10 times artists did something big, brave and brilliant at the RA
Published on 25 September 2022
With William Kentridge’s epic works filling our galleries, we’ve been looking back at some of the extraordinary things artists have done with our 350-year-old building.
In 2019 the British sculptor filled an entire room of our Main Galleries with nearly 9,000 gallons of Atlantic seawater as part of his artwork, Host.
Beneath the surface was a layer of Buckinghamshire clay, forming a ruddy seabed on the gallery floor. It was intended to be an elemental, monumental, and mindful work. What we didn’t tell you was that we had to keep topping it up, because the water constantly evaporated over time. Armed with watering cans, re-filling the gallery before opening time each morning actually became a pretty mindful moment of its own.
Shooting into the Corner periodically fired 11-kilo bright-red balls (made of a mixture of pigment, wax and Vaseline) onto our pristine white walls at 50mph.
Each shot made a satisfying thump and left the sludgy blood-red goop to accumulate over the course of the exhibition. Elsewhere in the show, he sculpted a 30-tonne solid mass from the same stiff red goo, and sent it slowly creeping back and forth through the doorways across the entire breadth of Burlington House on a mechanical track. Terrifying stuff.
And just like the house used in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, it actually only had two sides – and it was nearly as spooky.
Up-close, the house felt like it came straight out of an American landscape: Parker sourced the materials from a dismantled traditional American red barn, working with a company who specialise in their restoration. She used the components to create a nearly 30ft version of the infamous home (which itself was a reinterpretation of an Edward Hopper painting).
Zobop was created with carefully cut strips of coloured vinyl tape, following the precise architecture of the Academy’s main staircase. The vibrant rainbow of lines carried visitors up to the 2015 Summer Exhibition, with just a little hit of dizziness on the way.
It took a whole team of art handlers several days to painstakingly smooth all that tape into the perfect pattern. And it was pretty satisfying to peel off once the show was over.
Part of our Oceania exhibition, this seven-metre-long feast trough was made to hold puddings of root vegetables and nuts. It was stolen from the Solomon Islands by the British Navy in 1891, brought back to Britain by the invading ship’s captain, and ended up in the British Museum’s collection in 1903.
However, it had never been exhibited because, as their curator Ben Burt notes, “its huge size makes it a challenge to display”. Luckily, we weren’t perturbed by the challenge, and Burt added that the RA’s Oceania exhibition was “a rare and welcome opportunity to exhibit it”.
This forest was so ambitious we launched a Kickstarter to make it happen. Eight trees, seven metres tall, created in Ai Weiwei’s studio in China, on display in our courtyard.
To build them, he purchased parts of dead trees sold in the markets of Jingdezhen, and then carpenters assembled them into ‘complete’ trees held together by hidden mortise and tenon joins and large industrial bolts. As he said, “it’s just like trying to imagine what the tree looked like”.
OK, so this isn't technically in our building, but it’s always fun when the art spills into the street.
These bright, colourful crossings were planned in secret to welcome Londoners back to the area after a long, hard winter of lockdowns. To pull off the surprise, we had to wait til sundown before the paint tins could come out. The next morning the city woke up to UpTownDancing – a joyful invitation to feel the rhythm of the vibrant colours as you cross the street.
Usually our galleries are a place to admire the great art that passes through their walls. But at our 2015 Sensing Spaces exhibition, Chilean couple Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen built a tower for visitors to admire the sky above instead (and the gilded angels nestled in the cornices).
Constructed from pre-fabricated timber sections, each vertical cylinder held a spiral staircase to take visitors up to a wooden “room” at ceiling height, where they could soak in the views before descending via a hidden zig-zagging ramp.
For the 2012 Summer Exhibition, the artist worked with the Academy’s structural engineer, architect, and curators to figure out how to install his largest wall-hanging sculpture to date on the facade of our Grade II listed building. Except it took so long to figure out how to do it that it was actually shown at the 2013 show.
Anyway, once it was figured out, El Anatsui worked with more than thirty-five assistants for six days a week over four months to create the work. Then we had a mere two days and two cherry-pickers to get the whole thing installed in its intricate, shimmering glory.
Well, we couldn’t let the artists have all the fun, could we?
In 2019, we’d just opened the doors of our exhibition tracing the story of the nude through 15th- and 16th-century art, when we got an intriguing email from a member of a naturist group. “Knowing of naturist visits to galleries across the channel”, they wrote, “and having experienced one or two at small galleries in London, we thought we’d try some of the major institutions…” And after some brief discussions, and a few health-and-safety assessments, we said come on in!
See William Kentridge take over the RA this autumn
Enter a new, immersive world by the multi-sensory artist and global creative powerhouse. This will be the biggest exhibition of the South African artist’s work in the UK, with never-seen-before pieces, as well as some made specifically for the show.