Joseph Beuys

On the trail

A lovely Friday evening in late September, and we are on the Art Trail around Bermondsey, hosted by ARTHOUSE1, in conjunction with the London Sculpture Workshop and Drawing Room. All three venues are within shouting distance of each other; a stone’s throw away from White Cube, but it’s a different world entirely once you cross the Tower Bridge Road. Gentrification has been slower to creep across the unofficial boundary between new and old Bermondsey, so there have been opportunities to create new models for galleries and studio spaces. This colonization reminds me of Berlin, a city where both domestic and ex-commercial spaces have been commandeered for art. In this corner of Bermondsey there is a spirit of experimentation, a desire to give both artists and viewers a different, perhaps more intimate and lively, kind of experience.

In a recent article in the Weekend FT, Edwin Heathcoat discusses the phenomenon of the ‘domestic gallery’. As he explains, this is not a recent trend; before the days of the public gallery, museums were established in the homes of collectors. He goes on to say:

Artists have rediscovered the pleasure in displaying their work in the more human context of the domestic interior, on a scale that we can relate to more easily and in an environment less cool and disengaged than the white painted loft or the raw concrete of the pseudo-industrial.

This is certainly the case with ARTHOUSE1, one of the domestic galleries Heathcoat mentions in his piece. ARTHOUSE1 is a late Georgian townhouse, a reminder of what the area would have looked like in the days before the encroaching new builds and warehouses. A sandwich board outside is the only indication that we are in the right spot. Once inside, we climb the stairs to find a modern, clean gallery space occupying the top floor. Rebecca Fairman, the curator, has brought together two artists whose work is complimentary: the ceramicist James Oughtibridge and the painter, Ione Parkin. Parkin’s work particularly impresses me, in its scope and themes (often referencing the natural world, or the landscape of deep space). In the brief talk she gives, she mentions her interest in the alchemic properties of certain materials. In some of the works on paper she has employed powdered copper, to give the surface a jagged and metallic appearance. These works have names like Tundra and Land Mass, suggesting elements of landscape within the abstract.

(Since my visit, a new show has opened with works by Kim Norton and Alexandra Mazur-Knyazeva:

From ARTHOUSE1 we walk down a side street and into the empty tarmac lot surrounding several vast warehouses. There are still light industrial units and storage facilities in the area, hidden-away places that secretly service the city. One of the units houses the London Sculpture Workshop, a not-for-profit space that provides sculptors with 2500 square feet of working area, and facilities, support and equipment that might not be available to them otherwise. The range of equipment is impressive, many items donated to the Workshop or bought cheaply from defunct businesses. Artists can book space when they need it, and can work in just about every medium with a variety of materials, from clay and bronze to sheet metal. We were shown works in progress, and also photographs of an open day, where local residents were invited into the building to create their own art. It is an incredible place, which allows artists, who may not have the support of an art school or the money to source specialist equipment and supplies, the freedom to think beyond such limitations.

From the LSW, we retraced our steps to Drawing Room, the one venue on our walk that I’d visited before, on the occasion of their brilliant show Abstract Drawing, curated by Richard Deacon. The current show The Nakeds is on a similar scale: ambitious, challenging, provoking, with a mix of established artists, such as Tracey Emin, Marlene Dumas, Joseph Beuys and Egon Schiele (anticipating the show of late nudes about to open at the Courtauld), alongside less familiar names, including the extraordinary Maria Lassnig, whose work has spanned the twentieth century, and Stewart Helm, whose voyeuristic drawings of men meeting in parks at night are unflinching and strange; as viewers, we feel we are participating in this illicit act.

Many of the drawings in the show confront our ideas of what it is to be ‘naked’, which conjures ideas of isolation, desire and shame, and is perhaps distinct from the more artistic associations of the ‘nude’. It is a world-class show, curated by David Austin, an artist, and Gemma Blackshaw, an art historian, and their intelligence and consideration of the subject is present in their choice of artists, their juxtapositions, and in their catalogue material.

Drawing Room also has a library, a small shop (selling fabulous books, including their own publications), and a programme of talks, films and courses to accompany each show. Based on the two exhibtions I’ve seen, I would say they are one of the most interesting and innovative art venues in London at the moment. More people need to venture beyond Bermondsey Street and seek them out.

Supersize me

It is a tale of two giants in the art world, Thaddaeus Ropac and Larry Gagosian, squaring up to each other as only giants can, by each opening massive spaces on the outskirts of Paris at exactly the same time, and filling them both with the work of Anselm Kiefer, an artist whose epic themes and equally-epic works bust the conventional four white walls of lesser galleries.

Vici and I had wanted to visit both Ropac Pantin and Gagosian Le Bourget. Ironically, both new spaces are in the Northeast reaches of Paris, beyond the Périphérique. Although we know the centre of Paris well enough, this was certainly new territory for us. But after consulting the Gagosian website and google maps, we concluded that getting to Le Bourget, although not impossible on public transport, would be challenging. Once out of the RER station, there was a 3.5 kilometre walk up what looked on the map like a dual carriageway road – not very pedestrian-friendly. The fact that the gallery is actually a former airplane hangar in Le Bourget airport should have given us the clue – if you don’t have your own plane, too bad. And that’s because this new Gagosian enterprise isn’t for the likes of me and Vici, it’s for other giants who have giant wallets and giant walls vast enough to accommodate a Kiefer or two.

Ok, I’m exaggerating slightly. There are lots of places in London which are difficult to get to unless you have a car (London being vastly more spread out than Paris). But there is a difference of approach to the two galleries which is notable. While the Gagosian website had very little information about Le Bourget and the current show, Ropac’s website says this:

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac is delighted to announce the opening of its new exhibition space in Pantin, located in the northeast of Paris, in October 2012. Formerly an early 20th century ironware factory, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Paris Pantin will allow for the display of large-scale works alongside a programme of related events. “We created this new space which will give the artists the opportunity to realize their vision without the usual restrictions of space.” (Thaddaeus Ropac) The architects Buttazzoni & Associés who already redesigned the existing Parisian gallery in the Marais have worked on the redevelopment of the new space in Pantin, where they have preserved the historical character of the listed buildings. The site has eight separate buildings allocated for exhibitions, performances, private viewings, archives and offices … The project also includes a multimedia space for performance, dance, lectures, conferences, screenings and other activities that complement exhibitions and attract a wider audience.

And it’s not that difficult to reach. Pantin is on the Metro, and then it’s a 15-minute walk through rather characterless light industrial country. But Vici and I are always up for a journey through the more charmless bits of cities. And anyhow, the gallery was signposted, and once there, we felt the hike was worth it.

Kiefer’s work is always ambitious, reaching. Some find it bombastic (and perhaps the fact that he has become embroiled in the clash of the art titans will not help this perception). It is true that the work is very dense in its field of reference, taking on mysticism, alchemy, history. The Holocaust is ever-present in the work, a dark line that runs through all, and the poet Paul Celan sits on his shoulder, the imagery of the Todesfuge present in Kiefer’s motifs, the dug earth, the black milk. I don’t always understand his references, but I feel the same way when reading late Stevens – there is something so complicated being grasped at, an understanding of the world and its deeper workings, not just physical, but psychic, cosmic. That sounds a bit new age, but I feel I don’t have the vocabulary to describe how Kiefer works, without falling into the grandiose, the abstract. If I try and express it in imagery, it’s like there’s wide field before you, sometimes cluttered with the rust of our discarded machinery, sometimes flat and reaching into a distance you can’t see. The landscape is dead – it is winter here always. I think Kiefer is saying that’s where we are, as a people, standing in this barren field with our rubbish all around us. Nothing can grow here; it’s our winter.

The other great artist who is present in Kiefer’s work is his teacher, Joseph Beuys. In another building on the Ropac site, there is a display of Beuys’s work related to his 1969 performance piece, Iphigenie. Seeing the work of both artists together made me look again at the motifs and materials they share: ash, rust, stone. While Kiefer remains outside of his work, Beuys is always the subject, the conduit for change and protest.

It was disappointing not to get to Le Bourget, perhaps a journey for another time. Kiefer’s work is so important and vital that it’s a shame it won’t be easy for many people to make the journey. But I was glad to have made the effort. And I look forward to future trips to Pantin.