Thursday, 28 June 2012


National Portrait Gallery until Sept 23

'...the search for portraits that can astonish with their virtuosity  is balanced with the desire to find those  that demonstrate real human dignity and integrity', said Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, talking of this year's BP Portrait Award. Auntie is the painting which won  First Prize (£25,000).

Does it 'astonish'? I think it does. It breaks every rule about how women should be seen in public. Life-sized portraits are often of queens and empresses, landowners and savants, clothed in the splendour which reflects their importance. Artists and servant girls are also dressed to tell us what they are. Women's  bodies, when shown naked, are almost without exception young and idealised, either to make them fit for pornography or to transform them into 'nudes' to reflect the  traditions of that particular genre of painting.
And does the subject demonstrate 'human dignity and integrity'? I can only say that this is a woman I would like to meet.  She radiates warmth and strength, she is unpretentious, she accepts our presence as viewer without embarrassment and without fear.

The work is beautifully painted, the colour and tone never for one moment faltering, never dishonest.

The artist says 'The fact that she has known me since birth is extremely important. Her body is a map of her journey through life'.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012



This is a delicate and fragile sculpture: a shroud made of thousands of rose petals, neither fresh nor withered, but connected to each other in a suspended state which changes with time. When I saw it, it lay in unruly folds, almost covering the gallery floor, an unhealthy liverish colour, which reminded me of skin -  and then of flayed skin.

Salcedo, who is Columbian, is an unsettling artist. You can still see the scar left by her eerie manipulation of familiar places and ordinary things if you look down at the concrete floor of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Shibboleth 2007 was the long meandering crack which ran through the Hall and seemed to push the building apart, summoning up fun and intrigue and, for some, where-is-the-Health-and-Safety-officer?

 I first came across her work when I saw at Tate Modern Untitled 1998, a wardrobe filled with cement with a wooden chair poking through. It felt like revenge on all the anxieties wardrobes cause us: the secrets hidden at the bottom (Christmas presents for the children, pornography); the mirrors which ask you if you are too old or too fat; its magic which might whisk you off to C.S. Lewis' Narnia or suffocate you with a lock which snaps shut.

 She often bears witness to violence and on the floor below Piegaria Muda (mute prayer) is an installation evoking a mass memorial or collective burial site, which she began in Los Angelos after researching the violent life of young people in the city. Her magic is sinister, secretive. A crack through which we glimpse another world.

A Flor de Piel developed as the simple but impossible task of making a flower offering to a victim of torture.

Thursday, 21 June 2012


.ICA GALLERY  until 16 September 

   The first problem is that sound art is invisible, so this image is a merely a sketch of a New York gallery where DAYS was installed some time ago.  The British premiere is at  the ICA (Institute of Contemorary Arts) in the Mall, accessible now only from Trafalgar Square.   Which is itself another problem.  Acres and acres of roads and parks in central London are cordoned off .  There are so many pedestrian diversions I despair of reaching any of the three galleries I've targetted. Some pavements are so crowded I need to  look carefully before taking the next step.  Buses stand nose to tail along Whitehall.   The Olympics are coming to town!
You walk between 14 flat panel speakers to hear Nauman's award-winning work, experiencing  the sound of a continous stream of 7 voices coming from 14 flat panel speakers reciting the days of the week in random order. The days crash into each other, empty and meaningless. Is this art?

Nauman always invites us to see the bare stuff of life in a new way, to fashion sound into 'art' in our own heads. At first I reflected on the way we chop time up into segments, label them, dismiss some and pour great significance into other bits and pieces. And how we live as if we own or  'have' time: time to use or waste or give away. But we only ever have the present moment, the 'now', each unique second, this moment when I am writing this sentence - and you are reading it.
But there's another dimension. I'm alone in the gallery. Sun streams through the windows from the Mall where I can see flags fluttering, JCBs loitering, and piles of gleaming barriers stacked and waiting for action.  Out there there's been a collective decision to create Olympic time - Special Time, Liminal Time - when life's ordinary rules do not apply.

I climb several flights of stairs to a place where, I'm told, I can encounter over a hundred artists, some of whom have been working with sound for many years, others new to sonic art. The gallery consists of a room empty except for a comfortable wide rectangular black bench in the centre. In the centre of that is sunk a screen rather like an I Pad. Stroke it and up comes an index of names. Select one and touch: hey presto the artist's work is there in the room with you.The project, entitled SOUNDWORKS, is a virtual exhibition space, a place to sample a wide range of audible approaches. You should be able to hear them on the dedicated SOUNDWORKS microsite at as well as in the ICA galleries.