Sunday 23 March 2014

Water, colours: Turner and the Sea

A couple of months ago, I went to 'Art Under Attack' at the Tate - and it felt to me like a museum exhibition, slightly out of place in a gallery. (I wrote about it here.) This time, seeing 'Turner and the Sea' at London's National Maritime Museum, it was almost a reversal of that experience: an art show smuggled into a museum. As a result, it told its story in ways that helped me to see the paintings afresh.

The running order was broadly chronological, which might not sound like an especially dazzling decision. But when there is a relentless focus on one genre - so, here, seascapes - it makes it much easier for appreciative amateur critics like me to see exactly how the artist developed. The room of early works gives every indication of a talent fully formed, those dark waters swirling and swallowing hapless seafarers already in evidence. But on the way to the later pieces, where the waves seem to consume the whole canvas and wash much of the realism away, the exhibition takes a few intriguing detours.

This is where the museum approach kicked in. Three rooms are particularly concerned with placing Turner firmly in 'art history' context. Two of them (and I was thrilled with the nice wordplay on display here) look at what you might call the contemporary scene: 'Charted Waters' presents a selection of sea pictures by artists already active when Turner began exhibiting and, for the most part, he does - *ahem* - blow them out of the water. There is only one Turner work in that section, 'Fishermen at Sea', but it towers over almost all of its room-mates. Later on, 'Contested Waters' again brings in paintings from other artists who by this time were competing with an established Turner for public acclaim. As they imitate him, he tries something different, unconventional, and accordingly, edges ahead.

I wondered aloud about whether the inclusion of so much work by other artists actually detracted from the exhibition (especially given its title) but Mrs Specs pointed out, rightly (which is Mrs Specs's default setting), that it was the best and most effective way of showing just how accomplished Turner was. The only time I thought the approach really did lose its way was in the 'Trafalgar' room. Again, the clue was that I was in an institution dedicated to oceangoing and with that, inevitably, comes war at sea. An entire room is given to Turner's huge, complex painting of the famous battle, with other artists' treatments of it placed nearby for comparison. While I admired the picture, the need to portray the scene with a certain amount of accessibility and respect seemed to rein Turner in somewhat, and lead him to produce a piece that was more like his contemporaries' efforts than usual. At the same time, the final room, which contained a selection of his final, and therefore most distinctive and innovative canvases, was tiny - hung with more or less the minimum space needed to physically fit the group of paintings on the wall.

This minor bit of brow-furrowing, though, was soon forgotten when losing oneself in the sheer exhilaration of the closing sections. Even though there wasn't much room to step back and admire them, that final group of pictures (under the title 'Making Waves') manages to sum up the extraordinary advances Turner had made from those early works. How he could make the sea - whether calm or in turmoil - a totally abstract form. How he could contain such a riot of shade - not just colour, but black, white and grey - and variations in texture into a convincing whole. You feel like you are looking at something and nothing at the same time.

Most revelatory for me was the penultimate room, 'Imagining the Sea'. This large section primarily contains material from the Turner Bequest (the final inventory of his works left to the nation) - and features studies, drawings, sketchbooks and watercolours that have been seen very rarely (if at all) in comparison to the major works.

Seeing these lightning trial runs, flashes of inspiration translated into a few hurried lines on paper brought home to me, even more than the proper 'climax' in the final room, how Turner is one of those geniuses who seem to look forward as much as they look back. Yes, his techniques were innovative, but with our luxury of hindsight, they also seem predictive - beyond the Impressionism he's sometimes said to inspire. Sometimes this seems obvious, maybe - sketchy, jagged lines across pale backgrounds anticipating Twombly, say, but still anchored in evoking a real vista. Elsewhere, pale washes of empty sea and sky make it almost impossible to believe that Rothko cannot have stared at these studies for hours.... or Whistler may not have come here for his nocturnal watery-blues. It's a pleasing paradox of the exhibition, that by locating Turner so firmly in his historical and artistic tradition, he seems more timeless than ever.

(Image taken from the Royal Museums Greenwich website.)

Thursday 13 March 2014

New build: 'Sensing Spaces' at the RA

No art is truly passive, or one-way, I would say - and going to any exhibition, you're as likely to learn something about yourself as you are the artist or theme of the exhibition. I've never come away with a stronger impression of this than after seeing 'Sensing Spaces', showing currently at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Architecture falls within the RA's scope, but the closest brush I've had with it until now was the occasional visit to its Summer Exhibition, where a room or two would be devoted to fascinating draughtsmanship and scale models. For this extraordinary show, the RA invited seven architectural practices (worldwide) to create installations specifically for its main galleries. To quote from their website introduction, "we invite you to consider some of the big questions about the nature of architecture. How do spaces make us feel? What does architecture do for our lives?"

I think this is a laudable aim, and the show certainly made me consider these points seriously. There is something magical about interacting with something you primarily feel you are there to 'view', something still slightly transgressive about being allowed to step over the string and get a closer look. The fact that I could wander through all these exhibits without exception made me feel like the gallery had become a kind of form and function wonderland, one highlight of modern living after another. But I found that - with one possible exception, which I'll come back to - this was not architecture relevant to my life. Instead, I felt that this show was the natural result of what happens when you ask architects to make 'art'.

This doorway by Eduardo Souto de Moura is a case in point. Imagine being an architect but having the freedom to create something you know won't have to stand up for ever, actually house anybody or anything, or withstand any kind of weather or real wear and tear. These metallic replicas of the actual RA wooden doorways had it all ways. Ranged at a slant to the originals, they played with your sense of depth and pulled you sideways into the room at a certain angle - it was almost impossible to resist walking through them, even though there was no physical need to do so. As a result, they told you something about how architecture can play with perspective to give the illusions of paths and corridors, and also about how we 'obey' this perspective and allow it to dictate our movements. There was space all around us in the gallery, but we imagined and followed our own restrictions under the piece's influence.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen created the huge structure in the photo below. Free-standing (I believe) but colossally impractical, it guided viewers up spiral staircases (inside the cylinders) and down others. For disabled access, a ramp zig-zagged up to the top, enclosed behind that flat wall you can see at the back of the image - but at an epic length and in near-darkness. Even once you reached the top platform, the wall was so high, you could only really focus on the RA's ceiling. In other words, this building felt like a trick: fun, and even quite pleasant... But architecturally (and deliberately, I'm sure) 'wrong'. All form but no function, and it seemed gently satirical to me: thanks for asking, RA - but if you contain architecture within restrictions like this, you can expect only the most limited results. As a piece of art, though, it's quite lovely - drawing the gaze (and the photo might not make this clear, but it doesn't take up that much of the room, by any means) a bit like the pyramid in the centre of the Louvre, say. Those straight lines coming to a point, a challenge to the curved alcoves in the ceiling.

Talking of ceilings, Grafton Architects seemed to work downwards, with two perplexingly different rooms. One of them had descending beams in a line, falling to various heights, which mostly made parts of the room feel a bit claustrophobic. But then, you walked into this room, below: if to say, "but we can also do THIS". Taking the basic pattern of their other room and applying the same approach but with a greater variety of angles, this was where we really got to see how the style manipulated the light - as though they could control the illumination in the various corners of the space in the same way that one might switch on an artificial lamp or light switch. And again, as if entranced, I found myself gravitating towards the areas containing the level of light that suited me personally - no great shock, perhaps, but why? There were seats around the edge of the room, and doorways at each end giving me an obvious straight line to stroll down. But no, everyone went off-piste, searching for the area of 'nothing' that suited them.

For me, the unquestionable highlight of the exhibition was Li Xiaodong's installation. At the 'fun' level, this was essentially a maze: a series of actual corridors made out of hazel wood, but with illumination from below (soft white LED floors). Walking through led to small rooms and a miniature courtyard. While I enjoyed experiencing every exhibit, this was the only one that felt to me like a template for possible living. At once natural and synthetic, restful but stimulating, on a grander scale this could easily be developed into the space-age Oriental house/garden of one's dreams. Fanciful, perhaps, but this room manipulated me into nothing but delight. It made me think about how my environment can improve my well-being, influence the way I live. The floor lighting meant good visibility without any strain or glare to the eyes; the wooden walls and stones used in the central yard gave the aura of the outdoors venturing inside, and as a result the relatively enclosed spaces felt airy. The tightly-wound construction made for pleasingly unified 'art' in itself, but it made function feel like something form could aspire to.

I've mentioned my particular favourites here, but the other rooms all contained intriguing installations that combined interactivity and installation art to winning effect. There are a few weeks to go, so get along there if you can. If you know a bit about architecture, brilliant. If you don't, better still.

(Photos are my own, squinting gamely into the rear end of my smartphone.)

Saturday 8 March 2014

Orchestral manoeuvres: Jo Quail plays Poland

A short(ish) but hopefully sweet entry this time - not really a full, new post: more of a post-script to the last one.

People of Poland - rejoice! Jo Quail, who featured in the gig I wrote about previously, is playing an extraordinary concert in Gdansk in a few weeks' time - 23 March to be exact. It struck me that, as I get overseas 'hits' on this blog page, I should let everyone know about it on here. Please - if you like this music and you're in Poland or have people there with taste as excellent as yours - share this liberally and get the word out.

As you can hopefully make out from the flier, Jo's own compositions are the main focus of the concert. Playing at the invitation of the ensemble Cappella Gedanensis, Jo will be performing part of the programme solo - but also with three of her pieces scored for, and performed with, the orchestra.

If you're not familiar with either Jo's work (or my blog), I'll briefly introduce you. Jo primarily writes and performs as a solo artist, using only electric cello and loop station. (Her recordings feature some embellishments, but the layered cello is very much the focus and core.) To give an idea of her energy and versatility, the video below is the one I almost always show people first - the piece demonstrates how Jo can evoke folk, electronica and classical atmospheres while only ever really sounding like her own personal genre. It's a virtuoso performance visually - the opening beats on the cello, the dance of the feet across the loop pedals - and sheer exhilaration to listen to.

However, I'm also including this live footage of 'Rex Infractus', because it is one of the pieces being orchestrated for the Gdansk event. You can fall for it ahead of time here - the two or three minutes from around 4:45 I find particularly beautiful (oh, 5.30 to 5.40 - snakes alive!) as the melodies are layered 'downwards'... it's an exciting thought to imagine how an ensemble might approach it.

As if that wasn't enough, the evening includes a performance of 'Svyati' - John Tavener's exquisite composition for solo cello and chamber choir. Jo has a strong love and affinity for Tavener, and I know her performance will be full of empathy and understanding. As a fan, too, I doff my cap to the ensemble for programming the Tavener alongside Jo's own music. I'm not trying to draw parallels, or even lines of influence. But I think it is totally right to recognise Jo as a contemporary composer as well as performer, and perhaps draw certain links or shared aims to listeners' attention: resounding, recurring melody to create a sense of calm, and space.

I hope the Polish event is a huge success - it may mean that more, similar gigs could take place nearer to home. I cannot be there - I have opera tickets the exact same date (*adjusts pince-nez*) - otherwise I know I'd be booking leave, flights etc. On my behalf, then - if you are nearby, or you have friends (of friends, of friends) who could get to this, let them know! It'll be a spectacular night.

Date - 23 March 2014.
Time - 6pm.
Place - Kościół Zielonoświątkowy Zbór Radość Życia, Street Menonitów 2a in Gdańsk.
...and it's FREE to get in.

The Jo Quail website is here.
And this photo, taken from the same event literature as the flier image (above), is of Jo performing in St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch. The photographer is the fearsomely talented Karolina Urbaniak, whose website is here.