Monthly Archives: May 2007

Christian Büchel, Simply Botiful, Hauser and Wirth Coppermill

Installation from early 2007

Christoph Büchel’s Simply Botiful is the most involved, engaging and creepiest piece of installation work I have ever seen. Taking over a massive warehouse in London’s East End, Büchel has constructed his own universe – a cheap, nasty hotel for prostitutes and desperate asylum seekers; a shop, decorated with terrorist propaganda, selling fridges; and a huge, gloomy industrial space, full of discarded electronics, broken fridges and crammed with portakabins and haulage wagons serving as cheap, dismal accommodation. Visitors have free access and can wander anywhere, clambering up stairwells and ladders, descending tunnels, adjusting TV sets and picking up and casting down the myriad objects littering the space – diaries, leads and wires, letters, bibles, newspapers, korans, bras, invoices, calculators. The space, built over three of four floors, is of football-pitch proportions. It takes perhaps two hours to walk round everything, and even then there is still plenty left unseen.

Christian Büchel, Fridges from Simply Botiful

The experience is more akin to playing a video game than viewing an artwork; certainly it is nothing like visiting a museum. There’s a strong echo of first person shoot and strategy games (e.g. Thief or Splinter Cell) where the character is dumped in an alien surrounding and must explore a location and its objects, trying to forge a geographical and a narrative sense of the space around them. The lack of information presented to the player / user and the lack of people with which to communicate and understand the space add to the sense of eeriness and disorientation in both types of medium.

The sense of evil pervading Büchel’s universe is palpable. Büchel touches on a host of contemporary and perennial fears – death, child abuse, immigration, religion, terrorism, capitalism. Or rather he does not touch on them, he gives evidence to the fact they have actually happened – we see unmade bids littering the hallways, bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms of the hotel, a rainbow of bleak pornography and graffiti, tapestries celebrating September 11th, copies of Mein Kampf in Arabic, a call-girl’s filo-a-fax, a warren of stinking fridges, evidence of inhumane living conditions. The suggestion of pain, perhaps also torture, is strong.

At the same time (again here is a connection with the video game) there is a childish pleasure to be had in walking around the installation. Photographs of the installation on Flickr show grinning faces dropping down tunnels or posing in front of pornographic images. The museum is normally a place of prohibitions as regards the artistic object; Simply Botiful is precisely the opposite – curiosity, investigation, exploration are positively demanded. But this innocence doesn’t last long. The griminess of the artwork contaminates such innocence, and soon one reads a discarded letter, flips over a postcard or rifles with a diary with a fear that will reveal something more traumatic.

Like a good video game, you’re never going to finish Simply Botiful off at the first sitting – it requires multiple attendances. But will turning up again and going through the artwork lead anywhere? Is there really a message or set of ideas that a visitor can extract from the work? Or is it simply an intellectual jumble sale, an array of provocative objects and ideas scattered around without any coherence?

Well, wait to find the two hidden rooms. On busy days, I imagine they are actually not that hidden – there will be a queue of visitors clambering and crawling towards them. But while not providing a resolution they provide a hook that makes it a little easier to add some focus to the artwork. I’ll mention the first.

A wardrobe in one of the hotel rooms (seemingly decked out like Freud’s consulting room – don’t ask) hides a narrow hole, punched through a flimsy wall, through to another room. On hands and knees one penetrates the hole and into another room, this time cleaner, less cluttered and more brightly lit.

Christian Büchel, Toys in bags from Simply Botiful

The burnt husk of a scooter stands, Damien Hirst-style, in a huge glass case, purveying some kind of totemic significance. Aggressively loud heavy metal thrashes out from a chunky stereo. What on earth is this about? Whereas the rest of the installation is dirty and random, this room is tended to, cared for, and replete with inexplicable objects. The motorbike sits silently in its case, a shrine of some kind. A video-camera whirrs in the corner … this place seems to be guarded, watched over, like a warped sanctuary. Then one notices the large transparent bags of rubbish collected in the corner. What’s inside them? A child clothes, some other toys, some dolls. Are these discarded for a particular reason? Are these the objects of a child no longer with us? Was she perhaps involved in a motorbike accident? Is this room the work of a grieving father, pushed to the depths of infernal despair? One cannot tell. But whilst most of this installation is dismal, this room is tragic. Here, with dark, inhospitable music of satanic assailing your ears, the room stands as a home of pain, being nurtured and then spilling out to the rest of this astonishing piece of art.

Christian Büchel, Burnt scooter from Simply Botiful

Thanks to Saw2th for the great pictures. There are more of the installation on the Flickr site.



Filed under Christian Buchel, Contemporary Art

Velazquez, National Gallery

Exhibition held in Winter 2006

The little catalogue handed out to visitors at the National Gallery’s Velázquez exhibition was at pains to chart the painter’s ascent to artistic genius. Not only were the breathtaking leaps in ability mentioned but also the youthful slips and errors defects that accompanied this climb. “Although they are endowed with great presence,” it say speaking of the early Adoration of the Magi, Velázquez cannot yet relate a convincing space around them.” It’s almost as if the aesthetic merit of each canvas could be determined by Velazquez’ age at the time he painted the work in question.

Such a thesis may be tenable in the ultimate Velázquez exhibition, with every one of his glittering jewels exposed in some fabulous uber-gallery. But what struck me more about the collection of paintings on show at the National Gallery was that the artist, whilst working within a broad familiar approach (some very familiar, others largely unknown, some very obviously absent), was keen and able to explore different paths, exploring different manner of painting over time. The dark, metallic colouring of An Old Woman Cooking Eggs contrasts with the washed-out pastiness of Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob; portrait styles subtly adjust themselves – the fleshy, mottled jowls of the caustic poet Luis de Góngoray Argote; the soft-focus view of the haughty collector Camillo Massimo; or the cold, precise intimacy afforded the nun Jerónima de la Fuente.

Velázquez, Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, 1629-30, El Escorial, Madrid.

Velázquez, Portrait of Camillo Massimo, 1650, The Bankes Collection, London.

Rather than delineate a smooth trajectory towards the glories of Las Meninas and the other late portraits, Velázquez seems to have zig-zagged. This makes him a more interesting painter for me, not less.

Velázquez, Detail of Apollo at Forge of Vulcan, 1630, Prado, Madrid.

Velázquez, Detail of Mars, 1638, Prado, Madrid.

One can look at different styles in Velazquez’s paintings. One can also draw much from the incredible variety of body-sizes in the exhibition – how the painter manipulated the body’s dimensions and appearance to provide added magnification of the sitter’s character. So we see the petite frames of the unsuspecting princesses, their fragile innocence already ruined by their exposure to the mechanics of royalty; the deflated sagginess of Mars, God of War contrasting with to the trim, muscled bucks working in Vulcan’s forge. Don Balthasar Carlos, a youth gilded with adulthood before his time is hoisted up on swollen horses, his frame expanding outwards on each canvas, dressed up in clothes and concepts that no child should have to face. Or the huge balloon-like frame of the courtier Don Pedro de Barbernana y Aparregui, puffed up by the large collar and jacket that seemingly holds a tumultuous body in place. And of course the tall elongated portraits of the regal but apprehensive Philip IV. In these, and with many other of Velazquez’s portraits of noblemen, the head almost touches the upper part of the frame, and the feet the lower. So the viewer, when observing a portrait correctly hung, sees the royal personage stretch below and far above him – a king of truly grand stature.

The continuing appearance of dwarves and jesters allows Velázquez to provide an additional corporeal perspective. Here were people of actual low or misshapen stature being represented next to those whose dimensions Velázquez was rearranging in pigment. So while Velazquez’s manipulation of size allowed him a certain freedom in how he visually expressed his sitters, the juxtaposition with the miniature or the crippled allowed him to emphasise the reality or truthfulness of this situation. ‘My sitters are all different shapes and sizes, because this is how reality is,’ he seems to say. As with the best artists, Velázquez mimics not the external world nor fabricates an idealised, perfect world, but fashions a glorious space somewhere in between.

Velázquez, Portrait of Abbess Jerónima de la Fuente, 1620, Private Collection.

And then there’s the Nun – Abbess Jerónima de la Fuente, submerged in intensity. The lined, suspicious face, with two piercing dark eyes, wrapped in the tight folds of her off-white skullcap. A small rope clasping the folds of her cloak in place. The veined, pulsating (and huge) hand cradling the bible. Further down, a knotted rope slips out, a small and almost unnecessary reminder of her Franciscan ideals. She is a painted personification of the religious super-ego, ready to take the harsh, disapproving line at the merest hint of disobedience. Indeed, there’s a knowing weariness on her face. She has seen and she expects disobedience.

And perhaps most auspicious of all is Jero’nima’s hand, tightly clasping the crucifix, not with reverence or piety, but as one would hold a hammer. The beam of the cross is pushed upwards (as if to give added purchase) and the curved banner that issues from Jero’nima’s neck could equally describe the trajectory that this crucifix/weapon will follow. The text along the bottom, presumably added by another hand, contributes to the power of the painting as well. A ceaseless, inexorable flow of words, pushed around by her folds of her cloak. Even with painted words, the Abbess Jero’nima de la Fuente can dominate the shape of things. Bonum est prestolari cum silento salvatare dei reads the motto above – very (very) roughly, “it serves you well to speak to God in silence”. The tight-lipped Abbess will strike at the merest hint of noise.

Another interesting question this exhibition of the Spaniard’s paintings raised – does Velazquez’ difficulty in presenting comprehensive narratives work to his advantage? Does that fact that storylines are rarely clear in his paintings give the characters added psychological depth? For you’re never quite sure what story Velázquez is trying to convey. While he shares with other Catholic painters of the era a fascination with intense psychological states, there is none of the insistence on a bland, unambiguous storyline that is to the detriment of painters such as Guido Reni, Guercino or Murillo.

It’s the early paintings in particular, gathered together in the first room for the National Gallery exhibition, that focus attention on this question. Characters don’t engage with one another visually; they seem distracted, absentminded, as if reacting to their (troubling?) thoughts rather than an actual event. Such pictures are indeed strange, but they have much stronger resonance for it. Paintings seem artificial when characters are just puppets for a storyline or moral tale. In Velazquez, the storyline is opaque, thus imbuing the characters with a confusing reality. The experimentations with the secondary images placed in the corner, (are they windows, paintings, thought-bubbles?), such as in Christ in the House of Mary and Martha only augment this uncertainty.

Velázquez, The Water Seller, 1618-22, The Wellington Collection, London.

In The Water Seller, we see the boy gaze intently not at the water he is trying to sell (or maybe drink), but inexplicably, at the cloak of the older man. And the man himself engages not with the boy or the water, but gazes moodily at something above the glass of water. In the background, a man drinks, but his eyes are not focussed on the drinking vessel, but on some other distant event.

Velázquez, Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1628, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

And in the Old Woman Cooking Eggs, the boy approaches, hands full with flask and barrel, but his eyes gaze away from the direction he walks, past the ken of painter and viewer. The woman, famously, stares into the far distance, instead of watching the eggs being fried. This has often been interpreted as blindness, but fits in more easily with the mood of the other paintings – the everyday worker, engaged in mundane tasks, disturbed by more weighty thoughts.

And this is exaggerated by the stark, physical immediacy of the objects around them. For the viewer, these are painted with such calculated brilliance that they are pleasure to behold. Curves, textures, reflections, droplets and shadows are painted with a forensic beauty. But for the characters within the paintings, these knifes, jar, onions and barrels are nothing compared to the thoughts within their heads.

Velázquez does that tricky thing – he represents the interior life; one sees that his figures think, reflect, judge. How many artists have attempted to do such a thing and failed dismally! And here Velázquez has no need of props like books or globes or character dressed as philosopher or mages. A thoughtful life belongs to everyone. Like Chardin over a hundred years later, Velázquez imbues the common man or woman with a weighty sense of being.

A note on the exhibition space. Four lighter, airier rooms of the main gallery were used, I think for the first time. Ignoring the fact that this meant pushing some of the permanent collection to the dungeons downstairs, I think this helped the exhibition. There was more space for the paintings to breathe, especially the large history paintings which benefited from their juxtaposition with each other in the same room. But it’s still not good enough for a world-leading museum. There’s still too many visitors peering over each others shoulders, heads and hairpieces. Only with spacious, well-lit dedicated exhibition space will one gain enjoyment that one would wish.

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Filed under Baroque, National Gallery, Velazquez