Violet seas and anthropomorphic rocks: Two American photographers confront the natural landscape in the post-industrial age

The work of two American artists, David Benjamin Sherry (born 1981) and Matthew Day Jackson (born 1974) is currently on show as part of a major new exhibition, Out of Focus: Photography at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

The exhibition spans a wide range of contemporary photographers’ work, yet these two artists have an interesting level of homogeneity; with a ‘neo-romantic’ approach, both are led by an enquiry into – and subordination to – the rocky, tempestuous landscape of the United States, yet with very different results.

David Benjamin Sherry: Hyperborealis, 2011, C-print, 182.9 x 232.4 cm. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London. © David Benjamin Sherry, 2011

Born in Woodstock, New York and now working in New York City, Sherry has created a series of large-scale analogue photographs that depict natural areas of the American West: mountain lakes, misty forests, caves and mountains, which he has saturated in filters of red, blue, yellow, acidic green and powdery violet. The hue, which is chosen depending on the artist’s mood, is imbued during exposure or afterwards in the printing process.

The titles of Sherry’s works indicate his primary concern with colour and its synthesis with cognition and spiritual meaning. For instance, a piece depicting a rough, tree-strewn beach bathed in a soft violet light is given the title All Matterings of Mind Equal One Violet, while a mountain-top steeped in faded, technicolour green is named Holy Holy, reminiscent of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s violently dreamy, mind-altering 1973 film Holy Mountain.

David Benjamin Sherry: All Matterings Of Mind Equal One Violet, 2011, C-print, 182.9 x 232.4 cm. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London. © David Benjamin Sherry, 2011

The vivid, transcendent colours draw the viewer into these deep expanses of natural land with their intense beauty, yet their appeal is meshed uneasily together with the seduction of artifice and sensation that dominates our post-industrial culture.

Originally from Panorama City in California, Jackson currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Led by a preoccupation with the potency of the Earth, the artist spent four months driving through the United States in search of land formations that, at certain angles, give the suggestion of anthropomorphic faces. He describes these perceptions as ‘Mother Nature’s Land Soldiers’; the hostile manifestations of a post-apocalyptic future, surfacing to reclaim the Earth after its destructive human occupation.

Matthew Day Jackson: The Lower 48 – Alabama, 2006, 48 C-prints. Each: 39 x 56 cm Overall: 312 x 336 cm. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London. © Matthew Day Jackson, 2006

Jackson’s exhibited work consists of 48 large photographs, each depicting an historic region of the continent. As with Sherry’s photographs, their size and positioning on the gallery walls – towering over the viewer that stands before them – add to the sense of high Romantic deference to the immense force of Nature that these two artists are simultaneously confronting.

The seduction of Sacrilege

A twenty foot-high, inflatable model of Stonehenge has descended on Glasgow Green for the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Arts. The interactive sculpture is the latest creation of Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, and is his first major public project in Scotland.

One of England’s most notorious landmarks, the ancient Stonehenge itself is a timeless mystery; nobody knows for what this piece of strange architecture was built, or by whom, and it belongs to nobody. It is perhaps this element that attracted Deller, whose previous work has consistently attempted to distract from the concept of the author or original and elevate the power of creative collectivism.

Just as Sacrilege merges the arcane with contemporary vernacular, its title pre-empts its critics, implying the artist’s intention that his appropriation be taken with more than a hint of irony and enjoyed by the public with a sense of unashamed, yet mischievous pleasure. He counters the suggestion that it is a particularly English landmark and disregards political segregation, stating that the symbol of Stonehenge itself is ‘pre-political’, and hence is just as relevant to Scotland as anywhere beneath the border.

Sacrilege, 2012, Jeremy Deller

In its artificial appeal Sacrilege may seem anodyne, but then Deller’s work has always been concerned with questioning the division between ‘high art’ and popular/folk culture, perhaps in part due to his early friendship with Andy Warhol, who took him under his wing before Deller emerged as an artist in the 1990s.

Much of Deller’s work directly engages with communities and celebrates the beauty in the prolific, and the sublime creations of the humble craftsperson. The gesture of Sacrilege is typical of his approach to community involvement and reflects his overarching aim as an artist to truly engage communities through his work, highlighting idiosyncratic cultural traditions, rituals and the omnipresent influence of the past on society.

Well-known for his interactive installations, documentaries and live performance art, Deller’s recent retrospective at the Hayward Gallery has already plunged him into the limelight for 2012, and the GIFVA is now showcasing Sacrilege alongside the work of over 130 other prominent artists across the city of Glasgow. The piece will eventually be moved to London for the Olympic Games.

The Glasgow International Festival of Visual Arts runs until 7 May.

Rare peek behind the scenes at the historical Bank of England

Since 1734, the Bank of England has stood loftily at its Threadneedle Street site in central London, and its internal operations have remained somewhat enigmatic ever since. Its design was put into the capable hands of one of England’s most famous architects, Sir John Soane as the Bank’s designated architect and surveyor, and became his almost life-long, 45-year project from 1788 until his retirement in 1833.

Extending the site from a puny 80 feet wide by 300 feet long to a more befitting 3.5 acres, sealed with an imposing, windowless wall, Soane’s slowly perfected creation was lamentably demolished in 1925 and replaced with a new, ten-storey construction by architect Sir Herbert Baker. Although different, its latter-day silhouette has lost none of its formidable mystery. Testament to its allure is the fact that in recent years the veil has been annually lifted to the public, as the Bank allows visitors to explore a close look behind the scenes free of charge. The Open Door and Open House events enable curious minds to be satiated with rare sights of the Bank’s interior architecture, and visit the rooms in which some of the UK’s most significant financial decisions are made.

Founded in 1694 as only the second of its kind in the world, the Bank of England was originally set up as the Government’s banker and debt-manager, and now manages the nation’s currency as the centre of the UK’s financial system. While it is far from being a pride-inducing landmark of the British economy in the present climate, its inner workings are well worth a look on a purely architectural – not to mention cultural and historical – level. The Garden Court with its symbolic mulberry trees will also be revealed, as will the merchant-forecasting wind-dial of the Court Room.

The opening dates, on two Saturdays in June (23rd and 30th) and over a weekend in September (22nd-23rd), coincide with an exhibition entitled ‘Gold and the Bank of England’, revealing an anecdotal documentation of the role of gold in the Bank’s more than 300-year history.

Lisson Gallery hosts Weiwei’s first solo show in Italy

A year after his mysterious 81-day detention by Chinese police, Ai Weiwei performed a personal human rights protest earlier this month with an ironical video project entitled ‘weiweicam’. The operation, which involved four cameras keeping surveillance over his daily activities and broadcasting them on the internet, was forced to shut down 46 hours later, leaving nothing but a blank white holding page. Recognised internationally for his art and lauded as something of a heroic political figure, the great polymath’s influential power is immense, and he is listed among China’s most controversial individuals. He is currently in the midst of a suing battle with the Beijing tax authorities for their alleged violation of the law in use against him.

Ai Weiwei, Bubble, 2008, Porcelain, Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery

All the while, his work sits silently in the Lisson Gallery in Milan, his first solo exhibition in Italy – a disparity that highlights the extraordinary contrast between the art and the socio-cultural implications surrounding the artist.

The exhibition focuses on his ceramic and marble pieces created in Jingdezhen, a region known for its ancient – and continuing – practice of earthenware manufacturing, employing traditional methods appropriate to the respective materials. In this way the artist conflates the comfortable accessibility of conservative techniques with challenging conceptual undertones, as is typical of his approach. It is here perhaps most abundantly apparent in Oil Spill (2006), a series of gleaming obsidian puddles that, in their formal allure, simultaneously invite admiration and abhorrence.

Ai Weiwei, Lisson Gallery Milan, April 2012, Installation view, Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery

Also included are Weiwei’s handmade porcelain pieces – porcelain being traditionally regarded as the highest art form in China – and the notion of its superiority and value is something that the artist has consistently sought to challenge. Indeed, his work is deeply influenced by his specialist knowledge of Chinese antiques. But while many of his most famous works involve the destruction or manipulation of such valuable pieces, the works on display here are entirely original, handmade constructions based on these archaic designs and executed with moving sensitivity.

Ai Weiwei, Watermelon, 2006, Porcelain, Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery

The display includes a marble plate which Weiwei has carved into with exquisite detail, a serene blue pillar over two metres tall which stands in the gallery garden, and Ghost Gu, a piece forming part of a series of the artist’s studies of Yuan Period porcelain (1279-1368). Whereas stories would traditionally be painted in visual form on the pots’ exterior, Weiwei has literally inverted the technique by covering the interior of the vessels with intricate drawings. The symbolism can be extrapolated to the overall impression of peacefulness, harmony, even placidity in the exhibition, which stirs beneath the surface with murmurs of distemper.

The exhibition runs from April 12th – May 25th at the Lisson Gallery, Milan.

Resurrection of a dead art

Every photograph of Damien Hirst in recent newspapers has shown the expression of a man affronted by a surge of negative criticism, like that of a reprimanded dog. The defensive frown accompanies a plethora of articles about his ‘mid-career’ retrospective – essentially a tame shrine to the fleeting rise of his ‘90s ‘shock of the new’ art in the warm, safe and tourist-friendly environment of Tate Modern.

As this arts media-dominating show descends on London, Hirst has made the somewhat predictable revelation that he will be opening his very own gallery, Saatchi-style, in 2014. It will show off his impressive collection of work by artists far better than he will ever be, along with some who dwell alongside him in the district of cliched, everyman art, fit to adorn the walls of the rich and oblivious collector who see art as little more than a highly profitable commodity. The gallery, to be built in Vauxhall and designed by architects Caruso St John, will accommodate around 2,000 pieces and will take over an entire street.

As the hype storm gathers around these two momentous events, it is tragically needless to say that Hirst is no longer actually relevant as an artist – a figure at best faintly amusing and at worst deeply embarrassing – and the aggrandising exhibition paradoxically serves to emphasise the absurdity of his ostensible profession. The successful businessman has ceased to create anything significant since the mid-90s; even through his direction to a multitude of industrious employees, Hirst has only managed to re-hash the few pieces that ever had any indication of originality. Once a provocative young artist with a handful of good ideas, he still relies on those works that have now lost any remaining whiff of the subversion that was their main purpose during the golden age of the Young British Artists.

Anything he now (re)produces is doomed to exist in the category of materialism and brash superficiality; as Brian Sewell so acutely observes, ‘to own a Hirst is to tell the world your bathroom taps are gilded and your Rolls Royce is pink.’

Unlike their Modernist predecessors, there is no possibility for artists to be reactionary in the current artworld for the simple reason that there is nothing to react against. Everything is accepted, price-tagged and exhibited for fear of future humiliation when a once rejected artist starts to market, say, crystal-studded skulls for $100 million. And it seems that, upon finding that there was nothing left to react against, Hirst ran out of ideas pretty quickly.

Not forgetting of course his unleashing of ‘Nothing Matters’ in 2009, a series of oil paintings created, unusually, in his own hand. Latching onto Francis Bacon’s portrayal of the isolated figure in a vestigial living room defined by ghostly perimeters, powerfully and viscerally conveying the desolation and ultimate, godless wretchedness of the postwar human condition, Hirst’s public declaration of his admiration for the work of the great twentieth-century painter is executed in much the same way that a child demonstrates their love of helicopters: by drawing them, really, really badly.

While the Tate’s exhibition has effectively hammered the final nail into his coffin as an artist, Hirst continues to unabashedly pursue the life of a mercenary collector-businessman who sells souvenir ‘Spot Cufflinks’ on his own website. As the grinning, Cheshire-cat embodiment of the increasing absurdity of the economy of insecurity that fuels today’s artworld, he at least seems happy watching clueless millionaires fight over his mediocre wares, as he wallows contentedly in their residual swill.

New exhibition traces British design from the Austerity Games to the commercial conquest

 

Richard Hamilton - 'Just What Is It That Makes Today's Home So Different, So Appealing?', 1956.

Yesterday, the V&A opened a new exhibition that celebrates British design from 1948 to the present day. With the previous and upcoming Olympics in London as its two polar axes, British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age brings together over 300 objects that are not only brilliant in isolation but also as symbols of important stages in the trajectory of British culture. It is an indulgent celebration of the country’s achievements in design, fashion and art, which by no coincidence ties in neatly with the imminent opening of the 2012 Olympic Games, and the V&A state that the exhibition highlights ‘how the country continues to nurture artistic talent and be a world leader in creativity and design.’

The flux of any country’s social and political state is inevitably responded to through design, and the V&A breaks this acknowledgement down into three core eras: from the struggle between modernity and tradition, to the experimental movements and subversion through creativity in the fifties and sixties to the post-industrial innovation of today. Even the term ‘Britishness’ itself has shifted throughout this period, from its proud, patriotic, post-war meaning in 1948 – the year of the triumphantly optimistic ‘Austerity Games’, when rationing was still in force – to its nostalgic, at times superficial and increasingly anachronistic use in today’s globalised, post-internet Britain.

Shops are incessantly heaving with the nauseatingly twee appropriation of the ‘keep calm and carry on’ slogan and pre-distressed Union Jack flags, plastered onto as many domestic furnishings as possible with an emphasis more on light-hearted irony as patriotic candour. At the same time, an obsessive focus on branding and packageability has resulted in an infinite stream of widely accessible, palatable products that are often rendered more satisfying as marketed representations of desire for an object, than the object itself. It is perhaps worth noting that today’s consumers are far more inclined to spend money on decorative accessories for technological products such as the iPad or Kindle, than on the literary, musical or cinematic content which these products are ostensibly made to host.

Alastair Sooke’s passive remark in his review of this exhibition about the ‘unwelcome air’ of the inane branding that has washed over British design in recent years (thus ruining his charming experience) fails to pick up on the fundamental fact that this in itself is a symptom of British culture in its current, information-saturated state – made manifest in products – and is as important a reflection of today’s consciousness as Vivienne Westwood’s counter-culture fashion of the 1970s. Like it or not, we should be focusing on this as a prevalent cultural trend – another fascinating stage in the trajectory – rather than as an aesthetically displeasing, non-nostalgic reality that we’d prefer to sweep beneath the vintage Union Jack carpet.

Broken homes

Isolated in grey, context-less spaces, the subject of Ofra Lapid’s photographs at first appear to be pieces of crumbling architecture, Photoshopped out of their respective landscapes. Yet the series of wooden houses and barns are in fact miniature replicas of existing buildings that have fallen into pitiful disrepair.

They are made with precision and care by the Tel Aviv-based artist in response to the pictures of an amateur photographer from North Dakota, USA, whom she discovered during her search for material on the Internet. According to Lapid, the photographer obsessively documents the process of deterioration of these houses and shares them online. Using this primary source material, Lapid creates small-scale models of the unfortunate buildings before photographing them, creating a kind of magic mirror effect of endless repetition – a sense of infinity out of something that is approaching the end of its tangible life.

Whilst on one level the project seems willfully subversive – devoting hours to the construction of a deconstruction – the plain, grey backgrounds in which she places them, devoid of any earthly relevance, and the countless hours that must have been sacrificed in order to make them, lend to the buildings a new air of dignity and mystery.

The remote interaction between Lapid and her anonymous amateur photographer across the planet is characteristic of the exponentially expanding manipulation of the virtual landscape of the Internet – as a tool and cultural device – and the appropriation of found online images in the paradigm of contemporary art. Yet at the same time her approach unites the instantaneous gratification of the Internet with the ancient traditions of time-consuming, painstaking craft and technical skill; it is in her own words, a bid to ‘humanise the computer’.

Alongside the Broken Houses, the artist has applied the method of extracting elements from photographs, rebuilding them and photographing them once more to a range of themes, including the interiors of empty movie theatres and modernist architecture. It will be interesting to see how this curiously dichotomous method will manifest itself next in Lapid’s work.

Nowhereisland

In 2004, photographer Alex Hartley discovered a floating island in the High Arctic region of Svalbard, revealed by the melting ice of a retreating glacier. As the first ever human being to set foot on this piece of land, the artist ensured its registration on all maps and charts that have subsequently been produced. But upon his return to the island in September last year, with authorisation from the Norwegian government he had the official territory removed, and began to sail the island through the seas towards England, as a new nation in its own right. Applications to become a citizen of Nowhereisland are open to all through an online process, and over 5,000 people have registered so far.

With Hartley steering its way through a sequence of new domains, Nowhereisland is headed towards England and is due to arrive off the south west coast this summer, voyaging from the Jurassic Coast to the Bristol Channel over a period of six weeks. It will be accompanied by the Nowhereisland Embassy, a mobile museum which tracks its remarkable journey.

Hartley’s work has previously focused on altering perspectives of architecture and the built and natural environment, but this project stands apart as a groundbreaking venture, encompassing wide-reaching political and socio-geographical issues; in fact, Nowhereisland’s impending arrival has become a catalyst for critical international discussion.

Raising polemic issues about citizenship, land ownership and national identity, as well as the imminent environmental topic of climate change, Hartley’s nomadic embarkation has sparked debates and activities centred around this unprecedented set of circumstances and the notion of digital democracy, including a site dedicated to ‘Letters to Nowhereisland’ from eminent thinkers from around the world.

“It is also an exploration of the romantic and problematic notion of the pioneer or explorer, and our poetic idealised relationship with island landscape,” states the artist; the poignancy of which is alloyed with the fact that 2012 is the centenary of Captain Scott’s intrepid yet doomed journey to the South Pole. Nowhereisland was a winning proposal for the Artists Taking the Lead project as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and will be one of 12 projects taking place around the United Kingdom.

Arcane architecture: The unceasing influence of Nicholas Hawksmoor

 

St Lukes Islington

350 years after his birth, Nicholas Hawksmoor is the focus of a new exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, which attempts to trace the architect’s posthumous impact on British artists, architects and writers.

In the late seventeenth century, the young Hawksmoor studied under Sir Christopher Wren with whom he worked on projects including Chelsea Hospital, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and Greenwich Hospital, and by about 1700 he had become recognised as an eminent figure of the English Baroque. However, his interpretation of the prevalent style was imbued with influences derived from his own research; from the decadent monuments of Antiquity and its Renaissance, to the mysticism of the Middle Ages.

Many of his own projects were sadly never realised, such as the financially doomed project for Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and his design for the west towers of Westminster Abbey was only executed after his death in 1736.

Easton Neston

His legacy would be ecclesiastical. As part of an act passed by parliament to build 50 new churches in and around London in 1711, Hawksmoor designed six churches and a further two in collaboration with his co-surveyor, John James. Only twelve of the initially proposed fifty were ever completed, thus his designs constituted half of the entire series.

These six churches have come to be synonymous with Hawksmoor’s extraordinary vision and confident injection of anomalous architectural signifiers of other ages; his own designs merge otherworldly Gothic with the elegant regularity of Classical design, while his obelisk spires and comet-shaped weather vane remain the presiding features of the collaborative work between Hawksmoor and his more conformist contemporary, James.

Yet today Hawksmoor’s churches are perhaps most well known for their retrospective association with the occult. In 1975, poet Iain Sinclair published Nicholas Hawksmoor: His Churches, claiming that the pattern of the architect’s designs – geographically forming a pentagram – are indicative of Theistic Satanism; a notion that was elucidated upon in a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell that contentiously suggested Jack the Ripper performed human sacrifice in Hawksmoor’s buildings as part of a preternatural experiment.

This preoccupation with Hawksmoor has emerged in the work of artists and writers throughout and beyond the twentieth century; referred to in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938), and forming the axis of Peter Ackroyd’s postmodern novel, Hawksmoor (1985), to name but a few. Piecing together such relics of the architect’s lingering presence, the Royal Academy’s original form of tribute, Nicholas Hawksmoor: Architect of the Imagination shows how Hawksmoor has continued to permeate Britain’s cultural sphere beyond the grave.

Paper architecture

When the recession began to loom over Western society four years ago, the realms of art and design reacted with a return to the instinctual and homemade. Primitive techniques and a contemplative rejection of our increasing reliance on digital technology created a shift in paradigm that reflected our changing priorities. Part of this trend was the sudden, ubiquitous exploration of such a rudimentary material as paper, using intuitive craft skills and a great deal of patience to create incredibly intricate pieces of work. Yet Dutch architect and artist Ingrid Siliakus has been quietly operating in this vein since the 1980s.

Inspired by her tutor, Japanese architect Professor Masahiro Chatani, who was the originator of this specific art form, Siliakus began making complex replicas of existing pieces of architecture with the simple tools of scissors and paper, after years of studying the technique. The artist says: “Working with paper forces me to be humble, since this medium has a character of its own that asks for cooperation… Working with paper the way I do, namely by means of cutting and folding to create paper sculptures, asks of me to work with meditative precision. Paper architecture does not bare haste…”

Paper was for thousands of years the primary medium for artists, and it seems that no amount of technological progression will ever completely halt its creative use. A plethora of other contemporary designers with extraordinary skill, notably Jen Stark and Noriko Ambe have embraced the medium in recent years. But for Siliakus, it has and always will be indispensable to her practice. At least twenty prototypes are made before the artist begins work on the final piece – a slow, careful, meditative process that seems to assimilate traditional Eastern values. Earning her a place as a finalist in the Dutch Design Awards 2009, Siliakus’ work is indicative of the timeless axiom, ‘good things come to those who wait.’