art

London: “Epic Iran” @ the V&A

With a name like “Epic Iran”, you’d expect something, well, epic, right? Did the V&A’s new exhibition live up to expectations? Read on to find out (with a lot of waffle in between, though sadly not actual waffles).

I had not been to the V&A in a very long time indeed, considering how regularly I used to go. My last visit was in the last of the pre-Covid days, back in February 2020. I did try to see the “Bags Inside Out” exhibition last December when they were briefly open, but it was sold out on all the days I could visit (it’s still on, so I will hopefully make it there eventually). So when they opened slots for pre-booking in April, I hedged my bets (since we still weren’t 100% sure museums would be able to open on the “Covid road map” schedule at that point) and booked a ticket to “Epic Iran” for early June, because it looked more appealing than the Alice in Wonderland exhibition (which I’ll probably see too eventually, but I’ve never liked the book, and it looks like it will be a case of style over substance).

On a very hot day, we queued up outside the Exhibition Road entrance of the V&A (the main entrance is currently exit only) and got processed more quickly than the people who had just booked a free ticket to the permanent collections. Admission to “Epic Iran” is £18, or £9 with Art Pass, and it runs until September. It wasn’t super clear where we had to go when we first entered the building, as staff seemed mainly focussed on directing people to Alice, but we soon caught sight of some signs and made our own way there. The exhibition aims to explore “5000 years of art, design, and culture” which is quite a big ask for an exhibition space that isn’t even the V&A’s largest, but they certainly took a stab at it.

The Persian Empire got its start in the sixth century BC under Cyrus the Great, who conquered what was once Babylonia and united the region. At its height, the Persian Empire was massive and went well beyond the boundaries of modern day Iran, stretching over much of Asia, to the Balkans in Europe, and parts of Libya and Egypt in Africa. Early Persia was firmly Zoroastrian, which I remember learning about in a World Religions class I took as an undergrad. I found the religion memorable mainly for its practice of ritual exposure or “sky burial”, the idea being that to bury a corpse would be to pollute the earth, so better to leave it out to be picked at by vultures. Other than that, it seems to be your standard good vs. evil mostly monotheistic religion that Christianity and Islam both borrowed from. If you like little clay pots with animals on them, and vases of men with erect penises holding water jugs, you’ll like Zoroastrian art.

There were an awful lot of objects in this exhibition, objects that, to be fair, probably shouldn’t even be in British collections, including the Cyrus Cylinder, made in about 539 BC, which tells the story of how Cyrus the Great established the Persian Empire, and normally lives at the British Museum. Also some bad-ass animal horns and various things made from gold.

There were also some pages from a manuscript of the Shahnameh, an epic poem that tells the story of the Persian Empire through the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Like most epic poems, it involves a lot of killing, so those made for some fun illustrations. There were also early Islamic manuscripts with illustrations of various monsters and demons, which of course I loved. And brutal looking armour with pointy kneecaps, I guess so you could poke someone’s eyes out with your knees. Fun!

The little lion incense burner on the left reminds me of the robot devil from Futurama. He was in the section on poetry, which also featured a recording of someone reading out poems in Farsi. There were of course some Persian rugs here, but honestly they were probably the least interesting things in the exhibition. Who wants to look at rugs when you could be looking at paintings of people with aggressive eyebrows, women included? If I relinquished my tweezers, I think I would fit right in.

Obviously, most of history is male-centric, but the exhibition did have a section of the role of women in Persia. Women went from having some rights to having no rights, back to some, and then finally back to no rights again after the Iranian Revolution. In much of recent-ish (the last few centuries) history, women lived in harem-type arrangements where they were sequestered from men, and couldn’t leave the house without being heavily veiled; however, from the Victorian era onward, fashions within the harem setting changed greatly depending on the whims of the ruler at the time. I was interested to learn that skirts gradually got shorter, inspired by Nasir al Din Shah’s love of ballet, until the women in his harem were basically wearing miniskirts (in the 1870s!). Women eventually got to modernise and reclaim some rights, just in time for the Islamist Revolution to send them right back (actually quite a bit further back than) where they started.

The exhibition, having taken us on an accelerated ride throughout history, got to contemporary art by the end, and I really loved some of the pieces here, especially the photograph by Azadeh Akhlaghi recreating the 1974 shooting of activist Marzieh Ahmadi Oskuie, the photographs of modern Iranian women done in a Victorian style, and a shrine style collage piece with dancing blue lights. This was also the part of the exhibition where we encountered a pair of exceptionally annoying school-aged children who had borrowed a pair of those fold out chairs intended for people who struggle to stand for long periods and were proceeding to smash them repeatedly into the floor, much to the consternation of the gallery attendant, so it was fortunate we were spared them for most of the exhibition (it was half-term, but maybe a more child-friendly exhibition would have been a better choice for them). So this is maybe not one to bring the kids to, but as an adult, I really loved it. I thought the art was fabulous, and I enjoyed learning a bit more about Iran’s history, though obviously a seven or eight room exhibition about 5000 years of history is never going to be comprehensive. Maybe not quite “epic”, but it was certainly a good attempt. 4/5.

Mainly including this photo so you can see my apricot dress, because I ❤ it.

London: Ritual Britain @ the Crypt Gallery

I went to see the “Ritual Britain” exhibition, a collaboration between artist Ben Edge and the Museum of British Folklore, at the Crypt in Euston a few weeks ago, and though the exhibition ended on the 4th of July, I still wanted to post about it so people who didn’t get the chance to go can at least see some photos and read about what it was like.

I’m interested in folklore generally, maybe because America hasn’t really been around long enough to have developed folk traditions in the way they exist in Europe (though I guess we have urban legends that are gradually becoming folklore – it’s been a while since I’ve read Ghostland, but I seem to recall Colin Dickey addressing this very subject more extensively than I can do here), so I’m trying to fill the void with other countries’ traditions. Given all the super weird and highly regional British customs and practices (straw bears, Burry Men, cheese rolling, shin kicking, etc), I think it’s a bit odd that there isn’t a permanent folklore museum here, since I’ve certainly been to ones in other European countries, though maybe it has something to do with the legacy of imperialism and some British traditions being a bit controversial (burning Catholics in effigy springs immediately to mind). At any rate, the Museum of British Folklore normally only exists online, with occasional temporary exhibitions hosted in various galleries and museums around the UK. This was the first one I’d heard of taking place in London, so I was excited to attend.

The exhibition was free and there no pre-booking required, which is a bit novel in itself these days, but I was worried that it would get crowded on the weekends, so I took a Friday off to go (I mean, it wasn’t just for this. I also wanted to hit Borough Market, because it’s too busy on weekends and I never get to go anymore since I changed jobs and thus my working days last November, and I had to use the leave up soon anyway), and there was only a handful of people inside, so this was obviously a good plan. I’d been to St. Pancras Old Church (my computer wants me to change Pancras to pancreas so badly) before to see their awesome tombstone tree, but never St. Pancras New Church (which was built in 1819, so isn’t really that new anymore), and the Crypt is an awesome and creepy venue, as you can see from the photo at the start, which made it perfect for this exhibition, as I tend to think a lot of British folklore is vaguely sinister in a Wicker Man sort of way.

The exhibition consisted of Ben Edge’s “Frontline Folklore” series of paintings interspersed with objects from the museum’s collection. Now, I LOVE Ben Edge’s paintings (I just ordered a print of that Clown Church one for my house to go with the clown eggs Marcus made – I have a real obsession with creepy-ass clowns lately, maybe because of the clown episode of Wellington Paranormal, which literally made me laugh until I cried), but the real stuff is even scarier, and an old crypt that was full of actual stacks of tombstones was an excellent way to showcase it.

Just look at the unsettling stares of those Morris dancer dolls (designed to showcase the costumes of different troupes) or that giant corn dolly (those always make me think of that Jeffrey Ford “Word Doll” story, which I recommend if you haven’t read it). I actually took a Morris dancing class once, and it is a LOT harder than it looks, so I’m impressed by anyone that can actually do it, but I have to admit that there is something a bit off-putting about the whole thing to anyone who is a bit of an outsider, especially the sides (fortunately not many, these days) that still insist on using black face (when I went to the Morris class, I deliberately picked an all-female side with more progressive views (they dance at Pride and stuff), but I was still scared they’d hear my accent and tell me to get lost or something, and I really had to work up my courage to actually attend. They turned out to be perfectly nice, but it was still a blindingly white affair, and I can see why, if I felt intimidated about going just on account of an American accent), and I would say that Morris is actually one of the more accessible British traditions. Some of the hyper-localised customs give me Tubbs and Edward from The League of Gentlemen vibes (“this is a local shop, for local people; there’s nothing for you here.”), I guess because they seem designed to make outsiders feel like outsiders, but I suppose that’s also how places develop an identity for themselves, so maybe I’m interpreting things in an overly negative way due to my lack of exposure to these customs until moving to the UK as an adult. With all that being said, I think it is the fact that a lot of these practices are contained to one specific village or area that makes them so strange and fascinating to me.

There was a video at the end of the exhibition, made by Ben Edge, where he had filmed some of these practices in action back in 2019, including the Mari Lwyd, which is basically a skeleton ‘obby ‘oss (hobby horse) used in Wales in a sort of caroling tradition, where men carry it from house to house demanding food and drink and singing a special song in Welsh, and if you aren’t expecting it, it has to be way freakier than any carolers at your door (though I would hide from them too). He had also filmed himself in 2020 talking about the way that the pandemic and the BLM movement were changing British folk traditions, such as the elimination of black face from Morris dancing (except for the resistant troupes I mentioned earlier). It seemed really interesting, but it was also very long, and I wasn’t inclined to sit there for an hour and a half in a tiny room with strangers watching a video, so I only caught about ten minutes of it, but maybe it’s available somewhere online. They did have an events programme tied in with the exhibition that included some film screenings and Morris dancing, but I’m still not super keen on the idea of standing in a big crowd, even outside, so I deliberately didn’t visit on one of those days.

Even thought the exhibition was fairly small, I really loved it. The venue was ideal, and the stories behind Ben’s paintings were fascinating (they’re all available to read on his website if you click on the individual paintings), as were the objects selected from the Museum of British Folklore’s collection. I do wish the museum had a more permanent home, because I’d love to see more of their collection as well as learn more about the history behind the traditions. I also think a larger space would give them room to address the ways that some of these traditions have become problematic, and the ways that other customs have evolved to stay alive to the present day. I’m sorry I’m blogging about this too late for you to see this exhibition for yourself, but if it sounded appealing, at least now you’ll know to keep an eye out for any future Museum of British Folklore/Ben Edge exhibitions popping up near you! 4/5.

Churt, Surrey: The Sculpture Park

Well, it’s been a bit longer than I intended since my last post, and I see horrible things have happened to WordPress in the interim. Seriously, I hate it so much now (I could go on all day about the reasons why, but they include: that you now have no choice but to use Block Editor, that you can’t just buy extra storage space anymore but have to pay out the ass for a stupid plan, and that you can no longer view which photos are unattached, so you have to be really careful to only upload things you’re going to use so you don’t get screwed out of the now hard-to-come-by storage space) but I already have so many posts on this blog that I don’t really know if it’s worth the effort of changing to something else, which is probably just what they were hoping. Anyway, museums still aren’t reopening here until next week (which I have to admit I’m dreading more than anticipating, because as much as I like visiting museums, I hate working in the office more), but outdoor attractions are very much open, and since we are borrowing Marcus’s brother’s car at the moment, there was no reason we couldn’t drive out to the Sculpture Park, near Farnham in Surrey. I’ve been intrigued by this place for a while, especially after seeing all the photos of skeleton sculptures online, but with one thing or another (mainly Covid restrictions), we didn’t make it out there until now. The Sculpture Park costs £11.20 to visit, and you must book in advance through Eventbrite (having set up tonnes of Eventbrite events myself, I assume it’s normally £11, and they’re passing the Eventbrite fees onto the customer, hence the weird price). We visited on a weekday, and had no trouble booking a spot, but I think it gets a bit booked up on weekends.

The tiny car park was full when we drove up, so we had to park further up the road and walk down (a bit hazardous) but at least parking was free. Finding the admissions office was also a bit of an adventure – there were signs, but it felt like we walked through half of the sculpture park before getting there. This turned out to be wrong, because thanks to all the winding trails, the Sculpture Park is very big indeed. At the office, we were greeted by breast shaped birdhouses hanging from the wall (they are “tit” boxes, get it?) and a sign directing only one member of each party to enter, so I waited outside whilst Marcus got our names ticked off the list and collected a laminated map, which we were assured was cleaned between uses. You kind of need the map, because although the trails are marked with artsy arrows, it can get a bit confusing in places.

There are actually four different trails: red, yellow, green, and blue, and we started with the yellow one, which was one of the shorter trails (the red one goes on FOREVER). At this point, we had definitely not realised the extent of the place, so we started out taking pictures of every sculpture and walking at a leisurely pace. We put a stop to that real fast after discovering the length of the red trail.

I had never actually heard of any of the sculptors who made the pieces, but that’s not really saying much since I know very little about sculpture (said by someone who works at a sculpture museum, but in my defence, we only have the work of the sculptor who used to live there at our museum). However, that doesn’t stop them from commanding very high prices. We were told that all the sculptures here were for sale, and I was briefly intrigued, thinking that if we could pick something up for a couple hundred quid we could stick it in the garden, until I actually saw how much these things cost! There was minimal information provided on the signage (basically just the artist’s name and the name of the piece) but you could scan a QR code next to each sculpture to view more on the Sculpture Park’s website, including the price. The first one I scanned was £78,000 (the stags pictured below left)! Yikes. I gave up scanning after realising I couldn’t actually afford anything here except the £10 tit boxes (some of the sculptures were only a couple thousand, but that’s still way out of my price range. The most expensive one I saw was absolutely huge, and cost almost £500,000, which you can see below right, though it might be hard to get a sense of scale since I had to take a photo from far away to get it all in).

But we could still enjoy looking, and we very much did, at least until we got tired and hungry. As seems to be the nature of sculpture, a lot of these were very phallic, or bosomy, or bummy, so that was entertaining in itself (I also really loved the leaf man, below left, who was none of those things). The skeleton guy seemed especially prolific, and there were absolutely loads of skeletons here in various poses, but again, all out of my price range. The trails loop around a pond and through a bunch of woodland, so even though I don’t think the place is actually all that big, you go up and down hills and in and out of trees a lot, so it feels quite varied. Frankly, I’m not sure all of the walking uphill was strictly necessary, as we seemed to double back on ourselves a couple times, but it was all meant to be part of the one-way system, so maybe it’s not normally quite so long.

I really wish they had a café on site (maybe they do in non-Covid times, but I didn’t see one), because I was dying for tea and cake after the first two trails, but alas, it was not to be. They do have numerous picnic tables, so you could definitely take your own food, which I would probably advise doing, Other than the picnic tables, you’re not meant to touch anything, which was a shame, as there were quite a few sculptures that seemed as though they could have been interactive, like the giant piano and wind chimes. There also appears to be some kind of dark maze thing you can normally walk through that was closed because of Covid, which I’m disappointed to have missed out on. I do hope the sign outside about watching out for the scorpions and exotic spiders was meant as a joke!

I wouldn’t say I’m the biggest sculpture fan, but a lot of the pieces here were just kind of kooky, and it was fun walking around and looking at everything (at least until about midway through the red trail. That red trail kind of broke me), even though I think I would have been happy if we’d finished about an hour sooner, since I was pretty tired by the end (they advise spending 2-3 hours here, and I think we spent around 2.5 hours). Fortunately, there is an ice cream place a few miles down the road, in Haslemere, called Dylan’s, which we had been to a few times years ago, but they seemed to have improved quite a lot since our last visit, when I remember being underwhelmed. They had birthday cake cookie dough ice cream, which was really delicious. So at least that’s an option if you find yourself famished after the Sculpture Park.

All in all, it was a good day out, and almost like visiting a museum, but made me feel a bit less icky than spending time inside with strangers does right now, especially since it wasn’t very busy and we only encountered other people a handful of times, so that’s definitely a plus. I’d pick a nice day to visit, if possible (especially with the crappy weather we’ve had lately), because I imagine it would be a lot less fun in the rain. 3.5/5.

London: Bruce Nauman @ Tate Modern

Was Bruce Nauman an artist whose work I could have identified before seeing this exhibition? No, but my quest back in October was to pack in as many exhibitions within walking distance of Waterloo on my two journeys into central London as I could (both to minimise my time on public transport and to build up a bank of posts, since by the middle of October, I strongly suspected we would go into lockdown again, and look, I was right!), I looked to see what was at Tate Modern, and here he was. Given a choice between what I could see of his work on Tate’s website, and the Andy Warhol exhibition, I chose Bruce, and after seeing the queue for Andy Warhol, I think I made the right decision.

 

You had to prebook to visit Tate Modern, even if you were just there to see the permanent collection (though those tickets were free), but there were still plenty of slots available for Bruce Nauman when I booked it the night before, which I suspect would not have been the case for Warhol. Tickets were £13, or £6.50 with Art Pass, and the procedure at Tate Modern was that you joined a queue upon entry for whatever you were there to see (Bruce had no queue, so we could breeze straight through, but Andy’s stretched the length of the Turbine Hall), someone scanned your ticket and told you where to go, and then someone checked your ticket again at the entrance to make sure you were there at the right time. There was also no queue at the entrance to the exhibition, and we could go straight in, but the queue for Andy was very long indeed (yes, I am quite smug about this, first of all because I don’t even really like Andy Warhol, and if I did, I know there’s a museum in Pittsburgh that I could easily visit any time I go to visit my family in Cleveland, though who knows when that will next be).

 

The exhibition was spread out over 13 rooms, and since most of Nauman’s pieces were installation style, there were only one or two semi-immersive pieces per room, making it easy to socially distance (and of course, face coverings were required inside). Bruce Nauman is an American artist (from Indiana) who has been active since the 1960s, and is probably best known for his neon sculptures and video installations, though he has dabbled in a range of media, including more traditional sculpture and photography. He’s the type of artist whose work you have probably seen without realising it’s his work. (And yes, that is Nauman’s butt and face in the above pieces.)

 

I could definitely see some of the pieces here as being the reason some people hate modern art, like “Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square”, which is exactly what it sounds like – though we got the excitement here of looking at the square he had taped out on the floor and a plank of wood leaning against the wall, we couldn’t actually walk in an exaggerated manner ourselves, since it was behind a rope.

 

Nor could we go inside the “Double Steel Cage,” which is meant to provoke feelings of “anxiety and entrapment”, though since Nauman’s intention was that the door be left open so visitors could go inside and experience anxiety for themselves, I think this was probably a Covid-related decision made by the Tate. However, we could try out the “Going Around the Corner Piece” where we literally walked around a corner to try to catch a glimpse of our own backs on a TV monitor as we were being filmed on the opposite side of the wall, which was quite fun.

 

One of the reasons I decided to see this exhibition was because of Nauman’s clown pieces, since this visit took place in October when I was in full Halloween mode (as opposed to the partial but still enthusiastic Halloween mode I’m in the rest of the year), and I thought clowns were appropriately creepy and Halloweeny. This series of videos was called “Clown Torture” and filled the entire room, and was very creepy indeed. Nauman finds clowns very menacing, and this really came across here. There’s a clown screaming “no, no, no!” in one of the videos, and another where he keeps repeating the children’s rhyme, “Pete and Repeat sat on a fence. Pete fell off, who was left? Repeat. Pete and Repeat sat on a fence…” and so on, which I definitely remember reciting to irritate my mother when I was little (along with “The Song that Never Ends” from Lamb Chop. I was an annoying child), which made this installation very much an assault on the senses, as was “Anthro/Socio”, which is the piece pictured at the start of this post, with an actor shouting “Feed Me, Eat Me, Anthropology” and “Help Me, Hurt Me, Sociology” again and again whilst his head spun around on a video monitor.

  

Nauman also finds many children’s games quite sinister, as reflected in his “Hanged Man” neon, which was my favourite piece here (I mean, he’s not wrong about Hang Man – what a weird children’s game!). This was definitely not child friendly, as the hanged man goes from being alive with a flaccid penis, to dead with a huge erection, as you can see above, based on the old myth about what happens to hanged men (which maybe isn’t a myth? I don’t even know).

 

I liked the neons here generally – the coolest one was probably “One Hundred Live or Die” which is a grid of one hundred different declarations that light up in turn, such as “Live and Piss” “Die and Shit” “Smell and Live” etc. Unfortunately, I do not have a photo of it because it was impossible to photograph, so you get to look at “Human Nature/Knows Doesn’t Know” and “Black Marble Under Yellow Light” instead, and it is probably self-explanatory which is which.

 

There were also a couple more video installations; one featuring a mime (also creepy), and another showing sleight of hand tricks close up and various people falling, all shown in the RGB colour spectrum. Honestly, one of the coolest parts of the exhibition was all the huge period video monitors and projectors, mostly from the ’80s and ’90s, which reminded me of the technology we had elementary school.

 

Tate had a couple more of his installations scattered throughout the museum, including one on the wall of the cafe, and a sound installation in the stairs we used to exit. I think they have a couple pieces of his on permanent display too, but we didn’t attempt to go in the permanent galleries. Considering I’m not usually the biggest fan of modern art, I surprised myself by enjoying this quite a bit, since it was quite immersive – my only complaint would be that it only took us about half an hour to see the exhibition, even with lingering in some of the rooms, which is a bit light for a £13 exhibition, but since we only paid £6.50, I didn’t mind so much. 3.5/5 for Bruce Nauman – definitely worth visiting after lockdown if you’re in the area and don’t feel like spending your day queuing for Andy Warhol! It’s currently meant to run until February, and they might extend it further depending on when museums are allowed to reopen.

 

Bath, Somerset: “Grayson Perry: the Pre-Therapy Years” @ Holburne Museum

I finally visited a proper museum for the first time since March, and certainly not without trepidation. But in light of the fact that I thought I might have to return to the office in September anyway (which has fortunately been postponed til October), I reckoned I should take the plunge and see how other museums were handling opening in the age of Covid. Because I am still apprehensive about taking public transport, I was actually more comfortable with visiting a museum two and a half hours away in Bath than one in London, since at least we could drive there, and because Holburne Museum’s Grayson Perry exhibition was one of the places I was planning on visiting right before lockdown happened, I thought it was fitting that it was the first museum I visited after lockdown.

  

Holburne Museum advised pre-booking (admission is £11, or £5.50 with Art Pass, which you better believe I used after not getting the opportunity to for most of the year!), although they didn’t have timed slots available; you just had to book for the day you wanted to visit. Since I’m new to the socially distanced museum experience, I had thought that pre-booking would mean we could skip the ticket line and just go right in. Nope, there was a whole lot of queuing just to get in the door. Normally I wouldn’t care so much, but we were booked to see an exhibition at the American Museum at 2:30 and would have to leave the Holburne by 2:15 at the latest, and it was already after 12:30 when we arrived, so when we saw the sign saying it would be a half an hour wait from the point where we queued up, I was anxious we wouldn’t have time to see the exhibition before we had to leave. Once we got inside, the reason for the queue became clear – there was a one way system in place, and since only one set of staircases was open, they were sending everyone up in the lift, one group at a time, so you had to wait for the group ahead of you to go up before you were allowed into the ticket area. So there was absolutely no point in pre-booking since we had to pass through the ticket desk anyway, and they didn’t seem to be limiting numbers so much as just staggering entry. Considering I paid a £2 booking fee to book online, I think it’s worth knowing that it’s unnecessary!

 

At any rate, at least everyone was wearing masks, including all staff members (which made a nice change from some of the shops I’ve been in – looking at you M&S Food Hall), and people were practicing social distancing for the most part. There was one member of staff who was solely responsible for sending people up in the lift, and she was spraying down the lift buttons between each group, though I imagine there was still some risk just from breathing in the enclosed air in the lift if the group ahead of you had coughed or sneezed in it, but if I spent too much time dwelling on that thought, I’d never go anywhere, so best not to think about it really. Honestly, it felt safer to me than a supermarket since we weren’t touching anything and people were generally being respectful of the rules. And now (finally) to the exhibition itself!

 

I had never been to the Holburne before, but I get the impression from the reviews I had read of the exhibition before lockdown that it had been moved into a different area in the museum, as it was originally meant to have been in quite a small space, but the space it’s in now was reasonably open, with rope barriers set up to make sure traffic only flowed through one way. I also think only some of the museum was currently open to the public, and that the Grayson Perry exhibition was in what were normally permanent galleries. And honestly, I really liked some aspects of the new museuming experience, such as the fact that the staggered entry meant that there weren’t many people in the gallery, so we didn’t have to wait around to look at things like we normally would in a special exhibition; we could just flow through (at least until we worked our way up to the slow moving group in front of us, and had to wait for them to finish since we couldn’t go around them, but we were fortunately near the end of the gallery, so we didn’t have to wait for long).

 

I also liked Grayson’s art, which was in his typical irreverent style – in fact, probably even more irreverent than some of his later work, as there were penises (penii) and sacrilegious imagery aplenty in here (I especially like Charles I hunting with his dong out, above right)! The works on show were from early in Perry’s career, from the years 1982-1994, and this seems to have been before he started using tapestries and other media, since nearly everything here was pottery. These were also the years when Perry was beginning to explore cross-dressing and was in the process of developing his Claire persona (if you’re not familiar with Perry, he sometimes appears in drag as his alter ego Claire), so a lot of the works were explorations of masculinity or depictions of middle aged women that he was using as inspiration to develop Claire.

 

Some of these pieces were genuinely laugh out loud funny, and though I could have done with more text in some places (although conversely, I would say some of the pieces themselves had too much text. I think Perry got a little text-happy when he was churning out pieces quickly since it’s clearly easier to stamp text on than do an actual drawing, and he admitted himself that it was a period in his life when he was just trying to make money), I think there was a good balance in terms of providing a decent amount of background, but not giving people so much to read that they couldn’t pass through in a timely manner (except the people in front of us, of course, but that’s always the way). The exhibition filled one medium sized gallery and flowed across the museum into half of another permanent gallery, with seventy items in total to look at, including a short film. Although I was worried we wouldn’t have enough time, since we didn’t even enter the museum until 1, we actually managed to see the exhibition in good time and take a quick look around the rest of the museum because only a small amount of it (I’m assuming, since I don’t know how big it normally is, but there were definitely areas we couldn’t enter) was open.

 

The Grayson Perry exhibition was on the 2nd floor, and we were asked to make our way back down via the stairs (though I’m sure they will take you back down in the lift if needed) to make the one way system work. The other galleries contained a few portraits (seemingly mainly by Gainsborough) and a collection of ceramics (though no delightful Staffordshire murdery ones, I’m sad to say. These were much more boring than that) and I was speeding through them so we had time to see everything before I realised that’s all there was! Clearly the main focus right now is Grayson Perry, since the exhibition is only temporary, though it has been extended until January 2021 to give people time to visit.

 

Since it was a long drive from London, despite doing my best to avoid using public toilets, I didn’t really have a choice, so I did nip into the basement to avail myself of the Holburne’s facilities. And I was definitely impressed! I was the only person in there, and I could tell they had just been cleaned, since they were spotless and well stocked with plenty of soap and paper towels (and hand sanitizer, but that makes my hands feel a bit gross. I’d much rather use actual soap and water if it’s available!), and a cleaner popped in right after I had finished, so honestly, museum toilets (at least at this museum) are definitely preferable to those in a service station or something. On the whole, I enjoyed my visit to the Holburne, mainly because it was nice to visit a museum again after so long! Although it would have been nice if they’d made it clearer on their website that pre-booking really wasn’t necessary, once we got inside, I could tell they were doing everything possible to ensure a safe experience for their visitors. I do think £11 is a little expensive for the exhibition, but I was perfectly happy with my half-price admission, and I know they must be in need of money, so I really can’t begrudge them trying to get everything they can right now. Having seen both now, I can say that I prefer Perry’s later work to his earlier pieces, especially the excellent exhibition I saw at the Serpentine a few years ago, but if you like Grayson Perry’s style, you’ll like his early stuff too, just maybe not quite as much. 3/5.

London: Aubrey Beardsley @ Tate Britain

Another week, another disclaimer. I visited this exhibition a few weeks ago, right after it opened  – obviously museums and most other things are shut now, but even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t be venturing into Central London or anywhere else for that matter, other than the supermarket when we run out of staples (which are almost impossible to find now anyway thanks to asshole hoarders). I hope by blogging about this that I’m giving you the opportunity to view something you would otherwise have missed, rather than upsetting you by showing you something you probably can’t see now, though I realise Aubrey Beardsley’s life and work isn’t exactly a boost of positivity unless your sense of humour is as dark as mine.

 

Aubrey Beardsley might not be an artist you know by name, but it’s more than likely you’ve seen an example of his work. As soon as I saw the image they were using to advertise this exhibition (the one of the woman holding a severed head, above left), it lit a spark of recognition in me and I thought, “Aubrey Beardsley, of course I need to see that!” but in retrospect, that may be more because of how Beardsley’s work obviously influenced Edward Gorey (of whom I am definitely a fan) rather than because of much prior knowledge of Beardsley himself. (The two pieces below are the only ones not by Beardsley in this post, but they are drawings of Beardsley, and I included them so you could get an idea of how others viewed him in his lifetime.)

 

The Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at the Tate was originally only on until 25th May (no idea what’s going to happen now), and at the time it opened, I could see which way the tide was turning (though I didn’t expect it to turn quite so quickly), so I went to see it immediately to make sure I got the chance. And clearly I wasn’t the only one being eager (or maybe blasé, in retrospect), because the gallery was pretty full, mostly with older people, since it was the middle of the day on a weekday. I’m positive this was the same gallery where we saw the Van Gogh exhibition, but they changed the orientation of the space so the entrance was now the exit. No matter, it’s still a large gallery, and it wasn’t anywhere near as packed as Van Gogh was (which could only have been a good thing, considering).
 
Admission was £16, but we got in for £8 with National Art Pass. I booked online shortly before we arrived just to save myself the faff of standing at the ticket desk (I will avoid human interaction whenever possible, which turns out to be serving me well in these times). The exhibition was divided up into fifteen sections, though some rooms held three different sections, so it wasn’t actually fifteen rooms, but it still took us a fair while to walk through them all. The advantage of having such a large space was that even though certain displays had quite a few visitors in front of them at once, the opposite wall would usually be empty, so I could just go look at something else until they cleared out, a boon for anyone who hates waiting as much as I do (and seriously, look at it, take a photo if you need, and move on. You don’t need to stand there studying a picture for twenty minutes when other people are clearly trying to look around you).
 
I suppose I should actually tell you a bit about Aubrey Beardsley at some point, so here goes: he was born in 1872, and contracted tuberculosis at the age of 7. Being that there was really no effective treatment at the time (unless you count the mountain cure, the prairie cure, or whatever other supposedly healthier air the owners of various sanatoriums were peddling), Beardsley always knew he would die young, so was determined to pack as much as possible into his short life. He was very close to his mother and sister, who supported his talent for drawing, which was evident from an early age. He mainly created images for publication, so not many people viewed his original sketches during his lifetime, and because he favoured the lewd and grotesque, many of his drawings were censored prior to publication, so this exhibition was an excellent chance to see the originals.
 
Beardsley, although probably not actually gay himself (he seemed more asexual than anything) fell in with a crowd of decadents that included Oscar Wilde, which would have profound consequences for Beardsley’s career after Wilde’s trial for gross indecency, as publishers didn’t want to do business with anyone who was associated with Wilde. Still, for someone who was effectively only working for seven years (he died at the age of only 25), Beardsley still managed to have an incredibly impressive output consisting of thousands of drawings, including the illustrations for an addition of Le Morte D’Arthur, Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and various magazines, including a stint as art editor of The Yellow Book.
And as I’ve already mentioned, and you’ve probably already seen from the photos, Beardsley had a fascination with the grotesque, and you can clearly see the influence his work must have had on Edward Gorey and other modern illustrators. He had a fetus motif running through many of his pieces (no one knows why), and did some excellent caricatures of both friends and enemies. The ones of Oscar Wilde (especially the one of him a couple of paragraphs down where he’s struggling to translate his work into French, a language Beardsley was fluent in) and Whistler, above left, (and Whistler’s wife, above right) made me laugh out loud. (He seems to have particularly had it in for Whistler, who he once admired, but Whistler snubbed him, which triggered the caricatures. An excellent revenge, I think.)
 
He also, though expressing no obvious sexuality himself, liked to do vaguely pornographic drawings, and these were kept in their own special “adults only” room of the exhibition (though I didn’t see any children in the exhibition anyway). They were primarily illustrations for a privately printed edition of Lysistrata, a Greek play by Aristophanes where women attempt to put an end to the Peloponnesian War by denying their husbands sex (I had to read it for a class I took on Eros and Love, and it wasn’t the worst thing we read in that class by a long shot. That honour goes to Wuthering Heights. Blech), and there was, to my great delight, an illustration depicting a fart cloud, and a whole lot of giant erections. He also tried to sneak sexy bits into illustrations intended for more mainstream publications, like a tiny erection he stuck on a drawing on John Bull for The Yellow Book, which was sadly discovered and removed prior to publication.
 
Obviously I loved Beardsley’s work, and I think we could have definitely been friends (we have the same big nose, and I can relate to the pain of that caricature at the start!). His work was popular in his lifetime, but then forgotten about until the 1960s, when the Tate held an exhibition of his work that prompted a revival of interest (though they claimed exactly the same thing in the Van Gogh exhibition, so maybe it should be taken with a grain of salt. I really don’t think the Tate is solely responsible for people liking Van Gogh), and there were some examples of ’60s art at the end of the exhibition so you could see the way his monochromatic style influenced a lot of artists, including the artist who did the cover of the Beatles’ Revolver (but I’m just including more of Beardsley’s work, because I love it so much. The guy wearing the crown of vine leaves in the picture below right is meant to be Oscar Wilde. So many great caricatures).
 
Sadly, the shop didn’t have postcards or prints of his more erotic work (no fart cloud print for me) or his caricatures, which were basically my favourite things, but we did get a few postcards of other pieces. £16 is a lot of money, so even though it was a big exhibition with great content (and just the right amount of text), it’s hard for an exhibition to live up to that, but I definitely think I got £8 of enjoyment out of it, if not a bit more, and considering it was one of the last exhibitions I got to see for who knows how long, I certainly have no regrets. 4/5.
 

London: “Unbound” @ Two Temple Place and “Mushrooms” @ Somerset House

The title of this year’s exhibition at Two Temple Place is “Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles.” Sounds marvellous and wild and free, doesn’t it? Well, unfortunately it’s still Two Temple Place, so it had the usual crowd of stern biddies staring us down to make sure we didn’t accidentally brush up against anything. I know the photo above makes it look as though there were interactive displays, but what you can’t see is the rope barrier that ensured you couldn’t actually get anywhere near those fun looking yarn balls.

 

Anyway, even though I’m less than enamoured with the atmosphere of Two Temple Place, as well as its last few years of exhibitions, I do think it’s a fabulous building, and it is free to enter, so I normally pop along at some point to see their annual exhibition, which runs from January-April (this year’s ends on 19th April). This year’s theme was the work of seven women, five of whom were roughly contemporaries born in the mid-late 19th century, and two modern women, all of whom were involved in collecting textiles. Most of these women, as is typical of collectors, were fairly wealthy and had the time and funds to devote themselves to their passions, and I’m sure they must have had interesting lives, though unfortunately those stories didn’t always come across in the text. However, I did note some tidbits on Louisa Pesel, who travelled extensively, taught shell-shocked WWI soldiers embroidery to help with their convalescence, and designed the cushions for Winchester Cathedral. Another of the collectors (whose name escapes me), bought her pieces mainly from street markets in London, which apparently had beautiful 18th century garments on offer for cheap back in the 1920s and ’30s (sounds way nicer than the piles of cheap knock-off shoes and handbags they seem to primarily sell today).

 

As always with Two Temple Place, there were some really lovely artefacts here, but the curation felt lacking. Instead of providing a narrative, the signage was basically: short biography of a woman and a brief description of a handful of objects she’d collected, with no attempt to tie the pieces together in some cohesive way. The text panels were all quite dry, and I found my eyes glazing over as I tried to read them to the point where I had to read some of them several times because they were too boring for my brain to absorb the content (I used to have the same problem during lectures – no matter how much I told myself to pay attention, my mind would start wandering, I’d look up, and it would be the end of class and I’d have absolutely no idea what was discussed), which is why I can’t recollect which woman collected which things. In an exhibition that was meant to be about the pioneering spirit of these women, I think they could have tried a bit harder to make them stand out as individuals, though maybe that’s partially my fault for being bored so easily.

 

Still, despite my short attention span, I did take an interest in some of the artefacts, especially the Georgian dresses, the traditional straw dollies, and Yinka Shonibare’s reimagining of the slave ship The Wanderer, a voyage made well after the slave trade from Africa was banned (shown above right). In Shonibare’s version, the slaves managed to take control, hence the colourful batik sails. I wanted to like the Balkan textiles more, but without much description of how the objects were used and what the patterns meant, they all got a little samey. One plus side of the rather dour atmosphere was that it managed to work magic on the group of schoolchildren that were visiting the exhibition at the same time as us. I know I’ve complained about unruly children at various places lately, but these ones were completely silent, to the point where it was almost eerie. I can only assume one of the stewards terrified them into submission. We were done with this exhibition pretty quickly (though I made sure to use the upstairs toilets before I left – they’re fabulous!), and though I enjoyed it more than that awful molester Eric Gill exhibition (how could I not?!), it definitely wasn’t great. 2.5/5.

 

Since we were only a short walk away, we then headed to Somerset House to see the intriguing sounding “Mushrooms: The Art, Design, and Future of Fungi,” a free exhibition that runs until 26th April. Even though I am a vegetarian, I loathe mushrooms (in my experience, many other vegetarians do as well, so it escapes me why some places offer mushroom risotto as the sole vegetarian option (not really an issue in London in this day and age, but I still encounter it at weddings, in smaller British towns, and in Ohio, which is mostly not down with the whole vegan thing)), so my only real experiences of willingly eating mushrooms are the few times I dabbled with the magic variety in my younger days. But I still think fungi are weird and interesting, and provide exciting possibilities in terms of being a sustainable material, so I was keen to see some mushroom art!

Even though the exhibition space was much smaller than that of Two Temple Place, I think Somerset House managed to cram quite a bit more content in, as each of the three rooms was jam-packed with art on the walls and display cases on the floor. There was a guy who had collected mushroom stamps from all over the world, which filled up an entire wall, and some excellently bizarre collages by Seana Gavin. I also loved the William Morris inspired mushroom wallpaper designs above the previous paragraph, though I think I’d prefer a different colour scheme – maybe blues or greens?

   

I thought the Infinity Burial Suit was really kind of awesome – it is woven from thread implanted with mushroom spores, and the idea is if you bury a body in it, the mushrooms will feed off the body as it decomposes and eat up any contaminants to prevent them being released into the environment. I’m not sure that I prefer it to a traditional body-shaped coffin lined with velvet, and massive statue of myself either reading or looking sassy (or both!) on my grave, but by the time I die, I suppose it might be one of the only options available, depending on how much Earth has degraded by that point (which is more depressing than the thought of my own death). And on a lighter note, given the nature of mushrooms, of course some of the art was amusingly phallic, particularly the 3D pieces.

 

The text contained brief descriptions of how mushrooms had been viewed throughout history, from being treated with suspicion by medieval Europeans, who thought they were used by witches (I have never personally used a mushroom in a spell, though I’m sure they must have some useful medicinal properties) to becoming kind of adorable in the Victorian era, thanks mainly to Lewis Carroll. The little shop had some neat mushroom themed products, and apparently I could have had a free mushroom facial, though I presume the appointment slots were booked up by the time of my visit. Overall, I enjoyed this much more than Two Temple Place, and I’m definitely glad I stopped in to check it out and see my name written in fungi. I still won’t be eating a mushroom any time soon, but I respect their aesthetic! 3.5/5.

 

London: The Museum of Neoliberalism

I know I’ve had a lot of angry posts recently, but I hope this will be more of a fun post on an angry topic, if that makes sense. The Museum of Neoliberalism has been around since November, but I only heard about it in mid-January when Time Out posted about it on their Instagram. Because it is a pop-up and it wasn’t clear how much longer it would be around, I immediately planned a visit for that Saturday. It is recommended that you book a time slot on the museum’s website to ensure that the museum will be open when you get there (entry and booking are both free, and you only have to book one slot regardless of how many people will be attending), but I reckon if you live locally, you can probably just drop in on a weekend. The museum is in Lewisham, near Lee Railway Station, which I had never heard of before (Lee, not Lewisham), so it was definitely not local to me and turned out to be even more of a palaver to get to than I was counting on because I didn’t realise that there were no South Western Railway services on my line on the day of my planned visit, so I had to get a bus to Putney to even get on a train to Waterloo, and then get another train from Waterloo East, and any journey that involves taking a bus just to get to a train is never a good time (and seriously, what is South Western’s problem? I took a train the week of the closure, but I swear they never announced it. They probably put a sign up late Friday night to announce no trains on Saturday. I know I said I wouldn’t be too angry in this one, but they’re so shit). Still, I only get every other Saturday off work, and I wasn’t going to waste a perfectly good Saturday not doing the thing I had been planning on all week, so I persevered.

 

And my efforts would not go unrewarded, as the museum, though small and located in the middle of an ordinary high street (easy to miss unless you’re paying attention), was instantly eye-catching and fun, presenting us with a display of free Jeremy Corbyn coasters when we walked in (obviously they pre-dated the December election), and was done in a bold graphic style reminiscent of the exhibitions at Banksy’s Dismaland, and for good reason – Darren Cullen and Gavin Grindon, the artists responsible for the Museum of Neoliberalism, also contributed to Dismaland. In fact, we bought one of Cullen’s prints there, so I was already a fan of his style, and was pleased to see more in that vein. His work is cynical and pessimistic yet hilarious at the same time, and being a pessimist myself, I can definitely relate. If you live in London, you may well have already spotted his work appearing on bus stops and other locations (not entirely legally).

It was a museum of neoliberalism, but most definitely not a museum that was pro-neoliberalism, in case the signage hasn’t already tipped you off. In case you’re not sure what neoliberalism entails (I wasn’t entirely clear before visiting this museum; the “liberalism” in the name threw me), its current meaning is basically a form of free market capitalism that takes Adam Smith’s laissez-faire ideas to extremes. In the UK, it is associated with austerity, and is the form of government practised by both the Tories and New Labour, so essentially is the shitty system that has gotten us into the mess we’re in. It means tax cuts for the wealthy, little to no spending on social services, antagonism towards unions, attempted privatisation of the NHS, etc, etc.

 

For such a small museum, it managed to pack in an awful lot of text, and was very informative. Ever the skeptic, even though I essentially agreed with the politics of this museum, its creators clearly have a strong bias, so I did some research on some of the material presented here, and it mostly checked out. If you already bemoan the current state of affairs, this museum will just enrage you even more, but at least it manages to entertain whilst doing so, with the above parody versions of railway games that made me laugh out loud (I’ve been that person sat on the floor next to the toilets), and objects that included a bottle of urine produced by an Amazon worker who didn’t have time to go to the toilet because of their ridiculously high targets, and the ultimate horrific dystopian accessory: the tracking device patented by Amazon that monitors an employee’s work at all times, and allows a manager to yell at them when they’re not working fast enough (although I can’t find confirmation anywhere that Amazon have started using them, just that they exist). I don’t have the space or energy to go into PFIs here (the subject of the above “game”), but they waste an incredible amount of money that should be going to the NHS directly, and reading about them is enough to make my blood boil.

 

Perhaps rather ironically for a museum with such an anti-capitalist bent, there is a shop, which was staffed by Darren Cullen himself on the day we visited, and was genuinely the best museum shop I have ever seen. Mainly filled with Cullen’s art in the form of prints, postcards, stickers, and t-shirts, I wanted everything in here, but settled for two prints, a handful of postcards, and two pin badges (if you’re unable to visit the museum in person but would like to look at Cullen’s art, most of it is available online). Although small, if you’re of a liberal persuasion (or even if you’re not, as long as you’re open minded) or just like art, this is a must-see. I’m glad I made the effort, even on a shitty no-trains day, and I’d go sooner rather than later if you would like to see it as well, because I’m not sure how much longer it will be there. 4/5.

London: Play Well and Misbehaving Bodies @ the Wellcome Collection

I felt like I had just been at the Wellcome Collection, but unless I was and didn’t blog about it (unlikely), it seems my most recent visit was in May or June last year, which is apparently enough time for everything to have changed. Well, not everything, but a lot of things! I came specifically this time to see “Play Well: Why Play Matters” which runs until 8th March. Despite the seemingly child-friendly name, this exhibition is very much aimed at adults, which is probably why they had to put a disclaimer on their website about the limited interactivity of the exhibition. There were still more children inside than in a normal Wellcome exhibition (which usually, blissfully, has almost none), but nowhere near as many as you’d get in a normal museum.

As you might expect, this exhibition was about the psychological and physical benefits play can bring; however, it wasn’t a particularly playful exhibition, for all that the layout was allegedly designed by children. It began with the history of the kindergarten movement and the work of Friedrich Frobel, who designed a series of 20 “gifts” meant to aid a child’s development from infancy on up. All these gifts were collected together in the cases that dominated the first section, but there was no explanation of how the toys were used, how children were given these gifts (did parents have to buy them? Were they provided by schools?), or really anything, other than the name of each gift. I did, however, find it interesting that the kindergarten concept started as literal “kinder” gardens, where each child would tend to their own little plot of land in order to teach them life skills, as you can see in the photo above.

 

There was also a lot of information on the development of nursery schools in Italy, and on playgrounds in the UK (there was a photo series of children in the Gorbals of Glasgow, a notorious 19th and early 20th century slum, playing in the cemetery as it was the only bit of green space available to them), and the importance of allowing children to take risks in their play. There were a handful of interactive things, but they were primarily computer games that looked to be circa 1980 (we had a computer from the late ’80s onward, and the games I played on it as a kid were more advanced than these ones) and were so text heavy that they weren’t even fun. The only interactive bit that looked vaguely entertaining was a sort of soft play area built into a wall (confusingly, it had a sign saying it was not a soft play area), but I wasn’t clear on whether it was aimed at adults or children, and it had a set of rules that included taking off your shoes, which left old no-socks-Jessica out in the cold again due to not wishing to startle people with my foot odour.

 

The most charming objects here by far were the actual toys (on display, not to be played with), that had been owned and loved by children, especially sweet little Pumpie the elephant, who was wearing a handmade suit, part of an apparently extensive wardrobe. His owner even posed him in formal portraits that I thought were the best thing ever (even though the picture of Pumpie staring out to sea makes me quite sad). I also liked the story of a teddy that had been operated on by its owner (gently, in order to find out why its growler had stopped working, and carefully stitched back up afterwards) who grew up to be a vet. If the exhibition had more personal stories like this, I would have loved it, but this was only one small section. I heard people outside the exhibition talking about how great it was, and I do not agree. Except for Pumpie and co, it was a bit boring and not particularly appealing to children or adults. 2.5/5.

 

We headed upstairs afterwards because I wanted to see what they had done with the Medicine Now gallery, which was notable mainly for its life size sculpture of a man made up totally out of fat lumps, as I knew they had replaced it with a new gallery called Being Human, but I also unexpectedly encountered another temporary exhibition I didn’t even know about, this one called “Misbehaving Bodies,” which ended shortly after my visit. It featured the work of two artists, Jo Spence, and Oreet Ashery. Spence’s pieces were about her diagnosis and subsequent treatment for breast cancer (unsuccessful, she died in the 1992 at the age of 58), and Ashery’s were about confronting mortality. In spite of the subject matter being obviously more depressing than “Play Well,” I actually found this exhibition much more engaging.

 

Ashery’s pieces were in the form of videos, which were set up at comfy viewing stations throughout the room (they had giant teddy bears in them you could lean on. So cosy!) showing interviews with real people living with life limiting conditions, as well as a fictional narrative about a dying woman named Genesis (I have to admit I didn’t watch all the videos, so I kind of missed the whole Genesis thing and just saw the real people).

Spence’s pieces reflected the less high-tech world she lived and died in, and were mainly photographs and collages about her life and experience of cancer treatment in the NHS, and though I’ve fortunately never had to deal with any kind of serious illness, I have had to seek treatment for a number of minor but chronic conditions, and I could relate to her frustration with the system. I do think the NHS is a wonderful thing in theory, but in practice it is completely overstretched (not at all helped by the Tories being in power for so long), and has a number of overworked, unempathetic, and sometimes downright incompetent doctors working for it (though based on my experience, I think you find doctors like that in every country), with systems that are outdated at best. Spence was told she had breast cancer by a young doctor who simply drew an “X” on one of her breasts and told her the whole thing would have to come off. Awful! My own, much less serious but still irritating saga, involves seeking treatment in a specialist, but still NHS clinic (because my GP wouldn’t take my problems seriously and misdiagnosed me just to get rid of me); and finally being prescribed a medication that did help, but told to get refills from my GP, who refused to give it to me because the clinic doctor never sent a letter, and apparently the different branches of the NHS are not joined up in any way. I had to make three trips to the clinic to get them to write the letter, and am now on my third appointment with the GP just to try to get a repeat prescription so I don’t have to keep making appointments every month, because the last time I went I had to see this awful locum who didn’t listen to me at all, and not only gave me a refill of a medication I didn’t want or need, he gave me the wrong dosage(!) of the one I did need. I don’t know how people who have serious illnesses have jobs, because if I didn’t have Mondays off, I would have had to take off of work at least four times just to be able to get the medication that I was prescribed in the correct dosage.

 

Anyway (I seem to be going on a lot of rants lately, don’t I?), even though many of Spence’s pieces were text heavy, I thought her life was really interesting, so I read them all. I’m glad I got to see this exhibition before it finished, since it totally escaped my radar until near the end. I also did check out the Being Human gallery, which is perfectly fine, but not the sort of thing to which I will feel the need to make frequent return trips (unlike their Medicine Man exhibition on Henry Wellcome, which is endlessly fascinating). There was a lot of modern art and not nearly enough interactive elements.

The other thing I was surprised by was that the toilets at the Wellcome have completely changed, and though surely it must have taken months to do, I seemed to have missed the entire transition period. They have changed the male and female toilets into self-contained unisex stalls, which is fine, except I didn’t realise they had changed when I first went in and was a bit taken aback to see a guy standing there. I never eat at the Wellcome’s cafe (I had cake there once and it was not good), but I’m glad they have moved the pastries away from the centre of the cafe, where everyone could sneeze and cough all over them, and put them under a sneeze guard by the tills. You’d think a medical museum would understand the importance of keeping germs away from food! A somewhat disappointing visit, except for “Misbehaving Bodies.”

Columbus, OH: Wexner Center and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum (Again!)

Every so often, I have one of those posts that is basically just a long angry rant about how much I hate something, and I’m afraid this is going to be one of them. I went back to Cleveland for Christmas, as is my custom, and my mother bought us a night at the BrewDog hotel in Columbus as an early Christmas present (for Marcus, I hasten to add). We drove down early that day so we would have time to see a couple of museums before meeting up with my uncle and his partner for dinner and drinks in the evening (we weren’t going to have time to do anything the next day as we had to drive back right after checkout so I could meet Hanson that afternoon!!), and one of the museums I chose to see, solely because I hadn’t been there before and it was in a convenient location, was the Wexner Center for the Arts, located on OSU’s massive campus. I think the Wex is also a venue for film screenings and performances, but the museum is what I visited, so that is what my ire is directed towards.

I knew we were off to a bad start when we were charged $9 each for admission, despite the website clearly stating it was $8. I didn’t question it because the woman at the admissions desk wasn’t very friendly, but I wasn’t happy. The exhibition at the time of my visit was HERE: Ann Hamilton, Jenny Holzer, Maya Lin and I foolishly assumed that HERE was merely the temporary exhibition, and there were other, permanent exhibitions. Nope, HERE is all that was THERE. The exhibition consisted solely of two rooms with words written on the walls, a room full of marbles, and another room full of tables of copies of images from OSU’s archives that you were meant to tear off and mail to yourself or a friend (it wasn’t clear if postage would actually be provided, and also this was a huge waste of paper). I was annoyed enough at having paid $9 for something that took all of ten minutes to see, but I was about to get even more annoyed.

Do you see all those marbles in the picture above left? They were all glued to the floor in some formation that was meant to look like rivers or some shit, which I guess was kind of cool, but they were just standard glass marbles of no real value, plus they were affixed to the floor, so were unlikely to be disturbed by footfall. Well, I walked to the end of the exhibition and tried to leave by stepping over the marbles at their narrowest point, which was only a few inches wide, because there was no other obvious exit. A guard ran up and started yelling at me and forced me to walk all the way around the exhibition to get out. She was accompanied by not one, but two other guards, all seemingly employed solely to guard the marbles. Although I didn’t say anything at the time, aside from a remark to Marcus about not disturbing the precious marbles, this is where I got angry. Leaving aside the fact that the exhibition probably shouldn’t have led you up on the wrong side of the marbles if you weren’t meant to step over them, or at least have a sign saying as much, I just can’t get over how many security guards this museum had working there to guard what was essentially a valueless artwork.

I don’t talk that much about the museum where I work for various reasons, and I’ve agonised over posting this, but I need to be honest about the realities of working in heritage for myself, my colleagues, and doubtless scores of other people throughout the UK. To say circumstances are not ideal is an understatement. Most of us spend years volunteering before we manage to land what will inevitably be a low-paying job not commensurate with our levels of education (and generally the bigger the museum is, the less they pay because people will settle for anything just for a chance to work there). And once we get that job, we put up with so much crap because we’re relieved that we have paying jobs at last – in my case, working in an office with horrible strip lighting that literally gives me a migraine every time I turn it on, so I have to work in the dark; getting verbally abused by mentally unstable visitors; having to stop what I’m doing fifty million times a day to direct people to the toilets that are just beyond my office (yes, we have many signs pointing the way, but people don’t look at them, and no, I’m not allowed to close my office door, so any member of the public can just walk right in at any time and demand things, yell at me, or make creepy comments); and despite the existence of the public toilets, sometimes even cleaning up after people who puke, pee, or shit inside the museum because our cleaner only comes once a week and we can’t just leave it there (I’m talking drunk adults doing these things, not children). I could say more, but I think it’s better if I don’t publicly post the rest. Now, I have been working in customer service in one way or another since I was 16 (not by choice, but I can’t seem to get a job that doesn’t involve it), so these are more or less all things I’ve had to deal with at some point in the past, as has probably anyone else who works with the public, but when I worked in retail and events, I at least knew there were always security staff on the premises if I needed help. At the museum, we are an entirely female team with no security staff, so we have to deal with any incidents ourselves. We don’t even have front of house staff – our welcome desk is entirely volunteer-run, by one volunteer at a time, and as their manager, I do my best to deal with any issues myself so they don’t have to, which means that even though I technically have an office job, I spend a lot of time in front of house dealing with any problems that occur. And despite all of this, I know I’m lucky to even have the job at all, since more budget cuts are imminent, and the future of the museum is currently very uncertain. So when I look at my working environment, and then I look at a museum that can charge $9 so they can employ three people to guard marbles, I get angry. And then I write a long rant like this one.

I’m going to end that rant there (even though I could go on for longer) but suffice it to say I definitely will not be returning to the Wexner! 0/5. Fortunately, my old favourite, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum, was there to save the day, as it is located in the building right next to the Wexner. Not only is it a free museum, but their temporary exhibitions at the time of my visit were very much up my alley. These were Drawn to Presidents: Portraits and Satiric Drawings by Drew Friedman and Ladies First: A Century of Women’s Innovations in Comics and Cartoon Art.

Any longtime readers will know how much I love presidential history, and I also love political cartoons when done well, and Friedman’s were pretty great. Not only did he draw a portrait of each president for his book All the Presidents (I didn’t buy it because it is literally just pictures of all the presidents) which all managed to be accurate yet hideously unflattering, he also drew cartoons for MAD, SPY, TIME, et al, and many of those were in the exhibitions as well as a whole section devoted to each of the presidents from Reagan through to the current President Fart (as I like to call him). I loved this.

 

I also liked the exhibition on female cartoonists, with works ranging from late 19th century cartoons advocating women’s suffrage to modern graphic novels, and everything in between. Many of them were funny, but there were also some thought-provoking and emotional cartoons, including one about a woman discovering the story of her older sister, who died when the cartoonist was a baby from a scalding accident, and how it affected her mother. I’m not going to go into too much detail on the Cartoon Museum because I’ve blogged about it a couple of times before and I’ve already made this post quite long by including that rant, but it is a fabulous little museum and I highly recommend visiting (and ignoring its neighbouring museum). The current exhibitions are great, but I’ve honestly never seen anything here that’s been a dud.