Fresh perspectives as Volvo challenges photographer to use the car as camera

I love driving, sitting behind the wheel engaged in my personal thoughts, dreams and life, planning grand projects and picturing past memories, listening to my tunes as the world dances by. You feel protected from the outside world inside the cocoon of the motor car yet are very much connected. There are interactions and engagements, especially in a city like London, but there is certainly a sense of looking out… much like a movie screen.

With this in mind, the latest project by Volvo and Barbara Davidson is incredibly interesting to see. The multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and artist has literally turned the latest Volvo XC60 into her camera, her lenses are the lenses of the cameras on-board, and the result is a collection of thirty photographs that capture life on the streets of the Danish capital Copenhagen. Together they offer a fresh view on ordinary life in a European city, as well as a new perspective on the motor car whereby this considered cold, technological product transforms into something softer… perhaps more human.

Read the full story here

All images are © Barbara Davidson

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Can cultural spaces and galleries be landscapes of ideas?

I have strong views on the vital role of the visual arts and culture to help shape society and vice versa. My thoughts are that a degree of social engagement is necessary, especially in these volatile times. Without which these are just decoration, an ego massage, or worse strictly commercial enterprises. This applies as much to architecture and design as it does to the fine arts, film and music.

Public cultural spaces are in a great position to be an open landscape for ideas, to bring isolated voices together and instigate exciting discourse and debate.

Last week I met with Yana Peel, the chief executive of the Serpentine Galleries in London – two small galleries in terms of their footprint, but with a ‘local, national and international reach’, she says.

Grayson Perry, Death of a Working Hero, 2016, Tapestry, 250 x 200 cm © The Artist Courtesy the Artist, Paragon Press and Victoria Miro, London. Photographer: Stephen WhiteI admire the Serpentine and sister Sackler for they are proof that art galleries need not be grand institutions to make an impact – that sometimes it is often these more independent establishments that are willing to shake things up.

Peel talks of utilising her privileged position, this public platform, to bring in dissenting voices. Alongside the Serpentine’s artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist, they have set a courageous programme to explore voices from outside the mainstream art circles.

So, expect some interesting dialogues to emerge this summer as Arthur Jafa, the provocative American cinematographer and filmmaker, exhibits alongside Grayson Perry at the galleries.

Jafa is set out to explore how black film can achieve black music’s sense of theatre and he will be reinventing the Sackler space, teases Peel. Whilst across the Serpentine Lake, Perry’s provocatively titled The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! will do just that – question, as the British artist often does, art’s popularity and populism.

Then on the grounds next door to the Serpentine, in the midst of Kensington Garden’s beautiful nature, Berlin architect Diébédo Francis Kéré will connect visitors to the park and to one another through his winning Serpentine Pavilion project. His work is inspired by a tree which served as a central meeting point in his childhood village of Gando in Burkina Faso – as Peel puts it ‘bringing a little of Gando to Kensington Gardens.’

And the Serpentine Marathons – the supporting talks, debates, conversations – at the Pavilion, across London and on social media will keep a lively debate running all summer. Peel’s hope is that these events will connect with those from outside the art world and with younger generations. She tells me, ‘we need to make sure we are listening as well as talking. It must always be a dialogue’.

Public cultural spaces have to be risk takers – if they don’t, we are in deep, deep trouble. The Tate Modern, with its sheer size and reach has a responsibility to continue to make a stand, show unusual exhibitions, provoke, excite – not just entertain. These should be spaces where culture, politics and art can happen naturally – feed off each other and learn from one another.

Equally, architects and designers (yes, even car designers, a world I’m very familiar with) involved in public work, or grand gestures of creativity, or simple objects that occupy our landscape, should use there platforms to defend the planet, protect its citizens and living species. That is the power of creativity.

Nargess Banks

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The World of Charles and Ray Eames

For designers context is destiny, writes Sam Jacobs half way through The World of Charles and Ray Eames. The time and place in which the designer happens to emerge is decisive in shaping their world, he argues. And in this context Charles and Ray Eames are intimately connected with mid-century California. It would be impossible to consider one without the other.

Post war, California embodied the New World – the west coast became synonymous with a new kind of modernism. This particular interpretation of the movement had at its centre a sunnier thinking, an optimism lacking in Europe at the aftermath of two major world wars. It also benefited hugely from its geographical distance from Old World modernism, and perhaps the climate and vast beautiful coastline helped shape a very different mind-set.

Californian modernism rejected some of the more rigid dogmas whilst maintaining the core values of the movement, and arguably directing it towards modern life so that ideologies like social improvement married new sensibilities of popular culture.

Here film, music, magazines, mass-produced products joined art, architecture and design as tools for shaping our lives. Californian modernism embraced free thinking; it had a direct connection with lifestyle. It took design out of the strict codes set by the European avant-garde and set it free.

And Charles and Ray truly embodied Californian modernism. You cannot help but smile at image after image of this handsome and healthy couple working alongside other equally sunny faced artists and designers in their Eames Office. Here they collectively experimented with new material, finding new solutions for sustainable products, creating movies, stills and architectural models for living. Their energy is intoxicating, almost bouncing off the pages of this book.

European and east coast intellectuals looked over in awe, too. Jacobs writes: ‘The Eamses were ‘natives of a world that could only be glimpsed through the keyhole of media.’

The World of Charles and Ray Eames is a highly informative and visually engaging book published to accompany the exhibition held at the Barbican in London, and on until 14 February. Together they succeed in celebrating the inspiring and prolific world of this husband and wife team.

Chapters are divided into ‘life in work’, ‘at home with the Eamses’, ‘art of living’, ‘celebration of human need’ and so on to reveal their broad reach. Over 300 pages are dedicated to photographs, sketches, letters, original text and film stills, and it includes insightful text by Eames Demetrios, the couple’s grandson, art and design academics.

We also love the fact the book design also reflects the Eames workings whereby cropping, framing, design and presentation of image became central to their work, here captured through the very present grid, essential also in handling the large body of work presented.

Charles and Ray worked with product design, filmmaking, advertising; they explored folk art and an assortment of non-design objects to see how they can help shape our lives. Their multi-media architecture led them toward film and photography as tools for modelling ideas.

In Powers of Ten, a film made for IBM, for instance, they explore the relationship between design and the universe, as the film shows how nature, people, objects, books, and life can fit into a wider context.

Their design world was a collaborative one. Their ‘laboratory’ as the studio was referred to – active for four decades during the post-war period – involved such a wide selection of designers, architects, artists and engineers.

Charles and Ray took the principles of early modernism, the expressive visions of early Bauhaus, transported it to sunny California and moved it forward to be relevant for the new age. And what is most fascinating is just how relevant their work remains today. We are continuing this discourse.

Commissioned by the Indian government, they submitted their India Report in 1958 in response to the challenge the country was facing in the light of western design and philosophy. The recommendation was for a new educational model that would bridge tradition and modernity.

It begins with a ‘sample lesson’ and a quote that we feel captures the essence of the Eames philosophy. It is borrowed from the Bhagavad Gita, the 700-verse Sanskrit scripture of the Hindu epic Mahabharata:

‘You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only; you have no rights to the fruits of work. Desires for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working.’ This simple quote beautifully underlines Charles and Ray’s curiosity with process, which remained at the very heart of their lifelong work.

Nargess Banks

The World of Charles and Ray Eames is edited by Catherine Ince and Lotte Johnson and published by Thames & Hudson for the Barbican.

Read The World of Charles and Ray Eames exhibition review here.

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Political art: Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

Ai Weiwei’s work is full of contrasts and contradictions. They are at once robust and fragile, awkward and meticulously crafted, brutal and beautiful. The making reflects the message. Ai sculpts handcuffs from the precious jade, scribbles the Coca Cola logo on an ancient vase, and smashes another in a photographic sequence as a note on history, value, life.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts is the Chinese artist’s first retrospective in the UK – not necessarily an easy task given that his art is often in danger of being dwarfed by his other work. Ai is an artist, a poet, an architect and urbanist, a writer and blogger, a curator and an activist. He keeps extending the notion of art.

His art, films and writing collectively express his vision. Hans Ulrich Obrist calls him the ‘renaissance artist’. The curator and co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery says, ‘his holistic approach can be compared to that of Joseph Beuys as an interdisciplinary “social sculpture”.’*

Ai was born in Beijing in 1957. His father Ai Qing, regarded as one of the greatest modern Chinese poets, was accused of being anti communist, forbidden to write and exiled to the remote Xinjiang province, where the young Ai grew up during the Cultural Revolution.

He later moved to Beijing and learnt to draw from banned artists who were family friends, and drawing still remains at the core of his work. Ai studied at the Beijing Film Academy and later in New York at the Parsons School of Design before returning to China in 1993 to work as an artist.

From the start his work has been embedded in Chinese culture whilst reflecting the exposure he had had to Western art during his 12-year sojourn in the US. He sites the grandfather of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp as ‘the most, if not the only, influential figure’ in his art practice.

Ai’s work has been censored, he’s been arrested, spent time in solitary confinement (one display at the RA sees his every mundane daily movement meticulously, and movingly, recreated scene by scene), and has had his passport confiscated. The irony is he almost didn’t receive a British visa to attend this exhibition.

Ai works with traditional materials and methods, and with historic objects from Neolithic vases to Qing dynasty architectural components and furniture. New objects are formed from old to challenge conventions of value and authenticity in modern-day China. ‘I feel it’s very interesting to put a tremendous effort or art or craftsmanship into something useless, or even nameless,’ he tells Obrist *. And much like Duchamp, Ai’s work comes with a wonderful sense of humour.

The artist has a great gift for material and proportion. His installations are huge; some have such volume they occupy whole rooms at the RA. Ai offers multiple readings. You know you are faced with a work of art carrying the weight of a profound message even if you are unaware of what this may be.

Here the artist’s account of history, political and personal, is told with such fluidity and grace. What’s more, this intelligently curated exhibition allows each piece space to breath, whilst directing us from room to room so the whole show reveals itself as almost one singular installation.

The RA was packed on the random weekday afternoon we visited, young and old navigating the show with evident curiosity. They absorbed the written descriptions, mostly had hired the vocal guides and, unlike most exhibitions, not a whisper could be heard.

Political art often falls under slogan art becoming almost kitsch with its execution and delivery. Not here. You cannot help but be profoundly moved by Ai’s commentary on complex histories, value of material, the fragility of life, of human and historical loss.

He reminds us that today, possibly more than ever, we need cultural and political art. Ai says we are a part of the reality ‘and if we don’t realise that, we are totally irresponsible. We are a productive reality. We are the reality, but that part of reality means that we need to produce another reality.’ *

This is an exhibition not to be missed.

Nargess Banks

* The quotes are from Ai Weiwei Speaks, a series of interviews conducted over several years with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, and highly recommend reading for greater insight into Ai’s work.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. 3 black and white prints, each 148 x 121 cm © Ai Weiwei

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995:
Although Ai plays down the significance of this work referring to it as a ‘silly act’ Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn overtly refers to the wilful destruction of China’s historic buildings and antique objects that took place during his formative years in the decade following Chairman Mao’s announcement of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Many may have been forgiven for thinking that such government-led acts of cultural vandalism might never been seen again. Yet Ai’s work also alludes to China’s pursuit of economic development which has been marked by a lack of protection provided by the authorities for the historic fabric of many of China’s towns and cities.

Table and Pillar, 2002. Wooden pillar and table from the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911, 460 x 90 x 90 cm. London, Tate © Ai Weiwei

Table and Pillar, 2002:
Table and Pillar is the single most important work in the Furniture series, one of the first bodies of work that Ai made on his return to China in 1993. Conscious of the massive changes taking place in Beijing as China sought to modernise, Ai purchased material from Qing dynasty (1644-1911) temples and other buildings that were being dismantled to make way for new developments. Along with period furniture Ai created new pieces, making his interventions invisible through the use of traditional carpentry. In this way he subverted their intended function, making aesthetically and technically appealing but ultimately ‘useless objects’ in the process.

Straight, 2008-12. Steel reinforcing bars, 600 x 1200 cm Lisson Gallery, London © Ai Weiwei

Straight, 2008–12: Following the devastating earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, Ai clandestinely collected some two hundred tonnes of bent and twisted rebar (the steel rods used in the construction of reinforced concrete buildings) destined for recycling which he transported to his studio in Beijing. Here it was straightened by hand, returned to the form it would have had before it was encased in concrete and then mis-shapened by the earthquake. Ai created this sober monument to the victims of the earthquake, the form subconsciously referencing those of seismic waves, whilst also commenting on the sub-standard building methods applied in the delivery of regional government construction projects.

i.O.U. Wallpaper, 2011-13 © Ai Weiwei

I.O.U Wallpaper, 2011–2013:
In 2011 Ai was illegally detained for 81 days. On his release he was accused of tax evasion and presented with a fine of over £1 million to be paid within fifteen days. Thousands of individuals offered their support often in the form of small donations, some made literally by throwing packets of money over the wall of his compound in Caochangdi. In this way people showed their support for his actions and identified with him as a ‘spokesman’ for the ordinary person, one who stood for the rights of the individual. Ai wrote a promissory note for each donation he received, vowing to repay every single contribution that helped him settle his tax bill.

Coloured Vases, 2006. Neolithic vases 5000-3000 BC with industrial paint, dimensions variable © Ai Weiwei

Coloured Vases, 2015:
Since his return to China in 1993, Ai has systematically engaged with ceramics. He purchases historic vessels, ranging from Neolithic pottery to Qing Dynasty porcelain, in markets and from antique dealers. These are grouped and classified by period and style before his interventions. Ai is very conscious that markets are full of fakes being sold as originals, and that only experts can distinguish between them. The creation of forgeries interests him since the same skill and traditions used to create the originals are used to create modern versions. The question of authenticity is, therefore, central to this body of work. By extension, he is also interested in value. Is a Neolithic vase dipped in paint more valuable as a contemporary artwork than it was before? In China, which is so marked by rapid change and development, Ai exposes the tension between old and new.

Marble, 39.2 x 39.8 x 19 cm; Video Recorder, 2010 © Ai Weiwei

Surveillance Camera, 2010:
As an outspoken critic of the government, Ai’s studio residence in Caochangdi has been under surveillance by the authorities for many years. To this end there are at least twenty cameras trained on his compound, conspicuously attached to buildings and telegraph poles especially since Ai has attached a red lantern below each one. By making a marble version Ai references Ming dynasty (1368–1644) tomb offerings where everyday objects were made in precious materials and interred alongside members of the Imperial family in an ostentatious display of power and wealth. Here the hand carved marble camera serves no function other than decorative as it cannot witness or record anything.

Remains, 2015. Porcelain, dimensions variable; Surveillance Camera, 2010. © Ai Weiwei

Remains, 2015:
In 1958, when Ai was still a child, his father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, was denounced as a criminal during a state-sponsored crackdown, known as the Anti-Rightist Movement, aimed at silencing intellectuals against collectivisation. Ai Qing and his family were sent to a military re-education camp in the northwest province of Xinjiang where they lived in appalling conditions until 1976 when he was rehabilitated. A recent clandestine archaeological excavation uncovered a group of bones, the remains of an unknown intellectual who perished under similar circumstances in a labour camp. These bones were brought to Ai who replicated them in meticulous detail in porcelain. The work commemorates the suffering of his father and thousands of others during the brutal regime of Chairman Mao.

Free Speech Puzzle, 2014. Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style, 51 x 41 x 0.8 cm © Ai Weiwei

Free Speech Puzzle, 2014:
The slogan ‘Free Speech’ decorates each of the individual porcelain ornaments that collectively form a map of China. Ai has produced numerous Map works in disparate materials, such as wood, milk powder cans and cotton, over the past twenty years. The components of Free Speech Puzzle are based on traditional pendants made of various materials such as wood, porcelain or jade, depending on the wealth of the individual, that bore a family’s name and served as a marker of status and as a good- luck charm for the wearer. Through the multiple pieces Ai creates a rallying cry that reflects the distinct geographic and ethnic regions that together form modern China and which, despite their differences, ought to have the right to free speech as their principal common denominator.

‘Ai Weiwei’, supported by Lisson Gallery, is at the Royal Academy, London from 19 September to 13 December 2015. 

Read our previous articles on Ai Weiwei here.

Also have a look at Ai’s jewellery here.

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Political art: Imagined Futures

With contemporary art so deeply involved with the self, drunk on the vanity of the image, and so intertwined with the world of money, glitz and glamour, it is refreshing to come across an exhibition that is not afraid to be political.

Hrair Sarkissian is involved with big explosive narratives. The Syrian born artist’s work is social theatre; at once part of a rich panorama of contemporary Arab art that, not surprisingly, has politics at its core.

Born in Damascus in 1973 of Armenian heritage, Sarkissian uses photography to re-evaluate larger historical, religious and socio-political narratives that address his mixed background.

For instance in Homesick (2014) Sarkissian destroys a scaled replica of his family home in Damascus – on one screen an 11-minute time-lapsed silent video presents the demolition of the model. We are not informed of the cause. All the viewer is shown is the slow, theatrical collapse of the building.

Simultaneously, an eight-minute video shows the artist wielding a sledgehammer – the lens focusing on his face and torso. Once more the target of his blows is not presented. It is immaterial.

The building represents the space where the artist belongs, a container for his memories and his family’s collective identities. Sarkissian contemplates the consequences of what it means to expect the worst. He examines what it could mean to fast-forward the present, acknowledge loss and begin reshaping a collapsed history, before the event.

In Front Line (2007) Sarkissian draws on his Armenian identity to contemplate the predicament of a people and place with an unknown political destiny through a series of previously unseen photographs.

We see the war-torn enclave between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Throughout the centuries the claims over this territory have shifted, the borders have been remapped, yet the repression of the region’s indigenous Armenians has persisted. Over a million of its Azeri and Armenian inhabitants remain displaced even today.

The photographs depict 12 deserted landscapes and 17 portraits of those who fought during the 1988-1994 war. The images are haunting and raise questions about the reality of war and the contradictions inherent within struggles for national independence.

Hrair Sarkissian – Imagined Futures is at The Mosaic Rooms in London until 25 April 2015.

 Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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