Wednesday, 27 August 2014


SAATCHI GALLERY: New Art from Africa and Latin America 

Nothing prepares you for this. 
Catalogue in hand, you skim through wondering where to start. You have 15 galleries to choose from.
Resin, Fibre Glass, Madera, Screen Cotton, Cuerda Arenas, Cerrejón Coal         Body:50 x 20 x 50; Legs 90 x 50 cms

You glance up and catch sight of Casa Tomada far away at the end of  Gallery 1. You walk towards it. There are ants on the wall. You go nearer. Their bodies are made by assembling  two human skull casts,  as if the Columbian-born artist Rafael Gomezbarros were attempting to summon death into life. This image captures the view at the far end of the gallery. One giant ant is bad enough, a few are manageable, but this thick encrusted cluster is not for the faint-hearted.
Photo from the Guardian 26.3.2014
Why ants? Inside our house we rush to destroy them. Flying ants disturb our picnic. But stumbling across a colony of ants on  a woodland walk,we stop to admire their ingenuity, discipline and persistence; their ability to modify habitats, tap resources, and defend themselves.  Mysteriously they appear to organise a division of labour, to communicate with one another and solve complex problems.

In Casa Tomada Rafael Gomezbarros is reminding us of the plight of millions of displaced immigrants who are constantly crossing the planet in search of asylum. In particular the artist has in mind Columbian casualities resulting from the armed conflict which has torn through the country in the last 50 years. But the work resonates with what is happening  elsewhere. Even in peaceful countries there are often daily reminders of the desperation - even death - locked inside when some trans-continent container or overcrowded boat lands on their shores.
Gomezbarros' ants have the capacity to take over national monuments. He has deployed them on or inside historical buildings such as Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino – the haçienda where Simón Bolívar spent his final days – as well as Barranquilla’s customs building. The work has been shown all over the world since 2007.

The image above, together with other striking ones, comes from

Casa Tomada  is the title of a short story by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar, in which  a large mansion and those in it are invaded by elusive presences, only known by muted sounds. Cortázar wrote:
'unless a country buries the dead, there will always remain ghosts in the attic'. 


I walked across a sun-drenched Hyde Park one morning anticipating not one, but two treats. It didn't quite turn out like that.

The first sign that something was wrong was a queue spread along the railings approaching the Serpentine Gallery. A long and patient queue, hoping to take part in Marina Abramovic's performance art 512 Hours, specially created for the Serpentine Gallery. Her only materials are herself, a few simple props and visitors who become the performing body, participating in what has been described as 'an exceptional moment in the history of performance art'.

 Over 100,000 people attended in the 11-week run and sadly I wasn't one of them.The queue was shuffling forward very slowly. I couldn't wait.

A few yards away across the lawn of Kensington Gardens is this year's Serpentine Pavilion designed by Smiljan Radic. It's a translucent pod of glass-reinforced plastic, poised on top of large sandstone boulders.  One reviewer called it “a collision between an extraterrestrial egg and a Neolithic burial site.” 

These are the reasons why I draw a blank from time to  time:
  • I only write about work which I find beautiful or mysterious or challenging or tantalising or breath-taking or astonishing or life-affirming. So sometimes I walk away empty handed.
  • I fail to check on gallery opening times - they are idiosyncratic
  • I have checked opening times but when I arrive I can see through a glass door the morning's post languishing on the mat because no one has turned up yet.
  • I go to the wrong address, foolishly thinking that the Frith St Gallery will be in Frith St, not Golden Square.
  •  It takes too long to get there. Pedestrians face huge diversions while London puts up prestigious buildings, puts down underground railways or is running the Olympics/a cycle race/a marathon/the Changing of the Guard. The results are barriers and re-routing and over-crowded pavements.
  • I fail to get an image. Mostly - but not always - I get a  prompt and positive response when I ask for an image for free. If asked for money I refuse, and as I do not write text without pictures, that is the end of the matter.  My blog is a money-free zone in which I pay/receive no money.
  • I sometimes turn up and find a closed gallery. Usually there's a private function. I forgive the Saatchi Gallery for doing this  occasionally because their gallery is so user-friendly and their b/w catalogue so cheap and informative.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

300. 20:50 by RICHARD WILSON


20:50, by Richard Wilson, used sump oil, steel

Down in the basement of the Saatchi Gallery in King’s Road, Chelsea, is what some believe to be the most important work of British art of the past few decades. 

It was created over 20 years ago and has moved around a bit. I first saw it in a slightly different configuration. I vividly recall a close encounter with a lake of recycled sump oil, a metal walkway placing me, waist deep, at the centre of the installation. Inches away, reaching the top of the walkway wall lay the oil, thick, smelly, sticky, lazy, hazardous, indelible.  It was also beautiful, shimmering, glistening, the colour of midnight and sleep.

Now it’s viewed standing on a balcony behind a transparent low wall, a little unnerving for the vertiginous. Below is a holographic field which looks at the same time like  a polished floor and an infinitely  clear pool as it mirrors and absorbs and reflects the gallery’s architecture.While I was there a number of young couples speaking various languages came and went, the men seemed to be explaining, the women listening. Not easy. The liquid is transformed into something seemingly solid. 
but the catalogue assures me that the room is entirely flooded. My eyes don't believe me. I am disorientated, mesmerised. Where is logic?
The 'lake' is utterly still, yet alive with energy..The only colour in the room is in the four scarlet cylinders leaning against the balcony wall. 

Thursday, 7 August 2014



   I first saw this art work yesterday on BBC TV. This morning  I walked to the Tower of London and joined the crowds .
Poppies pour out from the side of the building, a castle with 1,000 years of (often violent) history. The scarlet looks like a gaping. bleeding wound. Already over 120,000 poppies  have been placed there in a setting designed by Tom Piper. By the time Armistice Day comes round in November,  888,246 poppies will have been 'planted', one for each British and Colonial death in the First World War (1914-1919).

The indelible image of 'blood' pouring from a gash shocked me because as a student who once studied  history I read a lot about wars. I saw them  primarily as a battle between conflicting ideas and claims, which ended up with new national boundaries and rulers. There must have been  statistics about fatalities, but I realise now I hardly noticed.

The poppies are ceramic and made in the Derby workshop of the artist Paul Cummins. The process uses as little machinery as possible: blocks of clay are sliced and stamped as large and small petals before being hand-crafted. The link between the poppy and death is said to have been influenced by a poem written on the Front Line and published in 1919 by the Canadian poet, physician and soldier, John McCrae. One account of how it came to be written is to be found in the Arlington Cemetery website below:
In Flanders field the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place:and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
                                       Scarce heard amid the guns below                                        

The work's title come from  a living will which Paul Cummins found in Derbyshire two years ago. One of its strengths is to remind us that although each death is an individual tragedy, the dead from all nations can also be remembered together, each one an equal victim of this international tragedy.

More recently - 100 years ago to be exact - the Tower of London was the place where hundreds and hundreds of Londoners lined up inside the perimeter, recruited or volunteering in the patriotic fervour which swept the land. Many of then would not come back..

Sunday, 3 August 2014


Jerwood Space until Aug  31st


Walk into the Jerwood Space and you know that the excellent cafe will still be there, but walk into the gallery and prepare for something you've probably never imagined.  At first sight the image on the right, unlit, looked to me like a crazy version of the elegant London Underground map. Then random parts lit up in a celestial and sparky 'mauve'. Bit by bit my brain picked up the pieces and slid them round as if I were solving a giant Sudoku puzzle. The works take time to move with light from blank to the full message, offering all sorts of tantalising possibilities on the way. Eventually I get it:

 Below on the right we read
On the far wall of the left hand image reads:

The texts are fragments discovered when sourcing those electronic components from China which are needed to make hand-crafted LED signs.Giving More to Gain More 'encapsulates the poetic moment in which computerised systems reinterpret language'. The words are both allusive and elusive. Their meaning is fractured. BRIGHTNESS is a noun, not an adjective. The 'AND' in the second image reads uncomfortably like a loose rope vainly trying to link two words which are crying out for a 'WITH' to hold them together..

As one who reads a fair number of  catalogues and material on art theory, I also wonder if the artists intend a sly reference to what can be experienced as the tortuous, inflated and long-winded style in which conceptual art is often wrapped?

Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Ballen are among the four finalists selected from over 240 UK-wide  applications responding to Jerwood Makers Open Competition It recognises rising stars in the world of applied arts. encouraging them to develop work independent of specific commissions. The other winners are ceramicists Hitomi Hosono and Matthew Raw, glass artist Shelley James and spatial storytellers FleaFollyArchitects.

All images are courtesy of the artists

Friday, 1 August 2014


Somerset House East Wing

Hand-knotted rugs, made of hand spun wool and mohair, 2.0 x 2.9m

I'm walking towards Somerset House. It's very hot. I pass a grid of floor-level fountains outside the Royal Festival Hall where water shoots up or disappears into the ground in unpredictable patterns. In the middle is a fully-clothed man with a waterproof knapsack on his back playing with his children. I look again. There are other adults splashing around, laughing, soaked to the skin. I cross Waterloo Bridge . Somerset House has 55 fountains dancing in its beautiful courtyard (in the winter it's turned into an ice skating rink) but here it's only children and they are more circumspect.

I turn into the cool of Somerset House and wonder how am I going to interest you in a book published  over 50 years ago, a gloss-painted door and some rugs hanging on the wall?

The artist Gary Hume came across Interaction of Colour (1963), by the artist Josef Albers early in his career and has been an admirer of Albers’ work ever since. In 1988 his  Goldsmiths paintings were based on hospital doors rendered in high gloss, but where one might have expected bureaucratic creams and browns, there were pinks and golden tans,  panels and roundels, hand and foot plates picked out garishly. I first saw some of Hume's doors displayed down the sides of a long thin  room  (I don't know where) in the 1990s, and have never forgotten the experience. Doors are heavy with meaning. They are silent and blind but some you open with delight, others with dread. Fairy tales make the most of forbidden doors: Bluebeard's bring death in a dungeon. Goldilocks sneaks past one to steal porridge in a bowl. If you need to be convinced of the power of doors, even in everyday life, turn to Blog 53, Mark Wallinger's  Threshold to the Kingdom.

Form Through Colour is cerebral and challenging, designed to showcase the innovative and imaginative use of colour in art inspired by Albers. If you have time, there is a short explanatory video showing his passion as a teacher who believed that art is an experience, not an object. 'I don't give answers because I'd be depriving you of finding out for yourself...I have not taught painting, I have taught seeing...'  Not for him the colour-supplement agony of trying to match colours, obeying firm rules about what 'goes with' what. Consider, he said, the power of  disharmony in music. 

The contemporary rug and fabric company of Christopher Farr has collaborated with the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and with Gary Hume, to produce hand-crafted rugs, tapestries and fabric installations. Take time to experience the shift of shades depending on how the light falls, the direction of the pile and the shadows formed by sections which stand out in relief.