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.


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


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


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.)


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.


“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


Art Over Civilisation

The “Ice Age – arrival of the modern mind” exhibition at the British Museum in London is proof that there is much more to art than mere depiction of our surrounding or visual pleasure. Something innate in the act of creating beyond the immediacy of survival and practicality is fundamentally linked to humans, as indeed art precedes the advent of agriculture and civilisation in our evolution.

The creativity, attention to detail and imagination demonstrated by Palaeolithic art is undeniable, particularly in the case of decorated antlers: some of these implements bear pictures that cannot be seen whole at a glance from one angle. (The fourth picture below shows the modern cast of such a carving “unrolled”.) Abstract patterns were less common but no less sophisticated, revealing an appreciation of beauty and a wish to apply it to functional objects too.

While we can but speculate as to the intentions and significance behind early Homo Sapiens art, many of these small and delicate pieces look so contemporary in style that we cannot fail to feel connected to our ancestors, as if the essence of our human nature had never changed: the urge to create, explore and experiment has spurred us on through the ages and has never left us.

(For a report on genetic research into our urge to explore and take risks, the article “Restless Genes” in the National Geographic January issue may be of interest.)


Art Without Pictures

With visual representation being considered an attempt to compete with Allah’s power of creation, the ornamentation of the Koran was restricted to plants and abstract designs only. Calligraphy therefore took centre stage to bring beauty to the page. Through the dissemination of the Koranic texts, calligraphy in the 8th or 9th century became a form of art in itself as well as a key aspect of the Islamic art tradition. In the Middle Ages, calligraphic expertise was even deemed a princely virtue.

The Koran being the direct revelation of Allah’s words, the accuracy and clarity of the written word were of the highest importance. However, since Arabic script only records consonants, dots and diacritic marks were introduced in Koranic manuscripts as vowels to ensure the correct reading and identification of words and to facilitate the pronunciation.

With centuries of mutual influence shared with the Far East and the West, the depicting of people and animals gradually became acceptable in secular context, although 3D effects such as shadows were not. However, the second half of the 20th century saw a major endeavour towards a revival of the Islamic art tradition and calligraphy regained prominence as a characteristic element of the Islamic visual culture. Arabic letters have since been transformed into a modern visual language through various styles: purely calligraphic compositions, combination of calligraphy and figurative motifs or even complete abstract use of individual elements of scripts.

Today, artists create their own calligraphic style and many combine it with other abstract elements, using the visual aspect of the written word to symbolise what other cultures picture more directly and figuratively. The strong return of letters and words from the Islamic tradition has thus created a leit-motif through past and present in the Islamic culture.

Photos: Bottle and table taken at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery,,,

Reading Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal art is often referred to by their authors as “stories”. The focus of a composition is not on realistic visuals but on the relationship between the various elements of the story. As the pictures are traditionally drawn in the sand, the scene is seen from above and can be viewed from any angle. Consequently a painting does not equate to a snapshot, i.e. a frozen specific moment perceived from a single human viewpoint, but rather it relays movement and activities unfolding over a period of time and within a space, presented from an external viewpoint.

Elements are arranged according to a sequence of events and may appear several times, or there may be footprints or lines representing a person’s or an animal’s track. As the viewpoint is from above, clouds may be found everywhere in a picture and rain may run horizontally amongst them as it floods the land to eventually form rivers. A black strip on the edge of the picture, a semi-circle on the opposite edge, and elements of life (people, animals, trees, etc.) may simply represent a scene at dawn as the night on one side is being pushed away by the sun on the other, revealing a special place in the middle. Thus paintings may also be maps rather than stories as they contain items from a particular location that Aborigines of the same community will recognise instantly.

It is important to appreciate that Australian Aborigines are very tactile and their paintings are therefore meant to be touched as much as looked at. When an artist explains his work or  tells his story using his picture by way of illustration, he will touch the painting but not necessarily look at it as he speaks. This may explain why aboriginal cave art and painting on shields do not result so much from the application of pigments but from chipping into the support, thus creating a 3D effect.

Because this art tradition has been passed on over 30,000 years, it can sometimes include elements of the last Ice Age in Australia such as prehistoric animals and humans that preceded Aboriginal occupation. Hence Aboriginal art tells stories as much as Aboriginal history and legends.

Photos:,, freemanproject

Visual Language

Just as we cannot help but notice a human form anywhere, we cannot ignore written words either. Our attention is naturally drawn to and focuses on letters. For this reason, language can be used as a powerful tool by visual artists.

In context, words create boundaries around concepts, whereas out of context, they open up to different interpretations – they make us stop and wonder. Unlike adverts that bombard us with snappy slogans and clichés anchored in a materialistic, predictable reality, art can use language in the most abstract forms. Rather than defining concepts and restricting our thoughts, words become concepts themselves. As in Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (1928), language becomes a key part of the art work and challenges us to look at things differently.

Artists may also play with words to poke our imagination and push us out of our mental rut. For instance, the connection between the words in La Brea/Art Tips/Rat Spit/Tar Pits (1972) by Bruce Nauman may not be immediately apparent, but as we notice that three pairs of words are anagrams of each other and learn that ‘La Brea’ is the Spanish for tar pit, we start to appreciate the linguistic fun of the work. In the case of The Final End (1992) by Edward Ruscha, the shy words “The End”, blurred and hidden behind tall grass, lack the assertiveness of the double assertion of the title, the tautology of which is in itself enigmatic: how many ends can there be?

Language as abstract material leaves us wondering, offering no answers, encouraging us to go beyond our usual mental boundaries.

Photos: , my own, Tate