You will never forget your first Venice Biennale

November, 24: the closing day of the 58th edition of the Biennale of Venice. Organized by Ralph Rugoff, a world-wide known curator, director of the Hayward Gallery in Southbank Centre, London, it comprises the works of (only) 79 artists and 90 national participations in Giardini, Arsenale and all around the city of Venice.

This is not going to be a ‘traditional’ review of the Biennale, also because I am actually one of those people who had never visited any Biennale until this one. In any case, I think that having the opportunity to compare it to the previous editions is, yes, important, because it allows to have a deeper perspective on what has been achieved this year, but not essential.

As Rugoff said during the closing conference of the Biennale, this edition did not necessary require specialist knowledge to be appreciated. Of course, an art historian perceived artworks in a completely different way, but having this specific knowledge is not necessary.

Art is not an object, it is an experience.’

Everyone can enjoy it. We can all make sense of it thanks to the inevitable connections created by the artwork between an artist and our own personal background.

That was Rugoff’s intent: creating a safe space where visitors, any visitor, could start a two-way conversation with the artists exhibiting.

That is also the reason why he chose such a small amount of artists – let’s remember that the artists invited in 2017 were 120, and 136 in 2015. Rugoff created a more profound and ambivalent exchange that persisted throughout the exhibitions: the Biennale’s central pavilions in both the Arsenale and Giardini housed different works from the same artists, creating a multitude of solo shows articulated throughout the spaces.

If in Giardini we find Arthur Jafa‘s highly acclaimed video, The White Album – which also won this year’s Golden Lion -, in Arsenale Big Wheel, his huge installations made with tyres, actually make us experience a different side of the artist, not connected to his most famous video art. The same happens with every other artist: visitors have the opportunity to actually experience the pluralism and contradictions of their practices and realise that artists ‘Don’t tell single stories, don’t always do things in the same way‘: their practice is multi-dimensional.

This choice also reconnects to the theme of the Biennale, May You Live In Interesting Times, a sentence that has now become iconic. Rugoff asked artist to respond to today’s times and survey this particular age we live in not necessarily through politically or socially engaged discourses, which he defines as polarised and therefore too simplified, but merely through their personal experiences of the world. It is for this reason that this Biennale is so open to personal interpretations, because one of the things it is based on is ambivalence: of artists’ practice, of visitors’ interpretations and, more in general, of human experience.

Ph. Andrea Avezzù

In such years of confusion, of insecurities and uncertainties, being reminded to challenge our perceptions is the base to our future. The online world is making us more focused on our individualities, algorithms are surrounding us with content that resonates with our interests, and after a while we forget to embrace the contradictions of society and life.

Contemporary art is there also to remind us of the diverse orders that govern the world, to make us curious and to make us realise that sometimes, we should also embrace the inevitable contradictions and uncertainties of our lives.

Interview with the artist Nasser Azam, at Saatchi Gallery

Last Thursday I have had the pleasure to be invited to interview the Pakistani and British artist Nasser Azam, who currently has a solo-show at Saatchi Gallery, in London, called ‘Saiful Malook‘. The show will be open until June, 10, and explores with large-size paintings a poem from the 19th century, written by the Sufi saint and poet Mian Muhammad Bakhsh.

Nasser Azam, Installation view of Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook at Saatchi GalleryPhoto: Piers Allardyce, Courtesy Azam Studios

The poem tells the story of a Prince of Persia who starts a troubled journey to the lake Saiful Malook to find a fairy princess he saw in a dream. The artist embarked on the same journey across Kashmir to create the canvases now exhibited at Saatchi: he traveled back to his native country for the first time in 25 years, after his family moved to the UK when he was 6.

In this interview, Nasser Azam gives important insights about the artworks he created throughout this amazing journey.

Nasser Azam, Installation view of Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook at Saatchi GalleryPhoto: Piers Allardyce, Courtesy Azam Studios

VB: So, the first question: I know you chose the lake Saiful Malook because of a poem, is there a direct relation between the poem and the paintings here?

NA: I was introduced to the poem Saiful Malook, which translates into the Journey of Love, and was translated into a song by the musician Nushret Fateh Ali Khan, who introduced it to the West in the early 90s. After a long research, I found a strong connection with it: it was written over 50 years ago but the poet was born in the same city where I was, Jhelum.

The poem is about struggle, love, sacrifices, and I connected those themes with my parents coming over [to the UK] when I was a child in the early 70s, with the sacrifices they made and the struggles they strived for their kids. And utterly that persistence pays off. Those were the central themes that connected me personally with the poem, and that is why I wanted to pursue this project.

Nasser Azam, Installation view of Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook at Saatchi GalleryPhoto: Piers Allardyce, Courtesy Azam Studios

VB: There are a lot of connections between the large size paintings, they seem that they are made with a sort of …stencil? Because the shape is always, about the same. How did you do them?

NA: These ones are not stencils, I did use original Punjabi words for the poem so that the paintings were directly connected to the poem themselves.

VB: I know that you created some artworks made with iPhones in 2017/8, but I know that before that you worked continuously outside, in nature. So, what made you go back to nature?

NA: To me art is allegorical, it is emotion for the person to experience. It is something that you can’t learn from theory, and this applies in particular to this project. Together with my early works, it really was about me getting outside of the comfort of my studio, where I have a lot of time to finish a painting. I really like the challenge and the constraints and the creative restrictions in the surroundings of external environments.

Nasser Azam, Installation view of Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook at Saatchi GalleryPhoto: Piers Allardyce, Courtesy Azam Studios

VB: This […] was made in the studio, was it?

NA: Yes, this was made in the studio, just the two in the other room [in the picture below] have been made outside [on the shore of the lake itself, in Kashmir]

Nasser Azam, Installation view of Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook at Saatchi GalleryPhoto: Piers Allardyce, Courtesy Azam Studios

VB: How do you feel towards Pakistan? Because, as you said, you moved in the UK a long time ago. You always lived here, did you?

NA: Yes, I came here when I was 5-6 years old, and this is the first time I have been back, after 25 years. Actually, because it was a very restrictive project in terms of what we had to do and accomplish, I did non even have the chance to go back to Jhelum after I was born. So this was really me diving into a land where I had never been, although it was a very emotional experience.

VB: Of course, it must have been! So these paintings are also embodying your personal connection with the place and all the emotions that you felt when going back.

NA: Yes, sure!

Nasser Azam, Installation view of Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook at Saatchi GalleryPhoto: Piers Allardyce, Courtesy Azam Studios

VB: And then, the final question is, what is your mission? The mission of your art?

NA: Yes, so I think that, the more I have been involved with the poem, and in this show in particular, the paintings are more about trying to get a new generation of audience to appreciate the poet and the poem. The poem speaks to a lot of negativities in society back 150 years ago, like greed and violence, which are still relevant today as back then…? And the poem really does offer a spiritual solution to them.

Saiful Malook, the new solo-exhibition by Nasser Azam, is on view at Saatchi Gallery until June, 10. Don’t miss it: you will have the opportunity to discover new techniques to create art that will transport you into a new land.

REVIEW: Marc Lee at Annka Kultys Gallery

The more I go visit exhibitions, the less I feel excited about traditional, ‘ordinary’ art. I probably like 20% of the paintings I see, not to mention sculptures. On the other hand, the more and more I experience non-traditional art, the more I fall in love with it. Multimedia art is going to be more and more central in the art scene in the years to come and everyone should start approaching it and talking about it. Because contemporary art focuses not just on the contemporary, but also on the future: on what technology has been achieving in the past years and what innovations it will bring in the next decades.

© Marc Lee, Courtesy the artist and Annka Kultys Gallery.

If this first paragraph actually had that much power that the reader started googling ‘multimedia art’, or ‘multimedia art gallery’, it will be verifiable how one of the galleries looking to this digital future is Annka Kultys Gallery, in London. It focuses precisely on future generations of artists who work mainly on digital platforms: this represents a challenge not only because the program of the gallery furthers away from the ‘normal’, ‘traditional’ art, but also because it forces to ‘think out of the box’, in curatorial and commercial terms. It is easy to hang paintings on a wall, but how do you handle the projection of a video? Do you use headphones, or do you keep the audio on? And who wants to buy an app made by the artist if you can also find it for free on Google Play?

And these same questions have been asked when preparing the last exhibition Non-Places, a solo show by the Swiss artist Marc Lee – which, by the way, closes tomorrow, on 25th May! It comprises four artworks, four apps designed by the artist that underline how every space, every environment is inevitably connected to the online world. Through these apps showing in real time the tweets that people uploaded in a certain location, it becomes clear how virtual space is nowadays a huge, new world, almost mimicking physical cities but with no real connection to them, if not only for that ‘location’ icon we activate on our phones.

© Marc Lee, Courtesy the artist and Annka Kultys Gallery.

And to have an even clearer sense of this, the app 10.000 Moving Cities – Same but Different, AR (2018) underlines how even in the area where we are standing right now, people are tweeting and the environment is being absorbed by virtuality. With AR and an iPad, we are able to see blocks forming simil-buildings containing tweets people have been uploading in that same area where we are. But wait… a sheep! Weird animals start appearing on the screen. This apparent randomness reflects nowadays’ confusion: our human world is destroying, for no apparent reason, the flora and fauna of the Earth. Places are emerging and environments are constantly changing, which has an important impact on animals, insects, and all those ‘other’ beings around us.

This parallelism is actually quite powerful, and if, on the moment, we laugh at seeing a sheep on the gallery floor and we are more focused on enjoying the AR experience, on our way home we reflect about what we have seen, and we finally analyse the artwork and the important meanings it hides.

And the same happens with Me, Myself and I, the most interactive AR app of the four. The same concept of buildings made up of blocks is used once again, but in this case they need to be filled with the visitor’s face. The phone takes automatic shots with the internal camera, and each of them goes and fills a block. The user is required to travel across this multi-faced city until every block is filled in order to access the next level. There are 6 levels in total, and while the first one requires 2/3 minutes to finish, the last one could also take up until 30/40 minutes.

Apart from the fact that visitors unconsciously help one another finish the levels, one of the most impressive things about this ‘game’ is, once again, its practicality, how the visitors have the desire to fulfil the practical features the app has. They want to be part of the artwork, not just a contemplative audience. And the same happens: the visitors become aware of the message the artist is trying to communicate by seeing their same faces literally stuck on the buildings of a virtual city. They reflect on the message, narcissism and the cult of oneself’s images, at the basis of nowadays’ society.

© Marc Lee, Courtesy the artist and Annka Kultys Gallery.

The thing is, I hope that visitors actually think about what they see, and they don’t forget the whole experience as soon as it is over. AR, and all the other important technological innovations employed in art, are some of the most powerful artistic mediums today because they are the news. No one (or, at least, just very few people) have VR visors in their homes, and as soon as a new VR exhibition is on it is bombarded with visitors because they all want to live this new experience everyone has been talking about. But the meaning conveyed by the artwork cannot be forgotten: the medium has to be just a way of enhancing what the artist has been wanting to communicate to the world. And, maybe, this is the biggest challenge of technology and multimedia art: presenting an artwork is not enough, the visitors also have to be guided through its usage.

But at least it is a challenge, and it stimulates the art-world to think in new terms. Without challenges, there is only boredom.

REVIEW: Sarah Sparkes’ The GHost Parlour

This article is also available on Artlyst: https://www.artlyst.com/reviews/the-ghost-parlour-sarah-sparkes-at-new-art-projects/

The GHost Parlour, Sarah Sparkes’ solo exhibition at New Art Projects London, intimately explores the theme of ghosts and spirits, a subject which has fascinated Sparkes and been the centre of her artistic practice for many years. The exhibition comprises three sets of works: one film, numerous rounded collages and prints made on wallpaper and the GHost Tunnel, one of Sparkes’ most significant installations created for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) and here exhibited for the first time in London.

Ghosts and spirits have fascinated Sparkes and been the centre of her artistic practice for many years

Sparkes’ film, Time You Need was the recipient of the MERU ART*SCIENCE Award and is now part of the permanent collection of GAMeC, Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Bergamo, Italy. It recreates one of Sparkes’ performances where, through a hypnotic-like process, she encouraged people to get to the Time You Need, to re-visit, in their minds, a moment of their past in order to detach from the hustle of daily life. The film explores themes of time travelling as a journey into our own internal black hole and mixes scientific theories with popular representations. At the same time, the handmade special effects and dreamy aesthetics reconnect the film to the rest of Sparkes’ artistic practice.

Sarah Sparkes - Crazy Horses 2019
Sarah Sparkes – Crazy Horses 2019

Sarah Sparkes Ghost Tunnel
Sarah Sparkes – GHost Tunnel 2019 New Art Projects

The series GHost-dance – David Soul and Crazy Horses have been made by Sparkes using the remaining rolls of wallpaper that covered the walls of her childhood home, creating a powerful connection between her past and her present artistic practice. The subjects printed on these small circular panels include one of the most famous cases of possession in popular culture, The Enfield poltergeist case from the 1970s which involved a teenage girl, Janet, who was alleged to be possessed by the poltergeist of an old man. However, Sparkes also chose to include scenes from other cultures, such as Native Americans ghost dancers trying to bring back the victims of the western invaders, Neolithic field monuments and portraits of key figures from early 20th-century psychical research. Another series of circular works, Crazy Horses feature repeat motifs of skeletal horses. While the first set was made with digital prints, this series is more physical and involved cutting and embedding the images in the wallpaper, to have a more direct connection to the wildness of the subjects: ‘Everyone needs, every now and then, stampeding horses running through their living room’, Sparkes says.

The final artwork is the GHost Tunnel, an installation from 2016-17, part of No Such Thing A Gravity curated by Rob La Frenais, which toured to the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. This seemingly never-ending tunnel questions the notion of space and depth, and also stands as a metaphor of life and death. It represents that same black hole we all have in ourselves, as while we look in the tunnel we also see our image reflected on the glass: as if trying to understand what is at the end of the tunnel would also make us understand better our own selves.

REVIEW: Aaron Scheer FINAL_007 (02) at Annka Kultys Gallery

This review is also available on Artlyst.com https://www.artlyst.com/reviews/upcoming-curators-review-exhibitions-annka-kultys-cell-project-space/

Annka Kultys gallery is a compact and clean space, the whitewashed walls a perfect backdrop for her latest showing of Aaron Scheer’s colour-popping digital paintings. Based between Berlin, Germany and Gothenburg, Sweden, ‘FINAL_007 (02)’ marks Scheer’s first solo exhibition in the UK and is on view until March 2 2019.
Scheer works with a range of digital devices, creating his works using the screens of his phone or laptop. The collection of seven works printed on paper continues his ongoing exploration of digital media, using painterly techniques to create artworks. To allow the visitors to have an understanding of his technique, the gallery included in the exhibition an insightful video created by Scheer himself, showing how he composes his digital, colour-saturated palettes by swiping and screenshotting the screen of an iPad. Through layering carefully composed monochrome images or desktop folders, sometimes manipulated using brush strokes effects on Photoshop, he creates vivid compositions with vibrant colour contrasts.

Aaron Scheer Annka Kultys Gallery
DANA X, Aaron Scheer, 2018 at Annka Kultys Gallery

On the surface, these works are pleasing just to look at because of the interplay of texture and colour, but there is a deeper meaning behind the German-born artist’s modern creations. He is interested in the relationship and cross-over between humanity and technology, with a focus on the ever-increasing connection and interdependency between man and social networks. The vivid blue of the Rothko-like painting Digital Archaeology V, or the bright green in the background of Facbook_7aec5af, both on view at the gallery, remind the viewer of apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Through applying a classical art compositional approach to digital mediums, he can explore the challenges of our ever increasing digital world, from perceptions of reality to big data and automated production.
As illustrated by the curator of the gallery, contact between Kultys and Scheer started a few years ago, when the German artist connected with her online. She then decided to include his artworks in the group show ‘CACOTOPIA 03’, an annual exhibition featuring the works of five recent graduates from art academies that ran from December 5, 2018, to January 19, 2019. Following the success of that exhibition, Scheer became one of the new artists represented by the gallery.
Scheer’s exhibition is contextualized in the gallery’s history, which has focused on multimedia and digital art since its opening in September 2015. Located in the borough of Hackney, in east London, it encourages artists to bring their digital artworks to the gallery and functions as a point of contact with the press and collectors. For anyone interested in the world of digital art, it is worth a visit.

Interview with artist and curator Sarah Sparkes at New Art Projects, London

Hi everyone, sorry if I have been this absent from the blog but the past two weeks have been crazy because of university deadlines and other projects, but from now on the situation will go back to normal! The uploads will be more consistent, and sorry again for these weeks of absence 🙂

We go back on track with this interview I made to Sarah Sparkes, an artist and curator based in London and now having an exhibition called ‘The GHost Parlour’ at New Art Projects until April 27. This interview follows the video interview that you can find on YouTube here, go check it out if you haven’t already!

Here we talk more in depth about her works that are now exhibited at New Art Projects in London.

Still from Time You Need © Sarah Sparkes

V: Can you tell me a bit more about the film exhibited?

S: So, it is called ‘Time You Need’ (2015) and it was made for the MERU ART*SCIENCE Award. I was nominated for that award by a curator called Rob la Frenais, who also curated the exhibition ‘No Such Thing as Gravity’. I think there were about five or seven nominated artists, they were all nominated by different curators and I won. I put a proposal for a film, and the jury nominated me to win! That was really exciting, I have had to make the first film I have ever made, which was really hard and intense. Because I make things with my hands, I had to learn about it as a physical medium, so it has a lot of special effects, quite cheesy ones because I was thinking of a 60s 70s sci-fi aesthetics. The special effects are done with me spinning things with my hands and with very simple effects of overlaying. It’s a film that is about time travel, internal time travel, it’s about trying to find a way to slow down time and enter a time that you need. We are always rushing, we are always tearing through life and I was just thinking how wonderful it might be that we could find within ourselves a black hole, a little wormhole in which we could escape to any time, and it would always be the time that we love the most. So, I did a performance in which I explored these themes with people, I just said ‘go to the time you need’. I did this text that I read to them that was quite hypnotic, and then I sung them a little song, the one that is on the film.

Still from Time You Need © Sarah Sparkes

V: So, the one in the film is during that performance?

S: Yes, so it’s kind of re-enacting the performance. I worked with three artists, two of them are performance artists because I wanted performance in the film to recreate the original I had done for a project called ‘Overtime’. I just told them ‘Come as if you were dressed to go time traveling’ so the clothes were entirely their own choice. I also worked with a scientist, an artist-scientist called Pietro Reviglio, he’s an astrophysicist and he has two PhDs in the study of black holes, so he was the science advisor since the film takes the concept, the idea of the black hole and plays with it in the narrative linking it to literature, science fiction, films and television programs in which there are portals or wormholes and they’re able to travel across time. I wanted to bring all of these things together with my own aesthetics and make a film that looked like the rest of my work. It was a challenge, very enjoyable, very frustrating sometimes, and I have had so many brilliant friends to help me, they’re all credited at the end of the film. Oh, it also features my great grandfather’s magic lantern’s lights. He was a magic lanternist, and I inherited his slides.

V: What do you mean by magic lanterns?

S: It is one of the earliest forms of projected images, it is glass slides with coloured pictures painted on them and then they would go in a big wooden box which once had fire behind it, now a lightbulb, that would project the images with a magnifier lens. This was an early form of entertainment and he used to go around south-east London entertaining people by projecting these things. And I inherited them, they’re so magical and beautiful that I wanted to insert them in the story.

Still from Time You Need © Sarah Sparkes
Material Mediums – Margery, Sarah Sparkes © Andy Keate

V: That’s amazing! Please, tell us more about the works made with wallpaper.

S: That’s a series of works called David Soul, maybe a lot of people are too young to remember but he was a 1970s pop star, he was also in a tv show called Starsky and Hutch. I am interested in this poster of David Soul that appears in the background in a very famous photograph of a very famous poltergeist case of the 1970s that involved a young girl, a teenage girl called Janet. She alleged that she was possessed by the poltergeist of an old man, and the whole house in Enfield was haunted by this man. It made the news, there have been documentaries about it and more recently two films made about it [one of this is the second movie of The Conjuring series].

She’s still alive, she still claims all of this happened, and in the photographs of her possession she’s leaping up in the air in her tiny bedroom, with a really big poster of David Soul. It looks like she is leaping towards him in the poster! This iconography of David Soul and the poltergeist girl is jumbled up in my mind and in my memory with research I have done into psychics, parapsychology and animalistic psychology, all different fields of research that come from various levels of belief. Some of them are open minded and believe, and some of them are neutral, or claim to be neutral. Some of them come from the position of ‘it’s all in the mind and we can prove it’. I have worked with people from all these different fields because I guess I am the neutral person, I want to remain neutral about my belief in ghosts and just explore them as a cultural phenomenon.

Image 1: the Enfield poltergeist case

V: What do you mean by neutral?

S: I won’t say if I believe or not in ghosts. For me it’s not about that, for me as an artist it’s not about my belief or skepticism at all, I haven’t even investigated that. I’m exploring how ghosts are made, I am looking for a ghost formula. How to make a ghost. And then I am interested in people that research ghosts. So, the wallpaper I used for these images is actual 1970s wallpaper, the blue wallpaper was on my bedroom walls when I was growing up, and that explains a lot!

V: So it’s the actual wallpaper?!

S: Yes, my mum always kept a spare roll of wallpaper in case we needed to patch up, and when she was clearing up the attic she found it and I said ‘oh no don’t throw it away! I’ll do something with this’. For the past three years I have been making works on it. I have been painting on it, I have been collaging with it, and it is also featured in other things as well, like in digital collages. However, these are actual, physical collages with prints, and it’s the actual wallpaper so it’s kind of vintage, I guess. The blue one was on the bedroom wall, and the orange one on the kitchen wall. So these are kind of found objects that have a memory and an important significance to me, and the imagery on them are of people that have been involved with ghosts in a variety of ways. There is one with Janet leaping towards David Soul, another with Janet and her brother and sister. And in that photo, when you zoom behind them there is a little magazine that says David Soul – part of it is my own myth-making, of course.

Crazy Horses, Sarah Sparkes © Andy Keate

I am also interested in how this myth of ghosts crosses cultures and borders and expands on. As it comes into a new culture it would be adapted into that, and that is what I am doing with the imagery. I am bringing ghosts from different cultures together and creating a new ghost story. Some artworks also feature native Americans: in an artwork a native American ghost dance is represented, which used to be performed in America at the same time as the spiritualist movement started in the States. I think it was no coincidence that spiritualism started in America, where the natives had a spirit based religion – then the invaders came, took the land and religions and massively killed and repressed the native Americans. They had developed a ghost dance, a religious practice where they would dance in a circle and try to bring back the past. It’s very moving: they’re trying to reconnect with the past, wipe away all the damage that had been done by the white people and bring back the buffalos and bring back all their dead relatives. I have brought them in as well along with this 1970s poltergeist possession.

So, everybody, or everything here is something that humans have used to try to contact the dead, that is their connection.

Material Mediums – Helen, Sarah Sparkes © Andy Keate

V: Are they prints on the wallpaper?

S: They are prints: these [the orange ones] are digital images, manipulated digitally and then printed directly on wallpaper – I’ve broken two printers doing this, it’s not advisable! While these [the blue ones] are actual physical collages, sometimes there’s a bit of paint in them. I made a bit of physical collages, a bit of painting on top, changing sizes, playing around the process of collage, and then I scanned them, they became digital images and then they were printed onto the wallpaper. I found that this wallpaper particularly takes the print really well, it’s a lovely surface! Sometimes I have also sanded them, I like how the wallpaper comes through the images. So this is a friend describing it, I am gonna quote her, she said ‘it looks like black mold on the wallpaper’ and I thought that was brilliant! I thought ‘perfect, that’s exactly what it is’! It’s like black mold on the wall of an old house, and then you see shapes in it. I also reprinted on top of some of them, so it’s quite a long process

V: How long did it take to make them?

S: I never time things! I’m quite a labor-intensive artist, I like to do everything myself: I built the infinity tunnel myself in my studio since I don’t like to send things out to fabricators. The horses are cuts in and a more physical collage: I had to cut them out and kind of embed them into the wallpaper. I think this was just an attempt to open the stable doors and let the spirits in, let the energy in, like the wild horse energy. They are like little charms to let the wild horse energy into your home, because I think that everyone needs every now and then stampeding horses running through their living room.

Crazy Horses, Sarah Sparkes © Andy Keate

V: In the end it was sort of the same process, but you cut them and embedded them into the wallpaper.

S: Yeah, exactly the same process. The orange wallpaper cut down and then embedded into the other wallpaper. And each time they’re different, every time you have a different colour. By the way, this is the last roll of orange wallpaper, people should come just for that! This is the last work I can do on this wallpaper. The very last one is going to be at the Venice Biennale, two matchboxes with David Soul’s eyes on them. The David Soul’s eyes on this wallpaper are exhibited in a show called ‘Miniscule’. At the moment it’s in Cross Lane project in the Lake District, and then another version of the exhibition is going to the Venice Biennale from May through to July.

V: Is it in the Biennale…?

S: It’s a collateral event.

The GHost Tunnel, Sarah Sparkes © Stephen King

V: What about the tunnel?

S: This is the GHost Tunnel and is part of a much bigger installation that was made for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool and the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, for an exhibition called ‘No Such Thing as Gravity’, curated by Rob la Frenais. We visited Liverpool and he wanted me to do something about ghosts: he had the name of the exhibition and he knew he wanted to explore areas of science where a bit of magic comes in the practice. A science where there is not necessarily concrete material or answers but more unmaterial processes in order to find answers.

Science and magic combined, so ghosts: I am interested in how ghosts are made and I do research in this kind of element of psychology, parapsychology and neuroscience. The room was transformed in a ghost research area, it had this [the tunnel] in it, it had a robot that replicated a neuroscience experiment that created something called ‘feeling of presence’: you pushed one lever in front of you and you had to imagine you were poking someone in the back, and then behind you another robot poked you in the back corresponding your movements, so it was mirroring what you were doing with a slight delay. People have reported feeling as if there was really something behind them, they got spooked out! Even people that don’t believe in ghosts, they tested it with people that had neurological problems and people that did not have problems, and people equally went ‘Oh my god, there’s someone behind me!’. That was something I couldn’t make myself, I worked with a robotic artist called Sarah Angliss and she did the robotics for me.

Another room was a library, a whole library with books about ghost research from all different disciplines: there was an area with shelves that had an amateur ghost hunter’ equipment on it, there were all the gadgets that he used. Behind the shelves there was a little room, and in there a puppet that I had made, called the Host Ghost. It looks like a ghost of sheets, with its hands up, and people could point the equipment at the puppet and test all the ghost hunting readings on the puppet. There were also monitors on the shelves of the local group of ghost hunters ‘Mersey Paranormal’: I went on an investigation with them and there were footages of the investigation on the monitors.

Finally, there was another area where people could read ghost stories I had collected in Liverpool, it was a little office space with the screen and people could upload their ghost stories or read them. That element of the exhibition still exists, and we can still read the Liverpool ghost stories, they are on a website online called the ghostportal.co.uk. And when I went to Taiwan with the exhibition, the whole thing went in a ship! The ghost tunnel has been in a ship twice. So, this is the original one, it’s the first time it has been shown in London. If you look really closely you can see all the way to Taiwan!

V: That’s impressive! How is it made, can you say it?

S: No, it’s just magic! It is all smoked mirrors, it’s an old optical illusion, but I have my twist to that optical illusion that I can’t possibly reveal! It makes the tunnel go deeper than other infinity tunnels. It goes back a long way, but actually it doesn’t.

V: Yes, otherwise installing it would be a problem!

S: But I like the idea that you can imagine it goes to Liverpool and Taiwan, it’s like it has brought together all the people that have looked in it in those places. So yeah, it was part of this big installation and New Art Projects has always wanted to show it here, so they have built it into the wall. It was installed the same way in Liverpool and Taiwan, down a long corridor.

ART♀STS

Among the artists included in the list of the 100 most expensive artists at auctions, do you know how many of them are women?

Seriously, think about it.

Are you thinking?

Do you have a number in your mind? Keep it there.

The right answer is 2. Out of 100, only 2 of the most expensive artists at auctions are women. Anyone guessed right? Let me know in the comments!

© Artsy

Quite impressive, isn’t it? That number speaks for itself, I believe.

Some say that actually price is not the right, or only, way to judge and have a perception of today’s art world, meaning that there are other factors that come into play when we enter the world of the art market and artwork prices. So, on one hand, the majority of artworks that are now valued as the most expensive are usually made by deceased artists from the past century or more, and thus were produced in a time where women were less considered and had less opportunities to become known for their artistic talent. This, then, reflects on the artworks purchased nowadays – fewer female artists’ works are sold in auctions.

On the other hand, however, it is no excuse, and it is important to recognise that there can be no excuse so that nothing is ever taken for granted. The worst that could happen in the future is that we accept what we have achieved, and we stop being aware of those inequalities that could happen around us. From my point of view, what really matters is awareness, knowing how the world was and is, and what we can try to do to change it in the future. What matters is being true to one’s beliefs.

Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?, 1989 © Guerrilla Girls

The Guerrilla Girls have been one of the first group of artists to address inequality in the art world. Formed in the mid 80s, they write:

‘We are a group of women artists and art professionals who fight discrimination. We’re the conscience of the art world, counterparts to the mostly male traditions of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Batman, and the Lone Ranger. We have produced over 80 posters, printed projects, and actions that expose sexism and racism in the art world and culture at large’

They have attracted more and more attention and now their posters have been awarded with places in the most famous modern and contemporary art galleries of the world, like Tate Modern and MoMA. Are they bringing change from the inside or have they just accepted fame and been victim of those same art institutions that they used to criticise? They say it’s the former, I like to think the same.

You’re Seeing Less Than Half The Picture, 1989 © Guerrilla Girls

However, I don’t think that you necessarily have to be a feminist collective to become a popular female artist. That is why I feel that it is important to try and let people know that there are a lot female artists out there. For contemporary art, I have noticed that there are SO MANY whose work is AMAZING, but they are less known, and their work is not yet exhibited in major museums. Maybe this is also because I am growing more and more interest in digital art, and I am focusing on those contemporary artists that are working with video, 3D, VR, photography, or whatever medium that is slightly less traditional than usual, and thus not yet exhibited by major museums.

So – to conclude, in the next articles I am going to help you discover some female artists that you HAVE to know. I want to attract people’s attention not only on female figures that have been an important part of history of art, but also on those who are becoming popular right now, or are still considered as emerging artists. The majority of them working with digital mediums, not yet that famous to be exhibited in museums. I hope, most of all, that it can be an interesting source of information, and that you can discover new things and broaden your horizons.

ART♀ST

REVIEW: Shinkai’s The Garden of Words

Is anyone else thinking that today’s American culture is going through a bit of a crisis? Not only Hollywood – I can’t actually think about the last time I came out of a cinema thinking “Oh, finally a really good movie!” – but also literature, or tv series, even if these last ones are still not that bad. I have grown up watching mostly Disney cartoons, followed by a passion for Hollywood movies developed during my adolescence, and now, after years and years spent watching more or less the same narratives being repeated over and over again with just slight changes, I have grown more tired of those themes so loved by American producers, of those happily-ever-after endings or those banal storylines focused on the same social and family plots that should be shared by a global audience.

In the last few decades we have finally witnessed a flow of culture going not only from the US and Europe towards the rest of the world, but also the other way round: cultures that until that moment could not have gone through an international expansion because of historical and political barriers, now have opened – more or less – to the West and have started exporting intercontinentally their cultural products. First of all, Asia, with the Japanese and Korean phenomenon. And that is why I did, too, take some time to step back and turn east, hoping to find new inspirations and stimulus. It seems like a cliché, but that is what you experience when first reading a manga, or watching an anime: you feel thrown into a different world because of people’s behaviour and sensibility.

Japanese poster of Garden of Words

Yesterday evening I watched The Garden of Words (2013), directed by Makoto Shinkai, also director and writer of the more famous Your Name. It is surprisingly a short movie, it lasts only 46 minutes, and tells the story of Takao Akizuki, a 15-year-old boy whose dream is to become a shoe maker (not like our teenagers, who want to be footballers or youtubers). On rainy days he always skips school and goes to Shinjuku Gyoen park, in central Tokyo, where he takes shelter under a small pagoda to draw shoes. One day, he finds another person sitting in the park, Yukari Yukino, a mysterious 27-years-old woman with whom he starts a strong friendship.

What can you say about this anime? I am not sure either, I am still trying to find words to describe it. One thing for sure is that I still feel melancholy and sadness: Japanese movies have this talent in making you feel small and lonely. The movie is in fact based on the traditional Japanese word for ‘love’ – apparently one of the kanji that now signify love (恋) in the past was written as 孤悲, or ‘lonely sadness‘.

In the end, that is the essence of this movie, that love, yes, can overcome every barrier and age gap, but that in the end loneliness is a fundamental part of everyone’s lives. You could meet people on the way that could change your life and make you grow, but future aspirations and dreams are always the priority. And it was Shinkai himself that said in an interview that loneliness is not treated here as something that has to be fixed. On the other hand, the movie wants to give support to all those people that feel bad at social relations.

Still image from Garden of Words

And maybe this is even a more educational way of seeing life, not giving in to passion or fondness, the right opposite of what Disney teaches. And that is also why I feel discomforted by this movie, because the ending doesn’t follow my expectations, but only because my way of seeing has been shaped by our own Western media. And as soon as I watch something that sends messages that are different from what I would expect, I don’t know what to make of them. When I interpret the whole movie as melancholic, others with different points of view could see it as educational or inspiring.

Still image from Garden of Words

Just to compare, it is as if at the end of Snow White, she left the prince and went to the city to open a pie shop because her calling in life is making people happy with cakes. It would be weird, right? But at the same time, it could teach children to be more realistic and practical, push them to think what to do with their lives. In the end, I don’t think it is a matter of right or wrong, it’s more about cultures and traditions. For me, it’s amazing how just a 46-minutes-long anime can reveal so much about Japan.

BACK TO THE MOVIE ITSELF animation is amazing, to recreate rain more realistically as possible they chose to use a mix of hand-drawn animation and CGI (computer animation), that is why it is so astonishingly real. The soundtrack is quite good, apart from the ending song that was waaay too cheesy (and loud) and maybe a bit inappropriate for the dramatic but emotional moment. Lastly, I feel that characters have not been developed that much, and don’t have much depth. But at the same time, not a lot more could have been done in 46 minutes.

Still image from Garden of Words

And here the main question: why only 46 minutes? Not enough money? Not enough time? I would actually love to see a longer version of it, less rushed at the end and with more time to understand develop the characters.

But animation is really what makes it so wonderful, and what pushes me to advice it to everyone interested in knowing more about Japanese culture.

REVIEW: Bill Viola / Michelangelo

Aaand for art lovers, we’re back with another review of an exhibition! (This review is also on Youtube, click here to see it!)

I spent yesterday morning at the Royal Academy of the Arts in Piccadilly, London, at the exhibition ‘Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, death, rebirth‘, which opened on January 26 and will be on until the end of March.

Michelangelo’s The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, c. 1540 © The Trustees of the British Museum

‘Bill Viola / Michelangelo’ is an exhibition where video works from the visual artist Bill Viola are put in conversation with drawings made by Michelangelo (which – note – are owned by the Queen!!). I must say I was quite sceptic, it’s not something common to see works by one of the most famous artists of the world exhibited together not only with contemporary artworks, but with videos! I wasn’t sure about this contrast, but at the same time it was made by such a famous institution that I had to see it, at least. I also started appreciating more and more video art – my love for everything digital is getting stronger – so I decided to give it a chance.

I am actually still struggling in deciding where to start, it is not one of those straightforward exhibition where personal interpretation doesn’t really matter. In this case, the themes explored touch us all, and I suppose that the whole experience depends on how we perceive those particular themes. What I felt during the exhibition and that didn’t fade during the rest of the day is… I don’t know how to put it into words. It’s a sort of peace, simple, natural, but not positive; there is melancholy, there is fear, and death to some extent.

Viola’s Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005 – Courtesy Bill Viola Studio. Photo: Kira Perov

(I probably didn’t get the part about rebirth, did I?)

Bill Viola was born in 1951 in New York, and he’s one of the first generation of artists that started working with the digital medium thanks to the introduction of portable and cheap cameras in the 60s. I feel that one of the most important elements of his practice is to understand his view of ‘time’, which he considers one of the central revolutions of image-making – he also compares it to the introduction of perspective in Renaissance art. And time actually has a central role in his videos, which are usually extremely slow-motion scenes representing people in different contexts, often underwater. And it is that same, soft sound of being underwater, that sense of slowness, that follows the visitor through and out of the exhibition, as if time had been stretched. At the same time, his videos are continuously looped, giving a sense of suffocating eternity.

Michelangelo’s The Risen Christ, c.1532-3 © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Viola’s art explores different themes, often having philosophical and spiritual significance. He engaged with Renaissance art (he went to Florence to study during his education), with religious mysticism, and he combines contemporary technology with ancient tradition. He seeks to explore life, death, religion. Viola suggested that films could “function both as aesthetic objects of contemporary art and as practical objects of traditional contemplation and devotion”.

However, while he explores these themes, it is not entirely clear what he wants to say, what his artworks are suggesting the viewer. No doubt that they easily attract the eyes of the audience because of the subjects and the aesthetic; they invite the viewer to stand still and forget the world for a few moments, but then? What is there after this? Does he want to recreate a sort of mystical experience? Does he want to tell a story? Is he sharing his view of the world? Or he actually didn’t want to do any of these things, and just underline the connection between life and death?

Bill Viola’s Nantes Triptych, 1992, right, opposite Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo – Photograph: David Parry © Royal Academy of Arts
The Virgin and Child With the Infant St John the Baptist (the Taddei Tondo), c1504-5 by Michelangelo © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Moreover, the conversation between his works and Michelangelo’s is, sometimes, forced, and the dialogue created is not achieved completely. The Nantes Triptych, formed by three different videos representing a woman giving birth, a body floating in water and Viola’s dying mother, is installed in front of Taddei Tondo (1505) by Michelangelo, where the Virgin Mary is comforting baby Jesus, scared at the sight of a goldfinch – symbol of the crucifixion. If from one point of view the two artworks seem to be in a close connection because of the coexistence-of-death/life-theme, on the other there is something unconvincing about it – isn’t it too straightforward? And what is the connection between Viola’s view of daily life – a man floating underwater – and Michelangelo’s?

And the same happens in the other rooms where the artists’ works are installed together, the dialogue is not convincing and appears just thanks to the clues in RA’s information boards on the walls. To me, it seems that, despite the shared themes of spirituality, materiality and life/death, Michelangelo’s works were diminished. It is as if they were reduced to the most appropriate interpretation for this particular exhibition, and for Viola’s video.

At the same time, I liked the show: Viola’s videos need to be experienced on a big screen, with the right light and the right atmosphere, in order for the audience to enter in contact with the artwork itself. I must admit that it does require some time, but it reveals itself to be a poetic experience. Especially when you accept the stillness of the video, and you start realising that you, first of all, have to experience the exhibition itself with slowness and calm in order to fully appreciate it.

But it is also important to notice that, in those rooms where both Michelangelo’s and Viola’s work were installed, the drawings totally eclipsed the videos because of their undeniable beauty.

I mean, it’s Michelangelo.

Oscars 2018: too politically correct?

I know, I am a few days late, taking some time to reflect on the outcome of this Oscar night was very much needed!

I woke up last Monday morning to find out that Green Book had won as Best Motion Picture. With a perfect timing, I had actually watched that move the night before with a few friends, and one of the first things that I thought while watching it was ‘No, it’s too funny, it is not going to win’, so my bet had fallen on Cuaròn’s Roma. But, God, I was so wrong!

Green Book

My immediate reaction was really, really, really negative. I don’t think that Green Book is not a movie worthy to win as Best Picture. It is witty, it makes the audience laugh, it easily moves with its banal-but-reassuring happy-ending, and undoubtedly it is a lovely movie to watch. But no, Best Picture is waaaaay too much. And I wasn’t expecting the Oscars to be SO politically correct.

For those of you who haven’t watched Green Book, it is set in the racist United States of the 60s around the real story of Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italo-American living in the Bronx, who becomes the chauffeur, and then friend, of Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a sophisticated Afro-American piano player.

 When I think about last years’ winners, there was something that differentiated the winners from the mass: I didn’t like The Shape of Water, way too sappy and surreal, but at least the direction was something. I could feel that it was going to win, certainly because of the love-wins-over-difference theme but also for other formal and aesthetic arrangements. Same for Moonlight in 2017, it was again the typical, socially engaged story for the Oscars, but at least there was something more.

This time, on the other hand, I didn’t feel Green Book had nothing extraordinary. I liked it, I laughed, it also moved me. It highlights an issue which must never be forgotten, but c’mon, Best Picture?? I would have approved more if The Favourite had won, but sorry, lesbians in the 18th century are not as important as racism in the 60s.

Still image from The Favourite

And, from one perspective, the Oscars are an American price, so it is understandable that they give voice to their ‘local’ (if it can be called local, since it is exported in almost the whole world) culture and try to send messages that touch mainly – but not exclusively – Americans. And nowadays, with Trump and the 2020 elections, it is more than necessary to continuously highlight and bring to memory the past in order not to make the same mistakes.

(And it is amazing how, for the past six Oscars editions – excluding in 2016 – the award for best director was always won by a Mexican director: Alfonso Cuaròn in 2013 and 2018, Alejandro G. Iñarritu in 2014 and 2015, Guillermo del Toro in 2017.)

Kathryn Bigelow accepting the Oscar for The Hurt Locker

But, on the other hand, isn’t the Academy Award an institution celebrating filmmaking and honoring remarkable artists of the film industry? Is it appropriate to be this politically correct in an institution that, formally, promotes first-class cinema? And then, if the Academy gives so much attention to social and nondiscriminatory themes, why is it that only one woman in history, Kathryn Bigelow in 2008, won an Oscar as Best Director?

I want this to be the starting point for a quiet debate in your minds, as it is happening in mine. I still don’t have an answer, and if half of me is more and more disappointed each year that the Academy rewards movies for the themes and not for the movie itself, on the other hand I don’t feel like I should totally demonize what happens.

As always, I would love to hear what you think!