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ART GALLERY TRIP PART TWO – A Game of Find The Gallery & Other Extreme Sports (ft. Sam Gets Overly Enthusiastic About Art History And Yes, Abstraction IS The Hill I Will Die On)

Last week I recounted the incredibly thrilling tale of my misadventures visiting the Tate Modern and the Barbican. This week the journey continues as I visit three galleries and one museum in one day without dying. So without further ado:

FRIDAY

Okay. I have learned from Tuesday. I have checked and double checked which tube stations I need to go to. I have comfier boots. I have half a tube of knockoff Pringles. I am prepared.

And I do it! I get to the right station, on schedule. I find the Victoria Miro gallery. I enter the wrong gallery next door first. I find the actual Victoria Miro gallery and – it’s closed.

What.

The space is being re-organised for a different exhibition. Which, and I may be wrong, I may just not be able to navigate their website effectively, but I read nothing about this before I left. Nada. Nowhere did it mention that this space would be completely closed down. But you know, this is fine, they have two spaces and I was going to visit both, I’ll just go to the other one. No problem.

Despite my comfier boots I am not much comfier trekking through the streets today. I could probably have picked a less humid week for this adventure, but then what would I have to complain about? MUCH LESS, THAT’S WHAT. But I have lost only a very little time, and I spend the journey to Mayfair admiring the very fashionable dude in the red leather jacket overlaid with leather harness, jewelled pumps, fancy hat, huge sunglasses and shiny silver bag. Is he melting under all that? Almost certainly. Do I appreciate the effort in the aesthetic? Absolutely.

I make it to Mayfair, which is full of very big and very loud capitalism, and find the Victoria Miro Mayfair space! What I do not find for the next few minutes is the door for the Victoria Miro Mayfair space, until I remember a review saying the front looks like a residential building. I push the buzzer, nothing happens. I try again and push the door this time, which opens into some kind of art gallery airlock, and watch in confused amazement as the wall in front of me slides away to let me in.

Humidity and power walking always lend to a fun entrance to cool, clean, dead silent gallery spaces. There is nothing worse than being the sole entrant into a quiet space, red-faced, sweating, trying not to breathe like an asthmatic elephant. Luckily there are a few other patrons, so it’s not as awkward as it could have been.

The exhibition here is Surface Work, a collection of abstract works by female artists, something I was very excited about. It’s a small exhibition, and in all honesty there weren’t a huge number of works that I connected with. I enjoyed Jay DeFeo’s White Water, a striking black and white oil painting, depicting an edge and a fall into what is at once water, ice and some cold galactic depth. I was also excited to see one of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity nets – I’ve been intrigued by her work ever since I saw it on the MoMA’s Youtube channel a couple months back. And you can make fun of me all you want for being enthusiastic about spending several minutes staring at a white canvas with hundreds of white and white-ish loops of paint on it, but I like it and that’s what counts.

But like I said, the gallery isn’t very big and I was finished fairly quickly. Since I was ahead of schedule, I decided I’d check out the gallery I’d had to skip on Tuesday – the Whitechapel Gallery. So I’m there and I’m waiting for the train and it’s going to take a while and my phone says it’s only a ten minute walk so I decide ‘screw it! It’s a nice day, my feet don’t hurt, I’ll walk’.

This is where I find out that either my phone is a liar or I took a serious wrong turn because it takes me closer to half a goddamn hour to get there, and I have to go down a food-truck alley and I am both hungry and poor and this is the worst. I make it, though, half-melted and half-dead, but at least my feet don’t hurt as bad as they did on Tuesday and oh look, the station I was waiting for the train to is two feet from the gallery isn’t life great?

The Whitechapel Gallery is spread over about three floors, and while I didn’t explore everything there, what I did take in was excellent. The first was the two Alone Together short art films. Both play at the same time in two joined but separate gallery spaces, the simultaneous audio creating a strange, unsettling, dream-like effect. The first film was an animated figure, a strange humanoid body evolving and growing, breathing and speaking in a shifting void of darkness and coloured shapes. It felt part guided meditation and part hallucination.

The second film was a dance? A movement? It was the members of the youth forum who collaborated in creating the films, moving across different spaces, surrounded by smoke, speaking about bodies and movement. Of the two I preferred the first film, apart from the opening shots of the live-action film; the girl who sits staring into the camera had such a regal, almost goddess-like poise to her expression and her movements, it was captivating.

The other exhibition I took in here was the iSelf Collection: Bumped Bodies. From what I recall it was, I think, the third in a series of exhibitions themed around the body and idea of self. There were hits and misses in the collection for me – quite a lot of sculpture as opposed to the many paintings that I’d been looking at so far. Sculpture designed to look close to human is always slightly unsettling to me, and I’m always impressed by it because, like, how did you do that? Still, it was a very enjoyable exhibition to spend a little while in.

But time was moving on and I had the Tate Britain to get to, so I headed out. I got to then enjoy the slightly surreal but lovely experience of chilling in the tube station, eating my Fake Pringles, listening to guy with his headphones in singing Strawberry Fields off-key. At least until the loud lady on the other platform woke us all from our reverie by yelling into her phone. Joyous.

Onwards, to the Tate Britain! Which I’m sure I went to before on a college trip but it turns out I didn’t go there, I went to the National Gallery, so I’m now very glad I didn’t decide I was too tired for it and skip it for the V&A. It’s quite a jump now, switching to classical art after all the abstraction, but it’s an enjoyable change. The chronological layout takes you through art history and it’s great seeing it shift from fancy commissions of rich people and their families, all the way through to modern art again. It’s at this point I have the startling realisation that I think I enjoy viewing modern and abstract art in galleries more than classical paintings.

I know, hang me for a heretic, but it’s true. Why is this? I don’t know. Maybe because even though Old Master paintings are good and important and vital to study from, I don’t feel that much difference in viewing the original painting than in viewing a decent quality reproduction. Maybe I don’t appreciate them properly because it’s not the area of art history I spend as much time learning about. Who knows.

(But also – some of those paintings? So good. So big. Stop it, it’s intimidating. More on this later)

Anthea Hamilton – The Squash

Moving out of the chronological galleries for a moment, I catch a glimpse of the current performance art piece hosted at the gallery – The Squash, created by Anthea Hamilton.

Look, this is another one of those things you either like or you don’t. you don’t have to get it. I don’t 100% get it but I do know it gave me great joy to watch this person dressed like a surreal alternate universe children’s character with a squash for a head sliding and dancing around the huge grid-space the hall has been turned into. Don’t ask me what it means, it doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s weird and interesting and strange. That’s all it has to be.

After this brief pause I almost leave before realised I’ve stumbled into the MODERN SECTION YES AT LAST. More abstract art! Naum Gabo sculpture in a tiny case! Weird demonic figure paintings! Giant pile of metal and plastic pieces that kind of looks like someone left behind the construction stuff but that’s fine! I don’t have to get it, it’s just there.

Francis Bacon – Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixtion

Here’s a brief digression. I like this part of art. I like the point in art’s history where it moved towards abstraction in a myriad of different ways and everyone just ran with it. I like DaDa and anti-art: not because it’s beautiful and so high-brow and the masses don’t get it, but because there’s nothing to get! It’s anti-art and it’s old-timey shitposting and I love it! And then the surrealists tried to paint their dreams and their psyche and everyone got mad at everyone else, and somehow it all tumbled into what we have now as modern and post-modern art and everyone’s still mad about it.

And like, I get it. Art is weird. There’s stuff I don’t like from the current era of conceptual and performance art. But isn’t it great that we’re still making this stuff? That we’re still trying to out-clever and out-weird each other, and it’s so polarising and isn’t that just the entire point sometimes?

Ahem.

Meanwhile, back at the Tate, I spend some time watching an art film called, I think, The Woolworth Choir. I’m pretty sure at this point I have some kind of heatstroke because my head hurts and I’m a little woozy, so sitting in a dark, cool room with some weird video clips is a perfect idea. So imagine, if you will, me doing that, woozily sipping water, taking all the pins out of my hair in the hopes it’ll make my head stop exploding, watching this Bill-Wurtz-Esque clip show of photo’s of churches intercut with definitions, hand movements and pop-video clips, that transitions into it being connected with a Woolworth’s that burned down back when there were still Woolworth’s to burn down. It was good! Certainly an interesting concept and well edited, but I’d probably enjoy watching it again with a bit more coherence to my brain structure.

And now, at long last, onto the final stage of my journey – to the Victoria & Albert Museum! Another place I’ve never been but always wanted to go to! And I’ve somehow managed to time my travel to be just ahead of rush hour and everything is great.

This is followed by the swift realisation, once there, that all the interesting exhibitions are pair. Then a slightly less swift but equally frustrating realisation that although the museum is open late on Fridays, most of it is still actually closed after 5.45pm. It was close to five when I got there. Cue mild annoyance and panic. There followed then a brief and frantic attempt to find the European medieval and renaissance sections because that stuff is my jam. During this attempt, I managed to stumble into the Raphael Room and here is where we return, as promised, to my point about paintings that are so good and so big.

Because these things? Huge. Astronomically huge. Like, almost the height of a damn house huge, and I did not realise this before now, holy shit. So like any good artist I spent a solid five minutes walking around in front of them just mouthing ‘what the fuck, what the  f u c k’ and staring like an idiot. This impression was not helped by reading the brief biography of Raphael on the wall and learning that he was something like mid-twenties when he was making these and my dude, that’s my age, this is not fair.

And then I dealt with my feelings of crushing insignificance and went to find the other things I was interested in. Which resulted in realising that a lot of what was there, I wasn’t super into. Maybe it was the prelude of all the gallery art and abstraction, but historical artefacts just weren’t grabbing me that much. So my visit here is done inside of an hour and oh, look at that, just in time for the rush hour crush on the tube. My favourite.

Which of course is when my ticket decides to stop functioning for no earthly obvious reason, meaning I have to stand around and try to make eye contact with an attendant at every barrier I want to go through, which is, you know, awesome. The only good thing about that journey back was the slightly passive-aggressive guy with the microphone organising the trains who kept calling everyone out on not moving down inside the train.

And with that, we did it, friends. We made it. Six galleries. Three days. I dreamed an impossible dream and somehow it came true. My brain is full of inspiration, the weather continues to be too humid for anyone’s liking, and I am eternally grateful to Pop My Mind for providing me with the funds to make this possible. (And, side-note, if anyone wants to give me money to go and see other galleries that exist and write moderately entertaining blog posts about them my Ko-Fi link is right there in the sidebar).

Now leave me and my pile of art history books in peace, I’ll see you next week with something a little less wordy for Pride month.

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ART GALLERY TRIP PART ONE – Abstract Photography, Improvised Forks & How Not to Navigate the London Tube System

Heads up friends, this is going to be a wordy post, so if you’re mainly here for the pictures you can go ahead and skip this one.

Last week, thanks to the generosity of Pop My Mind, I was able to take two, count ‘em, two, trips to London to do some gallery binging. Using the experience portion of the bursary from my Invention Award, I managed to take in both Tate museums, an exhibition at the Barbican Centre, the Victoria Miro Mayfair gallery, the Whitechapel gallery and squeeze in a brief wander around the V&A.

But Sam, that’s far too much to do in just two days what were you thinking? I hear at least one person crying. And the answer is – art. I wanted to see all of the art and goddammit I pretty much did. Before we get in to it, this, as you can tell by the title, is part one of two. Today’s post will be about my Tuesday trip, and next week you can look forward to my Friday adventures. Both tales may or may not be mildly humorous and infinitely fascinating. I make no promises.

So without further ado:

Tuesday

Folks, I am a planner. We know this. And the plan was to take in three galleries in each trip, with timings carefully planned out to take into account opening times, previous visits, tube travel times and precisely how long it would take me to lace up my boots. You know. A capital-P Plan. Tuesday’s plan was meant to go like this:

Get up exceptionally early, leave exceptionally early, arrive at the station thirty minutes before my train and a full ten minutes before my ticket would so much as let me onto the platform, then finally get to London. After which I would hit up the Tate Modern & The Shape of Light exhibition in the morning, the Whitechapel gallery mid-afternoon, a quick stop to eat and then end the day with Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins at the Barbican Centre. And everything was going great! I was ahead of schedule, I’d gotten in some drawing on the train, the day was bright and sunny and today was going to be awesome!

Then I ended up on the wrong side of London because somewhere along the lines I’d gotten Ealing Broadway and Blackfriars mixed up – don’t ask me how because I honestly do not know. Cut to another half hour of travelling, midday rapidly approaching and me not even in a gallery yet. Cue the self-deprecating tweets and grumpy texting to the boyfriend.

Eventually I make it to the right station, anxiously cross a bridge, clutching my phone like it’s going to spontaneously fly out of my hand and into the Thames and sweating like an art student in a maths exam. But I did it! I’m here! Tate Modern here I come.

Since by this point my day is now pretty far behind my schedule, I decide to cut out the Whitechapel gallery for today and just explore the Tate and the Barbican. So, I haul my sweaty self upstairs to the Shape of Light exhibition. This exhibition was the one I was most looking forward to, and it did not disappoint. 100 years of photography and abstract art? Sign me the hell up.

The exhibition takes up 12 galleries, leading you on a tour through the history of abstract photography and ways it links to other art forms. Abstract art is one of those Marmite things, though, isn’t it? You either like it or you don’t. I freaking love it. I think I spent close on two hours just in that exhibition, staring at rayograms and smears of black and white light and generally having a grand old time being excited about art by myself.

Photography in the exhibition was kind of allowed, but only for personal use, so I won’t share any of my snapshots here. That and my snapshots aren’t very good, they were mainly note-taking of works and artists to look up late. I did do some sketching of pieces that really jumped at me, though, so I’ll include those here:

The Shape of Light is a wonderful exhibition, and if you’re interested in photography or abstraction I highly recommend it. And if, like me, you’re under 25, sign yourself up for a free Tate membership and get your tickets for a fiver. It’s the sensible thing to do.

Paid exhibition complete! Time for lunch and oh…oh no. Despite my careful planning, I have no fork with which to eat my pasta. But I am nothing if not resourceful, and I have a lot of hairgrips in my bag. Problem solved.

Full of pasta, I head back into the Tate to wander around the free exhibition halls. I’ve been to the Modern before, so much of what’s there I’d already seen, and honestly I just wanted to find the Dali’s and other surrealist works and stare at them for ages, so that’s what I ended up doing. And here we take a small digression because while I was trying to have A Moment with Autumnal Cannibalism, I encountered Strange-Yet-Excitable-American-Man. SYEAM, turned to me, motioning at one of the other large paintings on the wall and excitedly told me how this was the real size for a painting, that this was how big we should be working.

Being British, I nod and hum politely and go back to Dali. SYEAM joins me next to the Dali, peering closely at it, then turns to me and asks me about the photography policy. This despite me looking nothing like a Tate employee. But I told him, since I knew, and he proceeded to fail to turn the flash off on his phone and take a close up of the painting. He asks me why flash is not allowed and I awkwardly mutter something about bright light damaging pigments. SYEAM and I part ways at this point and I am left feeling uncomfortable and confused with the Dali.

Once I’m done with the surrealists, and because I realise the Barbican exhibition isn’t open as late as I thought, I head back to the tube. The only interesting point between the station and the Tate is that you pass the Church of Scientology and, like, I didn’t even know we had one of those and now I don’t know what to do with the knowledge.

Feet hurting because I made a poor, yet stylish, choice in boots, I make it to the Barbican and stand there red-faced and sweaty while nicely-dressed people wander around looking busy, making me wonder if I’m even in the right place. I finally cool off, buy my tickets – as with the Tate, being under 25 has its perks in yet another cheap exhibition ticket – and head in. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Another Kind of Life. I knew several of the photographers had explored queer life, which I was very into, but other than that I was going in kind of blind.

This one had a strict No Photo’s Allowed policy, so I don’t have anything to show you here, but believe me when I say it was an excellent exhibition. The explorations of, as the show says, life on the margins, were intriguing, powerful and in places unsettling. As someone who knows pretty much nothing about photography, I was suitably impressed. Sometimes it’s good to stand in a cool gallery and stare at photographs of people who had lives impossibly different from your own, and end up seeing things that connect them to you.

I didn’t spend as long there as I did in the Shape of Light exhibition, in equal parts because my poor-yet-fashionable footwear choices were giving me grief again, and because they closed at six, which it very nearly was. The unfortunate downside to this was that it was now rush-hour at the tube station nearest to the Barbican Centre, and I am 10000% not about that sweaty, angry, post-work, summer-afternoon people crush. So I dragged my screaming feet the twenty minutes it took to get to the next stop over and…somehow went the long way round? I think I change twice, went through the station I’d decided not to get in at because the crush was so bad, until I eventually made it to Liverpool Street and the train home.

And this brings us to the end of Part One of this long, rambling, vaguely amusing retelling of The Time I Went To London. Tune in next week for the thrilling conclusion.