Tate Britain: exhilarating and exhausting

Tate Britain exhilarating and exhausting 1

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.

Tate Britain exhilarating and exhausting 2
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.

Tate Britain exhilarating and exhausting 3
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!

Tate Britain exhilarating and exhausting 4
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.

Tate Britain exhilarating and exhausting 5
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.

Tate Britain exhilarating and exhausting 6
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.

Tate Britain exhilarating and exhausting 7
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.

Tate Britain exhilarating and exhausting 8
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.

Tate Britain exhilarating and exhausting 9
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 Lonely Planet at Terre Blanche

The Lonely Planet at Terre Blanche 1

Terre Blanche Golf Resort describes itself as a “Land of Inspiration in Provence.” In my mind, a reasonable claim. Even though it’s the French equivalent of Saint Andrews, I’m not only here for the golf. The club house and elegant surroundings are crammed with stylish contemporary sculpture. And big names too. However, despite the best efforts of the helpful staff, nobody can tell me the provenance of something that really captures my attention: a huge silver-steel-shiney orb sitting among some stunted oak trees that line the path down to the first tee. It is entirely out of place and all the more intriguing as a result.

The Lonely Planet at Terre Blanche 2

The object’s surface is covered with randomly spaced indentations of varying size; they are clearly meant to recall craters. It reminds of the first time I used a high powered telescope to look at the moon the surface of which is entirely covered by evidence of asteroid impacts. I read once about the “impact events” that have affected planet earth. Apparently, every 500,000 years an asteroid of more than 1km collides with earth; one of over 10 kilometres hits us every 20 million years (and extinguishes most life forms.) The reason that these craters are less obvious on earth as compared with the moon and other planets is simply because of water; many hit the sea and the signs of those that have had a terrestrial impact are slowly ground down by atmospheric erosion and plant life.

Fascinated, I wander around this lonely planet. I lay on a hand; the brilliant surface is smooth and very cold. On touching it with the tip of my nose, I detect a faint but definite metallic odour. I tap this beautiful sphere with my knuckles and am treated to a deep and distant resonant clang; it’s not a forest noise. Finding this sculpture here, completely discordant with it’s earthly surroundings, augments the other-worldly feel it gives out. Form and placement together result in an immensely satisfying piece of work. Does anyone know whose work it is? Or did it fall from the sky?

Damien Hirst’s take on Human Anatomy

I stroll through the Norwich University of the Arts. A massive skinned, dissected figure outside the St George’s building stops me in my tracks. Bells from my anatomist past are jangling. Is this now the Norwich School of Medicine?

Damien Hirst’s take on Human Anatomy

Damien Hirst “Hymn” Bronze, 2000

I ask at the reception desk what this is about. “Oh!” the nice lady replies with just a hint of condescension, “That’s Damien Hirst!” Ah!…. Silly me! I should have known. I learn that, unsurprisingly, the 7 metre high Hymn (play-on-words “Him”) caused controversy when first displayed. Is it “art”? (Pushing the boundaries etc. Same old!) Furthermore, it was claimed to be a direct copy of a 25cm educational toy; this resulted in a quiet financial settlement. Nevertheless, Hirst came out of it well by selling the sculpture to Charles Saatchi for £1 million.

Armed with this information I go back out onto the street and regard Hymn anew. With this sculpture, Hirst has within a few minutes taken me from curious to a bit embarrassed and then to intrigued. On knowing the provenance of Hymn, I then find myself admiring both the work and the concept. I ask myself if progressing through these mental steps is precisely what Hirst intended the viewer’s experience to involve. Whatever, he plays on our squeamish fascination for things scientific, forensic, visceral and medical and does so on a monumental and intimidating scale. This confrontation makes unavoidable the realisation that “Those are my insides!”

My last thought is: yes, Damien Hirst does it again whatever “it” may be. But then I’m sure that he couldn’t possibly give a damn what I think.

The Lady of Lake Wakatipu

This is a guest post by Bonnie Golightly.

The Lady of Lake Wakatipu 1

I am near Queenstown, New Zealand. An American golfer admires the view of the magnificent Lake Wakatipu. “I’m just all outa wows!” he says. The golf course is truly lakeside. It is very pretty. My game does not do the setting justice. By the fifth green, I am ready to give up. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that what I first thought was a weather-beaten tree stump is something much more interesting.

The Lady of Lake Wakatipu 2

I am drawn towards it and….. my O my…. how my heart thumps. Big metallic sister stuff!

The Lady of Lake Wakatipu 3

Mark Hill‘s 2015 untitled sculpture serves up a wonderful surprise in this setting. The feminine form is tall, imposing, defiant and very beautiful. I love her. In elegant gown and with hair streaming behind her, she stares out over the lake daring the elements to throw their worst at her.

The Lady of Lake Wakatipu 4

What I admire most is Hill’s technical mastery of his materials. He has used corten and stainless steels to create an astonishing impression of soft leather with bright hand-stitched piping. How he has designed, cut and put together those wind-blown locks is beyond me. This is a work of industry and passion.

I spend some minutes walking around the Lady of Lake Wakatipu. I even pose a question or two. Does she ever get cold? Does she get lonely? She ignores me of course. But encountering such a resilient woman lifts my spirits. With renewed determination, I make my way to the sixth tee.

Meeting Mike Howell

Tasman Golf Club, Nelson, New Zealand. It is pretty and quiet. I put $20 for my round in the “honesty box.” The sun is shining. I stand on the first tee. I am greeted by a fine view over the bay. All is well in the world. I hear a car pull up. Another golfer. “Fancy a round?” Friendly voice. Good bloke, I reckon. “Great idea!” I say.  “Mike Howell” he says. Firm handshake.

Meeting Mike Howell 1

By the first green, we have established the basics of the who, what, when and where of our respective lives. By the second, I have learnt that Mike is no ordinary golfer; he is also painter, sculpter, teacher, writer, illustrator, scientist, conservationist, fisherman, hunter, traveller, grandfather and the golf club’s Mr Fix-it. I tell him of my brief foray into painting and Talking Beautiful Stuff and how I don’t like the word art because I can’t define art and how I hate artspeak. His spine stiffens slightly; he turns to look at me anew. It’s like a gundog that’s caught a new scent. I see I have stepped into his professional domain.

Meeting Mike Howell 2

Mike’s entire home is his studio. It is hung about with beautiful stuff. I ask about what, at first sight, looks like a mixed-media collage of sticks and shells on a blue background. Some minutes later, I understand this is his tribute to the skills of the polynesian seafarers of yesteryear. For centuries, pacific islanders have paddled huge distances using for navigation aids only the night sky (the geographically arranged shells: note the two shells at the bottom doubling as New Zealand,) wave charts that record changes in the ocean swell thrown up by islands and reefs (the sticks) and the direction of flight of migratory birds such as godwits (the black twines.) These elements all come together in a pleasing and intriguing whole. I ask Mike about other paintings that could be described as “maori.” I realise that I have touched on what really floats his boat. He is professionally passionate about image-making as a means of education and keeping traditions alive among cultures that do not have a written history. He believes firmly that all children should be aware of the artistic heritage of their society and, as a means to bridge cultures, that of other societies as well. I am in awe of his clarity of thought together with his commitment to and eloquence on the subject. “But I have to show you my latest thing,” he enthuses. “It’s a tokotoko!” Right !

Meeting Mike Howell 3

A tokotoko is a stick that a wise maori elder might lean on whilst talking of generations past and accompanying myths and legends. Anyone else holding the tokotoko has the authority to speak. This tokotoko is an exceptionally beautiful piece of work. It would be fitting for the most respected of elders. It is a driftwood sapling with roots that mike has meticulously carved and adorned to produce images of some of New Zealands iconic, rare or even extinct fauna. It is a hand-crafted lesson in the unique ecology of this country.

Meeting Mike Howell 4

Prominent on the shaft is a Tuatara. In evolutionary terms it is a very very old beast. The name derives from maori meaning “peaks on the back”. I turn the tokotoko in my hands.

Meeting Mike Howell 5

Top right I find a huia. It is now extinct. It was the largest of the New Zealand wattlebird species. It was a striking black songbird. Female and male huia had dramatically different bill sizes and shapes; this is thought to be the most extreme sexual bill dimorphism of any bird species. Underneath the huia there is a South Island kokako that is also believed to be extinct. However, occasional snippets of song and possible glimpses of the “Grey Ghost” continue to tantalise ornithologists. Lower on the shaft of Mike’s tokotoko there is a representation of one of the native giant kauri snails. These molluscs are carnivorous, cannabilistic and may live for up to twenty years. Some species are also declining in numbers. Nestling right next to the snail is the increasingly endangered lesser short-tailed bat (pekapeka-tou-poto.) It is, unusually, a terrestrial bat that forages on the forest floor. Top left is a long fin eel (tuna kuwharuwharu;) one of the largest eels in the world. Its potential lifespan is about one hundred years and is found only in the rivers and lakes here. It was an important food source for the maori.

Meeting Mike Howell 6

The last feature of the tokotoko that Mike draws my attention to is a small brown godwit in flight. This brings our conversation full circle back to navigation. Each year about 80,000 of New Zealand’s godwits fly to the Yellow Sea (between China and North Korea), then on to Alaska, and back again. Precisely how they achieve this extraordinary feat is not entirely understood but it is certain that phases of the moon and the positions of stars (also incorporated on the tokotoko) guide these extraordinary birds on their epic journey.

I struggle to digest the aesthetic and intellectual span of Mike’s work. He very successfully makes manifest his eclectic interests and passions via a wide variety of image-making techniques. I take my hat off to him. He is committed to promoting humanity’s capacity to create beautiful stuff for the benefit of cultural future of generations to come. Meeting him is an enriching experience. And to think that when I first met him, I reckoned he was just a good bloke!