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Exhibitions

This review was written in response to the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces exhibition last year and explores ideas around curation, and around a sensory approach to architectural practice.

SSKUM031_Kengo-Kuma1

The central problem of curating a show about architecture is how to attend to the qualities of space, light, and scale which are so central to the discipline, but which are difficult to assess from the elevations, models and renderings which populate more traditional exhibitions of the craft. The notion of commissioning architects to produce environments that somehow embody their philosophies and central concerns is not totally new (the architectural pavilion serves this function) but it is a concept that some more adventurous institutions are now willing to bring within the walls of the gallery. Exhibitions including New Nordic at Copenhagen’s Louisiana museum (2012) along with their current Arab Contemporary have invited architects to install structures that engage the viewer more directly and experientially in their work. While architectural biennales in Venice, Shenzhen and Hong Kong and elsewhere have a slightly longer history of employing installation to communicate the abstract qualities of the built form.

The Royal Academy’s decision to emphasise the spaces created by architects and architecture in their current exhibition Sensing Spaces is, however, a significant one. It signals a desire to move away from popular discourses around contemporary architecture which emphasise the external, structural, monumental qualities of the form (discourses frequently reinforced by illustration and photography that draw attention to glittering façades and gleaming towers) towards a more phenomenological, experiential mode of engagement with the built environment. To emphasise this point, and to enable visitors to gain an understanding of the output of architects whose studios are located as far away as Chile, China and Germany, the Royal Academy has invited seven architectural practices to intervene in its extensive galleries.

As I wandered through the cavernous rooms occupied by Irish practice Grafton Architects’ installation I felt ambivalent about the exhibition. The suspended volumes that occupy the high ceilings of the gallery seemed to take the brief to explore space rather literally, so I was pleased to enter into the environment that represents Chinese architect Li Xiaodong’s contribution to the show. Xiadong’s exhibit evokes a grove at the centre of a forest, large dusty pebbles crunch under-foot in a clearing magically extended by use of mirrors. One then enters into a series of maze-like corridors in which branches still covered in bark form screens allowing some light, sound, and movement through, but simultaneously creating a sense of containment. These narrow pathways are lit from below by patchy panes of translucent plexiglas beneath which halogen tubes hum like cicadas, casting up a cool, bluish moonlight as if the sky were beneath my feet. Here and there a booth appears, niched into the tactile surface of the screens, dim spaces of quiet isolation. It is a pleasing, playful installation strongly relating to Xiadong’s practice in which natural, untreated elements form cladding, partitions, and platforms. But Xiadong is not the only exhibitor to signal an interest in contemporary uses of natural materials.

A few galleries later, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma has created a sepulchral space: fronds of bamboo grow from concealed spots of illumination, conducting light along their fine filaments into the darkened room. These twisting fronds form networks of undulating shapes captivating in their combination of structural complexity and material simplicity. The installation would have felt perfectly serene, a secular temple, if not for other visitors whose clumping feet disrupting the calm. While Xiadong’s environment felt uncannily familiar, referring both to the natural world and to traditional East Asian methods of construction, Kuma’s piece seemed much more abstract and alien: as if viewing microscopic organisms enlarged to a massive scale.

This sense of disorientation, and scale is employed somewhat divergently by Chilean architectural duo Mauricio Pezo and Sofia Von Ellrichshausen, whose enormous platform, supported by four massive columns, fills one end of an expansive gallery. Ascending to the top of the platform – via spiral staircases concealed in a column – I was suddenly brought startlingly close to the gallery’s ceiling. From this vantage point I became much more aware of the Royal Academy as a building, and I reflected on the strangeness of the original fine, detailed mouldings (incorporating neo-classical and gothic motifs besides pouting Pre-Raphaelite angels in Liberty-robes) installed high above the visitors’ heads. Perhaps, I reasoned, Pezo Von Ellrichshausen’s formalist treatment of the platform juxtaposed against the lush ornamentation of the gallery was intended as a comment on the status of decoration in contemporary architecture, so I was perplexed by their statement on the gallery wall:

‘we are not trying to express the structural properties of buildings. The emphasis instead is on the proportions of the rooms, their sequences, the way they open – simple things that taken together suggest something more complex.’

The Pre-Raphelite angels in whose company they had placed me suggested something very complex, but it wasn’t to do with the sequence of rooms.

Perhaps architects aren’t always the best advocates of their own work, but while Pezo Von Ellrichshausen’s comments on their practice alienated me, I noticed that the video accompanying the exhibition had the reverse effect of warming me to some the exhibits. Berlin based Burkina Fasoian architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, presented an installation featuring an arched structure thatched in brightly-coloured plastic-straws which could be slotted in or taken out at will. While it had seemed a fun and engaging piece in the gallery space, it gained a greater significance in his description of a practice that incorporated the community into every part of the design and construction process. Not all of the exhibits were equally successful or eloquent and I was left cold, for example, by Eduardo Souto de Moura’s cast of an existing doorway in the Royal Academy placed at an acute angle to the original. As an exhibition, however, Sensing Spaces achieves much: reconnecting the viewing public with the tangible qualities of architecture experienced up close, and to demonstrating the ingenuity of architects in creating spaces that speak to us in subtle, beautiful and engaging ways. Of course, ‘real world’ constraints often impinge on architects’ abilities to construct the harmonious environments of their imaginations, but that too is the value of an exhibition of this sort, freed of practicalities it can exist as pure rhetoric: a manifesto in concrete, bamboo and plastic straws.

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The Critical Writing in Art & Design area at the Royal College of Art show looks fantastic! Here are some images of the space and of the final publication that I produced focusing on contemporary menswear entitled Menswear in Motion.

You can access the digital version of the show catalogue here, and find writing from Critical Writing students and graduates here.

Critical Writing Jay McCauley Bowstead Menswear in MotionCritical Writing RCA

 

Jay McCauley BowsteadJay McCauley Bowstead2

Me Reading at Battersea

We launched ARK: Words and Images from the Royal College of Art Magazine 1950-1978 with a party at RCA Battersea including readings and presentations. The book is an anthology of articles from the original ARK magazine featuring new introductory essays and some beautiful and enticing imagery (including all the covers of the original magazine during its three decade run). You can find a version of my essay ARK Magazine from Cover to Cover – though sadly without the images – in a previous post.

Link to Book

This post discusses the exhibition Glorious Estate which deals with ideas around the built-environment, found objects, alternative ways of living, and the legacy of utopian architecture. First published by Allotrope Editions 2012.

A. C. StephensC. Wright

At Bruno Glint Gallery the visitor becomes an anthropologist. Entering the cobbled mews and climbing a rusty staircase, we come across a space transformed. Fetishes of some post-apocalyptic society cover the walls, a mysterious structure of unknown ritual-use stands in our midst. This is ‘Glorious Estate’, the gallery’s latest exhibition, in which artists Anna Chrystal Stephens, Keef Winter, and Carla Wright explore late-modernity through its physical detritus.

Keef Winter’s sculpture of plywood, pine, industrial insulation and black plastic film is a combination of precision and roughness. The piece is composed of three hinged panels, one of which features triangular facets forming an irregular, upturned pyramid. In contrast, the other panels of the sculpture are made up of dented industrial foam and ply. The resultant form, roughly L-shaped, is inscribed with stains and roughly painted here and there. It is at once a refined exploration of three-dimensions and a piece of chaotic maverick DIY.

Like Winter, Anna Chrystal Stephens adopts an expressive somewhat anarchistic approach to construction, and her wall-mounted assemblages are built from a variety of found materials. In ‘Survivalism’ patterned textiles are stretched over frames to form screens, the apparently haphazard combination of materials evoking the structures of refugee camps or new-age settlements. Attached to this, a pole supports a totem of tangled wire adorned with bright, synthetic-string. A length of silk draped over the totem partially obscures it, perhaps an act of deference to its mystic power. Stephens’ two other pieces also feature silk digitally-printed with images of twigs and plastic stacking boxes. There is a sense of subversion in the combination of a material associated with luxury and objects that are normally considered too mundane to be worthy of notice.

In Carla Wright’s works a certain clarity of form, geometry and use of materials (including safety glass and oak) combine in an unmistakeable reference to modernism. It is a particularly English type of mid-20th Century sentiment that brings to mind Eric Lyons’ ‘Span Housing’, Denys Lasdun, and Ercol furniture. The translation of these icons of utility into pure aesthetic objects could be read as an implicit critique of their practical value, although there is something simultaneously celebratory in the elegant lines of Wright’s sculptures notably in ‘Concerns of the living interacting with the dead stuff of buildings’.

Discarded materials are transformed into objects of veneration in an exhibition which at its core, is an exploration of ideology. The notion of planned modernity is evoked in references to the stark edifices of modernist architecture, while the utopianism of the commune is explored in the work of Anna Chrystal Stephens. But despite this optimism (or perhaps in reaction to it) the spectres of industrial decline haunt the show, a malevolent dystopian spirit amongst the fragile beauty of the art objects. In the dialectic of modernity versus anti-modernity, and industrially produced versus handmade, the exhibition explores the shifting ground of design practice in the 20th and 21st centuries. More than the art object in contemporary discourse, it is the contested nature of the design object and of industrial production which forms the basis of this show. In that sense, it is a ‘To the Finland Station’ (Wilson 1940) of visual culture, exploring the trajectory of progressive applied art, but pointing out the limitations, romanticism and ultimate naivety of the doctrines that prevailed.

Jay McCauley Bowstead, Allotrope 2012.

Link to publication

The Freud Museum’s current exhibition of video works by artists Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker is entitled, rather cryptically, Saying It *. The exhibition features a range of video works displayed among the artefacts of the museum. Exploring themes of psychiatry, institutionalisation and (in my interpretation) the performance of gender, these pieces inhabit an ambiguous territory, at once reflecting and critiquing Freud’s seminal theories.

What is now the Freud Museum, a large but externally pretty ordinary suburban detached house in Hampstead, was the former home of Sigmund Freud and his immediate family*. It was the bolthole to which the Freuds fled in 1938 from Nazi annexed Austria. Despite their perilously late escape the Freuds were able to ship across the contents of the Vienna study, and so the ground-storey of the house (a corner of 1920s suburbia) is transformed incongruously into a fin de siècle, bohemian, Mitteleuropean milieu: Exotic ritual objects are sandwiched against heavy 19th century furnishings, chaises longues are draped in ornate tapestries; there are Ottoman and Persian brocades; endless urns, Egyptian statuettes and curios of every kind. Into this heady mix the video pieces of Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker make their own curious interjection.

In my view, the installation of these video pieces was one of the strongest aspects of the show. Peeking from cupboards, between chair legs and beside the fabled couch, the flat-screens served as little interjections of modernity in their antiquated interiors. The action of the videos centred on the dramas of Sissi, a sufferer of schizophrenia with delusions of royal status, and a number of monitors explored distinct aspects of the patient’s identity: at times infantile and vulnerable, and at others condescending and supercilious. The pieces (shot in Dutch and subtitled) were performed in a rather melodramatic style by the actor playing Sissi, and in a somewhat more self-effacing manner by the psychiatrist/analyst character. For me, the exhibition added an additional resonance to the space, drawing out and somehow concretising the experiences of mental illness within the context of its analysis and theorisation. Nevertheless, I had some reservations: Were the clichéd nature of Sissi’s delusions a comment on the archetypes of madness or simply the result of laziness? What of the rather elaborate nature of her costume – was it a reflection on the performed nature of femininity, a critique of 19th Century bourgeois essentialism, or an aesthetic choice?

Perhaps, ultimately, the task of constructing a coherent artistic response to Freud’s theories is too great a work to complete within the modest terms of Bal and Williams-Gamaker’s exhibition. While it was an enjoyable, carefully curated, and skilfully made body of work, I was not always convinced by the credibility of the psychological narratives explored in Saying It. Nevertheless, the audacity and panache with which Bal and Williams-Gamaker approached their work is surely to be commended.

*The exhibition also includes works by the artist Renate Ferro, but as these are very different from the video works of Bal and Williams-Gamaker, and are relatively few, I have not included them in this discussion.

*Until 1982 Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter and an eminent child psychologist in her own right continued to live in the house.

Materials and Aesthetics are pretty core to most artworks, but sometimes these elements are relegated behind concept and subject. In this post I’m trying to think about why this might be and to define some of the less obvious ways in which visual aesthetics are important in fine art practice.

The open submission exhibition at The Whitechapel, The London Open, led me to think about the role and status of visual aesthetics in contemporary fine art. The exhibition was divided into two major spaces on the ground and first floor: the ground floor gallery featuring a range of installed film works, text, sound, installation and photographic works; while the first floor gallery featured predominantly sculpture, painting, objects and assemblages and image based works. However, while there were some interesting differences in media and form between the works exhibited in the two major spaces, what was much more notable were the stark differences in approach to material and aesthetics.

Whitechapel OpenWhitechapel Open

The curator’s notes suggested that the works in the first floor gallery had been grouped because the artists demonstrated interests in kitsch, folk and outsider art and, to an extent, these themes could be detected at least in some of the pieces. Much more obvious, and in my view more important, was that these artists engaged with the material and visual in an explicit way which could not be separated from the meaning and intention of their works. This was evident in pieces such as Zebra by Caroline Achaintre in which fibres had been woven into a tufted, carpet like, composition of intersecting lines; in the delicate pencil drawings of Mark Harris; in an installed animation by Shona Davies, Dave Monaghan and Jon Klein; and in the heavily textured paintings of Dale Carney. In all of these pieces, the evidence of the make process as well as use of colour, texture, composition and material interacted to create works with cogent visual identities. In the case of Davies, Monaghan and Klein’s macabre animation, for example, the choice of muted hues, hand made animated models and hand painted sets (the work was also displayed in a set) lent the work a poignancy and delicacy. The associations of animation with children’s television underscored the suicide narrative, adding a layer of complexity and dark humour to the piece. In this way, thematic, narrative and conceptual concerns were inextricably bound up in the materiality and form of the artistic work.

Whitechapel Open

In the text, installation, and video pieces of the ground floor gallery, aesthetics were much less explicitly prioritised as content of the work. Nevertheless, the aesthetic choices and values, of both artists and curators, could be detected. Whereas, the upstairs gallery had featured a rich variety of textures, colours and materials, here a palette of cool grey, white and black predominated. Videos were displayed on1990s matt black plastic monitors (shiny flat-screens would have hit the wrong note), slide machines clicked through images of the sky, a wall, apparently chosen to suggest at once the mundane and the profound. It struck me that the intended signifier for the anti-aesthetic aesthetic of these pieces was a kind of intellectual seriousness. It was as if in denying the allure of harmonising colour, the inviting tactility of texture, the expressive power of image making one could ascend to a realm of pure philosophical thought. This fine art Iconoclasm is one that I find particularly difficult, redolent as it is of Puritanism and a prioritisation of some kind of mysterious “content” which exists outside the form of the work.

There is certainly room in the art world for work which is meditative, idea based and not primarily concerned with the visual. But I would strongly argue that the communicative and associative power of aesthetics are important in framing even these works. Too often a failure to engage with visual aesthetics means falling back on a range of fine art clichés which not only risk alienating the viewer from the work, but also obscuring its core ideas