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
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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit