Issue Number: 119
A change is in the air at this year’s RA Summer Exhibition as a new generation of artists finds its place in the Academy’s magisterial galleries. Rachel Campbell-Johnston goes behind the scenes with this year’s co-ordinators Norman Ackroyd RA and Eva Jiricna RA
Burlington House is the bastion of the high cultural establishment. But this summer it is dressing up in what looks like a very contemporary party frock. A glimmering meshwork, woven from thousands of interlinked bottle caps, will cascade in a torrent down the Palladian façade of the building, providing a spectacular welcome for visitors to the Summer Exhibition.
El Anatsui and his assistants with work outside his studio in Nsukka, Nigeria. Photo Uche James Iroha/Courtesy October Gallery, London.
This stunning opener to the show is TSIATSIA – Searching for Connection (2013) by the West African artist, El Anatsui (b. 1944). ‘I was very excited when the Royal Academy commissioned me,’ he says. ‘Having grown up with many teachers of British origin, I was familiar with the Academy. While I wanted the building to work like a kind of frame for the artwork, I also wanted my piece to look very contemporary and fresh. I use discarded bottle tops, woven together with copper wire. They are things that are easily overlooked, easily seen as rubbish, but which have at the same time a huge historical significance. They are about the relationship between Europe and Africa in the sense that it was the Europeans who first brought bottles to Africa. Gin, schnapps and whisky were imported by traders for bartering. Now these drinks are manufactured by local distillers. They have names from Nigeria, where I now live. And when you collect them from the streets – and it is important to me that all these caps have been used, touched and so loaded with what I think of as a human charge – they give you a sense of the sociology and the history of a place. A material that looks commonplace and ordinary is loaded with a new significance and meaning.’
El Anatsui, 'TSIATSIA - searching for connection', 2013. Aluminium, (bottle-tops, printing plates, roofing sheets) and copper wire, 15 x 23 metres. Photo © Benedict Johnson.
Anatsui’s glittering drape, its once dusty and trampled components transformed into a shimmering tapestry of light, takes pride of place in the RA’s Annenberg Courtyard. But can this annual RA art show, like Anatsui’s materials, be revivified? Can an exhibition that is all too commonly viewed as somehow outmoded, be turned into something that sparkles with new life?
The RA has worked hard to rejuvenate its image, not least in last year’s Summer Exhibition, which was co-ordinated by Tess Jaray RA. She tapped into her network of past pupils at the Slade, encouraging them to submit work. And together they helped breathe fresh energy into the Academy’s august spaces.
This will become increasingly apparent in the upcoming Summer Show. ‘The many young and emerging new artists who were invited to contribute last year, were the sort of people who in the past would probably have shied away, not wanting to be part of something so traditional,’ says Norman Ackroyd RA, this year’s co-ordinator. ‘That move has proved a great success. We’ve had a lot of young people putting in work. And it makes me optimistic that we are putting on a terrific show, a lively mixture of Academicians and the next generation – and that’s what the Summer Exhibition is all about.’
Humphrey Ocean RA, the Academy’s Professor of Perspective, is also taking a role on this year’s hanging committee. He emerges still reeling from a week in which some 11,000 images have passed before the selection panel. ‘Once you’ve picked out the good stuff you start to get a clearer view,’ he says. ‘What the Summer Exhibition offers is a picture of what’s going on all over the UK, what’s being made in all sorts of conditions. And you don’t have to go to art school to produce something wonderful. Sometimes, as a selector, you just stumble across something that is completely beautiful but comes from left field. And that’s what this show can get – and what Tate and the National Gallery can’t. Whatever the Summer Exhibition is not, it is a contemporary show. It’s a picture of what’s happening right now.
Sean Scully RA, 'Doric Sea', 2013. © Sean Scully, courtesy Neo Inc., New York and Timothy Taylor Gallery, London. ‘Turner famously believed that rules alone don’t make an artist. As a painter, he changed the rules. He pointed a way forward into a world that was less constricted, paving a way for Monet, for Cubism, for the whole of modern art, for all the changes that have happened in the world since Joshua Reynolds died. And a constant across this era of change, has been the Summer Exhibition.’ It has been like a monitor through which we can gauge what is happening out there, Ocean says.
‘We have some amazing things,’ says Ackroyd. There is a painting by the newly elected Academician Sean Scully. We have a print of a digitally flattened-out 3D model of a Fiat, by architect and designer Ron Arad, also a new RA. Tapestries by Grayson Perry, from his series ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ (2012), are based on his wonderfully inventive drawings that bring something more conventionally perceived as a medieval medium to vivid contemporary life.
Ron Arad RA, 'Let’s Drop It, Ok?', 2013. © Ron Arad Associates/Courtesy Ron Arad Associates.
‘A lot of the work that we saw,’ says Ackroyd ‘was very challenging, powerful, strong. The exhibition evolves positively year by year. Since 2000 we have elected over 40 new Academicians and this is reflected dramatically in the Summer Show. Anyone who has not visited the Summer Exhibition for 15 or 20 years would see the change as revolutionary. There’s a lot of work in new media – video and digital pieces – as well as painting and drawing.’ The sheer variety of the print submissions particularly struck him since, being a printmaker, he often hangs the exhibition’s print gallery. It is a reflection, he thinks, of the fact that London is now the centre of print publishing.
Rodney Graham, 'Betula Pendula ‘Fastigiata’ (Sous-Chef on Smoke-Break)', 2011. Courtesy the Artist and Lisson Gallery. ‘An amazing symbiosis has built up between the London Original Print Fair, held annually at the RA, and the Summer Exhibition. The print rooms of this exhibition, which 20 years ago used to feel rather like an afterthought in the last gallery, have been moved to the heart of the show, and many of the prints will be making their way into other rooms, to take their place beside paintings.’
The galleries are usually hung according to medium, be it sculpture, painting, or print. But the mixing of different media is a salient feature of this year’s hang. ‘For the first time,’ says architect Eva Jiricna RA, who is on the hanging committee this year, ‘architecture is going to be shown alongside sculpture. We are looking at the contribution that each discipline makes to the other. Perhaps it will encourage a greater freedom of thinking, encourage more architects to look beyond the practical rules of engineering and think, “I’m building a sculpture.” That’s what Frank Gehry would say. That’s how architects such as Zaha Hadid think,’ says Jiricna.
‘Hadid’s contribution to the Summer Exhibition is Kloris (2008), which is sculptural outdoor seating made in fibreglass with a chrome lacquer finish.’ Conversely, the sculptor Anthony Caro RA is submitting a monumental piece that is markedly architectural in feel. ‘Shadows (2013) has depth and proportion,’ says Jiricna, ‘and it is extremely sophisticated in the way that the shapes penetrate each other to form a structure that feels very calm, balanced, as if it could only be that way.’
Marina Abramović Hon RA, 'ME & ME', 2008. © Marina Abramovic/Courtesy Marina Abramovic and Sean Kelly Gallery New York. Further mingling of media is taking place in the portrait gallery, which is another new feature of this year’s show. Historically, portraiture was a mainstay of the event. People would crowd around the image of a trend-setting aristocrat as eagerly as they now ogle some celebrity photograph in Hello! magazine. The point of creating a dedicated portrait gallery is to reclaim a genre that is too often overlooked as conventional. Thus this gallery includes work as diverse as Celia Paul’s contemplative painting Annela (2012) a drawing of St John chef Fergus Henderson and his wife by American artist Elizabeth Peyton, a pared-down sculpture of a skull titled Self-Portrait in the Year 2087 by Bill Woodrow RA, and Rodney Graham who has photographed himself as a chef.
‘Portraiture has never really gone away,’ says Tom Phillips RA, who is contributing a tiny Self Portrait: Tripelgänger, (2013) painted from leftover colours recycled from his palette, while Honorary RA Marina Abramović shows her two sides in her 2008 photographic work ME & ME. ‘When you think about it, the strongest artists of our era – Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Hockney RA – have all been portraitists,’ says Phillips. ‘Today there are artists who are painting portraits that are about the business of painting. Their work is not mere simulation. It’s about asking questions about art with as much honesty as they can.’ These are the sort of artists who will be brought together in all their variety in the new portrait gallery.
Tom Phillips RA, 'Self Portrait: Tripelgänger', 2013. © Tom Phillips.
So can we expect a great higgledy-piggledy jumble? ‘If you were a curator you would lose your job,’ says Ocean. ‘You can forget those beautifully laid out exhibitions that take visitors by the hand and try to tell them what to think. The Summer Exhibition throws its spectators right in at the deep end. It makes them think for themselves. It’s the sort of show that could only be curated by artists. And some participants might not like it. They don’t know who or what they will be hung beside. But those brave enough to take part are linking arms and joining forces. And there are thousands of them. People who used not to want to go near the RA and its Summer Exhibition are returning in floods. The show is going back to becoming what I imagine it used to be when it first began. It is returning to be a vision of artists.’