Whorled Explorations: Kochi Muziris Biennale 2014

Anish Kapoor’s Descension (2014) Photo: Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Anish Kapoor’s Descension (2014) Photo: Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Since 2012, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale has turned Fort Kochi, a vibrant town overlooking the Arabian Sea, into a pivotal location for India’s contemporary art scene. The 2014 Whorled Explorations Biennale, curated by artist Jitish Kallat, showcases the work of 94 artists from 30 countries. The eight venues include public spaces; warehouses facing the sea; and colonial heritage properties. Kochi, believed to coincide with the location of Muziris, an ancient port on the Silk Route, was occupied over the centuries as strategic trading site by the Portuguese, British, Dutch and Arab.

The curator aimed to use the town as a debate and observation platform to investigate the “mysterious expedition of planet Earth”. Between the 14th and 17th centuries Kerala’s School of Astronomy and Mathematics’ advanced practices investigated human existence within the infinite universe. In the “Age of Discovery” explorers and merchants, early agents of globalisation, stretched the then-known World’s boundaries, conquering and colonising. The exhibition interweaves “the bygone with the immanent, the terrestrial with the celestial”, combining these fascinating, current themes, starting from their history. The Biennale’s heterogeneous international and local audience is particularly striking: Fort Kochi’s history as a cultural meeting point revived as the town welcomes the contemporary art world.

Charles and Ray Eames’s Power of Ten (1977) Photo: Giulia Sartori Conte

Charles and Ray Eames’s Power of Ten (1977) Photo: Giulia Sartori Conte

Kallat’s ambitious conceptual framework is strengthened by the architecture and history of the buildings within which the exhibition unfolds; its themes are interlaced across venues, but also relate specifically to each heritage property’s history. Aspinwall House, a 19th-century warehouse established by an English trading company, hosts the majority of the artworks. The fascinating video work Power of Ten (1977) by Charles and Ray Eames opens the exhibition, addressing the limits of human perception and the vastness of the cosmos. Marie Velardi’s Future Perfect (2006) draws a map in time across the 21st Century, offering viewers a “memory of the future”. These pieces set binary oppositions which will be keys to interpret the whole festival.

Picture 5: Dinh Q. Lê’s Erasure (2011) Photo: Giulia Sartori Conte

Picture 5: Dinh Q. Lê’s Erasure (2011) Photo: Giulia Sartori Conte

The presence of elements recalling the conceptual framework’s celestial and journey-themed references is, at times, redundant. However, Aspinwall House’s display is engaging and permeated by evocative pieces. Effective example of the recurring theme of the whorl, Anish Kapoor’s water-vortex Descension (2014), destabilises viewers, recalling the fear of the unknown. The ship is interestingly used as a metaphor in Kahlil Rabah’s photo rendering Bioproduct (2010), depicting a Gaza Strip-shaped aircraft carrier, and in Dinh Q. Lê’s installation Erasure (2011), which narrates the forced displacement of Vietnamese people. Chen Chieh-jen’s Realm of Reverberations (2014) powerfully documents the lives and memories of former patients of a Taiwanese asylum, an attempt to resist collective amnesia. David Hall, former military accommodation and battlefield, houses conflict-themed impressive works; Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Pan-anthem (2014), an interactive installation, relates national identities and patriotism with military spending’s statistics.

The Biennale succeeds in tying together a diverse selection of thoughtful works. The exhibition encourages reflection on the topical theme of globalisation and its history, with an emphasis on Kochi’s local reality, confirming this Biennale as a spot-to-watch for the global contemporary art scene.

Giulia Sartori Conte is an MA student at the Courtauld.

The Kochi Biennial is open until March, 29th 2015.

John Golding: Finding the Absolute (Piano Nobile, Kings Place)

3The title of Piano Nobile’s current exhibition of John Golding’s 1960s abstract paintings is a nod to the artist’s seminal work in the field of art history, Paths to the Absolute, which brought together his A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts series, given at Princeton in 1997. This rich yet accessible account analyses the deep spiritual quest taken by seven giants of twentieth-century abstract painting. Tracing the distinct journeys of each artist as they move from figuration to abstraction, Golding reveals that despite the differing methods and beliefs, these painters shared a common goal to attain an ‘absolute’ pictorial truth. For each of them, subliminal exploration and artistic experimentation were inextricable. Similarly, Golding’s painting also began in the world of figuration before moving gradually and thoughtfully through several abstract idioms. The works in ‘Finding the Absolute’ are significant in that they represent Golding’s earliest forays into the language of abstraction, a pursuit he would continue to develop and refine over the next three decades.

JOHN GOLDING Portman Square, 1965-66 Acrylic and oil on canvas 165.1 x 165.1 cm 65 x 65 in

Portman Square, 1965-66
Acrylic and oil on canvas
165.1 x 165.1 cm 65 x 65 in

Most of the works in the exhibition at Kings Place are on show for the first time in over forty years, yet they exude a freshness of spirit and maintain a thoughtful dialogue with the current revival of interest in abstract art. The paintings stand out as strong, lively statements in bold colour, yet they are characterised by a combination of complexity and multi-layered simplicity, as well as an attention to detail that demands closer looking—a practice that Golding also advocated in his formalist approach to art history. At first, the colours seem solid and opaque, but then the subtleties of their dappled surfaces begin to appear, offering a sense of atmospheric depth. The exhibition space is unique in that it allows the individual works to interact with each other across the large atrium and its adjoining hallways. Likewise, the hanging of the works animates a rhythmic energy of rebounding shapes and colours that goes hand in hand with the coinciding music programme of  ‘Minimalism Unwrapped’ at Kings Place.

Dr. Robert Travers, Dr. Charlotte de Mille, and Professor Paul Greenhalgh introducing ‘Finding the Absolute’ on Friday, 6th of February.

Dr. Robert Travers, Dr. Charlotte de Mille, and Professor Paul Greenhalgh introducing ‘Finding the Absolute’ on Friday, 6th of February.

Professor Paul Greenhalgh — current director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art and former student of Golding — introduced the exhibition on Friday night, taking the opportunity to celebrate the Kings Place show, as well as to announce another exhibition centred on Golding opening at the SCVA this weekend. ‘Abstraction and the Art of John Golding’ draws from their impressive collection to present a diverse survey of the origins and development of abstract art at the beginning of the twentieth century alongside a selection of canvasses by Golding.

Although his overwhelming success in the field of art history often overshadows his work as a painter, it was on the latter that Golding based his career and for which he wished to be remembered. With these two shows, Golding’s painterly responses to the materials, methods, and monumentality of his objects of academic study take their places among the giants of the abstract painting that he described so eloquently.

Jenna Lundin is a PhD student at the Courtauld.

John Golding: Finding the Absolute is at Piano Nobile, Kings Place until 4 April, 2015

Black is the Color of My True Love’s Square

Kazimir Malevich, Black Quadrilateral, oil on canvas, 1917

Kazimir Malevich, Black Quadrilateral, oil on canvas, 1917

The Whitechapel Gallery has turned what might have been the Sisyphean curatorial endeavour (and tortuous viewing experience) of revisiting a century of geometric abstraction into a thoughtful, engaging exhibition. Adventures of the Black Square‘s greatest strength lies in its presentation of early-20th-century avant-garde art. This is because it avoids hagiography from the very beginning: greeting the visitor with a work smaller than an A4 sheet of paper, Malevich’s Black Quadilateral of 1915. The exhibition by no means denies the heroism of the Constructivists or Suprematists, but it is resolutely uninterested in re-telling a familiar story and instead chooses to let the pieces tell their own in an appropriately iconoclastic way.

Exhibition view that foregrounds Andrea Zittel's Bench (after Donald Judd)

Exhibition view that foregrounds Andrea Zittel’s Bench (after Donald Judd)

This is an exhibition that is interested not in grandstanding, but in education, as evidenced by the content-driven wall texts that accompany the pieces on display in the first part of the exhibition. These are informative and avoid making blanket ideological statements. Viewers are told, for example, that the Latvian artist Gustav Klutsis, whose striking 1922 designs for loudspeakers are included in the hang, participated in the October Revolution but was shot on Stalin’s orders in 1938. They are not, however, expected to acquiesce to platitudes, or make flash judgments of their own.

The international focus of the exhibition is also noteworthy. While on one hand, the curators’ decision to include not only lesser-known Europeans (ever heard of André Cadere, an itinerant Romanian artist who was best known in the 1970s European art community for leaving cylindrical wooden batons behind in the corners of other people’s exhibitions?), but also contemporaneous artists from present-day India, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Pakistan. While this is admirable and long-overdue, here the exhibition could have used some more context. It opts for a generic tale of ‘alternate modernities’ where it could have told a compelling story about geopolitics. This story deserves a closer look, especially given the globalized scope of the second half of the exhibition.

André Cadere and a baton

André Cadere and a baton

The Whitechapel Gallery has devoted its whole second floor to a post-1969 continuation of the story of geometric abstraction. There is a certain amount of welcome leveling that happens on the second floor where, for example, an Israeli artist and a Palestinian counterpart are included on equal footing, and internationally-recognized art stars hang next to those only emerging or under-recognized. Some of this seems a bit facile, however, as when Social Practice artists and makers of high-priced baubles, sometimes on a social theme, Liam Gillick and Andrea Zittel are allowed to speak for the ‘reclamation’ of Constructivist ethos, or simply hasty. Perhaps it is because the way in which historiographers are still writing the late-20th century is too fraught with political tension that Adventures of the Black Square sidesteps specific references to international relations, contemporary economic practices, or even the entrenchment of the contemporary art world within the globalized economy. Here, however, the black square escapes its handlers.

Patricia Manos is an MA student at the Courtauld

Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015 is at the Whitechapel Gallery until 6 April 2015.

Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards: Buddhism and Religious Practices in Burma and Thailand (British Museum)

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan state, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930, 1018.1). © Trustees of the British Museum

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan state, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930, 1018.1). © Trustees of the British Museum

It is easy to forget that curatorial control is not absolute. During the preparations for any show project curators must contend with numerous obstacles. These might include time constraints, lack of high quality objects or works of lasting significance, as well as gaps in the collection, from material illustrations to knowledge about the provenance or exact utility of enigmatic objects. Moreover, many of these obstacles arise well before considerations of public duty, both to those who view the displays, and to those who may be represented in them. Arguably such difficulties become more pronounced when an exhibition strives to provide audiences with insights into the wealth of recent and contemporary histories of unfamiliar cultures.

Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards appears plagued by many of these issues. Alexandra Green, the recently appointed Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia, has clearly fought an uphill battle against the British Museum’s neglect for expansion and upkeep of its collections from the regions of Thailand and Burma. To be sure, the display contains some noteworthy objects. These include a large and intricately carved Buddha’s footprint, a late nineteenth-century Burmese cosmology manuscript, and an early 1900s stucco figure of a Shan strong man, whose confident demeanor is reinforced by the highly stylized tattoos that cover his body, revealing him as a man of spiritual and physical fortitude.

However, the low aesthetic value of many works in the show draws attention away from these higher quality pieces. Contemporary popular posters, though of religious significance for modern day Thai and Burmese Buddhists, mostly appear cartoonish and overly standardized. These features distract from the underlying sentiment portrayed, for instance, in a reverse glass painting showing the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa. Infamously regarded today as an alcoholic cock-fighter, but also a horseman of considerable skill, he is almost nobly depicted while surrounded by his favorite amusements.

Reverse glass painting of the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa about 1990. Burma/Myanmar. Pigment and foils on glass (1996, 0507, 0.6). Donated by Ralph and Ruth Isaacs. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Reverse glass painting of the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa about 1990. Burma/Myanmar. Pigment and foils on glass (1996, 0507, 0.6). Donated by Ralph and Ruth Isaacs. © Trustees of the British Museum.

The true strength of Ms. Green’s curatorial skill reveals itself in her reimagining of the purposes of Buddhist exhibitions. Her focus on ‘how the principal religious systems in the region are revealed in lively daily practices’ can be transformative. Flanking the entrance to the exhibit, a display case features modern-day shrine offerings; whether a ‘money tree’, or dish soap, snacks and juice boxes, the items may elicit laughter, but also help us to focus on the sincerity of common religious practices. They serve as reminders that Buddhism is a living religion adaptable to the demands of present times.

Indeed, the show comes at a politically strained moment for politics in the region, just on the heels of a military coup in Thailand. These sorts of social disturbances risk the continuity and development of lived practices, while also affecting the way those cultures are represented abroad (witness the original title for the show, Power and Protection, a phrase found peppered around the exhibit, was deemed inappropriate by the British Museum in light of current events). That the two circumstances are intertwined makes for an exhibit that is more powerful than the sum of its arts.

Ethan A. Perets is a MA student at the Courtauld Institute where he studies the history and conservation of Buddhist art.

Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards: Buddhism and Religious Practices in Burma and Thailand is at the British Museum until 11th January 2015.

Anselm Kiefer – A View from a critical distance?

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014 Key. 11   /  Cat.  Anselm Kiefer Winter Landscape (Winterlandschaft), 1970 Watercolour, gouache, and graphite pencil on paper, 42.9 x 35.6 cm Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, 1995 (1995.14.5) Photo © 2014. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014
Key. 11 / Cat. Anselm Kiefer – Winter Landscape (Winterlandschaft), 1970
Watercolour, gouache, and graphite pencil on paper, 42.9 x 35.6 cm
Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, 1995 (1995.14.5)
Photo © 2014. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer

I need to begin with a declaration of interest. First, I am German. Second, I am currently writing a dissertation on another post-war artist. This could explain why I might be a bit more sensitive towards these topics than the average visitor of Anselm Kiefer’s large-scale retrospective at the Royal Academy. Nevertheless, I think that I have reasons to my claim that this show is extremely problematic.  Good things first: It comprises an enormous amount of work, provides a good insight into the development of Anselm Kiefer’s works from his early beginnings in the 1970s to his most recent works from 2014, and it makes perfect use of the difficult architectural gallery space. Despite all achievements, the exhibition dramatically fails in approaching Kiefer’s oeuvre from a critical distance.

Some obvious facts first: The earthen colours Kiefer favours, the monumentality of his works, the way in which they overwhelm the viewer, mythological references, the legitimation through German culture and a somehow distorted view on German Romanticism. All of these characteristics are features his works shares with Nazi aesthetics. Kiefer, of course, explains his aesthetic language with the attempt to work through his country’s history to understand the horrors of the Second World War into which he was born in 1945. But his visual language expresses a secret fascination for Germany, which strongly contradicts his verbal assurances. His Deutschtümelei – about which I can find no warning anywhere in the exhibition – is what makes me very suspicious.

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014 Key. 28  /  Cat. 0 Anselm Kiefer Heroic Symbol V (Heroisches Sinnbild V), 1970 Oil on canvas, 150 x 260.5 cm Collection Würth Photo Collection Würth / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014
Key. 28 / Cat. 0 Anselm Kiefer – Heroic Symbol V (Heroisches Sinnbild V), 1970
Oil on canvas, 150 x 260.5 cm
Collection Würth Photo Collection Würth / © Anselm Kiefer

For example: Plenty of heroic symbols, mentioning of German philosophers and poets, the Nibelungen, Wagner, of course, Parsifal and overall the Rhine, the Rhine, the Rhine. But what is critical engagement, what blind fascination for a fascinating culture? It is exactly this blindness towards the agency of his imagery, which disturbs me.

I could have forgiven Kiefer a lot, but not that his imagery follows his ‘cosmology’ which is described in the wall text as ‘an immense alchemical oven in which spirit and matter find themselves in a continuous process of creation and destruction’. This is simply unbearable. It sounds as if the holocaust is nothing more than a tiny aspect within the big universe – a normal process within the continuous re-negotiation between the metaphysical and the physical. The uncritical reading of Kiefer’s understanding of ‘oven’ makes me want to take a pen and annotate this wall text with footnotes.

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014 Key. 40  /  Cat. 0 Anselm Kiefer Interior (Innenraum), 1981 Oil, acrylic, and paper on canvas, 287.5 x 311 cm Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam Photo Collection Stedelijk Museum / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014
Key. 40 / Cat. 0 Anselm Kiefer – Interior (Innenraum), 1981
Oil, acrylic, and paper on canvas, 287.5 x 311 cm
Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam Photo Collection Stedelijk Museum / © Anselm Kiefer

In his seminal lecture in 1959, Theodor Adorno emphasised the meaning of working through history. He points out that fascism in Germany is still alive if the idea of a ‘nation’ matters within a context that has lacked the critical distance of working through the past. My worry is that Kiefer’s aesthetics underlines the fascination for a German-ness rather than providing the environment being required for a critical engagement with the fact that this same fascination once contributed to the incomprehensible murder of more than eleven million people – an event so shockingly unique that it cannot be legitimised as a mere incident within Kiefer’s cosmology.

Sarah Hegenbart is a PhD student at the Courtauld, working towards the first English-language monograph on the German artist Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010). She explores Schlingensief’s late project of an Opera Village Africa as a participatory experiment, which manifests a diversity of themes resulting from Germany’s post-war struggles to come to terms with its highly problematic past.

Anselm Kiefer is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House from 27 September — 14 December 2014.

Berlin Biennale 2014

Listening to the sounds of a classical string quartet on the terrace of a beautiful lake-side villa in Berlin’s affluent Zehlendorf neighbourhood evokes an image of the past; somehow reminiscent of Berlin’s Golden Twenties. This grand venue is however, not the setting for a glamorous garden party, but part of this year’s Berlin Biennale. The sound is part of Carla Zaccagnini’s installation Le Quintuor des Negres (2014), inspired by an interest in the reconstruction of history, in particular the idea of the noble savage as featured in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Zaccagnini’s work pursues the question of how idealisations of the primitive featured in the music of German Romanticism, and the piece is based on a fragment by Nepomuk Hummel she discovered during her research, transcribed for string quartet by Frankfurt-based composer Theodor Köhler.

This sort of scholarly investigation provides a good example of the manner of conception behind the majority of the works at this well thought-out Biennial curated by Juan Gaitán. The research process is the starting point in the creative process, which is then condensed into an aesthetic form.

Tonel - "Commerce" (2014)

Tonel – “Commerce” (2014)

The traditional centre of the Berlin Biennial – the grand hall in the KW Institute of Contemporary Art – sums up the principle of this biennial exhibition. It resembles an artistic research centre, in which Tonel (like Zaccagnini, an art historian turned artist) engages with commerce from a Cuban perspective. But the emphasis on research does not prevent visitors from aesthetic encounters. In fact, one can discover a lot if one looks closely. For example, the installation Weltall by the artist group Kartenrecht. Do these broken wooden balks comment on the fragility of borders, or do they allude to the garbage flying around in the Weltall? There is definitely space for imagination…


Kartenrecht – “Weltall” (2014)

Judy Radul’s Look. Look Away. Look Back (2014) provides an interesting cross-reference from the top floor of the KW to a further venue of this year’s biennial: the Museen Dahlem. Radul’s vitrines touch the controversy of the relocation of the ethnographic collection from Dahlem to Berlin’s Mitte. Gaitán’s decision to exhibit well-known artists, such as Tacita Dean, Goschka Macuga, Anri Sala and Wolfgang Tillmans, in Dahlem raises awareness for neighbourhoods other than the hipster-esque Mitte, Friedrichshain and Kreuzkölln. Gaitán here makes a clear statement against Berlin’s urban planning.

Zarouhie Abdalian - "a caveat, a decoy" (2014)

Zarouhie Abdalian – “a caveat, a decoy” (2014)

Those mourning the lack of aesthetic seductiveness at this biennial ought to climb up to the last step in the KW, where Zarouhie Abdalian’s owl watches over the buzzing city. Her gaze is directed at the TV tower, lovingly called ‘Alex’. Might this be the owl of Athena, an attribute of the Greek goddess of knowledge? Maybe it is exactly this: the beauty of knowledge, which transpires through the 8th Berlin Biennale.

Sarah Hegenbart is a PhD student at the Courtauld.

The Eighth Berlin Biennale ran from 29th May to the 3rd August 2014.

A World to Win: Posters of Protest and Revolution (V&A)

View into one of the two exhibition rooms Photograph by reviewer

View into one of the two exhibition rooms
Photograph by reviewer

Art exhibitions come in many volumes. The more and more frequent stentorian blockbusters make London’s art offering both important and substantive. However, the noise made by these grand shows – aided by dense crowds, zig-zag prams, loud conversations et al – can drown out the sometimes unassuming but potentially very rewarding tones of smaller displays dotted around the capital.

This display of a century of protest posters, packed into two  plain, serene rooms at the V&A, try to jostle, agitate, manipulate and seek attention in various ways. The fact that each work has something specific and immediate to say means that being hung in close proximity to others does nothing to blunt each poster’s impact.


The Blue Bra Girl Image: Reuters

The Blue Bra Girl
Image: Reuters

The posters have been loosely categorized under nine headings, ranging from revolution and agitprop, via war and activism, to more unmediated, home-made media. The latter includes self-made prints and digital messages, as in the viral video of an unknown woman in a blue bra beaten by Egypt’s military in 2011 in Tahrir Square.

These posters, as with anything that has elements of poetic, indirect communication about it, reward sustained contemplation with deeper insights and knowledge at many levels: aesthetic, semantic, historical, cultural, national and more. There is characteristically subtle but dark and even menacing word-play in a British poster that urges that the Tories not only be metaphorically kicked  ‘out’ but, one can only assume, physically kicked  ‘in’. This contrasts and reveals telling cultural differences with, a less aggressive, less punning German admonishment about the CDU’s complicity with Chile (‘Since Chile, we know exactly what the CDU thinks of democracy’).

Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Fuck the Draft, lithograph, 1968 Photograph by reviewer

Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Fuck the Draft, lithograph, 1968
Photograph by reviewer

Unlike much art and design, language is a critical tool of the protest idiom. Unsurprisingly, it often borders on the manipulative and borrows from advertising, modulating into ‘subvertising’, as one of the sections is called. In quite a few of the posters, the stark shapes of letters and words and their direct meanings vie with, and even overwhelm, the visual, as in the unequivocal message towards the Vietnam draft by Kiyoshi Kuromiya.

Designers Republic, Work, Buy, Consume, Die, offset lithograph, 1995 Photograph by reviewer

Designers Republic, Work, Buy, Consume, Die, offset lithograph, 1995
Photograph by reviewer

In the most successful, they combine and complement each other and create a communication that is multivalent, even existential, as in the self-critical poster made by Designers Republic (DR) of Sheffield, in 1995. DR were disenchanted with corporate-driven consumerism but acknowledge their role in the process. The imaginary company Pho-Ku (say it aloud – but not in polite company) stands for an anti-corporate identity in the face of increasing global branding.

If you are thinking of popping over to Tate Modern for the Matisse, but just don’t fancy the decibels and prams, it might be worth changing course to Kensington and remembering: s/he who shouts loudest certainly does not shout best.

Percy Darukhanawala is an MA graduand at the Courtauld

A World to Win: Posters of Protest and Revolution is in Room 88 at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 2 November 2014.

Gueorgui Pinkhassov (Magnum Print Room)


Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Russia. Moscow. (2008)

The threshold of the visible, where frail light ebbs away into darkness, is the preferred territory of the Russian photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov (b. 1952), whose work is the subject of a commercial exhibition of around 30 images currently on display at the Magnum Print Room. His pictures explore spaces and surfaces clogged with visual noise: interiors filled with cigarette smoke; grimy windows; murky water; cityscapes where the weak glow of dawn sunshine transforms human bodies into faceless silhouettes. In a 2008 photograph of a Moscow street taken through a windscreen, patches of snow rest on the glass like fallen clouds; in the road beyond, the dark figures that loiter among other cars, and the soaring, boxlike buildings that dwarf everything else in the scene, generate an atmosphere of quiet menace. Ordinary things – snow, people, cars – remain recognisable and highly concrete at the same time as their arrangement within the frame creates odd juxtapositions and distortions of scale. Pinkhassov is often attracted to abstract patterns, such as the tangle of arms, hands and torsos to be found in a 1995 photograph taken in Rajastan. But in his most absorbing images, like the Moscow street scene, the principal effect is not abstraction but defamiliarisation: the making strange of what has come to seem commonplace.


Gueorgui Pinkhassov, India. Rajasthan. Jaisalmer. (1995)


In recent decades, the prestigious Magnum agency to which Pinkhassov belongs has tended to define itself less as an outlet for traditional news photojournalism and more as a centre of excellence for collectible, aesthetically-sophisticated documentary photography – work often produced in the course of long-term personal projects which reflect members’ particular interests or distinctive visual style. In the present exhibition, compositions which exploit the weirdly beautiful effects of shadow and artificial light in hotels, shops and subways are displayed alongside photographs of the anti-government demonstrations which took place in Kiev earlier this year. Presented with minimal contextual information, these different types of images have been grouped together as evidence of the photographer’s creative vision. The emphasis here is not on the thing or event seen but on the virtuosic seeing eye.


Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Japan. Tokyo. Hotel restaurant. (1996)


Would it matter if documentary photography comes to be thought of, and valued, primarily as a mode of personal expression? Arguments to the effect that its ethical bite is likely to atrophy as a result of this development demand serious consideration. Yet in a world where many of the events encountered by photographers are stage-managed to make the interests of the powerful seem coherent and persuasive, it is useful to be reminded of how surreal and complicated the world can look. Photography like Pinkhassov’s trains us to resist easy acceptance of the (seemingly) transparent image, and to recognise that a subjective brain lurks behind every camera.


Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Ukraine. Clashes between anti-government protesters and police in the Ukrainian capital, on Maidan Square and across the city of Kiev. (2014)

Tom Balfe is a visiting lecturer at the Courtauld.

Gueorgui Pinkhassov is at the Magnum Print Room until the 31st July 2014.


Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America (Saatchi Gallery)

‘Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America’ is a moving, intriguing exhibition of wide-ranging art from sixteen contemporary artists, often with complex socio-political influences. The diversity of media and raw talent of several of the artists on display promised a successful, unconventional display, something achieved in part. Unfortunately, something is missing.

This issue could relate to the vague curatorial purpose of the exhibition, evident in its very name; Pangaea refers to an ancient supercontinent, which united most continents in one landmass, and began to separate around 200 million years ago. The word roughly translates to ‘all lands’: an alarmingly wide theme to cover. Latin American and African art is rapidly gaining wider recognition, with recent art fairs such as 1:54 setting precedent for further platforms in London, and it is refreshing to see such art on display in such a prominent gallery. However, Saatchi Gallery offers no explanation for the specific combination of Latin America and Africa, other than their roles as former ‘sister continents’, and the ‘parallels between their distinctly diverse cultures and creative practices’. This puts the exhibition at risk of ‘otherising’ its contributors; emphasis is placed upon continent-of-origin rather than preventing generalisation by selecting a narrower curatorial theme.

Aboudia Untitled (Diptych) 2011 Acrylic and mixed media on canvas © All rights reserved - The Saatchi Gallery / Aboudia

Aboudia – Untitled (Diptych), 2011
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas
© All rights reserved – The Saatchi Gallery / Aboudia

Despite this, many of the actual works on display counter generalisation. This is exemplified in Aboudia’s powerful canvases, carried out upon collages of newspaper clippings, including images of hair braiding techniques and African masks. This, juxtaposed with the violence of over-painted imagery of childlike figures brandishing guns, displaces simplistic understanding of culture by bringing to light the trauma of the political state of his native Republic of the Ivory Coast. The cacophony of vibrant colour, combined with an unsettling naivety of figuration, challenges Western expectations of primitivism, displaying instead politically charged imagery of the complexities of contemporary urban life.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou - Untitled triptych (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo series) Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou Untitled triptych (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo series) 2012, C-print

Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou – Untitled triptych (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo series) 2012, C-print, © All rights reserved – The Saatchi Gallery / L. R. Agbodjélou

This challenge to the viewer is also evident in the series of large-scale photographs by Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, entitled ‘Desmoiselles de Porto-Novo’. These works present semi-nude female models in a colonial mansion, addressing the viewer from behind wooden ceremonial masks. The series’ title suggests a play upon Picasso’s ‘Desmoiselles d’Avignon’, referencing the influence of African art and masks upon the development of cubism, yet with a melancholic realism which draws the viewer back to the social reality of life in Porto Novo, and the impact of colonisation.

Rafael Gómezbarros Casa Tomada, 2013 © Gabriela Salgado, © Saatchi Gallery

Rafael Gómezbarros – Casa Tomada, 2013
© All Rights reserved – Gabriela Salgado / Saatchi Gallery

Further highlights include work from Oscar Murillo, who draws on his experience of emigration from Colombia to London to create a chilling examination of class, cultural coding and migration of materials, and Rafael Gómezbarros’ simultaneously playful and macabre installation of oversized ants, referencing the plight of displaced immigrants. However, the exhibition’s overall effect is shaken by curious juxtaposition of such powerful and unconventional works with garish Pop Art inspired canvases and somewhat derivative abstraction. Having said this, any questionable curatorial choices are more than made up for by the quality of several of the artists on display.

Izzie Hewitt is a third year BA at the Courtauld.

Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America is at the Saatchi Gallery until the 2nd November 2014

Design to the T: The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 (Victoria and Albert Museum)


Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Squeals of delight slip from the lips of students, older ladies and a few gentlemen at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibition of Italian fashion from 1945 to the present, a show promising to be both comprehensive and glamorous. And, like a good stilista, or fashion designer, the V&A delivers with great taste.

Displaying Italian trends chronologically, the exhibit is divided into five sections. Each section is designed differently and provides a palette for the clothing on view. Wood covers the walls and the floors in the first room that is dedicated to Giovanni Battista Giorgini’s fashion shows in Sala Bianca, or ‘White Hall’ in Florence’s Pitti Palace in the 1950s. When the gowns are displayed in front of this organic material, rather than standard white walls, they take centre stage.


Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The next section, ‘Tailoring,’ is a room with black walls and black felt-like floors bringing the viewer into the designer’s studio. The wall text is displayed on an oversized wooden textile spool, subtly reminding the viewer of Italian fabric factories. In the 1960s, the popularity for ready-made suits and garments tailored to individual clients increased. As much as the stitching of skirts and non-matching menswear suits impressed me, I could not help but examine the unexpected wallpaper. A detail of a pattern for tailoring (1960) covered the walls, marrying historical documents with contemporary design.

The third room, ‘Made in Italy,’ demonstrates the campaign of the same name that ensured style. In the new fashion capital, Milan, manufactured fashion became wildly popular in the 1970s. The wall text notes that a stilista ‘aimed not to create the perfect outfit but the perfect style.’ The floor-to-ceiling mirrors in this section enable visitors to gape at and appreciate each detail of each outfit from multiple angles. More importantly, the mirrors reflect the viewer and their style in tandem with the fashion on view. The mirrors force the questions: What is your personal style? How does your ensemble measure up to the ones on display?


Dolce & Gabbana: Ankle boots, black leather stiletto heels with gold, white and pink embroidery, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The showstopper is the section about The Cult of the Fashion Designer. Since the 1990s, designers have become celebrities, often more photographed than their own designs. Upon entering this room, paparazzi cameras flash and click on a large video screen in the white circus tent that hovers over the runway-like display. The dressed mannequins’ shadows grow larger-than-life against the white fabric echoing the image of the celebrity designers who made them.

This exhibition reminds the public of a time when fast fashion was not consumed daily. The way in which the show demonstrates Italian designers’ dedication to each stitch is with its own attention to exhibition design. Like all the shoes that are displayed with one foot slightly in front of the other, as if the mannequin is taking a step forward, Italian fashion is leaping into the future. The question is not whether Italian fashion has a future, but how other designers will keep up with the Italians’ pace.

Aimee Rubensteen is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Design to the T: The Glamour of Italian Fashion is at the V&A til the 27th July 2014.