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
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.