Why businesses should support the arts post-pandemic

Sculpture by Leelee Chan, winner of the BMW Art Journey with Art Basel © Leelee Chan

As head of BMW’s cultural engagement, Thomas Girst is deeply passionate about arts and ideas. He involves the company in some really interesting projects which not only help these artists and institutions – many of whom rely entirely on corporate sponsorship – but the partnerships also subtly boost BMW’s brand image externally and internally.

Of course, there’s always been a mutually seductive rapport between art and money – and BMW isn’t alone even among car companies to tap into the art world. Yet, not all sponsorships and patronages feel genuine. Some are so off the rail you do wonder who signed the cheque. Girst’s work, though, is different. His choices are relevant to the brand and are topical. They can also be daring – be it exploring the virtual real, the seducing powers of technology, or the plight of the refugee. The latest partnership looks at the climate crisis with Leelee Chan, the winner of the BMW Art Journey with Art Basel, examining how ancient materials and their future substitutes from the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology inform our debate around ecological and cultural sustainability.

I spoke with Girst following the Art Journey announcement to see where he feels the art world is heading. And he spoke passionately about the vital need for corporations to sponsor and support the arts in the post-pandemic world. He also offered some valuable tips as to how businesses can best get involved with the creative world. Take a closer look here

Switch House opens at Tate Modern

This week saw the opening of London’s latest gallery dedicated to the display, screening and performance of contemporary art. Switch House at the Tate Modern is designed by Swiss architect Herzog & de Meuron, and is the result of a twelve-year scheme. The £260m extension to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s former Bankside power station is the largest cultural project in London since the British Library was opened in 1998.

Switch House is big, huge on this media unveiling day – visitors are made almost invisible by the sheer scale of this twisting and distorted, somewhat awkward, textured pyramid, clad in perforated lattice of brick and reaching high up into the sky. Inside is visually striking too, with its contrast of sensuous swirling concrete and sharp defined angles and edges. The robustness of the concrete used inside is softened by light elements entering through the perforated exterior brickwork. We recommend walking the ten floors to the viewing gallery – the journey itself is part of the charm as the staircase alters in form and proportion with the open platform offering panoramic views over London’s architectural past, present and future.

‘You don’t build museums for tomorrow, you build them for generations,’ said Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota at the inauguration. ‘This is going to be here for decades.’ He feels the aim of the gallery is to be local as well as global, and to forge relationships with communities here and worldwide. Tate Modern is a phenomenal success – with some five million annual visitors, it is the most visited modern art gallery in the world and Switch House will no doubt add to visitor numbers.

In an emotive speech that followed, new London Mayor Sadiq Khan pledged to create affordable artist studios throughout the city, clearly grasping the value this soft power offers London and the UK. ‘I’m putting culture at the very core of my policies, up there alongside housing,’ he followed. Khan said the gallery will inspire new audiences and add to London’s cultural pull. ‘I want to apply the Tate Modern thinking to how I approach my plans.’ Compelling words, and it will be interesting to see if he can achieve this.

Herzog & de Meuron’s intriguing space offers unexpected opportunities to exhibit art in new ways and for visitors to engage with art in a less formal manner with plenty of benches and quite spaces to hang out. ‘The horizontal configuration of the classical galleries in the Boiler House is now enhanced with the vertical boulevard of the new extension,’ explains Pierre de Meuron, ‘creating a kind of architectural topography through the building that will offer unexpected opportunities for both artists and curators to present art outside the official display areas of the gallery.’

This works well for Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, who is keen to continue her mission in transforming the gallery’s collection to embrace other mediums – film and performance – and widen the international and gender representation. ‘I am delighted to now have the space to show this broader story of modern and contemporary art to the public for free.’

There is criticism amongst some circles that institutions like Tate Modern are turning art exhibitions into spectacles, more concerned with attracting numbers with sensationalist shows rather than telling the story of art. Yet perhaps there is space for all kinds of creative interpretations and ventures. Tate Modern and Switch House are free public spaces designed to be inviting, choreographed to engage a wider public rather than a small elite, art lovers who frequent other galleries. This in itself is to be applauded.

Much of the success of the new Tate will be because of the building, the design, the architecture, the space. And London’s latest cathedral of culture certainly offers visual and visceral impact.

Nargess Banks

Switch House opened to the public today and will stay open until 10pm on certain night.

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Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye

Edvard Munch may forever be associated with The Scream, his iconic piece of work that exists in five formats – two paintings, two pastels and a lithograph – one of which sold for a staggering $119m earlier this summer. It is therefore refreshing to see a show dedicated to the work of this Norwegian artist that does not display any version.

Instead, Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye sets out to reassess the work of Munch. It proposes a dialogue between the artist’s paintings and drawings made in the first half of the 20th century and his often overlooked interest in the rise of modern media, including photography, film and the re-birth of stage production. Munch is often presented as a 19th century Symbolists and pre-Expressionist painter, yet he is also very much a contributor to art in the 20th Century – an aspect that the Tate Modern is keen to explore.

Born in 1863 in Norway, Munch lost his mother and sister to TB at a young age. By his 20s, the young artist was very much part of the bohemian circle who rejected traditional values spending time in Paris and Berlin, following a breakdown in 1908, returning to Norway for a more settled life.

A highly experimental artist, Munch reproduced many of his most famous work – 11 of the Weeping Woman – in much the same way that the likes of Andy Warhol did years later. He liked to work in various mediums and explore the same theme in different formats.

Back in Norway he continued to record new ways of seeing. He was fascinated by photography and the black and white films of his time, and closely followed the latest scientific breakthroughs. His use of prominent foregrounds and strong diagonals reference the advancing technological developments in cinema and photography.

Munch was keenly aware of the visual effects brought on by the introduction of electric lighting on theatre stages and used this to create ethereal drama in, for example, his 1907 Green Room series. The duality of presence and erasure is further explored in key works such as The Sun 1910-13 and Starry Night 1922-24, where matter takes on an ephemeral or ghostlike appearance.

Even though after 1909 he kept a relatively secluded life in Norway, Munch kept a close track of current affairs and responded to the political upheaval of his time through his paintings. Self-portraits also lay at the heart of his work. He depicted his experience of ageing, his emotional turmoil and sickness.

Having suffered a hemorrhage in his right eye in the 1930s, he continued to paint what he actually saw with his impaired eye. Munch completed his last self-portrait in 1940, Between the Clock and the Bed (pictured), a year before he died.

Organised in close cooperation with the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Munch Museum in Oslo, Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye features over sixty paintings and fifty photographs, alongside his lesser-known filmic work. The exhibition has been curated by Angela Lampe and Clément Chéroux at the Centre Pompidou and by Nicholas Cullinan at Tate Modern assisted by Shoair Mavlian.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye is at the Tate Modern until 14 October 2012

Jaleh Parvardin

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Turner prize: Sound as sculpture

This year’s Turner Prize was awarded to Scottish artist Susan Philipsz for her sound sculpture Lowlands. Philipsz used a sixteenth century Scottish lament about a sailor who drowns, but returns to give a final farewell to his loved one – recording all three existing versions in her own voice played under different bridges over the river Clyde in her birthplace Glasgow.

Susan Philipsz at the Turner Prize 2010 ceremony

Philipsz, who now lives in Berlin, is intrigued by the way sound can be transformed into architectural and visual images in the listener. As you walk on the underside of these bridges – ‘the dark side’ as she calls them – you catch bits of one song, merging with bits of the next under the following bridge. In the gallery setting the three songs are broadcast through different loudspeakers.

This is the first time the Turner prize has been awarded to a sound sculpture – perhaps a recognition by the visual art establishment of the interconnectedness of the senses.

Two interesting aspects of this prize are worth noting. One feature is the visual content of sound. Syesthesia, where a person involuntarily transfers one form sensory stimulus, say auditory, into another such as colour, has long been known in neuro-psychiatry.  Many composers had such perceptions.

The Russian composer Scriabin, for instance, tried to convey this sensation by having various colours projected during performances of his music, and added an olfactory element by releasing particular smells during his orchestral work Poeme d’Extase.

The French composer Olivier Messiaen took this a step further. Many of his works have specific colour titles such as Couleurs de la cité céleste. In his Treatise of Rhythm, Colour and Birdsong, Messiaen wrote descriptions of the colours of certain chords, sometimes in great detail: blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white. Blue-violet is dominant. Nearer to our time Andy Warhol worked closely with Velvet Underground in a similar light.

We can also approach Philipsz’s sound sculpture from the point of view of the modernist movement for abstraction. It began, partly in response to photography, by Gustave Courbet in his pallet knife paintings, Claude Monet in his flattening of forms and Paul Gauguin in moving colour away from its natural roots.

As Richard Brettell wrote in Modern Art 1851-1929, this was a process whereby the subject matter was pushed back and the artist and viewer brought forward. It was, as he said, a move to introduce more of the painter and more of the imagination of the viewer into a work. Thus the road to abstraction was paved.

The fauves went on to place colour at the centre. Henry Matisse’s The red Studio (1911) merges floor and wall into one glorious red. Robert Delaunay (France 1885-1941), Frantisek Kupka (Czech 1871-1957, Piet Mondrian (Dutch 1872-1944) and many others, all contemporaries and all having spent some time in Paris, abstracted colour further. The ultimate abstraction of colour was its total elimination in the all-white or all-black canvas.

The Russians Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Kasimir Malevich (1878-1936) introduces Slav mysticism into abstract art. Malevich with Lazar El Lissitsky (1890-1941), Mikhail Matiushin (1861-1934) and others in the Constructivists revolutionary artistic group around the Bolsheviks used abstract art as a tool in revolutionary propaganda and the building of a revolutionary society. El Lissitsky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1920) became an iconic propaganda poster. Malevich hung his almost all-white canvases in special ways in galleries as a precursor to installation art.

Mysticism, as well as the interrelationship of sound and colour, was a theme taken up by the American artist Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986). The Americans also developed another aspect of abstraction – and of colour and emotion – in the form of abstract expressionism.

This peaked in the paintings of Mark Rothko (1903-1970) where juxtaposed shades of colour draw the viewer into the canvas thus into creating an emotional state – an inner painting or sculpture. Malevich’s monochrome paintings, hung in abstract architectural forms in a gallery, or Rothko’s merging colour forms, are but one step away from Lowlands where Philipsz has completely removed all shape and colour, leaving sound as the medium for reconstructing sculptors and paintings in the imagination.

When critiques found figures in Kandinsky’s self-declared abstractions, they were not mistaken. Abstraction allows the reign of imagination. Philipsz takes this logic further by totally eliminating the visual input and allowing the listener to imagine form and colour. In this she has also completed the amalgamation of painting and sculpture started by Marcel Duchamp in the Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (1915-23)

Philipsz has taken abstract art to its logical conclusion. By choosing an old lament and suspending the sound under a bridge in the dark underbelly of Glasgow she has already introduced a mystical element that existed in Kandinsky, Miro and more latterly in O’Keefe. And she has recreated the special relationship with sound as the creator of images and defining space.

‘Even in a gallery you become more aware of the space you are in,’ Philipsz said at the Tate Modern as she picked up the Turner prize. ‘You also become more aware of yourself,’ she added.

By putting an untrained voice in a public place, without the river and of shadows beneath a bridge, the mind is focused on the music. The effect is as the artist predicted: ‘Strange, like putting something private into a very public context’ … where the words ‘will be more focused and more intimate’ and ‘very visceral,’ as she noted. As a viewer, you cannot help but be affected by it.

Clearly the judges agreed. It was a good choice and the Tate should be congratulated to have the vision and courage to recognise this.

Philipsz picked up the £25,000 Turner prize presented by fashion designer Miuccia Prada at the Tate Modern in London on 7 December. She was awarded for the presentations of Lowlands at the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art and Long Gone in the group exhibition Mirrors at MARCO Museo de Arte Comtemporánea de Vigo in Spain.

Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh

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Ai Weiwei’s 100m Sunflower Seeds

The latest installation to fill the enormous Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern is an inch-thick carpet made of over a hundred million tiny artworks collectively knows as Sunflower Seeds. Each intricately handcrafted porcelain sunflower seed carries its own unique note delivered by the skilled craftsmen of Jingdezhen.

AAi Weiwei portrait - Photo© Tate Photography ©Ai Weiwei

Sunflower Seeds is the work of Ai Weiwei and the eleventh in the Unilever Series to fill this challenging space at the London gallery. The Chinese artists is best known for his work on the Bird’s Nest Stadium at the Beijing Olympics and for his constant conflict with his government who has arrested and beaten the artist and censored his work.

Sunflower Seeds is splendidly simple in concept, yet completely grand in execution. Ai had 1,600 former makers of imperial porcelain in the town of Jingdezhen work on his project for two years to create 150 tons of handcrafted ceramic covering 1000 square meters.

Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds 2010 - Photo ©Marcus Leith & Andrew Dunkley for Tate Photography ©Ai Weiwei

Additionally, the seeds carry multiple meanings – Mao Zedong depicted himself as the sun and at the same time during the Cultural Revolution when food was scarce, sunflower seeds were plenty.

Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds at the Turbine Hall Tate Modern @Andrea Klettner

Ai wanted the public to walk on his installation, to feel and hear the crunch of the seeds. Sadly, dust raised by the feet of visitors on the first few days, created health and safety issues and the site has since been closed off to the public. This is a real shame, but it is also the very nature of public art.

Viewing it from behind the barrier, Ai’s Sunflower Seeds is forbidden territory, which perhaps adds a new dimension to his message.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks & Andrea Klettner

Sunflower Seeds 2010 by Ai Weiwei is on until  2 May 2011 at Tate Modern.

A series of video booths installed in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern allow visitors to record questions and comments for the Ai Weiwei. Each week until May 2011, the artist will be selecting new videos to respond to and recording his answers.

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