Monday, 30 March 2015


Each work of art lives in a context. When a uniformed doorman welcomes me into a certain Mayfair Art Gallery I'm not surprised  to see a 6-figure price tag on one of its sculptures. When, however, I learn of miniature "Tudor portraits" painted in oil on squashed chewing gum blow dried by torch on a West London pavement, I'm not surprised that these are not for sale, being both "priceless" and "worthless".

This bronze statue is the work of the distinguished British sculptor Philip Jackson. While strolling round London I came across the unveiling ceremony by accident.  The statue is of the man who was not only  the primary leader of India's independence movement but also the architect of a form of civil disobedience (non-violent non-co operation) which would influence events around the world. 
The statue could hardly be in a more prestigious place. It's in Parliament Square, which is encircled by  Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall and the Supreme Court, a Square bristling with statues of the great and the good and the controversial, including Britain’s war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Lincoln and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.  Mahatma Gandhi has the distinction of being the only person on the Square never to have held public office.

The statue is based on photographs taken when Gandhi was outside the British prime minister's offices in 1931. At that visit he went to see King George V. Arriving bare-chested in his dhoti, and marching ahead with his stick, he was asked if he felt under dressed. He replied 'The King is dressed for both of us'.

It was 16 more turbulent years before India became independent.  At the unveiling  David Cameron  described  Gandhi as “one of the most towering figures” in political history. “By putting Gandhi in this famous square we are giving him an eternal home in our country. This statue celebrates the incredibly special friendship between the world’s oldest democracy and its largest, as well as the universal power of Gandhi’s message.”

To see a range of Philip Jackson's large works: 
To learn about the artist
For comment on political significance:


For a video clip of the ceremony:

What wasn't mentioned was Parliament Square's recent turbulent history. A peace camp  was set up in the square in 2001 to protest (initially) against the British government's involvement in the Middle East but it became a messy and eclectic movement for some years encompassing left-wing causes and anti-globalisation protests world-wide.

Saturday, 14 March 2015



Having bucked its rider, this 13 ft-tall equine skeleton looks as though it might be galloping in from the Apocalypse. It’s newly perched on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.  Trafalgar Square, formerly a mews, has since the 1800s been a public space used for rallies and demonstrations, concerts  and protests. juggling and acrobats, picnics, pigeons and pavement art. It also has stone lions, fountains, and four large plinths.Three are occupied - a solid citizen like George IV sits astride his hefty horse - but since 1999 specially commissioned artworks have occupied the fourth space, each with a tenure of about 18 months.

As I walk by or across the Square frequently, I get attached to the Fourth Plinth.  I was sad when time was up for Katherina Fristch’s wonderful blue cockerel (Blog 240). But here, from another German artist, is a an equally powerful and intriguing sculpture.

Skeletal and riderless, High Horse's only ornamentation is a live ticker tape on teh uplifted leg. It is linked to the London Stock Exchange and tied up in a ribbon as a gift to all. It is intended as "a darkly comic commentary on world finance, nationalism, power and public art". The title underlinies this: anyone  acting as if they are superior to the listener may be told to "get off your high horse".

 The artist  says that Gift Horse is also an oblique tribute to two Britons: Adam Smith, who wrote the Wealth of Nations (1766), and George Stubbs, who in the same year published his Anatomy of the Horse.

It’s all of a piece with what Hans Haacke has done most of his life: work which makes visible the invisible connections between art, capital and society. The ticker tape is set to remind us that money is the hidden dynamic fuelling our city, for good and for bad; that corporate sponsorship of art, while very worthy, is of material use to sponsors by enhancing their public reputation. And both sponsor and artist are aware of this exchange. Haacke is intent on making this relationship clear to us, the viewers, as well. Interestingly the prestigious art critic Hal Foster in today's London Review of Books extends this to private/semi public museums housing the collections of multi millionaires. He calls them "museums of equity display. equal parts prestige and portfolio".

Ekow Eshun, who chaired the commissioning group, said: "(High Horse) is a bit of a memento mori', which means "remember (that you have) to die". The ancient theory and practice of reflecting on mortality was a way of confronting the vanity of earthly life, all earthly goods and pursuits and achievements. 

Ekow Eshun again "It's a beautiful piece, it's a poetic piece and it is especially timely in the economic circumstances we live in".

Monday, 9 March 2015


at the Curve, the Barbican

Slow Motion, Photo Tristan Fewings, Getty Image

The Swiss artist Roman Signer's 'sculptural moments' use harnessed energy and movement to make objects do things they would not normally do. I'm writing this on the day that two Swiss are setting off to fly  round the world in a plane fuelled solely by solar power.

Here a kayak is being hauled at a sedate pace through the Curve - a 90 metre-long corridor/gallery - towed by a rope suspended from the ceiling. The kayak has variously been described as a javelin or a pine needle or a sardine. At first sight the fumbling movement  is amusing, then inscrutable and finally slightly alarming. Roman Signer said 'When I first saw the Curve it looked like a tunnel so I had a vision of the kayak that is pulled through this special space turning on itself at the end and taking the same path back'. It looks simple but the dimension of the kayak's turning circle is a challenge.

Photo Tristan Fewings, Getty Image
Then look at this video of a grey stony path. Signer is dragged along it, just managing to keep upright. At one point a group of frisky calves join in the fun and frolic beside him on the canal towpath on the left, until they lose interest (or breath). When Signer reaches his destination three large holes have been torn out of the base of the kayak. Upstanding they look like a ghastly grinning face. Upturned the kayak releases a torrent of sharp stones spilling and tumbling into an impressive mound.

Kayak with Fountain Photo Tristan Fewings, Getty Images
Lastly here is a kayak which has been adapted so that a powerful fountain sprouts out of its base. Generally speaking, from the Titanic onwards, water inside a boat is recognised by the general public as not an ideal situation. The work has been termed ambiguous, inscrutable, amusing, even unnatural.

When the Art Gallery at St Gallen, Switzerland, held an exhibition of Signer's work entitled The Subtle and Moving Art of Roman Singer, the curator gave some wise advice ;  
'It’s important to take the time to look at the entire process. 
Any visitor who does is sure to have a smile on their face at the end'.

To see more things that Signer can do with a kayak than you can have ever imagined:

I saw Roman Signer's first large sculptural show in England at Camden Arts Centre in 2001, and have never forgotten it. Later I went to the Kunsthaus in Zurich. On video I saw how he transforms everyday objects and materials by using them in a way which is anything but banal (exploding, catapulting, dragging etc).

Have the Swiss developed an unusual inventiveness and interest in and an understanding of how materials and objects might be made to behave in unforeseen ways? Horology for example. I ask because my grand-father Emil Strub won first prize in 1896 for designing a cog system which removed contact ice and packed snow from the Jungfrau mountain railway line. At a stroke the ‘wrong kind of snow’ was abolished. It opened the way for Switzerland and the rest of Europe to enjoy a winter season to complement the summer.

Another Swiss artist, Christian Marclay, is at the White Cube Bermondsey at the moment exploring "the fusion of fine art and audio cultures, transforming sounds and music into a visible, physical form through performance, collage, sculpture, installation, photography and video...a remarkably inventive show, combining art and music".

Thursday, 5 March 2015



STILLED, from the  RAJASTHAN Series.
Art First has great pleasure in announcing that two works from her
recent exhibition,
Stilled: Photographs from the Rajasthan Series, have
entered The Government Art Collection

Magic Lights, Archival Photographic Print 107x70 cm
Gular Ates' sumptuous works are sensual, complex and timeless. The interior is of the City Palace Museum in Udaipur, a building founded in 1559. She was inspired by stories told about the palace and the layers of history associated with the architecture of the place, and was given free reign to move among its elegant rooms. There she found wall paintings, mirrors, coloured glass and patterned walls.  She trod on rich floor coverings showing signs of wear, and glimpsed exterior courtyards and sanctuaries. These are the spaces where the women of the household once lived.

In the three works shown  the solitary figures are ambiguous. Her model, a classical Indian dancer, is wearing fabrics the artist bought from Udaipur's local markets and textile factory: saturated vermilions, explosive golds. The newly-minted cloth folds and falls, cascading to the ground. She is hidden, yet dazzlingly present. Each faces a door or an arch or a corridor. She seems to combine Middle Eastern exoticism with Victorian propriety; dazzling luminosity with the darkness and intensity of  17 and 18 C Dutch interior paintings. For example, in many of his early paintings, Vermeer offers a sympathetic view of a strong, solitary woman in service to someone else, whether Diana, Christ, a customer, or the mistress of the household.

Guler Ates is a Turkish artist and Stilled is her second solo show at ArtFirst.  It has been described as "a refreshing. intelligent and gently feminist portrayal of an India imagined and experienced with sympathy and understanding of...the challenging realities when western cultures impact on...ancient traditional worlds". These works question the Western notion of Orientalism, of harems, of women's complicit subjection so often  portrayed by Western artists. Does a veil conceal or tease? When cultures meet, how Is our understanding of female identity enriched? Do the pictures allude to the tension of dual identity?
These beautiful images are silent and still.They are not narrative paintings; they do not lend themselves to the  spoken or written word.