Sunday, 6 December 2015

Ai WeiWei

It was another of those precious days. A week-day when you both have a day off. The youngest two kids on the train to Granny's house and the older two probably spending the day in bed, it was half term. We had a day off together in early January too, and we went to the Hunterian Museum which you can read about here. This time we were off to see Ai WeiWei at the Royal Academy.

This was my choice, I was keen, my husband knew absolutely nothing about Ai WeiWei; his artwork and outspoken criticism of the Chinese government, for which he has been arrested, imprisoned and beaten.

When you arrive you are met in the courtyard by trees. Branches of dead trees are bolted together to look like whole trees. Industrial bolts hold the branches together, looking precariously balanced, a little top heavy. This is the first piece of Ai WeiWei's work to capture my husband's imagination. Mine too, but more for the strange beauty than the engineering.

Balance and engineering run through Ai WeiWei's work.  

However you can clearly see that it isn't possible to balance between these parallel bars anymore. They have been filled with wood reclaimed from Qing Dynasty temples which were flattened for the sake of modernisation, to make way for new buildings in developing cities.

As an engineer, my husband knows exactly what these are. Steel bars used to reinforce concrete. All that engineering training yet he never thought he would see them a source of contemplation. 

Each bar was purchased as twisted and bent scrap metal following the collapse of 20 schools and colleges during a powerful earthquake in 2008. Shoddy workmanship and materials were blamed for the deaths of over 5,000 students, kids. In their memory 200 tonnes of steel bars have been painstakingly straightened.

Ai WeiWei, with others, established a 'citizens' investigation', a campaign to record all the names of these kids. Thousands of students with their dates of birth are numbered and listed on the Royal Academy walls. We feel uncomfortable, challenged and truly sad.

In 2010 in the name of regeneration, the authorities invited Ai WeiWei to build a new studio, which as soon as it was completed, they ordered him to demolish under the pretext that he had not got planning permission. Ai WeiWei managed to procure some of the original building materials during the demolition to create yet more work.

To commemorate the building of this studio and its imminent demolition, Ai WeiWei held a party, putting an open invitation on the Internet. 800 guests came to feast on river crabs, a feast to which Ai WeiWei could not be present as by then he had been placed under house arrest.  

Whilst incarcerated, although forbidden to discuss anything from the 81 days, he memorised every detail of his cell and has since created six scenes from his time in there, six boxes in which he tells his story, all half actual size. To see inside you have to look through small hatches in the walls and ceilings. That kind of changes your position, from looking at a piece of work in a gallery to feeling like a voyeur. Asking what on earth should I be doing about this?  

I like the way Ai WeiWei challenges the value of stuff, painting these neolithic and 1st century Dynasty vases with industrial paint. He then has photographs of himself taken, dropping one to the floor. You kinda get that, and are challenged to think about whether some things are worth the price. Nothing, however valuable, could replace the lives lost in that earthquake. 

Ai WeiWei is a communicator. He has things to say. He speaks through making and his voice is heard all over the world via social media. He has a huge international following on on Twitter and Instagram. 

Back to the question, what on earth should I be doing about this? Not a direct answer but I have been so encouraged by this story. I don't have a photo but around the doors of the exhibition entrance, the walls are papered with wallpaper made up of I.O.U notes from Ai WeiWei to the people who came forward with money to help him pay a bill. Straight after his 81 day incarceration, Ai WeiWei's company was charged with tax evasion, fined £1.5 million and given 15 days to pay. At this point 30,000 people stepped up to help, some even throwing money over his studio walls.

Ai WeiWei's exhibition at the Royal Academy runs until 13th December 2015. Check out the Royal Academy website here.

Ai WeiWei communicates globally through social media, ironically the social aspect of our day out was slightly curtailed by the audio-tour (which was brilliant). The audio-tour, took us to the places above, to those places which inspired Ai WeiWei to make art, going there alone on a day out together.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Painted Hall: Greenwich

Greenwich Painted Hall

You spend 19 years painting the dining room but it turns out "to be far too grand for everyday use". Instead of saving it for best, for naval veterans to sit down to their fish supper, it is decided that the dining hall should be opened up to the public. Only to "respectable visitors", at a cost of 3d each. That's about £1.80 in new money.

At least James Thornhill then got to have his hard work seen by more people, the "respectable" public. And however awe inspiring this hall is, imagine eating every meal here, you might stop noticing things. Such as...

...the ceilings  

...the animals

...the cherubs

...St Paul's

...the stonework

...and the textiles

Ceilings can be tricky to look at, so mirrors are provided so you can look down rather than up.

Time has taken it's toll on these paintings in the Painted Hall and they are in the process of being restored. And this costs money. You can often be asked to donate to conservation work. But hats off to the Old Royal Naval College for making it easy, fun and for making it very clear where your money goes.

To put this into perspective, James Thornhill received £3 per square yard for painting the ceiling and £1 for the walls. Times have changed.

Visitors have painted the ceiling by numbers. Wish I'd done that.

I adopted a face. 'Providence'. Who doesn't love a museum badge?
She was in the paintings somewhere.

Fundraising is not a new to the Painted Hall. It was all very (questionably) transparent back then. Not only did those 'respectable' people get to see who had donated, but also how much they had given. Best not to out-do King William. No-one even came close.

Over 300 years later, the Painted Hall in the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich is still open to the public. Prices have changed, from 3d to free admission. Details on the Old Royal Naval College website here.

As for everyday use, meals are still not served to 'respectable vistors', not even birthday lunches. Happy Birthday Nicola.
Just so you know, we didn't starve, we had lunch in the University of Greenwich cafe very close by.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Unofficial War Artist: IWM

I have seen the Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London, several times with all sorts of people. First chatting around it with colleagues, then alone with a notebook preparing a tour, then as keen mum with my 18 year old son and finally talking and touring through the exhibition with visitors to the IWM.  

Peter Kennard's work is explicitly political. Politics of the left. "He has quite a bit to say about Bush and Blair", I forewarn American visitors. "And we will probably agree with him", they smile at me.

Age 19, as a student at the Slade school of art in 1968, the time of the anti Vietnam War protests, Kennard began to bring art and politics together producing a series of large gelatine prints, STOP. Talking about gelatine prints, a now defunct printing process, elicits a knowing nod from some older visitors.

Kennard took photos from current (at the time) newspapers of political events, and overlaid them with abstract marks. Taking familiar shocking and powerful images and making them unfamiliar and disorientating. Reflecting on this work and remembering those times, American visitors recognise and point out protests that happened back home.

Peter Kennard curated this exhibition alongside IWM curators. He made these boards specially to display an archive of his posters produced for different protest groups and organisations.

The exhibition includes an archive of Kennard's work from the 1970s, filling a whole room. It includes work he did as a student, experiments in sketchbooks, which I'm keen to point out to my newly-started-at-art-college son. "This is work he began at 19, you'll be 19 in 6 months time" I enthuse.

I had been nagging him to see the Peter Kennard exhibition as soon as I had seen it, even promising him the book. Not until, "mum, they (art college) have told us to see that exhibition where you work", did he agree to meet me and see it together.
"It's really good".
Exasperated... "Yes! I knew you'd like it, that's why I said come and see it".
I might be from another generation, but I get it.

Kennard was known for his photo-montages, a process that became associated with protest art. This was pre-digital, requiring scissors, knives and sellotape, prompting both political stirrings and affection for good old craft skills. 

Kennard's work provokes comment, causing visitors to speak their thoughts out loud, sometimes without meaning to.

Particularly this piece from 1982, using Constable's Haywain to comment on the missile base in East Anglia.
"He's a pacifist! But that's against everything the Imperial War Museum stands for! Why is he in an exhibition here?"
I don't think she meant to blurt this out as I was speaking but something just clicked. I explained that the IWM was not here to comment, but it has always been part of its remit to collect art to tell stories of war and conflict.
However, when you put objects in a museum they give off messages, intentionally or otherwise. Putting objects in a museum does kind of give them status that if you'd just left them rusting in the back of a garage they might not otherwise have had. But we all see things differently. For me, that cart looks so fragile under the weight of those cruise missiles. How fragile does life look under the threat of any missile?

Another visitor, "...ahead of his time, he saw that coming, the NHS." This was made in the 1980s.

"Getting the work out into the world and used is as important as its production", says Peter Kennard. Hence we see his work on badges and T-shirts as well as posters and pamphlets. 

What strikes you about Kennard's work is that you don't need a degree in art history to understand it. His images are readable, recognisable. This is not to make less of his work, to say that it is simple, but in fact to make more of his work. He asks questions, challenges the viewer, and gets you to think. In fact Peter Kennard doesn't call himself an artist, but a communicator. Like he says, he has got his "work out into the world", made it readable and understandable. Good communication.  

'Reading Room' is based on Kennards trips to Paddington Library as a child, to read the day's newspapers. People's faces photocopied onto financial pages from newspapers from around the world, unknown faces and stock market figures. A colleague and I find this moving, powerful. The faces are quite beautiful. What impact has the stock market had on their unknown lives? 

On the tour, I ask people to squeeze down a narrow corridor to look at  a series of paintings called 'Face'.

No-one minds the squash, not to contemplate these haunting faces. Faces that merge in and out of darkness, no mouths, no language, mute, therefore universally understood. Sometimes you don't need words.  

The last room in the exhibition has been made specially for it. A kind of mini retrospective of nearly 50 years of work. An installation where Kennard reflects on the financial and human cost of war.

'Boardroom' where Kennard brings us statistics on the handrail.

I spend time with my son reading these statistics. Some are not new.
"I knew that", but it still doesn't lessen the impact.

One visitor comments, "How long has this exhibition been here? He will have to update that now with the refugee crisis, ...perhaps on a daily basis."  

 "...and how many have been used. He should have said that."

This is an exhibition to make you think beyond the work. It has a been a privilege to see it with many different people, to have the opportunity to reflect on it with them and hear what they have to say. Not least was the opportunity to spend time with my 18 year old. It doesn't happen that much anymore, one to one, doing something we both enjoy.

Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist is free and is on at the Imperial War Museum, London until 30 May 2016. Free admission. See the Imperial War Museum website for gallery tours.
Take an 18 year old.

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