The Muse

 

My latest top lot is Sarah Lucas’s series of Muses, three of which were recently on display in the North Drawing Room of London’s Sir John Soane Museum. Originally commissioned for the Venice Biennale as part of her I SCREAM DADDIO exhibition, the series features ten bodies in plaster cast, for which Lucas used various female friends as models. Each body is literally ‘topless’ – a pair of legs chopped off at the waist – adopting a range of poses from the coquettish to the confrontational. The concept behind these works recall some of her previous pieces, including Hysterical Attack, which was on display at her 2000 exhibition, The Pleasure Principle, at the Freud Museum.

For me these pieces evoke so many different meanings and interpretations and it is this continuous thought-provocation that I love. The most overt theme plays on the idea of male voyeurism. By chopping off the head and torso of these muses, their sexual identities are brought to the fore (not to mention playing with the idea of ‘toplessness’). Despite most of the poses involving open legs and erotically-suggestive positionings over tables and chairs, the figures are far removed from invoking any sexual desire in the viewer. Instead they take on an almost intellectual capacity, perhaps achieved with the addition of the comical positioning of the cigarettes,which give them a self-contained status.

The everyday objects on which the muses are placed – tables, chairs… – form a crucial part of the artworks as a whole. Reminiscent of plinths, the furniture and the muses combine to echo and subvert the tradition of the reclining female nude, ubiquitous in so many pieces of Western Art. Their proximity to Soane’s extensive collection of antique plaster casts gives these topless nymphs a further critical position within the tradition of classical sculpture.

Aside from these associations, Lucas embraces the muses’ femininity – these are real women and these are their real bodies. Unlike so many of today’s pictures of women in the media, they are not airbrushed and glossed over with tummy rolls and bum dimples on full show. The chipping of some of the casts on particular works, such as the hole in the back of Michele, draws attention to the process of casting these women in plaster, emphasising their actual presence. Aesthetically and despite these traditionally-perceived ‘imperfections’, the shapes of the female forms are generally soft and tactile. The cigarettes inserted into various bodily crevaces add a violent and brutal quality, as they crudely cut across the smooth, muscular lines, creating visual contrast for the viewer.

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But, most of all, these sculptures make me laugh, and I don’t think this is a wrong or inappropriate response to have. Such staged sexuality is so crude, so subversive, so critical that you don’t know how to respond to it; how to act. Their positioning within the traditional walls of John Soane’s prim and proper abode makes them even more shocking, and – as a consequence – all the more effective.

Virtual Reality: The end of museums as we know it?

Manouevring yourself around a gallery or exhibition is an art in itself. We’ve all pondered the tactics: should I go round the reverse way? Is it better to stand two centimetres away from the artworks (and risk not being able to see the exhibit as a whole), or two metres (in the knowledge that other visitors will almost certainly block your view)?

Museums are not blind to the issues of overcrowding. In fact, there are many initiatives already in place to improve visitor experience. The British Museum, for example, (with its staggering 6.7 million visitors per year) is apparently considering making its two one-metre-wide front doors wider to ease the queues of people trying to get inside. And while the Louvre has optimised the flow of visitors by increasing its number of internal doors, places like the Tate Modern and the Royal Academy of Art have increased their opening hours into the night during very popular exhibitions (Matisse and Ai Wei Wei respectively) to allow more people to visit and enjoy their art. So far, there hasn’t been an outright solution and visitors are still subject to the woes of queuing and overcrowding every day.

Overcrowding in museums is not a new problem

I read an interesting article this week by Adrian Hon who argued (and not without much contention) that ‘VR will break museums’, in the sense that it could be the solution museums need to address their overcrowding. With 3D cinema making waves, Google Glass and an unprecedented emphasis on immersive digital experience in the arts (see Tilt Brush), it could be argued that this is the next logical step for visitor experience development. Of course, there have already been tentative footsteps in the cultural world towards this. The Vatican, for example, is already well on its way to creating a virtual alternative to visitors to the Sistine Chapel. With its  25,000 visitors per day, they plan to create a virtual pavilion: by giving each visitor a set of Google Glass-style viewers and a digital simulation of the ceiling, it is hoped that people will spend less time in the actual chapel and instead enjoy it from a distance in their created digital space. The British Museum too has taken a small step in this direction with their recent Virtual Reality exhibition of the bronze age, which invited visitors to ‘engage with the past not just through the real objects in the galleries but through state of the art 3D headsets, tablets, and a projection of a recreated house’.

Of course, virtual realities can take many different shapes and guises. Defined broadly as a ‘three-dimensionsal, computer-generated environment’, their application in museums or galleries could be within the gallery itself (like the British Museum) or outside (like the Vatican’s plans). However museums may choose to grow their virtual realities, I’m going to briefly explore some pros and cons of VR as we know it.

 

An improved visitor experience?

Firstly, and in direct response to the problem of overcrowding in museums, virtual realities can allow the visitor to be the only person in the room (see, for example, Guillermo Del Toro’s video game virtual realities). VR can provide an environment where no one bumps into you, no one blocks your view, and you are left with no guilt might you accidentally block anyone else’s view. It’s just you and the museum.

In addition to this, VR makes it very easy to add context to a painting or artefact, without the cryptic and malplaced labels. Context and understanding is often a key reason why people visit museums: as an interactive and interesting road to understanding a time, place or subject. Of course, VR isn’t the only way one can add context but as Adrian Hon points out, ‘VR necessarily comprises a superset of all existing ways of adding context plus it adds entirely new context, like simulations and recreations.’ With VR you can even teleport visitors into recreated worlds: after all, viewing the artefacts of Pompei is much more fulfilling when you are in situ on the Amalfi Coast rather than at the British Museum looking at them through a glass case. It’s very difficult to convey a sense of place and space in a museum, but virtual realities can take you that extra bit closer, cutting you off from the outside world and transporting you back in time and across the world to where that artefact was created, used and discovered.

Which would you prefer? The Amalfi Coast or a room in the British Museum?

Built for scale

Of course, virtual realities are not cheap to produce, but the cost effectiveness could come from its combination with the internet. Built to scale, the internet would enable the sensation of being in a museum to be accessible to visitors, in a virtual reality, across the world. Such universal accessibility gives a good case for potential sponsors too. As Adrian Hon says: ‘We can expect Facebook, Google and Amazon to fund VR museum efforts as well. They want attention, and a museum-like educational experience is a good complement to their other marketplace endeavours.’

 

Personalisation

What seems to be the biggest added capability of VR in museums, however, is that – through digital experiences – they will be able to track audience behaviour so much more accurately. No more questionnaires, no more surveys… through VR they would be able to learn their visitors behaviours and, just like Facebook and Google, to A/B test their exhibitions in order to personalise and optimise everybody’s experience. Perhaps a curator thinks that one exhibit is fascinating, whilst the majority of visitors glance at it and walk straight past. It would be much more difficult to the museums to remain blind to these kinds of responses.

 

Digital troubles

Of course, moves into the digital tracking / user optimisation world are not without their disadvantages. As we all know, there is a very fine line between optimising user experience and stalking your every move. If, in a VR museum, we are to look at several paintings by Picasso, will that mean that our Facebook will be littered with adverts to watch the latest contemporary art documentary? Such widespread advertising would probably be a boom for museums’ funding, but this could all be (hypothetically, and in extremis) to the complete detriment of our (previously optimised) visitor experience. Alongside the erosion of privacy is the concern that exhibitions, like our newspapers, will transform into click-bait-only territories. Might our journey around a museum become littered with tag lines such as ‘You’ll never guess what this Roman Emperor did to his wife’ and ‘This 2000-year old ceramic will prove you’ve been eating soup wrong all your life’? VR dystopia.

It’s not the same

In our shiny vision of what VR might entail, with its hyper-realistic simulations of pyramids in Cairo where we can view the hieroglyphic inscriptions in peace, one must also not forget that – and I’m talking from experience thus far – virtual is never the same as the real thing. I’m still yet to be convinced of 3D cinema, and if given the choice, I would definitely choose your bog-standard 2D screening room than an immersive 3D IMAX theatre. The novelity is fun, the techniques are impressive but it hurts my eyes and ultimately this discomfort distracts me from what I’m trying to enjoy. Until virtual reality is a seamless extension of reality, it will always be inferior.

I was also interested to read a piece of research by Katy Newton and Karin Soukup about people’s experiences and behaviours in VR. What they found was that there are a limitless number of intricacies in VR that affect audience experience. Because VR audiences are in an external environment, their senses are heightened because they are aware that they are in a curated reality. In other words, they take on the role of ‘inspector’ looking for clues. While this heightened appreciation and concentration could be deemed a good thing, Katy and Karin reported that actually this led many of their audience members to concentrate on aspects that they as curators hadn’t even given a second thought, and as such their audiences were more easily led off-track. Similarly, they found that the physical positioning of an audience member in a VR environment was very important. They become a part of a story and so are affected by the feelings and the associations of where they are positioned within that environment. These kinds of responses are also entirely subjective. For example, while some people might feel empowered being placed at the front of a VR classroom, others might feel vulnerable. It’s a matter of personality. VR provides a curator with so many more artistic opportunities, but also a lot of responsibility to get it correct for their audience.

 

The role of the museum 

Of course, museums aren’t just about gazing at artefacts. Yes, they are places of learning for the general public but they are also research hubs and university institutions for authors, pHd students and more… Would VR effect this aspect of museums’ identity? Could it endanger them as research hubs? We must also not forget that they are also tourist attractions; places that families visit on days out; buildings of merit in themselves that visitors flock to… They are places of learning, yes, but they are also places to be enjoyed with family and friends. Does VR provide that same social interaction? I’m doubtful.

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While VR is never going to be the same as the real thing, it does provide solutions to some of the problems museums are currently facing. It might solve overcrowding, it could improve visitor experience and it does provide a wealth of curatorial possibilities. In our digital age, VR seems like the next logical step but digital curators must be mindful of both its limitations and limitless possibilities…

Stanley Spencer and Jesus’s Red Thong

My latest Top Lot is this extraordinary painting I saw recently at York Art Gallery: Stanley Spencer’s ‘The Deposition and Rolling Away of the Stone’ (1956).

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Spencer was a devout Christian and often used biblical scenes as the subject for his paintings. He believed God resided in all things and that the miraculous could be found in everyday objects and places. Many of his paintings are set in his home village of Cookham on the bank of the Thames – even if their subject matters were irrelevant to that particular location – and so often foster personal associations. What struck me most about ‘The Deposition’ was the way in which he creates ‘real’, characterful people out of a traditionally theological and idolised subject matter.

At once realistic, eccentric and filled with intense religious meaning, this piece is probably one of the most unusual depictions of the crucifixion I have ever seen. I couldn’t quite get my head around it. The subject is of course Christ, who is not dead – as commonly conveyed in church frescos or Renaissance paintings – but awake, alert and awaiting his fate. There is also a jarring absence of gore (his wounds have no blood) which builds on the unusual effect that Christ is alive… omnipresent.

Look on and the curiosity grows greater. The three men who are nailing Christ’s hands and feet are not the usual superficial props of the Renaissance scenes but are instead full of character. One, for example, is conscientiously checking under Christ’s foot that his positioning of the nail is correct, another seems to be working out how to best use his tool and the other is posed in such a way that really accentuates the force he is applying in order to complete the task at hand. Such conscientiousness is a strange distraction from the crucifixion itself, but again conveys these men as ‘real’ people… it’s as if the scene could be found at any time and place; not just the idolised scene in the bible.

Perhaps most arresting, however, are the red thongs Jesus and some of the other men are wearing. The colour signifies or foreshadows blood, danger and death – as one would expect from the crucifixion story – but the bizarre presence of this provocative underwear could suggest an unorthodox sexualisation of this most sacred of Christian scenes. Again, it transforms the subject and peripheral figures into some more human. John the Baptist, pictured on the left in a blue starry gown, is also believed to resemble the artist himself – again bringing in that element of personal realism and religious omnipresence.

While the top section of the painting has a claustrophobic feel, with figures dominating the length of space, the bottom part depicts a less chaotic atmosphere. The disciples are curled into tight balls in a physical display of their grief, almost reflecting the circular tomb, whilst two angels attend, foreseeing his redemption. By incorporating the more traditional aspects of the scene of the crucifixion with some quite unusual elements, Spencer introduces a very important and probably often overlooked aspect of Christian art: that of the omnipresence of Christ.

 

DON’T BREATHE ON THE ART

Alexander Calder’s Performing Sculpture exhibition at the Tate Modern is a refreshing, playful and enlightening show of modern abstract art. Deemed ‘the artist who cannot keep still… the mobile man above all else’, Calder’s works are instantly recognisable as those colourful, hanging mobiles of abstract shapes and wires, swaying gently in the breeze. A delicate combination of frailty, balance and beauty, his mobile sculptures are not only pleasing to the eye but emotionally satisfying. They also lead the viewer to subjective interpretation: does that sequence of colour and space denote a branch of a tree? Which animal does that positioning of shapes remind me of?

While the exhibition is undoubtedly a superb collection of Calder’s works, ranging from the whimsical, toy-like mechanisms of his Le Grand Cirque to the all-encompassing and organic structures more often found in contemporary art galleries (or perhaps the foyers of architects’ offices), you can’t help but feel that something is missing. Whilst walking through the gallery, it doesn’t take long to identify this certain absent je ne sais quoi: a gallery sign prohibiting us from blowing on Calder’s mobile sculptures, as well as touching them. Strict gallery supervisors suffocate the exhibition space, watching the visitors’ every move.

Extolled as the pioneer of kinetic sculpture, Calder revolutionised abstract art by creating suspended forms that move. Comprising lengths of wires counterbalanced by shapes of varying materials, sizes and colours, the most interesting innovation behind these works is their unique interaction with space; the way they bob and swirl about in natural, spontaneous rhythm. A step away from the canvas artworks of his contemporaries Miró and Mondrian, Jean Paul Sartre described Calder’s mobiles (a term actually originating from Marcel Duchamp) as, ‘a little private celebration, an object defined by its movement and having no other existence. A mobile does not suggest anything. It captures genuine living movements.’

With such intent and meaning behind the movement of these works, it’s such a shame that visitors are unable to experience what really brings them to life. It almost follows that visitors aren’t actually able to experience them at all as these hanging mobiles are – by their very essence – an exercise in movement. If we can’t see them move and perform, what are we looking at? The air flows around the gallery so subtley that they actually appeared completely still, like their ‘stabile’ counterparts (and by definition, the opposite of what these mobiles represent).

I understand that the rationale behind the restrictions is to do with the preservation of these wonderful works. They are old and valuable and it is important that they are preserved for people to enjoy for as long as possible. I do question, however, how much cotton wool is really required, particularly given the fact that many of Calder’s works are displayed outdoors! Even just a regulated fan in the gallery space would improve the exhibition vastly, whilst also protecting against the seemingly unpredictable and dangerous blowing from visitors. It makes you wonder what Calder would prefer: stabile mobiles preserved against the test of time, or a little bit of risk to heighten the impact and dynamicism of these wonderful kinetic sculptures.

Martin Schoeller Up Close: Celebrity & Perspective

“The camera is like a box of tricks. It’s a tool that produces realistic images while confusing our eyes and minds. It can see much better than our eyes: sharper and in much more detail. Its lens can distort yet we believe what we see. It presents the world in black & white while we know it is in colour…”

I have always admired photography for the way in which it can capture specific moments in time without intrusion. Interrupting life or ‘stealing’ time, photography can tell a story across time, betwixt-and-between cultures, religions and traditions.

Take, for example, these pieces by WIlliam Daniels taken as part of his series, ‘Unholy War‘, on exhibition at the Dubrovnik Photography Museum last year.

Capturing the conflict between Muslim-Seleka rebels and the Militias (anti-balaka) in the Central African Republic, this series of photographs tell an endless, poignant story of blood, conspiracy and violence. Aside their – often beautiful –  aesthetic compositions, his photos are a political platform from which his viewers learn about the history of, and the people involved in, this shocking conflict and through these photographs come endless questions of politics, religion, race, class…

Martin Schoeller –  whose ‘Up Close‘ exhibition I recently visited at Stockholm’s Fotografiska Museum – contrasts starkly with William Daniels and my reactions to both photographers works were very different. I found the different perspectives Schoeller’s photographs permitted completely fascinating and like nothing I had ever experienced before with photography.

‘Up Close’ focuses on “hyper-real” depictions of some of the most iconic figures of this generation: Barack Obama, Katy Perry, Hilary Clinton, a blood-splattered Christian Bale, Philip Seymour Hoffmann (poignantly posed with his eyes shut), Julia Roberts, Jay-Z… All photographed looking straight into the camera, blown up to 50 times their life size, with a plain backdrop and very stark and dramatic lighting. The figures are exposed, surgically examined and their personalities vignetted…

Whilst you would expect the – what are essentially celebrity – photos to resemble the spread that you might find in a copy of Heat Magazine, they capture an intensely human, and personal, aspect of these individuals’ selfs. The images are far removed from paparazzi and a voyeuristic perspective of “Celebrity”, but rather works of art that capture what is both unique and universal for every person.

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I began the exhibition skimming the different portraits from across the exhibition space, approaching them as you would an old friend. As I moved closer to each portrait, I found myself looking at wrinkles and pores and individual extrusions of hair as I would brushstrokes in a painting. The result was a complete alteration in perspective of this person; having originally encountered the portrait as someone I could recognise and was very familiar with, the closer I got the less I felt I really knew who they were. Eyebrows look slightly misplaced; noses are just a tad too large (or small?); high lines remind you of other figures, not the subject you are looking at; does that person really have wrinkles there? What was interesting was the less familiar they became, the more human you began to see them. And it was this curious and varying perspective which Schoeller fosters to such great effect, that I had hitherto known within this art form.

 

Nature Morte aux Forbidden Fruits

My Top Lot this week is this amazing still life by Picasso (1945). Currently up for sale at Sotheby’s Auction House (estimated to go for a massive £150,000… guess I won’t be buying it for my bedroom wall then…), the collage is part of the artists’s grand-daughter, Marina Picasso’s, private collection which she inherited when he died in 1973.

Picasso, Nature Mortes aux Fruits, 1945

For me, the piece, so simple and so characteristic of his late style, captures just how incredibly talented the artist was. I love his use of primary colours blue and red, complemented by small bits of purple and green, and the way all the different floating coloured shapes are framed and grounded by the energetic charcoal-black lines. It just seems to epitomise exactly what Picasso does well: breaking the subject down into its core elements; emphasising what is necessary for its representation and removing what isn’t.

I also love the tantalising bits of detail in the composition which really set your imagination on fire. Is that a figure in a doorway in the background? His shadow and posture look kind of imposing… what could he be saying? Despite their (seemingly unpaletable colouring) the fruits in the bowl look delicious and very tempting. As a viewer you almost feel like Eve and the Forbidden Fruit. Does the figure in the doorway represent God looking over Adam and Eve in Genesis?

Whatever your interpretation of the piece, Picasso’s revolutionary development of the still-life genre is not something to look over. No longer a mere vessel to demonstrate an artist’s technical prowess, one of Picasso greatest achievements was his development of still life genre into – and to quote Sotheby’s directly – “a tool capable of evoking the most complex blend of pathos and defiance, of despair to hope, balancing personal and universal experience in an expression of extraordinary emotional power”.

Giacometti and Caroline

Giacometti will always remain one of my favourite artists. For my latest Top Lot, I’ve picked this amazing portrait, Caroline, painted in 1961.

Caroline, 1961

What draws me most to this portrait, as with many others by Giacometti, is the way you are drawn into the figure’s head and eyes. The head is shrunk slightly so that it is disproportionately smaller than the torso; the eyes are almost scribbled upon and made to appear soulless; and the immediate background of the head and shoulders is purposely very plain and light; a hollow space, drawing attention to the facial skin which is very dark and intense.

These techniques all contribute in making the subject’s sense of presence almost hollow: is the viewer looking at Caroline, or is Caroline looking at the viewer? Despite the painting being a portrait of Caroline, there is little sense of individuality in her features (compare, for example, to the other portraits Giacometti did of her). Giacometti projects no sense of individual personality; she is just an anonymous woman staring out into the world in desperation and isolation.

In addition to the style Giacometti employs in his portraiture, the accompanying facts about who Caroline was and her relationship with Giacometti are sparse. Unlike his family members and wife Annette, who is also painted frequently, there is little information about the young woman apart from she was a young prostitute and model that Giacometti met in a bar.  Apparently Giacometti had been drawn into ‘the orbit of her gaze’. As Giacometti’s friend said, ‘Her eyes were so big they just sucked you in…’

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Giacometti and Caroline at a bar in Paris

I can certainly understand why Giacometti was associated with the idea of existentialism throughout his career. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it (and the recent exhibition of his works at the National Portrait Gallery), Caroline is depicted as a ‘pure presence’: she is merely another human being looking back you. The so-called ‘orbit of her gaze’ reverses the subject of the portrait to the viewer and poses the question: is there any grand meaning in life? Are we just alone in an absurd and irrational world?

Giacometti: Pure Presence is at the National Portrait Gallery (London WC2H 0HE) until 10 January 2016