Monday, 16 November 2015

Conscientious Anarchy

It was only a few months ago that we were all queuing for Banky’s Dismaland in Weston to experience the anarchic spectacle as the artist unabashedly stuck the proverbial finger up at consumerist Capitalism and modern British political system. Now we find ourselves queuing again for Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy, London for the largest exhibition of the Chinese artist’s work in the UK to date. Whilst both are subversively political, challenge established ideas, question the cultural/financial values of art and are hugely successful at drawing the crowds there are still many things that separate them as unite them. I wonder though how many people will have seen both?
Weiwei’s art is anarchism that has found a conscience. If it’s possible for the two to work harmoniously together then Weiwei achieves it, in what are often very minimalist, conceptual and highly labour-intensive, ambitious sculptures/installations which subversively challenge human rights  in previously untold or censored narratives of events. It is highly emotive work and charged with the ongoing ethical battle ‘freedom of speech’ that has even seen the artist who was commissioned with designing Bejing’s Olympic Stadium and conversely also imprisoned by the state. Renowned Blogger and art activist, Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy creates an interesting tension between the popularity of activism in 21st Century Britain and place within which political artworks sit within the institute of the art world.

Two open copies of Phaidon’s iconic ‘The Art Book’ (the A to Z of ‘significant’ artists from medieval times to the present day) lay open side by side. The English/American version features Ai Weiwei and the Chinese version does not. In omitting the existence of the artist in one but not the other probably does Weiwei’s notoriety more good than harm but also somewhat chillingly summarises what is the principle themes in Weiwei’s practice of control, censorship and the documentation of history.
'Straight' (2008-12) Steel reinforcing bars, 1200 x 600cm. 
If the meaning in Banksy’s work is a one-liner then Weiwei’s is a poem. Ideas and meaning unfold gradually and are open to many interpretations. In the installation, titled ‘Straight’, 200 tonnes of steel reinforcing bars lay in undulating rows atop one another creating a wave on the floor of the central exhibition space. It first reads as a work of minimalist sculpture. Whilst it is massively ambitious in scale it’s simplistic in design; made up of one essential material lain in a systematic, regimented form. The whole thing takes on new significance when you discover the detail and making behind the work (and I stress that the only real way to do this is with the exhibition’s accompanying free audio guide) that the bars are from buildings involved in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 which have each individually been straightened by hand from their post quake twisted state. The waves in which the bars have been arranged now become shifting tectonic plates or waves off a Richter scale; each of the bars becomes symbolic of the scale of destruction and somehow quantitative to the number of lives lost. Even more worrisome upon the final discovery that the steel bars were taken from twenty schools whose construction was covered up by the Chinese government who after a forced investigation instigated by Ai they had to admit that corruption allowed builders to ignore safety codes when erecting the schools. Over 90,000 people were dead or missing as a result of the quake and it wasn’t until further investigation using social media and Ai’s blog that the names of the 5192 children who perished were published and in the exhibition accompanies the work ‘Straight’ surrounding it on the gallery walls.
[detail] 'Straight'
Ai Weiwei’s work is known for its use of traditional craftsmanship skills, influenced from Ai’s upbringing when the artist initially earned money fixing/making furniture. In the pieces in this exhibition such as ‘Straight’ the work utilises the power of many and communities who collected and reshaped the steel bars as well as assisting in the collection of data and names of those missing/deceased to be revealed. It is an empowering piece, the fact the bars have been re-straightened is in itself an act of defiance and resilience, an attempt to correct that which is broken. The architectural properties of the bars as well references not only Weiwei’s own relationship with buildings as an artist that has worked as an architect but alludes to the idea of architecture as a way of reinforcing control on people, upholding certain regimes or influencing behaviour. It is a theme which reoccurs in many other works in the exhibition, ‘Souvenir from Shanghai’ being an arrangement of brick, stone and rubble from the site of the artist’s studio which was built with permission from the Chinese authorities and subsequently ordered to be knocked down within weeks of its completion after relationships with the authorities and Weiwei had soured after the artist’s arrest and detainment in 2008. The authorities continue to survey and monitor Weiwei’s activities since.
For me, Weiwei is an important artist because he is one of a few contemporary artists working today that raises the importance and position of art in modern life and the power of artists within society. This is a concept which has been maintained by Weiwei in his blog and twitter feeds which the artist sees as an integral part of his artistic practice into the modern wider world. The role of the artist becomes a duty or obligation to the wider community or audience (but does not necessarily mean it has to lose its playfulness or questioning nature). It reminds me of other artists who similarly work within their communities/political systems such as, Gabriel Orozco, Mona Hatoum and Francis Alys.
'Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn' (1995) Triptych of black and white prints, 199.9 x 180cm 
Throughout history you had your Duchamps, Warhols and Rauschenbergs who somewhat arrogantly or playfully (depending on how you look at it) called anything that they signed, said, exhibited or mass produced; ‘art’ . They re-valued and reassigned what art could be and what the role of the artist was. Weiwei has stated being influenced by these artists in his own earlier works and in this exhibition presenting the piece, ‘Hanging Man’ made from a bent clothes hanger as a direct reference to Duchamp and Dada. Given a similar treatment are ‘Table and Pillar’, one of a series of works that explores combining two ready-mades from Qing Dynasty temples to create new forms and challenge the ‘value’ of history vs. the art object; ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ and Weiwei’s coloured/Coca-Cola vases, again in which the values of cultural and financial work are questioned as well as the challenging of history, systems which it is documented/recorded and whom in society has the power to assign value to an object. The latter is an ideology is echoed in the beginning example of Weiwei’s omission from the Chinese Phaidon ‘Art Book’ to which Weiwei states a defiant truth, ‘The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.’ Alternatively Weiwei’s intervention of historical artefacts is seen to some as a deliberate act of vandalism, but perhaps in a similar way to Banksy, the role of the vandal and the artist are subverted when both artists’ interventions often add a commercial and cultural value to an object? As well as questioning the nature of what vandalism is it empowers the makers as being in control of creating value to objects rather than being dictated by authorities or system within which the work operates.

[detail] 'Forever Bicycles' (2009-14)
At times all of this becomes a little heavy and one almost feels better not knowing of the injustice, corruption and atrocities. Ignorance becomes bliss, but I still acknowledge that they are truths that we should and cannot ignore. “Art is not supposed to repeat what you already know. It is supposed to ask questions.”* The show ends on a slightly more light-hearted note with the recently commissioned piece specifically adapted for the exhibition, ‘Forever Bicycles’, a chandelier  made up of Chinese bikes strewn with crystals  hanging from the domed ceiling. The idea of a journey, wheels in motion and circular routes in some ways mirrors the artist’s new found freedom of having his passport reendowed since it was taken from him by the government in2011. It ironically also raises the ethics of being an artist as whilst Weiwei is an ambassador for freedom of speech it could be viewed that in his chosen occupation he has to lose his own freedom in his commitment/celebrity-like status to his cause, “an artist is never artist is bound by his gift, his vocation”**
Weiwei has more than once stated his belief that it is not possible to separate the art from politics in China and goes back to my own belief from earlier that he is an anarchist with a conscience, an artist who sees his role as not merely a matter of presenting the world but fundamentally trying to change it. 

Ai Weiwei is on at the Royal Academy until December 13th 2015
All text and images Copyright of Natalie Parsley©
*Kutlug Ataman from ’33 Artists In 3 Acts’ Sarah Thornton
** Andrei Tarkovsky ‘Sculpting in Time’

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Easy Glider - Peter Lanyon at The Courtauld

The Peter Lanyon show at The Courtauld in London is not as busy as it deserves to be! Perhaps though that gentleness is to its advantage and out of the four exhibitions I viewed during my recent art-binge it was one of the more enjoyable and certainly most dynamic. Seeing the St Ives born and Cornish-based artist’s work in the more urban restlessness of London was also something of a contextual surprise. If you have grown-up and/or been taught art in the South West at some point you’re almost definitely going to have come across Lanyon’s paintings; distinctly recognisable for their expressionistic depiction of aerial views of the Cornish landscape, mark-making and largely earthy, natural colours and tones. It is very interesting and relevant that he is being given this small but powerful exhibition at The Courtauld as one of Britain’s ‘leading post-war landscape painters’ raising yet more awareness beyond its 'St Ives School' roots.

 'High Ground' (1956) Oil on Board 48 x 72" 
This particular series of paintings, a modest 18/19 in total charts the progression of Lanyon’s paintings in response to his passion for gliding as a way of informing and inspiring his work. It begins in the late 1950’s and follows through until the artist’s death in 1964. A life cut tragically short as a result of injuries during a gliding accident.  In the early works, made when Lanyon had just started gliding such as ‘High Ground’ 1956 (pictured) the paint is very thickly applied; the colours more earthy and like Cornish stone, but also capture a sense of the weather or stormy nature of the elements almost attacking the landscape. The 'elements' of which become more prominent in later works. There are beginnings of playing with perspective and alternative/fractured viewpoints of ‘cell-like’ field shapes and harbour walls but overall the work feels blocky and more structured in a Cubist-sense of creating multiple viewpoints. In many ways they are abstract, though this is a label Lanyon strongly contested against stating that he was attempting to create an ‘experience of a place’ and what it feels like to be in that landscape rather than creating an abstraction from reality. He argued they were another form of 'reality', the 'lived experience' of being in a place. It is harder to pick-up upon this in the early glider works that feature more representational forms of landmass, fields, harbours and hilltops. They have the impression of being heavy and more grounded. For Lanyon his relationship with painting was very much about reinvigorating it, ‘painting has lost its vitality due to typically presented viewpoints’ and he sought to create work that was as dynamic and changeable as the environment itself; as he saw it, a ‘more modern, true relationship with nature’.

 'Soaring Flight' (1960) Oil on Canvas 60 x 60"
What better way to change one’s perspective than to literally change it by taking-flight and viewing the landscape not from the ground, hilltop, fishing boat or pier but from the skies above. A remarkable shift in Lanyon’s work begins to emerge with the introduction of the artist gliding. The landscapes he painted and knew so well from the ground became full of potential new shapes, colours and movement when viewed in the elements from the air. And it is fascinating to see how the painting becomes lighter and more sweepingly gestural with the more experiences he has gliding. In ‘Soaring Flight’ 1960 (pictured) the earthy tones of ‘High Ground’ are replaced with sea or sky blues, there is less densely packed structure and more space and areas of vastness that spill and stretch off the sides of the canvas into some other unknown limitless void. Lanyon even starts to put himself within these works, a hint of red referring to the wings of the glider. They feel as liberated perhaps as (one imagines) the act of flying itself and are full of a sense of movement, pace between areas of quiet and areas of busier mark-making activity. Though Lanyon doesn’t completely abandon painting the sculptural forms of the land there is significantly less of it present in the paintings made during the 60s. These feature more coves, skies and seas with hints of landmass in-between which could be a reflection of the greater heights and distances Lanyon would have covered with his increasing confidence and experience of gliding.

'Thermal' (1960) Oil on Canvas  72 x 60"
In other paintings such as ‘Thermal’ 1960 (pictured left) the work takes on more phenomenological qualities, the feeling of airy-ness/breath is created through the lightness of how paint is applied and painterly affects that look like meteorological weather maps and temperatures. This is even reinforced in the titles of some of the paintings, ‘Backing Wind’ and ‘Calm Wind’ which convey both the vortex disorientating trait of the wind as well as its gentle, uplifting side. The paint feels fresher, more immediate, done with the speed and energy of flight itself. In many ways they share similar qualities to Constable or Turner’s paintings in their attempts to capture the elements, the affects of weather and light in their landscapes. For Lanyon, however the weather along with the experience of flight became the content of the work itself so much so that some of the work begins to look almost minimal and less and less recognisable as being Cornish, see ‘Drift’ 1961.

'Glide Path' (1964) Oil & Plastic Tubing on Canvas 60 x 48"
Though it is interesting because I feel that Lanyon was always conscious that in all his experiences of gliding and the sensations it evoked that he was actually still making paintings; they had to work as paintings on a decisive, compositional and formal qualities level of thinking and never quite became in his lifetime purely experiential. In ‘Glide Path’ 1964 for example Lanyon uses bright reds and warm yellows amidst found jetsam and detritus in his studio. It could almost be an American Abstract Expressionist piece with its use of found objects and dynamic, gestural brushstrokes. The black plastic tubing acting as struts across the centre are used for both their formal qualities in the painting in addition to capturing something of the experience of being inside the glider looking out. If its possible to separate the two, I have always looked at Lanyon’s work as a painting first and an impression of a place or experience second but I also appreciate you cannot have one without the other.

In one of his last paintings ‘Near Cloud’ created in 1964 the work takes on an nearly unfinished quality, a zen-like realisation in the artist’s visual vocabulary where less-is-more, into the colour-theory based realms of other post-war artists like Patrick Heron and Roger Hilton. I still think Lanyon is actually the better painter and we can only speculate what direction his art may have gone in had he lived longer. This is a small gem of an exhibition in what is rapidly becoming one of my favourite art galleries. The catalogue alone is worth having as there is so little published on Lanyon’s work and even for those familiar with it, it is such a treat to see so many of his paintings all in one place! To all those not familiar it should be quite breath-taking!

'Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon's Glide Paintings' is on at The Courtauld until Jan 17th 2016