A second look at Art 13- The inaugural global art fair for a global city

A closer look at Art 13. Its highs, lows and a fair few photos.

A week has passed since the organisers of Art 13 opened their exhibition to the public, and I cannot stop thinking about it. It has a unique mission to introduce London’s art scene to work from 129 international galleries from thirty different countries, of which 70 per cent had never exhibited in a London fair before. With over 24 000 visitors over a period of three days, Kensington Olympia’s great hall was abuzz with excited artists, publishers, gallerists (and galleristas, here’s looking at you, Pearl Lam!) along with several high profile collectors.

For a large part of day one, I stood and observed the activity of art enthusiasts at Gajah Gallery, one of the central booths of the fair, specialising in Indonesian Art. Reactions were as diverse as the visitors passing through. Excited squeals from artists recognising the work of their colleagues at a past residency, pensive postulations in pursuit of a work’s meaning, young children giggling around kinetic sculptures and running away with fistfuls of free badges offered by this particular booth. On asking a random selection of visitors their thoughts on the fair, the word “refreshing” was repeated a countless number of times, with good reason. The grand hall was airy and much easier to navigate than its tented predecessors and the sheer variety of works on display offered, in my view, a less filtered image of contemporary art practice by artists just breaking into their careers as well as established regional artists reaching a wider audience.

Art 13 should be commended for its solid effort to showcase a range of work and for throwing light on their contexts of production and consumption. Sculptures by 21 artists, performance art, kinetic installations, tours and panel discussions by industry mavericks like Don and Mera Rubell (owners of the Rubell collection in Miami) and Princess Alia al-Senussi (contributing editor of Tank magazine and member of the Tate’s Middle Eastern Acquisitions Committee) made the experience of Art 13 insightful and informative.

I was, however, slightly disappointed by their “Art Outside” section featuring only two sculptures which seemed lost in front of the entrance to the fair.

Art 13's "Art Outside" featuring Zadok Ben David's Exotic Tree(2010) and Eilis O'Connell's Conetwirl (2008). Image Courtesy: Art 13 Facebook page.

The placement of certain sculptures could have been more carefully conceived - I observed several visitors nearly walking into them. Exceptions are Zhu Jinshi’s Boat- a giant tunnel-shaped installation of 8,000 sheets of rice paper inviting viewers to walk through it-  and Roeluf Louw’s Soul City – a pyramid of oranges for the viewer’s consumption. I appreciated the incorporation of these two interactive installations as they facilitated a tangible and memorable connection between visitor and exhibitor. 

Zhu Jinshi, Boat (2013). Image Courtesy: wallpaper.com

Roeluf Louw, Soul City (1967). Image Courtesy: Art 13 Website

I was particularly drawn to Lithuanian artist Zilvas Kempinas’s Fountain, featuring a pedestal fan lying face down, buffeting strips of black magnetic tape; a simple concept, but unavoidably arresting.

Zilvinas Kempinas, Fountain (2011). Image Courtesy: Art Territory

Albemarle Gallery had a fantastic display of Korean artist JaeHyo Lee’s exceptionally crafted biomorphic sculptures constructed from logs of wood and steel bolts hammered into blackened wood. Fine art merges with functionality in the form of richly textured, yet perfectly smoothed tables and chaise longues that entice the viewer to extend their hands in curiosity, completing their sensory engagement with the work. There was a marked concern with materiality in so many more gallery spaces which suggests a desire to re-situate art within the realm of the haptic and experiential.

 

Jaehyo Lee, Bench of Nails (2010). Image Courtesy: Modenus

Along with large sculptural pieces, two very small works stood out. Riflemaker Gallery and featured artist Juan Fontanive presented a curious “paper film” consisting of  19th-century biological paintings of a hummingbird affixed on a vertical carousel which flipped rapidly through each painting. This not only created a ticking sound resembling the rapidly beating wings of the bird, but also animated the images in the style of a flipbook. A film of the installation can be viewed here.

Pertwee Anderson and Gold exhibited a tiny blue ceramic plate by British artist Keaton Henson. The plate was intricately patterned with the words “PLATE FOR THROWING IN ARGUMENTS.” I found this particularly amusing, harking back to the paradigms of Maiolica plates and the use of wit in decorating ceramics of the Italian Courts. 

Keaton Henson, "A Plate for Throwing in Arguments" Edition of 100. 
Image Courtesy: Pertwee Anderson and Gold

Pieces large and small, international or of local heritage, the first edition of Art 13 was a testament to the sheer diversity of talent and taste across nations and I greatly anticipate the next instalment (intuitively titled) Art 14 next year!

You can gain an idea of the atmosphere of Art 13 by watching their wrap-up video below:
 

Art 13 Olympia Grand Hall, Kensington Olympia. Image Courtesy: Art 13
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism