Ai Weiwei – Royal Academy of Arts


I was interested to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts: despite not being the biggest fan of modern art in general, this particular artist is well known for his commentary on censorship, the Chinese government and human rights. He first became well-known in Britain in 2010 when his sunflower seeds installation was present in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, but this is the first major survey in the UK.

The exhibition was curated in collaboration with Weiwei, and covers the period from 1993, when he returned to China, until the present day. Some works have been created specifically for the RA.

I genuinely wasn’t sure what I would make of this exhibition, but I found it a worthwhile experience, getting me to think about the issues Weiwei raises in his work. I liked the way that contemporary Chinese society was juxtaposed with ancient culture.

Consisting largely of big installation pieces, on a first glance there isn’t a whole lot to look at in the exhibition, but in fact I thought the works had a surprising depth. The free audio guide definitely helped me find my way through the pieces. This n represents a map of China.


Another consisted of leftover wood arranged incredibly neatly, with pieces of ancient temple buried among the pile.


I was impressed by this stool sculpture. These works are apparently useful objects intentionally made useless, ancient artefacts modified by modern craftsmen, commenting on China’s past and present.

These tables were bizarre – quirky, but interesting. The craftsmanship is clearly evident, both in the pieces themselves and in the way they have been reshaped.

This work, consisting of material from collapsed buildings, represents the Szechuan earthquake of 2008, and the panels on the wall bear the names of those who died. Many of these were children, the details suppressed by the authorities as they did not want to admit that the materials for building schools had been skimped on.

This sculpture is made from material taken from an arts centre that Weiwei built, and that was forcibly demolished shortly afterwards.

This impressive sculpture also represents China.

This field is made of marble.

The marble buggy was created after Weiwei had an unpleasant experience of surveillance while he was out walking his son in his buggy.

I liked the room of cubes. This crystal one took a long time to create.

This one was based on a traditional kind of Chinese box.

This cube is made entirely of tea leaves.

This one is solid metal.

This map of China is made of porcelain.

These handcuffs are made of jade.

These bones might look real, but they are actually porcelain.

I really liked this wallpaper, which looks ornate and pretty but actually consists of handcuffs, CCTV cameras and the Twitter logo.

This set of boxes contain scale models of Ai Weiwei’s rooms while he was under house arrest and being watched constantly by two soldiers. Each has a window in the side and an opening on the top.

Weiwei has modelled himself and two soldiers in each model.

Finally, this chandelier looks fairly traditional from a distance, but close up you realise that it is, in fact, made of bicycles.

As I said, I wasn’t sure if I would be impressed by this exhibition but I really was. In all honesty, I was probably swayed by the knowledge that Weiwei had been placed under house arrest and come under scrutiny from the Chinese authorities – his art must be important for them to act in this way. Wrong or right, I did find myself thinking seriously about all of these works and they are still on my mind now.

The exhibition runs until 13 December. The Royal Academy is open every day, including late opening on Friday.

Carsten Höller: Decision – Hayward Gallery


Carsten Höller: Decision is this summer’s blockbuster at the Hayward Gallery, an experimental and interactive exhibition with slides – slides! – coming out of the gallery’s roof. Intrigued, I booked a ticket for the Bank Holiday weekend.

The show is structured around the theme of “decisions”, allowing the participant the chance to choose for themselves how they will approach a particular work, and experience mind-altering sensations.

The first work, Decision Corridors, apparently had different entrances but I didn’t notice, being too concerned with getting inside. It was formed of numerous tunnels, pitch-dark inside with only occasional pinpricks of light to show the way. The photo I took later on shows just how winding these corridors are. Walking through them, with no way of seeing where I was going, was incredibly surreal.

Decision Corridors, seen from above

Later works included Half Clock, “the most complicated clock in existence”, and the Pill Clock, which drops a single red and white capsule onto the gallery floor every three seconds. As you can imagine, a considerable pile has sprung up by now. You are offered the chance to swallow your pill and I did so, Alice-in-Wonderland style, not really expecting anything to happen (it didn’t).

Pill Clock

Another work, Flying Mushrooms, incorporated models of Amanita muscaria (fly agaric mushrooms) which are red and white hallucinogenic mushrooms, famous in folklore. Here, the models have been halved and placed back together the wrong way round, and you have to push the sculpture around to move it.

Flying Mushrooms

The Forests was a dual-screen video with a 3D headseat and earphones, with which you could experience a snow-covered forest at night. It was surprisingly calming. In the same room were Two Roaming Beds (Grey), which sounded brilliant: “These robotic twin beds roam the lower floor of the exhibition like a pair of restless, insomniac twins.” However, hiring them for the night costs £500, so I think I’ll give them a miss.

Two Roaming Beds

Upstairs, The Pinocchio Effect was something I didn’t look at but as it seemed to involve two people at a time, and Two Flying Machines looked like the most fun exhibition but as the queue was an hour and a half long, I didn’t bother. The Half Mirror Room and giant dice (or die) was disorientating.

Half Mirror Room

The Upside Down Goggles in the same room were bizarre to say the least. Without a friend to hold on to I felt odd walking around.

The final part of the exhibition – and the highlight for me – were the Isomeric Slides, “a sculpture you can travel inside and a device for experiencing a condition somewhere between delight and madness” according to Höller. Whatever the theory, it was a lot of fun to slide down to the bottom of the gallery.

I had a great time here, although I was disappointed at the number of exhibits where it seemed to be expected that you had someone else with you – what about us solo exhibition-goers? Nevertheless, it was good fun.


Whitechapel Gallery

The front of the Gallery

I visited the Whitechapel Gallery on the day of my Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park visit, as I had some time to kill. The Gallery, founded in 1901, is a public museum of modern and contemporary art, and hosts a number of changing exhibitions throughout the year. The current exhibitions are in place until 30 Aug, except for the London Open which runs until 6 September, and A Utopian Stage which is on until 4 October.

When I visited, the London Open 2015 was the major exhibition on display, a triennial open submission show including innovative and contemporary art in a number of formats. The exhibits were certainly varied and to be honest they didn’t really appeal to me, although I thought the brick sculpture built by artist Demelza Watts and her bricklayer father Brian was quite sweet, and I did quite like Eva Stenram’s strange altered photographs.

Following on from this, I entered the room containing the Children’s Commission 2015 by Rivane Neuenschwander, a Brazilian artist who has created outfits to explore childhood fears, collectively entitled The Name of Fear. I found some of these outfits fun to look at and rather enlightening; fears ranged from “heights” and “bees” to “nightmares” and “silence”.

In the next section, James Richards selects from the V-A-C collection, Richard’s presentation from the V-A-C collection in Moscow focuses on Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait (1953) and is entitled To Replace a Minute’s Silence With a Minute’s Applause. It is a rather bizarre sound installation, made up of “silences”, the gaps in between speech, suspenseful pauses in films, church bells and acts of mourning and remembrance. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of all this, but I did find it rather unsettling.

In the screening room, the Artists’ Film International: Summer 2015 includes film by Eduardo Basualdo, Tanya Busse & Emilija Ŝkarnulytė, Brigid McCaffrey & Pallavi Paul. I stayed in here for a few minutes, mainly I admit to have a rest, but I found the film on show engaging and oddly dreamy.

The Archive room was displaying an exhibition entitled A Utopian Stage: Festival of Arts Shiraz-Persepolis. For me this was probably the most interesting exhibition in the Gallery. It looked at the Festival of Arts held in Iran, against the backdrop of the ancient Persian ruins of Persepolis, between 1967 and 1997. It was described by Artforum as “one of the most adventurous and idiosyncratic festivals in the world”, featuring artists from both East and West, and the artefacts on display, including leaflets, posters, programmes and photographs, help to convey something of this.

It’s definitely impressive to have a gallery of this calibre in east London, and it’s an example of how it’s always worth looking beyond central London to get your art fix. The exhibits are thoughtfully curated and would certainly appeal to fans of modern art. Personally, I doubt I’ll be visiting again unless there’s an exhibition I really want to see: I prefer more “traditional” art if I’m honest.

By the way, the café is very nice; I had a very pleasant cup of tea there, and the cakes looked good too.


Address: 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London, E1 7QX


Opening Hours: Tues-Sun 11am-6pm, late opening Thurs until 9pm, closed Mon.

Anselm Kiefer – Royal Academy of Arts

At the weekend I attended the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. The German artist has been described as a “colossus of contemporary art”, and I decided to go and see for myself.

The exhibition really begins before you even enter the RA, with “Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations: The New Theory of War” on display in the courtyard. It consists of two large glass vitrines containing model submarines. It’s a melancholy, imposing work, inspired by the Russian Futurist figure Khlebnikov, who came to the somewhat bizarre conclusion that a major sea battle took place every 317 years (or multiples thereof).



Inside, another of Kiefer’s sculptures is on display before you reach the exhibition: “Language of the Birds” (2013) is made up of books, folder chairs and a pair of wings. It looks like it is about to take off. The sculptures (including “Ages of the World” in the exhibition itself) were in fact my favourite thing about the exhibition: they have an impressive looming quality about them.

The rest of the work I wasn’t so sure about. I admired Kiefer’s attempt to confront the reality of Germany’s history; his early work involved painting himself wearing his father’s German army uniform in a series ironically entitled “Heroic symbols”. He aimed to reclaim the idea of the artist from the Nazis, a concept which had been tainted by the emphasis on Hitler as an artist. I also liked a painting which re-enacted a Nazi naval attack inside a standard-issue tin bath, a commentary of the ludicrousness of the war.

Other works included watercolours, books, three-dimensional pictures and installations, using materials as diverse as greenery, lead, diamonds and wood. Paintings made use of myths, symbols, landscapes and architecture. The exhibition was varied in subject, but there was a recognisable style running through all of Kiefer’s work.

Overall I don’t think that this art is really for me, however I feel I learned something from it – I certainly wouldn’t call it a wasted experience.

Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art – Tate Modern

View of the Thames from the Tate Modern

On Saturday I attended a performance of Muse of Fire at the Globe. Afterwards I decided that, as I was right next to the Tate Modern, I would go in and see their new exhibition, Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art.

Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935) was an influential and radical artist whose work spanned one of the most eventful periods of Russian, and world, history. This retrospective examines his life’s work, which culminated in his most famous example of suprematism, the Black Square. I must admit I might not have seen the significance of this work, if I hadn’t discovered that it had been banned by the Soviet authorities. Anything deemed worthy of banning surely has some merit. In fact, when I actually saw the picture, I found it strangely compelling and unsettling, like a black tunnel, or a void. I could never have anticipated reacting like this to such a painting.

Suprematist work was, however, only one facet of Malevich’s work as an artist. Over the course of his life he explored landscape, religious painting and images of Russian workers, in both figurative and abstract styles. His range and versatility is clearly on show in this rich exhibition.

The exhibition runs until 26 October.

View of the Thames from the Tate Modern

Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection – Royal Academy of Arts

I attended the new exhibition at the Royal Academy on the hottest day of the year. After sweltering in the heat, it was a relief to step into the cool, dark Sackler Wing of Galleries in Burlington House to see Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection.

Radical Geometry looks at the original and radical art of South America over the last 100 years. In the early to mid-20th century, artists from the region began to innovate and pioneer a new visual language to evoke their beliefs about art. In the beginning this coincided with a sense of optimism in the region, with a strong economy and progressive politics dominating. Cities across South America began to see themselves as an integral part of the world, not on the periphery. However, artists from these cities did vary as to their approaches to art.

In Buenos Aires, artists were often political, with strong left-wing leanings expressed in their art. In Brazil as a whole, many had an intellectual focus and also worked with poets, while Venezuelan artists integrated their work with buildings. In Montevido, capital of Uruguay, Joaquín Torres García blended pre-Colombian art with European avant-garde to create a unique style, though in Argentina he was seen as old-fashioned, with many artists rejecting traditional models (Rhod Rothfuss, for instance, rejected the traditional picture frame); several of these were Marxists. In Brazil, great changes during the 1950s and 1960s meant the creation of new wealth, and there was a rivalry between up-and-coming São Paulo and former capital Rio de Janeiro. The first Biennial Exhibition outside of Venice was held in São Paulo in 1951.

Abstract-style art isn’t normally my thing, but I found the clean lines and shapes really restful after coming in to the cool gallery from an extremely hot and sunny courtyard. I found a lot of the exhibition really thought-provoking – I had never considered, for instance, why paintings have square or rectangular frames (except for the odd round artwork), and that they could be framed differently. I also loved the sculptures, such as Sphere (1976) by Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt). My favourite piece, though, was Physichromie No. 500 (1970) by Carlos Cruz-Diez, which seemed to change colour as I walked past it.

This wasn’t my usual sort of exhibition, but I really enjoyed learning about South American art and how it reflected the wider societal ambitions and beliefs of the artists. It is definitely worth visiting – it runs until 28 September.

Martin Creed: What’s the point of it? – Hayward Gallery

I nearly didn’t go to see Martin Creed: What’s the point of it? at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank. I’d heard some ‘interesting’ things about it and I wasn’t sure if it was the kind of thing I’d enjoy. However, the exhibition proved so popular that it was extended for a week, and I went to see it on Thursday evening, after work and before I went to the theatre. I definitely advocate going to see exhibitions during late-night weekday opening – the exhibition was really quiet, and the balloon room – which can have queues lasting up to an hour – was nearly empty.

Creed’s work belongs to the category I normally term as ‘crap modern art’, and I found myself asking the question posed in the exhibition’s title – “What’s the point of it?” – rather a lot as I walked around. Which begs the question, why did I go and see it? Curiosity, I suppose.

Creed names his works by numbers and in fairness to him his work is incredibly varied. On the one hand, among the exhibits are a piece of Blu-Tack stuck to a wall, a crumpled piece of paper, and a number of wall protrusions. More interesting to me was the large ‘Mothers’ sign that whirls around your head as you enter the exhibition: the idea behind this is that when you are little, your mother seems big and scary, as does this sign. Creed’s love of order is evident in the Lego bricks piled one on top of the other in size order, and the chairs and boxes piled up in similar ways.

The exhibition even reaches outside, with a couple of works on display on the terraces. One of these is a car which randomly bursts into life, its doors shooting open and its radio blaring, although I was more concerned with how on earth they got the car up there in the first place. On another terrace there was a film of a penis going up and down (the woman standing next to me remarked “I’ve seen better”).

The ‘balloon room’, aka Work No. 200, Half the air in a given space, was the best. The room was filled with balloons taking up half the air, resulting in a really fun room where you wade through tons of balloons with static lifting up your hair. I had so much fun here I thought it was worth the admission price alone.

There were paintings and pictures too, as well as sculptures and installations. The pictures using highlighters appealed to my precise nature, and I really liked the prints made using broccoli! The final work, though, left me completely bewildered. The infamous “sick film” shows people walking in front of the camera, vomiting and walking away, except in one case where a woman walks up, squats down and takes a shit instead. You can also buy this film in the gift shop – I am honestly baffled as to why anyone would want to watch someone defecating or being sick, or if they did, why they would pay £15 for a DVD rather than just popping down to their local high street on a Friday night. Oh well.

Though I remain sceptical of many of the exhibits, I do feel that the exhibition as a whole proved more than the sum of its parts, with interesting things to say about order, space, ambiguity and not taking the art world too seriously. It was more thought-provoking than I had expected and on balance, I don’t regret going to see it – even if I can’t get the image of someone being sick out of my head…

Paul Klee: Making Visible – Tate Modern

The EY exhibition at the Tate Modern is Paul Klee: Making Visible, until the 9th of March. I didn’t know a great deal about the artist, so took a chance and headed down to Bankside to check the exhibition out.

Klee is an important figure of 20th century art. His breakthrough came during the First World War, following which he taught at the Bauhaus before moving to Düsseldorf and subsequently being dismissed from his teaching position by the Nazis, who labelled his works ‘degenerate’. Though I’m not a particular fan of twentieth-century art, anything labelled negatively by the Nazis gains merit in my eyes!

Paul Klee, They
Paul Klee, They’re Biting, 1920 (Tate Modern)

Most of Klee’s works are very small; this came as a surprise to me as for some reason I always imagine modern works of art to be huge. I saw a lot of them as ‘cute’ – this might sound like an odd thing to say about art, but many of the works were warm, attractive, with a sense of humour – something drew me into them and made me interested. I particularly liked the fish pictures, and the related ‘They’re Biting’. I loved the way his later works seemed to comment on Nazism and contemporary culture, and his late works – such as ‘Walpurgis Night’ and images of witches – had a distinctly darker tone. Despite my initial misgivings, I really enjoyed the exhibition and admired the variety in Klee’s work.

Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 – National Gallery

I popped in to the National Gallery after work on Friday night to check out the new exhibition, Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900. I found it an intriguing one.

From 1867, Vienna was the imperial capital of Austria-Hungary until the end of the First World War in 1918. Portraits depicted the growing, confident middle class, newly wealthy in times of economic renewal, and also the insecurities and anxiety inherent at times of growing nationalism and antisemitism.

In some ways I actually preferred the earlier paintings, more conservative in style but beautifully done and hugely detailed. However, I appreciated the innovation of the later works. Gustav Klimt’s work in particular surprised and impressed me – I am reasonably familiar with ‘The Kiss’ but I had no idea that he also painted extensively detailed portraits, almost photographic in quality. In his ‘Portrait of a Lady in Black’ (c1894), the woman’s black dress is portrayed in all its shades and shadows.

Gustav Klimt, 'Portrait of a Lady in Black'
Gustav Klimt, ‘Portrait of a Lady in Black’

Oskar Kokoschka’s colourful works were less immediately appealing, but were certainly highly unique and reflected the burgeoning modern society.

Another element of the exhibition was the presence of death masks: masks of Klimt, Beethoven, Egon Schiele and Gustav Mahler were all present. I find death masks fascinating as they offer a real glimpse into the faces of these famous figures.

Geoffrey Farmer: The Surgeon and the Photographer – The Curve, Barbican

Geoffrey Farmer: The Surgeon and the Photographer is currently showing at the Barbican, a strange and unnerving modern work of art. It is displayed in the Curve, a long winding gallery that reflects its name, and consists of 365 puppets made up of faces, masks, limbs and accessories applied like a collage onto fabric bodies. Popular culture, the ancient world, history and fiction are all referenced. The title of the exhibition comes from an essay by Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in which he compared the work of a magician to that of a painter and the role of a surgeon to that of a photographer. Both, Benjamin says, deal with fragments.

Creepy yet fascinating, these varied figures are rich in detail and personality. I was reminded of the song by the Doors, ‘People Are Strange’, as I wandered among them. Accompanying the exhibition was a montage of sounds, while at the end a series of pictures was presented as a film. I sat and watched these compelling images for a good few minutes.

I have ambivalent feelings towards modern art, but this is something that is worthwhile and rich in meaning. It closes on Sunday – visit beforehand if you can.