Dayanita Singh, Museum Bhavan installed in Go Away Closer
As well as Sarah Lucas at the Whitechapel Gallery, my December exhibition catch-up included a visit to the Hayward Gallery* to see exhibitions by Ana Mendieta (of which more in a later post, I think) and Dayanita Singh. Clearly December was women’s art month in my schedule. As with Lucas at the Whitechapel, there was an overlap with things I’d seen in Venice in the Biennale.**
Dayanita Singh is best known for making books and the books are much in evidence in Go Away Closer, the Hayward Gallery show. As a way of getting art photography to a wide audience this is a strategy with much to recommend it – and it’s certainly one a lot of people are working with right now – but for me it’s no substitute for seeing a great print. And, in the case of Singh’s work, it’s another display strategy that interests me more: her portable museums, displayed here as a group as Museum Bhavan.
Sarah Lucas, SITUATION: Absolute Beach Man Rubble, Whitechapel Gallery, 2013
When it comes to exhibitions I’m usually all in favour of white space and plenty of it. I want to see the work and I want the installation of the work to be as unobtrusive as possible. If I’m spending time looking at the plinths or the frames or the way things are positioned then that’s less time spent looking at the art. Sometimes though the way the work is shown can become part of the show in a good way. Thinking back, there have been a few shows at the Whitechapel Gallery recently where that’s been the case (indeed, I wrote about two – the Gillian Wearing and Gerard Byrne exhibitions – a while ago for MostlyFilm) so I guess it should have come as no surprise that the Sarah Lucas show there late last year – which I caught just before it closed – was, let’s say, not the most minimal of installations.
I guess the leap from thinking about a woman artist making a sculpture of a cock to Sarah Lucas’s work is a distinctly literal one, but as I saw Lucas’s exhibition at the Whitechapel shortly before it ended last month, her work’s been on my mind.
There is of course a long history of toilets in the gallery space but it’s a form few have used with such determined consistency as Sarah Lucas. And while Duchamp’s Fountain – like the works that reference it very directly, such as Sherrie Levine’s Fountain (Buddha) – seems somehow more about the form than the function of the artefact and Claes Oldenberg’s Soft Toilet can be enjoyed for the strange disjunction between the form and materials used in the work and the function of the object on which it is based, Lucas’s toilet works are often grubby and unpleasant to look at.
Bill Culbert, Bebop, 2013 (installation in the New Zealand Pavilion in the Istituto Santa Maria della Pietà at the 55th Venice Biennale)
Ai Weiwei wasn’t the only artist using seating as the building blocks for an art installation in Venice last year. The works in the entrance to the New Zealand Pavilion – held in the Instituto Santa Maria della Pietà – featured suspended chairs and fluorescent tube lights. Culbert, whose work I didn’t really know very well before chancing upon the New Zealand pavilion and wandering in (admittedly I was hardly off the beaten track here, the space was on the waterfront almost no distance from Piazza San Marco), has been working with light since the 1960s. In the work on show in Venice, Culbert used light and domestic objects to create an extraordinary series of installations and smaller sculptural pieces that occupied the space in a really interesting way.
Ai Weiwei, Bang, 2013 (installation in the German Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale)
The first thing that confused me about the German Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale was that it was in France. Well, not France the actual country, but in France’s pavilion: the two countries swapped buildings for the 55th Venice Biennale as a cultural exchange. Walking into the building the first work on show – in a large central space that generally dictates the tone of anything shown there – was Bang, an installation made of an exploding forest of wooden three-legged stools by the not even a bit German artist (and subject of my last couple of posts) Ai Weiwei. What did it all mean?
Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D., 2013 (installation view, Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, Venice as part of Disposition organised by Zuecca Projects and the Lisson Gallery)
Walking into a church in Venice and finding six large black crate-like boxes would be a fairly odd regardless but add couple of dozen other art lovers into the equation, wandering around the space and climbing on little black boxes to peer intently into the crates is a distinctly strange and somewhat unsettling experience. Like most churches in Venice, Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, a fourth century building extensively reworked in the Baroque style in the mid seventeenth century, has a rather ornate interior. The austere black boxes that dominate the floor of the space are an incongruous sight; once one gets beyond the immediate visual confusion, the context raises some interesting questions.
When the 54th Venice Biennale opened in June 2011, Ai Weiwei had been under arrest in China for two months, his absence as powerful a presence in the art world as his work. Museums and galleries rallied; petitions were signed, posters hung and badges worn. Banners questioning Ai’s whereabouts or calling for his release hung from the galleries that represented him; his Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads sculpture was on show in London and New York, the Sunflower Seeds had only recently gone from the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. In Venice, Ai was largely absent; he had no work at the Biennale and was scarcely mentioned in any official capacity.
Somewhat confusingly (and, some argued, insultingly), his absence was acknowledged as part of a collateral exhibition by a large sign which read, in four foot tall illuminated letters, ‘Bye bye Ai Weiwei’ positioned prominently on the waterfront on Giudecca island, an, at best, ill-judged work by artist Giuseppe Stampone. Cut forward two years and, though still not allowed to leave China, Ai’s presence was rather more apparent at the 2013 biennale. And this time we got to see his work, some of it in the very building that sign stood outside two years ago, the Zuecca Project Space.
Koki Tanaka, installation view of exhibition in Japan Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2013
One of the frustrations of art fairs, biennales and the like is the intense time pressure of trying to see everything you want to see in a day (or contemplate buying another ticket to go back, an unappealing option even if one has an extra day free to make it possible), making video and performance works really tricky. On the plus side, the excuse to have a bit of a sit down is often welcome so it’s not all bad. Certainly at last year’s Venice Biennale some of the works I enjoyed the most were time based including a number I really wanted to go back and spend more time with given the chance (didn’t really happen in the case of the things I most wanted to revisit, unfortunately, but that’s the way it goes really). I’ll write more about some of the works that have stayed with me most clearly in the coming days, I hope, but I’ll start with a show that mixed video and objects in a space that still bore the traces of the previous year’s architecture biennale. None of which is what interests me most about the work.
John Pawson, Perspectives, 2011 (installed in San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, 2013)
So, having lost my blogging mojo in 2013, it’s clearly time for a bit of a fresh start and a resolution to get back to writing random stuff about art on a vaguely regular basis in 2014.* It seems appropriate to start with a bit of a catch-up on things I’ve seen or been preoccupied by recently but not rambled on about. In some ways I quite like getting a bit of distance on stuff before posting so expect a preponderance of posts about the things that have stuck in my mind most clearly from 2013.
Michael Landy, P.D.F. Product, Disposal Facility, 1998
As an idea, setting up a disposal facility to destroy all one’s possessions is pretty unusual and it’s certainly not one that conjures up an immediate image in the mind. There would be many ways to go: a big crushing machine perhaps, or maybe some sort of funnel and an industrial scale waste disposal unit like the ones you sometimes see in kitchen sinks but huge, or, well all sorts of other possibilities really. Which is what makes Michael Landy’s P.D.F. (do you see what he did there?) so fascinating.