We stayed at Montecatini-Terme as a base between Pisa and Florence. An old Spa, it still has thermal springs and a park as we discovered when we explored the town in between the art doses of Florence and Pisa.
The town has a lovely old funicular railway, we took it to the top of the town to stunning views and a secluded little eating piazza.
To top our adventure we attended the Montecatini Opera Festival and listened to a tribute to the Three Tenors. It was held at the old thermal baths and was fabulous!
Bologna was rather wet, we had a lovely tour with our cheerful guide but ultimately rushed to get out of the rain for lunch. I’d read that Bologna is a foodie city and they’re not wrong. We had lunch in this lovely deli, it was packed to the rafters with all sorts of delights and a nice restaurant upstairs. Great fun!
What follows is not a review, as I have not been able to visit this exhibition, currently in Geneva. However, I have been sent the link to the exhibition catalogue, which I will share at the end of this brief introduction to an important, striking and moving series of works on the increasingly relevant theme of Statelessness. Minority artists, who have all had personal experience of Statelessness, either currently or previously, were asked to submit five works relating to themes relating to Statelessness. There were thirty nine submissions from twenty three different countries and the judges decided on three winners and four honourable mentions and the work of all seven artists can be seen in the online catalogue.
Multiple variants of discrimination against minorities ,such as on ethnic, religious, nationality, linguistic grounds can lead to the denial of citizenship. There are now 4.2 million stateless people worldwide. This exhibition marks the 30th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Minority Rights and is a timely visual reminder of the fraught and fragmentary existence of those unfortunate enough to find themselves in the situation of Statelessness across the globe. I will give a brief overview of each of the winners and include a visual for each artist.
The first winner , as mentioned in the catalogue, is Abdullah, who experienced Statelessness in Myanmar, as a member of the Rohingya minority community , and is currently in a refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar , in Bangladesh. He is a photographer and videographer and poignantly records, in documentary detail , the daily lives of people in the camp. He does this with great sensitivity, dealing with his subjects with empathy and portraying them with considerable dignity. His work is extremely moving.
The next artist , Jean Philippe Moiseau, initially from Haiti and now living in the Dominican Republic, is very different . He is an artist and sculptor, frequently using ‘found’ and recycled items in his work . The judges found his use of traditional materials and techniques to convey a radical political message compelling . I have chosen his visual critique of the 2013 ruling of Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic revoking the Dominican Republic nationality for many Haitians.
The final winner, Zehra Hassan Marian is an artist , working in watercolours and ink, and author ,who was born in Kuwait, a member of the Ayam minority. She now lives in the USA , where she has gained citizenship. Her work, as catalogued here , comprises a children’s book, ‘ Where Butterflies Fill the Sky: A story of immigration, family and finding home’ . It is a distinctive contribution as it offers a hopeful message directed towards immigrant children.
I cannot do justice here to the range of artists and media used in this exhibition in the elucidation of the theme of Statelessness, the title has a link to the competition and this is the link to the online catalogue for further information on this crucial topic.
On a quick visit to France and this hotel in Tours inspired the Gallery Tart to pick up her pen!
We were just on an overnight stop and our fellow traveller had nosed out this little boutique hotel as a characterful place to stay. We weren’t disappointed, situated in a lovely old house, it was just off the main drag of bars and restaurants that fill Rue Colbert.
It has a lovely welcoming feel, we walked into the tiny reception and were met by a warm smile by one of the owners. There is admittedly no lift and the room was up two flights of the beautiful spiral staircase but our cases were brought up and we were too busy looking at the decor and marvelling at the ironwork on the staircase to notice too much. The rooms were comfortably furnished and had a lovely balcony onto the street below.
But what makes this hotel is the decor. It’s gorgeous, you’re in that eye of the artist that I love. It’s not wildly polished, but that’s the point, it’s real, it’s tactile. The foyer and reception are a delight, an antique gramophone in the corner, gorgeous vintage chandeliers and a use of colour that creates a sense intimacy with echoes of fabulous, naughty pasts.
I loved the bamboo mirrors in the reception which propelled you to to a sense of wider shores. In the dining room at breakfast the style continued. the tables were beautifully set with old crockery and the buffet had old teapots to use. All of which comes together with good quality ingredients for a filling breakfast to set off your day on.
A lovely little nook of a place to rest your weary bones and a hop, skip and a jump away from the delights of Tours!
Following a very successful series of films relating usually to specific art exhibitions, thirty-one to date, the latest offering, on the American Modernist artist, Edward Hopper (1882- 1967), takes a rather different approach. It has the format of a biopic and it examines, in particular, the under appreciated importance of Hopper’s wife and fellow artist, Josephine Nivison. She promoted his career, offered artistic help and critical support, as well as generally acting as his manager and muse. She was the more established artist of the two when they met; Hopper having spent ten years prior to meeting her unable to promote his work and gain recognition. In many ways it is a familiar story. There are other more well-known examples in art history of female artists sublimating their own undoubted talents and ambitions in the promotion of their spouse. One such example is the relationship between Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner and her work has been recently celebrated. This film feeds into the current debate about why there are fewer female artists celebrated throughout the history of art, including in recent times.
Like other films of this series, it relies on expert opinion from the art world, as well as the use of essays, diaries, archival footage and in this case, statements from the artist himself. The film is unhurried and this gentle pace allows reflection and detailed appraisal of a wide range of paintings and close ups. The film includes less known more surprising works, as well as the usual favourites, such as ‘Night Hawks’ and ‘Office at Night’. Work ranging over his entire career is covered and there is an interesting section on his formative years in Paris and the influence of French artists, especially Manet, on his choice of modern life, everyday subjects and his treatment of them. Other than this brief interlude in Paris, his career was totally based in the States and he favoured a reclusive life, almost exclusively relying on his wife to be his model. The film makes the point that this frustrated his wife both artistically and personally and caused considerable tension and resentment in their marriage.
Hopper, at that point in American Modernism, presents as a singular artist in pursuit of a new realism and not dabbling in any of the modern trends leading away from figurative art to greater abstraction. His particular appeal to a modern audience is usually attributed to the sense of alienation, anomie and isolation that is frequently observed in his work. Hopper, in an interview, distances himself from these interpretations, saying, for example, of a solitary woman impassively gazing out of a window, that he is merely depicting a woman looking out of window. He also attempts to defy any attempt to place his work in a genre category, for example portraiture or landscape. For many, and I include myself, Hopper’s particular appeal lies in an ambiguity in his paintings that lend themselves to a plurality of narratives. Some of the experts in the film gave interpretations and I found myself disagreeing with them.
I was eager to find out more about the work of Josephine Nivison and the film does show some of her early work and juxtaposes it with her husband’s work completed after meeting her and the influence is clear. She introduces him to watercolour techniques. The couple even sat side by side, painting the same subjects and when the completed works are juxtaposed on the screen give an intriguing insight into their differing techniques and approaches. Throughout his career she helps also suggesting sites and subjects for his paintings. I became very curious to learn more about the story of this clearly remarkable artist and woman and so was delighted that she put in a surprise and sparky appearance towards the end of the film and towards the end of their lives. Perhaps there will be a reassessment of her work?
I enjoyed this film and felt I gained a new perspective on Hopper’s work. The case was strongly made that Hopper’s wife had a crucial role in his artistic development and wider recognition as an important twentieth century artist. Although the film does not directly relate to an exhibition, it does coincide with an exhibition of Hopper’s work at the Whitney Gallery in New York and it makes me feel I would love to make the trip to see it. I wish…There are more films forthcoming, which do relate directly to current exhibitions, for example the recently opened Cezanne exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. I would highly recommend this series of Exhibitions on Screen to those who have yet to see them.
The 17th century, so-called Golden Age of Spanish Art, dominated by the revered trinity of Velazquez, Zurbaran and Murillo, has taken me previously to many well-known art destinations, particularly in Spain, but also in other European countries and the U.K. , with notable works in their collections. This was, however, my first visit to Bishop Auckland, which has recently become somewhat of a Mecca for Spanish Art. The newly opened Spanish Gallery has been in the headlines, but the main reason for my visit was to see the monumental, full length portraits of the Patriarchs by Zurbaran, first purchased by Bishop Trevor in auction in 1756 and brought to display in the Long Dining Room, altered to show them to best advantage.
I have long been fascinated by the works of Zurbaran. However, my previous first-hand knowledge was confined to simple, austere images of silent, meditative monks depicted in sombre hues, dramatically lit by Zurbaran’s masterly use of chiaroscuro. I also loved his simple still life compositions, exquisite in their meticulous attention to detail. At Auckland castle I was intrigued to see a different side to Zurbaran, expressed in an exuberant, vibrant use of colour and fascination with depicting a range of different textiles in the magnificent clothes that the Patriarchs wear. How did such a magnificent set of portraits on such a particular theme end up in Bishop Auckland?
Mystery shrouds the early history of these works, thought to be produced in the 1640’s. Zurbaran was by then well established in running his workshop in Seville and usually worked to commission. Why did he chose this particular theme relating to the different founders of the twelve tribes of Israel? There is no definitive answer to this question but speculation suggests it might have been created for export of the New World. There was a prevalent belief in 16th and 17th century Spain that the populations of the New World were descendants of these tribes. What is noteworthy is that Zurbaran produced these works, which are a powerful symbol of Judaism at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.
Bishop Trevor sounds a remarkable individual. Although he was not an art collector, he brought the first major series of Spanish paintings to the U.K. He was a man ahead of his time in his espousal of religious tolerance and strongly supported this embodiment in the Jewish Naturalisation Act of 1753. This passed through parliament, only to be repealed two years later. It is suggested that he brought the works and altered his Long Dining Room specifically to display them as a strong statement, an artistic riposte to this political development. The bishop entertained the rich and powerful , presumably including those supporting the repeal. The paintings represented a powerful visual display of the bishop’s religious tolerance and provided a stimulus to the reopening of the debate into religious tolerance. This visual plea for religious, ethical and social tolerance is an interesting example of the intersection of politics, religion and art.
As a coherent set in a site specific location they are impressive in their scale and execution. Twelve of the works are originals, only Benjamin is a copy ( the bishop was outbid in the purchase of just that one). It has, however, recently been purchased and is displayed in the nearby Spanish Gallery. It is assumed that the works are workshop products, although overall there is clear evidence of Zurbaran’s hand and skill. Nevertheless, there are small aspects of less skilful execution.
As a starting point, Zurbaran has taken prints from Flemish artists for poses and gestures, but the faces are taken from life and are individualised. Each figure is distinguished by their attributes, as set out in the legends. All dominate their specific painting, the background kept minimal, the horizon low and are lit from the left with a strong use of chiaroscuro. They display the most colourful array of fabulous costumes, the detail of the fabrics beautifully rendered. Of possible relevance to Zurbaran’s fascination with this aspect of the depiction is the biographical fact that his father worked in the textile trade.
I have selected three images from the set for more detailed examination and to exemplify my more general observations. My criteria for selection were purely based on my immediate favourites, for a variety of random reasons.
The first I have selected is that of Jacob as I find it one of the most expressive of the series. Zurbaran manages to convey the fragility and vulnerability of the old man with a solidity and gravitas that suggest real presence. His face is sad and reflective and he leans for support on his staff. His furry ankle cuffs perhaps allude to his theft of the birthright from his hairy brother, Esau, by disguising himself in animal skins. His robes are a vibrant burgundy and the depiction of the drapery is masterly. The detail on his turban and scarf is intricately executed. Jacob also has the most magnificent white beard.
A contrasting image is Zebulun, the Sailor; the sea is prominent in the background and the attributes of his trade, an oar and an anchor are held in his left hand and right respectively. He has a weathered face and wears a very different, more artisan type of costume, multi coloured trousers and a matching reddish cap and top too; a real working man’s clothing. Again, his curly hair and beard are meticulously observed.
My final image is Asher, the Joy Bringer, wearing yet another amazing costume. He is a farmer and cornfields are depicted in the background . However, the clothes he wears are clearly not everyday ones. He carries a basket of loaves to present to the king. These are skillfully depicted and show why Zurbaran had such a reputation as a still life painter. He also carries his attribute of a shepherd’s crook.
What is striking about all thirteen images is their monumentality and gravitas. They are positioned to look down on the viewer. Following the Renaissance and Post Renaissance tradition, biblical events are placed in contemporary setting, hence the opportunity for Zurbaran to display his very particular skills in depicting the sumptuous costumes.
It is well worth a trip to see these magnificent works in the setting designed to display them to full advantage. The Spanish Gallery across the road can also be visited and adds to the feeling of immersion in Spanish painting, especially the Golden Age. A visit to the whole of Auckland Castle is also recommended, as is a relaxing stroll in the beautiful parkland surrounding the castle. It is good to see Bishop Auckland, which used to be a mining town , reinvented as a major cultural centre and visitor attraction in County Durham. It deserves to be successful and regenerate the area.
I was eagerly anticipating my visit to MKG to see the latest show, a retrospective of Vivian Maier’s photographic oeuvre, only discovered in 2007. Her story is a dramatic one. She was a nanny in New York and Chicago, who led a dual life as an obsessive photographer. The archive of her prolific work was auctioned off, having been stored in a Chicago storage locker, when she was no longer able to afford the payments. This exciting discovery was made just two years before Maier’s death in 2009, she was born in 1926.
Having previously watched the documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, I had formed some ideas about the life and work of this extraordinary, hugely talented and largely self-taught photographer. I wanted to find out more and was confident, having seen the two previous excellent exhibitions at MKG, celebrating the work of two other under celebrated female 20th century artists, Laura Knight and Ingrid Pollard, that this show would be interesting and thought provoking. I was not disappointed.
The selection of images, black and white and colour and also some film and audio recordings cannot have been an easy task as the archive comprised around 150,000 items, spanning 45 years of work. The curator, Anne Morin, has judiciously selected 146 images, mainly street scene vignettes and portraits shot in both New York and Chicago from the 1950’s to 1970’s and predominantly black and white images.
I was surprised to learn about Maier’s early life, usefully chronicled in the exhibition, as I had made certain assumptions about her as a quintessentially American photographer and a reclusive person. In fact, although she was born in New York, her parents were European immigrants, her mother French and her father Austrian and she spent her early childhood in France, eventually returning to France to sell a property she had inherited. She also spent a period travelling extensively around Europe, as well as America and Canada.
These biographical details interested me and informed my view of her as a flaneuse, seemingly unobtrusively capturing and chronicling eclectic aspects of urban American life. The persona of a family nanny, accompanied on many of her photographic expeditions by her charges, enabled her to traverse New York and Chicago and engage with whoever caught her eye, rich and poor, particularly the latter as her work reveals a profound empathy with the marginalised and dispossessed.
Certainly, there are photographs that show an eye for architectural detail; they are technically highly accomplished and beautifully composed but, for me, these are not her most striking works. I find her particular skill is shown in the photos depicting people, often children, in these urban settings and offering images that are characterised by subtle detail and mystery. There are stories that the viewer can infer from these enigmatic, poignant and sometimes confrontational images. She interrogates the psycho-geography of the cities that provide her subject matter.
Although Maier is undoubtedly an enigma, she does reveal much about herself in her choice and treatment of the subjects that she selects for forensic, but also sympathetic, scrutiny. I find it ironic that a nanny in charge of children from wealthy families should majorly focus on children from clearly impoverished backgrounds, whom she depicts with such compassion and empathy. For example, a photo of a young, scruffy, rather grubby girl juxtaposes the frontal close up image of the girl with the background of an up-market haberdashery shop displaying gloves. The little girl’s face is streaked with dirt and on closer inspection we can see tears and yet she stands, arms crossed, in a confrontational pose. It is a poignant, touching, unsentimental image. Another image I found arresting and affecting is of two small “tear away” boys who look both tough and vulnerable and must have been worlds away from the milieu in which Maier operated as a nanny. She obviously somehow gained the trust of these children to allow her to take these telling photographs.
There are other images in the exhibition where it is not so clear that she sought or gained permission to take the photographs. For example, there is a desperately sad, poignant image of a homeless man, not facing the camera, but bent over in a foetal position. In another image her focus is on the legs and feet of a woman, elegantly shod, and next to her a small child wearing slightly scuffed boots and wrinkled leggings and, in a typically Maier detail, the child is shown clinging on to the mother’s skirt.
Maier can find expression and poetry in even the smallest of details and she would seem to have a fascination with legs. In one of her colour photographs, she depicts a park bench, painted bright red and yellow and we see a woman lying on the bench. We do not see her face nor upper body but the little detail of her scuffed shoes lends itself to imagined possible narratives. She wears a bright blue skirt; we see a few inches of this above her knees. It is a quirky, almost playful image, provoking first a smile but then a deeper reflection about the woman. The green of the park background makes the image a pleasing one, both in terms of the colour contrasts and the composition. Maier’s images always repay a close and considered examination.
In yet another image, the issue of the consent of the subject is particularly called into question as it shows the female subject in both an unflattering and intimate light. It depicts a middle-aged woman in a changing room and the picture is taken from behind the woman and shows her exposed and vulnerable in her underwear, her flesh bulging and escaping the confines of the garment. The viewer certainly feels like a voyeur looking at images like these. In Maier’s defence, it should be stressed that she had kept her work largely private, as far as we know, and indeed did not even have the money nor facilities to print out most of her work. Many of her images were therefore unseen by her. In her summation of the exhibition and her evaluation of Maier’s legacy and place in the canon of twentieth century photography, the curator draws attention to these ethical considerations that are exposed when we examine Maier’s work. It would be a huge loss, however, if the public did not get to see this unique photographic talent.
On one level I have the impression of Maier as a rather private, shy individual and so I was fascinated by a relatively large number of her self – portraits, displayed throughout the exhibition. Many of these are highly stylised, using images within images, deploying frames, mirrors, window panes, metallic surfaces, a still life arrangement of her clothing and conjuring up mystery and ambiguity through the use of reflections and shadows. These comprise some of her most experimental and innovative works. The impulse behind this relentless self-scrutiny is perhaps puzzling as she appeared to be without any personal vanity, not at all self-promotional and indeed indifferent to recognition. She did not take these photographs for public consumption.
I particularly liked the image of her clearly defined by her craft which opens the exhibition. There is technical experimentation but the lasting impression of her is of a youthful professional, focused intently on her obsession of photography. Of the other images that I have selected two experiment with shadows; the first one uses reflective ‘gazing balls’, where her reflection seems to float in the middle of her shadow; the second uses colour and projects her shadowy image on to a buttercup meadow. These shadowy presences suggest that effectively her craft was seminal to her identity and they signify more about her in terms of self-portraiture than a more straightforward attempt of formal, posed likeness. The coloured image is a charming, quirky and surprising image. The final self-portrait in the show is a striking, ambiguous still life of just her dark unfussy, utilitarian coat with her distinctive red hat. It is an image of absences, poignant and very typically reflective of Maier’s lack of ego and vanity. It felt fitting to display this image in the final room as it suggests a summation of her art in terms of the notion of the unobtrusive flaneuse, who is defined by her work in observing life around her and herself in relation to it.
This arresting and thought-provoking exhibition runs at the MKG until the end of September 2022 and I would urge anyone with an interest in 20th century photography and/or a very particular visual perspective on the streets and people of urban New York and Chicago between the 1950’s and 1970’s to visit at least once. There is much to see and every image has a worthy place in this exhibition; I was struck by the consistently high standard of her work. The documentation of time and place, with the wealth of detail, is striking, but so too is the humanity evident in her treatment of the individuals she captures on film. It has a special beauty and style that impresses and the images stay in the imagination even after leaving the exhibition. It has left me wanting to see more of her work and learn more about her and that is certainly the marker of a successful exhibition.
I’d been meaning to get to this exhibition for some time and finally managed it, I’ve always admired Parker’s work although I was only familiar with her iconic pieces so I was looking forward to seeing a fuller range of her work.
Outside of the exhibition, on the ground floor, Tate have placed The Distance, A Kiss with String attached, 2003 as a tempter of what is to come. This was my first encounter with Parker’s work during my studies and I loved it immediately. The Kiss itself, in any case, is an undeniably beautiful expression of human intimacy, Parker’s simple addition of coiled rope adds so many layers of narrative to that intimacy. Does it show the deep bounds of love and make for a greater, more private image by covering the entwined lovers, oblivious to the world in any case, or does it suggest that those bounds can be suffocating? Or is it symbolic of the complexity and entanglement of human interaction, after all, relationships are rarely smooth sailing.
We headed up to the exhibition already in a Parker frame of mind and made a start, the first exhibit is Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1988, this impactful piece was a great way to start the exhibition. I’ve always liked it for so many reasons! The symmetry appeals to me, the straight rows and perfect circles, the exact suspension above the ground all make for a clean feeling aesthetic. The illusion of levitation though, places the piece in a magical forest of the imagination for me, the desire to walk through the wires plucking them as you go is strong, I didn’t!
Moving away I came to Embryo Firearms, 1995, Parker had visited the Colt gun factory in the US and was interested in these blanks which are the first part of Colt 45 gun production. They were polished up and provided to the artist. The title, as seems to be often in her work, evokes a lot of narrative about the objects. Considering the discussions taking place in the US with regard to gun ownership it’s quite apposite that Parker had already alighted on the issue in 1995. The positioning of the guns almost shows two face profiles facing each other and yet we also see the normalisation of weapons of violence. Juxtaposed with this is Embryo Money, 1996, a similar principle of coin blanks, again, an image redolent of so many issues of conflict.
I wasn’t so taken with the series of Stolen Thunder cloths from 1998. I get the premise of contact with famous people’s silver but it doesn’t quite come across for me in the resulting visuals of framed grimy cloths, they don’t really carry the message impactfully enough so it’s a bit lost.
Carrying on, we came to The Distance (With Concealed Weapon), 2014. This was made from the original string that had been used to wrap The Kiss, it had been cut into pieces by objectors to the artist’s interpretation, The Stuckists. Parker knotted it back together and covered a secret object within. I do wonder a little at the cutting by ‘The Stuckists’ was this all part of an overall performance as well in response to the adverse reaction to Parker’s interpretation at the time? In any case, it is a beautifully perfect sphere with knots poking through here and there. For me, it is Parker’s signature spare style, clean, perfect and aesthetically resonant.
Next is Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991, the iconic artwork I would say. I remember the press when it was created and the general thinking that it was a bit batty, by, of course, a batty woman, but it really has the most amazing resonance. Given a whole room to itself and lit by a simple bulb in the centre, it’s everything, isn’t it, our lives, blown into view, everyday objects, brooms, toys, bikes, old toasters, boxes, old, new. Parker identified our secret stash, the shed, where we bung the things we use but also those we don’t quite know what to do with. And, of course, at this time, the IRA was very much in the background, Parker was asked if this had been an influence to her production to which she agreed, giving freedom to yet another strand that was in the air at the time.
Another room was devoted to Perpetual Cannon, 2004, again, it’s visually arresting and communicative, in the catalogue, Parker talks about the loss of colliery bands and the communities that they came from with the loss of the mining industries, the flattened instruments are representative of the lost music and so much more. I liked the way the instruments throw off shadows which make them look fuller again, shadows of a past life.
Some of Parker’s video installations were also on display, she touches particularly on the issues of conflict and warfare. I really liked Made in Bethlehem, 2012, the irony of a Muslim man and his son making crowns of thorns for Christian pilgrims visiting for Easter was not lost on Parker, the father talks about his hopes for peace and for everyone just to get along while his son is simply is interested in getting on with his work. Rather than focusing on the complex and often intractable political narratives overhead, Parker brings it down to the everyday, the lives people lead and that, in truth, although we may have different cultural rites, at the very basis of it, we’re all trying to do the same thing, live.
Magna Carter (An Embroidery), 2015is a huge piece, reflective, I suppose, of medieval tapestries such as the Bayeux Tapestry. I liked it’s collaborative nature, not only is the embroidery itself a collaboration but it rests on the collaborative enterprise of Wikipedia. Often mocked for inaccuracies, Wikipedia is still a starting point if you want a source of references on any subject. Parker also went for a cross section of collaborators to work on the embroidery, some well-known publicly. I particularly liked the inclusion of Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia as his inclusion seems to validate the whole enterprise.
One of the film installations was War Machine, 2015, a film about the production of Remembrance Day Poppies, very moving, there are unexpected stops in the filming of the production process that remind the viewer what the poppies are all about. Parker has taken the offcuts of material used to make the make the poppies to create War Room, 2015, a companion piece I suppose.
The idea was inspired by the original designs for TheField of Cloth of Gold, 1520, which was famously set up for a meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I in an attempt to reach peace between England and France. It certainly has the sense of a tent as you enter it with a big hanging canopy and the walls all made of the offcuts, added to that, since the material has the negative spaces left by the poppies it feels like camouflage netting, reflecting war and transience. Irrespective of this, Parker’s immaculate touch is here, the construction of the tent is perfect, the negative spaces all lined up neatly and the offcuts laid in perfect symmetry.
The final piece of the exhibition is Island, 2022, this reflects on Britain, in particular, Brexit, Parker has used chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover, for her, a totem of Britain, painted it onto a greenhouse, another British totem, and laid tiles from the Houses of Parliament inside it. If you wanted an encapsulation of a Britain deluded over Brexit, this is it.
Needless to say, I loved this exhibition, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about Parker’s work as I sometimes find conceptual art elusive but hers is directly communicative, she sets up the possibility of a multitude of narratives but, you, the viewer have a part in making them your own. In the catalogue, Parker references Andre Breton’s ready-mades as a source of inspiration but I think she goes beyond that, for me the paradox of artists who used everyday objects in their art to make it more communicative for the viewer was that, often, it still continued an obscure dialogue that took place mainly between fellow artists. Parker leaves no such ambiguity, it’s a shed, a blown up one, we all like to see an explosion, and look here is the detritus of an ordinary life, something to reflect on. From a curatorial perspective, it’s a well chosen and sited exhibition, there aren’t so many artworks that you become saturated by them and plenty of room to ponder over each one.
Go, support your galleries, you won’t be disappointed!
The plan around visiting this exhibition was based on meeting up with some old uni friends to celebrate a special birthday. We’d studied Art History together at Birkbeck, part of the University of London, so a visit to Senate House Library and a wander around Bloomsbury seemed a perfect way to do that.
A Thousand Words for Weather takes place across three floors of Senate House Library, the library of the University of London, itself celebrating 150 years since it’s foundation this year. As a student at Birkbeck it was possible to access the Senate House Library with its extensive Art History collection so it was fun to go back on a return visit.
It’s always been, how shall I put it, labyrinthine, and this has not changed, with the smell of musty books in the air and intertwined staircases and lifts that don’t go to all levels but then somehow do. We started on the 4th Floor and found the start of the exhibition, books drawn from the library collection that reflect on the weather. This was fascinating, I really liked the way that a selection of books that would, to be quite honest, nowadays be sitting in obscurity, possibly in storage, were brought together around the theme of weather and given new perspectives.
The items are wide and varied, one is James Glen’s Answers to Queries from the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations about the Colony of South Carolina, 1747-48, written in beautiful script, as the labelling advises, this extract shows how climate, enslavement and economy were bound up together in the pursuit of trade. Reading the extract certainly shows that the concerns were not for the workers or the effect on local economy, let alone ecology, but for how much could be made through local exploitation.
In a different vein, Walter Crane’s book for his daughter Beatrice Craneand her book, 1880, is a charming one. He illustrated the book for Beatrice to show seasonal weather changes and their effects on plants. There’s quite a sweet illustration of a woman grappling with the usual rainy English weather in June, nothing new there then!
Continuing with art but in a more reflective mood, is the Sketch Book of Harriet Lewin, 1810-14, on the page opened, Lewin reflects on spaces and memory. She talks about how the area sketched, Lake Trasimene, in Italy, bathed in sunshine, was the site of war and death and how nature and weather can repair and cleanse those memories. It’s a really touching piece.
Other books are full-on weather, Francis Bacon’s Natural and Experimental History of Winds, 1648 was about the early days of scientific meteorology, whereas The Newest, Best and Very much esteemed Book of Knowledge, by Wilde in 1764 relies more on weatherlore.
This was a great scene setter and we continued to the beautiful Periodicals Reading room, where there were listening posts to listen to the sound installation created by the group of poets who collaborated on the sound piece. I don’t know if it was the fact that we were there as group of three and therefore listening to the piece felt awkward as we all found our own headphones and looked at each other in a puzzled way, or, whether it was that for such a long piece there was nowhere comfortable to sit and enjoy the it, but it really didn’t work for any of us.
In addition, there was the sense that we were in the university library and as such couldn’t be discussing our thoughts. The piece was due to play out loud during lunchtime so that may have made for a different experience but it was only 12:00 and too long to wait around for.
We continued on to the 5th floor and quite honestly struggled to follow the green arrows to the installation areas, as I’ve said, the library is quite a maze in itself and the signs were really not clear enough, or perhaps the areas were not marked out as clearly as they could have been. We did finally find one part on a window shelf looking out from the library, I imagine quite a contemplative area to sit and experience the sound installation. However, the space was occupied by a student working, we asked if this was part of the exhibition to which she said yes and continued working on her laptop. We walked off, my friend remarked that she had been a little passive aggressive, to which I replied, actually it was aggressive, aggressive!
Totally lost, up and down staircases, asking students if they knew where further installations were, we headed back to the entrance point of the library. The library assistant there was very helpful and pointed us towards the last area on the 6th floor. This was a public area and I think I heard birds but yet again it was all a bit underwhelming.
We gave up and headed off to lunch!
As you can probably guess, I was disappointed by this exhibition, it’s a pity as I don’t think the issue is the content so much as the delivery. I love site specific art, particularly where artists are allowed access to familiar cultural sites to give voice to other possibilities. In fact, my MA dissertation was based on artists working with museum collections. In a one sentence sum up of my conclusion, artists bring another dimension and way of looking at collections that can show them in a very different light.
The tenets for all those expectations are here in this exhibition, the introduction through the selected books is great, so many different facets of weather and how it has played a part in all areas of society, from man’s attempts to understand weather patterns for the production of crops and travel, to more frivolous thoughts of wanting the rain to stop a bit! But it gets lost on the sound installation, I was looking forward to hearing lots shared about weather, it’s diversity and universality but trying to listen in an uncomfortable position, and on your own, was off putting.
Equally, while I get the connection to the library as a place of words, perhaps the library itself was not the best place for a sound installation. We tried to be respectful of the library space, we have been students ourselves and the last thing you need is people galumphing about the place while you’re trying to get your head around some difficult bit of reading. Perhaps our student’s aggressive-aggressive was a sign of resistance.
Do I sense resistance?
It’s a pity, I do try to always support artists, I’m not interested in trying to do down what I know will be based on a lot of work and creation but I do think that some adjustments need to be made for those experiencing this installation, especially since it’s on until March, right through term times.
In any case, the signage needs to be better, we were familiar with Senate House Library, other visitors won’t be, there needs to a much clear indication of the route and once reached much more demarcation to make it clear and comfortable seating to listen to a long piece. The press for the installation needs to indicate that it is best experienced as a solitary pursuit or to specify more clearly that the sound installation is only on publicly at certain times. Perhaps this could be increased to twice a day, maybe in the evening too?
And as for resistance? Is there a feeling among students that the installation is causing disturbance? If that’s the case perhaps visitors can be advised that they need to be quiet and, I guess, once again, that this needs to be a solitary, even quiet, experience. Finally, could there not be a room given over that visitors can sit in comfortably and listen to the sound installation publicly, on a loop, all day?
Just my thoughts, I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying the installation for themselves but I would advise that you are prepared to listen to the sound installation on your own or attend at the public time. I don’t feel I can fully review the sound installation as I didn’t listen to all of it, so I will return and try again and may well take in the exhibition celebrating 150 years of the library as well, which sounds very interesting.