In December 2017, six months after the tragic Grenfell Tower fire that took with it 72 lives while destroying countless others, the artist Steve McQueen boarded a helicopter equipped with his camera. He filmed ‘Grenfell’ – a single-take 24-minute scene of the charred building, burnt to its bare bones. McQueen was adamant to capture the tower before the local authority covered it up.
This powerful film opens with an aerial view of suburban, leafy west London, the camera moving deliberately towards the tower block to the sound of the circling blades and city soundscape below. On approaching the tower block, the film falls absolutely silent as the helicopter circles and hovers around the building.
McQueen’s steady gaze takes the viewer in and out of the building, occasionally lingering on a blackened, broken window, a discarded object, trash bags, and forensic teams in PPE. Recalling Hitchcock’s seminal scene in the ‘North by Northwest’, the silence only helps magnify the sense of absolute terror and (in this case) absolute grief.
The Grenfell fire should never have happened. It was due to the cheap combustible cladding (banned in Europe) that was installed on the social housing high-rise only a year earlier. And the building had inadequate fire extinguishers and sprinklers.
In a powerful essay ‘Never Again Grenfell’ Paul Gilroy, author and scholar of race, culture and nationalism, writes:
‘To me, Steve McQueen’s work suggests that there is much to gain in confronting the meanings of the damaged structure and making the shock of our painful contact with it instructive. Opening ourselves humbly to that possibility can be accomplished without betraying the tower’s plural traumas or the political complexity of this moment in which closure is not an option. We cannot understand Grenfell unless we keep the reality of this building firmly in mind.’
On the day I went to the ‘Grenfell’ preview screening at the Serpentine, the collective expression was solum; most of us had cried. McQueen’s lens is spellbinding. It makes us meditate in that moment on the memory never to be forgotten.
The film is being screened until until 10 May, after which the work will be placed in the care of the Tate Gallery and the Museum of London ’s collections.
Alice Neel, activist, feminist, humanist, warm and passionately non-conformist, is one of the leading painters of our time. Working predominantly in New York, where she lived most of her life, and in the intimate surroundings of her home rather than a studio, from the start of her long career Neel was drawn to raw moments of intimacy, painting neighbours, artists, activists, labour leaders, Black intellectuals, queer couples — often painting those excluded from portraiture. “I’m a collector of souls,” she wrote. “I paint my time using the people as evidence.”
‘Alice Neel: Hot off the Griddle’ at the Barbican gallery captures the spirit of this remarkable painter of the 20th century who, despite her figurative work being so unfashionable, refused to conform to the art movements of her time.
And she was a gifted portraitist; her gaze penetrates deep inside each of her subjects, all of whom are treated with respect, compassion, humour and equal attention, be it her fellow artist Andy Warhol caught at his most vulnerable (1970), the youthful poet and writer John Perreault (1972), head of the US Communist Party Gus Hall (1981), a couple of privileged Wellesley College girls (1967), her neighbour Carmen and child (1972), or indeed herself, painted in 1980 at a ripe age of 80.
As a side note, it’s interesting to compare Neel’s self-portrait with Lucian Freud’s ‘Painter Working, Reflections’ (1993), also his only full-figure naked self-portrait, painted as the artist turned 70. Whereas Neel reveals a touch of vulnerability in her pose, seated in an armchair, paintbrush in hand, cheeks flushed, Freud stands arrogant, full of ego, tough – yet both artist appear triumphant.
The Barbican’s gorgeous exhibition, with its warm colours and textures, offers an intimate encounter with the artist. Neel’s work is as fresh and relevant and powerful today as it was then. And, as the exhibition catalogue nicely points out, it speaks of our concerns and struggles, who is represented and why, highlighting the political nature of how we look at others, and what it is to feel seen.
‘Alice Neel: Hot off the Griddle’ is at the Barbican gallery in London until May 21, 2023.
“I never try to create real spaces – only painted spaces. That’s all I am interested in. That may be why there is never really any specific time or place in my painting.” The quote is by Peter Doig, one of today’s most exciting painters.
And it perfectly encapsulates the work of an artist who refuses to be settled within the constraints of time, a particular place, and the framework of art history with its movements and fleeting trends. His is the art of storytelling – a continuous, lively, lyrical and at times witty dialogue between the real and the imaginary. It is a colourful painterly layered journey in time and place.
A major new exhibition perfectly captures the spirit of the Scottish artist. “Peter Doig” at The Courtauld Gallery in London presents an exciting new chapter in his career with 12 paintings and 19 works on paper, including a selection of significant canvases created since the artist moved back from Trinidad to London in 2021.
Five custom-made electric guitars are mounted on the makeshift wall at at Frieze London. These intricate objects form part of a larger artwork called ’63/22′ by LA-based multidisciplinary artist Nikita Gale. Each guitar is named after significant Black female guitarists of history: Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Barbara Lynn, Big Mama Thornton and Joan Armatrading. Every few minutes a spotlights directs our gaze from one guitar to the next. Later in the day, three musicians will activate the guitars through live ten-to-fifteen-minute performances.
This is what happens when seemingly disparate industries overlap – when ideas collide. ’63/22′ is an artwork loaded with meaning. It takes on the current discourse surrounding the politics of sight and sound, what we are guided to see, and what we are told to hear, and of invisible voices. Through the medium of design and sound, Gale is asking us to review our biases, question what has come before, and make change happen.
’63/22′ is directed by Gale in collaboration with a team of car designers and the luthier Ian Malone for BMW Open Work by Frieze. The initiative itself aims to bring together art, design and technology, and to show this in a setting outside of the auto world.
The 63 in the title refers to the year 1963, when Gibson Guitar commissioned a car designer by the name of Ray Dietrich, who had pioneered the concept of the custom-built car designer in the age of classic cars. The idea was to bring in a creative voice from outside the traditional music world who would investigate the possibilities of the electric guitar in shape and feel.
Conventions were broken with Dietrich’s asymmetrically shaped Firebird sporting a taller horn positioned on the right rather than the customary left. The wooden neck had nine strips of alternating mahogany and maple, layered for strength and stability, spanning the full length of the instrument. It featured some wonderful quirky details too, with the wings thought to resemble the car’s tail fins. Naturally, the Firebird sounded different to other electric guitar of the time.
I meet Nikita Gale at Frieze London to untangle the complex artwork, ’63/22′.
Why an interest in the politics of sound?
My mum was a music teacher, and music was always happening in our house. Alongside teaching me the piano, she would speak about historically significant musicians. Growing up on an air force base in Alaska, she was often a visiting music teacher to our school, giving lessons on Black music history and so on. For me, it wasn’t only about enjoying the music but thinking about the histories that preceded it.
Your project at Frieze continues the investigation into the politics of sound but through the lens of the car. How did this connection happen?
At grad school, I began thinking about cars not just as technologies but as objects that we project cultural and political information into, in that the modes and the means of production of these technologies are not neutral. Decisions are being made that are informed by political positions: are the cars powered by fossil fuel versus electric, or the designs and shapes they take? What cars look like is largely determined by the understanding and biases of the people designing them.
Most of whom would be of a certain gender. How did you then circle this back to music?
While investigating cars, I began encountering interesting information about music, particularly American blues and rock. Early blues and rock songs were largely about cars, such as Ike Turner’s 1951 ‘Rocket 88’ – considered the first rock and roll record. Cars are metaphors for personal freedom, sexuality, and gender expression. The overlaps kept happening during my research, which is when I came upon Ray Dietrich and his work with Gibson in 1963. It is the first time these two industries overlapped on such a large, mass-produced scale.
It must have seemed quite a surprise then to be approached by BMW for the Frieze project. Speaking with the curator Attilia Fattori Franchini earlier, she was unaware you were already thinking along these streams of ideas.
Crazy, right? I had this idea in my back pocket for seven years, so when BMW reached out to collaborate at Frieze, I already knew what I wanted to do. It was an incredible coincidence, and I knew we had to do this. Added to this, I’m a real car fan.
And how do you feel about the project that is displayed before us?
It never ceases to amaze seeing an object born out of a concept that exists in space. This project has truly taken this to a new level. These guitars are not just aesthetic art objects but functional technology; they are all playable guitars that Ian Malone helped make possible.
The guitar you’ve designed have clearly questioned the conventional shape of the instrument, its masculinity.
Yes, absolutely. During the design process, I discussed the profile of the types of users of these technologies with the BMW designers. We looked at who would be playing the guitars and how we should be designing with other bodies in mind other than the typical type who were determining the shape of things in the 60s, which would have been primarily white men. The musician St. Vincent recently designed a signature guitar that has a much narrower body to accommodate people with breasts. I asked our designers to consider ergonomics with all body shapes in mind.
Can you explain the performative side when these aesthetic objects neatly lining the wall are played?
We’ve invited three diverse musicians to perform at 3 pm each day, giving them carte blanche to do what they want and choose the guitar they like. It’s been fascinating to see which ones they go for. Luckily no two have gone for the same guitar.
’63/22′ interrogates the politics of sight and sound, what we are directed to see and allowed to hear, and how this manifests itself in invisible voices. What were you hoping to achieve with the project?
I strongly believe in the importance of modelling possibilities. So, when I think about this moment in 1963, where these industries overlap, I look at this as a demonstration of what is possible when conversations are allowed to overlap in a very direct way. I’m looking at the moment when ideas collide.
Given that general guitar design hasn’t changed so much in the last 60 years, by recreating and almost staging the scene in this context, we can shine a light on the possibilities of change.
The shapes and forms of technologies were largely determined by the biases of people designing them. As political and cultural landscapes change, those biases also shift. Where are we now? Why are we sticking to what came before? We can still change things. Nothing is set in stone. In the essay Technology and Ethos, Amiri Baraka, writing as LeRoi Jones at the time, has a great line: Nothing has to look or sound the way that it does.
The 19th edition of Frieze London takes place from October 12-16, 2022.
Voices is a new publication dedicated to the world of wine, and I’ve been involved in helping form its editorial direction on behalf of Spinach Branding. Our client is Maze Row, a new brand in the fine wine scene. They represent a select group of artisan producers who craft wines that are made with passion, respect the environment and speak of a time and place.
As a print publication and digital platform, Voices fosters their work and shares their stories. We see it as a place, a space, for storytelling that involves the wider world of wine, one that includes arts and ideas, culture, design, travel.
And it’s been an extremely exciting adventure, rewarding in both subject matter and the people – winemakers, chefs, creatives, writers, photographers, artists, adventurers – encountered along this colourful journey.
What I’ve come to realise is that wine is a symbol of so much more than just a drink. Away from the supermarket sold soul-less produce, fine wine is a celebration of life, of this beautiful planet. It is a distillation of what it means to be human.
And at the core of our concept is to actively encourage diverse storytelling, multiple viewpoints. After all, inviting different voices is to be not only inclusive but also expansive and enriching. Maybe even change the direction of our gaze.
The Maze Row guiding philosophy is: In wine, we find life. It’s a lovely term coined in collaboration with Spinach Branding which defines everything we do with Voices. Ultimately, we’re looking at the world through the lens of wine.