In the 1960s, there was a schoolboy who was a bit peculiar. He was no good at football. The other schoolboys didn’t really get him. He spent a lot of time with his grandmother, a tarot card reader, who said he was going to be beautiful and have a good life. Together they watched 1940s films, and he became fascinated by the costume design on screen: the couture, and all that came with it, wondrous fabrics, exotic feathers and sexy fishnets. Jean Paul Gaultier took what had inspired him at home, and reproduced these images in class. The teacher slapped him on the wrist, safety pinned the sketch to his back, and told him to face the wall. She intended to humiliate him, but the boys now understood Gaultier, and wanted more sketches. Gaultier opened his exhibition in London with this anecdote and in a way, it beautifully captures all you’re about to see.
“The purpose of exhibition is to pay tribute to Jean Paul Gaultier’s humanism” said Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts who, to my relief gave a charming but brief introduction to the exhibition. That humanism took shape in an iconoclastic approach to fashion and a liberal celebration of beauty.
The exhibition displays not just the fashion, but the musings and principles which underpin all of Gaultier’s work. He doesn’t like his models to be robots. He doesn’t care much for conventional beauty; that is to say the slim, ethereal, classic figures that characterized the fashion world during his apprenticeship in the 70s. His models are fat, old, transgender, mixed race and tattooed. In so many words they are diverse, a fact that reflects his original interpretation of beauty. The spectacular photography on display, small and large images, exemplifies his enduring commitment to that belief, and just the right amount was included, which enables you to give each piece its due appreciation without being overcome with material.
“In Paris, fashion has to be serious”, said Gaultier, “but in London people can be fun’. After a few paces around the exhibition it becomes obvious that Gaultier may, according to his own definition, be in fact more than 1/8 English — something he told us with pride. The talking models scattered around the exhibition in provocative poses removed all doubts as to whether or not he was a designer who challenges convention and enjoys poking fun at the establishment.
By the end of the exhibition, the headline “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” made perfect sense. Gaultier drew inspiration from the sidewalk. Whether it was walking past David Bowie on the Kings Road in 1974 or, wandering around Portobello. He elaborated that “it is more interesting and inspiring to look at people who are not in fashion as they aren’t observing a code”. He transferred these ideas and the people that embodied them to the catwalk. It was his world meeting another world, a distinction, which today can no longer be drawn. He fulfilled his grandmother’s prophecy, and went a bit further, making others beautiful and leads a life good for himself, and even better for society. So to borrow his own words: “Enjoy it, and have a good moment”.
Eva Kotatkova’s ‘The Storyteller Inadequacy’ may have stolen the show this winter at Modern Art Oxford, but the quiet and colourful Piper Gallery houses one of the most important shows that the gallery has seen in recent years. “Charting the complete graphic design history of the gallery, this exhibition is a photographic trompe l’oeil of around 400 unique posters from the Modern Art Oxford archive,” reads the description.
Modern Art Oxford has been a prominent space both in Oxford and in the national art scene since it was founded in 1965. Notice! is a record of the hundreds of experimental and extremely influential exhibitions that have taken place at Pembroke Street and earlier at the Bear Lane Gallery. Making use of the 500 rare and original posters in its archives, the exhibit tracks changes in exhibition – making over the last 50 years charting progress in layout, branding, political undertones and graphic design.
To create the piece, the posters (all originals taken from the archives) were fixed to the walls of the Piper Gallery and photographed in order to create a floor- to-ceiling representation of the posters in their actuality. The historicity of these posters is brought to light and made very real, as some posters are exhibited with their slight creases or with their corners captured rolling upwards as they slowly unfurl from the wall, leaving small squares of Blu-Tack visible behind.
The effect is a very honest and vast floor- to-ceiling display, capturing the essential vibrancy of these pieces of ‘art-marketing.’ On first glance the chronological ordering of the room is vaguely apparent. Most obviously, the recent posters of the noughties are much more regimented in size and framing, in comparison to the earliest pieces, being more heavily and consistently branded. Conversely, the mainly artist-created posters of the 60s vary in size, layout, and information given. The handmade quality of these early pieces is extraordinary, yet in some cases the details of the exhibition are not provided, granting a spontaneous, abstract vibe.
The movement from the ‘60s and ‘70s posters towards the corporate branding of the ‘80s is clear as the museum logo makes an appearance and the use of technology and graphic design become more apparent. The ‘90s see further technological advances and the ‘branding’ extends from the museum to a more clearly brand-focussed ‘artist’ also.
The artist is still at the foreground of the poster but in a very different way.Their artwork is still displayed but the focus shifts more towards the advertisement and marketing of the artist alongside that of the museum- dual layers of marketing and branding within one piece.
Political undertones are evident within the posters. A series of four posters from the ‘80s are presented. They are particularly text heavy and encompass the style of pieces of propaganda as the content of these range from Russian politics to World War Two. These were thepiecesthatweremostfascinating. Great names of British and worldwide art were evident- Tracey Emin’s ‘This is Another Place’ and Robert Doisneau’s exhibitions wowed me, and seeing names from Pasternak to Noel Forster, Gillian Ayres and Jenny Saville hugging the walls was quite astounding.
Most interesting however was viewing these names presented alongside the above propaganda-style pieces, one of which stated: “Whilst the world listened to HIFI from Japan, a museum tuned into art.” Also prominent were two posters for 1988 exhibitions of photography from the height of the AIDS crisis.
This celebration of art history and the history of Modern Art Oxford is displayed in an unimaginable way – one which has local pull and importance and which allows these pieces to speak honestly. The posters are grouped simply as pieces from an extensive and dusty archive, but the stories that they tell span tragedy, greatness and an international art history.
Notice! Is at Modern Art Oxford until the 2nd of February 2014.
As we move tentatively further into 2014, those unsure as to what the new year will have in store would do well to get themselves down to the V&A, where new year’s is being heralded in with two remarkable, contemporary exhibitions, Jameel Prize 3 and Elmgreen & Dragset’s Tomorrow.
On the surface there is little to connect these two shows. The Jameel Prize exposition celebrates the work of modern-day artists inspired by traditional Islamic arts and crafts. Tomorrow is a walk-through piece, pondering the futility of wealth, and the excess and nausea of western living, from the team that produced Death of a Collector. What links these very different exhibitions is their sheer modernity – these are glimpses of the here-and-now, snapshots of the world as it enters its “two thousandth and fourteenth year”.
As for what those snapshots show us, Tomorrow conjures up a bleak state of affairs. The experience is, in fact, less a glimpse than extended voyeurism, as we are invited to pore over the house and possessions of the fictional architect Norman Swann, on the brink of selling up the grand family home he can no longer maintain. Elmgreen & Dragset calculate their details perfectly, from the medicine tablets on the slick mahogany dressing table, to the drip that has found its way through the elaborate plastered ceilings, the Dominos boxes that clutter the corner of the pristine stainless steel kitchen – and the sad little union jack, nesting limply beside a news cutting on riots in Cameron’s Britain. The piece precisely skewers so many of the realities of modern western living: the co-existence of beauty and craftsmanship with cheap, mass consumption, the inability of wealth to protect from the frailty of ageing, the fear of a world where power is changing.
Norman could be a one-man metaphor for Europe, living amidst an inherited and unsustainable wealth, and while we might goggle at the so many unnecessary luxuries – (my favourite was a five foot wide oil portrait of a spaniel) – it is impossible not to feel for Norman as he is made to yield them. Walking through the house, it is as if we are prospective buyers, forcing the old man out with our very tread, or tourist spectators (as, indeed, in a way we are) gawping for our passing amusement at what was once a way of life. There is also the added sense of the morbid fascination with which we pick over disaster stories and tales of the downfall of the rich. Whatever its title, Tomorrow is a complex and disconcerting view of living today.
Jameel Prize 3, featuring works from ten different artists, is more varied in outlook, but its contemporary thrust is the same. Many of the pieces consider the rapid changes of a globalised world, such as Faig Ahmed’s traditional carpet designs with their intricate, ordered patterns collapsing in one corner, and Mounir Fatmi’s dizzying video installation, all movement and chaos. Laurent Mareschal’s drawings made from spices share and evoke the transient nature of the burgeoning street art scene; while Pascal Zoghbi’s experiments with Arabic typography, refashioning it into both poppy, commercial fonts, and sloganish spray-paint ones, seem to nod to the dual pressures of capitalism and the more socialist ideals of the Arab Spring, which are now vying in the Middle East. Change is the defining ethos of the show, and – for these artists certainly – the defining spirit of our times.
The Arab world in vertiginous change, Europe in slow defeat – two visions of the world in 2014. It is well worth making the trip to the V&A to see them, uncomfortable viewing as they may sometimes be.
PHOTO/Victoria & Albert Museum
It is a shame that Modern Art Oxford has launched two exciting new shows just as Oxford students prepare to leave on break – thankfully, they both run well into the new year. In A Storyteller’s Inadequacy, a new exhibition by Eva Kot’átková, and the navel-gazing exhibition of nearly fifty years of Modern Art Oxford posters, MAO is presenting work that is refreshing, earnest, and playful.
The visual centrepiece Kot’átková’s installation is ‘Speech organ of Anna’, a combination of both playground-style sculpture and performance art that Kot’átková uses to explore the limits of communication. For Kot’átková, those limits are clearly defined and much stricter than one might think in everyday life–the live performers who inhabit this space make no eye contact with the viewer, instead wrapping themselves around, though and inside the bizarre and mildly grotesque cages that fill the piece. Whatever the viewer may or may not interpret from the piece, the addition of live performers inside the work adds a thrilling touch of danger to the work. The human presence breaks the usually cool veneer of visual art, but by performers who will not look at you, speak to you, or acknowledge your presence in the slightest. The addition underscores her central theme powerfully.
The Middle Gallery centres around a lecture given by Petr Kot’áko, which pits the ‘narrator in good shape’ against the ‘narrator in decay’. As Kot’áko presents an exposition of the narrated world, his own narration is interrupted by heckling and laughter. These heckles come from acting members of the audience, which raises questions about the boundaries of social conduct in line with Kot’átková work – to what extent can the non-instructed public intervene? This fascinating piece came with only one drawback: it is placed along side Kot’átková’s ‘Black theatre’. As I entered a world of sensory deprivation to focus on the “display of the fragmented body”, all I could hear was always the lecture in the outskirts of my consciousness. This is not a problem that will be encountered in future visits to the gallery as the lecture only takes place at 2pm on a Saturday.
Kot’átková has previously maintained that “there is no unity of form or style in the outcome of her experiments,” and yet a clear theme emerges, both in terms of aesthetic coherence and ideological content, that holds the three rooms together. Whilst this is very effective in creating unity, the repetitive use of motifs leaves one with a sense of déja vu. Personally, I felt that nagging sensation of “haven’t I seen this before?” particularly keenly after seeing Kot’átková’s piece ‘Asylum’ at the Venice Biennale. Entering into the Upper Gallery I was washed over by memories of charcoal grey, industrial cages, cut outs and collages, followed swiftly by a small pang of disappointment. That pang came from the fact that I wasn’t having the emotional same response to Kot’átková’s questioning of how to live “in a problematic age”. However, some the strength of Kot’átková’s work lies in that cohesive sense of an argument, or should I say question. So that in seeing similar ideas played out in a new context you are given an opportunity to observe from a new angle.
Notice! Modern Art Oxford in Print, offers a respite from the thought-intensive work of A Storyteller’s Inadequacy. Aesthetically pleasing individually, well structured collectively this fun poster gallery is printed in a way that doesn’t forsake personal memory for modern precision or vice versa. As an added bonus, if one really catches your eye, you can pick up quite a few of the posters for £1 in the shop downstairs.
The posters serve as telling windows into history as well–not just that of the institution, but of the cultural processes and landmarks that brought the art about in the first place. Fonts change slowly with the decades, and two posters for 1988 exhibitions of photography from the height of the AIDS crisis hauntingly sum up both the deep tragedy and the strength of those years. In all, both exhibitions are thoroughly worth the trip, and a welcome respite from 8th week papers and packing.
Tuesday saw the opening night of The Material, an exhibition hosted by the Edgar Wind Society at Freud. As President Tori McKenna explained, this was the first exhibition hosted by the Edgar Wind Society – I only hope they have many more to come, as the evening was an unequivocal success. Five artists presented work which ranged from thought-provoking and insightful videos from Irina Iordache (Christ Church) and Lili Pickett-Palmer, evocative sculptures and installations by Sonia Bernaciak (New) and Louisa Siem (St Catz) and an electrifying performance by Mateo Revillo (Christ Church) and Juluan Mignot, who came all the way from Paris to take part.
All five artists are studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, and whilst many of the audience were fellow pupils there, the exhibition also drew in a wide variety of other students, academics, and members of the public. One Somerville student described the exhibition as “so much fun”. “We just came out for a pint, and ended up amongst all this culture”, another explained to me. The Edgar Wind Society has certainly continued its work to make art accessible to everyone in this exhibition, with the artists on hand to talk the less art-literate amongst us (including myself) through their pieces. Sonia Bernaciak’s incisive explanation of her works ‘On the Revolution of Things’ which incorporated her fascination with the scientific, and what she referred to as her “naïve approach” to science, revealed the fundamental concepts behind her art. I was particularly taken with her installation of helium balloons and concrete/plaster sculptures (and accompanying video), which explored the tension between the possible and the impossible with gentle humour, as well as opening up the question of ‘materials’ suggested in the title of the exhibition. Louisa Siem also explored the idea of ‘materials’ with her pieces – for the full effect you have to go and see them, so I’m giving you no clues here!
The highlight of the evening was perhaps Mateo Revillo and Juluan Mignot’s performance, with sound also provided by Mignot. Right at the beginning of the evening, one Ruskin student expressed her excitement about the performance, and she was certainly not disappointed. As a masked performer (Revillo) crept around the stage, bringing the various sculptures to life, the powerful music broke over the crowd to create a beautiful and at times disorientating effect, which perfectly suited the vast space of Freud.
Tori McKenna’s obvious passion for creating a platform for artists from Ruskin has translated into a slick and well-curated exhibition which makes full use of the beautiful venue. Although Freud can be at times a large, cold, water hole, this exhibition brought an essence of warmth to the venue – the use of mirrors in many of the exhibits meant that although they were placed on the floor, they incorporated the whole height of the old church, which was a really effective use of the space. The warmth of members of the society, including Evie Hicklin (Treasurer) and Joshua Hill (Secretary), in welcoming visitors to the exhibition ensured a pervasive attitude of openness, and discussions of the art ranged around me which highlighted how impressed most of the people I spoke to were with the evening. Praise should certainly go to McKenna for such an enjoyable and interesting opening night.
The exhibition is open for the next three weeks, don’t miss it!
Flesh and Bone, the Ashmolean’s landmark and much heralded exhibition of the work of Francis Bacon and Henry Moore, is a long overdue look at two of the most important twentieth century British artists, whose differences have often been emphasised at the expense of what really united them: a deep interest and engagement with the human form and condition.
And at first glance the differences can seem almost irreconcilable; the painter versus the sculptor. One working in a medium of movement and fluidity, the other in a monumental and static form. A contrast that is deepened by the personalities of both artists: the homosexual bohemian is miles away from the pillar of the establishment, happily settled in rural Hertfordshire.
The genius of the exhibition is therefore in teasing out the strange unity of purpose and expression that united these wildly different men.
The curators have chosen to begin with a look at the early influences to both artists, showing the inspiration both men drew from Rodin and Michelangelo and the motion of the human form. As such Bacon’s Painting (1950) echoes the classical and muscular forms of sculpture much like Moore’s Falling Warrior (1956-7).
Moreover, both Moore and Bacon’s technical genius are brought to the fore by contrasting their works. Bacon’s thick brushstrokes, whose violence mirrors his subject matter, are highlighted by Moore’s drawings which are rough and expressive. Many of Moore’s drawings date from the war period and both artists were in some sense shaped by the brutality of the twentieth century. Moore had seen active service in the First World War and both were to experience the Blitz firsthand.
Bacon’s interest in the violence of life is well documented. He spent his career attempting to tap into the core of human sensibility and revealing the violence that he believed characterised life. He portrayed humans tormented and twisted, and drew attention to the flesh. Two Figures in a Room (1959) has one figure eerily reminiscent of a carcass and when we see Bacon’s depiction of the death mask of William Blake we are literally staring death in the face.
However, the exhibition also pushes the darker side of Moore’s work, including pieces such as Maquette for Mother and Child (1952) or his series of mixed media drawings of heads from the 1950s which challenge many of his other depictions of the human and maternal figure.
Interestingly many of Moore’s less smooth forms are on show, Warrior’s Head (1953) being just one example, and we are led to compare both artists who were keenly aware of the mediums they worked in. Bacon often talked of his paintings as in some aspects accidental or subconsciously affected by his attempts to paint as close to his instinct as possible. Moore’s forays into the lost wax process, bronze and plaster also suggest an artist probing the potentials of objects themselves.
One fascinating element highlighted by the display is the way in which both artists, although separated by the mediums in which they worked, were both keenly aware of the setting and arrangement their artwork was to take. Bacon’s famous Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988) and Moore’s Three Upright Motives from the period 1955-6 are an obvious example of the overlap in the artist’s work.
But Flesh and Bone is superb in its awareness of both artist’s desire to isolate the human form within a larger surrounding. Bacon’s work often uses the clean and simple interiors to contrast his distorted figures or uses straight lines and rampant grass to blend the figure into its setting. By contrast Moore often isolates individual parts of the human body from each other. In his sculpture Woman (1957-8) the female head is made much smaller to emphasise the massiveness of the body.
The documentaries at the end help to drive home these similarities but also place both artists in their wider context, charting their development over time. With the exhibition being largely confined to the 40s, 50s and 60s they also offer the chance of a wider view than the scope of the display itself.
Flesh and Bone tells us something important about two of Britain’s most pivotal and compelling artists. Using two very different men its shines a light on their obsession with the human form and their attempt to grapple with its depiction in a world flooded with images and reeling from violence. No doubt Moore would be happy among the curiosities of the Ashmolean itself whilst Bacon would be longing to return to London. For the time being though, they are together under one roof.
The Institute of Contemporary Art have gone slightly rogue this September and
October; they are currently exhibiting thirty years worth of London subculture at
the Old Selfridges Hotel.
The Old Selfridges Hotel is actually in the same building as the Selfridges we all
know and love (you enter through a staircase adjacent to the food hall entrance).
The abandoned part of the building is open-plan, unfurnished, and its ceiling
is strewn with pipes. This derelict interior, contrasted with the posh, pristine
exterior of Selfridges, makes the perfect transgressive setting for an exploration
The various artists commissioned by the ICA to produce an insight into London’s
underground world in the last thirty years have used different mediums for their
contribution. Most artists filled a vitrine with memorabilia from the subversive
worlds of fashion, clubbing, music, and art. Some of my personal favourites focused
on the crazy clubbing of the eighties, including photos and posters of people
with giant hair, colourful clothes, and insane make-up. Why wasn’t I alive in the
Other artists had opted to make videos, which I have to admit went right over my
head (this art was slightly too contemporary for me…) – it was just a lot of noise
that seemed to make no sense whatsoever in relation to what was on the screen.
I spent a pretty long time in that abandoned room somewhere in the labyrinth
that is Selfridges. I would recommend it to anyone in that area of London; it’s
free and interesting, though prepare yourself to be completely jealous of how fun life
was in the eighties, especially for the cool subversive hipsters.
A poetic power-station, Jem Rolls radiates energy. Gripping a whacking load of flyers in his left, pumping my hand with his right: “How’s it going? Coffee?” My buzz at an interview with this pioneer of performance poetry was already sky-high, but hell yes – a dash of caffeine to spiral the festival’s mid-afternoon frenzy.
We’re meeting in the heart of the Edinburgh Fringe; Jem is midway through a run of gigs in the underground of The Banshee Labyrinth. A chamber etched with character, its intensity befits such immersive poetry performances. For Jem’s heady blitz of words intoxicates audiences, as I found out after tunnelling down to the venue on one of my first nights. This supreme juggler of syllables held absolute command over his listeners with vocal acrobatics and pace like nothing I have ever experienced (and it is an experience, a five-star one at that). From then on, Spoken Word seeped into every snippet of space in my schedule.
Jem is a man of few material needs. He’s due another shirt or two, he tells me, the one on his back is wearing thin. What use are ‘things’ when they just have to be carted around? Jem’s a nomad, seven years strong. Performance poetry is his compass, fringe festivals his main port of call. His face animates as he describes a Canadian night that saw him reciting as he walked backwards with his entire audience in tow. He wound up his poem on a bridge just as a wickerman was set alight across the waters. Luck o’th’ lyrics.
Ethereal moments like these make the rougher patches worthwhile. And, yes, the going is not always so good. Jem’s first appearance at the Fringe antedated Spoken Word’s rise to its current in-demand status. An island of performance poetry, Jem hosted Big Word Performance Poetry when it was a lone item on the menu of Spoken Word. Then it all took off, and this “Godfather of Scottish Performance Poetry” (as The Scotsman dubbed him) was Canada-bound for a lucrative decade working their fringe festivals.
Now Jem is back in Edinburgh “for a break”, but somewhat unimpressed. Not that the poetry itself is to blame: “there’s massively less bad poetry around”, he salutes. But he’s skeptical: “the big names are the only ones making it” and earnest bards are losing cash. No names named, he warns, but a guy with two big five-star reviews is set to lose £15 000. And, he says, it’s all a bit offensive. On the plus side, “it’s a handy place to be famous for three weeks”.
I gasp when Jem tells me that it took him three decades to come out of the closet and admit himself a poet. Coming from “a very innocuous shrink-out-of-the-light kind of family”, it must have been quite a reinvention. But rock’n’roll lyrics were a stepping stone, as well as a weighty bibliography. We spend a lot of time talking about books, all kinds of books. As we’re wrapping up, Jem puts me – a (slipshod) classicist – to shame in a discussion of ancient literature. So it comes as quite a shock when he reveals a hatred of published poetry…
Instead Jem mentions clowns as one inspiration for his work. He names four integral elements of his success: text, voice, face, body. With such zealous theatricality in performances, sure – I guess his evolution would stem more from clowns than anthologies. But in no way does this curb his word-wise talents. As our chat turns to the writing itself, Jem lets on that some poems are decades in the making. Lines and lines and lines, he says, evolve until he eventually stitches them together to conjure up a poem. I comment on his elephantine vocabulary, and he explains: “lines can come out quite clunky. I have to rejig them, reword them. There’s a need to find synonyms; one word for everything just won’t do.” There’s method in the madness.
Indeed, the Edinburgh Fringe is a blizzard of cultural mania; you can never second-guess the next twenty-four hours. As the veteran he is, Jem knows this better than most. He makes no secret of his reservations about the endemic financial ruin. But when it comes to the Fringe, “you just don’t know what will come out of it”. A performance by Jem Rolls is a spectacle, a whirlwind, an inspiration. And the Fringe is like a magnifying glass to one of these gigs. Come August, there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be.
Jem’s performing in the Free Fringe in Edinburgh until 24 August.