Veronica C. Wilkinson.
The sight of Sir Joshua Reynold’s statue from one angle seemed to play among the treetops of Ai Weiwei’s Ironwood tree installation in the courtyard of the Royal Academy Galleries conjuring up thoughts of Bachelard’s Poetics of Space and other flights of imagination when I visited the retrospective exhibition in London in September. This exhibition spans disciplines and communicates effectively with the slick punch I have learned to expect from an artist of Weiwei’s status. There is an interesting symbiosis inherent in his conflict with Chinese government authorities and their role in constraints enforced on his travel and multifaceted status and practice as a human rights activist. His role facilitating artisanal work that promotes traditional skill and craft serves to underline the necessity of practical economic intervention to emphasize effective artistic communication in visual signals that transcend language and prejudice. His public support on a practical level is evidenced by crowd funded facets of his endeavours. The exhibition has received mixed reactions from critics with perspectives and impressions as diverse as those of Matthew Collings and Adrian Searle.
My notes from a recent brief visit to London share my impressions from well-publicized exhibitions and events that transmitted respect for historical tradition and cutting edge cosmopolitan, innovative design. One inspiration on many levels was at Somerset House with an exhibition that runs until 21st October by Marc Quinn of five larger than life steel shells. Quinn has cleverly incorporated his ideas about the role of the Thames as transport and drainage for the city to its links to the sea – themes that include trade and maritime history, ecological and architectural elements and the history of the monarchy and their choice of designers and influences. This year’s London Design Festival saw the West wing as a venue to 10 rooms of innovative design and the five floor cantilevered Stamp Stairs of Somerset House’s South Wing a site for Studio Ini’s light installation ‘Spine’. The South Wing information desk can provide information about tours and exhibitions should one wish to combine a visit to the Courtauld Galleries with further exploration.
The V&A exhibited a small but personally relevant photographic exhibition by Captain Linnaeus Tripe (1822-1902), dating from1852-1860. His photographs of southern India and Burma while stationed there are a credit to his discipline as a trained surveyor and talented photographer. Intended as part of the India exhibition, I was lucky to see these archival images on display before the main India exhibition commenced this month. Images of the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, Southern India (before the graffiti which had been added to some of its columns by the time I visited the sacred Hindu pilgrimage site from the port of Tuticorin in 1993) were comforting as were many of the sacred sites and landmarks I recognized from my travels in Myanmar. (Formerly Burma.)
Simon Schama’s ‘Face of Britain’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery feature five themes that co-incide with a five-part series on the subject broadcast on the BBC. The BP Portrait Awards included Paul Emsley’s (controversial in some circles) first portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. My tastes prefer more mature features and the painterly skill employed in Irina Karkabi’s ‘Abu Muhammad:Portrait of a Palestinian Worker’ that I found appealing in a gritty, realistic way.
At the British Museum another small but exquisitely documented exhibition where one could not be jolted by the latter day ‘concentration elsewhere’ proles plugged into audio-guides (mentioned on page 92 of HUObrist’s ‘Everything you always wanted to know about Curating*2011) A space away from the ubiquitous cellphone photographers that infest public spaces these days proved a blessing in an age when people seem to be increasingly desensitized, seduced by every new trick of technology.
Accessibility to culture in London does not cost much. Free tours of the Royal Academy take place regularly and one I joined included an erudite insight into the sketchbooks and work of architect *Chris Wilkinson’s ‘Thinking Through Drawing‘ exhbition by Kate Goodwin, curator and head of architecture at the Royal Academy. (*Until 14th February 2016.)
I had not anticipated the London Open House events this year that I stumbled upon after a visit to the Japan Matsuri (festival) in Trafalgar Square where I made my squiggles/marks to participate in the Manga Wall project. (The finished wall can be seen on Youtube.) Inigo Jones’ Palladian style Banqueting house with its canvas panels painted by Rubens on the ceiling and insights into history was open to the public as I made my way along Whitehall. A visit to the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices parallel to Downing Street followed where strict security measures were enforced. The architect George Gilbert Scott appointed in 1858 saw the Foreign Office as “a kind of national palace or drawing room for the nation”; the building’s design, murals, furnishing and sculpture are well worth visit. The Durbar Court built in 1866 by architect M.D. Wyatt is regarded by many as a masterpiece with tiles in the Persian style typical of much of Mughal India. Knowledgable, articulate and friendly volunteer participants in the Open House project provided insights into the history of the functional buildings that have endured over centuries, even providing examples of the Portland stone currently gracing the façade of the Banqueting house.
The following day I joined the queue outside the Houses of Parliament (designed by Victorian architect Charles Barry who collaborated with Augustus Welby Pugin on the final Gothic design) after crossing Westminster Bridge on foot as I did on many days. Construction started in 1840 but was only completed thirty years later. Also part of the Open Day programme, visitors were free to explore Westminster Hall with its colourful banner exhibition commemorating an 800 year history since the sealing of the Magna Carta.(‘The Beginnings of that Freedom’ runs until November 2015.) A fascinating talk by horologist Paul Roberson introduced the world famous clock nicknamed Big Ben (the Elizabeth Tower) including the history and maintenance of the clocks. Other colourful characters included an actress impersonating women’s rights activist Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and larger than life puppets representing the eight Magna Carta giants of Liberty created by Surrey schoolchildren in 2014.
Notable among the exhibitions I visited this year was the Peter Kennard, Unofficial War Artist retrospective, a display of work in photomontage and other mediums at the Imperial War Museum. Not a show for people who want to escape reality. With series themes like the ‘Stop’ series begun in 1968 to the ‘Decoration’ (2003-4) series reflecting the Invasion of Iraq Kennard’s unrelenting visual documentation of his artistic response to global inhumanity is sobering. In June 2015 Krystyna Sierbien wrote the following words about Kennard in Aesthetica magazine “His work and unwavering adherence to pacificism is more important now than ever.” The exhibition opened in May 2015 and will run for one year.