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Maya Lin’s Here and There at Pace London

Follow the link for my review of Maya Lin’s new exhibition at Pace London. Best known for her groundbreaking and controversial (though now much-loved) Vietnam Memorial in Washington, Lin is an artist who has never shied away from the political. Her latest exhibition is part of her ambitious What is Missing? series of works, which explore mankind’s impact on the environment. Here she offers exquisite, sculptural monuments to the earth’s waterways, from carved marble depictions of disappearing bodies of water, to supple silver sculptures recreating the flow of some of Europe’s best known rivers.

Until 11th May at Pace London.

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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.

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.

Asian Art Week – Rossi & Rossi

It’s Asian Art Week this week and there are free talks and exhibitions on in museums, private galleries and auction houses across London. Many of the galleries are clustered around Mayfair, St James and Kensington Church Street, so that strolling down a single street you might come into contact with ancient Chinese ceramics, or a group of imagined Indian cityscapes. With European art still dominating so much of the art historical discourse in this country, it’s great to be able to explore many different areas of this eclectic field, as pieces old and new, and from across the continent are on display. ‘Asian art’ may be a broad term, but the exhibitions themselves are highly specialised, often focusing on a particular country or period, a certain set of objects, or perhaps the work of one artist. By looking in more depth at these individual artistic traditions, we can gain a better understanding of the richness and diversity of Asian art as a whole.

At Rossi & Rossi the exhibition Tibetan Spirit combines works by the contemporary artist Ang Tsherin Sherpa with traditional Thangka paintings. At first glance, Sherpa’s works appear very much grounded in the international milieu of the contemporary art scene; his flat, graphic style and use of pop culture images recalls the superflat movement, lead by Takeshi Murakami, whilst his inclusion of butterflies and polka dots is redolent of Damien Hirst.

However, Sherpa’s works are also steeped in the traditions of Tibetan art, as Sherpa himself trained as a Thangka painter. Thangkas are Tibetan scroll paintings, and they commonly depict Buddhist deities, often laid out in prescriptive geometric forms. Details such as hand movements are imbued with great spiritual significance, and must be replicated with precision by the Thangka artists. Works like Expression, 2012, betray Sherpa’s fluency with this symbolic language, as he highlights the communicative power of hands and feet, granting them their own autonomous power. The myriad of hand positions on display clearly have very potent meanings, and as an outsider their obscurity only contributes further to a sense of mysterious, magical power.

Thangka paintings continue to have great resonance for Tibetan Buddhists, and are still used for didactic and ritual purposes and, perhaps most importantly, as meditation aides. It is fascinating to see a contemporary artist drawing from a spiritual and artistic tradition that is both historical and ongoing, an idea highlighted by the older Thangka paintings included in the exhibition. Sherpa is not just drawing influence from Tibetan Buddhist art; as a trained Thangka painter, he is very much an active part of this institution. Such an idea is almost unimaginable in Western art, which broke from the church long ago. Contemporary artists may utilize the conventions of earlier Christian art (as Sherpa does with his gold leaf backgrounds, recalling the sacred space of gothic paintings) but there is no such sense of continuity. Sherpa imbues his work with the historical and religious weight of a visual culture that stretches back centuries, but he does so with a lightness and wit that is entirely his own.

Now & Then, curated by Adrian Dannatt

With major contemporary artists like Grayson Perry championing the history of craft, and fairs like Masterpiece and Frieze Masters displaying contemporary art alongside major decorative pieces, it seems that the avant-garde is finally embracing traditional decorative arts. About time too, as collectors have long been mixing cutting edge contemporary art with their antiques, picking and choosing pieces not with a slavish dedication to one era or style, but with a general interest in art and its many histories.

This idea is explored by Adrian Dannatt in his exhibition Now & Then, on until 26th October at Harris Lindsay, Jermyn Street. Combining works by contemporary artists with the more traditional stock of his hosts, Dannatt plays with the tropes of art old and new, creating temporal layers across the exhibition. Orpheus Gathered, an assemblage of elk bones, bound together by crocheted wool, and accompanied by a recording of the last castrato, (Alannah Robins, 2012 ) hangs suspended over a micromosaic table top, depicting the ruins of the Roman Forum. Such a contrast adds depth to Robin’s work, recalling the full cultural history of humanity, as the elk bones seem at once both ancient and modern, as much a part of obscure pagan ritual as contemporary art practise. The table top acts as a bridge between these worlds, filling the art historical gaps by evoking classical civilisation and its many revivals. Through all of this runs the theme of collecting and reforming, from the assembled elk bones, to the rebuilt forum, and finally their context together in an antiques sale room, surrounded by objects from a multitude of periods and places.

Downstairs this interplay between contemporary and classical continues, with Steven C. Harvey’s pencilled designs of futuristic vehicles sitting alongside an elaborate eighteenth century architectural engraving of a gate. United by their medium of monochromatic marks, they show at once how contemporary design remains grounded in tradition, but also how new technologies have expanded man’s imagination, allowing us to think up innovative products beyond the comprehension of our forefathers. Elsewhere the impact of technology on the arts is succinctly illustrated through the contrast of Julie Cockburn’s The Quandry, 2012, and an eighteenth century crewelwork panel, laboriously embroidered with a design of the Tree of Life. Cockburn has hand embroidered brightly coloured circles of thread over a found photograph, reinvigorating a neglected object with the fleeting touch of the artist. By comparison, the hundreds of hours of embroidery in the crewelwork panel seem like a herculean task, showing the extraordinary shifts in our expectation of art undergone in the twentieth century.

The triumph of this exhibition is allowing us to reconsider the boundaries of art and craft, by placing works by contemporary artists and traditional decorative pieces on a level playing field. The artisanal craftsmen of previous centuries may not have been considered in the same terms as today’s largely concept driven artists, but it seems sad to confine them to a lower rung of the artistic hierarchy, particularly when the idea of ‘fine art’ has been so effectively challenged, with many artists now dabbling in areas traditionally labelled ‘craft.’ This exhibition highlights this shift, even occasionally leading the viewer astray, as suddenly a pair of nineteenth century South American condors start to look like  Brancusi sculptures, whilst an instillation using a Georgian tea caddy and some stuffed birds seems like a macabre mistake. Ultimately, these more traditional pieces stand up to the comparison, showing that the decorative arts are not devoid of meaning, and suggesting that they have fed into contemporary art practise in much the same way as the finer arts of sculpture and painting. With contemporary art finally embracing craft, perhaps it’s time to rethink the canon.