One hundred million sunflower seeds. Thank you @tate

Got a Tate membership for Christmas. Want to move in permanently. Bit cold in the Turbine Hall though.

However, the Turbine Hall does have this year’s Unilever exhibit in it. For 2010/2011 it’s a work by Ai Wei Wei, a Chinese artist who lived in New York for a bit, and is now based in Beijing, although he’s just had an office torn down there. Oops.

It’s called ‘Sunflower Seeds’.

(CC Giesenbauer)

It’s like a thick grey carpet on the floor of the back half of the Hall. You’d miss it but for the Tate-yellow signs and arrows.

After wandering around the outside of the field of seeds, I didn’t actually believe the accompanying description. I assumed that it couldn’t actually be man-made and that it was all a bit of a joke. Even after nosing around at it for quite a while. But then Tate are showing the wonderful film below alongside the exhibit. And it turns out it’s really real, which is pleasing.

(CC Mark Hogan)

When it first opened, visitors could walk across it, or roll in it – or count the seeds. But now it’s fenced off by a miniscule little fence, so it sits, undisturbed. More like a museum exhibit. A strange forbidden sea of sunflower seeds. And it doesn’t quite work, cos they’re so small and together so huge but you can’t get in amongst them to verify anything and it’s all a bit unreal.

 (CC. Loz Flowers) – Before the fence

In the film below, Ai Wei Wei talks about the project, and everything becomes clear. It comes across as a beautiful statement on globalisation – a representation of the vast quantity of trade between West and East (goods come one way, cash goes the other), and the individual stories of those involved. It reminds us of the entire process of production – and the sheer effort that went into getting one of those seeds here.

And there’s 100 million of them here. Apparently. Just like all the other stuff that comes from China. He’s helped us see, imagine, consider, ponder what we get from trade. As if you could see 100 million children’s toys, mobile phones, iPads, t-shirts and whatever else that we probably import every few months. And it’s a muse on those who actually work at the mining, casting, shaping, finishing and packing that stuff. I love art that asks you to think, and this work is just beautiful. The fact that British art authorities had to stop people walking on it due to concerns over porcelain dust seems only to make the story richer.

If you’re going to the exhibition (closes May 2011) then watch the film in the Hall. Otherwise, enjoy it here. Turn the sound up.

 

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Mankind is Ruined: a piece of DR Congo in North London (Ruined, @AlmeidaTheatre until 5 June)

You don't expect much from the Almeida Theatre at first sight. Its doors onto Upper St in Islington are shabby and unappealing. Directions pinned to the door send you an age further up the street. Eventually the real theatre entrance is revealed, all glass and concrete in smooth modern blocks of grey, with a stylish bar-restaurant.

Entering the theatre ten minutes before the start of the play, you're instantly in the Congo – a soundtrack plays the chirping of crickets and a gentle rainfall, the set is a corrugated iron shed on the stage of a muddy clearing, which runs to the front row's feet. Vines and lianas drape from the ceiling; trees rise up the side of the stage.

Great theatre should knock you out of your small world view and transport you somewhere far more difficult. But this play goes further. At the end of 'Ruined', you want the ground to open and swallow you up.  

Cast of Ruined at the Almeida Theatre London

It's about the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo: the breakdown in the rule of law, the anarchy of young men with guns and the horrific consequences of the crimes they commit. It's set in an anonymous village near Kisangani, in Eastern Congo, near the lucrative (for a few) mining areas.

It's about the enormous, grotesque tragedy of the Congo played on an intense localised context. We never leave this rotating set of the corrugated shed, the (whore)house of 'Mama Nadi' – we just see the bar, the girls' room, and an outside view. And that's how it gets you. It reduces a suffering on such an unthinkably awful, incomprehensibly large scale down to a few people in front of our eyes. Perhaps its a shame that we need that. Or perhaps just human.

The first half is slow to start. There's a clever first scene in which the salesman brings goods to Mama, then talks about the 'other things in the truck' and the horrible truth is revealed: it's two girls, brought to Mama to become prostitutes. Except that one isn't. One cannot do that work, since she is 'ruined': taken with a bayonet somewhere in the bush by armed militia. 

The full extent of this isn't fully grasped in the early stages; the play largely runs through sitcom-style jokes, perhaps to ease us in gently, and there's impressive live music – the girl who is 'ruined' has to earn money this way. But gradually, as the scenes from whorehouse continue, we see the nights at Mama's and the play becomes increasingly uncomfortable. 

But its after the interval that the play explodes into life. Suddenly it's more real, as the war draws closer and closer to what Mama would call her 'haven' from it all, and the women's stories are told. Though Mama tries to defend her hard-nosed business attitude to running the house ('While two birds fight over a kernel, a third bird swoops down and carries it off…who do you think the third bird is?') she slowly reveals more of her character, every moment becoming more absorbing. At the time a final secret is a revealed, the audience seem to have stopped breathing.

It is an appalling play; nauseating, devastating, but brilliant. I haven't stopped thinking about it. The lead actress who plays Mama, Jenny Jules, gives an encapsulating performance. She barely smiles as she takes the applause at the end of the play, her eyes wet with tears. I'm not quite sure if we should be applauding. This must be exhausting for the cast. 

And then everybody leaves. They pile into the bar or outside for a cigarette; and go about their wealthy, secure lives. 

Better written reviews from Time Out and the Guardian.

The real van Gogh at the Royal Academy, London – until 18 April

Despite the crowds, this exhibition is utterly absorbing. The RA has gathered an impressive selection of works from the UK, Amsterdam, the States and private collections. The sense of the ‘real’ comes through the display of perhaps twenty of van Gogh’s letters.

He wrote copious short letters, some of which include sketches of planned paintings: a detailed ‘scribble’ of a weaver at a loom on a letter to his brother, Theo, becomes the great painting hung alongside it.

Image001

There are seven rooms showing different elements of Van Gogh’s work, progressing chronologically. The exhibition begins with his ‘scratches’ (sketches), follows the introduction of colour and the impact of impressionism, his move to Arles and Provence, before his final move north of Paris. The role of literature is highlighted: we read that he was a great fan of Dickens – much moved by Dickens’ humanity and his true portrayal of the poor.

The curators translate sentences from the Dutch and French letters which concern his works, but more moving are the personal details. He begins one letter with the tragic statement that ‘I have found a restaurant where I eat for a 1 franc’, a sweeping down stroke forming a stylish ‘f’. In another he asks his brother to send him brushes and sketches the types he wants.

Image002

His addiction to his work comes through strongly, writing of his desire to constantly paint and sketch,  to record the beauty of seasons, landscapes and people, as though under an obligation to constantly improve, to perfect.

His handwriting degenerates as time goes by, he writes on both sides of paper, on the backs of sketches, on envelopes, anything he can get his hands on to explain his enthusiasm, his awesome passion and magnificent ambition that, for him, was always unsatisfied. It drove him to depression, exhaustion and ultimately suicide, though it took the poor man two days to die of his gunshot wounds.

The exhibition includes the last letters between Vincent and Theo,  both dated (thurs) 23rd July 1890, and finally the draft that Theo found upon Vincent after he’d shot himself in the chest, complete with still pinkish blood stains.

At the RA

One gallery visitor, stood next to ‘The Yellow House’, a work of breath-taking beauty, says ‘I must admit I’m not enamoured by  any of them ’, leaving one wondering what could possibly do it for her.

Image003

The RA packed its visitors in, one compared the space to rush hour on the Northern line. And on very dodgy calculations, the gallery must be taking several million pounds from ticket sales. While they must cover the costs of staging, does the surplus simply revert to the general gallery funds? They could spend some of it on decent cycle parking.

The exhibition finishes on the 18 April, but happily, you can view all van Gogh’s letters at the fantastic http://vangoghletters.org/vg/  – and if you have £400, get the book described by the Economist as possibly ‘the best autobiography of an artist yet to appear anywhere’. Could I borrow £400?

Købke at the National Gallery

Who’d have thought that there was this great Danish artist called Christen Købke?

 

Not me. Possibly because he only left Denmark once, during which time he was a bit homesick, so went back to Copenhagen. And he died at 37. Poor chap.

 

But GREAT paintings! Like Denmark’s Constable. Painting at roughly the same time. Stunning romantic images of Denmark following their rather poor show in a face-off against Britain , which helped Danes think warmly of the motherland again. Not excessively romantic, but just glowing enough to make you want to go to Denmark a little bit, clever use of light, and even cleverer framing type stuff. Denmark is also very pink, apparently.

 

File:Christen Købke - One of the Small Towers on Frederiksborg Castle .jpg

 

Runs until 13 June.

 

Watch the little film in the little film room too, cos it gives you a super close-up of the picture of his dad, which is intricate and beautiful, but very small in real life.

 

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/christen-kobke