Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Vanity of Small Differences, Grayson Perry, The Victoria Miro, 07 June- 11 August 2012

Although this exhibition has been long gone, i have made the decision to write a short essay on the six tapestries, mainly for my own remembrance of the symbolic and religious structures within the work but also for anyone who may be interested in what it all meant. This was written a while ago but just didnt get round to publishing it so apologies for the lateness, however this exhibition fascinated me.

Grayson Perry has been observing certain aspects of British public; watching what people wear, people’s hobbies, and inspecting possessions. He has been getting an insight into the personal lives of the working, middle and upper classes, the details of modern life, and the truths those details reveal about certain communities. What is behind people’s choices to buy certain things and live in a particular way? What do individuals think about themselves? Perry has been on safari through the taste tribes of Britain, looking at events and rituals that reveal the most about someone’s class and background, to produce six panoramic tapestries for an exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery, The Vanity of Small Differences.Beginning his investigation in Sunderland, a city with strong working class traditions, Perry looks at how early upbringing can have an effect on later life, and the traditions of the men and women to show they belong to the ‘tribe’. He notices how the middle and upper classes look down on the lower classes in a snobbish way, but what taste defines the lower classes? What is working class taste? Sunderland’s men drive fast cars with subs, have big tattoos and practice cage fighting as a primitive or even sexual display whereas the women wear short dresses, big hair, and fake tan; they are their dream persona at the weekend when they go out as an escape from reality. It is ‘beauty you can measure with a ruler’, there are ‘standards that have to be met’. Just because someone belongs to a tribe, does that mean they enjoy it or could they want to escape it? This is another idea behind Grayson Perry’s work, not only trying to define the taste in the class system but also the feelings from the classes themselves. The Adoration of the Cage Fighters is the first of six tapestries produced for this exhibition. The first words on the tapestry communicate: ‘I could’ve gone to uni’ which is a poignant statement to illustrate the ticket to a better life that education can have. The main figure on the right is mirrored to the figure in Adoration of the Shepherds by Mantegna; all six of the tapestries have references to religious paintings.

The Adoration of the Cage Fighters

Two cage fighters kneel before the main figure offering membership to the working class just as four ladies on the right are trying to persuade the figure to ‘come out for a drink on a Friday night’. The grandmother in the centre will surely stay at home and look after the baby. The baby is symbolic of Tom Rakewell, illustrated in the series of paintings by William Hogarth called A Rake’s Progress. For these tapestries, Grayson Perry has changed the name to Tim Rakewell to modernise the character, which appears in the other six works as a progression, such as the influence of Hogarth; his paintings just as relevant today as when they were created in 1733.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Andrea Mantegna, 1450

The second tapestry in relevance to the working class taste is called The Agony in the Car Park inspired by a singer Perry met in a night club in Sunderland. The words on the tapestry read: ‘Ship building bound this town together like a religion’, referring to the working class traditional occupations of the area and showing the story of class mobility. On the right of the tapestry, boy racers have ‘Mating Call’ stamped on their cars to symbolise the reasoning behind these young men’s choices and the rituals that ‘get the girls.’ This scene is a lot more emotionally charged and so refers to the emotional structures that form taste. The composition of the piece is associated with two religious paintings; The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini, and the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald, which both have a main figure centred in the painting with smaller figures surrounding or gathering round. Furthermore, the viewpoint is mostly similar to The Agony in the Garden as the viewer’s perspective is very high up, showing the surrounding landscape.

The Agony in the Carpark

The Agony in the Garden,
Giovanni Bellini, 1465

Isenheim Altarpiece,
Matthias Grunewald, 1512-16
The working class have been summarised in these first two tapestries, the cage fighting, the ‘mating call cars’, the dressed up girls, the lack of education to the working classes, and their own individual tastes and choices. They answer the question: ‘Who do we think we are?’
Stereotyping the classes, general views of the public consider the middle classes to have more aspiration than the working classes, opting for branded and more corporate clothing, Land Rovers, dinner parties etc. to subtly give off signals of richness including the cleanliness and perfection of houses. As Grayson Perry considers himself to be middle class, he wonders, is there an upper middle class and a lower middle class? Are the middle classes separated into tribes? Does the more money you have mean the more choices you can make which ultimately mean better taste? But what is better taste? The middle class are considered self- made people, but also people who are not certain of their place in society, being somewhere in between. This lost identity of the middle classes causes angst and agony in looking effortless, feeling a sense of not belonging and therefore wanting to belong.
Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close is the third tapestry in the series, showing snippets of taste in the middle classes. The two figures in the middle represent Tim Rakewell and his girlfriend (in referral to Tom Rakewell in Hogarth’s A Rate’s Progress) and mirror Adam and Eve in another religious painting Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, painted by Masaccio in 1424-25. The split between the two scenes illustrates the lack of belonging in the middle classes; tiny details from Grayson Perry’s research in Tunbridge Wells are noticed also, the William Morris wallpaper, the Land Rover, the golf, the homemade cupcakes and the obsessive cleaning rituals of ‘perfect housewives.’ The chalice in the painting symbolises the middle classes and can be seen in the twinned middle class piece, The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal.

Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Masaccio, 1424-25 
The possessions and still life of the middle classes is emphasised in The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal, with a Cath Kidston handbag, Penguin book mugs, iPads, car keys and Union Jack printed cushions. The narrative shows Tim Rakewell’s business partner (portrayed as an angel) coming to share the news that he has successfully sold his company to virgin for £270 million pounds, which can be seen in an article on the screen of the iPad. Tim Rakewell sits comfortably on his sofa with his child in his arms and his wife in the kitchen, enjoying his wealth. The coffee jug in the centre is the central icon of the middle classes, just as the chalice was a reference in the previous tapestry. The middle classes are most aware of what they buy, why they buy it and the effect it will have on them and how they are portrayed by others around them. They are self- conscious of the whole taste phenomenon, and there is competition in who can be the most individual.

The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal
The Annunciation, Giotto Di Bondone, 1305

In search of the traditional upper class taste, Perry visits the Cotswolds, filled with mansions and stately homes, where people are stuck in their aristocratic ways, describing themselves as good quality, understated, appropriate and flawless, ‘the posher the person, the less they have to prove.’ There is a spell that is cast over everyone by the upper class, the intimidation felt and the ‘perfection’ that seems to radiate from them. Clothing is deemed more a uniform than a way to express personality, the upper classes have a stronger family tree and so the upkeep of a family’s reputation than be more important than finding one’s own person. Ancestors portraits hang in hallways, clothes are handed down through generations from mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers, still worn today; very English and very historical. But when faced with the pressure of carrying on tradition, whether this may be inheriting property or taking over a family business, does this make it harder to develop a personal taste? Does upper class taste mean not having any taste at all and just carrying on with what has always been done?
Lord Bath, or Alexander Thynn, the 7th marquess of Bath and owner of Longleat House in Somerset, broke out of these traditions, and transformed one wing of the house into a blank space where he could redesign and paint anything and anywhere he wanted, filling it quickly with his own art, very much with a Bohemian taste. He commented: ‘My space, my canvas.’ which is a powerful statement to show the contrast with the lack of change in upper classes. They are an endangered tribe; they are fighting for survival in an age where the modern world is slowly destroying a traditionalist culture.

The Upper Class at Bay

This can be depicted in The Upper Class at Bay, the fifth tapestry to define the third type of class, showing the ideas and tastes coming to a dead end. The upper class is portrayed as prey or an endangered species brought down- ‘The Hunter and the Hunted.’ Tim Rakewell is viewed on the right with his wife, witnessing the killing of a tatty, tweedy old stag. The stag represents a dying patriarch who has run his course and is being mauled by the ‘dogs of tax’. The distortion which can be seen in not just this tapestry, but all six, gives a nightmarish quality and a hazy sense of reality. The stag is being watched with satisfaction that the old is being undermined by the new.


The Lamentation, Rogier Van Der Velden, 1441

#Lamentation is the final scene that completes the series, in which Tim Rakewell has brought himself a new car and in flaunting this to his new wife, races down the street, only to end up crunched into a lamp post, flying through the windscreen and ending dying in the gutter in a tragic turn of events. Accessories scattered around him illustrate the celebrity lifestyle, being featured in the latest ‘Hello’ magazine, his iPhone smashed up, his blonde bombshell wife standing distraught in the road. The hash tag at the beginning of the title refers to the audience of people in the scene, tweeting pictures and status updates of the celebrity crash, oblivious to the feelings of dying Tim Rakewell. The composition mirrors A Lamentation by Rogier Van Der Velden, the religious undertones contrast with the false, money-grabbing life of Tim Rakewell in his success through the classes to the top.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China, The Fitzwilliam Museum, 5 May- 11 November 2012

'Featuring over 350 royal treasures, exquisitely crafted in jade, gold, silver and bronze, The Search for Immortality is the most important exhibition of ancient Chinese art ever shown in Britain. It is also the first time the spectacular archeological finds of the Han family royal burials from their ancestral home town of Xuzhou have been brought together with the treasures from the tomb of the King of Nanyue in southern China, who also aspired to the title of 'emporer'.The exhibition explores these kings' quest for immortality and the struggle for imperial legitimacy in ancient China's Han Dynasty, which established the basis for unified rule of China up to the present day.', (The Fitzwilliam Museum)

This is an eye-opening exhibition to the art forms of ancient China, the immense decorative detail that goes into even the most normal of objects for the royalty of the 2nd century BC. Weapons, body suits, coffins, musical instruments, ornaments, plaques, basins and gold seals make up just some of the artifacts in this huge gathering. Personally, the incredible sense of social status and riches was the most surprising thing about The Search for Immortality, everything was made from gold and jade and other priceless materials. When looking at the work, the symbolism within some of the decorative detail was fascinating, and there was a strong feeling of the celebration of life and afterlife in looking at the burial gifts and burial suits.

Here is a photo of one of the burial suits in the exhibition, which were worn only by royalty, and made from stitching together plates of jade stone. The one above is composed of 4,248 jade plaques, sewn with 1,576 grams of gold thread. The suits are so old that the jade has lost its green colour. In my opinion, this was the most impressive piece in the whole exhibition.
Below are some of the other pieces i found particularly interesting. Overall, this exhibition was really enjoyable and i would definately recommend it for the viewing of these rare artifacts and the fascinating stories you can learn behind them.

Gold belt plaque, 2nd century BC, Western Han dynasty

Jade coffin, 2nd century BC, Western Han dynasty

Leopard-shaped stone weight, 2nd century BC, Western Han dynasty

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Edgelands, The Fitzwilliam Museum, 27 March - 30 September 2012

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is currently displaying two portfolios of contemporary prints by George Shaw and Michael Landy that inspire ideas about 'edgelands'- the forgotten, overlooked places neither city nor countryside, on the urban edge.

'Edgelands are those areas that are like a threshold between the two worlds, carrying aspects of both, but representing neither – they are a third type of environment overlooked by most people. The exhibition features landscapes and weeds not usually considered beautiful or picturesque. Drawn by two of Britain’s leading contemporary artists, the portfolios Twelve Short Walks by George Shaw and Nourishment by Michael Landy throw light on these forgotten areas of our cities. The two artists capture different aspects of life on the edge, making us question our preconceptions – can mundane places and ordinary lives become extraordinary when we stop to look?
The idea of the lost urban wilderness of edgelands has become a popular topic in contemporary culture. From stories about their potential environmental importance as habitats, through city foraging walks for edible plants, to movie settings for novels such as J. G. Ballard’s ‘Crash’, edgelands have moved from counter-culture to mainstream. They have been explored in poetry, TV, film and literature, including the 2011 book Edgelands, Journeys into England’s True Wilderness by the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons, which discusses Shaw’s and Landy’s prints.
George Shaw was shortlisted for the 2011 Turner Prize. Like his paintings, Shaw’s prints have a strong autobiographical feeling and Twelve Short Walks revisits scenes of his childhood on the Tile Hill council estate in the suburbs of Coventry. Using drawing and painting to create the prints, many of the images create an uncanny, anxious mood through unusual use of viewpoints - the paths that lead into the prints promising an uncertain end to each walk. In this way Shaw explores the haunting sense of loss between his memory and the place revisited, conveying his anxiety at feeling ‘out of place’ in the landscape of his own past.
Michael Landy is best known for his 2001 piece of performance art called Break Down, where he systematically catalogued and destroyed all of his worldly possessions in a former C&A store on Oxford Street, London. Surprisingly, for his next project he chose to do a series of very carefully observed drawings of wild plants, which is the portfolio now displayed in Edgelands. Entitled Nourishment, the prints look at the overlooked vegetation found growing through the cracks of pavements, at the margins of car parks and on waste ground. Landy collected a selection of these ‘street flowers’, and drew meticulous and highly detailed life-sized images of them on etching plates. Weeds are the neglected flora of edgelands, often defined as flowers ‘out of place’, just as the patches of landscape at the edge of suburban estates provide unexpected encounters with ‘countryside’ in unexpected places.
As well as the edgelands theme, these portfolios both share a heightened focus on everyday subjects as well as remarkable attention to detail in draughtsmanship and the process and effects of printmaking.
The Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Timothy Potts commented: “All the prints featured in Edgelands were made using traditional printmaking techniques in a fresh way: in particular etching and lithography. Although this is a contemporary look at things, both artists were making very carefully observed drawings with long-established methods. It is an accessible exhibition that should appeal to those interested in the new and the traditional.”
The curator of the exhibition, Craig Hartley commented: “It should be stressed that when the prints were made, the artists would not have had any concept or agenda of ‘edgelands’ in mind. But there is a growing cultural interest in this unexplored zone and these prints have become part of that broader discussion. It touches us all personally. We all walk through similarly neglected landscapes in our own lives: ordinary places that become extraordinary when we stop to look and rethink the familiar things we take for granted, perhaps because an artist has shown us a different way of looking at them, or because we are revisiting them after time has changed our point of view.”, (Press Release from The Fitzwilliam Museum)

Examples of work from portfolio of prints by George Shaw: "12 Short Walks", 2005

Examples from a series of drawings by Michael Landy: "Nourishment", 2002

Michael Landy, ‘Shepherd's Purse’ 2002

The simplicity of overlooked urban landscapes featuring school buildings, brick walls, alleyways, semi-detached council houses, estates and wire fencing lends George Shaw's 'short walks' to be portrayed in a different light than when you would normally see these scenes in real life. I really liked the delicate quality of the ink used to create these series of moments that seem to be connected by memory. There were no people visible in any of the prints which gave them a ghostly sense of abandonment, and a strong sense of being on the edge of an unexplained narrative. An unusual deployment of viewpoints and perspective leant a feeling of secrecy to these prints as well as viewpoints which produced wonderment and intrigue.
As for Michael Landy's work in his latest series of drawings Nourishment, consisting of 12 hard ground etchings, this was produced over a period of nine months where Landy collected weeds and fed and watered them to keep them alive while he drew them life sized. 'Seeing the plants as really optimistic things, they'll find little patches of ground to germinate in and flourish, constantly moving on and adaptable to thier changing surroundings, like people have to be so, its an analogy of that...' Recent portraiture work by Landy show the same close scrutiny and meticulous line. From personal opinion, this work was very poignant and raised issues of what we view as beautiful and how ordinary occurances such as weeds can be viewed in a different light, which made this exhibition very enjoyable.