Four London exhibitions reviewed: Astrophotography, Christian Marclay, Joseph Kosuth, Mary Ramsden

Astronomy Photographer of the Year @ Greenwich Observatory

Until 19th July

At The Feet Of Orion (C) Marco Lorenzi

‘At The Feet Of Orion’ (C) Marco Lorenzi, courtesy of Greenwich Observatory

Admission is normally paid at the Greenwich Observatory, though entrance to this exhibition is free. It’s a constant surprise to me just how much context can perception of visual art. The photographs on here are art, just as the wonderful recent exhibitions in the Science Museum were. Yet there is still an odd voice in your head which tells you that if it is in an educationally inclined museum, it is only a piece of documentary, and does not have the contemplativeness or multiplicity of art in a gallery. Granted, the presentation space is often limited (the photographs here are disappointingly small) but the field of astrophotography has common links with the conventional aesthetic world that we should not ignore. Astrophotography has a long and proud history, but it was a combination of the Cold War thawing (giving a new scope to space exploration, driven forward by Carl Sagan, outside of superpower competition) and the development of high-quality images, especially from the Hubble Space Telescope, which allowed it to become what it is today.

Possibly the most photogenic space object is the Horsehead Nebula, and it is rendered here stunningly by Bill Snyder. As the accompanying text suggests, it is a more distanced view of the nebula than we would expect, more willing to accommodate the cosmic dust which surrounds it. The revisitings of the nebula by astrophotographers puts me in mind of animal photography of the 18th century where animals were painted somewhat obsessively (Waldemar Janusczak mentioned in his documentary on Rococo that Clara the rhino was the most painted model of the 18th century), in particular horses. The most commanding painting of a horse to be found in London is George Stubbs’ painting Whistlejacket, which looms large even through several sets of doors in the National Gallery. The focus on the horse and its anatomy – rather than its (royal) rider – upsets the hierarchy of genres and thus Stubbs in the 18th century and Snyder in the 21st are connected by a willingness to see past the obvious iconography and accommodate peripheral or traditionally neglected elements of composition.

Sat at the top of that hierarchy was history painting, and I’ve often thought that the Hubble Deep Field image is like a modern corollary for the epic canvases of history paintings like The Surrender At Breda,The Ratification Of The Treaty Of Munster, or anything by David. We can’t look at our leaders in the way that those paintings suggest, so we choose different ones, putting together galaxies rather than kings, part of the Saganian endeavour to use our trivial position in space as a binding agent for humanity.

The famous 'Pale Blue Dot' image, captured by Voyager 2 in 1990. (C) NASA

The famous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image, captured by Voyager 2 in 1990. (C) NASA

Exploration no longer has to be about colonisation, and by extension, militarism. The galaxies of the deep field hold the same power over us that mythical figures and semi-mythical leaders do in history painting, making us tremble and marvel at their sublime size and distance from us, while appreciating the harmony of their construction.

I should also give a mention especially to the ‘Young Astronomy Photographer’ category, as the wealth of talent on show from such young people is really quite something. My favourite photograph from that selection was not the overall winner but one called ‘Moon Behind The Trees’ by the 12 year old (!) Emily Jeremy.

Moon Behind The Trees (C) Emily Jeremy

‘Moon Behind The Trees’ (C) Emily Jeremy, courtesy of Greenwich Observatory

Understated but alluring, it’s a more humble effort than some of the panoramas on show but stands out for that very reason. A little shiny penny in a room full of silver.

Christian Marclay @ White Cube Bermondsey

Until 12th April

Christian Marclay: master of all trades, jack of none. Painting, sound art, video art are all on display in his current exhibition at the White Cube in Bermondsey. I don’t think I’ve ever left a gallery with such a big smile on my face as I did after this one. It’s split into three sections, with the first one you hear being Pub Crawl, a video installation consisting of the artist approaching detrital bottles and cans on a weekend morning and coaxing a rhythm out of them which, when multiplied tenfold, creates a unique array of different soundscapes as the videos run over each other. It’s cheeky, as are the other elements of this exhibition. The set of paintings on display build a surprisingly simple bridge between Roy Liechtenstein’s brand of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, so much so that you wonder why no-one has done it in this way before, though there is a debt to Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha’s combination of Pop Art with typography. An intriguing attempt to describe sound using purely visual stimuli, which is also the impression given by the final part of the exhibition, Surround Sounds. Surround Sounds consists of a video projection, approximately 20 minutes long, which occurs continuously over four walls of a darkened room. The walls are filled with onomatopoeia from comic books which act out what they indicate, e.g. ‘beeps’ and ‘boops’ flit across the walls quicker than you can follow them, ‘cracks’ tear asunder and reveal new ones before dismantling the entire wall, and ‘tics’ methodically progress around the room.

It’s a great space to simply be in, and if they can stomach the at-times intensive lights and choreography, then children will have a blast. There is something quite ghoulish about being surrounded on all sides though. Simply being in a 360 degree space puts you in mind of the postmodern philosophers like McLuhan, Baudrilliard and Jameson who discuss the ubiquity of the screen and how media impacts our perception of the world (if you do bring your children, probably don’t try and tell them this). Stepping into the room provides you with that latent dread of things happening around you that you can’t notice, which is a side effect of globalisation – of not realising how butterfly effects lead into catastrophic world-changing ones, as can be seen in the Middle East today. Added onto that, Marclay’s masterful employment of the After Effects software makes the onomatopoeia super-powerful, begging the question of how much reported events are caricatured like a comic strip, with triumphant ‘biffs’ and ‘boshes’ ringing out across the world.

PS: After some thought I realised there IS a precedent for what Marclay is doing in the gaming world – the criminally underrated 2003 FPS XIII is rendered in a cel-shaded style

XIII. Still mad fun to play.

XIII. Still mad fun to play.

which goes as far as providing the classic comic book sound effects at certain points. It works surprisingly well, given that they were originally used in comic books as a necessity given the staticness of the form.

Joseph Kosuth: Amnesia @ Spruth Magers

Exhibition now closed because I took too long to write this fucking review

While I left the White Cube grinning from ear to ear, my reaction to Joseph Kosuth’s exhibition at the Spruth Magers gallery was colder, despite the radiating neon lights around the gallery. Don’t get me wrong – I like some of Kosuth’s work. One And Three Chairs is one of the most important pieces of the last 100 years. But overall this is an exhibition that seems more concerned with importance than anything else. The text advertises the artist’s engagement with highfalutin ideas from Wittgenstein and others but there is no gateway, nothing to draw you out of your regular perception and into the artist’s vision. Without that, it comes off as a purely academic exercise. Kosuth’s contemporaries Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner have, in recent exhibitions, demonstrated how the tactic of pulling language out of context can have an emotive tug, but it is absent here. The ludic element to the display means that you’re scanning for something that isn’t really there – the art is supposed to be inferred from the elements’ relationship to one another, which never really happens. Kosuth appears to be trying to construct his art backwards, by creating works which fit themselves into a philosophical paradigm, but there is no organic growth from individual response, meaning it appears essayistic. In conjunction with that, Kosuth (inspired by a broad pessimism about language and statement-making) is constantly undercutting himself, as any position he seems to offer is quickly withdrawn and placed under another meta-position. It’s a persistent withdrawal, offering a statement and then thinking that a statement upon that statement is the real objective – a process which comes to no logical end. I also didn’t get any impression that neon was an essential medium for it – there was very little in the way of interaction with ‘public writing’ as promised, which Ruscha and Weiner carry off so well.

Mary Ramsden: Swipe @ Pilar Corrias Gallery

Until 28th February

Mary Ramsden, 2015, 'Lick 3'.

Mary Ramsden, ‘Lick 3’, 2014, Oil on board, 76 x 61 x 3.5 cm © the artist. Courtesy Pilar Corrias, London

Some concepts make you smile simply by reading about them, and Mary Ramsden’s choice of composition, of using smudges to represent the biological and digital smears we leave in our wake, made me want to experience it immediately. As well as that there are some pieces where the bulk of the canvas is blocked out, but these works pale in comparison to the powerful specimens at the Adventures of the Black Square exhibition in Whitechapel gallery – I did not get a sense of presence with Ramsden’s blocks, whether censorial or otherwise. The main ‘swipe’ pieces on the other hand are quite something, particularly with pieces like Lurid and Cute which create quite impressive accidental Expressionist volumes. The theme at heart of linking thumb swiping with the ‘impression’ left in a digital space – both in terms of handing over private information and digital personae – is incredibly zeitgeist and I hope Ramsden pursues it in more detail. In fact this exhibition fell slightly short of greatness for me, because I felt there was room to explore that dichotomy of the clean screen which hides all kind of fecal bacteria and nasty stuff you carry on your fingers alongside the ‘clean’, high brightness image of ourselves we use social media to project. Still, Ramsden is an emerging artist and I look forward to seeing what she produces in the future.

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