ARTYFACTS: June 2008

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Lure of the East – Tate Britain

This show of British Orientalist Painting is short on masterpieces and rather long on low quality Pre-Raphaelites, but it’s a great way to spend an hour or so, especially if you’ve traveled to Istanbul, Egypt or the Middle East.

Portraits open the show and they’re mostly staged pieces, all about the silk and damask clothes. We are ‘orientalists’! Even Byron, who did swim the Hellespont but never got further than Istanbul, dons his silks. Captain Colin Mackenzie has an interesting back story. He was captured in the 1838-42 Afghan War, when 16,00 British troops, civilians ad associates were massacred. There’s a great book on the subject – Signal Catastrophe. David Wilkie and David Roberts were two Scots made good, both with a talent ad a sense of adventure. Their portraits and landscapes remain a fantastic record of the Egypt and the Holy Land. But it’s the small portrait of Napoleon against a Cairene background that steals the limelight in this first room.

The ‘Genre and gender’ section is a bit forced, but makes the point about Harems, excusing them on the grounds that they were spaces where women could hang out – oh yeah! This should have bee combined with the later Harem section.

The Holy City has a superb oil by Gustav Bauernfeind called Entrance to the Temple Mount, with a party of Jews being refused entry, the tragedy continues to this day. In general, British artists seemed more at ease in painting landscapes and interiors. The people are mostly incidental or in stereotypical poses.

I did enjoy the darkened room, computer animated timeline ad presentation of photographs. Jerusalem, Cairo and Istanbul are fabulous cities – I’ve been to all three and will certainly be back. It was quite a shock to step back out into a rather grey London sky after all that painted sun and colour.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

China Now - or a copy of what they think 'now' is

Big question. Is China showing signs of innovation in design or is it still copying and imitating the west?

There were signs of promise in this show but nothing startling. If anything the web work was the most interesting ad it is here that China could come into its own as internet and mobile use have already overtaken the US.

The Chinese typewriter, with its 2000 characters ad system of picking up character blocks and throwing them against the paper was fascinating, but illustrative. Much of the design work here is based on Chinese characters, with dots on paper, ink, photography and so on. I took a calligraphy class in China and got an introduction to its cultural depth and difficulty. It plays a far more significant role in culture, as pictorial art, than writing does I the west.

This was the commercial soft centre of the show, but seemed just confused. The Atkins designed Thames Town is a copied pastiche of England. It’s absolute, theme-park rubbish. The clothes, toys and assorted junk showed no real sign of life. The 4 great things to have were: bike, sewing machine, watch and radio - then TV, washing machine fridge and radio cassette. Now its a car, computer, mobile and house.

Beijing – future city
Contemporary architecture is exploding in China as skyscrapers grow a quickly as bamboo in its many major cities. Some of these are spectacular but many are mundane ad most plain ugly. This section shows has one of the ugliest buildings as its centrepiece – the CCTV building. It is as horrifically imbalanced, skewed and tasteless as the state TV company it will house. The state will control all news and entertainment from this ‘dark star’ hulk.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Blood on Paper - V&A

Books are made to be lifted, held, opened and browsed. So an exhibition of books behind glass is frustrates me. On the whole, the books that simply contained drawings and paintings were disappointing.

There's no shortage of 'names' - Bacon, Beuys, Bustamante, Caro, Debuffet, Giacometti, Hirst, Kapoor, Kiefer, Koos, Litchenstein, Long, Matisse, Miro, Motherwell, Picasso, Rauschenberg, Rego, Roth, Ruscha and others. Yet few make a significant statement on the 'book'.

The more interesting works are Anselm's Kiefer's The Secret Life of Plants that stands six foot tall, in lead across the doorway. Another Kiefer work lies at the back, a huge work, deliberately unliftable and unreadable. He seems to point to the limitations of the book - its size, format.

Hirst has a sculpture that bears no obvious link to books - a chest with folders and religious objects. It takes centre stage as it is a religious piece but just because something fits the theme, has Hirst on it, and is made of paper, doesn't make it relevant.

The show is laid out like a church and at the back is a deep Wound cutting through the pages by Anish Kapoor.

It's a shame they didn't tackle the BIG issue- books and screens. The screen is transforming our view of text, making it more accessible, searchable and hyperlinked. This is far more radical than anything seen here.