Exhibition – Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

Opera requires gauze to be wrapped around the imagination. It is hoped that the power of music and that most versatile of all instruments, the human voice, helped along by the magic of lighting and design could help penetrate that gauze. So, it was with some trepidation that I went along to the preview of ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. How do they convey that artful magic, which depends on so many improbables to work, and in a museum setting? The V&A has done just that and more.

Created in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, this is a vivid and immersive journey through 400 years of European operatic history, focusing on its key moments from its roots in Renaissance Italy. Senior curator Kate Bailey has combined décor, costumes, artefacts, paintings, drawings, videos and above all cleverly-chosen excerpts from seven operas symbolising each epoch which appear in our earphones seemingly from the ether as the visitor walks through the years, to evoke the magic that is opera. The synchronisation of sound and our movement through the galleries is truly astounding.

We begin in Venice, the birthplace of opera with Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. The date, 1642. One of the first pieces that can be called an opera with the angelic voices of Catherine Bott and Ann Sofie von Otter, literally floating between the two earphones. You have to read the clearly presented synopsis on the wall to remember that they are singing of the murderous emperor Nero. A painting by Bernardo Strozzi of singer and composer Barbara Strozzi as a courtesan hints at the parallel world of sex and music, a theme reiterated throughout the exhibition.

London 1711 follows, with Handel’s Ronaldo dedicated to the art loving queen Ann. Unlucky with children – she lost all seventeen. With the beautiful countertenor voice of David Daniels flowing into our ears, we are led to the tiny picture of Farinelli, castrated before puberty to maintain his fresh boyish voice, on a brooch ready to adorn the chest of some society lady. We learn that, apparently, castrati were popular with women.

We jump to Mozart’s Vienna of 1786 on the eve of the French Revolution. With the Marriage of Figaro, Mozart was thumping his large nose, as pictured by Ernest Thelott, at the aristocracy. Lorenzo Di Ponte’s libretto, based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ play, shows servants Figaro and Suzanna outmanoeuvring the randy Count. Possibly the most perfect of operas is being sung on the wall as I look over the sumptuous costumes worn by Susanna and the Countess and wonder how on earth they could sing with all that weight on their chest.

Rebellion reappears in Milan half a century later with Verdi’s Nabucco, premiered in 1842. The chorus of the Hebrew slaves became the unofficial national anthem of the Risorgimento which led to the unification of Italy. The powerful angelic voice of Maria Callas, while I walk beneath photographs of the ceilings of many opera houses in Italy, points to the centrality of opera in popular culture there.

Wagner’s Tannhaüser of 1861 was being feted, and reviled, in the Paris of the Second Empire where, in the name of cleaning up the slums, Baron Haussmann had razed the rebellious quarters of the city to the ground, building wide boulevards which made the movements of the troops much easier. Sadly for the emperor, ten years later Paris revolted again. Multiple videos show four interpretations of the erotic ballet scene an der Venusberg, brilliantly synchronised as if they all followed the same tempo.

A corridor lined with paintings by the German expressionist group Die Brücke (Kirchner, Heckel and Schmidt-Rottlulf) lead us to the Dresden of 1905 with Richard Straus’s modernist opera Salome. The curators present this opera as on the road to the emancipation of women. There on a huge screen Nadja Michael’s Salome, covered in blood is passionately kissing the torso-deprived head of John the Baptist, singing, gyrating to Straus’s erotic music with clear oriental overtones. Sex and violence – another theme of the show. Woman as femme-fatal in a literal sense. Or rather in this case, a teenage crush gone awry. It is a relief to take my eye off the gory video and rest it on the designs for Salome by the likes of the American Lois Fuller, a pioneer of modern dance, the surrealist Salvador Dali and fashion designer Versace.

The next corridor pays homage to pioneering women through text and image – Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg who organised the first International Women’s day in 1911, and German artist Käthe Kollwitz who depicted the hardships of working class women. This leads to Leningrad of 1934 (the curators insist on calling the city St Petersburg) where we see Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, wildly acclaimed until Stalin saw it and walked out on the last act writing an anonymous article in Pravda calling it muddle instead of music.

A film showing the young Shostakovich playing on the piano is placed in a patio whose entrance is criss-crossed by red tape – symbolic with a picture of Stalin scowling down from above on all of us. Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya singing the aria lamenting her loveless, sex-less life brings tears to my eyes and, like the first room, I have difficulty leaving. This is an opera on sexual liberation far superior to Salome.

The final room reveals footage of some of the iconic twentieth-century operas, projected on its four walls simultaneously, giving a feeling of being immersed. They included George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht, and John Adam’s Death of Kinghoffer. The nun’s chorus scene from Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is interrupted with the guillotine cutting off their heads, one by one – maybe a bit too much decapitation in one show. And a favourite, Barbara Hannigan singing in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. Opera alive and well. And singing.

Walking through this maze of wonder, I am made to feel alone with the music of the past and present, enveloped by the experience. This is the press preview, but what happens when the doors are opened to the public? Unless the numbers are limited it would be difficult to get close enough to read the clues so essential to the magical journey. And to feel totally engaged. To rip out the gauze. But I guess the V&A will not let this fantastic effort go to waste.

Mohsen Shahmanesh 

‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’, opened at the V&A yesterday as the first exhibition to use the new Sainsbury Gallery. It will be on show until 27 February 2018. Take a look at the events surrounding the exhibition here.


Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
All rights and labelled images are covered by ©

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.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJW | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
All rights and labelled images are covered by ©

Exhibition review: Jim Dine

What would you think of a show where every print was covered with hammers and saws and an almost endless variety of spanners, scissors, tongs, pliers, and pincers?

Jim Dine’s A History of Communism at London’s Alan Cristea Gallery offers a complex array of impressions. I came away impressed with the ingenuity, intrigued and a little moved too, but also somewhat uneasy. Let me explain.

Dine has used a series of lithographic stones left over from an art academy in the German Democratic Republic that was given to him by his friends Sarah Dudley and Ulie Kuhle. These were presumably made by students in the academy over the years. He then worked over the drawings using symbols, some of which he normally uses in his own art works, to give his personal narrative, a history of communism as he saw it.

The original lithographs ranged from the amateurish attempts at a portrait of an old man or elephant, to heroic muscular soldiers, determined miners and a serious looking female worker whose piercing gaze and resolute lips would have been looking down from countless posters and tracts across the country exhorting hard work, and projecting the optimism for a future that seemed forever round the corner. It is what Dine did with these lithographs that is fascinating.

There are the scissors arrayed in a semicircle, eyes at the top, through which one can see an industrial landscape –like a sinister line up of prying eyes fanning across the country, observing every move made by the workers.

Or the juxtaposition of a saw with a female head, as if it is about to be sawn off. In another print a spanner looks for all the world, like a Tyrannosaurus rex about to pounce and devour a heroic horse, while on the other side a man and a horse are wielding a huge hammer about to give it a lethal clout.

Then there is the nude, her head and long hair falling back in an ecstatic pose, surrounded by clouds of black nothingness, dark gloom.

What is perhaps remarkable is that Dine seems to be kinder to the more propaganda-like lithographs. The two hammers surrounding the head of the heroic soldier face outwards. And then there is a portrait of an old man with glasses and a penetrating gaze who has a remarkable resemblance to Walter Ulbricht, the tyrannical first leader of the German Democratic Republic.

What is unclear is whether Dine had created the portrait or he had touched up the original to make it look like the dreaded ogre. Whatever the relative contributions of student or artist, it is a remarkable, dark and strangely beautiful hybrid.

While walking around the exhibition one of the other visitors asked me a question that left an uneasy sense. What are the ethics of using original works by others without their permission, he asked. I guess they would never have got the exposure if Dine hadn’t done what he did, he quickly added. Yes, I replied, I too feel a little uneasy, particularly as some of the students are probably still alive today.

As to the exhibition title, this is clearly not a history of communism. Even the GDR did not even call itself socialist, let alone communist – after all, it was a supposedly ‘democratic’republic. The exhibition should perhaps be more appropriately titled The history of American exceptionalism.

Be that as it may I came away with a feeling that the epithet ‘extraordinary’does correctly describe these prints. They are well worth a visit as is the accompanying exhibition Jim Dine: Printmaker, with fourteen recent additions as well as classic prints to celebrate the artist’s fifty years as printmaker. There you can also see Dine’s trademark of hammers used in a different, non-political context.

Mohsen Shahmanesh

Jim Dine: A History of Communism will be in Alan Cristea Gallery, Cork Street, London from 10 September –7 October 2014.

Read more reviews by Mohsen Shahmanesh.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK 

Design Talks is published by Spinach Design

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©