Friday, 15 June 2007

Exhibition Notes: Hirst, Dali and Photos

London is such a great city, partly due to the sheer variety of experiences on offer, one of those experiences being food. Walking through Southall, Chinatown, Dalston or Golders Green you feel immersed in the multicultural melting pot of the city. Happily for everyone, London’s multi ethnic mix means excellent (and often cheap) cuisine form all over the world. You really haven’t lived until you’ve eaten a curry in a real Bangladeshi restaurant, tasted hot Pakistani spices or eaten an Iranian chop! The main thing that unites these often very different cultures, foods and neighbourhoods is price. Food coming out of immigrant communities is often very good value for money (though certainly not always cheap), so I know where to get a meal in Whitechapel or Shepherds Bush for very much less than the copycat chic ethnic restaurants in parts of the West End . Minutes away from where I live in Acton we have a superb Lebanese café, serving fresh falafel and hummus and proper shawarma kebabs (chicken, lamb or chicken shish), next to that there is a Somali café serving excellent stew and flatbreads. Both of these places are cheap and hearty, but crucially they are staffed by the real thing (i.e Somalian and Lebanese people) and populated by similarly authentic customers. So, if you’re gazing into an Indian/Pakistani/Arab/African/Far Eastern etc café or restaurant and deciding whether to go in, look for people who really know about this food (this is particularly crucial in Chinatown and Brick Lane where rubbish restaurants abound, but they are for the tourists only, not the locals).

Another of the diverse interests that make London an infinite city is the art world. You can go to Bethnal Green or Hoxton for example and press a buzzer and gain admission to wonderful spaces with interesting and often excellent exhibitions (Grayson Perry and Wolfgang Tilmans are two of my highlights from the past, both seen in backstreet East End galleries), or you can roil up to the majestic porticos of the National Gallery and see a Monet or Velazquez for free (unlike my second favourite city, New York, where ‘big’ art really can cost).

Here are a few notes from the exhibitions I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks (you can also see my review of the Gormley exhibition at The Hayward in the May archive).

Beyond Belief: White Cube

Off to Mason’s Yard, a small courtyard behind Fortnum and Mason’s. This area is crammed full of ‘fine art’ galleries, that means old oil paintings of the beautiful countryside or ships at sea for rich people to buy, generally not of much interest to those interested in contemporary art (where other rich people go to buy stuff), but the arrival of White Cube (the older, smaller branch is in Hoxton Square) last year changed that, and with Beyond Belief, an exhibition of news works by Damien Hirst, they have people literally queuing round the block to see the show (well, you do have to queue like at the funfair for all the best exhibitions these days it seems).

The draw is clear, £13 million of flawless diamonds grafted onto the replica of a human skull by the ageing bad boy of Brit Art. The work, For the Love of God, is stunning, and only a showman with absolute confidence like Hirst could have done it, it is of unique and unprecedented value for raw materials alone in a work of art. More than just a piece of art though, For the Love of God is a piece of theatre. You book your timed entry tickets in advanced, turn up and join the queue snaking around the smart white building, security checks your bag, and after much waiting you are led in small groups through a secure entrance (burly security men abound), up a flight of stairs and down a corridor. We leave our bags outside and step into a pitch black room with an unexpectedly soft floor, and in front of our eyes is a luminous skull, shimmering, seemingly suspended in the air. As you get closer you see that the skull is teeming with perfect diamonds, covering every inch of the skull (except the teeth, which are real). On the forehead there is a huge diamond, like a third eye, emitting the stunning colours that only a real gem can. The skull looks like it is suspended in the air, even though it is clearly in a glass case, and looking at it from the back you see a marvellous ghostly reflection in the glass.

On one had the skull is timeless, going back to early South American civilisations and other more recent memorials of death, on the other it is absolutely modern, being a piece of unique bling. The ostentatious use of so many diamonds (Hirst’s purchases warping the international market) is in a way vulgar, but then beyond beautiful at the same time. I can understand Hirst’s rational in making the piece, it shows our obsession with wealth and beauty (what else do diamonds represent), but brings it to an almost spiritual context by using a human skull as the canvass for this beauty. Apart from the interesting question it raises, the piece is so aesthetically pleasing that I could have looked at it for much longer than the 5 minute audience we were granted. The exhibition continues downstairs in the main gallery space, and there are some interesting works (although exactly what you might expect from Hirst; sharks, cows and all), but seen after his masterpiece you can’t really take it in.

Hirst hopes that the piece will be keep on public display after it is sold, reportedly for £50 million. Interestingly Hirst himself owns a country pile and extensive collection of 20th century art (and beyond), which he hopes one day to turn into an eclectic museum. Last year some of the pieces from his collection were on show at the Serpentine Gallery, having enjoyed that I show I hope his own gallery is not just a pipe dream.

Dali and Film: Tate Modern

I’ve never been a fan of Salvador Dali, his huge output of scrupulously painted surrealist canvasses has simply never done it for me, seeming somehow just too obvious, everything made clear (unlike Hitchcock, for whom Dali designed the dream sequence for Spellbound). But seeing this exhibition has slightly changed my mid, he was certainly a brilliant man, but I still don’t love his work or think it is wholly brilliant. Dali was more experimental (or should I say varied) than his public image suggest, despite never being a very political artist, some of his works do actually have quite a political edge, and others simply and edge of the non political variety (like his love/hate pictures from Hollywood). But I would agree with criticism which says Dali dose not say an awful lot about his times (apart from the initial emergence of surrealism, which he is not solely responsible for), and ultimately his oeuvre is rather samey.

Anyway, this exhibition is called Dali and Film, but Dali actually didn’t do much work on film, so the exhibition does mostly focus on his paintings. The film element of the show include the dream scene he designed for Spellbound, which is brilliant, and two experimental collaborations from his early career (even more brilliant, because it’s not quite yet in the language we now think of as ‘Dali’). There is also a Disney computer animation completed in 2003, from drawings and the storyboard made by Dali in the 1940’s, this is the full Dali experience, every motif we expect to se is here, and it is a vibrant and engaging few minutes of bright animation.

At the end of the large exhibition, there are images of Dali himself, including a very humorous ‘photographic interview’ with the artist from the 1960’s (Dali’s moustache sculpted into a dollar sign for example). He was so knowing, with a glint in his eye, that it is hard not to feel warmth to him as a man.

How We Are, Photographing Britain: Tate Britain.

I have the least to say about How We Are at Tate Britain, because you really can’t ever describe such a varied exhibition of photographs spanning over 150 years of British life. We have sweet images, everyday images, gritty images and even King Edward VII in fancy dress, though this is not an exhibition of famous faces, but people and places.

I was actually very moved by the exhibition, it hits my emotionalistic buttons (whereas Dali was in no way moving in his paintings). Seeing women in Elephant and Castle queuing to buy their fresh eels is on one had totally alien to us, but on the other has a great thread of continuity with life today (especially for me, my Grandparents lived above a pie and eel shop in Shepherds Bush). I also loved pioneering aerial images of Edinburgh and London from the 1920’s and turn of the century musical hall star male impersonators.

The exhibition can justly say it does show how we were, if not how we are completely.

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