In 1951, the Pleasure Garden Fountains opened in Battersea Park, London, as part of the Festival of Britain to celebrate a brighter postwar future for the country. Arranged on both sides of the Grand Vista, leading down some stairs and toward the dancing fountains, is a pair of symmetrical mirror pools, in which Samara Scott has installed her site-specific work Developer, 2016.
In the eastern pool, which she has dyed blue, lengths of orange, yellow, and red netting are unfurled underwater and, from above, appear green and blue. Shards of white plastic sheeting are caught underneath, prevented from floating upward. In the opposite pool, dyed a rusty bronze, silver tarpaulins have been sliced into large, curving shapes and joined back together again, making a massive sheet. Where it rises to the surface and catches the sunlight, it flashes silver like a leaping fish, but where it falls away in underwater valleys, it turns a dirty-toilet brown.
In Scott’s hands, the mirror pools have been transformed into a diptych of abstract water paintings, their surfaces like undulating canvases. Scott has shown these sorts of works before, cut into the floors of an art fair or a gallery—but in those indoor environments, the liquids and objects stand eerily still. Here, they are animated by nature: a confetti of fallen leaves and seeds, buzzing dragonflies, and reflections of blowing clouds and rustling trees. Strolling along the Grand Vista today, it looks as though hundreds of pieces of Matisse’s gouache decoupages have been peeled off their canvases and thrown into the water, embellished by the weather and open air.
This group exhibition explores the disjunction between the simultaneous visibility and vulnerability of black men in contemporary society. Curators Ekow Eshun and Karen McQuaid express that while black men may be lauded as globally influential and cultural trendsetters, the disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration in both the UK and the US tell another story. In order to eschew the misrepresentations and stereotypes associated with the hypervisibility, or, indeed, hyperinvisibility of black masculinity—a quote from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man has been stenciled on the wall—the curators have selected work that investigates the dandy, a figure of subversive politics as well as chic who destabilizes, in this instance, the subjugating white gaze, with sartorial exuberance and provocation.
The earliest work, from around 1904, collected by the Larry Dunstan archive, is unattributed. Depicting young Senegalese men in sharp suits with bow ties and boaters, these photographs appear to have been taken in deliberate resistance to archetypal colonial imagery. Similarly, Malick Sidibé’s iconic black-and-white images, capturing his native Bamako following Mali’s independence from French colonialism in the 1960s, offer insights into a dynamic and transformed society through their representation of individual and collective style. Self-portraits by a young Samuel Fosso, taken after hours in the photography studio he founded at the age of thirteen—wearing such things as platform shoes and cropped fringed trousers (from the series “‘70s Lifestyle,” 1973–77)—were intended to weaken the dictatorship of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, as these items of disco effervescence and gender play were banned during his reign. The show also features photography from Liz Johnson Artur, Hassan Hajjaj, Colin Jones, Isaac Julien, Kristin-Lee Moolman, and Jeffrey Henson Scales. The diverse selection of international portraiture and street photography shows men claiming and defining their image on their own terms.
This is a big, museum-survey-style exhibition, long overdue. Lukas Duwenhögger is of course best known for his oil paintings, rendered in mustardy, muted pastels that never overstate, exercises in high kitsch that simultaneously operate as postcolonial takes on Firbankian faggotry, with cultural references to Duwenhögger’s adopted homeland of Turkey often woven in. In Garten am See (Lakeside Garden), 1995, a smartly dressed man leans against a tree on a hill, staring seductively outward at the viewer. Coming up the path behind him is a mustachioed man, who cruises him with a languishing stare. On the water, a man in a red bathing suit standing in a boat can be discerned pondering this scene on the shore. Cruise and/or be cruised: For Duwenhögger, it is looking—that is, the desirous glances men inadvertently exchange when they pass each other in banal situations—that ultimately conceals queerness, and is thus the most heavily sexual act of all.
Many of the artist’s excursions into other media are represented here as well, such as a model of his proposal for the homo holocaust memorial in Berlin, The Celestial Teapot, 2007—an endless wraparound viewing tower, from which visitors could presumably observe all the action in the notorious cottaging zone of the Tiergarten, culminating in a teapot with a limp human wrist for a handle—a typically Duwenhöggerian gesture—dementedly queer and queerly demented.
The institution of the museum has relied on object-led narratives since its establishment, employing a show-and-tell apparatus in order to bolster citizenship and project ideology. “The Science of Imaginary Solutions,” a wide-ranging group exhibition, queries the foundation of this knowledge. By monopolizing on the line that rests between factual and fictional narratives, this presentation disrupts the notion of the past as static, homogeneous, and reliable, as it offers up a series of objects that form an incomplete history from today to the eighth millennium BCE. Fittingly, the title is derived from the absurdist playwright Alfred Jarry’s nonsensical philosophy of “imaginary solutions.”
Historical artifacts (a Neolithic stone basin and pestle; brooches from the first to sixth centuries AD) and works from sixteen modern and contemporary artists are given equal weight. Stephen Thompson’s Antiquities of Britain, 1872, and Albert Renger-Patzsch’s prints from 1925 to 1939 chart the shift in perceiving photography as not just pure documentary but also an art form. Pieces by Barry Flanagan, Lucio Fontana, and Yayoi Kusama represent the expansive diversity of artistic positions in the postwar period. Marcel Broodthaers’s Les Animaux de la ferme (The Farm Animals), 1974, stands out due to his engagement with institutional critique and interest in parodying the museum. The politics of craft and design informs Ian Hamilton Finlay’s and Katie Schwab’s respective uses of slate and ceramics. Other contemporary artists, such as Ruth Ewan and Andy Holden, take social history as their subject, presenting a shifting analysis of how art objects operate in our understanding of material culture. By subverting the archival impulse and creating an element of museological fantasy, this unusual and interesting show also tests the limits of what an exhibition should look and feel like in the twenty-first century.
Who watches the watchers? It’s an interesting question in the context of Brooklyn-based Italian duo Eva & Franco Mattes’s investigation into the seedier side of the Internet. Their current exhibition takes on the darknet, the so-called Wild West of the digital realm, where all manner of illicitness and nightmare hide. In the video series “Dark Content,” 2016, the artists interview workers who spend their days as gatekeepers, scrubbing the Internet in a Sisyphean effort to remove beheadings, cat killings—you know the score. Rendered anonymous through voice-altering software and stock images, their harrowing tales are relayed in jarringly emotionless tones. These people mostly work alone, with little to no psychological support. The majority of these pieces, displayed in the front gallery, broadcasting from the undersides of overturned office furniture, resemble the aftermath of one big desk flip. It is an awesome wasteland, depicting what could happen should any of these invisible sentinels be pushed over the edge by all the poison they’re forced to absorb endlessly.
There is, however, playfulness: “Image Search Result,” 2014–, provides us with screenshots from the artists’ browsing histories, emblazoned onto cheap novelty products. And nearby, we encounter a group of screens (“By Everyone for No One Everyday [BEFNOED],” 2013–15) showing people performing random tasks requested by the artists, such as feeding fish strapped to their naked torsos. You laugh at these fools, huh? Well, with the works placed or angled oddly, the artists have you performing, too: gamboling around on your tiptoes, or belly up, back against the gallery floor. The Matteses have created a bracing display—clever, witty, and wholly disturbing. If you dare enter this cave of twenty-first-century wonders, just remember: Ceiling cat sees everything.
Can there be a sadder museum experience than visiting a former foundling hospital? From 1742 to 1755, lotteries determined the hospital’s adoption of illegitimate and impoverished children from desperate mothers. Dickensian London seems paradisiacal compared with William Hogarth’s gin-soaked, disease-ridden antecedent. Concluding her 2014 Hogarth fellowship at the Foundling Museum, Cornelia Parker has invited more than sixty participants to respond to the word “found.” Distributed among the museum’s historical exhibits, on-target pieces forgive the missteps that issue from an overly generous curatorial plan, for there are numerous personally significant objet trouvés here that have to do with being a self-centered artist rather than a selfless child.
My favorite among this entertaining treasure hunt is Eileen Simpson and Ben White’s barely audible sampling of Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman’s 1958 recording Music for Children. Plaintive melodies drifting down the stairwell only to falter, fragment, and vanish are apt for a museum dedicated to abandoned waifs. I also love John Smith’s Dad’s Stick, ca. 1950–2010, a video reflecting on his father’s incessant house decorating, exemplified by a wooden stirrer and teacup showing decades of accumulated layers of paint. Of the several pieces by Parker, the most haunting image is of two children’s featureless faces in Unfinished painting attributed to Alfred Munnings (date unknown), an oil sketch found in an antique market. Even more startling is Gavin Turk’s hyperrealist Nomad, 2002, a life-size painted bronze of a grimy, well-inhabited sleeping bag, perfectly incongruous as the only contemporary work in the museum’s Court Room, its most lavishly appointed salon. A show of surprises, then, and not least its impeccable timing, given Britain’s recent referendum achievement that has orphaned an entire country.
The late painter Maria Lassnig’s rigorous, febrile, decades-long project in self-portraiture takes the viewer on a remarkable journey. In this retrospective—Lassnig’s first in the UK—we encounter forty of the artist’s mostly large-scale works, along with several of her irresistibly beautiful and witty animations. One of these, a 35-mm film titled The Ballad of Maria Lassnig (Maria Lassnig Kantate), 1992, features the artist, glamorously dressed, singing about the vicissitudes of her life and career. It is very much in the spirit of her paintings—humorous, ironic, yet unflinchingly honest. At certain points it goes from a kind of hyperrealism to full-on science fiction.
Perhaps the most striking pieces in the show are those in the section labeled “Kitchen/War” (which borrows its title from a 1991 Lassnig painting). This grouping of pictures addresses the experience of war through television, from the titular domestic space, or from a chair into which she sank regularly while being pummeled by the news. (Lassnig once remarked that the only time she relinquished her commitment to the rendering of her interior life was when the events of the external world were more powerful than she.) She also depicts herself merged with things in this area, as if she’s trying to expand some aspect of her sentience. With Kitchen Bride, 1988, she’s a fleshy, mutant cheese grater; while in Armchair Self-Portrait I, 1963, she’s become one with her sitting-room furniture. The object-body fusion, however, gently comes undone in Untitled, 2005. Here, Lassnig’s on crutches: One supports her back; the other, her legs. With her eyes shut she looks vulnerable, and totally at peace.