Category Archives: Exhibitions

Touring the Robinson Institute at Tate Britain

The filmmaker Patrick Keiller has recently joined our department (Geography at the Open University) as a visiting fellow.  As an introduction to the postgrads, a group of us met Patrick at Tate Britain in April for a guided tour of his current exhibition ‘The Robinson Institute’ in the expansive Duveen Gallery. Intended as an adjunct to his latest film, ‘Robinson in Ruins’ the exhibition is a selection of artworks, books and other objects that serve to illustrate themes from the film.

‘Robinson in Ruins’ was developed as an AHRC funded research project, of which the film was one of the outputs.  Patrick worked with a team of researchers, including Professor Emeritus Doreen Massey as part of the AHRC Landscape and Environment project. Patrick was interested in the themes of displacement and mobility in relationship to the English landscape and the film is a complex unpicking of ideas which span history, economics and geography. The film is characterised by Patrick’s static shots of the landscape which are accompanied by the actress Vanessa Redgrave elaborating complex historical, socio-political or economic anecdotes which relate to the landscape in question. For instance, an extended shot of a spider spinning its web is used to illustrate the origins of the current financial crisis.

The content of the exhibition is driven by Keiller’s desire to make connections within the film to its larger cultural influences. It is narrative based and is effectively a progression through the films main themes. Keiller had unprecedented access to the Tate collection and was able to use paintings, drawings and sculpture to illustrate and animate the various themes. His only constraints were the gallery space itself.  In the Duveen gallery, no nails could be used.  The curators got around this constraint by constructing large aluminium structures which display the chosen artworks in sections which span the length of the gallery.  The pieces of work, varying from Turners to large Andres Gursky photographs are broken up into themes which mirror sections from the film. The pairings throw up interesting juxtapositions: Ed Rucha’s ‘Mad Scientist’ of 1975 next to L.S. Lowry’s Industrial Landscape.

The exhibition has a decidedly scholarly emphasis, as excerpts from books including Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, Karl Polyani’s The Great Transformation and Jameson’s Seeds of Time. But Keiller’s references are expansive and also include copies of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the project’s namesake, as well as Tristram Shandy, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym  and Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Little Pig Robinson.  Copies of the books are displayed in vitrines in the middle of the gallery.

The guided tour was very much like an illustrated tour of the process of filmmaking itself and the film and the exhibition are inextricably linked. To understand the way Patrick’s mind works and the way he finds connections with political and social events in the landscape, take for example his comment when standing in front of the mock up of an oil pipeline marker: ‘from finding this oil pipeline in the countryside, it’s two thoughts away from the Iranian revolution’.

Keiller is a very deep thinker and while the exhibition helps to further illustrate the film, it is best viewed alongside the film. Having watched the film over a year ago, I, myself, could use another viewing.  The film itself is very complex and packed with information and similarly, my experience listening to Patrick explain his choices for the exhibition and how they related to the film was a slight sense of awe at his complexity of thought. But the themes of the exhibition seem particularly relevant to our current economic and environmental concerns even if the connections brought about in the exhibition are not immediately obvious.

The Robinson Institute is on display at Tate Britain until 14 October 2012

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Inspiration and Beuys’ Acorns

Last summer I spent an afternoon in the Surrey home of the artist duo Ackroyd and Harvey, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey. Our wide ranging conversation included discussions about their contributions to climate change art exhibitions, Earth Art of a Changing World  at the Royal Academy and PLATFORM’s C Words at the Arnolfini in Bristol, both held in late 2009. Heather and Dan have long been interested in the intersections between art and science and art and politics and have been vanguards among UK artists concerned with climate change. They are both alums of various Cape Farewell expeditions and Heather is a trustee of Tipping Point.

Dan and Heather infront of their grass wall in their front room

Their piece, Beuys’ Acorns is an ongoing project in which they collected hundreds of acorns, fallen to the ground from the original trees planted starting in 1982 in Kassel for Beuys’ project 7000 Oaks conceived for the art fair Documenta 7.They’ve subsequently planted the acorns and the sapling trees compose the work of art.  The work was shown as part of the Royal Academy Earth: Art of a Changing World exhibition in 2009-10. The exhibition serves as one of my case studies for my PhD research and it was for this reason I discussed the piece with Heather and Dan. In the following excerpt from our conversation, Heather and Dan explain various points of the piece’s genesis, which illuminates the tangled nature of the artistic process itself.

During our discussion, Heather attempted to unpick their original inspiration for Beuys’ acorns which was first shown at the Cube in Manchester as part of the Futuresonic Festival.  Heather says, ‘That piece of work was very much provoked I think from our participation in Tipping Point at Oxford… (although)… it’s quite difficult to disentangle how ideas evolve because they tend to be quite sticky and they tend to attach to a lot of different things that are wandering around in your head’.

Also, as part of the Manchester Festival, Heather had given a talk defending the position that art and politics cannot be separated along with the bigger question ‘can artists make a difference?’ which led them to consider the work of Joseph Beuys. The artists’ encounter with his work is longstanding. Dan recalled seeing a show of his in Venice over twenty years ago.  Heather also had a long acquaintance with Beuys’ work.  She told of dating a student in college who was ‘completely into Beuys’ and ‘he slept for two nights in the old pig pen- he was trying to re-enact a version of Beuys with his coyote.’ So for Heather, her awareness of Beuys comes from a rather ‘formative stage’, but according to her, ‘never really arrived fully feathered into my consciousness until four years ago.’  She goes on to say ‘what is delightful about the artistic process is that it’s never particularly linear, there are things that come out in quite a lateral way’.

This thought leads her to retell the influence of a book which was given to her as a gift from a friend with whom she was staying with in Tuscany.  ‘We had been to stay with some friends in Tuscany and they have a very beautiful olive grove that they’ve regenerated from a disused briar patch and they have lots of oak trees and Kathryn gave me two things as I left. She said ‘here’s some acorns and here’s this book that you have to read by Jean Giono called ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’.’ And on the train journey on the way back, I read the book. I thought it’s such a wonderful fable and it was really quite provocative. But what really seized my imagination was the afterward which was written by Jean Giono’s daughter.  He was commissioned by Readers Digest in America to write a piece about a character who was a local hero.  He was a fiction writer and wrote this fantastic story, sent it off to Readers Digest who said, fantastic, we really enjoy it. Readers Digest were following through all the various facts because I think every other author had given a real story and they came back to him and said ‘I can’t find any account of this guy’, and he said ‘well, you won’t, he doesn’t exist, he’s a figment of my imagination’. And they were really offended, they said ‘well what are you doing, you know you can’t do that.’ He said ‘I’m a writer, I write’. And they said they wanted it to be somebody real. Apparently it was a family joke and they all laughed mightily hard about it over their petit dejeuner in the morning. So he basically had this story and it didn’t see the light of day until he was approached by a German publishing house who said we’d like to publish some of your work, and he thought well I’ll give them this story, so he sent them this story and they published it. That was in the seventies and apparently it just caught off like wildfire and when I read that, in this little book. This is Jean Giono’s daughter, recounting this, it clicked. I thought, of course, that inspired Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Oaks. It just sort of became absolutely clear and at that point I said, ‘we’ve got to go and collect the acorns. We have to go and collect his acorns’. And that’s how it came about. We did more research into Joseph Beuys and his involvement in the German Green Party and his involvement just in terms of the way he spoke about the environment. So that was a real kind of epiphany, through reading that. So actually the divining moment came through a piece of literature. It’s fantastic. In fact that book has probably led to a huge amount of trees being planted worldwide. People turn around and say art doesn’t make a difference, and I say one hundred percent wrong, art can make a huge difference.’

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Craftsmanship in Chicago

On a brisk March afternoon as I was returning from Chicago’s MCA I found myself meandering down Oak Street, a small boutique filled thoroughfare which runs adjacent to Michigan Ave.  It was the last place I expected to find an art exhibition, well an exhibition of sorts.  As I passed one of the empty store fronts I was greeted by a doorman who inquired whether I would like to see an exhibition.  I was intrigued.  Quickly, I was ushered inside a disused shop floor.  I ascended a curving staircase to the first floor where I was met with groupings of various craftspeople clustered in colourful displays of scarves, handbags, watches and even saddles.  The exhibition was Hermes’ Festival des Metiers: A rendez-vous with Hermes craftsmen.  The majority of the craftspeople had flown in from Paris, and some from New York and were demonstrating the skill required in the creation of Hermes plethora of luxury goods.

I spoke with a watch craftsman who had spent 10 years with Hermes and he felt working for Hermes represented the pinnacle of quality in the watchmaking field and he exuded pride in his job.  There was a scarf maker demonstrating the scarf screen painting process, dressed in a white lab coat.  The scarves’ intricate patterns are achieved by multiple printings and it is an art to have the pattern aligned exactly to achieve the final design.  As I watched, the printing frame was misaligned, by perhaps a few millimetres, but as a consequence he said the entire scarf would have to be discarded.

Richard Sennett, in his book The Craftsman points out that this quest, the quality-driven nature of the pursuit, is what distinguishes the craftsman from the everyday worker.  Not only did I see pride in their work on display by these craftspeople expressed pure joy.  Nadine, the woman whose job it was to transfer the scarves patterns onto the screens, and was characteristic of all the craftspeople at the exhibition, spoke enthusiastically about the process exuding enthusiasm and pleasure in the work she does.

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A night on the couch at the Barbican

Last Thursday, I traded my usual Milton Keynes Gallery Scratch night activities for an evening ‘On the Couch’ at the Barbican Surreal House exhibition.  I’ve always had a lot of time for Surrealism.  The first piece of art work to really transfix me was a painting by Rene Magritte which I remember sitting and staring at for a long time in a gallery in Sydney as a teenager.  I therefore look forward to any exhibition on surrealism with particular interest.

There were two events I attended at the Barbican Thursday night on the topic of Freud and Surrealism.  The first was a talk by Independent curator James Putnam who has curated a number of exhibitions with contemporary artists at the Freud Museum in Hampstead, including exhibits with Sophie Calle, Sarah Lucas and Mat Collishaw.  There was then an hour break to look through the exhibition.  Even an hour seemed a bit rushed for me to see the entire exhibition.  The ‘hook’ with this particular exhibition is the idea of the ‘house’, and the house as a metaphor in psychoanalysis for the mind.  There is a particularly impressive piano installation entitled Concert for Anarchy by Rebecca Horn which the exhibition guide describes as being ‘reminiscent of an airborne castle and is principal among the phantoms of the house.’ This had an interesting relevance for me considering a recent performance I attended at MKGallery staged by their current artist Giorgio Sadotti where the French whip cracker Fanny Tourette attacked a grand piano in the Middle Gallery.  I’m not quite sure what to make of these two different uses of pianos, but both certainly left an impression.

The main performance that evening was by recent Booker long listed novelist Tom McCarthy’s avant-garde performance group the International Necronautical Society (INS).  The group is described as creating ‘vehicles for interventions in the space of art, fiction, philosophy and media’ and create ‘manifestos, proclamations, reports, broadcasts, hearings, inspectorates, departments, committees and sub-committees.’  The evening’s performance was a hearing by the INS commission on Crypts: Architecture, Neurosis and Death.  Its panel included Tom McCarthy, the INS General Secretary, and two external assessors, novelist Chloe Aridjis and scholar Richard Martin.  They ‘heard testimony’ from architect Patrick Lynch and psychoanalyst Darian Leader.

What proceeded was essentially a panel discussion: two presentations by the architect and psychoanalyst giving evidence and then questioned by the panellists.  Taking the standard form of a panel discussion, the INS transformed this well known form into a performance.  But I struggle to see what the artifice of applying the interrogation tactics, or evidence gathering added to this particular talk.  To be fair, the venue didn’t help to create the ambience of a serious commission gathering evidence.  Cramped into the foyer of the exhibition, the discussion was often interrupted by crowds gathering outside the gallery having drinks, laughing and talking loudly.  The two hearing monitors, dressed in navy suits, severe hair styles and red lipstick gave the air of gravity attendant to the proceedings.  But by conducting an interrogation, the role of the audience became slightly unclear.  Were we to be silent observers? Was this the type of commission which under the circumstances created by their artifice would normally be done behind closed doors? By taking on this form, the audience wasn’t encouraged to participate or ask questions at the end. Rather, the performance/interrogation ended and Tom said, ‘well we can all now go get a drink.’

I liked the idea of playing with the form of the panel discussion.  It made it unique and memorable.  Perhaps taken with the INS’s other activities this particular commission’s performance would become more clear. But, it did make me question the relationship between panellists and audience members in panel discussions. I’ve concluded that while applying these different techniques to make the discussion into more of a performance, this can add interest for the audience members. However, if it’s not well explained it can actually distance audience members from the panellists and the proceedings. The audience likes to feel it has a stake in what’s going on, and be allowed to share their views.  If they’re not invited to participate then the unique dynamics of panellists and audience members learning and sharing with one another is lost.

Links:

Tom McCarthy: ‘To ignore the avant-garde is akin to ignoring Darwin (Guardian)

Welcome to the mad house: A monument to the world of the surreal (Independent)

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Representing the unrepresentable

The French sociologist Bruno Latour gave the keynote address at this month’s Tate Britain’s symposium Beyond the Academy: Research as Exhibition. His address considered the environmental crisis as a particular challenge which would require natural history, art museums and academia to join forces. The challenge, he said, was that “climate change is currently unrepresentable”.

In an effort to address this, Latour has embarked on a number of projects. One is the School of Political Arts at the Sciences Po in Paris. The school, which will be formally launched this year, will bring together young professionals in the social sciences and arts to attempt to represent the political problem of climate change. Latour says the school will “not join science, art and politics together, but rather disassemble them first and, unfamiliar and renewed, take them up again afterwards, but differently.”

Latour is also working on establishing a new type of Biennale in Venice, which will incorporate social scientists into artistic production. By bringing together social scientists and artists, Latour wants to address these issues in new ways. He expressed interest in Avatar, calling it the first ‘Gaia’ film, beginning this task of rethinking the ecological crisis and exploring ways of making it representable.

His engagement with climate change includes his participation in the Nordic Exhibition of the year Rethink: Contemporary Art and Climate Change which was staged in Copenhagen during COP15. He contributed to the Rethink exhibition catalogue with the essay “It’s Development, Stupid” Or: How To Modernize Modernization. It is a response to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Break Through – From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. In this essay, Latour argues that the separation of the subjective from the real into dichotomies such as ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ must end. In order to begin to tackle the challenges we are facing, we must acknowledge just how closely human and nature are entwined. He has given a lecture on ‘Politics and Nature’ at the Rethink The Implicit venue at the Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art.

Latour spent most of his Tate talk discussing two of his previous exhibition projects which combined the talents of artists and social scientists. Both exhibits were produced with Peter Weibel at ZKM Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. The first, Iconoclash (2002), which brought together a team of curators, including Hans Ulrich Obrist from the Serpentine Gallery, examined how iconoclasts are represented in art, religion and science. The second, Making Things Public, partnered artists with social scientists to create individual exhibits. The exhibition was centred on a number of themes: Assembling or Disassembling; Which Cosmos for which Cosmopolitics; The Problem of Composition; From Objects to Things; From Laboratory to Public Proofs; The Great Pan is Dead!; Reshuffling Religious Assemblies; The Parliaments of Nature. The exhibition sought to materialise the concept of a ‘Parliament of Things’.

Latour conceptualised his exhibitions as thought experiments, but found the exhibitions themselves to be failures, saying that most of the individual projects within the exhibition failed as works of art. The books that accompanied the exhibitions, in particular, Making Things Public, a large book created after the exhibition, were more successful.

This was one of the themes that emerged from the day at Tate: whether certain exhibitions work better as books. Latour said that working on exhibitions has been one of the most interesting parts of his academic life. Exhibitions, he said, have a different rhythm and intensity of work and creating the ‘thing in the space’ adds to intellectual life. But creating an exhibition must be different to writing. When exhibitions merely illustrate a point, no gain is made.

Latour’s interests have now moved towards ecology and the role of the arts in representing our environmental challenges and the need for artists and social scientists to collaborate on these issues. He said he himself is writing a play on climate change.

This piece was previously published as a guest blog post on Ashdenizen (http://ashdenizen.blogspot.com/2010/05/representing-unrepresentable.html).

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