Tag: Nottingham Contemporary

Palaces of Power: Embarking on a Grand Tour at Nottingham Contemporary

The Grand Tour atNottingham Contemporary

Pablo Bronstein’s Via Appia frames the treasures of Chatsworth  including the coronation thrones and marble foot (c) Andy Keate for Nottingham Contemporary.

When German chancellor Otto von Bismarck proclaimed the second German Empire in 1890, he chose to do so inside the lavish Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in Paris. Long a symbol of power and wealth, this was his way of asserting German authority over the French after years of conflict. Just over a century later, the Hall of Mirrors was chosen by the victorious allies of the First World War as the place where Germany signed the humiliating Treaty of Versailles.

Few things embody the relationship between architecture and power than Versailles. Its baroque style and vast art collections are replicated at palaces around Europe, including Chatsworth House. Nestled in the Derbyshire Peaks, Chatsworth is home to the impressive Devonshire Collection, which includes paintings and drawings by the Old Masters, blue-and-white Delft pottery and ancient sculptures.

This summer 62 pieces from this collection have been brought to Nottingham Contemporary in an exhibition curated by artist Pablo Bronstein. It forms part of The Grand Tour, a cultural experience taking place across four galleries in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. It recreates the grand tours of the 18th and 19th centuries when aristocratic young men – including successive Dukes of Devonshire – would travel across Europe, discovering the treasures of antiquity.

The tour begins with a collection of vast objects, including a pair of coronation chairs for the William IV and Queen Adelaide and a huge bathtub which the gallery attendant helpfully tells me would have been used for show rather than any practical purpose. There is also a Roman foot, dating back to BC 150 – BC 50, which is thought to have been part of a statue of a goddess. Bronstein has produced a series of highly-technical paintings entitled Via Appia, which was a strategic route in Roman times and creates a narrative for these objects. This road not only inspired Renaissance artists such as Michaelangelo, it also shows the journey undertaken by the grand tourists.

The mood in Gallery 2 shifts towards something more introspective. Faux oak-panelled walls display the works of German and Flemish artists such as Franz Hals, Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt. In contrast to the grand pieces in other parts of the exhibition, these pieces are dark and brooding; Dürer’s 15th century etching, The Crucifixion, is imbued with pain and suffering, while Rembrandt’s drawing of the actor Willem Ruyters in his dressing room is intimate and humane.

Elsewhere, the themes of power and wealth resume once again. Huge pieces of silverware and Delft pottery fill cabinets surrounded by pillars and an imposing portrait of the 1st Duke of Devonshire hangs on the wall. Once again, these are juxtaposed with another Bronstein piece, this time a digital drawing of Chatsworth House. The familiar neo-classical building is suspended outside of time and space, giving viewers the chance to see if from different angles. Bronstein seems to be suggesting that art, architecture and power are anchored to their historical context – but that does not mean they are not subject to change.

As part of the Grand Tour, Bronstein is also exhibiting his drawings at Chatsworth’s New Gallery, as well as a large-scale drawing for the Old Master Cabinet Room. Other exhibitions include Wright Revealed: Uncovering Two Lost Paintings at Derby Museum and Elements of Architecture: Corridors and Welbeck Tunnels at the Welbeck Estate in north Notts.

See Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth at Nottingham Contemporary until 15 September.

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Review: Glenn Ligon’s Encounters and Collisions at Nottingham Contemporary

Untitled, Glenn Ligon (2006).

Untitled, Glenn Ligon (2006).

One of the first pieces to catch my eye in Glenn Ligon’s Encounters and Collisions exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary is a neon sign which simply reads, ‘America’. Reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s poem of the same name, this untitled piece seems to be emblematic of this intensely personal exhibition in which Ligon brings together the post-War artists who influenced him, alongside his own work.

Encounters and Collisions explores the many narratives of American discourse, touching on themes of race, identity, sexuality, politics, language, history and aesthetics.  For Ligon, who was born in the Bronx in 1960, the Civil Rights movement formed a backdrop to his early years. Here, we see journalistic pieces of the time, including Kelley Walker’s 2005 piece Triptych, which re-appropriates a photograph of a black man being savagely attacked by a police dog as well as  pictures of the Birmingham Race Riots and Black Panthers. These sit alongside pieces which examine how these experiences were internalised. Ligon’s 2005 painting, When Black Wasn’t Bceautiful, a quote from comedian Richard Pryor, plays on the idea that our notions of beauty are bound up with a society’s dominant narrative. Meanwhile, Giovanni Anselmo’s interactive exhibit Invisible, where the word ‘visible’ appears on a projector, highlights the ephemeral nature of language and identity.

yellow

Yellow Islands by Jackson Pollock (1952).

Sexuality, and the subversion of established norms, is also significant as shown in Ligon’s colouring book picture of Malcolm X, who is rendered feminine in a Warhol-esque way with bright lipstick and eye shadow. Another is a silent and hypnotic film by Steve McQueen called Bear in which two naked men square up to each other in a display of violence and eroticism. The close-up camera work is disarming as it follows the contours of the men’s bodies and disrupts our perspective; McQueen has said he did not want the viewer to be a passive observer but rather to be hyper-sensitive to their own part in the action.

Elsewhere, Ligon pays tribute to the artists who shaped his outlook. The abstract expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, are represented here and the immediacy of their paintings indicate a radical departure from the social realism prevalent in the US at this time. Looking at pieces such as Pollock’s Yellow Islands and de Kooning’s Valentine, it is easy to see why they proved so influential for Ligon: developed in New York, this movement saw artists peering deep into the human consciousness, by-passing rational thoughts, as they explored abstract human desires and experiences.

Encounters and Collisions is on at Nottingham Contemporary until 14th June. It will then move to Tate Liverpool where it will run from 30th June to 18th October. 

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Notes on Carol Rama’s exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary

c2A busy summer has meant that I didn’t manage to get to Nottingham Contemporary’s Carol Rama exhibition until Eanna O Ceallchain’s Wednesday walk-through earlier this week. The tour was an exploration of Italian artist Rama’s work, in particular her ideas around formalism and physicality, as well as the literary influence of her friend, the avant-garde writer Edoardo Sanguineti.

The Rama exhibition follows on very neatly from the Contemporary’s previous one, Somewhat Abstract, which examined different degrees of abstraction in art. Rama, who was born in Turin in 1918, experimented with these techniques in the post-War years but it is her bricolage – pieces made using found or everyday objects – which are particularly striking. As Eanna explained during the walk-through, the objects ‘reach out’ towards us, adding a sense of the corporeal to her work. Rama was fascinated by both purely formal ideas, such as mathematical formulae, language, shapes and colour, but she punctuates her pieces with physical and grotesque objects such as glass eyes and animal claws.

Another recurring motif is the use of inner tubes, a reference to her father’s failed bicycle business which precipitated his suicide. They are used in her pieces about so-called Mad Cow Disease in which they represent udders, although in their dismembered state they also resemble other body parts like intestines. The idea of a physical disease such as this breaking down mental faculties and changing the abstract notion of what a person (or animal) is.

Rama’s earlier works are also included in this exhibition. The figurative pastel illustrations, full of whimsical and sexually-charged creatures, are stylistically different to her later work yet many of the themes are present. The autobiographical references, such as her mother’s incarceration in a mental hospital and her uncle’s business of making prosthetic limbs (disembodied parts), also indicate how her early interest in mental illness and body parts would recur again and again.

The exhibition, which runs alongside one featuring the works of Danh Võ, is on until 28th September. Entry is free. 

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True to form: Exploring Somewhat Abstract at Nottingham Contemporary

Bridget Riley's Movement in Squares (1961).

Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares.

Characterised by a departure from straightforward representations of reality and with an emphasis on formal attributes such as shapes, colour and dimensions, abstraction has arguably been the most dominant force in the art world for more than a century.

But of course there are varying degrees of abstraction and this idea is examined in Somewhat Abstract, an exhibition which opened at Nottingham Contemporary earlier this month. Drawn from the Art Council’s extensive collection, and spanning a period of 70 years, it showcases works by both modern masters such as Bridget Riley, Yoko Ono, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Gilbert and George, along with less well-known artists.

Chilldren's Games, Heygate Estate.

Chilldren’s Games, Heygate Estate.

For me, the highlight of this exhibition was a series of artworks displayed in Gallery 1. Walk into the room and you are soon greeted by Bridget Riley’s 1962 painting, Movement in Squares in which she creates an optical illusion of movement using her trademark black and white geometric shapes. But there is the suggestion of something more sinister; the painting is followed by a number of pieces which examine post-War housing, including Mark Lewis’ 2002 film, Children’s Games, Heygate [a now demolished 1970s housing estate in the Elephant and Castle area of London]. In this piece, a camera glides almost hypnotically along the walkways and we see children playing against the backdrop of this concrete ghetto. The juxtaposition shows how the ideals of modernist art and functionalism, where architects designed ‘walkways in the skies’ to connect inhabitants living together harmoniously in perfectly planned communities, were never realised. Instead, the walkways, coupled with a lack of aesthetic beauty, created fractured communities which were blighted by crime and isolation: a far cry from the original utopian ideals.

Another remarkable piece in this exhibition is undoubtedly Francis Bacon’s Head VI. With echoes of Munch’s The Scream, the painting depicts a pope trapped inside a box with an agonised look on his face, evoking a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. Yet while he is acutely aware of his circumstances, the children on the Heygate estate play on, seemingly unaware of their confinement inside this modern ghetto created by those in a position of power.

Somewhat Abstract is on at Nottingham Contemporary until 29th June. Entry is FREE. For further details, including information on talks, tours and other events, visit the website

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Powerful figures: Geoffrey Farmer’s Let’s Make the Water Turn Black at Nottingham Contemporary

geoff2Walking into a gallery filled with classical sculptures can be somewhat unnerving. Forms that suggest strength and power stand static while the cold, white marble is strangely death-like.

As with Frankenstein’s monster, it is easy to imagine a bolt of electricity reanimating these frozen figures. It’s an idea that played on my mind when I went to see Canadian sculptor Geoffrey Farmer’s latest installation, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, which opened at Nottingham Contemporary earlier this month.

Inside, the figures that greet you are indeed white and motionless. Created from salvaged objects and old movie props, some playfully reference traditional sculpture. One even has the muscular limbs and noble face typical of the art form but it has been deconstructed: its body is made up of a mechanical-looking frame, a horn has been placed in its ear and a carrot has been stuffed into its mouth. Seemingly disparate, the sculptures spring to life as different coloured lights flash across them, animating even the cabbages that appear to grow from the solid, white gallery floor. Other characters, created with mop hair and light bulbs for eyes, suddenly come alive in a way that is both playful and sinister.

As well as the transformative lighting, a soundtrack made up of field recordings and Foley sounds perpetually changes the mood in the gallery and abstract electronic soundscapes contrast with the cheerful, half-remembered 1940s radio ditties.

The exhibition takes its name from Frank Zappa’s 1968 song Let’s Make the Water Turn Black which follows the story of pair of young brothers who lock themselves up in the garage and amuse themselves with all sorts of revolting games. The childish humour shifts to something darker as we learn that one of the brothers is in the army while the other is ‘taking pills’. During a recent visit to the Contemporary, Farmer said that he was interested in 1960s LA and his installation perfectly captures the dichotomy of this era (free love and peace versus war, drug casualties and the horrors of Altamont and the Charles Manson murders).

Let’s Make the Water Turn Black runs until 5th January. For details on the exhibition, and the events that have been organised around it, visit the Contemporary’s website.

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Review: Mika Rottenberg at Nottingham Contemporary

The first thing that struck me when I visited Nottingham Contemporary on a rainy Bank Holiday Monday was the sound of violent sneezes. It was not a member of the public suffering from hay fever – but rather a short film entitled Sneeze, a comical piece in which reddened noses shoot out cuts of meat and a live rabbit.

It was a light-hearted introduction to artist Mika Rottenberg’s exhibition at the Contemporary. Rhyming pleasingly with her other works (Cheese, Squeeze, Tropical Breeze and Mary’s Cherries), it foregrounded the human body and its functions while also raising a wry smile.

Around the corner is Squeeze, a 20-minute long film which sees women from around the world engaged in menial tasks. A dream-like landscape gives way to documentary film footage of Chinese women massaging the hands of Mexican workers harvesting lettuces and a woman being squeezed until she becomes so pink she can dust the colour off to make blusher.

The clunking sounds and repetitive nature of the women’s work reminded me of the mechanical processes in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In Rottenberg’s film, the end product is not as significant as the process: the blusher disappears down a hole while the lettuce is mashed to a pulp. The piece alludes to the Marxist idea that identity is bound up in the ‘means of production’, although Rottenberg says it is in the poetic sense rather than the political. In this way she also hints at the similarity between mass production and creating artwork. Human identity is infused in everything they produce, no matter how throwaway the product is. But unlike art, these products will not normally be put on display in a gallery and there is a sense in which the product, and by extension, the person who made it is lost.

These themes are echoed in Dough, a short film set in a strange factory in which women use their bodies to create a strange, flesh-like dough. Again, the end product is not important; it’s the part each person plays on the assembly line. Bodies take on the role of machines once again echoing the idea that products are inseparable from their makers.

This all makes a claustrophobic world where the work is tough and without rewards; however it stands in contrast to another short film, Tropical Breeze in which a female body builder delivers boxes of fruit juice while drinking it herself. She then wipes her lemon-infused perspiration onto tissues which are marketed as ‘lemon-scented moist tissue’. There is a sense of real power here not only in the physical form of the body builder and her acrobatic colleague but also in the way she is able to consume and manufacture products, putting her firmly in control of the process.

Alongside Rottenberg’s exhibition is a gallery devoted to the satirical cartoons of James Gillray (1756 – 1815) which are on loan from the V&A. Pompous, puffed up politicians, European relations and the scandals that permeated both high and low society will certainly resonate with modern audiences – and his deft sketches are delightfully comic.

The two exhibitions, which are free, run until 1st July.

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Klaus Weber: Suspended animation at Nottingham Contemporary

This weekend sees the launch of a new exhibition by German artist Klaus Weber at Nottingham Contemporary.

Born in Sigmaringen and now working in Berlin, Weber’s work explores our ideas about what is natural and what happens when this is disrupted. The new exhibition includes a life-sized moving figure of a man running off the roof, a sun mirror, artificial rain and a tornado made from a hoover. At this show, entitled If You Leave Me I’m not Coming, you will not be looking at paintings on a wall but sculptures occupying all the space in the gallery – and I mean all the space. For example, the cartoon-like ‘running man’ will launch himself from the gallery roof and be suspended in mid air. The sculpture has a motor in its chest which drives the pistons to make the man’s legs move.

There is also a giant wind chime, measuring four-and-a-half metres. It will be tuned to the ‘tritonic’ scale, which was banned during the Middle Ages because it was believed to summon the devil. Meanwhile, Weber’s ‘bee paintings’ have been created by bees themselves; during their first cleansing flight of the year they excrete on white surfaces, in this case on canvases.

Alongside Weber’s solo exhibition, there is a second exhibition at curated by the artist himself. The show, entitled Already There, is a collection of 200 objects and art works loaned from collections at Tate, the Science Museum, The Ashmolean, University College London and the Bode Museum in Berlin.

Describing the objects as the ‘foundations’ of his art works, they include tools used by pre-historic man; Bronze Age animal sculptures; a bird cage from a lunatic asylum; an armadillo skeleton; brain coral and Regency anatomical models complete with lift-out organs. The objects will be displayed alongside loans from Tate, chosen by Weber, dating back to 1661 and some of the artists include Louise Bourgeois, William Hogarth and Gilbert and George.

The new exhibition opens on Saturday and run until 8th January. Entry to Nottingham Contemporary is free.

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Tributes to Jean Genet at Nottingham Contemporary

As a teenager, the rebellious Jean Genet was one of my favourite writers. The son of a prostitute, he grew up in poverty and ended up in jail for petty crimes. He turned to writing while in prison – and later became the darling of the French art world and the toast of well-known figures such as Jean Cocteau, Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre.

But it is Genet’s association with social and political activism in the 1950s and 1960s that was the dominant theme at Nottingham Contemporary‘s new exhibition Act One & Two which opened on Friday. The break down of the exhibition into two acts was extremely effective. Act One is a solo exhibition by Marc Camille Chaimowicz (featuring five other artists) – and here we see an exploration of the personal realm. There are rooms strewn with personal objects and naked bodies which stand vulnerable yet defiant.

Act Two examines the political life of Genet, particularly his association with the Black Panther movement in America and his campaigns against colonialism. The pairing of the personal and the political is an apt reflection of Genet’s life. He was punished for something personal (his sexuality) – but the struggles he faced and the norms that he subverted in his literature came to represent the struggles faced by many other groups during this era and came at a time when the civil rights and the feminist movements were taking off.

This exhibition was launched alongside the Contemporary’s Summer Party which was a great night of music, dancing and drinks on the terrace.

This Thursday, I am also looking forward to a talk by art historian Sarah Wilson entitled Genet: From the Existential to the Post Colonial. For tickets, click here.

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