From Isaac Julien’s political, poetic and utterly gorgeous show at Tate Britain to the equally powerful Carrie Mae Weems survey at the Barbican, Tomás Saraceno spiders and other species awakening us to our connection to nature at the Serpentine Galleries in conversation with Lina Ghotmeh’s delicate timber Serpentine Pavilion, and Leonardo Drew’s explosive installation at Yorkshire Sculpture Park Chapel, there’s been no shortage of excellent art and design in London and beyond this summer season.
At the entrance to “Tomás Saraceno in Collaboration: Web[s] of Life,” we are politely asked to surrender our phones. There is no apparent judgment; instead, the act is more performative as our gadgets are safely slotted in what appears like an old wooden shelving unit and exchanged with an oracle card, “Arachnomancy Card,” with a personalized message (mine read: “planetary drift”). We are free, of course, to choose not to give away our phones. Yet it seems a missed opportunity: to truly immerse in the lively and layered world created by Tomás Saraceno for London’s Serpentine Galleries requires this small sacrifice.
Later, I reflect on what a relief it was not to reach out for my iPhone at every photo opportunity (and there are plenty), to be in the moment and absorb the chapters that unfold in each room and onto the surrounding Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. As Saraceno’s first major exhibition in the UK, “Web[s] of Life” takes on a lot. Ultimately it aims to observe how different life forms, technologies and energy systems are connected in the climate emergency. Art, for Saraceno, has active agency.
‘Isaac Julien: What freedom is to me’ at Tate Britain is a powerful and poetic, and beautifully designed exhibition that reveals a career as compelling today as it was forty years ago, when the British artist began showing his politically charged films and video art installations.
Tate curators Isabella Maidment and Nathan Ladd worked closely with the artist and his long-term friend the architect David Adjaye to imagine and design this first UK retrospective of Julien.
We enter the exhibition wrapped around in large screens showing Julien’s latest film, ‘Once Again… [Statues Never Die]’ (2022), and from a clearing of sorts are then tasked to choose our own path, directed by sound, colour and scent, as a narrative unfolds based on that decision.
The curators have successfully designed an exhibition experience for the visitor that reflects Julien’s fascination with image, sound, space, movement. Maidment calls them sonic tapestries that draw you through the exhibition as it unfolds.
She notes a passage from ‘Once Again… [Statues Never Die]’ that illustrates the show so poignantly. The line is narrated the character playing Alain Locke — the writer and cultural critic, and philosophical architect of the Harlem Renaissance:
‘As we mature as artists in the mythical diasporic dream space, the culture of infinite possibility is ready to receive us. This is artistic freedom as pure and as unsullied as the falling snow.’
On until August 20 at Tate Britain.
All images: Installation view, ‘Once Again… (Statues Never Die)’ Tate Britain, 2023. © Isaac Julien, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro
Contemporary dance company Wayne McGregor has teamed up with experimental art studios Random International and Superblue to explore the human relation to machine and technology. Informed by the technology behind BMW i, ‘No One is an Island’ combines sculptural, performative and musical elements. Through electrified movement steered by advanced algorithms and inspired by Picasso’s light drawings, it reflects on how the human mind can empathise with artificial intelligence and automated processes. Dancers perform to the electronic sound of Chihei Hatakeyama adding a performative dimension to the sculpture, while re-translating and celebrating the connection between human and mechanical movement.
Images: ‘No One is an Island’ by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i and dancers Jacob O’Connell and Rebecca Bassett- Graham (company Wayne McGregor). Photo Ravi Deepres © BMW AG
Rolls-Royce has chosen four shortlisted artists for the inaugural ‘Dream Commission’ for moving-image art. Chosen by an independent jury of leading international figures in the art world, the work this dynamic group produce is highly relevant, reflecting our current discussions on culture, on gender and race and our relation with technology.
They include Beatriz Santiago Muñoz from Puerto Rico, Zhou Tao from China and the American artists Martine Syms and Sondra Perry – all of whom have made short moving-image pieces detailing their concepts. Once the jury has decided on an ultimate winner, Rolls-Royce will finance the full-length moving-image artwork to be released next year.
The biannual Dream Commission is aimed at emerging and mid-career artists who demonstrate innovation in the field of moving image art. As the name suggests, participants are asked to investigate their dreams as a way of finding an alternative sensory universe – perhaps take us on journeys into the world of the subconscious. Their work needs to be impactful and immersive.
To understand more, I caught up with Hans Ulrich Obrist, the curator, author and artistic director at London’s Serpentine Galleries, who is on the Dream Commission selection jury.
Nargess Banks: Needless to say, these are challenging times for the arts. On the one hand, the temporary closure of art spaces has brought a renewed longing for seeing live visual arts. Then, these are extraordinary times too in that we are revising and reviewing how art is shown – what subjects are represented and who has been underrepresented. What struck me immediately with this selection is the relevance of the chosen artists.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: A series of brilliant nominators proposed a wonderful long list of artists, which the jury then shortlisted from. The commission acts as a laboratory for artists, and what has become evident is that this next generation is thinking about mixed reality, and quite radically liberating moving image away from defining characteristics such as its ‘loop’, works become instead infinite, sprawling and organic.
NB: The theme of dreams and investigating our subconscious strikes me as a fascinating topic.
HUO: Around 20 years ago I met Hélène Cixous, the great French writer, who was at the time working on a book called ‘Dream I Tell You’, where she transcribed her dreams. It opens with an observation: ‘They tell me their stories in their language, in the twilight, all alike or almost, half gentle half cruel, before any day, any hour. I don’t wake, the dream wakes me…’
I often speak to artists about their unrealised projects, their dreams; I’ve been documenting them since the ’90s and it is one of the recurring questions I’ve been asking throughout my interview project. My investigations are intimately connected to the dimension of dreams also, projects as a cherished aspiration, an idea or an ambition.
NB: And what were you looking for when deciding on the Dream Commission shortlist?
HUO: We asked ourselves how, as a jury, can we better listen to what is being said by artists amongst so much distance and confusion? So we engaged in some active listening and this is the shortlist that spoke to us.
Sondra Perry says of making work that she ‘wants people to feel like they have space and agency’.
For Martine Syms, ‘art is a way for me to think and way for me to learn about myself, but also about the world and other people’. Through making work she explores her own personal mythology, anchored in the biological, psychological and the sociological.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz explains that it’s an opportunity to ‘experiment with the expanded mind’. Moving-image is for her an ‘experimental process which functions like an organism’.
Zhao Tao told us that moving images are experiences which reflect on the spatial interface of a ‘remote space’ during this time of lockdown.
NB: Collectively, their work speaks very much of our time.
HUO: Indeed, our shortlist have worked to create films during the pandemic. It is this time, more than ever, we should be listening to artists – it is often they who have the most important and prescient ideas about how one can act in times of crisis.
NB: The commission artists are from such different cultures and backgrounds. Do you see a unified voice coming out of this?
HUO: All of our shortlisted artists address urgent issues of our time with remarkable energy and commitment. Their work is all very different, but it is all generous, engaged and empathetic.
As Marshall McLuhan writes in ‘Understanding Media’: ‘Art is an early alarm system pointing us to new developments in times ahead and allowing us to prepare to cope with them.’ These artists all make work that will help us understand the world that is to come.
See the four chosen Dream Commission artists discuss their work: