The Stuff of Life: The Life of Stuff

The Stuff of Life 1
Interior of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, UK.

I am in my home town of Norwich, UK. One of the jewels of this fine city is The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia. It’s a very cool place. It was built in 1978 to make accessible the stunning and eclectic collection of paintings, ceramics, sculptures and African masks belonging to Robert and Lisa Sainsbury. The Centre’s current exhibition “Planet for Our Future: The Stuff of Life / The Life of Stuff” is a must-see. This is master-class creativity in photography, video and installation. It succeeds in its objective of urging the visitor “to consider the global challenges of pollution, environmental destruction, and climate change.”

The Stuff of Life 2
El Anatsui “Freedom” Reclaimed bottle tops and copper wire (2021)

My co-visitor is Roger Bunting (who knows about art.) “I don’t think it’ll be easy on the eye” he says. He’s right, as usual. I am nevertheless unprepared for images and concepts powerful enough to whip my trotting eco-awareness into a galloping eco-concern. Deep in the exhibition space, I am stopped in my tracks by El Anatsui’s “Freedom.” Thousands of bottle tops scavenged from European waste exported to Nigeria are flattened and stitched together with copper wire.

The Stuff of Life 3

The “who,” “what,” “where” “when” and “how” of this beautiful stuff are clear. The “why” is made evident by the position of “Freedom” in the exhibition: in the section entitled “The Politics of Reclamation.”

The Stuff of Life 4
Maarten Vanden Eynde “Check Mate” Board and nurdles (2020 ongoing)

Maarten Vanden Eynde’s “Check Mate” is inspired by the story of the crafty king who commands his daughter’s suitor to put a grain of rice on the first square of a chess board. On the next day the king demands two grains on the second square. On the third day, four grains on the third square and so on. Each day, the number of grains on each successive square doubles. Of course, by day sixty four, the load of rice on the last square would represent all the rice grown in the world for several years. Here, Vanden Eynde replaces the grains of rice with “nurdles.” I learn a nurdle is a plastic pellet retrieved from a beach. (There really is a single nurdle on the first square!) 

Did you notice the 2020 “Ongoing“? The nurdles are crowd sourced from beaches all over the world. Anyone can hand in their nurdles at the exhibition. When enough are collected, the next square will be piled high with the requisite number. This is a fabulously elegant statement about the widespread production and use of plastics and their increasingly evident environmental consequences.

The Stuff of Life 5
Elias Sime “Tightrope: Secured” Reclaimed electrical wires (2021)

Roger drifts off to find more stuff. Elias Sime’s “Tightrope: Secured” catches his discerning eye. “Oi!” he calls to me. “Take a look at this!” The room’s vigilant attendant makes a kind of cautionary throat-clearing noise.

The Stuff of Life 6

Each panel of “Tightrope: Secured” is made from the compression of thousands of braided wires ripped from redundant computers that are exported to Ethiopia from all over the world. The effect reminds me of a microscopic image of the intersection of white and grey brain matter. How appropriate for such an exhibition in 2023 – the year in which we all wake up to the fact that artificial intelligence is and will forever be a part of our lives!

The Stuff of Life 7
Romuald Hazoumè “Mariama” (2019), “Avatar” (2022) and Deco (2022) Found objects

Roger and I share a fascination for African masks. We’ve never found a totally adequate explanation of their meaning, especially those with the hooty-astonished round mouths. Inevitably, what Romuald Hazoumè from Benin has created from found objects catches our attention. In the context of this exhibition, the meaning of these “masks” is clear: plastic waste collides with the deepest aspects of African culture. But we are both laughing. Is this because the same building houses an exquisite and priceless collection of the real McCoy? Or is it because – as intended by the curators of this exhibition – us (white-rich-european-and-now-embarrassed) visitors are finally forced to ask ourselves if we really know what happens to stuff we chuck out?

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece

Julien Spiewak is young, talented, inspired and modest. His photographic oeuvre has been exhibited at art fairs in Rome, Rio, Seoul, Amsterdam and, significantly, Paris. I meet him at the tenth anniversary of that where-things-happen gallery, Espace L.  

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece 1
Canapé Biedermeier (XIXesiècle), portrait de Louis Marguerite van Loon par Thérèse Schwartze (1894), Juliette, fauteuil Louis XV (1750). Musée Van Loon. 2018

Julien took a degree in photography from the University of Paris in 2008. Since, he has with single-minded passion driven one project to considerable success: his Corps du Style (the title being a nod to the Louis XV Style.) His modus operandi comprises an intriguingly staged photograph in which only a part of his or a model’s naked body is set against furniture, painting or sculpture in the sumptuous surroundings of major museums. (Apparently, having access to an empty museum for this exercise is no mean administrative feat!) The resulting images are technically accomplished. Real beautiful stuff! At the same time, there is something a little disconcerting and even amusing in Julien’s striking contrasts between the living body part and the inanimate; the young and the old; the warm and the cold. I can’t help noticing how the rather discrete lines left by the young model’s bra play off the marble’s delicate veins. 

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece 2
Colonne de marbre, Carole. Musée Ariana, Ville de Genève. 2018

So far so good. Close co-operation with Espace L took Julien’s work to the Paris Art Fair in 2020. The Director of the Maison de Balzac tapped him on the shoulder, declared an admiration for his project and invited him for tea so to speak. “Have you read D’Honoré de Balzac’s Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu (Unkown Masterpiece)?” asked the Director. Julien had not… but he did soon after. Balzac’s short story, set in Paris and published in 1831, centres on the tortured soul of  a painter called Frenhofer, an old master of the day. Frenhofer tries to execute a masterpiece on canvas but ends up with a chaos of colour and swirls with a protruding human foot. Reading Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu was to be a major light-bulb moment in Julien’s life because, here in Balzac’s words, were countless phrases that seemed to speak directly to his Corps de Style photographed over the preceding years.

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece 3
Portrait d’Honoré de Balzac en plâtre patiné de Pierre-Eugène-Émile Hébert (1877), Julien. Maison de Balzac. 2020

Serendipity having added a new dimension to his project, Julien then set about doing his thing at the Maison de Balzac. He was also gifted a facsimile of the first edition of Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu. It’s pages with Julien’s annotations linking his photographs with Balzac’s prose are also on show at Espace L. But the story doesn’t stop there. Enter Leticia – the “L” of Espace L – who, in a former life, was a journalist and publisher. She figured that publishing a book that documents the entirety of Julien’s story and presenting the book together with some of his photographs would make a fitting event to celebrate her ten years in contemporary art in Geneva. She figured right!

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece 4
Photo: Talking Beautiful Stuff

Dominique Baqué, a prominent historian of photography, has written the book’s monumental and detailed foreword that reads like an “A” graded academic treatise. She concludes that the real, living, breathing Julien Spiewak represents the incarnation of the fictional Frenhofer. Wow! If she claimed that Julien’s image-making embodies the spirit of Frenhofer, I would readily agree. However, Frehhofer’s spirit is known to live on in real paintings. Paul Cézanne strongly identified with Frenhofer and went so far as to declare “I am Frenhofer!” None other than Pablo Picasso was commissioned to illustrate Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu. He moved his studio close to a where Balzac’s story unfolded and, during World War II, painted his own very well known masterpiece, Guernica.

As I leave Espace L, I ask Julien what he will be doing in ten year’s time. Without hesitation, he answers “Just this….” I think to myself, I can believe it and by then you will have collected the highest accolades in the world of contemporary photography.

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 1

I am in down-town Geneva. I call in at that mine of beautiful stuff, Galerie Cimaise. And what a seam of gold I find! It is the last days of Katrin Benninghoff’s “HORS(ES)”. The gallery’s walls are tastefully hung with large format, striking, close-up photographs of horses. The whole is wonderfully easy on the eye. Each image is intimate, intriguing and technically accomplished and yet there is something at once confusing and troubling at play. The viewer is tricked by his or her own subliminal recognition of the clichéd style of “glamour” photography. But this is a show about neither eroticised beauty nor cosmetic ads in a fashion magazine. This is about horses. At least, I think so.

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 2

Katrin Benninghoff’s life has been dominated by a proximity to horses. Here, she has created an exhibition that is born of her sensitivity to equine power, elegance, fragility and intelligence. She has achieved this by a manifest determination not to portray a whole specimen of equus caballus; her compositions ensure that homo sapiens is never far from the viewer’s mind. I’d go so far as to bet that her influences would lean more towards Robert Mapplethorpe than to George Stubbs or Alfred Munnings. It comes as no surprise when I am told that Aline Kundig, – one of this town’s most daring photographers – has had a hand here.

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 3

I stand in the middle of the gallery and turn full circle taking in this work in its entirety. I have never seen anything quite like it. I pull out my iPhone and google images using key words “horses art” and “horses photographs.” Nothing comes up that in any way resembles what surrounds me. Am I looking at something totally original? Will this exhibition prove to be an important beacon in contemporary photography? Two photographs stand out in this regard.

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 4

The close up of a horse’s buttocks and vulva predictably recalls the human form and if this was the human form, might even be labeled pornography (with little chance of exhibition at Galerie Cimaise!) The image tickles up a prickle of discomfort. But then, I am sure that this is precisely what Ms Benninghoff intends.  

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 5

Why is such a distasteful image of a horse’s mouth so arresting and why does it work in this context? Because this is not a veterinarian’s perspective. This is quite simply the mouth you wouldn’t want to kiss!

Bravo, Katrin!