Ten wooden sculptures by the German artist Georg Baselitz, each shaped from an individual tree trunk, stand and recline and hover over the daylight-lit rooms of the Serpentine South gallery. Some are enormous, carved with twisting and turning shapes and crude, rough edges. They are at once overpowering yet soft and gentle. And there is humor and humanity in their interactions.
“Georg Baselitz: Sculptures 2011-2015” is the first public showing of this body of work, created between the dates on the title and modelled on himself and his wife Elke, a life-long inspiration and artistic partner, with subjects that reflect on history, personal life, childhood memories. “What is essentially being exhibited is like a cabinet of wonders: a sphere within a sphere within a sphere from a tree trunk with a chainsaw,” says Baselitz of the exhibition.
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.
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.
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.
Take a look at the work of the four shortlisted artists in the Rolls-Royce 2021 Dream Commission here. Also read why brands and businesses should support arts and ideas here.
See the four chosen Dream Commission artists discuss their work:
sculpture attempts to fill the
gap between art and public to make art public and artists citizens again,’ so wrote
artist Siah Armajani. And this is (almost) always the case with the Serpentine
Galleries’ annual Pavilion commission in Hyde Park.
This season’s contribution is by Junya Ishigami. The Japanese architect is continuing his conversation with free space philosophy here; his organic architecture is seeking to find harmony between the manmade and elements created by nature. The Pavilion design is informed by the humble roof, here constructed through arranging slates to create a single unit that appears to emerge from the grass of the surrounding Kensington Gardens.
Ishigami’s Serpentine Pavilion is at once delicate and brutal, comical and visceral. This flowing structure, a feathered-friend bird-like canopy with its rough and irregular overlapping slabs of slate, sits on slender columns seemingly too delicate to hold the hefty 60-ton weight. You just want to touch the cold slates and, happy with the knowledge that it hopefully won’t collapse, take refuge underneath the flowing roof, sip coffee, write a few words, watch park life and the world go by.
In the architect’s words, ‘a stone creates a landscape, and a landscape usually sits outside of a building. I wanted to create the landscape inside the building, as a theory of the landscape that the stone creates outside… I tried to create this landscape that exists outside, inside the building.’
Ishigami’s is a long-term study of the relationship between structures and landscape. So, the Serpentine commission, now in its two-decade search to create site-specific public structures that live, breathe and contribute to the life of Kensington Garden and Hyde Park for the duration of the summer seems, is a perfect canvas for the architect.