Cristina NualART

Tag: Installations

Red scars and blue dust. Deodorant-free installation art.


The world’s landfills have been dusted with the discarded union jacks that briefly saluted the Queen of England’s jubilee last fortnight. This week the red and blue colours continue to make waves in Saigon, dominating two major art galleries. Two Vietnamese women artists, neither of them from this city, put on show two distinctive art installations, one red, one blue.

Craig Thomas Gallery, veering from it’s preference for showing paintings, invited Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai (Mai being the first name) to set up ‘The Scar’. Lightboxes and a corridor of glass squares (recycled from disused window panes) flood the rooms with tainted red light and a pungent smell. The glass sheets trap tomatoes that were stitched up by the artist before getting flattened as if for microscope viewing.

My first thought were memories of Anya Gallaccio’s decaying red flowers in ‘Preserve Beauty in the 2003 Turner Prize show. Gallaccio’s installation puzzled me. Looking at the beautiful bed of flowers with stems that by then were starting to fur, I wanted to know how far the rotting would spread in the sealed glass case. Does mould spread in an airtight vaccum? What did one do with this artwork if it turned into a furry green mass? Was it meant to be a permanent artwork? I could understand that formaldehyde would preserve bodies indefinetely. I had seen Mark Quinn’s blood head, and it made sense that electricity supply, unquestionably stable in late 20th century Britain, would keep it freezing forever. Hamilton and Goldsworthy took photos of their assembled natural objects. ‘Preserving Beauty’, however, required neither chemicals nor artificially induced temperatures, nor was it meant to be reincarnated in another medium. Not being in appearance a time-based art piece, Gallaccio’s work, for me, was the first artwork that questioned the longevity of itself. My faith in restauration specialists was tested. I wonder what it looks like now.

A bed of nails frozen into a mattress of ice in another room of Mai’s exhibition wonders me into considering how far the influence of the YBA’s has stretched. As worldwide gallerists and collectors in the last decade have been billed for the huge maintenance cost of storing artworks that need life-support, it’s a surprise to see equally difficult to upkeep artworks on show in Vietnam, a hot country with unreliable electricity supply.

NguyenThiThanhMaiI met Mai as she was carefully packing away her rotting tomato glass tiles to send back to her studio in Hue, but for all her care in boxing the work, I suspect she’s not overly worried about the long term survival of her crafted objects. Her artwork is raw and motivated by powerful emotions. It references the recent collective memory of Vietnam, but thematically it is not concerned with making the audience question the time ahead. Vietnam currently has a forward looking mindset, triumphantly optimistic about its ability to soon be on the list of developed countries. Amidst this nationwide fervor to bulldoze a highway to material progress, Mai’s work is all the more significant for it’s introspective glow, literally illuminating scars and paused ripeness. Exploded tomatoes morph into red stains dotted with neutered seeds, viscerally showing physical pain and memorial trauma. But each tomato has been nursed with medical precision, closed up with needle and thread. The artist doesn’t believe in miracle cures, healing requires the bravery of self-inflicted surgery. Trauma is not a pretty sight, the scars in the glass look like wire lightning. And it stinks.

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A much more sedate installation, in tranquil blue and white, but also aromatic, has opened in Galerie Quynh. Nguyen Phuong Linh’s solo show coincidentally also has a short, resonant title, ‘Dust’. The first pieces on view are cubic tons of tobacco, soap and rubber. The scent of these raw materials permeated the neighbourhood in Hanoi where Linh grew up.


The walls upstairs are divided by a horizontal line of small scale blueprints, made in Japan with the now barely used original blueprint method. The intense cobalt blue has a purplish hue. The clean, somewhat minimal display of the whole gallery makes the rich, warm colour appear colder than it could, but the closeness with which one must look at the work means that a gentle intimacy infuses the show. It’s a beautiful feeling to examine the little collections of images, tidy like a lavender-scented wardrobe. I’m particularly drawn to the title and the topic. I want to grow a sisterhood rapport with this artist who admits to noticing subtle change in air colour and texture. I share a love for the little observations Linh has recorded methodically, connecting routine urban visions with memories and the little surprises of noticing unusual characteristics of foreign places.

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The little blueprints skirt around a large ‘Whitescape’, 2 tons of powdered limestone, a breathtaking sight. Disguised as a landscape, the room appears to dwarf. It reminds me of the striking miniature snowscapes by Mariele Neudecker. The dust has been whitewashed, sitting harmlessly like fresh snow. The perils of lung damage have been swept away by the poised visual reconstruction.

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Finally, the artist leaves two books on a table. One is a neatly finished collection of blueprints. The other is a grey copy of it, but with Vietnamese replacing the English text of the blue book. I can’t help laughing at the grey book, with its cheap texture characteric of photocopied books – so widespread in Vietnam. An inferior product, the grey book is the only real nudge amidst these artworks that speaks literally of the dirt of dust.

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3D sketchbook: an archive of the artist’s inspiration

plasticbags1Zerostation is a Saigon-based arts organisation that aims to connect Vietnamese and international art practitioners. It regularly holds exhibitions of contemporary art, which is not yet a popular form of art in Vietnam. The current show by Truong Thien is called ‘Plastic Bags’.

For those of us for who the words ‘plastic bag’ mean disposable carrier bag, the title suggested environmental commentary. Not the case. Too bad – in a city that generates about 4000 tons of waste daily. The exhibits are neat rows of newly purchased plastic pouches, some with the price sticker on, containing mementoes, small objects, found or saved by-products of daily life consumption. The artist has been collecting things since 2009, adding small hand-written notes and organising them in clear zip-lock bags.

plasticbags3The curator and founder of Zerostation, Nguyen Nhu Huy, relishes in the possible interchange of meanings (of the objects and/or of the artist’s notes), and is interested in the confusion that conflicting meanings can lead to, a dislocation that according to him is still a novelty in Vietnamese contemporary art (and one must bear in mind that Surrealism never really set foot in Vietnam).

While one may cogitate on the individual and/or interrelated meanings of the various words and objects attached to the exhibition walls, one might look at the show differently and take in the bigger picture. The ‘Plastic Bags’ are an example of a different purpose of art practice: archiving. This collection is not a contrived attempt to play with binaries. The artist is doing some very basic hoarding, a common practice for many artists. You might call hoarding the practice keeping a database of inspiration. It’s not a new thing, and neither is the concept of creating art archives. Both activities go well together.

 Truong Thien’s artwork is a union of text and object, not to engage the viewer into multilayered readings, but because this compendium is, in fact, a 3D sketchbook. Artists’ sketchbooks are collections of ideas that occur at random moments in life. Most people will be familiar with images of Leonardo’s sketchbooks, brimming with drawings, annotations and personal comments. the artist here is doing the same, collecting ideas to give them more thought and form at a later stage. The original intention was not to exhibit each plastic bag as a finished artwork, but the growth of the archive led to it’s becoming a coherent artwork. The final outcome now open to the public is a by-product of the process of thinking about art and acquiring sources of inspiration. The selection and presentation of the material is just an original way of illustrating that process.

At this point, the ‘sketches’ take on the role of finished pieces. The uniform aesthetic of the glossy wrap allows us to see each anecdotal souvenir as a stand-alone entity. There is no no desire to fragment, and no need for meta narratives. This ensemble is a sculptural umbrella of real-life snapshots. Amusing, sloppy and arbitrary snapshots of the artist’s observations of the world around him.


Need more info on art as archive? Art-Omma has selected some in depth analyses.

Public Space in the Singapore Art Biennale 2011

This article was originally written for Sustainable Urbanism site









For the third edition of the Singapore Biennale, titled ‘Open House’, currently open until 15th May, over 60 artists were invited to create site-specific artworks. Women artists are well represented, as are, naturally, artists from South East Asia. Their thought-provoking ideas on the use of urban and interior space integrate smoothly into the four exhibition areas that the Biennale straddles. Here I will focus on two of them: an old decommissioned airport, and the pedestrian seafront area known as the Merlion park.

The Kallang airport, originally built over reclaimed mangrove swamps in the 1930s, was decommissioned in 1955, and has since then become a gathering space, of sorts, for youth clubs and the People’s Association. This social aspect is reignited once again with its present use as a temporary art gallery. It’s free for all visitors and courtesy buses from the city centre offer easy access.

The airport offers very large spaces, some deco, luminous and airy, some rusty, paint-peeled and full of industrial character. The whole thing is an artists’ party waiting for countdown.

Every building, from the ruined hangars to the renovated control tower, presently contains artworks of all types, including a large children’s work gallery – an educational initiative. Clearly, inclusiveness has been designed into the project, with the exception of the tower, only accessible by stairs, due to the original architecture. Even the pop-up café incorporates the old structural features into its attractive retro interior design.

Next door, a gigantic hangar is home to another home: a freshly made, old-fashioned German barn created by artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset, complete with hay, cart, stuffed goat and lederhosen. The resulting ensemble of cultural melange and resurrected dying spaces (the disused barns and hangars) can be read as a metaphor for the layers of diverse communities and social shelter, from social services to family units, that make up the urban structure. The artists have a trajectory of making commentary on the power of architecture. Here they add thoughts on the isolation of the rural, and the possibility of integration and regeneration.

An artist that actively develops social metamorphosis is Arin Rungjang, from Thailand. His commission ‘Unequal Exchange. No Exchange Can Be Unequal’ appears to be an inviting family living room area. In fact, the homely space, a mix of new and old furniture, transforms itself weekly. Thai migrant workers based in Singapore are offered the opportunity to bring some of their own furniture in return for brand new Ikea pieces.

The process of exchange, moving household objects across residences over the city, swapping old into new and vice versa, generates hybrid interior decoration in the Biennale space we are welcome to use, and in the private homes of the Thai community. Mixing private with public spaces, the question of aesthetic value arises, as quality old-fashioned furniture replaces pristine prefabricated objects. Personal taste as an element of social equality is brought to the table with this exchange of like-for-like.

From the semi-abandoned airport, we move to the bustle of the bay. The Merlion statue, regally on guard at the seafront, has stood as the symbol of Singapore for decades. For the duration of the Biennale, instead of looking up to this 8 metre tall iconic sculpture from the ground, the public can interact face-to-face with it. Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi has encased the Merlion’s head in a makeshift 5-star hotel room.

Visitors queue up daily to enter the suite, in which the Merlion emerges powerfully from the red carpet, towering above the bed, looking out the window to the Marina. This innovative premise turns upside down notions of public sculpture. No longer do we encounter the sculpture casually walking in the park, we must actively go indoors to visit it in an intimate, secluded, ‘private’ space.

Each night, the hotel is the home of two guests who pay the equivalent of approx. £50 each, a competitive price in Singapore for such luxurious accommodation, and a bargain price for the unrepeatable art experience. General public and paying guests alike have the unique opportunity to see Singapore’s favourite monument in a domestic situation. The monolithic proportions of the Merlion are offered on a human scale, transforming ideas of power, protection and surveillance. The wild beast defender of naval invaders becomes indoors a custodian of the home, a family member with whom one converses as an equal.

Over the city, people encounter artworks whose messages of interactive sheltering, both political and private, signal a transition to a motherly and cohesive approach to urban development. The Singapore Biennale is a thoroughly enjoyable art event in which the variety of spaces is an aesthetic experience in itself. The message of ‘Open House’ is for town planners, artists, architects, and the public collaborate to create spaces where new and old, central and peripheral, intimate and expansive, are built into the diverse and welcoming city fabric.

The audioguide information for the Singapore Biennale is available on iPhone and Android apps.


Art is in the eye of the beholder

105_GoldsworthyVietnamIt looks like Andy Goldsworthy came to have a play in my local swamp… Beauty amidst the microbeasts.

Wrapping Art and Golden Gates

Manhattan residents will remember the Golden Gates art project by the awesome artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude (r.i.p.).

I love Christo’s wrapped art and land art projects, but I have no need to be jealous. Now in my local neighbourghood in Vietnam I have impromptu wrapped ‘art’ and golden gates to look at, and to add meaning to visuals, it will also keep me guessing as to the motives (the motives for the wrap, not of the kitsch golden gate – that’s just nouveau riche syndrome).


The skin of art spaces

Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto has exposed the art viscera inside the Hayward gallery, London. I won’t digress much talking about the playful exhibition, other than to say that it’s fun, but not the best I’ve seen there. What I will comment on, too insignificant for the media to notice, is that they’ve used an alternative way to present exhibition information (different to little white cards stuck to the wall). In the A5 guide given with each ticket, you can find clean infographics with arrows pointing to relevant piece of text to learn about each sculpture. Fellow wanderers of art spaces, you, like me, have often struggled to find the right information accompanying each work. The simple solution (where signs cannot be places on the artworks themselves), is to use visuals. Well done Hayward!


Today I gave my heartbeat to an artist…

Cross Hyde Park facing East, get to the Serpentine Gallery, see no red (as you arrive from the West). Encounter a make-shift white box. Enter. Participate. Collaborate. Remember. Take your heart back home with you. Forget.84_RedSerpentine_photocnualart

A long way ago, entertaining the young son of my friend the nurse, I found a stethoscope amongst the pile of children’s toys. I slipped in the earpieces and put the disc on my chest, then nearly fell backwards at the loud thudding noise of my own heart.This was before MP3s and in-ear buds. Walkmans with flimsy sponge headphones didn’t cancel noise and turn you inwards like that stethoscope did.

Hearing my hearbeat was an uncanny experience. For the first time in my life, I experienced the knowledge that I was real and solid, but machine-like in my fragility. Hearing the workings of my own body, the symmetry of my blood transmissions, I gaped in awe at the miracle of life. I was not just an outside shell with airy thoughts in the head and bones to hold me up, I was full of thick, juicy, rich cogs and wheels, running up and down and palpitating in sync. I learned that peripheral vision can work inwards as well as laterally. The thudding sound in the stethoscope was me: nothing else but that rhythmic, all-exterminating noise. Wow. One of my many epiphanies…

Christian Boltanki’s hearbeat recording booth for his Les Archives du Coeur project arrives in London from Monumenta Paris. It’s beautiful in concept, but collides with my current ponderings on data-gathering. I want to hoard and store all paintings, books, photos, documents, etc., but I wrestle with the futility of it – there is a destruction of time in revisiting lived experiences, which makes archiving a pretty egotistical pursuit. Reading Art, Time and Technology (Charlie Gere, 2006) this week I found this message: ‘Andreas Huyssen suggests that one response to the ever-greater ubiquity of real-time systems is an increasing interest in memory. (…) The more memory we store on data banks, the more the past is sucked into the orbit of the present, ready to be called upon the screen.’

After that, Wolfgang Tillmans‘ photographs (the artist as curator) and Jean Nouvel’s red pavillion (glowing) were less moving than they might have been without my flashbacks.


Made In – Oil without paint

Excited about being in Birmingham on a nice sunny day, I dashed to Ikon gallery first, and dove right in.

Seeing One’s Own Eyes is the current explosive exhibition by MadeIn artists collective. It is FUN! I went through, so absorbed in the objects that I didn’t read any of the blurb beforehand. What did I get excited about? Bombastic wall hangings, shodily made with chopped up kitch fake fur and sequined textiles, all tackily glued and stitched together. The colours are loud and the cartoons show people you will recognise from newspaper headlines. The text is as in-your-face as the imagery. The whole thing works! This is art that is cheap and cheerful, big and bold, and as amusing and meaningful as pop art can get.

There’s an instructive video by gallery director Jonathan Watkins on how he met Xu Zhen, one of the founding artists of MadeIn.

At this point, you can -like I did- realise that it’s all a fiction. These artists have nothing to do with Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East or a country at war. They are Chinese artists using made in China sarcasm to share with art consumers of the world, who are – of course – deeply interested in big issues like blood for oil and war in far-away countries full of invisible terrorist camps…

To give respite from the bomb-blasts on the second floor, the third floor welcomes you with some quiet anihilation, a breathing pile of rubble. Calm is the name of this surprising room of living destruction. You can watch 45 seconds of it:

I was lucky to see MadeIn’s exhibition the day after I visited Contemporary Art Iraq in Manchester’s Cornerhouse. The latter is, clearly, art made in Iraq. The Iraqi artists share their daily stories and creative pursuits without loud protesting of their county’s situation. Not that they ignore it, they just get on with life without making a song and dance about things. Had they done so, they might have come up with some strident, controversial artwork of the sort the tabloids would discuss. But it could pigeonhole them as protest artists, which is not for every artist to be.

Since Documenta 11, in 2002, there is a tendency for much contemporary art to function as documentary,* but living amidst irrational ruination for years, their museums plundered, current Iraqi artists do what artists do: make art, quite simply. MadeIn are taking on the documentary agenda and parading it in fancy-dress. It’s a fun party. But along with a good party, there’s nothing better than a soul-baring conversation – away from the pandemonium.

* See Materialist Feminism for the 21st Century, by Angela Dimitrakaki, in Oxford Art Journal, vol. 30, 2007.


The Creative Compass

Strolling up to the Serpentine Gallery on a fine London morning I happened upon a wonderful little exhibition in the Royal Geographical Society, which is giving its space to women artists for the first time (about time).

‘The Creative Compass’ features the work of Agnès Poitevin-Navarre and Susan Stockwell, both of whom have created sculptural pieces using maps and banknotes from around the world in response to the geographical brief.

Susan creates money dresses, in the the European style of the 1900s,  and 2D images of maps by stitching together international currency. The ‘fabric’ is beautiful: colourful and very tactile,and constitutes the main attraction of the pieces. Sculpturaly, the costumes look a bit too rigid and mannequin-like, almost awkward, in contrast with the warm and fun appeal of the money-material. Likewise, the map pictures resonate of Jasper Johns pop-art paintings and take on a historical coldness. One rather English stereotype, I infer, is that having lots of money comes hand-in-hand with a detached demeanour, and maybe that rigidity is what’s coming through. It all poses lots of questions about the global economy, colonisation, and the use of government money to create goods for the already wealthy…

Agnès does not exploit the inherent beauty of maps and banknotes, she is more interested in locating things in space. Using coordinates, her work explores the ties between memories and specific places in peoples lives.

A significant piece is the tabular monument she creates to celebrate colleague women artists. Unlike her other polished pieces in this show, ‘Fellow Artists/Fellow Muses’ looks like quality old-world furniture, offering up the homage in a format that is very believable as a memorial, with its lists, names and impeccable finish. Inspect it more closely for a good laugh: paintbrushes are the everlasting symbol of an artist, the bristles are artist’s hair, the coordinates indicate exhibitions and the names, of course, are those of friends. A toast to suffrage for all the women artists who have never before been invited to the RGS.

Eco art

Currently, Madrid’s Casa de America presents a group exhibition of Spanish and Latin American artists, Mientras sea posible’. The brief is not one I’ve come across elsewhere: to show humankind’s adaptability and potential for change. This topic has been explored in many a new media/digital art exhibition, but here the focus is on natural materials and homeostasis: the tendency to equilibrium between interdependent elements, in particular that of the body, or even the earth, as a unified organism.

Transforming the environment is something all of us who live in cities forget about, because the built cityscape shows change less dramatically than sites in transition from a rural to a more urbanised status. This exhibition offers no reflections on the loss of natural landscape, however, but enough on that can be found in any publication by Greenpeace España.

The questions asked by the curator have been interpreted with more references to local mythology and traditions than I would have expected, and I enjoyed that surprise.

This is Chilean artist Catalina Bauer’s contemporary rendition of quipu, an Andean accounting system. I am fascinated by how many knowledge systems exist that most Westerners like myself never hear about. It makes me question dominant paradigms, and the increasing spread of them. Will the minority ones become extinct, or preserved as a token, like older languages that carry a culture but have little use since they are only used by bilingual people who communicate mostly in their ‘stronger’ tongue? Either way, the artist is pointing to what is on the other side. It is up to us to glimpse through the grass curtain, and discover an alternative paradigm or a message on the inside vs. the outside.

Argentinian artist Ana Gallardo uses a Mexican tradition as a source of inspiration for her installation. The religious rituals of pilgrims to Oaxaca’s Virgen de Juquila are re-enacted by visitors to this space. Viewers, like pilgrims, may give material form to their wishes, out of mud, and leave them en route to the sanctuary, which is here reduced in size so it looks like a room-sized train-set. Because of the miniature landscape feel, it bears similarities with Jake and Dinos Chapman’s now defunct Hell, but made by a younger sibling. Gallardo asks us to make a wish for our own old age, so a resonance of proximity to death is inferred too. However, this is a home-made and interactive kind of artwork which grants hope, and sees people united in good will rather than a bloodbath. Believer or not, making mudcakes is a pastime that kept me happy for hours as a child, and I therefore wholeheartedly recommend it. Even if your wishes don’t come true, it will do you good.

Catalina León is another Argetinian artist, whose curtains of fallen and falling leaves give no indication of their origin or intention. By way of an artist statement, Catalina says only: ‘May nothing trouble you, may nothing frighten you, everything passes’. Such buddhist-style wisdom fits in well with the calm beauty of the piece, but leaves you wondering if you are indeed feeling cheated out of a deep theory for the artwork. Of course I had enjoyed in the work of the other artists learning about legends and stories new to me, here I get no such education. But the cascading sheets of leaf-shaped blankets filling the space with a warm foresty smell, carefully made of hand-stitched leaves, provoke plenty of imaginings of tribal crafts and the cloak of nature to keep one satisfied.


MichaelLandy_photocnualartI find it difficult to reconcile the fact that it’s increasingly OK to take photos in art galleries, where it used to be a big no-no, but less in public places. For example, the Saatchi gallery has no restrictions whatsoever on the public taking photos. Yes, they could well afford to sue you for everything you’ve got if you breached the copyright of the artist, not that your art selling skills are a match to theirs, so you won’t get rich quick that way, will you? I mean, could you really sell that fake painting you just made with your digital photo of the original for millions? So if the average gallery goer can’t, then Saatchi has the right attitude, let them take photos. Bless em, they can’t have the real thing, they can make do with a wee reproduction on their laptop… Most of us taking photos there just want them for our blogs. If your blog gets loads of hits, well that’s free advertising for the artist and gallery. If it doesn’t, then who cares? It can only count as ‘personal use’.

But rules about taking photos are becoming stranger. During the Anish Kapoor exhibition, the Royal Academy staff would only allow photos to be taken with a mobile phone. I had to show the invigilator that I had a whole load of phone numbers in the machine before he let me use it, but after I proved that it was a phone and not a camera, I clicked away happily. So why the fuss? I’m still trying to work it out.

The most bizarre account was when earlier this week I visited Michael Landy’s ‘Artbin’ installation in the South London Gallery. I pulled out my camera from my handbag as I would have pulled out my ringing phone, thinking nothing of it. After all, this was a ‘rubbish bin’ I was about to capture. But as if by magic a polite gentleman materialises in front of me and tells me I can’t take photos because the artists who made the works in the bin (which are, therefore, rubbish to be disposed of – this is a monument to ‘creative failure’) have not given their permission. I don’t get that. An artist has given away a work for it to be destroyed (a ‘creative failure’), but has given it away knowing that in some bizarre way the work will be ‘exhibited’ (if you can say that of a work chucked into a transparent skip), so being exposed to view. Yet the assumption on the gallery’s part is that the artworks must be protected from photographs. I fail to see the logic? The act of binning a failed work into Michael Landy’s bin is an act of exhibitionism, of exposure, of clinging on to the fame of a reputable artist before the big apocalypse wipes the ‘bad’ artist/artwork out of existence. The destruction is preceded by a complete revealing of the work to the public. It’s a confession on a deathbed. The artists who have ‘contributed’ have their name placed on a list, which of course, is also public. Would taking a photo of the work embarrass the artist? The artists have overcome the embarrassment of admitting creative failure by donating in the first place. It’s public, it’s official. But it must not be visually recorded…

My perplexity lies in the fact that I am of an age and culture in which you learnt that artworks were sacred and should not be touched or photographed. As we’ve moved into the I-will-air-my-dirty-linen-in-public generation (thanks to Tracey Emin, blogs, camera-phones and social networks), that has changed. Interactivity rules. But whilst art galleries may be moving with the times and accepting that viewers will take photos, the Big Brother is deciding for us that maybe we should not, and certainly not in public. See this article in last week’s Sunday Times.

In any case, not to offend anyone, I have digitally blurred the artworks in this photo of Michael Landy’s Artbin (taken before the kind gentleman asked me not to):


Although I love the artbin idea -that not all artwork is great and some artworks just don’t end up looking as wonderful as they did in your mind’s eye- I was disappointed that the exhibition did not include the destruction. I asked Michael Landy himself about this, since he was around. He explained that the gallery was going to be in charge of the destruction, as from Monday 15th March 2010. The gallery would shred canvas and dispose of the rest of the junk. Although I understood his rationale, he wants to show the failures, but is not interested in how they are terminated, I felt a little bit cheated. I’ll get over it, though, I know what a bonfire looks like. I just learnt yesterday that Roald Dahl held a weekly bonfire outside of his writing hut where he burnt the drafts (written with a good ole graphite pencil) that preceded success.


How to make art with toxic waste: Richard Wilson’s 20:50

RW_2050_photocristinanualartSUV’s may be going down, but oil is back in fashion. Richard Wilson’s installation is on show for the third time in London, in a Saatchi space, at Saatchi’s third gallery, now in Chelsea. I feel very lucky to have seen the ‘indoor oil slick’ twice before, both in its setting on Boundary Road, and then in the Southbank Saatchi gallery. See how it looked there.

The first time round, I saw it first in 1993, this artwork blew my young mind. The disused factory in St John’s Wood, as I recall the experience, was an enormous white void, so big it was almost empty, but dotted with ideas (bizarre artworks made of frozen blood, etc.) that made me smile. When I hit the 20:50 room, however, the smile turned to O for awe. It was stunning!!! A gigantic upside down mirror, room-size, made of slick, black oil. Nobody around. Just white walls, light-filled windows, and ‘glass’. But without the glass. Phenomenal. No other installation quite moves me in the same way.

The second time I had the beautiful experience was a decade later,  in the County Hall venue in London’s Southbank. Wood-panelled walls and a delightfully warm and old-fashioned interior throughout, the building did ‘upgrade’, for want of a better expression, the status of the artworks, meaning it felt in places like a historical museum, far different from the gianourmous white cube premises of the nineties. 20:50 in a wood-panelled room veered on the sublime, except that as with all things in life, the first time has the most impact. But don’t get me wrong, the Southbank version of an oil-filled lounge is nothing short of exquisite. That’s how astonishing this piece is.

Now it’s on view, as in it’s infancy (thanks go to Matt’s gallery for taking the primordial risk of enabling this work in the 80’s, but I didn’t see 20:50 then, so can’t comment on the original setting), in a barren white room. It would be fine, if you could actually experience it. However, the gallery has halved the sensation by prohibiting the public from walking down the slope. Ridiculous health & safety regulations are alleged, unsurprisingly. Gosh, won’t we laugh at ourselves in the future knowing how much we let policy overtake our common sense and innate sense of survival. I mean, how many people do you know who really want to bathe in disused machine oil? Surely even the free-radicals in deep-fried oil don’t age the skin that badly! I must add, though, that the public must take some responsibility for this unfortunate barrier (and be pretty dumb/disrespectful too) because visitors had thrown in coins and other objects (including socks, I am told by Saatchi staff!) leading to the artwork having to be drained (and barricaded…).

Still, half the sensation is nonetheless a massive endorphin rush. Pay your respects to the oil, rewards await.


Unless otherwise specified, text and images © 2017 Cristina Nualart

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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