In: contemporary art

China’s recent history is one full of social and political chaos. Chairman Mao Zedong resided as the country’s communist leader for nearly thirty years, responsible for the founding the People’s Republic of China, sending China into a deep economic crisis, and infamously inciting the riotous Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao had set out to purge the country of what he called “impure elements.” The youth of China backed Mao as they flooded across the country murdering teachers, closing schools, denouncing family members, burning books, and destroying China’s history.  Artist were cast out of society and only those who attended nationalized art schools and produced works in a factory-like manner with politically expedient content, were permitted. Today, we see how Chinese artists critique the Cultural Revolution and the Communist Party, shedding light on China’s societal issues, through their creative individuality.

Hung Liu

Hung Liu was born shortly after the Chinese Civil War in 1948. She was a prolific student and studied at the best private schools China had to offer. As the Cultural Revolution began, Liu was sent to be “re-educated” in a rural village. Before leaving Beijing, she borrowed a camera from a friend. She used this camera to take photos of villagers, their families, and their day to day struggles. At this point in time, the Cultural Revolution was in full bloom and Chinese culture was being threatened to extinction. Hung Liu’s photographs of those villagers served as a preservation of those individuals and to their culture.

      

Hung Liu, Village Photograph IV, c. 1969–1975; Courtesy of The Artist.

Hung Liu, Village Photograph IV, c. 1969–1975; Courtesy of The Artist.

After the Revolution, Liu went on to study fine arts and earned a her graduate degree in Muralist Painting. For three years she painted political propaganda in the Soviet Realist style, all the while secretly painting landscapes with miniature tools and paints she herself had made. Hung Liu desperately wanted artistic freedom and was granted just that when she was given permission to attend the University of California San Diego in 1983.

Hung Liu, Pullman, 2004. Photographed at the Hunter Museum of American Art by Taylor Vance

Hung Liu, Pullman, 2004. Photographed at the Hunter Museum of American Art by Taylor Vance

Liu often paints from photographs of Chinese social outcasts: prostitutes, laborers, and prisoners. The realistic nature and size of her characters reflect her practice in Soviet Realism and Muralism. However, she manipulates the image by running paint down the canvas, which gives the effect of a photograph faded by time. The characters in each piece look as though they are disintegrating right before our eyes; a possible commentary on the lives lost and forgotten during the Cultural Revolution.

Hung Liu, Winter Blossom, 2011. Courtesy of Magnolia Editions

Hung Liu, Winter Blossom, 2011. Courtesy of Magnolia Editions

Hung Liu recently retired from her position as a professor at Mills College, but she continues to paint and has worldwide exhibitions.

Ma Desheng

Ma Desheng was a self taught artist, mainly because he was deemed unfit to be trained in fine arts at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Desheng worked as an industrial draftsman and woodblock print artist, using traditional Chinese ink.

Desheng produced a series of images of rock-like figures and portrayals of China’s working class. These images were stark contradictions to the suppressive propaganda that Mao and the Chinese Communist Party were feeding the people.

Ma Desheng, Untitled 19, 1980. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi and The Artist.

Ma Desheng, Untitled 19, 1980. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi and The Artist.

His early productions were un-romanticized images that displayed the realities of what was happening to China. The dark rigid lines evoke a sense of inner turmoil, similar to that of the artwork of the German artists, Käthe Kollwitz or Edvard Munch.

In 1970, Ma Desheng was influential in the founding of Star Group ( or Xing Xing). This group consisted of self taught, Western-influenced artists who fought for individualism and liberation against the Cultural Revolution. Ma Desheng and the Star Group bravely defied the government when they put on an exhibition of their own work across the street from the National Art Museum in Beijing. It was, of course, shut down by authorities and Ma was arrested for his involvement in organizing such an exhibit.The Star Group went on to lead a rally against the authorities and were successful in opening a second show; some say it was this rally that helped Chinese society become more culturally open.

Ma Desheng, ROCKS 1, 2012. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi and The Artist.

Ma Desheng, ROCKS 1, 2012. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi and The Artist.

Not long after Star Group’s second show, Ma Desheng moved to Europe, as did many of the other members. He continues to live and work in Paris, but there is no doubt that his passionate commitment to freedom of expression helped pave the way for future Chinese artists.   

Zhang Xiaogang

One of China’s most well known and successful artists, Zhang Xiaogang, was also a witness to China’s Cultural Revolution. His parents were government officials but were sent away to be “re-educated” at the height of the Revolution—an event that greatly affects his work.

He studied at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts after the Cultural Revolution ended, but his professors were persistent in teaching the style of Soviet Realism. Zhang resisted this style and any philosophy that had to do with collectiveness in society. He founded a group focused on the importance of individualism in philosophy and art called the Southwest Art Group. Though somewhat successful with nearly eighty artists in the group, the Tiananmen Square incident happened not long after and the era of liberal reform ceased completely.

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: The Big Family No. 3; Image courtesy of Zhang Xiaogang / Pace Beijing

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: The Big Family No. 3; Image courtesy of Zhang Xiaogang / Pace Beijing

It wasn’t until 1992 when Zhang returned from Germany after 3 months that he knew exactly what he wanted to paint. He stated that he “could see a way to paint the contradictions between the individual and the collective.” His portrayals of those contradictions are what make his paintings so eerily captivating. Most of his work is themed after family photographs but there is always some sort of strange mark or difference in color that makes them unique to one another. The child, who is typically centered, is the most defined. This can be taken as Zhang’s commentary on the youth of the Cultural Revolution and their willingness to disown their families and personal histories.

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: Big Family No.1; Courtesy of Zhang Xiaogang and Studio/Daegu Art Museum

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: Big Family No.1; Courtesy of Zhang Xiaogang and Studio/Daegu Art Museum

Zhang Xiaogang’s artwork has shown world wide and he is easily one of the most prominent Chinese contemporary artist of today.

Yue Minjun

Beijing-based artist, Yue Minjun, also captures that theme of contradiction that Zhang Xiaogang displays. Yue Minjun was born in 1962 and studied oil painting at the Hebei Normal University in 1985. His work is done in a style that has been coined as “Cynical Realism,” and they are iconically uncomfortable. Most of the paintings are self-portraits of the artist with pink skin, laughing maniacally in surreal backgrounds while bent over in an attempt to cover an exposed body, vulnerable in only underwear.

Yue Minjun, Blue Sky and White Clouds, 2013; Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris — Pace Beijing

Yue Minjun, Blue Sky and White Clouds, 2013; Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris — Pace Beijing

These cartoon like images are politically pointed at the Cultural Revolution and China today. Minjun states that “…laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, with the absence of our rights that society has imposed on us.” This laughter evokes a strange feeling to the viewer. You feel as if you were looking at someone that had just gone through a mental breakdown and had experienced an intense amount of pain, dehumanized, but has an odd instinct to laugh. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say that, this is how Minjun see’s the China today; as society that has been through so much within recent years but does not know how to deal appropriately with the pain.

Xu Bing

The now world renowned artist, Xu Bing, was in high school when the Cultural Revolution broke out. Determined to stay in Beijing and continue his studies, he agreed to use his talents in calligraphy to create political propaganda. After he graduated, he was sent to the countryside to work in the fields and was not able to return until the death of Chairman Mao in 1976. Xu was accepted into Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts the following year to study printmaking.

Xu Bing, Book from the Sky; Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art

Xu Bing, Book from the Sky; Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art

The relationship between words and interpretation seems to be the core theme in Xu Bing’s work. In his grandiose installation, “Book from the Sky,” large scrolls hang from the ceiling and traditionally bound books and newspapers line the floor and walls, all stamped with woodblocks carved with made-up, nonsensical Chinese characters. The fact that nothing is literally being said in this piece results in many different interpretations. Is the installation a focus on Chinese tradition versus modern art? Is it a questioning of how different cultures perceive one another? Is it a commentary on the manipulation of words to achieve power, like in Mao’s case? Or is it a meaningless study of form and repetition? There are grounds for each of these questions within the piece and its intriguing quality is one of the reasons “Book from Sky” is such an international hit within the art world.  

Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang is probably best known around the world for his firework show at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but Cai’s artistry goes far beyond his pyrotechnic displays. He studied stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy from 1981 through 1985, which is evident in the spatial rendering seen in his large installations, paintings and performance pieces.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard; 1999; Photo by Elio Montanari

Cai Guo-Qiang, Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard; 1999; Photo by Elio Montanari

One of his most famous pieces was an installation he was commissioned to do for the 48th Venice Biennale, entitled, “Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard.” The installation consisted of 114 clay sculptures of peasants and laborers interspersed within the gallery’s setting.The piece created quite the stir amongst the art world as it closely resembled the famous Social Realist sculpture “Rent Collection Courtyard”: a highly political series of sculptures created during the Cultural Revolution. The stir wasn’t only because of Cai’s replica of the Chinese classic, but because he choose a material that would cause the sculptures to disintegrate as the show went on; a possible statement on Mao’s promises to the Chinese people and the ephemerality of their political and social structures.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Carnival Rehearsal, 2013; Photo by Joana França

Cai Guo-Qiang, Carnival Rehearsal, 2013; Photo by Joana França

Many of Cai Guo-Qiang works seem to embody a theme of unforeseen fate. In many of his paintings, he will scatter gunpowder on an already painted canvas, and ignite it. The result displays a combination of the controlled color of the actual paint, and the sporadic, random markings of the burnt gunpowder. This theme is also evident in his installation “Head On” where sculptures of wolves take off running and soaring through the air. The momentum of the piece is brutally interrupted as the wolves run, “head on,” into a wall a plexi glass and fall gracelessly to the floor.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Head On, 2006; Photo by Hiro Ihara

Cai Guo-Qiang, Head On, 2006; Photo by Hiro Ihara

It is often said that an artist’s role in society is to be instrument of the time; to reflect society back to itself, to be a catalyst of change, and to articulate culture. It is fair to say that these artists, and many other Chinese artists, are doing just that.  

Before this massive retrospective, I had only seen a few of Cindy Sherman’s portraits here and there. That’s what made The Broad’s first special exhibition, Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life, so overwhelming to me. I was taken aback by the vast expansion of her creativity.

The Broad’s exhibit holds over 120 works by Sherman and is curated by Philipp Kaiser. Kaiser flawlessly presents Edye and Eli Broad’s collection, the largest Sherman collection in the world, as well with works on loan from Metro Pictures, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Menil Collection, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, all with Sherman herself as the subject.

Curator Phillipp Kaiser speaking at the press preview. Photo by Karli Feder

Curator Phillipp Kaiser speaking at the press preview. Photo by Karli Feder

The retrospective covers over forty years of Sherman’s work, and is curated in a loosely chronological order including works from the centerfolds, the fairy tales, the history portraits, the sex pictures, the clown pictures, society portraits, and a full length feature film entitled Office Killer. The exhibition begins with her Untitled Film Stills in 1975 and concludes with works completed this year. Kaiser’s curation perfectly captures Sherman’s artistic evolution. The exhibition itself feels like its own museum due to the drastic variations in her style. If a viewer walks in only having heard the name “Cindy Sherman,” they leave enthralled by Sherman’s chameleon-like talent to move through the barriers of genre that define so many other artists.

Upon arrival, the viewer is immediately greeted by two floor-to-ceiling murals of Sherman, imagined by the artist herself for the exhibition. One instantly gets the impression that this exhibit will be intense, humbling and exciting. Reminiscent of film stills, these murals perfectly tie in both Los Angeles and the influence of film, pop culture, and the stereotypes involved in both pop culture and film that have had a profound effect on Sherman’s work and, in turn, her identity as an artist.

The first gallery holds Sherman’s black and white film stills and is an impeccable introduction to those unfamiliar with her work. In one, she is seen standing in the corner of a room with her hand on her hip in an apron and long dress. In Untitled Film Still #47, we see Sherman in another classic 50’s inspired look:  she is pantless and wearing a white collared shirt with a straw hat and big sunglasses. She seems to be caught in the midst of gardening and surprised by the intrusion of a viewer, as the viewer has been placed in the perspective of the photographer. Quickly, one can recognize the sacrifice of Sherman’s own identity as an individual and, in this case, her submersion into an identity characterized by the clichés and stereotypes of women in the 50’s and 60’s.

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Installation view. Photo by Karli Feder.

The exhibition then moves into her fashion pictures. When arranged together, the transition of Sherman in terms of persona from one portrait to the next is drastic and awe-inspiring. I was astonished by her incredible attention to detail, the expansive emotional coverage, and her clearly inherent ability to see a style for what it is, bring herself into it, and create something so unique out of a form already so familiar. All completed in the 80’s, the constant changes in the lighting, mood, and character being portrayed show how quickly Sherman can commit herself to an identity we imagine to be entirely different from her own. In Untitled #119 she is a powerful force of a woman, her arms stretched wide as she seems to be caught mid belt of an opera song. The image radiates light and the power of femininity. In Untitled #122 she stands hunched over, drowned in black fabric, fist clenched, and one eye looking directly at the camera. In every image of her fashion series, she is unrecognizable. Her fashion pictures are potentially the greatest in showcasing her incredible diversity as a subject and an artist, especially for the untrained or unfamiliar viewer.

Installation view. Photo by Karli Feder

Installation view. Photo by Karli Feder

The gallery that holds the Centerfolds and the Pink Robe photos is a perfect combination of Sherman’s most iconic photos, as well as what many consider a glimpse at “the real Cindy Sherman.” The four centerfolds are arranged in a single line directly opposite the room of her four pink robe photographs. The Centerfolds show Sherman as the star of each photograph in a style that reminded me of Hitchcock’s films. The women are the primary focus of each photograph, all of them with very little background, all on the floor, fully-clothed, unaware of the camera, and fixated on something just outside of the image. Though each of the Centerfolds is structurally similar, each one differs in the emotional state of the subject: detachment, fear, daze, and apprehension. When thinking of the name “Centerfolds,” one imagines the sexual objectification of women in magazines such as Playboy, but the women in Sherman’s Centerfolds makes one consider the vulnerability that inevitably accompanies the sexual portrayal of women. The Centerfolds, a comment on the powerless women of an age of sexual objectification in pop culture, are the perfect juxtaposition to the Pink Robe Photos, which immediately shatter the notion that all sexualized women are weak. The Pink Robe Photos show a powerful and in-control woman in a highly-sexualized state, more so than the Centerfolds. Also arranged in a single line, Sherman again as the subject makes direct eye contact in each photograph, exuding dominance. This woman is a far cry from those pictured in the Centerfolds. She has power in her eyes, and though she is seen covering her naked body with a pink robe, her varied body language gives way to a sense of commandment.

Installation view. Photo by Karli Feder

Installation view. Photo by Karli Feder

Installation view. Photo by Karli Feder.

Installation view. Photo by Karli Feder

The exhibition closes with new photographs produced this year. A room is filled with what appear to be the aging starlets of an age long gone. One is instantly drawn to Untitled #512, which is different from the rest in terms of her body language and color-scheme. Sherman is shown in a short brown wig and long feathery coat, photoshopped onto a background of rough terrain. This woman is lonely and displaced, but her facial expression would say otherwise; she appears soft and intense, the contrasting aspects of the photograph blending in harmony. She stands angled in a way where she seems thin and more petite, her left knee brought to her right, similar to the pose of a pin-up model. These works reminded me of the Untitled Film Stills, although they are structurally dissimilar, they seem to be a comment on the power dynamic women held in the 20’s as the Untitled Film Stills were on the 50’s and 60’s. The exhibition ends as it begins; Sherman acts as the subject of the work as she both embraces the characteristics of the times and disputes them by infusing her works with power and femininity.

Installation view. Photo by Karli Feder

Installation view. Photo by Karli Feder

Cindy Sherman created her own style by having the ability to idealize reality. Her flawless execution and comprehensive understanding of the characteristics that define so many periods of art make her one of the most successful artists of modern time. The retrospective is brave, overwhelming, at times terrifying, and incomprehensible. In the beginning, I found myself enamored by how she is able to become so many different subjects, but by the end I was left shellshocked by the unbelievable fact that all of these works came from one, clearly uninhibited mind.

Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life is on view at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles from June 11, 2016- October 2, 2016.

In 1985 Mona Hatoum walked through Brixton in bare feet for almost an hour, dragging behind her as she did the pair of Dr Martens boots that were tied to her ankles (Roadworks). This was Mona Hatoum in the beginning of her work: the body is the locus of all connections between a human and the surrounding space, objects, other humans, society, politics.

Her work creates a challenging vision of our world, exposing its contradictions and complexities, often making the familiar uncanny. Through the juxtaposition of opposites such as beauty and horror, she engages us in conflicting emotions of desire and revulsion, fear and fascination.

Mona Hatoum was born in Beirut to a Palestinian family and during a visit to London in 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon and Hatoum was forced into exile. She stayed in London, training at both the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art (University College, London) between the years 1975 and 1981. She now lives and works in Berlin and London and has participated in numerous important group exhibitions including The Turner Prize (1995), Venice Biennale (1995 and 2005), Documenta XI, Kassel (2002), Biennale of Sydney (2006), The Istanbul Biennal (1995 and 2011) and the Fifth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (2013).

I believe it is important to start any description of Hatoum’s work with the above information as this was the platform that allowed the world to be witness to her continuous inspiration. Exile must have been her curse and blessing.

Mona Hatoum, Performance Still 1985, 1995 @Mona Hatoum

Mona Hatoum, Performance Still 1985, 1995
@Mona Hatoum

‘It was nice to be in a place where everyone spoke with a Palestinian accent, which was my parents’ accent – though in Beirut, people used to hide it so they would fit in. But it was very overwhelming, very sad. You feel angry all the time – though I had to keep myself together so I could make the work, and it was inevitable, then, that the work would be about the situation.” She says about the time when she was invited to Jerusalem, in 1996.

Solo exhibitions include Centre Pompidou, Paris (1994), Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1997), The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (1998), Castello di Rivoli, Turin (1999), Tate Britain, London (2000), Hamburger Kunsthalle, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Magasin 3, Stockholm (2004) and Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2005). Recent exhibitions include Measures of Entanglement, UCCA, Beijing (2009), Interior Landscape, Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice (2009), Witness, Beirut Art Center, Beirut (2010), Le Grand Monde, Fundaciòn Marcelino Botìn, Santander (2010) and as the winner of the 2011 Joan Miró Prize, she held a solo exhibition at Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona in 2012. In 2013-2014 she was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Kunstmuseum St Gallen and the largest survey of her work to be shown in the Arab world is currently held at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha.

Coming back to the Tate Modern exhibition, it is absolutely overwhelming to be in the presence of this artist’s lifetime work… The energy seems to have attached to the walls of each room and stories are leaking from every corner, entering the open pores of the spectator’s skin. The body reacts to Hatoum’s body works as they should.

My first thought as I entered the first room of the exhibition was that art is an endless row of assumptions about life as we perceive it and as we are taught to perceive it. Mona Hatoum is unbuttoning the jeans of the old and young generations of art seekers. Her works undress you of the daily routine and her black and white interference between routine and search for absolute is a terrifying blessing.

‘Stills of sequence of live images seens on large monitor facing the audience” 12th of June, 1980 is an artistic scan of the spectator and as he is acknowledging the introspection, the scan penetrates deeper, beneath the skin, into the psychic.

“Light Sentence” 1992 was one of my favorite installations showcased in the exhibition. This prison of shapes that might open the door to freedom of understanding in silence. Mona Hatoum never felt confident enough to speak in her art and the silence translated by some of her works is absolutely overwhelming. In “Light Sentence” there is a perfect harmony between light and darkness and movement does not kill this harmony… Only voices could. Metal, light bulbs, white walls, shadows and movement suddenly become an escape or imprisonment.

Mona Hatoum’s work can be interpreted as a description of the body and its impact on other people and the surrounding objects, as a commentary on politics, and on gender difference as she explores the dangers and confines of the domestic world. Her work can also be interpreted through the concept of space as her sculpture and installation work depend on the viewer to inhabit the surrounding space to complete the effect. There are always multiple readings to her work. The physical responses that Hatoum desired in order to provoke psychological and emotional responses ensures unique and individual reactions from different viewers. (WIKIPEDIA)

In “Jardin Public”(1993), the artist depicts a classic French garden chair that sports pubic hair which seems to grow from the holes in the seat. The title hints at the link between ‘public’ and ‘pubic’, both connected to the Latin work for ‘adult’. The human bodies leave prints on the places that they touch, creating an uninterrupted connection between people and places and their objects.

In her singular sculptures, Hatoum has transformed familiar, every-day, domestic objects such as chairs, cots and kitchen utensils into things foreign, threatening and dangerous. In Homebound (2000) Hatoum uses an assemblage of household furniture wired up with an audibly active electric current – combine a sense of threat with a surrealist sense of humour to create a work that draws the viewer in, on both an emotive and intellectual level.

Mona Hatoum, Impentrable 2009 Florian Kleinefenn courtesy of the artist gallery Chantal Crousel, Paris

Mona Hatoum, Impentrable 2009
Florian Kleinefenn courtesy of the artist gallery Chantal Crousel, Paris

I spent roughly 10 minutes on the room that hosts the installation “Impenetrable” 2009 and thought about the infinity of hope. Looking through the corridors rods of barbed wire, space that you hope you can penetrate and eventually escape the three metre cube maze. Hatoum makes reference to the Venezuelan artist Jesus Rafael Soto’s series of Penetrables, hanging cubes made from colourful rubber tubes.

“Cellules” 2012 suggests confinement, isolation and biology. It suggests the struggle to escpae the imprisonment of our own biology.

Then “Quarters”1996 suggests official, institutional lodgings, while the implicit idea of layered bodies links this work to urban architecture in which people live above one another. Its layout echoes the Panopticon, a prison design in which inmates are always subject to surveillance from a central viewing position by an unseen guard, which philosopher Michael Foucault used as a metaphor for a disciplinary society.

Imprisoned by society, imprisoned by biology, imprisoned by politics. Everything is under the formula of chaos: always close and black – “Turbulence” 2014.

“Hot Spot” 2006, a steel globe with the continents outlined in neon, casting an orange glow and sending buzzes of electricity throughout the room is the piece that completely separates your from the reality that envelopes outside the doors of Tate.

“Interior/Exterior Landscape” 2010 is a room size installation that contains altered household furniture including a bed frame threaded with hair, a hair embroidered pillow that depicts flight routes between the artist;s most visited cities, a conjoined table and chair  and a bird cage housing a single ball of hair. Hanging from a metal coat rack are two circular wire hangers that frame wall drawings of the Eastern and Western hemispheres and a market bag constructed frn a cut-out print of a world map.

“Twelve Windows” made by Mona Hatoum with Inaash, 2012-2013 are twelve pieces of embroidery, the work of Inaash, The Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps. Each ‘window’ represents a different region of through its motifs, stitches, colours and patterns, meticulously embroidered by Inaash’s experienced craftswomen. The aim of the project was to preserve a traditional skill, at risk of extinction because of the dispersal of Palestinians across the region. Hatoum created an installation in which the ‘windows’ are displayed in a space criss-crossed by steel cables, making a visual metaphor for this divided territory.

The last room of the exhibition showcases “Undercurrent (red)” 2008 which explores again the interest of the artist in craft and textiles. This piece is realised dramatically in a combination of traditional technique with materials such as a square mat, woven from red electrical cable, a long fringe snake and 15 watts light bulbs that brighten and dim at what Hatoum describes as a “breathing pace”.

Mona Hatoum, Measures of Distance 1988. © Mona Hatoum

Mona Hatoum, Measures of Distance 1988. © Mona Hatoum

The entire exhibition is a public survey of the artist’s perception of this world that held her tight into a tense creative process, after spitting her away from her biological crib. An exploration of an immigrant soul who saw through the reality of a migrant crowd of souls all travelling from one understanding to another, one reality to another to the point of escape from the imprisonment.

Mona Hatoum exhibition (4th of May 21st of August) is curated by Clarrie Wallis, Curator of Modern and Contemporary British Art, Tate and Christine Van Assche, Honorary Curator, Centre Pompidou, Paris, with Katy Wan, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern and Capucine Perrot, former Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.

No matter what time of year it is, chances are there is a biennial happening somewhere around the world. During certain years, the art world flocks to major cities like Venice or São Paulo—or remote places like Kassel, Germany or Dakar—to view some of the world’s greatest contemporary art. Since the 1990s these large-scale international contemporary art exhibitions have become the main way of exhibiting and publicizing international contemporary art.

Today, major biennials exist on every continent, everywhere from Sydney to Shanghai, with more than 150 established biennials in total. They have become such a craze that a non-profit called the Biennial Foundation was formed just to monitor their behavior. Confusingly though, not all of these exhibitions happen every two years, some are triennials (Yokohama Triennale) or quadrennials (Copenhagen Arts Festival—formerly the U-turn Quadriennale), but because all of these exhibitions follow the same general structure, they are all grouped under the biennial umbrella. Essentially, what distinguishes biennials from art fairs, like Frieze in London or Art Basel in Miami, is the fact that biennials are much larger, taking place in multiple venues across the given city, and, most importantly, the works displayed are not for sale. Biennials function as temporary exhibitions for contemporary art, not as galleries.

Padiglione Centrale Giardini, Venezia, 2010 Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia

Padiglione Centrale, Giardini, Venezia, 2010
Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti. Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia

The concept of the biennial has roots in the 19th and early 20th century phenomena of the World’s Fair and Universal Exhibition. The word biennial comes from the Italian word biennale, meaning every other year, and refers to the original biennial—the Venice Biennale. The first Venice Biennale, in 1895, celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of Italy’s King Umberto and Queen Margherita. It was held at the Palazzo dell’ Esposizione, a public space called the Giardini on the Riva degli Schiavoni in Venice. The exhibition was hugely popular, and became a bi-annual (biennial) event. By the early 20th century many different countries had built pavilions in the Giardini to house their country’s art during the exhibition. During the first half of the 20th century, the pavilions featured an assortment of works by the country’s best artists. In the post-war years, the style of the exhibition began to shift towards more curated and thematic displays.

Renzo Piano Building Workshop and G124 (Senator Renzo Piano’s Working Group) L’architetto condotto 15th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, REPORTING FROM THE FRONT. Photo by: Francesco Galli Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

Renzo Piano Building Workshop and G124 (Senator Renzo Piano’s Working Group)
L’architetto condotto; 15th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, REPORTING FROM THE FRONT. Photo by: Francesco Galli. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

The current global biennial structure was developed in the 1990s. Most biennials follow the general structure of the Venice Biennale, which has both a series of national pavilions that exhibit work from their country’s artists, all with individually curated themes, and a larger overarching exhibition curated by the biennial directors that is often linked to a different theme. As the art world became increasingly globalized in the late 1990s, the biennial phenomenon has also taken on a diplomatic element. These exhibitions bring together works of art from all over the world under one general curatorial theme, which is often connected to international social or political issues. For example, the 2016 Venice Biennale theme is “Reporting from the Front.”

Although the biennial model of contemporary art exhibitions has been debated, the idea of exhibitions that survey global contemporary art have been perceived as largely positive. The growth of biennial culture has been connected with fostering diplomatic relations between nations as well as promoting the growth of cultural tourism. Large-scale biennials draw in hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world, and have certainly helped to generate tourism in previously under-visited destinations. Through these visitors the art displayed at biennials circulates around the world—every visitor returns from biennials with a list of top new artists to watch.

Justine Gaga, Indignation : installation, dimensions variables, 2012, © Justine Gaga. Dak'Art 2014 : Exposition International Village de la Biennale. Photo : Willy Kemtane

Justine Gaga, Indignation : installation, dimensions variables, 2012, © Justine Gaga. Dak’Art 2014 : Exposition International Village de la Biennale. Photo: Willy Kemtane

With the increasing globalization of the art world, many biennials focused on non-Western art have emerged since the 1990s. One of the most important of these is DAK’ART, the Dakar Biennale, founded in 1992. This biennial focuses on contemporary African art or works of black artists around the world. It is the largest exposition of contemporary African art and draws in visitors and artists from all over the globe to Senegal. Also, with the growing power of the Asian art market, major biennials are now located in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Japan, which attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. A major exhibition of non-western art is also hosted every two years in Havana, Cuba. While originally dedicated only to Caribbean and Latin American art, the biennial has expanded to include work of artists from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East as well.

While biennials have a long history, they have evolved dramatically in the past thirty years. They have essentially transformed from World’s Fairs into the major place for viewing, circulating, and discussing global contemporary art.

Distinguished for his portrait paintings, South African born Ryan Hewett is a star on the rise. After his sold-out show at Unit London last year (Read our interview with Unit London co-founders Jonny Burt and Joe Kennedy), Ryan is preparing for his first solo show in the UK coming up in October this year. We caught up on a typical rainy day in London (not as sunny and bright as days in South Africa, noted by the artist) when Hewett shared his views on being an artist, creative transformation, life outside of a canvas and much more.


Do you remember when you realized you wanted to be an artist ?
Not really. It’s always been with me. I’ve been drawing since I can remember. There was never a point when the lights came on and BOOM I’m going to be an artist ! I was doing a number of jobs, but I kept drawing no matter what. I used to do pencil drawings with a very realistic approach to them. I was never a painter. But then I taught myself to paint. It was always something I enjoyed, it was my passion, and I wanted to take it further and see where it can lead me.

When was the first time you painted ?

I was about 20. It took me a while, but by 22 I sold my first work. And then I became obsessed with painting for the past 15 years.

Would you try any other medium though ?

I mostly have oil paintings, I also use spray paint and I want to start doing sculptures. I’d like to as I feel my paintings are quite sculptural. I’ve never done it before, it’s like I’m painting rocks and putting them together. I’m going to start playing with clay in a month or two and see where it goes.

Eternal Flight, 2013, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Ryan Hewett

Eternal Flight, 2013, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Ryan Hewett

I can see some of your works are so three-dimensional, you can actually see the thick layer of paint that you applied on the surface…

At the beginning, I tried to approach painting as I did with pencil work. It was very delicate and thin. I needed it to be neat and tidy, I used to put paint lids back on after I finished painting… now it’s a complete chaos (laughs). I use rollers, I throw paint on the canvas, and lids are never on now… I became more confident when approaching a painting and just letting it go. The textures are a lot thicker and juicier. But then again my new works with flat backgrounds are more textured, more thought-out. My earlier works are rough, low-detailed, these ones are more one-stroke, you lay it down and you leave it. Very clean.

Inertia, 2014, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Ryan Hewett

Inertia, 2014, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Ryan Hewett

Are you inspired by any artists ?

I never studied art history, so my inspiration came from books. Looking through and learning about artists as I got older made my taste change over time. There’s this artist Adrian Ghenie that influenced me in a figurative landscape sense of an artwork… But there’s so much art out there, you can get lost… I think, the art of Francis Bacon and Egon Schiele speak to me the most. Art has to be moving. It’s not always a pretty picture or a pretty face, it’s gotta hold you.

You first show was four years ago at Barnard Gallery in SA. Before that you’ve never thought of being exhibited ?

Most of my 20s and 30s I have been going through a rough time and painting was mostly a way to escape from all the troubles of the everyday life. I can’t even say who I was; it was a very unstable chapter of my life. Art was my passion and the means to get away from that dark place I was in most of the time.

Churchill, 2015,_120x100_Oil on canvas

Churchill, Oil on Canvas, 2015. Courtesy of Ryan Hewett

Last year you had a show at Unit London called Untitled where you depicted portraits of famous historical figures. What was the idea behind it ?

The idea came around to put figures that in their own way changed the world together in one place. Winston Churchill, Oussama Ben Laden… Jesus… That body of work was meant for those people to be together in one room. In a certain way, they belonged together. Putin and Obama, which is still relevant today. Even after the show I thought I did a series of iconic people and got caught in it for a while.

What about your second UK solo show coming up in October, will we see portraits again ?

Not only. There will be landscapes … It’s so new to me. There are hints of landscape here and there in my previous works, where figures seem to be crashed into the flower field, for example, or a skyline. There will be movement away from portraits; in fact, I want to tell my personal story. It will be a great challenge, as I’ve been doing just portraits for the past 15 years.

Do you have any work ready for the show already ?

I’ve just started the first one (laughing). It’ll be based on landscapes I saw growing up in Johannesburg… quite colorful… It’s hard to explain, but I remember reading a book when I was young that was a big inspiration to me so it’s a flashback to that time in a way. Revisiting my styles, paintings that I did ages ago. Not to do with the painting but with the concept behind it, my darker past, memories… Going back to them and trying to put them on canvas is quite scary, as I haven’t done it. I know it’ll be a great challenge, but I feel like I have to do it. I want to ultimately show the journey that I’ve had.

French Mistress, 2016, oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm

French Mistress, oil on canvas, 2016. Courtesy of Ryan Hewett

What’s your favorite part of the artistic process ?
It takes time to have that breakthrough. But there are these moments when everything changes… A new idea or a mistake. Painting is a very technical process and I am kind of an obsessive painter. I’m always in the studio for long hours, painting and painting. But then you always stumble on something new. A painting created in a few hours or a few sessions moves you. Sometimes I remember a facial structure and I keep the reference in my mind, and then the face just comes together on a canvas in a matter of a few days. It’s done.

I used to just attack the canvas and lately I started to reflect on how and why I lay down that brushstroke. I get in a rhythm, I’ve a roller, paintbrushes in my hands, it’s quite chaotic, but I get focused and zoned into what I am doing. I don’t even put music on, just because I like to be in my head when I’m doing it. But I also know what to be in and out of rhythm, I am a very up and down artist.

Do you work on multiple canvases at the same time ?

I never used to. I used to work on just one piece at a time. I recently started to because I don’t want to fall into a routine or a pattern, when you go from A to Z. It becomes predictable. Now I jump from one canvas to the next. And sometimes when you throw paint on a canvas, let it be there for a while, come back to it a few days later, and you see something new. You can’t get bored of it. You can’t get bored of the process of mixing it up… It depends though, sometimes I can finish a piece in a few hours. I don’t like the statement “it has to be this way”, I used to and I broke this pattern. I just know that there are moments when you’re in tune with the rhythm, you just see it. Everything feels right. It’s not always like that, it’s not easy. I am not trying to imagine a picture before I get to start the painting. Though with my new body of work that’ll be focusing on my own journey, I do have a picture, a memory in my head and the challenge is to ultimately communicate the felling I had through a painting. And I get so much satisfaction just letting it go on a canvas and I not controlling the process. I don’t want to know what I’m getting. That’s the art of making.

the_girl_of_the_year_2016_140x100_oil_and_spray_on_canvas

The Girl of the Year, Oil&Spray on Canvas, 2016. Courtesy of Ryan Hewett

Do you have any advice to young artists?

As a painter, spend more time on a canvas. It’s not just books and books, you’ve to get on the canvas. Don’t be afraid of it. You’ve to be able to throw a canvas on the floor and walk over it at the end of the day. You’ve to be ready to take those risks. Things happen accidentally. Mistakes happen, great mistakes. It’s hours and hours on the canvas; you can’t get away from it. Go explore.

Ryan Hewett Solo Show is coming on September 29th, 2016 at Unit London.

Philip Guston’s oeuvre cannot be designated to only one artistic movement. He had begun his career as a realist expressionist; however, after a move to New York in the forties, quickly delved into abstraction and gained fame as a part of the New York School. Guston’s views on Abstract Expressionism began to diverge from those of his peers. As Ab-Ex continued to sever the ties between abstraction and realism on a “march to flatness,” Guston was becoming disenchanted with painting what he believed could only be realized through painting itself—what only a painting could express. Grappling with concepts of abstraction and the very notions of painting itself, Guston turned back on his separation with realism to rediscover imagination within painting. While it may seem that the artist’s transition to his figurative, Neo-Expressionist works was abrupt, the pieces made during the preceding decade foreshadow his return to figure and object. During Guston’s metamorphosis, his works searched for form and solidity within an imagined space. Some of the pivotal works from this period are currently on display at Hauser & Wirth in an exhibition entitled “Philip Guston: Painter 1957—1967,” which directly explores the slow evolution that led to the artist’s return to figuration and his re-discovery of painting as an illusionistic, infinitely imaginative space.

Fable II 1957 Oil on illustration board 62.7 x 91.1 cm / 24 5/8 x 35 7/8 in, Private Collection © The Estate of Philip Guston Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Fable II, 1957, Oil on illustration board © The Estate of Philip Guston. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

The exhibition is a coming together of 36 paintings and 53 drawings, most on loan from private collections and major institutions, organized by Paul Schimmel—ex-MOCA Director as well as Partner and Vice President of Hauser & Wirth. Schimmel led a walk-through of the exhibition, discussing this transitory period of 1957-67 as the physical representation of Guston’s concern with the loss of object in abstraction and a display of the artist’s ability to, as Schimmel states, “push back on his own history.”

Untitled, 1958 Oil on canvas 162.9 x 191.1 cm / 64 1/8 x 75 1/4 in © The Estate of Philip Guston Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Untitled, 1958, Oil on canvas. © The Estate of Philip Guston. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

In the first gallery, colorful shapes floating on white landscapes greet viewers. The works from 1957 are energetic and colorful. In some, the colors clustered in the center of the work seem to wish to break out of their tight, constricted form. Guston’s Fable II from 1957 is an example of this abstracted, elegantly exuberant conglomeration of colors surrounded by soft, warm beige brushstrokes. By 1958, Guston’s paintings become murkier, his colors darkening—the reds deepen, the white tones become gray, such as in Last Piece and Untitled. However, splotches of color are still commanding forces within the picture. Vessel from 1960 consists of a dark rectangular form hovering close to the viewer, dominating the pictorial space—swatches of yellow, green and red peek over the black ridge. Blue and gray brushstrokes partially erase an underpainting, which consists of warmer orange tones.

By 1961, Guston’s longing for images takes over his paintings. Figures and objects arise in dark masses against gray backgrounds that stop short of the edge of the canvas. The masses loom toward the viewer, ambiguous and ghostly. The phantoms haunt many of Guston’s works from this period, shadows of the figuration the artist will soon return to. The bare space surrounding his pictures highlight the edge of the canvas, heightening the awareness of the relationship between the paint and the end of the physical work through a spatial exploration of landscape and background.

Painter III, 1963 Oil on canvas 167.64 x 200.6 cm / 66 x 79 in © The Estate of Philip Guston Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Painter III, 1963, Oil on canvas © The Estate of Philip Guston. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Guston’s Painter III from 1963 exemplifies the new changes in the artist’s work. The brushstrokes layer in loose knits, almost grid-like. In Painter III, a form emerges from a large swatch of grays and blues. Underneath, background layers of muted orange and purple peer out from behind the gray paint. A black figure compositionally portrayed in portrait style appears to raise a hand, the suggestion of a paintbrush in its grip implies an artist’s self-portrait. Although ambiguous and still embedded within abstraction, the paintings introduce ideas of landscapes and suggestions of portraiture, even the titles of his pieces start to relate more to physical nouns rather than concepts. Within these works, the viewer can observe Guston testing the waters for a move back to object and figure.

Looking, 1964; photo by the author.

Looking, 1964; photo by Madeleine Mermall

In 1965, Guston experimented with his last throes of color in works like Looking and Inhabiter—hints of dusty, salmon pink layers appear luminous underneath a smoky screen of paint. At the end of this pivotal decade, the everyday objects and enigmatic figures are their most mysterious. Shapes materialize from the space; these cryptic subjects loom forward in their settings, comprised of grays and blacks, the brushstrokes smooth and gentle, forming soft, slack cross-hatched patterns. There is a large sense of erasure in the works, traces of painting barely remain behind a smog-like haze of monochromatic color. The paintings are elusive, abstract enough to remain ambiguous but familiar enough where the implication of reality cannot be ignored.

The end of Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition features a wall of Guston’s drawings from 1967. Although the drawings mark a temporary end of painting for the artist, they actually symbolize the birth of Guston’s Neo-Expressionist style. The pure line drawings are skeletons of the cartoon-like realism soon to come. They also speak to Guston’s rejection of the art world’s expectations regarding his artwork.

Paul Schimmel with works on paper. Photo by the author.

Paul Schimmel with works on paper. Photo by Madeleine Mermall

The paintings exhibited at Hauser & Wirth display the artist’s search for spatiality and object, signaling his return to figuration. Each work proves to be a stepping stone that forms a cohesive understanding of the artist’s subtle, smooth transition to figure and form and away from the constraints of his previous works. Schimmel, during his tour, discussed Guston’s idea of freedom, stating that the artist believed that “only when you are at the blank white canvas, you are free.” Beyond the works in this decade attempting to reconcile gesture and color field painting, landscape and portraiture with abstraction, the paintings directly deal with the freedom of the artist—the ability to reject or embrace the past, or to create whatever one pleases. The artworks at Hauser & Wirth are inherent to Guston’s realization of freedom, and in Guston’s words himself, “that’s the only possession an artist has—freedom to do whatever you can imagine.”

“Philip Guston: Painter 1957—1967” is on view at Hauser & Wirth Gallery, New York, through July 29, 2016.

Hauser & Wirth is on the path to redefining the Arts District in Los Angeles. The global gallery enterprise has teamed up with former Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Paul Schimmel, to create a gallery that takes up a whole city block on East 3rd. Street. With free admission, a restaurant, and public walkways that run right through the middle, this gallery is different in the best way.

The Mid-Century flour mill turned art gallery is actually more like a museum. It is only slightly smaller than its neighbor, The Broad, which opened in downtown L.A. last year.  So how did they choose to fill 112,000 square feet of gallery space for its first show? With over 100 pieces from 34 female artists, that’s how.

Installation view, Phyllida Barlow. Courtesy of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel

Installation view, ‘Phyllida Barlow, GIG.’ Courtesy of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel

“Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016” takes the past 70 years of women artists and revisits their relevance during a dominantly masculine period. The inaugural exhibition, curated by Paul Schimmel and Jenni Sorkin, explores the influence these women had on abstract sculpture through a diverse range of form, material and method.  

The first part of the exhibition focuses on the women of the immediate post-war era (1940-1960). Beautiful white columns line the naturally lit room. The space is simple, elegant, and urbanized. The tall ceilings allow for Ruth Asawa’s twenty-one foot long looped wire sculpture (one of several on display) to hang and unfold gracefully at one end of the gallery. Lee Bontecou’s series of steel and canvas bas-relief sculptures are fixed on the back wall, while Louise Bourgeois sleek “Personages” sculptures stand like viewers in the center of the room. Further down,  placed below a balcony, are five of Claire Falkenstein’s mixed material sculptures entitled, “Sun” and “Iron Sun.” This first room is so rich in the themes of this exhibition. These specific artists have, each in their own way, used new materials and created a subject matter that is begotten by nature and  the feminine experience.

Photo by Michael Juliano. Courtesy of Time Out Los Angeles

Ruth Asawa, Installation View. Photo by Michael Juliano. Courtesy of Time Out Los Angeles

Ruth Asawa’s Untitled series of wire sculptures hang vertically from the ceiling, imitating a drop of water as it slowly separates from its original source. These sculptures are obviously not a direct representation of the body, but something about their poetic curvature exudes femininity. The repetition in form is a testament to Asawa’s craft of woven wire, which could be considered an evolved form of basket weaving. The pieces themselves are highly abstracted, yet they are rooted in nature and geometry.  The interlocking weavings seen in these sculptures brings to mind the same sort of natural pattern that is evident in a seashell or a plant, for example. Asawa weaves the metal wire with such attention, one cannot help but to feel the artist’s immersion within her sculptures.

As the exhibition continues into the contemporary, it is clear to see how artist like Rachel Khedoori, Marisa Merz and Lygia Page are influenced by Asawa’s choice in material.

Louise Bourgeois: Art © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York NY

Louise Bourgeois: Art © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York NY

A selection of Louise Bourgeois  “Personages” sculptures create a nice juxtaposition next to the fluidity of Ruth Asawa’s pieces. Their sharp linear forms are placed about the center of the room, in a way that mimics the surrounding people strolling the gallery. Bourgeois created “Personages” between the years of 1945 and 1955 and there are around eighty sculptures in total. Out of the eighty, there are only about a dozen of the carved and painted wood sculptures on view at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel. The form of each of these pieces is individualized and inventive, yet there is a connectedness between the artist and her work that goes beyond the method used.

Each piece is representative of an individual Bourgeois knew personally. They all had some sort of relationship with Bourgeois that differed from the other, which is, perhaps the reason for their different characteristics. These sculpted portrayals can also be seen as a reflection of Bourgeois as a female and how her role as a women differs between each individual. This internal feminine experience exists within many of the pieces shown throughout the gallery, but most prominently in the work shown by Eva Hesse, Shiela Hicks, Ursula von Rydingsvard.

“Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016” will be shown at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel until September 4th.

Hauser Wirth & Schimmel

901 East 3rd Street

Los Angeles, CA 90013

Gallery hours:

Wednesday, Friday – Sunday

11 am – 6 pm

Thursday

11 am – 8 pm

 

I recently got back from a short, museum-packed trip to Washington, D.C. for spring break. Do you remember the museum scene from Passport to Paris? It was a little like that, except unlike Mary-Kate and Ashley, I had a blast. Among the multiple Smithsonian institutions I visited, one of my favorites was the National Museum of African Art (not to be confused with the National Museum of African American History and Culture opening this September). The seemingly small but uniquely designed museum first opened its doors in 1964. At the time it was known as the Museum of African Art, located on Capitol Hill in a townhouse that had been the home of Frederick Douglass. In August 1979, the museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution. It is now located on the National Mall (which, by the way, is full of cherry blossoms this time of year, in case you’re planning your own “wanna get away” trip).

Emandulo Re-Creation (detail)

Robbin Ami Silverberg (b. 1958, United States) and Kim Berman (b. 1960, South Africa), Emandulo Re-Creation (detail), Johannesburg, South Africa: Artist Proof Studio, 1997 Edition 6/30

Among other exhibits, now on view is Artists’ Books and Africa. The twenty-five books included in the exhibition are either by African artists or feature traditional African themes, and all come from the permanent collections of the museum and the Smithsonian libraries. Through the books, the exhibition explores African history and cultures by embodying collective memory and reclaiming cultural heritage and storytelling. The show features fine art books as well as those employing multiple formats, materials and techniques by predominantly contemporary artists.

Bruce Onobrakpeya (b. 1932, Nigeria), Bruce Onobrakpeya Portfolio of Art and Literature (detail), Lagos, Nigeria: Ovuomaroro Studio & Gallery, 2003, Edition 19/75

The books range in theme from personal narratives to reflections on the human condition. The sprawled out pages of Atta Kwami’s (b. 1956 in Ghana) Grace Kwami Sculpture (1993) resemble the form of a spider, drawing upon the African folklore of Anansi, the mischievous but knowledgeable spider known for his cleverness and skill, to tell the story of the artist’s mother, Grace Kwami (1923–2006), who was also an artist. Each of the book’s “legs” show pictures illustrating Grace’s life, creating a metaphor between the skillfulness of the spider and the creativity of the artist’s mother (my mind immediately went to Maman by Louise Bourgeois).

Atta Kwami (b. 1956, Ghana), Grace Kwami Sculpture, London: Atta Kwami, 1993, Edition 6/32

Another artist, Judith Mason (b. 1938 in South Africa) and poet Wilma Stockenström (b. 1933 in South Africa) use the book to visualize pain, or more specifically, a woman’s pain. In their book, Skoelapperheuwel, Skoelappervrou (Butterfly Hill, Butterfly Woman), Mason uses lithographs of pencil illustrations and collages of torn paper as the background for Stockenström’s enigmatic yet thought provoking words. Written in free verse Afrikaans, Stockenström contemplates the role of women in society, as well as other existentialist themes such as death and the afterlife.  The ripped pages signify a kind of trauma presumably felt by all women, whether from childbirth, intercourse, or menstruation. The poetry is not fully translated into English, but even without textual reference, the message of the powerful and often visceral images is clear.

Judith Mason, Wilma Stockenström, Skoelapperheuwel, Skoelappervrou (Butterfly Hill, Butterfly Woman) (detail), Pretoria, South Africa: Ombondi Editions, 1988, 2010

The versatility of artist books shows how their form and structure often supercede their content. Inspired by the “power to the people” mindset of the 1960s, inexpensive artists’ books referred to as “democratic multiples” are made to be distributed to as many people as possible, and typically convey social or political messages. South African artist Luan Nel’s (b. 1971) piece Paper: An Installation by Luan Nel at the Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet takes the form of a tiny deck of cards. Looking at the cards feels like taking a Rorschach test as the small, ambiguous figures gradually create stories and sequences the longer you engage with them. The images are playful, but also veil the experiences of the artist’s life, addressing his homosexuality, Afrikaans heritage, his upbringing in the strict Dutch Reformed Church, and being drafted by the South African army during the era of apartheid.

Luan Nel, b. 1971, South Africa, Paper: An Installation by Luan Nel at the Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet (detail), Cape Town, South Africa: Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet, 1997

The books are beautiful, surprising, darkly humorous, and at times bizarre. At first glance they seem to be purely aesthetically driven, but each page reveals something about the artist who created it. Artists’ Books and Africa will be on view until September 11, 2016 at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

Performing for the Camera’ is the newest exhibition at Tate Modern which showcases the progressing relationship between performance art and photography from the 19th century into the present.

Focusing on actors, dancers, poets, artists and more, the exhibition contains a whirlwind of movements captured in a selection of images where the body becomes art. Organised into different sections such as ‘Staging/Collaboration’, ‘Performing Icons’, ‘Self/Portrait’ and ‘Performing Real Life’, the exhibition looks at the diverse nature of performance. It also contains diverse forms of photography from film to digital and even the inclusion of the ‘selfie’.

‘Performing for the Camera’ shows that performance is much more complex than people might think. Yes, it includes an array of posed models, choreographed dancers and constructed personas, but it also shows more intimate elements that we perhaps do not even realise are a performance. Whether you are vegging out at home, interacting with people around you or developing your identity through your clothes choices, it seems that life, in fact, is a performance and this exhibition captures every element of it.

Amalia_Ulman

Amalia Ulman Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014), (#itsjustdifferent) 2015 © Courtesy Arcadia Missa and The Artist​

Photography is a vital tool in the world of art as it preserves the moment before it is lost forever. It can be staged; it can be candid, though it always captures the precise momentum of time. The photographs within the exhibition showcase how our movements and expressions can become a political battle ground and how we can use our bodies to represent higher concepts such as gender inequality or resistance against a political regime.

Ai_Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. 3 black and white prints. Each 148 x 121 cm. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei.

Highlights of the show included a series of photographs of Ai WeiWei entitled Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn taken in 1995. The photograph depicts Ai WeiWei with an expressionless face looking into the camera and dropping a 2,000 year old urn, thus, allowing it to be smashed to pieces. In this performance, the artist is rebelling against the intense focus China puts on its culture. However, without the aid of photography, this performance would not have been captured. The act of dropping the vase itself would not have taken more than a few seconds, but its significance stretches far beyond its existence and produces a provocative and somewhat empowering effect for both the artist and the spectator, as we witness the artist liberating himself from a symbol of a regime that has limited him so much in both his life and his career as an artist.

Jemima_Stehli

“Strip No. 5, Dealer”, 1999 Photography Jemima Stehli, courtesy of Laurence King Publishing

Another highlight is the artist Jemima Stehli with her piece Strip from 1999-2000. In these images, Stehli takes an array of somewhat unconventional self-portraits where she performs a strip tease in front of seated male figures, all of whom come from the art world including curators, critics and more. With her back to camera and the male subject looking straight into the lens, Stehli creates a strange yet effective dynamic within her images. It is in fact the man in the photograph who is given the shutter release and therefore is in control of when the images are taken. These challenging photographs capture an array of concepts such as a male gaze, voyeurism and sexuality and the artists’ bold use of her body. The artist both sexualises and desexualises the body in her piece with everything from the use of her sexually charged title, the display of her naked body and the reactions of the male subjects involved.

Both Ai WeiWei’s and Stehli’s pieces are massively contrasting but they also have some similarities at their core which run throughout the whole exhibition. They show the diversity that photography can take, the meaning that one frame can hold and, ultimately, they really do embody the concept ‘an image is worth a thousand words’.

With it being two years since Tate Modern last showcased a photography exhibition, I think, their newest edition definitely showcases the importance and diversity of this art form. Whether we realise it or not we all perform for the camera at some point in our lives: a posed family photo, photographs taken of weddings and celebrations or simply selfies.

‘Performing for the Camera’ brings out elements that I believe most visitors will find a connection with as it also looks at life with the inclusion of celebrity culture, gender, race, sexuality and more. It shows how on some level, even if there is not a camera there to capture the moment, we all interact and engage with performance throughout our lives.

Performing for the Camera’ on view at Tate Modern through June 12th.

Born in Limassol, Cyprus in 1989, Meletios Meletiou studied Fine Arts in the Academy of Rome and worked also as an assistant professor during the academic year 2012-2013. Furthermore, he attended professional courses of interior design at the Rome University of Fine Arts as well as window dresser and visual merchandiser at the Altieri Academy of Fashion and Art. Since 2014 attending a second level Master in Visual and performing arts in Rome’s Fine Arts Academy.

Meletios developed his ideas and formulated his own thinking during his academic and pre-academic years and applying it in various ways in his work.

Artists of his nature are essential to the artistic practise, they offer a different perception of the current events, with a realistic and more humane approach.


  1. How did you enter the art world? How did you start creating?

I can recall my father from a relatively early age being exposed into the arts, and that was the catalyst that triggered me to go into a private art school for 8 years. As I was growing up, I realised that this was my field. The entire procedure of creating art defines me as a person.

portacorpi-_again22015

PortaCorpi – Again(2), 2015. Courtesy of the Artist.

  1. Can you share with us what are you doing right now? What projects are you undertaking?

Currently, I am working on three projects. The two of those begun last year and the last one was initiated few months ago. One of those projects, includes the new park that is taking its shape in Magliana, next to the Tiber River. I was chosen to create a sculpture through my university. This project was supposed to be exhibited last year, but due to some procedural decisions it was postponed. This project includes a rock made by travertine tiles and it is called “Transition”. The other project, was given to our team by the United Nations and it is based on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be fulfilled until 2030. The last project however  is the one that stigmatised me both as a person and as an artist.

I started focusing on the refugee crisis, and most importantly to the people that were victimised from the war in Syria. It all started when I was scrutinising the entire chaotic situation in Mytilini where it was filled with people urging for a better living with no organisation whatsoever; as it was a crisis indeed. “Better Days for Moria”, a non-governmental organisation, which is volunteering in the area of Lesbos in Greece is burdened by refugees helped me to visit Lesbos to dissect the situation. The initial plan was to take some photographs that I needed for this project depicting the chaos in the area and conduct some workshops with the refugees in the entertaining section that is held by ‘Better Days for Moria’.

The project however took another take. I had to change my approach to it. You have to understand that when you have to do with people, emotions are getting involved and things cannot go according to plan. Generally, this project was related to the journey of ordinary people from Syria to Greece and then from Greece back to Europe. So this included a two-journey depiction.

  1. What do you want to extract and focus on in Lesbos?

At first I just wanted to go, see what is going on, help, cooperate with the people there and leave. I never thought that the impact of this visit would have altered my perception and my practise. It helped tackle art in a more humane way. Most importantly it reminded me how to be a human and not just a human being. It made me erase everything I considered in the past and create my one “Simio 0” which is the name of the project I will focus on. My ultimate aim is to create an installation that will describe the present situation in Lesbos of the victims of the war and in the same time be used as a historical evidence in the future of what was going on back then. I feel that even if the refugee crisis has gained massive exposure, it is not entirely raising the awareness needed. After all, the crisis is still there. We do not learn from history. History repeats itself, but with different standards every single time.

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PortaCorpi – Again, 2015. Courtesy of the Artist.

  1. How did it all start and how do you visualise the final installation project?

Few months ago, more specifically in September, I started a project that was related to the Refugee Crisis. This project was a continuation of my previous studio practise. You have to bear in mind, that I usually use symbols while creating.  From 2010, I am using an everyday object, what people know as clothes hangers as a symbol to depict people that are trapped into certain situations that they cannot handle themselves. I initiated this project to depict a massive issue to create awareness and this was anorexia. I tried to portray bodies that suffer from specific nutritional turbulences. As I went along, this project developed to a generic depiction of turbulences that cause humans addictions. My aim was to actually interpret bodies that due to these experiences turn out to be lifeless. I understand that this is harsh. But my objective was to put an end to it. These bodies were hooked in what I have used as a symbol – the clothes hanger. The clothes hanger turned out to be a symbol that represented the people that are hooked by certain situations. Without it, the people would have been free.

Last year, I used this symbol of clothes hangers to represent the people that suffer and are trapped from terrorism and more specifically ISIS. I called this project ‘PortaCorpi’. Therefore, through this process, this symbol became my trademark. I relate this symbol to the refugee crisis. I relate it this symbol to the life vests that are the only safety nets people have during their journey from Syria to Greece and Greece to Europe.

I don’t know if you have seen this, but when the refugees land into Lesbos, those life vest jackets are thrown away. The irony is that those life vest jackets are the only supportive elements people have. They are not even real. They cannot save human beings. It is simply an illusion for the refugees that the life vest jacket is their own protection. But its not.

I want to create the parallel of these life vest jackets to a clothe hanger. People throw the life vest jacket as soon as they see land, to get rid of the burden. To get rid of the war crime because they feel safe at least.  I don’t know how to define the burden. The people that arrive to Lesbos are bodies that were forced to leave their country. They are bodies that are trapped into a situation that they did not choose themselves.  Nobody wants to leave their country and that is the only thing we can take for granted. From my perception, this is what I define to be the ‘clothes-hangers’. It is the situation that keeps the hooked embedded into a consequence that they did not choose themselves. They are forced to enter the sea with the fear of dying and Lesbos becomes their zero point where they finally feel safe. Zero point in Greek means “Simio 0” which is the name of the project. As Lesbos becomes the safe haven of the refugees their bodies are finally back on track.

From my own perception, time stops there- in the so-called “Simio 0”. I want to create an installation, with hundreds of handmade wires that will be presented as hangers. This will work as a parallel with the mountains of life vest jackets that are thrown away after the refugees reach the land. As you can imagine, the situation itself is unstable therefore, things can be subjected to transform and develop as I go along.

My plan is that I will visit Lesbos soon. This journey will definitely last longer. My aim is to conduct new workshops that will focus on the ‘imaginary friends’ that refugees may have in this journey as their shoulder. These workshops will consist of handmade wires sculptures that will represent each person’s personal perspective on the matter.

  1. I understand you work with concepts. Why did you choose to work with the refugee crisis? Why now?

It was not an urge. It was a building process of my previous studio practise. After the ‘PortaCorpi’ concept, this project was subsequent development. The refugee crisis, had a massive impact on me, especially after the incident in the port of Mytillini, last summer. Especially when you see all these horrific images – image is so important nowadays- you understand that you need to relate further. The orange brightness verifies a vigilant sentiment. Therefore, all these images, and the development of my studio practise made me understand that this project was essential for me as an artist.

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Collezione, 2010-2012. Courtesy of the Artist.

  1. Based on your experience, what is the role of art in a society?

As people, we tend to forget quite easily. Art is an important source of communication between people that have a language barrier. When I was in Lesbos and I was interacting with the refugees, we were communicating through sketches. They couldn’t speak English so art was our common language. Art is a language that everyone can understand, every person in this world. Thereby, I feel that art underlines memories and interaction.

  1. What was the hardest thing you came across in Lesbos?

The first boat. I cannot take it off my mind. I was holding two cameras and I had no clue what I was going to see there. I saw a new-born baby getting off the boat. That was my zero point. I was dashed.

  1. Are you usually influenced by political/historical considerations or by artistic ones?

I tend to examine historical considerations to create something that is going on in the world right now. I don’t care about visual aesthetics to the eye that much. I care that the aesthetic of the concept will delivery the right messages to the audience or make them ask questions regarding the concept I am raising. Art needs to make people think. If it is aesthetically pleasing or not, that’s not something I focus on.

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PortaCorpi – Operation ISIS, 2015. Courtesy of the Artist.

  1. How do you approach your work?

I sketch non-stop. I analyse my thoughts. I let myself into my thoughts and research non-stop. Lesbos was a turning-point as I said before. I have seen something that I have never seen in my entire life. It made me tackle art in a more humane way.

  1. Who is your favourite artist?

I never felt the urge to have a favourite artist. I examine several artists for what they are doing which many of them are influential to me in their own level.

  1. What is the thing that inspires you?

Humans and their surroundings.

  1. What are your plans in the future?

I want to feel satisfied from what I am doing in Lesbos. I want to reach a point that I will feel that I have offered something else with the project that is based on the refugee crisis. The only thing I have learnt from my experience in Lesbos is that situations are subjected to alter all the time. You cannot go according to plan.

  1. As a young artist, what is your advice to the younger generation that aspires to become part of the art world?

Find your own form of expression. Whatever you do, do it passionately.