A group of Romanians has been camping out at Marble Arch recently, a short walk from where I am staying. The police have attempted to move them on, and while they apparently leave for a short time, they keep returning. I see them on BBC1 news and then I see them in reality as I make my way to Hyde Park. There are about a dozen people, including children, gathered on the grass with their belongings packed in carry-on sized luggage. They sit on a grassy strip, surrounded by all the Oxford Street, Park Lane and Edgeware Road traffic and I wonder why they have chosen this particular spot, rather than finding a peaceful haven in Hyde Park, which is right there, so very close by, offering respite from all the noise, car fumes and chaos of their current site.
I keep walking and weave my way through the network of paths in Hyde Park. It’s early evening and the trees seem greener than ever and heady waves of Linden blossom waft through the air. People are making their way home from work, walking their dogs, or finding a perfect place for an evening picnic. I’m heading for the Serpentine Gallery’s Park Nights event featuring Paul Holdengraber in conversation with Adam Phillips, a well known psychoanalyst who has recently published a book called Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. The two are going to discuss the concept of ‘the other life’ – or lives – that you could have lived, the potential lives that you may have imagined as a child, or imagine still as an adult.
The event takes place outdoors in the Serpentine Pavilion, a stunning white, latticed structure designed by Sou Fujimoto. It looks so light and feathery, I imagine it taking off into the air at any moment. I sit next to an exotic young woman who has a beautiful Russian name – Eugenia V – and we talk a bit as we wait for the program to start. She was born in Siberia but her parents moved to London when she was very young. She speaks Russian and studied Japanese at university and is not quite sure where life will take her at this point. I want to ask her a lot of questions but the interview starts and there isn’t time.
It is a great conversation – and it truly is a conversation rather than a stilted series of interview questions. Holdengraber has a wonderful sense of humour, but all his comments are underscored by a very serious approach to trying to gain a deeper understanding of Phillip’s ideas. He has already interviewed Phillips in New York on the same topic, as part of the New York Public Library LIVE program, which he coordinates. (That was back in February and you can listen to it here.) This London conversation seems a bit more relaxed in comparison, perhaps because the setting, in the outdoors, on a balmy evening in Hyde Park, invites a less formal approach.
Holdengraber and Phillips take us through a range of ideas: how little we actually remember from our childhood, the highly symbolic nature of the memories we do retain, the desperation to recover past pleasures, the fear of missing out and of losing desire, our parents and the desires they cannot fulfil for us, frustration and fulfilment, anxiety, fear, the power of reading and, of course, the unrealised potential of our unlived lives.
As the conversation develops, the night begins to fall and the whole pavilion becomes more and more magical in the soft, dusky light of late evening. While the talk is about unfulfilled lives, it is actually a great solace to discover that this is something shared by so many other people. Like everyone else, I have many imagined lives, lives that seem better and more fulfilling than the life I am living, but this evening, rather than feeling a sense of frustration about their unrealised potential, I feel a comforting sense of acceptance, which I believe is the ultimate aim of Phillip’s book. Rather than thinking of those seemingly more perfect lives in a negative way, I feel I can embrace them positively. I walk back to Marble Arch in the semi-darkness feeling inspired and incredibly fortunate.
In one of my unlived lives, I am much more productive and energetic that I am in my real life. I write every day with great clarity and focus and without flagging; I read two inspiring books every week and can remember all the significant passages from memory; I devise unique new art projects that perfectly express my ideas and which I explain with reference to other cultural artefacts and deeply pertinent quotations by interesting writers and philosophers. I don’t get tired, I am always calm, tolerant and patient, and I can respond to difficult situations with logic and compassion. Most of all, in this other, imagined life, I am never afraid of anything.
In my real life, my second week in London is coming to an end and my great adventure has hit the two-thirds mark. As well as the galleries and museums I wrote about last time, I visit many others, some which are always on the list when I come to London, others which are new to me.
The Tate Modern is always on the list. It’s currently undergoing a massive renovation and the dramatic Turbine Hall, which has been the site for many large scale art works by internationally acclaimed artists such as Ai Wei Wei and Olafur Elisasson, is no longer accessible to the public. I view it from a window from one of the upper floors and can just make out the filled-in scar of Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth, 2007-8, which created a huge fissure in the concrete floor, a violent crack that extended from one end of the space to the other. It doesn’t feel quite the same in the gallery without the experience of entering that huge open space of which offered such a powerful sense of the vastness of the building.
The current exhibition program includes a number of shows that you have to pay for, and since I know I won’t be able to take in all of them, I select just one – Ellen Gallagher. She’s an American artist who lives between New York and Rotterdam, and her work explores elements of African American culture through painting, collage, sculpture, film and installation. Her vision is unique and obsessive – there are huge works that present altered beauty ads from early magazines like Ebony, Our World and Black Stars in grid-like formations; giant black shiny paintings with a code like text on their suface; a big white geometric sculpture that looks like scaffolding, and delicate paper cuts that depict marine animals. My favourite work is a beautiful black and white still projection of Freud and Gallagher imposed over an image of Matisse working in his studio. Parts of the image have been gilded by applying gold leaf directly to the wall, creating a wonderful, ethereal shimmer.
There is another fascinating solo exhibition of work by Meshac Gaba called Museum of Contemporary African Art to which entry is free. It is a truly engaging experience that takes you through a series of rooms that play with the traditional western concept of the museum as a space for the contemplation of serious art. Gaba’s museum invites interaction and includes a library, an art and religion room, a shop, a piano that visitors can play and a game in which you can piece together flags from different nations. It is bright, fresh and unpretentious and everyone seems to enjoy interacting with the work.
I also wander through most of the collection displays which are organised under themes such as Energy and Process, Transformed Visions, and Poetry and Dream. The latter focuses on Surrealism and seems almost unchanged since I last saw it about three years ago. I’ve included images of some of the works that stood out for me.
On this first visit to the Tate Modern I completely miss an exhibition called Word. Sound. Power which I return to see on another day. I’m keen to view it because it promises to be highly relevant to my own practice and my interest in conveying our relationship to language through art. Alas, the show turns out to be a little disappointing both visually and conceptually. It aims to evoke the power of the voice as a tool for protest and as a means for representing the self and is dominated by video works. So, for example, a group of young men living in Mumbai talk about their rap dancing collective, and in another video, a young man reads out a rap poem. One work asks you to read a poem out loud from a text that is literally unreadable because it is a series of computer symbols. I have a go, describing the patterns I see as poetically as I can, and my voice is recorded in the process. I appreciate the motivation behind this work, but it also feels a little simplistic. Most of the work in the show demands a lot from the viewer and I lack the patience to engage with it fully because the visual aesthetics fail to draw me in.
I have a cup of tea sitting on the bank of the river and feed a bird with a damaged leg with crumbs from my carrot cake before catching a ferry westwards to the Tate Britain. The ferry has no outdoor area, there is no air conditioning, and all the passengers are melting in the heat.
The Tate Britain is also undergoing renovation and much of the exterior is enclosed by large wooden panels. Inside, one of the most evocative works I see is a video by Simon Starling called Phantom Ride, which has been commissioned for the magnificent Duveen galleries in the centre of the building. The video has been aptly described as a roller coaster ride, creating the illusion that you are flying through the space of the Duveen, viewing iconic works from the Tate collection in the process. I lean against one of the massive marble pillars and watch the loop twice through, totally captivated by the experience.
Next door is a video by Douglas Gordon that I saw at MOMA in New York, featuring an Indian elephant who performs a range of tricks, including playing dead. The sequence was filmed in the Gagosian gallery in New York. I wonder how the elephant got there – was it flown in from India? Did it come from a local zoo? How did it cope being in a big white contemporary art space?
And then I follow the story of British art through the ages. I spend most of my time with the 16th and 17th century paintings. The Chalmondeley Ladies, c1600, is a particular favourite – two identical, regally dressed women holding identical babies – an extraordinary image. I also enjoy seeing Francis Bacon’s trilogies again, such powerful, grotesque post war paintings that reflect a deeply existential view of the world.
Jake and Dinos Chapman have created an amazing installation that on first view looks like an exhibition of African tribal artefacts. But as you start to look more closely, the work reveals its darker side and you realise that amongst the genuine sculptures and masks there are ones that feature food from MacDonalds and Ronald MacDonald himself.
I wander through the little Blake galleries, and also spend some time with the Turners, but there are so many of them that I have trouble focussing. The image I am most fascinated by is very unTurneresque – a woman floating horizontally in a void-like space.
I am visually overloaded and go and sit outside in the pleasant garden café where I enjoy a salted caramel ice-cream (is everyone in Australia also eating salted caramel ice-cream, as they are here in London and New York?) And then someone just behind me starts smoking and I am so shocked I get up and leave in huff – how dare someone light up a cigarette in a cafe! Lots of people also smoke here on crowded streets, where everyone is jostling with everyone else, and the smokers are waving their lit weapons about, threatening to set my clothing alight. Of course, I am probably over-reacting. People also smoke on the streets of Hobart, but there are so few of them it doesn’t seem anywhere near as dangerous!
I visit the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts), which is on the Mall, on the following day. It’s a very famous gallery, established in the 1940s, and has a long history of showing controversial and cutting edge work, including an exhibition by the Independent Group in the 1950s who started the British Pop movement, and Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document in the 1970s which made front page news because it included her baby son’s poohey nappies. The current show, called Keep your timber limber, features works on paper that aim to explore the politics of gender and sexuality. Much of the content features erect and ejaculating penises which I find just too literal, consequently, I don’t spend long in the gallery.
I keep walking down the Mall, which is handsomely decorated with long rows of Union Jacks, and head towards Buckingham Palace. It looks magnificent, I suppose because everything has been spruced for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, celebrating sixty years of her reign. I adore the richness and ornateness, especially all the superb decorative work on the gates, which appear to be freshly gilded. Back in the early 1900s, Adolph Loos wrote that ornament was a crime and predicted the 20th century’s rejection of the decorative and obsession with the international style and minimal design. While a very big part of me loves the minimal, in recent years I have come to appreciate the decorative in a way that completely surprises me.
I actually get to go inside an extension to Buckingham Palace – The Queen’s Gallery – where I see a great exhibition of paintings and artefacts about Tudor and Stuart costume called In fine style. I am fascinated by the incredible detail and the rather surreal, magical quality of many of the paintings. To an extent this stems from the level of detail present in the works, but that detail isn’t mimetic – it doesn’t effectively mirror of reality. Rather, it evokes a mysterious world that feels almost supernatural, as in Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s Portrait of an unknown woman (c1599) and Frans Ourbus the Younger’s The Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, Archduchess of Austria (c1598-1600). The women portrayed in these paintings are truly other-worldly beings. There is also an extraordinary painting by an unknown artist of a man dressed completely in red.
Two days later, I go inside Buckingham Palace and see the State Rooms and the garden where the Queen holds her annual parties. She has gone to Balmoral for a summer break, and that’s when the State Rooms are opened up to the public. I love the whole experience. The rooms are unbelievably sumptuous – the art, the chandeliers, the furniture, the decorative objects, the throne room, the picture gallery, the wallpapers and ceiling ornamentation, the internal courtyard where the carriages arrive – everything is so very rich and everything seems to sparkle. The Ball Room has been temporarily modified to house a stunning exhibition of the 1953 Coronation, including the gowns and jewellery worn by the Queen, her ladies in waiting and the rest of the royal family. The tour ends in the garden, where I have lunch in the cafe and share a table with Mary and Ken, who kindly allow me to join them when they see I am unable to find somewhere to sit. They come here regularly in the summer and have even been to one of the famous garden parties. They are also great world travellers and tell me about an amazing driving trip they made all over the east and west coasts of America. Afterwards, I wander through the garden, which is absolutely huge – there are 39 acres of it!
I also visit Apsley House, better known as ‘Number One London’, which was the home of the Duke of Wellington after he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. His direct descendants still live there, but a number of the stately rooms are open to the public. There is a fabulous art collection with paintings by Velazquez, Rubens and Goya, and a superb room of porcelain and other lavish gifts presented to Wellington from all over the world in honour of his victory. The most striking art work is a massive nude sculpture of Napoleon by Canova that stands at the foot of the stairwell. Apparently Napoleon didn’t like the finished work because he thought it made him look pretentious. There is also an extraordinary Portugese centerpiece that runs the length of the dining room table. Entry to the house also includes entry to Wellington arch, which has an exhibition about John Betjeman who played a major role in preserving Britain’s architectural heritage back in the 1930s. There is also a viewing platform with good views into the gardens of Buckingham Palace and across to Apsley house and Hyde Park. Interestingly, the arch once housed the smallest police station in London!
The visit to the Buckingham Palace and Apsley House have certainly sated my appetite for the rich and the decorative, but I am also very drawn by the power of the minimal. On my visit to The Royal Academy of Arts (which, surprise, surprise, has a massive El Anatsui hanging on the exterior of the main entrance) I see a sublime exhibition by Robert Irwin courtesy of the Pace Gallery. Displayed in a vast gallery space, Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue III (2103) consists of massive black and coloured panels made from highly glossed aluminium. They are laid on the floor and suspended from the ceiling, directly reflecting each other. It is a simply beautiful experience walking around the perimeter of the gallery, looking down into the panels or gazing upwards at them. The colours change, the reflections change, and even more so, my perspective of the entire space changes. Upstairs, there is another stunning work that makes direct reference to Dan Flavin, the minimalist who worked with fluorescent lighting. It is created from green, white, black and grey fluorescent tubing. I saw Irwin’s Scrim Veil at the Whitney in New York, so it is a joy to be continuing my first encounters with his practice here in London.
I also see the annual Summer Exhibition, which is a crazy, overcrowded salon hang. This year’s show has 1,270 works!! I won’t attempt to describe any of them, but I will say that the show is open to anyone and includes work by the internationally famous, such as Alex Katz and Elisabeth Peyton, as well as work by totally unknown artists. There is also an exhibition about Richard Rogers, the renowned English architect who designed the Pompidou Centre in collaboration with Renzo Piano. It is strikingly installed using fabulous hot pop colours but by this stage I am too visually overloaded to take it in.
In the vicinity of the Royal Academy, there is a range of commercial galleries that I come across completely by accident as I zigzag about the streets between Picadilly and Oxford streets. I see prints by Damien Hirst in Other Criteria, Gerhard Richter paintings transformed into Tapestries at the Gagosian, Cornelia Parker at the Frith Street Gallery, and a wild, super kitsch exhibition of work by David Lachapelle at the Halcyon. Mixed in with Lachapelle’s over-the-top imagery are some beautiful photographs of Marilyn Monroe by Eve Arnold and, in a room of their own, a series of glass works by Dale Chihuly, the artist who created the giant green glass frond in the Gallery of Fine Arts in Boston, and the massive organic glass pendant in the entrance foyer of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
I also find a wonderful gallery called the Coll & Cortes which specialises in Spanish master works and colonial art. The paintings are just superb but I am most taken by a beautiful dressed sculpture of the Madonna and child. I am told by the charming gallerist that it belonged to his grandmother who decided she could no longer live with the sculpture after seeing a vision in which the Madonna appeared to her. So she is now on view downstairs, where there is also a stunning collection of religious and other objects displayed on a marble table, which I am allowed to photograph. These include a wooden head of Christ with a hole in the crown that brings to mind Landy’s mechanical saints in the National Gallery, another beautiful Madonna and child, a human skull, a tiny taxidermed monkey and many other unusual artefacts … it is a real Wunderkammer!
Upstairs, in the main gallery, I meet Susan Wilson, an artist from New Zealand who has been living in London for many years. She is drawing another stunning wooden sculpture of the Madonna and child in preparation for an exhibition that will be held in the lower gallery later this year. We discuss art and teaching, what’s on in the galleries, and our mutual admiration of early religious works.
The most fascinating commercial exhibition I see is at Blain Southern Gallery which features a new body of video work by Bill Viola. Much of it reflects a typical Viola language – people appearing and disappearing ever so slowly into a desert landscape, others floating just beneath the surface of water, two naked elderly people examining their bodies with torches as if searching for something unknown on the surface of their skin, and so on. These are all very beautiful and masterfully executed, but they are also exactly what you would expect from Viola. There are, however, a couple of works that stand out because they seem a little different or more experimental. One is called The Chapel of frustrated actions and futile gestures, a nine channel video work displayed in a 3×3 grid. Each screen in the grid depicts a repeated futile action – two men in a boat, one emptying water out of the boat, the other pouring it back into the boat; two women exchanging the same gift between each other over and over again; a man digging a hole in the ground and then refilling it; someone continuously pouring water into a leaky cracked bowl. It is a compelling series of actions to observe and while it is still recognisably Viola, the conceptual content seems a bit different from his other work, which often reflects a powerful underlying mystery about life. In this work, the mystery is counteracted by a total sense of futility, suggesting we have no real choice in our actions at all, that we are simply machines, repeating the same things over and over again. But I may not be familiar enough with Viola’s genre – this may well be a theme he tackles in other work.
The second work by Viola I am captivated by is called Angel at the door and I think the reason I find it so interesting is because most of it is shot in real time rather than the usual signature slow motion. It is shown as a large projection on the gallery wall in which a man, framed towards the left, sits in a minimally furnished room, reading a book and drinking something from a mug. To the man’s right, and in the centre of the projection, is a white door. There is a knock at the door and the man puts his book down, gets up and investigates, but mysteriously, there is no-one at the door. He returns to his chair a little puzzled, and continues reading. After a short while there is another knock at the door, a little more insistent this time, and the man once again gets up to investigate but once again, there is no-one there. This pattern continues, the knocking getting louder and more insistent while a background sound track also gradually increases in intensity, to the point where it sounds almost apocalyptic. The man becomes visibly anxious. Someone is pounding at the door now, desperate to get in. Eventually the intensity of the banging abates and all becomes peaceful again. The man opens the door and now he sees who has been trying to get in – it is himself, walking towards himself. When this other self reaches the door, it stops and there is a sudden huge shattering sound as an invisible glass barrier between the two selves of the man is smashed into tiny fragments in dramatic slow motion. And that is the end of the loop.
While I find this video compelling, I am also not sure what to make of it. The early part, where the man keeps getting up to see who is at the door, works superbly, but the climax feels overly contrived and I think that’s the fault of the shattering glass in combination with the apocalyptic sound track. It seems as if Viola is experimenting with a new language in this work but can’t quite break away from the old one. I am particularly drawn to the power of the minimal composition he has used – a man sitting in an almost empty room, reading a book. Reading transports us to other worlds, but this man’s journey into the world of his book is constantly interrupted by an unseen, unknown aspect of himself, a part of himself that he is either completely unaware of, or is denying. So in this sense, it is a repressed self that interrupts him – which is rather different from the unlived or imagined life that Holdengraber and Phillips were discussing in the Serpentine Pavilion. Ultimately, the work is both fascinating and confusing and that’s where its magic lies.
I also visit the remarkable Sir John Soane Museum, the exterior of which is completely covered with scaffolding as it undergoes second stage renovations to make it more accessible to the public. I first visited the museum about twelve years ago on the recommendation of a friend was researching Soane for her doctorate. She was right – it is one of the most extraordinary museums in London. Soane was an architect who lived in the very midst of his extensive and extraordinary collection of casts, paintings, objects and other paraphernalia associated with decorative architecture and interior design. Every room in his house is visually overwhelming but extremely ordered at the same time. In most of the rooms, every nook and cranny is filled and every wall space is covered with objects, so there is no relief at all for the eye.
One of the most achingly beautiful artefacts in Soane’s collection is an Ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, carved from a single piece of alabaster and inscribed on the inside and the outside with hieroglyphics. I am astounded by its design and its craftsmanship.
And on my last day, I go to Trafalgar Square to see the newly unveiled sculpture on the 4th plinth. Over the past seven years, a range of internationally renowned artists have created art work for the empty plinth in the square. The new work is by German artist Katarina Fritsch, who has created Hahn/Cock, a giant blue rooster that surveys the square with tremendous, rather cocky authority. I think it looks fantastic! It makes me thing of blue blood, breeding and being king of the roost.
My time in London passes like a flash, under a dreamlike haze of jet lag during the first week, then with a few days of clarity around the time of the royal birth, and now, despite being inspired by Holdengraber and Phillips, on a wave of exhaustion. I head for Latvia in the morning, where I will seriously attempt to have a rest.
As a post script, some other moments in London…