I was an Elmgreen & Dragset neophyte until last autumn, then on a work trip to Paris I stumbled across the artistic duo’s 1,000 Starfish installation at Place Vendome. Once back in London I learnt that Whitechapel Gallery was hosting an exhibition dedicated to the Scandinavian pairs’ work, entitled ‘This is How We Bite our Tongue’… and with only a week left until it closes on 13 January, I was given the new year impetus I needed to go and view it! The entire ground floor gallery houses a new commission The Ghost of Whitechapel pool, which depicts a fictional empty swimming pool and using this now abandoned civic space the piece questions local government decisions to cut funding and close these shared spaces. The edges of the pool also play host to numerous other sculptures; a classical inspired male torso toppled over and lying on its side, bronze casts of a Mercedes car seat and cooling boxes, an aluminium meteor on a trampoline, and two urinals connected by interlinked twisted drainpipes. Moving upstairs a series of exhibition wall labels painted directly onto white canvas or carved in white marble pay tribute to artists who have inspired them, and are accompanied by an installation encouraging the public to sit at a desk, have a glass of whiskey and read through the artists’ diary. In the final room of the exhibition, each work features a somewhat anonymous figure, ranging from sculptures of a little boy staring at a rifle, to a pregnant house-maid and a little boy cowering in a fireplace, all finished in matte white with minimal features, to a judicial wig hung on the wall minus a wearer, the outlines of two portraits which were once hung on the wall, and two white pillows cast in bronze with the impressions of the heads previous sleeping there still imprinted into them.
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.
Eduardo Paolozzi is all over London; from the mosaics at Tottenham Court Road tube station to the sculpted head outside The Design Museum, colossal sculptures outside The British Library and on Royal Victoria Dock, and abstract pieces in Kew Gardens and Pimlico amongst others. It seems almost overdue that a London Gallery should dedicate an exhibition to the irreverent artists’ works – and Whitechapel Gallery have filled that void collating over 250 of Paolozzi’s artworks in their current retrospective. The ground floor focusses on his early career in London and Paris and his experimentation with various mediums as industrial bronze sculptures are displayed alongside pop-art inspired collages, screen-prints, tapestries and textiles, and moving film. Despite this diversity constant themes do emerge, evident in his fascination with pattern, layering and texture – and as the ground floor galleries come to an end, an inimitable Paolozzian style full of graphic prints and geometric designs emerges. His evolution as an artist is focussed on in the upper floor galleries which explore later developmental pieces in chrome and a playfulness with reflective surfaces and mirrors. It then goes on to draw out his obsession with the creative process itself, and it is interesting to view similar shapes through both two dimensional sketches and prints and three dimensional sculptures sharing the same space. Hints of the artist as a person – and indeed as a rebel – are also present in ‘Avant Garde?’ where each letter of the term is filled with a colourful cartoon figure, and ‘Jeepers Creepers’ which pokes fun at artistic terminology by featuring a row of plaster clowns each labelled with a different term. Iconic pieces mix with lesser known experiments, and the exhibition closes with the original sketches for the infamous tube mosaics. Get over to east London before 14th May to catch this exhibition and appreciate Paolozzi’s fun, colourful and incredibly innovative contributions to 20th century art!
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!
Few things fill me with genuine contentment more than strolling down a street towards an art gallery on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with a strong black coffee in hand! And that is exactly the position I found myself in last weekend… heading towards Whitechapel Gallery to catch the Mary Heilmann ‘Looking at Pictures’ exhibition on its final day. This retrospective explores the American abstract artists’ past five decades of work, from her early geometric paintings of the 1970’s through to modernday shaped canvases in day-glo colours. It opens with the honest statement that Heilmann studied poetry, ceramics and sculpture in California but failed to make it as a female sculptor, before taking up painting when she moved to New York in 1968 – her background in sculpture and ceramics is immediately apparent as she clearly views canvases as three-dimensional objects often painting their sides, as well as using her fingers to manipulate paints and create textured surfaces. As you move to the upstairs gallery you are greeted by a projected slideshow entitled ‘Her Life’ which shows photographs Heilmann has taken alongside the abstract images she has created in response to them; not only does this help give context to the exhibition but it is also interesting to witness her interpretation of everyday scenes. The final gallery displays more personal works, and also contains examples of Heilmann’s chairs in a variety of pastel colours enabling visitors to sit down and view and discuss her works at a leisurely pace. Some pieces are intensely biographical including ‘311 Castro Street’ which was the artists’ childhood address and ‘Maricopa Highway’ which was a road-trip she regularly took, and one final piece depicting a crashing wave in bold, lush greens and blues offers visitors a final reminder of Heilmann’s distinctly Californian background.
Emily Jacir’s current ‘Europa’ exhibition was a little hit and miss for me… whilst I certainly enjoyed several pieces, I found that many failed to have an impact as standalone pieces of art, and it was only once I had read more about their political contexts that I could appreciate them. Spanning two floors of Whitechapel Gallery the exhibition includes multimedia installations, films, soundscapes, photography, archival material and texts – and covers the last two decades of Jacir’s work with a focus on Europe. All of the pieces have a heavy political leaning but some still manage to be amusing, such as ‘Change/Exchange’ which displays eye-level photographs of different Bureau de Changes across Paris alongside their receipts, detailing the journey of a $100 bill that Jacir changed into francs which she then changed back into dollars and so forth, until sixty exchanges later the paper money was gone and only coins which could not be exchanged remained. Others in contrast are very solemn; ‘Material for a film’ tells the moving story of Wael Zuaiter who was assassinated by Israeli Agents in his hotel room in Rome and features family photographs, personal anecdotes, literature and music to explain the Palestinian artists’ life and untimely death. Other pieces in the show include an installation akin to a luggage conveyor belt which only moves when it senses people nearby, feminist comments on her days living in Saudi Arabia where Vogue magazine was banned, a series of 26 photographs and accompanying diary extracts from a solo protest at a market square in Linz, and photographs of her Arabic translations of bridge stops in Venice in the lead-up to the Biennale festival (which were quickly removed). ‘Europa’ certainly provides food for deep thought, however I left the exhibition still feeling hungry for something more.