A Very One Sided Conversation

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I’ve had a busy time lately with various things, but mainly work. People say that the end of the outdoor event season is September, but they lie – it never ends. And actually October until the on-site chaos begins again (usually April for me) can be the most difficult time. Not like in the summer, when your every waking minute is taken up by running around various sites, checking over enormous bundles of documents dropped off at the last minute, or finding various props/ instruments/ costumes that have vanished or never existed, but through evaluation, and then putting the lessons learned into practice.

I’m currently too deep into the planning chasm to see the light at the end of it, so I’m going to talk about feedback and reviews – those one sided conversations where you are silent and at the mercy of those who can speak.

I give feedback at work on a lot of different events – both my own and other people’s. The way that both are evaluated is within a strict set of frameworks that have been created by looking at various studies and reports on events and evaluating them. They are based on elements like attendance, health and safety and delivering within budget.

For the free and participatory events that I run we have evaluation forms for the public to fill in. I use these on the majority of the events, but not all of them – sometimes it’s detrimental. If you’re at a carnival then I don’t think you want someone waggling a clipboard in your face asking for your postcode and to rate your enjoyment between one and five.

Even with evaluation forms it’s difficult to gather real feedback about what your attendees actually think, what they want and to give you some kind of direction for what you could put on that would really make them feel great about themselves and the area. How can someone tell you what would really be unexpected and surprise them? It’s that forward thinking thing that’s hard to gather with a form. You can have focus groups with members of the community, but these are expensive to hold as you need to have them run by external companies to avoid bias and have meaningful results.

Then there is the other type of gathering feedback – the spy technique. This can be done in a couple of different ways. I tend to take off my lanyard and high viz, of glittery feathered head dress, and take a walk round the event site listening to what people are saying on the ground. If you’re having a series of events you can also ask people at one event if they have attended a previous one and what they thought about it, or if they are planning to come to another one. This can be a difficult thing to do as the responses that you are getting are going to be completely honest – maybe brutally so. Have a thick skin before doing this. Even if you don’t attempt an undercover mission, it’s so important to be onsite and speaking to your audience.

I have friends that work in theatre and know of producers and directors that place themselves in the audience or in the theatre bar to listen to what people say about the production. Curators do it for exhibitions, I’m sure some brave artists do it too, wandering around sales and shows listening to what people say.

The majority of the time it is an absolute joy. On my evaluation sheets I have a section for volunteers and other staff to complete called ‘Memorable and Magical Moments’ – I am so not a cheesy person but actually, this is exactly the best way to describe those ultimate highlights when working with members of the public in this way.

But the really difficult thing is that you generally are the silent party in this one-sided conversation. Anything can happen before or during your event or show that can have an impact on it, but it’s your job to carry on and do everything that you can despite whatever may have happened. You usually can’t tell members of the public what’s been happening behind the scenes, and even if you can then they don’t care that none of your volunteers turned up, that your band left the tuba on the roof of the van, or that the porta-loo company was stuck on the M25 for two days so the driver had to drink all the anti-bac gel. You can’t write it on a banner as people enter – sorry this isn’t 100% the event that I wanted it to be but it’s the best that I can do, sorry this isn’t exactly the event that you expected but it’s what I thought that you would want, sorry this isn’t exactly the same as a show that you would see in the West End but its full of heart and we thought it would work for the majority of our audience. Another one I’ve had quite a lot is people complaining that I’m putting on a free event in the park they normally walk their dog in – I’m not sorry about that.

So what do you do with your feedback if you’ve had an unforeseen bit of bad luck? How do you respond to it? Do you put that banner up across the entrance? Put a slip in the programme? Write to the critics? Put an explanation on social media?

Or does the show just go on?

Of course it does

Jealousy

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From blissfulvida

Work jealousy is not a new thing and I don’t think for one second that I am writing anything ground breaking by discussing it. I’m jealous of so many of my of my friends in non-artsy jobs for so many reasons; they get free clothes, free meals out, their commute is a twice daily delight, they get business cards, their chair is orthopaedic and no one steals their pens/hand cream, Barbara and Bob bring in a selection of Mary Berry rivalling home bakes each week. You get the idea.

The thing that I am generally jealous of is people who can leave work at work. I can do it in the sense that I don’t go to the pub with friends and spout several hours monologue about everything that’s going on and exactly what that means. I barely understand my job, and I don’t think anyone else does either, and in all honesty they probably do not care. Even when I have out of office excursions with people from work I try to steer clear of the subject. But a big old chunk of my mind is definitely still sitting at my desk and howling over a spread sheet. Recently I’ve been trying to do work related things outside of work to see if this will tempt the chunk of brain to leave the office with me. At the moment I think it’s working, but I don’t know if it’s sustainable to keep trying to get my friends to go and see interpretive modern circus performances with me after work.

Work jealousy amongst artsy jobs is a whole different game altogether. As with non-artsy jobs, it centres a lot on money and resources. But with the difference that, rather than generally focusing on income and wages, in my opinion it targets more on budgets and what freedom and support come with them. Also the regularity of the money, is it annual from the local authority/Arts Council, are they scraping by from project to project, and how many strings come attached to it, is there much point in getting the money if the person holding the purse-strings doesn’t give you your head to take the institution, collections and programme forward and explore what they can do.

Staffing is always a big one too. At networking events and the like you hear snatches of conversations, ‘Of course they can do that, they have a full time conservator’, ‘Maybe we would have time to do more outreach if we didn’t have to do all of the admin’, ‘Well we could take on a rolling programme of apprentices if we had some kind of co-ordinator’, ‘Maybe we would have hit target this year if I had time to do my actual job’, ‘I’m sure we wouldn’t have to work this hard for visitor numbers if we had the Rosetta Stone’. There are more pointed ones than this as you can imagine. There are also a lot of differences that I’ve found working throughout the UK in various institutions; jealousy towards London, jealousy towards those who don’t have as many tourist visitors and therefore can work closely to the specifications of the local people and their needs, and the demand for funding is usually lower. It varies. Sometimes the jealousy is completely founded. I know of positions that would be mandatory in the majority of institutions, but in some the person has to bid for their wage and the existence of that very role year on year.

Job jealousy is more than just being jealous of the perks of someone else’s job. Breaking into the arts sector can be more difficult than breaking out of Alcatraz for so many people. Although I found the museum sector a cold and unrelenting mistress and so ran into the arms of multi art form events (I still haven’t come across a better or more enlightening phrase, suggestions on the back of a postcard please), I still feel a pang whenever I speak to someone I know who works in a museum or heritage institution. I mean I have a friend who works in a castle (you know who you are). A castle! Come on! I want to work in a bloody castle!

When I thought about writing this blog none of the above was planned to feature, it was supposed to focus on things. But now that I’ve written 700 words (thank you for sticking with me) about general work jealousy it makes my initial material jealousy seem quite frivolous. Yes I’m still jealous that we don’t have a royal park or specific event police, yes I’m still jealous that your historic house is open seven days a week all year round, yes I’m still jealous that your theatre has over ten members of full time staff and your patron is bosom buddies with everyone worth knowing. But in actual fact I’m glad of my challenge, I’m glad that I have a job and I’m pushed every single day, I’m happy that the majority of people I’ve worked with are passionate about what they do. I would still like the Rosetta Stone though…

British Museum

British Museum

Taking Things For Grant-ed

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If there is one word that strikes fear and dread into the heart of anyone working in the arts it is ‘funding’. It’s a word that can encompass both infinite possibilities and the absolute desolation of a project. Although there are obviously other factors involved, funding is the ultimate yes or no. Whether you get all, some, or nothing, funding shapes your work immeasurably.

My work with funding has been quite limited in a certain sense as I haven’t been in the industry for long enough to have experience applying to a lot of different pots of funding, but also wide in others as every project I have been involved in has required funding. Therefore I cannot talk about all aspects of funding, but will give you an overview of what I have learnt.

In order to give us an idea of what it is like from the other side I will interview Jane Moore, an artist who has successfully crowd funded her recent Sketch A Day project – go and check it out.

In-Kind Support

Often the easiest way to get a person or institution to support your project is to suggest to them the possibility (tone is everything) of in-kind support. This means that no money exchanges hands, but a service or something that helps your project is given free of charge. Examples of this that I have experienced are having a venue provided free of charge, catering put on for meeting or a sponsors reception, and certain items of infrastructure like marquees and changing rooms being provided for an event.

In-kind support can also include marketing support, for example a larger company or institution can promote your event or project to their larger database so that you get a higher level of awareness or attendance for your project.  This can be a really important tool for you to make use of, tailor your marketing materials to the expected audience of this company and make the most of all of the platforms that they will allow. Suggest times that prove the most effective for them to release the marketing to their subscribers and make the experience as easy and pleasurable for this company as possible.

A really important tool in this kind of funding is to build relationships with these companies or institution. If this is managed well then you can find yourself in the situation where that company is coming to you and asking what you are putting on and developing a continuing relationship.

Although these aren’t necessarily make or break factors for a project, they are incredibly helpful none the less. In-kind support is so much easier for people to give you and therefore can be the most dependable. However, as it is easier to give away than money, sometimes people do not see the need to write a letter of agreement or contract for services agreed. Therefore it is easy for people to ‘forget’ or, if your contact moves on from that company, then it can be difficult to get other employees to honour their promises. Therefore it is always useful to get a letter of agreement in place, especially for larger pieces of in-kind support such as venue hire. Failing this have a strong email trail.

Personal Support

When I use the term ‘personal funding’ I don’t necessarily mean funding from individuals. It’s more a way of creating ambassadors for your project and getting funding through this.

The most obvious way to think of this is as individual giving. It can be difficult to ascertain how to go about this and it can be a long process. By looking at your repeat visitors or those who are most interested in what you are doing, you can foster channels that make them feel more involved in what you are doing. Invite them to workshops, rehearsals, viewings etc. Through feeling involved in all aspects of the project you have more of a chance of people wanting to see it grow. And an easy way for this to happen is to add more money to its pot. Personal giving is not all about taking rich people to fancy dinners (although this is an effective way for certain institutions); if you don’t have the money to put into the project then it is unlikely you have it for dinner at the Ritz.

The elements of personal giving can also be applied to businesses that have money to give. A lot of larger companies want to give to local charities or projects – make the most of this. Look for large companies in your area, tell them about what you are doing and how they can help, offer them publicity through it, tell them about the good things that you are doing in the community. Find the relevant individual in that company and go and meet with them, talk to them about what you are doing and make them engage with it. Create ambassadors for your project who can influence the people who control the money. Be aware with this type of funding that there may be constraints, you may have to add in or alter certain aspects of your project to fit in with the companies priorities but this should never take away from or change your project. This money should be supporting what you do, not taking away from it.

If you are successful in getting funding then build on this relationship and keep the company and individual involved and up to date with what you are doing all year round. This style of funding is not usually a short term fix, sometimes a company will want to see a year’s worth of your work before they make a decision. So invite people to see how you work and what you do, make yourself visible and make everything you do look worthwhile and full of scope that they can help you achieve. It may be a longer process than you first imagine but be patient with it.

Grants

Ah grants. Grants, grants, grants. Grants.

I’m not sure if grants and I are really friends at the moment.

I won’t say that much about grants because the best advice that you can get is from the place that you are applying to. The main thing is to be pure in the writing of your applications – by this I mean do not stray away from the true meaning of the project you are applying for. Don’t fuss and faff. Know your project inside and out and know exactly what you want, why you want to do it and how the funding will make this possible and how without it the project would not be possible. If you are invited to an interview then make sure you are fully prepared, know your budget inside out and be ready for them to pick apart everything you have so lovingly and passionately put together. Remember that when it comes to grants it is a business situation rather than a creative artsy meeting about how fabulous everything is going to be. But also make sure to mention the fabulous.

Read through the guidance. Know the company that is funding you and their priorities and the priorities of that funding pot. Make sure that you are applying to the right fund with the right project.

As a final thing on grants – don’t be disheartened, take on feedback and learn from it, apply to multiple pots in the likelihood that some will fall through.

Jane Moore

And now I’ll hand over to Jane who can tell us a bit about funding from the other side being an artist and her most recent project a Sketch A Day.

foxtrotLauren

Can you give us a bit of an introduction to you and your work as an artist?

I am a Belfast born artist and studied Fine Art before moving to London to embark upon a degree in Fashion Promotion and Illustration, graduating from the University College for the Creative Arts (UCA).

Since graduating I have been working as a freelance illustrator and storyboard artist in the Advertising, Commercial, Marketing, Fashion and Publishing industries. I have been fortunate to have worked with clients such as Beats by Dre, RSA Films, i-D magazine, Douwe Egberts, The BFI, The National Portrait Gallery, Barbican and The Royal Academy of Arts. To see examples of my illustration and storyboarding work please visit inkodyssey.com

What is the story behind the Sketch A Day project?

The Sketch A Day project is the product of a New Year’s resolution I set myself in January 2014, to draw a sketch every day. Every year I make a New Year’s Resolution and I usually stick to them until about March. They normally consist of giving up chocolate or starting a new sport! I decided to make a New Year’s Resolution that I knew I would be dedicated to. One that I knew I would love and throw myself into, and that was to keep a Sketch A Day journal.

To celebrate the completion of the Sketch A day Project the innovative arts venue, Shapes in Hackney Wick, London will house all 365 individual mounted and framed sketches. To compliment the drawings, there will be an eclectic line up of live music from folk and classical to dreamy pop and Spanish guitar!

Alongside the exhibition I will also be running drawing workshops for school groups based in and around London. Pupils will get the opportunity to work alongside me drawing from costumed life models and creating their own Sketch A Day journal!

How did you go about funding it? And what was your experience in doing so?

I decided around mid-way into the project that I would celebrate the end of the Sketch A Day with a exhibition of all the 365 drawings. I also wanted to a self-publish a book of all the drawings and knew I would need to raise quite a large sum to fund both.

I decided I would use crowd-funding as a means to fund the project after talking to a few friends who ran their own successful projects and having backed a few myself.  I did a lot of homework, joined crowd-funding forums to get advice and used it as a means to sell the artwork in advance along with other merchandise. That way the exhibition would be self-funding. I used Kickstarter as it is the most know for creative projects and the experience. The project received a huge response and I went over my target by 1.5k. It is a full-time job and in order for the project to be a success you really need to research well before you launch and put in the hours on social media and marketing. Getting the project out there in it’s early days and before you launch is key. It is also a good idea to look at other similar crowd-funding projects to yours.

Can you talk to us about any of your other experiences with funding projects?

This was my first crowd-funding project and the Sketch A Day Project 2014 is my first solo exhibition so funding art projects is relatively new to me. I am continuing the Sketch A Day Project into 2015 and now looking at other means to fund this project through art and new business grants etc. Selling artwork in advance is a great method you just have to hope for patient buyers!

For more information on the project and exhibition please visit www.sketchadayproject.com and the Facebook fan page https://www.facebook.com/sketchadayproject

The exhibition opening night is on the 22nd of Jan 2015 from 6pm with an evening of live music and runs until the 28th of Jan at Shapes, 117 Wallis Road, Hackney Wick, London, E9 5LN

Theft

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Art theft is something more commonly associated with blockbuster Hollywood films where people in ninja suits bypass green lasers and a beautiful but troubled man and woman somehow find each other and inappropriately fall in love whilst stealing/ recovering the multimillion pound artwork or artefact.

In real life this is never what happens. There is no glamour around art theft. It is never just a theft from a gallery or even a government, it is a theft from us all. Those artworks taken from public display are likely to never be seen again.

There are not super villains working alone, sat at home stroking their hairless cats wishing to have a Modigliani on their walls. These thefts are usually linked to other large scale and highly organised international criminal organisations. Where artwork thefts have been recovered they are usually found with drugs, illegal weapons, prostitution and human trafficking. In his 2011 book, Sandy Nairne estimates that the market for stolen art and artefacts is worth over $5 billion annually. It is estimated that every year 50,000 – 100,000 artworks are stolen worldwide. There are huge and well publicised art thefts, like those by the Nazis and the $500 million art theft from the Isabella Gardner Museum in 1990. But with this volume of pieces going missing each year and minuscule workforces to counteract it, it is impossible to fully investigate each occurrence. It is also estimated that around 20% of those artworks stolen are then destroyed; a shameful waste.

Art theft is often called a victimless crime. Although the loss of the paintings of these long dead artists is a travesty, there is no future effect on their work. The thefts add a story to the pieces, but not to the lives of the artists. To those artists whose work is stolen from under their noses the effect can be catastrophic. The senseless loss of a piece can set an artist’s work back years. The lack of respect shown by the thieves for the work of the artist can be damaging to them both personally and professionally.

I have the honour of working with fantastic emerging and professional artists in my freelance role as Arts Coordinator for the Winter Pride UK Arts Award. It is a wonderful, open and welcoming event, where the work of the awards finalists and the featured artists for that year are displayed together. The atmosphere at the awards is not competitive, but rather one of sharing, enjoying and learning about the work of other artists. I was shocked and disgusted to find out that during the event three men had walked into the display space and stolen the work of two emerging artists.

I won’t go into the details of why these artworks were so special and had such personal significance to the artists. Each work for an artist is a stepping stone onto the next, and to have some of the building blocks of your career and your creativity stolen must be a difficult thing to overcome. That is why it is so important that we get these artworks back. If we cannot then for the artists it must become a chapter in the story of their artistic careers, but not the final chapter.

URGENT: Appeal to recover STOLEN ARTWORKS from WINTER PRIDE – PLEASE HELP

On 15/11/14 eight artworks by artists Jane Moore (http://www.sketchadayproject.com/) and Eleanor Pearce (http://www.eleanorpearce.co.uk/) were stolen off the exhibition wall of the ‘John Sizzle and A Man to Pet Cabaret Room’ (Great Gallery upstairs) at Tobacco Dock during the Winter Pride Art Awards 2014.
3 men were seen removing the artworks probably between 2-3am, including:
– One man dressed all in black.
– One man 30-45 years old approx. 5’9″ bald with thick rimmed glasses.
The artists are devastated so please share this message across all your social media networks and email info@simontarrant.com if you can help with any information.
Please help us recover these artworks, we just want to get them back to Jane and Eleanor.
Many thanks,
Winter Pride

The Constant Bloom by Eleanor Pearceself-portraitBrendonfoxtrotLaurenAndrogeny 2Androgeny 3Androgeny

Difficult Questions

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Does it take a difficult person to ask a difficult question?

I personally don’t think I’m difficult (discuss), but I don’t shy away from asking something that’s on my mind when visiting cultural institutions. In fact, I’d say that is what they are there for. Whilst I have previously used this blog to talk about museums tackling culturally and socially difficult subject matter (The Schwules Museum, World War What and others), this is more about the question an exhibition, object or piece of work poses for you personally. I’m going to focus on art as it has prompted the most recent examples of difficult questions I have encountered.

A month or so ago I visited the Baltic Art Gallery in Gateshead. I was joined by someone who has a super creative arty job (hence the good photography for once) but in a very different way from my own working life. Although an art fan, I wouldn’t say he is a frequent gallery visitor. As modern art is famous for doing, we had a few split opinions about the exhibitions on the lower floors, but it was the Daniel Buren exhibition at the top that we were both most interested in seeing.

We worked our way up the galleries from the bottom floor and came to a collection of Buren’s existing artworks made for previous exhibitions. The accompanying interpretation panel did more to confuse than inform as it spoke of the influence situation had on Buren’s art, how everything he created was to reflect specific surroundings in form, texture and colour. As we walked around the lower gallery I became more and more confused, the accompanying information panel spoke almost exclusively of response to specific surroundings, and yet here we were, seeing the artworks out of situ and not being given any idea of the original location.

Sidling up to two gallery assistants, I asked the one closest about the lack of context to the work on that floor and how I did not understand the prerogative behind this section of the display. As I have been a gallery invigilator before I understand that questions from the public are often the most difficult part of the job, but I wasn’t expecting the blank look of fear that I received as a response. Luckily the other invigilator knew what she was talking about in terms of the artist and exhibition, but still didn’t have the answer to my question. The only solution that we could both come to was that the lower floor provided some kind of context of previous work. But the point of this was beyond us both.

The real draw were the pieces commissioned for the front glass face and top floor of the Baltic. As we walked into the upper floor I realised that the interpretation panels on both floors were exactly the same. I understand the need for continuity, but for this type of display you need two different sets of information to reflect what you are viewing. And, my life, what you are viewing on the top floor is stunning. It is impossible for the pictures to show the elegance of the patterns and the way they move and develop or fade in intensity as the light from outside shifts and changes. The use of mirrors turned what could have just felt like a colourful greenhouse into an immersive experience where you can see the effect of the differing light on your own reflection. They also provided a platform for interaction, as there were a lot of people using them to take photographs. A time lapse video on the viewing platform above allowed you to see how the gallery changes throughout the day.

Photo: A Different Ilk

Photo: A Different Ilk

The commission for the front of the Baltic extends to the top floor, so as we sat bathed in coloured light with our very boozy cocktails after a soaking our fill of the floors below, I thought about the difference between our experiences. I would say that I’m a content driven audience; I like to have something more than just a pretty picture to look at. If a piece or the artist has a story or an explanation then it adds so much more to my enjoyment. I wouldn’t describe myself so much as a visual person, whereas my companion, without question, is. This means that I am probably more likely to wander off hounding poor gallery assistants with questions I know have no answer, purely because I need to discuss what issues the exhibition poses to me. Yet when we got to that top floor and the light was pouring into the room turning everything around it into something precious, my visitor’s instinct changed. I had no more questions because, as my companion has since said, ‘it used the space like the artist intended’. It made sense.

BALTIC top floor

Photo: A Different Ilk

The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

Free

Ends: 12 October, 2014

 

A few weeks later I was back in the North East and flying solo on a visit to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle. I had specifically come to see ‘All That Is Solid Melts Into Air’, curated (or ‘compiled’) by Jeremy Deller. The exhibition focuses on the cultural repercussions of the Industrial Revolution in the UK but continues up to present day. I had missed seeing it on display in Manchester as I understandably got caught up in Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ (which are now on show in Leeds, GO!) When I finally got to see it I was surprised by, not only the amount of pieces on display, but also the breadth of information about the topic and time period.

The exhibition constantly questioned our knowledge and expectations through its content and layout. But never are we straightforwardly asked anything. Through the use of the family trees of the well known figures from industrial areas, like Brian Ferry and Shaun Ryder, we are asked to consider the almost identical professions shown up until the celebrity themselves. Are we shocked by this? Did we expect it? What does that mean with regards to the shift in society at that time? What does it say about society now?

We are shown internal advertisements for job satisfaction and appreciation at Amazon’s UK distribution warehouse which strikingly juxtaposed with the information about how many of their workers are on zero hour contracts. On display there is a large Miner’s Gala – style banner emblazoned with the words ‘Hello, today you have day off.’ This is the exact wording of the text message received by zero hour contract workers when they are not to go to work that day. How are we supposed to feel about a firm as large as Amazon having this relationship with its workers? There is a jarring contrast between this and the previous section of the exhibition where we are told about the struggles and demonstrations in the nineteenth century to limit working hours. Would we prefer to have to work six days a week, or face the possibility of not working at all?

As an artist, Deller himself is a question. His methods are often questioned and even the very nature of what he does is not considered art by some. In this exhibition I found his gathering of works, film, sound and stories and then ordering them into an exhibition much like a painter choosing colour, medium, subject and size for a painting. The collection itself becomes the expression of one cohesive artwork.

The Laing Art Gallery

Free

Ends: 26 October, 2014

National Portrait Gallery

It’s not just gallery staff and exhibitions that can pose difficult questions; sometimes it’s the people that you visit with that can spring things out of the blue when you least expect it. I was at the National Portrait Gallery the other night with someone who claims he ‘knows nothing about art’. It had been my idea to go as I am almost religious in the belief that everyone should go and see this year’s BP Portrait Award exhibition. We wandered round and went to the Ealing Creative Connections exhibition talk and then headed over to the BP award. We had a general chat about all of the paintings and what we liked and what we didn’t like. Over dinner later that evening my friend confessed that the moment we had left the gallery he had heaved a sigh of relief. Knowing my background working in museums and galleries he assumed the visit would be a thorough examination of everything art related and that he would end up looking stupid. He then followed this up by firing various famous pieces of modern art and demanded to know my opinions of them. Having had a couple of glasses of wine my mind wasn’t working particularly quickly or well and my answers were basic to say the least. And yet as a frequent gallery goer my shaky opinions seemed to be taken as gospel, despite my protestations otherwise. Be warned, there is a time and a place for questions.

The National Portrait Gallery

Free

Ends: 21 September, 2014

 

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No questions necessary.

Rock on Top of Another Rock

The Serpentine Gallery

Free

World War What

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Let’s talk about art and history. And how, if at all, it’s possible to create an exhibition that uses one to explore the other. I’ll be talking specifically about the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘The Great War in Portraits’ exhibition.

Expect for the next four years of your cultural life to be highly influenced by the centenary of WWI. It’s already started to take over TV and radio, dance, theatre, libraries, concerts, and of course museums and galleries.

‘The Great War in Portraits’ is my first, and undoubtedly not my last, foray into the world of WWI exhibitions.  I did not go without some reservations. I am not really one for war exhibits or museums and I have a problem with how some people and organisations seem to be using the centenary to ‘celebrate’ the war. For me war of any description should never be celebrated; it is a terrible thing and there is no grey area surrounding that. I am not naive enough to think that nothing good has ever come from war; I am thankful for the medical advances and all of the other breakthroughs, so don’t stop reading and assume that I am some kind of naive idealist blinkered from the realities of life. This centenary should be used as an occasion for us all to remember what has gone before and through that make sure that it never happens again.

So one Sunday I decided to pop along and see what the National Portrait Gallery was putting up as its initial offering to the Great War commemorations. I like the gallery as a whole and had heard good things about the exhibition so I thought why not, if it annoyed me with endless portraits of moustached generals surrounded by pomp and circumstance I could always pop next door and do the National Gallery’s quick tour of paintings with scenes from Greek myths (I can’t find the exact link but the tour can be printed off) – what more could a girl want?

I arrived in Trafalgar Square and soon realised I had made an enormous mistake. The roads were closed, there were more people there than outside Selfridges at 6am on Boxing Day, and a alarmingly large number of people were wearing onsies. It was then that I noticed that I couldn’t see more than three feet in front of me because feathers filled the air.

National Gallery

Living under a rock as I apparently do I had failed to know that it was International Pillow Fight Day, my crappy picture doesn’t do the chaos justice but needless to say it slightly hindered me getting into the gallery. So by the time I did through the back entrance and covered in feathers, I was pretty dishevelled and in need of sanctuary. I didn’t get it once inside. London weekend gallery goers are a pushy bunch, but finally I managed to battle my way to the beginning of the exhibition and was immediately reassured that my struggle had not been in vain.

Rock Drill Torso

The first thing that you see as you enter is the torso from ‘The Rock Drill’ (above) by Sir Jacob Epstein. Even if you have no prior knowledge of the piece, its harsh disfiguring of the male form cast in metal is a striking symbol of what is to come in the exhibition. The interpretation that accompanies the piece tells us about its journey from original creation to what is presented before us. ‘The Rock Drill’ was created in 1913 and was originally a large full male figure atop a rock drill (below). The arrogance, power and aggression of the piece is prominent, there is little or no softness and subtlety to its character. The harsh armour-style casing forged from gun-metal imposing strength and dominance. In 1915, after Epstein’s experiences of the First World War, he turned the violence he had witnessed against his own artwork and dismantled it to the piece we see before us at the opening of ‘The Great War in Portraits’. The current piece, re-captioned The Torso from ‘The Rock Drill’, is a shadow of the original. The removal of the legs and mutilation of the arms, as well as the rock drill on which it sat take away more than just the physical presence of the statue. The total sum of the parts removed adds much more in symbolism and provides a narrative of society during and after the war years.  They show Epstein’s personal anger and also his feelings of hurt and vulnerability. As a viewer of the piece, for me ultimately Epstein is showing a wound in society that he believed could not heal. That part of humanity had gone and could not come back. The original statue of ‘The Rock Drill’ was an imposing three metres tall; currently it stands at less than a metre. Has society re-grown? Or are we still more than halved by earlier actions?

The exhibition is split into numbered sections which makes it easier to navigate, but also very difficult at busy times to get to read each section’s main introduction panel as you have to follow the crowd. In fact all of the panels were difficult to read, but I am going to put that down to the number of people visiting rather than the placement. As a rule the text was informative, well written and as good a size as it can be in a small temporary exhibition. The sections covered a broad, but not too broad, range of topics that ran in a sensible almost chronological order, ranging from outlining some of the reasons behind the war through the royalty at the time, to long term injuries and facial reconstructions.The Rock Drill

Continuing on through the exhibition you are still haunted by the image of the disfigured. You move on past grand paintings of decorated war heroes (of course a few had to be present) and a photo wall of young hopeful looking men in uniforms that you know will have led, if not to their death, to them continuing on with a life blighted by the horrors of 1914 – 1918. Throughout there are snapshots of the horrors documented by artists who had either themselves been at the front, or who had experienced it second-hand through families and loved ones.

This was not an exhibition that glorified, nor that damned the war and the efforts of those involved in it. It was a presentation of the facts and the artistic expressions of those who were involved. The only part of the exhibition that I cannot comment on is the video at the end, as it was badly placed and with ten to fifteen other people trying to see it, I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. They do have the video available in their computer suite nearby though so you can sit and watch it in your own time.

The exhibition never trivialises, blames or passes judgement on the war and those involved in it. All we are presented with is a series of portraits, each telling a story, each teaching us something about the people who have passed and what has come to pass.

A Bad Wellcome – Dating and Dinosaurs

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A while ago I had arranged to see an absolutely wonderful friend of mine who was down in London for a few days. I woke up on the morning of our meeting with a slight headache, a terrible feeling and an insatiable need for a hug. And then I remembered the night before.

Now before you jump to any inappropriate conclusions, there is nothing X-rated about this blog post you filthy people, and I am as well behaved as a nun who likes a drink. But I had been on a date the night before… a bad date.

Thankfully the young man in question is as familiar with social networking and online blogging platforms as a caveman. So his feelings will be spared and this can be kept as a little secret between you, lovely reader, and I.

I won’t go into the details of the date, needless to say I hoped that his conversation would get more interesting after two glasses of wine but if anything it became decidedly more difficult. At this point I was thirty minutes into a date that I didn’t really want to be on and food had just been ordered in a busy restaurant on a Saturday night. For the foreseeable future I was trapped. In an attempt to turn the conversation away from jägerbombs and ‘what’s your favourite…’ I dropped the ‘I really like museums’ bombshell. After a long, concerned look he replied that he had never visited any in London, he worked right next to the National Gallery but had never been in. The conversation staggered blindly along my chosen path, much like me on the way to a take away after a night out, hopeless but full of burgeoning need, until eventually veering violently away from the attempted nirvana and towards home and defeat (back to jägerbombversation).

An overwhelmingly large number of the people that I have dated (and my friends) are not into museums and galleries; this would never be a make or break criteria for me. But if you can’t even be bothered to continue a conversation with me about it, it really is not a good start.

Thankfully the friend I was meeting the following day is a fellow Museum postgrad survivor so she suggested we meet at the Wellcome Collection right opposite Euston Station. I was in need, she was catching a train later on – it worked out for both of us. I knew that there were massive building works going on at the museum but it was open and had I was reassured the cafe was great. I now also know that they have a free cloakroom that you can put bags in so it’s a good place to pop into if you have some spare time before your train.

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Sir Henry Wellcome was what one might call an avid collector. Wellcome originally started off as a collector of scientific and medical books and apparatus, but then after the end of WWI in 1918 he began collecting objects more commonly found in museums today. And when I say collecting I mean acquiring on a colossal scale. When Wellcome died as well as filling his own museum and library, his vast collection was dispersed to museums all over the UK and further afield. In fact, if you can find one museum in the UK which does not have any Wellcome objects in it I would be very surprised.

What surprised me even more was to be encountered with a museum with hardly anything in it. The building works meant that every part of the museum apart from the cafe, gift shop and one small exhibition room was closed. You have to hand it to them, that is a pretty good way to make money. What was open was an exhibition about various health concerns and the medicines that we use to counteract them. The exhibits themselves weren’t the most original and exciting I’ve ever seen, but the interactive were great. Lots of high tech screens with touch sensors and other fancy bits and bobs. Despite the impressive technical offer, catharsis came for me in the shape of a small piece of card and some coloured crayons. The cards have multiple words on the back of them linking to what you have seen in the exhibition and also some things that you have not. You are encouraged to pick as many of the words as you like and draw a picture relating to them. There is then an entire wall dedicated to these where you can add your own to the shelves which is nice, you personally creating part of the exhibition. They even have a bit of their website displaying past drawings.

The cards ask you to leave your name, age and gender. I know what you are asking yourself, I asked myself that same thing too. GENDER? Seriously? Come on. Just leave it alone. You have my terrible multi-coloured crayon scribble of a unicorn with tattoos IS THAT NOT ENOUGH? I did enjoy some of the answers displayed though (Jedi, unknown, yes etc). Anyway, I digress.

I’m sure the whole museum will be wonderful when it is finished (date unknown). If the current completed bits are anything to go by then imagine it will be very state of the art and engaging and teach science to us in a way that will be inventive and memorable. But for the moment it’s a bit like an interesting cafe.

Despite all of this it was exactly what I needed, a space to feel unhurried, calm and collected with my friend. Where I could outline the boredom of the night before but with something to walk around and look at so that the story wasn’t a chore for either of us.

Club to Catwalk

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 The Victoria and Albert Museum

 Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s

 Info:

Runs until 16th February 2014

£5/6 entry, free to members

Open 10am – 5.30pm, and 10am – 9.30pm on Fridays

Derek Ridgers Black and white photograph 1986 © Derek Ridgers

 

I have been meaning to go and see Club to Catwalk since it opened and finally go round to doing it earlier this week. I love the V & A and their ways of exhibiting so had high expectations. 

It has been open since July 2013 so it was quiet when I went but expect a last minute rush before it closes next month. It is worth calling the museum or booking online before you go.

The exhibition is broken up into two sections – club and catwalk – and split between two levels. You start downstairs in the catwalk section which takes you through the progression of London fashion in the 80’s. I went into the exhibition having seen a lot of the predominant fashions from the 80’s, but knowing little information about the origins and the progression of the trends.

The displays are sectioned off into manageable chunks of information and outfits that are based on a certain designer, theme or material. The way the outfits are set out gives you stimulating but manageable chunks of information that acted like snapshots of the fashion from this period. The clothes selection and visual aspects of the displays were beautiful and varied. The labels were informative and followed the style of the V&A which provided a nice continuation from the external permanent fashion exhibition which surrounds Club to Catwalk, putting the clothes into an even wider context.

As soon as you walk into Club to Catwalk the atmosphere is exciting and vibrant. 80’s club music is playing and edgy colours and shapes frame the labels and cases. In fact when I was in there one of the visitors threw down her bags and danced her way around the exhibition. The music accompanies projections of catwalk shows from the period which brings the outfits in the exhibition to life. ALL of the space has been filled in the downstairs area. ALL OF IT. It is a little overwhelming at times and I can imagine that when the exhibition is busy that you wouldn’t want to or be able to spend a lot of time on the ground floor.

As you walk upstairs to the club section of the exhibition there is an inescapable mirror asking

 ‘WOULD YOU LET YOU IN?

As you then walked up into the incredible outfits you understand the importance that image and the ability to create and recreate yourself every weekend just to get into these new and different club nights.

The outfits are stunning, but the real stars of the show here are the people who wore them. Their stories are laid out in the labels accompanying the outfits and the personalities shine through the displays. In this upstairs level you see how these fashions became lifestyles, created tribes of people in 80’s London creatively empowering each other through their daring choices. These were outfits that made you stand out from the crowd. Standing in the middle of the upstairs displays, it is not difficult to imagine that you are in the midst of the most interesting party of your life, with the different cliques surrounding you. There is a lot more space upstairs and the models are not behind glass as they are in the catwalk section of the exhibition, and that also adds to this feeling.

This personal feeling is as also created through the dedication of Jeffrey Hinton’s video installation in the club section to those people who lost their lives to AIDs during the 1980s. The installation itself is a walk-through black box with multiple small screens showing videos shot at the clubs and parties mentioned in the exhibition.

As someone with little knowledge of the period and the ins and outs of the fashion world in London at that time, I really enjoyed the exhibition and found it a good overview. It made me want to go away and find out more, especially about the darker side of the period including the AIDs crisis and the way the extreme fashions and lifestyles clashed with the mainstream culture. 

Dating and Dinosaurs #2

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'L'enlèvement d'Europe' Noël-Nicolas Coypel, 1726-1727

‘L’enlèvement d’Europe’ Noël-Nicolas Coypel, 1726-1727

Of all the blog posts I have written, one of the most popular has been ‘Dating and Dinosaurs’. It seems that people are quite interested in showing their potential life partners human remains and taxidermy and bits of pottery and the like, so I thought we could try and make this more of a regular thing and explore different ways that we can combine dating/relationships and museum, gallery and heritage type things.

Our topic today is the dreaded ‘next step’. It is elusive and troublesome and, if not handled correctly, can lead to the infinite demise of many fledgling relationships if not handled well. I do not profess to be an expert in any way about this next step or what it is exactly. But I am going to attempt to discuss how it can be smoothened out through visits to museums, galleries, castles etc. Yes. Seriously.

So, you have met someone (congratulations), you like them, it appears that they may like you. You have been out quite a few times and everything is going well, but they are not quite showing their feelings. How can you test the waters without throwing them over your shoulder and carrying them off into the sunset, or following in the footsteps of the famous seducer Zeus and turning yourself into a bull and swimming off with them on your back to found a continent?

Well, what you could do is talk about a new amazing temporary exhibition that is being put on for a short amount of time in another city. You would love to go and see it. Don’t they think it sounds amazing and like something they could surely not miss out on seeing? Why don’t you both go and see it, and make a weekend of it?

Whatever you do, try and make this conversation as relaxed as possible and do not make it formulaic. Maybe drop a few hints about it before hand and see how they go down, and try to choose something your beloved will be interested in. Or if you are serious in trying to ascertain how keen they are, go for something you know they hate and see if they still agree to go.

Some suggestions of current exhibitions are:

This can work just as well with going to see something at the theatre, but can make the experience feel more formal. The main point of this would be to show someone that you like them and want to share this type of experience with them without being too full on.

Go forth and spread the culture and love.

Babies and Dinosaurs

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So a few weeks ago I had a very new and different museum experience.  Image

It was baby’s first museum visit and who better to go with than museum-auntie Alice! We decided to go to the World Museum in Liverpool as she is currently obsessed with dinosaurs and, having visited a few years ago, I remembered the museum as being very child friendly.

Due to unforeseen circumstances (an excitement induced post-lunch nap) we had to postpone our museum visit until later in the day and got there with only an hour to look round. I thought that this would be plenty of time as the museum isn’t that big and toddlers’ attention spans are not famed for being long. Because we were short on time we focused on what would be the most relevant to her interests/ what Peppa Pig had done that week. So we started with dinosaurs and a trek through the jungle, went into space, saw a lot of creepy crawlies and then went and found Nemo in the aquarium.

What I really learned from our visit is the importance of atmosphere and a sense of context for the exhibits. In the natural history areas she really responded to the use of taxidermy in realistic settings and lowered lighting and animal sounds really turned the visit into an adventure.

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As you can see in the pictures above, interactives in sections that are more difficult to engage with proved to be surprisingly popular. I have never been keen on seeing draws and draws of dead insects pinned to boards but with the help of a very child-friendly magnifying glass it meant that the youngest in our group could explore things herself and set her own pace in doing so.  

Sadly the staff at the museum weren’t always as patient as they could have been. Although we did go to the museum late and were warmly welcomed and given  a lot of helpful information, as the closing time drew near we were treated very differently and addressed quite rudely as we were making our way out. Despite this all three of us ladies enjoyed the visit and will be making more museum trips in the future!