The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
Today's guests are not the usual suspects as they are scientists using art to explore and communicate mathematics. Marcus du Sautoy is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. Victoria Gould is a mathematician and actress.
Marcus and Victoria have just spent several days and evenings at the Science Museum in London to perform X &Y, a theater show that use mathematics, humour and theatre to navigate the known and unknown reaches of our world and ultimately to approach some of the biggest philosophical and scientific questions we might encounter: where did the universe come from, does time have an end, is there something on the other side?
I saw one of the last London performances fearing everything would fly high above my head (math classes are far far away from my mind now) but the whole show is incredibly accessible, whether you're a child or a retired professor of physics. I'm neither of those and i found X&Y surprisingly entertaining. I even enjoyed the language of equations and laughed. About mathematics! In the process, i learnt that zero is a relatively new number and that there are many sorts of infinity.
If you've missed the shows, you might want to head to the Science Festival in Manchester. I know i might. The programme is very tempting: an exhibition about contemporary architecture in Antarctica, retro computing events, a talk about the application of quantum physics on communication technology, a presentation about controlling brains from the outside, etc. And a series of X&Y performances from October 30th to November 3rd.
The Science Museum in London has recently inaugurated a new Media Space. I was expecting it to be filled with photos of super computers and distant planets. Instead, i found Only in England, a retrospective of Tony Ray-Jones' photos curated by Martin Parr. Which is completely fine by me as i'd rather spend an afternoon looking at eccentric English ladies than at moons around Jupiter (no disrespect to satellites.)
In the late 1960s, Tony Ray-Jones traveled across his country in a VW camper to document the leisure and pleasures of the English. He was a man who lived by his own rules. One of them was to never take a boring photo. There are dozens of images in the exhibition and none of them is remotely insipid. It's easy to see why the photographer had such an impact on Parr's work: he had a taste for the quietly humorous, the compassionate detail, the ironic narrative.
Ray-Jones died of leukaemia in 1972. He was only 30 but in his short career, he invented a new way of looking at society.
A black and white photo series by Martin Parr, The Non-Conformists, is also part of Only in England. The work follows the religious life of the Methodist and Baptist communities in and around Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. Shot in the mid-1970s, just after Parr graduated from art school, the photos have a gentleness i wasn't expecting from Parr.
Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr is a the Science Museum until 16 March 2014.
And now for something completely different....
Last Thursday, i stopped at the British Museum to see Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art. I thought that Thursday would be a good day for a quiet visit. Wrong! It was the kind of crowd in which you have to stretch your neck in unnatural directions to read the descriptions of the works and wait patiently behind several people before you can actually approach a print. When finally you're in front of the work and have had a good look, you want to turn and walk to the next window but you're blocked by the people waiting and staring behind you. And no, they won't move lest they loose their spot in the queue.
My visit was thus laborious but i liked the show so much i'll have another try (a Tuesday morning when the doors open? a lunch time?)
Produced in Japan from 1600 to 1900, Shunga (or "picture of spring", spring being an euphemism for sex) are erotic paintings, prints and books that were used for personal stimulation and for the education of young lovers.
Make no mistake: this was art, not what we'd now call "pornography". In fact, the works were regarded as a suitable gift to brides on the eve of their wedding or to official foreign visitors. Unaffected by the inhibited sexual attitudes of Christianity or Islam, Shunga presented a fantasy world of sexual delight enjoyed by both sexes. The sense of sin didn't have a place in shunga. But female pleasure, tenderness and beauty did.
The genre flourished even when it was officially banned and many works were in fact produced by some of the country's most distinguished artists. The decline of shunga is attributed to the arrival of Western culture and technologies at the end of the 19th century and in particular the importation of photoreproduction techniques. How could Shunga compete with erotic photography?
In Japan, however, the influence of shunga can still be seen in manga, anime, tattoo art and other popular cultural forms.
I got the following photos from the British Museum press office. Unsurprisingly (but disappointingly), the ones i received were quite tame compared to most of what you can see in the show:
Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art is at the British Museum, until 5 January 2014.
I haven't seen that many exciting exhibitions in London over the past few weeks. I was however, bowled over by the photos of Philip-Lorca diCorcia at the David Zwirner Gallery. The East of Eden series brings side by side biblical references and the American dream gone sour. East of Eden is named after John Steinbeck's 1952 novel, contains direct references to the book of Genesis and is inspired by the collapse of the economy as well as the political climate of the United States towards the end of the Bush era.
"It was really about the loss of innocence I think the whole world went through when the financial crisis started," diCorcia explains. "The financial crisis was the beginning of an economic crisis that led to a political crisis. It took two administrations to learn that the war on Iraq was based on a lie, that Saddam Hussein didn't work together with Al-Qaida, and that Afghanistan was an impossible country to transform. Now we have natural disasters that we never could have imagined before. And then there are all those people with no homes. I did feel some compulsion to respond. I never respond directly. But I had a distinct motivation for the conceptualization of the imagery."
The only photo in the gallery that is not likely to throw you into a melancholy state is the one with the two placid white dogs watching porn in a Hamptons home. They were actually looking at much tamer images. 'I rarely manipulate photographs after they are taken,' said diCorcia, 'but in this case the dogs were watching Bambi. I put in the porn later.'
The lady in Iolanda is the artist's mother-in-law. She is either staring at her own reflection or looking at the sky outside, waiting for the tornado forecast on tv.
The tempting Serpent from the Garden of Eden is symbolized by the stripper gliding up and down a pole.
Everything has a meaning and purpose in diCorcia's photos. One man is wearing a red jumper, the other a blue one, while a pregnant woman looks at them from the door. Cain and Abel are locked in reluctant embrace before one kills the other. They also represent U.S. politics and more precisely the Democrat/Republican relationship.
UPDATE: David Zwirner will host a talk by Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the V&A, about the artist's work, 19 October 2013, 11 AM, RSVP to +44 (0)203 538 3165.
The first early human human fossil found in Africa that provides a key evidence to support Darwin's theory of human evolution (and in particular the origin of anatomically modern humans to sub-Saharan Africa) was discovered by a Swiss miner in 1921 in a lead and zinc mine in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia.) An upper jaw from another individual, a sacrum, a tibia, and two femur fragments were also uncovered. Anything else was lost during the mining exploitation of the area. The skull, dated to be between 125,000 and 300,000 years old, was taken to London by the British colonial authorities -in violation of protocols put in place by the British South Africa Company- and it is still there, as part of the collection of Natural History Museum. Meanwhile, the Lusaka National Museum, in Zambia, is only exhibiting a replica of the cranium.
Except that right now, the Lusaka National Museum is not even exhibiting a replica but an identical model recently purchased online by a Thai artist. A replica of a replica, thus. The replica itself is on show, all alone in a big room, at Chisenhale Gallery in London.
Pratchaya Phinthong has loaned the replica skull and asked the museum guide, Kamfwa Chishala, to travel to London for the duration of the exhibition in order to communicate the history of the skull to the visitors of the art gallery, as he does in Lusaka. Kamfwa Chishala is thus the only genuine participant to this exhibition. He was invited by the artist to bring his own subjectivity and perspective to the story of the Broken Hill skull. Something he certainly does with passion. I'd recommend that you get to the gallery, listen to his presentation and have a chat with him. He's a lovely man.
The replica skull is displayed with a copy of the wooden box where the original is kept at the NHM and with the export license that the artist had to obtain from the National Heritage Commission in Zambia because the replica skull is classified as a national relic. I thought the Zambian government was quite brave to allow the replica to travel to London since their attempts to repatriate the original to its country have all failed so far (tell that to the Greeks!)
Broken Hill explores the provenance and the authenticity of artefacts but also the way human interference further complicates their status. The exhibition is the outcome of a network of personal relationships between individuals living in cities as different from each other as Lusaka, Bangkok and London.
After all these years seeing skull after skull in art galleries and contemporary art fairs, it was time some artist put a skull in a context that is more than simply anecdotal, sensational or sloppily 'zeitgeist'-conscious.
The photo above lured me to take the train to Peckham Rye and visit the South London Gallery. The image is the one relentlessly featured in the online mags announcing At the Moment of Being Heard, a show of works and performances that reflect on sound and modes of listening.
Sadly, Aquaphone Cornemuse Opus 143 is not presented in the exhibition. But in case you were still curious about it, the Aquaphone is part of a series of 'instruments d'écoute' (instruments for listening) made with glass objects used by chemists. The Aquaphone works in closed circuit to amplify tiny sound phenomenons. The glass element is partly filled with water and with air that acts as sound transmitter.
Even if the Aquaphone Cornemuse Opus 143 is not part of the exhibition, it still embodies accurately the tone and character of the show. At the Moment of Being Heard is the quietest exhibition about sound i've ever visited. You hear salt being slowly poured, speakers quietly growling, piano strings being struck, shutters falling down echoing inside your head only. At times, you might even hear silence as well.
Tuned piano wires stretches all over to the ceiling in criss-cross patterns. The wires of Eli Keszler's installation are periodically struck and scraped by mechanical beaters to deliver deep and resonating sounds that reverberate through the main gallery. The result being quieter and much more harmonious than my description would have you believe.
crys cole's sound sculpture lays nearby and unassumingly within the gallery floor's vents. One part of the work is a small heap of salt that fills the vent in the left corner of the room. Its counterpart is located in the vent at the other side of the space, but this time there is nothing to see, if you bend down slightly you can hear the sound of the slow action (it took 108 minutes) of filling the first space with salt.
Filling a Space with Salt (in two parts) nicely echoes a photo by Reiner Ruthenbeck showing a lady closing the shutters outside a gallery. The black and white photo elicits the loud clang of the shutters inside you head, even if nothing in the room is actually making that sound.
Singing, by Rolf Julius, is made of seven suspended speakers which emanate a low, resonant hum. The vibrations in the cones cause sieved black pigment on the membranes to shift in sync with the quiet composition.
At the Moment of Being Heard is a nice, subtle, almost meditative show where i spent more time than expected. It reminded me that i love sound art as much as i dislike writing about it. Speaking of which.... I've only blogged about the pieces in the main gallery but there's more works upstairs: Baudouin Oosterlynck's score-drawings made over journeys in Europe in search of silence, Rolf Julius' curious videos of upturned speaker cones submerged in ash and a lonely and almost undetectable speaker playing an outdoor rural Summer soundscape.
At the Moment of Being Heard doesn't stop there. Live performances and special events run until September at the SLG and also at nearby off-site venues. This one looked good, i'm sorry i missed it:
At the Moment of Being Heard is on view at the South London Gallery until 8 September.