Guggenheim and Gormley

I visited the Basque Country last week for an art-and-tapas fest. Unfortunately the tapas side of things falls outside the remit of this blog so I will mainly be discussing the art and architecture that I saw.

The Artium in Vitoria-Gasteiz

The Artium in Vitoria-Gasteiz

Vitoria-Gasteiz, despite being the region’s capital, hasn’t had the superstar-architect treatment that Bilbao has. Its major art institution is the Artium, where Antony Gormley’s touring exhibition Between You and Me is currently on show. Aside from the cheese-tastic title, it was a successful demonstration of why Gormley has acquired the reputation that he has. In some places it felt a bit well-rehearsed, like nothing groundbreaking was going on. When he uses his own body as the basis for sculptural works there are interesting results, as in Freefall (2007), where shape of the artist’s body is encased in wire mesh.

Antony Gormley's Freefall, 1997

Antony Gormley's Freefall, 1997

But the real highlight was the amazing European Field, a whole room filled with crude fist-sized clay figures, a collaborative community project that Gormley has undertaken in several continents. It draws on similar ideas as the current One and Other project on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth: community participation, a desire to create a collaborative portrait of a group of people, a sense of the overwhelming scale of humanity. The longer you look at this crowd of tiny clay figures the more you notice their subtle differences, their expressions, their proportions, the different colours of the clay from which they’re formed. Like the differences in a crowd of people really. This, I think, is where Gormley is at his finest.

Antony Gormley's European Field

Antony Gormley's European Field

The Artium probably only looked slightly second rate because we went there the day after going to Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. As much as it’s been said before, Frank Gehry’s building is an incredible monument to Bilbao. Its ship-like, fish-like, kind-of-surrounding-mountain-like form is covered in shining titanium scales that change colour according to the weather conditions. Inside, each gallery is unique and many operate over several floors, unlike the monotonous white-cube spaces found in other institutions. The spaces were particularly suited to Cai Guo-Quiang’s large-scale sculptural installations and massive ‘gunpowder drawings’ featured in the current retrospective of his work.

A work from Sophie Calle's Last Seen...series, 1991

A work from Sophie Calle's Last Seen...series, 1991

It would probably be a bit dull for me to ramble on about everything I saw at the Guggenheim. My highlight was a pair of works by Sophie Calle from the 1991 Last Seen… series. A photo of the empty space left by the theft of a Vermeer painting from a American provincial art collection is accompanied by a series of verbal recollections of the work by the staff of the museum. Guards said they could never really see it from where they stood because of the glare of sunlight. A curator described it in detail, down to the paintings Vermeer had depicted in the work’s background. Others challenged typical interpretations of the work with very personal responses. It’s the sort of work that must appeal particularly to curators and those in the museum world, but it is also strikingly honest about the different ways we see paintings.

Calatrava's Zubizuri Bridge, Bilbao

Calatrava's Zubizuri Bridge, Bilbao

Outside the Guggenheim, bold architectural statements continue across Bilbao, from the Norman Foster-designed Metro system to Calatrava’s ‘Zubizuri’ Bridge and amazing bird-like airport. The latter building deserves a special accolade for making a two-hour Easyjet delay a relatively painless experience: we managed to find a picnic spot in the departure lounge that allowed 270-degree panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. It’s a bit of a step up from the closed-in, windowless holes at Gatwick. It might all be stunt architecture designed to lure in plane-loads of cultural tourists, but it’s worked on me: it has given Bilbao an amazing vibe that should put it on everyone’s must-visit list.

Lauren Barnes


The Art Menagerie 1: The Winged Turbot

In the first of a series of articles, eminent art zoologist Wil Crisp gives you the facts about the animals of the art world. Illustration by Chris Getliffe.

Illustration by Chris Getliffe

Length: 3ft
Wingspan: 7ft
Skin colour: sparkly
Eye colour: brown
Temperament: sublime/disgruntled
Star sign: Pisces
Turn ons: Baroque art, art theft
Turn offs: It doesn’t like going to the cinema

The Winged Turbot is an elegant and peculiar fish, steeped in folklore and high in Omega 3.  Anatomically it is very similar to other fishes of the Scophthalmidae genus but can be told apart due to its distinctive fluttering wings.  (It is also commonly confused with the Trout Eagle but unlike the Trout Eagle the Winged Turbot’s head is featherless.)

The Winged Turbot (or Scophthalums Arthistorisos) is thought to have evolved from the ancient cave fish, Scophthalums Cavaholus, which itself was an unusual fish.  The male of the species would assert its dominance within the shoal and attempt to attract a mate by communicating an extensive knowledge of art history and theory through subtle movements of its fins.  Gradually over time through natural selection the fish developed larger fins to better express its cultural knowledge and ultimately the large fins evolved into wings when contemporary art progressed from cave painting and the fishes had to travel further to get to exhibitions.

Michelin’s I-Spy Book of Art Galleries II (1995) rates the Winged Turbot as ‘Very Rare’ awarding a sighting 50 points, but this was not always the case.  Up until the nineteenth century it was quite a common sight in art houses and museums all over the world but the fish garnered unsavoury connotations when it was witnessed in large numbers prior to the 1837 fire in the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  The Winged Turbot was branded a harbinger of exhibition disorganisation and art disappearance and hunted to the brink of extinction by rabid artists and curators in the latter half of the century.

Although they are now few in numbers the Winged Turbot remains an obsession for many in the art world.  Anthony Gormley is one such man.  He has spent his entire career trying to devise deterrents and traps for Winged Turbot including the scarecrow-like Angel of the North.  Other contemporary artworks which are thought to be Turbot deterrents include: Hirst’s pickled shark, Banksy’s threatening Fish Sticks sculpture and Sterling Ruby’s crab pot-like Recondite.

Just as it is vilified by artists the Winged Turbot is worshipped by art thieves, who see it as a holy animal.  The French art thief Stephane Breitwieser actually recounts in his biography a time when a large winged turbot transported him to safety when he was trapped on the roof of the Louvre after a botched robbery.

Although their numbers dwindled dangerously during the early nineties, and it was thought that the Winged Turbot could go the same way as the Small-Bearded Salamander and the Bi-spectacled Otter, the future of the species does look secure as a London organisation has started a successful conservation breeding scheme and reintroduction programme:

Wil Crisp

Giuseppe Penone @ IKON Birmingham

If you still have time, go quickly because a gorgeous Italian sculptor,  Giuseppe Penone ( b1947) is currently holding an exhibition at the Ikon in Birmingham. Saturday Guardian puts it as top of their recommended.

For starters, as a venue, the Ikon is beautifully constructed inside and out and one of those revamp successes. By resurrecting a potentially doomed piece of turreted victorian architecture, architects have achieved a more timeless, airy space which guarantees survival. It provides a perfect venue for Penone’s work because as a environmentalist, he is trying to preserve the imprints humans leave behind and how we connect with our surroundings.  Not surprisingly his main source of inspiration derives from nature. His artistic sensibilities are reflected in his own personal relationship to natural phenomena to the point that he almost wishes to become one with what he is observing and experiencing.

Trees are central to his work. He tells us about hugging trees and leaving imprints and then using sculptures how he is able to capture how he sees this imprint. Touching and breathing with nature becomes a major source of inspiration and by using various mediums, such as wood, marble, leaves, he successfully manages to replicate these emphatic experiences.

Penone’s intentions to capture imprints grew out of the 60’s love of Zening and being at one with nature. Yet they remind us of other, more damaging imprints – 21st century carbon footprints. It’s reassuring that the imprints he conceives, are undoubtedly natural and non-threatening and about a lasting, living world.

Reverse Your Eyes (1970), is a short video clip. Penone is filmed walking up a tree lined road. As he gets closer you discover he wears reflective contact lenses and a close up shows his eyes are reflecting the world around him so that the two become synonymous. He stops and stares at you the viewer but he isn’t seeing you, he shows you what he is seeing. It’s an extremely beautiful image, simply executed and as a photographic image it is iconic.

In addition there a many splendid examples of Penone’s drawings which show how he developed his concepts of interactions with nature and puts these together in his sculptures.

If you like trees, then this exhibition is not to be missed!

The exhibition runs at IKON in Birmingham until 19th July.

Brenda Baxter

The Taxi Trilogy

Video artist Lisa Byrne gives an exclusive interview to Xavier Zapata about her recent work The Taxi Trilogy.

I was riding in a taxi in Wales, on my way to Bridgend in utter darkness. An urge to fill the gloom got me talking to the taxi driver. He spoke of how he’d just got back from fighting in Iraq. He said he had recurring nightmares of his friends dying and was afraid to sleep. Politics was living its virulent half-life in his dreams. And if politics is embedded in the unconscious then it’s everywhere. Lisa Byrne explores this phenomenon in her new work The Taxi Trilogy which was exhibited at Four Corners in Bethnal Green as part of the East London Film Festival. She grew up in County Down in Northern Ireland and lived through the height of the troubles. I met up with the artist to discuss how her work reflects the tumultuous politics of Northern Ireland.

Lisa Byrne (photo by Tim Bowditch)

Lisa Byrne (photo by Tim Bowditch)

To fund her art practice Lisa Byrne drove taxis in Northern Ireland. From these journeys she produced three short films consisting of conversations between her and her passengers. The first film Taxi 1: Partyin’ documents the night-time stories of people going out on the town. Her passengers are gripped by a joyful need to communicate. Like peacocks they perform, flashing their feathers inside the car. Lisa says that even here politics is simmering in the unconscious: “I wanted to show the escapism that people in Northern Ireland do. We’re all escaping the politics that has swept through our lives.” And this escapism gets extreme. The last passenger is a middle aged man who talks about his alcoholism: “I’ve been hospitalised twenty-one times. The last time the doctors gave me two weeks.” He slurs this phrase as his friend get in the taxi with a crate of beer.

Still from Taxi 1: Partyin'

Still from "Taxi 1: Partyin'"

Taxi 2: New Years Day 2007 5am is an uncomfortable film. Lisa told me the backstory. That night she’d picked up a dangerous man. He looked dodgy but she felt sorry for him, he was fifty miles from home on a freezing night wearing nothing but jeans and a t-shirt: “Not long before that I had seen someone dead on the road. I didn’t want the same thing happen to him.” He was friendly at first but became stony faced and difficult. Not long into the trip Lisa also picked up a couple and took them to Craigavon. The couple sat in the back with the other guy in front. Nobody said a word. The girl got off, but her boyfriend Adrian rode on a bit longer. When Adrian got to his stop he went to pay Lisa at her window. When he got to the window he signalled to her “Your man’s crazy. You’re gonna die. You should not take him anywhere.”

Adrian confirmed her fears and panic set in. Unsure what to do, she asked Adrian if he would join her on the long journey to drop off her dangerous passenger. Adrian agreed and popped into his house for five minutes. In that time Lisa got some chilling information about her passenger. She asked him why he had no cash for her. He replied it was because he sold drugs for the Ulster Freedom Force. The club he was in was controlled by a different paramilitary group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, so he couldn’t sell his drugs there. Lisa says the terrifying paramilitary connection made her heart sink: “I’m a catholic. Adrian’s a Catholic. And we had a loyalist paramilitary in the front seat.” Adrian got back in the car and they started up their journey. But of course, Lisa was unable to tell Adrian the disturbing information about their fellow passenger. He was in the dark.

As the journey progressed the UFF man asked Lisa “What’s you name then love.” In Northern Ireland this means “What’s your religion.” Lisa refused to answer, Adrian stayed quiet. The journey continued in silence. When they reached their destination, the UFF guy went got into his house to get some money. In those moments Lisa recalls feeling petrified: “What if he pulls out a gun!” As he went to the window she got ready to put the car in reverse. Thankfully he produced only money, and Lisa returned the forty miles to drop Adrian off. She asked Adrian if she could film the return journey, which forms the basis of Taxi 2. She says the encounter was an important document: “I wanted to show where the political situation is right at this point. Terror activities have subsided, but the paramilitaries still exist as drug gangs.”

Taxi 2 records Lisa’s staggered attempts to tell Adrian the story behind their dangerous passenger. The audience only gets fragments of the story. Her own sense of panic hijacks the clarity of her testimony, and sudden cuts in the film extinguish the story’s development. Bits of the road were unlit, so parts of the film are totally dark. These elements keep the audience guessing. You don’t know why this passenger is so dangerous, so you fill the darkness with monsters. Then Lisa tells Adrian “He said he sold drugs for the UFF”. Suddenly an underworld of paramilitary activity is revealed. But it’s overheard; there is no image. All we see is dark space.

Still from "Taxi 2: New Years Day 5am"

Still from "Taxi 2: New Years Day 5am"

Lisa says this un-answering darkness reflects the psychological impact of the troubles. “The unconscious of Northern Irish People is seeped in this history. The dark space is a metaphor for the unconscious. It holds the danger and complexity of Northern Irish people dealing with loss and death. It’s also the dark part of the road which wasn’t safe to drive through. Had I been there on my own with the paramilitary guy, it would have been the best place to kill me.” There’s an added potency here when you contemplate the lack of accountability during the troubles. Lisa says her neighbour’s two sons were shot in front of their eleven year old sister. No-one has been convicted. “Here’s a man who’s suffering terribly because of the loss of his children, there’s an empty space in his head. That empty space he’s going to continually circle and imagine things within it. That space needs to be filled in. He needs to know who was involved.” The dark spaces in Taxi 2 reflect these un-answering recesses of mind. It’s what Lisa calls “the social unconscious of Northern Ireland”. The genius of the dark spaces is that they force the viewers to unravel the story for themselves. You’re constrained to circle the void for answers. For a few moments you engage with the anxious landscape of Northern Ireland.

But something else is filling the empty space. Lisa is telling her story to Adrian, who in turn explains why he felt duty bound to protect her on her journey. Good storytelling elicits solidarity from your audience. The act of listening compels you to invest in the person telling you the story. In Taxi 2 Lisa Byrne creates an image for this phenomenon. This sensibility informs her aesthetic: “My work tries to invest something in another person.” She made the films by sticking a camera to the dashboard with a piece of blue-tack. With no-one behind the camera people can direct themselves. The camera itself is on automatic. It goes in and out of focus, directed by the movement of the journey. “Everyone is the author of themselves” she explains. The Taxi Trilogy is a world of storytellers, and it reflects a cultural legacy: “Northern Irish people are into telling stories. That’s their thing. Song became a big way of telling stories about the political situation in Northern Ireland.” These films are like songs and they reflect a need to talk about the political trauma. Lisa says “Creating an image in history of what’s happening is the starting point for healing.” When Lisa was a teenager her friend was shot by Loyalist paramilitaries. She says making The Taxi Trilogy has helped her cope with the loss. “Fifteen years ago people were numbing themselves to the troubles. Now they’re saying ‘Actually I’m having psychological problems, I need to deal with this.’ I think it’s time for artistic practice to allow these people to speak.”

In “Taxi 3: Stand up And Cry Like a Man” taxi-drivers tell Lisa their stories of surviving paramilitary attack in the eighties and nineties. Lisa explains how back then being a cabby was one of the most dangerous jobs around, “Everything was segregated, especially taxi firms. So they were easy targets because you knew they were either Catholic or Protestant. And these guys were always on their own.” On hearing the stories she found they all said the same things. They speak of their near death experience as an otherworldly “drifting” sensation. One man finds himself in “a bright white tunnel where I could see myself playing football as a kid”. When the trauma bites the effects are identical. These macho men are reduced to quivering insomniacs. One burly driver says, “My hair fell out within three days. It was coming out in handfuls.” The editing layers the stories together and if you closed your eyes you’d think you were listening to one man’s account. Lisa’s craft unites these men; they’re linked by a shared experience. It’s a powerful statement; these men come from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds.

Still from "Taxi 3: Stand up and Cry like a Man"

Still from "Taxi 3: Stand up and Cry like a Man"

The film is over in three minutes. The audience has to keep up with this gasping pace which Lisa describes as like a machine gun. It resonates with what Lisa says about song and the troubles: “The rhythm of each song carries with it the rhythm of the turmoil.” The audience is at the mercy of choppy editing, bombarded by testimony and emotion. It’s a frantic overload which Lisa says is instilled in the Northern Irish public: “They will be a wee bit more jumpy, they’re traumatised by violence from the past.” In the same way you get swept into the mood of a song, these films immerse you in the emotional character of Northern Ireland. Lisa says the films were made for a mainland British public, to give us a fuller sense of what happened in Britain. Her work provides a powerful alternative to accounts portrayed in the mainstream media.

Xavier Zapata

Nottingham Contemporary: a preview

Contemporary art is geographically radiating out of London, and, as globalisation takes a firm grip on the arts, an East Midlands’ light industrial town is creating a gallery that will play with the big boys. Nottingham Contemporary Art is due to open in Autumn 2009, and is nominated for the Conde Nast Design and Innovation award in the culture group. Britain must look outside London for some of the best future emerging exhibitions.

The building

The building

The vast metallic building is situated oddly in the city’s Lace Market, where a century ago women sat stitching lace and textiles for distribution all over the country. Now sits an imposing construction, boldly built on a hill overlooking the neighbouring trendy bars and empty factories to the south. The tramline runs directly past the building bringing residents from the northern districts, and crosses the paths of buses from the south. But is this just another gallery to offer the privileged art world a utopia away from the public’s grubby view?

No. Nottingham Contemporary’s director, Alex Farquharson’s previous exhibitions seem to speak out to the diverse culture of the Midlands, as well as nation-wide. Five off-site exhibitions have been held over 2008-9, at historical landmarks including Nottingham Castle, Newstead Abbey, Wollaton Hall, Galleries of Justice, and the village of Laxton. Here, contemporary art is displaced from the trendy and frankly just too bloody cool East End right down to a small village north-east of Nottingham’s city centre – where Britain’s last remaining agricultural arrangement of the open field system, dating back to the Middle Ages, is still alive and working. The exhibitions present the contemporary art world in these historical contexts.

The Lord Byron exhibition flyer

The Lord Byron exhibition flyer

A personal favourite of the recent exhibitions has to be That Beautiful Pale Face is my Fate (For Lord Byron) held in the old family home of the romantic poet. The press release introduced ghostly connections to Byron, and the notion of supernatural creation of artwork. The exhibition dealt with ideas of the wide-ranging phenomenon of celebrity, freedom and hybrdity of sexualities and the inklings of a feminist position. The work brilliantly combined Byron’s iconic status and the freedom of an artist in the twenty-first century. For example, Linder’s translation of the famous portrait of Byron is superimposed with an un-naturally large flower, whose petals reaches across and obscures Byron’s delicate features. This play with identity and symbols of femininity and masculinity complies with the recent thematic trends. This exhibition, like the other four created in the run up for the opening, provided the public with an interesting and innovative slant on contemporary art.

National newspapers are stirring interest in the direction of the Nottingham Contemporary, with reviews in The Guardian. The opening will boast café designs by Matthew Brannon and Pablo Bronstein, including a cabinet of curiosities in the study centre. This hybrid of the contemporary and the historical is an inventive direction for a contemporary art gallery, and no doubt will be worth the train ticket to Nottingham for upcoming exhibitions.

Opening is planned for Autumn 2009. For more information see

Meghan Goodeve

Artist Residence

Opposite the crumbling wreck of Brighton’s old West Pier stretch the cream alcoves of the regency squares. Once grand twenties buildings, many have since been living out their days as hotels for weekend visitors. Nestled amongst these salty B & B’s, however, a new space is coming to life.

Artist Residence is a hotel and gallery where artists can stay and create pieces in return for board. It currently has six rooms decorated by artists from around the world. The soon-to-open daytime cafe sits to one side of the gallery and a walled garden behind for evening events in summer.

Artist Residence

Artist Residence

Owner Justin Salisbury has plans to extent the gallery to include a stage for multi-media projects and larger installations, and plans to install an external spiral staircase in the walled terrace garden to lead up to the artist’s studios.

‘We want a relaxed and creative feel to the place’ says Salisbury. ‘The idea is that it’s a step above a hostel, and it ties in with the economic climate,’ he says, referencing the residency scheme. Artist Residence gives young artists the chance to display their work in a professional space, and the two week turnover of the gallery space offers a chance for new talent to be shown.

Mel Sheppard room

Mel Sheppard's room

There is a room by Mel Sheppard, whose work decorates the loos of renowned Victorian beach front venue the Concorde, as well as one by well known street artist Hutch. ‘We want the rooms to be artist inspired, rather than a themed hotel’, says Salisbury.

I head up to see a room in progress, by Maria Slovakova, who has painted walls from Bratislava to New York, and says of the space: ‘It’s got great light here. I didn’t want to make the room too busy.’ The figure of a girl graces a wall, next to bumblebees and flowers.

Lovely view from one of the rooms

Lovely view from one of the rooms

Manager Megan Barlow-Pay likens the place to a Brighton version of Shakespeare & Co in Paris, which as well as being a bookshop, is a place for artists to relax and be supported in a bohemian part of the city. Paintings on the stairs lead the eye upwards, and even the clean white walls of the gallery have a warm feel. Barlow-Pay says she wants the space to be less sterile than some galleries, with the walls displaying a patch work of new pieces.

The downstairs gallery is set up in a bright and informal way. The current exhibition ‘Printmakers’ features colourful 3D cotton fish by Erica Yim Ha Tsui hanging from the ceiling, as well as detailed drawings from Alison Shurville.

Lizzie Simner

Exciting news! Glovebox is currently planning an exhibition to be held in Artist Residence’s gallery space during September. More details to follow…

Tracey Emin suffers love

Tracey Emin and Jay Jopling’s White Cube have a long-standing relationship. Although some believe the relationship is fed through a thirst for money, fame, and success, her latest exhibition demonstrates why Emin is so well renowned. A mixture of her drawings, textiles, prints and a single installation are based around the self-proclaimed theme of ‘love’.

Tracey's rude monoprint
On the ground floor is a double-edged installation. Hidden behind the entrance is a lurid green neon light that scrolls the title of the exhibition onto the famous white walls of Masons Yard. Opposite plays a continuous animation of drawings – the originals are displayed on the lower floor. The green of the light plays onto the rapidly changing images of an unnamed nude touching herself, each pose outlined by a simple linear stroke of a pen. This departs from the luridness often associated with women’s empowering nudity and instead places a calming echo of the green onto the nude. Emin’s tranquil and linear clarity is evident from the outset by the monumental room.
A lovely embroidered thing
The atmosphere continues to the raw drawings and textiles in the room below. The colours of the neon lights remain playful and echo not lust but a sense of gentle love. Particular highlights of the emotionally transparent images were the textiles, where Emin uses her femininity not to shock but to communicate a sense of loss within love. With each embroidered stitch she materialises her own relations with the notion of this show. In particular, one embellished textile uses a heavily pink typeface framed at the corners by cut outs of quaint floral materials. This seems to depart far from her previous images of lust, passion and a confident sexuality, and reveals a different side of Emin’s artistic and emotional capabilities. The works develop the theme of sweet love punctured slowly by a sense of dread and despair.
Although the White Cube exhibition has an economic aim, as it coincides with the overpriced Rizzoli publication Tracey Emin: One Thousand Drawings, it has revealed a diverse collection of Emin’s art. This one-woman show has a monetary interest, but it should not be missed. It is, however, short lived and runs just over a month until 4 July 2009. Brave tourist-trodden Piccadilly – the exhibition is pleasing on the eye and free to get in, what more could you want?

Meghan Goodeve