Adrián Villar Rojas
Sackler Serpentine Gallery

Published in The Art Desk

Art Criticism

Adrián Villar Rojas: ‘Today We Reboot The Planet’

It was hard,
among the crowds,
not to feel some
empathy for his huge
elephant that, head down,
seemed bent on escaping

A queue of artists, press and glitterati snaked its way through Kensington Gardens waiting to be let into the private view for the opening of the Serpentine’s new Sackler Gallery this week, housed in The Magazine, a former 1805 gunpowder store, located a few minutes’ walk from the Serpentine Gallery on the north side of the Serpentine Bridge. The Serpentine Gallery, supported by the Sackler Foundation, an education charity, along with the Bloomberg Foundation, outbid Damien Hirst who wanted to use the Grade II listed building to show off his private collection by the likes of Jeff Koons and Francis Bacon.

Attached to the original building is a new structure designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate Zaha Hadid that will function as a restaurant. A sort of large luminous wedding marquee, the sweep of its domed arches is somewhat marred by the fact that the “awning” (pictured below © 2013 Luke Hayes) has puckered in places and not been pulled quite taut against the underlying armature. The Magazine itself, which was in military use until 1963, is rather stunning. It comprises of two raw-brick barrel-vaulted spaces (where the gunpowder was stored) and a lower square-shaped surrounding structure with a frontal colonnade. The removal of all non-historic partitions has created a space where the flat gauged arches over the entrances have been reinstated and the historic timber gantry crane maintained.

This forms a sympathetic milieu for the inaugural site-specific installation by the Argentinian artist, Adrián Villar Rojas. Rowed on shelves like objects from a fantasy museum Villar Rojars has created sculptures that suggest artefacts from some invented antiquity or imagined future. Drawing on an eclectic mix of influences from comic books to quantum mechanics, clay is the chosen medium in which he plays with notions of history, narrative, and modernity. And it was hard, among the crowds, not to feel some empathy for his huge elephant that, head down, seemed bent on escaping from the throng (main image).

The floor, which has been laid with handmade bricks, looks striking. While it implicitly makes reference to a traditional brickworks in Rosario, in Villar Rojas’s native Argentina, and does worthy things such as flag up the politics of a global economy, it wouldn’t look out of place on the front page of Interiors.

Down the road at The “old” Serpentine Gallery is the first solo exhibition in this country of the artist Marisa Merz, born in Turin in 1926. The only woman to be affiliated with the poetic and influential Turin-based Arte Povera movement – where “poor” and “found” materials were used to make art, often with a basis of political protest – there is a subtle feminist sensibility to her work. Her series of Living Sculptures, suspended clusters of forms made up of moving aluminium shards, are both industrial and ethereal: a modernist agenda with a poetic edge.

Adrián Villar Rojas at the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery and Marisa Merz at The Serpentine until 10 November

Published in The Art Desk

Royal Academy

Published in The Art Desk

Art Criticism

Sidney Nolan’s ‘Glenrowan’, 1946, from the artist’s celebrated Ned Kelly series

As with early American painting there is a pioneering sense of wonder at this vast country with its antipodean light and unfamiliar palette

In The Importance of Being Earnest, first performed in 1895, Oscar Wilde wittily quipped that Algernon must choose between “this world, the next and Australia”. At a time when it took weeks to reach the other side of the globe most Britons, if they thought of it at all, thought of that far-flung continent as a convenient corral for undesirable fellow citizens. Baron Field, the first Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, wondered whether Australia was, in fact, an aberration, calling it a “barren wood” and an “after-birth”. In 1906 an English geologist, J.W. Gregory, wrote a book named The Dead Heart of Australia, and that image, the Australian writer Thomas Keneally suggests, came to characterise a certain home-grown self-loathing and melancholy.

While for most contemporary Brits Oz probably means beach babes and Neighbours, starting life as a sort of annex for undesirables from the “mother country” left Australians with a sense of insecurity as to who and what they really were. This new exhibition at the Royal Academy attempts to construct a multi-faceted narrative of the continent by presenting more than 200 years of Australian art on the theme of land and landscape, dating from 1800 to the present day. From the works of the first colonial settlers, executed in a nation-building, pioneering spirit, to that of contemporary artists, Australia tells the story of a country that has slowly built an identity, no longer dependent on European tradition, through a relationship to its diverse landscape and peoples. To date it is the most comprehensive survey of Australian art to have been shown outside Australia.


As with early American painting there is a pioneering sense of wonder at this vast country with its antipodean light and unfamiliar palette


Although arranged in chronological order, the first image encountered is contemporary: a video of a motorcyclist in black leathers – Shaun Gladwell’s Approach to Mundi, Mundi, 2007 – following the central white lines down a road that runs through the barren outback, his arms held aloft as if to emphasise the vastness of the empty landscape surrounding him. While Mundi is a local place name, it is also the Latin for “world” and the piece acts as something of a prologue, for, of course, Australia was not some virgin territory awaiting Europeans, but a landscape that has been inhabited for over 40,000 years. Believed to have first been “discovered” by the Dutch in 1606, the East Coast was then claimed in 1770 by the British, disturbing millennia of indigenous culture.

The exhibition begins with a fine collection of Aboriginal art which, to this day, continues to describe the sacred forces of the landscape and the creation stories or “Dreamings” that have symbolic significance and underpin the science, religion, rituals and identity of the indigenous peoples. There’s a certain irony that the revolution in modern Aboriginal art, which had its origins in the Western Desert in the 1970s, and brought Aboriginal art to a wider audience, appeals so, with its abstract and simplified forms and monochrome earthy colours, to European modernist sensibilities. As Europeans it’s difficult not to respond to these beautiful and highly accomplished works without reference to modernist painting. Yet what we wrongly read as “stillness” is, in fact, animated totemic activity and ancestral power. (Pictured left: Sandhills of Mina Mina, 2000, Dorothy Napangardi; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.)

The first British settlers to arrive in 1788 found Australia a bewildering and alienating continent. Early colonial artists focused on views of homely settlements rather than the, apparently, more threatening landscape. Gradually, however, the character of their adopted land was to become the main stimulus for Australian painting for the next 150 years. As with early American painting there is a pioneering sense of wonder at this vast country with its antipodean light and unfamiliar palette. Many painters, such as Arthur Streeton, created images of golden pastoral landscapes that were to become conventional expressions of Australian nationalism. But the Australian gold rush in the 1850s saw the population expand to include immigrants from Germany, Switzerland and France, who all brought their own native influences. Australian landscape painting was to change from the mainly British Romantic watercolour tradition to a German Romantic landscape tradition in oils, which reflected a sublime and philosophical relationship to the land. The most notable exponent was Eugene von Guérard (pictured below: Bushfire, 1859; Art Gallery of Ballerat.

Talk, for the first time, of an Australian tradition began with the Australian Impressionists who worked out of doors. Tom Roberts’ A Break Away, 1891, shows a quintessentially Australian scene of stampeding sheep in a parched landscape being rounded up by a heroic, horse-riding stockman. Modernity was to be summed up in the honed and architectural renderings of the building of Sydney Harbour Bridge that, after the Great Depression, became a symbol of hope for many. Some, such as Margaret Preston, did display in her landscapes a sensitivity to indigenous art, while others, such as Sidney Nolan, began to create new Australian narratives through the use of folklore and local legend, as in his famous series based on the Irish-Australian outlaw Ned Kelly (Main picture: Grenrowan, 1946).

As elsewhere, the 1960s and 1970s in Australia were broad-ranging and eclectic. This was a period of internationalism informed by self-evaluating texts written by the likes of the art historian and cultural critic, Robert Hughes. Formal aesthetic concerns emerged in Fred Williams’s flat afocal landscapes with their textured surfaces. Art also became political and feminist icons such as Tracey Moffat explored attitudes to race and violence. Younger artists, like artists everywhere in the developed world, have embraced multi-media. The exhibition includes photos, sculptural installations and videos. Disorientation is a common postmodern state and Rosemary Laing places an upside-down, horizontally askew house in the landscape, ironically playing with the idea that Australia is “down under”, while Fiona Foley’s seductive video, Bliss, shows fields of swaying poppy, as a critique of the hidden history whereby settlers paid indigenous people not in cash but, cynically, in narcotics. 

Visual art has been strong in Australia for more than 40,000 years and Aboriginal art still remains the most potent art form on the continent. But visual art was also developed by the settlers and over the last 200 years has come to tell the story of their “wilful lavish land”, not only to themselves but to the rest of the world.

Australia at the Royal Academy from 20 September until 8 December

Published in The Art Desk

Mexico: A Revolution in Art 1910-1940, Royal Academy

Published in The Art Desk

Art Criticism

Hugo Brehme, Untitled (Nacional de México, No.739), c.1911–17

For many European artists Mexico seemed like a primitive (if somewhat fictional) Nirvana

Artists love a good revolution. The social upheaval, the bubbling up of new ideas and the breaking down of old ones, attracts them like flies to fly paper. The Mexican revolution was no exception. During the years 1910-1940, Mexico attracted large numbers of international intellectuals and artists, seduced by the political maelstrom and apparent freedoms that beckoned in this culturally diverse and varied land.

For many European artists Mexico seemed like a primitive (if somewhat fictional) Nirvana, with its stunning scenery, indigenous culture and mysticism that fed the modernist appetite for authenticity and new experiences. Anyone who was anyone wanted to be part of the action. Josef Albers, Edward Burra, Philip Guston (pictured below right: Gladiators, 1940; Museum of Modern Art, New York), and the photographers Cartier-Bresson, Tina Modotti, Edward Weston and Paul Strand, along with writers such as Somerset Maugham and D. H. Lawrence, all came to feed at this table of violence and exotic otherness, alongside native Mexican born artists, in an unabashed display of cultural appropriation. “How beautiful the revolution is, even in its savagery,” chirped the Mexican writer, Mariano Azuela.

Many fine photographs reveal the extent of death and destruction that beset the country

The beginning of the 20th century was an era of political ferment. The Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War saw the rise of the masses against the privileged few. The 1910 outbreak of the Mexican Revolution brought to an end the 26-year reign of Porfirio Diaz, known as the “Porfiriato”, during which a small landowning class dominated the country both economically and politically, living a luxurious lifestyle that imitated the Belle Époque in France and the East Coast of the United States. That year Halley’s Comet was clearly visible in the Mexican skies. Taken as an auspicious sign, it was later seen, as it had been in 1517 by the Mexica (Aztecs) with the arrival of Hernán Cortés and his plundering Spanish conquistadores, as a portent of violent change.

Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940 examines how the Revolution shaped not only contemporary Mexico but brought it in from the cultural peripheries to place it centre-stage within the modernist debate.

Philip Guston, Gladiators, 1940, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Mexican Revolution was, in fact, many things. Brutal and fragmented, it nonetheless brought about an artistic renaissance within the country. This was largely made possible by the technical advances in film and photography that allowed the disasters of war to be laid bare in visceral-style of reportage. That the Revolution received more news coverage than any conflict before the Second World War was, no doubt, in part due to the fear of invasion from the neighbouring Americans, who displayed an insatiable, and perhaps anxious, appetite for news. The “most famous bandit-rebel of the Revolution”, Francisco “Pancho” Villa – with his cartoon sombrero, bullet belts and Zapata moustache – even struck a highly advantageous financial deal with the Mutual Film Corporation to fight battles during the day, so that they could be caught on camera.

This exhibition has many fine photographs that reveal the extent of death and destruction that beset the country. The newspaper office in Mexico City, a banner declaring El Heraldo Independiente draped across the peppering of bullet holes and broken windows and the smashed apartments of the rich with their shattered chandeliers, captured in sepia-tones by Manuel Ramos, show the wide-ranging damage.

Jose Chavez Morado, Carnival in Huejotzingo, 1939, Phoenix Art Museum

Although the Revolution’s aspirations may have originally been idealistic, the day-to -day reality was very different. Summary executions by hanging and firing squad and piles of battle-dead were recorded by the American Walter Horne. Seeing the chance of a business opportunity, he was to establish the Mexican War Photo Postcard Company for those hungry to see events first hand. Meanwhile, the iconic (and posed) photograph of the notorious Emiliano Zapata, by the German-born Hugo Brehme, was turned into an engraving by José Guadalupe Posada to illustrate cheap broadsheets for the mass market. Pofriro Diaz hadn’t much liked photography. It was too real and too gritty and he had insisted only on images that showed the Mexican people in a positive light. But for the revolutionaries photography was a way to show the world what they were suffering. (Pictured above left: Jose Chavez Morado, Carnival in Huejotzingo, 1939; Phoenix Art Museum.)

Most Mexicans were illiterate and the Catholic Church had traditionally used murals as an educative tool. The newly formed revolutionary government needed ways to promote their ideals and took a leaf from Church’s book and in 1920 sent Diego Rivera to look at Italian frescos. On his return he was commissioned to paint murals that told the story of Mexico through the eyes of its indigenous people. This did much to reinstate the mural as a valid modernist form. Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, along with his rival, the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros were to became known as los tres grandes, though their brand of proselytizing public works were not to everyone’s taste. It’s interesting that in these less politically committed, more narcissistic, times their names have been somewhat eclipsed by the solipsistic works of Diego’s wife, Frida Kahlo, so it’s strange that she is so under represented here, with only one miniature self-portrait.

The years between 1910-1940 were extraordinary times, attracting extraordinary people from around the world, from Leon Tolstoy to André Breton, from Graham Green to Evelyn Waugh, each seeking his or her own “version” of Mexico. It is hard to imagine a war ever having that cultural pull again. But this unique matrix of indigenous and European, modern, pre-Columbian and Catholic art was, as this incisive exhibition shows, to have a lasting impact on the imagery of the 20th century.