Fakery in Dublin

Visiting the Science Gallery, Dublin for New Scientist, 14 April 2018 

Had you $1800 to spend on footwear in 2012, you might have considered buying a pair of RayFish sneakers. Delivery would have taken a while because you were invited to design the patterned leather yourself. You would have then have had to wait while the company grew a pair of transgenic stingrays in their Thai aquaculture facility up to the age where their biocustomised skins could be harvested.

Alas, animal rights activists released the company’s first batch of rays into the wild before harvesting could take place, and the company suspended trading. Scuba divers still regularly report sightings of fish sporting the unlikely colourations that were RayFish’s signature.

RayFish was, you’ll be pleased to hear, a con, perpetrated by three Dutch artists five years ago. It now features in Fake, the latest show at the Science Gallery, Dublin, an institution that sells itself as the place “where art and science collide”.

The word “collide” is well chosen. “We’re not experts on any one topic here,” explains Ian Brunswick, the gallery’s head of programming, “and we’re not here to heal any kind of ‘rift’ between science and art. When we develop a show, we start from a much simpler place, with an open call to artists, designers and scientists.” They ask all the parties what they think of the new idea, and what can they show them. Scientists in particular, says Brunswick, often underestimate which elements of their work will captivate.

Founded under the auspices of Dublin’s Trinity College, the Science Gallery is becoming a global brand thanks to the support of founding partner Google.org. London gets a gallery later this year; Bangalore in 2019. The aim is to not to educate, but to inspire visitors to educate themselves.

Brunswick recalls how climate change, in particular, triggered this sea-change in the way public educators think about their role: “I think many science shows have been operating a deficit model: they fill you up like an empty vessel, giving you enough facts so you agree with the scientists’ approach. And it doesn’t work.” A better approach, Brunswick argues, is to give the audience an immediate, visceral experience of the subject of the show.

For example, in 2014 Dublin’s Science Gallery called its climate change show “Strange Weather”, precisely to explore the fact that weather and climate change are different things, and that weather is the only phenomenon we experience directly on a daily basis. It got people to ask how they knew what they knew about the climate – and what knowledge they might be missing.

Freddie Stevens

Playfulness characterises the current show. Fakery, it seems, is bad, necessary, inevitable, natural, dangerous, creative, and delightful, all at once. There are fictional animals here preserved in jars besides real specimens: are they fake, or merely out of context? And you can (and should) visit the faux-food deli and try a caramelised whey product here from Norway that everyone calls cheese because what the devil else would you call it?

Then there’s a genuine painting that became a fake when its unscrupulous owner manipulated the artist’s signature. And the Chinese fake phones that are parodies you couldn’t possibly mistake for the real thing: from Pikachu to cigarette packets. There’s a machine here will let you manipulate your fake laugh until it sounds genuine.

Fake’s contributing artists have left me with the distinct suspicion that the world I thought I knew is not the world.

Directly above RayFish’s brightly patterned sneakers, on the upper floor of the gallery, I saw Barack Obama delivering fictional speeches. A work in progress by researchers from the University of Washington, Synthesizing Obama is a visual form of lip-synching in which audio files of Obama speaking are converted into realistic mouth shapes. These are then blended with video images of Obama’s head as he delivers another speech entirely.

It’s a topical piece, given today’s accusatory politics, and a chilling one.

Just experience it

Visiting mumok, Vienna’s museum of contemporary art, for New Scientist, 23 December 2017

Visitors to Vienna’s spectacular Natural History Museum may discover some taxidermied exhibits smothered in black gloop. This is artist Mark Dion’s The Tar Museum, and it is part of Natural Histories: Traces of the Political, an art exhibition about nature and politics, most of which is in the nearby museum of contemporary art, mumok.

Those venturing across the Maria-Theresien-Platz will not be sorry. Or not at first. Early on, there is charming, sometimes beautiful documentation of work in the 1970s by the Romanian Sigma group. Inspired by research in bionics and cybernetics, mathematician Lucian Codreanu and his fellows applied scientific method to their observations of the rivers and woods of the Timisoara hunting forest. Doru Tulcan’s abstract sculpture Structuring the Cube makes something surprisingly organic, suggestive of the workings of a crayfish’s eye, from a tiny vocabulary of rods and triangles. Meanwhile, Stefan Bertalan’s Structure of the Elderflower earns its place by virtue of its exquisite draughtsmanship. This being the 1970s, the Sigma group also enjoyed a lot of more-or-less undressed mucking about, and became a focus of dissent against Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship.

The other artists, groups and movements in this show rarely achieved as direct an engagement with the natural world.

Many pieces here index human activity through changes in the environment. The models and photographs of Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan’s Debrisphere record how landscapes have been altered for military purposes. More often, though, the art focuses on how nature encroaches on human settlement. In Arena, Anri Sala records the decayed state of Tirana zoo, with feral dogs occupying a space meant for people, while the zoo’s “wild” animals languish in cages.

Nature’s eradication of human traces can’t come quickly enough in some cases. In 2003, Polish sculptor Miroslaw Balka visited Auschwitz and filmed deer grazing by the barbed wire fence of the concentration camp. A wall board observes that, in 1942 (when Bambi was released), “while cinemagoers were shedding tears about the emotional story of a little deer, the ‘final solution’ and the murder of millions of people was already being planned”. This is silly: would the world be any better if Bambi’s bereavement left us unmoved?

It gets worse. Exquisite allegorical frescoes by 18th-century artist Johann Wenzel Bergl are “recognizable as strategies of absolutist picture propaganda”. And back with Dion: one installation capturing “the lifestyle and self-image of the prototypical ethnographer of colonial times”, isn’t even that, according to the curators, but alludes “to our own imagination of that ethnographer”.

I left feeling rather as Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have felt if, instead of freely stepping through the mirror, she had been shoved through it from behind by a gang of goonish anthropologists.

Natural Histories is a portal into a world where history, politics, horror, guilt and the natural world are sewn together. It is well worth seeing, but I wish the curators had shut up.

An enormous shape-shifting artwork – run by bacteria

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Visitors to Philippe Parreno’s vast installation at London’s Tate Modern, Anywhen, get a carpet to lie on while the vast Turbine Hall shimmies and pulses around them. And they’re going to need it: Parreno’s grey machine is triumphally futuristic, an interior so smart it has outgrown any need for occupants. Anywhen is thunderous, sulphurous, awful in its full archaic sense.
for New Scientist, 19 October 2016

Northern lights

Penelope Umbrico, 30,400,020 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (Partial) 04/04/16, photographs, machine c-prints, in the Collection of the Artist

Penelope Umbrico, 30,400,020 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (Partial) 04/04/16, photographs, machine c-prints, in the Collection of the Artist

 

A few hours north of Helsinki, Finland, on the shores of a lake, sits an art museum, opened in the 1930s and much expanded since. Now one of its galleries is filled with 200 years’ worth of artistic visions of the skies.
for New Scientist, 20 July 2016.

Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain

Let us begin, at least, with a glimmer of humour.

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There you are. That’s your lot by way of larfs, should you visit this truly gimlet-faced retrospective of the art of British modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth.

Tate Britain’s show, which runs from 24 June to 25 October, is billed as the first major Barbara Hepworth exhibition in London for almost 50 years, and features some key sculptures in wood, stone and bronze. These, then, are the treasures which languish under insipid ersatz daylight, against walls painted in the sort of bluish neutrals you find in the toilets at Heathrow.

The first room is the worst, incarcerating Hepworth’s early torsoes under cheap plexiglass vitrines like so much pick-n-mix. But it is not the conspicuous lack of budget that disconcerts, so much as the way the show struggles to establish the young artist’s identity. Every artist operates in some sort of social fluid. Hepworth appears to have damn-near drowned in hers.

Hepworth and her lover Ben Nicholson together evolved an atelier identity, exhibiting together in 1932 at the gallery Arthur Tooth & Sons. Photographs of that show suggest an energy that’s wholly missing here. Nicholson and Hepworth got under each others’ artistic skins, but for reasons I don’t know enough to unpick, the image we’re left with in this show is not so much of Hepworth growing as an artist, so much as being easily led (by Nicholson, by Moore, by Laslo, by political affiliations of one sort or another).

It seems unfair to blame the subject of this show, but I did begin to wonder whether Hepworth herself ought to take some responsibility for what’s gone wrong here. The wall texts several times refer to her determination to control her own image, and I wonder if there isn’t some curatorial frustration peeking through here. What do you do, after all, with an artist who parlayed her way into a most insipid type of celebrity, who fashioned art innocuous enough to grace the UN, and counted its director general Dag Hamarskjold as a friend: arguably the least interesting famous man in history?

Something has failed here; it could well be me. I took a couple of snaps. The photographs aren’t up to much, but just look at the work. That has to be worth a visit, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? How is it my iPhone had a better time than I did?

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“I have nothing to say as an artist”

'Disrobe' (2013). Image ripped shamelessly from http://www.lissongallery.com/

‘Disrobe’ (2013). Image ripped shamelessly from http://www.lissongallery.com/

That, anyway, was the provocative start to my interview with Anish Kapoor the other day. He’s got a terrifying new show on at Lisson Gallery in London, all blood and sinew (well, latex…). Comparisons with Bacon are inevitable, though he says there’s something hysterical about Bacon’s work which he’s not entirely easy with.

Liz Else and I were talking to the sculptor for New Scientist. You can read the full interview here.

Supersize me

Anyone wanting a bloodless, contemporary vision of hell should visit Bermondsey, off London’s south bank, and boutique coffee shops that compete to pun on the word “espresso”, and smashed and discoloured prepubescent seventies nudes on old shop signs made modern antiques, and clothes made of 3D-printed string, and Pop-Up Shopping Events, and White Cube.

White Cube, with its high-gated, cobblestone forecourt expressly CAD-designed to accomodate the public executions of the future.

White Cube, passe and oppressive in the same breath, if you can call it a breath: one last, cripplingly painful act of agonal respiration as you wrench open the door and

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You’re in. Andrea Gursky is a German photographer whose large-scale photographic work perfectly conveys the human toll wreaked by buildings like this one. (The show’s on until 6 July.) A small, silhouetted human form seeks (and does not find) shelter from the brazen walls of an overlit cathedral-sized faux-gold microwave oven. The stairs and atrium of some presumably pleasant, publicly funded arts venue are collaged into a grotesquely outsize (always outsize) overlit (always overlit) Piranesi dungeon. Spiderman and Batman stand slightly out of kilter before collosal, oversimple seascapes and cityscapes, overwhelmed by the scale of things, turned to clowns.

Imagine turning on an extremely expensive wall-sized television and watching cancer developing in your own lung. This is not an oppressive show, so much as an oppressed one, and your abiding impression of the artist – assuming you can put aside his considerable reputation and the seven-figure prices fetched by his canvases – is of an intellectually sanctioned Roger Dean on a truly epic downswing.

And out.

And look – no, really look at this bloody travesty of a street. The sad and important thing about Gursky is not that he himself is sad, but that he is very obviously right.