Posts Tagged ‘nature of existence

24
Mar
19

Exhibition: ‘Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

26th January – 31st March 2019

 

Bill Viola. 'Nantes Triptych' 1992

 

Bill Viola (American, born 1951)
Nantes Triptych (still)
1992
Video/sound installation
Courtesy Bill Viola Studio
Photo: Kira Perov

 

 

Bill Viola (American, born 1951)
Nantes Triptych (extract)
1992
Video/sound installation
Courtesy Bill Viola Studio

 

 

Far from heaven

On the surface (and there’s a key word), this exhibition pairs these two artists together as a form of immaculate concept(ion).

“Though working five centuries apart and in radically different media, these artists share a deep preoccupation with the nature of human experience and existence. Bill Viola / Michelangelo creates an artistic exchange between these two artists… It [the exhibition] proposes a dialogue between the two artists, considering Viola as an heir to a long tradition of spiritual and affective art, which makes use of emotion as a means of connecting viewers with its subject matter.” (Press release)

At the heart of both artists work is an exploration of the body as a vessel for the eternal soul, where the use of the body gives shape (through fundamental human experiences and emotions) to spirituality, and where both artists consider metaphysical questions about the nature of existence and reality.

One of the successes of the exhibition (when seen from afar) is the undoubted connection across time, space and culture between two human beings investigating what it is to be human: as Viola puts it, an understanding and awareness of “a deeper tradition, an undercurrent stretching across time and cultures… the ancient spiritual tradition that is concerned with self-knowledge.” In Viola’s work it is an essence of self reflection, the self reflection in water of the first humans, that recognition of self – that idea of self knowledge that is built into water – and his use of water (and other elements such as fire) as an immersive, nurturing, entombing, womb death environment in many of his video installations, that provides the impetus for his investigation.

But I have a nagging doubt about this pairing.

Viola’s work seems to be of a different order (of being) than that of Michelangelo. Even though Viola’s work connects the viewer to its subject matter through feeling and emotion, these feelings and emotions are viewed from the outside (Man Searching for Immortality / Woman Searching for Eternity). The camera objectifies this theatre of creation for our viewing pleasure. The video installations are performances which seem to be of a different kingdom to me (performance, theatre, spectacle) – whereas Michelangelo’s drawings seem to emanate from within. Not chemical, not organic, but something else which is so deeply embodied that they seem to come close to enlightenment.

How Viola fits into the great catalogue – we can only take in by what he tells us. And in time.

Because this spiritual investigation is mostly seen “through a glass darkly”, sometimes it has a, scent of being, not genuine – sometimes because we are all imperfect artists – but sometimes, through someone like Hilma af Klint, or Hokusai or, in this case, Michelangelo (“Michael angel”) it is much much more transparent… and closer to the surface. Am I making sense?

Sometimes they are about something I may somewhat understand in this lifetime (Viola) and sometimes they are about something that I don’t believe has been “released” to humanity fully. Perhaps a form of internal esoteric knowledge that may eventually be revealed to humanity. A mystery (derived from ‘mystic’ or ‘mysticism’ from the Greek μυω, meaning “to conceal”) which may reveal truths that surpass the powers of natural reason, a truth that transcends the created intellect.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

 

PS. The poem below has the terror of the sublime. A perfect picture of detachment and very nearly a complete picture of enlightenment. Is the human condition different from all other conditions? – that is the $64,000 question – if you say “no”, then this is a true poem. And of course, from the depths of the soul, who is having this conversation?

.
Many thankx to the Royal Academy of Arts for allowing me to publish the art work in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

Is it far to go?

Is it far to go?
A step – no further.
Is it hard to go?
Ask the melting snow,
The eddying feather.

What can I take there?
Not a hank, not a hair.
What shall I leave behind?
Ask the hastening wind,
The fainting star.

Shall I be gone long?
For ever and a day.
To whom there belong?
Ask the stone to say,
Ask my song.

Who will say farewell?
The beating bell.
Will anyone miss me?
That I dare not tell –
Quick, Rose, and kiss me.

 

Cecil Day-Lewis

Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972) was appointed poet laureate by Queen Elizabeth II. He was an Irish poet and essayist, and a writer of mystery novels under the pen name of Nicholas Blake. He is the father of the actor Daniel Day-Lewis. The third stanza of this poem serves as the epitaph on his gravestone. “Rose” refers to Rosamond Lehmann, the British novelist who was his lover when he wrote this verse in the 1940’s.

 

 

This exhibition pairs Bill Viola’s powerful installations with rarely-seen drawings by Michelangelo. Journey through the cycle of life in our immersive and unparalleled show.

Michelangelo is best known for the Sistine Chapel and for his large sculptures. Yet his smaller, more intimate drawings take us closer to the spiritual and emotional power of his work. They were created for his private use, or as gifts of love, and would soon become known as “drawings the likes of which was never seen”.

In 2006, the pioneering video artist Bill Viola saw a collection of these works at Windsor Castle. He was moved by their ability to convey fundamental human experiences and emotions, and by Michelangelo’s use of the body to give shape to spirituality.

Viola’s large-scale video installations are likewise works of profound emotional impact. They combine sound and moving image to create absorbing works which slow us down and invite us to experience and reflect. These works are shown alongside Michelangelo drawings, which are on display in the UK for the first time in almost a decade.

This exhibition – created in close collaboration with Bill Viola Studio – is a unique opportunity to experience two artists, born centuries apart, in a new light.

Text from the RA website

 

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation views of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London showing:

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) LEFT
The Resurrection
c. 1532
Black chalk
Lent by Her Majesty the Queen

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) CENTRE
The Risen Christ
c. 1532-3
Black chalk on paper
37.2 x 22.1 cm
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) RIGHT
The Resurrection
c. 1532-33
Black chalk

Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) 'The Resurrection' c. 1532

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) LEFT
The Resurrection
c. 1532
Black chalk
Lent by Her Majesty the Queen

 

 

In the early 1530s Michelangelo drew the Resurrection of Christ more than a dozen times, for unknown reasons. Here he presents the transition to the eternal as a triumphant release, Christ as an explosion of energy amid the sepulchral gloom of the terrestrial sphere. The soldiers are prisoners of their earthly existence, lost in a death-like sleep, or recoiling from Christ in confusion at a sight beyond their comprehension.

Wall text

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti. 'The Risen Christ' c. 1532-3

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) CENTRE
The Risen Christ
c. 1532-3
Black chalk on paper
37.2 x 22.1 cm
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

 

In no other work by Michelangelo is the Resurrection expressed with such exuberance. Christ is long and virile, his muscular form modelled with tiny stokes of chalk, as highly finished as any of Michelangelo’s mythological drawings. It is perhaps paradoxical that a drawing of the triumph of the soul should so strongly emphasise Christ’s body, but his almost polished torso reflects the radiant light with a glory that transcends reality.

Wall text

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) 'The Resurrection' c. 1532

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) RIGHT
The Risen Christ
c. 1532-3
Black chalk on paper
37.2 x 22.1 cm
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation views of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London showing:

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) LEFT
Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St John
c. 1560-64
Black chalk, white heightening and a touch of red chalk
Lent by Her Majesty the Queen

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) RIGHT
Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St John
c. 1560-64
Black chalk with white heightening
Lent by Her Majesty the Queen

Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) 'Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St John' c. 1560-64

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) LEFT
Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St John
c. 1560-64
Black chalk, white heightening and a touch of red chalk
Lent by Her Majesty the Queen

 

 

To the right, the hunched figure of St John is list in desolation, his arms tightly folded as if shivering, his mouth open in a pain both physical and mental. The patch of red chalk at Christ’s feet is probably deliberate, symbolic of the sacrificial blood that was shed on the Cross.

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) 'Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St John' c. 1560-64

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564) RIGHT
Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St John
c. 1560-64
Black chalk with white heightening
Lent by Her Majesty the Queen

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation view of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London showing Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John, c. 1504-05 at centre. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti. 'The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John' c.1504-05

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564)
The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John (Taddei Tondo)
c. 1504-05
Marble relief
107 x 107 x 22 cm
Royal Academy of Arts, London. Bequeathed by Sir George Beaumont, 1830
© Royal Academy of Arts, London
Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation view of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London with Michelangelo’s The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John (Taddei Tondo) c. 1504-05 at left, and Bill Viola’s Nantes Triptych, 1992 at right. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation view of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Bill Viola, Nantes Triptych, 1992. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti. 'The Lamentation over the Dead Christ' c. 1540

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475-1564)
The Lamentation over the Dead Christ
c. 1540
Black chalk
28.1 x 26.8 cm
The British Museum, London. Exchanged with Colnaghi, 1896, 1896,0710.1
© The Trustees of the British Museum

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation views of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

 

In January 2019, the Royal Academy of Arts brings together the work of the pioneering video artist, Honorary Royal Academician Bill Viola (b. 1951), with drawings by Michelangelo (1475-1564). Though working five centuries apart and in radically different media, these artists share a deep preoccupation with the nature of human experience and existence. Bill Viola / Michelangelo creates an artistic exchange between these two artists and is a unique opportunity to see major works from Viola’s long career and some of the greatest drawings by Michelangelo, together for the first time. It is the first exhibition at the Royal Academy largely devoted to video art and has been organised in partnership with Royal Collection Trust.

The exhibition comprises 12 major video installations by Viola, from 1977 to 2013, being shown alongside 15 works by Michelangelo. They include 14 highly finished drawings, considered to be the high point of Renaissance drawing, as well as the Royal Academy’s Taddei Tondo. It proposes a dialogue between the two artists, considering Viola as an heir to a long tradition of spiritual and affective art, which makes use of emotion as a means of connecting viewers with its subject matter. It also aims to recapture the spiritual and emotional core of Michelangelo, beyond the awesome grandeur of his works.

Viola first encountered the works of the Italian Renaissance in Florence in the 1970s where he spent some of his formative years. A residency at the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, in 1998 renewed his interest in Renaissance art and in the shared affinities with his own practice. In 2006, Viola visited the Print Room at Windsor Castle to see Michelangelo’s exquisite drawings, which he had known in reproduction since his youth. The meeting proved a catalyst for the exhibition, which evolved as a conversation between Viola and Martin Clayton, Head of Prints and Drawings at Royal Collection Trust. Rather than setting up direct comparisons between the artists or suggesting that Michelangelo has been an instrumental influence on Viola’s work, the exhibition examines the affinities between them, bringing together specific works to explore resonances in their treatment of the fundamental questions: the nature of being, the transience of life, and the search for a greater meaning beyond mortality.

Viola stated, “Through my travels and experiences first in Florence, then primarily in non-Western cultures, and in combination with my readings in ancient philosophy and religion, I began to be aware of a deeper tradition, an undercurrent stretching across time and cultures… the ancient spiritual tradition that is concerned with self-knowledge.” Throughout his career, Viola has experimented with large-scale video installations; he is one of the first artists to have conceived video on an immersive architectural scale. He has increasingly utilised his medium’s fundamental elements – light, sound and time – to create visceral works that consider metaphysical questions about the nature of existence and reality. Unusually for video, they give shape to inner states of being rather than mirroring the world around us.

The exhibition presents Michelangelo’s works as more than examples of genius and virtuosity, revealing a personality that was frequently vulnerable. The drawings included were executed in the last 35 years of his life, some as gifts and expressions of love for close friends, others as private meditations on his own mortality. Religious imagery of the Virgin and Child, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection reflect on the presence of death and the eternal. In others, references to Classical mythology act as metaphors for the human condition. At their heart, as with Viola’s work, is an exploration of the body as a vessel for the eternal soul.

The exhibition is conceived as an immersive journey through the cycles of life, exploring the transience and tumult of existence and the possibility of rebirth. It begins and ends with a pairing of works that reflect on a central paradox: the presence of death in life. Michelangelo’s The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist, c. 1504-05, known as the Taddei Tondo, depicts the Baptist holding a fluttering bird from which the infant Christ recoils, the scene heralding his eventual sacrifice on the Cross. It is being displayed alongside Viola’s The Messenger, 1996 (Bill Viola Studio), which uses the metaphor of water to depict the eternal cycle of birth, life and death. The theme is being further explored in drawings relating to the Virgin and Child, as well as the Lamentation, c. 1540 (British Museum, London), which is being shown facing Viola’s Nantes Triptych, 1992 (Bill Viola Studio), three screens that individually portray a woman giving birth, a figure floating in a mysterious half-light, and Viola’s own mother on her deathbed. Viola stated, “It is the awareness of our own mortality that defines the nature of human beings”.

The exhibition continues with a series of installations by Viola that reflect on the nature of human experience, as one set by moral and ethical choices, besieged by fears and ultimately experienced in solitude. At the centre of the exhibition is Michelangelo’s extraordinary Presentation Drawings of the 1530s (loaned by Her Majesty The Queen, Royal Collection, London), which he produced as gifts for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, a young Roman nobleman for whom he developed a deep love. Demonstration pieces relating to the craft of drawing with chalk, they also explore complex myths and Neoplatonic concepts, and were created as expressions of devotion towards their recipient. They include the Tityus, 1532, which acts as an allegory for the opposed forms of love in Neoplatonic philosophy: the punishment of base lust devoid of spiritual love. Further drawings by Michelangelo explore similar allegorical struggles in life, from the labours of Hercules to the fall of Phaeton. These are being shown in opposition to the quiet stillness of Viola’s Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity, 2013 (Bill Viola Studio). Life-size images of an ageing man and woman are projected onto two black granite slabs, showing them slowly examining every inch of their naked bodies by torchlight, unable to hide from their earthly state.

The final galleries include a series of works that more directly consider mortality and the possibility of rebirth. Among them are Michelangelo’s most poignant drawings, two Crucifixions from the final years of his life. The exhibition concludes two of Viola’s most majestic works; the monumental projections, Fire Woman, 2005, (Bill Viola Studio), and Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Waterfall Under a Mountain), 2005 (Bill Viola Studio). They depict bodies falling and rising out of view, in different ways conjuring the body’s final journey and the passage of the spirit, in obscurity or in glory.

Press release from the RA Cited 23/02/2019

 

 

 

Bill Viola (American, born 1951)
Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall) (extract)
2005
Video/sound installation
Performer: John Hay
Courtesy Bill Viola Studio
Photo: Kira Perov

 

Bill Viola. 'Tristan's Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall)' 2005

 

Bill Viola (American, born 1951)
Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall) (still)
2005
Video/sound installation
Performer: John Hay
Courtesy Bill Viola Studio
Photo: Kira Perov

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation view of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London showing Bill Viola’s Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall) 2005 (still). Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

 

Bill Viola, Fire Woman and Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), St Carthage’s Church, Parkville, Melbourne

 

Bill Viola. 'Fire Woman' 2005

 

Bill Viola (American, born 1951)
Fire Woman (still)
2005
Video/sound installation
Performer: Robin Bonaccorsi
Courtesy Bill Viola Studio
Photo: Kira Perov

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation view of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London showing Bill Viola’s Fire Woman 2005 (still). Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation view of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Bill Viola, The Veiling, 1995. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation view of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Bill Viola, Five Angels for the Millenium, 2001. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

 

Bill Viola, “Departing Angel”, from Five Angels for the Millennium 2001 (excerpt)

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation views of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Bill Viola, The Dreamers, 2013. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

 

The Dreamers (2013) consists of seven individual screens, which depict underwater portraits of people who appear to be sleeping. Accompanied by the gentle sounds of water, the viewer is led to feel as if they themselves are submerged with these figures. In this spiritual, immersive subterranean environment, ultimate interpretation is left for the viewer to define, through the lens of their own experiences. (excerpt)

 

 

Bill Viola, The Dreamers (excerpt)

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation view of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Bill Viola, Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity, 2013. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

 

Bill Viola, Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity, 2013 (excerpt)

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation view of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Bill Viola, The Sleep of Reason, 1988. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation view of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Bill Viola, Slowly Turning Narrative, 1992. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

 

Bill Viola, The Messenger 1996 (excerpt)

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Installation views of the exhibition Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Bill Viola, The Messenger, 1996. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. David Parry / © Royal Academy of Arts

 

 

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Burlington House, Piccadilly,
London, W1J 0BD

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26
Oct
09

Review: ‘Long Distance Vision: Three Australian Photographers’ at The Ian Potter Centre NGV Australia, Federation Square, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 28th August – 21st February 2010

 

Max Pam. 'Road from Bamiyan' 1971

 

Max Pam (born Australia 1949, lived in Brunei 1980-83)
Road from Bamiyan
1971
Gelatin silver photograph
20.1 x 20.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1979

 

 

Long Distance Vision is a disappointingly wane exploration of travel photography at NGV Australia. With the exception of the work of Max Pam the exhibition lacks insight into the phenomena that the curators want the work to philosophically investigate: namely how photographs shape our expectations of a place (even before we arrive) and how photographs also serve to confirm our experience – the picture as powerful mnemonic tool.

Firstly a quick story: when travelling in America to study at the Kinsey Institute I boarded a train from Chicago to what I thought was Bloomington, Indiana only to arrive many hours later at Bloomington, Illinois. Unbeknownst to me this Bloomington also had a motel of the same name as I was staying at in Indiana! After much confusion I ended up at the local airport trying to catch a single seater aircraft to Bloomington, Indiana with no luck – at the end of my tether, fearful in a foreign country, in tears because I just had to be at this appointment the next morning. Riding to my rescue was a nineteen year old kid with no shoes, driving an ex-cop car, who drove me across the Mid-West states stopping at petrol stops in the dead of night. It was a surreal experience, one that I will never forget for the rest of my life … fear, apprehension, alienation, happiness, joy and the sublime all rolled into one.

I tell this story to illustrate a point about travel – that you never know what is going to happen, what experiences you will have, even your final destination. To me, photographs of these adventures not only document this dislocation but step beyond pure representation to become art that re-presents the nature of our existence.

 

Matthew Sleeth‘s street photographs could be taken almost anywhere in the world (if it were not for a building with German writing on it). His snapshot aesthetic of caught moments, blinded people and dissected bodies in the observed landscape are evinced (to show in a clear manner; to prove beyond any reasonable doubt; to manifest; to make evident; to bring to light; to evidence – yes to bring to light, to evidence as photography does!) in mundane, dull, almost lifeless prints – ‘heavy’ photographs with a lack of shadow detail combined with a shallow depth of field. His remains, the people walking down the street and their shadow, are odd but as as The Age art critic Robert Nelson succinctly notes in his review of this exhibition, “To become art, the odd cannot remain merely quaint but has to signify an existential anomaly by implication.”1

If we look at the seminal photographs from the book The Americans by Robert Frank we see in their dislocated view of America a foreigners view of the country the artist was travelling across – a subjective view of America that reveals as much about the state of mind of the artist as the country he was exposing. No such exposition happens in the works of Matthew Sleeth.

Christine Godden‘s photographs of family and friends have little to do with travel photography and I struggle to understand their inclusion in this exhibition. Though they are reasonable enough photographs in their own right – small black and white photographs of small intimacies (at the beach, in the garden, at the kitchen table, on the phone, on the porch, on the float, etc…) Godden’s anthropomorphist bodies have nothing to do with a vision of a new land as she had been living in San Francisco, New York and Rochester for six years over the period that these photographs were taken. Enough said.

The highlight of the exhibition is the work of Max Pam. I remember going the National Gallery of Victoria in the late 1980s to view this series of work in the collection – and what a revelation they were then and remain so today. The square formatted, dark sepia toned silver gelatin prints of the people and landscapes of Tibet are both monumental and personal at one and the same time. You are drawn into their intimacies: the punctum of a boys feet; the gathering of families; camels running before a windstorm; human beings as specks in a vast landscape.

“If the world is unfair or beyond our understanding, sublime places suggest it is not surprising things should be thus. We are the playthings of the forces that laid out the oceans and chiselled the mountains. Sublime places acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events. It is not just nature that defies us. Human life is as overwhelming, but it is the vast spaces of nature that perhaps provide us with the finest, the most respectful reminder of all that exceeds us. If we spend time with them, they may help us to accept more graciously the great unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.”2

The meditation on place and space that the artist has undertaken gives true insight into the connection of man and earth, coming closest to Alain de Botton’s understanding of the significance of sublime places. Through a vision of a distant land the photographs transport us in an emotional journey that furthers our understanding of the fragility of life both of the planet and of ourselves.

 

While the National Gallery of Victoria holds some excellent photography exhibitions (such as Andreas Gursky and Rennie Ellis for example) this was a missed opportunity. The interesting concept of the exhibition required a more rigorous investigation instead of such a cursory analysis (which can be evidenced by the catalogue ‘essay’: one page the size of a quarter of an A4 piece of paper that glosses over the whole history of travel photography in a few blithe sentences).

Inspiration could have easily been found in Alain de Botton’s excellent book The Art of Travel. Here we find chapters titled “On Anticipation”, “On Travelling Places”, “On the Exotic”, “On Curiosity”, “On the Country and the City” and “On the Sublime” to name but a few, with places and art work to illustrate the journey: what more is needed to excite the mind!

Take Charles Baudelaire for example. He travelled outside his native France only once and never ventured abroad again. Baudelaire still dreamt of going to Lisbon, or Java or to the Netherlands but “the destination was not really the point. The true desire was to get away, to go, as he concluded, ‘Anywhere! Anywhere! So long as it is out of the world!'”3

Heavens, we don’t even have to leave home to create travel photography that is out of the world! Our far-sighted vision (like that of photographer Gregory Crewdson) can create psychological narratives of imaginative journeys played out for the camera.

Perhaps what was needed was a longer gestation period, further research into the theoretical nuances of travel photography (one a little death, a remembrance; both a dislocation in the non-linearity of time and space), a gathering of photographs from collections around Australia to better evidence the conceptual basis for the exhibition and a greater understanding of the irregular possibilities of travel photography – so that the work and words could truly reflect the title of the exhibition Long Distance Vision.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

 

  1. Nelson, Robert. “In blurred focus: le freak c’est chic,” in The Age newspaper. Friday, October 23rd 2009, p. 18
  2. de Botton, Alain. The Art of Travel. London: Penguin, 2002, p. 178-179
  3. Ibid., p. 34

 

Max Pam (born Australia 1949, lived in Brunei 1980-83) 'My donkey, our valley, Sarchu' 1977

 

Max Pam (born Australia 1949, lived in Brunei 1980-83)
My donkey, our valley, Sarchu
1977
Gelatin silver photograph
20.1 x 20.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1979
© Max Pam

 

Max Pam (Australian, b. 1949) 'Sisters' 1977

 

Max Pam (born Australia 1949, lived in Brunei 1980-83)
Sisters
1977
Gelatin silver photograph
20.1 x 20.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1979
© Max Pam

 

Max Pam (Australian, b. 1949) 'Tibetan nomads' 1977

 

Max Pam (born Australia 1949, lived in Brunei 1980-83)
Tibetan nomads
1977
Gelatin silver photograph
20.1 x 20.2 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1979
© Max Pam

 

Christine Godden. 'Bobbie and Amitabha at the beach' (c. 1972)

 

Christine Godden (born Australia 1947)
Bobbie and Amitabha at the beach
c. 1972
Gelatin silver photograph
13.2 x 20.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased from Admission Funds, 1991
© Christine Godden

 

Christine Godden. 'Elliot holding a ring' 1973

 

Christine Godden (born Australia 1947)
Elliot holding a ring
1973
Gelatin silver photograph
15.0 x 22.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased from Admission Funds, 1991
© Christine Godden

 

Christine Godden. 'Joanie at the kitchen table' 1973

 

Christine Godden (born Australia 1947)
Joanie at the kitchen table
1973, printed 1986
Gelatin silver photograph
20.1 x 30.6 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased from Admission Funds, 1991
© Christine Godden

 

Christine Godden. 'With Leigh on the porch' 1972

 

Christine Godden (born Australia 1947)
With Leigh on the porch
1972, printed 1986
Gelatin silver photograph
20.2 x 30.5 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased from Admission Funds, 1991
© Christine Godden

 

 

“The National Gallery of Victoria will celebrate the work of Christine Godden, Max Pam and Matthew Sleeth in a new exhibition, Long Distance Vision: Three Australian Photographers opening 28 August.

Long Distance Vision will include over 60 photographs from the NGV Collection exploring the concept of the ‘tourist gaze’ and its relationship with the three artists.

Susan van Wyk, Curator Photography, NGV said the exhibition provides a fascinating insight into the unusual perspective brought by the three photographers to their varied world travel destinations.

“There’s a sense in the works in the exhibition that the photographers are not from the places they choose to photograph, and that each is a visitor delighting in the scenes they encounter.

“What is notable about the photographs in ‘Long Distance Vision’ is that rather than focussing on the well known scenes that each artist encountered, they have turned their attention to the ‘little things’, the details of the everyday,” said Ms van Wyk.

From the nineteenth century, photography has been a means by which people could discover the world, initially through personal collection and albums, and later via postcards, magazines, books and the internet.

Dr Gerard Vaughan, Director, NGV said that both contemporary photographers and tourists use the camera as a means to explore and capture the world.

“Through their photographs, the three artists featured in ‘Long Distance Vision’ show us highly individual ways of seeing the world. This exhibition will surprise and delight visitors as our attention is drawn to not only what is different but what remains the same as we travel the world,” said Dr Vaughan.

 

Born in Melbourne in 1949, Max Pam began his career in various commercial photography studios in the 1960s. After responding to a university notice for assistance to drive a Volkswagen from Calcutta to London in 1969, Pam got his first taste of being a traveller. The body of Pam’s work in this exhibition is from the series The Himalayas, which was photographed over a number of early visits to India.

Christine Godden also travelled the popular overland route between Europe and India in the early 1970s, returning to Sydney in 1978. In 1972, after a period of travelling, Godden found her home in the US where she remained for six years. Godden’s photographs in this exhibition were taken between 1972 and 1974 during her stay in the US.

Born in Melbourne in 1972, Matthew Sleeth is another seasoned traveller. During the late 1990s, Sleeth settled in Opfikon, an outer suburb of Zurich, Switzerland. The series of photographs in Long Distance Vision were taken during this time, showing Sleeth’s interest not only in street photography, but also in the narrative possibilities in everyday scenes. Dotted with garishly coloured playhouses, naive sculptures and whimsical arrangements of garden gnomes Sleeth’s photographs go beyond the ‘picture-perfect’ scenes of typical tourist photography.

Long Distance Vision: Three Australian Photographers is on display at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Federation Square from 28 August 2009 to 21 February 2010.”

Text from the National Gallery of Victoria press release

 

Matthw Sleeth from the series 'Opfikon' 1997

Matthw Sleeth from the series 'Opfikon' 1997

Matthw Sleeth from the series 'Opfikon' 1997

Matthw Sleeth from the series 'Opfikon' 1997

Matthw Sleeth from the series 'Opfikon' 1997

 

Matthew Sleeth (born Australia 1972)
Photographs from the series Opfikon
1997, printed 2004
Type C photograph
43.2 x 43.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented through the NGV Foundation by Patrick Corrigan, Governor, 2005
© Matthew Sleeth courtesy of Sophie Gannon Gallery, Melbourne

 

 

The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia Federation Square
Corner of Russell and 
Flinders Streets, Melbourne

Opening hours:
Every day 10 am – 5 pm

National Gallery of Victoria website

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12
Dec
08

Review: ‘The Art of Existence’ exhibition by Les Kossatz at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 22nd November – 8th March 2009

 

Les Kossatz. 'Digger's glory box' 1965

 

Les Kossatz
Digger’s glory box
1965
Silk, felt, canvas, cardboard, wood, brass, ink, fibre-tipped pen and synthetic polymer paint
106.0 x 76.0 x 7.0 cm
Courtesy the artist
Photographer: Viki Petherbridge
© Les Kossatz

 

 

Heide Museum of Modern Art has brought together nearly 100 pieces of work by the Australian artist Les Kossatz in an eclectic survey show, appropriately titled The Art of Existence. Featuring sculpture, painting and mixed media from the 1960s to the present the exhibition is appropriately titled because Kossatz’s work addresses certain archetypal themes that affect human existence:

His life-long fascination with the natural world and desire to understand both its human and animal inhabitants; exploration of the systems of knowledge and codes of behaviour that structure individual and communal life; and his critical and playful reflections on contemporary behaviour and the mysteries of existence.”1

.
Strong symbolic paintings are the focus of the work in the 1960s, paintings that address the shocking brutality of war and its aftermath, when soldiers return home. To the observation that these are of the ‘pop-style’ school of painting suggested by the Heide website I feel these works are also influenced by the collage of Cubism, the boxes of Joseph Cornell and the dismembered bodies of Francis Bacon. They engage with the symbolism of war and remembrance: memory, myth, and the banality of heroism and sacrifice.

The key work in this series is the painting Diggers throne (1966). This is a powerful disturbing image, effervescent and unnerving at the same time. It features a disembodied arm on the hand of a throne, surrounded by a wonderful kaleidoscopic assemblage of pictorial planes, artefacts and memories – an English flag, the flag of St George, a crown, medals and the words RSL. The arm reminds me of the Francis Bacon painting Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) as it rests, roughly drawn in pencil on the arm of the throne, drawing the eye back up into nothingness.

The Diggers throne painting also features these prophetic words:

“throne slow to rot
and twisted the memory
becomes sacred.
Bloody was the truth
And this a chair.”

.
All other work in this period seems to flow through this painting – the other large paintings, the small canvases featuring individual medals and the less successful hanging banners. But it is to this work we return again and again as a viewer, trying to decipher and reconcile our inner conflicts about the painting.

As we move into the 1970s the work changes focus and direction. There emerges a concern with the desecration of the Australian landscape investigated in a series of large paintings and sculptures. In Packaged landscape 1 (1976) a steel suitcase with leather straps, slightly ajar, fulminates with artificial gum leaves trying to escape the strictures of the trap. In Caged landscape (1972) nature is again trapped behind steel wire, weighed in the balance on a set of miniature scales. The paintings feature trees that are surrounded by concrete and the rabbit becomes a powerful symbol for Kossatz – a suffering beast, strung up on fences, a plague in a pitted landscape of chopped down trees, erosion and empty holes.

Into this vernacular emerges the key symbol of the artist’s oeuvre – the sheep. In 1972 Kossatz began a series of sculptures of sheep, “initially inspired by the experience of nursing an injured ram.” For Kossatz “the sheep represent the hardship of pioneer existence, the grazing industries prosperity, environmental concerns and the sheep act as narrative devices, potent metaphors for human behaviour.”2

The first sheep presented ‘in show’ is Ram in Sling (1973, below). In this sculpture a metal bar is suspended in mid-air and from this bar heavy wire mesh drops to support the fleecy stomach and neck of the ram almost seeming to strangle it in the process, it’s metal feet just touching the ground. Again the scales of justice seem to weigh nature in the balance.

The themes life and death, order and chaos are further developed in the work Hard slide (1980, below) where a sheep emerges mid-air from a trapdoor, two more tumble down a wooden slide end over end and another disappears into the ground through a wooden trapdoor opening. Sacrifice seems to be a consistent theme with both the earlier paintings and the metallised sheep:

“The completed life cycle, down the trapdoor, down the chute, after sacrifice by shearing.” ~ Daniel Thomas 1994

.
Further sculptures of sheep, both small maquettes and large sculptures follow in the next room of the exhibition. This is the artist is full flow, featuring the inventive taking of 2D things into the round, investigating the key themes of his work: the contrast between nature and artifice, or humanity.

The small maquettes of sheep feature races, gantries, sluices, pens, trapdoors and paddocks. Sheep tumble in a cataclysmic maelstrom, falling with flailing legs into the darkness of the holding pen below. These are my favourite works – small, intimate, detailed, dark bronzes of serious intensity – the sheep becoming a theatre of the absurd, suspended, weighed and balancing in the performance of ritualised acts, a cacophony of flesh at once both intricate and unsettling. Their skins lay flayed and lifeless disappearing into the ‘unearth’ of the slated wooden floor of the shearing shed. The sheep “can be viewed metaphorically as a commentary of the existential situation of the individual and collective behaviour.”3 As Kossatz himself has noted, “It is hard to bring a piece of landscape inside and give it a living animated form. The sheep somehow gives me this quality of landscape.”

But we must also remember that this strictly a white man’s view of the Australian landscape. Nowhere does this work comment on the disenfranchisement of the native people’s of this land – the destruction of native habitats that the sheep brought about, the starvation that they caused to Aboriginal people just as they bought riches to the pastoralists and the country that mined the land with this amorphous mass of flesh.

Recent work in the exhibition returns to the earlier social themes of memory, war, remembrance, religion, shrines, atomic clouds and temples but it is the work of the late 1970s – 1980s that is the most cogent. As Kossatz ponders the nature of existence on this planet he does not see a definitive answer but emphasises the journey we take, not the arrival. Here is something that we should all ponder, giving time to the nature of our personal journey in this life, on this earth.

Here also is an exhibition worthy our time and attention as part of that journey. Go visit!

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Word count: 1,074

.
Many thankx to Heide Museum of Modern Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

  1. From the Heide website
  2. From wall notes to the exhibition
  3. From wall notes to the exhibition

 

Postscript 2018

The late Les Kossatz (1943-2011) was a well known Melbourne-based artist and academic whose work is represented in many regional and state galleries and the National Gallery of Australia. He studied art at the Melbourne Teachers’ College and the RMIT, and went on to teach at the RMIT and Monash University. Kossatz’s first significant commission was for the stained glass windows at the Monash University Chapel in Melbourne. Later commissions included works for the Australian War Memorial, the High Court, the Ian Potter Foundation at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Darling Harbour Authority, Sydney. His sculpture, Ainslie’s Sheep, commissioned by Arts ACT in 2000, is a popular national capital landmark in the centre of Civic. A major retrospective of Kossatz’s work was held in 2009 at the Heide Park and Art Gallery, Melbourne.

Text from the High Court of Australia website

Francis Bacon. 'Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X' 1953

 

Francis Bacon
Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X
1953

 

Les Kossatz. "Ram in sling" 1973

 

Les Kossatz
Ram in sling
1973
Cast and fabricated stainless steel and sheepskin
129.3 x 126.5 x 66.0 cm
Heide Museum of Modern Art Collection
Purchased from John and Sunday Reed 1980
© Les Kossatz

 

Les Kossatz. 'Trophy room' 1975

 

Les Kossatz
Trophy room
1975
Colour lithograph
74.0 x 76.0 cm (sheet)
Courtesy the artist
Photographer: Viki Petherbridge
© Les Kossatz

 

 

The art of existence is the first exhibition to review Les Kossatz’s contribution to Australian art in a career that spans the 1960s to today. Kossatz’s consistently experimental approach to media and techniques is revealed in works that display a lifelong fascination with humanity and the interaction of man and nature. His paintings, sculptures and works on paper stimulate a questioning and exploration of such concerns, which form the basis of this artist’s practice.

Les Kossatz’s early works of the 1960s draw on his training and ability to work across a diversity of media, including painting, drawing, printmaking and glass. Early paintings and etchings on the theme of the emptiness of memorials to the Australian ‘digger’ or soldiers were succeeded by images and objects offering impressions of the world around the artist – the rural domain and interior life of St Andrews in Victoria where Kossatz lived and worked. Such works demonstrated his determination to pursue a figurative practice at a time when abstract art had been imported to Australia and was considered the avant garde.

Remaining a staunchly independent artist, at the start of the 1970s Kossatz painted images of rabbits and sheep from St Andrews. In addition, the practice of working in three dimensions was to become more significant. Kossatz continued to develop familiar themes in the creation of installations and cast objects. Although he has produced drawings and prints across his career, working with sculpture has, since the early 1970s, been his primary mode of art-making. Large scale cast and assembled objects show Kossatz pursuing related themes of caged and packaged landscapes, shrines to the harvest and the still life.

The art of existence surveys Kossatz’s monumental life-sized sheep sculptures, which he began making in 1972 from casts of animal parts, and for which he is best known. These include Hard slide (1980), his prize-winning commission in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Kossatz has won numerous commissions for outdoor sculptures that employ the sheep as literal and metaphorical beings. Kossatz’s work across three decades reveals a number of ongoing engagements, such as his observations of human behaviour and at times its similar manifestation in animals; the beliefs that sustain individuals and communities (such as religion, music and politics); and the forms of the landscape and our understanding of these relationships.

Introduction to the exhibition written by Zara Stanhope, Guest Curator, Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2008

 

Les Kossatz. "Hard slide" 1980

 

Les Kossatz
Hard slide
1980
Sheepskins, aluminium, Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga sp.), leather, steel
372.0 x 100.0 x 304.0 cm (installation)

 

Les Kossatz. "Guggenheim spiral" 1983

 

Les Kossatz
Guggenheim spiral
1983

 

 

Heide Museum of Modern Art
7 Templestowe Road
Bulleen Victoria 3105 Australia
Phone: +61 3 9850 1500

Opening hours:
(Heide II and Heide III)
Tue – Fri 10.00 am – 5.00 pm
Sat/Sun/Public Holidays 12.00 noon – 5.00 pm

Heide Museum of Modern Art website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Mask’ 1994

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