Coming Round to Cardboard

I have never been keen on artworks made of cardboard. It seems strange to me quite how often somebody gets some cardboard boxes together, does something minimal to them and then tells you it is art. That is all very well when you are eight, or, at a push, twelve, but if you are older than that, I always feel like saying, “why not get some decent materials and do it properly?” So, when I saw a flyer in Paris for an exhibition that featured quite a large amount of cardboard and, what is more, it looked interesting, I just had to go.

I took the metro out to Riquet which is quite some way out from the centre in the 19th arrondissement and arrived at 104 (Cent Quatre). Set up in 2010, Cent Quatre  is a huge and also hugely entertaining community arts complex that seems to have every conceivable artistic activity going on under the rather elegant steel and glass roof.

A view of the Cent Quatre Arts Centre in Paris
Cent Quatre – much livelier now it is an Arts Centre and not a morgue

It was formerly a municipal morgue but now everybody seems very much alive; there are dancers practicing their routines, children playing, people skateboarding, artists’ studios, a book exchange, a bookshop, several eateries, an antique shop, photographic exhibitions and on the day I visited a labyrinth made exclusively of cardboard. It was as simple as that: rolls of corrugated cardboard had been loosely unfurled so that they retained a coiled appearance and formed undulating waves through which you could make out paths,which, as in all good labyrinths, led you to the centre.

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The installation is the work of Michelangelo Pistoletto, who is eighty and is a leading member of the Italian movement, l’Arte Povera, a movement that was started in the 1960s. Ironically, seeing its members claim to value simplicity, when they come to explain its principles, they favour very long, very wordy sentences and few if any paragraphs.

With my poor Italian and the help of Google translate I took from the movement’s website that works are  “characterized by the use of simple and natural materials that are evidenced by its banality and poverty, as is the case with plants, food, paper, felt, metal, earth. These materials are used in order to overcome the distinctions between art and everyday life, between nature and culture.”  There was a lot more but that seemed to be the gist.

Certainly Pistoletto’s cardboard work was quite unlike other gallery exhibits. What I found interesting  was that it was that it had been organised rather than made. There were no joins, no supports, no other materials, no cut-outs, no mark making. It was simply unfurled rolls of cardboard. It seemed more akin to land art than to anything else, as if material from the immediate environment had simply been rearranged.

Far from having notices not to touch, touching was unavoidable. The cardboard walls were about shoulder height but the paths through it quite narrow, so it felt somewhat like pushing through undergrowth. It was fun and I imagine small children would adore it. In some places the cardboard looked a bit worse for wear, where people must have fallen against it but it didn’t matter. A path led you to the centre where, on the inside of cardboard arranged in a circle, there was one of Pistoletto’s trademark mirrored sculptures. Looking down over the cardboard barrier which surrounded it, it appeared almost like a deep pool in the floor, and as the cardboard wobbled, it was hard not to fear falling into it.

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The mirrored pool at the centre of Michelagelo Pistoletto’s Labyrinthe

The pool was essential, it gave the labyrinth a purpose,  but it was the cardboard that I found so interesting. Just as in the old adage, there is no unsuitable weather, only unsuitable clothes, I realized that in art there are no unsuitable materials. In the right hands good art can be produced from anything.

Surrealism and the Object at the Pompidou

Spotting the birth of an art movement is undoubtedly easier than identifying the moment when it is over. The term surreal was not applied to art until Andre Breton wrote his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. But before that, Marcel Duchamp was already displaying his ready-mades, as was Giorgio de Chirico with his mannequins. Then Breton himself did not coin the term surreal; that honour went to the art critic Guillaume Apollinaire who wrote it first in May 1917, in the program notes for the ballet Parade. So you could, if so minded, summon up an argument about surrealism’s precise birthdate; but all plausible dates are within a few years of each other.

But has surrealism as a movement ended and if so when did it happen? The word surreal is still popularly used to describe anything weird or odd.  But art historians have customarily suggested a variety of dates: 1936 – the beginning of the Second World War,  1966 with the death of Andre Breton, or even 1989, marked by the death of Salvador Dali.  But the exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Le Surrealisme et L’Objet, seems to suggest that Surrealism is alive and well.

Curated by the Pompidou’s Vice President, Didier Ottinger, the 6th floor exhibition, brings together some 200 objects. There is much in which to take pleasure. There are works by Calder, Dali, Giacometti,  Man Ray, Max Ernst, Miró, and Picasso. They include some  real classic’s  like Victor Brauner Loup-Table and  Dali’s Llobster Telephone which, in an exhibition where cameras are  generally permitted, has been given the honour of a plinth and a ‘no photography’ sign.

Victor Brauner: Loup-Table
Victor Brauner: Loup-Table

The final room dedicated to  Joan Miro’s playful and colourful sculptures is a delight. I rather like the dressed mannequin sitting on a bench which in the dim lighting is hard to distinguish from the real visitors.

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Spot the mannequin – it’s the girl with the glasses; the rest surprisingly are real

Despite such riches,  there is a certain awkwardness about the way the whole exhibition has been put together. It feels as if  different curators with opposing views have not quite managed to solve their differences, or started with one aim in mind and then run out of time and space. Of course this is not the case – there is a vision but it is one which is cerebral, with lots of jokes and references which will be recognised by art insiders but by few others, and which in the end I felt detracted from what I wanted to see:  the work itself.

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Femme qui Marche

To begin with it seems straightforward enough; at the entrance there are busts of the important artists involved in the movement. It turns out that the street-names that are projected on the floor were invented for the 1948 Surrealist Exhibition. Man Ray’s Obstruction, a hanging work comprised of 64 coathangers, casts interesting shadows, whilst Gicometti’s sculpture  Femme qui Marche has the lighting it deserves.

Also well-lit is Hans Bellmer’s La Poupée, presumably one of the works the Pompidou had in mind, when it put up the warning at the entrance that “Some works of art presented in this exhibition may hurt the public’s feelings, particularly those of young children.” It is nothing like as rude as the Chapman Brothers’ creations,which are not included – perhaps that is why.

Hans Bellmer: La Poupée‎
Hans Bellmer: La Poupée‎

But as you progress, it quickly becomes apparent that Ottinger took the view that a time-based layout would provide a too logical structure to an exhibition which is after all dedicated to the bizarre. Quite soon we come across more modern pieces: a 1974 film, Grandeur Nature, in which a man falls in love with an inflatable doll, is projected along one wall. Another huge wall is given over to a couple of 2013 works by Arnaud Labelle Rojaux, whose name hardly trips of the tongue as a leading surrealist. I personally found them crude and uninteresting.

There are a series of photographs – Cindy Sherman’s Sex pictures Series, which also might run the risk of frightening the kids.  Are they surreal? I would argue not really. While they might share some similarities, portraying as they do mannequins which have been given various grotesque characteristics, the mindset in making them was totally different. The Surrealists were heavily influenced by Freud’s writings on the power of the unconscious. Sherman was coming from a feminist position and commenting on the pornographic industry and the objectification of women. Freud has been called many things but never a feminist.

Then there is Mark Dion’s Package; this was especially commissioned for the exhibition and comprises a number of brown paper parcels addressed to Ottinger which he had been instructed not to open; instead they are piled up inside a display cabinet. What is surreal about that? Or even original?   The idea of the unknown is established territory. A couple of floors below, among the Pompidou’s permanent collection, we have a far more interesting work – Les Archives de Christian Boltanksi, created in 1989, it  comprises 646 rusty biscuit tins, in which the artist had placed 1200 photographs and 800 documents from his studio.


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Cindy Sherman: Sex Pictures

While Ottinger was obviously seeking to demonstrate the relevance of surrealism to current work, he is reported as saying that 80% of contemporary artists would have qualified to be included. All artists cannot but help but be influenced by the work that has come before. So why bother to choose a small and not particularly distinguished  sample of recent works?  The interested visitor can travel back down the escalator to the fifth floor and judge for him or herself the artists who have been most influenced.

Even if one is puzzled by  Ottinger’s choice of contemporary works, it would not  seem important if they had not appeared to have robbed many of the classic Surrealist pieces of the space they needed.

Described by some reviewers as the highlight of the exhibition, is a room which holds nearly half of the total works the Pompidou has assembled. It references the Exposition Surréaliste d’Objets at the Galerie Ratton, which lasted for just one week in May 1936. Like the 1936 Exposition, the room features an array of objects in a seemingly random display. It must have seemed like a brilliant idea when first discussed. To my mind it does not work. It possibly did not work terribly well in 1936 and our standards of how we expect art to be displayed are now much higher. None of the pieces look as if they have room to breathe. The 1936 Exposition would have stood alone; here, the historic reference is not particularly well signposted and one tends therefore to compares the room  to the rest of the exhibition where works are well spaced and well-lit. It looks as though the curators simply became bored.

Jean Marcel: Spectre du Gardenia
Jean Marcel: Spectre du Gardenia

Look at Jean Marcel’s Spectre du Gardenia. Created in 1936, it is an iconic piece – the head of a woman with zippers for eyes. Placed as it is, right up against Man Ray’s Varlop, and above a stuffed anteater, you might hardly notice it. You have to look hard to find Ma Gouvernante, Meret Oppenheim’s high-heeled shoes dressed up like lamb, which are being used to advertise the exhibition. There, among the rest, is Man Ray’s Venus Restauree, another famous work. For all those that I spotted, there must be plenty  that I missed. The problem is, that if you pile artworks up like a load of junk, then junk is what they tend to look like.

There are still a few days left to see the Surrealism and the Object it is running till March 3.

The disturbing world of Virgile Ittah

I wrote last week about Andra Ursuta who was included in the Saatchi Gallery Body Language Exhibition. Body language seemed an appropriate classification also for Virgile Ittah, though checking with the website, it turns out that it is part of the separate exhibition New Order II: British Art Today. Ittah was actually born in France but works in London and undertook an MA at the Chelsea College of Art. It appears she may feel no particular sense of belonging anywhere. Her website speaks of her work being informed by her family’s exile and constant wandering.

Her sculptures both impress and disturb though in my case that was partly tempered by simple curiosity – how had she made them? They are a strange blend of the classical and the horrific. Constructed from mixed wax, marble powder and fabric it is not entirely clear to what extent they are cast, modelled, carved, or indeed melted, or possibly a combination of all four. Certainly the photograph of Ittah on her website shows her with what looks like a carving tool and fragments of wax round her feet while in the background there is a  container of melted wax. The difference of textures in the sculptures suggest that a variety of techniques have been used. Presumably because of the marble powder they contain, the sculptures display some of the characteristics that they would have had if they had indeed been carved from stone but yet because of the nature of the wax, there is a warmer element to them that is more like human flesh.

Each of the figures on display have a relatively unscathed head which has been formed with sensitivity but as the eye scans the naked bodies  you see that each to a greater or lesser extent appears to have succumbed to varying degrees of decomposition suggesting the inevitability of death and decay.

A sculpture by Virgile Ittah showing a kneeling man whose arms and legs below theknees have been lost
Virgile Ittah: Untitled (for man would remember each murmur)

In the work above Untitled (for man would remember each murmur) the arms and legs have all but disappeared leaving just the torso which itself is appearing to melt. You feel it is just a matter of time before the fine face shares the same fate. He reminded me of those ancient statues from Greece or Rome who have lost limbs as a result of vandalism, earthquakes or war, and been eroded by time and by rain. I would, however, quibble with his title: Ittah is not alone in this manner of naming, but to my mind a work is either untitled or it is not; you can’t really have both.

Virgile Ittah's sculpture showing a naked woman reclining on a hard backed chair, Her face resmbles a death mask her legs are decaying,
Virgile Ittah: Regarding the Pain of Others

In Regarding the Pain of Others, a title paying homage to Susan Sontag’s book of the same name, the woman’s face, eyes unseeing, mouth open suggests a death mask, though no corpse could remain propped up in such a way on a chair. The breasts suggest the living but the legs are already in advanced decay. I particularly liked the detailing of this piece. Look at the back shot. The chair has caused the skin to wrinkle, while the weight of the body is also shown in the compression of the buttocks. The chair here is important; by using a real chair brings the sculpture indisputably into the present.

 Virgle Ittah: Regarding the Pain of Others - rear view
Virgle Ittah: Regarding the Pain of Others – rear view

In Dreams are guilty, absolute and silent by fire,  the woman appears to be sitting on her stool, again a real stool, in a meditative position. Facing her is another similar but empty stool, suggesting someone missing – a sense of loss. Again her  legs have suffered the ravages of the grave; the flesh is falling off the bone. One hand is already gone, her right breast is succumbing to disease or corruption.

Virgile Ittah: Dreams are Guilty, Absolute and Silent by Fire
Virgile Ittah: Dreams are Guilty, Absolute and Silent by Fire

Intrigued by the works,  I tried to find more detail about Ittah’s own history but there seems little internet information on her or the nature of the family’s exile. When making them Ittah may have been thinking about her own family’s tribulations, but for me the works are powerful as they not only emphasise human mortality but they also remind us that nothing lasts for long– not even statues carved in stone.

New Order II: British Art Today is showing at the Saatchi Gallery until 23 March 2014

Fallen women at the Saatchi Gallery

For the student of contemporary art, there is always that moment of pleasure when you go to a gallery and recognize an artist before reading the label on the wall. I imagine this is something that you get over as you become more experienced. Or possibly it just happens more often.

Anyway it happened to me last week at the Saatchi Gallery. I had not gone along to see anything in particular, rather to see what was there and was delighted to find that there was an exhibition entitled Body Language which of course chimes with my current area of interest.

Rather than starting on the ground floor and working my way up, I had started at the top floor and was walking down when, from above, I noticed a kind of siege engine, some fallen plaster on the floor and nearby the lifeless body of a woman. The installation suggested a narrative – the woman had been catapulted through the air, though we did not know who would have used her in this cruel way, or why. She had hit the wall and fallen to the ground. Looking down on this work it reminded me, in the near realism of the body and the supine position of the woman, of a work I had seen back in 2011 at Frieze. Not surprisingly, after such a long time, the name of the work had escaped me as had the name of the artist. Nonetheless, I was sure they were by the same person.

Andra Ursuta: Vandal Lust
Andra Ursuta: Vandal Lust

I remembered the work I had seen at Frieze quite clearly; it had involved a different fallen woman. I remembered that it was a cast and portrayed the artist, lying crushed and naked except for her trainers. The blurb explained that she had portrayed herself as iron-age mummy, preserved by being buried in a Northern European peat bog and weighed down by a large quantity of fake semen.

At the time I wasn’t at all sure about the underlying message, presumably something to do with male oppression and self-worth. The fake semen had seemed a bit gratuitous; though at least one could be grateful it wasn’t the real thing. But despite the rather ridiculous description I had really liked the work, though I found it hard to tell why, possibly it was something to do with the youth and vulnerability of the figure, which were particularly emphasised by the shoes.

I went down to the next floor where you can enter the room and there lying in the corner was the very work that I had remembered. It was entitled Crush by the Romanian artist Andra Ursuta, who currently works in New York. I had not noticed it from above. There was no mention of the fake semen, though it was still there; it was made of cast urethane wax, wig, sneakers and silicone. The title Crush is, I now see, a play on words; the crushing effect of the peat bog on her body coupled with the more idiomatic meaning of the word to have a crush on someone, which she clearly felt can have a crushing effect on the psyche. So the semen made a bit more sense.

The work by Andra Ursuta shows a nude female figure lying supine
Andra Ursuta: Crush

Seeing it again, I liked the work just as much as I had three years earlier. The reason this piece works so well, is, I think partly because of the distortion of the body as though it had indeed been crushed and was old; the arms are unnaturally naturally thin, the chest is partially caved in. Then the way that the hair and the shoes are the same colour as the body adds to the impression that it has existed perhaps for hundreds of years, rather than has been constructed. The fact that the hair is still clearly hair is reminiscent of  real mummified remains, when disturbingly skin or bits of hair can indeed survive, albeit it in rather a less luxuriant fashion.While it is moving to see the woman in such a pitiful state, it is also a humorous piece for the apparent antiquity is belied by the anachronism of the modern sneakers.

While I enjoyed the shape and the textures achieved in the trebuchet, and loved the way that the plaster from the wall had apparently fallen to the floor, I was less intrigued by the other fallen woman, though her face was also modelled on that of the artist. It was possibly because by being dressed in the coloured clothing of a  Babushka, she perversely appeared more artificial. Remembering one work after three years from all the hundreds on show at Frieze is of course an exceptionally high hurdle to beat. Vandal Lust was still a remarkable piece but somehow not quite so remarkable, or so I think at the moment. But then last week I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of coming across it again.

He Xiangyu at the White Cube

If you knew nothing of Chinese artist He Xiangyu before seeing his work, now showing at the White Cube in Bermondsey, I think it unlikely you would guess that he is just 28. Many artists of that age or indeed younger, have big ideas, but very few manage to realise them on the scale that Xiangyu has achieved. His rise in the contemporary art world has been meteoric; this is his first exhibition in Britain but already he has had solo exhibitions in Beijing, Tokyo, Paris and Bad Ems in Germany and been part of group shows in a host of other countries. The ambition and confidence of his work is stunning; it reminds me of the young Damien Hirst, not so much in what he does, but in the showmanship with which he does it.

Dominating the exhibition in the North Galleries is an enormous leather tank, which gives the impression of having collapsed under its own weight, like a half deflated airbed. It is an extraordinary piece of work; the leather is clearly high quality, luxury Italian, according to the press release, and the stitching and detailing is exquisite. What you cannot appreciate from photographs is the smell; it has that wonderful scent of a top class luggage shop. I wanted a bit of it, the end of the main gun perhaps, as a handbag.

He Xiangyu: Tank Project
He Xiangyu: Tank Project

The amount of sheer graft that has gone into the tank is staggering.  But Xiangyu did not spend hard days in his studio with an industrial sewing machine; instead, he managed to organise a factory of female workers whom he trained and who took two years from 2011 to 2013  to make the work. So he was just 25 when the project started. Hirst incidentally was 26 when he produced the Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

I had though initially that the tank might be something to do with the pointlessness of war, possibly a contemporary take on turning swords into ploughshares – turning tanks into luxury leather items. But is seems that the advancement of Western capitalism is an issue which has resonance for He Xiangyu, so here is an element of regret that Western values are being adopted. Those living in Western economies, and luggage manufacturers in particular, might themselves take the view that while trade wars are preferable to real wars, China has no need to  bother with real tanks if it can win economic supremacy with delectable hand baggage.

A further commentary on the effects of Western consumer culture is on show in the Coca Cola Project, though the offering at White Cube can only be described as a taste of the real thing. Xiangyu started the project in 2008. Over the course of a year, he boiled down 127 tons of Coca Cola. That’s a lot of Coke and he was then just 22. He used the resultant black residue in a variety of ways; some he used to make black ink drawings in Song Dynasty style but more dramatically he created huge heaps of the stuff and filled a whole room with it at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. At White Cube the black shiny crystalline coal-like substance is set out in three museum display cases, which give the impression they contain something rare and precious.  The residue is presumably at least 90% sugar but it has a very different form; it doesn’t look like the remains of  a manufactured item  but something far more primitive. It is interesting even in such a small  containers but I would have loved to have seen the Sydney display.

The work I found the most intriguing was the more intimate and personal Everything We Create is Not Ourselves.  In a pink room on a pink carpet are a number of small sculptures. Surprisingly it seems, you can enter the room, for it feels like forbidden territory. It turns out that the small objects  lying on the floor are copper casts of sculptures the artist made by trying to replicate the form of his teeth as experienced by his probing tongue.  It was made just last year when Xiangyu was in New York and apparently feeling alienated and lonely.

He Xiangyu: Everything We Create is Not Ourselves
He Xiangyu: Everything We Create is Not Ourselves


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I thought these sculptures worked wonderfully well.  It felt very personal; there was almost a sense of trespassing going into the room. Unusually visitors were allowed to touch the teeth, and running your fingers over their surface  gave a real sense of connection with the artist.

In the adjoining room there was another small sculpture with a dental theme. This time displayed by itself in a niche in the wall was a small Chinese pagoda. It could have only been about three or four inches high and had a gold top and base. In the middle,  were four molars; according to the press release they were wisdom teeth belonging to the artist. Now I don’t know why he had them extracted, one hopes for medical rather than artistic  reasons, but I can attest it was not because they were decayed; they appeared a very fine set of wisdom teeth.  They deserved their gold setting. The moral of this, children, is that it is better to boil down 127 tons of Coca Cola than to drink the same amount.

He Xiangyu is showing at the White Cube  Bermondsey until 13 April