Category: Art et al

Is Art Good?

As debates go, the art debate is perhaps one that will never truly satisfy both sides – but art will always be about whatever people perceive it to be. Not even the powers that be or the so-called art system that designates what art is,  successfully manages to answer questions such as What is Art? Is it any good? and Why should some art forms be considered art, and others not?

Some artists are more comfortable with video, then they are with canvas or marble. It doesn’t mean that their chosen art form is silly, and it shouldn’t be dismissed as art just because it doesn’t resemble a Gainsborough, a Michelangelo, or a Jackson Pollock. The setting shouldn’t be a factor either or if the art is exhibited in a Gallery or Museum. It is not necessarily a work of art because of where it is. It is not necessarily art because it was written about in an art magazine or because it was shown on an art documentary on TV.

There are some of us that get irritated by what is art or if its any good. It can be hard for some of us to look at a piece of art and be expected to understand it. So we just have to continue to be irritated. It seems that when art takes a particular form that we don’t recognize, we ask “Is this art?”.  A group of people in a room trying to agree on what is art? may never reach a consensus on what is good art or bad art. Not even when they try to put themselves in the artist’s shoes. All you can do is to try and understand their work, to discover the artist’s hand, to try to relate to the artwork if you can.  If we can’t relate to it, then is it art? Does art even have a consensus? Do we need to change the way we define art? or do we dare to? Perhaps there does have to be some sort of consensus from knowledgeable art people (whoever they are), to let us know if something they deem as art is good or bad, to give us something that we can appreciate, something that can act as a flagship for what is art, and what is good art. The problem is that when you do that and there is nothing to see, then it may no longer exist as art in some people’s eyes.

Being knowledgeable about art or having a good eye, might not be enough to convince people if something is art or if its any good. The way art is evolving, anything might end up being considered as art. You have to ask yourself what it’s about, what does it mean (if anything), when was it made, how was it made, does it make any social contribution, what range of emotions does it provoke to the viewer. By asking good questions as to what art is, this can help us to determine what is or isn’t art.

Art has become more important to us, judging by the number of people that visit galleries and museums, the numbers are up, and people have become and are becoming more ‘art aware’. We are comfortably becoming our own art critics, while still listening to the art elite and to their knowledgeable opinions of what art is. As we become more art aware, we will be able to make more subjective determinations on what art is, and we will know art when we see it. As art becomes more ubiquitous, it might not matter where art is exhibited, or if museums decide not to show it because they don’t think its good enough, it will be more about if we believe it is and when we just get it, regardless of whatever its art form is.

A Necessary Vanity

Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences exhibition isn’t a simple vanity, but a  . . . necessary vanity.

The Vanity of Small Differences is a take on the 18th-century painter William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1733) through a series comprised of six tapestries woven by Flanders Tapestries in Belgium. This was a tapestry project in collaboration with Factum Arte who worked with the Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry on all stages of production of the six tapestries which were woven from digital files on a Jacquard Loom in Belgium. Grayson’s drawings were translated into a computer programme that controlled the digital loom, and yarns were then dyed to match the colors in the drawings. Perry cleverly illustrates the dangers of life consumed by possessions and personal vanity. In the background of some of his tapestries, there are silhouettes of onlookers snapping images with their smartphones, beaming them across the world of social media. All in all, the visual complexity of the tapestries are a pleasure to explore and interpret.

The tapestries follow the life of Tim Rakewell a fictional character as he develops from infancy through various stages of his life, to his untimely death in a car accident. Through this progress, Perry analyses class mobility in Britain, gathers characters, places, and objects he encountered on his travels through Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells, and the Cotswolds for his documentary series All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry (Channel 4).

Grayson-Perry-Adoration of the Cage Fighters
The Adoration of the Cage Fighters

The Vanity of Small Differences is at the RHA in Dublin until March 19 2018.

Ladies at the helm of FREESPACE!

From the 26 May – 25 November 2018 the 16th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia will take place in Venice. Its curators –  Yvonne Farrell and Shelly McNamara – who constitute the practice of Grafton Architects, currently celebrating 40 years in business. The title of the event – FREESPACE!

Throughout the exhibition two of the main venues will be ARSENALE and GIARDINI. The former housed the pre-industrial shipyards, depots and workshops of the city. At the peak of its efficiency, the early sixteenth century, the Arsenale employed around 16,000 people who apparently could produce nearly one ship each day. The latter, gardens situated in the east of Venice, have been the traditional venue for the International Art Exhibition since 1895. The area combines the Central Pavilion, together with twenty nine national pavilions, whose spaces are designed by some of the world’s most famous architects.

Farrell and McNamara have defined FREESPACE as a celebration of:

1. The ability of architecture to find “additional and unexpected generosity” in each project, even when working under the most private, defensive, exclusive or commercially restricted conditions

2.  Provides the opportunity to emphasize and maximize the free elements of nature – sunlight and moonlight, air, gravity – through the use of natural and manmade resources

3. Encourages a renewal in the ways of spatial thinking, new ways of seeing the world, of inventing solutions and creating architectural structures that provide and consider the wellbeing and dignity of each citizen

4. Can be a space for opportunity, a democratic space, unprogrammed and free for uses not yet conceived. Inevitably, whether by intention or design,

buildings themselves will find ways of sharing and engaging with people over time – long after the architect has left and finally FREESPACE

5. Permits freedom to imagine within the free space of time and memory. Elements binding past, present and future together, that both further the building on “inherited cultural layers, weaving the archaic with the contemporary”

Such themes, already incorporated in previous editions of Biennale Architettura, have continued the investigation into the relationship between architecture and civil society. Unfortunately, due to the latter’s difficulty in articulating its particular needs and finding appropriate answers, a widening divide has ensued. The result, dramatic urban developments, whose main feature is the marked absence of public spaces.

The themes considered by the two curators of the Biennale are relevant to rediscovery of architecture, and lead to the renewal of a “strong desire for the quality of the spaces where we live.”    

University of Engineering and Technology Lima, Peru. Pennzer
University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) Lima, Peru.

The work of Grafton Architects, to mention but a few, includes their spatial installation at the Royal Academy under the theme Sensing Spaces, to being awarded the first-ever RIBA International Prize for designing the new Engineering University in the Peruvian capital of Lima (2016). The latter build being praised by the jury for creating an entirely new way of thinking about public buildings, and likened to a “modern day Machu Picchu” and  an exceptional example of civil architecture – a building designed with people at its heart.

Words that fully endorse the choice of Farrell and McNamara as the curators of the Venice Biennale, 2018, whose continuing ethos fully conforms to their consideration of public and private, exterior and interior spaces, created by their architectural builds.

Brutalist By Design

In describing Brutalist Architecture and Buildings there are some words that might come to mind such as ugly, hulking, concrete, monstrosities, grimy, raw, inhuman, cold intimidating and horrible but whatever your view of this form of architectural style, there has been a resurgence of interest in Brutalist Architecture in recent years. Sometimes its the people that refer to buildings that are in the brutalist style as being horrible who don’t always know about the innate aesthetics of it, who are making the decisions. It’s not hard to imagine a coterie of councillors, architects, design aficionados or critics thinking, ‘That’s a horrible grotesque building’, and yet they’re not the ones who are going to use it.  Some might want to break out the white paint and rollers and give the begrimed concrete a good going over. The results of which might ensue in protests and uproar at that notion and you could end up having your face shoved in concrete.

“Brutalism” is an appropriate moniker for this artistic style of bare plain concrete architecture popularized and pioneered in post-war Europe, by Le Corbusier. This brutalist style showcases dour exterior walls that are deep-set, exude plain rough concrete, have small windows (some which are curved), a sculptural or blocky form that is often top heavy. It was a somewhat cheap way of building that emerged in the 1950s and survived into the late ’70s but the constructions were often dismissed as urban eyesores but became  an international phenomenon and the aesthetics were fairly radical and which aimed at liberating and democratizing architecture and that the architecture wasn’t brutal as such – but it was honest about it’s use of materials and was sculptural and imaginative and wanted to be different and could almost be viewed as some sort of dystopian nightmare landscape of massive gray geometrical forms. This idea of dystopian nightmare was envisioned in films such as  “A Clockwork Orange”.

There were a series of events held at Trinity College Dublin to celebrate 50 years of the Berkeley Library and which were part of the Open House Dublin weekend (October 13-15, 2017). The library was designed and created by the renowned architect Paul Koralek, who was in his mid-twenties at the time and was officially opened by the then president of Ireland, Éamon De Valera. The library was built in the Brutalist style, or perhaps a more gentle Brutalist style, which is epitomized in the Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin. Paul Koralek entered and won an International open competition to design the building, there were 350 entrants in the competition. A huge bulk of the library is deep-set in the ground because at the time there was a problem with putting that amount of building on the site. One of the enduring qualities of the Berkeley library is its solidity and it’s a sculpted building. It consists of three vertical zones or categories; book storage – the basement, a reading area which is held in a another box shape held up off the ground, and then the middle floors between those that consist of catalogues and making the library work, all the function and management of the library. The library also demonstrated the use of light, of which buildings are made of as well as concrete and other materials. A lot of time was spent on how the light would enter the building and how the light could be modulated so you don’t get problems with glare but get a pleasant effect of soft gentle light instead.  The Berkeley library still  remains one of the most stunning buildings in Dublin and retains the power to arouse strong reactions in all who see it.

There are many examples of Brutalist style buildings such as Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in London. which was nicknamed the ‘Terror Tower’, synonymous with violence and crime and is now its one of the most desirable and much sought-after private housing to live in London. To some, it might not be a beautiful building, it might be better described as striking, interesting, powerful.

The Trellick Tower
The Trellick Tower in London.

Brutalism really is undergoing a resurgence and the Internet has provided an unexpected companion to long suffering admirers of this style of architecture. Popular photo sharing apps like Instagram #brutalism unleash endless streams of black-and-white images of gravity-defying buildings that are stark and show the industrial beauty of concrete:a utilitarian material without context from the world over.


The Rise of the Department Store

The Rise of the Department Store

(and the female consumer)

The Great Exhibition or Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 took place in a vast pre-fabricated iron and glass structure, and six million visitors passed through the door to view the contents of what is considered to be the first modern world’s fair.

Photo of Crystal Palace circa 1851 to 1854
Crystal Palace. ca. 1851-1854

People were accosted by displays of industrial, agricultural and artistic artifacts, goods in such quantities, as had never been seen before. None however had price tags! The initial entrance was five shillings, soon to be lowered to one shilling, making it was thought, more affordable to all classes of contemporary society – a truth borne out, given the attendance figures. What the event heralded in was the evolution of the culture of consumption, with the glittering glass building itself spawning in size and materials, the huge department stores that would spring up in the urban landscapes. Eventually, these spaces would replace the small local shops heretofore frequented on a daily basis by the Victorian housewife.

Photo of Crystal Palace - the interior.
Crystal Palace – interior.

By the end of the nineteenth century, this woman, the ‘poetic’ Angel in the House’ who had willingly attended to the needs of husband, children and home felt the urge to escape the confines of the kitchen. Where to? Cathedrals of shopping like Au Bon Marché (1887) in Paris, Whiteley’s in London, Macey’s in New York – palatial emporiums, which became ‘the giants of urban retail.’ Consumer culture was here to stay!

Photo of Au Bon Marché. ca. 1887
Au Bon Marché. ca. 1887

Improved transport systems made it easier and more socially acceptable for the middle-class housewife to be seen outside the home, women who formed the congregation of the secular cathedrals, enticed through the doors by spectacular displays and fine selections of goods, displayed to their best advantage in the welcoming interiors. Of course, shopping implied more than purchasing goods. Now away from her domestic responsibilities it became for the housewife a pleasurable occasion – a time for meeting friends, having a meal, maybe going to the theatre. Prior to making any purchase, time was taken to discuss, look at, touch or reject a specific item. It was part of the female buying strategy, especially if an item was a personal luxury rather than a household necessity.

Early location of Bon Marche dry goods store located at 15 S. Main Street ca. 1898.
Early location of Bon Marche dry goods store located at 15 S. Main Street ca. 1898. The name S. Lipinsky is on the awning.

For their part, the department stores – the halls of temptation, did their best to entice the consumer through the door, by providing extras in the form of lifts, escalators, restaurants, tea and rest rooms. While the sales men and sales women enacted a play of persuasion in which the customer was an eager and willing participant. If on the other hand, an object was priced beyond a person’s reach, there would be time to dream and save for another day when the desired prize would become obtainable.

The desire of the female consumer to buy, buy and buy was further encouraged by an upsurge in advertising in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Distinctive brand names became part of the new methods of marketing in which selling the image was an integral part of the product itself.  The rise of the advertising agencies, the department stores and the consumer were all inextricably linked…..but that is another story.