Sunday was Giardini day and this time the artwork that got my heart racing was in the Norwegian pavilion – a massive sculpture made from fibreglass reinforced polyester pipes by Siri Aurdal (b.1937). The wave-like form called ‘Onda Volante’ (sea waves) looked like a giant version of my final centrepiece, the evenly spaced ridges on the plastic even referenced throwing lines. Walking around and underneath the cut tube sections I felt like I did walking around the aeroplanes at RAF Cosford museum, the curved plastic forms riveted together like wings of a giant aircraft. I felt the enclosed space didn’t do justice to it though, it was as if the form was trying to ‘flow’ outside, with tentacles pushing up against the ceiling. I’d love to see it placed in the Yorkshire sculpture park with wide expanses of space all around. Reading up about Aurdal after returning home I’ve discovered she came to fame in Norway in the 60s with large scale interactive sculptures that people could play and climb on, inspired by modular, mathematical forms. My interest in interactive artwork has been re-ignited!
Another treasure was found in the Finland pavilion, where Heledd and I must have spent over an hour mesmerised, watching the very funny ‘The Aalto Natives’ by Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen. The installation is part film, part two talking puppets called Geb and Atum, who explore elements of Finnish society, history and national identity. The videos swap between different styles: CGI, hand drawn stop-animation and Muppet style puppets and according to the leaflet ‘explore themes such as nationalism, xenophobia, bureaucracy, and intolerance by way of absurdist satire’. Half the time it felt like a missing episode of the Might Boosh, the other half like a montage of the ABCs of death. I’m still confused as to why the Neanderthal guy had a Liverpudlian accent.
I loved Milena Dragicevic’s colour compositions at the Serbian pavilion. Her abstract paintings ‘Erections for Transatlantica’ drew in the eye from afar with bold colour. The strange, sculptural images are mixtures of her own intuitive drawings with forms taken from outside sources. I thought some referenced Islamic architecture, others forms of microbes and bacteria.
It’s not every day you find one of your friends has secured a place invigilating the welsh pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, so when I was invited by the fabulous goblin queen herself Heledd Evans (check her out!) to spend a weekend in Venice I jumped at the chance.
Arriving Friday evening, my first impression of Venice was the city at night, which I discovered is when it becomes truly magical. The tourists retreat to their hotels on Lido and the other islands, leaving the dim streets of the centre empty but for the odd watchful cat. The expensive boutiques and tacky tourist shops with their Murano glass, lace and sparkly masks close up for the night. Alleyways and courtyards, lit up by warm lamplights, take on an otherworldly quality of light, the closest I can think of is the chiaroscuro of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks or Magritte’s ‘The Dominion of light’. The air is warm and smells richly of flowers, vaguely of incense and spice. Music seems to surround you but you can never seem to pinpoint where it’s coming from – a saxophone solo beckons in he darkness, a pounding bass thuds across the bay from a cruising party boat.
Since Heledd was working, I spent most of Saturday alone, making my way around the Arsenale in the morning. At the entrance is the Viva Arte Viva exhibition. In the Pavilion of the Earth, Michael Blazy, a Parisian artist, has arranged a stack of magazines printed with bright photos of travel destinations like those from a tourist brochure. From somewhere high up drips water, gradually eroding the paper, revealing contour lines of colour like the topography on a map. This image of erosion reminds me of the deteriorating of the building facades around Venice where plaster is peeling to reveal a palimpsest of bricks underneath. I read this time based installation as a kind of ticking clock comment on climate change as well as the effect of increasing tourism on the environment of Venice and other tourist destinations.
Further along, in the romantically named Pavilion of Time and Infinity I found Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt’s ‘One thousand and one nights’. Behind a shimmering curtain of silver leaf lies a rectangular carpet of dust, illuminated in the dark by a spotlight. The lamp turns over time and a gallery attendant sweeps the dust back up under the light, lifting dust clouds into the air. The effect is mesmerising.
The pavilion that had the most memorable and powerful impact on me though was undoubtedly the Italian one. The exhibition here called ‘Il mondo magico’ included a very unsettling and yet utterly captivating installation called ‘Imitation of Christ’ by Roberto Cuoghi. Entering into the factory-like setting you’re confronted with a stage on which a mould of a crucified body lies, with all manner of machinery surrounding it. You feel as if you’ve just entered into Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Beyond this, there’s a kind of Eden project biosphere tunnel flanked at the entrance by two shrivelled body forms cast in a silica-like organic material. A sign warns you of the presence of mould spores inside – hinting at what lies beyond. In the dim space, you enter the plastic tunnel lit from the inside with harsh white fluorescent lighting. At intervals there branch off small rounded pods, domes which can be entered by parting the industrial PVC curtains.
You wouldn’t really want to go inside. Each pod is filled with a couple of peculiarly shaped operating tables, on top of which, on beds of black foam lie a couple of cast bodies, shrivelled, shrunken and withered, their surfaces crusted in mould or oozing with slime. The whole thing feels like walking into a dystopian computer game like Fallout, the bodies could be those of the feral ghoul zombies that haunt the radiation polluted wasteland. It’s very disturbing but at the same time you can’t help yourself taking a peek into the next dome, and the next, in the same way many people can’t help turning to have a look when they pass and accident on the road.
Exiting the giant igloo at the far end you come to a wall where dis-formed cast body parts are arranged into crucified Christs but with limbs missing and displaced. The juxtaposition of futuristic space domes and scientific equipment with the religious undertones of the body in the position of crucifixion is an unsettling fusion of past tradition and science fiction. According to the guide booklet Cuoghi is ‘inspired by the Imitation of Christ, an ascetic medieval text that he reinterprets from the standpoint o what he calls a “new technological materialism”. ‘ The tunnel may symbolise the tomb where Christ was buried, and the mould might represent the Resurrection in that it’s a new life form that only blooms and thrives following the death of others.
I’ve been thinking about what it is these artworks have in common. What is it that really interests me? There’s definitely an element of collaboration with outside ‘non-human’ forces – the ability of the dripping water to erode, the randomness of the shapes of the dust clouds and the lack of control over how the mould on the ‘corpses’ grows. There’s also a time based element, these artworks change and develop over time rather than staying static. Might I explore this in my own work, thinking about the constant weathering of rocks and forming of clay that goes on around us all the time? Phoebe Cummings’s work springs to mind.
I spent Saturday afternoon getting lost in the back alleys of Venice, happily stumbling across the design pavilion at the Palazzo Michiel by chance.
It’s nearly 9pm at a darkened industrial estate on the outskirts of Roath, Cardiff. Past Maccies, fluorescent lights gleam clinically off stainless steel and spotless white ceramic in the bathstore. Further along strings of green and white balloons bob in the chill evening breeze. Down a black driveway we find what we’re here for.
The bar at Spit and Sawdust, Cardiff’s indoor skate park that also doubles up as a trendy art space, is packed with dapper guys in modish glasses. There are lots of beards. Pushing through a curtain of red PVC, myself and some mates find ourselves entering the skate park itself. This large, open warehouse space with its ramps and rails, half pipes and boxes, has for a while become the setting for John Lawrence’s sound and light installation ‘The Solar Pessimist’. The surreal poster for the exhibition has been confronting me every lift journey at uni for the past week. On it a Tron-like landscape similar to the one Noel Fielding’s fantasy man inhabits is superimposed with upturned eyes, maybe a nod to Dali’s Chien Andalou.
‘Have you ever experienced loss?’ booms the recorded male voice. ‘You know …real loss. Real Data Loss. Nothing can prepare you…all those photos…all that footage’. I think of having my phone stolen my first week at university. The voice is loud but sometimes indistinct, muffled by the layered electronic sounds. I can feel the vibrations shooting up my legs from the plywood slide I’m sitting on. Overhead a circle of lights spin and pivot like pro skaters, cascading purple light in time to the disembodied soliloquy then building up gradually to a manic flashing display, an epileptic fit inducing an avalanche of sound. The voice crescendos in fury like an angry God pouring his wrath from the sky.
Ditching my San Miguel on the ground as i climb up a slope to get a different view, i feel like a cheeky teenager. Empty bottles litter the arena and cliques of fine art students huddle together at intervals like rival gangs. The darkness adds to the feeling of acting the rebellious teen, hanging out after dark. I like the freedom to play here – to climb and slide, lie down or balance across different structures like a child on a giant climbing frame. It’s fun but I also feel self conscious and exposed, watched as I am watching everyone else to see how they interact with this environment designed to be explored with skateboards, none of which can be found. By walking into this space I have immediately become part of the artwork.
Filming and photography are encouraged. At the far end of the room a man pushes a camera round and round on a circular dolly. My friend and I try to trick it, switching places every time it makes another rotation before we realise that like the lights above, this camera is also turned, one minute facing the colour dancing on the shiny, slippy floor, the next facing the parallel lines on the ceiling. As the sound and voice move to their climax we go to lie on a wooden box in the centre of the room directly beneath the circle of lights. As I stare up at them, the flashing burns patterns of circles into my retina so the room carries traces of moments before in electric blue smudges and I wonder like David Bowie ’bout sound and vision.
On Saturday I visited Collect 2017 the ‘international art fair for contemporary objects’ at the Saatchi gallery in London – an impressive and richly diverse display of ceramics, textiles, metal, jewellery and glass by makers from 37 of the world’s leading galleries. Of all the incredible objects on display I found myself drawn to the quieter, smaller scale artworks, especially the enamelled stoneware sculptures of French artist Chloe Peytermann (www.chloeterre.com). The upturned bottle shapes are called ‘atolls’ which I’ve learnt are kinds of ring shaped reefs or islands formed on coral. This accurately describes the ring formations of glazes on the flat surfaces that bubble in thick dollops of colour.
I like this idea of using the base of the vessel, the part that’s usually hidden from view, as the focal point. It’s a good flat canvas to work with glaze flow and thick application. The forms look like they were thrown and I expect they’re open at the other end but I was too afraid to pick them up since they cost £300 each! This is the one thing that frustrated me at Collect, the prevalence of ‘do not touch’ signs when so much of the work looked irresistibly tactile. Accompanying the Atolls series on her website is the quote by French author Maylis de Kerangal “I like the idea that the experience of memory, in other words the action of remembering, transforms the place into a landscape, metamorphoses the illegible spaces into narrative.” The idea of the experience of memory and how it differs from truth is a thread I’m interested in pursuing in the Cafe society project and leads on from trying to replicate the shape of a mug I remembered from home.
The colour scheme of speckled pastels with patches of vibrant pink and blue reminded me of the work of Ben Fiess who makes functional jars with cork and elastic band stoppers. I like the effect of juxtaposing eye-popping colours which conjures up memories of the candy colours of jars on the shelves of old fashioned sweet shops. For me they evoke childhood camping holidays to the New Forest where the arduous bicycle expeditions through hornet infested woodland were amply rewarded with a visit to Lyndhurst sweet shop. When I think of it I always think of Roald Dahl’s account of the sweet shop he and his friends always visited on the way back from school, funnily enough, in Llandaff.
Ben’s website www.bfiess.com is well worth a visit, he’s got a quirky selection of mixed media drawings as well as an ongoing database of research into glaze recipes and clay bodies.
I spent Sunday afternoon at Cardiff museum where I stumbled across these stunning earthenware vessels dating from the 5th century BCE. They each stand about 25cm high and were made in Attic, the region of Greece that surrounds Athens. The clay there contains lots of iron which explains the vibrant red colour of many ancient Greek vases. These jugs would have been used to store olive oil for religious ceremonies and funerary purposes as well as for use domestically and in baths (olive oil was used instead of soap). Something about the elegance of these forms appeals to me. The long, narrow necks taper up from almost flat shoulders and the wide feet make the cylindrical bodies look like they’re sitting on plinths. The bottles would have been thrown on a wheel low to the ground, probably in sections, with the neck thrown from separate coils of clay stuck to the shoulder. While the red and black slips would have been applied before firing, the one on the left has had a white paint (kaolin clay) applied after the firing to about 950 degrees Celsius.
I’ve been practicing throwing bottles after seeing a beautifully minimal and quiet ‘still life’ by Gwyn Hanssen Pigott at the V and A. I like the way bottle forms have a particular character. In contrast to more open froms they can look upright and proud but also shy and aloof.