Thinking about presentation is all well and good, but what about the pictures? Dayanita Singh’s work always fascinates and the museums work for me as much for what is hidden as for what is shown with tantalising hints of pictures stashed behind pictures. Of all the museums, the pictures I was most familiar with before the Hayward show were the File Room series which I also saw in the German Pavilion in Venice. The pictures, as far as I’m aware made almost by accident with Singh drawn to photographing the files in the places she visited without initially realising it, show the file rooms of various institutions in India – courts, state archives, local government offices and the like – documenting the extraordinary paper-based bureaucracy that supports a nation with a population in excess of a billion. Over time, of course, digitisation will eliminate the vast accumulation of paper. But in the meanwhile, in archive after archive and office after office, the paper piles up.
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.
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.
However one feels about Margaret Thatcher – and regular readers may by now suspect I’m not a fan – the ceremonial funeral seems like a contentious decision at the very least. Add to that the fact that it’s been discussed in the media as following the model of the funerals of Daina, Princess of Wales and the Queen Mother and it becomes easy to see Thatcher as receiving the royal status she seemed to award her self when she announced “we have become a grandmother.” Which, to my mind at least, makes this a good day to write about Maggie Regina, Peter Kennard’s 1983 depiction of Margaret Thatcher as Queen Victoria.
Times change, that’s a given. There are several 1980s’ photo-books that make that very clear. Most, like Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring, offer a reminder of the nature of the public spaces we inhabited; pictures of home life tell a different, albeit related, story. Nick Waplington’s Living Room, published in 1991, depicts family life on the Nottingham council estate that was also home to his grandparents. Waplington documented the daily lives of two families over a period of several years; the pictures in Living Room are from the late 1980s, roughly a decade in to Margaret Thatcher’s time in office. This is family life in a country where industry has collapsed and society declared non-existent by the Prime Minister.
Martin Parr, Election party aboard the SS Great Britain from The Cost of Living, 1986-9
The Britain of the 1980s wasn’t all about strikes and unemployment of course. There was another side to the story: just as there were the have-nots, so there were the haves. For some, Thatcher’s Britain was a comfortable place. The rich were, after all, getting richer. And with that, for those who belonged, came the social whirl of an entitled class at play. In fairness, it doesn’t look like much fun.
In The Cost of Living, Martin Parr captured the comfortable lives of the well-heeled revealing the degree to which one section of the population was cushioned from the day to day reality of life for the rest and the often grotesque of culture of wealth and upward mobility.
It was hardly the best of times. Thatcher’s Britain, the Britain of the 1980s, was a place where high unemployment met a government that, at best, didn’t care and the result was a sorry existence for the many for whom work was no more than a distant dream. But of course, this is Britain. We have the welfare state to care for us from cradle to grave, or so we thought.
Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring, a series of photographs made in dole office waiting areas in 1984-85 – coincidentally, the time of the miners’ strike – makes for depressing viewing. There is a hopelessness that permeates every aspect of every picture: the spaces are grimly dehumanising; the posture of those who occupy them speaks volumes. There is a sense of resignation, of stalled lives.
There are some days you think might never come. Frankly, recently, I was beginning to think that the day I got back to regular blogging might be one of them but I started today with a new determination. Then I got distracted and by the time I sat down to write I quite foray onto the interwebs provided me with both further distraction in the form of the the news that Margaret Thatcher is finally dead (for real this time, not just yet another Twitter rumour). To mark the occasion – and after the havoc she wreaked through my late teens and twenties, it does need to be marked (and yes, I’d be dusting off my copy of Spike: the Beloved Entertainer if only I had a record deck that worked) – it seems pertinent to write about Marcus Harvey’s Maggie.
Marcus Harvey is undoubtedly best known for another controversial portrait: Myra, a picture of Myra Hindley made using children’s handprints (well, prints from plaster cast hands), caused untold furore when it was shown at the Royal Academy in the Sensation exhibition. His painting Maggie, made nearly a decade and a half later, is rather less well known but equally striking. In my head at least, they are companion pieces: both large scale, black and white paintings made from images widely reproduced in the press and both – arguably, and here I concede there is a difference – portraits of, well, if not actually evil, then of women whose lives one would wish had followed a different path.
At some point, all children copy adults. Admittedly, this doesn’t usually take the form of restaging a parent talking about their work, but that’s the basis of Hetain Patel’s To Dance Like Your Dad, a simple but effective video work shown at Frieze by Chatterjee and Lal. Shown on two screens, the work consists of Patel’s father showing us round his place of work and explaining what happens. Patel himself appears on the right hand screen, performing his father’s role in sync with the original. The parent and child relationship is seldom simple and while we may be fiercely proud of our parents they also have the capacity to embarrass. Here there is a sense of pride and respect in the act of restaging – and in filming Patel senior at work in the first place – but the notion of potential embarrassment is right there in the title. Dad dancing is generally not a good thing, after all.
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.