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.
Given that this is the season on sparkly lights, it seems timely to remind myself about Joana Vasconcelos’s Trafaria Praia, the Pavilion of Portugal at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Part art installation, part ferry, this was an unusual space even for Venice. Vasconcelos transformed a Lisbon ferry into an installation that made regular tours of the lagoon. The boat was moored close to the exit of the Giardini – one of the two main Biennale sites and home to many national pavilions – but those who timed their visits right could take a short trip around the lagoon on the Trafaria Praia.
Given more time, I suspect I’d have enjoyed the trip well enough but the pressure of trying to see everything I want to at biennale is such that time based works are inevitably tricky and this is a city where being on land is the novelty so my visit to Trafaria Praia was restricted to visiting the boat at its mooring point. Until I boarded the boat I’d kind of forgotten about the excess of Vasconcelos’s work but, even if it’d been really fresh in my mind, nothing of hers I’ve seen before would have quite prepared me for this.
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.
By the side of a tourist route in Norway a large rock sits improbably on top of another rock. Were one to drive past and fleetingly glimpse this rock pairing, it would be possible to catch sight of them and wonder idly whether this was a balancing act made by man or nature. Are the rocks there to mark the way? Are the the site of some ancient ritual? Are they like that following a landslide? If one weren’t looking out for them, contemporary art probably wouldn’t be one’s first thought. In fact though, this curious arrangement – the momunmental equivalent of countless pictures on Flickr – is Rock on Top of Another Rock by the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Londoners might know a newer incarnation of the work which currently occupies a site in Kensington Gardens just outside the Serpentine Galley (of which, more later I rather suspect).
What interests me here isn’t the work – though that does fascinate me and it’s a work I’d really love to see – it’s the process of proposing such a sculpture. Just as Michael Landy drew out his idea for Break Down – the subject of a previous post – so, according to Peter Fischli, who spoke about the work and the process of its commissioning at the V&A earlier in the year, Fischli/Weiss used an image as a core element of their proposal. Unlike Landy though, they didn’t make a drawing. Instead, they found an image on the internet. The nature of the image may come as a bit of a surprise…
There’s a lot to enjoy in the summer exhibition at Tate St Ives, some of which I’ll quite likely write about later, but the work that really made me smile was one of Linder’s collages. I was already enjoying looking at this work and at the way the series of small collages shared a space with sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, but my enjoyment of Joining Valley wasn’t really about the work at all. It was one of those moments when something you haven’t thought about in years is suddenly brought back to mind by a chance encounter with an image on a gallery wall.
I’ve always rather loved those 1960s’ bubble chairs. They manage to look simultaneously comfy, oddly cool and kind of scary. Okay, maybe I’m just easily alarmed, but I have a suspicion that if I ever managed to get into such a chair I’d only get back out by some sort of falling. Getting in or out would at very least result in a degree of ungainliness, I’m sure of that. The comfy part is all about the way the chair envelops its occupant, of course.
So what could make such a chair both more comfy – maybe, I’m not completely convinced on that one – and more scary? Why coating it, inside and out, with what appear to be breasts made out of old tights, of course.
The Spotlight section of Frieze Masters offered a fascinating reminder of the art that was being made in the 1960s and ’70s and, in particular, of the women artists whose work is gradually gaining greater recognition. It’s not just women artists whose work doesn’t really become known until much later of course, but I don’t think it’d be hard to make the case that it happens disproportionately to women (one would hope that this is no longer the case, but that’s something that only time will tell). Of Birgit Jürgenssen’s work, shown by Galerie Hubert Winter, it’s a small sculpture that has stayed freshest in my mind.
Pregnancy Shoe is a strange object; there is a similarity of approach perhaps with Louise Bourgeois’ use of fabric – and thus the shared approach of using materials and processes often seen as ‘feminine’ to make feminist work that comments on women’s place in society – and with the surreal nature of the work. Though the show appears to be pregnant, it’s unclear quite what it will actually give birth to.
Thinking back at work seen over the past few months obviously brings Frieze Art Fair back to mind and thinking about Paul Noble’s work in the Turner Prize 2012 exhibition has made me think about sculpture by someone who I mainly associate with two dimensional work, all of which brings me to Gillian Wearing. I’ve written about Wearing a couple of times on this blog (about her work with the confessions of others and the works for which she becomes other people) but I haven’t mentioned her sculpture, in the main because I find it less interesting, I think. Nonetheless, My Hand, shown at Frieze by Maureen Paley, has stayed in my thoughts for some reason and I now find myself wondering why I find this piece engaging.
When the Turner Prize shortlist is announced I generally have an opinion about who I want to win. When the actual Turner Prize exhibition opens, even before I get to see the show myself, that opinion often changes based on snippets seen on the news or reviews in the paper. And of course when I finally get round to seeing the show, more often than not my opinion shifts yet again. By then there are often two names in my head: the artist I want to win and the one I think will take the prize.
In a way, from the safe distance of not having seen the exhibition yet, I really wanted Paul Noble to win the 2012 Turner Prize, not for the work on show at Tate Britain but for the preposterous totality of the Nobson Newtown project: two decades, give or take a bit, of incredibly detailed drawings of an often dystopian world populated by strange turd-like creatures (as a description that does somewhat beg the question of quite what a utopia for turds would look like but this isn’t something I plan to consider further, or certainly not here).
Bob and Roberta Smith knows how to make a point. In the exhibition The Art Party USA Comes to the UK at Hales Gallery at the moment (okay, not for much longer but there’s still a chance to catch the show if you’re quick), he’s in full-on soap box mode – he’s even made his own soap boxes for the occasion – in a bid to entice us to join the Art Party of the USA. The starting point for the Art Party was Bob and Roberta Smith’s May 2011 letter to Michael Gove, which he published to encourage others to write in to emphasise the importance of art in the school curriculum. Not a political party in any traditional sense, according to the website in order to join one simply needs to “make some art and encourage others to do so!”