Monday, 15 December 2014

Jake and Dinos Chapman at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

I always liked Hastings. It was slightly down at heel, edgy and a little bit eccentric and bohemian. It also had people under the age of 65 and a live music venue in a church crypt. This all made it so much more interesting, less conservative and decidedly cooler than Eastbourne which was where I spent most of my time when growing up. Adding to the allure was the fact that my friend rented a massive top floor flat on the St. Leonard's seafront in the days when they were as cheap and plentiful as a seaside chip. 

Hastings, I am told, is not the town it used to be but walking along the seafront I find the same gently decaying shop frontage and the inherent sadness of the out-of-season seaside town. Sitting alongside the old, the peeling and the boarded-up are also several smart, new shops and restaurants. Although this may seem like a jarring and contemporary incongruity to me it’s just the same as it ever was. There were always stark contrasts and examples of shifting fortunes to be found in Hastings & St. Leonard's. What is strange, however, is walking down to the Stade and seeing the shiny and solid black exterior of the Jerwood Gallery emerging from an impossible space between the road and the sea. It’s an impressive building and the contrast with the architecture and function of the bingo halls and amusement arcades passed a few minutes earlier is particularly dramatic but entirely consistent at the same time.

The exhibition at the Jerwood entitled, 'In the Realm of the Unmentionable', is the latest show by Jake and Dinos Chapman who grew up in Hastings.  They have divided opinion from the very beginning. Many years ago a friend of mine studied with Jake who drew her portrait.  Another student outraged by what he saw as a highly offensive caricature of my friend, tore the portrait in two.  Like the other YBA branded artists, the Chapman brothers have been around for long enough to be part of the British art furniture. So being able to see their work again now distanced by time from the froth and fury of its initial impact is an interesting experience.
Entering the large Foreshore gallery takes you straight into the magnificently over the top visual spectacle of ‘Sum of all evil’. It’s like Jake and Dinos got a job lot of the Airfix war, murder and mayhem modelling kit with 10 Ronald MacDonald bonus packs and a few other bits and pieces thrown in for free.  The naked dead, the uniforms, the skeletons, skulls, crucified Ronalds and several Adolf Hitlers all tumbling over themselves in a landscape with trees. The only moment of stillness is in a quiet corner where the ‘normal’ Mr. Fuhrer is placed in a tableau that could be called ‘Interior with dog and greenhouse’.  It is a particularly 20th century view of the utter awfulness of humanity and seems oddly and rather quaintly nostalgic in an age of live video beheadings.  The Ronald MacDonalds have moved on too, resurrected by adding a little more lettuce and some rebranding as soldiers in the battle against obesity.

The series ‘Living with Dead Art’ is like an alternative form of illustrated art history making some of the images fascinating to unpick. The interiors created within each frame are also very atmospheric so it was good to spend time in them. The 'Los Caprichos etchings commission', however, still strikes me now exactly as it struck me at the time. I just can’t take it seriously. It does put me in mind of Joe Orton defacing library books but mostly I think it’s what might have happened had Beavis and Butthead been locked in a museum overnight. I feel pretty much the same way about the old oil portraits that have been similarly rectified.  
The same thing only better’ is a recreation of Tracey Emin’s work, ‘Everyone I ever slept with', a stitched tent which was burned in the Momart warehouse fire in 2004. That fire also destroyed ‘Hell’ a definitive Chapman work that was the forerunner of ‘The sum of all evil’. The presence of the tent is a reminder of just how polarised and visceral, attitudes had become to the works of those artists at that time. The glee at their destruction expressed at various levels across the media was a bizarre kind of testament to the work's impact beyond the usual suspects.

'Archive Cloud' fills a corner of the gallery and is arguably just a modern name for a range of works on paper executed over a long time frame. The earliest date seemed to be 1983 but some of the work looks as if it may have been done in 1973. This arrangement was fascinating as a marker of a successful artist’s career trajectory. At this stage of the game the Chapmans can stick any old thing on the wall, call it an archive and everyone will think it’s somehow profound or important. I am not averse to chronological displays in which one can see how an artist develops but this selection is not particularly good. There are one or two that stand out and an occasional glimpse of another direction that may have been taken but overall the selection suggests why sculptural works took prominence.  

The newest series of works in the show, ‘Human Rainbow’ has something for everyone.  Like ‘Living with dead art’ there are echoes of departed artists and of other Chapmanesque preoccupations. However, in the context of this show it seems as if they finally discovered some colours (other than red) in their middle years. The image chosen for the publicity poster was an image from this series. This is obviously due in part to its newness but it is also an image that is inoffensive and the most painterly. Ironic really given their reputation but at least it’s red. 

The exhibition continues into two other smaller gallery spaces. In the first room are the defaced oil portraits mentioned above. In the second, however, things are more interesting. The gallery has been given a false ceiling and this intervention completely changes the whole nature of the space. In fact it’s the first time you actually think about the space. As you look through the door from the first room, one small work is visible. You can only enter this vertically truncated room by stooping and as you move towards the painting a still life emerges. You reach it and find it is signed ‘A.Hitler’.  That was the only laugh out loud moment in the whole show for me, so thanks for that.

The works on the final wall are join-the-dots images that you suspect are not what they seem but what you really want from them is a few stapled together photocopies that you can take with you and do on the train home.

Given that this was my first visit to the Jerwood I also went upstairs to check out the permanent collection. I didn’t hang around because I was interrupting a bunch of school kids on an art trip. They had been making comments about the works on post-it notes and sticking them on the floor under the relevant work. Catching glances of some of their comments was pretty funny.   

There were some very pleasant surprises from the Jerwood Collection particularly Mark Gertler but also Stanley Spencer and some Jacob Epstein and ElizabethFrink sculptures and drawings. Seeing a Frank Brangwyn here was nice too even if it did make me briefly nostalgic for my former home of Walthamstow and the William Morris Gallery. Funnily enough I have often referred to Hastings as Walthamstow-on-Sea and there are similarities although the E17 Art Trail does seem more rooted in the community and able to appeal to a broader demographic than Coastal Currents. Then again there are a lot more people in E17. Talking of Coastal Currents, however, I found it very interesting that the Chapman brothers exhibition actually prompted an article that looked seriously at Hastings and the art scene here in general. It seems a bit sad that coverage can only be promoted by celebs but that’s life. The view of the real coastal currents from the top floor of the Jerwood is sublime.

When I was about to leave I was approached by a very pleasant member of the Jerwood staff who asked me if I would mind answering some questions about my visit which I did. The nature of these questionnaires and their primarily algorithmic values, however, means that there is little scope for real feedback and I have one complaint.  I believed the hype that said: “The Chapmans will scour the antique emporiums and junk shops of Hastings for old artworks that will then be ‘fixed’ by the brothers in their signature anarchic style.”

It was not clear if this had actually happened. If it did, it presumably would have been the portraits but I have definitely seen at least some of those before. It would have been nice to know. In fact, a little more information in general would have been useful even it was just a list of titles and dates and an image from each part of the show.  

Apart from that one small gripe, however, I really enjoyed my first ever visit to the Jerwood although I am not sure ‘enjoyed’ is the right word to apply to a Jake and Dinos Chapman show. Whichever way one finds it necessary to view their collective oeuvre, it is ultimately a bleak and depressing interpretation of our hapless species particularly if you take it at face value. The trauma of being human is something we all share. How one deals with that and what one needs from ones art to assist dealing with it varies. Horror is increasingly unavoidable in reality so it no longer feels like fun to have it slapped on with a trowel in art. The fact that anyone can now have private digital access, at least, to whatever horror they like for less than the price of a Jake and Dinos Chapman work both affirms their view and explains why the Internet is also full of kittens.

The tension running through their work so often characterised by a hostile rejection of both art and human history sometimes seems like a desperate attempt to distance themselves from being part of either. However, the universal conundrum of reconciling childhood with adulthood is also a permanent and rather comforting presence. It could all have been so different. I wonder what would have happened if their Dad had been a maths teacher….. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Back to the Garden

The last time I looked at this blog was August 2013 when I did a post about a trip to Dublin. It is now December 2014. Those past 18 months have been spent shovelling an awful lot of sad and horrible sh*t under the bridge. The upshot (much aided by insane London house values) is that we have exchanged a small Victorian terrace for a whole house with a magic garden in a Sussex village.

I am originally from 'round these parts' (to be said in Sussex accent) so I guess I should just see it as finally coming home after a 33 year trip. In that 33 years I have always lived in cities - London, Tokyo, Jerusalem, Dubai - and spent a lot of time in many others. I like cities. I enjoy being stuck in an empathetic crush of anonymous humanity so I will miss it.

However, being in the new garden has also made me realise just how much of  my rural childhood environment I have carried around with me. There is a palpable and familiar exhilaration at the changing light, colours, textures, sounds and smells. What makes this garden magic though, is an awesome variety of plants that are also familiar from those 33 years of travelling. There are Japanese Maples, Cedars, Pines and Cherries, Chinese Willows, Black, White and Sacred Bamboos, mosses, a Golden Rain tree, a Tulip tree, an Iranian Honey Locust, an Indian Bean tree, Cacti, Magnolias, tropical looking ferns and others I haven't even begun to identify yet.

I am sure we would have left London before we keeled over and died but the combination of circumstances, and finding a house that we weren't even looking for, means that anyone viewing this blog will now be inundated with photographs of plants. So if you don't like the colour green, look away now.....

Friday, 16 August 2013

Dublin Revisited

It's a long time since I was last in Dublin - 15 years to be precise. As a consequence I missed the Celtic tiger thing completely although the difference in the price of everything since I was last here was pretty shocking. Nevertheless, Dublin is still an absolutely great city and I think its recent financial shenanigans have given it a renewed edge that suggests a resurgence of self reliance and a customarily ironic take on the recent past.

It's still doing very nicely out of the tourists and given the amount of bars featuring live traditional music there can't be a musician in the Dublin vicinity who is ever out of work. This is great although I personally don't want to spend every night in a bar listening to music. It's partly age but I have spent a lot of time over the years with assorted folkies and musicians so I can get my fix of Irish musical tradition from my MP3 player any time I like. I am also unlikely to go to the Leprechaun Museum and while I am happy to sample the products I don't need to go on the distillery and brewery tours either.

Perhaps the assumption that tourists know little, or are expecting a very particular experience, means there is a general confinement of national promotion to very predictable areas. Coming from the land of fish and chips-the queen-London bus I get easily frustrated with this kind of thing and am on the lookout everywhere for a more contemporary and innovative take on things.

Howth Beach County Dublin 

The universals of the natural environment and beauty of a landscape that doesn't really require much human intervention to sell is fine. It's all that other human stuff. So I was delighted to find a crossroads of back streets covered in murals celebrating the whole spectrum of Irish cultural icons. This means literary giants, musicians, political and popular personalities who have had an impact on Irish society, sporting heroes, thespians and a whole lot more. Sitting at the centre of the crossroads was the organisation responsible for this magnificent display - The Icon Factory

Like Francis Bacon (see below) this artist collective manages to cram a massive amount of stuff into a small space including T-shirts, coasters, mugs, magnets, jigsaws and prints featuring a huge variety of images by Irish artists each celebrating their heritage in their own unique way.

This project highlights a lot more than the enormous scale and quality of Irish cultural output. It provides a valuable service to its own residents by attempting to beautify these otherwise unremarkable streets in which someone noted there was 'a defecation problem'. The first time I perused the murals there was the vague smell of the alley urinal but nothing out of the urban ordinary. The next time I went earlier in the day and got a sense of the parameters of the 'problem'. This really begs the question of where the public toilets are or are they only for the tourists on the main drag?

Up on Parnell Square is the Dublin City Gallery. Unusually for a gallery of this size the emphasis is on quality rather than quantity although the amount of stuff Francis Bacon crammed into his relocated studio covers both of these categories. The Bacon studio project was another real highlight. Rather than just recreate his working space there were screens with photographs and commentary on the contents of the studio. This was very well documented and put together and provided a fascinating and easy accessible insight into the man. The only problem was that only two of about eight possible screens seemed to be working.

The night before we left we went to the Abbey Theatre to see George Bernard Shaw's 1904 play Major Barbara. Still very relevant to the present in terms of the ethics of the arms trade and the compromises of both politics and faith, it featured a great set and several storming performances especially Paul McGann as Andrew Undershaft. The audience were unfortunately not as appreciative as they should have been but I think the problem was the conclusion of the play itself rather than the performances. Had  Major Barbara decided to maintain her idealism and deny pragmatism, status and acceptance of the inevitability of war I am sure the audience would have been on its feet....

Monday, 3 June 2013

Packed and ready to go

Here is the trunk all packed and ready to go. Everything that needs to be secure is secure (I hope!) and everything else can be tested and improvised on the road. When Annie and Anna come to pick it up later we just need to work out where and how the video will go and to do an unpack-display-repack rehearsal or two!

Friday, 31 May 2013

The contents and their challenges

So....  lining the case with maps and postcards was easy. In fact it took longer to come up with those ideas than it did to do the work...... actually that's a lie....  

Anyway before getting onto the main subject of this post - the contents of the trunk - I am happy to say that the third map arrived yesterday so here are a few pics of the fully lined case. Isn't it lovely?

The first thing I did in relation to contents was to scale down one of the components of my own installation in the original exhibition. The suitcase full of keys has shrunk to the size of an old cigar box and has also been modified to harmonise it with the case and to slightly expand its conceptual remit.

All the other contents of the trunk were provided so it was just a matter of working out where and how they were going to go. This has been the most difficult part of the exercise. Helen Omand's fragile cradle and Penze and Fiore's figurines in particular needed to be presented in such a way that did them justice but also gave them a lot of protection.

After lots of thinking there was a eureka moment as I remembered the delightful shop fittings, displays and accessories store that I used to frequent on Seven Sisters Road. Paid a visit and right by the door as I walked in was the answer......

Not only was this item perfect in terms of display function and size it was also half price which I knew would make the Something Human team very happy indeed. Will fix everything safely in the display case and also fix the case securely in the trunk today and post results later.

There are two other content challenges. John Clang's has been resolved by fixing an old radio aerial inside the lid of the trunk and draping his photos over it. This has several benefits. The photos can be seen from both sides, the aerial effectively creates another space / dimension to the whole spectacle and it can be neatly retracted when the trunk is on transit.

The other challenge of how to display Gloria Houng's prints may be irresolvable in the short term. However, this just means that the travelling team will have to transport and display them separately until we find a longer term solution.

I will leave you with this little abstraction....

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Maps and postcards, velcro and glue

After the initial experimentation with arrangements I emptied the trunk and using a combination of maps and Nina Feldman's postcards, covered some of the flat interior spaces. Rather than put up  whole maps, I cut them into strips and reassembled them in a grid to make things more interesting.

Despite measuring I didn't account sufficiently for overlap so ended up getting through the two maps I originally thought I would need pretty quickly. I did manage the cover the vertical lid and one of the vertical interior sections. There's another map in the post so will complete the other sections when it arrives.

I arranged some of Nina's postcards so that they covered the entire base of the trunk. This was great! I really enjoyed having the chance to look closely at all these images of Victoria Roads around the world in a way that I didn't have time for during the original exhibition. The effect is good too.

I think I have to remark already that this project would not be possible without glue and lots of Velcro. The Velcro is particularly useful - it not only enables everything to stay in place during transit but also allows for future options. All the decorated surfaces on the floor, lid and sides of the trunk are removable thanks to 25m of this.... :)

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

First Steps - Preparing the trunk

Before starting to pack there was a lot of thinking.

The main conceptual (or was it aesthetic?) challenge was harmonising the trunk in a way that made it a completely new project whilst seamlessly integrating as much of the essence of the original exhibition as possible.

The main logistical challenge was ensuring that the contents of the trunk, once definitively arranged,  would be secure enough to be thrown around, possibly on conveyor belts and planes, without moving, breaking or damaging the interior of the harmonised trunk.

When Annie delivered the trunk and most of the exhibition contents to my studio we were able to talk about possibilities and also play around a little with arrangements. The case itself, with its separate compartments, hanging area and internal covers dictated the initial possibilities. However, as soon as the red silk dress from Penzo and Fiore's piece in the original show was on its hanger we had a great focal point from which the internal arrangement of the trunk began to flow.

And that was how we got the first picture:

Thursday, 23 May 2013

WITH(OUT) is going On The Road...

WITH(OUT) was the great little exhibition curated by Something Human at the Brockspace last December which I both participated in and reviewed (see review here).

Well.... it's going on the road and the curatorial team of Something Human have asked me to prepare it for the journey. In essence it is the entirety of the WITH(OUT) exhibition condensed into a big travelling trunk which will be presented like a theatrical installation. In keeping with the nature of all journeys it will not only take things with it but will inevitably pick other things up along the way.

The trunk and some of its contents (either modified or as presented in the original exhibition) were delivered to me a few days ago. I will start working fully on the project next week and will also be photo and text documenting the process and its challenges both here and on the Something Human WITH(OUT) blog.

In the meantime here is the awesome trunk ....

Friday, 7 December 2012


"I want people to know me first as an artist and then as a Palestinian"
Tayseer Barakat. 

This statement is one of sixteen projected onto the wall of the gallery at RICH MIX London, each representing one of the sixteen Palestinian artists included in this diverse and very well presented show.

I am actually a little surprised that this show curated by Aser Al Saqqa and Nicola Gray has not received more attention. Among the artists exhibited are several internationally renowned and prize-winning veterans of the Palestinian arts scene alongside younger artists. Collectively representing Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Diaspora this show is perhaps the closest semblance of a unified Palestinian state that is currently available. Otherwise it is probably best represented by Mohammed Musallam's Torn Map.

Mohammed Musallam  

It is particularly interesting that there are so many artists from Gaza - eleven in total with nine of these still based in Gaza itself. It is something to be celebrated that artists continue to live and work in Gaza despite the pincer movement of both internal and external pressure. Any sense of this humanising normality is now largely absent from public consciousness particularly when the recurring psychotic episodes of this 'war' are accompanied by an often word for word regurgitation of infantile media simplicities and lots of pics of blood and emotion.

Walking around a room in which that same reality is presented from within and in such a completely different way, is like taking a day trip to a parallel universe that is more intelligent, more reflective and always constructive. Getting involved in the movement and colour of Dina Mattar's bright, strong abstractions of nature, for example, is a very uplifting experience.

Dina Mattar 

Mohamed Abusal's succulent Sabr is another reminder that there is nature, beauty, texture and colour that exists in perpetuity and it is this aspect of his cactus that asserts primacy with its underlying symbolism in relation to Palestine a gently understated given.

Mohamed Abusal

The strength of the work from these two artists introduces nature as one of the thematic strands running through this show. Another is text but this too is used in very different ways. Majed Shala uses Arabic text, cut up and arranged in vertical forms on canvases layered with texture and vibrant colour.

Majed Shala 

These distinctive compositions suggest classical Arabic calligraphy while  undermining the form at the same time. Nabil Anani has taken the beauty of illuminated Quranic manuscripts to produce a mixed media work that sublimely presents this ancient art in a contemporary way.

Nabil Anani (Detail)

Mohammed Al Hawajiri's three works on paper in ink and acrylic also use text in a very contemporary and free flowing style, arranged either within or as accompaniment to other Palestinian symbols and motifs. Rana Bishara's urgently brush-stroked watercolours hint at text although the movement and the medium are the message. Rima Mozayan interprets traditional motifs and pattern in two small works that communicate a subtle atmosphere of delight.

Rima Mozayan

Another theme that comes through in this show is space or rather the lack of it, a reality acute in the Palestinian experience. However, Tayseer Barakat's The Camp, although essentially depicting the architectural density and claustrophobia of a refugee camp has a quiet earthy beauty as do Shareef Sarhan's series of four small also earthy toned abstractions called Washing Line.

Raed Issa's chunky and colourful sunlit houses covered in satellite dishes reflect not just a local but an increasingly recognisable experience of condensed city life.

Raed Issa

There is a definite absence of people in this show and that is perhaps defined best by Jawad Al Malhi's 2000 work, The Presence of Absence. This barely-there figure is nicely accompanied by Hosni Radwan's barely-there face.

Jawad Al Malhi and Hosni Radwan 

The Fisherman's Daughter by Nidal Abu Oun does feature a figure but in the context of a surreal and remarkable image which received a lot of attention from the audience. There was something about it that actually brought the early work of Bahraini surrealist Abdullah Al Muharraqi to mind.

Nidal Abu Oun

The only two artists whose work does feature human figures are Hani Zurob whose two powerful paintings are another highlight of the show and Mohammed Joha. Hani Zurob was supposed to be attending the Private View of DESPITE on December 6th. However, the UK is not a signatory to the Schengen agreement so despite the fact that he now lives in France and very obviously had a reason to visit the UK he was not granted a visa. This is a shame because not only is this the first time his work has been shown in London but Between Exits, a book about his work with text by Kamal Boullata was published in London in November! 

"What I try to do when I paint is to rewrite my life; I try to place myself as a witness of the situations and the events I experience. That’s why there are no boundaries between political matters and private stories in my work". 
Hani Zurob

Last but definitely not least is Mohammed Joha. One of his pieces Four Faces has been used in the publicity for this show and it was a treat to discover that there were three more. The two I particularly liked use a mixture of paint and collage so carefully that the only way I could tell what was collage and what was paint was to have a sneaky touch when no one was looking. Who I am is a bold and dramatic Palestinian film noire contained within a a single frame. I loved it. 

Mohammed Joha

Equally impressive but for different reasons is What's behind the wall. In both of these works the medium and the story are perfectly interwoven and there are suggestions of all sorts of other cinematic and artistic preoccupations. I also loved the rusty blue car.... 

Mohammed Joha (Detail)

until December 28th