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.

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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.

REVIEW(ish): T. Emin, ‘A Fortnight of Tears’

‘Ms. Emin’s nihilism is so intensely passionate that it amounts to her life force. It is carried (…) primarily by language (…). In this day of multiple media and blurred boundaries between disciplines, it still seems that she might be less an artist than a writer, whose autobiography and hard-won philosophy of life would work best in book form. But in whatever form Ms. Emin chooses to work, one thing seems clear: she’s all voice.’ Roberta Smith, NYT

Yes, I know, I haven’t chosen something easy to write about, especially being this my first article.

Today Tracey Emin is one of the most controversial contemporary artists, some say that her works are ‘too much’: too much depression, too much sadness, too much passion. She knows how to provoke the viewer, she knows how to make us feel. It is as if she was saying ‘You can choose whether to open yourselves to my artworks and accept whatever emotions they may cause you, or you can go on living emotionless your gray and dull life’. Because despite all the tragedies she went through, her life is a blaze of colours.

Tracey Emin with My Bed, Tate Britain, 2015 © Guy Bell

Tracey Emin was born in 1963 in London, and she is one of the most well-known British contemporary artists of today. Her arguably most famous work is My Bed, exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1999 and which represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2007. The bed (yup, the artwork title is quite self-explanatory) exhibited was the actual bed where she spent hours and hours smoking, eating, or having sexual intercourses in a quite difficult period of her life. For this reason, her artwork attracted not little media attention: it wasn’t just a bed, it was a bed surrounded by empty alcohol bottles, sheets full of weird stains, used condoms and empty cigarettes packets. Some thought ‘I didn’t come to an art gallery to see used condoms!”, but thankfully a lot more people appreciated the underlying intensity of her sorrow and despair.

Oh, yeah, she is also famous because in 1997 she appeared drunk on TV in the discussion panel of the program ‘The Death of Painting’ (…or ‘Is Painting Dead?’, according to The Guardian). I actually looked for the video but couldn’t find it (please, share the link if you do!).

The entrance of the exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, 2019 © Virginia Bianchi

Tracey Emin’s ‘A Fortnight of Tears’ is now on at White Cube Bermondsey until April 7. If you’re in London, GO AND SEE IT. I mean it. (If it wasn’t clear enough, it was quite a long time that I wasn’t that emotional about an exhibition).

The artworks exhibited are how Tracey translated her sufferings into material, artistic objects. Each and every one of them (and they’re quite a large number) is a punch in the stomach of the visitor. Starting from the first room, where fifty self-portraits taken during her sleepless nights of insomnia are hanged on the walls, the intimacy of her devastated glances made me feel naked and uneasy, almost as if the ghosts haunting her nights were in that same room, with me.

Insomnia Room Installation, 2018 © Virginia Bianchi

Those very same ghosts are the ones that appear in the next exhibited artworks: her passed away mother and her unborn child… or actually children – in the exhibition only one abortion is fully mentioned, but she had two: ‘After three [abortions] you start going mad. I’ve had two and I’m borderline.’

The ghosts of motherhood and femininity pervade the rest of the exhibition: the two naked bronze sculptures laying on the floor, leaving us to wonder whether they are unborn foetus or despairing figures; the paintings, representing female figures drawn with such an anger that sometimes they just seem splashes of blood on the canvas; or the silent video she made filming slowly, with a deathly calm, her mother’s box of ashes. The last piece of the exhibition is a 22 minutes-long video where she tells us of her first traumatising abortion in 1990, and of how that experience has had a profound impact on the rest of her life. Her strength, once again, consists in how she doesn’t hide, how she explains in full details how it went, how she calmly doesn’t spare us anything of that story.

In one document, contained in one of the two vitrines collecting intimate and improvised writings from her archive – some are also on sheets with the logo of hotels where she was staying -, she writes ‘Always so alone, so scared – so not wanted.’ And she has that incredible power that only very few artists have nowadays, of making the viewer feel discomfort as if her despair was theirs.

But, of course, only if you are open to embrace her works. That is why she is such a controversial artist: by thinking rationally, by examining her technique, one will never get to the bottom of her works. I feel it to be a bit like looking at a Pollock and saying ‘My child could have done that!’ One also need to consider the fortnights of tears the author spent creating that same artwork you are admiring today.

No Love, 2018 © Virginia Bianchi
(from left) I watched you disappear. Pink Ghost, 2018; I was too young to be carrying your Ashes, 2017-18; You were still There, 2018 © Virginia Bianchi