Thursday, February 21, 2013

London Art Things, reviewed.

Bringing you this week's instalment of London Things (what I have done.) 

It's been a good week for galleries. I went to see the Juergen Teller exhibition at the ICA with my friend Rachel on Wednesday, then yesterday my mum and I dropped into the National Portrait Gallery to see Marilyn Monroe, A British Love Affair. I hadn't been to either gallery before so just stepping onto the premises of each gave me thrills (for real. I really really love art galleries and the ICA is a particularly beautiful space to be; good light, nice floors.)

The Marilyn Monroe display was really lovely. It's a display rather than an exhibition, so just a small room of photos. We were expecting an exhibition seeing as it was featuring highly on the NPG's website last week but when we got there it was a struggle to even find it and we were beginning to think we'd missed it when we finally stumbled upon room 33 on the first floor. It was worth the hunt though, ever since I read Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates when I was a teenager I have been a little bit in love with Marilyn. I don't think I'd even seen any of her films at that point so I only knew of her on-screen magic by reputation, but at 15 I fell in love with what a beautiful mess she was. A fiery, determined, impossible mess who suffered from endometriosis and depression and men.

The display concentrates on Marilyn Monroe's relationship with British photographers throughout her career and starts with some of the very first photographs taken of her when she was 19. It then travels through her career and focuses heavily on the time that she spent in Britain filming The Prince and the Showgirl (the time depicted in My Week With Marilyn) mostly made up of publicity shots featured in magazines and behind the scenes documentary and a handful of straight-up portraiture. My favourites were the press shots by Larry Burrows, more famous probably for his graphic documentary of the Vietnam war than his celebrity photography.

We didn't really take the time to look around the rest of the NPG (we were hungry) but I'm planning to go back soon. Aside: Trafalgar Square! I didn't see any pigeons but a bloody big falcon flew right at my head. It was pretty cool.

Juergen Teller at the ICA was less lovely. If you don't know; Teller is a fashion photographer who shoots for the 'grittier' end of the market. He has been working in the fashion industry since the early 90s and pretty much changed the world of fashion photography. You know fashion photographs that feature nice clothes, models in pretty make up with their hair brushed and are beautifully lit? Once upon a time all fashion photos looked like that, it was a given that they had to look nice if they wanted to sell stuff. It sounds kind of quaint now. That's because of Juergen Teller. His photographs are (in the main) not pretty, they're weird and dirty and sleazy and horribly lit. He blasts his subjects with multiple flashes and as a result the photos look like they were taken with a cheap shitty automatic camera. They're not, they just look like that. I can't deny the huge impact that his style has had on photography, particularly fashion photography, or that he made fashion photography a more interesting genre than it was 20 years ago, but god do his photos make my head hurt. They're just really really ugly and the fact that they're of (often naked) celebrities just wasn't enough to make them interesting.

There were a handful of really beautiful pictures in the exhibition; this one of Bjork and her son is lovely and his more personal work in the upstairs gallery held my attention for a few minutes, but in general I got bored of playing 'whose penis/tits/anus is that?' pretty quickly. I mean, in theory I agree with this review that says a gigantic full-frontal picture (or three) of a 68 year Vivienne Westwood is interesting and raises all sorts of questions about femininity and ageing and our perception of beauty, it really really should. But standing in front of Vivienne's vag, all I could think was 'this photo is UGLY. Why has he used so much flash?' But in reading reviews it appears that I'm entirely alone in thinking that this exhibition was a bit shit. So there you go.

What I did enjoy was the coffee. And hanging with these cuties. Oh and the staff at the ICA are delightful.

Have you been to either of these? What did you think? Did you enjoy?

We're planning on taking the girls into town next week to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition before it closes. I keep seeing the posters on the underground and that fluffed up crow makes me think it's worth braving central London with two year olds for. And I've been thinking about trying to see the Valentino exhibition at Somerset House before it closes, what do you think? Worth a tenner and an indecent length of time spent on public transport?


  1. I was going to say this makes me want to move to London, and then I remembered that we do actually have art galleries in Edinburgh and I just hardly ever go. Must rectify.

    I'm with you on Vivienne's vag. Interesting in theory.

  2. I really like this post and your reviews. I wasn't sure if I'd like the Juergen Teller and now I know it is worth giving a miss and will instead go back to Ansel Adams at the National Maritime Museum with someone a little less impatient this time. I like it but my companion was annoyed that so many of the pictures were small and the room was too crowded. Might not be such an issue if you go on a weekday though.

    But I do now know I need to check out the Marilyn, and in so doing put right that I have not been to the NPG in EIGHT YEARS of living in London *slaps own wrists*

  3. Valentino is worth every penny. The dresses are amazing, all 137 of them, but one of the best bits is all the letters and show invites, some of the most beautiful stationery you will ever see and the videos of the atelier, the work that goes into each dress is mind blowing.

    I want to see the MM exhibition, if you go up to the restaurant at the top of the NPG, it has amazing views of London.
    And nice wines.

    Possibly one of the longest comments I've ever left on a blog, you are making me miss London. Damn you woman.

  4. I was at the National History Museum last week and didn't go into the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit (museum fatigue on day 3 of intensive museum-ing) - the building itself alone is worth the visit. The main hall is amazing and they have DINOSAURS!! Seriously, dinosaurs.
    The fluffy crow does look good on the posters, I must admit. Did feel a little guilty as we headed for the exit....

    Marilyn and Man Ray at the NPG were interesting though (seen the day before).

  5. at the other end of the photographed-nudes aesthetic spectrum, coincidentally: a photo of chuck sitting next to a copy of helmut newton's big nudes was added to a flickr gallery of black cats, then dropped when the moderators realized he was sitting next to a pair of artful tits.

    i spend a lot of time with fashion photography, what with working for and at magazines for a decade (yikes) now, and i'm a juergen teller fan. his iconic sinead o'connor in particular really rings my cherries, as david foster wallace would say. i also like the very ugly flashiness you dislike, because it draws attention to the artificiality of the medium in a way that forces critical distance. tony kushner talked about that recently in the context of why he prefers theatre to film: in a production of his angels in america, an angel crashing through the ceiling, no matter how beautifully staged, is going to look like stagecraft. he WANTS to short-circuit your passive suspension of disbelief. as he told the paris review,

    "Brecht says the point of theater is, among other things, to make you conscious of this disappearing trick. That’s why he used a half-curtain in his productions, with the audience watching one scene being played out in front of the curtain and, behind it, the next scene being prepared. As he wrote in one of his theater poems, let people “see that this is not magic, but work, my friends.” His most famous, and most misunderstood, idea about staging is what he calls the distanciation effect—he wants theater to enable you to see the familiar as strange and the strange as familiar, so that you greet reality with an appetite to interpret it."

    that's part of what i like about teller, and about "ugly" fashion editorial work. i want complicated designer/product/consumer relationships, and i think a lot of us could stand to think a lot harder about visual rhetoric. it's vastly preferable, to me, to the kind of conventionally gorgeous fashion work you see from photographers like annie liebovitz. by the time they get to the public, they have nothing left to say.

    1. Interesting. Once you've got ver the fact that this isn't 'real' but constructed for effect (of course it is), what next? I guess I mean, ok so the flash makes Vivienne's bits more complicated, but how? What did you think next, other than, this is really like Brecht? I'm interested in whether these things can get out of this self-referencing circle. I can understand the discomfort that other posters have expressed too; some of Juergen Teller's stuff feels as offensive as Diane Arbus, in my (v humble) opinion.

      I'm so old I bought the copy of The Face that featured that Bjork pic back in 1993 and it's still in Mum and Dad's attic.

      Lovely post, Cara!

    2. Got 'over' obvs -sorry!

    3. i think that fashion, particularly in the glossies, is pilloried for being aspirational in an underhanded way, as though adult women aren't clever enough to know that admen have been trying to make them believe that their products will address deficiencies since the dawn of the pitch. my god, how are real women supposed to feel about themselves in the face of what patrick demarchelier tells them they're supposed to look like? i think photographing clothes in an "amateurish" - more like the way we ourselves would look in our photos - addresses that criticism in an interesting way. it also provokes an actual response, something more interseting to me than "Like" or a turn of the page (these conversations don't spring up around your average fashion well story).

      vivienne's bits in particular are interesting to me because, first i think teller is referencing her stature in the mid '70s punk scene - with a few exceptions, a young man's scene (and as an older woman she's the aesthetic antithesis of that). those images are a far cry from snaps of debbie harry at max's back then, or jeff koons and his wife in his "made in heaven" series later on (though they recall both of those). then, thanks to the internets and pop media, we see young women's genitalia all the time. i think that people who "ugh" teller's vivienne photos should think about whether or not they would "ugh," say, lady gaga by terry richardson with the same vehemence, and why or why not.

    4. Thanks for replying, Lauren. Vivienne looks great, of course, but then she's always been totally in control of her image. I don't quite follow your link from women who know better than to believe admen, but then are threatened by Patrick Demarchelier.

      I like your point about amateur shots, but of course these are every bit as constructed as Patrick D's, but perhaps more insidious for not appearing to be. People (both sexes) in photos that derive from Teller's aesthetic might not be in as much control as Viv...

      Thanks for thoughtfulness.

    5. you're welcome. i should have been clearer about the italicized text - i don't think what admen do should be or is inherently threatening to women (it's rhetoric, not hypnosis). that italicized text was how some critics of the industry sound to me. (girls are another matter, but we're talking about work and arguments intended for adults).

      i agree that it would be easy for some viewers to see teller's stuff without seeing how deliberate it is, and that can create its own problems - feelings like, well, hell, one doesn't even have a shot of looking like agyness deyn when she has the flu and gets caught by the paparazzi at four in the morning. it's also frustrating to watch people like dov charney exploit the aesthetic without contributing anything interesting to the conversation - and to apparently exploit some of his subjects (please stop being horrid and go back to just selling me tank tops, dov charney). it could be that at the end of the day i just like artists to be a bit contrary, and i know i like it when art makes people (myself included) uncomfortable. thank you for your thoughtfulness as well!

  6. I so admire you for getting out and about. I could go to see stuff in San Francisco and I just don't. I'll live vicariously through you. Please continue:).

  7. I did not care for Teller, either, and I totally agree with what you said. They felt invasive and exploitative, particularly the ones of naked ladies. And not that shocking or exciting. It didn't make me go, 'wow, this makes me think of that in a whole new way' it just made me go 'ugh, I'd rather never see that again'. The Bjork one was lovely, though.

  8. I did not care for Teller, either, and I totally agree with what you said. They felt invasive and exploitative, particularly the ones of naked ladies. And not that shocking or exciting. It didn't make me go, 'wow, this makes me think of that in a whole new way' it just made me go 'ugh, I'd rather never see that again'. The Bjork one was lovely, though.

  9. Oh this makes me wish I was in London so much. I love that you are making the best out of the city. Coffee at museums is the best (and museum boutiques too, the books, the postcards, the little souvenirs).
    Have a great weekend. I hope it's sunny there as it is there.
    And I am so sad I missed that Wildlife exposition (there was such a huge line at tha Natural History Museum that we just skipped it).

  10. I think the Juergen Teller stuff sounds insanely interesting. But I guess I took the "whose penis/vag/tits is this?" part of your story too lightly, because I googled, and then my screen was covered in nekkid.

    Which. Seems exploitative? I'm not sure. I think we can question art and beauty and exposure and celebrity without staring at Vivienne Westwoods' undercarriage.

    But maybe that's only my gut reaction because every photo looks like an American Apparel ad, which immediately triggers the "GRATUITOUS" response in my brain.

  11. Yep... I'm with you. A vag, a cock and a full frontal nudie is always going to be fringe (well for as long as people cringe when you A - use that language and B - still get arrested for public nudity) I mean yes it's a part of your body and yes it's natural and yes it's "challenging the norm of the said genre" but hey... I think it's waaaay more challenging to find art these days that shocks you with it's boring, sentimental and completely normal BEAUTY. Sheesh... at what point is did it become necessary to show a vag to say "hey this is the opposite of not showing the vag" ?? Rant over. :-) ♥♥♥

  12. We were in the NPG a couple of weeks back and walked past the Marilyn display (because..I don't get the Marilyn thing really.) but Trafalgar Square always makes me feel proper Londony.

    My dad enjoyed the wildlife photography (so, you know, there's a helpful review!)

    I sort of want to see the Teller now. Vivienne's discomfiting vag, anyway.

  13. Looks like some great trips! Have you been to the Horniman? We love it there. The latest Big Smoke trip we took was to the good old Natural History Museum. My daughter is obsessed with skeletons so she loved it!

  14. I thought the Teller exhibition was really good. I agree that in some cases (Vivienne) perhaps there didn't need to be so much of her on display, but also, on reflection, I can see why it is how it was. I think the 'ugliness' of the shots is what makes them so interesting. At the time I thought perhaps I could understand the dichotomy of age, beauty and sexuality without the full frontal, but maybe not.

    In fact, I think the mark of a 'good' exhibition and artist is one where you don't instantly forget and move on to think about something else immediately. Teller's exhibition raised all sorts of questions and ideas and I've thought about it frequently since. It has also taken me back to my final year at university and the module I studied about contemporary culture and criticism and how we analyse things and what different medium can say and challenge us to think.

    Since going to the exhibition, I've noticed more of Teller's work in magazines, clearly identifiable and much more compelling than some of the more glossy ads on either side. Each time it has been the way that the model is wearing the clothes and how she is posing. It is kind of dirty and sleazy, as you say, but then so is fashion and models and celebrity.


play nice.