We were fortunate enough to take a trip down to London to explore galleries.
Our first stop was at The Science Museum for “Gathered Leaves”, an exhibition collecting together works by Alec Soth from the past decade. Three rooms, featuring photographs from four of his books, also provided an insight into his research process with central cases exhibiting notes, sketches, reading material and selected pages from the published books. I have long admired Soth’s work so it was fantastic to finally see it in real life, especially as many of the prints were at least 1m wide. The ‘Niagara’ section of the exhibition was the most impressive, both in terms of content and concept. I wasn’t aware that Niagara is a popular destination for couples. Soth wanted to document this aspect of the area alongside it’s status as a landmark of natural beauty. The long exposure print of the actual falls was stunning, capturing 100’s of shades of blue and rendering the surface of the torrent of water glass-like. In contrast the simple snap of a what appears to be a lovers note on graph paper sparked an instant emotional reaction and I felt a swelling of sadness for the writer. Similarly, when reading the notes in the book, I came across an account of a meeting with a troubled young man who was mourning the suicide of his girlfriend. Alongside the story of Soth’s meeting with this man was a copy of the young woman’s embittered suicide note. Understanding the depth of human connection behind the project gave weight to the effects of the images.
Something that is remarkable when looking at Soth’s work is his ability to work in a variety of styles and scenarios. Despite many of his works being memorable I would not say that his work has a signature style. Another element that makes the work so appealing to me is the presence of humour and contemplation in equal measure. I admire his dedication to narrative, open-minded about subject and collaborators in his pursuit of one.
Afterwards we continued on to The Saatchi Gallery where we saw “Champagne Life”, a group exhibition of exclusively female artists, and “Revelations: New Work by Aidan”, curated by Jenny Christensson.
It was good to see such an important contemporary art space supporting women in the art world however I was initially disappointed by most of the work I saw. Wandering through Champagne Life raised interesting questions about visual vs. concept; there were several works which did not capture my attention aesthetically or I dismissed, only to read the accompanying descriptions in the gallery guide and change my view drastically.
For example, there was a huge display across one wall of cooking pots and pans with burnt bottoms fixed to the wall. I enjoyed examining the various incidental patterns and shapes and collected together they produced a certain sense of awe entering the room. But I couldn’t help feeling a little cynical about that lack of concept or artistic skill invested. This was a piece by Maha Malluh – Untitled (Food for Thought series, 2015) – commenting on the impact of globalisation on her Saudi Arabian heritage. The style of display also has links to 6th century ‘hanging poems’, traditionally hung in Mecca.
In the same room stood a taxidermy horse positioned on some kind of plastic’bubble’. The only effect this had on me was to make me feel sad about the disrespectful treatment of the horse. After reading the entry in the guide I now know it was made by Soheila Sokhanvari, whose work has running theme relating to philosophy and politics. This piece was intended as a comment on an anti-government protest in Iran in 2009. I appreciate the place for this work but on a personal level it doesn’t interest me as it is obscure and difficult for most viewers to grasp the concept of without a great deal of explanation.
Across the other side of the room lay what appeared to be a papier mache donkey with it’s legs tied up. The deep blue colours and spattered effect was reminiscent of a starry sky. Donkeys have a long history as servants, carrying heavy loads or passengers. Perhaps a statement about our attitudes towards space? Personally though I felt the quality of the execution was poor and felt like it could have been made by a school child. In a sense I was right; Mia Feuer made this work in collaboration with children in Palestine. For them donkeys are just about the only way to navigate a road block. Of course the animal also holds significance as a symbol of the Nativity story. I now have a much deeper respect for Feuer’s work, who “believes in the transformative potential of art… [and its] explicit ties to the impact of our actions upon our environment.”
There were other works I found much easier to read and immediately liked. Stephanie Quayle’s life-size clay sculptures, of cattle and a lion-human hybrid, were incredible realistic while still retaining the textural qualities of the clay. The subject matter and choice of ancient medium sparked quiet thoughts about human relationships with nature and animals.
Seung Ah Paik’s enormous textile work recorded minute details of skin, like a map. The abstract composition of limbs and stretches of flesh give the viewer a first person perspective of the artists body.
Marie Angeletti’s work caught my eye, less for its content and more the style of hanging; groupings of 3/5 images, in a range of styles/media, spread across the wall. This style of display reminded me of Wolfgang Tillmans. Even if indecipherable it was evident there was something linking them and this element of mystery, or questioning towards the view, to me I saw as humorous and intriguing. After reading the guide entry now know that her process is inspired by the visual saturation of the internet by collecting related images from a Google image search. “They are juxtapose, spliced together, scanned, rescanned, photographed and re-photographed – these acts of continual reproduction distance the image even further from the subject it supposedly indexes.”
We then head upstairs to the AIDAN exhibition, which I loved. Through various media, traditional and contemporary, she playfully explored gender roles, sexuality, nudity, culture, religion and potential interpretations of the veiled figure. I particularly like the provocative video installation. In the piece veiled women dominate scantily clad men in a kind of erotic role reversal, considering the erotic potential of the veil and fantasies revolving around domination and submission. Aidan herself was trained in Soviet Moscow in the 1980’s and has Azeri and Uzbekhistani heritage, explaining the presence of veiled women in her work. I was really impressed by all of her work and feel she will be a great influence on me conceptually in future, particularly with the current Culture & Conflict project.