The Tanks’ Aura

Last April, I finally visited the Tanks at Tate Modern and came back enthralled. When some thought that the ubiquitous plain white cubic space of art galleries could not be stripped down to a more minimalist decor, Tate tears the plaster-and-paint flesh from the walls, exposing the bare stout bones of its foundations.

In spite of the desolate and austere visual quality of the surrounding, with small flights of stairs going from an inaccessible overhanging platform to cemented doorways, there is an aura of dignity and welcoming warmth, as if those stern walls and pillars watched over you from the height of their old age and wisdom. While these structures are certainly imposing, there is nothing intimidating about the place. Indeed, the quiet atmosphere leaves you with a feeling of peace.

Although the appreciation of concrete as the final material in its own right is nothing new, other raw pieces of architecture such as Le Corbusier’s or the Arche de la défense (the foundations of which can also be visited) rarely give such a mighty aura, especially on such a small scale.

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Chocolate, Lard and Tea

Ai WeiWei’s A Ton of Tea, recently exhibited in Bristol, conjures up Chocolate Gnaw and Lard Gnaw (1992) by Janine Antoni. Although the two pieces address different topics, they coul be perceived as following the same metaphorical discourse, with Ai’s work retrospectively expanding on the interpretation of Antoni’s.

In an interview with MoMA, Antoni explains that “[Chocolate] seemed to embody desire for the viewer, and what happens if you succumb to that desire? You get fat. So I used fat as the material to make the second cube … The lard will begin as a cube and as the exhibition goes on, it will collapse on to the floor”. By extension, her cubes could be read as a comment on consumerism, saturation of greed overindulgence and the eventual collapse of capitalism.

As if following in Antoni’s steps, Ai’s A Ton of Tea “makes reference to post-war art history and globalisation, through the humble substance of tea, China’s oldest export” (caption), thus alluding to today’s economy, with the Sleeping Giant now waking up to take over in the lead.

Photos of Antoni’s work: foodforanimals.com, batcountryx.blogspot.com
Photo of Ai’s work: my own

What do You Want to See?

Art is about to compete with marketing, or indeed take centre stage in our streets, as many commercial posters will be replaced by prints of artworks all around the UK for two refreshing weeks.

From the 21st June (tomorrow), the Art Everywhere project will open its virtual polling station to the broad public. By voting for your favourite 50 British artworks, this is your chance to influence what we see around the country between 10th and 25th August, making a visual difference to our urban landscape. As there will be tens of thousands of such posters, this will turn the UK into “the world’s largest art gallery”.

This is free, so get involved and get voting!

The Beguiling of Merlin, by Edward Burne-Jones

The Beguiling of Merlin, by Edward Burne-Jones

Photo: wikipaintings.org

A Fading Jewel on the Emerald Coast

Rothéneuf, a village near St Malo in Brittany, France, is among those enigmatic coastal spots where the well-polished boulders have given way to a transfixed colony of people and animals.

From 1894 to 1910, abbé Fouré, a local priest who became partly paralysed and deaf at the age of 30, sculpted the rocks into a semi chaos reminiscent of Easter Island silhouettes, fallen gargoyles and bas-relief. Mostly inspired by the news, he portrayed real people, some of whom are famous. (Jacques Cartier, who was born at Rothéneuf, is thought to be represented twice on the site.) A few animals and strange creatures also appear in places.

The monumental and extravagant display evokes a creative delirium, mixing the fun and fantastic of the setting and odd creatures with an element of meditation with the motionless characters forever contemplating the sea.

Over a century later, the ebb and flow of 40,000 pairs of feet a year have added to the erosion of this once colourful crowd to the point of endangering the art work’s existence. The association Les Amis de l’œuvre de l’abbé Fouré was founded in 2010 to campaign for the preservation of the site.

(The 8th June is World Oceans’ Day.)

Photos: gardenvisit.com, trivago.co.uk

Void Fuller than Matter

The ethereal character of Oriental art is not simply an aesthetic taste: it has a spiritual dimension. In Buddhism, every object or being is part of the cosmic whole, connected by an omnipresent energy that resides as much in physical things as in the empty space around them (Ma in Japanese) and in the silence. The invisible and the secrets space and silence contain hold more truth than the limited reality we can see, touch or hear.

Hence, Oriental landscape paintings are far from empty to the Buddhist viewer. The mountains and trees are not the focus of the picture; the apparent void between them is. The lightly silhouetted elements are only meant to outline the infinite surrounding space, this universal energy that wraps all things – the Ma – as the focus of meditation towards Enlightenment.

The still and vaporous landscapes of the East evoke the contemplation of Truth and Reality beyond the material, unlike the comparatively heavy, cluttered paintings of the West, which, by contrast, seem so devoid of spiritual meaning.

Landscape by Watanabe Shiko, 1683-1755

Photo: brooklynmuseum.org

Awesome or Gruesome?

In philosophy, literature or the arts broadly speaking, death has always been a source of irresistible awe, fascination and mystery. In early 19th-century Britain, the taste for the Sublime and the Gothic Revival were all the rage and the alternative 1980s music stage saw another darkly inspired generation in the New Romantics and the so-called Goths. Whatever the fashion of the day, the Gothic spirit haunts us as much as death looms.

The gruesome has its place in the world of aesthetics. We stare at the strange, however disturbing, trying to make sense of what is in front of us and what is happening inside of us. It calls our attention, poking at some uncomfortable, taboo instinct connecting us to a basic, feral reality. Art portrays – and communicates – emotions first and foremost, not necessarily – and certainly not exclusively – pleasant or possibly decorative visual qualities. In Gauguin’s words, “Le laid peut être beau, le joli, jamais.” (The ugly can be beautiful, the pretty cannot.)

Gothic art doesn’t temper the wind to the shorn lamb. For all its vanity, it bluntly reminds us that we may not be as sophisticated or civilised as we like to think. Nor are we immune to death and decay, regardless of what medical science tries to prove (through animal testing and other gruesome forms of experiments on other creatures) or what straw the ego of those who crave eternal fame clutches at.

While some spend their life fighting or denying the inevitable, many also choose to face the greatest of human fears and embrace the intrigue and macabre beauty of the unknown.

(Centre Pompidou in Paris is hosting an exhibition on Mike Kelley until 5th August 2013.)

Photos: newarteditions.com, thefoxisblack.com, bombsite.com, willardswormholes.com, onlyhdwallpapers.com, wall.alphacoders.com

The Answer to “Who Am I?”

Up to the late 19th century, a person’s identity was defined by external factors such as their family background, gender and job. Then psychoanalysis turned the “who am I?” question inwards, changing our self-perception from a mere piece that must fit in the social jigsaw to a unique being with buried secrets. The new search for the subconscious inspired artists of the early 20th century to explore spontaneity as a new technique, leading to the wildest forms of abstraction that the world had seen to date and which cannot be surpassed in their radical break from the past.

Gone were the days of objective representation. The Surrealists embraced Freud’s theory, experimenting with automatic writing, painting and drawing (Masson, Miró), then in turn inspired the Action Painters (Pollock, Kline and de Kooning) and Tachists (Soulages, Mathieu). Creating was now all about the direct manifestation of the subconscious pouring out on to the canvas – to the amazement or contempt of viewers to this day.

Although the lack of structure and coherence of such works may not appeal to all, early 20th-century abstraction has undeniably and irreversibly broken the restrictive barriers of the conventional and predictable while celebrating freedom and individuality wholeheartedly.

Photos: musee-lam.fr, atlantidezine.itsurrealismfall2012

Beautifying the Mundane

Any intricately decorated item produced more than a century ago is likely to be relegated to a museum as an object of curiosity, however mundane its actual nature. Whereas nowadays the ornamental is seen as superfluous and sentimental, manufacturers and designers used to give their products a decorative dimension, bringing subtle beauty to people’s everyday life, with a sense of worth and dignity emanating from every object.

The 20th century’s utilitarian approach, reinforced by a disposable mentality, swept away the act of creating, banishing those little treasures from our daily lives, as though modernity demanded that we be insensitive to beauty.  The cold, cheap but not so cheerful, style of mass production culminated with a taste for the industrial, with designers anticipating the year 2000 with a sci-fi obsession, sterilising our homes and urban landscapes with ubiquitous slabs of grey stone, stainless steel and almost Gigeresque atmospheres.

This trend has since softened in favour of warmer materials and colours, although the ornamental has not quite re-entered our day-to-day surroundings yet. If we can dismiss the impression of frivolity often attributed to decorated objects, we can start to appreciate again an old form of applied art that has the power to brighten up our dull modern existence.

Photos: nationalgeographic.com, home.earthlink.net, kittyandmedesigns.blogspot.co.uk, antiquetrader.com, jansantiques.com

From Infinity to Infinity

From the ornamental to the spiritual, and from the smallest organic structure on Earth to the Milky Way and beyond, the spiral is the most enduring and widespread pattern ever designed by humans and the powers that be alike.

Swirling ad infinitum between the tiniest point and the confines of the universe, the spiral encompasses both the greatest and the smallest and may symbolise the creative force behind the universe and all forms of life (Taoism), the infinite cycle of time (Celtic tradition) or the vortex of destruction or transformation (many painters since the early 19th century).

It is noteworthy that the visionary power that the spiral has always inspired precedes the microscopes and telescopes that have enabled us to find it all around us in more recent centuries, as if our vision of the cosmos was guided by some spiritual instinct. Indeed, true to its symbolic status, this never-ending pattern has been found in numerous (all?) civilisations regardless of time or geography, from as far back as the Palaeolithic (see photo of carved antlers in a previous post) to today, even if only as a mere ornamental form. There is something universal about the spiral that we never seem to tire of.

If the spiral is the leitmotiv of human imagination, it is also the leitmotiv of Creation, thus perpetuating its own myth until the end of time.

Photos: nasa.gov, chezledilettante.blogspot.co.uk, taiwantoday.tw, ditzydruid.com, gelaskins.com, commons.wikimedia.org

“International” Art English – but not Universal

Translating texts about art, especially those intended for the media, can be challenging, not just because of the specific terminology (as with any specialist area) but also because some texts can be as abstract as contemporary art itself. Art speak, or “International Art English” (IAE), is unmistakably elitist: you are meant to understand that the person talking or writing is an initiate – whether they genuinely are or not, and whether their use of IAE is apropos, is another matter.

Predictably, IAE relies heavily on French vocabulary – what better language to draw an aura of philosophical intellectualism from! – with long Latin words that express absolute concepts suitably detached from the mundane. Just like modern art, it’s conceptual. You get it and you’re part of the club, or you don’t and you’re not.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that everyone involved with the arts wallows in this abstruse language. Partisans of the grandiloquent clique are far outnumbered by those striving towards the democratisation of art. Many – if not most – of those working in the field are as aloof to IAE as anybody else, or use it, like some translators, simply because it is part of the job.

Having said that, we should be grateful to the IAE speakers, especially to the true art lovers amongst them who can afford to commission or buy art as, without them and their common posthumous donation of entire collections to the public, there would be very little art to see. As for me, I relish the challenge of getting my teeth into some seriously abstract text and re-creating an equally obscure translation whenever the chance presents itself.

Duchamp and his Fountain

Duchamp – anti-art attitude à la French

Photo: portlandart.net