy’s survey on Ai Weiwei was as highly political, subversive, provocative and critical of the state and censorship as I would expect (and indeed hoped!) it to be. However, what surprised me was the artists’ genuine appreciation of traditional dynastic craftsmanship, techniques and materials – which is palpable throughout the exhibition. Spanning eleven large galleries, it focusses on Ai’s work from 1993 onwards following his return to Beijing after living in America for over a decade when his father became unwell. The big-name monumental sculptures including ‘Bed’, ‘Straight’ and ‘Fragments’ take up entire galleries by themselves, and whilst I appreciated their ambitious scale and enjoyed exploring them from all angles, they didn’t grab my attention in the same way several smaller pieces did. The ‘Coca-Cola Vase’, a Han Dynasty vase (dating 206BC – 220 AD) emblazoned with the global brands’ logo raised interesting questions about old versus new, fakes being sold as originals, and if pottery is created today using centuries old materials and techniques what makes it a forgery? Similarly a collection of 3,000 ceramic crab sculptures collectively titled ‘He Xie’ is the result of one municipal authority inviting Ai to design and build a studio to help regenerate their province, which was quickly demolished and he was put under house-arrest, but through social media invited the public to dine on river crabs in protest – as the word for river crab in Chinese is synonymous with internet censorship. Human rights and suppression are common themes throughout; from a surveillance camera carved in white marble, to hand-cuffs made from a single piece of jade, gold wallpaper repeating a pattern interweaving the Twitter logo, hand-cuffs and CCTV cameras, and his most explicit fuck you in ‘Finger’ a black and white wallpaper showing the internationally recognised symbol of the middle finger in different artistic configurations!