Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Modern Nature at the Drawing Room

From plastic flowers pinched from public places to a series of hand-painted seaweeds Abigail Ashford muses on our tangled and prickly relationships with the natural world revealing a constant human preoccupation with collecting, colonising and exploiting it 

Modern Nature, The Drawing Room

What makes nature modern? Is it the very unnaturalness of the relationships we now cultivate with it? Or, like modern art or literature, has plant-life become explicitly self-reflexive? 

An Instagram account dedicated to pleasing images of houseplants is perhaps our digital equivalent of the herbarium collections of the 1800s. In most cases, the scientific emphasis of the latter has been overridden by aesthetic considerations, such as colour, contrast and symmetry. This new exhibition at the Drawing Room testifies to this transformation, emphasising the cross-fertilisations between science and art, while revealing the subtle positioning of plants as witnesses to and companions in human struggles. 

The show takes its title from Maggie Hambling’s quip, recounted by Derek Jarman, that he had through his gardening project in Dungeness, Kent, at last discovered modern nature. Jarman’s work positions the cultivation of plants as a form of personal therapy and escapism from socio-political hardship, but beyond this, the show encourages us to reflect on nature’s place in the wider histories of colonialism and gender.

Mark Dion, Herbarium
2010, hand painted acrylic wash, spitbite aquatint, à la poupée photogravure, 
with hand applied letterpress labels & stamps, 42x29cm each
Courtesy Graphicstudio, University of South Florida

Walking into the main gallery space, visitors first encounter a selection of spindly shadows of plants on fading paper, which seem to have been dug out of some dusty old archive. Inspired by the horticultural practice of Henry Perrine in the 19th, century, Mark Dion’s Herbarium mimics a lost collection of pressed marine algae. Each sheet bears a stamp and label declaring it part of the original herbarium. The hand-painted seaweed series is presented as work salvaged from an 1840 Seminole Indian raid on Perrine’s Florida home in which he was killed, and his portfolio of specimens destroyed. The 1830 Indian Removal Act had further exacerbated tensions between white settlers like Perrine and the Seminole Peoples who, in a series of wars between 1817 and 1858, fought the US army in defence of their diminishing territories.

Others have seen Dion’s piece as a response to and commemoration of a tragic scientific loss, yet I doubt the irony (and arguably poetic justice) of a colonial conservator’s collection of native plants being destroyed by an oppressed native people was not lost on the artist. As an advocate for the introduction of tropical plants to the United States, Perrine continued an insidious tradition stretching back to the 16th century of ecological imperialism in North America. 

Dion’s careful reconstitution of the algae cuttings complicates a narrow view of this controversial history. Inviting a focus on the multi-pronged minutiae of natural forms, different perceptions of what is of value in ‘the land’ are synthesised in Dion’s ghostly renderings, which testify to the fragility of nature in human sites of conflict. The new herbarium promotes a rebuilding and remembering that includes the devastation of the natural world in human history. 

Alberto Baraya, Compared Modernist Studies, 2011, photographs, found objects and drawing on cardboard, dimensions variable, collection Catherin Petitgas

On an adjacent wall, Colombian artist Alberto Baraya’s installation Compared Modernist Studies, showcases a very different survey of plant-life, one comprised of plastic orchids and fake flowers. In contrast to Dion’s Herbarium, Baraya categorises and labels objects pinched from public places and private properties, parodying the innocent collecting of men such as Perrine. Reframing this history as one of biological theft, the artist questions and subverts the ‘disinterested discourse of science’ practiced by men who came to the Americas to document its botanical resources, paving the way for their capitalist exploitation. In a 2007 interview for Frieze, Baraya explained that ‘by picking up some plastic flowers on the street, I behave like the scientists that Western education expects us to become. By changing the goals of this simple task, I resist this ‘destiny’.’

The very first photographically illustrated book produced in Britain was Anna Atkins’s British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions published in 1843. As Drawing Room curator Katherine Stout notes, botany was one area of the male-dominated field of science in which women were permitted to participate. Later in the 19th century, Swedish artist Hilma Af Klint began her career making botanical drawings in Stockholm. Despite her subsequent achievements in abstraction, the drawings on display here do not particularly reflect her compositional or stylistic talent, perhaps being overshadowed by the colourful, quirky studies of Amazonian flowers by artist and conservationist Margaret Mee. One of the first people to highlight the impact of mining and deforestation on the Amazon, Mee combined her fine arts training with a passion for social justice to produce never before seen portraits of exotic plants increasingly under threat from industrial expansion. 

From the botanical drawings of Klint to the plastic plants collected and analysed by Alberto Baraya, the works featured fluctuate between documenting and idealising. Beside Klint’s work, the plaque notes that her wheat grains and thistles ‘display the natural world without elaboration or improvement.’ However, this detailed plant portraiture visualises subjects floating alone against blank paper backgrounds, severed from their naturally occurring foliage and wild green surroundings. Subtle anthropomorphisms reach a peak in Viktor Timofeev’s giant mural Godflower 7 drawn on the far wall of the gallery, where two tentacular bodies meld flora and fauna in a surreal alien disposition. 

Viktor Timofeev, Godflower 7, 2019, Conté pastel on wall, 731x450cm

This selection of artwork asks us to consider whether conceptualisations of the natural world can ever really be free from personal, political and economic agendas. Nature and culture have long been conceived of as distinct and opposing categories. From the Enlightenment onwards distancing the human social sphere, theologically, ideologically and materially, from the nonhuman world, has served to justify the exploitation of the latter. Our current industrialised, capitalist modernity has relied upon and emerged from this distinction. Moreover, the natural world we now encounter is both composed of and mediated by the smog, chainsaws and drills that continue to envelop the plants, the animals and the Earth. Modern Nature does not gild the lily, but instead grasps the nettle in its representation of our tangled and prickly relationships with the natural world. 

Abigail Ashford 

Modern Nature
Drawing Room
London SE17

2 May – 7 July 2019

Monday, 20 May 2019

May You Live In Interesting Times

Before it sinks into the lagoon, Kirsty Buchanan encounters a gang of difficult women and a bookish man at the 2019 Venice Biennale.

Mari Katayama

Ralph Rugoff is the curator of May You Live In Interesting Times, the 58th Venice Art Biennale, and both the Giardini and the various scattered pavilions feel refreshingly consistent and a pleasure to meander around. 

Sun Yuan and Peng You, Can’t Help Myself, 2016, image courtesy Ben Davis

In previous years the Arsenale has felt tedious and walking around a long dark corridor with angry art can be very exhausting. Last year the work seemed to want to cause discomfort to the audience, my recollection was of feeling like I was in a ghost train torture chamber from which I desperately tried to escape. This year however the whole thing is more like a fairground fun house than a horror train. It is not all entirely light hearted of course, there are important and poignant messages throughout, yet it is done with an inviting and inclusive touch which has so much more power. For example the terrifying sculpture by Sun Yuan and Peng Yuan, a giant squeegee that moves red glutinous ink around a perspex box at high speed with violent and abrupt movements which are impossible to predict. Contained, like a dinosaur at a zoo. It is uncomfortable to watch yet mesmerising and at times funny.

Martine Guitiérrez

The strongest voices are those of troublesome women, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I found myself drawn to the confrontational photographs of Martine Gutiérrez and the witty photographic compositions of Mari Katayama. Renate Bertlmann, the first solo female artist to represent Austria, defines the difficult women of the female avant garde art movement, with her punky tongue in cheek aesthetic, I enjoyed the way it is contained in the clean white Austrian pavilion with her signature covering the outside.

Jill Mulleady

The main highlight of the exhibitions at the Giardini and the Arsenale is the strength of the painting, and most of the paintings I loved were by women. Jill Mulleady’s large yet sensitive compositions made me want to dive into her world. Nicole Eisenman and Nijdeka Akunyili’s paintings contribute to a beautiful conversation between unrelenting women with an exceptional demonstration of sensitivity and accomplishment. 

Nicole Eisenman

In the satellite exhibitions and pavilions there are a number of references to loss of knowledge, which link nicely to the city of Venice itself. That anxiety of losing knowledge and forgetting history fascinates me and I often feel it when I’m in Venice, a city I love so much but don’t want to imagine ever not existing. Edmund de Waal’s exhibition Psalm is located in two parts, one in the Jewish Ghetto and the other in the beautiful Ateneo building near the Fenice Opera House. The second part is based on the lost libraries of the world and the books written by exiled writers. I found this thought provoking and once the concept was explained by an enthusiastic member of staff I felt compelled to participate by suggesting a book written by an outlaw (Edna O’Brien) and writing my name in a book which has been banned (Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea). The exhibition is however somewhat clunky in its delivery. De Waal’s ceramics don’t make any sense - just placed next to some bookshelves in a box, and the concept was unneccessarily over explained. In this city positioned on the precipice of disappearance the literal weight of this information excess seems particularly inappropriate. With continuing climate change all the artworks and all this information about the artworks could be submerged and lost in the Venice Lagoon. Maybe the weight of all of this excess could just tip the delicate balance – interesting times indeed.

Kirsty Buchanan

Edmund de Waal, The Library of Exile, 2019

Venice Biennale
11 May - 24 November 2019

Friday, 17 May 2019

Drawing like a Painter - Hannah Murgatroyd

Lizzie Lloyd focusses in on Hannah Murgatroyd’s work with its links to the language of art history which is on show with von Goetz gallery at the inaugural Draw Art Fair London. 

Hannah Murgatroyd, Supplicant, 2018, pencil on paper, 21x21cm

You would be forgiven for thinking that Hannah Murgatroyd’s drawings and paintings tell a story. The characters that populate her images all appear to have their own personality, locked in a fairytale landscape that captures a sense of paradisiacal bliss made strange. Characters recur, giving the impression of lives lived beyond the surface or frame of paper and canvas. The suggestion of relationships kindled, duties fulfilled, hopes dashed, desires sated, senses piqued is certainly there, in the cock of a finger, the flaring of a nostril, the curling of a toe, the upturning of a lip, the furrow of a brow. But the real narrative of Murgatroyd’s images is less easy to articulate. Her sensoria of line, colour and form lends a depth of focus to qualities like surface, style and sentiment, often dismissed as superficial, but which for her serve as the driving force.  

At the root of all this is the craft of drawing. The limitations of the medium frustrate but at the same time it is through drawing’s restrictions that, she says, ‘I’ll find things out’. She sees drawing as a place of potential, where ideas emerge almost of their own accord. It is a process of discovery where forms and characters are not so much drawn but uncovered or kindled. This uncovering appears through pencil, charcoal or pastel marks that assert themselves on the paper with a confident but unpredetermined openness, as if blown along by force of swirling winds. Her depiction of hair, styled in particular and historically specific ways, is a favourite conduit for her blustery lines as much as her outlining of trees and bushes. Tousled locks appear alive, restless, as if activated by the kinds of gales so familiar to Murgatroyd’s childhood self, growing up on Dartmoor. 
Such spirited lines animate her drawings as much as her paintings, their vitality stemming from drawing’s relationship with the unconscious. The immediacy, scale and portability of drawing lends itself to an openness, a risk taking and a sense of ‘enquiry’, as she puts it, to which she feels enthral. When embarking on a new work she’s never sure where it will lead, which is how she likes it. It allows the drawing to take on a life, a character, a setting, an unspecified story of its own. In Noble Sentiment (2016), for example, she had no idea that the brawny figure, eyes closed in contemplative concentration, would end up holding an ox-eye daisy to his nose. But the emergence of this detail gave rise to a proliferation of symbols of flower forms through her most recent works.

Hannah Murgatroyd, Noble Sentiment, 2016, coloured pencil & gouache, 42x30cm

Though coming to painting later in life, after art school, Murgatroyd has always been aware of her facility for drawing. During her time at the Royal Drawing School in 2005 a tutor remarked that, ‘you draw like a painter’. This, she says, changed everything. Up to this point she had little experience of historical painting but during this year she was tasked with drawing from the National Gallery’s collection. Skeptically at first, she settled down in front of Peter Paul Rubens’s The Rape of the Sabine Women (1635–40) and became hooked on, what she calls, his ‘circularity, his perspectival pull and rolling line’, qualities that persist in Murgatroyd’s work to date. She became quickly taken with other paintings too. It was their formal qualities that struck her. At the time she had little prior knowledge of biblical or mythological stories and so, to decode them, had to rely on her eyes instead, on the surface skin of the paintings. She focused on colour, mood, atmosphere and the human relationships – set in often fantastical landscapes, or at least natural scenes filtered through the cultural frames of eye and hand – captured in the application of paint. Despite this initial excitement it was not until an artist residency at the Spinnerei in Leipzig in 2009 that she herself began to paint.

This introduction to painting through the Old Masters proved formative. Murgatroyd draws more from the language and landscape of art history and visual culture than she does, the so-called real. She is drawn to artists who whole-heartedly embrace fiction and artifice. The other-worldly subjects of art-historical painting have also endured. In her works, grapes are mouthed, scents inhaled, wheat fronds clutched, sacks lugged, rocks fingered, bread stolen. These actions, performed by the various vagabonds, putti, and shepherds that inhabit her work, are not the stuff of contemporary life. They are throwbacks to a past, often make-believe, life.
Murgatroyd’s part-clad misfits, familiar to genre and landscape paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, appear to combine Antoine Watteau’s decorative depictions of human gesture, say, with the sentimentality of François Boucher’s wide-eyed, reclining shepherdesses.
Such references to the Old Masters are not a simple postmodern appropriation though. Rather, they amount to, what Murgatroyd calls, ‘inhabiting the past through marks made’. The bristling surfaces of Jean-Honoré Fragonard butt up against the looser energy of a John Constable study, and the languid line of a Leonardo drawing. There are contemporary influences in there too, like David Salle’s explicit borrowing from other artists, or Douglas Coupland’s compression of history, personal anecdote, social commentary and sci-fi narratives of the future. Other seemingly more low-brow points of reference exist too. The virtuosity of a Disney landscape, Murgatroyd insists, comprises some of the best landscape drawing in art. She sees Mary Blair’s early work on Snow White (1951) as having much in common with Helen Frankenthaler’s mid-twentieth century handling of colour. Similarly, Murgatroyd’s characteristic mark-making style while suffused with rococo fancy and excess, is located in a relationship with mainstream cultural references from the 1950s and 60s: the bouffant bob, a chunky turtleneck jumper, exaggerated cartoon-like eyes, the hourglass figure, and saucy seaside postcards. Murgatroyd sees this accumulation of wide-ranging points of historical reference as the ‘permeable slippages of past, present, future held in one image, representing No Time.’

The Bucolic
Murgatroyd’s magpie-like picking through art history and visual culture serves simultaneously as a commentary about class, cultural value and hierarchies of worth. She deliberately borrows from visual languages not always deemed tasteful by the fine art establishment. Her interest in certain recurring themes like the pastoral, for example, is a case in point. She observes how mainstream middle- class values now aspire, unreservedly, to bucolic lifestyles: clean living, eating organic, growing your own. Murgatroyd’s sense is that when contemporary art deal in such idealisations of the landscape it is expected to be done in the spirit of critique because the bucolic is deemed inauthentic. But her experience of the landscape, growing up on the edge of Dartmoor’s wilderness, was genuinely characterised by the kinds of blue-skied liberties, and intimate encounters with bodies, as well as with nature, so familiar to the language of the bucolic.
She cites other reasons for her interest in mediated depictions of archetypal pastoral landscape as well. ‘The bucolic,’ Murgatroyd says, ‘has been a much maligned art form’. This is, in part, why she is drawn to it. Like her cast of outsider figures or her borrowing from a Disney aesthetic, she seeks out the overlooked and undervalued. The appeal of the bucolic goes further still. Like the storyline of a Disney animation it is underpinned by idealisations, by hopes and dreams. Such desires or aspirations, at least in contemporary Britain, are widely ridiculed as saccharine, delusory or, at best, culturally conservative. But Murgatroyd is attracted to such social figures, cultural forms or sentiments precisely because they are rebuffed by so-called high culture. The allure of these tropes, it turns out, is even more personal. Though now enjoying emerging recognition, Murgatroyd’s debut with von Goetz gallery at Draw Art Fair marks the first solo presentation of her work in London, at the age of 42. She recalls, however, the years that she has drawn and painted in almost complete isolation. She feels an affinity, therefore, with the incongruous solitary female vagabonds and hermits that populate her work, who function as a metaphor for the years in which she made art alone, without audience.

Bucolica, Hannah Murgatroyd’s solo presentation with von Goetz at Draw Art Fair London, 2019

‘For a long time,’ she says, ‘no-one was interested in figurative paintings, especially depictions of the face. The face is seen as a kind of despot,’ she observes, ‘people assume its meaning is fixed, as if you’re being told what to feel. People are unwilling to treat a face as ambiguous.’ She argues, however, that her figures remain aloof, inscrutable, because they are never drawn into direct eye contact with the viewer. Their gaze is set elsewhere, among landscapes and figures either within or beyond the picture frame. There is no suggestion of the voyeuristic male gaze here, no confrontation between viewer and viewed. Her figures are self-contained and otherworldly. They are lent an air of unselfconscious, even innocent, freedom appearing, in the manner in which Murgatroyd has long worked, to transcend the human need for external validation.

The Absurd
Despite the unselfconscious self-sufficiency of her figures’ gaze Murgatroyd's work is, paradoxically, streaked with theatricality and flamboyance. She recalls warmly Dylan Thomas’s florid evocations of landscape, similarly tinged with eroticism:
Where no seed stirs,
The fruit of man unwrinkles in the stars,
Bright as a fig;
Where no wax is, the candle shows its hairs. (1)
She puts the lure of such sensual expression down to her Welsh ancestry, finding affinity with the ridiculous yet heart-felt sensibility associated with figures such as Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. Take Sacred (2019). The dressed figure, whose mass of riotous curly hair and huge doleful eyes is set amongst less heavily worked areas suggestive of foliage. From these fronds giant drops of liquid erupt. The figure – combining an extravagant bosom standing comically to attention and a protruding adams apple – sticks out their tongue to catch a droplet. Another droplet catches on their upturned button nose, still another runs down their breast, determinedly making its way towards a prominent nipple. So many elements of this drawing, when articulated in words, have the potential to be construed as highly sexual: the open mouth, the outstretched tongue, the erect nipple, the liberal spray of fluids. But this is a tease. Murgatroyd undoes these sexual overtones by so heavily overdoing them as to make them ludicrous: absurd rather than provocative, the baby-faced figure naive and unselfconscious rather than seductive.

Hannah Murgatroyd, Sacred, 2019, Conte & ink on paper, 52x42cm

This is much more than straight pastiche however. It is easy to mistake Murgatroyd’s work as being guided by a spirit of caricature and innuendo familiar to Carry On films or Robert Crumb cartoons but in fact many of the bodies that Murgatroyd paints are much closer to her personal lived-experiences. The bodies she depicts are roughly based on her own hourglass and, in her words ‘cartoon- like’, figure which might be assumed to be exaggerated, synthetic, even absurd. In fact, Murgatroyd’s repeated depiction of large breasts is a provocation to us, the viewer. How ridiculous, her work appears to say, that because you see large, smooth, pert breasts you think erotica, because you see erect nipples you think sexual arousal. In fact, breasts, though a prominent feature of her work, are rarely truly sexualised. The female figure in Curiosity (2019), for example, is based on Saint Jerome who is often depicted bare-chested through art history. Her breasts, lit up by candlelight, form the painting’s focal point, yet they appear almost detached from her. Both of the two figures in the painting seem entirely oblivious to them in fact. It’s just us that either can’t help looking or prudishly avert our gaze altogether; these are some of Murgatroyd’s challenges to us: can you see beyond the breasts?

Hannah Murgatroyd, Curiosity, 2018, oil on canvas150x120cm

Even in a drawing like Hermit (2019) in which breasts are more deliberately exposed the gesture of the figure pulling up her jumper to just above her nipples, still strikes as something other than titillation. Hermit is alone in the landscape; eyes turned skyward she sits mermaid-like against a backdrop of hills or mountains, maybe at sunset. The revelation of her breasts appears self-gratifying, a liberation, a sensuous desire for the exposure of skin to the elements, nothing whatever to do with us, our gaze, or the gaze of an unspecified other.

Hannah Murgatroyd, Hermit2019, watercolour & pencil on paper, 30x21cm

The timeless human urges and desires that compel Murgatroyd’s characters are made known not just through their actions but by their physical rendition on paper and canvas. Murgatroyd’s exuberant and hyper-sensual painterly techniques create variations of moods through surfaces that swim before our eyes: heavily worked areas of smooth flesh combine with expanses of barely-touched canvas; forms emerge, sometimes from a scrawly rough handling, at others from an economy of judiciously placed hatching; colour palettes lurch from unrestrained saccharine pastels and muddy browns to more classical graphite and red crayon; and emotions fluctuate between rapt wonderment, nostalgia and bliss. As Murgatroyd leaps from one texture, tonal range, historical moment or fiction to the next, she enacts bold shifts in perspective; associations wheel, gestures transcend, and her appetite for visiting and revisiting her own circular narratives goes unsated. 

Lizzie Lloyd

All the images are from the install of Bucolica, Hannah Murgatroyd’s solo presentation with von Goetz at Draw Art Fair London, 2019
Draw Art Fair London is at The Saatchi Gallery, London SW3 4RY  - 17-19 May 2019

Monday, 6 May 2019

The Blue Angel

Marlene Dietrich's breakthrough role as the enigmatic Lola Lola in the Weimar Cinema classic The Blue Angel is being resurrected on the big screen. Cathy Lomax looks beyond the makeup at this classic story of cruelty, desire and ruination.

The Blue Angel, directed by Josef Von Sternberg in 1930, is a cruel film. Set and made in Weimar Germany, it stars Marlene Dietrich as the insouciant seductress Lola Lola, a showgirl who makes her living singing in seedy nightclubs. Lola has become the pinup for a group of local schoolboys who furtively peek at a saucy postcard of her in class, blowing on her feathery skirt to watch it flutter and lift. Their teacher, the pompous self-absorbed Professor Rath (Emil Jannings), confiscates the card and decides to visit The Blue Angel, where Lola sings, in order to catch his students in the act of breaking school rules. However once in the club, a place that he feels strangely excited by, he stumbles backstage, becomes mesmerised by Lola and the seeds of his downfall are sown.

Dietrich’s Lola is sexy and enigmatic but she has a rough, unfinished look with fluffy hair and a distinct plumpness. She is definitely not the svelte sophisticated beauty of Shanghai Express (1932) and The Scarlet Empress (1934). However despite thisThe Blue Angel won Dietrich a Hollywood contract and under the guidance of director Von Sternberg she refined her image to perfect the glamorous and mysterious femme fatale she is best known for portraying. 

Key to the dark attitude of the film is the cruel inconsistency of Lola’s affections – occasionally she seems to genuinely care for and pity Professor Rath, while at other times we suspect that she despises him. Makeup, a key material of femininity, plays a big role in Rath’s pathetic humiliation. Alone together backstage Lola passes him her mascara to hold and as she spits in it he flinches. ‘How do you like my eyes’, she says as she applies the mascara whilst looking in three small mirrors. ‘Beautiful’ he remarks after a little coaxing. ‘You know you’re not bad looking’ she says, and as he smiles bashfully she blows her powder in his face, making him cough and splutter uncontrollably. This pattern of humiliation and tenderness continues as she brushes him down cooing ‘poor baby did I hurt you.’ Much later after they are married and his money has gone he becomes a drunk hanging around the show. It is as he crudely makes himself up as a clown that we remember the sad clown who watched Lola and the Professor get together – an earlier lover we presume who has been discarded just as the Professor will himself be thrown aside. Von Sternberg uses the feminine skin of makeup - mascara, powder and clown paint - to indicate trickery, deception and ultimately emasculation.

The film is dark and desolate but like Lola it is also mesmerising and it has spawned iconic imagery that has a life far beyond the film itself. Falling in Love Again, the song Lola sings astride a chair on stage, went on to become Dietrich’s signature song and her top hat is undoubtedly the item of clothing she is most associated with. And then there is the Kit Kat Klub in Cabaret(1972) – surely a gentrified version of the Blue Angel complete with Liza playing her own version of Lola Lola. 

Cathy Lomax

From 31 May 2019 The Blue Angel will be released in selected cinemas nationwide (UK and Ireland) to coincide with the centenary of the Weimar Republic and the BFI Southbank’s major two-month season Beyond Your Wildest Dreams: Weimar Cinema 1919-1933.  

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Breathing in the Borough Road Archive

Abigail Ashford finds herself in the company of a chihuahua whilst following Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that the aura of a painting can be physically inhaled into the body at an installation by Accounts & Records.

'Stroke the cat. It doesn’t matter if it turns into a dog'. So reads a line from Edwina Attlee’s poem Bourges, which accompanied the recent installation Breathing in the Borough Road Archive at The Borough Road Gallery. Enjoy the kind of pleasant sensation you get from an action like stroking a small furry animal. It doesn’t matter if it mutates and changes form dramatically. The tactile pleasure is still there, so make the most of it. At least that’s what I took away from both the poem and the installation. Exhibitions that deal with archives can often enshrine the original artefact and beg us to consider its value in poor lighting behind a glass case, the surrounding walls crowded with textual evidence of its legitimacy. A work such as Breathing in offers an alternative to this genre and mode of display, focusing instead on personal, physiological encounters with objects, using the paintings and drawings of The Borough Road Group, led by artist David Bomberg in the mid-20th century, as a starting point. 

The Borough Road Gallery is an unassuming space, tucked away in a campus building of London South Bank University. Here, at the old Borough Polytechnic, David Bomberg held his discursive life-drawing classes, encouraging students and fellow artists such as Dorothy Mead, Edna Mann, Cliff Holden and Dennis Creffield to move away from the stifling academic traditions of British art schools. Small holes pepper the plaster walls of the gallery’s single room, left by overzealous photography students erecting degree shows. The space sits empty for extended periods, the collection it was built to display sitting in storage, while the university concentrates its resources elsewhere. 

At the opening, I stroke a chihuahua called Wolfgang as he determinedly tries to sit on a circular carpet in the centre of the space, woven to emulate the prints covering the walls. The pockmarked walls have been covered in a myriad of blue and white sheets, which I recognise as the result of water printing, a staple in many a child’s primary education. The simple palette, grace and scale of the work is much more calmly orchestrated than your average kid in art class, though I’m still drawn to stare into the swirling patterns, mesmerised and soothed. The clouds of ink mutate from marble, to water, to a brain scan in a sort of oddly relaxing Rorschach test. Oblong gaps cut out of the paper evoke the paintings conspicuously missing from the walls. Paintings from the archive are instead leant against another wall dressed in fresh pink packing and bubble wrap cocoons, held together with tape declaring them FRAGILE. Which works these are and by which artists is not disclosed. The composition visualises the problems of funding and visibility the collection faces, but literally repackages the artworks in the quirky spatial language of installation art for a contemporary art viewing public. 

Explaining the difficulties of caring for an often-invisible body of work the collection’s curator Theresa Kneppers tells me that although most collections deal with the issue of work being in storage in light of space and conservation parameters, this is a somewhat unique case for her. Unable to display the paintings at all, she has embraced this as an opportunity to invite artists to respond to the hibernating collection, encouraging them to redress and represent ideas surrounding the material and conceptual archive. Another recent show titled And I Paused saw artist e.t. life projects explore a dialogue between the arrangement of complex thoughts in the human brain and ordered archival systems, drawing on her own experience of dyspraxia and dyslexia. 

Theresa tells me that she commissioned Breathing in with the aim of 'addressing the body in the gallery as something beyond just the visual interaction with the displayed artwork.' Such thinking has shaped the collection from its outset. Sarah Rose, who donated the archive to the university, has written of her close attention to breathing when viewing paintings, passionately comparing the effect of a moving painting to an induced meditation that affects the nervous system, so that the viewer 'not only “sees” the work but also feels it'. The attempt to theorise, explain, use and influence our neural engagements with art has long been explored but has remained somewhat peripheral to the art world; think of Goethe’s speculative colour psychology, or the modern practice of art therapy by psychotherapists. 

However, in their installation, artists Braden and Angela from the Accounts & Records collective, propose a new theory. The catchily titled Insufflation Appreciation asserts that, 'with the right guidance, what Walter Benjamin describes as the “aura” of a painting can be physically inhaled into the body.' They suggest that through such inhalation, the viewer might then empathise with a work of art on a metabolic rather than purely visual level. Playing with the notion of innate essence and originality by conceptualising the 'aura' as a microscopic residue, they describe how 'from the blood, the aura particulate travels up to the brain where it triggers acute and profound synaptic responses.' An audio meditation plays in the gallery to accompany the installation, designed to stimulate this process and release the paintings from the confines of their bubble wrapped obscurity. 

Dorothy Mead, Reclining Nude, © Val Long. 

As a creative new interpretation of a little-known collection consigned to the storeroom, the piece works fantastically. By evoking many people’s naïve childhood interaction with creating (what at the time seemed a deeply personal image by pressing paper onto inked water), and viewing art, the artists have created a playful response far removed from serious and often stifling norms of aesthetic contemplation. The audio meditation provides an additional humorous reimagining of the much-scorned gallery audio-guide, and simultaneously taps into the app-based mindfulness and podcasting zeitgeist of the present day, directing us to absorb art viscerally as well as visually. And so, arguably, we can stroke the cat and the dog at the same time. In other words, Breathing in the Borough Road Archive suggests that it is important to continually celebrate the cultural category of the archive but also to broaden its scope and reach concurrently. 

Abigail Ashford 

Breathing in the Borough Road Archive
The Borough Road Gallery
London SE1

11-13 April 2019