My London Your London

A cultural guide

Category: Museums and Galleries (page 1 of 9)

The enduring appeal of animal pictures – a short visit to the ancient Greeks at the British Museum

by Natalie Bennett

It’s an old journalist standby that’s transferred seamlessly over into an internet age – a cute animal picture is guaranteed to sell newspapers, or a cat playing a game came bring internet browsers in their millions.

At a brief stop today in the British Museum with the ancient Greeks of Asia Minor and the eastern Med, I found the same rule applied then. The simple but expressive and lively pots of the “Wild goat style” of pottery of the 7th and early 6th century are the kind of captivating little treasures – not the famous or standout items but well worth attention – that at the British Museum are so often overlooked.

Credit for inspiration is given to Anatolian and Near Eastern fabrics and metalwork.
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Exhibition Review: Tracey Emin: Love Is What You Want, at The Hayward Gallery

by Sarah Cope

“What a lot of glorified self-pity!” complained one American male visitor as he surveyed the five rooms dedicated to the art of Tracey Emin, in this her first London retrospective. Listening to comments made by fellow visitors is always amusing, and Emin’s work seems to provoke strong reactions in both directions.

On first entering the gallery, visitors are confronted by Emin’s applique blankets. Reminiscent of homemade protest banners, Emin takes the ‘womanly’ craft of quilting and turns it on its head. These are angry pieces (‘You cruel heartless bitch. Rot in hell.’), although it isn’t clear who the anger is aimed at. Is it anger towards herself, Emin of course being her favourite subject? Or are these remembered insults, haunting and revisiting Emin at vulnerable moments?

The blankets also reveal much about Emin’s chaotic lifestyle, with alcohol playing a big part in perhaps both the events depicted on them and in their creation. She recounts vomiting down the back of a taxi driver’s neck, or pulling condom after condom out of her vagina in the bath, having little idea how they got there. Not the sort of events depicted on blankets made by local pensioners’ groups, I would imagine.

Several of Emin’s films are being played on a loop in various spaces throughout the exhibition. The excellent ‘Why I Never Became a Dancer’ (1995), features Emin at her most jubilant, witty and confident (and should be watched by anyone who thinks her default setting is miserable). Explaining how she made it to the finals of a dancing competition (she took up dancing at the age of fifteen, having grown tired of sex), she was shouted off the stage by a group of boys who were chanting “Slag! Slag! Slag!” in an effort to put her off. The story is told over grainy Super 8 footage of Margate, the seaside town of her childhood.

Emin recalls “And I left Margate, and I left those boys. Shane, Richard, Eddie, Tony – this one’s for you.” Cue footage of a smiling, ecstatic Emin dancing in 1995 to Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’. Success as revenge is a theme which features heavily in her work, and here it is writ large.

In another longer film, ‘How It Feels’, Emin recounts her experience of having a badly botched abortion in 1990. Standing outside her doctor’s surgery, she recalls how her (religious) doctor tried to persuade her to have the baby, and put off signing the consent form for six weeks. She said how she still felt like going inside and smashing the place up, so full of anger was she that she had been made to beg for his consent.
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Exhibition Review: 400 Women at Shoreditch Town Hall

by Sarah Cope

Navigating the outside steps down to the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, I came across some women leaving the exhibition 400 Women. “I need something to cheer me up after that!” said one of them to her companion.

The subject matter of ‘400 Women’ is indeed sobering, highlighting as it does the huge numbers of women who are raped, murdered and who ‘disappear’ in Cuidad Juarez, a city in Chihuahua state of around 1.5 million people, situated on the border between Mexico and the US. These murders are separate from those related to drug cartels; they are happening simply because the victims happen to be women.

From January to October this year, there have been over 300 murders of women in Chihuahua state, which amounts to more than one victim a day. Despite being condemned by the Inter America Court of Human Rights for their inaction over these ongoing atrocities, the Mexican authorities are still not acting, and this is giving perpetrators carte blanche to continue the killings.

This exhibition came about when BBC Producer Tamsyn Challenger went to Cuidad Juarez in 2006 to make a feature on the subject for ‘Woman’s Hour’. Having met the relatives of some of the victims, she decided to bring the matter to the public’s attention though a unique exhibition.

Challenger invited 175 artists to paint a portrait of one of the missing or murdered women, using a photograph, sometimes the image of the woman used on the home-made ‘missing’ posters created by worried relatives. The 175 artists range from well-known figures such as Maggi Hambling and Cathy Lomax, to lesser known painters. Tracey Emin fans should note, however, that although her name is mentioned in the publicity for this exhibition, and her portrait of Ana Maria Gardea Villalobos (raped and stabbed March 1997) is listed in the exhibition guide, Emin did not provide her portrait due to ill health.

The space in Shoreditch Town Hall basement is extremely fitting for this exhibition – a dilapidated, spooky, ill-lit space, made up of a veritable rabbit warren of rooms with crumbling walls – is exactly the sort of place that you could imagine something very horrible happening. The darkened nature of the space only serves to heighten the vividness of many of the portraits, many of which sparkle with life and convey the vivacity of the women who have now been robbed from their families.

Alison Harper’s portrait of Perla Patricia Saenz Diaz, who was stabbed to death in February 1998, was a stand-out piece for me, with the expression of the victim being hard to decipher. This was true of a lot of the portraits – many of the women had a notable sadness in their eyes, despite their smiles – though it is impossible to know whether our knowledge of what happened to them makes this sadness more obvious.

Fred Schley’s painting of Claudia Antonia Nunez Gomez, who went missing in August 2007, is clearly a close copy of a photograph of the victim. A blurred face, an insignificant moment captured, becoming a lasting image of a woman who would be missed for ever, her family receiving no justice of any kind.

This is a profoundly moving exhibition, and Amnesty International’s involvement means that it will serve to put much needed pressure on the Mexican authorities to finally act before the murders and disappearances amount to nothing short of a genocide of the women of Cuidad Juarez.

The exhibition continues at Shoreditch Town Hall until December 5.

Art exhibition: Please Write at Posted

by Sarah Cope

“Is this a post office or not?”

These were the words of an elderly local woman who came into the Please Write, the second art exhibition at Posted, which, as you might have guessed by now, used to be a post office. Indeed, it still very much looks like a post office, with the counter intact and some of the artefacts from the post office now having been cast and remodelled in plastic. I was very taken with the oversized calculator, and actually got in trouble when I touched it, totally failing to see the ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ sign right in front of me.

The exhibition has attracted some big names such as Rachel Whiteread and Tracey Emin, the latter having designed some stationery that can be purchased for a cool £50. Emin has also written a short piece about her love of letter-writing, explaining that ‘it’s like having a diary that goes out into the world. Some of my most intimate thoughts have been put down on paper, and sealed up in an envelope – sent off into the ether (…). It makes me calm, almost content.’ As a committed letter writer myself, I’d certainly echo that sentiment.

The exhibition serves to remind viewers that this is a dying art – sometimes quite literally: one of the pieces is a life-sized replica of a prisoner’s outfit, made up entirely of shredded letters written by prisoners on death row in the US.

Sam Hodge has utilised the ubiquitous postal service rubber bands one can see strewn all over the street to create her piece, while Tim Noble and Sue Webster have chosen to frame contrasting letters from each of their mothers, which stand as an alternative form of self-portrait.

As good as the exhibition is, and as much as I agree with the aim of encouraging more people to correspond via post rather than soulless email (not to mention the myriad other ways of communicating these days), I have to say I’d prefer it was still a post office. At least, though, the space is being put to use rather than the shop standing empty, and this is certainly an appropriate use.

As for the woman who wanted to know whether this was “a post office or not”, she was politely informed that it is an art gallery, albeit one that sells stamps. Oh, and very expensive envelopes designed by Tracey Emin.

Please Write – Posted, 67 Wilton Way, E8 1BJ – until 26 February 2011

Popping into the European galleries in the British Museum

by Natalie Bennett

One of the great delights of living in London is that you can pop into the British Museum for an hour or so, make a couple of delightful little discoveries, then leave, without feeling that you have to consume the treasures in bulk.

A subject that caught my attention today was Anglo-Saxon literacy, not a phrase that readily trips of the tongue. You might think of them as warriors, as farmers, as invaders, but not usually as writers. But I learnt that their runic script was called futhorc, and related to that of the Vikings. (Wikipedia says only 200 objects with it on have survived, so maybe my ignorance of the subject is not so surprising)

It is angular, being designed originally for incising on to hard surfaces such as bone, stone or wood, and most of these survivals consist of single words, like the name of the maker or owner, or short magical incantations.

As Christianity helped spread literacy, however, it was also used on manuscripts.

But the more flexible Latin script eventually supplanted it, and litreacy spread among the aristocracy and clergy. (Interestingly on display was a wooden writing tablet that would have been filled with wax, just like the many found at Vindolanda.)

One of the touching items on display is this part of a cross, in Old English written in Roman letters, from Yorkshire, reading “a monument in memory of his child, pray for his soul”.

There’s also a seax (knife) inscribed with the owner’s name – and I learnt that had I come from Essex I would have known this already, since its flag bears three of them.

The other item that caught my eye was this statue of sculptor Anne Damer.

Not because it is a particularly fine statue, not because the turning a female artist into a Madonna-like figure, whose works are her children, is reasonable, but because it is nice to see a woman from history highlighted.

Exhibition Review: Darwin at the Natural History Museum

by Natalie Bennett

The Natural History Museum’s Darwin exhibition begins with reminder of the cost that the science once involved: two starkly displayed mocking bird specimens, laid pathetically on their backs. “Two of the most important specimens in the history of science” – but not much consolation, on suspects, for the birds whose lives were cut short.

Explicitly, the exhibition states, this aims to trace not a chronological journey, but an internal one in the way, following changes in the way Darwin saw the world, and that’s an aim that is largely achieved.

The first stage, as the exhibition sees it, is “wide-eyed wonder”, something anyone who’s seen a rainforest could probably sympathise with, although there’s an early reminder that Darwin lived in a very different world with that note that Darwin as a student at Cambridge had formed a club dedicated to eating animals “unknown to the human palate”.

The iguana that he later found so illustrative he also found tasty, “liked by those whose stomach soar above all prejudices”. Looking over this scene in the exhibition is a live green iguana perched on the top of a log gazing lugubriously at the passing throng, leg trailing down casually behind him and illustrative tail artfully displayed down its length. He might be saying: “Well at least you humans have evolved, a little.” And it was certainly something to keep the children amused, of which there’s not a great deal in this exhibition.

The exhibition remarks on the role of Josiah Wedgewood in persuading Darwin’s father to let him go, providing a grand invitation to alternative history. How would it all have worked out if Wallace had been first?
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