Thursday, 22 June 2017

You better believe it!

In Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition, ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ visitors are invited to experience two museums worth of coral-clad sculpture, objects, photography and video that aims to push our understanding of how history and myths are formed, questioning the mortality of materials and their makers. We are told that the beasts, idols, artefacts and objects on show were once lost in a legendary shipwreck and have been raised from the Indian Ocean to be presented here at the Francois Pinault Foundation’s Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi galleries in Venice. Relics of a bygone civilisation they are presented as such, in vast glass vitrines or vast spaces; many still encrusted in the limpets, barnacles and coral accumulated from their time underwater.

‘Demon with a bowl’ (Exhibition Enlargement) Painted resin. 1822 x 789 x 1144 cm
On Monday 12th June 2017 armed with nothing but a camera and a pen I chose to wade into the depths and shallows of these art-infested waters...
‘Calendar Stone’ Bronze. 422.5 x 475.8 x 172.3 cm
Opening in the heart of the Biennale contemporary art calendar, the venue set over two museums along the Grand Canal has the makings for the perfect rock n’ roll style location for an artist whose calf slicing, diamond skull encrusting, butterfly pinning works about mortality have become amongst the most iconic, satirised, notorious, discussed and the most highly selling of any living artist in the contemporary art world. This new exhibition of work from the Bristol born artist, now in his 50s is his most ambitious to date and sees a sum 190 pieces in marble, gold and bronze, crystal, jade and malachite, at over a decade in the making and at a whopping cost reportedly of 50 million to make it is as an extravaganza to behold as it is ambitiously risky. But what else would one expect from the artist made famous as one of the YBAs for pickling a shark and calling it art!
‘Huehueteotl and Olmec Dragon’ Silver, Paint. 29.7 x 28 x 21 cm
In the Punta Della Dogana a replica of a Mayan Calendar welcomes visitors to the exhibition, its surface completely clad in the coral and underwater fauna of its supposed 2,000 years lost at sea. Behind it, a larger-than-life statue of a warrior atop a snarling bear on its hind legs, its surface also at first glance appearing to be covered in a living surface.  Smaller relics such as coins and assorted precious stones alongside photographs placed throughout the exhibition create a museum-like narrative that depicts the breadth of what was ‘discovered’ as well as the salvaging process of divers excavating these treasures. If you believe that any of it is real, from the impressive looking albeit actually fake coral, to the whole fabricated tale itself then you’ll believe anything! It soon becomes apparent that this is all a little too farfetched; the comic nature completely exposed when pop culture figures such as Mickey Mouse, Goofy, a transformer, Kate Moss as a sphinx appear and later a depiction of the artist himself. They are modern cultural references that begin to make the whole thing begin to feel like the satire of Banksy’s Dismaland. It does however raise the interesting question of whether these are remnants from a fabricated past or visions of a dystopian future?
‘The Warrior and the Bear’ Bronze. 713 x 260 x 203 cm
This is merely the tip of the iceberg in an exhibition that in its vast yarn-spinning complexity becomes more a lesson in 21st Century marketing and publicity. This isn’t a criticism; Hirst manipulates the power of the institution of the gallery as a place for authority and truth and turns it on its head. The result is that the ‘joke’ ends up more often than not to appear rather kitsch, befitting of the attention they receive in their crowd-pleasing photographable appeal alone. For these reasons early reviews for this exhibition were almost ravenous in criticising it but I feel that they were searching too hard for a depth that they sought when in fact what makes this show so appealing and so extraordinary is in its shallowness. Unabashed conviction in its commitment to the lie it is trying to tell is commendable as at times its relentlessness of puns and popular icons grows tedious. It is popular, maybe for the wrong reasons; though it is also fun and regardless of the jokes or whether it’s real or not it is still a spectacle to behold.
Artists have long been blurring the distinctions between truth and lies, fact and fiction, history and its documentation versus myth and its own immortality in their art. Whilst these are ideas that have been explored before, particularly in Hirst’s work, they have not been explored as lavishly previously by the artist as they have here. There is something Hollywood blockbuster-like or theme park sized extravagance to the ambition of the ‘lie’ that is being presented that sort of allows us to forgive it and immerse ourselves into the experience. Are we part of the joke or in on the joke I am still unsure? For me, the best work in the exhibition is the video documentation, regardless of the ‘lie’, the reality is that all of these monstrously-sized objects had actually been put out at sea and salvaged (albeit in a staged manner) but the filming of this process is mysteriously compelling, well shot and edited as a piece of film-making and becomes visually far more believable! As for the sculptures themselves, I think it would be good if much of this work was buried back at sea; not because I believe they are awful (some though truly are) but because I would like to have seen them with real algae and age to them rather than being fabricated. In 2,000 years or more they could become something that really could be discovered? I would love to know either way what the legacy of this work will be. 
‘Hydra and Kali’ Bronze. 539 x 612 x 244 cm
In this era of fake news this exhibition feels timelier than what critics give it credit for and the lasting impression it has had for me is that there is still much creativity involved in creating a story, those stories then sometimes becoming myths of the future. This exhibition is certainly very memorable! It is therefore highly appropriate that I end this tale with one of my own. Make of it what you will. Upon finishing seeing the show at the Palazzo Grassi, I descended the stairs and spotted at the feet of the gargantuan 18 metre resin statue ‘Demon with a Bowl’, the artist, Damien Hirst, himself! It was the ultimate irony and much to my surprise that no one else in the relatively busy exhibition had noticed that its creator was just walking amongst them as they so enthusiastically photographed and viewed his work, perhaps it was humbling? Myself, I could not resist the opportunity to say ‘hi’ and shake his hand. “I suppose you’re to blame for all this then?” I asked him. “I suppose I am,” he said.
That really is unbelievable!
Damien Hirst’s ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ is on at Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana until 3rd December 2017.

Thursday, 8 June 2017


Buffet d’art at Hestercombe gallery is a smorgasbord of buffet-sized sculpture, live art, film, sound, light and painting from 45 different artists, all of whom have been invited to bring work that can be ‘perused on a plinth’.
“The show is a mele√® of mismatched yet aspiring works, some with delusions of grandeur, others grubby with spillage and monotonous repetition, set to a medley of smooth and relaxing music, designed to whet the senses and heighten your experience of these buffet-inspired memories.”
An unusual exhibition warrants an unusual response so I am writing mine in the form of a buffet table conversation between three people with very opposing views as they attempt to digest what lies before them.
Person X: What ill conceived manner of cacophonous, inane, conceited  tat is all this?! Something that can only best resemble a turd, a giant band aid, a woman urinating, a load of old cigarettes... A blue stick! A cupcake, that as far as I can see is unedible!
Person Y: It is safe to assume that you liked it then?
Person X: Liked it! If I wanted to see a load of something of nothing, I’d have gone to [disclaimer we could not include the name of the gallery here, but you know the one]!
Person Y: I think any reaction is a good one, besides its playful, an example of bringing together these disparate, strange and creative elements. Their variety and unexpected nature of viewing works on and under a giant table is visually a lot to look at in a small curated space.
Georgina Starr
Person Z: I don’t get it.
Person X: It’s taking the p**s is what it is. A cheap way for artists to boost their CVs and for galleries to they’ve exhibited work by a wide array of artists.
Person Y: Cynically, perhaps yes. But where else do you get the opportunity to see work like this, by artists whose big works you may be familiar with, it offers a glimpse into the playful and other creative outputs within their practice.
Person X: I wouldn’t want to see any more of some of it!
Person Y: It is all here, lights, coloured liquids, music, strange undefinable forms, waves, a diorama of a swimming pool, a revolving pot, recycled entities, felt, paper, foam. A village of tiny people, projection, a yellow baseball cap!
Person Y: Maybe you are taking it too seriously. Think of Dada, Surrealism, artist’s studios and the ‘real, lived process’ of what it means to be an artist and make art. Is it not at times inquisitive, spontaneous, rebellious in its non-conformity? See this as a buffet, a taste of lots of variables out of many. So many that we may not have time to savour and understand each one individually for long before moving onto the next thrill, the next surprise, the next thing that may upset, delight or confuse us. Some are intentionally small things, but with grand ambitions that the status of the plinth provides. You could see it as ironic or tongue-in-cheek.
Reith Bowler
Person Z: I don’t get it.

Person Y: What would you expect or want to see in Somerset?
Person X: .....I suppose, ...variety. Something contemporary.
Person Y: Exactly!
Person X: But I am not sure I get the ‘joke’ here, if that was what was intended. I am not sure if pointlessness for the sake of pointlessness either does anything to help raise the bar or what is it challenging or prove?
Person Z: ...I really do not get it.
Person X: The only people this will appeal to are those hipster, do-gooder, lefty, decaffeinated-skim-latte drinking mediocrities blinded to the facts that what this truly is, a waste of space! 
Peggy Atherton
Person Z: “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellectual upon art.” Susan Sontag
Person X: Even if this is art, which isn’t quite the same as what we are arguing here, what this is, is still not good art. This is a bunch of stuff masquerading as being important because it is made by an entitled, insider bunch of artists.
Person Y: Isn’t that what all art is. Who decides what is good or bad, it’s all subjective. What is the inside? These are old issues. It is all too easy to grow cynical of these things; I think that the connection it creates between artists, curators and gallery spaces is a good one. I read recently that, “Reviewers like to feel they are above a work of art. If it puzzles them or if they are intimidated they are more than likely to trash it.” Could not the same be said of art audiences?
Person X: ....
Person Y: Though I do often wonder if it is an apathy towards our failings to engage and discuss this sort of art with other people or ourselves and honestly, that causes these strong opinions. How often is it that we merely tolerate a lot of art that we feel is bad because criticism is difficult to express as it can be to ingest. This isn’t good for either party. Audiences are always being forced to be open-minded and try new things but do they have the same power of influence on the curators who's shows they visit and consume?
David Cotterrell
Person Z: I suppose by that comment you are referring to me. I do not understand it but that does not come out of apathy or lack of desire to understand. I am content with just experiencing and viewing it for what it is.

Person X: Well, certainly no apathy here!
Person Y: Maybe it is all a conversation. The pieces brought together from individual artists, arranged in a way so that they ‘talk’ to one another. See it as a series of rhythms and forms, colours and textures that change. Or maybe the point is that it generates us to have the kinds of conversations we are having now.
Person X: Not big enough or isolated enough to be satisfying.
Person Y: I found a couple of things that really stood out for me. I like R J Hinrichson’s pamphlet on creating your own ‘Semi Formal Discussion Networks’. Though as a whole it looked a bit goofy and forced together and I couldn’t appreciate how the different objects related to one another in terms of their space on the ‘table’.
Person Z: I liked Ben Joiner’s piece. It sort-of looked like it was crawling onto the table like a giant fried egg.
Person X: Hmmm, ... I still do not see quite why someone would be willing to waste their time looking at this as they would want to read about it.
Person Y: On that we can agree.
You too can gorge yourself silly or go on an art detox at Hestercombe Gallery's Buffet d'art, open Sun, 21st May at 11:00 am to Sun, 18th Jun at 5:00 pm

Friday, 2 June 2017

FaB 4!

Art-goers of all tastes have until June 11th 2017 to catch dozens of visual arts exhibitions plus performance, music, film and talks as part of Bath’s annual Fringe Arts [FAB]. The Visual Arts part of the festival sees twenty-eight curated exhibitions in a range of venues and locations across the city, some worth visiting for their surprising venue alone; visitors have much to explore! I have been to several Fringe Arts Bath years and always attempted to write about too much of it in the past. I am of mixed opinions on what I saw this time around, even from some of what I have chosen here, but if you don't have time to see it all then you won't do badly by sticking to my FaB four!
In no particular order:
Robert Good 'A Defensive Manoeuvre' exhibited in 'The Obsessive
Compulsive Practice at FaB 2
Robert Good as part of The Obsessive Compulsive Practice, FaB 2, 94 Walcot Street
Should it be troubling that my favourite exhibition in the Fringe should focus on obsessive behaviours and compulsive repetitions or tedious practices of the need and making of art? There were several artists whose work I found interesting in this exhibition, Abigail Simmonds, Lucinda Burgess to name a few. Though the piece, ‘A Defensive Manoeuvre’ by Robert Good stood out for me. Lest alone because I work in a bookshop! Or maybe it is because I work in a bookshop that this works place within a show about obsession, collecting and ‘a sense of order’ really drew me in. At first it made me smile, like a highly organised Arman, the work safely houses ninety copies of the same book, each has been collected and arrange into its own neat bespoke box/vitrine. The wit of then reading that these are copies of Charles Rycroft’s ‘Anxiety and Neurosis’, mass-produced as Pelican books, adds to the seemingly compulsive orderliness of how they are arranged. The fact that they are second-hand, worn, read, used; each one we imagine may have belonged to a different person at some time who bought the book either out of interest or because perhaps they themselves were in a state of some anxiety. Maybe some copies were well read, whilst others not so. Those subtle differences and traces of use make them individual and aesthetically pleasing as it is loaded with meaning. Presented here, as a set, that anxiety becomes a collective one rather than a private one and possibly alluding to the bigger concerns that we still have as a nation in addressing, speaking about issues surrounding mental health.  Pardon the pun, but maybe I am reading too much into this piece –though it did get me thinking and for that it was one of my personal highlights.

Ally McGinn 'Broken Skin'
The Bath Open Art Prize at 44AD Artspace

Small but perfectly formed, there is a lot to see in this relatively small space that features a great variety of work. Some of my personal favourites include; Nina Gronw-Lewis, Ally McGinn (pictured), McFarland and Singer.
Embodied Cartographies at Walcot Chapel
“Walking . . . is how the body measures itself against the earth.” -Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking Embodied Cartographies is ‘An inter-disciplinary series of events and exhibition focusing on walking as praxis, mark-making, language, performance, choreography, philosophy, wayfinding...’
The Walcot Chapel hosts a lot of great exhibitions and is worth a visit during anyone’s time on a visit to Bath. A few of the pieces in Embodied Cartographies I had the pleasure of seeing before in other exhibitions but it was still good to see some of those familiar pieces in a new context and alongside some new ones, such as, Lydia Halcrow (pictured). In selection of artists and concept, this should be a great exhibition; though I feel slightly weary that it should happen in a year that has seen so many similar exhibitions to explore weathered and alternative ways of mapping and documenting and being in the landscape. Maybe I have seen too much but am still waiting and hoping for an exhibition in the future that seeks to shift the balance away from this very muted, geological, meteorological look on the natural world.   
Lydia Halcrow 'The Black Ground: walking the Taw and Torridge estuaries',
exhibited in 'Embodied Cartographies' at the Walcot Chapel.
The Building at Fab 1, 15 New Bond Street
One of my favourite things about FaB is being allowed access to spaces that we as the public would not normally have access to. In a former shop space in the centre of the city are five floors and a basement hosting six individual art exhibitions. The lowest-level being particularly atmospheric as you descend into a subterranean brick built cellar with curved arches, low-lighting and damp, dank conditions. It is an exciting place to see art in, ignites the imagination, it is unusual and fitting of what a fringe festival should represent; the hidden, the inaccessible made accessible. What if the walls could talk? What was this space used for? How old is it? There is an installation in this space (below) as part of 'Dreaming in Full' which transforms the cellar at New Bond Street into a fairytale-like living quarters complete with mushrooms, teasels and folk art style furniture. It is a bit too over-the-top, twee, too theatrical and staged for my taste; I think I would like to see work that responded to the space so you could appreciate and see it as it is. One solid, strong projection, lighting or sound could add intrigue to this space without turning it into something else. 
There is a lot of potential in the spaces and buildings used in the Fringe, I am sometimes surprised that the context of being in Bath, with its history aren’t responded to more. Being a visitor it is sometimes more overwhelming and distracting to be exploring floor after floor of these shops than it is looking at the work within it which cannot always compete with the space it finds itself in.
Installation at FaB 1, 15 New Bond Street
FaB is on until June 11th where you can all make your own mind on all this and much, much more!