Tate Britain: exhilarating and exhausting

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Tate Britain bowls me over again. In one hit – in retrospect, a mistake – I get to take in the work of Vincent Van Gogh and Don McCullin with Mike Nelson as the bonus prize. These three stunning exhibitions could not be more different. I only have the morning. I move through them perhaps too quickly; the resulting cocktail of emotions takes me surprise.

Van Gogh came to London in 1873 at the age of twenty; he lived here for three years. England and english people inspired him; when his work became well-known, he in turn inspired English writers and painters.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Prison Courtyard” Oil on canvas 1890 (after Gustave Doré, “The exercise yard at Newgate Prison” Engraving on paper 1872.)

Long after leaving England, he painted a prison exercise yard. This was inspired by a fascination for London’s seedy underbelly and descriptions of the city’s prisons by Charles Dickens: a writer whom the young painter admired greatly.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Starry night” Oil on canvas, 1888

Years after his death in 1890, Van Gogh’s work was labelled “post-impressionism.” Some found the style shocking but exhibitions of his paintings in London drew thousands. The hall-mark brushstroke technique was eagerly adopted by the Camden Town Group of painters.

Soothed and enchanted by Vincent’s starry, starry night, I believe myself ready for Don McCullin. Wrong again!

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Don McCullin “Londonderry, Northern Ireland” 1971

Don McCullin is a legend. This comprehensive show covers his extraordinary sixty-year photographic trajectory through the world’s worst trouble – misery spots. There is a reason that the Tate has an advisory notice pertaining to his images. Much of the subject matter is heart-wrenching; the outstanding quality of the (self-printed!) photographs only serves to make them more powerful still. And there are hundreds of them. I recoil from the man-made suffering, the executions, the starvation and the dead bodies. It cuts just that bit close to my bone. I notice that the many viewers fuse into a sort of silent, shuffling, heavy-weight-around-neck chain gang tasked with looking at McCullin’s photos. Some of us loiter around his own escapism in the relatively few but exquisite landscapes and still-life studies.

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Don McCullin “Shell-shocked US Marine, the battle of Hué” 1968

I confine my focus to his portraits. Even these can be harrowing. Probably the best known is the Vietnam shell-shocked American soldier of whom he took several photos and who neither moved nor blinked over several minutes. In the trade, this is known as the “thousand-yard stare.” McCullin admits that receiving praise for photographing the suffering of others sits uncomfortably in his soul.

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Don McCullin “A boy at the funeral of his father who died of AIDS, Kawama cemetery, Ndola, Zambia” 2000

I try – and fail – to imagine how McCullin has been able to cope with the extreme insecurity and distress inherent in his chosen contexts and then function professionally and creatively. I leave this landmark exhibition steeped in admiration for the man, his endurance, his compassion and for what he has achieved with his talent.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

I literally stumble into the Duveen galleries; the main central space of Tate Britain. I am looking at some old telegraph poles and a section of a wide concrete pipe laid out on some canvases all in a kind of makeshift roofless shed.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

The galleries are full of old machinery and a variety of heavy objects mostly associated with manufacture. Everything sits on a neat stone plinth. Is it an industrial museum? Is it a contemporary installation? Is it a tongue-in-cheek collection of big old heavy mechanical and electric stuff. Well…. all of the above! And what’s more, it contrasts rather deliciously with the classic architecture of the space. What I am standing in – and enthralled by – is “The Asset Striipers” created by Mike Nelson for the annual Tate Britain Commission.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

Nelson’s concept for the commission is that the Duveen Galleries become a kind of warehouse of objects that serve as monuments of Britain’s former industrial wealth just as the industrial is being superceded by the digital; as manufactrure is being superceded by service. To make the point, he selected and purchased all the objects through on-line auctions of asset strippers and company liquidators. I find the concept at once brilliant and intriguing.

Then suddenly I am drained. I feel as though I have just climbed off one of those roller-coaster rides that is supposed to be fun but, in reality, precipitates spells of wheeeeee… and white-knuckle nausea. I head for the main exit with a haste that surprises me. I find calm on Millbank; the black taxis, the River Thames and the unseasonably warm May London sunshine.

All images reproduced here thanks to Tate Britain.

“The Clock” at Tate Modern

Christian Marclay’s The Clock, currently showing at the Tate Modern, is the only “work of art” that I could happily look at all day and night. It is a masterful concept, staggering in terms of the work involved and mesmerising. If you’re thinking of going, do not make an excuse. You have until 20th January 2019.

The Clock is a twenty-four hour video montage. Each of the 1,440 minutes is represented by a scene from film or television that features a clock, a watch or some other time-piece. Occasionally the time is spoken. “Oh, my God, it’s three o’clock!” Therefore, the work itself, when synchronised with real-time, functions as a clock with the time shown on-screen being the actual time. Brilliant! Just imagine searching for all those scenes! The only thing I’ve seen like it is Maarten Baas’s clock in Schiphol airport.

I walk in at 14:40. I am shown to a comfy armchair as Sean Connery glances knowingly at a wall clock that stands at twenty to three and through which he rightly figures he is being spied upon via a peep hole. He coolly hangs his jacket over the clock. Cut to the next scene as a grainy, black and white Harry Lloyd dangles helplessly from the big hand of a massive clock above a crowded New York street. It is nineteen minutes to three. Get the picture? Furthermore, all the clips are cleverly spliced and a musical sound track makes the scenes run together smoothly to the point that it is not always obvious when there is a change to a completely different film. I am enthralled.

I wish I had more time. On-line, I find that if I was fortunate enough to be able to watch The Clock in it’s entirety, I would notice the fast pace of the time-orientated action in the morning, the inevitable bell-ringing around High Noon and the ensuing scenes with a more relaxed tempo. The late afternoon sees commuters travelling by car, bus and train. Scenes from the early evening show people eating; later, they are drinking in bars. And then, of course, there’s the inevitable deadline: midnight. In the early hours of the morning, sleepers and dreamers become angry at being woken at an antisocial hour. Big Ben features regularly.

The Clock was completed in 2010 after more than three year’s work. There are only six copies in existence. Happily, the Tate Modern has got hold of one for our benefit and has dedicated a big enough space for a hundred people to lounge and immerse themselves in this chronometric history of cinema. There are even all night showings.

The Clock at Tate Modern

There is no single image that adequately represents this work; but I bought the t-shirt anyway. The time-codes represent the monumental task of researching and editing The Clock. They do not represent the genius. One day, I’ll watch the whole thing. Bravo, Christian Marclay!

DRAW at Mandell’s Gallery, Norwich

I am in Norwich, England. A fine city! At it’s heart one finds the cathedral and nearby the cobbled and film-set charming Elm Hill. There nestles Mandell’s Gallery; an unpretentious, quiet and tasteful contribution to the city’s cultural on-goings. The current exhibition DRAW is refreshing, unusual and well worth a visit.

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Susan Bacon, “Raven” Charcoal and pencil on paper

This eclectic exhibition features the work of people who have come to drawing via the Royal Drawing School. The School’s strapline is “Draw life: learn to see differently.”  Fittingly, the first image that catches my eye is Susan Bacon’s “Raven.” It is just so raven-like. I love the way the feathers have that glossy look, the simple but very real representation of the scratchy clawed feet, the setting of the Tower of London and the little ditty about “A Miserly Bird.”

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Stuart Pearson Wright, “Self Portrait Brexiting” Pencil, Charcoal and Gouache on silk

I wouldn’t describe this cartoonish self-portrait by Stuart Pearson Wright as beautiful. It is technically accomplished and arresting in its awkwardness. First I notice the clenched fist (anger?) that is as prominent as the gloomy face. Then I ask myself why Wright has placed his casually dressed self partly out of the frame. Then I need an explanation for the outline of another left arm (but this would be his – possibly undecided – drawing right arm seen in his mirror.) The image is full of anxiety, confusion and ambiguity. And then I notice the scribbled map of Europe on the t-shirt and the sub-text “WE ARE EUROPEAN.” And then I re-read the title and it all makes sense and I realise that this is master-class portraiture.

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Christopher Wallbank, “Loomery VI” Graphite

One of the exhibition’s curators, Paul Fenner, says about drawing that “Far from being a question of the application of a neutral “skill,” this universal ability to transmute the visible world that surrounds us into another order of visibility is nothing less than a fundamental mystery of our incarnation, our being-in-the-world.” I have to agree when looking at Christopher Wallbank’s truly amazing, tall and detailed drawing of a cliff-hanging guillemot colony.

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Detail of “Loomery VI”

Wallbank viewed this nesting colony through binoculars. He recorded his observations with multiple drawings and noted the behaviour of the guillemots. Only on close-up are his multiple notes visible as is that amazing ability to capture with the simplest of lines the essential and word-defying features of any given bird species.

Just for reference, here’s a photograph I took recently of a mixed colony of guillemots, razor-bills and falmers at Dunnet Head in Caithness, Scotland.

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The exhibition closes on 21st July. So hurry along!

Three favourite snaps nominated for the 2018 Geneva Photo Awards

I’m at Galerie La Cave, this week hosting 2018’s Geneva Photo Awards. There are lots and lots of photos on the walls, all submitted by local photographers. One of the friendly hosts hands out pens and papers and asks visitors to “vote for your three favourite photos.” The most popular photos will be announced at finissage on 25 March.

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I look. I stop. I think. There are photos of people and animals, landscapes and streets, concrete and abstract. Many of them are technically accomplished. Some capture moments, others evoke emotions. But there is no common narrative or theme, and there are no captions. I struggle, but manage to narrow down my favourites to three. I take photos.

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“Karnak” by Arnaud Chamorel

I love the harsh contrast and light in Arnaud Chamore’s photo from the Karnak Temple Complex in Egypt. It reminds me of Gabriele Croppi’s photos of European metropolis. Whatever camera and editing software Arnaud used, the contrasty and monochromatic result is bold, moody and elegant! Unfortunately, there’s little space on the wall at home.

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“Le Tram Blur* by Neil Maccormack

Neil Maccormack’s photo of Rive is fun! The fisheye-distortion combined with a long-exposure makes the whole place look like a funfair. We all know that it’s not, but that doesn’t matter. I appreciate photographers who go that extra mile to find a fresh view of a scene often experienced from only one or two perspectives.

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“La Jonction Canard” by Frédérique Tissandier

The third and last photo getting my vote is shot by my colleague Frédérique Tissandier. The one-legged duck looks happy, ready take a dip in river Rhône. A simple composition with balanced colours like this can never go wrong. Well done, Fred!

Unless memory fails, this is the third year the Swiss Photo Club hosts the Awards. It’s clearly a very clever way of encouraging local photographers (their family and friends) to share their best photos and meet up with people who share the same passion. Well done, guys! I’m looking forward to next year’s edition, and perhaps I will then submit one of my photos…

Roger Pfund at Artvera’s Gallery

Talking Beautiful Stuff takes on the opening of the Roger Pfund exhibition at Artvera’s. The invitation bears his iconic 1980 design for the last 50 French franc note. We get to the gallery early, grab a glass of champagne and soak up the atmosphere of this very classy exhibition. Geneva’s great and good drift in. Roger Pfund, who has designed bank notes and passports, created the visual identity of museums and depicted the spirit of human rights, is now a sprightly 75 years old. He sits quietly surrounded by admirers. He remains the only person to be honoured during their own lifetime with a major retrospective at Geneva’s Museum of History and Art.

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Roger Pfund, Nijinsky Dancer, mixed media, 2005, 140cm x 104cm

For Roger Pfund, the “vertebral column” of his work has always been painting. I admire and adore his huge mixed media portrait of Vaslav Nijinsky based on a 1912 photograph by Adolf Meyer

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A hallmark of his work is the mastery of and versatility with a wide range of techniques and materials including, oil, acrylic, charcoal, collage, screen print and engraving. It’s all on show this evening.

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Roger Pfund, Droits de l’Homme (Human Rights,) mixed media, 2006,  700cm x 180cm

One of Pfund’s most celebrated works comprises eight separate framed pictures together bearing the words of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights along the outstretched arms – or wings – of a Nijinsky figure. There is something incredibly primitive about this image. It is as if the spirit of the great dancer, rather than being crucified, simply spreads its broad wings and takes flight as a result of his fundamental rights being respected.

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This is a vast work. To appreciate it, one needs a wide view……

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…… and a close up. Does this incorporated print technique allude to banknote design? And talking of banknotes, if you go to Artvera’s – and you should – before this exhibition closes on 7th April, just take note of the price tag on this one!!

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The basement is dedicated to Pfund’s banknote designs. They are printed in high definition on aluminium plate using subligraphie. The reproductions are protected by PhyGital (a merge of physical and digital technologies;) an authenticity certification system developed by a Swiss enterprise, Trueplus. Pride of place is given to an exquisite series of notes designed according to various European “époques and styles.” Each note is a masterpiece. In 1996, this series was awarded first prize by an international jury charged with finding a suitable design for the then-new Euro currency. Inevitably, European politics intervened and the second-placed design was finally chosen.

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We leave the exhibition buzzing. If you’re in town, don’t miss this opportunity for a brush with soul-enriching genius.