Art13 – a new international addition to London’s art scene?

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Last weekend saw the launch of Art13 London, a new annual modern and contemporary art fair at Kensington’s Olympia. Bringing together over 120 galleries from across the world, the promoters hoped to create a fair with a truly global perspective. Galleries from 29 countries participated, from cities as diverse as São Paulo, Budapest, Tel Aviv and Seoul.

Within this East Asian artists and galleries seemed to dominate – perhaps reflecting the previous achievements of founders Tim Etchells and Sandy Angus, who helped initiate ART HK, Hong Kong’s leading contemporary art fair. There were six galleries from South Korea alone, with representatives from Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing and Shanghai also present. Even the European galleries seemed to be following the trend, with many offering works by Asian artists.

Somewhat inevitably, many at the fair were drawing comparisons with other events, and in particular that behemoth of London’s contemporary art scene, Frieze. Many of the biggest Frieze names were notably absent from Art13’s line-up, with galleries like White Cube, Gagosian and Victoria Miro perhaps reluctant to take a chance on this relative newcomer. Whilst Art13 may not yet have quite the prestige of its Regent’s Park rival, it perhaps had more to offer in terms of commercially viable art. There were few of the headline-grabbing, sensationalist works which seem to dominate coverage of Frieze. In their place were pieces that managed to tread that fine line between thought-provoking and pleasing to look at – photography and paintings abounded, and there were plenty of works that would fit comfortably into the domestic space.

Even without the shock tactics of Frieze, the fair certainly seemed to pull in the crowds, attracting large numbers for the opening night reception and over Saturday and Sunday. There was plenty for visitors to see and do, with a curated schedule of performance pieces and instillations running alongside the pieces offered by the individual galleries. Families were well catered for, with free tickets for children and a Family Trail designed by artist Nina Magalanayagam in conjunction with the Zabludowicz Collection.

For the galleries involved the important factor was not visitor numbers but sales, and in this area results were pretty mixed. Some gallerists that I spoke to reported great returns, whilst others had struggled, failing even to make connections with any serious new clients. Perhaps this disparity was a reflection of the variety within the galleries themselves – in a fair where commercial, hangable works dominated, finding collectors for unwieldy instillation pieces was always going to be difficult.

Despite this, the reaction was largely positive, with many of the foreign galleries in particular describing the fair as a great introduction to London’s art scene. With the promoters going all out to attract these international clients, it seems that they are on their way to building a successful annual fair and even a global brand. With Art14 already confirmed and on the horizon, the real test will be in the years to come.

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Indian Tantric & Western Contemporary

This fascinating exhibition, a collaboration between Joost van den Bergh and Bartha Contemporary, is on view until 23 March. It juxtaposes Indian spiritual and ceremonial pieces with works by Western contemporary artists, drawing surprising connections between these distinct artistic traditions.Image

Tantraism is a far-reaching philosophy, and one that has had great impact upon the spiritual landscape of India, influencing the rituals and beliefs of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism among other religions. Proponents of tantra utilise mantras (spoken words and phrases) and yantras (instruments or symbolic diagrams) in their attempts to perceive the true reality. Many of the pieces on display here are yantras, which vary from complex pen-and-ink diagrams to small bronze plaques, all carefully ordered into symmetrical, geometric forms.

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These are objects intended to be intensely considered, objects which even offer to improve the viewer through close contemplation – aims shared by many contemporary works of art. Here, the inclusion of Winston Roeth’s Black / Green Square, 2004, emphasises the rewards of such sustained observation, as the iridescent green surface constantly shifts under our scrutiny, offering a new image with each fresh point-of-view. This mesmerising effect is achieved through countless layers of paint, applied free-hand with extraordinary accuracy, again evoking the prolonged concentration necessary for tantric practices.

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Such practices are intensely ritualistic, often requiring the same actions or words to be repeated with an almost obsessive devotion. These ideas of ritual and repetition are explored in the works of Stefana McClure, here represented with the 2008 piece, South Pacific: Closed captions to a film by J. Logan. One of a series of similar works, McClure has here created an image by tracing the subtitles and closed captions of a foreign language film onto a sheet of blue transfer paper. The resultant marks are entirely obscure, as the process of overlaying the different traced text has rendered the familiar letters unrecognisable, subverting their original function of clarification.

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Severed from their original context, many of the Indian tantric pieces themselves feel fairly obscure, as the Western contemporary viewer struggles to read their mystical signs and geometric symbols, or truly understand their ritual and spiritual functions. Such mystery and magic, however, is part of their charm, and certainly one reason why tantraism has so long fascinated the West – the other of course being its association with sexuality. Here, re-imagined as contemporary art objects in a gallery, these pieces have regained their place in a world of meditation and ritual, albeit of a very different kind.

‘Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things’ – the New Permanent Collection Gallery at the Design Museum

Here is my review of the new permanent collection gallery at the Design Museum. The collection obviously includes some interesting pieces, but the overall structure of the exhibition is weak at best. There are also some bizarre curatorial decisions – in particular championing luxurious and rarified objects in an exhibition that claims to represent ‘ordinary things.’ To be honest, I would postpone a visit until 2014, when the collection will be available to view free of charge at the Design Museum’s new home on Kensington High Street. Certainly, the ticket price of £11.80 doesn’t represent good value in a city where the majority of museums (including the design powerhouse that is the V&A) are free.

Death: A Self Portrait at the Wellcome Collection

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This quirky exhibition is at once a testament to one man’s obsession and an exploration of that most universal of human themes: death. It displays some 300 pieces from the private collection of Richard Harris, all linked through their treatment of the iconography of death, a concept most commonly expressed here through skulls, skeletons and decomposing bodies. These repeated motifs certainly lend an overarching coherence to the collection, lending a commonality to works from disparate periods and places, and creating the sense of death as a universal theme.

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Despite this, certain historical milieu dominate, and death ultimately appears as a concept that has held more importance for some cultural groups than others, for example appearing more regularly in the art of the Northern Renaissance than in it’s Italian counterpart. Perhaps for this reason, many of the more artistically important items in the collection are Germanic or Netherlandish, with an elaborate vanitas still life by Adriaen van Utrecht and a portrait by Barthel Bruyn the Elder, painted on the reverse with a skull and a mometo mori, among the more sophisticated pieces. Albrecht Dürer’s work is also well represented, alluding both to a particular preoccupation with death in the tumultuous world of reformation Germany, and to Harris’ own past as a dealer of antique prints.

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Another period in which Harris shows particular interest is the Weimar era, when artists so recently exposed to the horrors of the First World War struggled to reconcile their newly intimate knowledge of death and the human body with their return to civilian life. Their responses vary from George Grosz’s ‘Faces of Death’ collage (above), which wittily intersperses skulls into scenes of every day life, to the gory horror of Otto Dix’s ‘War’ series, which depicts the trauma of trench warfare with an unflinching brutality (below).

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Despite this more in depth analysis of certain periods’ attitudes towards death, ultimately the exhibition’s treatment of this subject feels a little superficial. It is impossible to stand before the war inspired art of Dix and Goya and feel unmoved by humanity’s fragility, but other pieces on display lack the same impact. Whilst a skull might have evoked profound feelings of dread to a devout sixteenth century German, used to high infant mortality and mass epidemics and concerned about the ever-lasting welfare of his soul, to a modern audience the skull has become little more than an empty symbol. In our own society we all too often brush death and dying aside, and as such it is hard to empathise with a culture like the German Renaissance, where death was an accepted and expected side of life.

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The popular image of death as a skull or skeleton continues to hold sway today, and could even be said to be going through something of a resurgence, with blogs like morbid anatomy feeding a desire for the macabre, and hipsters emulating a Mexican, day of the dead aesthetic each Halloween. However, this fashionable adoption of the iconography of death often feels false, as we struggle to believe that a fashionista’s skull print Alexander McQueen scarf truly betrays a morbid disposition. Ultimately this is the undoing of the exhibition, as without our own way of connecting to the reality of death, this exploration of morbid iconography becomes little more than a collection of painted skulls.

New Furniture Gallery at the V&A

Here’s my five-star review of the new Dr Susan Weber Gallery at the V&A. It’s an innovative and informative exploration of European furniture, with an emphasis on production and manufacturing techniques. As well as including examples of the highest quality, the new gallery makes great use of new technology, using multimedia touch screen consoles to bring the pieces to life.

Art Cabinet of Gustavus Adolphus

Whilst in Sweden I also managed to visit the art cabinet of Gustavus Adolphus, an incredible piece that has fascinated me for many years. Made in Augsburg, the cabinet was given as a gift to the Swedish King for liberating the town during the thirty years war, and it is now on view at Uppsala University. It is a monumental cabinet, filled with exotic objects, incorporating a music box, and surmounted by an extraordinary profusion of shells and a richly decorated seychelles nut. The base even hides a removable table, which can be used to view all of the items included within.

Normally the term ‘cabinet’ refers either to an item of furniture or a collection, but in this instance it encompasses both the elaborate container and the incredible objects within. It belongs to the tradition of the cabinet of curiosities, the princely collections of bizarre and marvellous objects compiled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These collections were understood as microcosms of the wider world, and they included both man-made and natural wonders, including many exotic items bought to Europe by the ever expanding trade networks. They embody the way in which knowledge was acquired and understood in the early modern period, as the juxtaposition of disparate objects invited infinite comparisons. Each item could then be categorised in terms of its similarities and differences with other items, and could be mapped accordingly in this complex web of knowledge.

Most cabinets of curiosities were compiled by wealthy and learned collectors, people who had the means and the interest needed to amass these wondrous items. This example is unusual as it was not put together by it’s future owner, Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, but by Phillip Hainhofer, an Augsburg merchant, shown on the wood inlay panel above inspecting one of his cabinets. Hainhofer was an extraordinary figure, who made a career out of collecting; he is known to have compiled many of these cabinets, although this is the only complete example extant today. His collections came housed in custom built cabinets, making full use of the highly skilled Augsburg craftsmen, renowned internationally for their cabinets.

Whilst perhaps not the most attractive piece of furniture, the Uppsala cabinet is a testament to the exceptional skills of these Augsburger artisans. The very fabric of the cabinet reflects the meeting of artificialia (craftsmanship) and naturalia (natural wonders) that encapsulates the ethos of these collections. It incorporates inlays of precious and exotic materials, artfully arranged into images of flowers and animals and also includes pieces of stone that have been overpainted with biblical scenes. Here, the artist has used the natural patterns in a slice of alabaster to represent tumultuous waves, as Moses closes the Red Sea, drowning the Pharaoh’s army.

The placement of Hainhofer’s collections inside actual cabinets (when many ‘cabinets of curiosities’ would have been housed in full sized rooms) placed a limitation on the size of the items included. For this reason, the cabinet contains many miniature items, including this pair of dolls and tiny bird house. These miniatures would have been a great novelty, and are now understood as a precursor to the elaborate Dutch cabinet houses and English dolls’ houses of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Explore the piece further on this website, where you can look through the different compartments of the cabinet (only available in Swedish).