Monday, March 26, 2007

Artistic encounters

Yesterday was a typical Saturday for us: a little shopping (for blouses at Nicole Farhi and DKNY and jewellery at Selfridges), a little eating (at Mestizo), and a bunch of exhibitions.

The British Museum's A New World: England's First View of America disappointed for its lack of historical context and information. The exhibition focuses on John White's watercolours that gave the Elizabethan world its first glimpse of America - its flora, fauna and people - but there was little analysis and virtually no description of the early colonies that formed in the region.

The National Portrait Gallery's Between Worlds: Voyagers to Britain, 1700-1850, though small was much more satisfying, presenting its subjects not as passive victims of colonisation but as active participants in their own engagements with the West. I love a good story, and this exhibition of people moving between different worlds supplied them with abundance:

The four Iroquoian representatives who visited the court of Queen Anne in 1710 to forge a military and political alliance; William Ansah Sessarakoo, the son of a wealthy West African slave trader, who in 1749 was sent by his father to Europe for his education but got kidnapped and put into slavery on the journey over, only to be rescued by the British government and arrive in Britain as a celebrity; Sake Dean Mahomed, son of an Indian officer in the army of the East India Company army and stationed in Bengal as a surgeon, who travelled to Ireland in 1784 then eloped with an Anglo-Irish woman to Britain where he opened a series of bathhouses and the first Indian restaurant - Hindostanee Coffee House - in London; Maharaja Dalip Singh (above left) born in Lahore and the last Sikh ruler of the Punjab before he was stripped of the title in 1846 by the British and converted to Christianity, who in 1854 visited London and grew close to the Queen and the royal family, who married a part-Ethiopian and part-German woman and who had six children with her on their Norfolk estate called Elveden; and great Indian intellectual, linguist and businessman Raja Rammohun Roy, who was founder of Brahmo Samaj which advocated a return to the Vedas and a belief in monotheism, who denounced both the caste system and sati (the ritual burning of widows), and who sailed to England in 1829 as an ambassador of the Mughals.

We were extremely excited to view one of our favourite photographers at both the White Cube in Mason's Yard and the new Sprüth and Magers gallery - Andreas Gursky - and are contemplating taking a city break in Munich or Istanbul soon just to visit his retrospective if it doesn't come to London.

Gursky is the world's most collectable living photographer - one of his photos sold last year for $2.4 million (£1.2 million) - and has photographed a wide array of scenes: from the neutrino observatory deep down in a Japanese mine and the chaos at the Kuwaiti Stock Exchange (below), to the frenetic activity around Formula One cars stationed in their pits and the mass geometric choreography of North Korea's Arirang Festival (above).

Gursky shoots on a 5in x 7in large-format camera before scanning his negatives to manipulate his colour-saturated and large-scale work digitally. He makes no claims to authenticity and his photos distort time and perspective. He is known to work on some of his photos a pixel at a time.

For his Pyongyang series shot at North Korea's Arirang Festival held annually in honour of the late Kim II Sung, with 50,000 participants performing in front of 30,000 spectators, Gursky made numerous visits to get the single composite shot he needed. His F1 Boxenstopp series were shot at various Grand Prix races around the world - Shanghai, Monte Carlo, Istanbul, Sao Paulo - and it is impossible to work out which piece of which shot ended up composited into a single photo. His shot of a Tour de France mountainside was shot from two positions - from a helicopter high above and from the mountain opposite - and then merged together to form a flattened viewpoint. Figures and objects appear duplicated across the photographic canvas if you peer long and hard enough.

Gursky's F1 Boxenstopp series are quite different from his usual macroscopic canvasses that draw attention to abstract patterns. These photos are cropped more tightly. They are more like iconic friezes, with a halo of angels (the audience) watching over the Last Supper (the pit-stop racers).


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