Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists. Tate Britain.

by Sue Hubbard

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Simon Ling, Untitled, 2012

Painting has now been declared dead more times than the proverbial cat with nine lives. Yet it refuses to lie down quietly and expire, unprepared to hand over the aesthetic reins entirely to competing visual art forms. Painting Now at Tate Britain aims to give wider exposure to five-British born artists. The exhibition in no way claims to be representative of any particular movement, nor is it an overarching survey. As one of the show's curators, Andrew Wilson, claimed: “Painting is a many-headed beast, and we could have made the show with five other artists or ten or twenty”. Seemingly diverse, what these five all share is a concern with the language of painting itself. This takes place against the debate begun in the 1970s, which suggested that painting had little new to say in the wake of film, photography and installation.

Yet the traditions of painting go back to the cave. To draw and paint, to make marks, has long been a definition of what it means to be human. Yet within the arena of modernism painting became not so much a window onto the world or the soul – concerned with philosophical questions about origins and meaning – but a solipsistic investigation of its own forms and processes.

The exhibition starts with Tomma Abts, winner of the 2006 Turner Prize, and includes work by Simon Ling, Lucy McKenzie, Gillian Carnegie and Catherine Story. An air of quietude and restraint runs through the galleries. The arena in which these artists allow themselves to operate is tight and constrained. The works don't suggest subterranean depths or passions. They are concerned with observation, technique and the distillation of composition. Measured and academic, they are intelligent, thoughtful and cold.

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Coronation! Westminster Abbey, London

by Sue Hubbard

6th May 2013 – 27th September 2013

3380301_10The day I went to Westminster Abbey London was sweltering. Long queues of tourists stood in the broiling sun in their shorts and sunhats. Listless children looked as though they rather be anywhere else. Another June day 60 years ago, the Queen's Coronation in 1953, was one of the coldest and wettest of the year. Perhaps there's something about the Monarchy that the weather gods don't favour. The Queen shivered through the recent sodden river pageant for her Diamond Jubilee.

As I made my way through the ancient cloisters to the Chapter House to find the small exhibition mounted to mark the 60th anniversary of the Coronation, I thought how strange it is that if you live in London you never come to these landmark locations and forget how redolent with history they are. Ostensibly the exhibition documents the energetic preparations undertaken at Westminster Abbey, the pomp and magnificence, and its prodigious transformation in the six months prior to the big day. The Ministry of Works, the government's building department at the time, carried out extensive arrangements to re-configure the Abbey and recorded it all in meticulous detail. Some of the original Ministry of Works prints, which are now all stored at The National Archives, Kew, have been scanned specially for use in the exhibition. David Eccles, the minister responsible, can be seen with his slick Brylcreamed hair explaining his vision to a press conference on 28th March 1953.

The Coronation caught the imagination of a nation ground down by post-war austerity and the photographs show how deeply enmeshed the monarchy is within the fabric of British society. Over hundreds of years it became a symbolic, almost magical institution at the heart of the nation. By implication, these potent photographs also emphasise that during the last sixty years it has slowly turned from something mystical and sacred into a plebeian soap opera that fills the pages of Hello and OK.

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ON THE EDGE: retreat on the west coast of Kerry

by Sue Hubbard

Picture 148I have come about as far west in Europe as I can go without falling into the sea. The next stop is America. It is a different world to the busy life in Islington, north London that I normally lead dominated by deadlines, art openings, friends and family. I am in retreat. I have been coming to this extraordinary place, Cill Rialaig, an abandoned hamlet of stone cottages on the edge of a cliff, 300 feet above the Atlantic in Kerry on the west coast of Ireland for some time now. The village was restored in the 90s as an artist's colony. Mostly for visual artists but the odd writer, like me, slips in under the net. You have everything you need, though it's very simple. A kitchen, a shower, a peat burning stove. I sleep in a tiny converted hay loft, reached by a ladder. It has steep eaves and the bed nearly fills the room and there is only one tiny window. It is the view from that window that brings me back, that has entered my heart. It looks straight out on the Atlantic. At night the sky, a black dome of twinkling stars, my own planetarium. On a clear night you can see every constellation. It is rare in the modern world to experience real dark. And across the bay there is the blip of the far off light-house, like a heartbeat. Waking in the morning is always different. Sometimes there's a thick sea mist and everything is invisible, as though someone has spilled a bucket of white wash. Or it might be raining; insistent grey Irish rain that soaks everything, including the sheep sheltering behind the dry stone walls. But if you are lucky the strait will be full of sun, the sea calm and the colour of pewter, and you'll be able to see out to the two little rocky, uninhabited islands of Scarif and Deenish and the soft mountains on the headland beyond. It's like a peep of heaven. This is what this place must have looked like a hundred, no five hundred, even a thousand years ago. The only sign of modernity is the barbed wire fence that keeps in the sheep. Ahead there is only sea, sky and the islands. The rest is a just patchwork of fields with their tumbling dry stone walls and the odd standing stone or carved Celtic cross their inscriptions erased by harsh storms that lash in from the Atlantic.

I come here to think and write. I have written a series of poems The Idea of Islands, about my response to the place which was published by Occasional Press, here in Ireland, with wonderful charcoal drawings by the Irish artist Donald Teskey. They express something of this bleak and beautiful landscape, scared by poverty and abandoned by previous inhabitants forced to emigrate to America or Canada to find work. The also explore in language that, I hope, is both painterly and muscular, the ‘anthracite dark' both actual and internal, and how it is we make sense of it in a secular world. These poems now form one third of my new English collection, just published by Salt: The Forgetting and Remembering of Air. It was here I also finished my recently published novel, Girl in White, and wrote the introduction to my book of art essays: Adventures in Art. Writing, walking, reading, sleeping; that's what you do here.

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A Terrible Beauty: Mat Collishaw

by Sue Hubbard

He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Extract from ‘Easter’, 1916, W B Yeats

Duty-Free-SpiritsSmallWhen we meet to discuss his work we have to decamp from the pub in Camberwell, which is both Mat Collishaw’s studio and stylish home, to a local café, as his apartment has been let out to a well known London store for a shoot and is full of rampaging children. But before we leave he shows me his new paintings. At first glance they appear to be abstract, constructed on a modernist grid, though the lines, in fact, are folds, creases left in the small square wraps of paper used to sell cocaine. These wraps have been torn from glossy magazines; there’s a woman’s foot in a high-heeled shoe resting on a glass table, and adverts for Fendi and Gucci. The subtext seems to be that these aspirational trappings are the spectral presence of an endless illusion that functions much like an addiction to drugs. You’re always left wanting more. The work is about debasement; the debasement of modernist painting as a form and as a result of the recent financial excesses that have led to the current economic crisis. This tension between the beautiful and the abject, between the promise of a possible paradise and the profane is central to all Mat Collishaw’s work. As the Marquis de Sade once said: “There is no better way to know death than to link it with some licentious image”.

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Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick, Tracey Emin: Ben Uri Gallery, London

by Sue Hubbard

Until 10th March 2013

12-11529_The Return of the ButterflyI remember seeing Judy’s Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) in a rundown Islington warehouse. It was 1985 and I had just arrived in London; a young single parent mother, newly divorced, and a fledgling art critic. The year before that the work had been shown at the Edinburgh Festival. The huge crates had crossed the Atlantic by boat, and then travelled by lorry to Felixstowe, to be carried up two flights of stairs in a 19th century building without a lift. Arranged on a triangular banqueting table, each arm of which measured some 48 feet, there were a total of thirty-nine place settings commemorating women from history. Each setting was laid with a china-painted porcelain plate on which there was a raised central motif – vulvae and butterfly forms – created in a style appropriate to the woman being celebrated. There were also embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils and the names of another 999 women inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the table. Disparaged and misunderstood by many at the time I was bowled over by its ambition and emotional reach. I’d never seen a visual art work that spoke so directly about female experience. There was nothing ironic, nothing deliberately sensational about the work. This was a female aesthetic based on the lives of important women, and on the oppression and devaluation of the feminine that had been the norm for centuries and was still current in contemporary society. The art historian, Griselda Pollock, suggested that the piece created “a feminist space of encounter”, where new explorations and new ideas about femininity, modernity and modes of representation could be examined. Its daring helped to open the door for women’s self expression on both sides of the Atlantic and gave permission for women to become real contenders in the art game.

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Jonas Mekas: Serpentine Gallery, London. Until 27 January 2013

by Sue Hubbard

_MG_3195 press pageHow do we remember? Before the invention of the camera most people never possessed a likeness of themselves or those they loved – a lock of hair, a letter, were the heart’s most treasured possessions, the artefacts that conjured the past. Photography democratised the ownership of images. A portrait need no longer be in watercolour or oils, it could be an informal snap taken on a box Brownie: a casual moment sealed in the proverbial amber of memory. With the technological advances of the 20thand 21st centuries, with film, video and digital technology and the predominance of surveillance equipment it might, theoretically, be possible to record a whole life from the moment of birth till the second of death. It was only a decade or so ago that the French Postmodernist social theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that the images which assault us – on our TVs, in film and advertising – are not copies of the real, but become truth in their own right: the hyperral. Where Plato had spoken of two kinds of image-making: the first a faithful reproduction of reality, the second intentionally distorted in order to make a copy appear correct to viewers (such as a in a painting) Baudrillard saw four: the basic reflection of reality; the perversion of reality; the pretence of reality, and the simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever”. Baudrillard's simulacra were, basically, perceived as negative, but another modern French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, has described simulacra as the vehicle by which accepted ideals or a “privileged position” can be “challenged and overturned”. Reality has become a complex issue.

_MG_3266 press pageJonas Mekas was 90 on Christmas Eve, which means that the film-maker, artist and poet, often referred to as the godfather of avant garde cinema, has lived through a lot of history. Born in Lithuania he spent part of the war in a forced labour camp, then after the hostilities ended, another four years in various displaced person’s camps such as Flensburg, Hamburg, Wiesbaden, Kassel – first in the British Zone, then in the American. With nothing much to do and a lot of time he read, he wrote and went to the movies, which were shown free in the camps by the Americans. So began his long relationship with film. Later, when he commuted to the French Zone to study at the University of Mainz, he met André Gide who told him to “work only for yourself,” and watched a lot of French cinema. After arriving in America he bought his first Bolex camera in 1950, which he used to film everyday scenes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the Lithuanian immigrants who lived there. Describing himself and his brother as “two shabby, naïve Lithuanian boys, just out of forced labour camp”, it was not until some 10 years later that he decided to assemble the footage into a film.

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The Zone of Alienation

Diana Thater: 'Chernobyl'
Hauser and Wirth
196A Piccadilly, London, W1J 9DY

by Sue Hubbard

Diana_Thater_Chernobyl,_Hauser_&_Wirth_London_Piccadilly,_Installation_View_2

At 1:23 am on April 26, 1986 two explosions ripped through the Unit 4 reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine. The reactor block and adjacent structure were wrecked by the initial explosion as a direct result of a flawed Soviet design, coupled with serious mistakes made by the plant operators. The resulting steam explosion and the subsequent fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere, though it was not until 2 p.m. on April 27th that workers were evacuated. By then 2 people were dead and 52 in hospital. Nearby buildings were ignited by burning graphite projectiles. Radioactive particles swept across the Ukraine, Belarus, and the western portion of Russia, eventually spreading across Europe and the whole Northern Hemisphere.

The graphite fires continued to burn for several days despite the fact that thousands of tons of boron carbide, lead, sand and clay were dumped over the core reactor by helicopter. The fire eventually extinguished itself when the core melted, flowing into the lower part of the building and solidifying, sealing off the entry. About 71% of the radioactive fuel in the core (about 135 metric tons) remained uncovered for about 10 days until cooling and solidification took place. 135,000 people were evacuated from a 30-km radius exclusion zone and some 800,000 people were involved in the clean up. The radioactivity released was about two hundred times that of the combined releases at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Millions were exposed to the radiation.

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Light and Time: James Turrell at Gagosian and Christian Marclay’s The Clock at White Cube, Masons’s Yard.

Sue Hubbard

JAMES_TURRELL_2010_Bindu_Shards[1]

This morning I had what felt like a near-death experience. I also underwent something that possibly resembled a re-birthing. No I was not on LSD, nor have I joined a hippy-dippy cult. I was looking at or, rather, was totally immersed in the art of James Turrell. After walking up the steps to a spherical chamber in the Gagosian Gallery in Kings Cross, a young woman in a white coat invited me to I lie on a bed and put on a set of earphones. I was then trundled inside the machine like a patient about to have an MRT scan. As the door closed l felt like a mummy in sarcophagus. I tensed, my breathing became quick and shallow, and I experienced a wave of panic. Clasping the escape button close to my chest I had been told that on no account must I sit up. Although I had signed a disclaimer that I didn’t have epilepsy, the white coated young woman suggested that, as I suffer from migraines, I should opt for the soft, rather than the hard version, which had less intense flashing lights. As ambient sound played through the head phones I tried to relax despite the sense of claustrophobia. [Bindu Shards, James Turrell, courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.]

Then, opening my eyes I was surrounded by a heavenly blue light. No, not surrounded, enveloped; for I had no sense of space or scale. There was no horizon. The blue seemed infinite. As I lay there I felt as though I was floating – in space, in water, even in amniotic fluid. Then the lights changed, pulsing from a central nebula. I couldn’t watch as I couldn’t bear the intensity of the flashing – what, I wondered would the hard version have been like? – and had to shut my eyes, though I could still see the lights through my closed lids. I half opened my eyes and was bathed in a deep red. It was like being in the womb. Then things went dark and the bright lights pulsed again. Sometimes it felt as if I was hurtling through space or deep under the sea. Was this what it had felt like to be born? I knew that I was in the capsule for fifteen minutes so tried to estimate how much time had passed in order not to panic. Towards the end the light turned blue again, then slowly faded and darkened leaving me feeling strangely calm. So this, I thought, is what death will feel like.

Bindu Shards 2010, was developed from the Ganzfeld sphere entitled Gasworks built in 1993 at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. The phenomenon experienced will be familiar to any mountaineer who has ever been caught in a snowstorm whiteout unable to distinguish whether what they are seeing is real or in the mind. This, of course, poses huge questions about the nature of perception and, even, religious or spiritual experience. What does it mean to see something or to ‘know’ that you have seen something? Is this what a vision is?

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EXPOSED: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. Tate Modern, London

by Sue Hubbard

1_Exposed_Callahan_Atlanta

Little could the British inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot, have imagined, when in 1841 he developed the calotype, an early photographic process using paper coated with silver iodide, where this nascent technology would lead; the ethical and moral questions that photography would raise. From Fox Talbot’s point of view the camera was about producing ‘natural images’. But more than 150 years later we know that the photographer’s relationship with his subject is more complicated. As Susan Sontag perceptively put it in her seminal book On Photography: “like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much further away. It offers, in one easy, habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others – allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation.”

Voyeurism and its cousin, surveillance, have been one of the unforeseen consequences of photography. We take it as a given of modern life that the celebrity is both hungry for photographic coverage, whilst feeling that the paparazzi (as in the case of the late Princess Diana) is constantly hounding them. One of the most complex questions raised by photography is what constitutes private space, provoking slippery questions about who is looking at whom and the degree of surreptitious pleasure and exploitation of power involved. Since its invention the camera has been used to make clandestine images and satisfy the desire to see what is normally hidden or taboo. No one knows exactly how many CCTV cameras are spying on us in the UK as we go about our day to day lives. A figure of 4.2 million cameras has been cited. That’s about one for every 14 citizens and means that most of us will pass an average of 300 cameras a day. Mobile phone and digital cameras are now ubiquitous, making voyeurs of us all.

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