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.
The Geffrye Museum’s annual ‘Christmas Past’ exhibition looks at the past 400 years of festive traditions in middle-class English homes, and offers a wonderful insight into so many of this seasons now commonplace activities from the food we eat, to the decorations we put up, sending cards, hanging stockings, and kissing under the mistletoe! Based in Hoxton (East London) the museum comprises of eleven period rooms all in former 18th century almshouses originally built to house London’s poor and elderly from 1780 to 1880. The first period room dates from 1600 and they continue through to the present day, each one furnished accordingly to reflect changes in middle-class society, behaviour and tastes. I enjoyed witnessing the evolution of Christmas in the home, from the evergreens (a Pagan custom adopted by Christians) and ‘kissing boughs’ (early mistletoe) of the 1600’s, to the Rosemary and Bay of the 1700’s, and the introduction of fir trees under the reign of Queen Victoria in the 1800’s. I was also surprised by how much I learnt; I was previously unaware that Christmas was banned in this county during the Civil War as parliament was at the time dominated by Puritans who disapproved of the excess that Christmas encouraged (and the ban was only lifted in 1660 when the monarchy was restored), or that sending Christmas cards is a late nineteenth century English invention introduced by Henry Cole who sold the first commercial card in 1843 and it became a popular custom from 1870 when The Post Office introduced a cheap rate for postcards and unsealed envelopes. The almshouses are situated within tranquil gardens and there’s also an impressive on-site café serving local East London produce, so I’d certainly advise visiting the museum before the Christmas show finishes on 3rd January!
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Design districts (Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, Chelsea, Brompton, Islington and Bankside), temporary installations, large-scale fairs, and hundreds of talks and events popped up across London last week to celebrate the city’s annual Design Festival. After lack lustre RIBA installations in flagship store windows along Regent Street and a frustrating visit to the V&A involving disorganisation, poor signage, a map with the wrong orientation, and long queues when you finally did locate a related room – Somerset House provided a welcome change and was extremely satisfying. It was easy to navigate, the central courtyard contained clear signage with arrows directing visitors to different areas, and actively encouraged public engagement and interaction. Although not strictly part of the festival, Marc Quinn’s ‘Frozen Waves, Broken Sublimes’ sculptures currently inhabiting the courtyard are certainly worth a mention, comprising five monumental stainless steel pieces including a 7.5 metre long wave and four conch shells. Moving into the Terrace Rooms six ‘#Powered by Tweets’ competition winners were on display, each challenged to create something beautiful or solve a problem using Twitter. Given my cynicism towards social media I was surprised by how thoughtful the entries were; one design equipped pigeons with pollution monitors enabling real-time tweets to report on air quality in various global cities, another harnessed Twitter to create visual mindscapes to help relax patients receiving chemotherapy, whilst another monitored language to create a real-time visualisation of the most popular words being used on Twitter. On the subject of communication technology, Punkt in the West Wing also touted their MP01 mobile which refreshingly contains no status updates, notifications or multiple alerts but instead “focusses on the things that matter, like communicating”! Finally, the sunken Embankment Galleries showcased ‘My Grandfather’s Tree’ where Max Lamb beautifully explained his story of felling an ash on his family farm which was cut into 130 sections, each transformed into a stool, table or chair, and all displayed homogenously.
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I am deeply suspicious of immersive theatrical experiences and have a palpable dislike of forced audience participation, so had my concerns about attending Dreamthinkspeak’s new production at Shoreditch Town Hall. Inspired by The Duchess of Argyll’s residence at a London hotel for over a decade until her eviction in the 1980’s, ‘Absent’ uses the Town Hall’s labyrinthine basement as the set for a journey “guests” can enjoy at their own pace. Upon arrival, I immediately bought into the deception of it being a real hotel, complete with reception and check-in area, functioning bar, and doormen leading you down to the basement where the hotel façade continues. With no idea what to expect when entering the first bedroom, black and white films of a glamorous dinner and a two-way mirror allowing you to see into the next bedroom where a drunk and disorientated older woman is packing her suitcase, ease you into the story. Moving down the corridor, you can look into each of the hotel bedrooms via keyholes and peepholes to view the same woman at different life stages; an innocent child, elegant young lady, and lonely older woman. Influences range from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, to C.S Lewis’ Narnia and Orwell’s 1984 – and the integration of film, installation, eerie soundtrack and detailed miniatures of the rooms you are standing in, make navigating your way through the building intriguing and utterly absorbing. The maze-like basement constantly alters in scale, and oscillates between the real (actual rooms) and the imaginary (film, installation, replica miniatures) making you feel as though you are stepping into scenes you have been watching or moments from the past. As you exit the final room a doorman is required to inform you that the experience is over, testament to its authenticity and to how convincing an illusion has been created.
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