I saw these at the British Museum…
I went to the Antony Gormley exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. This was just wonderful. Exciting, inventive; just superb. We approached the exhibition from Embankment, cross the river again. Suddenly, I became aware of the figures on the skyline: stationary, hanging there. Once we’d seen one, we started to look for others, scanning the buildings. We could see several – some close, other barely visible. As we crossed Hungerford Bridge, more came into view, perched high on the edges over the city. I was expecting this – the statues had been in the press for ages (one lovely story – and I hope it is true – was that Gormley wanted to place one of his figures on the roof of the Ministry of Defence; they understandably turned down his request. In the run up to the opening of the exhibition – when the papers were full of pictures of the statues scattered across the roofs of London, the Minister for Defence suddenly wanted to know why there wasn’t one on his roof, too. His underlings apparently tried to get the Hayward to erect one on the MoD, but by then it was too late – all the sculptures were accounted for.)
This was Event Horizon, and it was a stunning piece of art. The figures, modeled on Gormley himself (he seems to be his own favourite model), were eerily beautiful. There was something sinister about them – as if they were part of a Dr Who plot – gazing endlessly over London. Looking at them – looking for them – made one look at the city differently: they not only changed how you looked at the art, but how you looked at everything.
Much of the exhibition was like that. Entering the Hayward, there is a towering sculpture like a fallen satellite. And lo, it is called Space Station. An extension of Gormley, created by scanning his body into a computer and cutting large boxes from sheets of steel, this is massive, barely fitting into the space available, towering over the visitors looking at it.
(I wanted to take pictures of it, and asked the servitor if it was ok. He said no. So I didn’t. [Edit] The Hayward’s website has only Flash animations. Howeer, there are a lot of pictures on Flickr, and I have provided some links to some of those!)
Space Station is lit by a diffuse, stark white light: itself a work of art. Blind Light is a cloud chamber, a large room created inside the gallery, full of light. The water droplets catch the light, creating a solid white fog. From a distance it appears luminescent. Up closer, it is full of ghostly figures looming out of the fog as they approach the glass edges, they quickly disappearing.
Inside the cloud chamber, it is quite disorienting; it is very disturbing. The fog is thick and bright, and uniform; you cannot see below your waist, and if you hold you hand out in front of you – and the need to do so is great, to avoid hitting other people – your arm disappears into the mist. You can hear a lot, but there is so much light that you can see nothing. You cannot see the floor to place your steps; you cannot see the ceiling.
The experience is the artwork: re-examining the way we look at things: our bodies, how we are present in the environment; the way people appear and disappear.
After a while, walking about, lost, it is quite frightening. There are no anchors, nothing to orientate oneself. The wall suddenly looms up; people appear – right in your face – and disappear as quickly. I found it hard to breath (which is strange; I thought water vapour was meant to loosen the airways), and it would have been easy to panic. The only way to find the door out is to head forward, and hit the glass wall; and then slowly follow it around, a hand keeping to the glass to stop one getting lost again.
Walking down to the next gallery, we passed hanging figures – Gormley again – swinging by the stairs. Called Critical Mass – Gormley likes using scientific terms as names for his works of art (the first piece of his I remember seeing consisted of a large room at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the floor full of tiny little clay figurines, scarily staring up at you: a mockery of the emperor’s terracotta army, perhaps. It was called Field); there were figures lying in corners of the gallery, as if they had been left there. Others had been cut up and dissected.
Allotment consisted of 300 boxes, abstractions of people in Sweden: each box being the smallest volume that could contain the subject. Gormley called them “rooms”. This gallery was like a maze: one had to weave a path between the figures. It felt like a graveyard, the “rooms” standing a three dimensional stones.
Upstairs – past the hanging figures again, swinging gently in the breeze – was a room full of sculptures made from a grid of wire. Apparently based on fractals extruded from forms of Gormley’s body (see – fractals: he does like his popular science), these were large, abstract pieces each containing a body at their centre. They hung from the ceiling, and gradually rotated as people walked by, disturbing them. (The pieces throughout the exhibition seemed very tactile; but of course we weren’t allowed to touch, which was a pity; and which a lot of visitors ignored. It was very hard to resist.) The bodies within the frames were contorted and misplaced – as if caught falling through the air (several pieces in the exhibition reminded me of photographs of people falling from the World Trade Center; this may well have been me rather than Gormley – but falling bodies did seem to be a theme); some of them were curled in foetal position, as if the wire around them was the womb.
The outdoor terraces of the Hayward were open as part of Event Horizon. Some of the statues could be seen comparatively close, others barely visible on the horizon. It was even more impressive high up, on a similar level to the statues. There are three terraces, allowing one to look at the art – and the skyline – from three different perspectives. A handful of the statues – three or four of the thirty-odd – were placed on ground level, were they blended with the pedestrians walking past them.
There were a couple of pieces we didn’t get to see: they were more internal rooms, and there were long queues to get in. But you could also look in from outside, through tubes piercing the walls. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope – interrupted by people walking past and cutting off the light.
The whole exhibition was magical, but there were dark overtones, too. It was quite special.
Two of the festival exhibitions in Edinburgh look at big art. Though the festival is long over, the art shows carry on into October and November – with one going on until January. Which is good, since it means one can space out the visits and not get too overloaded. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop me waiting until the last minute before seeing the shows.
Van Gogh and Britain
This was a funny show: it was like it didn’t know why it was there. The precept was to gather together a series of paintings that had some connection with Britain – they had been bought at some point by British collectors.
But this meant it was a show which lacked coherence: it wasn’t a complete review of Van Gogh’s painting, although it was arranged chronologically; the only thing that the works had in common aside from Van Gogh was that they had been owned at some point by someone living in Britain. And, of course, that the National Galleries of Scotland could get the loan of them.
There were some good paintings – some of Van Gogh’s iconic works: A Wheatfield, with Cypresses and Olive Trees (both of which are on display in the National Gallery of Scotland), for instance; but the whole didn’t really enthuse me.
Vincent Van Gogh – A Wheatfield, with Cypresses – National Gallery of Scotland
Perhaps it was down to the familiarity of the images. Van Gogh was very prolific, and maybe he should have weeded out the works he wanted to keep for posterity – though it isn’t his fault the market in his work soared after his death.
There was one aspect I found particularly annoying. Because the exhibition was based around the ownership, the text accompanying the pictures focused on the owners and the prices they had paid for the paintings. For me, this seemed to miss the point of the pictures completely. I didn’t really care who had owned the painting or how they were ahead of their time, buying them when no one else would. There was one sad story though: A friend of Van Gogh’s, Alexander Reid, sent one of the pictures – his portrait – home to his father in Glasgow; he hated it and sold it quickly to a dealer for £5 (albeit that that is about £22,000 in today’s money!).
Ron Mueck is a sculpture; I hadn’t heard of him before the publicity for this show. He started off as a model maker – he worked in Jim Henson’s studio, before working as a model-maker for advertising.
He became a sculpture in the nineties, making giant images of people – and minutes ones, as well. They are frighteningly realistic – but huge. I found the exhibition quite disturbing, though it was hard to say why.
I couldn’t help thinking that this was craft rather than art: he is very, very good at recreating the human form, in all its detail – men’s chins that need shaving; sweating follicles; a newborn baby’s head with blood and gunk (the baby was about ten feet long).
Ron Mueck – In Bed – National Gallery of Scotland
And it did disturb me – I felt like Gulliver in Brobdingnag looking at the resting woman (and where did they find such a huge duvet?!) – but I am not sure that it made me think very much, other than that this was an amazing technique.
It was fascinating and beautiful, but also left me quite cold.
The Hirshhorn is full of modern art; a lot of sculpture – there is an excellent sculpture garden which we wandered around, and smaller sculpture inside – and lots of large painting. There was a room of Clyfford Still, whose work I love, and a couple of Rothkos.
The floor of the lobby was an installation designed by Jim Lambie – a Glaswegian artist: lots of striking colours (almost psychedelic!). There was a beautifully intense piece by Anish Kapoor, “In the Hub of Things” – a large, hollow hemisphere of intense blue pigment; inside the sphere, in the shadow, it was impossible to see where it ended: I felt as if my hand would disappear if I placed it inside, a literal black hole (no time or space or light).
There were also some Matisse bronzes of large, massive backs, similar to those that used to be in the Tate (before it moved to Bankside – I can’t remember if they are in the new building or not); they may be casts of the same statues. These bronzes have a lot of power – a deep pull.
The Hirschorn itself is an interesting building – doughnut-shaped, the hole being a courtyard. In the centre is a large fountain. Beside the building, on the Mall, was a large sculpture of a giant brush stroke: close up, it was abstracted, and it was only when I looked over from across the Mall that I realised what it was. I think it must have been by Roy Lichtenstein – it had that kind of feel. Then some steps lead down to the sculpture garden. There are a lot of Rodin pieces – “the Burghers of Calais” and his “Monument to Balzac”. It was very sunny, the shadows adding an extra depth to the sculpture.
We then wandered around the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden. There was a huge Louise Bourgeois cast spider (not one for arachnophobes); a beautiful, stepped “Four Sided Pyramid” by Sol LeWitt; and a perspective house by Roy Lichtenstein, which keeps its perspective as you walk around it.