Monday, 25 July 2011

Around the London Galleries

Michelangelo Pistoletto, The Mirror of Judgement, (detail), 1968-2011. Serpentine Gallery, London

So, a round up of all the shows I've managed to get through during my week in London. In the usual pointlessly convoluted manner, we start with the last first; Michelangelo Pistoletto's Mirror of Judgement exhibition at the Serpentine. Pistoletto, one of the founding creative personae behind the 1960s Arte Povera movement, has mined over forty years worth of imagery and experimentation to produce a labyrinthine installation.

Using sinuous sculptural arabesques of corrugated cardboard, Pistoletto transforms the space into a form of mini-pilgrimage for the visitor. The familiar spaces of the gallery are transformed into a claustrophobic walk-through, punctuated by the artists Trumpets of Judgement from the late 60s, an acknowledgement of the impace of the bombastic propaganda of Benito Mussolini and Fascism in his childhood. The focus here, however, is on world religions and the implicit inadequacy of each of the traditions of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. Each of the these traditions has a recognisable piece of religious furniture (prayer stool, statue of the Buddha, prayer mat) placed in front of a mirror; the constant process of confronting oneself whilst walking through the labyrinth becomes quite uncomfortable.

Pistoletto suggests that the limitations of organised religion be superseded by a new, idealistic fusion of human intelligence and the intelligence of the natural world - a utopian vision which may appear very much of the moment, but which he has been developing through his experimentation since the sixties. This is a compelling piece whose force is increased by the everyday nature of its materials.
The Contemporary Living Room, as it appeared in 1951. South Bank Centre, London
The re-working of old material of a very different kind is to be found in the Festival of Britain exhibition at the South Bank Centre. It is the sixtieth anniversary of the iconic 1951 Festival of Britain, itself held 100 years after the Great Exhibition of 1851 (coincidentally held on a site just next door to the contemporary Serpentine Gallery). This show, rather tucked away in the basement of the Royal Festival Hall (the only surviving structure from the original festival), is a real treat, not only in effectively re-constructing how the Festival site looked, but also the effect that it had on ordinary people, both at the main site in London and its peripheral satellites around the UK. In a cinema space, re-constructed with period seats, a British-Pathe news reader opines lazily on the habits of "the British" at their leisure and tries his best to conceal dubiety at some of the futuristic architecture, designs and products on display, a comedy highlight. 

Evidence of such "ingenious" design can be found in a display of the contemporary living room, a remarkable, geometric, spare amalgam of pink fabric, Bakelite and new domestic gadgets such as the television. This, of course, was the decade when the TV moved from being a luxury item attainable to only a very few, to being the central object of entertainment and discussion in households, changing our patterns of leisure and interaction for ever.

Due weight is also given to the graphic designer whose work is nothing like as well known as it should be- the Londoner Abram Games. Games provided the official logo and did much of what now would be called the Festival "branding", and his central figure of a modernist Britannia is re-worked. One of the more touching photographs on display is one of two of Games children, now middle aged, laughing in the presence of their father's best known design.

Whatever nostalgia there may be for a fast-disappearing past in the Festival of Britain show isn't to be found, as expected, at the BP Portrait Award 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition was absolutely packed when I visited (at two o'clock on a Monday afternoon) and, as always, was generating lively discussion about the choice of the judges versus each visitors own ideas of what should have won. I'm not going to get drawn into that, but instead focus on a portrait that really stood out for me.
Benjamin Sullivan Study 2010-11; copyright the artist. NPG, London.

The portrait is of Sullivan's girlfriend, and was completed whilst he was spending a good stretch of time away from her. The painting is attractive because of its distorted perspective; we look directly down into a cup of coffee, whilst seeing the seated figure in a more conventional manner; the Grimsby street scene outside again appears to be operating on an unusual plane. The device of the net curtain blurs the smokers conversation on the outside, and implicitly reduces their noise to a minimum. The narrow, wood floored interior throws the figure into sharp relief and invites the viewer to think about the introspection, loneliness and complete self absorption that study can bring- perhaps inviting a wider comment on the act of observing a painting. This is also an idealistic view, with the painter imagining what his partner will be doing in his absence and putting together that vision from a composite of past realities. This is a much more subtly complex piece than it first appears, and as such is emblematic of an ambitious, technically dextrous and wide ranging show- perhaps more so this year, than in recent times.

Thomas Struth, Semi-Submersible Rig, DSMES Shipyard, Geoje Island, South Korea, 2007. Whitechapel Art Gallery/The Artist
For one reason and another, it has been quite some time since I've managed to an exhibition at the Whitechapel- I think the last show I saw there was an Emil Nolde retrospective c. 1995-96. The main galleries are filled by an extremely arresting show by the German photographer Thomas Struth- one of the first truly "global" photographers, in terms of his range of subjects and his constant refining of his photographic methods. Struth is fascinated with man's constant desire to progress and to innovate, despite the mounting historical lessons of the folly of some of those innovations. The study of a new gigantic oil rig taking shape in a South Korean shipyard is perhaps the best example of this, although the ground floor of the show has many examples of humans interacting with gargantuan architectural and engineering spaces. Implicit in this is the emptiness and recurrent failure of utopian political and religious ideologies, and the persistence of the human spirit beyond those failures. 

Thomas Struth, Clinton Road, London, 1977

Struth was a student of Bernd and Hilla Becher in the 1970s, and some of his earlier portrayals of cities reveal their strong influence. A good example is the view of Clinton Road in Stratford, East London; the, seemingly, an empty space bounded by a railway line in the background, with only the parked cars giving any sign of human habitation in the Victorian terraced houses. Back then, East London was unimaginably different; the docks were in terminal decline, and would be cleared to make way for Canary Wharf and the new financial district, with this formerly mercantile hub of the British Empire/Commonwealth re-imagined as the finance and service sector"Docklands" by city planners. In a sense, then, this picture is a memento mori of an old working class community that was about to be swept aside by forces completely beyond its ken. More prosaically, although the photo is less than 35 years old, everything looks terribly shabby, and decayed; as remote as a photograph from the second world war.

Joan Miro, Vegetable Garden with Donkey, 1918. Moderna Museet, Stockholm
The other major retrospective I managed to see was the Joan Miro show at Tate Modern. It's worth the eye-watering £15 entrance fee even for those on a tight budget. The particular highlights for me were the opening room- where a series of pictures of Miro's parent's farm in Mont-roig, Catalonia. Much of the symbolism which underlay his later biomorphic and surrealist work dates from this period; particularly his view of the Cataln peasant as a kind of everyman figure, and his understanding of and sympathy with the natural world, dates from this period- a stage of his career which is crucial but often overlooked in favour of his more resolved style of the late twenties and thirties.
Miro's political radicalism as a driving motor behind his ideas and paintings are explained in compelling detail. The Constellations series, dating from 1940 to c. 1942, provides an anxious visual accompaniment to Miro's feelings of gloom at Franco's triumph in the Spanish civil war, the impending invasion of a defeatist France by Nazi Germany, and Miro's own return from France to Spain and "internal exile" with his wife's family. From then on, Miro maintained a low profile in Francoist times, whilst maintaining an international voice through regular exhibitions in Paris and New York. Throughout his long career, he continued to intervene on behalf of radical political causes, such as the triptych inspired by the imprisonment and ultimate garrotting of the Catalan anarchist, Salvador Puig Antich

This is a rich and provocative retrospective which will certainly alter any preconceptions the visitor has of Miro- it certainly did that for me.

Tomorrow, I set off from London for the Chunnel, and then an overnight stop in Reims, en route to Geneva and then Zurich for the weekend. My next entry will be from Switzerland, then.

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