Georgia O’Keeffe at the Tate Modern

Litro Magazine, July 2016.

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Georgia O’Keeffe’s sense of home

The Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective is at the Tate Modern, London, until 30th October 2016.

“I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me,” Georgia O’Keeffe once said. Right now, the Tate Modern’s retrospective of the pioneering modernist may well present you with art unlike what anyone has shown you. Because after spending an afternoon in O’Keeffe’s company at the Tate, I can’t help but think that for a reasonably well-known name, O’Keeffe is vastly underrated. She’s been unfairly pigeon-holed as that desert lady with the flowers, but her work is so much broader than that. You may expect this show to be great – but it is in fact wonderful. Like O’Keeffe said after seeing New Mexico for the first time: “Well! Well! Well! … This is wonderful. No one told me it was like this!”

Those famous flowers kick things off – there’s one in the Tate’s poster and that’s what will get you through the door. And by all means: the flowers have earned their fame because they’re stunning, no doubt about it – they’re so much more beautiful on canvas than they appear in reproductions. The colour play is exquisite and the curves are masterful – everything O’Keeffe does has these incredible subtle colours and curves – and it’s delicious. Sweetly pink, white and turquoise in ‘Music – Pink and Blue No 1’. More white and mint green in ‘Abstraction White Rose’. But in ‘Grey Lines with Black Blue and Yellow’ it’s not subtle anymore: the soft pink is contrasted with bold yellow, blue, pink.

This is also where it gets a little tricky, as O’Keeffe steadfastly maintained throughout her life that if we’re seeing anything sexual in her flower paintings, that’s on us, not her: “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.” Fair enough. But once it’s been suggested that those petals could also be vaginas, it’s very difficult to stop seeing it. Did she deny this interpretation because of the times? ‘Grey Lines with Black Blue and Yellow’ was painted in 1923. But part of the Tate’s intention with this exhibition is to “dispel the clichés that persist” around O’Keeffe’s work, so we should probably give her the benefit of the doubt. If the artist claims a flower is just a flower, who am I to say otherwise?

The flowers are very beautiful though, regardless of interpretation. They feel overwhelming, maybe because they’re so big and up close.There’s something unapologetic about them, but at the same time, they’re simply pretty. Maybe that’s why they feel so radical: the notion that you can take something so delicate and lovely, something as passive as a flower, and make it look so powerful. If passivity – let’s go ahead and call it femininity – is considered a lesser state now, it certainly was a hundred years ago, around the time these paintings were created. But it was lazy to read O’Keeffe’s art based on her gender back then, and it’s even lazier now. O’Keeffe put it this way: “I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me. … You hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower, and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.” O’Keeffe creates a world inside each flower, and invite us to get lost in there – but she never quite tells us what the flower means to her. We may be having our own experiences with her work, but she’s completely in control.

This feeling continues into the next section of the Tate show, which has photographs of O’Keeffe by her husband, Arthur Stieglitz. There’s O’Keeffe’s face, her torso, her breasts, hands, arms. There’s O’Keeffe staring into the camera, the photo cropped defiantly low across her naked chest. But in the photos, O’Keeffe doesn’t look defiant at all – she just comes across as someone who knows exactly what she wants. Looking at ‘White Iris”, the flower is so soft in white, pink and just a little green; if we see something in there – passivity, defiance, whatever – that’s on us. O’Keeffe simply meets your eye and makes you really, really look.

O’Keeffe moves on from flowers after she came to New Mexico – they’re rare in the desert – but she still examines the details of her surrounding with the same close, loving gaze. Her knack for curves is applied to the mountains and the mesas, except now the colours are saturated: the red clay and the blue stone, and then, the adobe buildings in soft brown, pale grey. Just like with the petals, O’Keeffe creates layers, and the same happens with the skeletons. O’Keeffe paints the bones so lovingly against the pale blue sky or the pink sands that they appear far more romantic than any of those flowers ever did. It takes a moment to realise just how artfully she’s recreated the shades of white of the bone – her technical mastery has become secondary to the sheer interestingness of her work.

O’Keeffe’s paintings of the desert landscape around Ghost Ranch, her first New Mexico home, are less flashy than the flowers and the skulls, but every bit as remarkable. Those curves are now perfected: the sides of the mesas, the rise of the mountains, the cutaway rock-sides. The shades of pink in ‘Red and Yellow Cliffs’ – dusty rose, pale salmon, buttery peach, gold, muddy greens – you could drown in those colours. O’Keeffe discovered a sense of home when she came to New Mexico: ‘As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. It’s something that’s in the air – it’s different.’ She loved New Mexico, and the feeling pours off the paintings.

This is where O’Keeffe really dives into exploring layers. In the Black Place and the White Place series she paints the exact same things over and over, varying the colours or the style. That’s what it’s like to look at something over and over: there’s always something else there, because you’re a little different every time. The experience of standing still is very much an exercise in change. The paintings of the door of O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home are the highlight of this joy of repetition – she’s really making us look closely now, just like the flowers, except now she’s giving us even less to work with: just a plain brown wall and a black door, barely any sky at all.

But this time she provides a hint about the world she’s hidden inside all those layers. ‘My Last Door’ is a black square on white, that’s pretty much it, but it took her two years to complete. She loved that house – you can feel her reaching for that feeling, striving to articulate it on canvas in its glorious, plain, untamable state. All the way through O’Keeffe’s work there’s a sense of her chasing down experience, hidden in the curves of the petals and the bones and the mountains – there are worlds to be discovered everywhere, if only you look close enough. But never is it clearer than with O’Keeffe’s repetition of that plain door, over and over: home is a feeling, and love is a place.

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Buckminster Fuller

Whitehot Magazine, 2012. Original article.

Buckminster Fuller: The Utopian Impulse
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 31 March – 29 July 2012

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 12.26.39‘Radical idealism’ is what Buckminster Fuller called it. It was the 1960s, a time when everything people had taken for granted was up in the air and the future was a place with minimalist design, energy efficient housing and maybe even a colony on the moon. ‘The Utopian Impulse’ is not only an insight into Fuller’s ideas for the future, one where technology and sustainability stands at the centre, but also a picture of what the world could be like if was created through elegant design, inspired by nature and boldly executed with a mandate to make things better.

Or maybe it was too much to ask, because by the time the 1980s rolled around, boasting a very different brand of radicalism, people had stopped picturing this fantastical future. So where did the dreams go? At least this is what I am wondering after spending a couple of hours surrounded by the imagination of Buckminster, lovingly displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. While Fuller (1895 – 1983) never lived in the Bay Area, he lectured here extensively, making this exhibition a perfect fit for an area with a unique magnetism for idealists, inventors, non-conformists and dreamers of various ilk.

The ‘Inventions’ series consists of 13 drawings patented by Fuller in his mission to create superior solutions. There is the teardrop-shaped car; a design for a rowing boat consisting of two beams and a seat; a base for septic fuel tanks. A photograph shows Fuller next to a dome-shaped building covered in round windows, the most energy-efficient form. Geometrical shapes are repeated everywhere, chosen for practicality and kept for being pleasing to the eye. This is not a coincidence, observed Fuller: “I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

The stand-out piece is the ‘Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map’, where Fuller has taken a globe and laid it out flat, in triangles. Looking at the world with the North Pole as the centre, you suddenly realise all the land masses link together. Fuller was a fan of the triangle, calling it the only shape that is “inherently stable”, as described in the ‘Synergistic Dictionary’. A selection of the 22,000 entries typed up on index cards are displayed, providing a glimpse into how this man saw the world. Take the entry for ‘Spiral’: “A triangle is a spiral, and is one energy event.” It may seem a little kooky, but there is evidence that Fuller was way ahead of his time, especially with his energy-efficient solutions. The teardrop-shaped car from 1933 had unprecedented fuel efficiency; the ‘4D House’ from 1928 is an hexagonal autonomous dwelling designed to be optimally resource efficient, as well as capable of mass production in factories for off-site assembly.

‘The Utopian Impulse’ also includes pieces by artists and designers whose works are in a similar vein to Fuller. The Ant Farm Collective was established in San Francisco in 1968, a group which expanded the role of architecture to include performance, film, installation and animation. On display is their ‘Convention City’ model from 1978, a dome-shaped suggestion for Texas. There are pamphlets from the Office of Appropriate Technology, established in California in 1976 with the task of assisting state agencies in developing and implementing less costly and energy-saving initiatives. Solar energy, farmers markets and bicycling programmes were among its efforts.

For an exhibition so firmly focused on the future, ‘The Utopian Impulse’ feels distinctly retro. This is probably a natural consequence of styles having changed since the 1960s, but the main element to this feeling is the sneaking awareness that these people, who made this work nearly 40 years ago, may have been more optimistic about the future than we are now. Maybe we know more now, about the limitations of power generation and the complexities of politics, and we are simply resigned to the fact that the future will take a little longer to get here than we had hoped. The ‘Earth Flag’, made in 1969 by Norman La Liberte and John McConnell’s, hangs on the wall; it has a grey and white planet on a blue background. It looks so simple.

Or maybe we just have different dreams now, ones which we can actually reach: fewer underwater colonies, just better waste recycling. And energy-neutral housing: amongst a handful of post-millennium works included in the exhibition is IwamotoScott’s ‘Jellyfish House’ from 2005, an intricate architectural model made from mesh, with soft curves like a sea creature. ‘Hydramax Port Machine’ from 2012, bulit by Future Cities Labs, looks like a plant with tentacles, moving softly under water. The building is designed to capture moisture and to store and re-circulate water inside the building. It is not quite “peace on earth” but it is distinctly in the tradition of Fuller, who sought the attention of the individual and not governments; he wanted us to each add our knowledge and resources to build a future we would feel a part of.

In 1965, Fuller initiated something he called the ‘World Game’ project. He described it as a data-visualisation system to facilitate global approaches in solving the world’s problems, wanting it to contribute to “mak[ing] the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone”. Nowadays we call it the internet. Fuller believed greater access to information would generate more humanitarian problem-solving, and on a good day, that is what the internet does. There is a lot of work to do still, but l think Buckminster Fuller would be excited about what comes next.

Artists of vision: The Hackney and Haringey arts hub

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Source Magazine, autumn 2014.

 Original article.

art2Artists of vision: The Hackney and Haringey arts hub 

She’s not quite what you’d expect, Lauren Baker. Her art is intense, bright and hard-hitting, so you’d think the person dreaming it all up would be loud and brash. Of course, Baker is plenty intense once you’ve spent some time with her, but the surface remains deceptively subtle: a small girl with lots of big brown hair, riding a pink mini-bike with a chihuahua zipped inside her coat. In a sense, Baker’s a bit like her art: the surface is only half the story. Look closer and something happens, light and dark collide and it’s sharp and fearless, and ultimately, fascinating.

Take Baker’s favourite piece right now, a large, three-dimensional starburst covered in mirrors: “It’s symbolic of the portal to other dimensions.” Next to the portal sits a coffin, lined with light: “Like the light you see when you have a near-death experience.” And everywhere are the skulls: gold and metallic ones, jewelled eyes, bright neons, colourful crystals, painted in jagged or sweeping patterns, energetic and bold.

Baker’s Hackney Downs studio is halfway between Hackney Wick, which has the highest concentration of creative practitioners in Europe, and Haringey, home to a thriving artist community including the Chocolate Factory, London’s biggest studio complex. While conscious of the nurturing effect of the East London arts scene, self-admitted workaholic Baker is really just doing her thing, no biggie. Her studio is inside a railway arch next to Hackney Downs; perfect, she says, so close to her house. Today she’s in a loose, long-sleeved playsuit and tights, chunky jewellery in silver and bone offsetting the discrete outfit. She serves tea in mismatched crockery before sitting down, launching into the story of how she got to where she is today. Now 32, Baker’s only been an artist for three years: “I didn’t find my passion until I was 29. It’s moving really fast. Now that I’m finally on the right path, it’s just flowing.”

Baker credits her former life of working in events and marketing as part of the reason she’s managed to become a successful artist in such a short time; she knows how to attract attention to her work, and this is how the Tate Modern picked her up after her very first show. But it was necessary to make a change: “I quit my old job and went to South America. I was looking for an adventure, a spiritual path.” What she found was a mosaics artist in Brazil, who inspired Baker to go to Venice and learn the craft. But not before having an experience, deep in the Peruvian jungle, where she met a shaman and had a vision that she should become an artist. Having moved on from mosaics since, Baker now considers herself a multimedia artist: “I see my art practice as one big fun experiment. I don’t want to restrict myself.”

It’s sunny outside the cool railway arch, and Baker’s chihuahua, Dude, is keen to go outside. Baker releases the dog once we round the corner into Hackney Downs, and the tiny dog disappears immediately in the tall grass. Baker is unconcerned; Dude makes friends easily. “I love it here,” she says, as she waves to a woman passing on a bicycle; “That’s my neighbour. She’s a blacksmith.” I ask if Baker, who’s not a native Londoner, would ever leave the capital, but she looks at me like I’m mad: “Oh no! East London is my home. I could never leave!”

Even when she’s talking about her work, Baker is soft-spoken to the point where you still can’t quite believe all that powerful art comes from her. Then she talks about how, early in her career, she decided she wanted to decorate display windows, picked three places she fancied, and ended up with Harrods. She makes it sound easy, like it was nothing. The Harrods window led to a Selfridges window, and there were shows in New York, California, Ibiza. “I try to trust my instincts,” she says, in an effort to explain how she does it. “I think, in order to succeed, you need the ability to just go for it. Not letting yourself be led astray by what other people want you to do. Stay true to your heart.”

And, Baker is quick to add, you need to be a top-notch networker: “You really need to get yourself out there, go to exhibitions, art fairs, talk to lots of people and tell them what you’re doing.” Being part of Hackney Downs Studios makes this possible without going far; Baker’s complex is home to over 100 artists, designers, record labels, bookbinders and other creatives, even a brewery. Regular events and open studio days, plus a café, shop and gallery, ensure a nurturing community.

Baker doesn’t linger on the details when she talks, skimming over the studio that’s freezing in winter and the fingers that bleed after hours and days of placing crystals. Instead she talks about how much she loved it when the Tate Britain invited her to reinterpret one of their works; she chose ‘Ophelia’ by Millais, “the most beautiful death”. Baker created a forest inside the gallery, recreating Ophelia’s final moments surrounded by trees and flowers, and of course, skulls and bones. “I’m really driven to try and understand death, in a positive way. We’re not here forever.”

We’ve sat down on a bench on the Downs, and Dude has reappeared and wants attention. Baker has been talking about her work for Save Wild Tigers, and spending two and a half months placing 35,000 Swarovski crystals on a life-sized tiger’s head. This year she’s doing it again, only it’s bigger and will take four months. She readily admits the work can be maddening: each sequin is individually placed, and it has to be perfect. “But then I get into a meditative state doing it, and it’s really lovely.”

Baker’s in demand for commissions, but will still spend all her money on materials and push on with her passion projects. She’s just come back from her first vacation in three years. “The plan now is to have a work-life balance!” If that’s possible, that is: “I get into extremes with work. I got to bed at 3am last night. I basically have to leave London to stop working.” She seems to be having a lot of fun though. Is she? Baker looks up from Dude in her lap, and for a moment it’s like she’s surprised. Then she lets out a big, red-lipsticked laugh: “Yes! I’m having a really good time!” And you know it’s true.

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art3Adam Doughty, illustrator in Hackney Wick
Adam Doughty draws what he sees: a pint, King’s Cross station, some cheese, what the weekend feels like. Of course, it’s all re-imagined, bringing a sense of magical, yet simple, realism to his work. “I liked the phrase ‘magical realism’, I felt it was a fitting term to describe my work.” says Doughty. “I focus on the everyday, but I like to play with aspects of the illustration, like manipulating scale, adding historical references, and using a varied colour palette.”

The result is day-to-day elements captured with a whimsical feel. Doughty likes to research the history of an area before drawing it: “It’s inspiring to discover the old use of a building, the people who worked there and what it stood for.” Like his workplace, the Bridget Riley Studios in the part of Hackney Wick known as Fish Island; the building used to be part of a peanut factory. “The Bridget Riley Studios has such an array of talent. At the last Hackney WickED open studios I talked with painters, glass cutters, sculptors, illustrators, web designers, architects, fashion designers – all in the same building.”

Doughty shares his studio with two women, one is a children’s illustrator and the other a freelance architect. “Our studio is quite spacious and we all get on really well. I love the fact that the space is hidden away, nestled in the corner of an artistic hub. If I leave my window open I’ll often get a cat visitor, who sits on my rocking chair until I’m done for the day,” says Doughty. “I’m proud to show visitors around the area. The graffiti, the quirky sculptures, canal boats, the giant stadium, and the creation of the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Park. It all make for an interesting experience.”

Doughty lives ten minutes’ walk from his Fish Island workspace, in Bow. “I loved the feel of the place straight away, especially the vibrant arts scene in Hackney Wick. If you need support, it’s there for you.” Recently, Doughty has been experimenting with larger scale illustrations, but he always has a couple of Moleskine notebooks on the go: “I sketch and draw in these when I’m out and about. I draw on the bus, train, the doctor’s surgery, the beach, the Sikh Temple in Bow – anywhere that allows it.” He laughs. “The only place I’ve been told off for drawing was in the Tate Modern!”

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art4Matt Small, painter in Haringey
“North London is one big village,” says Matt Small. He’s sitting on the fire escape of his flat in Camden right now, but his workspace, at Euroart Studios in Haringey, is just a skip, hop and jump away on the Overground. There are new studios opening up all the time, Small observes, with lots of open days and initiatives for support: “There’s a DIY mentality growing. I think us artists have realised it’s important to take control, and not wait on established organisations to provide support.”

As a full-time artist, Small knows that locking yourself away in your studio to focus on your craft probably won’t cut it: “You have to be savvy about promoting yourself. That’s a part of the job as well, and not something us artists have traditionally been so great at. So it’s good to have a network of individuals who are in the same boat as you.”

art5Primarily a painter, Small has a strong, compelling style, often choosing discarded objects like car bonnets or old signs instead of canvas for his work. “The theme of my work is young, dispossessed people: individuals who feel undervalued, who don’t have a voice, who get looked over.” Small explains how the urban debris he paints on becomes symbolic of the feeling of being without value: “I thought it’d be interesting to connect the two – that oven door, that shelving unit, that piece of trash to someone – I don’t see it like that, I see that it can be something beautiful and worthwhile. That’s how I see our young people too. Let’s look at their potential, at the hope that’s in all of them.”

Small has hosted workshops for socially marginalised people, driven in part by a desire to give them a voice, but also wanting to make art more approachable in general. “I think the art world is un-inclusive by design, but for me, making it understandable and connected to us mere mortals is what art is about. It’s about finding your own way of communicating what goes on in your mind. That’s the most powerful thing you can do as an individual: creatively express yourself, visually or through music or dance.” And of course, there’s the thrill of the challenge: “I’d feel as if I was cheating myself if I wasn’t pushing the boundaries of my own potential. Keep discovering, keeping finding, keep playing.” He laughs. “Having fun with it all. Yes, yes!”

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art6Natalie Ryde, painter/printmaker in Hackney Wick
Delicate nets and intricate webs are in Natalie Ryde’s blood, it seems, as she was drawing these patterns for years before discovering her family’s 300-year history as framework knitters. “It’s so curious to me. I’d been drawing these nets and ferns almost intuitively,” says Ryde. The realisation came five years ago, when her family was invited to visit the factory where their ancestors had worked for generations. “My family knew, but they never mentioned it. They just took it for granted. So it’s definitely not from nurture!”

Studying nature, and close-up details, are key elements in Ryde’s work. Her nets create a “sub-lingual pattern” that tries to convey something: “It hints at things that are familiar but not quite discernible, like you can relate to them but you’re not quite sure what they are.” She laughs a bit, nervously, it’s hard to explain what she means. “I’m compelled to drawing things and making things in response to the world around me. I can remember being little and wanting to be really good at drawing. It’s so much a part of my life now, I can’t imagine it not being the thing I do every day.”

Originally from Scotland, Ryde works at Wallis Studios in Hackney Wick. “Why did I come here? Because this is where everyone is!” Previously living in London Fields, Ryde has since moved to Haringey. “I was thinking of getting a studio closer to home, but I quite like the commute. I cycle down, along the canal.” Not to mention the community in the Wick: “It’s exciting, there’s always lots of exhibitions and galleries. There’s always so much fun going on. People work hard here, it’s nice.” Ryde is part of a mentoring programme for artists in the area, and also works in arts education, in part for local children in nearby Queen Elizabeth Park.

And of course, there’s the net drawings. “I have worked in lots of different mediums but I’m focusing on the nets, as I feel that’s my visual language now,” says Ryde. “l get my ideas from being outside, but I’m not necessarily interested in the view. I’m more interested in the ground, or in things that are washed up on the beach. That’s how you’ll find those strange, alien-looking things, detached from their context, so it doesn’t quite make sense when you first see it.”

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art7Richard Peacock, printmaker in Haringey
“The Chocolate Factory is really not bad,” says Richard Peacock, who’s been in his Haringey studio for 14 years now. “When I first qualified I had a studio in Dalston, where you had to scrape the ice off the windows. But here, we have heating!” He laughs. Peacock lives close to his studios too, although this is a happy accident; he originally came to Haringey because his sister lived there. “I didn’t do my art degree until my 30s. As a teenager in Essex I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t get back into it until I started going to evening classes. Then slowly and surely it became the most important thing in my life.”

Peacock talks about the “rhythmic abstract” process of screen printing, the “changes in the weight of the inks” and the “variation in the edges of the shapes”. This is a physical experience, requiring 24 different processes for each print. It can be planned or intuitive, but regardless: “You have to respond to what’s happening. That should let you make something that’s better than what you can plan.”

The result is part abstract, part pop art, playfully exploring shapes and colours. “Every time a cardboard box comes into the house I take it apart and look at it,” says Peacock, who often ends up using the shape in his work. “I like things with holes and gaps in it, so you can see through it as you print layers. Someone once sent me this lovely waxed paper with lots of tiny holes, it had been used in a circuit factory.” Peacock used the paper to print strips, which began to resemble trees in the forest. The resulting piece, “Step from the path”, is his favourite. Sometimes he’ll includes words too, usually simple phrases, or maybe texts from spam emails or horoscopes; it’s cliche language that ultimately says something about how we live.

Haringey has seen a lot of new artist spaces pop up in the past few years, says Peacock. While still a very diverse borough, things are becoming more buzzy, especially around Tottenham with its open studios, and around Alexandra Park with its arts trails. “Then there’s the Chocolate Factory, which has its own community associated with it. There are lots of people here who are making things happen.”

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art8Esther Ainsworth, mixed-media artist in Hackney Wick
It starts out subtle, Esther Ainsworth’s work, always with a place or sound that’s caught her attention. Like today, when she’s in Balfron Tower, East London’s Brutalist masterpiece: ”It’s an incredible building. I’m using it as a kind of residency, trying to conjure up ideas based on the environment here.”

Ainsworth’s main medium is sound, but through this comes an exploration of space. “I like looking at what makes an interesting place, and then finding the sonic information that gives it a sense of identity.” The result is an experience that teases you in and opens you up, be it a recorded soundscape or a site-specific installation. Ainsworth has been at Mother Studios in Hackney Wick since 2006, which has provided its own experience as the area has changed. “Hackney Wick is such an interesting place to be. It was completely different when I got there,” says Ainsworth; especially the previously “stark and industrial” Olympic area has undergone a complete transformation.

One of Ainsworth’s current collaborations is with a light artist also working at Mother Studios. “The activity on each floor at the studio is very sociable, very vibrant. People often work with their doors open, and you can get feedback on your practice. We share a mailing list where everybody can promote their work,” says Ainsworth. “All the studio blocks and the galleries tend to know about each other. The Wick is essentially an artists’ village, because there’s not really anything else happening there!”

Having said that, Ainsworth often works outside of East London. Her favourite project is called Drive-In Sound; she’s done it three times so far, most recently on her way to a residency in Slovakia. “I love the idea of combining the freedom of a road trip with something that’s deeply enmeshed in the communities you visit. You can create new networks as you move around from place to place.”

This also goes to the core of why Ainsworth does her work: “It comes from trying to understand the world a little bit better. By finding interesting places, by hopefully connecting people between those places.” She thinks about it. “The idea of uniting and building bridges between communities and cultures is very exciting for me. I don’t think there’s an arrival point, but there’s a sense of journey. It drips through everything.”

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Mirrorcity at the Hayward Gallery

Apollo Magazine, November 2014. Original article

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Mirrorcity: Glimpsing the digital revolution

If mirrors were once considered to be portals into different realities, today’s mirror is the digital world. Almost everything has a digital component: scan a barcode or download an app to get information, wear a bracelet to track your health, use a hashtag to follow the conversation. As we live in a “digital mirror-city that echo our own”, Mirrorcity at the Hayward Gallery poses the question: “What is our current experience of reality?”

Mirrorcity is the second exhibition in London this year to look at the transition to a digital world is reflected in art. The summer’s Digital Revolution at the Barbican was a great examination of the emergence of digital imagery in the culture, from the blocky video games of the 70s, to today’s three-dimensional light beams that respond to touch. While Digital Revolution felt more like a walk through history than an art show, it illustrated perfectly how it has taken a very long time for digital tools to become a viable part of art practice.

Mirrorcity picks up where Digital Revolution left off, at least chronologically, as it focuses on how contemporary artists deal with the “challenges, conditions and consequences of living in a digital age”. While the show is decidedly mixed, one overall feeling remains: the digitisation of art is still in its infancy. The digital world, or the internet, is an augmentation of daily life now, and not an escapist place without consequences. But this development is still new, meaning heavy use of digital elements in art will easily feel gimmicky. Artists are working out how to use digital elements to enhance what they are trying to say, but the successful implementation of these new tools is a work in progress.

Because the best pieces in Mirrorcity are those with no obvious digital components whatsoever. Emma McNally’s large-scale drawings, presented so as to surround you as you walk into the room, are both overwhelming and subtle at the same time. They bring to mind nautical charts, the view from a plane through clouds, a map of stars, or maybe even a piece of music. McNally has described her work as a form of “visual thinking around questions of emergence”, intuitively creating a code that can be read with the right machine.

The feeling of a digital presence is even more clear in Katrina Palmer’s work. “Reality Flickers” is a plain metal box with a big hum, with two chairs inviting you to sit down and let it surround you. Hannah Sawtell’s also uses sound in her work, as well as software and devices such as tablet computers, as she works create a “dense digital situation”. Susan Hiller opts to immerse the audience in darkness, even offering cushions so we can lie back and forget the body as we take in her video piece, where colours and shapes overwhelm the senses as we are sucked into her world.

Mirrorcity explores interesting questions such as how we can navigate the space between the digital and the physical, but visitors emerge only slightly the wiser. Because as long as we are looking at a screen, the digital experience still happens outside of ourselves. Whether this is the fault of the show, or just the current point of technological development, is open to debate. At the moment, we walk around with the digital world in our pockets, as more immersive experiences, like so-called wearable technologies, are often considered too intrusive.

Last year’s Light Show, also at the Hayward Gallery, had a more modest mission statement, looking simply to thrill its audience with light-themed artworks. It’s very possible that digital tools were used to create some of the experiences in Light Show, but frankly, no one cared. We just wanted to jump between light strobes, and sink into bright rooms that made us lose perception of time and space. The digital mirror that echoes our lives has a similar ability to transport us, but Mirrorcity offers only a glimpse of what that may feel like. But maybe it is just too soon for art to truly reflect how the digital is changing our lives? After all, this is a revolution, and it’s all happening so fast. We don’t quite know what it means yet.

Radical Order: Geometry and the Utopian Impulse

Apollo Magazine, 2014. Original article.

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Radical Order: Geometry and the Utopian Impulse

There’s something timeless about geometric art, with its clean lines and basic patterns appealing to an instinctive desire for order. All the works included in the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) show ‘Radical Geometry’ all date from the mid 20th century, but they still feel modern. The artists, from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Venezuela, turned to this visual language, fresh and subversive at the time, to express optimism for the future. This fruitful 50-year period coincided with a turbulent and often repressive political climate, with a solid streak of radicalism running through everything. The future was close, and change felt possible.

The the overarching mood of radical optimism colours the experience of the RA show. The Uruguayan and Argentine sections starts us off with block colours, subdued towards a spectrum of dusty purple and muddy yellow, as the artists searched for an universal visual language. The boldness comes in the Brazilian section, where the colour choices turn to unapologetic black, white and red, in shapes that fit together in neatly ordered ways.

Lygia Pape is only represented with a couple of wood cuts, but her work was essential to the Brazilian artistic identity, championing art as a merging of aesthetic, ethical and the political. “Magnetised Space”, the 2012 Pape retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery, included an installation where Pape had strung gold threads from floor to ceiling; sometimes the threads seemed to disappear into nothing, but two steps to the side and they looked like rays of light. Closer inspection showed it is all perfectly logical in neat geometry, but the effect is magical.

In “Radical Geometry”, the works of artist Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt) provide a similar experience. Using wire and found objects, Gego joined her Venezuelan contemporaries in creating optical illusions, meaning the art changes depending on the viewer. “Sphere” seems to be floating in air, impossibly connected at each joint, so simple and yet so pleasing to look at. On the floor, the shadow is its own experience, unrecognisable yet inseparable from the original.

The sense of order and possibility in geometrical art comes in part from the mathematics at the core: the angles, the slots that fit. We are attracted to these shapes because they are natural to us: “Magnetised Space” showed how we have an instinct towards geometry through a still from Pape’s film, where a street performer dances in the middle of a crowd which has formed in a perfect circle around him. It is like the dancer is magnetic, attracting the crowd and repelling it at the same time, with geometry as a human impulse.

The link between radicalism and geometry was thoroughly examined in the “The Utopian Impulse”, the elegantly titled Buckminster Fuller retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2012. The futuristic designer called himself a radical idealist, dreaming up fantastic solutions to humanity’s problems. Prone to geometric designs, Fuller patented his solutions for energy-efficient housing and uniquely fuel-efficient cars, even lunar colonies, in his kooky style that left you feeling like anything was possible.

“The Utopian Impulse” included the 1969 “Earth Flag”, made by Norman La Liberte and John McConnell; it’s a grey and white planet on a blue background. Few artists today would present the idea of world unity in such a simple way as it feels distinctly nostalgic, like a throwback to simpler times. But considering how geometry, a fundamentally appealing visual language, keeps emerging in the artistic landscape, we still cannot help our impulse towards some kind of utopia. Looking at Gego’s hovering spheres, or Pape’s floating threads, we are swooning over the chance to create order in what we see.

We are islanders: Interview with Alicia Eggert

Lionheart Magazine, Home issue, 2014. Original article.

islanders1We are islanders: Interview with Alicia Eggert
“You are on an island”, reads the sign, in bright white neon lights. Then it flashes, and suddenly the message is different: “You are an island.” It’s so simple, yet the philosophical implications are severe. And it’s not like Alicia Eggert hid this work away in some gallery. Instead she, along with co-conspirator Mike Fleming, rigged it onto a lorry and took it on tour, first in the US, then in Australia and the UK. Unsuspecting bystanders would get a dose of existentialism right in the face as the lorry drove up the High Street. Does Britain feel like an island? Or is it the the world that’s the island? The poet John Donne said it first: “No man is an island, entire of itself.” This is true, but don’t we each live alone inside our heads?

Light and language are repeating features for Alicia Eggert, who lives in Maine, USA. Time is another, as several of her works have a kinetic element: watch the rotating blocks and every so often they spell out a word: “NOW”. Then it’s gone, but it will be back. A drum is rigged to sound out the number of heartbeats of the average person, and we know the instrument will “die” when the timer runs down. A clock has 12 functioning hands, so it’s always all the time. Asign in the middle of a beautiful scenery that reads “Panorama”. All of it is so basic, on the surface. But just on the surface, though, because where do moments go once they’ve happened? Why do we forget that life isn’t a state but a motion? And what is time anyway? See, that’s what Alicia does: she gets you going.

Jessica: Your work is based on strong, clean ideas. Is it important to you that the viewer gets what you are trying to communicate?
Alicia: It has always been very important to me that my work can be understood by all people on at least some basic level. As a conceptual artist, my work always begins with an idea, and the materials I work with are chosen based on their ability to communicate a concept as clearly and concisely as possible. I think this is why text has become one of my primary sculptural materials. Words are like found objects – they are easily recognisable and accessible to anyone who speaks the same language and has the ability to read. But single words can have many definitions, so they also have the ability to possess great depth and complexity. One word can be both simple and profound. My art practice is founded on my own sense of wonder, and my personal goal is to create works of art that inspire a sense of wonder in others.

J: Time is a recurring topic for you. It feels like time passes at a different pace depending on the situation – I realise that’s impossible, but I’m not always convinced.
A: I think each one of us lives in our own little time universe. Some people live at a significantly slower or faster pace than the majority, usually without even realising it. Culture is definitely an influence, but I think it’s more individual than that. Time varies from person to person.

J: “You are (on) an island” – I love this. Do you think living on a massive continent like the US, as opposed to an island like Britain, makes people different characters? Or is being an islander a state of mind.
A: This work can be interpreted very literally when shown on geographical islands, but I think people can also live on metaphorical islands … ideological islands or political islands. I can never really know what it’s like to be an islander in the literal sense, since I was born and raised in the US. But what I love most about this sign is the way that it forces you to zoom out and consider the bigger picture. Even continents are islands on a planet whose surface is 70% water. And if you zoom out even further, our planet is an island in a vast universe. The sign highlights the sense of isolation we all sometimes feel as individuals, but it also emphasises how that feeling is something we all have in common.

J: Does working with the same ideas across several projects feel satisfying? Or is it frustrating because the questions are never fully answered.
A: It’s actually very satisfying. Because I’m not trying to answer any questions. I’m trying to figure out a better way to ask them.

http://www.aliciaeggert.com

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Anya Lsk’s visual language

This Recording, 2013. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 17.22.52In which we search for lost meanings
Visual language
A photographer friend of mine is obsessed with bodies and architecture. How the two interact in the cityscape, the soft curled around the hard, breaking up the clean lines. She creates variations on these images again and again but she doesn’t know why, just that they compel her. Of course, she can’t write that on the pieces of paper that’s handed out at her exhibitions. Art has to have an intent and if none comes to mind you have to make it up, so that is what she does.

As a words person, I get a kick out of that sort of task. To mull over a feeling, shift it back and forth, distilling the essence like an egg yolk passed between shells to remove the white. To look for the words to convey the emotion, starting with something vague and feeling the rush as the words come together. But for a visual person like my friend, this translation from feeling to vocabulary is a mystery, a task that feels impossible. For her, the answers are all in the clean lines in her pictures, and in the roundness of the bodies as they distract and mess it all up, without which the city would have no meaning. She knows this, how the answer is in the disruption, but this awareness is not literal but in the heart, just a hunch.

“Sometimes I’m terrified of my heart; of its constant hunger for whatever it is it wants. The way it stops and starts.” Edgar Allan Poe (misattributed).

These collages are by Anya Lsk. We don’t know much about this artist. Her work echoes across the internet, with all roads leading back to her Tumblr, ‘Long Time No See’. Not that she wants to see anyone as she ignores all attempts to reach her, but as she’s made her work available it seems she wants people to see her. Her photography is all clean lines and architecture, a bit like my friend’s, but the stars of the show are her collages. One image is injected into another, brutal yet effective, to create layers of meaning where previously there was only one. A tree in the midst of a barren landscape, a ravine between two lovers, a city in a lake. We know that Anya Lsk is an artist and photographer from Moscow, Russia, but that’s about it. Except, of course, what’s in her work.

On the surface, Lsk’s collages do a lot of the interpreting work for us, as the contrasts are so clear. One world inserted into another, creating a an obvious comparison between opposing forces. So why is it so difficult to pin down? A piece of blue sky in the middle of a mountain, those are extremes, sure. But to what end? I’m wondering what Lsk wants us to think when we look at her work, knowing that if she’s anything like my friend she probably has no real interest in trying to articulate it at all. Lsk is a picture person and she’s denied us any explanation, which for a words person like me is frustrating. It’s left a void where her intentions should be and we have to fill it with own thoughts. I look at Lsk’s contrasting worlds and there is a feeling there, it nags and eludes and it kills me that I’m not better at doing the thing that I love. But I keep looking for the words, even though I get distracted all the time, by the trivial, by the profound, by my own resistance and attraction to the things I need.

“I feel sorry for need, which gives us life and wastes our time. But I am deep down just that way, and it is good. I love being in love. I have wasted so many productive years on relationships that have amounted to time spent. But what is life but time spent?” Elizabeth Wurtzel.

I read a newspaper feature once, it was maybe ten years ago, which told the story how this woman always cut the ends off the ham before roasting it. She didn’t know why she did this, except that she learnt it from her mother. Her mother was then asked about this habit, but she didn’t know either except, again, that her own mother did it. Then to the grandmother, solving the mystery: the habit of trimming the edges off the ham originated because she had a very small oven.

This story has stayed with me all these years, fascinating me with the thought that one lost detail can provide meaning. How there’s always a reason for things, even if we aren’t aware of it. Lsk may be able to explain why she placed an obelisk emerging from a rainbow into a lake, or it could just be a feeling for her, triggered by something profound, or obscure, or random. Maybe she isn’t paying attention, or she’s behaving perhaps deviously. Somewhere in the muddle there’s a small oven, but Anya Lsk isn’t telling us where it is.

“I dealt with it the same way I deal with everything. I just tended my own garden, didn’t pay much attention, behaved – I suppose – deviously. I mean, I didn’t actually let too many people know what I was doing.” Joan Didion.