Issue Number: 103
The selection is over but what will this year’s Summer Exhibition be like? Martin Gayford talks to the Academicians and artists behind the show and discovers why the arrival of video art is just another step in the evolution of a 240-year-old institution
In The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s great novel about nineteenth-century Sicily, the central character’s nephew, Tancredi, makes a famously shrewd observation: ‘Everything must change’, he notes to his uncle, ‘in order that everything may remain the same.’ It is a dictum that applies to many long-lived institutions – British parliamentary democracy, for example, and also the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition.
The latter is the longest-established temporary art event in the world. There’s been one every year since 1769, without even a pause for the Blitz (the RA’s motto, like that of the Windmill Theatre, could be: ‘We never closed’). In comparison the Venice Biennale, founded in 1895, is a mere stripling.
Of course, there have been quite a few modifications since the mid-eighteenth century, including four shifts of location – from Pall Mall, via Somerset House and Trafalgar Square, to Burlington House. But essentially, despite over two centuries of evolutionary development, this year’s show is recognisably descended from the exhibition by British artists that opened its doors to the public 240 years ago. It will, as usual, consist of an eclectic mixture of works by members of the Academy, Honorary Academicians and specially invited artists – plus other submissions sent in by, well anyone who wants to try their luck.
That openness is one of the Summer Exhibition’s unique features. The architect Will Alsop RA, one of the three coordinators of the 2009 edition, observes: ‘The show as a whole, though it often gets panned by the critics, is the only major exhibition that is visited by thousands of people where there is the possibility that there will be a work on show by some extraordinary, unknown painter who has sent in something that we would never normally get to see. It’s a very democratic situation.’
The eclecticism is the essence of the Summer Exhibition formula. As the painter and
printmaker Eileen Cooper RA, another of this year’s coordinators, points out, the artists shown include ‘people from all sorts of backgrounds – the dedicated amateur as well as the serious professional. That’s a good thing. And they are of all ages, very senior figures and youngsters. There are people who work very specifically in one tradition and others who are very contemporary.’
The open submission and most of the other ingredients in the Summer Exhibition mix will remain as they always have been: as perennial and popular as other aspects of the British summer season, such as Wimbledon and Henley. On the other hand, this year’s 241st exhibition will make some changes – including one which, in the context of the Summer Exhibition, is quietly revolutionary: a room of film and video art.
The role of the coordinators is itself part of the evolution of the exhibition. In 2001 a decision was made that the show needed to be managed rather more actively than had been done before. The result was a controversial but critically successful new-style Summer Exhibition masterminded that year by Sir Peter Blake. Since then a series of coordinators have produced – deliberately – varying results.
The role of the coordinators is to shape the overall exhibition. In addition, individual Academicians are responsible for arranging particular rooms (with the coordinators taking on one each themselves). Since last September, this year’s team – Ann Christopher RA, Eileen Cooper RA and Will Alsop RA – has been pondering the question of what theme to give the whole enormous array, which regularly comprises over 1,000 exhibits. That is ten times as many works as you might expect to see in a more conventional show at the Tate or the National Gallery. The slogan they have come up with is ‘Making Space’ – which, Ann Christopher explains, can be interpreted in many ways by both the entrants and the hanging committee alike. For Christopher ‘it means we will try to create some visual breathing spaces within the hang’.
Eileen Cooper takes up the point. ‘When you’ve got 10,000 people – or however many – sending in, it seems perverse to be very precious about the space. At the same time, you want to let some work have a fair chance of being seen and appreciated. The idea about ‘Making Space’, is to try to create a feeling of space, while still having a lot of work there.’
Another aim is that more diverse media and art forms will be shown side by side. Will Alsop is hoping to see his particular responsibility, architecture, displayed more widely. ‘This year, we’re hoping to integrate things a little more, so that some architecture, where appropriate, might find its way into a room of paintings and vice versa. We won’t just say this room is for architecture, this is painting, this is photography – generally, there will be more of a dispersal.’
‘The idea,’ Cooper adds, ‘is that you could happily bring together a big, abstract painting on canvas, a photograph and a sculpture. But we don’t want it to be confusing. It would be difficult, for example, to hang tiny watercolours in Gallery III’ (the largest of all the rooms in the Academy’s Main Galleries).
‘We will move things around, or at least that is our hope – so that works find themselves in places where they are more comfortable visually,’ says Ann Christopher, whose own sphere is sculpture. She has come up with a strategy of highlighting wall sculptures which can be hung side by side with paintings and photographs.
That said, there will be a designated photography room, as well as other photographs throughout the exhibition. This year for the first time a prize, The Rose Award, will be presented specifically for a photographic work. The show as a whole has prizes totalling £70,000.
The increasing presence of media not known in the RA exhibitions of Joshua Reynolds’ day – or even those of a decade ago – is another implication of this year’s theme. ‘It’s partly making space for different art media such as film and video,’ says Ann Christopher. ‘Of course, when the Academy first started everything was painting, marble and bronze. But the RA is not an old-fashioned establishment. It’s very much changing. It has to – and it always has done. So we are saying that there is space for different kinds of work.’
Film and video works have been shown at the Summer Exhibition before, for example in the room of works selected by Tracey Emin RA last year. But this will be the first time that a whole section will be devoted to works based on the moving image. Typically, however, the RA is going to approach the problem of displaying these media in an unconventional manner.
The difficulty of these new media is that they tend to take up both space – demanding dedicated mini projection theatres – and time. Also, visitors tend to be bemused by a series of dark spaces, and are often unsure about how long they ought to linger in them.
The solution, which has been designed and executed by the sculptor Richard Wilson RA, is creative and ingenious. Film and video will be shown in Gallery 10, where Wilson has designed a structure that is effectively a work of sculpture in itself. First visitors will pass a wall, which acts as a sound barrier, then they will encounter what Wilson calls ‘a vast bit of broken architecture, a section of wall which looks a bit like a building site. This is set slightly skew-whiff in the gallery, with the films being presented on it.’ A DVD screen will show a continuous programme of seventeen works, lasting 49 minutes in all. The visitor, Wilson explains, ‘can choose to sit down on the bench I’ve designed and watch the programme, or pass through, beside the structure I’ve built.’ This section is thus part of the exhibition, but not disruptive or compulsory. A clever solution to a tricky problem.
‘The show can be a curatorial nightmare,’ Ann Christopher admits. ‘If we get a massive influx of large paintings, for example, it will be difficult to arrange the space.’ The Honorary RAs are encouraged to send work in, but it is hard to know in advance what will actually arrive. The same is true of the Academicians themselves – who may not be happy with the position their work is given (disputes about this point have been a feature of Academy life since the days of Gainsborough, Constable and Turner). ‘In the past, I’ve sometimes had a little strop myself because I didn’t like where my work was,’ says Christopher. ‘As a coordinator, you start off knowing that you’re going to be hung, drawn and quartered at the end of this anyway. So you might as well try to do it the way you want to.’ As for the open submission, it is dauntingly huge. ‘There are about 10,000 works entered in the open submission. We selected about 1,000 – but they won’t all get hung.’
Both in the open submission, and throughout the whole show, Eileen Cooper feels ‘there’s always going to be fantastic work, a lot of fantastic work, actually’. If that continues to be true, the Summer Exhibition will carry on, as it as for almost two-and-a-half centuries.